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Royal New Zealand Air Force

despatch of no.52 radar unit to guadalcanal

despatch of no.52 radar unit to guadalcanal

Early in January 1943, as a result of delays in the delivery of American ground radar equipment in the Pacific, the Commander-in- Chief Pacific Ocean Area asked the New Zealand Government to supply a British set manned by New Zealanders for use in the forward area. The equipment was available in New Zealand, and the Government agreed to hand over one GCI set to the Americans and to supply the necessary men to install and operate it.

The unit formed at Palmerston North and was trained and ready to go overseas in the middle of February. As there were no controllers in New Zealand with GCI experience, the Americans sent a party of three officers and a senior NCO, headed by Major E. C. Best, USMC, to help train the unit. Major Best recommended that an American fighter squadron, which was waiting at Hawaii to proceed to Guadalcanal to work in conjunction with the unit, should be sent to New Zealand to practise co-operation with it. The recommendation was endorsed by Air Headquarters on the grounds that even a few weeks' training in New Zealand would greatly benefit both the pilots and the controllers. The proposal was turned down by CINCPAC, who instructed that training should be co-ordinated with the calibration of the equipment on its operational site.

An advance party of the unit left New Zealand for Guadalcanal by air towards the end of February to select a site for the radar station. It was led by Squadron Leader Banwell,1 a New Zealander who had taken part in much of the early research in the development of radar in Britain and had been lent to New Zealand to help in its development here. In the next few months he did invaluable work in the siting of radar units in the Solomons. Another officer with the party was Flight Lieutenant C. A. Mills, RCAF, one of a number of Canadian officers and NCOs who were lent to the RNZAF to help to develop the radar organisation. The three American controllers and ten RNZAF airmen went at the same time,

1 Sqn Ldr C. J. Banwell, m.i.d.; Wellington; born Wanganui, 3 Jun 1908; physicist.

page 230 while the one New Zealand controller, Flight Lieutenant Hesketh,1 had flown to Guadalcanal a few days before.

The main body, consisting of the Adjutant, Pilot Officer Graham,2 and thirty-three airmen, travelled by sea in the USS George Clymer. The unit landed at Guadalcanal on 1 March and immediately started work on the installation of its equipment and the provision of accommodation. This entailed clearing a site, laying concrete foundations, and building huts. American troops helped to pour concrete and erect a Quonset hut, but all the other construction work was done by unit personnel with the assistance of two Works men sent up from Santo. The work was completed in three weeks, and on 21 March the unit became operational. The American fighter squadron from Hawaii, No. 6 Night Fighter Squadron under the command of Major S. Wharton, equipped with P70 Havocs, was flown in and the unit and the squadron set to work to evolve a suitable technique of co-operation.

The New Zealand GCI set was the first of its kind in the South Pacific. For the first two days after the Americans had landed on Guadalcanal in August 1942, fighter direction had been carried out from the USS Chicago and fighter cover had been flown from the carriers Saratoga and Enterprise. When the ships withdrew from the area the Americans had neither fighters nor radar.

By 20 August F4Fs and SBDs were based at Henderson Field, but no adequate provision had been made for fighter direction. A search radar model SCR 270-B was put into operation in September and was used for the purpose. The type was satisfactory in giving warning of the approach of hostile planes but was not suitable for plotting heights and tracks accurately, so that the American pilots in the air could seldom be vectored exactly on to the enemy. This limitation was more apparent after the middle of November when the Japanese began frequent night raids. For night-fighter control the SCR 270-B was inadequate.

The arrival of the RNZAF unit in March 1943, therefore, filled an important gap in Guadalcanal's defences. The GCI set could give the accurate readings, particularly in altitude, which were necessary for night interceptions. The set was operated by RNZAF personnel; and United States Army, Navy and Marine, as well as New Zealand, controllers directed the fighters. None of the controllers had had combat experience with GCI, and results in the first month of operations bore out Major Best's contention that a period of training in New Zealand for both controllers and pilots should have been arranged. Difficulties in interception were increased by

1 Flt Lt F. R. F. Hesketh; Auckland; born Auckland, 22 Mar 1907; commercial pilot.

2 Fg Off T. A. Graham; Kawhia; born Portsmouth, England, 30 Dec 1907; RAF 1927–33; RNZAF 1934–47.

page 231 the P70s' lack of speed at the height at which they were required to operate—20,000 to 25,000 feet—and by the occasional failure of both radar and radio equipment because of climatic conditions.

The unit kept watch twenty-four hours a day, except for an hour and a half each morning when it was off the air for maintenance. Two controllers were on duty each night, one experienced and one under instruction. During the day the duty controllers stood by in camp where they were on call in case of daylight raids. The operating crew was divided into four watches, each consisting of an NCO in charge and four airmen in the operations room, plus a radar mechanic. One airman acted as long-range warning plotter, one as GCI plotter, one as PPI reader, and the fourth as height-range reader.

The unit's first major operation took place on 7 April when the Japanese sent over a large formation of dive-bombers and fighters in a daylight raid. The unit gave accurate plots and heights to the Island Fighter Control, information which contributed largely to the Japanese loss of thirty-three aircraft reported as shot down by American fighters. After the battle it received a letter of commendation from COMAIRSOLS for its share in the day's work.

In the last big daylight raid on Guadalcanal, in the middle of June, the unit was equally successful. Nearly all the Japanese aircraft which took part were claimed as having been shot down, and most of the plots on which the fighter direction was based were passed to Island Fighter Control by the unit. After June there was progressively less enemy activity. The unit had no further opportunities to gain spectacular victories; but it had achieved its object, as its presence was one of the contributory factors in keeping the Japanese away from Guadalcanal.

During the first half of 1943 COMSOPAC (Admiral Halsey) asked for additional New Zealand radar units to be sent to the forward area, complete with technical personnel and operational research workers. There were difficulties in supplying manpower from New Zealand, but since national prestige was involved the New Zealand Chiefs of Staff decided that the request should be fulfilled. Accordingly, in the latter half of the year, a number of other units, equipped with two additional GCI and four COL sets, were formed and sent to the forward area.

To co-ordinate and administer these units a Squadron Headquarters was formed at Guadalcanal on 15 August, and thereafter all units sent overseas formed part of the squadron, which was designated No. 62 (Radar) Squadron. It was commanded by Flight Lieutenant Conyers-Brown,1 who was also appointed a member of

1 Flt Lt J. P. Conyers-Brown; RNZAF; born Melbourne, 8 Feb 1920; radio engineer.

page 232 the Joint Radar Planning Board, South-West Pacific, which consisted of United States Army, Navy, Marine and RNZAF representatives and was responsible for the planning and siting of units throughout the area.