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Royal New Zealand Air Force

rnzaf strength on bougainville, 1945

rnzaf strength on bougainville, 1945

The year 1945 opened with two New Zealand fighter squadrons, Nos. 24 and 21, stationed on Bougainville. They were relieved in January and February by Nos. 20 and 18 respectively, both of which remained on the island until April.

In April the need to provide fighter squadrons for garrison duty in the South Pacific Area ceased. Thenceforth, squadrons coming from New Zealand went straight to the forward area instead of being held for a tour of duty at Santo or Guadalcanal. Consequently it was possible to increase the number operating from Bougainville to four, at which figure it remained until the end of the war.

At the beginning of May the squadrons stationed there were Nos. 14, 16, 22 and 26, all of which had arrived during April. They were relieved in June and July by Nos. 15, 23, 24 and 18 respectively, the four squadrons which were on the island when the war ended.

The Piva-based squadrons were responsible for flying dawn and dusk patrols over the Empress Augusta Bay area, in the unlikely event of Japanese aircraft venturing into the region. Their main occupation, however, was to make bombing and strafing attacks on Japanese positions on Bougainville.

Roughly, the operations were divided into three categories: close support of the ground troops, when enemy forces and strongpoints were attacked a few hundred yards in front of the Australians' page 296 lines; tactical support, when the enemy's troop concentrations, gun positions, communications and headquarters behind the front line were hit; and strategic support, when supply dumps, camps and communications in the base areas were the targets. In addition, aircraft daily flew low round the coast, searching for any Japanese who ventured out in canoes or other small craft.

Until the beginning of April, all sorties by Piva-based aircraft in support of the ground forces were ordered by comairnorsols on request by Headquarters 2nd Australian Corps. Thereafter, however, closer liaison was established between the Air Force and the troops in the field for close-support operations.

Twelve Corsairs, at fifteen-minute readiness, were kept at the disposal of the forward brigade in south-west Bougainville. Field Headquarters at Piva was in direct contact, through the RAAF tactical reconnaissance organisation, with the forward command, which called for strikes on particular targets, provided target information, and arranged to have the targets marked. When a call for a close-support strike came through, the pilots assembled for briefing in the crew room, where the Air Liaison Officer and the Intelligence Officer gave them all the available information about their target and they received their operational instructions. The minimum time needed, from receipt of the first warning until the pilots were ready to take off, was forty-five minutes.

During the first three months of the year, when two squadrons were at Piva, the sorties flown by New Zealand aircraft ranged from eight to forty-six daily, depending on the weather, the number of aircraft available, and operational requirements. A normal day's effort consisted of about thirty sorties.

In April, with four squadrons available, the weight of attack rose sharply, and the daily sorties averaged between fifty and sixty. In the next three months the average rose even higher. At times aircraft from Green Island were called in to lend their support, and on special occasions over a hundred sorties were flown in a day.

The usual bomb-load for a Corsair was 1000 pounds, which might take the form of one 1000-pounder or two 500-pounders, although on occasions two 1000-pounders were carried. The type of bomb used varied with the nature of the target, and was sometimes dictated by the supplies available. General purpose bombs were most commonly used. When employed against troop positions, particularly in swampy country, they were modified by having a stick, 2 ft. 6 in. long, projecting from the nose. The stick, on striking the ground, caused the bomb to explode before it was buried. The blast, instead of being deflected upwards from a crater, spread laterally, causing casualties and destroying cover over page 297 a wide area. A similarly satisfactory effect was obtained against hut concentrations and defensive positions; 325-pound and 650-pound depth-charges were also used with similar results.

The scale of attack, steadily mounting from the beginning of the year, is best illustrated by the following table showing the total sorties against Japanese positions on Bougainville and Buka during the period:

Number of Sorties Tons of Bombs Dropped
January 689 322
February 746 395
March 871 493
April 1401 663
May 2512 1041
June 2038 716
July 1930 522
August 405 104
TOTAL 10,592 4256

Fighter-bomber attacks on Japanese positions were normally made from 3000 feet, the aircraft diving to 2000 feet to release their bombs, and then pulling out of the dive and retiring at high speed. After bombing, they returned and made strafing runs over the target area, unless ordered not to because of the danger of anti-aircraft fire.

As the terrain was covered with dense jungle and the enemy took full advantage of the concealment it offered, pinpoint targets were extremely difficult to locate from the air. A lead-in aircraft was used to identify the objectives from a low level and drop smoke bombs on it to guide the attacking force. Normally this task was done by Boomerangs or Wirraways of No. 5 Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron, RAAF, but where the intensity of ground fire made it dangerous for the relatively slow reconnaissance machines, a Corsair flown by an experienced pilot was used. Having observed the fall of his bombs, the lead-in pilot, known as ‘Smoky Joe’, orbited the area and told the strike aircraft by radio telephone exactly where to drop their bombs in relation to the marker smoke.

In close-support operations the target was frequently marked by the ground forces by means of mortar fire.