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Royal New Zealand Air Force


With the neutralisation of Rabaul completed and the Japanesen garrisons in New Britain and the Solomons safely bottled up, the South Pacific war faded from the world's headlines. Admiral Halsey, who had directed the operations which carried the Allies from Guadalcanal to the Bismarcks, was relieved of his command of the South Pacific Area in June and, as Commander of the American Third Fleet, turned his attention towards the Japanese in the Carolines and Philippines. Command of the South Pacific forces was given to Vice-Admiral J. H. Newton, USN, who for the past eight months had been Deputy COMSOPAC.

The original South Pacific Command, i.e., the area east of 159 degrees East longitude, was now non-operational, and the only South Pacific air forces still in contact with the enemy were those which had crossed the dividing line into the South-West Pacific Area in their advance through New Georgia to Bougainville and the Bismarcks. These, under the command of COMAIRNORSOLS, Major-General R. J. Mitchell, USMC, were detached from the South Pacific to the South-West Pacific Command to continue their operations against the Japanese in the area. Logistically they were still supported by COMAIRSOPAC, but operationally they came under the control of the Commander Allied Air Forces, General Kenney, in General MacArthur's command.

As the South Pacific campaign drew to a close the future of the RNZAF became the subject of considerable discussion between the New Zealand and American authorities. As early as March the Air Officer Commanding No. 1 (Islands) Group suggested to Air Headquarters in Wellington that, as there was no longer any Japanese fighter opposition, there was no point in continuing to send fighter squadrons to the forward area. It would have been bad for morale, however, if trained operational units had been kept in New Zealand doing nothing, so it was decided to continue sending the squadrons forward in rotation even though they could be employed only as fighter-bombers.

In April the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee in Washington announced that the future employment of the RNZAF was to be page 260 restricted to a few bomber-reconnaissance and flying-boat squadrons on garrison duties in the South Pacific, which meant that all the fighter squadrons would be scrapped and that the RNZAF would no longer be given a combat role. This would have had a twofold effect. Domestically it would have meant that the size of the Air Force could be reduced, releasing large numbers of men to meet the acute shortage of manpower in industry and agriculture; but the millions of man-hours and the immense amount of money which had been spent in training and equipping the squadrons would be wasted. Politically, if New Zealand dropped out of the Pacific war before it was finished, she would have less reason for making her voice heard in the peace councils afterwards. Taking all factors into consideration, the RNZAF was not satisfied at being relegated to a back place. The need to provide garrison squadrons was realised, but in addition New Zealand wanted to take part in active operations until the end of the war.

The New Zealand Minister in Washington was instructed to press the point and try to have the surplus squadrons of the RNZAF included in any active theatre. There were three possibilities. Firstly, the squadrons might continue to operate under Halsey's command and go with him to the Central Pacific. This would mean that they continued to work in a command in which they were known and in which they had built up an excellent reputation and a considerable amount of goodwill. It would also mean that their supply problems would be relatively easy, since they were equipped with Navy-type aircraft. Secondly, they might be transferred to the British South-East Asia Command. This would involve withdrawing them from the Pacific and sending them to India to re-equip with British types of planes. Finally, they might be transferred to General MacArthur's command in the South-West Pacific Area. This was open to several objections, one being that, as the South-West Pacific Area was an Army command and had no naval air units, there would be difficulty in getting appropriate supplies of aircraft and spares.

The first course, which was the one most favoured by New Zealand, was open to two objections from the American point of view. In the first place there was no scope in the forthcoming operations in the Central Pacific for the land-based fighters and medium bomber-reconnaissance aircraft with which the RNZAF was equipped, and, in any case, the Americans by then had more than enough squadrons of their own. The other objection was political. In February 1944 New Zealand and Australia had signed an agreement at Canberra affirming their intention to have a say in Pacific affairs after the war. The pact was unfortunately worded and badly publicised, and gave many senior officers in the page 261 United States the opinion that Australia and New Zealand were attempting to resist the entry of the United States into Pacific affairs after the war was finished. As a result there was a feeling in Washington that Australian and New Zealand forces should not be allowed to operate except in former British possessions.

A transfer to the South-East Asia Command was open to the objection that there was no role there at the time for short-range aviation, in which New Zealand squadrons had been trained.

This left only the third course open. The New Zealand Minister in Washington and the Prime Minister, who was passing through Washington, discussed the matter with the United States Commander-in-Chief, Admiral King, early in May. King, while not committing himself as to the future role of the RNZAF, agreed that the New Zealand squadrons should continue offensive, operations in the northern Solomons until the Japanese were finally cleared from the islands, which at that time was expected to take four or five months.

In the meantime the transfer of the Northern Solomons command to the South-West Pacific Area had been projected, and COMAIRSOPAC, on the instructions of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had ordered that all RNZAF units were to be withdrawn to the garrison area by 15 June and that no further squadrons were to be sent up. There were still hopes that the discussions in Washington would bear fruit, so the Chief of Air Staff, Air Vice-Marshal Isitt, visited COMSOPAC towards the end of May to persuade him to hold up the withdrawal until the position became clearer. He found that COMSOPAC and all his subordinate commanders were keen that the RNZAF should remain with them, in spite of the instructions from Washington. Eventually, as a result of negotiations in Washington and on the spot in the South Pacific, it was agreed that the New Zealand units in the northern Solomons should be included in the NORSOLS forces which were to be handed over to MacArthur.

The programme adopted after the change-over in the South Pacific Command called for eleven squadrons on garrison duty in and south of Guadalcanal. Of these the United States Navy was to provide four and the RNZAF seven, viz., four fighter, two medium bomber, and one flying-boat. Two New Zealand fighter squadrons were to be stationed at Santo and two at Guadalcanal; one bomber-reconnaissance squadron also was to be at Guadalcanal and the other at Fiji; and the flying-boat squadron at Halavo Bay, Florida Island, where it was already located.

New Zealand squadrons to be transferred to the South-West Pacific Area likewise comprised four fighter, two medium bomber, and one flying-boat. One fighter squadron was to remain at Bougainville and another was to be moved to Los Negros as soon page 262 as possible after the end of August. The other two were to go to Emirau and Green Island in October. New Zealand bomber-reconnaissance squadrons were to be based at Emirau and Green Island in September. The destination of the flying-boat squadron was not, at this stage, decided. In any case, it was still in the process of forming and training at Lauthala Bay and was not yet available for operations.

This allowed one bomber and two fighter squadrons to be in New Zealand at one time for rest and refitting.

At the middle of June 1944 the disposition of RNZAF squadrons and servicing units in the Pacific was as follows:

Bougainville No. 15 Squadron (Fighter)
No. 18 Squadron (Fighter)
No. 20 Squadron (Fighter)
No. 9 Squadron (Bomber Reconnaissance)
No. 31 Squadron (TBF)
No. 2 Servicing Unit
No. 4 Servicing Unit
No. 10 Servicing Unit
No. 25 Servicing Unit
No. 30 Servicing Unit
Guadalcanal No. 14 Squadron (Fighter)
No. 1 Servicing Unit
No. 6 Squadron (Flying Boat, at Halavo)
No. 3 Squadron (Bomber Reconnaissance)
No. 12 Servicing Unit
Fiji No. 4 Squadron (Bomber Reconnaissance)
No. 5 Squadron (Flying Boat, forming at Lauthala Bay)
New Zealand No. 16 Squadron (Fighter)
No. 17 Squadron (Fighter)
No. 19 Squadron (Fighter)
No. 21 Squadron (Fighter, forming)
No. 1 Squadron (Bomber Reconnaissance)
No. 2 Squadron (Bomber Reconnaissance)