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Royal New Zealand Air Force


page 184


The building up of the Allied forces in the New Hebrides and at Guadalcanal had not gone unnoticed by the enemy, and during the first half of June the Japanese air force made three large but unsuccessful attacks on Guadalcanal and the Russells. On the 7th forty to fifty Japanese fighters were intercepted between Buraku and the Russells. Some of them carried light bombs, which apparently were to be dropped on the American dive-bombers on the Russell airstrip. Allied fighters broke up the attack before they reached the target, and only one bomb fell on the islands and that did no damage. A part of the Japanese formation continued to within eight miles of Henderson Field on Guadalcanal, but heavy rain prevented it from pressing home an attack. One hundred and four Allied fighters were scrambled, forty-four being deployed over the Russells and the remainder over American shipping off Guadalcanal. The resulting engagement lasted from eleven in the morning until half past twelve and was fought in very bad weather. Allied fighters claimed twenty-three enemy planes, while American anti-aircraft fire on the Russells accounted for another one. Seven Allied fighters were lost and two crashed in the bad weather.

Twelve P40s of No. 15 Squadron took part in the battle and shot down four enemy aircraft. They suffered no losses, but four were damaged and two of them had to make crash-landings on the Russell airstrip. Two of the enemy were shot down by No. 15 Squadron in the early stages of the battle when the initial Japanese attack was broken up, and part of the squadron carried on in pursuit of the scattered aircraft. Later a series of dogfights took place between small groups, and in this phase the squadron shot down two more.

The following is a report of the action made by one of the pilots, Flying Officer G. H. Owen:1

We orbited at the Russells at about 22,000 feet—saw three Zeros— I did not fire at these. Flight Lieutenant Duncan and his section came in and followed them. Sergeant Martin2 shot one down in flames; one disappeared towards Esperance and our section followed the third. Pilot Officer Davis3 was able to keep up with the leader, but McKenzie and myself had to drop back—we were joined by Sergeant Martin—and all headed for the Russells.

Twenty miles S/W of the Russells we saw a close vic formation of five Zeros, to our port and five hundred feet below. I led the attack, turning left and diving—the Zeros did a left hand steep climbing turn to get back on our tails, and got into line astern. The first three in close line astern,

1 Flt Lt G. H. Owen; Christchurch; born Christchurch, 31 Oct 1909; company director.

2 Flt Lt R. A. Martin, DFC, m.i.d., Air Medal (US); born Feilding, 8 Oct 1920; farmer.

3 Flt Lt A. M. Davis, DFC; Palmerston North; born Ashburton, 8 Jan 1922; clerk.

page 185 and the remaining two behind and climbing a little steeper. I decided this was a trap and broke off our attack, and climbed to the right into the sun, after this a dog fight ensued.

Squadron Leader Herrick and Davis had joined us by this time, making a total of five P40s against five Zeros. We made several attacks and passes, more or less individually. McKenzie and my leader then dropped out with gun trouble, and Martin had also dropped out. I saw two Zeros on Davis's tail—the first one firing all guns, with the second Zero above and slightly in the rear, not firing, but protecting the first Zero. I made a left hand turn and fired a long, full deflection burst into the leading Zero. As I turned into the attack I saw another Zero about a thousand feet below me and flying level—I did not pay attention to this plane as I did not think it possible for it to join the fight, but as I was firing at the Zero on Davis's tail I noticed tracer coming up past the fuselage, and my plane was hit. I looked down and saw this lower Zero firing at a distance of only 60 to 75 yards away.

I stopped firing when my machine was hit and smoke started to pour in to my cockpit—I broke away from the engagement and headed towards the Russells. The motor was knocking badly—oil and engine temperature gauges were off the clock. I prepared to bail out, but as I stood up and prepared to open the canopy the smoke died down, and as I was at 15,000 feet I decided to attempt a crash landing at the Russells. On reaching them my engine stopped and I could not land on the main field as other aircraft were landing. So I landed on the other uncompleted strip which was not long enough, and my aircraft flipped on its nose in the soft mud at the end of the strip.

Throughout the action the manoeuvrability of the Japanese fighters troubled the New Zealanders, whose P40s were the oldest type of fighter engaged, but the battle tactics and flying discipline of the squadron appear to have been an outstanding factor in their successes. According to American intelligence reports the work of the P40s, both RNZAF and USAAF, in comparison with the more modern fighter types—P38, F4U and F4F-4—was outstanding.

The Japanese made a second fighter sweep on 12 June which was intercepted by ninety Allied fighters to the north-west and east of the Russells. Twenty-five Japanese were shot down for the loss of five American fighters and one RNZAF. The enemy fighter force was apparently intended to pave the way for a bombing attack on shipping at Guadalcanal, but in fact no attack was made. During the morning flights of Japanese bombers were seen south-west of Bougainville and north-east of Vella Lavella heading towards Guadalcanal, but after the failure of the fighter sweep they kept well away from Allied positions. Twelve aircraft of No. 15 Squadron were scrambled but did not make contact with the enemy. Eight aircraft of No. 14 Squadron, which was in the process of relieving No. 15 and had arrived the previous day, also took part in the action and shot down six Japanese. The New Zealand page 186 casualty was Flying Officer Morpeth1 of No. 14 Squadron, who was shot down in flames.

On 16 June the Japanese made their third and largest attack of the month on American positions when they sent down more than a hundred dive-bombers and fighters, which were reported by the coastwatcher at Kolombangara and later picked up on radar. One hundred and four Allied fighters were scrambled to meet the enemy and seventy-four made contact, a high percentage in relation to the number of planes airborne. This was due very largely to the efficiency of the Allied fighter control, which was based on radar plots provided mainly by No. 52 Radar Unit, RNZAF. As the Allied fighter force outnumbered the Japanese fighters it was able to break up the enemy escort over the dive-bombers, although a few of the bombing group fought their way through to attack American shipping off Guadalcanal. Aircraft of No. 14 Squadron formed part of a patrol covering the shipping area. A dogfight between American and Japanese planes was sighted near Savo Island, and the New Zealand pilots dived into an enemy formation of about thirty-three aircraft. In the dispersed engagements which followed four New Zealand pilots accounted for five enemy fighters. The net result of the battle was that seventy-seven enemy planes were claimed by Allied fighters and eleven by anti-aircraft fire. Allied losses were six fighters, one cargo ship which was bombed and forced ashore, and one LST set on fire.

Apart from these three engagements, for which the Japanese had brought reinforcements from Rabaul, the enemy air force remained on the defensive throughout the month, making only light raids at night and reconnaissance flights over the Allied positions.

1 Fg Off K. P. C. Morpeth; born Wellington, 1 Nov 1914; warehouseman; killed in air operations 12 Jun 1943.