THE ASSAULT ON RABAUL
Operations by the Royal New Zealand Air Force
December 1943 — May 1944
WAR HISTORY BRANCH
DEPARTMENT OF INTERNAL AFFAIRS WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND 1949
IT IS THE INTENTION of this series to present aspects of New Zealand’s part in the Second World War which will not receive detailed treatment in the campaign volumes and which are considered either worthy of special notice or typical of many phases of our war experience. The series is illustrated with material which would otherwise seldom see publication. It will also contain short accounts of operations which will be dealt with in detail in the appropriate volumes.
new zealand war histories
printed by whitcombe and tombs limited christchurchnew zealand
RABAUL, on the north-east tip of New Britain, was captured by the Japanese on 23 January 1942. Its harbour and port, protected from behind by jungle-covered mountains, made it an ideal naval and air base for their campaign in the south and south-west Pacific; they lost no time in fortifying it, building five airfields nearby, and installing one of the heaviest concentrations of anti-aircraft guns in the world.
From Rabaul they occupied New Guinea and the Solomons, but any plan to capture Port Moresby and New Caledonia and to attack the east coast of Australia was frustrated by the Coral Sea battle in May 1942 and the American landing at Guadalcanal three months later. Rabaul, though, was still a menace to the Allies, and its destruction as a naval and air base was one of the chief objects of their South Pacific campaign.
When the main Allied attack started in December 1943 the Japanese were estimated to have two hundred combat aircraft in New Britain and ninety in the New Ireland area, against which the Allies had 531 fighters and bombers in operational condition in the Solomons area. The Royal New Zealand Air Force had two fighter squadrons stationed at Ondonga in New Georgia— Nos. 14 and 15* led respectively by Squadron Leaders J. H. Arkwright1 and S. G. Quill.2 They were known as the New Zealand Fighter Wing and were commanded by Wing Commander T. O. Freeman.3 Both squadrons were on their second tour of duty in the Pacific and had seen action over Guadalcanal earlier in the year. Between them they had destroyed thirty-one Japanese aircraft.
The first major air operation from the Solomons against Rabaul took place on 17 December, when a fighter sweep of eighty aircraft—American Corsairs and Hellcats and twenty-four Kittyhawks from the two New Zealand squadrons—left Ondonga at 5.30 in the morning under Wing Commander Freeman. They flew first to the Torokina airstrip at Empress Augusta Bay to refuel, and there the time-table was interrupted by the emergency landing of two American aircraft. As a result the formation was split into two groups, the first, led by Freeman, getting away at nine o’clock, and the second, led by Quill, twenty minutes later.
The New Zealanders flew in sections of four, and at twenty minutes past ten the two sections in the lead, Freeman’s and Arkwright’s, crossed the coast of New Britain over Kabanga Bay, twenty miles south-east of Rabaul, at 20,000 feet. By now there were only two aircraft in the third section, one having turned home with oxygen trouble and another with a faulty generator.
As the pilots circled above the target they knew they had taken the enemy by surprise, for the anti-aircraft batteries did not open fire at once and there were no Japanese fighters in the air, though dust on the airfields showed where they had taken off. The weather, except for a layer of wispy cloud at 21,000 feet, was clear, and aircraft could be seen lined up on the runways.
While the formation was making its third circuit, four Zekes* dived from the cloud on the two aircraft of the third section, hitting one in the starboard wing with cannon shell. Arkwright at once led his section in a sharp right turn to come to the rescue, but he turned too tightly and went into a spin. So did his No. 2.** The rest of the section followed them down to protect them, but not before Sergeant A. S. Mills4 had fired a short burst at a Zeke and had seen it break in half.
* The Zeke was an improved model of the Zero, a Japanese fighter aircraft.
** The RNZAF fighter aircraft flew in pairs, or in sections of two pairs, for protection, the leading aircraft being known as No. I, the second as No. 2. When likely to meet enemy fighters, each aircraft in a pair, or each pair in a section, zigzagged constantly, crossing over or under its opposite number so that between them the pilots could watch the whole sky. This was called ‘weaving’.
The first section, meanwhile, was attacking aircraft that had climbed from the Rabaul airfields. Freeman and his No. 2, Flight Sergeant E. C. Laurie,6 dived on eight or nine Zekes above Praed Point, shooting down one each, but Laurie’s Kittyhawk was hit by cannon shell in the port wing while he was pulling out of his dive to look for Freeman, and he was forced to turn home. Later he joined Dark, who had attacked the Zeke on Mills’s tail and then a dive bomber, and together they went to the assistance of a lone Kittyhawk in trouble with seven or eight Zekes and trailing smoke or glycol. This proved to be Freeman’s aircraft. Together the three Kittyhawks shook off the enemy and flew to the coast of New Ireland, where Freeman began to circle a valley with the plain intention of making a forced landing. The other aircraft kept guard as long as they could, but Laurie was attacked by a Zeke and Dark had to chase it away. When they returned to the valley there was no sign of Freeman.
The rest of the section—Flight Lieutenant M. T. Vanderpump7 and his No. 2, Flight Lieutenant J. O. MacFarlane8—had dived on eight Zekes that were weaving above shipping in the harbour. Vanderpump shot down an aircraft over Talili Bay, then chased a Zeke that was attacking his No. 2 and shot it down in the bush at the foot of Mt. Towanumbatir, just north of Rabaul. Directly afterwards he was attacked by a number of Zekes and Tonys* but escaped by diving over Rabaul through an intense barrage of light anti-aircraft fire. MacFarlane, though, was shot down.
Of the second formation, which had left Torokina twenty minutes after the first, only the third section, led by Flight Lieutenant P. S. Green,9 saw action. Flying at 16,000 feet, with four American Corsairs 5000 feet above them as top cover, they met fifteen Zekes over Credner Island in St. George’s Channel, and when these seemed unwilling to come to grips Green manoeuvred his section to allow the Corsairs to get at them. They scattered at once, three of them, followed by the Kittyhawks, diving to sea-level. Flying Officer H. J. Meharry10 chose one and opened fire at 700 yards, closing to 300. Smoke came from the Zeke’s port wing root and flame from its fuselage. Then it rolled on its back and dived into the sea. The other two escaped inland, skimming the tree-tops.
That gave the New Zealanders a score of five aircraft out of nine shot down at a total cost to the whole sweep of two RNZAF Kittyhawks, but they had lost in Freeman a leader of outstanding quality. The lesson of the operation was that Allied aircraft could attack successfully the most strongly defended enemy base in the South Pacific.
* Single-seater Japanese fighters.
Protecting the Bombers
AS THEIR Kittyhawks could not operate at great heights, the usual task of the New Zealand pilots in the bombing strikes against Rabaul was to provide close cover for the American bombers. Slightly above the close cover flew a low cover of Hellcats, and above them a medium cover of Corsairs, with a top cover of P38 Lightnings or Corsairs flying at about 25,000 feet. The close cover—the Kittyhawks—had to stay with the bombers all the time to protect them from any aircraft that might dive through the higher covers. It was a role that called for much flying discipline, as often it meant missing the chance of a fight.
The kind of discipline required is well illustrated by this set of rules drawn up about this time by the commanding officer of one of the New Zealand squadrons:
Keep both pairs of eyes open, the pair in your head and the pair in your back, and remember the sun.
Work as a team and be a little more interested in the safety of the other pilots in the division. They in turn will reciprocate, the whole bringing about a better understanding of mutual support.
Keep your eye on your division leader and follow him implicitly. He knows what he is doing. That is why he is a leader.
Never straggle or be lured away from the bombers. If you are left behind catch up immediately and then never fly straight and level for more than five seconds. If necessary weave with someone—anyone.
Keep radio silence. If it is important, tell your leader, slowly, concisely and quietly. Then stop talking.
Never get the idea that the fight is over, even on the way home. Don’t get the idea either that the fight doesn’t start until you are over the target.
Don’t do the block.* Think quickly, decide immediately, and act simultaneously.
Finally and once again never, never, NEVER straggle.
This high standard of flying discipline was demanded of our pilots because their Kittyhawks were inferior in performance to the original Zeros, except in diving, and could outfight the Zekes only through brilliant teamwork.
The sweep of 17 December was to have been followed the next day by a bomber attack, but this was abandoned because of bad flying conditions. On the 19th, however, a strike was made by American B24 Liberators from Guadalcanal, and for this the RNZAF Wing provided part of the escort. No. 16 Squadron, led this time by Vanderpump, sent twelve aircraft, and No. 17, led by Squadron Leader P. G. H. Newton,11 another twelve. The latter had arrived at Ondonga to relieve No. 14 Squadron, which had completed its second tour of duty and was due to return to New Zealand.
* Get flustered.
Anti-aircraft fire was met over Rabaul, but it did no serious damage, and no enemy fighters appeared until the Liberators had dropped their bombs and were drawing away from the target. Then four Zekes dived on the rear formation above which Flight Lieutenant J. H. Mills12 (No. 17 Squadron) was weaving with his No. 2, Flight Sergeant D. A. Williams.13 When the New Zealanders turned towards them two of the Zekes broke away at once, but the other two continued diving and levelled out 2000 feet below the bombers. Mills followed them, giving two bursts from his gun and hitting one Zeke in the fuselage. It escaped by making a tight turn, only to run into the fire of Williams, who was following his leader down. Hit by two more bursts, the enemy tightened his turn still more, then rolled over on his back and dived to the ground.
During the rest of December bad weather interfered with operations, but on Christmas Eve the New Zealand squadrons, led by Arkwright and Newton, carried out a fighter sweep over Rabaul with twenty-four American Hellcats. The sweep approached the target in tiers, with the Kittyhawks forming the two lowest.
When it was about ten miles north-east of the town, forty or more Japanese fighters climbed to intercept it, and at once the New Zealand squadrons, each choosing a group of the enemy, dived to the attack. Soon furious dog-fights were taking place at heights from 18,000 feet to sea-level, with more fighters joining in all the time. Though the Japanese aircraft were better than the Kittyhawks at all altitudes in this kind of combat the New Zealanders always engaged them. They were forced to, for had they dived to safety after striking the first blow those following would have been at the mercy of the enemy. However, the Kittyhawks gave a good account of themselves in these dog-fights, damaging many Zekes and sometimes making a kill.
This particular action is described from one man’s point of view by Squadron Leader Newton:
On the way in [to the target] we could see clouds of dust rising off the Tobera strip. When we were about five miles south-east of Praed Point two groups of ‘bandits’, with more than twenty aircraft in each, were seen climbing up on our port side. The further group was a little higher than the nearer group. Squadron Leader Arkwright led No. 16 Squadron down on the nearer group, and I went down on the further group, both of us saying on the R/T* that we were going to attack.
I picked a Zeke near the front of the very loose formation and opened fire at 300 yards in a stern quarter attack, continuing firing as I followed the Zeke round in a turn until I was dead astern. The Zeke exploded at the wing roots and started to burn, with bits of the aircraft flying off. He tumbled over and went down in flames. I saw many aircraft shot down by the Squadron in this initial attack. I pulled round to the left, looking for another target. The sky was full of P40s and bandits milling round. I saw a Zeke on my left at the same level doing a left-hand turn. I turned, closing in astern, and fired a one-second burst at 250–300 yards. He did a complete flick roll to the left and when he pulled up I was still astern at 200 yards. I fired a 2–3 second burst and got hits all round the fuselage. He fell off in a lazy roll to the right and went straight down, apparently out of control.
* Radio telephone
I then found another Zeke milling round in the sky where about twelve P40s were mixing with a mass of Zekes. We were now down to about 12,000 feet. I turned in towards him and as he started a gentle turn to the left, I closed right in to 300 yards astern and fired a short burst. He flick-rolled to the left and as he straightened up I fired a long burst from dead astern. He fell away in a lazy roll to the right and then went down in a vertical dive. I rolled behind him and fired short bursts as he came in my sights. I observed my tracer going into the fuselage. I broke away at low level as I saw the Zeke go into the sea. As I was following him down I saw another Zeke go into the sea. This could have been the Zeke I had engaged previously and left in an uncontrolled dive.
I started to regain altitude and was set upon by six Zekes. I fired several bursts haphazardly at them, but they hemmed me in and I broke violently down again. At full throttle I could not shake off some of the Zekes, so I went right down to the water and headed for the Duke of York Islands. I found another P40 in the same predicament, so we scissored together. As the Zeke broke away we turned back towards the fight. As I saw four P40s making out to the rally point (Cape St. George) and as the fight seemed to be working out from Rabaul, we again turned towards the rally point and were immediately pounced upon from above by six to eight Zekes. We used full power and overtook the P40s ahead of us. I saw a P40 low down over the water behind me in the direction of Rabaul so I turned back and started to scissor with him. After the first scissor he was shot down by a Zeke. His aircraft trailed smoke and went into the sea, ten miles north-west from Cape St. George. I went right down to the water at full throttle with two Zekes behind shooting. I skidded violently and most of the tracer (7.7 millimetre) went over my head into the sea. The Zekes broke off five miles from Cape St. George where I joined five or six P40s and set course for Torokina. We ‘pancaked’ there at 1300 hours.
In terms of enemy aircraft destroyed this was the most successful action of the war for the New Zealand Fighter Wing. Twelve Japanese aircraft were shot down, four more probably destroyed, and many damaged. Seven RNZAF aircraft were lost but two of the pilots were saved. Flying Officer K. W. Starnes14 crashed just off Torokina beach and was rescued, while Flight Sergeant Williams, who had been shot down over St. George’s Channel, was rescued after six hours in the water by an air-sea rescue aircraft and taken to Torokina, where he entered hospital suffering from slight gunshot wounds. The five pilots lost were Flight Lieutenants A. W. Buchanan15 and P. S. Worsp,16 Flying Officers M. E. Dark and D. B. Page,17 and Sergeant R. H. Covic.18
By comparison the next operation was almost uneventful. It took place on Christmas Day, when seventeen RNZAF aircraft acted as close cover for twenty-four Liberators. The formation was attacked over the target, and Kittyhawks of No. 16 Squadron fired a few bursts at Zeros that penetrated the higher layers of fighters, but no definite results were observed. This was No. 16 Squadron’s last Rabaul operation in the tour, and it returned to New Zealand at the end of the year after being relieved by No. 15.
During December 144 Japanese fighters were shot down for the loss of twenty-three Allied fighters and one bomber. When the first heavy attack was launched against Rabaul on 17 December the Torokina airfield at Empress Augusta Bay had been in use for only twelve days, and at that time not more than a dozen fighters were based on it. The rest, like the Kittyhawks of the RNZAF, were based farther south and had to refuel at Torokina on the way to Rabaul.
IN NEW GEORGIA
SERVICING UNIT, ONDONGA
SCORE BOARD, ONDONGA, November 1943
KITTYHAWKS RETURN FROM RAID, TOROKINA
KITTYHAWK LANDING, BOUGAINVILLE
No. 17 Squadron pilots who took part in the first RNZAF bomber escort mission over Rabaul. (page 6)
L. E. Bradley, I. A. Speedy, D. L. Jones, D. A. Williams, P. S. Worsp, J. H. Mills, P. G. H. Newton,
A. G. S. George, B. H. Thomson, R. H. Covic, J. Edwards, B. A. McHardic
AIRMEN’S MESS, ONDONGA
Overhauling a Ventura Engine, Bougainville
BOMBER RECONNAISSANCE VENTURAS
Photographs of Japanese defences taken in September 1945
SOME DEFENCES OF RABAUL
Damaged Japanese aircraft at Rabaul, September 1945
The first light bomber attack was to have been made on 5 January by Dauntlesses and Avengers*, but they were turned back by bad weather. They tried again two days later and again failed. Fighters and flak were thick over the Rabaul area and the target—Tobera airfield—was hidden by cloud, so the bombers, after twice trying to bomb it, flew to Cape St. George in New Ireland and attacked targets there. Two Zekes had fallen to No. 17 Squadron, against which one Kittyhawk had been damaged by flak.
On the 9th the airfield was raided successfully. No. 15 Squadron, under Flight Lieutenant C. R. Bush,19 escorted the Dauntlesses and met no air opposition except an attack by phosphorus bombs, which did no harm,** but No. 17 Squadron, with the Avengers, met a score of Zekes, which dropped phosphorus bombs and then attacked with their guns. Squadron Leader Newton shot down two and Flight Lieutenant A. G. S. George20 one, but the squadron lost two fine pilots, Flying Officers A. B. Sladen21 and D. L. Jones.22 Both parachuted into the sea, and though dinghies were seen later by a patrolling Ventura they had disappeared before a rescue could be made.
The usual method of attack in this type of operation was for the bombers to fly towards the target at about 15,000 feet, make a shallow dive to 8000 feet, and then ‘push over’ into their bombing dive. In the attacks on airfields the Dauntlesses usually led, dropping their bombs on the anti-aircraft batteries from 2000 feet, pulling out of their dive at 1000 feet, and getting away as fast as possible. The Avengers followed close behind them, diving to 1000 feet before dropping their bombs on the runways and then pulling out at 800 to 900 feet. The fighters’ task was to weave above the bombers as they approached the target. The top cover stayed above them always, but the close and the low covers followed them down as they dived so that they could protect them while they reformed—the most critical moment of the raid.
Throughout January and February the Allies attacked Rabaul daily except when the weather was unfavourable. Unfavourable weather in the New Britain area usually meant that masses of towering cumulus cloud extended from about 40,000 feet above sea-level down to about 1000 feet, with heavy tropical rain underneath. When this happened the target was ‘weathered out’, and the striking force had to seek an alternative one, but even so the RNZAF fighters took part in thirteen successful strikes during January, acting on almost every occasion as close cover for American Mitchells*** or for Dauntlesses and Avengers.
* Dauntless—a dive bomber. Avenger—a torpedo-bomber. Both were used extensively in the South Pacific as dive bombers.
** The dropping of phosphorus bombs from high-flying aircraft was a feature of the Japanese fighter defence at this time. They were supposed to burst among our aircraft, and although they never hit any they sometimes disorganised the squadrons. Their bursts, moreover, served as rallying points for the Japanese fighters, showing them where they were most needed.
*** Twin-engined medium bombers.
On 17 January the RNZAF Fighter Wing moved from Ondonga to Torokina, on Bougainville. They regretted leaving quarters in which they had managed to make themselves fairly comfortable, in spite of heat, torrential rain, and frequent air raids, but they were now within striking distance of Rabaul and did not have to leave early in the morning and return late at night after refuelling on the way.
Bomber Reconnaissance Operations
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.
* Twin-engined medium bomber and reconnaissance aircraft, which had superseded the Hudson as standard equipment for the RNZAF Bomber Reconnaissance squadrons.
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.
* Airfield control tower.
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.
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.
* * *
The following New Zealand squadrons took part in the assault on Rabaul between 17 December 1943 and 2 June 1944. The dates given are those of their first and last missions on each tour:
|No. 14 Squadron||17 Dec 1943|
|No. 16 Squadron||17 Dec 1943 — 25 Dec 1943|
|No. 17 Squadron||19 Dec 1943 — 21 Jan 1944|
|No. 15 Squadron||7 Jan 1944 — 11 Feb 1944|
|No. 18 Squadron||27 Jan 1944 — 11 Mar 1944|
|No. 14 Squadron||12 Feb 1944 — 26 Mar 1944|
|No. 19 Squadron||12 Mar 1944 — 20 Apr 1944|
|No. 16 Squadron||28 Mar 1944 — 12 May 1944|
|No. 17 Squadron||23 Apr 1944 — 2 Jun 1944|
|No. 1 Squadron||23 Dec 1943 — 1 Feb 1944|
|No. 2 Squadron||29 Feb 1944 — 4 Apr 1944|
|No. 25 Squadron||27 Mar 1944 — 17 May 1944|
|No. 30 Squadron||28 Mar 1944 — 22 May 1944|
|No. 6 Squadron||11 Feb 1944 — 31 Mar 1944|
1 Wing Commander J. H. Arkwright, DFC; farmer; United Kingdom; born Marton, 1920.
3 Wing Commander T. O. Freeman, DSO, DFC and bar; Royal Air Force; born Lawrence, 1916; killed on air operations, 17 Dec 1943.
4 Flying Officer A. S. Mills; clerk; Dunedin; born Invercargill, 20 Dec 1923.
5 Flying Officer M. E. Dark; draughtsman; born Sydenham, England, 1921; killed on air operations, 24 Dec 1943.
6 Pilot Officer E. C. Laurie, DFM; warehouseman; born Auckland, 1923; killed on air operations, 30 Apr 1944.
7 Squadron Leader M. T. Vanderpump, DFC, United States DFC; farmer; Hastings; born Auckland, 14 May 1920.
8 Flight Lieutenant J. O. MacFarlane; architect; born Auckland, 1920; killed on air operations, 17 Dec 1943.
10 Flight Lieutenant H. J. Meharry; traveller; born Reefton, 1917; killed on air operations, 5 Aug 1944.
11 Wing Commander P. G. H. Newton, DFC, m.i.d.; engineering draughtsman; Christchurch; born Christchurch, 29 Sep 1917; appointed to short service commission in RNZAF, April 1939; Director of Operations, Air Department, August 1945—January 1946.
12 Squadron Leader J. H. Mills, m.i.d.; bank clerk; Auckland; born Dunedin, 1919.
14 Flying Officer K. W. Starnes; school teacher; born Motueka, 1919; killed on air operations, 18 Sep 1944.
15 Flight Lieutenant A. W. Buchanan; farmer; born New Plymouth, 1911; killed on air operations, 24 Dec 1943.
16 Flight Lieutenant P. S. Worsp; law clerk; born Auckland, 1916; killed on air operations, 24 Dec 1943.
17 Flying Officer D. B. Page; secretary, Wellington Stock Exchange; born London, 1912; killed on air operations, 24 Dec 1943.
18 Sergeant R. H. Covic; clerk; born Gisborne, 22 Jan 1924; killed on air operations, 24 Dec 1943.
21 Flying Officer A. B. Sladen; warehouseman; born Motueka, 12 Oct 1920; killed on air operations, 9 Jan 1944.
22 Flying Officer D. L. Jones; electrical engineer; born Christchurch, 12 Feb 1921; killed on air operations, 9 Jan 1944.
23 Wing Commander H. C. Walker, AFC, US Legion of Merit; airline pilot; Union Airways, Palmerston North; born Edinburgh, 15 Mar 1908; competed in Melbourne Centennial Air Race, 1934.
27 Flying Officer S. P. Aldridge; engineer and farmer; born Te Kuiti, 16 Jun 1920; killed on air operations, 20 Aug 1944.
28 Flying Officer W. N. Williams, DFC, DFM; hairdresser; Christchurch; born Dunedin, 23 Nov 1913.
31 Flight Lieutenant C. A. Fountaine, DFC; farmer; Kumeroa, Woodville; born Frankton Junction, 24 Nov 1918.
33 Flight Lieutenant J. W. Edwards; school teacher; born Auckland, 1915; killed on air operations, 10 May 1944.
The occupations given in each case are those on enlistment. The ranks are those held on discharge from the service or at the date of death; where a man is still serving the rank given is that held at the beginning of 1948.
* * *
THIS NARRATIVE is based on New Zealand and American intelligence reports, on pilots’ combat reports, and on the operational records of the squadrons concerned.
page 21 (bottom) C. T. Cave
page 24 (top) T. W. Ewart
THE AUTHOR: Squadron Leader J. M. S. Ross is Historical Records Officer at RNZAF Headquarters, Wellington. He graduated with Honours in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at Oxford University in 1935, and has served in the RNZAF since 1939.
the type used throughout the series is Aldine Bembo which was revived for monotype from a rare book printed by aldus in 1495 * the text is set in 12 point on a body of 14 point