Royal Australian Air Force 1941-1945
This commemorative publication is a part of the series; Australians in the Pacific War. It explores the history of the Royal Australian Air Force between 1941-1945.
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[We] ... carried out a mast-height attack on a large merchant vessel ... about four miles [6.5 km] from the beach apparently unloading troops ... I encountered considerable light ack-ack fire during my bombing run, but took violent action and dropped my stick of four 250-pounders across its bows, getting a direct hit. It is possible that my other bombs did considerable damage to the barges which were clustered around the sides of the vessel, but it was too dark to say definitely. There was ... no scarcity of targets, which we machine-gunned as opportunity offered while returning to the aerodrome. [Flight Lieutenant JT O'Brien, 1 Squadron RAAF]
With these attacks on a Japanese invasion force off Kota Bharu in northern Malaya, the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) became the first Allied air force to strike a blow after Japan's entry into World War II on 7/8 December 1941. The Japanese landings began an hour before their more famous attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.* By the time the first torpedoes and bombs slammed into US Navy warships at Pearl Harbor, 1 Squadron RAAF was in action, losing that night two Hudson bombers shot down, with seven men killed and another taken prisoner of war. The Australians sank at least one troopship, critically damaged another, and inflicted many casualties bombing and strafing barges. Their attacks set the tone for RAAF operations in the Pacific: determination, courage and perseverance.
The RAAF was barely prepared for war. Formed in 1921, it was the youngest and smallest of the armed services. At the start of World War II, it had just 3489 personnel and no modern combat aircraft. The Australian-built Wirraway, entering squadron service in September 1939, was based on an American trainer. By December 1941, the RAAF was ten times larger but many men were committed to service with the Royal Air Force (RAF) in Europe and the Middle East, most having enlisted and trained under the Empire Air Training Scheme.
When Japan attacked, the RAAF had units at strategic locations around Australia, in the territories of Papua and New Guinea, on the islands of Timor and Ambon in the Netherlands East Indies (now Indonesia), and in Singapore and Malaya (now Malaysia). Hudsons and Catalina flying boats purchased in the United States were virtually the only RAAF aircraft capable of striking at the enemy. Heavy losses were suffered as Allied forces were pushed back but, having endured the brunt of early air operations, the RAAF then contributed to the defences of Darwin and Port Moresby and played key roles in significant battles. These included Kokoda and Milne Bay in 1942 and then, in March 1943, the Battle of the Bismarck Sea, which ended Japanese aspirations for victory in New Guinea.
The Allied counter-offensive saw RAAF units operate over an immense geographical area: New Guinea, including the islands of New Britain and Bougainville; Dutch New Guinea; the Netherlands East Indies; the Philippines; and Borneo. By war's end in August 1945, the RAAF was the fourth-largest Allied air force. In addition to 'workhorse' aircraft such as the Catalinas, Beauforts and Kittyhawks used from early in the war in the Pacific, it also operated more modern and capable types, including Spitfire fighters, Mosquito fighter-bombers and Liberator heavy bombers. Ground units were well equipped and experienced, with many serving in forward areas. The contribution of the RAAF to victory in the Pacific was indisputable.
Before December 1941, Allied airmen were told that the Japanese air forces were mediocre. Propaganda painted a picture of obsolete aircraft flown by poorly trained aircrews. In fact, the Japanese showed themselves to be well equipped, proficient and ruthless adversaries.
One of the greatest shocks was the outstanding Japanese Mitsubishi 'Zero' fighter. In Malaya, pilots of the first fighter squadrons to encounter the Zero, 21 and 453 Squadrons RAAF, found their Buffaloes outclassed and outnumbered. In one of the first combats, Flight Lieutenant JR Kinninmont and Sergeant NR Chapman, 21 Squadron, engaged 12 enemy fighters. Kinninmont recalled:
The sky seemed full of red circles ... the Japs all tried to shoot us down at once. I pulled up to meet one as he dived down ... I was in such a hurry to shoot something that I didn't use my gun-sight. I simply sprayed bullets in his general direction. Somebody was on my tail and tracers were whipping past my wings. Chapman was turning and shooting with four Japs. I decided to get out. I yelled to Chapman 'Return to base. Return to base' ... and went into a vertical dive ... Of the three Japs that followed me down ... one stuck ... like a leech ... As I watched him, my neck screwed around, I saw his guns smoke and ... a burst of bullets splattered into the Buffalo ... It was then that I felt the first real fear in my life.
Aircraftman 1st Class George Sharp, 453 Squadron, recalled a 'scramble' that went tragically wrong:
The first aircraft, flown by Sgt Peterson, took off and the second aircraft, piloted by Keith Gorringe, was lined up for take-off ... Suddenly there was the thud of machinegun bullets hitting the ground. I looked up to see the two red suns of a Jap aircraft as it roared overhead at about 80 feet [25 m]. It was heading straight for Sgt Peterson's Buffalo, which by then was climbing away at the end of the strip, and opened fire. Smoke rose from the trees and it was obvious that he had shot down the Buffalo.
Far to the east, at Rabaul, on the island of New Britain, Wirraways of 24 Squadron were deployed as 'fighters'. On 6 January 1942, Flying Officer Bruce Anderson and his observer, Pilot Officer Colin Butterworth, endeavoured to intercept Japanese flying boats. Climbing hard, with their engine starting to overheat, they closed with the flying boats after they had dropped their bombs. Butterworth recalled:
Bruce opened fire with his two fixed Browning .303 machine guns. Then, as the Wirraway shuddered at the top of the climb, Bruce pushed the stick forward and I was able to open fire with my gas-operated Vickers machine gun from the rear cockpit. This manoeuvre was repeated a number of times, and each time we opened fire the Japanese gunners in the rear and side turrets of the closest aircraft would also open fire on us.
Two weeks later, over Rabaul, eight Wirraways engaged more than 80 bombers and fighters in one of the most courageous but tragic episodes in RAAF history. Within ten minutes, one crashed with engine failure, three were shot down, two crash-landed and the other two were damaged. Of 16 pilots and observers, six were killed and five wounded. Squadron Leader John Lerew realised his squadron could not engage the enemy 'without great loss and sacrifice of skilled personnel and aircraft'. He withdrew the remaining aircraft and when the Japanese landed the next night, evacuated his men.
Over Malaya, Singapore and the Netherlands East Indies, Allied fighter pilots did score victories. They learned that to engage the Zero in a dogfight was virtually suicidal but hit-and-run tactics could be employed. Sergeant Tom Young, 232 Squadron RAF, recalled shooting down a seaplane over Java:
I engaged in a cat-and-mouse game with him, but the Japanese plane could outmanoeuvre my Hurricane. In the end, I virtually stood off and fired a burst from long range. Smoke poured from him, and the pilot turned and came at me head-on, no doubt hoping to take me with him.
Young was one of several dozen Australians in the Malayan and Netherlands East Indies campaigns flying in British squadrons.
The unexpected capabilities of Japanese aircraft and airmen added to the normal fears of operations. It took particular courage and commitment to fly in skies seemingly dominated by enemy fighters and with anti-aircraft fire from the ground and ships. Before going into action, most men wondered what it would be like and how they might fare. Some who were involved expressed surprise at the ferocity of aerial combat and their reactions. Flying Officer CH 'Spud' Spurgeon, 8 Squadron, recalled his aircraft being hit off Kota Bharu:
I can remember a considerable note of surprise, somebody was actually shooting back. It frightened me too, a hell of a bang ... I suppose we ran around strafing barges for twenty minutes. Anyway I decided to belt my bombs ... and of course in my anxiety and haste forgot all about fusing. We let them go, and got the bloody lot back ... The shrapnel came straight through the aeroplane. There were no hydraulics, all the gauges disappeared off the clock. The airfield was a mile and a half [2.5 km] away. I flung the thing on the airfield ... on its guts.
In this period, when many Allied aircraft were shot down, chances of survival seemed slim. Some missions were considered suicidal. On 26 January 1942, Australia Day, two British squadrons equipped with antiquated Vildebeest biplane torpedo-bombers were ordered to make a daylight attack on Japanese forces landing at Endau, Malaya. Thirty Australians took part, flying with their British crewmates. Flight Lieutenant Tom Lamb, 36 Squadron RAF, a British pilot with an Australian gunner, Sergeant Gil Sharp, recalled:
We put our noses down & headed flat out for the beaches. It's a wonder the old crates didn't fall apart. Within seconds the sky was thick with [enemy] aircraft ... it was disconcerting to see rows of holes appearing all over the place in the fabric and hear the twang of parting wires. I could hear Sharp blazing away ... At one time I could see five parachutes in the sky & two aircraft going down in flames ... My aircraft was in a sorry state & I prayed that she would hang together until we got back.
Half the biplanes were shot down. Of the Australians, eight were killed, three (including Sharp) wounded, two captured and two others shot down but able to reach British lines. In addition, two members of 1 Squadron were killed when their Hudson was intercepted.
In the Netherlands East Indies, Flying Officer Ron Cornfoot, 13 Squadron, also witnessed the loss of many comrades, killed endeavouring to defend Ambon:
Most of our losses occurred in daylight while we were trying to bomb the Japanese invasion fleets that assembled up around Menado in the north of the Celebes. Over 11, 12 and 13 January , the three days of those operations, we lost five crews of our eight, all shot down by Zeros ... Empty bunks were conspicuous in our barracks.
Often, aircraft returned to base bearing combat damage. Some were saved by pilots throwing their aircraft about desperately, or by gunners shooting down pursuing fighters. Luck also played its hand.
Pilot Officer Peter Gibbes, 1 Squadron, recalled the courage aircrews needed to keep going:
We were terribly fearful, some of us literally shaking ... But the missions had to be flown and it was then that I saw real valour ... not just flashes of it but as a part of every crew member's daily life. A special bravery seemed to be generated, where fear was greatest ... The courage that we saw was in the calm before the storm, of very young men ... doing something that petrified them ... But they did it because it was their duty.
Gibbes watched Flying Officer Robert Law-Smith, 2 Squadron, set off ahead of the enemy invasion of Sumatra:
I think of Bob's sheer guts on that day only with deep admiration. He was going on a mission ... to find a Japanese sea force, to try to break through its fighter and antiaircraft screens and bomb it. Scared stiff like everyone who had to make such attacks, he was so overwrought that he actually vomited on the tarmac as he went to climb into his Hudson. But he just vomited, shook his head, climbed aboard and took off.
Law-Smith and his crew survived the mission.
Fear and death remained constant factors in the lives of aircrews. Anti-aircraft fire, fighters, accidents and storms caused mounting casualties. Often, the fate of those lost was not immediately evident. In January 1944, during a raid on New Britain by Beauforts of 6, 8 and 100 Squadrons, a Kittyhawk fighter escort was lost. Flying Officer FN Smith, 8 Squadron, wrote in his diary:
The Pilot was very matter of fact, simply said, 'Lost oil pressure. Engine packing up but will try & make Kiriwina' & a few minutes later he came up on the R/T [radio] and said 'Hell, got to bail out. Ain't it a bastard.' He has not been located.
At other times, losses occurred back at base, witnessed by aircrews and ground staff alike. On Christmas Day 1943, as Beauforts returned to Goodenough Island, New Guinea, from another mission, four men suddenly were killed. Smith wrote:
... we had just landed and were turning off the strip when the next aircraft piloted by F/O [Flying Officer] Kleinig (a new crew to the Sqdn) touched down & immediately blew up. We felt the bomb blast considerably. A wing bomb had hung up & as a result of the heavy landing dropped off & exploded. All [four crewmen] killed – aircraft incinerated.
The tension remained until the end of a tour of operations – if a man was fortunate to survive that long. Flying Officer Kenneth McDonald, 31 Squadron, flying Beaufighters out of the Northern Territory in 1942-43, recalled:
Even after months of squadron life I never could sleep well knowing that I was due to go on a sortie the following day. Yet when I got up in the morning I was able to quickly shake off the lethargy and maintain concentration until the job was over, then I would collapse with nervous exhaustion. I think most of the aircrews shared similar experiences.
The limit for a tour in the tropics was set at nine months. By then, most aviators were mentally and physically exhausted by the combined toll of operations and tropical diseases.
One of the most intense periods of aerial combat was encountered in April-May 1942 by 75 Squadron, defending Port Moresby. For much of this time, 'Jackson's few', as the band of pilots was dubbed, were the only Allied fighter pilots in the territory of Papua. They, with ground staff, withstood repeated air raids. Flying Officer Peter Masters recalled:
Whenever we heard the call of 'Pilots!' or 'It's on!' we would race to our planes – it was almost a relief to get out there and fly. There was nothing worse than the nerves you get when you don't know what is coming at you or who is just over the horizon.
Over 44 days, the pilots shot down at least three bombers and 15 fighters, with others damaged, for the loss of 21 Kittyhawks shot down or crashed and 12 pilots killed. The Australians also struck at the enemy airfield at Lae. Masters recalled 'bagging' his first Zero over Lae:
... the Zero banked hard left into my line of sight. With a lot of left rudder and all my strength on the stick I got about one aeroplane's lead on the Zero and kept pulling the trigger. I was then very close as I saw part of the wing fall off and pieces from the canopy and cowling. The enemy had started falling out of the sky, heading down with no apparent control. I had no doubt it could not recover as I turned away towards the mountains ...
In August-September 1942, 75 and 76 Squadrons supported Australian troops at Milne Bay, proving 'the decisive factor' in the battle. Pilot Officer Bruce 'Buster' Brown, 75 Squadron, recalled attacking barges:
... we took off to the east ... and had only climbed a few hundred feet when we saw the Japanese barges pulled into the shore along a small beach. Although the barges were the major target, we also aimed to destroy the accumulation of stores, fuel and ammunition that was stacked just off the edge of the beach. We did not carry bombs: the ammunition loading was one tracer, one ball, one incendiary, one armour-piercing and one explosive, which meant that whatever we hit was either damaged or destroyed.
Meanwhile, Australian and American bombers attacked Japanese ships. Flying Officer Kym Bonython, 100 Squadron, recalled a torpedo run:
We were barely skimming the surface and dodging through great fountains of water thrown up by enemy fire. As we got closer we came within range of the pom poms and lighter-calibre guns. I attacked the larger of the two ships ... Immediately the torpedo had been launched we began a left turn, at the same time taking violent evasive action. Up and down, hard left then hard right rudder, to make ourselves a more difficult target. By the time we were part-way through our left turn the Jap ship was getting very close. However none of our aircraft were damaged and in turn none of our torpedoes found their mark.
The Allied air forces continued improving anti-shipping tactics. By March 1943, American bombers had begun 'skip bombing', dropping bombs from so low that they bounced off the water before slamming into a ship's side. The first major test was the Battle of the Bismarck Sea. On the morning of 3 March 1943, Allied aircraft swooped on a Japanese convoy carrying reinforcements to Lae. Beaufighters of 30 Squadron struck first, strafing warships and transports to disable their bridges and suppress anti-aircraft fire:
You've gone around behind the warships but they're still banging away with their big guns, pom-poms and ack-ack. You can see tracers whipping by. A cargo ship is in the sights. She is camouflaged and has goalpost masts. She looks blurred at first, but then comes into focus. The first thunder of fire [from the Beaufighter's four cannons and six machine-guns] ... jars at your feet, and you see the tracers lashing out ... Then the plane is banking round again and a fresh target is lining up in the sights ... You're going in – hard and furious. The great hull of the ship is looming up at you, grey and black and forbidding. Again the guns begin their violent stammer, again the flashing of tracers. The shuddering beat of the explosions gives the scene a grey flicker. The acrid smell [of cordite] is in your nostrils. You seem suspended in an unwholesome moment of fear and delight as you watch the stream of bullets whang over the decks. You see the black smoke rising and you are still diving to meet it until everything is a black smudge – and you say a quick prayer. And then you feel that wrench upwards again as the plane sweeps miraculously up. And the ship passes below the fuselage in a dark blur.
[George Graham, 30 Squadron]
American bombers then skip bombed, scoring 17 direct hits that left ships burning and listing. A second wave of bombers that included Bostons of 22 Squadron struck that afternoon. All eight transport ships and four destroyers were sunk. The last major attempt to reinforce Japanese forces on mainland New Guinea had been defeated.
Later that month, Flight Lieutenant William 'Bill' Newton, 22 Squadron, and his crew of Flight Sergeant John Lyon and Sergeant Basil Eastwood flew the missions that led to Newton becoming the only airman in the South-West Pacific Area awarded the Victoria Cross. By March 1943, their squadron had established a particular reputation for bravery and skill, attacking fortifications, bases, ships and troop positions at low level. The actions of Newton and his crew stood out. As Newton's citation noted:
Disdaining evasive tactics when experiencing the heaviest fire, he always went straight to his objective. He carried out many daring machine-gun attacks on enemy positions, involving low flying over long distances in the face of continuous fire at point-blank range. On three occasions, he dived through intense anti-aircraft fire to release his bombs ...
On 16 March 1943, Newton led a raid on Salamaua. He dived through intense anti-aircraft fire to bomb a supply dump with devastating accuracy. When pulling out of the dive, his aircraft suffered four hits that damaged both wings and an engine, and punctured the fuel tanks. Displaying impressive airmanship, he nursed the stricken aircraft over the Owen Stanley Range for 290 kilometres to land at Port Moresby. Next day, Newton endeavoured to repeat the attack:
His target, this time a single building, was even more difficult, but he again attacked with his usual courage and resolution and flew a steady course through a barrage of fire. He scored a hit on the building but at the same moment his aircraft burst into flames. Flight Lieutenant Newton maintained control and calmly turned his aircraft away and flew along the shore. He saw it as his duty to keep the aircraft in the air as long as he could so as to take his crew as far away as possible from the enemy's positions. With great skill, he brought his blazing aircraft down on the water. Two members of the crew were able to extricate themselves and were seen swimming to the shore ...
Newton and Lyon were captured and executed.
Meanwhile, the RAAF also made strides in defending the Northern Territory and striking enemy garrisons and shipping in the Netherlands East Indies. Darwin had first been raided on 19 February 1942, with several airmen among those killed, and further raids occurred intermittently until September 1943. In late 1942, the Churchill Wing of three Spitfire fighter squadrons (two Australian and one British) sent from England took over the defence. Flying Officer John Bisley, 452 Squadron, who had won the Distinguished Flying Cross over Malta, recalled responding to a raid on Darwin:
... the radar picked up enemy aircraft about an hour's flying time north-west of Darwin. All available aircraft from 54, 452 and 457 Squadrons were ordered to scramble ... I attacked the first starboard bomber from quarter beam at 300 yards [275 m], closing to 50 yards [45 m] from dead astern. The starboard engine of the bomber was burning when I broke off to evade enemy fighters, whose tracer I observed passing very close to my cockpit. As I broke violently away I saw a bomber burning with both wings snapped off nearly up to the engine.
After 1943, when the Allies had established air superiority over most fronts, few RAAF fighter pilots in the Pacific were involved in aerial combat. The last significant interception of an enemy formation by RAAF pilots was on 3 June 1944, when 78 Squadron shot down eight aircraft and damaged two others over Biak, Dutch New Guinea, for the loss of one Australian killed.
Air superiority enabled the Allies to make greater use of transport and tactical reconnaissance aircraft to support ground troops. In Borneo and New Guinea, including the islands of Bougainville and New Britain, the Australian-built Wirraways and Boomerangs of 4 and 5 Squadrons flew low over the jungle and beaches reconnoitring and photographing enemy positions, artillery spotting and directing fighter-bombers attacking ground targets. An American pilot, Ted Park, recalled of the Boomerangs:
We'd ... cover them while they ducked almost out of sight down on the deck, and then they'd call us: 'Beaver, follow our tracers.' We'd see the red lines focusing on a spot and, never taking our eyes off it, we'd peel away and lay our sights on it and trigger off our guns.
Low-level missions like these were particularly hazardous. Aircraft could be downed by ground fire or could clip trees, hilltops or other obstacles. On his first mission over Timor, Flying Officer McDonald, 31 Squadron, saw Squadron Leader Doug Riding crash into the sea after a strafing run:
He failed to lift his aircraft during the turn and his port wingtip hit the water. The plane cartwheeled and crashed immediately with an enormous splash. We were horrified but of course could do nothing. We realised that it meant instant death for Riding and his navigator, Warrant Officer RD Clark.
A week before Japan surrendered, Flight Lieutenant Dean Kelly, 80 Squadron, was leading eight Kittyhawks against oil installations at Louise, Borneo, when ground fire first damaged his aircraft and then shot down Pilot Officer Eldred Quinn:
His aircraft was hit behind the rear engine cowling ... as he commenced his strafing run. I observed flames along the underside as he commenced his attack. Having completed his attack, he levelled out and then turned to port and bellylanded. His aircraft skidded along the ground into the oil pumping plant, where both the aircraft and the installation burnt fiercely. There was no chance for him to escape.
Flying Officer Smith, 8 Squadron, echoed the thoughts of many men during the war when he scribbled in his diary one day: 'When will it stop?'
Maintenance and repairs
While facing most of the dangers, aircrews were aware they could not take the war to the enemy without the support of dedicated and skilled ground staff. As one airman recalled, a squadron comprised many different men, all with a role to play:
The contribution made by the ground staff in keeping a squadron flying is often overshadowed by the exploits of the aircrew. However, it must be remembered that all members of the ground staff were important: no cooks, no messmen – no meals, no work, no flying. Other musterings including the transport section, clerks, guards, medical staff and storemen all worked hard to keep our aircraft in the air.
[Norm Cromack, 11 Squadron]
Aircrews spoke fondly of the men responsible for maintaining 'their' aircraft. Flying Officer Ralph James, 2 Squadron, described their efforts:
As far as is possible within human limitations every care is taken to see that the aircraft we fly are in the best possible condition and the men take a personal pride in servicing the aircraft in every way. Each job successfully done is as much credit to the ground crew responsible for servicing the plane, as it is to the crew who fly it.
Flying Officer Masters, 75 Squadron, remembered:
Our dedicated ground staff ... worked miracles every day. They managed to repair aircraft that had been damaged or recovered, with minimal resources, and their ingenuity is a credit to their skills. They also had to ensure our Allison engines and six Browning 1/2-inch machine guns and other equipment were in top class condition – ducking into their slit trenches when the bombers were overhead or the Zeros were strafing.
Ground staff sometimes also experienced deaths in their ranks – some in action, for instance in air raids, others in accidents or from tropical diseases.
The harsh tropics caused many difficulties for aircraft maintenance. As well as damage caused in combat or accidents, high humidity wreaked havoc on electrical systems unless well maintained, and spares were short. Leading Aircraftman Fred Woodgate, 54 Squadron RAF, undertook routine inspection and maintenance of 'his' Spitfire virtually every day before settling in to await any raids on Darwin:
The ground crews remained adjacent to 'their' aircraft in 'bludge huts' roughly made from discarded or bombed building material. They were on hand for instant action for 'red alerts' and 'scrambles'.
They assisted 'their' pilot into the cockpit ahead of take-off, and hoped to greet him upon return. In all units, when aircrews failed to return, ground staff took their loss personally.
Routine maintenance and repairs were undertaken within the squadron. However, wornout or seriously damaged aircraft often presented too great a challenge with limited workshop facilities. In 1942, Repair and Salvage Units (RSUs) were formed, with the task of recovering and repairing those aircraft, including any that came down some distance from base. In many cases, teams were able to recover aircraft relatively easily, but sometimes salvage was a great challenge. Squadron Leader Dick Sudlow, 77 Squadron, recalled one machine:
One of our aircraft was flying at about 20,000 feet [6100 m] one day when the engine ... caught fire and it quickly started to spread. There was no way he [the pilot] could hope to save the aircraft so he hurriedly made his departure by parachute. As he gently floated earthwards he saw the blazing Kittyhawk dive vertically into a huge swamp and completely disappear. The incident was fully reported to the powers that be, but nevertheless, they allocated us the aircraft for spare parts. What they didn't do was to suggest how we should recover the parts from the swamp.
Boggy or rough ground meant 'routine' jobs could take recovery teams many days. On one occasion during the 'wet season', men from 4 RSU in the Northern Territory went to recover a Beaufighter:
The salvage party left ... on 19th February  and after three days on the road, during which they were bogged several times, arrived at the scene ... a distance of 20 miles [30 km]. The ground was in such a state that without the aid of the horses [borrowed from an Army unit] the job would have been impossible. The aircraft was lifted and treated against corrosion, the salvage party returning ... on approximately 1 March.
Salvage operations were potentially dangerous because ammunition, fuel and unexploded bombs could be found in and around downed aircraft. The job of dismantling them was therefore best left to the experts. Sudlow recalled accompanying a team salvaging a Kittyhawk near Daly River, south of Darwin:
... the boys started dismantling the P-40, loading all the bits and pieces onto the trucks. When I asked what I could do to help I was told in no uncertain terms to keep out of the bloody way ...
Back at the RSUs, aircraft were rebuilt or, if too badly damaged, dismantled. Airframe and engine fitters (mechanics) routinely 'cannibalised' discarded airframes to get parts for aircraft they were rebuilding.
Radar, communications and intelligence
The development of radar in the 1930s brought a technical edge to air defence. Radar stations were sent to most operational areas, giving added warning of air raids and enabling the tracking of friendly aircraft. Among the first locations with radar were Port Moresby and Milne Bay, with 29 Radar Station being instrumental in the defence of Port Moresby. Later, as the Japanese were pushed back, radar stations were established in all forward areas. Frank Coghlan and Norm Smith of 305 Radar Station, established on Goodenough Island in early 1943, recalled:
As the station was on the main flight path between the major Japanese bases and Allied positions there was an almost uninterrupted string of plots, both hostile and friendly, being fed to Fighter Control ... A continuous watch was imperative and the radar mechanics, radar operators and wireless operators were rostered ... one shift on and two off with a longer stand down about every ten days. Two radar operators were on duty at any one time alternating between the display screen and the plotting table.
In radar stations in more isolated areas, life could be duller. In some locations, such as Wau, occasionally plots turned out to be enemy aircraft but elsewhere this was not the case. However, even if raids were not expected, radar stations continued to be manned and sometimes radar personnel helped save the lives of aircrews as they were able to warn of severe tropical storms, direct lost aircraft or assist search parties by determining the last known location of missing aircraft.
Most RAAF units had signals sections, as good communications were needed for control of flights and for routine administration. From late 1942, specialist Signals Units and Wireless Transmitting Stations were formed to handle higher level wireless and cable communications between Australia and forward bases. Sergeant Jack Herrald, a Wireless Maintenance Mechanic (WMM) in 10 Signals Unit at Port Moresby, found his work more challenging than expected:
... in addition to working on transmitters and receivers and sophisticated aerial systems, we were required to service and maintain what were known as the X machines, a German invention used for coding messages before transmission, and these kept us busy. None of us had ever heard of them before, let alone seen one. We were also required to look after various machines used for speeding up dramatically the transmission of Morse code by the use of a perforated tape. The electricity emergency power supply was another responsibility.
Signalmen also served in forward areas, establishing air-ground communications during battles and ensuring contact between units and headquarters. Leading Aircraftman John Kingsmill, 4 Squadron, was at Tsili Tsili, New Guinea, in mid-1944, handling communications with Port Moresby during the advances on Lae and Salamaua:
We wireless operators dug a pit for our equipment with enough space left over for two of us to work in and sidle about ... Over the pit we put a tent-fly on an arrangement of poles. The pit was against bombs, the tent-fly against rain. And that is where we would work, day and night, in eight-hour shifts ... No one ever told you what all the encoded Morse [code] actually said ... That was for 'Intelligence', not us.
Postal Units also served in operational areas, usually attached to Operational Base Units established for administration, workshop and supply services.
In 1942, another 'communications' unit came into being when 1 Wireless Unit was formed at Townsville. It moved to Port Moresby, and eventually sent detachments to forward areas. In addition, 2 and 3 Wireless Units served in the Northern Territory and three more ended up in the Philippines under American control. The nondescript titling was actually a cover for these intelligence units that intercepted and decoded Japanese messages.
Among the hardest worked and most travelled of RAAF units were Mobile Works Squadrons – redesignated Airfield Construction Squadrons. Along with their Survey and Design Units and Works Supply Units, they served on every front, constructing airfields and other infrastructure under adverse conditions. Often, they were subjected to air raids and ground fire. Leading Aircraftman Roy Woodman, 6 Mobile Works Squadron, remembered the difficulties of working in the tropics:
The laying of airfields in an area like Milne Bay had to be seen to be believed. At one stage we worked in pouring rain for 31 days straight; with humidity at 80 per cent it was most unpleasant, but at least the rain reduced the number of air raids ... One would have had to be there to appreciate the magnitude of the operation and the hardships endured by our unit. We had very little sleep between air raids, mud 4 inches [10 cm] deep, and 90 per cent illness from malaria and other fevers.
Most units followed the Allied advances towards the Philippines and Borneo. In fact, they were near the forefront, as airfields were needed as soon as possible for fighters to fly 'top cover' over newly captured areas. In April 1944, 62 Works Wing landed at Aitape, New Guinea, in support of American forces. Transported in amphibious vessels with equipment ranging from shovels to bulldozers, they came ashore while American troops were still pressing inland from the beachheads. Corporal Lindsay Hodges, 5 Mobile Works Squadron, described the scene:
... there were ships and hundreds of barges everywhere. We eventually landed and the sight which met our eyes was beyond description, desolation and dead everywhere, floating in the water, lying on the beach. Horrible sight ... nearby was a Jap hospital, between 20 and 30 dead, some had been dead a few days and just left where they died. The others of course were shot up properly, dead lying everywhere. The smell is horrific ...
Members of 13 Signals Unit also landed and established air-ground communications to facilitate close air support of troops.
In November 1944, 3 Airfield Construction Squadron landed at Leyte, supporting the American reconquest of the Philippines. The next month, it landed on Mindoro Island alongside the first waves of American infantry. A few RAAF men were slightly wounded as the unit pushed inland to build an airstrip. They were then subjected to air raids. Squadron Leader Acheson Overend observed:
... a terrific dog fight overhead, at least 50 fighters involved at once and at least five fights going on simultaneously ... Had a bad scare watching belly tanks falling into camp thinking they were bombs. Watched at least 13 aircraft shot down, and two [American] Lightnings force landed on strip.
Back at the beaches, Leading Aircraftman William Barham was killed by shrapnel from a kamikaze that narrowly missed a landing ship on which his mates were unloading equipment and supplies. Barham was 17, having put his age up two years to enlist the year before.
Airfield construction squadrons later also contributed to the success of Australian operations in Borneo. Others continued maintaining airfields in the Northern Territory, New Guinea and Morotai, in the Netherlands East Indies.
The tropics tested RAAF medical services fully. As well as casualties from combat and accidents, staff had to battle tropical diseases. Wing Commander William (Bill) Deane-Butcher, a doctor, explained:
... the scope of my concern for the health of the men was quite mind boggling. For example water purification, food inspection and fly control, sewage and latrines to minimise bowel infections, mosquito control, protective clothing and repellents to minimise mosquito borne infections, laundry and washing facilities to minimise skin problems. I had to enquire about vermin and the local wildlife such as scorpions, snakes and so on.
He also contended with demands from a commanding officer who, pressed for pilots in the face of repeated air raids, urged his men to continue flying even when they were not really fit.
Medical staff also manned Medical Clearing Stations and Medical Receiving Stations that dealt with the more seriously injured and ill requiring hospital treatment or evacuation. Sister Glenda McNamara, 2 Medical Receiving Station, recalled:
I was theatre sister ... We mostly had ordinary cases on the Base except for one night when a small craft attached to the RAN [Royal Australian Navy] blew up in the harbour. There were many casualties and we worked throughout the night. Food poisoning in the Sergeants' Mess kept us busy one night too.
Medical staff also experienced the dangers of war, including air raids. Some nurses were at Darwin during the first devastating raid. Senior Sister Ila Smith recalled their anxiety:
The planes came over in perfect formation and let us have it ... The noise was terrific. A bomb exploded 10 yards [9 m] from our trench and, believe me, we thought our end had come. Although our trench was made of rock, the vibration caused it to tremble, and the dirt and rubble fell in on our back and tin hats ... if only our tin hats had extended down our backs we would have felt happier.
It was a sentiment shared by many aircrews and ground staff, as air raids were experienced on all fronts.
In March 1944, the first Medical Air Evacuation Transport Unit (MAETU) was formed. These included members of the RAAF Nursing Service as well as male orderlies and administrative staff. Often the nurses and orderlies flew in American aircraft carrying supplies forward and returning with casualties; later, as the RAAF acquired Dakota transport aircraft, they flew in these. The sisters' tour of duty was approximately 1000 hours flying time, with an average two or three return trips a week, clocking up 60 to 100 hours in the air each month. The demands on them were explained in a wartime article, 'Nightingales in New Guinea':
'Sister, can I have a drink, please?' ... 'Sister, my head hurts' ... 'Sister, can you spare a minute?' ... 'Sister, stay and talk to me' ... 'Sister ...' It might be any hospital ward or tent ... or a transport plane, carrying sick and wounded back from a forward strip to the comfort of a base hospital – a strange little world of sickness and pain, flying through space, eight, nine, ten thousand feet above the earth and the sea, where there is just room for Sister to move up and down between the tiers of stretchers.
Two members of the RAAF Nursing Service and a male orderly were killed in crashes while evacuating patients after the war's end.
Rescues and escapes
Aircrews gave themselves little hope of survival if shot down over enemy territory. Jungle made it hard to successfully crash-land and difficult to escape. The best chance of survival was to come down in the sea, but even then there was no guarantee of rescue. Flight Lieutenant Graham Sivyer, 75 Squadron, explained:
Many of the operations ... were strafing and dive-bombing land and seaborne targets, and during my tour of duty a dozen pilots were killed, with many more shot into the sea and rescued by Catalina aircraft or American PT boats. Some quite simply disappeared without trace.
The first difficulty for aircrews in crashing aircraft was to get free. In the heat of combat, many had no chance. At low level, doomed aircraft crashed in seconds – sometimes, in the blink of an eye – while at higher level men could be trapped in a rapidly descending and spinning machine. Flying Officer Sid Wadey, 2 Squadron, described his escape from a burning Hudson:
I had been protected from the direct blast of the explosion of the petrol tank by the armour plating [behind the pilot's seat] ... I instinctively reacted very quickly, flicked the seat belt undone, and jumped at the correct angle, toward the escape hatch in the top of the aircraft. In the process, I knocked back the throttles, and as I jumped vertically head first through the escape hatch, I was aware of being hit in the lower back by the top of the fuselage, as the slipsteam forced me backward. I fell clear of the aircraft on the right side, facing forward and could see A16-209 dropping back out of the formation with flames streaming back behind like a comet tail. I looked around hoping to see other parachutes, but realised that there would not be any.
As Wadey explained, the rest of his crew were either dead or had no chance to escape:
I saw some of the bullets hit Stan Faull, the navigator, in his back as he was passing through the entrance from the cockpit into the body of the aircraft, also he would have been directly alongside the exploding tank ... In order to escape from the plane it was necessary for the [other] crew to move forward in the body of the plane to one side or the other, grab the parachute, and clip it on the harness. ... [However] it was literally impossible in the intense heat and flames to find their respective (or any) parachute pack, grab it, clip it on, dash to the exit door in the back of the cabin and jettison the door, before they could jump out. For the tail gunner, his position was even more desperate. He had to swivel the turret, align it with an opening into the body of the aircraft, his only means of escape, then leap into what was a fiery furnace in order to obtain his pack.
Wadey was rescued by Timorese villagers and taken to an Australian commando patrol.
Other airmen ditched in the sea, which was always dangerous as aircraft could flip or sink rapidly. Flight Sergeant Bob Crawford, 75 Squadron, ditched after being shot down by two Zeros off Port Moresby:
With the gear up and no flap, I touched down tail first at 90-100 mph [145-160 km/h], holding the stick back to keep the airscoop out of the water. The aircraft bounced lightly two or three times before it lost speed and the nose dropped, the scoop filled with water and the aircraft nose-dipped and began to sink. I unclipped my Sutton harness and swam to the tail; I sat on the tailplane and hid behind the rudder as the Zeros flew low overhead. I was not sure if they intended to strafe me in the water, but instead they flew across the harbour and attacked some Catalina flying boats ... moored there.
Sergeant Guy Saunders, Marine Section, Darwin, was a crewman in a crash launch sent to rescue a pilot who came down near Darwin and was possibly drifting out to sea. After two hours of searching, the pilot was spotted on shore:
The pilot was so pleased to see us that he met us halfway in his rubber dinghy, tired as he was ... He was ... hungry and thirsty! He drank three pint mugs of tea, got 'stuck into' the tinned sausages, as if they were never seen up north, and smoked with absolute sensuality. In fact he managed these things with such enthusiasm, he seemed to be eating, drinking, smoking, and talking simultaneously.
More dangerous were rescues requiring flying boats to venture into enemy territory. Catalina crews often shadowed Allied bombers and fighter-bombers in case any were brought down. Aircrews were instructed that if their aircraft was critically damaged, they should try and get as far out to sea as possible. Sometimes, they barely made it past the shoreline. In June 1944, Pilot Officer Bob Merrotsy, 8 Squadron, who had earlier ditched during training, was in a Beaufort struck by anti-aircraft fire over Wewak, New Guinea:
... our starboard engine was gone. As we jettisoned our bomb load, we headed for the ocean ... There was no way we were going very far before crashing ... In fact we remained airborne for only 4 minutes after being hit. As Noel pounded out 'Mayday, Mayday, Mayday' I recall tucking my good luck charm (my forage cap) inside my Mae West, remarking over the intercom 'Here I go again' ... not appreciated by the crew!
An American Catalina rescued them.
Leading Aircraftman Phil Lindsay, 8 Communication Unit, recalled another air-sea rescue even closer to shore. He was advised by his skipper:
We'll be landing off Wewak. An American B-25 Mitchell's come down. We've got to try to pick up the crew. They're about 200 yards [180 m] off the Jap camp. I don't think we'll be coming back.
Offered a chance to stay behind, as his brother had been killed earlier in the war, Lindsay replied: 'Skip, I couldn't live with myself if I squibbed it.' After a two-hour flight, they landed and picked up the Americans, who had spent five hours in the water paddling to keep away from the shore while Japanese troops took pot shots, and pledging to shoot themselves rather than be captured.
Sometimes, rescue attempts ended tragically. Warrant Officer Doug Sykes, 20 Squadron, was in a Catalina that landed alongside an American vessel in difficulty. The aircraft lost power when taking off:
I was knocked out ... and when I came to found the Cat was broken in half ... Somehow, don't know how, we managed to get free ... There was nothing we could do for Geoff Coventry, our Skipper was trapped in the front section and went down with the aircraft.
One airman rescued was Pilot Officer Roy Shilling, 24 Squadron, whose Liberator bomber was shot down off Soemba Island, Netherlands East Indies, in April 1945, while attacking a Japanese cruiser. After parachuting from the burning bomber, Shilling was picked up by an RAAF Catalina. They landed again to pick up another survivor but the Catalina was strafed by a Japanese fighter and caught fire. Forced back into the water, Shilling was rescued a second time by another Catalina that was almost shot down. Skilled piloting and gunnery saved them. Shilling recalled: 'The bravery and determination of these men saved my life'.
Other airmen walked for days along jungle tracks to reach safety. One of the most extraordinary epics was that of Flying Officer Ray Graetz, 100 Squadron, shot down near Wewak in May 1944. After ditching close to shore, he and the other three crewmen were fired on by the Japanese. Two were killed and another drowned after the liferaft sank. Graetz made it ashore, weakened by loss of blood, and wandered for several days among Japanese camps, sabotaging guns and engines, stealing food and clothing from huts, and bluffing his way past sentries. At one stage he was on the receiving end of an Allied air raid:
Taking shelter under a wide spreading tree, just off the road, I found the experience terrifying as bombs exploded nearby and later a belly tank was dropped on the tree and hit by tracers.
After eight days, Graetz was rescued by American patrol boats. He was awarded the Military Cross for 'outstanding courage, initiative and complete disregard for his own safety'.
Prisoners of war
Other airmen were not lucky enough to escape. The largest single group of RAAF personnel taken prisoner was more than 200 men – mostly members of 1 Squadron – compelled to surrender with Allied forces on Java in March 1942. Many of these men died in captivity from starvation, neglect, diseases and overwork, including on the infamous Burma- Thailand Railway.
In other areas of the Pacific, most airmen captured were executed. Just a handful was spared, emerging at war's end from camps in Japan and the Netherlands East Indies. The first sizeable group executed was a party of 11 men, under Wing Commander AD Scott, stranded on Ambon in February 1942 and captured trying to get away in a small boat. In November 1942, eight members of 11 Squadron whose Catalina was forced down off Bougainville met with the same fate. Others were killed alone or with one or two crewmates. Flight Sergeant Frank McDonald, 23 Squadron, piloting a Vengeance divebomber, was shot down near Madang, New Guinea, in February 1944. He baled out but broke a leg on landing in the jungle. His fate is recorded in the citation for his Mention in Despatches:
He was cared for for some days by friendly natives but later his presence was discovered by the Japanese ... McDonald was interrogated in an endeavour to elucidate information which would be helpful to the Japanese ... [but] refused to answer any question and was thereupon killed by being shot with a pistol ...
A Japanese serviceman, Suchiya Misaku, recalled the death of Flight Sergeant John Lyon at Lae:
... the Prisoner of War was blindfolded. One of the officers then said, 'Make him kneel' ... Lieutenant Shimazu was greatly impressed with the fortitude the Australian displayed when about to be executed ... [The executioner] carried his rifle ... with bayonet fixed. He ... suddenly lunged, plunged the bayonet through the Australian's back towards the heart. As the Australian's body stiffened the bayonet was withdrawn and the Australian fell forward into the grave.
Most airmen expected to die in this fashion if captured. Many swore to 'go down fighting'. On 27 July 1945, Flight Sergeant John Orgill, 21 Squadron, a wireless operator/air gunner in a Liberator, was shot down over the Celebes Islands, Netherlands East Indies. After baling out, he landed in the garden of a Chinese family.
In spite of repeated entreaties to seek safety [in nearby hills] he insisted on making an attempt to ascertain the fate of his comrades, but was shortly arrested by a number of armed Japanese who had observed him land. Flight Sergeant Orgill was then taken under armed guard ... On the way to the gaol ... [he] snatched the bayonet from the scabbard of one of his guards and, against overwhelming odds, made a valiant attempt to fight his way free. However, he was ruthlessly overpowered and killed.
Orgill's surviving crewmates, Pilot Officer George Lindley and Flight Sergeant Arnold Lockyer, one of a number of indigenous Australian servicemen in the RAAF, were executed on 21 August 1945 (six days after Japan's surrender).
Because the Japanese did not treat prisoners of war decently, as required by the Geneva Convention, all of the RAAF servicemen who were captured suffered a harrowing ordeal. Those fortunate enough not be executed struggled on, with about a third dying in captivity. One who survived was Warrant Officer Ivor Jones, 36 Squadron RAF, captured in Java in 1942. He remembered the war's end:
When the war ended, I was stunned, I couldn't believe it ... I got a letter from one of my brothers, there were seven of us in the family, we had all joined up and I wondered who was alive ... we could all go home now. But the end was a bit of an anti-climax. As soon as the first meeting of the family was over, we each found we had to go back and see our mates again, you missed them. People would come up and say, 'Oh, you've been a prisoner of war, was it terrible?' Then they'd look away and that was it.
The RAAF ended the war on a humanitarian note by flying home many former prisoners of war and also troops who were wounded or fell sick in the final campaigns. The aircrews of Dakota transports, Liberator bombers and Catalina flying boats which had carried the war to the enemy now delivered home those who had suffered so much.
The RAAF had contributed materially to victory in the Pacific, first endeavouring to halt the relentless Japanese advance and then taking part in the Allied counter-offensive to the Philippines and Borneo. It struck against enemy forces repeatedly and offered invaluable support in the air, on land and at sea.
The cost in lives was heavy: more than 2000 killed, 850 wounded and 400 taken prisoner of war, many of whom died in captivity.
The official history of the RAAF in the Pacific in World War II comprises volumes by Douglas Gillison, Royal Australian Air Force 1939–42 (Canberra, 1962) and George Odgers, Air War Against Japan 1943–1945 (Canberra, 1957). Quotes of Flight Lieutenants JT O'Brien and JR Kinninmont are from Gillison's volume.
Unit histories from which quotes were drawn are John Bennett, Highest Traditions (Canberra, 1995) for Sid Wadey; Don Brown, We Were WMMs (Canberra, 1992) for Jack Herrald; Gay Halstead, Story of the RAAF Nursing Service 1940–1990 (Metung, 1994) for Glenda McNamara and Ila Smith; George Turnbull Dick, Beaufighters Over New Guinea (Point Cook, 1993) for George Graham; Norm Smith and Frank Coghlan, Secret Action of 305 (Point Cook, 1987); Walter J Venn, Restore to Service (Loftus, 1999); and David Wilson, Always First (Canberra, 1998) for Lindsay Hodges and Acheson Overend.
Memoirs include William Deane-Butcher, Fighter Squadron Doctor (Sydney, 1989); John Kingsmill, No Hero (Sydney, 1994); Peter Masters, Born Lucky (Adelaide, 1998); Kenneth McDonald, Coomalie Charlie's Commandos (Maryborough, 1996); Ted Park, Angels Twenty (St Lucia, 1994); and Dick Sudlow, Flying with Lady Luck (Ulladulla, 1999).
Jim Turner, The RAAF at War (Sydney, 1999) was the source of quotes for John Bisley, Kym Bonython, Bruce 'Buster' Brown, CA Butterworth, Bob Crawford, Norm Cromack, Dean Kelly, Peter Masters (shooting down a Zero), George Sharp, Fred Woodgate, Roy Woodman and Tom Young; Patsy Adam Smith, Prisoners of War (Melbourne, 1992) for Ivor Jones; JD Balfe, War Without Glory (Sydney, 1984) for Ron Cornfoot, Peter Gibbes and Robert Law-Smith; RW Baskerville and RG Warfield, Ditched (Kenmore, 2002) for Bob Merrotsy and Doug Sykes; Hilarie Lindsay, Rescue at Wewak (Leichhardt, 2002) for Phil Lindsay; Hank Nelson, POW: Australians Under Nippon (Sydney, 1985) for 'Spud' Spurgeon; and Eve Scott, Untold & Told Stories of the Air Force (1997) for Ray Graetz and Graham Sivyer. 'Nightgales in New Guinea' is from RAAF Saga (Canberra, 1944) and GBH Saunders, 'First rescue job', is in As You Were (Canberra, 1949).
The Australian War Memorial was the source of original papers of Ralph James (AWM PR00661) and Tom Lamb (3DRL/6066). The diary of FN Smith is from a private collection.
The citations for Sergeant Frank McDonald and Flight Sergeant John Orgill are from an official file in the National Archives of Australia (A705 file 55/1/1222); as is the statement by Suchiya Misaku (A705 file 166/25/26). The citation for the Victoria Cross awarded to Flight Lieutenant William Newton is in Lionel Wigmore, They Dared Mightily (Canberra, 1963).
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