The beginning of the Police Search and Rescue Squad – a BSAR perspective

By Stuart Brookes OAM

Stuart Brookes, a member of the VMTC, was one of the founding members of the Federation of Victorian Walking Clubs Search and Rescue Section (now Bushwalking Victoria; Bush Search and Rescue) in 1949, and a Field Organiser during the period covered below.)

In August 1953 a large scale search involving Police and bushwalkers took place at Mt Donna Buang (the so-called “Snowgirl” search). Then in June 1955 another even larger search occurred across the Baw Baws, for Mihran Haig.

The main search headquarters was at Newlynes Mill, on the road below the present Baw Baw village. The Field Organiser for the Federation of Victorian Walking Clubs Search and Rescue Section was Bill Bewsher (14th June 1955).

Baw Baw search 1955
June 1955 Baw Baws search, the Erica search headquarters L to R standing: Mounted Constable J. Bourke (Erica), Mounted Constable A. Sommers (Neerim), Bill Buchanan (FVWC SAR Section), Detective Inspector D.  Toner (Malvern CIB). Seated: Stuart Brookes (FVWC SAR Section)

The writer was given charge of a group to do a reconnaissance search across the top and south towards Mt Erica and then finished up at Erica village (16th June). Here I was instructed to set up a second search headquarters, eventually having about 150 searchers including 50 Air Force men from Sale RAAF base.

On Monday 20th June, I was taken by police car to Russell Street Police  headquarters and likewise Bill Bewsher from Newlynes Mill, for a conference with the Chief Commissioner Major General S. H. Porter. (During World War 2, then Brigadier Porter was a senior commander on the Kokoda Track campaign.) The meeting discussed the progress of the search. Next morning we were picked up by police car and returned to our respective search bases. The search by this time was becoming highly political and Government Ministers visited the search headquarters; the Minister for Forests visited Erica. The search was terminated on Wednesday June 22nd, the missing man not found.

We realised later that we might have made an impression on the Chief Commissioner because representatives of the Federation were invited to a conference at Russell Street Police Headquarters on July 15th 1955 together with senior officials from a number of Government Departments including the Forests Commission, Lands Department, State Electricity Commission, MMBW (Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works), State Relief Committee and the CFA and officers from the Army and RAAF.

Prior to this in June 1955 Henry Bolte was elected Premier of Victoria and announced that the Government would provide funds to set up a body to deal with emergencies, such as bush searches, hence the interest of the various government departments.

The FVWC Search and Rescue Section members present were Bill Bewsher, Bill Buchanan and Stuart Brookes (the former two are now deceased). The Chief Commissioner listened patiently to the various Department heads, each claiming to be the best to set up the new group and thus get funds, but Commissioner Porter finally announced that under the existing act of Parliament only the Police Department had the power to deal with emergencies.

We wondered why we were invited, as we didn’t anticipate that we (the bushwalkers) would get any money, but at the end of the meeting the Commissioner announced that he proposed to set up what he described as a commando style group to deal with emergencies on land and on water. He then asked us if, when he had set up the Police Search and Rescue Squad, they could participate in our search practices.

Initially the new Squad comprised Sergeant Angus and two constables who we came to know very well, and the Squad slowly expanded. This later expansion is dealt with in detail in pages 111 and 112 of the book “Police in Victoria 1836-1980”.

The Federation of Victorian Walking Clubs had an unexpected bonus out of all this, when Premier Bolte announced that teachers and other State  Government employees, members of the FVWC Search and Rescue Section, would be granted leave on full pay when called up for searches.