An autobiography is usually uninteresting and dull. But at the same time, the story of a life of the generation which has seen two major wars, with the interval between of time and space occupied by travel and adventure, can be of interest to both young and old. In this story the dull periods are omitted and, in accordance with the old slogan that truth may be stranger than fiction, my intention is to give an outline, particularly to the younger generation, of what can happen to all who have inherited a spirit of travel and adventure. (Eaton, 1953)
The Cross in the Sky is a series of episodes about the adventures and personal survival of a man who exemplified his generation in times of war and peace. Charles Eaton, playing both minor and major roles, participated in a number of the most significant historical events of the 20th Century.
In 1994 I was privileged to be invited to the opening of the new Parliament House in Darwin. The historic annex within the building exhibited a memorial display in honour of my late father. On that occasion I was fortunate to view the display together with the Hon Gough Whitlam. I did not know until that day that the former Prime Minister had served in one of his front-line squadrons in the Pacific during World War Two (WWII). After speaking to Mr Whitlam, I realized the depth of respect he and his contemporaries had for Charles Eaton. When at school I was a keen, but frustrated, history student and it was on that afternoon, and at a mature age, I realized that our own family’s history was staring me in the face.
Although a number of articles had been written about my father’s various activities and a book about his connections to the Northern Territory I considered it would be difficult to write a comprehensive biography.* He wrote only 58 pages of frustratingly brief biographical notes, each page raising more questions than answers. For example, he summed up 25 months as a First World War (WWI) front-line soldier participating in the battles of Festubert, Loos and Vimy Ridge in addition to trench reconnaissance on the Somme front in one single sentence. In his personal notes he never wrote a word about his evidence when exonerating an Australia’s hero Charles Kingsford Smith from impropriety, on the post WWII rehabilitation of East Timor or about his initiatives in the deployment of the first United Nation’s military observers. Yet, when commenting about playing “hide and seek” in and out of German prison camps he writes briefly and with subtle humour. However on India, its forest people and wild life, the timber country of north Queensland and the people of Australian’s north the he opened up by writing at length and with empathy.
I remember only a few occasions when he mentioned his army service in WWI. Once he mentioned the dirt, the filth and the mud and that one could never keep clean. Another time when the battle of Loos was mentioned on television he suddenly went blank, leaned back in his arm-chair, stared into the ceiling and said softy but firmly “Loooooooos” like the name had no ending. Fortunately, I received a few tit-bits of his army life from my mother, especially about the trench bombing at Givenchy and Loos. My brother Peter told me that our father had such an abhorrence of barbed wire that when faced with it while fencing on his farm, he simply dropped his fencing tools and walked home. Perhaps the memories of his fellow soldiers hanging dead on the wire, so many years before were still too strong. Father also wrote three short, unpublished articles; the first two The Bear Hunt and Fear, described incidents of my parents’ life in the Indian jungle which have been amalgamated as Episode VI. The third, The Cross in the Sky provides the title for this book. I have adopted this name as it marked an extraordinary occurrence that represented a defining moment of his life, and perhaps more significantly, it is his own words.
I assumed that it would be very complex to track down records of the various incidents over many years and numerous localities. In France during WWI, three prisoner-of-war camps in Germany, India during the high noon of the Raj, Australia during the formative days of the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) and a secret reconnaissance mission to the Netherlands East Indies during WWII. Also on the emergence of Republic of Indonesia, where he played a pivotal role in the establishment of that nation. In the majority of those events, his role was of an exploratory or reconnaissance nature.
While the whereabouts of his log books unfortunately is a mystery, there is a wide range of official reports, published literature and private correspondence, such as the Douglas diaries, that relate to the various incidents in which he participated. This information has been vital in providing an authentic background for all episodes. One blessing was that he bequeathed a comprehensive photograph collection which illustrates the many aircraft he flew and the units and personalities with whom he served. His interest in photography developed during training and service as a reconnaissance pilot in 206 Squadron, Royal Air Force (RAF), in 1918. Although long deceased, my father contributed not only the title but also his unpublished articles on India, personal notes, official correspondence and the majority of the photographs. All formed the nuclei around which all episodes were written; Charles “Moth” Eaton therefore must be designated as the co-author.
In his memoirs, my father praised some but criticized none; if he disapproved of anybody, their names were damned by silence. In recording my father’s life, it would be his wish that it would focus on the activities of the units and images of the personalities he interacted with. My initial hesitancy to write on his life was influenced by his wish to “keep one’s name out of the papers”. My mother told me that the wide media publicity he received in 1929 and 1931 discomfited him. Another reason I was apprehensive was the danger of making judgements of his character and his actions that I had no first hand knowledge. I therefore have focused on known historical facts and avoided any appraisal of his service life except when quoted by a third party. My only exception was to comment on his curious attitude to death together with his somewhat tenacious and impatient nature.
The chance to investigate his life has given me an opportunity to discover both his personality and the conditions he and his compatriots experienced. From the age of seven, I saw my parents only on brief intermittent occasions. This was due to his war service and diplomatic postings between 1941 and 1950, and my own departure overseas in the mid-1950s. As the youngest child I gave my parents no end of worries as verified by one RAAF sergeant “That snowy-headed kid, mischievous little devil, gave us no end of trouble”. Their forbearance and understanding continued when my life-style was at times, non-conventional. Compiling these episodes has given me the opportunity to acknowledge the immense debt I owe both my parents. They migrated to Australia from India with £ 20, knowing virtually no one and having no direct family connections. Yet my father, with my mother’s enduring support, was able to make a contribution to the development of Australian aviation and to his adopted country’s diplomatic ingenuity in south-east Asia.
* Aircraft, 1931; The West Australian, 1979; Tennant Creek Times, 1981; Owers, C. 2000; Thomas, A. 1996; Williamson, M. 2000 and 2002; Lax, M. 2001; Aviation Heritage Vol. 35/4, 2004. Farram, S. 2007.
Saturday, December 31, 2016
Wednesday, December 14, 2016
Foreword - Dick Smith
I LAMBS TO THE SLAUGHTER
Call to Arms
The Trench Bombers of Givenchy
The Kick-off at Loos
II GREEN FIELDS BEYOND
In and Out of Line
“That Minenwerfer Hour” – Vimy Ridge
Green Fields Beyond
Farewell the Uhlans
III ZEPPELINE EIN FOKKER UNDT EIN ALBATROS
Jump or Burn
Back to the Trenches
IV AN UNDESIRABLE IN FESTUNG NEUN
Court Martial at Stalag Karlsruhe
The Dungeons of Festung Neun
V FLYING HIGH
High in the Himalayas
The Forests of Orissa
The Jungles of the Khonds
The Bear Fight
A Tiger in the Night
VII AUSTRALIAN PRELUDE
The Kauris of the Tablelands
No 1 Flying Training School
One Royal Salute and a Close Call
A Summons to the Rescue
VIII LOST IN THE TANAMI: The Search for the Kookaburra
The Desert Searches
“A Good Crash”
The Bird is Found
IX THE CROSS IN THE SKY: The Burials of Anderson and Hitchcock
Sand, Spinifex and Flies
X THE KOOKABURRA SAGA: The Aftermath
The Thornycroft Expedition
The Inquiry: Facts from Fiction
XI THE GREAT AIR RACE
Crossing the Continent
“The Dangerous Last Stage”
XII A MIRACLE: Finding the Golden Quest
Lasseter’s El Dorado
The Quest for the Quest
Possum’s Last Days
XIII FIRST COMMANDS
The Mystery of the Southern Cloud
Squadron Leader (Air)
The Citizen Air Force
XIV “MOTH” EATON’S FLYING CIRCUS
“Aggies” to Darwin
The Court Martial of Dr Clyde Fenton
The Darwin Dock Strike
Commanding Officer: RAAF Darwin
XV WAR GAMES
A Most Secret Mission
Welcoming the United States Army Air Corps
A Change of Command
XVI TRAINING AND DEFENDING EMPIRE
The Ship from Hell
Training for Empire
High Divide in Dutch New Guinea
On Stand By
XVII A KNIGHT WITH SWORDS
79 Wing vs the Rising Sun
The Netherlands East Indies Air Force
The Mina River Bridge Strike
On a Wing, a Prayer and a Broken Pipe
Rockets over Timor
Finale: High Command
XVIII OUR MAN IN TIMOR
The Hitch-Hiking Consul
Oil on Troubled Waters
IXX THE PEACE-KEEPER
The Ultimate Reconnaissance
In the Firing Line
XX A DIPLOMATIC MISSIONARY
The Batavia Consulate
Freedom for the Republic
Remembrance Day 1979
“Moth’s” Last Flight - Air Commodore Mark Lax
Tuesday, March 15, 2016
No. 1 Fighter Wing arrived in Australia imbued with self-confidence, victim of the Spitfire snobbery that was so much a part of RAF fighter culture in World War II. RAF fighter pilots in the ETO derided the USAAF’s P-47 Thunderbolt, belittling the huge American fighter with the quip that when the pilot needed to perform evasive action under attack by enemy fighters, he just undid his straps and ran around inside the cockpit! This knee-jerk reaction negative impression ignored the P-47’s massively powerful Pratt and Whitney R-2800 engine and its associated turbocharger, which gave the big American machine superior performance in the tactically-critical altitude band above 25 000 feet.
When RAAF Spitfire pilots like Keith ‘Bluey’ Truscott were posted back to Australia for assignment to the RAAF’s newly-formed Kittyhawk squadrons, they similarly dismissed the heavy American fighter. Alongside the P-40’s trickier handling near the ground, Truscott admitted that it had good combat characteristics, but churlishly complained that you couldn’t ‘make it dance’ like a Spitfire. Although he came to accept the P-40 as a ‘necessary evil’ in the SWPA, in making this largely adverse judgment he ignored the American machine’s tactically advantageous features – like its powerful and reliable armament and its excellent rolling manoeuvrability at high speed (in this respect much better than the Spitfire). With all his experience, he should have realised that air combat would not be decided by close-in dogfighting with enemy fighters, whether against the Germans over Europe or against the Japanese over New Guinea. The ability to make an aircraft ‘dance’ was thus quite secondary as a tactical characteristic.
To make matters worse, the Japanese had a fighter aircraft which could ‘dance’ even better than the Spitfire, a fact which was very well known even at the time, and about which the newly-arriving Spitfire pilots were warned. This was established beyond any doubt during comparison trials in August 1943 between one of the RAAF’s Spitfire VCs and a Model 32 Zero that had been captured in New Guinea and rebuilt at Eagle Farm airfield in Brisbane.
The Model 32 Zero, with its squared-off wingtips, was regularly encountered both over Darwin and New Guinea in 1943. Known to the allies by the reporting name ‘Hap’ to distinguish it from the round-wingtipped ‘Zeke’, the Model 32 was an improved model over the original Model 21 with which the Imperial Japanese Navy had fought its 1941-42 air offensives. The chief difference lay in its more powerful Mitsubishi Sakae 21 engine, which developed 1130 hp (as compared with 940 hp in the Model 21). The more powerful engine was heavier, requiring a reduction in fuel capacity from 518 litres to 470, and more thirsty; thus range was less than that of the earlier model. Both the newer and older types were encountered over Darwin.
Nonetheless, it was a Model 32 Zero that was captured and rebuilt, permitting the trials to occur in August 1943. The 1130hp of the Model 32’s Sakae 21 engine was quite comparable to the 1210 hp of the Spitfire’s Merlin 46, but the Model 32’s weight was much less – 5155 lb compared to the Spitfire’s 6883 lbs. As a result of this structural lightness, the Zero had both a superior power loading (4.5 lb/hp versus 5.6 lb/hp) and a lower wing loading (22 lb/ft2 versus 28 lb/ft2).
These differing technical characteristics determined the pattern of relative performance between the two machines, as shown by the tactical trials conducted by two experienced RAAF fighter pilots in flying trials conducted over three flying days. Flight Lieutenant ‘Bardie’ Wawn DFC and Squadron Leader Les Jackson DFC flew against one another in both aircraft, and what they found was not encouraging.
They found that the Zero had a lower rated altitude than the Spitfire, 16 000 feet against 21 000 feet, which delivered the Spitfire a good speed advantage at height – it was 20 knots faster at 26 000 feet. However, as had already been noted by RAF Fighter Command in Europe, the Spitfire had relatively slow acceleration, and thus the Zero was able to stay behind the Spitfire within gun range while the Spitfire gradually accelerated away out of range. Even in a dive the Spitfire still accelerated too slowly to avoid the Zero’s gunfire. Climbing away was also not an option, as the Spitfire’s climb superiority was too slight (not to mention the slow acceleration problem once again).
The only offensive solution for the Spitfire was to attack from a height advantage, to maintain a high IAS on the firing pass, to fight on the dive and zoom, and to pull high speed G. Slowing down, or being caught while flying slowly, would clearly be very dangerous, for the Spitfire would be unable to evade. Above 20 000 feet, so long as the Spitfire started with a 3-4000 feet height advantage, the Spitfire could make dive and zoom attacks with impunity.
The height advantage of the Spitfire VC was also shown by the British machine’s superior operational ceiling. Wawn and Jackson established 32 500 feet as the ‘combat ceiling’ of the Zero, whereas RAAF tests established the Spitfire VC’s operational ceiling as 37 000 feet; even weighed down with a full 30 gallon ferry tank, at 35 000 feet the Spitfire was still climbing at 102 knots IAS (173 TAS), going up at 100 feet per minute (‘service ceiling’ was defined as the altitude at which the rate of climb fell to this value). The superiority of the Spitfire’s ceiling is corroborated by its 5000 feet higher rated altitude, by 1 Fighter Wing’s demonstrated tactical employment of the Spitfire at heights up to 33 500 feet, and by the Zero pilots’ avoidance of the height band above 30 000. The pattern established in these tests confirmed the findings of operational experience over Darwin, where the Spitfires were always able to dominate the upper height band without Japanese challenge.
The Zero developed its maximum speed of 291 knots at its rated altitude of 16 000 feet. The Spitfire produced 290 knots at 15 000 feet, confirming that below 20 000 feet the two types were more evenly matched in speed performance. Given the Zero’s much superior acceleration, in practice this meant that the advantage tipped more heavily in favour of the Zero at these lower altitudes. In comparative tests at 17 000 feet, the Spitfire was again unable to safely draw away from the Zero. The unanimous conclusion of Wawn and Jackson was that ‘the Spitfire is outclassed by the Hap at all heights up to 20,000 feet’.
As was already well known, the Zero had all the advantages in combat manoeuvrability at slower speeds. This was a product of the Japanese machine’s superior power loading and lower wing loading. The Zero stalled at only 55 knots, whereas in clean configuration the Spitfire stalled at 73. Being able to fly more slowly while still under complete control meant the Zero could fly tighter turns without stalling out. The stall speeds cited apply to straight and level flight at 1G – hardly a realistic scenario in combat, where pilots would typically stall out of accelerated turns. In a modest 3G turn, the Spitfire would stall at 130 knots IAS, which equates to a TAS of 242 knots at 20 000 feet. At 6G (a hard turn or pull out at high speed, with the pilot blacking out), the Spitfire stalled at 184 knots IAS, which equated to 257 knots TAS at 20 000 feet, and 294 knots at 30 000. The latter was only 11 knots less than the Spitfire’s maximum speed at that height (at the emergency power settings of 3000 rpm and plus 2 ½ pounds boost), so it is clear that as height increased, the pilot found himself stuck in an increasingly narrow corner of the flight envelope, until any attempt to pull G would result in an instant high speed stall. This helps to explain the high incidence of Spitfires stalling and spinning out of combat turns over Darwin in 1943.
By contrast, the Zero’s lighter weight meant that it would always be superior in all tight manoeuvres. Obviously, the Zero also stalled out under G, but the tests showed it to have superb handling characteristics in hard turns, with no tendency to spin out of high speed stalls (implying that it was superior to the Spitfire in this respect). Although Spitfires endeared themselves to pilots by their sweet flying qualities, it is clear that the Zero too had impeccable manners.
If a Spitfire followed a Zero around in a loop, it would stall out at the top, and could only stay behind the Zero for ¾ of a horizontal turn. In short, it was too easy for a Zero to evade a Spitfire at medium altitudes and below, by simply performing any vertical manoeuvre or hard turn. This meant it would be very difficult for a Spitfire to get a shot at a manoeuvring Zero. The only practical firing opportunity for Spitfire pilots would come in a bounce.
Neither aircraft had a good roll rate at high speed, due to their ailerons locking almost solid in the airflow. However, in this respect the Zero was even worse than the Spitfire, which permitted a glimmer of encouragement for the Spitfire pilot: the Zero could not get into a firing position behind the Spitfire if the latter evaded in diving aileron turns at high speed. Other than the downward break, no other evasive manoeuvre by the Spitfire was likely to work, although a vertically-banked climbing turn was difficult for the Zero to follow. Otherwise, the Zero could follow the Spitfire through any manoeuvre below 220 knots, and could use its slow turning advantage to get onto the Spitfire’s tail after 2 ½ hard turns.
It was only at higher speeds that the Spitfire started to enjoy a relative advantage. Because the Zero’s controls stiffened up even more rapidly than the Spitfire’s, the Zero had great difficulty in following the Spitfire through high speed manoeuvres where the pilot pulled a lot of G. From about 290 knots, the Zero had great difficulty following the Spitfire through diving aileron rolls. The conclusion was that the Spitfire was more manoeuvrable above 220 knots, while the Zero was the better below that speed. Reflecting this set of opposite characteristics was the fact that the Zero’s standard evasive manoeuvre was the very opposite to that of the Spitfire – upwards rather than downwards, in the form either of a climbing turn or a vertical aerobatic manoeuvre like a loop, stall turn or Immelmann.
Overall, the summary from the comparative trials was not encouraging:
‘Both pilots consider the Spitfire is outclassed by the Hap at all heights up to 20 000 feet…The Spitfire does not possess any outstanding qualifications which permit it to gain an advantage over the Hap in equal circumstances.’
The conclusions of Wawn and Jackson only corroborated the earlier evaluation conducted by 1 Fighter Wing HQ after combat experience over Darwin, which found that the Spitfire had a higher maximum speed, that it was more manoeuvrable at high speed, and that it could be dived to a greater speed. It followed that the only sensible offensive tactics were the dive from height followed by a zoom climb for a re-attack. The recommended evasive tactic when under attack was to break downwards into a vertical dive at full power, while yawing the aircraft violently by uncoordinated use of the rudder and/or ailerons to put the Zero pilot off his aim. Once the speed had built up (presumably 300 knots), the pilot should start rolling into downward aileron turns to obtain a clean separation from the Zero.
Rightfully, a whole generation of pilots learned to treasure the Spitfire for its delightful response to aerobatic manoeuvres and its handiness as a dogfighter. However, it is odd that they had continued to esteem these qualities over those of other fighters in spite of the fact that they were of only secondary importance tactically. As the Germans had showed the RAF fighter squadrons, the most decisive superiority in fighter combat came through some combination of height, speed, and firepower, not tight turning or manoeuvrability. Thus it is doubly ironic that the Spitfire’s reputation would habitually be established by reference to archaic, non-tactical criteria, and that the new Japanese opponent would trump every one of the Spitfire’s purported trademark virtues: in effect, ‘whatever you can do, I can do better’.
However, despite the gloomy overall assessment provided by the comparative tests, the relative situation was not unfavourable to the Spitfire. Given that the strong fighter and AA defence over Darwin forced the Japanese to penetrate Australian airspace above 25 000 feet, the Zeros were thereby forced to play to the Spitfire’s strengths. Moreover, given the tactical situation of intercepting bomber formations, the Spitfires would generally be coming down in a high speed dive, which was also advantageous. 1 Fighter Wing’s recommended tactics at this point were correct: either to zoom back up after firing or disengage by continuing the high speed dive downwards. Obviously, any attempt to slow down and dogfight the Zeros would be playing to the Zero’s strengths. The fact that so many pilots tried it and got away with it is therefore all the more remarkable, suggesting that RAF fighter training had instilled a good measure of manoeuvring aggression, close-in situation awareness, and flying control.
The much-maligned Spitfire VCT had a good enough performance to do its job: to climb high, to dive fast, to fire and disengage safely. Indeed, in these respects it had similar tactical characteristics to other early-war allied fighter aircraft – such as the P-39, P-40, and F4F Wildcat – in that it possessed a clear superiority in one tactical mode: diving fast into the attack and then performing rolling downward evasion. On top of that, it shared with the F4F the ability to climb above 30 000 feet – the tactical vantage point from which attacks were delivered. These were its most relevant tactical characteristics. In that sense, the Spitfire was no more and no less than a typical allied fighter of the earlier part of World War II – good enough to do its job, but not good enough to establish superiority over the enemy.
 Ivan Southall (1958) Bluey Truscott, Sydney, p.153-156.
 14, 17-18.8.1942.
 NAA A11093: 452/A58 PART 1.
 NAA A11093: 452/A58 Part 1.
 NAA A1196 1/501/505.
 NAA A1196: 1/501/505.
No. 75 Squadron is a Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) fighter unit based at RAAF Base Tindal in the Northern Territory. The squadron was formed in 1942 and saw extensive action in the South West Pacific theatre of World War II, operating P-40 Kittyhawks.
Port Moresby and Milne Bay
In February and March 1942 the Allied position in New Guinea was under pressure and Japanese aircraft had been sighted over the Torres Strait Islands and Cape York in northern Australia. As a result, priority was given to basing a fighter squadron at Port Moresby in New Guinea to defend the town’s important airfields and port facilities. The RAAF received an allocation of 25 P-40 Kittyhawk fighters in late February that were flown to Townsville, Queensland and used to form No. 75 Squadron on 4 March 1942. The need to reinforce Port Moresby’s defences was so pressing that the squadron was allowed only nine days to train with the aircraft before it deployed. Commanded initially by Squadron Leader Peter Jeffrey, No. 75 Squadron’s advance party arrived in Port Moresby on 17 March and its aircraft followed between the 19th (when Squadron Leader John Jackson assumed command) and 21st of the month. At this time only four of the squadron’s 21 pilots, including its commander, had previously seen combat.
No. 75 Squadron took part in the Battle of Port Moresby between March and April 1942. The squadron scored its first “kill” on the afternoon of 21 March when two Kittyhawks shot down a Japanese bomber which was conducting a reconnaissance of the town. On 22 March nine Kittyhawks attacked the Japanese airstrip at Lae, destroying 14 aircraft (including two during a dogfight) and damaging another five; two Australian aircraft were lost in this operation though another three crashed in separate accidents on 22 March. The Japanese launched a retaliatory raid on Port Moresby the next day. No. 75 Squadron was in action over Port Moresby or Lae almost every day during late March and April, and was generally outnumbered by Japanese aircraft. As well as mounting their own attacks on Japanese positions, the Kittyhawks also frequently escorted a squadron of United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) A-24 Banshee dive bombers, which were stationed at Port Moresby. No. 75 Squadron’s casualties quickly mounted and were exacerbated by high rates of disease. Squadron Leader Jackson was shot down and killed on 28 April, shortly after he had destroyed a Japanese fighter. His younger brother Squadron Leader Les Jackson assumed command the next day. By the time two USAAF squadrons arrived to reinforce it on 30 April, No. 75 Squadron had been reduced to just three serviceable aircraft and a further seven Kittyhawks in need of repair. The squadron was withdrawn from operations on 3 May after losing two aircraft the day before. During its period at Port Moresby No. 75 Squadron was confirmed to have destroyed 35 Japanese aircraft, probably destroyed another four and damaged 44. The squadron suffered twelve fatalities and lost 22 Kittyhawks, including six in accidents.
The squadron departed Port Moresby to return to Australia on 7 May 1942. It was first located at Townsville and later moved to Kingaroy followed by Lowood to be re-equipped. During this period it also received a number of pilots who had served in Supermarine Spitfire-equipped squadrons in Europe. In late July the unit departed Queensland and returned to New Guinea.
A No. 75 Squadron Kittyhawk at Milne Bay in September 1942
No. 75 Squadron arrived at Milne Bay on 31 July 1942 where it joined No. 76 Squadron, which was also equipped with Kittyhawks. At the time an Allied base was being developed at Milne Bay to both protect Port Moresby and mount attacks against Japanese positions in New Guinea and nearby islands. Japanese aircraft made their first major raid on Milne Bay on 11 August, which was intercepted by Kittyhawks from both No. 75 and No. 76 Squadrons. In mid-August the Milne Bay defenders were warned that they might be the target of a Japanese landing, and on 24 August Japanese barges were sighted heading for the area. These vessels were destroyed the next day on Goodenough Island by nine No. 75 Squadron Kittyhawks. However, on the night of 25/26 August another Japanese convoy landed an invasion force at Milne Bay. During the resulting Battle of Milne Bay the two Kittyhawk squadrons provided important support to the Allied defenders by heavily attacking Japanese positions and intercepting Japanese air raids on the area. On 28 August the Kittyhawks were withdrawn to Port Moresby when the Japanese troops came close to their airstrips, but they returned to Milne Bay the next day. No. 75 and No. 76 Squadrons later supported the Allied counter-offensive at Milne Bay which ended with the remaining Japanese troops being evacuated in early September. Following the battle Lieutenant General Sydney Rowell, the commander of New Guinea Force, stated that the attacks made by the two squadrons on the day of the Japanese landing were “the decisive factor” in the Allied victory. From 21 to 23 September No. 75 Squadron flew sorties in support of the 2/12th Battalion during the Battle of Goodenough Island.
In late September the two Australian squadrons at Milne Bay were relieved by two USAAF squadrons, and No. 75 Squadron was redeployed to Horn Island. It subsequently moved again to Cairns for a period of rest before returning to Milne Bay in February 1943, under the command of Squadron Leader Wilfred Arthur. During this deployment the squadron operated alongside No. 77 Squadron. No. 75 Squadron flew patrols over Milne Bay and Goodenough Island, and on 14 May a mixed force of 17 Kittyhawks from it and No. 77 Squadrons inflicted heavy casualties on a force of 65 Japanese aircraft bound for Milne Bay while only a single Australian aircraft was lost. This was No. 75 Squadron’s last major air battle of the war. From August to December the squadron was issued with two F-4 Lightning aircraft for photo reconnaissance tasks. No. 75 Squadron moved to Goodenough Island in October 1943 to support the Allied offensive in the Louisiade Archipelago and New Britain.
In December 1943 No. 75 Squadron became part of No. 78 Wing, which in turn formed part of the newly established No. 10 Operational Group. This group had been formed to provide a mobile organisation capable of supporting the offensives in and around New Guinea which were planned for 1944.During the first half of 1944 the squadron frequently moved between air bases to support Allied operations and was based at Nadzab from January to March, Cape Gloucester from March to May, Tadji in May, Hollandia from May to June and Biak from June to July. During this period its role was to provide close air support for Australian and US ground troops and protect Allied shipping from air attack. No. 75 Squadron was stationed at Noemfoor from July to November 1944 where it conducted long-range attacks on Japanese airstrips and shipping in the eastern islands of the Netherlands East Indies. No. 10 Operational Group was renamed the First Tactical Air Force (1TAF) on 25 October 1944; at this time No. 75 Squadron continued to form part of No. 78 Wing alongside No. 78 and No. 80 Squadrons. The squadron was ordered back to Biak by 1TAF on 2 November to provide air defence for the island, to the displeasure of the pilots who considered that they were “being taken out of the war”. Only 149 sorties were flown from Biak before No. 75 Squadron returned to Noemfoor on 11 December.
No. 75 Squadron and the rest of No. 78 Wing moved to Morotai in the Netherlands East Indies in late December 1944. The squadron arrived at Morotai on 21 December and flew 147 operational sorties that month during attacks on Japanese positions in the nearby Halmahera islands. Attacks on Halmahera and other islands in the NEI continued in early 1945, and No. 75 Squadron also flew sorties in support of US troops who were attacking the remaining Japanese on Morotai. These and similar operations were seen as wasteful by many of 1TAF’s fighter pilots and their leaders. On 20 April, eight officers including Wilf Arthur, now a Group Captain and No. 78 Wing’s commander, attempted to resign in protest during the “Morotai Mutiny”.
From May 1945 No. 75 Squadron participated in the Borneo Campaign. While the squadron’s ground crew landed on Tarakan with the invasion force in early May 1945, delays in bringing the island’s airstrip into operation meant that its aircraft could not be deployed there until mid-July rather than 3 May as had been originally planned. During this period No. 75 Squadron’s pilots remained at Morotai but conducted little flying, causing their morale to decline. Once established at Tarakan the Kittyhawks attacked targets near Sandakan and supported Australian forces during the Battle of Balikpapan in the war’s last weeks.
Following the Japanese surrender No. 75 Squadron flew reconnaissance patrols over prisoner of war camps and continued general flying. The Kittyhawks were later flown to Oakey, Queensland and the ground crew returned to Australia in December 1945 on board the British aircraft carrier HMS Glory. The squadron suffered 42 fatalities during World War II.
Friday, August 14, 2015
By David Wilson
The attack on Darwin on 19 February marked the first attack made on continental Australia by an enemy force. It was not the first attack on Australian territory. On 4 January 1942, 22 Nells bombed the airfield at Lakunai, near Rabaul, New Britain, part of the Australian Mandate of Papua New Guinea. The defence of the strategically important Rabaul, with its deep-water port and facilities, was the responsibility of 24 Squadron, commanded by Wing Commander John Lerew, which had deployed with four Hudson and thirteen Wirraway aircraft early in December 1941. Flight Lieutenant R.A. Yeowart and his 6 Squadron crew made a long-range photographic reconnaissance flight in a specially modified long-range Hudson over Truk, the Japanese fleet base in the Caroline Islands on 6 January 1942. When Yeowart returned, after evading defending aircraft and anti-aircraft fire, his report of the presence of twelve warships, a hospital ship, transports and many aircraft at all adjacent airfields made Lerew aware of the vulnerability of his base to invasion. On the same day, Japanese flying boats bombed Vunakanua airfield, destroying a Wirraway and damaging a Hudson. The aircraft flown by Flight Lieutenant B.H. Anderson was the only one of the four Wirraway aircraft that attempted to intercept the flying boats to make contact. He made a climbing attack from the rear of one flying boat and expended all his ammunition, without visible effect, from 275 metres.
The attrition of the defending aircraft continued on the 7th, when a Hudson and three Wirraways were destroyed by a formation of Nells, despite the valiant effort of three Wirraways to attempt to intercept. Clearly the Wirraway was totally outclassed by the attacking aircraft, and Lerew requested modern fighters as reinforcements for his meagre force. None were available. The climax to the gallant defence of Lae came on 20 January. A formation of 50 enemy high-level bombers, dive bombers and fighter escorts were sighted over Duke of York Island. Seven Wirraways attempted the interception, but Anderson and Pilot Officer C.A. Butterworth crashed on take-off due to engine failure. Three aircraft were lost in the ensuing combat, one destroyed on takeoff and two seriously damaged in crash landings. Six crewmen had been killed and five wounded in the ten-minute combat. It was as a result of this action that Lerew sent his famous signal to the Air Board: Nos morituri te salutamus (we who are about to die salute you).
With an invasion imminent, Lerew evacuated wounded men on 22 January, when Squadron Leader J. Sharp flew the remaining serviceable Hudson to Port Moresby. Lerew withdrew his men to the Wide Bay area, where flying boats from Port Moresby could evacuate the survivors. Next day a total of 96 men were evacuated by 33 Squadron Short Empire flying boats flown by Squadron Leaders J.L. Grey and M.V. Mather. Grey flew to Tol next day, where he successfully embarked 49 airmen and soldiers. A trio led by the radio officer at Sum Sum, Sergeant F.G. Higgs, who had remained behind to secure the communications link with Port Moresby until the 27th, were ordered to withdraw. Higgs and the two other airmen appropriated a five-metre sailing boat and, after an epic 21-day voyage, reached Cairns.
While 24 Squadron was fighting for its existence at Rabaul, the Catalina flying boats of 11 and 20 Squadrons were also attempting to curb the Japanese advance. When it moved to Port Moresby in September 1939, 11 Squadron was equipped with two Short ‘C’ class Empire flying boats that had been pressed into service from Qantas, and two Supermarine Seagull amphibians. The famous Empire flying boats may have been successful on the commercial route to England, but when armed with a single Lewis machine-gun and bomb racks, it was of limited usefulness as an offensive maritime reconnaissance aircraft. Consequently, 11 Squadron welcomed the delivery of the first of its new Consolidated Catalina flying boats in March 1941. This aircraft, with power supplied by two 1200 hp Pratt and Whitney Twin Wasp engines, had a maximum speed of 315 kph and a range of 4989 kilometres. It was to equip four active RAAF squadrons and prove to be a versatile, reliable aircraft. The advent of this aircraft, and the raising of 20 Squadron at Port Moresby on 1 August 1941, gave the Australian defences a robust maritime reconnaissance force.
The Catalina squadrons were the only units capable of taking advantage of the information provided from Yeowart’s successful reconnaissance of Truk and other long-range reconnaissance missions. A force of six flying boats from the combined squadrons attempted to attack Truk on 11 January, but foul weather en route forced the aircraft to return to Port Moresby. Another attempt was made on the 16th, but Squadron Leader T.H. Davis and his crew were lost when their aircraft crashed on take-off after refuelling at Kavieng. Three of the four aircraft that proceeded with the attack were unable to find the target due to poor visibility. Flight Lieutenant Ern Beaumont, who arrived an hour later, made two bombing runs to drop sixteen 250-pound bombs, but to no apparent effect.
Squadron Leader J.A. ‘Dick’ Cohen flew a long-range reconnaissance mission that showed the extraordinary endurance of the Catalina. On 13 January he departed from Tulagi, a small island adjacent to Guadalcanal where an advanced operational base had been established, to undertake a 19 hour 37 minute reconnaissance of the northern Gilbert Islands. Reconnaissance missions could be lethal. On 21 January, Corporal T.H. Keen was the sole survivor of a Catalina, captained by Lieutenant G.H. Hutchinson, US Navy, that had been shot down in flames over Salamaua by five enemy fighters. Flight Lieutenant Robert Thompson had departed from Gizo on the same date to search for the Japanese task force that had attacked Rabaul on the previous day. Thompson found the task group and was ordered to shadow the warships. His aircraft had come under accurate antiaircraft fire and, worst of all, he could see fighters taking off from the aircraft carriers below. The inevitable damage to the Catalina in the subsequent action forced the burning flying boat to force land in the open sea. The survivors, fearing that the burning aircraft would explode, abandoned the aircraft. They were later picked up by a Japanese cruiser and became prisoners of war.
After the fall of Rabaul the Port Moresby-based Catalinas and the ten Hudsons of the newly formed 32 Squadron, under Wing Commander Deryck Kingwell, were the only RAAF strike force in Papua New Guinea. The Catalinas striking at Rabaul met considerable resistance. For example, on the night of 3 February, Pilot Officer B.G. ‘Tubby’ Higgins was flying one of five Catalinas bombing Simpson Harbour, when, at 10.00 pm, the flying boat was attacked by a Zeke. The enemy fighter hit the Catalina, wounding the wireless operator in both ankles. Higgins evaded the Zeke by diving to sea level through the cloud billowing up from one of the active volcanoes that perpetually threaten the town of Matupi. Flight Lieutenant G.E. Hemsworth was also attacked. His aircraft was hit in the port engine, forcing him to jettison the bomb load and take evasive action. Sergeant Douglas Dick, on his first operational flight, returned fire from the port blister. As a result of his fire an enemy fighter was seen to spin and crash into the sea. Hemsworth made a five-hour, single engine flight to Salamaua, where he made a perfect landing just before dawn. After making temporary repairs, he was able to take off using both engines, but once the aircraft had climbed to 600 metres, the port engine had to be shut down. After the Catalina landed at Port Moresby, 157 bullet holes were counted.
Attrition of the flying boats and crews resulted in an operational combination of the two squadrons. Aircraft, crews and tasks were shared, but men and machines could not be replaced. Lieutenant Ern Beaumont was lost on the night of 24 February. On the same day, five Zekes escorted eleven enemy bombers and raided Port Moresby, with a disastrous result for the flying boat squadrons. Three Catalinas were destroyed, and another damaged, at their moorings. It was obvious that the increasing number of Japanese raids would make the position of the three squadrons at Port Moresby untenable.
Although Squadron Leader Deryck Kingwell, the commander of 32 Squadron, recorded a direct hit on a 6 000-tonne transport, part of the Japanese invasion force of eleven ships in Salamaua Harbour on 7 March, enemy pressure resulted in 32 Squadron being completely withdrawn to Horn Island on 26 April.
The two Catalina squadrons withdrew further south to Bowen, Queensland, from where they made long-range strikes on targets such as Tulagi and along the northern coast of New Guinea and the island of New Britain.
Unfortunately, in January 1942, there were no RAAF fighter squadrons in Australia to contest for aerial superiority with the Japanese over the important airfields at Port Moresby. It was not until 4 March that the first Kittyhawk fighter squadron, 75, was raised at Townsville. The raising of 76 Squadron at Archerfield, Queensland on the 14th and 77 at Pearce, Western Australia two days later, followed this unit. On the 21st, Wing Commander Peter Jeffery, although having handed the command of 75 Squadron to a fellow 3 Squadron veteran, Squadron Leader J.F. ‘Old John’ Jackson, survived being shot at by defending anti-aircraft gunners while landing with the first four Kittyhawks to arrive at the Seven Mile airfield. Within hours the squadron made its presence felt. Flying Officer Wilbur Wackett, the son of Lawrence Wackett, and Flying Officer Barry Cox scrambled at 3.53 pm to intercept the daily Japanese reconnaissance aircraft. The two Kittyhawks closed with their prey, and after several well-directed bursts of machine-gun fire, the bomber exploded and dived into the sea west of Baslik Point. The combat, an emphatic victory in full view of the defending ground troops, was a great tonic to morale. But Jackson was not satisfied with this initial victory.
Next day, 22 March, Jackson led nine aircraft from the Seven Mile to take the battle to the Japanese. Photographic evidence had been produced that indicated that a force of Mitsubishi G-4M ‘Betty’ bombers and Zeke fighters was based on the airfield at Lae. To attack this attractive target, Jackson led five strafing Kittyhawks. Flight Lieutenant Peter Turnbull (another 3 Squadron veteran) led the top cover of four fighters. The ground strafers made two runs over the airfield, so low that the aircraft flown by Flight Lieutenant John Piper collided with the propeller of one of the parked enemy fighters, tearing one of the Kittyhawk’s wing guns from its mount and severely damaging the wing main spar. It was reported that nine Zekes and three Bettys were left burning as a result. Anderson, of 24 Squadron Rabaul fame, fell foul of the defending fighters. Turnbull and Sergeant J.H.S. Pettett, members of the top cover, succeeded in destroying a Zeke each. Wilbur Wackett had a combat that resulted in his being forced to ditch his engine-damaged fighter in the sea halfway between Lae and Salamaua. He swam ashore. After an epic adventure that entailed crossing the Owen Stanley Ranges on foot, Wackett returned to Port Moresby on 22 April.
On an almost daily basis, the pilots of 75 Squadron fought against overwhelming odds and tactical limitations. But the presence of the fighters enabled United States Army Air Corps Douglas A-24 bombers to attack targets at Lae, and also enabled American medium bombers to stage through the Port Moresby airfields with a degree of safety. It was John Jackson’s leadership that was inspirational, and his failure to return from a lone reconnaissance of Lae on 9 April was met with great sadness, and also a spirit of vengeance. On the 18th, the news that he was safe and well at Navos was greeted with relief. But this was to be short-lived. John Jackson’s final mission highlights the heroic defence mounted by 75 Squadron.
At 11.15 am, 28 April 1942, Jackson led five Kittyhawks to intercept a superior force of Japanese bombers and fighters north of Port Moresby. Jackson and Barry Cox died fighting the Zeke escort that had the advantage of height over the slow climbing Kittyhawks. Flying Officer Peter Masters spun out of the combat, and Flying Officer Le Gay ‘Cocky’ Brereton was slightly wounded when his Kittyhawk was hit in the wings and fuselage. Jackson’s aircraft was seen to crash on Mount Lawes. When the crash site was located, the engine was found embedded two metres into the ground from the force of the impact.
In its epic 44-day defence of Port Moresby 75 Squadron destroyed eighteen and damaged 29 enemy aircraft in aerial combat for the loss of 21 aircraft and twelve pilots. When the unit was withdrawn on 7 May, the Japanese tide had reached its height; the US Navy was in the process of fighting, and ultimately winning, the Battle of the Coral Sea. The engagement was the result of strategic intelligence and the efforts of Australian long-range reconnaissance missions that warned of the Japanese approach. Enemy fighters attacked Hemsworth and his crew after they reported the presence of two enemy destroyers south-east of Misima Island on 6 May. Later in the afternoon, Flight Lieutenant P.J.E. Pennycuick, flying a 32 Squadron Hudson, reported an aircraft carrier, six destroyers and four enemy merchantmen in the same area. The build-up of Japanese naval force was noted through daily reconnaissance flights and the situation built to a climax on 7 March, when the American Admiral Frank J. Fletcher launched the air groups of the aircraft carriers USS Yorktown and USS Lexington to sink the Japanese aircraft carrier Shoho and badly damage the larger Shokaku.
Lexington was lost, but a strategic victory had been won; most importantly, the Japanese invasion force that had planned to attack Port Moresby was forced to withdraw. The turning point of the Pacific War, the carrier battle centred on the island of Midway, was fought on 4 June.
The outcome of the battles fought in the last six months of 1942 in Papua New Guinea and Guadalcanal were pivotal to the defeat, or victory, of either of the protagonists. On 21 July, the Japanese landed at Gona, and commenced to advance toward Kokoda, thence across the Owen Stanley Ranges toward Port Moresby. However, the focus for the Australian fighter squadrons was further east, at Milne Bay. Peter Turnbull had assumed command of 76 Squadron in May, and led the squadron there at the end of July. En route they flew the first Kittyhawk fighter-bomber mission in the South Western Pacfic Area, an aborted strike on Napapo on 22 July. The presence of enemy fighters above the seven Kittyhawks forced the Australians to drop their bombs before closing with the enemy. In the subsequent inconclusive action, Turnbull’s aircraft was slightly damaged, but this did not prevent him from landing at Milne Bay. The only aircraft loss was that flown by Flight Lieutenant V. Sullivan, who was forced to land eight kilometres from Port Moresby due to engine failure.
From 25 July, 76 Squadron was based at the newly constructed airfield at Milne Bay, Gurney strip. The first action was an unsuccessful attempt to intercept a Kawanishi H8K ‘Emily’ flying boat that had bombed Townsville that night. A rejuvenated 75 Squadron deployed to Milne Bay at the end of July. There was an expectation that the Japanese would attempt to capture it as a base for a pincer movement to take Port Moresby, and Hudson aircraft arrived on 6 August to give some long-range warning of any approaching enemy. Two days before, the Japanese showed interest in the Allied developments, when Zekes strafed Gurney and destroyed a Kittyhawk. Flying Officer P.H. Ash evened the score when he destroyed an enemy Zeke. The second Japanese air raid occurred on the 11th. The two Australian squadrons lost four pilots, but claimed the destruction of two Zekes, the possible destruction of two, and to have damaged a further six. Another brisk combat took place on the 24th. Next day, John Piper led nine 75 Squadron Kittyhawks to strafe Japanese landing barges and enemy troops that had been sighted at Cape Watts, Goodenough Island. This force was intended to land at Taupota, and the successful destruction of the barges eliminated a northern threat to the defenders of Milne Bay. Also on the 25th, an American Boeing B-17 crew reported the presence of a Japanese naval force en route for Milne Bay.
As inclement weather prevented any long-range B-17 attacks on this force, it was left to a combination of the Australian Kittyhawk and Hudson aircraft to defend Milne Bay. At mid-afternoon of the 25th, Peter Turnbull and ‘Cocky’ Brereton led a force of twelve Kittyhawks and a single Hudson to contest the Japanese approach. Armed with a single 300-pound bomb, the fighters were restricted to making low-level strafing and bombing attacks, instead of the preferred high-level dive-bombing approach, because of the overcast conditions. The strike force returned to Gurney strip and rearmed. Unfortunately the low cloud and failing light prevented any further contact. It was left to Pilot Officer Martin Law from 6 Squadron to make two bombing passes out of the cloud later in the evening. Despite having inflicted minor casualties on the enemy, the air assault did not prevent the landing of Japanese troops at Ahioma, from where the Japanese troops advanced along the northern shore of Milne Bay toward the airfields.
Squadron Leader Les Jackson, who had assumed command of 75 Squadron on the death of his elder brother, ‘Old John’, led six Kittyhawks on a strike on the Japanese landing barges that had been sighted on the beach near the KB Mission. This sortie was the first of a pattern of operational flights made by the two fighter squadrons to supply close support to the hard-pressed Australians. When not so involved, the fighters defended the bay from any enemy aerial encroachments. On 27 August, Les Jackson and Sergeant Roy Riddell each shot down a Zeke, but not before an American B-24 Liberator bomber burned as a result of the enemy strafing the Gurney strip. Flight Sergeant Stewart Munro was reported missing after the fight. Later, 76 Squadron lost its commander. Late in the afternoon Peter Turnbull was killed when his aircraft crashed as he attempted to strafe a Japanese light tank. Squadron Leader Keith ’Bluey’ Truscott, of 452 Squadron fame, assumed command of the squadron. He remained in this appointment until his death on 28 March 1943, when he crashed into the sea while undertaking fighter training with a flying boat off Exmouth Gulf in Western Australia.
The expectation of an enemy assault on the airfield complex on the night of 28 August resulted in the overnight withdrawal of the fighters to Port Moresby. The expected attack did not eventuate, and the aircraft returned to Milne Bay on the 29th. Group Captain W.H. Garing also arrived to assume the overall command of the RAAF units involved in the battle, which reached its climax during the early morning of the 31st. Desperate, but unsuccessful, attempts by the Japanese to overwhelm the Australian defences at Turnbull airfield (No. 2 airfield had been renamed to commemorate Peter Turnbull) proved the apogee of the Japanese advance. Steady pressure by the Australians forced the withdrawal of the invaders on the night of 5 September.
The Japanese Navy had made its presence felt during the campaign. On the night of 7 September a salvo of shells hit the supply ship Anshun, which capsized at the Gili Gili wharf. Garing was particularly perturbed at the enemy navy’s freedom of action. He was aware of the raising of 100 Squadron and its new Beaufort torpedo bombers. As a result of his pleadings Wing Commander J.R. ‘Sam’ Balmer led six Beauforts north from Laverton on 4 September. En route the Beauforts were loaded with American Mk XIII torpedoes at the RAAF base at Nowra. During the morning of 7 September, two 6 Squadron Hudsons attacked a Japanese cruiser and a destroyer and reported the incident to Milne Bay. An attack force of six Beauforts, three 30 Squadron Beaufighters and ten Kittyhawks took off to strike at the force off Normanby Island. The strike force did not discover the enemy vessels and returned to Milne Bay. However, they were not to be denied. At 4.55 pm three Beaufighters, and the eight 76 Squadron Kittyhawks led by Truscott, closed to within 800 metres of the enemy before commencing to strafe the bridge and upper works of a cruiser. The enemy formed a defensive circle as the Beauforts commenced their low-level run. Under fire from the cruiser’s heavy guns, the Beauforts dropped their torpedoes from a range of 1500 metres. Results were disappointing. No hits were made, but lessons were learnt that were to be applied in future anti-shipping operations.
Unfortunately, from the perspective of the torpedo bomber force, this strike was indicative of the problems that were faced. The torpedo used proved unreliable, and the subsequent eighteen torpedo bomber operations were to prove disappointing. Squadron Leader Noel Quinn was shot down and captured after flying the RAAF’s final torpedo bomber sortie against Rabaul on 4 December 1943.
The Kittyhawk squadrons returned to Australia for rest and reequipment. 76 Squadron flew to Batchelor in the Northern Territory, and Truscott was able to add the last entry to his list of claims: a Betty destroyed on 21 January. After serving at Horn Island and Cairns, 75 Squadron returned to Milne Bay in January 1943. In the meantime, the Allied airfields had been developed in the Port Moresby area. The efforts of 1 Mobile Works Squadron (later 5 Airfield Construction Squadron) from July 1942 resulted in the development of Ward’s airfield to enable the Beaufighters of 30 Squadron and Boston light bombers of 22 Squadron to operate against the Japanese forces along the Kokoda Track and at Buna, Gona and Sanananda. It is also a period where the influence of air power in the theatre was becoming apparent. For example, the difficultly of supplying the forward troops on the Kokoda Track resulted in the deployment of the Special Transport Flight of Hudson aircraft from 1 Operational Training Unit to Ward’s airfield to augment the sparse aerial transport resources in the theatre. The flight made its first supply drop at Soputa on 14 December 1942. Next day the hazards of these operations became evident. Three Hudsons departed from Ward’s, penetrated the overcast conditions over the notorious ‘Gap’ in the Owen Stanley Range and dropped much needed ammunition at Soputa. Squadron Leader W.A. Pedrina made two circuits before dropping his stores on the third. The aircraft then went into a steep turn and crashed, with Flight Sergeant L. Callaghan the only survivor.
The short operational career of Flight Lieutenant W.E. Newton is typical of the tasks that were being undertaken by the Australian squadrons at Port Moresby during this period. After joining 22 Squadron, Newton flew his first operational sortie on 1 January 1943, strafing Japanese positions near Sanananda Point, landing at Dobodura due to a mechanical problem with his Boston light bomber. On 22 January 1943, the Australian and American forces finally secured the area from Gona to Buna. The Australian Bostons had played an effective role in supporting the land battle, and Newton was to participate in an action in March that sealed the fate of the Japanese defenders at Lae. Prior to this climactic event, Newton flew missions to prevent the Japanese from capturing the airfields at Wau. During February, Newton flew five of eight sorties supporting the hard-pressed infantry in the Wau–Mubo–Salamaua area. Using photographs exposed by the Wirraways of 4 Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron, the Bostons flew at 400 kph through anti-aircraft fire, between ridges and mountains, often battling through monsoonal rain and clouds to bomb and strafe enemy positions. These operations, which required courage and flying skill, contributed to the heavy Japanese casualties.
On 2 March, Bill Newton flew one of six Boston bombers, which in the face of heavy anti-aircraft fire, swept across the airfield at Lae, leaving a trail of destruction. This action was aimed at destroying enemy fighters that had been deployed to Lae to give protection to a Japanese convoy. The ships had departed from Rabaul on 28 February to reinforce the garrison at Lae. The convoy was attacked by American B-17 bombers during the 2nd, but it persevered. Next day it came within range of the specially trained Australian 30 Squadron Beaufighter and American B-25 Mitchell bomber crews, who vindicated the many hours of low-level ‘skip bombing’ training that they had undertaken on the wreckage of the SS Pruth. To prevent interception of the attacking force, Newton and two other Boston captains attacked the Lae airfield early in the morning. The three Bostons, armed with four nose-mounted 0.303 machine-guns and a 2000-pound bomb load caught the enemy fighters as they prepared for take-off, leaving many burning on the cratered runway.
Out in the Bismarck Sea the Japanese convoy was bombed by a force of B-17 Flying Fortress bombers, thirteen 30 Squadron Beaufighters and a number of Mitchells, leaving a swathe of burning and sinking vessels in their wake. Ammunition expended, the Allied aircraft returned to Port Moresby to rearm and refuel. The Allied aircraft returned during the afternoon. Wing Commander C.C. Learmonth led five 22 Squadron Bostons to join in the fray, claiming two direct hits on enemy vessels. The Australians were under pressure from defending Zekes. Flying Officer H.B. Craig attracted four of them. By boldly turning into his attackers with all guns blazing, Craig forced the enemy to break away.
Newton did not participate in the later attacks.
On 16 March, Newton was flying one of a formation of six Bostons that attacked newly constructed fuel tanks on the Salamaua isthmus. From a height of 1500 metres, Newton dived on the tanks, while his wingman, Dick Fethers, strafed the adjacent gun sites. The tanks exploded, and the resultant fireball and column of smoke could be seen for 80 kilometres. As the other Bostons dropped their bombs, Newton returned to strafe the area. His aircraft received four direct hits and, with instruments, hydraulics and control surfaces badly damaged, Newton turned south-east for safety. To further compound the situation, one engine had to be shut down. Newton, with superb airmanship and luck, coaxed the Boston back to Ward’s. For his action on this day, Newton was awarded the Victoria Cross. But it was a posthumous award. On 18 March, Newton and his crew, along with Sergeant Basil Eastwood and John Lyons, ditched after attacking Salamaua. Eastwood was killed in the crash, and Newton and Lyons were captured. Lyons was bayoneted to death soon after, and on 29 March 1943 the 23-year-old Flight Lieutenant W.E. Newton was executed by his Japanese captors.
Admiral Yamamoto had established an advanced headquarters at Lae to attempt to counter the reverses at Guadalcanal and along the northern New Guinea coast. He identified the growing Allied air strength as the major threat, and instigated a series of air attacks on Guadalcanal, Oro Bay, Port Moresby and Milne Bay to redress the balance. In this he was unsuccessful. At Milne Bay the enemy efforts were intercepted by the Lockheed P-38 Lightning fighters of the USAAF 9th Fighter Squadron and the Kittyhawks of 75 and 77 Squadrons. The latter had arrived in November 1942, and 75 Squadron returned on 13 February 1943. The action, the last major aerial combat to which the RAAF fighter force contributed in the South West Pacific Area, took place on 14 April 1943. The two Australian units’ contribution was the destruction of six Betty bombers, a Aichi D3A ‘Val’ and three Zekes. Squadron Leader W.A. ‘Wulf’ Arthur, the 75 Squadron commander, epitomised the courage of the Australian pilots. Finding that his guns would not fire, he requested permission to land. While diving across Milne Bay, he sighted six Vals and made dummy attacks on the formation, before unsuccessfully attempting, by aggressive flying, to force another Val to land.
To facilitate the westward advance from Milne Bay, 6 ACS deployed to Goodenough Island and to Kiriwina to prepare airfields to be used by Kittyhawks and Beauforts to strike at targets at Gasmata and Rabaul. During this period, 75 Squadron operated two Lockheed F-4, the photographic reconnaissance version of the P-38 Lightning fighter, on missions over Cape Gloucester, Gasmata and the Trobriand Islands for the US Sixth Army and RAAF 9 Operational Group. Squadron Leader Geoff Atherton and Flight Lieutenant ‘Monty’ Mountseer flew the majority of the flights. The squadron operated from the new airfields at Vivigani on Goodenough Island and Kiriwina that had been developed by 6 ACS. In the meantime, 7 ACS contributed to the construction of the airfield complex at Nadzab, the communication road from the complex to Lae and the construction of a fuel pipeline from that port to the airfield. This area became a major base for American heavy and medium bombers preparing for the subsequent landings at Cape Gloucester in New Britain and at Aitape and Hollandia. From 19 January 1944, 75 squadron operated from Newton Field, one of the Australian contributions to the Nadzab complex. Then they commenced operations with the newly arrived 78 Squadron.
The operation of the two units included escorting formations of USAAF B-24 Liberators and B-25 Mitchells. In addition, the two Kittyhawk units flew close escort for the Vultee Vengeance dive bombers of 21, 23 and 24 Squadrons that were flying precision strikes against enemy facilities at Alexishafen, Sair Island, Hansa Bay and Madang. The three dive-bomber units had deployed to New Guinea between 30 August and 15 February 1944. Although the aircraft supported the Australian 9th Division at Sattelberg and gained a reputation for close air support to ground troops, they did not remain operational in the theatre for long. On 8 March, 23 Squadron flew its last sortie; 21 Squadron was only based in New Guinea for fifteen days before all the dive-bomber units were returned south. Ultimately, they were to form the nucleus of the RAAF Liberator heavy bomber force.
When not involved in escort duties, the Kittyhawks struck at enemy targets and flew close support missions. These were risky. On 27 January 1944, 75 Squadron lost Flight Sergeant J.N. Stirling and Pilot Officer Hunt when they collided while strafing Jombo Island, south of Madang. Flying Officer E.H. Weber was shot down over Malala on 2 March 1944, to become 78 Squadron’s first operational casualty. Squadron Leader Col Lindeman gained some revenge when he damaged two Oscars that had attempted to intercept the Liberator formation that he was escorting. Japanese sources state that two Oscars were lost on this day, but they do not state whether this was the result of air-to-air combat or to another cause. This was to prove the last combat of this type that involved 75 Squadron.
On 12 March, 75 Squadron commenced operations from Cape Gloucester in New Britain in support of the 1st Marine Division that had landed as part of the operations to isolate the Japanese Rabaul garrison and to prepare bases for the next step forward: the landings at Aitape during March. The personnel of 7 ACS were in the second wave of troops that landed at Aitape, and the members of 5 ACS on the 23rd reinforced them. These highly professional units had a fighter strip operational on the 24 April, and a bomber strip two weeks later. The Kittyhawks of 78 Squadron landed at Aitape on 25 April, and 75 Squadron aircraft joined them next day. The two squadrons directed operations against the Japanese defences between Hyaparake and Cape Boram, as well as covering the progress of the naval bombardment force that included HMAS Australia and HMAS Shropshire. Both were to be involved in the landing at the island of Biak in May.
The two RAAF fighter squadrons moved westwards to Hollandia on 25 May. On 27 May, they covered the landing of the US 41st Division at Biak. These operations were undertaken at the extreme range of the Kittyhawks, and the flights gave little opportunity for the fighters to close with the enemy. However, when the opportunity was presented, the Australians took full advantage. In one of the last major air-to-air combats in Papua New Guinea, 78 Squadron shot down eight Japanese aircraft on 3 June. Fifteen Kittyhawks intercepted a Japanese formation of twelve Oscars and three Nakajima B5N ‘Kate’ attack bombers. Flight Lieutenant R.S. Osment, the formation leader, shot down a Kate in flames. Pilot Officer R.R. Cowley closed to within 50 metres of an Oscar before shooting it down, also in flames. Blue section joined the furious dog fight. The leader, Flight Lieutenant G.H. White, shot the wing off an Oscar before disposing of a Kate, which was seen to invert just before it hit the water. Other victorious pilots were Flight Lieutenant D.R. Baker, Flight Sergeant C.I. Smith, Flight Lieutenant J.C. Smith, Flight Lieutenant J.C. Griffiths, and Flying Officer R.E. Barker, who were credited with the destruction of one Oscar apiece. In addition, Griffiths and Flying Officer N.F. Blessing shared in the destruction of another enemy fighter.
On 10 June, Flight Lieutenants D.R. Baker and G. Giles scored the final air-to-air victory credited to RAAF fighters over New Guinea when they destroyed an enemy aircraft while covering an Allied convoy near Japen Island.
The next phase of MacArthur’s advance was the capture of the island of Noemfoor, from where air power could be projected over the Vogelkop peninsula and the Ambon–Ceram area. To ensure the rapid utilisation of the Noemfoor airfields, Group Captain W.C. Dale, the commander of 62 Works Wing, was appointed as the chief engineer to oversee the rehabilitation and construction of the airfields at Kamiri and Kornsoren. The airfield construction troops landed within thirty minutes of the initial assault, and Kamiri was suitable for 78 Squadron to fly to Noemfoor on 20 July, where 75 and 80 Squadrons joined it on the 22nd. The three squadrons harassed enemy forces in the Geelvink Bay and Vogelkop peninsula as indirect support to the Allied landing at Sansapor, and were joined in this task by 22 Squadron Bostons and the 30 Squadron Beaufighters early in August.
When Morotai was taken after an unopposed assault on 14 September 1944, the men of 3 and 14 ACSs were among the first to land. By 20 September, they had completed preparatory work and commenced the upgrading of the Wama airfield. Morotai was to become a main concentration point for RAAF front-line units assigned to the RAAF’s 1st Tactical Air Force. These included 1 (Mosquito), 13 (Ventura), 21, 23 and 24 (Liberator), 30 and 93 (Beaufighter), and 452 and 457 (Spitfire) Squadrons. To this must be added the assets of 22 Squadron that had deployed to Morotai on 17 November 1944 with sixteen Bostons. Nine Bostons were either destroyed or extensively damaged during Japanese air raids on the night of 22–23 November, forcing the unit to be withdrawn to Noemfoor for rearming with Beaufighters. The fighters, Bostons and Beaufighters operated extensively over the Halmaheras to ensure that the Japanese forces could not be deployed to reinforce the defences of the Philippines. These operations were to act as a catalyst for the so-called ‘Morotai Mutiny’ of April 1945, when a group of senior commanders took action to bring the futility of these operations to the attention of higher authority.