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Royal New Zealand Air Force

no. 59 unit

no. 59 unit

No. 59, another mobile GCI unit, went overseas in November 1943 and was installed on Guadalcanal on the site of No. 52 to enable the latter's equipment to be overhauled. Flight Lieutenant Mercer, who had relieved Flight Lieutenant Mills some time before page 234 as OC No. 52 Unit, then took over command of No. 59. The unit was destined eventually for Bougainville, and while it was operating on Guadalcanal a party of three officers went to Torokina to select a site for it.

They chose the only position available, close by the newly formed fighter strip. It was by no means ideal as the surrounding area was heavily wooded, especially to the north-west, which was the direction from which Japanese aircraft generally approached. There was also a large ration dump in front of the position of the aerial; this caused interference until it was later partially removed.

After the return of the siting party, an advance party of two officers and nine other ranks, headed by Flight Lieutenant Goetz,1 went to Bougainville to study local conditions and prepare the camp and technical sites before the arrival of the unit. Goetz, when he arrived, was invited to act as a night-fighter controller with the Americans, and as the beach-head was under frequent bombing attacks, he gained a great deal of valuable operational experience.

The main party left Guadalcanal by sea with its equipment on 3 December and arrived at Torokina the next day. During the voyage one LST with men and equipment on board was hit by a torpedo during a night attack by enemy aircraft, but the torpedo did not explode. One of the attacking aircraft was destroyed by an American night fighter and exploded in mid-air. The American, who had come in too close for the kill, was caught in the explosion and his aircraft also blew up.

The party was the first RNZAF unit to be posted to Bougainville. It hoisted the RNZAF ensign over its camp for the first time on 6 December. Operations began on the 10th after considerable technical difficulties in the installation of equipment had been overcome. In spite of its unsatisfactory position the unit achieved remarkably accurate results. Controllers from the USMC and later the USAAC were allotted to work with it, as Goetz was the only New Zealander trained in the work. The first ‘touch-down’ (enemy aircraft shot down) was scored on the night of 15 December, when American night fighters shot down one confirmed and claimed two probables. During the first fortnight, when Japanese air activity over the beach-head was at its height, bombs were several times dropped close to the radar and the camp but no damage was done to the equipment. In the same period the area was shelled three times by Japanese batteries and there were several severe earthquakes. Another ‘touch-down’ was made on the night of 1–2 January. By this time all the controllers had directed night fighters on to a number of enemy aircraft.

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In night fighting, contacts with the enemy were either radar contacts or visual. In the former the fighter was directed by the ground station into such a position that he was able to pick up the enemy on his airborne radar screen. In the latter, which occurred on clear nights, he was directed close enough to see the enemy.

The Japanese made constant use of ‘window’—metal strips which were dropped from the aircraft. This practice, which had been developed in the European theatre, confused the readings on the ground radar screen and enabled a number of aircraft to escape detection.

Early in January 1944 No. 59 Unit moved to a new position on the top of Cape Torokina, the move resulting in a great improvement in the range at which the equipment could pick up hostile planes. During the month the unit recorded 103 enemy aircraft, of which twenty-four were contacted by American fighters. The total shot down as a result of the unit's activities up to the end of the month was five confirmed and two probables.

After the middle of February Japanese air activity practically ceased except for an occasional ‘snooper’ on moonlight nights. The unit continued to operate from Cape Torokina, achieving its share of success against such planes as did come over, until the beginning of August when it handed over to an American unit and returned to New Zealand. By that time it had been responsible for the detection of a dozen enemy aircraft destroyed and eight probably destroyed, as well as a number damaged.

1 Sqn Ldr G. Goetz, OBE; RNZAF; born Kuala Lumpur, 21 Jan 1918.