Friday, August 14, 2015

RAAF IN NEW BRITAIN AND PAPUA NEW GUINEA, 1942–44 PART II




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.

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