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Royal New Zealand Air Force



The move of New Zealand squadrons to the forward area necessitated the setting up of a repair and maintenance organisation, in addition to the squadrons' own servicing units, to keep the aircraft serviceable.

At the end of November 1942, when Allied aircraft were still scarce in the forward area and before the RNZAF was established there in any great strength, New Zealand asked whether the Americans could make use of an RNZAF salvage party to repair wrecked American aircraft at Guadalcanal. The RNZAF, it was stated, would be very willing to supply such a party which, it was considered, would be of considerable value. COMAIRSOPAC replied that he did not need a salvage party at present at Guadalcanal, but would page 163 welcome it at the repair base being established at Santo, where it could also be available to overhaul RNZAF Hudsons in emergency.

The Deputy Director of Repair and Maintenance, Squadron Leader Grigg,1 flew from New Zealand to Santo to investigate the position and find out how many men would be required. When he came back he reported that the Americans wanted a force of 251 men. A ‘Lion’ unit, comprising the personnel of a complete repair depot, was due from America in two or three months' time, but in the meantime the New Zealanders would be most welcome and would at the same time gain valuable experience.

On the basis of his report it was decided to send a party of men to be used in the American Naval Air Service Repair Organisation at Santo until they could be replaced by the personnel coming from America. After that the unit was to remain at Santo and form an RNZAF Repair Depot to undertake the inspection and overhaul of New Zealand aircraft. Up till this time New Zealand Hudsons operating overseas had returned to New Zealand for their overhauls and major inspections, a practice which had had two disadvantages. In the first place it meant that they were out of the operational area for an unnecessarily long time, and secondly, the flying hours used in going to and from New Zealand reduced their periods of operational usefulness.

The unit was assembled and left Auckland by ship on 19 January 1943, arriving at Santo on the 25th. The men spent their first five or six days ashore in clearing the camp site in the jungle, putting up tents and digging slit trenches. Early in February the unit was split into three parties. The first, comprising aircraft hands, cooks, etc., was attached to the rear echelon of No. 3 Squadron for general station duties. The second was attached to the American Aviation Overhaul Organisation for service in the workshops. The third party went to the American Field Service to work on major inspections and repairs on F4F and SBD aircraft. On 15 February Flight Lieutenant Hughes2 arrived from New Zealand and took command of the unit.

At the beginning of May a detachment under Flight Sergeant Apperly3 was sent to Guadalcanal to assist in the repair of Hudson and Kittyhawk aircraft there. By this time No. 9 Squadron was at Santo, having moved from New Caledonia, and was providing a reserve of crews and aircraft for No. 3 Squadron at Guadalcanal. No. 14 Fighter Squadron was also there, and No. 15 Squadron had recently passed through on its way from Tonga to Guadalcanal.

1 Wg Cdr H. T. Grigg, OBE; Hororata; born Eiffelton, 19 Sep 1915; aeronautical engineer.

2 Sqn Ldr A. A. Hughes, m.i.d.; Wellington; born Darlaston, England, 23 Nov 1907; aero fitter.

3 W/O W. R. Apperly; Auckland; born Auckland, 29 Jul 1913; mechanic.

page 164 With four squadrons in the area there was enough repair and inspection work to justify the establishment of an RNZAF repair depot. On 7 May the Director of Repair and Maintenance, Wing Commander Keogh,1 came up from New Zealand to a conference with the American authorities and concluded arrangements for the allocation of a site and the commencement of work on a workshop area. Ten days later the clearing of a site was begun. The initial work was done by RNZAF personnel withdrawn from the American Field Service Unit and armed with slashers and axes. Later they were assisted by American bulldozers and other equipment.

Material for building hangars and workshops was sent from New Zealand, and a works party under Pilot Officer Sisson2 was also sent to do the construction work. The first hangar was completed on 20 July and the unit started work on its first major aircraft inspection. In the following weeks the men still employed at Field Service and Aviation Overhaul were gradually withdrawn and started work in the RNZAF Repair Depot.

Earlier in July the detachment at Guadalcanal had been strengthened to thirty-five men, while 100 of the men who had been working on SBDs at Field Service and Overhaul had been put through a co-ordinated course on those aircraft, and had returned to New Zealand to form the nucleus of ground staff for the RNZAF SBD and TBF3 squadrons which were forming there.

By the beginning of October four hangars had been completed at the repair depot, and it was decided to build no more. The depot consisted of the hangars, in which complete overhauls and major inspections of airframes and engines were carried out; the general engineering section, with coppersmith's and blacksmith's shop; and an electrician's shop, instrument shop, armoury, propeller shop, fabric workers' and carpenter's shop, parachute section, engine repair shop, engine store, main store and offices.

The unit by this time was working smoothly at high pressure, as was the Guadalcanal detachment. Its strength, owing mainly to the repatriation of the hundred men in July, was reduced to 73 at Santo and 34 at Guadalcanal. To bring it up to a strength sufficient to cope with its present work and the work it was expected to do in the near future, Air Headquarters was asked to post 50 more men to Santo and 15 to Guadalcanal.

1 Gp Capt M. S. Keogh, OBE, AM; Tauranga; born Ireland, 15 May 1889; D of Repair and Maintenance, RNZAF, 1940–46.

2 Flt Lt F. A. Sisson; Auckland; born Auckland, 24 Dec 1905; civil engineer.

3 SBD Dauntless; made by Douglas, America; single-engined scout and dive-bomber; maximum speed over 250 m.p.h.; cruising range over 1500 miles. TBF Avenger; made by Grumman, America; single-engined torpedo-bomber; maximum speed approximately 175 m.p.h.; cruising range approximately 1350 miles; used by the RNZAF as a dive-bomber.

page 165

The establishment of the Repair Depot was cancelled and was replaced by a larger establishment for a Base Depot Workshops. The manning position at home, and the difficulty of finding men in the required trades who were fit for tropical service, caused some delay in filling the new establishment, but the additional personnel were posted to Islands Group before the end of the year.

It had been intended originally that the Repair Depot at Santo should carry out complete overhauls of both airframes and engines, making the RNZAF in the forward area self-supporting as far as technical work was concerned. This policy was not fully implemented, as by August the Americans had established an Aircraft Engine Overhaul Base at lie Nou, New Caledonia, and the Aviation Repair and Overhaul Unit at Santo, and had offered their facilities to the RNZAF. There was some opposition from the RNZAF to allowing overhaul work to be done in the American workshops, as it was considered by a number of officers that it would be better to have all work on New Zealand aircraft done by New Zealanders. However, in view of the American offer the RNZAF Repair Depot was organised to do complete overhauls and repairs only to airframes. Deciding factors were the accelerated supplies of new aircraft arriving in New Zealand in the latter part of 1943 and the need to divert a number of technical men to assemble them. Had the Repair Depot been fully manned to cope with both engines and airframes, the assembly of aircraft arriving in New Zealand would have been delayed and it would have taken longer to have them ready for operations.

Under the revised policy the engines of fighter aircraft, when they became due for complete overhaul, were handed over to the Americans in exchange for new or reconditioned ones and were overhauled by the American depots and put into a common pool. Bomber-reconnaissance aircraft needing engine overhauls continued to be flown back to New Zealand, where the work could be done by the large number of technical men in the Air Force who were medically unfit for service in the tropics.