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Royal New Zealand Air Force

CHAPTER 20 — Conclusion

page 312


When the war came to its abrupt conclusion in August 1945, three immediate tasks were faced by the RNZAF in the Pacific area: the repatriation of New Zealand prisoners of war from Malaya, the transport back to New Zealand of the 7000 men stationed at the various bases in the South and South-West Pacific, and the demobilisation of all personnel who would not be required for further service.

To evacuate New Zealand personnel from Malaya, a special flight was formed within the air transport organisation at Whenuapai under the command of Squadron Leader Pirie.1 Dakotas were fitted up as air ambulances; medical staffs and supplies of food, clothing, and comforts were assembled; and a small ground staff was organised to undertake inspections of the aircraft at a staging point on the route between New Zealand and Singapore. The preparations were completed within a few days of the Japanese surrender, but it was not possible for the flight to leave immediately for Malaya as the relieving British forces did not enter Singapore until 5 September.

The first two aircraft eventually left New Zealand on 4 September to fly via Santo, Bougainville, Biak and Morotai to Brunei Bay in Borneo, where they were to remain until word was received that an aerodrome at Singapore was open. Both aircraft met with disaster at Morotai when an American Liberator taxied into them, destroying one and damaging the other. They were immediately replaced by two others.

The first two New Zealand aircraft to reach Malaya landed on Kallang airfield on 12 September. Pirie and his crew acquired a house owned by a Chinese merchant in the neighbourhood, in which they set up a headquarters. Wing Commander de Lange, the New Zealand liaison officer in India, arrived in Singapore the same day, having been delayed by a forced landing on his flight from India, and also took up his quarters in the house. It was soon found that RAPWI,2 the British organisation which had been set up for the repatriation of prisoners of war in the area, had little or no information as to the whereabouts of New Zealanders, so the RNZAF page 313 detachment set about finding them itself. Members of the Evacuation Flight, together with war correspondents and New Zealand Film Unit cameramen, visited all prisoner-of-war and internment camps on Singapore Island. As New Zealanders were found, they were brought to the Flight's headquarters, where they were fed, clothed, and interrogated on the possible whereabouts of other New Zealanders, and quartered until they could be put on aircraft leaving for home.

A report came in that there were New Zealand prisoners of war and civilian internees in Java, Sumatra, and Thailand. As no definite information could be obtained in Singapore, an aircraft was sent to Batavia on 16 September to bring back any who could be found there, and some days later one went to Bangkok and picked up twenty-one New Zealanders who had assembled there. At the same time others were brought in from outlying areas by Australian aircraft.

In the meantime, more Dakotas had arrived from New Zealand and repatriation had begun. Aircraft left Singapore for Whenuapai on 15, 16 and 17 September, each carrying sixteen prisoners of war and internees, flying via Brunei Bay, Morotai, Darwin, Cloncurry and Brisbane. Up to the end of the month the Flight was responsible for finding and collecting all New Zealanders in the area. After that a New Zealand Army contant team arrived and took over all matters dealing with non-Air Force personnel, and the RNZAF unit was able to concentrate on its main task of carrying released personnel from Singapore, where they were congregated, back to New Zealand.

The job was completed by the middle of October, and the last aircraft left Singapore on the 17th. Altogether the Flight repatriated 156 New Zealand prisoners of war and civilian internees and two Australians.

repatriation from the south pacific

As soon as operation ceased, preparations were made to repatriate the men serving in the South and South-West Pacific. Shipping was still scarce and, although the Union Steam Ship Company's Wahine was chartered and made three trips to the Islands, bringing back about 2000 men, the major part of the work was borne by the two transport squadrons, assisted by Catalinas of No. 5 Squadron and the four aircraft of the Sunderland transport flight.

During September and October stations in the South-West Pacific Area progressively closed down as quickly as circumstances permitted. The fighter and bomber-reconnaissance squadrons flew their aircraft back to New Zealand, where most of them were disbanded. page 314 The last to leave the forward area was No. 24 Squadron, which was stationed at Bougainville until the end of October. No. 6 (Flying Boat) Squadron was disbanded overseas at the end of August, and No. 5 Squadron was withdrawn from Santo to Fiji.

In allocating priorities for repatriation a system of points was worked out, based on length of service overseas, marital status, number of children, and other factors affecting the eligibility of personnel for release from the service. Men who were due for repatriation in any case were given first priority, followed by others in their turn. For those who were low on the priority list, the period of waiting passed slowly. The stimulus of war was gone, and the men were impatient to return home. To keep up morale and help to make the time pass, sporting activities were greatly extended. Swimming and yachting were popular recreations, and most units had cricket teams which played a series of keenly contested matches. In addition, classes were organised in a wide variety of subjects to enable men to study and prepare themselves for rehabilitation when they arrived home.

By using every available aircraft of the transport organisation, repatriation proceeded fairly rapidly, and by the end of the year the only men left in the South-West Pacific Area were small rear parties on Los Negros and Bougainville in charge of the stores and equipment awaiting shipping. In the South Pacific, a detached flight of No. 5 Squadron was at Segond Channel, and rear parties were engaged in closing down the stations at Guadalcanal and Santo. All these parties were administered from Lauthala Bay.

A flying-boat servicing party was stationed at île Nou in New Caledonia to attend to transient aircraft, and at Norfolk Island there was an air-sea rescue flight, a servicing unit for transport aircraft, and a radar unit.

All told, the number of personnel remaining in the Pacific, including those in Fiji, fell from over 7000 at the end of August 1945 to just over 700 at the end of December.


At home in the last four months of 1945 and the early part of 1946, the major task of the Air Force was the return of men as quickly as possible to civilian life. The machinery for this was already in existence. Since the middle of 1944 substantial numbers had already been released from the service, and towards the end of that year, when the end of the European war was in sight, preparations had been made in Air Headquarters to set up an organisation capable of handling general demobilisation. As a result of this, it page 315 was decided in May 1945 to establish non-effective pools in Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch to undertake the discharge of men from the service. The pools, each of which was designed to handle a hundred men daily, started to operate in July, by which time a steady flow of men from the European theatre was arriving in New Zealand for discharge.

The detailed plans for final demobilisation were put into operation on 11 August when it was clear that the Japanese were about to surrender. As a result, the release organisation was in full swing within a day or two after the end of the war. Men returning from overseas were posted to one or other of the non-effective pools, where they were medically examined and where all the necessary accounting and documentary action was taken for their release. To relieve the pressure on the pools, release organisations were set up on a number of New Zealand stations, and a large proportion of men serving in New Zealand were discharged by their home units.

The factor which determined the rate at which personnel could be discharged was the availability of medical boards, and especially of X-ray units. All personnel had to be thoroughly examined before returning to civilian life, and this, in the first few weeks after the war, caused a bottleleneck. The difficulty was eased by setting up several systems of medical boards. Where possible, personnel were examined on their home stations. Others had their examinations at the non-effective pools, where service and civilian medical boards operated. Others, again, appeared before civilian boards which were established in eight of the main towns throughout New Zealand.

Releases were granted according to a priority system based on length of service and other factors. The general system of priorities was overridden in certain instances, following a direction by the Prime Minister that men in a number of essential industries were to be given first priority. At the same time, personnel in some air force trades could be given no priority, as they were needed to carry on the machinery of demobilisation and to maintain the continuing functions of the Air Force. Those particularly affected were men in the equipment, clerical, and accounting trades.

A total of 1642 men and women was released from the servic in August 1945, and in the next four months the figures were 8215, 3503, 4328 and 3268 respectively. The year ended with the strength of the RNZAF at 12,228 men and women. Of these, 9899 were in New Zealand and the rest overseas in the Pacific or awaiting repatriation from the United Kingdom. Discharges continued at a fairly high rate until the end of March 1946, by page 316 which time 26,929 personnel had been released since VJ Day, and the greater part of the work of demobilisation had been completed. A number of men anxious for release still remained in the service performing essential duties. In July, however, it was decided that all those who wanted their release should be demobilised, even if they had no priority and were doing essential work. This was effected, and 15 July 1946 marked the end of purely wartime service. Thereafter, all those remaining were personnel who had volunteered for engagements of up to two years in the Interim Air Force, or who hoped to make the service their permanent career.

the post-war air force

Since the foregoing chapters were written, the Royal New Zealand Air Force has passed through a period of uncertainty and confusion that resulted from the sudden transition from war to peace conditions, and has been developed into a compact, well-organised force of between 4000 and 5000 men, capable of rapid expansion should the need arise. To bridge the gap between the end of the war and the reorganisation of the service to meet peace time conditions, the Air Force was run on what became known as an ‘interim’ basis. In March 1946 recruiting depots were set up at Wigram and Hobsonville to enlist men for interim service. It was impossible to forecast what the size of the peacetime air force would be, since its probable functions and commitments were not known. Consequently it was not possible to offer permanent careers to those men who wanted to remain in the service or to prospective recruits. Instead, men were enlisted on interim engagements of up to two years. While many would not accept service under these terms with no guarantee of a future career, a number did accept and helped the Air Force through a particularly difficult period. The interim period came to an end in 1948, and thereafter, although a small percentage continued to serve on indefinite engagements, the great majority of those who were retained in the service were given definite contracts of five, eight, or more years.

Most of the stations that were established to meet the needs of wartime expansion were closed down as soon as possible after hostilities ended, and where necessary their functions were taken over by those stations which remained to become part of the permanent air force organisation. Stations which remained in operation at the end of 1946 were: Lauthala Bay, in Fiji, which was to become the permanent home of No. 5 Flying Boat Squadron; Whenuapai, from which Nos. 40 and 41 Transport Squadrons continued to operate; Hobsonville, which in the post-war period became responsible for all technical trade training for the RNZAF; page 317 Te Rapa, which is the main stores depot in the North Island; Mangaroa, which acted as a disposal depot for surplus stores until it closed down in July 1949; Te Awamutu, which continued to function as a stores depot until January 1948, when it became a bulk store for No. 1 Stores Depot, Te Rapa; Ohakea, which since the war has been responsible for the operational training of aircrew; Headquarters Unit, Wellington, which was transferred in April 1946 from the accommodation camp at Anderson Park to the naval camp at Shelly Bay and is responsible for the administration of personnel stationed at RNZAF HQ; Wigram, where the bulk of flying training activities is centred; and Weedons, which has been retained as the stores depot for South Island stations. Two other stations which were placed on a care and maintenance basis in the immediate post-war period have since been reopened: Woodbourne, which is now the repair depot for the RNZAF, and Taieri, which undertakes the initial flying training of regular aircrew and those enlisted under the compulsory military training scheme.

Most of the wartime operational squadrons had been disbanded by the end of 1945. No. 2 Bomber Reconnaissance and No. 5 Flying Boat Squadrons were retained in cadre and were later reformed. In 1946 No. 2 Squadron, by arrangement with Air Ministry, was renamed No. 75 Squadron to commemorate the New Zealand bomber squadron which served with the Royal Air Force througout the war. Its role was changed from bomber- reconnaissance to fighter ground-attack, and it was re-equipped in 1947 with Mosquitos and in 1950 with Vampires. Since the war it has been stationed at Ohakea. No. 14 squadron was also retained as a permanent squadron, and has seen more overseas service than any other RNZAF unit. From March 1946 until November 1948 it formed part of the New Zealand component of the British Commonwealth Occupation Forces in Japan, where it was engaged in security patrols in co-operation with squadrons of other Commonwealth air forces. After its return to New Zealand it reformed at Ohakea, and in October 1952 it was posted to Cyprus, where it is operating with the Royal Air Force under the command of the Middle East Air Force.

Nos. 40 and 41 Transport Squadrons operated for some time after the war in both service and quasi-civil capacities. It was some time before civil air services could be organised to cope with peacetime requirements, and in the interim the RNZAF, besides meeting service needs both within New Zealand and between New Zealand and Fiji and Japan, provided air transport for civilians both on internal routes and between New Zealand, Fiji, and the Cook Islands. In the latter half of 1947 both services were taken over by National Airways and No. 40 Squadron was disbanded. No. 41 page 318 Squadron, however, was retained, and in September 1949 a flight of three aircraft was stationed at Singapore, where it spent over two years providing courier services for the RAF in the Far East and supporting the security forces operating in Malaya. Three crews from the squadron were lent to the Royal Air Force at the time of the Russian blockade of Berlin and flew RAF aircraft throughout the period of the airlift.

By 1948 the shape of future policy for the Air Force could be more clearly seen. The cold war had dispelled any illusion which might have existed that the defeat of Germany and Japan was a prelude to an era of peace and security. The memory of the failure of the League of Nations in the nineteen-thirties discouraged the idea that the United Nations Organisation would, in time of major crises, be any more successful in preserving peace. A more realistic conception of the need for defence exists today than prevailed thirty years ago. In New Zealand, as in the other countries of the Commonwealth, the fighting services are maintained and equipped to as full a scale as possible having regard to the concurrent needs of a peacetime economy.

The future role of the RNZAF in peace and war has been agreed on by the British and New Zealand Governments, and it is to fulfil that role that the post-war Air Force has been developed. Two vital factors have influenced policy: Britain has been weakened by the recent war to such an extent that she can no longer afford to bear the full burden of maintaining defence forces for the Commonwealth in peacetime; and we have learned that in a future war adequate forces must be available at the outset unless a sudden attack is to bring swift defeat. It is unlikely that there will again be a period of ‘phoney’ war during which forces can be built up and the war machine put into gear. As a result, the task of the Royal New Zealand Air Force today is to assist the Royal Air Force within the limits of its resources to fulfil its peacetime commitments, and to train and maintain units and adequate reserves which could be despatched immediately wherever they are needed if war breaks out.

The Air Force which grew up during the war was based on remarkably slender foundations. In September 1939 it numbered fewer than 1000 officers and men, relatively few of whom had seen more than one or two years of service. Its expansion over the next five years was characterised by two things: the need to adapt the organisation of the service to rapidly changing circumstances, and the comparative inexperience of the officers who administered it. That the service functioned as well as it did and was able to play a significant part in winning the war reflects credit on its leaders; but it is reasonable to suppose that an equal result would have been page 319 obtained more efficiently and economically if more of all ranks had been trained in peace for the duties they were called upon to perform in war. In the years since 1945 the organisation of the service has been modified to bring it into line with modern requirements, and particular emphasis has been placed on the training of all ranks to ensure that not only are they technically proficient in their respective spheres, but that they are thoroughly grounded in the general service knowledge which is necessary to make them good officers, NCOs or airmen. All young officers pass through the Officers' School at Whenuapai, and airmen recruits undergo a course of general service training before starting their trade training. Promotion examinations have been reintroduced for both officers and airmen, which ensures that every man has not only technical ability but also the general and administrative knowledge applicable to his rank.

A Boys' School, which has been established at Woodbourne, provides an avenue of entry into the service for youngsters of school age. At it they continue their general education and receive a thorough grounding in service training before going on to trade training schools for instruction in the trades they are destined to follow. In the years to come, the men who have passed through the school will form the hard core of highly trained technical and administrative NCOs and airmen of the Regular Air Force.

In addition to training at home, a number of officers each year attend staff colleges in the United Kingdom and Australia, and others gain experience by serving on exchange with the Royal Air Force. A number of apprentice airmen, too, are recruited each year to undergo training at Royal Air Force schools before returning as qualified tradesmen to the RNZAF.

To back up the Regular Air Force, the non-regular components of the RNZAF have been reorganised and expanded. The Territorial Air Force, which went into abeyance during the war, has been reconstituted, and now consist of four fighter ground-attack squadrons and a maritime squadron, which are being trained to take their place alongside the Regular Air Force if war occurs. Reserves which can also be called up in time of war are provided partly by ex-regular officers and airmen and partly by men who have completed their compulsory training under the Militiry Training Act of 1949.

With the exception of the Flying Training School and the Territorial (fighter ground-attack) squadrons, which use American Harvards and Mustangs respectively, all flying units have been re-equipped with British types of aircraft. This, plus the fact that methods of training and organisation are patterned as closely as possible on Royal Air Force practices, means that New Zealanders page 320 and New Zealand units can serve with the Royal Air Force if called upon to do so with a minimum of adjustment and reorganisation.

No fighting service can be fully prepared for war when bound by the limits of peacetime economy. All that can be done is to ensure that the resources available are used to the best advantage to provide an efficient force for immediate action and a reserve which can be brought into action as quickly as possible. That is what the Royal New Zealand Air Force is doing today, confident in the experience of difficulties overcome in the past and the knowledge that it can meet those of the future.

1 Sqn Ldr M. L. Pirie, MBE; Auckland; born Hunterville, 24 Feb 1915; hotel clerk.

2 Repatriation of Allied Prisoners of War and Internees.