Broome plane wreck could uncover lost secrets of deadly World War II air raid

Written by

A vital piece of Broome’s World War II history has been restored after spending nearly three decades exposed to the harsh elements of northern WA. 

The Dornier flying boat engine has been on display at the Broome Historical Museum since the late 1970s, after it was retrieved from wrecks off the coast of Broome.

It is one of five Dorniers wrecked off the coast of the North West during the air raid of 1942, an attack on the port city that left 88 dead.

The engine at the museum is only one of two that have been retrieved, but years buried in the depths of Broome’s turquoise waters left it worse for wear.

Kimberley king tides and mudflats caused severe erosion over its years at sea, leaving its metal engine rusted and flaking apart.

Old plane engine covered in rust
Layers of rust and corrosion covered the engine for decades before conservation treatment. (ABC Kimberley: Tallulah Bieundurry)

Last week, the museum was paid a visit by a team specialising in industrial repair and metal restoration to bring the piece of Broome history back to life.

Metals conservator Vanessa Roth travelled hundreds of kilometres to take part, and she initially had concerns about how well the conservation would work due to the level of degradation. 

“When things go into the water, there’s a period where deterioration happens very quickly,” she said. 

“A calcium carbonate crust starts to help things settle … but if you disturb it again, then it starts to deteriorate quite quickly.” 

The race was on to save the engine, but Ms Roth was careful to keep its authenticity.

“We are trying to preserve the significant qualities of an artefact and its history, we don’t necessarily try and make it look brand new,” she said. 

A photo of a Dornier wrecked plane on a remote beach
The remnants of a Dutch Dornier flying boat 75 years after it was destroyed by a Japanese air raid on Broome.(Supplied: Stephen Van Der Mark)

Michael Lake is a member of the Broome Historical Society, and he said displaying the engine outside has had some benefits to the artefact’s preservation. 

“The blessing is that every wet season, the engine gets doused with nice, fresh rainwater,” he said.

“The thing is …we needed to do something to preserve it in a better condition.” 

Method of conservation

Typical methods of conservation were going to be difficult in the harsh climate of Broome, with remoteness being the biggest issue but Ms Roth was open to trying new treatments for the engine. 

About the author

Leave a Comment