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Royal New Zealand Air Force



The development of airstrips at Empress Augusta Bay made it possible for land-based fighters equipped with long-range tanks to operate against Rabaul, both on offensive sweeps and as escort for bombers. As a result, light and medium bombers could make attacks with fighter protection. Hitherto all strikes had been made by heavy bombers from Guadalcanal or the South-West Pacific area or by carrier-borne aircraft. While they had done considerable damage to the town and to shipping in the harbour, the raids had not been sustained enough to destroy Rabaul's usefulness as a base or to put its airfields out of commission. As long as it remained operational in Japanese hands it constituted a potential threat to the South and South-West Pacific. As soon as possible, therefore, attacks were launched against it from Bougainville and were designed first to make it useless to the Japanese and then to keep it ineffective.

The first attack, a fighter sweep by eighty aircraft, was made on 17 December. Twenty-four aircraft of the New Zealand Fighter Wing, led by Freeman, took part.2 The pilots left Ondonga early in the morning and landed at Torokina to refuel and to be briefed on the operation. They took off again in two formations between

2 Originally the American Fighter Command had not planned to use P40s over Rabaul, as they were regarded as second-rate fighters. They were included in this operation, however, and so justified themselves that they were used in all subsequent ones.

page 214 nine and half past and were over Rabaul by half past ten. There was no opposition at first, but after they had been circling the area for some minutes enemy fighters came up to meet them. In the resulting engagement five enemy aircraft were shot down by New Zealanders and four by American fighters. Two New Zealanders were lost, including Freeman. He was last seen, with his aircraft damaged, attempting a forced landing on New Ireland and no trace of him was subsequently found. He was one of the RNZAF's most able and inspiring leaders. Squadron Leader Nelson1 acted as Commanding Officer of the Wing until Wing Commander Nicholls, DSO, RAF,2 took over command in February 1944.

On 24 December the New Zealand Wing, in conjunction with twenty-four American fighters, made another sweep over Rabaul. The force approached the target area stepped up in tiers, with the New Zealand squadron forming the two bottom layers. Ten miles north-east of the town, forty or more Japanese fighters came climbing up to intercept. The New Zealand squadrons each selected a group of the enemy and dived to attack. After the initial dive formations became broken up, and a series of dogfights took place at all heights from 18,000 feet down practically to sea level. This stage of the action was necessary so that the New Zealand pilots could protect each other. If the leading sections had dived away after their first onslaught, the later ones would have been at the mercy of a concentration of enemy fighters. By remaining in the area until the action was over they helped to keep the enemy occupied, and the whole formation was able to retire with a minimum of loss. The battle gave the Wing its highest score of the war: twelve Japanese aircraft were shot down, four more claimed as probables and a number of others damaged, for the loss of five New Zealand pilots. Another New Zealander was shot down but was picked up by ‘Dumbo’3 after six hours in the water.

Squadron Leader Newton4 of No 17 Squadron described the action thus in his combat report:

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 J. H. Arkwright5 led

1 Sqn Ldr J. S. Nelson, m.i.d.; Wellington; born NZ 28 Jun 1912; metal merchant.

2 Gp Capt C. W. K. Nicholls, DSO, OBE; RAF; born Palmerston North, 7 Oct 1913.

3 Flying boats engaged on air-sea rescue were christened ‘Dumbo’, after the big-eared kind-hearted flying elephant of the film cartoon.

4 Wg Cdr P. G. H. Newton, DFC; Christchurch; born Christchurch, 29 Sep 1917; engineer draughtsman.

5 Wg Cdr J. H. Arkwright, DFC; Marton; born Marton, 21 Jan 1920; farmer.

page 215 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.

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.

The attacks on Rabaul's airfields had a twofold significance. They were designed not only to prevent the enemy's air force from causing too much trouble over the Bougainville beach-head, but also to support the landing of General MacArthur's South-West Pacific forces at Cape Gloucester on 26 December.

The fighter sweep of 17 December was followed, two days later, by a strike by American Liberators from Guadalcanal. Twenty-four page 216 aircraft of the New Zealand Fighter Wing provided part of the escort. They left Ondonga in the early morning, refuelled at Torokina, and met the bombers over Empress Augusta Bay. Rabaul was bombed successfully and no enemy fighter opposition was met until after the attack was completed. As the formation was withdrawing from the target area four Zekes attacked. One was shot down by Flight Sergeant Williams1 of No. 17 Squadron.

Royal New Zealand Air Force fighters took part in every major attack made on Rabaul from the Solomons. When flying as escort to heavy bombers they acted as close cover. As the P40s could not operate efficiently above 20,000 feet, they acted as close cover to the bombers flying at 18,000 feet. Above them low, medium, and high cover were provided by American Hellcats, Lightnings or Corsairs. The role of close cover meant staying by the bombers and dealing with any enemy fighters that had succeeded in piercing the other layers of the escort. It demanded a high standard of flying discipline and resistance to the temptation of being drawn away into combat elsewhere. The New Zealanders were particularly popular with American bomber crews because of the way in which they stuck to their job.

Dive-bomber attacks by American TBFs and SBDs were begun early in January. In these operations also, RNZAF fighters provided close cover, following the bombers down when they dived to release their bombs and remaining with them as they withdrew. They were so successful in their role that the bomber crews frequently asked specifically for New Zealand fighter cover when going over Rabaul.

Close co-operation with the bombers was made the more difficult because fighters and bombers operated from different airstrips, and in most cases from different islands, and it was therefore impossible for formation leaders to be together for briefing before a strike. As a result, fighter leaders often had to set out without knowing the bomber commanders' full plans for the operation. At times, in bad weather or as a result of last-minute changes in plan, the fighters failed to rendezvous with the bombers. This difficulty was overcome later when SBDs and TBFs were based at Bougainville, but it always applied in raids by medium or heavy bombers, which operated from Treasury or Munda.

1 Fg Off D. A. Williams; Auckland; born Auckland, 25 Jan 1920; cutter.