Royal New Zealand Air Force
FORMATION OF NEW GENERAL RECONNAISSANCE SQUADRONS
FORMATION OF NEW GENERAL RECONNAISSANCE SQUADRONS
While the defences of Fiji were being strengthened, new squadrons were being formed in New Zealand to meet the growing threat of war in the Pacific. In August 1940 the Chief of Air Staff, Air Commodore Saunders, recommended, in view of Japan's increasingly hostile attitude, that more operational units should be formed as soon as aircraft became available. Towards the end of the year and early in 1941, a number of Vincents were relinquished by the training schools, which were progressively re-equipping with Harvards and Oxfords. At the same time the flying and technical training programmes had provided enough qualified personnel to man the new units. Consequently, two additional squadrons were established. The original New Zealand GR Squadron at Whenuapai became known as No. 1 Squadron. No. 2 Squadron, equipped with Vincents and Vildebeestes, was formed at Nelson in December 1940, under the command of Squadron Leader Cohen, and No. 3 Squadron, flying Baffins and commanded by Squadron Leader Monckton, formed at Harewood in April 1941.
No. 1 Squadron continued to be responsible for patrolling the approaches to Auckland and the seas round North Cape. No. 2 Squadron guarded Cook Strait and the approaches to Wellington, and No. 3 Squadron was responsible for patrols over the approaches to Lyttelton, Dunedin, and Foveaux Strait.
In February 1941 a detached flight of No. 2 Squadron at Nelson was stationed at Omaka, near Blenheim, to patrol the eastern approaches to Cook Strait. In May a detached flight of No. 3 Squadron at Harewood was posted to Taieri to operate round the south and south-west coasts of the South Island.
The squadron at Nelson, besides carrying out its own training and operational programmes, developed also into a School of General Reconnaissance, and pilots from the other squadrons were attached to it for training. By the end of 1941 the school had developed into a separate unit and was transferred to Omaka.
When the new squadrons were first formed, they contained a nucleus of experienced officers who were posted as commanding page 76 officers and flight commanders. The majority of the pilots came direct from flying training schools. Throughout the first few months of their existence the squadrons concentrated on training to fit them for their role of coastal reconnaissance. The most important subjects about which pilots had to learn were ship recognition, navigation, reporting procedure, codes, etc. Equipment was scarce and became available only by slow degrees. Charts were particularly scarce and pilots had to use photographic reproductions. Navigation instruments were in equally short supply; compasses and dividers were bought by individual pilots and Douglas protractors were home-made from celluloid. It was not until they had been operating for some months that pilots were provided with Mae Wests.
The Baffins of No. 3 Squadron were two-seater machines and were not fitted with dual control. The method of instructing a new pilot to fly them was simple. An experienced pilot flew the aircraft while the trainee stood in the gunner's cockpit and looked over into the front cockpit to see how it was done. After a flight the new pilot climbed over into the front seat and tried his hand at a solo flight. Then followed one hour's solo flying practice, a solo cross-country flight, and a flight with full war load, and then the pilot was considered ‘O.K.’ for operations. Thereafter he carried out exercises in formation flying, navigation, and W/T (wireless telegraphy) tests. As the crew consisted only of pilot and air-gunner, the pilot had also to act as navigator. As flying the aircraft was itself a full-time job, the navigation consisted mainly of dead reckoning.
The following is a description by one of the pilots of the aircraft in operational condition:
The ground crew would put a lot of time into the aircraft selected. Riggers, whose job was a difficult one owing to the rotting fabric etc., were most painstaking. The fitters clustered around to tell the pilot little points to watch. Armourers loaded the underside with two 250 lb. general purpose bombs, four 25 lb. anti-personnel bombs, one parachute flare, two wing-tip flares, two smoke floats and anything else they could think of. Within the aircraft were spare drums of ammunition for the rear gunner, a long belt of ammunition for the front gun, flame floats, sea markers, a Verey pistol and Verey cartridges in every colour possible. A dinghy was supposed to be concealed in the centre section of the main plane and was operated by the pilot pulling a string. As no one knew how to put it back, no one tried to operate it, so we do not know to this day if the dinghy was there or not.
In due course the aircrew arrived in full flying kit, plus an amazing array of books, charts, food and so on. The gunner, on entering the aircraft, stowed his parachute and fastened on his safety harness. The pilot had a somewhat more complicated ritual for he was navigator too. Having stepped in he proceeded to dispose of his tools of trade. Each pilot had his own method, but mine was something like this. My gloves were jammed behind the throttle, a Navy code book jammed down my left hip, my flying log was attached to my right knee, my pencil in my mouth, spare pencil in my flying boot, my photographically produced chart on its cardboard backing page 77 was hung on a piece of string from the cocking handle of the gun. My home-made protractor was tied to the chart and a course and speed calculator was hung round my neck on a piece of string. Dividers were tied to the compass. On the right side of the cockpit were Verey pistol and ammunition, and the Air Ministry code book and a Syko machine were jammed behind a stay. The above equipment was standard to all pilots and some also carried an empty pipe to suck in anxious moments.
The Vincents and Vildebeestes with which No. 2 Squadron was equipped, and which also eventually replaced the Baffins of No. 3 Squadron, involved rather less trouble for the pilot as they were three-seater machines and carried a navigator as well as an air-gunner.
Operations normally comprised patrols of anything up to a hundred miles out to sea, although occasionally they extended further. Flying obsolescent machines without modern navigation aids, often in extremely bad weather, pilots had an arduous task. The fact that they never had the opportunity of attacking an enemy ship did nothing to lighten the work. An aircraft of No. 3 Squadron operating on one occasion from Invercargill aerodrome carried out a patrol to the Snares Islands, south of New Zealand, and went as far as a latitude of 48 degrees 1 minute south, which was claimed as the southernmost point reached by any single-engined land-based aircraft on an operational flight.
After operating for more than two years with obsolescent aircraft, the RNZAF started to receive more modern machines towards the end of 1941. In July of that year Britain authorised the release of six Hudsons1 a month to New Zealand from RAF allocations in America. A total of sixty-four was ordered by New Zealand, of which thirty were to be delivered before the end of 1941 and the balance in 1942. The allocation was subject to review if relative conditions in the Pacific and the European theatre should change.
The first six aircraft arrived in September and were assembled at Hobsonville. More arrived in the following months, and as soon as they were assembled they were allotted to the GR squadrons.
By the end of the year all three squadrons were partially equipped with them.
When Japan entered the war in December, New Zealand had the three squadrons equipped with Hudsons and Vincents. In Fiji No. 4 Squadron was armed with four De Havilland aircraft and six Vincents, and an Army Co-operation Squadron had recently been formed with a strength of two aircraft. Immediately war broke out, six of the few Hudsons available in New Zealand were sent to reinforce No. 4 Squadron.