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Royal New Zealand Air Force

rnzaf operations against rabaul, january 1944

rnzaf operations against rabaul, january 1944

The RNZAF Fighter Wing took part in every major attack that was made on Rabaul, and the intensity of its efforts rose steadily. In December it had flown eighty-eight sorties. In January, up to the time it moved to Torokina, it took part in three successful raids, involving a total of seventy-six sorties, and from the 20th until the end of the month it flew 144 sorties. In February New Zealand fighters were over the area on twenty days out of the twenty-nine, page 242 and the number of sorties had risen to 404. On days when the striking forces were weathered out from their primary objectives they attacked secondary targets either on New Ireland or on Bougainville.

By the end of January the Japanese air force was showing the effects of the continuous losses it had suffered in the past two months, but it still sent up numerous fighters to intercept the raids. The majority of these were dealt with by the low, medium and top cover of American fighters, and few succeeded in penetrating to the lower level where the RNZAF fighters weaved as close cover over the bombers. In the last ten days of the month New Zealand pilots had only six battles, in which they shot down eight Zekes for the loss of three P40s.

Intense and accurate anti-aircraft fire was put up by the enemy. The Japanese attached such importance to Rabaul that they had surrounded the town and airfields with the heaviest concentration of anti-aircraft artillery in the Pacific.

Operations against Rabaul formed the major part of the RNZAF Wing's work during its first two months on Bougainville, but at the same time it took part in dawn and dusk patrols over Torokina and provided escorts for air-sea rescue Catalinas picking up pilots who had baled out over the sea.

On 22 January No. 17 Squadron was withdrawn from operations against Rabaul and, three days later, left Bougainville on its way back to New Zealand after a shorter tour than usual in the combat area. It had suffered a number of operational casualties and an abnormal amount of sickness among the pilots, and for some time past had been unable to carry out its full commitments. Its place was taken by No. 18 Squadron under Squadron Leader Oldfield,1 which came up for its second tour.

The fighter sweeps and heavy bomber raids of December had destroyed many Japanese fighters in the air and on the ground. Allied claims for the month were 144 shot down, besides those destroyed and damaged on their aerodromes by bombing, for the loss of 24 Allied aircraft.2 In the early part of January opposition in the air over Rabaul was weak, but it stiffened again in the middle of the month. In February it showed a marked decline, and after the 19th the Japanese no longer put up any fighter opposition. They had had no reinforcements since December, and during January they lost, according to naval figures, 126 aircraft,3 and 58 in the first half of February. They decided that it was no longer an page 243 economic proposition to attempt to maintain air cover over Rabaul and withdrew the shattered remnants of their squadrons, first to Truk and then to Japan. Of the 700 Navy and 300 Army aircraft which had been flown into Rabaul during 1942 and 1943, only 70 remained in February 1944 to fly out. A few were left for communications and reconnaissance flights, and single aircraft continued to make nuisance raids at night on Allied positions; but for all practical purposes the Japanese air force in the South and South-West Pacific had ceased to exist. From early in January, Allied formations had attacked Rabaul airfields every day when not prevented by weather, and during the second week of February they had made three strikes a day.

The last successful meeting of RNZAF pilots with Japanese fighters occurred on 13 February, when aircraft of No. 18 Squadron were escorting American TBFs on a bombing raid against Vunakanau airfield. They were attacked by about twenty-five Zeros and shot down two of them for the loss of one P40. This battle brought the total score of the New Zealand fighter squadrons to ninety-nine enemy aircraft shot down. As the Japanese Air Force shortly afterwards retired from the field the New Zealanders never had the opportunity of reaching the century.

1 Wg Cdr J. A. Oldfield, DFC; Wellington; born Wellington, 10 May 1919; solicitor.

2 The Japanese naval air force gives its losses for the month as 41. The army air force was, by that time, a negligible factor, most of its aircraft having been sent to New Guinea.

3 Allied claims for the month were 393.