The war in the air

The war in the south-west Pacific was primarily a contest for possession of air bases...

The side which held the bases could project air power from them, sinking enemy ships, thus preventing supplies being sent across the sea. Without supplies the armies on islands such as New Guinea would eventually starve.

As Papua is mountainous and the coastal lowlands are subject to flooding there were only a handful of airfields or potential sites there in 1942. It is no surprise that a list of these places is also a list of the scenes of the fighting on land, sea and air: Port Moresby, Milne Bay, Kokoda and Buna-Gona.

Port Moresby, as the premier Allied base in Papua, was the target of 94 Japanese air raids to January 1943. Milne Bay was also the scene of air encounters between Australian P-40 fighters, led by the aces Keith (Bluey) Truscott and Peter Turnbull, and aircraft of the Imperial Japanese Navy. Among the Japanese pilots who fought over Milne Bay were two of their top aces, Sakai Saburo and Nishizawa Hiroyoshi.

Along the Kokoda track Allied aircraft were almost unopposed in their ground attacks on Japanese soldiers because the concurrent battle on Guadalcanal absorbed most of the Japanese effort in the air. The Allied aircraft were usually unable to identify targets in the jungle and the Japanese found these attacks caused few casualties and did little damage. However, when a Japanese resupply convoy was to go from Rabaul to Buna-Gona, the Imperial Japanese Navy would temporarily switch its main air effort back to Papua. The largest and most prolonged air fighting of the Papuan campaign, and the heaviest losses among the aircrew on both sides, took place over these convoys, either in the Solomon Sea or as they unloaded at Buna-Gona. Again the Allied air attacks were not very successful. Of 24 Japanese transport ships which made the Rabaul to Buna-Gona run, only two were sunk by air attack.

Just less than 600 Allied aircrew were killed in the air fighting of the Papuan campaign. Japanese losses were half this number, commensurate with their smaller commitment of air assets to the campaign.

Last updated: 12 February 2019

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2019), The war in the air, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 28 September 2023,
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