Royal New Zealand Air Force
NO. 15 SQUADRON ON TONGA
NO. 15 SQUADRON ON TONGA
While No. 3 BR Squadron was establishing itself at Santo, No. 15 Fighter Squadron was sent to Tonga. It had been proposed some months before, in discussions between the New Zealand and American commands, that New Zealand fighter squadrons, when formed, should be sent overseas to take over the aircraft of existing American squadrons. Early in October COMGENSOPAC asked the New Zealand Government to send air and ground crews to take over and operate the aircraft of No. 68 Pursuit Squadron USAAF. No. 15 Squadron was the only unit which was sent overseas in accordance with this policy. All the later fighter squadrons went to the forward area equipped with their own aircraft.
Wing Commander Lewis1 was sent from Suva to find out what accommodation and equipment would be provided by the Americans, and what would need to be taken by the New Zealand squadron. Brigadier-General Lockwood, the American commander of the island, was not able to give him much information but he did find out that bombs and ammunition, fuel, airframe spares, medical services, and rations were available. The New Zealanders were to take mechanical transport, camp and mess equipment, reserves of clothing, tool kits for the ground staff, flying equipment for the pilots, and general personal and camp gear.
The aircraft comprised twenty-three P40s, and on inspection were found to be in very poor condition. Engines and airframes showed signs of neglect, and gun barrels were badly corroded. There was consequently a great deal of work to be done to make them air-worthy. Additional difficulty was caused by the fact that, although airframe, propeller, and instrument spares were plentiful, there were no engine spares except spark-plugs. The Americans worked under a system whereby any engine which needed more than superficial repair was replaced by a fresh one and sent back to America to be serviced. There were fifteen spare engines, and parts of these were used to replace defective parts in the aircraft.
On arrival at Tonga Squadron Leader Crichton took over the command of the Air Force base. Its establishment comprised No. 15 Squadron, RNZAF; detachments of the 65th Material Squadron, which combined the functions of station main store and station workshops; the 27th Signal Company, which was responsible for telephone communications at the base; the 670th Signal Company, which was responsible for the supply and maintenance of all armaments, bombs and ammunition; and the 58th Air Corps Squadron, which had set up and manned interceptor control equipment. All these detachments were manned by United States Army Air Corps personnel, numbering in all 255. Of these 116 lived on the station, the rest being accommodated in dispersed areas round the island.
The squadron spent three and a half months in Tonga. It carried out extensive operational training and also took over the air defence of the island. Its role was that of a general reconnaissance squadron and fighter squadron combined. It carried out dawn and dusk patrols over the surrounding seas, and maintained a constant stand-by from dawn to dusk so that aircraft could be scrambled at short notice.
Enemy submarines had been active in the area, and the patrols were designed to keep them under water. Until nearly the end of the tour no bomb racks were available to fit the P40s, so that operations could have only a moral value. If a submarine had appeared, it could have been attacked only with machine guns.1
1 A senior American Army officer at the time suggested that the pilots should carry depth-charges on their laps, and drop them by hand if they saw an enemy submarine. A depth-charge weighs 325 pounds.
From the end of December 1942 until it finished its tour of duty in Tonga, No. 15 Squadron had attached to it a radar unit sent from New Zealand. The party comprised three officers and radar operators, electricians, mechanics, and the other personnel necessary to make it self-supporting. It took over equipment which had been manned and operated by Americans. The New Zealanders had been trained on British types of radar and on arriving in Tonga spent two or three days becoming accustomed to the American equipment, after which the American personnel moved to the combat area and the New Zealand unit took over entirely.
It operated two radar sets and an air-warning centre which corresponded to an operations and filter room. For the next three months it tracked the P40s of No. 15 Squadron on patrol and also other aircraft arriving in Tonga.