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Episodes & Studies Volume 1

Bomber Reconnaissance Operations

Bomber Reconnaissance Operations

SINCE THE START of the Rabaul offensive, No. 1 Bomber Reconnaissance Squadron of the RNZAF, led by Squadron Leader H. C. Walker,23 had been stationed at Guadalcanal with a detached flight at Munda. Its task was to supply aircraft to follow the striking forces to New Britain to spot and report the positions of pilots who had been shot down in the sea and, when possible, stay with them until a ‘Dumbo’ (an air-sea rescue Catalina) arrived on the scene. From
Black and white sketch of allies and enemy occupation

from an Army Education & Welfare Service bulletin

page 27 February until the end of March the rescuing was done by Catalinas of No. 6 Squadron, RNZAF, which had a detached flight in the Treasury Group for this work, and altogether they picked up twenty-eight survivors, New Zealand and American, from Rabaul strikes.

The Venturas* of No. 1 Squadron carried extra dinghies that could be dropped if necessary and they also carried bombs for use after they had finished their patrols. The first ‘survivor patrol’ was carried out by two Venturas from Munda on 23 December. They followed a force of Liberators bound for Rabaul, saw no survivors, but on their way home bombed Cape St. George in New Ireland. One was attacked by three Zekes, but, apart from a single hit from flak, both returned undamaged to Munda.

The next day Pilot Officer D. F. Ayson24 and Flying Officer R. J. Alford25 took off in Venturas on the same task. While over St. George’s Channel, Alford saw an Allied pilot waving to him from a dinghy, but before he was able to signal the position he was attacked by three Zekes. He scored several hits, but his own aircraft was damaged before he was able to escape into cloud and signal the position of the airman in the dinghy.

Ayson, in the other aircraft, was cruising above the entrance to St. George’s Channel. He saw Liberators pass overhead, and at 1.15 p.m. set course with them for Torokina. Five minutes later his turret gunner, Flight Sergeant G. E. Hannah,26 saw two Zekes immediately above him.

At the same moment (said Hannah in his report), I saw tracer off to starboard and then two Zekes coming straight in at seven or eight o’clock,* level, at our height. The next moment I saw two Zekes on the port side, flying level at about five o’clock and 900 yards out. I opened up on the two aircraft to starboard, and they crossed to the back of us, joining the other two on the port side. One Zeke broke away on the port side, and came in from about 900 yards at five o’clock, level with us, firing, and approaching to about 75 yards. I got a good five-second burst at him. He broke off and passed above us at about two o’clock.

At this stage the two Zekes that were above us had dropped to our level and came in, one at five o’clock and the other at six o’clock, firing as they came. I waited until they were at 400 yards before opening up. They broke off at about 350 yards and went up over our tail. I got a really long burst into the second one. I lost sight of him as another attack developed from four o’clock, level, coming to within 300 yards. I fired a burst and saw five or six tracers go into him. He turned straight over the top of us, and then started to lose height immediately. I saw him hit the water. There were still two Zekes chasing us, out about 500 yards on the port side and dead level, and two more on the starboard side at our height, one about 800 yards out and the other at 1000 yards. The two on the port side attacked, the first from four o’clock. I fired a deflection shot, and saw the tracer go in along the fuselage behind the cockpit. He turned off immediately at about 600 yards.

Just then, an aircraft unidentified at the time, appeared at about three o’clock. He increased speed, got in front of us, and turned as if to make an attack from two o’clock.

I heard the warning, as what we now know to be a Corsair approached, and swung the turret round and got a burst away. While this was going on we were still being attacked from the rear. I swung round again, and managed to get a burst into one aircraft attacking at about

* Twin-engined medium bomber and reconnaissance aircraft, which had superseded the Hudson as standard equipment for the RNZAF Bomber Reconnaissance squadrons.

* This method of indicating direction by the different positions of the hour hand of the clock is used by both the Army and the Air Force.

page 28 six o’clock, level, 600 yards out. He broke off and passed beneath us. He came into my view again at six o’clock, and as he appeared I got a full seven-seconds burst into him. I saw tracer hit the engine as he turned to starboard. He went up, turned half over to the right, and then went straight into the water and broke up.

While the attack was at its height, Flying Officer S. P. Aldridge,27 the wireless operator-air gunner, who had been giving the pilot advice and directions over the ‘intercom’, was wounded, Warrant Officer W. N. Williams,28 the navigator, taking his place at once. Meanwhile the aircraft was being hit repeatedly.

During one particularly violent attack, when I could hear shots hitting all over the aircraft, I went closer to the water and started skidding to the right (reported Pilot Officer Ayson). At this moment the rudder controls went slack. I was left without rudder control, and my weaving was affected….

When I was told that the attack was over, I checked up on the crew and found W/O Williams was giving first aid to F/O Aldridge. I tested the undercarriage and flaps, and half an hour from base advised tower* that I had a wounded man on board who needed medical attention. I also asked for the runway to be cleared. I landed without rudders, fast, but with no trouble. My crew did a really wonderful job of work.

In Flight Sergeant Hannah’s opinion the Japanese pilots had shown outstanding skill and determination, but had repeatedly exposed the bellies of their Zekes as they turned to break away. With side guns he could have done much more damage. Even so, two Zekes were listed as destroyed and three as damaged. Later evidence changed the score to three destroyed and two damaged. This feat, a remarkable one in a Ventura, was recognised by a personal congratulatory signal from General R. J. Mitchell, the American Commander, Air, Northern Solomons.

Mitchell says to Ayson and crew quote for single handedly beggar up finish** two Nips and three damaged stop A mighty well done and Merry Xmas. Unquote.

During the next two months No. 1 Squadron sent out aircraft almost daily on survivor searches and helped to rescue many Allied airmen. When it returned to New Zealand in mid-February its place was taken by No. 2 Bomber Reconnaissance Squadron (Squadron Leader A. B. Greenaway),29 which arrived at Guadalcanal on 15 February and sent a detachment to Munda on the 17th. On the 22nd the whole squadron moved to Munda, staying there until it went to Bougainville towards the end of April. Its chief task, which it shared with American squadrons at Munda, was to take part in daily searches for enemy shipping and submarines in the area between the northern Solomons, the eastern tip of New Guinea, and eastern New Britain.

The squadron had little to do directly with the attack on Rabaul. Searching for enemy shipping and survivors and bombing targets on Choiseul, Bougainville, and New Ireland were its main concern. It made one raid, however, of great importance.

Near Adler Bay, on the west coast of the Gazelle Peninsula in New Britain, the Japanese were thought to have a radar station that gave warning of the Rabaul raids. The task of finding and destroying it was given to two aircraft captained by Flight Lieutenant B. E. Oliver30 and Flight Lieutenant C. A. Fountaine.31 They left Munda at half past seven in the morning on 29 February,

* Airfield control tower.

** ‘Beggar up finish’: pidgin English in the Solomons for kill, wipe out.

page 29 refuelled at Bougainville, and took off for the coast of New Britain. Making landfall just north of Adler Bay, they turned south and flew low over the tree-tops in search of their target. Fountaine, in the second aircraft, was the first to spot the radar station, which was in a clearing on a low, bush-covered headland at the south end of the bay. He called Oliver on his radio telephone, turned out to sea, and made a run over the station with his front guns firing. He dropped a bomb on the station, and then, making a left-hand turn, came in again, dropping two bombs that exploded on the cliff face just above the target. The first run had taken the enemy completely by surprise, but the defences were in action now and the aircraft was hit by machine-gun bullets.

Oliver, meanwhile, had joined in the attack. Guided by the smoke from Fountaine’s bombs, he made three runs, dropping six bombs in the target area. Then Fountaine dropped his last three bombs in a stick. As the aircraft turned home clouds of smoke covered the radar station.

Dive bombers were to have finished the job the next day, but the weather was unsuitable. On 2 March twelve Dauntlesses and six Avengers set out for Adler Bay. Oliver, who was acting as a path-finder, got there ten minutes before the main force and filled in the time by making two attacks on his own. He dropped two bombs in the target area, one on some huts on the beach below it, and two in the sea. The dive bombers then came in; after their attack Oliver returned to observe the results and drop his last bomb. It just missed the radar screen, which was still standing among the debris. He returned next day with Squadron Leader Greenaway and they strafed and bombed what was left of the radar station until it was destroyed beyond all doubt.

From then on our aircraft were able to approach Rabaul in far greater secrecy, and on 5 March a force of American destroyers steamed undetected up St. George’s Channel and shelled Simpson Harbour. This, coming after a long series of attacks from the air, convinced the Japanese that a full-scale invasion was imminent. In Rabaul there was chaos and panic.

Had the Allies attacked then they might have scored a cheap victory. Enemy morale was low, a large quantity of stores had been destroyed by bombing, and there was only one division in the line—the 38th. The troops in reserve had just retreated from western New Britain and were disorganised and in no condition to fight well.