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Royal New Zealand Air Force

CHAPTER 3 — Establishment of the Royal New Zealand Air Force

page 25

Establishment of the Royal New Zealand Air Force

IN 1936 it was obvious that war with Germany, if not imminent, was at least a danger which would have to be faced in the future. Moreover, in the last few years military aircraft had been developed to such a state that an entirely new conception of their uses and potentialities had become necessary. It was now obvious that aircraft would play a more important part in Empire defence than had seemed possible a few years before.

Early in the year the Government decided to establish the Air Force as a separate service removed from Army control, and Squadron Leader Wilkes, as Director of Air Services, was instructed to prepare a scheme and work out the costs. This was the fulfilment of the aim for which Wilkes had been working for many years; but he declined to tackle the job, saying that any worthwhile scheme would be extremely expensive, and that if he or any other New Zealand officer produced one, it would be turned down on that account. He advised that, if the Government was serious in its proposal, it should once again ask for the loan of an adviser from the United Kingdom. Then, with expert authority behind it, the development of the Air Force could go ahead without too much quibbling about cost.

As a result Air Ministry was asked for a suitable officer, and later in the year Wing Commander the Hon. R. A. Cochrane, AFC, RAF,1 was sent to New Zealand to investigate and report on the country's requirements.

In his initial report which he presented in December 1936, Cochrane recommended a complete reorganisation of air force policy and administration. Summarised, his findings were that the defence of New Zealand involved three main factors:

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Local defence.


The defence of shipping routes.


The security of the United Kingdom.

He suggested that the Air Force should be capable of countering raids by cruisers, armed merchantmen or submarines, and by aircraft carried in such ships. New Zealand was not likely to be in danger of invasion so long as Singapore was maintained as a major base and the British Fleet could be sent to the Pacific theatre in the event of war. If these two assumptions proved invalid, no forces which New Zealand could afford to maintain would be strong enough to deal with a major attack. Raiding forces would probably need to secure bases in the Pacific Islands, and New Zealand should be prepared to protect potential Pacific bases, as well as vital communication points in the area, from enemy attack.

Taking all factors into consideration, he recommended that the New Zealand Air Force should maintain two medium bomber squadrons capable of locating and attacking enemy raiders before they reached the New Zealand coast, and which would have sufficient range to reach bases in the South Pacific or, if necessary, to fly to Singapore in support of RAF units there.

He recommended:


That the Royal New Zealand Air Force should be constituted as a separate service controlled by an Air Board under the direction of the Minister of Defence.


That it should consist initially of two permanent squadrons equipped with medium bomber aircraft with a total first-line strength of twenty-four, and the necessary repair facilities and reserves of aircraft.


That a reserve of personnel should be instituted which might at present be based on the numbers required to maintain two medium bomber and one army co-operation squadrons in the conditions of a major war. These personnel were to be trained to a standard which would enable them to take their places in squadrons on active service. The question of the formation of Territorial squadrons was to await consideration on a future occasion.


That civil air transport should continue to be encouraged with the object of enabling it to take its place in the transport system of the country and thus provide a valuable backing to the regular air force. The aero club movement should also be supported.


That the Government of the United Kingdom should be invited to co-operate in developing facilities to enable aircraft to operate in the area of the Pacific Islands.

He further recommended that the provision of the resources referred to above, and the facilities necessary for their operation, should be spread over a period of three years.

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To put these recommendations into effect, he suggested that all aircraft and personnel should be concentrated at Christchurch with a view to making an immediate start in training the men required for the Air Force and the Air Force Reserve. Extra accommodation should be put up as quickly as possible and the necessary additional training aircraft obtained. The next step, between 1937 and 1939, should be the construction of accommodation, repair facilities, and bomb storage for two medium bomber squadrons. Finally, in 1938–39, equipment and reserves for two squadrons should be purchased.

He estimated that the capital cost of the scheme would be £1,124,000 sterling. From this the value of aerodromes and buildings already in existence could be deducted, but the net cost was still £1,100,000. This included the building of a permanent station for two bomber squadrons, the cost of the aircraft and reserves, the provision of bombs and bomb storage, additional construction at Wigram, the provision of landing grounds in the Pacific Islands and the equipment of wireless telegraphic communications. The estimated annual cost of the scheme was £435,000 sterling.

1 Air Chf Mshl the Hon Sir Ralph Cochrane, GBE, KCB, AFC; RAF; born Cults, Scotland, 24 Feb 1895; Royal Navy 1912–15; RNAS 1915–19; permanent commission RAF 1919; served in UK, Middle East, Palestine, Iraq and Aden, 1919–36; CAS RNZAF 1937–39; Deputy Director of Intelligence, RAF, 1939; Director of Flying Training 1940–42; AOC No. 3 Group 1942–43, and No. 5 Group 1943–45; AOC-in-C Transport Command 1945–47; AOC-in-C Flying Training Command 1947–50; VCAS 1950–52.


The recommendation concerning the establishment of the Royal New Zealand Air Force as a separate service was put into effect on 1 April 1937. On that date the Air Force Act 1937 was passed, authorising the formation of the RNZAF as a separate branch of the defence forces of the Dominion.1 The Air Department Act was passed at the same time, instituting a separate Department of State to administer the service. The Air Department was responsible for the administration of both service and civil aviation.

Wing Commander Cochrane was asked to stay in New Zealand and develop the Air Force as he had planned it. Air Ministry agreed to extend his tour of duty. He consulted Wing Commander Wilkes and Wing Commander Isitt, then the two most senior officers of the RNZAF, to make sure that they had no objection to a newcomer stepping in over their heads, and accepted the offer. When the RNZAF was established on 1 April 1937 he became its first Chief of Air Staff, in the rank of Group Captain.

The new Air Department was modelled in miniature on the lines of the British Air Ministry. The Air Board consisted of the Minister of Defence, the Hon. F. Jones, chairman; the Chief of Air Staff, Group Captain Cochrane; the Air Force Member for Personnel,

1 The strength of the RNZAF at this time was 24 officers and 156 other ranks, plus 74 officers on the Reserve.

page 28 Wing Commander Isitt; the Air Force Member for Supply, Squadron Leader Nevill;1 and Mr T. A. Barrow2 was appointed Air Secretary. The Board was responsible for advising the Government on Air Force matters, and for the administration of the service.

A separate branch was formed within the Department, under the direction of Wing Commander Wilkes as Controller of Civil Aviation, to deal with civil flying. Where matters were under discussion involving co-ordination between civil and service aviation, the Controller of Civil Aviation sat as a member of the Air Board. This organisation enabled a pooling of such resources as were required by both branches of the Department—civil meteorological service, wireless and navigation aids, aerodromes and emergency landing fields, etc.

To provide a core of experienced officers in building up the new RNZAF, several RAF officers were sent to New Zealand on loan during 1937–39, and RNZAF officers were attached to the RAF in exchange, in order to gain additional experience. Details of the exchange scheme had been worked out in 1926 during the Imperial Conference, when Squadron Leader Isitt had met Sir Philip Game, then Air Force Member for Personnel in the RAF. Although the plan had lain dormant for more than ten years, its existence greatly facilitated the machinery of interchange.

In addition, a number of New Zealanders serving with the RAF were selected for specialist courses in signals, navigation and armament, and then were transferred to the RNZAF and returned to New Zealand.

1 AVM Sir Arthur de T. Nevill, KBE, CB, Legion of Merit (US); Wellington; born Dunedin, 29 Apr 1899; Royal Military College of Australia, 1916–19; RNZA 1919–20; held various staff and regimental appointments in NZ, 1921–30; transferred to NZPAF 1930; NZLO Air Ministry 1923–35; AMS 1937–42; AOC RNZAF HQ London, 1942–43; VCAS 1944–46; CAS 1946–51.

2 T. A. Barrow, JP; Wellington; born Dobson, 16 Jul 1897; civil servant; Air Secretary 1937–53.


Early in 1937 a start was made in putting Cochrane's recommendations into effect. Wigram was reorganised into a flying training school with an output of forty pilots per annum, which was to be increased later to eighty per annum, and training of pilots both for the RNZAF and for the RAF was begun. Hobsonville was converted to a stores and repair base and also became a training school for ground personnel. The station was enlarged by the purchase of an additional 55 acres of land.

A survey was made of possible sites for the location of an aerodrome to accommodate the bomber squadrons. Eventually it page 29 was decided to build two stations instead of one, and land for the purpose was bought at Whenuapai, four miles from Hobsonville, and at Ohakea, near Bulls in the Manawatu. Orders were placed in Britain for the purchase of thirty Wellington aircraft1 and supplies of ammunition and bombs.

It was anticipated that, under the programme approved, the strength of the Regular Air Force would be 100 officers and 900 airmen, compared with the total personnel of just over one hundred which existed at the end of 1936. A reserve of pilots would be formed, consisting of selected candidates who were to be trained at the rate of one hundred a year by agreement with the aero clubs. In addition there would be the personnel of the Territorial Air Force.

During the next two years three supplementary expansion programmes were approved. Later in 1937 orders were placed in Britain for additional aircraft, bombs, and ammunition. A scheme was worked out for establishing schools for the training of flight riggers and flight mechanics at the railway workshops in the four main centres. It was decided to establish active Territorial squadrons in the four main centres and to purchase a reserve of obsolescent aircraft from the RAF. Further expansion of the Flying Training School at Wigram and the stores and repair base at Hobsonville was also authorised.

Early in 1938 a third expansion programme was approved, involving additional buildings at Hobsonville, additional ammunition, bombs, aircraft spares and equipment, the establishment of Territorial flights at New Plymouth, Hastings, and Invercargill, and the establishment of a regular squadron at Blenheim.

Five months before war broke out Group Captain H. W. L. Saunders,2 who had recently arrived in New Zealand as Chief of Air Staff in succession to Cochrane, recommended a fourth expansion programme. It included the conversion of the Air Force station being built at Blenheim to a second Flying Training School with an output of 140 pilots yearly, an increase in the size of the Flying Training School at Wigram to produce 140 pilots a year, and the purchase of additional aircraft and equipment necessary to maintain the training operations at these two schools.

The development of flying training in the years immediately preceding the outbreak of war had two main objectives: to train

1 Twin-engined bombers, of geodetic construction, made by Vickers-Armstrong, with a maximum speed of 250 m.p.h. and a cruising range of 2500 miles.

2 Air Chf Mshl Sir Hugh Saunders, KCB, KBE, MC, DFC, MM, Legion of Merit (US); born Johannesburg, 24 Aug 1894; South African Army 1914–17; RFC 1917–19; appointed to permanent commission in RAF, 1919; served in Middle East and Mesopotamia, 1920–23; UK 1923–32; overseas 1932–35; UK 1935–39; CAS RNZAF 1939–42; AOC No. 11 Group 1942–44; Director-General of Postings 1944–45; AOC RAF, Burma, 1945–46; AOC-in-C Bomber Command 1947; AMP 1947–49; Inspector- General of the RAF 1950.

page 30 pilots to man the expanding RNZAF and to provide pilots for the Royal Air Force.

Since 1919 a number of New Zealanders had travelled to England at their own expense to join the RAF. Some obtained short-service commissions. Others entered the service under a scheme whereby a limited number of candidates from the Dominions were accepted annually at the RAF Cadet College at Cranwell, to be appointed later to permanent commissions.

During the late twenties considerably more New Zealanders arrived in England and applied for entry into the RAF than could be accepted. The competition was keen, and the rate of intake strictly limited. As a result, prospective candidates were advised that they should be medically examined before leaving New Zealand to ensure that they were up to the necessary physical standard, and interviewed by the Director of Air Services to find out whether they possessed the required general qualifications. Those who he thought would be successful were given a written recommendation to Air Ministry, which, however, was made on the understanding that it in no way ensured acceptance by the RAF. At this period Air Ministry was able to accept approximately five New Zealanders every three months.

In 1934, when the RAF was beginning to expand and rearm, Air Ministry suggested that New Zealand should train a number of pilots each year and send them for four years' service with the RAF, after which they should return home and serve a further period on the reserve. The New Zealand Government was to be responsible for their training and their passage to England, and would be paid £1550 sterling by the British Government for each pilot sent. New Zealand was unable to do this at the time owing to the lack of training equipment, but the scheme commenced in the middle of 1937. At the same time another scheme was put into operation, under which a number of candidates annually were selected and medically examined in New Zealand for short-service commissions in the RAF. These were accepted by the RAF without further interview or medical examination, and their passage money to England was paid by Air Ministry.

Flying training started in earnest at Wigram in June, when twelve acting pilot officers arrived to begin a full nine months' course. The training aircraft comprised four Vickers Vildebeestes, three Hawker Tomtits, and three Avro 626 trainers. The station strength was twelve officers and ninety-six other ranks. Later in the year more instructors were posted to the school and a number of aircraft were transferred from Hobsonville. This enabled the training of a second course of pilots to overlap the first course by three months.

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The flying training course comprised ab initio, intermediate and advanced training, covering a period of nine months. The school was organised into two flights. Squadron Leader Olson1 was chief flying instructor, and under him Flight Lieutenant Newell2 commanded ‘A’ Flight, which was responsible for initial and intermediate training, and Flight Lieutenant Cohen3 commanded ‘B’ Flight, which undertook advanced training.

In April 1938 Olson was posted to Hobsonville, and Cohen became chief flying instructor, as well as commanding the advanced training flight. In September Flight Lieutenant Newell was posted for a course at the RAF Staff College. Command of the intermediate flight was taken over by Flight Lieutenant Baird,4 who had recently come back to New Zealand after serving a short-service commission in the RAF. He introduced a new training syllabus based on that in use at Scottish Aviation, Prestwick.

Between June 1937 and the end of 1939, a total of 133 officers were trained at Wigram and posted to the RAF for short-service commissions. Besides these a number on completing their training were retained in the RNZAF.

In September 1938 the New Zealand Government, in view of the threatening international situation, proposed if war broke out to set up an organisation to train one thousand pilots a year for the RAF. The offer was accepted in principle by the British Government, and plans were drawn up to provide the necessary establishment.

It was estimated that there were in New Zealand at that time approximately fifty pilots who either were instructors or could be classed as such after a short course, and it was considered that at least half of the pupils completing the full pilots' training course at Wigram would be capable of acting as junior instructors in the advanced training squadron of a service flying training school. The aircraft available comprised 32 service-type aircraft (Vildebeeste,

1 Air Cdre E. G. Olson, DSO; born New Plymouth, 27 Feb 1906; RAF 1926–29; joined NZAF (Territorial) 1930; RNZAF 1935; AMP 1939–41; NZLO Air Ministry 1942; commanded No. 75 (NZ) Sqn, Feltwell, 1942, and subsequently RAF stations at Honiton and Oakington; AOC RNZAF HQ, London, 1943–45; died 15 May 1945.

2 Gp Capt F. R. Newell; Wellington; born 30 Jun 1904; SSC RAF 1931–36; appointed to RNZAF 1936; NZLO Air Ministry 1941–42; commanded stations in NZ and Pacific, 1943–45; DOSD Air Dept, 1945–47; CO Whenuapai 1947–49; DOSD 1949–51.

3 Air Cdre R. J. Cohen, CBE, AFC, Legion of Merit (US); Wellington; born Feilding, 6 Sep 1908; SSC RAF 1929–35; appointed to RNZAF 1935; commanded various RNZAF stations during the war; AOC No. 1 (Islands) Group and NZ Air Task Force, 1945; DCAS 1947 and 1950–53; AOC Task Force Admin HQ, 1953—; Inspector- General RNZAF, 1954—.

4 Gp Capt D. W. Baird, AFC; Wellington; born Bangor, Northern Ireland, 23 Dec 1910; farmer; short-service commission RAF 1931–37; joined RNZAF 1938; served in various theatres with RAF and RNZAF during the war; commanded No. 490 (NZ) Squadron, West Africa, 1943; Director of Training, RNZAF, 1945–46; Director of Operations and Flying Training 1950; Director of Reserves 1951—.

page 32 Baffin and Oxford), 9 multi-engined commercial types, and 63 suitable light aircraft, mainly Moths.


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.


With the expansion of the Regular Air Force proceeding, the Territorial Air Force also was reorganised and put on a working basis.

The four squadrons which had been established in 1930 were still in 1937 only a paper force. They had no ground staff or equipment, and of the seventy officers who composed them, many were pilots of the 1914–18 war and over forty years of age.

The demands of the regular force's expansion programme limited the finance and training facilities available for a Territorial Air Force; but it was considered that properly constituted and equipped Territorial squadrons could play an important part in home defence and coastal patrol work, and that their formation would be justified. As their role would not involve them in continued contact with the enemy, they could be manned by older and less highly trained men than the regular squadrons, and equipped with older and less expensive aircraft. Furthermore, their employment would release the regular squadrons for duty elsewhere.

Consequently, it was decided to form squadrons in each of the four main centres, and equip them with obsolescent aircraft which could be bought cheaply from the RAF. The first to be authorised was the Wellington Territorial Squadron, whose formation was approved in Cabinet in July 1937. In February 1938 the formation of squadrons at Christchurch and Auckland was approved, and in the following month the Dunedin squadron was authorised.

In July 1937 twelve Baffin aircraft were ordered for the Wellington Squadron, at a cost of £200 each, and later in the year applications were called for from pilots and ground staff to man the squadron.

It was to be organised as three flights. No. 1, a reconnaissance flight, was to be equipped with twin-engined civil aircraft which would be taken over on the outbreak of war. It was to be manned, as far as possible, by the personnel normally operating the aircraft. Nos. 2 and 3 flights were to be equipped with six Baffins each. One aircraft per flight was to be kept at Rongotai for evening and page 35 weekend flying. The others were to be stored in peacetime at Ohakea and brought into use only at the annual training camp.

By January 1938 approximately twenty officers and ninety airmen had been enrolled. The Commanding Officer was Squadron Leader Gibson.1 Technical personnel were drawn mainly from the Hutt railway workshops, and a number of them were given a course of training at Hobsonville as instructors to the others in the maintenance of aircraft. A training camp was held in January, when nineteen officers and sixty airmen had a ten-days' disciplinary course at Trentham.

The squadron's aircraft arrived in March and flying training was begun. In May the Chief of Air Staff ordered a public display by the RNZAF, which was held at Rongotai. The Wellington Territorial Squadron took part, and also twelve aircraft from Wigram. In October the squadron carried out its first operational exercises in co-operation with HMS Achilles, and at the end of the year exercises were carried out with HMS Wellington.

Recruiting for the Christchurch Territorial Squadron began in April 1938. Squadron Leader Stedman,2 chief instructor at the Canterbury Aero Club, was appointed Commanding Officer, and by November the strength of the squadron was fourteen officers and seventy-eight airmen. The squadron was equipped with Baffin aircraft, of which the first arrived in September.

Starting in October, a number of refresher courses were held at Wigram for Territorial pilots. The courses lasted twelve days and consisted of flying practice on service-type aircraft.

In February 1939 the Christchurch Territorial Squadron received its first permanent maintenance staff—two NCOs, four fitters, and four riggers. They were assisted in the maintenance of the aircraft by the Territorial fitters and riggers at weekend parades, and also acted as instructors. Early in March the squadron held its first training camp. Flying training was carried out on four days, and six days were spent on drilling and other ground instruction.

The Auckland Territorial Squadron was formed in June 1938, with Squadron Leader Allan3 as Commanding Officer. In October its strength was eighteen officers and fifty-nine airmen. When its aircraft became available a few months later, it started weekend training at Hobsonville. Training consisted of pilot navigation, ship recognition, search and patrol technique, and bombing.

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At the end of March 1939 the strength of the Territorial Air Force was:

Wellington Squadron 18 officers, 96 airmen
Christchurch Squadron 17 officers, 92 airmen
Auckland Squadron 20 officers, 77 airmen

In addition a further twenty-one Territorial officers had been appointed, but were not attached to any particular squadrons. The Dunedin Squadron, although it had been authorised, had not been formed when war broke out. In June and July, on account of the imminence of war, all available Territorial Air Force pilots were sent to Wigram for a two-months' general reconnaissance course.

1 Wg Cdr E. A. Gibson, OBE; Wellington; born Wellington, 6 Aug 1896; engineer.

2 Wg Cdr G. L. Stedman, ED; Wellington; born Timaru, 27 Oct 1891; flying instructor; Canterbury Mounted Rifles (Lt) 1914–17; transferred to RFC.

3 Sqn Ldr D. M. Allan; born Waipukurau, 15 Sep 1896; sheep farmer; killed in aircraft accident 12 Mar 1940.


A useful part, supplementary to the activities of the Air Force, was played by aero clubs in the training of pilots. Since the beginning of club flying in New Zealand in 1929 and 1930, the Government had recognised the value of the training they gave by paying the clubs £25 for each pilot trained to ‘A’ Licence standard and by helping to provide aircraft. In 1937 this policy was reviewed. The ‘A’ Licence standard was too low to be of much practical value, and in numerous cases the State got no return for the subsidy, since many of the trainees were not medically fit for service and commercial flying. In addition it was found that most of the clubs were running at a loss and were on the verge of bankruptcy.

The basic training given by the clubs was potentially of great value in preparing pilots for the Air Force, and in order to get the best possible results the whole scheme of financial assistance was changed.

In addition a Civil Reserve of Pilots was instituted; it was open to candidates who reached the required standard of education and physical fitness and who volunteered to serve in the RNZAF in case of emergency. The Government agreed to pay for the initial flying training of civil reservists, which was fixed at forty hours in the first year and two refresher courses of ten hours each in the succeeding years.

The numbers to be trained by the clubs under these schemes were limited to fifty Air Force candidates and one hundred civil reservists each year. It was hoped by these means not only to help the expansion of the RNZAF, but also to build up a reserve of pilots who could be converted to higher-powered aircraft when required.

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The scheme was under the general supervision of the Air Member for Personnel, Group Captain Isitt. Flight Lieutenant Burrell1 was appointed Superintendent of Reserves and, under the direction of Isitt, he co-ordinated the methods of training and testing all trainees to ensure that they reached a satisfactory standard. Two courses for aero club instructors were held at Wigram, where the latest methods of instruction were demonstrated to ensure uniformity of methods and instruction.

The scheme was reviewed in 1938, and again in 1939, when the number of civil reservists to be trained was increased from 100 to 150 per annum.

1 Wg Cdr H. B. Burrell, OBE; Norfolk Island; born Feilding, 2 Aug 1897; motor engineer.


In September 1938 it was decided to compile a register of tradesmen and potential administrative and technical officers who could be called upon to serve with the RNZAF in event of emergency. The Munich crisis made it appear that war might break out at any time, and the scheme was put into effect immediately. It was widely publicised by the press and radio, and by posters and circulars to employers. In particular, all garages and engineering firms were asked to bring the scheme to the notice of their employees, as fitters were most urgently required. Applications embracing the following Air Force trades were called for:

Wireless operator Radio mechanic
Electrician Photographer
Instrument maker Fabric worker
Coppersmith Cabinetmaker
Sheet-metal worker Clerk and storeman
Fitter gunsmith

Men between the ages of 22 and 55 were invited to enrol, and by doing so were required, in the event of war, to join the RNZAF for service within New Zealand.

Enrolment forms were distributed to all post offices by 20 December, and three weeks later a total of 3845 applications had been received, comprising 655 Group I (professional men), 1790 Group II (skilled tradesmen), and 1400 Group III (administrative tradesmen). From these a register of reservists was compiled which comprised three lists: one alphabetical, one geographical, and one by trades.

During the following year as many of the reservists as possible were interviewed by investigating officers appointed for the purpose, page 38 so that a better basis could be obtained for assessing their potential value to the RNZAF. At the outbreak of war a number of reservists were called up for immediate employment at Hobsonville and Wigram.

The expansion of the RNZAF immediately before the war was so rapid that the Technical Training School at Hobsonville could not train sufficient fitters and riggers for the service. It was therefore decided that a number of airmen should be trained in the railway workshops at Otahuhu, Hutt, Addington, and Hillside. Previously it had been planned that a number of the workshops apprentices should be given a course in Air Force trades at the conclusion of their Railways training. On completing their course the trainees were to be posted to the Civil Reserve and were liable to join the Air Force in the event of war.

The two schemes were combined, and technical training centres were opened in each of the railway workshops. The first to begin training was at Hutt, in July 1939. The others received their first intakes shortly after the war began. The scheme continued until September 1940, when the increased facilities for technical training within the RNZAF made it possible to close the technical training centres. During their period of operation the centres trained a total of 595 flight riggers and flight mechanics.


When war broke out, although the projected peacetime expansion of the RNZAF was far from complete, appreciable progress had been made. The building programme for No. 1 Flying Training School at Wigram was nearly finished, and that for No. 2 Flying Training School at Blenheim was approximately half completed. The building programme for the new operational station at Ohakea was approximately three-quarters completed, and at Whenuapai the aerodrome had been prepared and construction of buildings commenced. Hobsonville was in the process of expansion and the work was half done. At Taieri, which was to house the fourth Territorial squadron, the construction of buildings had just begun.

The Vickers Wellington aircraft which had been ordered for the two permanent bomber squadrons were being collected at Marham in England, where a number of RNZAF officers, under the command of Squadron Leader Buckley,1 were under training preparatory to page 39 flying the aircraft to New Zealand. A stock of bombs and ammunition had been built up in the Dominion and was sufficient for twelve months' operations.

The Territorial squadrons at Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch had been established and were in various stages of training. A civil reserve existed of pilots who had been trained by the aero clubs to the elementary stage, and a civil reserve of ground staff comprising the register of skilled tradesmen and others who had volunteered to join the RNZAF in case of war. The railway workshops scheme for training flight mechanics and flight riggers was progressing satisfactorily, and training had started at the Hutt Workshops.

The aircraft available comprised the obsolescent service-type machines of the Territorial squadrons, and others in use at the Flying Training School at Wigram, a number of multi-engined commercial types which could be taken over, and approximately sixty elementary training machines belonging to aero clubs.

The strength of the RNZAF at the outbreak of war, exclusive of reserves, was:

Regular Air Force 91 officers, 665 airmen
Territorial Air Force 79 officers, 325 airmen

The Headquarters organisation which had been developed over the past two and a half years comprised the Chief of Air Staff, Group Captain Saunders, who had succeeded Group Captain Cochrane in March 1939; the Air Force Member for Personnel, Group Captain Isitt; the Air Force Member for Supply, Wing Commander Nevill; and the Air Secretary, Mr Barrow. Group Captain Wilkes was Controller of Civil Aviation.

1 Air Cdre M. W. Buckley, CBE, m.i.d., Legion of Merit (US); Wellington; born Seacliff, 3 Aug 1895; sheep farmer; RNAS and RFC 1916–20; NZAF 1923–26; joined NZPAF 1926; attached RAF on exchange, 1937–41; commanded No. 75 (NZ) Sqn, RAF, 1940–41, and RAF Station, Feltwell, 1941; AOC Northern Group, 1942–43, and No. 1 (Islands) Group, 1943–44; DCAS 1945; AOC RNZAF HQ, London, 1946–50.