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Royal New Zealand Air Force



Besides giving what protection it could to shipping in New Zealand waters, the RNZAF had a responsibility in the protection of Fiji. The recommendations of the Pacific Defence Conference concerning the Group had been approved by the New Zealand Cabinet in May 1939. An area of 117 acres was acquired at Nandi, near Lautoka on the west coast of Viti Levu, and an aerodrome with three runways was planned. At Nausori, 15 miles from Suva on the east coast, a single strip was projected. At the same time an aerodrome site and a seaplane alighting area were surveyed at Tonga. The contract for the two aerodromes in Fiji was let to the Southern Cross Construction Company and work on them began on the day war was declared. Both fields were practically completed by the following March, and then the construction machinery was shipped to Tonga and work on the aerodrome was begun there the following month. This field, built on land provided by the Tongan Government, was completed in September. Underground fuel stores were built at both Fiji and Tonga, and reserves of petrol, oil, and bombs were distributed among the three aerodromes.

By September 1940 the international situation in the Pacific was worse, with Japan's attitude becoming more and more threatening, and it was decided to send troops and a detachment of the RNZAF to reinforce Fiji. As a preliminary step work was begun at Nandi page 71 to provide accommodation, roading, sewerage, electric power supply and a hangar. The work was carried out by the Fijian Government under the direction of the New Zealand Public Works Department.

The RNZAF detachment formed at Rongotai in October under the command of Squadron Leader Baird. The advance party left New Zealand in the SS Kaiwarra on 1 November and arrived at Lautoka five days later. The main body left in two sections on 11 November and arrived on the 14th, one party going to Lautoka and the other to Suva.

The advance party carried with it most of the detachment's equipment: transport vehicles, timber, building materials, petrol, oil, and miscellaneous stores, as well as its aircraft. These comprised four DH89 Dragon Rapides, modified and equipped for operational flying, and one DH60 Moth for communications. Fuselages were carried on deck with engines and undercarriages attached, and the mainplanes and tail assemblies were crated and stowed between decks.

The morning after the ship arrived unloading began. The aircraft were lowered into lighters and towed the four or five miles round the coast to Nandi, where they were manhandled ashore and pushed along the road to the aerodrome. There, until the hangar was completed, they were housed in native-built shelters consisting of a thatched roof on poles. The other equipment was laboriously unloaded during the next few days, and as much as possible was put into two marquees erected at the aerodrome pending the completion of a main store building.

The men lived in tents at Namaka, two miles from the aerodrome, where the New Zealand Army had built a camp. For some months, while they were quartered there, they were attached to the Army for rations, canteen, postal and medical services, and all supplies not peculiar to the Air Force.

Progress with the building programme at Nandi was slow owing to the difficulty of obtaining material and the lack of labour, most of which was absorbed in Army works. Early in December a small headquarters building and a store were finished and a start was made on living quarters, but these were not ready for occupation until the following March.

The party which went to Suva formed RNZAF Headquarters in Fiji. The men were quartered at the Army camp at Nasese and the officers lived in the Grand Pacific Hotel. Headquarters offices were set up in the grounds of Government Buildings. The Commanding Officer was responsible for the training of all Air Force units in Fiji and for the tactical direction of air operations, and acted as Air Adviser to the Officer Commanding, Fiji Defences. He was required to co-operate with the Army in the close defence of Fiji, but his page 72 primary responsibility was the reconnaissance of the New Hebrides-Fiji-Tonga area.

The party on the west coast, consisting of six officers and forty-two other ranks, was designated the Detached Flight, Nandi, and was commanded by Squadron Leader White.1

On 17 November, eleven days after the advance party had landed, the first of the DH89s had been assembled and was flown at Nandi. The next day Squadron Leader White flew it to Nausori and was the first pilot to land on the aerodrome. A few days later flying training was started in earnest and the detachment began carrying out reconnaissance patrols. The first operational flight was made on the 21st, when the unit was ordered to intercept the Rangatira and Monowai which were bringing troops and supplies to Fiji.

Regular operations included periodic reconnaissance of outlying islands where enemy shipping might be sheltering, particularly in the Lau Group; escorts for shipping entering and leaving Suva and Lautoka; dawn and dusk perimeter patrols over the approaches to Suva; and extended ocean searches. The latter involved flying more than 400 nautical miles, with few navigational checks and frequent changes of course. In addition the unit kept up a constant programme of training in all aspects of its operational flying.

Flying activities were severely curtailed early in 1941 when two of the DH89s, which were picketed on the aerodrome at Nausori, were destroyed on 20 February by a hurricane. Three days later another aircraft was badly damaged through hitting a truck while being flown low over the aerodrome. As the unit now had only one serviceable operational aircraft, two DH86s were shipped from New Zealand, arriving at Lautoka on 13 March.

They could not easily be spared from New Zealand as there were only three others of the same type in the country, but the only other operational aircraft available were single-engined Vincents and Vildebeestes, which were not considered suitable for reconnaissance work round Fiji because of the risk of forced landings in the shark-infested waters.

It was intended that eventually the unit should be equipped with flying boats and Hudsons. As neither of these types was available it carried on as best it could with the De Havillands. In August, however, the New Zealand Government decided to reinforce Fiji and sent up a flight of six Vincents to be used on short-range reconnaissance work and army co-operation. They arrived in the middle of the month and were ready for operations early in the next month.

On 8 October the unit was formally constituted a squadron and became known as No. 4 (General Reconnaissance) Squadron.

1 Wg Cdr G. R. White; Hastings; born Wairoa, 11 Nov 1905; commercial pilot.

page 73

At the same time as aerodromes were planned in 1939, possible flying-boat alighting areas were surveyed in Fiji. Three areas were found suitable for mooring sites: Suva Harbour, Lauthala Bay, three miles round the coast, and Lautoka. Of these the last was the best natural site for a base, but it was too far from Defence Headquarters in Suva.

Both the New Zealand Government and the Pan-American Airways Corporation had been interested for some time in the formation of a permanent flying-boat base in Fiji from the civil aviation aspect. The appearance of German raiders in the Pacific and the deteriorating relations with Japan emphasised its urgency as a defensive measure. Discussions between New Zealand, Fiji, and the United Kingdom were carried on throughout 1940. Finally, in February 1941, the British Government agreed that the construction of a base should be started immediately on the understanding that the cost should be shared by the three countries. The site chosen was at Lauthala Bay, but as much development work had to be done before it could be used by flying boats, moorings and other facilities were established in Suva Harbour in the meantime.

In April an RAAF Empire-type flying boat landed on the harbour, and the captain reported that although Suva Harbour was suitable for Empire flying boats, he did not think it would be satisfactory for bigger aircraft. The visit was a useful test for the organisation set up by the RNZAF; refuelling, meteorological, and mooring arrangements all proved very satisfactory.

Work was begun on the construction of shore facilities at Lauthala Bay in September and temporary moorings were installed. It was apparent, however, that before it could be made into a satisfactory operational base a breakwater would have to be built. In the meantime such aircraft as could would have to operate from Suva Harbour.

On 18 November the RNZAF received its first flying boats, two Short Singapores, which had been flown out from Seletar, in Singapore.1 On Christmas Eve these were reinforced by the arrival

1 Wing Commander Baird, with aircrews and a small servicing party, had been sent to Singapore in September to collect the aircraft. Two left for Fiji in November, while the other two, owing to difficulties in making them serviceable, did not get away until 13 December.

They flew to Fiji via Java, Northern Australia, New Guinea, the Solomons and the New Hebrides. The aircraft were old, barely fit to fly, and heavily laden with equipment and fuel. During the whole journey they rarely achieved a height of more than a few hundred feet above the sea. Mechanical troubles cropped up from time to time, and the flight was not without risk and excitement.

The servicing party, under Sergeants J. W. Cook and I. Walthers, had to be left behind and was attached to No. 205 Squadron RAF. The men, in company with other RAF personnel who were evacuated from Singapore, eventually reached Java. There they were discovered by Squadron Leader E. C. Smart and attached by him to the RNZAF Construction Squadron to ensure that they were evacuated to Australia with other New Zealanders.

page 74 of two more. They were based on Suva Harbour, and maintenance and servicing were carried on in whatever buildings and sheds could be acquired on the wharves.

The flying boats and their crews were formed into a unit and called No. 5 (GR) Squadron. They started operations in January 1942 and were employed on shipping escorts and long-range anti-submarine patrols.

A new urgency was given to all defensive preparations in the Pacific following the German attack on Russia in June 1941. It was felt that Japan might take advantage of Russia's preoccupation in the west and attempt to occupy British and American territories in the Far East. The United States was particularly apprehensive about the possibility of a Japanese attack on the Philippines. The main air reinforcing route from America to the Far East ran through Hawaii, Midway, Wake Island, Port Moresby and Darwin. This route, passing near the Japanese mandated islands in the Carolines and Marianas, was likely to be too vulnerable in the event of war, and the United States decided to prepare a more southerly route passing through Christmas Island, Canton Island, Fiji and New Caledonia.1

Shortly before Japan entered the war, a conference was held in Suva between New Zealand and American officers and the Government of Fiji to discuss the formation of a major aerodrome at Nandi to serve the Americans as a base in their Far East reinforcing route. As a result it was agreed that the base should be developed and that the RNZAF should eventually vacate it and move to Nausori. The New Zealand Government undertook responsibility for the necessary extensions at Nandi and the Americans were to help with such construction equipment as they could spare.2 Three concrete strips with a minimum length of 7000 feet and a width of 500 feet were projected, and a new strip was to be built at Narewa, a few miles from Nandi.

No. 2 Aerodrome Construction Squadron RNZAF left New Zealand at the end of November to begin work on accommodation buildings. Ten days later a thousand men who had been formed by the Public Works Department into a Civil Construction Unit followed them. The immense amount of plant and equipment needed for the construction work was gathered from all parts of New Zealand and sent to Fiji, and more equipment was contributed by the gold mines and sugar mill at Lautoka.

By the end of April 1942 the Civil Construction Unit, the Aerodrome Construction Squadron, and the Fijian Public Works Depart-

2 American help did not materialise.

page 75 ment had almost completed the work.1 The Civil Construction Unit was withdrawn at the end of May, leaving the Aerodrome Construction Squadron to finish off, and shortly afterwards the American forces took over. On 18 July the command of all forces in Fiji, and the responsibility for its defence, was handed over to the United States Army.

1 800,000 cubic yards of earth was moved, and 20,000 tons of cement and 3 ½ million super feet of timber were used in the construction.