Royal New Zealand Air Force
FORMATION OF NEW ZEALAND SQUADRON IN NEW CALEDONIA
FORMATION OF NEW ZEALAND SQUADRON IN NEW CALEDONIA
While preparations for the attack on Guadalcanal were in progress, and some months before the RNZAF was allotted a page 130 definite role in the Pacific campaign, Rear Admiral McCain (Commander Air, South Pacific) asked the New Zealand Government to send six Vincents from Fiji to New Caledonia, where he was short of aircraft for anti-submarine patrols. After some discussion it was decided not to send Vincents, which were unsuitable for long-range patrols in an area where enemy opposition was likely, but to substitute Hudsons. Two Hudsons were flown to New Caledonia from Fiji and additional ones were despatched from Nos. 1 and 2 Squadrons in New Zealand. From New Zealand also went the ground staff and administrative personnel to form a squadron.
At this stage the conditions of employment of RNZAF units in the South Pacific were not systematised as they were later; but at a liaison conference held at Noumea on 22–23 June between COMAIRSOPAC [Commander Air, South Pacific], the Colonel Commanding the USAAF in New Caledonia, and three RNZAF staff officers, it was agreed that the training, operations, and part of the administration of the New Zealand unit should be under American control from the time it arrived on the island.
The advance party of ground personnel left New Zealand in the United States seaplane tender Mackinac on 1 July. It comprised four officers and thirty other ranks, under the command of Squadron Leader Kidson.1 The party arrived in Noumea Harbour on the evening of 5 July, and preparations were made to disembark on the following morning. At midnight, however, general and action stations were sounded on the ship and the commander explained to all officers that three Japanese cruisers, four destroyers, and an aircraft carrier were within two and a half hours' distance, and were apparently on their way to bombard Noumea. The only forces in Noumea to counter the attack were the Mackinac, a seaplane repair ship, and an antiquated French gunboat. The commander offered to put the New Zealand contingent ashore, but all volunteered to remain on the ship and help in any way possible. The alarm was maintained until two o'clock the following afternoon, when a signal was received stating that the invading force had turned away and was steaming towards the Coral Sea. At eight o'clock next morning the New Zealanders disembarked, after being mustered by the ship's commander and thanked for the help given in the emergency.
They were taken in trucks to Plaine des Gaiacs, some 180 miles from Noumea, where an airfield was being constructed by the Hawaiian Construction Company and where the New Zealand squadron, when it arrived, was to be based.
When the camp had been erected, the signals section which had formed part of the advance party went to work with the American 69th Bombardment Squadron, which was already operating from the airfield, while awaiting the arrival of its own equipment. The administrative staff, meanwhile, continued to make the camp ready to accommodate the main body of the unit, which was brought from New Zealand on a second trip by the USS Mackinac.
The move of a unit to New Caledonia had raised two major supply problems as far as New Zealand resources were concerned. In the first place it had been necessary to deplete the RNZAF forces in Fiji by taking some Hudsons from there. Secondly, shortages of American equipment in New Caledonia had to be made up from stocks in New Zealand. The move, however, was welcomed by New Zealand as it was hoped that it would encourage the American authorities to do all they could to further the re-equipment of the RNZAF.
Until prefabricated wooden huts arrived from New Zealand all accommodation was in tents erected by the advance party. Later, huts were put up for messes and offices, but most of the men lived under canvas all the time they were on the island. All cooking and messing equipment was taken from New Zealand, as well as stocks of technical supplies and paint for camouflage. Field service rations were to be supplied by the Americans, but an emergency ration for twenty-one days was to be held by the RNZAF. Because of an acute shortage of motor vehicles among the American forces in New Caledonia, New Zealand was to send the maximum number possible. Rifles and ammunition also were taken by the New Zealanders, as well as stocks of bombs and detonators.
Shortage of domestic equipment, caused partly by the failure of the Americans to supply all that was expected and partly by the failure of the RNZAF unit to take sufficient with it, prevailed during the greater part of the unit's stay in New Caledonia.
The first two RNZAF aircraft to operate in New Caledonia flew to Plaine des Gaiacs from Fiji on 19 July, piloted by Flight Lieutenants Spicer1 and Stevenson.2 They were ordered to remain in New Caledonia until relieved by other Hudsons and crews which would be arriving shortly from New Zealand. The two crews were met by Flight Lieutenant Deegan,3 Camp Commandant of the RNZAF unit which had arrived some days before, and Flight Lieutenant Kingsford,4 the Engineer Officer. They were taken to the New Zealand camp, where they were to spend the night.
At half past eleven that night they were wakened and told to be on ‘Alert’ at the American operations room by the airstrip at half past four the next morning, as a Japanese aircraft carrier was reported to be heading for the island. After remaining on the alert for some hours they were finally stood down. Stevenson decided that the New Zealand camp was too far away from the airfield, so made arrangements for the two crews to eat and sleep with the American B26 Squadron in their camp near the strip. Captain Waddleton, CO of the squadron, was most helpful, providing tents and men to set them up.
The New Zealanders were instructed to take over the dawn and dusk anti-submarine patrols round the coast of New Caledonia, which had previously been carried out by the American squadron. The first dawn patrol was done by Flight Lieutenant Spicer on 21 July. It was a pitch-dark morning, it was impossible to see the direction of the runway, and the flying control personnel responsible for lighting the flarepath could not be found. Spicer took off, guided only by his landing lights and a torch which Stevenson held above his head several hundred yards up the runway.
Three more Hudsons arrived from New Zealand on 23 July under the command of Squadron Leader Grigg, with several spare crews, and No. 9 Squadron was officially formed as an operational unit. A camp was built for the aircrews close to the American camp on the airfield, and they lived there while operating from Plaine des Gaiacs, messing with the Americans.page 133
The memory of the threatened Japanese attack of 6 July was still fresh in New Caledonia, and No. 9 Squadron's first exercise, in co-operation with No. 69 Squadron, was a simulated attack on enemy aircraft carriers. Its main task for the next few months was to carry out searches in New Caledonian waters for enemy submarines. This had been done previously by No. 69 Squadron, but its aircraft, B26 torpedo-bombers, were not suitable for the work and the Hudsons were able to provide better coverage.
No. 9 Squadron's tour of duty on the island, lasting from July 1942 until March 1943, was uneventful though not without interest. Submarines were known to be in the area and had sunk several ships shortly before the unit began operations. Aircraft daily patrolled the surrounding seas and, when friendly shipping was approaching or leaving Noumea, made special anti-submarine escort flights. It was mainly negative work as for months no submarines were seen, but it probably acted as a deterrent to the Japanese. At all events no submarine attacks were made on shipping while the squadron was in the area.
Possible submarines, the only ones on the tour, were seen on 6 and 7 February. On 6 February an aircraft, taking off on patrol before dawn, observed signal lights on the sea 18 miles from Plaine des Gaiacs. It dropped four 250-pound bombs, and then patrolled the area until daylight. There was a patch of oil on the water, and the radar showed that the submarine might still be in the vicinity; but no further action could be taken as all bombs had been used.
Next morning another light was seen on the sea. The patrolling aircraft dropped a sea-marker and searched till dawn. After daylight the crew saw the periscope of a submarine, but it submerged before the aircraft could attack.
Domestically the unit grew increasingly self-supporting as the months went by. In the first weeks it had been dependent on the Americans for many things: medical services, transport, signals, rations, fuel and oil. As the size of the squadron grew and more equipment was sent from New Zealand, fewer services had to be supplied by the United States Army Air Force, until by the end of the year they consisted only of fuel and rations. No. 69 Squadron left to go farther north, and thereafter No. 9 Squadron was called on by the American commander at Plaine des Gaiacs to take over a number of duties which had been done by American personnel, such as supplying petrol-tanker parties, parties for unloading ships, duty officers and crash-tender crews.
From the first, aircraft operated by No. 9 Squadron were provided with spare parts, etc., by the New Zealand Government out of Hudson allocations made by the British Government. As no page 134 facilities existed at Noumea, Tontouta, or Plaine des Gaiacs for carrying out major overhauls, aircraft requiring them were returned to New Zealand. For this reason it was decided that only essential spares which could be utilised in minor repair or replacement work with existing workshop facilities should be held in New Caledonia; these spares were sent from New Zealand. The provision of engine spares was further simplified by the presence of B17s in New Caledonia. Spares from these aircraft were approximately 80 per cent interchangeable with the Hudson, and arrangements were made with the United States Army Air Corps that they retain in New Caledonia a range of spares suitable for use in the RNZAF aircraft.