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New Zealanders with the Royal Air Force (Vol. I)


page xix


FOR centuries wars have been conducted on land and sea. But now, within the last few decades, a third and larger theatre has been found for them, one which flows over both land and sea and which more than either of these is a place of vision, of speed and freedom of movement. The advent of airship and aeroplane as weapons of war, and the possibility that the air might become a great highway for the traffic of peace, had long been foreseen. However, the visions of earlier ages and the more practical theories and experiments of the nineteenth century had to wait upon the invention of the internal combustion engine for their realisation. Even then doubts and prejudices retarded the progress of aviation and, in the military sphere, the aeroplane was regarded for some time merely as an ancillary weapon to the older forms of warfare. In the opening stages of the First World War, the machines operating on the Western Front were used solely for observation purposes such as the detection of enemy batteries, the direction of artillery fire, and the photographing of the territory immediately behind the enemy lines; machines designed expressly for aerial combat did not appear in force until the second year, and it was only towards the end of the conflict that various types of bomber aircraft were rapidly developed. Then came the Armistice, which prevented a demonstration of the full power of the new weapon.

For the next twenty years the strategic value of the new weapon was to remain a matter for conjecture since, during the period of uneasy peace which separated the two conflicts, aviation was not used as a war weapon on any considerable scale. Even when it did play a part it was under conditions not likely to be reproduced in a world struggle between major powers. In Abyssinia the Italians had things all their own way, while in China and in Spain the opposing air forces were hardly comparable either in numbers or in quality. Nevertheless there were many prophets, chief among them being the Italian general, Giulic Douhet, who conjured up alarming visions of what might happen in future wars.1 These enthusiastic exponents of air power predicted sudden and ruthless attacks with high-explosive and gas bombs which would quickly smash war

1 Douhet had commanded the first Air Battalion in the Italian Army and was appointed Commissioner of Aviation in Mussolini’s first administration. His Il domino dell’ aria (first published in 1921) subsequently achieved a wide circulation in Europe.

page xx industries and centres of population. The new mechanical age was receptive to such destructive ideas and contemporary popular imagination was stimulated by such writings as H. G. Wells’ The Shape of Things to Come.

But while the doctrine of an overwhelming bomber force striking knockout blows in the early stages gained its adherents, controversy continued in military circles with the result that, in 1939, divergent views of what air power might achieve were held by those who controlled the destinies of the principal nations. These views were strongly influenced by tradition and geographical position. The United States, although she had made rapid strides in air transport internally, was remote from Europe and her only likely enemy was Japan. Therefore she relied upon a powerful navy for defence and, apart from the few followers of that stormy petrel, Brigadier William Mitchell (better known as ‘Billy’), was largely unappreciative of the growing importance of air power. Her air forces remained divided between army and navy and were the subject of much controversy. France, weakened by the First World War and distracted by political strife, was unable to maintain the development of the air arm and devoted her energies to building and holding the Maginot Line. On the other hand the totalitarian states, bent on expansion, had more readily grasped the destructive possibilities of the new weapon. Italy had fashioned an air force of considerable size; Japan had seen that air power would aid in furthering her ambitions in the Far East; while Germany, after her disavowal of the Treaty of Versailles, had gone ahead with the expansion of the Luftwaffe which, aided by skilful propaganda, threatened to dominate the skies of Europe.

In Britain a few far-sighted and determined men had established a basic organisation that was to stand the test of war, but the Commonwealth as a whole, long dependent on sea power for its protection, had failed to recognise fully the advent of air power as a matter of importance in the strategy and tactics of war. The air was still regarded by many as a revolutionary and comparatively untried field in which the prophecies of a handful of visionaries had not been put to the test. And although the events of the First World War had shown that the submarine was a new and major factor, and the aeroplane a potential factor affecting sea power, the British people continued to believe that the Empire was still secure under the protection of the Royal Navy. Indeed it was not until the events of 1940 brought about a rude awakening that we began to realise what the coming of air power meant, not only to the security of the Empire, and in particular of Britain herself, but page xxi also to the conduct of the war as a whole. The lesson was driven home only at the cost of much blood and bitterness. Only gradually did we come to see the vital dependence of all surface operations on the progress of the war in the air and to understand the essential truth contained in General Smuts’ conclusion, arrived at nearly thirty years earlier when aircraft were still bird-cages of wood and wire: ‘It is important for the winning of the war that we should not only secure air predominance, but secure it on a very large scale.’ Fortunately we were given the time and opportunity to do so.

The Second World War was to see the testing of the various theories of air power developed during the years of peace and the gradual emergence of new concepts regarding its application to the problems of warfare on land and sea. Whereas, for example, Britain soon found she had much to learn, particularly in the tactical field, the Germans discovered that they had underestimated the strategic value of air forces operating at long range over land and sea. In the opening stages, when the Luftwaffe achieved a series of dazzling but easy victories, the principle laid down for its employment was both simple and direct. It was the theory of the blitzkrieg;1 the elimination stage by stage of each and every obstacle which might interfere with the free movement of the ground forces; and in the type of continental warfare which the German High Command had planned it proved highly successful. Then came the Battle of Britain in which the Luftwaffe was employed in an independent role for the first time. Britain, having had a brief interval in which to strengthen her air defences, survived the onslaught. But the German High Command did not appreciate the full significance of this failure of its air arm, and subsequent operations continued to be subordinated to the requirements of the Wehrmacht. Thus while the Luftwaffe was able to achieve further successes in Russia and the Mediterranean during 1941, it did not develop strategic operations against the British Isles and, as a direct result, was subsequently unable to maintain air supremacy over Germany. By the time the German leaders realised that they were confronted with a new situation for which their pre-war plans and designs made little provision, the initiative had passed to their enemies. Having taken note of earlier German successes and failures, the Allies had developed a wider view of air power and

1 ‘Lightning war’—a term much used by Hitler and Goering in public speeches as part of the campaign to produce fear of the Luftwaffe. The word was adopted in Britain towards the end of 1940 as ‘Blitz’, more in connection with the night raids by the German Air Force.

page xxii were well advanced with their plans to secure air superiority as a preliminary to victorious operations by land, sea, and air.

But the achievement of Allied supremacy in the air was not a relatively straightforward issue like a naval or land battle. It was certainly not just a series of combats between fighters; rather was it a complex affair involving many kinds of operations carried out by many types of aircraft. For example, the bombing attacks on the enemy’s oil supplies, his communications and factories, were an important contribution to Allied air supremacy in all theatres. Altogether it was a campaign rather than a battle, and one in which the advantage swung from side to side as scientific and technical discoveries were applied to the war in the air. Many found this difficult to grasp since operations designed to secure and maintain command of the air were often not visible to those who were benefiting from them and, in the early days of the war, this was a frequent cause of misunderstanding.

On the other hand, air superiority was only achieved and maintained with the aid of the land and sea forces. Supplies had to be brought by ships, and airfields had to be secured and held against the enemy land forces. Without supplies or deprived of bases, air forces could not operate. Altogether, final supremacy in the air was wrested from the enemy only after a long and bitter struggle, a long-drawn-out battle of wits by day and by night in fair weather and foul. It was neither an easy nor a quick victory. Simultaneously the enemy’s communications and war industries had been brought almost to a standstill by bombing, and valuable support given to the armies in the field and to naval forces in maintaining command of the sea.

* * * * *

Throughout the Second World War the air forces of the British Commonwealth were deployed as geography and strategy dictated. Canada, for example, sent a large air force to Europe, and at the same time took a major share in the Empire Air Training Scheme. South Africa’s main contribution was made in the Middle East. Australia and New Zealand devoted a considerable portion of their manpower to the Pacific and to training; both countries also sent many men to the Royal Air Force. In the case of New Zealand, just under 11,000 airmen went from the Dominion to serve with units in Europe, the Middle East, and South-East Asia. It is with the fortunes of these men that the present history is mainly concerned.

The task of presenting a satisfactory account of their work has proved difficult as they were, for the most part, scattered among page xxiii Royal Air Force units in the different theatres of war. At the same time very few records were kept by the Dominion concerning the activities of its airmen. The method adopted has been to record their work and achievements against a background of the operations of the Royal Air Force. It has been found convenient to divide the narrative into three parts: the first—the present volume—deals with the services of New Zealand airmen in Europe up to the end of 1942; this theatre will be completed in a second volume, while a third will be devoted to the Middle East and South-East Asia.

Many more volumes would be needed to record all the exploits of Dominion airmen during the Second World War, but as Raleigh remarks in his introduction to The War in the Air, ‘No history can be expected to furnish a full record of all the acts of prowess that were performed in the long course of the war. Many of the best can never be known. Honours were surely earned by many who lie in unvisited graves and those who were both heroic and lucky must share their honours, as they would be the first to insist, with those whose courage was not less though their luck failed them.’ Furthermore, the men who flew against the enemy were so many that comparatively few of their names can be mentioned. However, every effort has been made to indicate the contribution made by outstanding individuals and to illustrate the narrative by typical incidents in which New Zealand airmen were involved. In this matter of names, changes and promotions were so rapid during the war that the prefixes of rank often varied from month to month. Where a particular deed or part of a man’s service is described, therefore, the rank held at the time of mention is given; on the other hand, where an airman is referred to in more general terms, he is given the rank held at the end of hostilities. A brief biography is given in a footnote on first mention, the rank shown being that held on discharge or at date of death.

The records used in compiling the narrative have been, for the major part, those made available by the Air Ministry in London. In addition to the more personal details of service and achievement, these included the original sortie and combat reports and the mass of operational record books, files, and other documents compiled by RAF commands, groups, and squadrons; the despatches, memoirs, and wartime reports of various Allied commanders; the post-war interrogations and accounts of certain German leaders and many contemporary enemy documents—among them the highly secret statement kept by the German High Command of their daily aircraft losses and replacements.

The written record has been supplemented as far as possible by individual accounts and interviews, and such sources have supplied page xxiv many of the liveliest things in the volumes. Unfortunately, how- ever, the squadron war records are often sketchy, particularly in the first years, and even when surviving airmen set down what they remember, the whole war lies between them and those early days and their memory is often fragmentary.

It has been felt necessary, for the proper perspective of the narrative, to begin with a short account of the development of the Royal Air Force and the growth of New Zealand representation in its units up to the outbreak of the Second World War.