HMAS Coonawarra History




During World War I, Darwin had been used as a coaling station by naval vessels, but it was not considered a naval base. While RAN activity continued from this time, the first official naval reserve depot at Darwin was established in January 1935 under Command of Lieutenant Commander HP Jarrett, RAN. At that time, Darwin was part of the Naval Reserve District of Queensland. In 1937, the Naval District of the Northern Territory was separated from the Queensland District and the first District Naval Officer, Lieutenant Commander JH Walker, RAN, was appointed.

At the outbreak of World War II, the naval depot in Darwin was named HMAS Penguin, and on 1 August 1940 was formally commissioned as HMAS Melville.

Throughout the war, Coonawarra Wireless Transmitting Station, which had initially begun operating on 18 September 1939, provided essential communications service in support of Allied operations in the south west Pacific regions. Many of the RAN’s small ships, such as the Fairmile and Harbour Defence Motor Launches, also operated from Darwin and its security was maintained by a complex system of fixed harbour defences, which included an anti-submarine boom net. This was maintained throughout the war by naval boom working vessels.

In the post-war period, as demands for inner city real estate increased, the area of land occupied by HMAS Melville diminished. Consequently, it was decided to decommission Melville but retain the central function of the RAN in Darwin via the Coonawarra Wireless Transmitting Station. HMAS Melville was retained until December 1974 when Cyclone Tracy destroyed it.

Since commissioning on 16 March 1970, HMAS Coonawarra expanded rapidly. A new Receiving Station at Shoal Bay was opened in 1975, and a new Transmitting Station at Humpty Doo became fully operational in October 1982. HMAS Coonawarra relocated from its original site at Berrimah to Larrakeyah in December 2003. The move, closer to the waterfront, better reflected the changing role of Coonawarra from one of a global communications hub, to fleet support.

Today, Darwin’s new naval base is a model of the latest technology for the home porting of patrol boats. The wharf can accommodate six vessels, berthed three abreast. Services such as fuel, electrical power, compressed air, sewerage disposal, oily waste suction, and defueling are available at the berthing points.

The base’s vertical-lift facility further enables patrol boats to be mechanically removed from the water for maintenance and during the cyclone season. This facility has the capability to dock vessels with a draught of up two metres at any tide, and can lift up to 750 tonnes at a rate of 420mm a minute. The service provides much more efficient maintenance for vessels in Northern Australia, thus allowing more time to be spent on coastal surveillance.