Royal New Zealand Air Force
MOVE OF NO. 15 SQUADRON TO GUADALCANAL
MOVE OF NO. 15 SQUADRON TO GUADALCANAL
At the end of April RNZAF strength at Guadalcanal was increased by the arrival of No. 15 Fighter Squadron, under the command of Squadron Leader Herrick,1 which had moved up from Tonga. The squadron had left Tonga in two flights on 20 February and 1 March, and had flown to Santo, where it had been employed for several weeks on local defence. On 20 March it had moved to Nandi in Fiji for operational training in conjunction with United States Carrier Air Group 11. It was intended that the squadron should be operated in the forward area with the carrier group, but for various reasons this was not done and the carrier group moved to Guadalcanal without the squadron early in April.
The shipping allocated to carry the ground staff and equipment to the forward area from Tonga was repeatedly diverted for other urgent tasks, with the result that the main body of the squadron, together with the radar unit attached to it, did not reach Guadalcanal until the flying echelon had practically completed its tour of operations. Consequently, during the tour operations were carried out with practically no equipment other than the aircraft and the pilots' personal gear. The aircraft were maintained by the already overworked servicing organisation of No. 3 Squadron, assisted by a few men sent forward from No. 4 Repair Depot, and by United States Army Air Force fighter squadrons stationed on the island.
Fighter patrols over American base areas at the Russell Islands and Guadalcanal.
Fighter cover for American convoys in the area.
Strafing of enemy land targets and ships.
Fighter escort for American bombers attacking enemy bases, airfields, and shipping.
Offensive fighter sweeps over enemy bases in the northern Solomons in attempts to entice the outnumbered enemy fighters into large-scale actions.
Interception of enemy air attacks against the American bases on Russell and Guadalcanal and against American shipping in the area.
The first few operations by No. 15 Squadron, beginning on 29 April, were local patrols. All the early patrols were uneventful, as were a number of other operational flights in early May; these comprised escorts to American naval task forces and to American bombers attacking the enemy air bases at Munda and Rekata Bay and the barge concentration areas at Kolombangara.
The enemy was still three miles away; he had come down to 800 feet and was flying along beside a heavy, black cloud. The fighters were at 1000 feet. They jettisoned their belly tanks and gave chase, overtaking him in two minutes. Until they opened fire, the Japanese pilot apparently had no idea they were there as he made no attempt to dodge into the shelter of the cloud. They approached from slightly below and directly behind, and fired bursts into the float-plane from a range of 200 yards. It burst into flames and crashed into the sea, and in a minute all that remained of it was a patch of oil and a wing floating on the water.
Two days later eight aircraft of No. 15 Squadron took part in an attack on enemy warships. The Allied coastwatcher at Kolombangara had signalled that three Japanese destroyers were in Blackett Strait, one of them apparently on fire and low in the water. One of them, following an explosion, had gone aground on a reef and another was drifting in the strait, very low in the water and obviously crippled. The ships had evidently struck mines which had been recently sown in Blackett Strait by American naval units.
Despite very bad weather an Allied striking force of 62 aircraft attempted to attack the ships. At half past nine in the morning 19 SBDs and 3 TBFs, escorted by 32 F4Us and 8 P40s of No. 15 Squadron, took off from Guadalcanal to search for them. The TBFs and F4Us turned back because of the weather but the SBDs, escorted by the P40s, carried on and made contact with the enemy destroyers near Gizo Anchorage. The New Zealanders, led by Squadron Leader Herrick, attacked first in two sections of four, flying line abreast. In the face of very heavy gunfire they strafed the destroyer which was aground, making their attack at water level and then leapfrogging over the destroyer and back to water level on the other side. As the second section made its strafing run the SBDs attacked the ship and scored a hit with a 1000-pounder, which set it on fire. The fighter pilots continued their run and attacked landing craft putting troops ashore on a nearby island. They estimated that their fire, delivered from close range, must have caused heavy casualties.
For the rest of May operational activity by No. 15 Squadron was confined almost entirely to local patrols, during which only one contact was made with enemy aircraft when Japanese fighters ventured into the patrol area on the 13th. Only two New Zealanders were in the air at the time. One of them, Flying Officer page 183 McKenzie,1 in an engagement with several Zekes, had his aircraft severely damaged and returned to base with over seventy machine-gun and cannon-shell holes in fuselage and wings.
By the middle of 1943 the Allies had amassed enough material and men in the South Pacific to launch an offensive against the enemy positions in the central Solomons. The first objective was to be the airfield at Munda, on New Georgia. Although the central and northern Solomons were west of the dividing line between the South Pacific and South-West Pacific areas, the campaign for the occupation of the entire Solomons group had, logically, to be launched from the South Pacific area. Consequently, operations were carried out by forces of the South Pacific Command, working under the general strategy of General MacArthur. Admiral Halsey was thus responsible both to his own immediate superior, Admiral Nimitz, and to MacArthur.
The Allied force in the attack on New Georgia was organised as Task Force No. 33, which was split into Task Group 33+1 under the command of comairsols, Rear Admiral Marc A. Mitscher, the striking force, and Task Group 33+2 under the Commander, Espiritu Santo, which was a supporting force and acted as a forward reserve for the units in combat.
comairsols had at his disposal a total of approximately 290 fighter aircraft, 170 dive- and torpedo-bombers, 35 medium bombers, 72 heavy bombers, 18 flying boats, and 42 aircraft of other types. Task Group 33+2 comprised 40 fighters, 72 dive- and torpedo-bombers, 10 medium bombers, 43 heavy bombers, 35 flying boats, and 18 of other types.
The immediate object of the task force was to capture Munda and Rendova and other enemy positions in New Georgia, and destroy the garrisons there in order to prepare for further operations up the Solomons chain. The role of the Allied air forces in support of the land and naval operations was to carry out reconnaissance throughout the Solomons and as far north as Buka and New Ireland, give the maximum possible air coverage and support to the land forces, check enemy air operations from New Georgia and southern Bougainville, and destroy enemy naval units threatening either the South or South-West Pacific forces. Attempts were also made to hinder the movement of enemy shipping in the south Bougainville area by laying mines off the coast. The number of aircraft available to the Allied Command was barely enough to perform these tasks effectively, and the maximum effort was required from all units throughout the campaign.