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Episodes & Studies Volume 1

Fighter Bombers

Fighter Bombers

TOWARDS the end of February the Japanese withdrew nearly all their remaining aircraft from the Rabaul area, and by early March it was clear that heavy fighter cover was no longer needed for bombing attacks. The RNZAF fighters flew their last mission as bomber escorts on the 6th of the month, and three days later American bombers made their first unescorted attack. From then on a large number of fighters, both New Zealand and American, were free for other jobs, and with this in view many of them had been fitted with bomb-racks and their pilots trained in dive-bombing.

The first attack on Rabaul by New Zealand fighter-bombers took place on 7 March, when twenty aircraft from Nos. 14 and 18 Squadrons, led by Wing Commander C. W. K. Nicholls,32 page 30 attacked the town. They left Torokina at seven in the morning, each carrying a 500-pound bomb under the fuselage, where on former Rabaul missions they had carried long-range fuel tanks.

Since the previous day a staging area had been available to Allied aircraft to the north of Bougainville, almost half-way between Torokina and Rabaul. This was on Green Island, captured by American and New Zealand troops in mid-February. The formation refuelled there, and soon after eleven the aircraft approached Rabaul at 16,000 feet. They dived, released their bombs at between 12,000 and 8000 feet, and left the target smoking fiercely. Neither enemy fighters nor flak had troubled them.

From then on RNZAF fighter-bombers carried out strikes almost daily until the end of the war. At first 500-pound general purpose bombs were used, but later it was found that 1000-pounders could be carried safely by fighters. A bomb used extensively against supply dumps was the 500-pound incendiary cluster, which consisted of 126 four-pound incendiaries. These scattered after release and caused widespread fires. Sometimes, when the supply of orthodox bombs was short, depth charges were used.

During March Torokina was under Japanese shellfire for some days and aircraft had to spend the night either at Green Island or Ondonga, but this did not mean a respite for Rabaul, and by the 10th of the month the town was so badly knocked about that the fighter-bombers were able to give most of their attention to supply dumps, notably those near Vunapope and Rataval, to which the Japanese had dispersed the bulk of their stores, hiding them in coconut plantations. In an attempt to counter these attacks, the enemy moved his anti-aircraft batteries from the airfields to the supply dumps, and at times, particularly at Vunapope, the attackers met intense fire; but the raids were kept up for several weeks and by then the dumps were almost completely destroyed.

Towards the end of March RNZAF dive bombers joined in the attack on the Gazelle Peninsula, making their first raid on the 27th, when six Dauntlesses of No. 25 Squadron, led by Flight Lieutenant J. W. Edwards,33 accompanied two American squadrons in a strike against an ammunition dump and supply area near Talili Bay. The aircraft dived from 10,000 feet to 1500 feet before releasing their bombs, and then strafed the target with machine-gun fire. The whole area was pitted by bombs, which caused large fires and explosions.

From the end of March until nearly the end of May, Dauntlesses and Avengers of Nos. 25 and 30 Squadrons took part almost daily in dive-bombing raids against supply areas, airfields, and anti-aircraft positions around Rabaul.

Up to the last week of April the fighter-bombers attacked first the town of Rabaul and then the supply areas in the Gazelle Peninsula. Then they returned to the airfields which the Japanese had succeeded in patching up.

To discover whether an airfield could be knocked out by fighter-bombers alone, a force of twelve Lightnings, twenty-four Airacobras, and twenty-four New Zealand Kittyhawks, the last led by Wing Commander Nicholls, attacked the strip at Tobera on 23 April. Wing Commander Nicholls said later that eighteen of the Kittyhawk’s 500-pound bombs landed on the runway. Afterwards fighter-bombers regularly attacked the rest of the Rabaul airfields, keeping them out of commission so effectively that from mid-February until the end of the war only an occasional aircraft was able to operate from the bomb-pitted runways.

page 31

To sum up, the results of the air assault on Rabaul were as follows: By the end of February no vessel larger than a barge could use Simpson Harbour, which had once held some 300,000 tons of shipping and sheltered important units of the Japanese navy; on Rabaul’s five airfields, at one time Japan’s strongest air base south of the Equator, not a single serviceable aircraft remained; Rabaul as a town had ceased to exist, and outdoor supply and ammunition dumps had been hit so often that there was hardly an important target left on the Gazelle Peninsula.

The RNZAF played a comparatively small part in all this, but in the period 17 December 1943– 15 August 1945, from the start of the main assault to VJ Day, New Zealand pilots dropped on Rabaul alone 2068 tons of bombs.

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