Episodes & Studies Volume 1
Protecting the Bombers
Protecting the Bombers
AS THEIR Kittyhawks could not operate at great heights, the usual task of the New Zealand pilots in the bombing strikes against Rabaul was to provide close cover for the American bombers. Slightly above the close cover flew a low cover of Hellcats, and above them a medium cover of Corsairs, with a top cover of P38 Lightnings or Corsairs flying at about 25,000 feet. The close cover—the Kittyhawks—had to stay with the bombers all the time to protect them from any aircraft that might dive through the higher covers. It was a role that called for much flying discipline, as often it meant missing the chance of a fight.
The kind of discipline required is well illustrated by this set of rules drawn up about this time by the commanding officer of one of the New Zealand squadrons:
Keep both pairs of eyes open, the pair in your head and the pair in your back, and remember the sun.
Work as a team and be a little more interested in the safety of the other pilots in the division. They in turn will reciprocate, the whole bringing about a better understanding of mutual support.
Keep your eye on your division leader and follow him implicitly. He knows what he is doing. That is why he is a leader.
Never straggle or be lured away from the bombers. If you are left behind catch up immediately and then never fly straight and level for more than five seconds. If necessary weave with someone—anyone.
Keep radio silence. If it is important, tell your leader, slowly, concisely and quietly. Then stop talking.
Never get the idea that the fight is over, even on the way home. Don’t get the idea either that the fight doesn’t start until you are over the target.
Don’t do the block.* Think quickly, decide immediately, and act simultaneously.
Finally and once again never, never, NEVER straggle.
This high standard of flying discipline was demanded of our pilots because their Kittyhawks were inferior in performance to the original Zeros, except in diving, and could outfight the Zekes only through brilliant teamwork.
The sweep of 17 December was to have been followed the next day by a bomber attack, but this was abandoned because of bad flying conditions. On the 19th, however, a strike was made by American B24 Liberators from Guadalcanal, and for this the RNZAF Wing provided part of the escort. No. 16 Squadron, led this time by Vanderpump, sent twelve aircraft, and No. 17, led by Squadron Leader P. G. H. Newton,11 another twelve. The latter had arrived at Ondonga to relieve No. 14 Squadron, which had completed its second tour of duty and was due to return to New Zealand.
* Get flustered.
Anti-aircraft fire was met over Rabaul, but it did no serious damage, and no enemy fighters appeared until the Liberators had dropped their bombs and were drawing away from the target. Then four Zekes dived on the rear formation above which Flight Lieutenant J. H. Mills12 (No. 17 Squadron) was weaving with his No. 2, Flight Sergeant D. A. Williams.13 When the New Zealanders turned towards them two of the Zekes broke away at once, but the other two continued diving and levelled out 2000 feet below the bombers. Mills followed them, giving two bursts from his gun and hitting one Zeke in the fuselage. It escaped by making a tight turn, only to run into the fire of Williams, who was following his leader down. Hit by two more bursts, the enemy tightened his turn still more, then rolled over on his back and dived to the ground.
During the rest of December bad weather interfered with operations, but on Christmas Eve the New Zealand squadrons, led by Arkwright and Newton, carried out a fighter sweep over Rabaul with twenty-four American Hellcats. The sweep approached the target in tiers, with the Kittyhawks forming the two lowest.
When it was about ten miles north-east of the town, forty or more Japanese fighters climbed to intercept it, and at once the New Zealand squadrons, each choosing a group of the enemy, dived to the attack. Soon furious dog-fights were taking place at heights from 18,000 feet to sea-level, with more fighters joining in all the time. Though the Japanese aircraft were better than the Kittyhawks at all altitudes in this kind of combat the New Zealanders always engaged them. They were forced to, for had they dived to safety after striking the first blow those following would have been at the mercy of the enemy. However, the Kittyhawks gave a good account of themselves in these dog-fights, damaging many Zekes and sometimes making a kill.
This particular action is described from one man’s point of view by Squadron Leader Newton:
On the way in [to the target] we could see clouds of dust rising off the Tobera strip. When we were about five miles south-east of Praed Point two groups of ‘bandits’, with more than twenty aircraft in each, were seen climbing up on our port side. The further group was a little higher than the nearer group. Squadron Leader Arkwright led No. 16 Squadron down on the nearer group, and I went down on the further group, both of us saying on the R/T* that we were going to attack.
I picked a Zeke near the front of the very loose formation and opened fire at 300 yards in a stern quarter attack, continuing firing as I followed the Zeke round in a turn until I was dead astern. The Zeke exploded at the wing roots and started to burn, with bits of the aircraft flying off. He tumbled over and went down in flames. I saw many aircraft shot down by the Squadron in this initial attack. I pulled round to the left, looking for another target. The sky was full of P40s and bandits milling round. I saw a Zeke on my left at the same level doing a left-hand turn. I turned, closing in astern, and fired a one-second burst at 250–300 yards. He did a complete flick roll to the left and when he pulled up I was still astern at 200 yards. I fired a 2–3 second burst and got hits all round the fuselage. He fell off in a lazy roll to the right and went straight down, apparently out of control.
* Radio telephone
I then found another Zeke milling round in the sky where about twelve P40s were mixing with a mass of Zekes. We were now down to about 12,000 feet. I turned in towards him and as he started a gentle turn to the left, I closed right in to 300 yards astern and fired a short burst. He flick-rolled to the left and as he straightened up I fired a long burst from dead astern. He fell away in a lazy roll to the right and then went down in a vertical dive. I rolled behind him and fired short bursts as he came in my sights. I observed my tracer going into the fuselage. I broke away at low level as I saw the Zeke go into the sea. As I was following him down I saw another Zeke go into the sea. This could have been the Zeke I had engaged previously and left in an uncontrolled dive.
I started to regain altitude and was set upon by six Zekes. I fired several bursts haphazardly at them, but they hemmed me in and I broke violently down again. At full throttle I could not shake off some of the Zekes, so I went right down to the water and headed for the Duke of York Islands. I found another P40 in the same predicament, so we scissored together. As the Zeke broke away we turned back towards the fight. As I saw four P40s making out to the rally point (Cape St. George) and as the fight seemed to be working out from Rabaul, we again turned towards the rally point and were immediately pounced upon from above by six to eight Zekes. We used full power and overtook the P40s ahead of us. I saw a P40 low down over the water behind me in the direction of Rabaul so I turned back and started to scissor with him. After the first scissor he was shot down by a Zeke. His aircraft trailed smoke and went into the sea, ten miles north-west from Cape St. George. I went right down to the water at full throttle with two Zekes behind shooting. I skidded violently and most of the tracer (7.7 millimetre) went over my head into the sea. The Zekes broke off five miles from Cape St. George where I joined five or six P40s and set course for Torokina. We ‘pancaked’ there at 1300 hours.
In terms of enemy aircraft destroyed this was the most successful action of the war for the New Zealand Fighter Wing. Twelve Japanese aircraft were shot down, four more probably destroyed, and many damaged. Seven RNZAF aircraft were lost but two of the pilots were saved. Flying Officer K. W. Starnes14 crashed just off Torokina beach and was rescued, while Flight Sergeant Williams, who had been shot down over St. George’s Channel, was rescued after six hours in the water by an air-sea rescue aircraft and taken to Torokina, where he entered hospital suffering from slight gunshot wounds. The five pilots lost were Flight Lieutenants A. W. Buchanan15 and P. S. Worsp,16 Flying Officers M. E. Dark and D. B. Page,17 and Sergeant R. H. Covic.18
By comparison the next operation was almost uneventful. It took place on Christmas Day, when seventeen RNZAF aircraft acted as close cover for twenty-four Liberators. The formation was attacked over the target, and Kittyhawks of No. 16 Squadron fired a few bursts at Zeros that penetrated the higher layers of fighters, but no definite results were observed. This was No. 16 Squadron’s last Rabaul operation in the tour, and it returned to New Zealand at the end of the year after being relieved by No. 15.
During December 144 Japanese fighters were shot down for the loss of twenty-three Allied fighters and one bomber. When the first heavy attack was launched against Rabaul on 17 December the Torokina airfield at Empress Augusta Bay had been in use for only twelve days, and at that time not more than a dozen fighters were based on it. The rest, like the Kittyhawks of the RNZAF, were based farther south and had to refuel at Torokina on the way to Rabaul.
IN NEW GEORGIA
SERVICING UNIT, ONDONGA
SCORE BOARD, ONDONGA, November 1943
KITTYHAWKS RETURN FROM RAID, TOROKINA
KITTYHAWK LANDING, BOUGAINVILLE
No. 17 Squadron pilots who took part in the first RNZAF bomber escort mission over Rabaul. (page 6)
L. E. Bradley, I. A. Speedy, D. L. Jones, D. A. Williams, P. S. Worsp, J. H. Mills, P. G. H. Newton,
A. G. S. George, B. H. Thomson, R. H. Covic, J. Edwards, B. A. McHardic
AIRMEN’S MESS, ONDONGA
Overhauling a Ventura Engine, Bougainville
BOMBER RECONNAISSANCE VENTURAS
Photographs of Japanese defences taken in September 1945
SOME DEFENCES OF RABAUL
Damaged Japanese aircraft at Rabaul, September 1945
The first light bomber attack was to have been made on 5 January by Dauntlesses and Avengers*, but they were turned back by bad weather. They tried again two days later and again failed. Fighters and flak were thick over the Rabaul area and the target—Tobera airfield—was hidden by cloud, so the bombers, after twice trying to bomb it, flew to Cape St. George in New Ireland and attacked targets there. Two Zekes had fallen to No. 17 Squadron, against which one Kittyhawk had been damaged by flak.
On the 9th the airfield was raided successfully. No. 15 Squadron, under Flight Lieutenant C. R. Bush,19 escorted the Dauntlesses and met no air opposition except an attack by phosphorus bombs, which did no harm,** but No. 17 Squadron, with the Avengers, met a score of Zekes, which dropped phosphorus bombs and then attacked with their guns. Squadron Leader Newton shot down two and Flight Lieutenant A. G. S. George20 one, but the squadron lost two fine pilots, Flying Officers A. B. Sladen21 and D. L. Jones.22 Both parachuted into the sea, and though dinghies were seen later by a patrolling Ventura they had disappeared before a rescue could be made.
The usual method of attack in this type of operation was for the bombers to fly towards the target at about 15,000 feet, make a shallow dive to 8000 feet, and then ‘push over’ into their bombing dive. In the attacks on airfields the Dauntlesses usually led, dropping their bombs on the anti-aircraft batteries from 2000 feet, pulling out of their dive at 1000 feet, and getting away as fast as possible. The Avengers followed close behind them, diving to 1000 feet before dropping their bombs on the runways and then pulling out at 800 to 900 feet. The fighters’ task was to weave above the bombers as they approached the target. The top cover stayed above them always, but the close and the low covers followed them down as they dived so that they could protect them while they reformed—the most critical moment of the raid.
Throughout January and February the Allies attacked Rabaul daily except when the weather was unfavourable. Unfavourable weather in the New Britain area usually meant that masses of towering cumulus cloud extended from about 40,000 feet above sea-level down to about 1000 feet, with heavy tropical rain underneath. When this happened the target was ‘weathered out’, and the striking force had to seek an alternative one, but even so the RNZAF fighters took part in thirteen successful strikes during January, acting on almost every occasion as close cover for American Mitchells*** or for Dauntlesses and Avengers.
* Dauntless—a dive bomber. Avenger—a torpedo-bomber. Both were used extensively in the South Pacific as dive bombers.
** The dropping of phosphorus bombs from high-flying aircraft was a feature of the Japanese fighter defence at this time. They were supposed to burst among our aircraft, and although they never hit any they sometimes disorganised the squadrons. Their bursts, moreover, served as rallying points for the Japanese fighters, showing them where they were most needed.
*** Twin-engined medium bombers.
On 17 January the RNZAF Fighter Wing moved from Ondonga to Torokina, on Bougainville. They regretted leaving quarters in which they had managed to make themselves fairly comfortable, in spite of heat, torrential rain, and frequent air raids, but they were now within striking distance of Rabaul and did not have to leave early in the morning and return late at night after refuelling on the way.