Royal New Zealand Air Force
CHAPTER 10 — Establishment of the RNZAF in the South Pacific
Establishment of the RNZAF in the
To stem the tide of Japanese aggression in the South and South-West Pacific, the Allies in 1942 developed a chain of island bases, stretching from Northern Australia through New Caledonia, the New Hebrides, Fiji and Tonga to Samoa. These were intended to serve as a protection for major bases in Australia and New Zealand from which an offensive could eventually be launched. At the same time they were destined to become important supply and repair bases as the Allied forces moved northward through the Solomons.
An American fighter squadron disembarked at Fiji at the end of January 1942, and a flight of Flying Fortresses arrived a few days later. American troops landed in the New Hebrides in March and in New Caledonia in April. By June all these bases were occupied by large United States forces, although they were by no means secure from major attack, and behind this outer defensive line major forces were being built up in Australia and New Zealand.
The most vital link in the defensive chain was Fiji. If the enemy established himself there he could dominate the whole of the South Pacific and would be in a position to launch an attack against New Zealand. New Zealand had done what it could to reinforce the colony by sending all its anti-aircraft artillery and a fair proportion of the available Hudsons, but the defences in the first few weeks of 1942 were much too weak to withstand a major attack.
Early in February a detachment of six Hudsons from No. 2 Squadron was sent to Fiji temporarily to strengthen the air defences in the face of what appeared to be an imminent threat of attack. They arrived on 11 February and were attached to No. 4 Squadron at Nandi.
On 13 February aircrew were briefed for an attack on a Japanese task force which was reported to be approaching. Coastwatchers further north had reported a force including three aircraft carriers apparently heading for Fiji. It was estimated that it would arrive late on 13 February or at dawn on the 14th. An Allied force, including the aircraft carriers Lexington and Saratoga, was also heading for Fiji, but it was doubtful whether it would arrive in time page 126 to intercept the Japanese. Furthermore, the Allied fleet included no battleships.
The Hudsons were briefed to bomb from 9000 feet and the Fortresses from 16,000 feet, and pilots were told that unless the Allied force arrived in time they would stand very little chance of coming out of the action alive as the sky would be thick with Japanese fighters.
Aircrews remained at readiness for the rest of the day and that night. The Fortresses took off before dawn next day on patrol. As there had been no further sighting of the enemy force, the Hudsons did not take off till later. They were eventually airborne at 10 a.m. and carried out a parallel track search in the vicinity of the Ellice Islands. No sightings of the enemy were made during the day, and apparently he had turned back and occupied islands farther to the north-west.
With the safe arrival of the Allied reinforcements and the averting of the immediate threat to Fiji, the detachment of No. 2 Squadron returned to New Zealand, leaving two aircraft and crews to join No. 4 Squadron.
NEGOTIATIONS TO OBTAIN EQUIPMENT
It was thought that the problem of obtaining supplies for the RNZAF had been solved when, in April 1942, New Zealand was placed in the American South Pacific Command. Admiral Robert L. Ghormley, United States Navy, was appointed Commander South Pacific Area, and arrived in New Zealand to make his headquarters at Auckland on 21 May. At his first meeting with the New Zealand Chiefs of Staff Committee a few days later, he caused considerable dismay when he pointed out that according to his directive the land defence of New Zealand was expressly excluded from his responsibility. This meant that he had no responsibility for supplying the land and air forces of the country. The Army was not seriously affected as it was obtaining adequate supplies of equipment from Britain, but for the Air Force this was a serious blow.
For the next three months negotiations were carried on between Britain, New Zealand, and America in an effort to have the New Zealand Forces, particularly the Air Force, placed directly under Ghormley. The New Zealand Government pointed out that it wanted Air Force equipment, not only for the defence of the country but also to enable it to play its part in future offensive operations in the Pacific.
A great deal of correspondence passed between Wellington, London, and Washington on the question of equipment for the Air page 127 Force and the allied questions of the status of the RNZAF and the role it was to play in the Pacific war. New Zealand proposed that the RNZAF should be expanded to a strength of twenty squadrons by April 1943 and that a proportion of the squadrons should take part in offensive operations against the Japanese. The proposal was submitted to the Joint Planning Staffs in Britain and the United States. While it was being considered, an agreement known as the Arnold-Slessor-Towers or Arnold-Towers-Portal Agreement1 was signed by Britain and the United States in Washington. In this the United States was charged with defining and satisfying the strategic requirements of the Dominions. Any aircraft built in the Dominions were to be allotted by the Combined Munitions Assignment Board, but appropriate aircraft built in the United States were to be manned and fought by American crews. Dominion air forces were to be set up and maintained.
In view of the overall supply position and the fact that the expansion and re-equipment of the RNZAF would necessitate the supply of considerably more than just fighter aircraft, the American Joint Planners recommended to their Chiefs of Staff that the RNZAF should be limited until April 1943 to a strength of ten squadrons, consisting of four light bomber squadrons (Hudsons), five fighter squadrons (P40s), and one army co-operation squadron. This would involve allocating to New Zealand 23 Hudsons and 77 P40s in addition to those already allocated. The British Chiefs of Staff recommended a further six squadrons involving 64 B25s and 48 single-seater fighters, and proposed that these squadrons should be formed by the RNZAF taking over and manning six American squadrons in the Pacific, thus releasing American personnel for service elsewhere.
In August the Chief of Air Staff, Air Vice-Marshal Goddard,2 went to Washington to use his personal influence in negotiating an operational role for the RNZAF. When he arrived there he found that the ten-squadron plan had been accepted by the American Command, and that the allocation of aircraft and other equipment to put the plan into operation had been approved.
As a result of discussions with the American Naval Commander-in-Chief, Admiral King, the directive to the Commander South Pacific was amended by a provision which placed all the embodied page 128 and trained forces of the Army and RNZAF in New Zealand under Admiral Ghormley's command. The New Zealand Chief of the General Staff and the Chief of Air Staff were to act as Ghormley's subordinate commanders. Admiral King, while he approved the American command of New Zealand's local defence forces, considered that any increase in the supply of aircraft beyond those already allocated should come from British rather than American sources. Had he maintained this view it would have meant that the main object of the negotiations as far as the Air Force was concerned had failed. However, after further discussions he agreed to take responsibility for supplying the RNZAF, and finally in September the directive to Admiral Ghormley was amended again so that it fulfilled New Zealand's requirements.
1 General H. H. Arnold, Admiral J. H. Towers, Air Marshal Sir John Slessor, the last replaced by Air Marshal Sir Charles Portal.
2 Air Mshl Sir Victor Goddard, KCB, CBE, DSM (US); RAF (retd); born Harrow, England, 6 Feb 1897; RN 1910–15; RNAS 1915–18; RAF 1918; DD Intelligence, Air Ministry, 1937–39; D of Military Co-operation, 1941; CAS RNZAF 1941–43; AOC i/c Administration, SE Asia, 1943–46; British Joint Services Mission, USA, 1946–48; Air Council Member for Technical Services and Commandant Empire Flying School, 1948–51.
MUTUAL AID AGREEMENT
The basis on which New Zealand was to obtain equipment from America was regularised in the latter part of 1942. On 3 September a Mutual Aid Agreement, commonly known as the Lend-Lease Agreement, was signed in Washington by the United States Secretary of State, Mr Cordell Hull, and the New Zealand Minister, Mr Nash. It was similar to one previously concluded by the United States and the United Kingdom in February and stated more specifically what had previously been agreed upon by all the Allies in a United Nations Declaration signed in January. The Mutual Aid Agreement pledged the contracting parties to employ their full resources, military and economic, against those nations with which they were at war.
It recognised that:
In the prosecution of their common war undertaking … the war production and war resources of both nations should be used by each in the ways which most effectively utilise available materials, manpower, production facilities and shipping space.
The aim of the Agreement was that:
As large a portion as possible of the articles and services to be provided by each Government to the other shall be in the form of reciprocal aid so that the need of each Government for the currency of the other may be reduced to a minimum.
An RNZAF Equipment Liaison Office was established in Washington to which all demands for Air Force equipment were forwarded. Requests for equipment from Britain were forwarded from there to the New Zealand Liaison Officer in London. Those for American equipment were submitted to the Munitions Assignment Committee in Washington.
LIMIT OF JAPANESE ADVANCES
Early in May a large force of Japanese warships and transports was severely damaged in the Coral Sea by aircraft from a combined Australian and American task force based on the carriers Yorktown and Lexington. At the beginning of June another enemy force was defeated by American aircraft when approaching Midway Island. The damage done to the enemy's naval strength in these two battles, while it did not give the Allies control of the sea, allowed them a breathing space in which to organise their forces.
Early in July the Japanese, who had occupied Tulagi in the southern Solomons in April, landed on Guadalcanal. Allied reconnaissance planes reported that they had started the construction of an airstrip near Lunga Point. Had they been allowed to complete it they would have had an aerodrome within 550 miles of Espiritu Santo, in the New Hebrides, the Allies' forward base in the South Pacific and one of the most important points on the trans-Pacific supply route. At the same time enemy forces in the South-West Pacific were advancing on Port Moresby in New Guinea. They were finally turned back by the Australians early in August when 20 miles from the base, and this period marks the furthest extent of their conquests.
It had been intended to train an American task force in New Zealand for operations against the Japanese in the Solomons, planned to commence at the end of 1942. In June elements of the 1st Marine Division arrived in Wellington to begin their period of training. The Japanese occupation of Guadalcanal necessitated a change of plan, for the enemy had to be attacked before he had a chance to develop a base on the island. A task force composed of the American units in New Zealand was hastily assembled in Wellington, left New Zealand later in July, and landed on Guadalcanal early in August. The airfield, which was almost completed, was captured with little opposition and the Americans dug themselves in. For the next three months the enemy still had control of the sea and, to a great extent, of the air in the southern Solomons, and was able to land strong reinforcements on the island. The Americans had great difficulty in supplying and reinforcing their troops, who had to endure a number of determined counter-attacks. It was not until the end of November that their position on the island was reasonably secure.
FORMATION OF NEW ZEALAND SQUADRON IN NEW CALEDONIA
While preparations for the attack on Guadalcanal were in progress, and some months before the RNZAF was allotted a page 130 definite role in the Pacific campaign, Rear Admiral McCain (Commander Air, South Pacific) asked the New Zealand Government to send six Vincents from Fiji to New Caledonia, where he was short of aircraft for anti-submarine patrols. After some discussion it was decided not to send Vincents, which were unsuitable for long-range patrols in an area where enemy opposition was likely, but to substitute Hudsons. Two Hudsons were flown to New Caledonia from Fiji and additional ones were despatched from Nos. 1 and 2 Squadrons in New Zealand. From New Zealand also went the ground staff and administrative personnel to form a squadron.
At this stage the conditions of employment of RNZAF units in the South Pacific were not systematised as they were later; but at a liaison conference held at Noumea on 22–23 June between COMAIRSOPAC [Commander Air, South Pacific], the Colonel Commanding the USAAF in New Caledonia, and three RNZAF staff officers, it was agreed that the training, operations, and part of the administration of the New Zealand unit should be under American control from the time it arrived on the island.
The advance party of ground personnel left New Zealand in the United States seaplane tender Mackinac on 1 July. It comprised four officers and thirty other ranks, under the command of Squadron Leader Kidson.1 The party arrived in Noumea Harbour on the evening of 5 July, and preparations were made to disembark on the following morning. At midnight, however, general and action stations were sounded on the ship and the commander explained to all officers that three Japanese cruisers, four destroyers, and an aircraft carrier were within two and a half hours' distance, and were apparently on their way to bombard Noumea. The only forces in Noumea to counter the attack were the Mackinac, a seaplane repair ship, and an antiquated French gunboat. The commander offered to put the New Zealand contingent ashore, but all volunteered to remain on the ship and help in any way possible. The alarm was maintained until two o'clock the following afternoon, when a signal was received stating that the invading force had turned away and was steaming towards the Coral Sea. At eight o'clock next morning the New Zealanders disembarked, after being mustered by the ship's commander and thanked for the help given in the emergency.
They were taken in trucks to Plaine des Gaiacs, some 180 miles from Noumea, where an airfield was being constructed by the Hawaiian Construction Company and where the New Zealand squadron, when it arrived, was to be based.
When the camp had been erected, the signals section which had formed part of the advance party went to work with the American 69th Bombardment Squadron, which was already operating from the airfield, while awaiting the arrival of its own equipment. The administrative staff, meanwhile, continued to make the camp ready to accommodate the main body of the unit, which was brought from New Zealand on a second trip by the USS Mackinac.
The move of a unit to New Caledonia had raised two major supply problems as far as New Zealand resources were concerned. In the first place it had been necessary to deplete the RNZAF forces in Fiji by taking some Hudsons from there. Secondly, shortages of American equipment in New Caledonia had to be made up from stocks in New Zealand. The move, however, was welcomed by New Zealand as it was hoped that it would encourage the American authorities to do all they could to further the re-equipment of the RNZAF.
Until prefabricated wooden huts arrived from New Zealand all accommodation was in tents erected by the advance party. Later, huts were put up for messes and offices, but most of the men lived under canvas all the time they were on the island. All cooking and messing equipment was taken from New Zealand, as well as stocks of technical supplies and paint for camouflage. Field service rations were to be supplied by the Americans, but an emergency ration for twenty-one days was to be held by the RNZAF. Because of an acute shortage of motor vehicles among the American forces in New Caledonia, New Zealand was to send the maximum number possible. Rifles and ammunition also were taken by the New Zealanders, as well as stocks of bombs and detonators.
Shortage of domestic equipment, caused partly by the failure of the Americans to supply all that was expected and partly by the failure of the RNZAF unit to take sufficient with it, prevailed during the greater part of the unit's stay in New Caledonia.
The first two RNZAF aircraft to operate in New Caledonia flew to Plaine des Gaiacs from Fiji on 19 July, piloted by Flight Lieutenants Spicer1 and Stevenson.2 They were ordered to remain in New Caledonia until relieved by other Hudsons and crews which would be arriving shortly from New Zealand. The two crews were met by Flight Lieutenant Deegan,3 Camp Commandant of the RNZAF unit which had arrived some days before, and Flight Lieutenant Kingsford,4 the Engineer Officer. They were taken to the New Zealand camp, where they were to spend the night.
At half past eleven that night they were wakened and told to be on ‘Alert’ at the American operations room by the airstrip at half past four the next morning, as a Japanese aircraft carrier was reported to be heading for the island. After remaining on the alert for some hours they were finally stood down. Stevenson decided that the New Zealand camp was too far away from the airfield, so made arrangements for the two crews to eat and sleep with the American B26 Squadron in their camp near the strip. Captain Waddleton, CO of the squadron, was most helpful, providing tents and men to set them up.
The New Zealanders were instructed to take over the dawn and dusk anti-submarine patrols round the coast of New Caledonia, which had previously been carried out by the American squadron. The first dawn patrol was done by Flight Lieutenant Spicer on 21 July. It was a pitch-dark morning, it was impossible to see the direction of the runway, and the flying control personnel responsible for lighting the flarepath could not be found. Spicer took off, guided only by his landing lights and a torch which Stevenson held above his head several hundred yards up the runway.
Three more Hudsons arrived from New Zealand on 23 July under the command of Squadron Leader Grigg, with several spare crews, and No. 9 Squadron was officially formed as an operational unit. A camp was built for the aircrews close to the American camp on the airfield, and they lived there while operating from Plaine des Gaiacs, messing with the Americans.page 133
The memory of the threatened Japanese attack of 6 July was still fresh in New Caledonia, and No. 9 Squadron's first exercise, in co-operation with No. 69 Squadron, was a simulated attack on enemy aircraft carriers. Its main task for the next few months was to carry out searches in New Caledonian waters for enemy submarines. This had been done previously by No. 69 Squadron, but its aircraft, B26 torpedo-bombers, were not suitable for the work and the Hudsons were able to provide better coverage.
No. 9 Squadron's tour of duty on the island, lasting from July 1942 until March 1943, was uneventful though not without interest. Submarines were known to be in the area and had sunk several ships shortly before the unit began operations. Aircraft daily patrolled the surrounding seas and, when friendly shipping was approaching or leaving Noumea, made special anti-submarine escort flights. It was mainly negative work as for months no submarines were seen, but it probably acted as a deterrent to the Japanese. At all events no submarine attacks were made on shipping while the squadron was in the area.
Possible submarines, the only ones on the tour, were seen on 6 and 7 February. On 6 February an aircraft, taking off on patrol before dawn, observed signal lights on the sea 18 miles from Plaine des Gaiacs. It dropped four 250-pound bombs, and then patrolled the area until daylight. There was a patch of oil on the water, and the radar showed that the submarine might still be in the vicinity; but no further action could be taken as all bombs had been used.
Next morning another light was seen on the sea. The patrolling aircraft dropped a sea-marker and searched till dawn. After daylight the crew saw the periscope of a submarine, but it submerged before the aircraft could attack.
Domestically the unit grew increasingly self-supporting as the months went by. In the first weeks it had been dependent on the Americans for many things: medical services, transport, signals, rations, fuel and oil. As the size of the squadron grew and more equipment was sent from New Zealand, fewer services had to be supplied by the United States Army Air Force, until by the end of the year they consisted only of fuel and rations. No. 69 Squadron left to go farther north, and thereafter No. 9 Squadron was called on by the American commander at Plaine des Gaiacs to take over a number of duties which had been done by American personnel, such as supplying petrol-tanker parties, parties for unloading ships, duty officers and crash-tender crews.
From the first, aircraft operated by No. 9 Squadron were provided with spare parts, etc., by the New Zealand Government out of Hudson allocations made by the British Government. As no page 134 facilities existed at Noumea, Tontouta, or Plaine des Gaiacs for carrying out major overhauls, aircraft requiring them were returned to New Zealand. For this reason it was decided that only essential spares which could be utilised in minor repair or replacement work with existing workshop facilities should be held in New Caledonia; these spares were sent from New Zealand. The provision of engine spares was further simplified by the presence of B17s in New Caledonia. Spares from these aircraft were approximately 80 per cent interchangeable with the Hudson, and arrangements were made with the United States Army Air Corps that they retain in New Caledonia a range of spares suitable for use in the RNZAF aircraft.
ORGANISATION OF THE SOUTH PACIFIC AREA
To understand properly the part which the RNZAF was to play in the Pacific war it is necessary to have some idea of the higher organisation of the American forces in the area. The following chart shows the chain of command:
Until 1945 the RNZAF did not act as a strategic or tactical force with a specific task to perform. Individual squadrons in the page 135 forward area were controlled for operations by the local American commanders of the areas in which they were stationed. At the same time administrative control was exercised by Air Department through the group organisation which was eventually established by the RNZAF in the Pacific. The Group retained indirect operational control of the New Zealand squadrons through COMAIRSOPAC, whose headquarters embraced the headquarters of No. 1 (Islands) Group.
The South Pacific contained three subdivisions: the Combat Area in which the Allied forces were in actual contact with the enemy; the Forward Area which, although not in contact with the enemy, might be liable to attack, and which was organised for defence and for supporting operations in the Combat Area; and the Rear Area. As the campaign moved north, so did the boundaries of the respective areas.
The main objectives in the American offensive up through the Solomons were taken by task forces specially organised for the purpose and disbanded after they had achieved their objects. Each task force was divided into task groups which were allotted specific duties in the campaign. Guadalcanal was captured and held by two task forces, Nos. 61 and 62. Another, Task Force 63, was responsible for air support and protection during the campaign, and it was to this force, commanded by COMAIRSOPAC, that the first RNZAF squadrons in the forward area were attached. Later, in May 1943, these task forces were dissolved, and Task Force 31 was formed to carry out the invasion of the central and northern Solomons, with Task Force 33 responsible for air support. During this campaign RNZAF squadrons operated with Task Force 33.
As the combat area moved northward the task forces and their reserves moved too, and local Island Air Commands took over complete control of all air operations in the areas they vacated. The duties of New Zealand and American squadrons stationed in these areas were limited to training, the local defence of bases, and the protection of shipping.
AMERICAN REQUEST FOR SECOND BOMBER-RECONNAISSANCE SQUADRON
At the end of August COMGENSOPAC (General Harmon) signalled New Zealand asking for a second bomber-reconnaissance squadron to be sent to New Caledonia to relieve No. 9 Squadron, which would then go forward to the combat area. Normally the disposition of air force units was the responsibility of COMAIRSOPAC, but in this instance COMGENSOPAC was particularly interested page 136 because it was a USAAF squadron which was to be replaced by No. 9 Squadron in the combat area.
Colonel F. V. Schneider, General Harmon's Chief of Staff, visited Wellington early in September to discuss the move, which he intimated would probably take place in about two months' time. He was told that preliminary plans had already been made, and a squadron could be despatched almost immediately.
On 10 September COMGENSOPAC signalled that the squadron would be required at once, and should be ready to sail on the 23rd. At the same time its destination was changed from New Caledonia to Vila, in the New Hebrides. It was impossible in the time available to send an advance party to find out what facilities were there and to make full arrangements for supplies, so Group Captain Nevill, the Deputy Chief of Air Staff, flew to New Caledonia to confer with General Harmon. He then flew to Santo and saw COMAIRSOPAC, Rear Admiral McCain, who told him that the squadron was required not at Vila but at Santo.
It had been decided that the RNZAF was to supply its units initially with maintenance spares for three months, ground handling equipment for aircraft, tents and barrack equipment, a ninety-days' reserve of rations, .303 ammunition and 250-pound bombs which were peculiar to RNZAF aircraft, and mechanical transport and refuelling equipment. The American command was to supply fuel and oil for mechanical transport and aircraft, rations (other than reserve rations), medical supplies and attention, and .300 ammunition for ground weapons.
As a result of his discussion with Rear Admiral McCain, Nevill signalled from Santo that the squadron should also take such additional equipment as timber, construction materials, wire screening, water tanks, chlorination equipment, camp beds and mosquito netting.
If RNZAF officers had had more time in which to survey the squadron's base and find out more fully what equipment would be needed, subsequent shortages which hindered its establishment at Santo might have been avoided, but a full survey was impossible in the time available.
Group Captain Nevill's signal indicating the need for extra equipment, and the final notification of the squadron's destination, were received in New Zealand on 18 September, only five days before the unit was due to leave. Apparently co-ordination between COMAIRSOPAC and COMGENSOPAC and the RNZAF had been somewhat lacking in planning the move, which was understandable in the early stages of a campaign where forces were dispersed over the South Pacific and each headquarters concerned was separated page 137 from the others by hundreds of miles of sea. It was unfortunate, however, in that the short notice of the change of destination and the impossibility of assessing the unit's requirements made the organisation of the move extremely difficult.
General shortages of equipment in New Zealand, and the absence of previously prepared scales of equipment for the move, strained the RNZAF supply organisation in New Zealand to the utmost. Manning difficulties were equally severe. The policy which had been forced on the Air Force early in the war and which had only recently been modified, of manning all ground trades with men who were unfit for overseas service, made it difficult to obtain sufficient fit men at short notice to bring the squadron up to full strength. Men had to be posted from every station in New Zealand to fill the establishments in all the necessary trades, and their kitting, medical examinations, etc., had to be rushed through in a few days.
The unit ordered to go overseas was No. 3 BR Squadron, which had formed as a general reconnaissance squadron at Harewood in March 1941 and had been stationed at Whenuapai since February 1942. It was to go as a complete unit including headquarters, workshops, servicing, and inspectional sections, with a total strength including aircrew of over 300 men. The period between the notification of its move and the date of departure was occupied in sorting out those men who were unfit to go overseas and replacing them by fit personnel, and in preparing its equipment for the move. The ground staff and equipment were to be transported by an American ship. This did not materialise, and the Wahine and the Taybank were procured from the Royal New Zealand Navy.
In spite of these difficulties, the unit was ready for embarkation on the target date. The main party, comprising 11 officers and 218 other ranks, left Auckland for Santo in the Wahine with 37 tons of equipment on 22 September. The Taybank sailed three days later with 387 tons of equipment in the charge of Pilot Officer W. A. Chandler and a small party of airmen.
The squadron's aircraft, thirteen in number, left Whenuapai under the command of Wing Commander Fisher1 to fly to Santo via Norfolk Island and New Caledonia. They spent some days en route at New Caledonia with No. 9 Squadron, as the ground party had not arrived at Santo to prepare the camp. They finally reached their new base on 14–15 October.
The Americans had first surveyed Santo in May and had found that an excellent anchorage was available in the Segond Channel, which separated the south-east coast of Santo from the small island of Aore. Flat land was available a few miles farther east on the page 138 shores of Pallikulo Bay. They began at once developing Segond as a naval base, and in the middle of July started building an airstrip at Pallikulo from which bombers could operate against Guadalcanal.
When No. 3 Squadron arrived there were about 8000 American works troops on the island, and Santo was in the process of becoming the Allies' greatest base in the South Pacific. The airfield consisted of a strip cut out of the jungle, 2000 yards long by 100 yards wide, and was used by both bombers and fighters. A second strip for fighters was being constructed a few miles away.
The Wahine reached Santo on 8 October, and the main ground party disembarked the following day and set up camp in an area of jungle which had been allocated to them beside the Pallikulo airstrip. On the first night ashore the men pitched their tents wherever there was a space for them between the trees and cleared away the undergrowth with their bayonets. In the next fortnight, with the help of American bulldozers, they cleared the site and laid out an orderly camp. First priority in the work was given to the erection of camp accommodation and the preparation of servicing facilities for aircraft so that the squadron could become operational as soon as possible. It was some weeks before there was time to build messes and other camp amenities.
Some of the shortages in the equipment brought from New Zealand were made up by supplies from neighbouring American units. Despite initial difficulties the ground party was ready for the aircraft when they flew in, and the squadron became operational on 16 October.
OPERATIONS BY NO. 3 SQUADRON FROM SANTO
From the middle of October until 6 December No. 3 Squadron operated from Pallikulo. During the last fortnight of this period, a detached flight of six aircraft was stationed at Guadalcanal. While at Santo the squadron was directly under the orders of COMAIRSOPAC, whose flagship and operational headquarters, the USS Curtiss, was stationed in Segond Channel. For aircrews and ground staff it was a period of training and acclimatisation to tropical conditions. At the same time the squadron was given a specific operational commitment which involved daily searches by from two to four aircraft over the seas round Santo up to a distance of 400 miles from their base, as well as regular anti-submarine patrols within a radius of 20 miles from Segond Channel.
Six hundred miles to the north-west, American task forces were engaged in repelling repeated attempts by the Japanese to land large reinforcements on Guadalcanal. Santo, as the Allies' forward page 139 base and the concentration point for a vast amount of American shipping, was well defended by sea and air forces. Enemy surface vessels kept well clear, although submarines were operating in the area and on two occasions came close enough to shell American shore installations.
Patrols by RNZAF aircraft were in the main uneventful. One possible contact with the enemy was made when a Hudson sighted what might have been an enemy submarine 10 miles away. It searched the area thoroughly, but the object disappeared. Three weeks later another Hudson dropped bombs and depth-charges on what appeared to be a periscope moving through the water, but no oil or wreckage came to the surface.
During November it was reported that Japanese patrols had landed on Gava, Vanualava, Banks and Torres Islands, immediately to the north of Santo, and No. 3 Squadron was ordered to cover the islands in its searches. Nothing suspicious was ever seen.
NO. 15 SQUADRON ON TONGA
While No. 3 BR Squadron was establishing itself at Santo, No. 15 Fighter Squadron was sent to Tonga. It had been proposed some months before, in discussions between the New Zealand and American commands, that New Zealand fighter squadrons, when formed, should be sent overseas to take over the aircraft of existing American squadrons. Early in October COMGENSOPAC asked the New Zealand Government to send air and ground crews to take over and operate the aircraft of No. 68 Pursuit Squadron USAAF. No. 15 Squadron was the only unit which was sent overseas in accordance with this policy. All the later fighter squadrons went to the forward area equipped with their own aircraft.
Wing Commander Lewis1 was sent from Suva to find out what accommodation and equipment would be provided by the Americans, and what would need to be taken by the New Zealand squadron. Brigadier-General Lockwood, the American commander of the island, was not able to give him much information but he did find out that bombs and ammunition, fuel, airframe spares, medical services, and rations were available. The New Zealanders were to take mechanical transport, camp and mess equipment, reserves of clothing, tool kits for the ground staff, flying equipment for the pilots, and general personal and camp gear.
The aircraft comprised twenty-three P40s, and on inspection were found to be in very poor condition. Engines and airframes showed signs of neglect, and gun barrels were badly corroded. There was consequently a great deal of work to be done to make them air-worthy. Additional difficulty was caused by the fact that, although airframe, propeller, and instrument spares were plentiful, there were no engine spares except spark-plugs. The Americans worked under a system whereby any engine which needed more than superficial repair was replaced by a fresh one and sent back to America to be serviced. There were fifteen spare engines, and parts of these were used to replace defective parts in the aircraft.
On arrival at Tonga Squadron Leader Crichton took over the command of the Air Force base. Its establishment comprised No. 15 Squadron, RNZAF; detachments of the 65th Material Squadron, which combined the functions of station main store and station workshops; the 27th Signal Company, which was responsible for telephone communications at the base; the 670th Signal Company, which was responsible for the supply and maintenance of all armaments, bombs and ammunition; and the 58th Air Corps Squadron, which had set up and manned interceptor control equipment. All these detachments were manned by United States Army Air Corps personnel, numbering in all 255. Of these 116 lived on the station, the rest being accommodated in dispersed areas round the island.
The squadron spent three and a half months in Tonga. It carried out extensive operational training and also took over the air defence of the island. Its role was that of a general reconnaissance squadron and fighter squadron combined. It carried out dawn and dusk patrols over the surrounding seas, and maintained a constant stand-by from dawn to dusk so that aircraft could be scrambled at short notice.
Enemy submarines had been active in the area, and the patrols were designed to keep them under water. Until nearly the end of the tour no bomb racks were available to fit the P40s, so that operations could have only a moral value. If a submarine had appeared, it could have been attacked only with machine guns.1
1 A senior American Army officer at the time suggested that the pilots should carry depth-charges on their laps, and drop them by hand if they saw an enemy submarine. A depth-charge weighs 325 pounds.
From the end of December 1942 until it finished its tour of duty in Tonga, No. 15 Squadron had attached to it a radar unit sent from New Zealand. The party comprised three officers and radar operators, electricians, mechanics, and the other personnel necessary to make it self-supporting. It took over equipment which had been manned and operated by Americans. The New Zealanders had been trained on British types of radar and on arriving in Tonga spent two or three days becoming accustomed to the American equipment, after which the American personnel moved to the combat area and the New Zealand unit took over entirely.
It operated two radar sets and an air-warning centre which corresponded to an operations and filter room. For the next three months it tracked the P40s of No. 15 Squadron on patrol and also other aircraft arriving in Tonga.