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Royal New Zealand Air Force



The Pacific Defence Conference attended by representatives of the United Kingdom, Australian and New Zealand Governments, which sat in Wellington in April 1939, came to the same conclusions on New Zealand's problems as had Cochrane. The conference recognised that Japan might conceivably be able to mount a large attack against Australia or New Zealand if British reverses in Europe should prevent the British Fleet from coming east. However, it considered that the probable scale of attack would be raids against shipping by cruisers, armed merchant cruisers, and submarines; raids by one or more armed merchant cruisers with landing parties for the temporary occupation of islands in the Pacific for refuelling bases, or for the destruction of cable stations, etc.; and cruiser raids against ports in Australia, New Zealand, and perhaps some Pacific Islands, which would take the form of bombardment, air attack and landings, or a combination of these. Attacks would be probably limited to this scale only if Singapore could be made secure, and the conference considered that the governments concerned should be prepared to meet attacks on a greater scale. It pointed out that to attempt an invasion of Australia or New Zealand the Japanese would need to secure bases in the South Pacific, and recommended that New Zealand should take immediate steps to ensure the protection of potential bases.

The most important point in the South Pacific from New Zealand's point of view was Fiji. The harbour facilities of Suva and the stocks of oil fuel held there made it one of the most important naval fuelling bases in the South Pacific; it had an important cable and wireless station; and it would be of increasing importance in the future as a centre of air communications. The islands produced plenty of foodstuffs, and the Japanese could maintain a large force there which could be easily used to attack trans-Pacific shipping.

As far as the Air Force was concerned, the conference recommended that New Zealand should immediately build two landing grounds on Viti Levu, the main island, one near Suva and another on the north-western coast, and that part of New Zealand's reserves of fuel, bombs, and ammunition should be held in Fiji. A survey should also be made of Tonga for possible landing grounds. In time of war, it recommended that New Zealand should undertake responsibility for air reconnaissance on a line New Hebrides-Fiji-Tonga.

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As a result of discussions at the conference, New Zealand's original plan to give wartime training to 1000 pilots annually was changed. An amended proposal was adopted which was to provide instead approximately 650 pilots, 300 observers, and 350 air-gunners. The change was due to the impossibility of providing facilities for training so large a number of pilots within the proposed expansion of the RNZAF, and also to the anticipated difficulty in obtaining sufficient candidates with the necessary physical and educational qualifications. The new scheme was accepted by Air Ministry in May.

In addition to supplying aircrew to the RAF, it would be necessary in the event of war to train others for service in the RNZAF, both for the operational squadrons and to keep up a supply of instructing staff. The total numbers which it was proposed to train annually under the scheme were 700 pilots and 730 observers and air-gunners. To do this it would be necessary to have one ground training school, three elementary flying training schools, one observers' and air-gunners' school, and one flying instructors' school.

While the preliminary work was being done for the setting up of the organisation, the Chief of Air Staff proposed to carry out an immediate expansion to increase New Zealand's contribution to the RAF, and to hasten the training of pilots for the war training scheme. He suggested that all pilots destined for the RAF should be fully trained in New Zealand. This included the sixty per annum which New Zealand was already training, and the 150 to 160 men who were being selected and despatched for training with the RAF under the short-service scheme. Further, he proposed to train sixty pilots a year for employment in the RNZAF. This involved expanding the SFTS at Wigram to produce 140 pilots a year and the opening of a new SFTS at Blenheim to produce another 140. The expansion was to be completed by December 1940. These proposals were accepted by the New Zealand Government, and the new expansion programme started in June 1939.

Another development in 1939 was the establishment of a factory for producing training aircraft in New Zealand. As a result of an agreement between the British Government and the De Havilland Aircraft Company, the De Havilland Aircraft Company of New Zealand Limited was incorporated in March. A factory was built at Rongotai, Wellington, and the production of Tiger Moth training aircraft started early in 1940.

The New Zealand Government asked the British Government if it was prepared to contribute to the cost of the extra aircraft required to enable the expansion to take place. The Home Government replied that it could not make a direct contribution, but agreed page 34 to increase the sum paid for each fully trained pilot from £1550 to £1700 sterling. Taking into account the numbers it was proposed to train, it was considered that this would result in the New Zealand Government receiving approximately the same amount as would have been paid if a direct contribution to the cost of 100 Tiger Moth aircraft had been made.