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.