Royal New Zealand Air Force
AIR BASES AND OPERATIONS
AIR BASES AND OPERATIONS
At the end of June the Allied air forces had two forward bases for their operations over New Georgia. These were at Guadalcanal and the Russells. Guadalcanal, by this time, had four airfields operating: Henderson Field, which was the base for all light and some heavy bombers and most short-range search-planes; Fighter I, which was the main base for Navy and Marine fighter squadrons; page 188 Fighter II, for Army and RNZAF fighter squadrons; and Carney Field, which was the main base for heavy and medium bombers and long-range search-planes. At the Russells there were two strips, North Field from which operated light bombers and fighters, and South Field which was used by fighters only. In addition the field at Segi was operational as an emergency landing ground by 10 July. A few days later refuelling facilities were installed, and by the last week of the month it was in full commission as a fighter strip. This cut the distance for Allied fighters from base to the Rendova area by 145 miles.
The main bases used by the enemy during the campaign were Kahili, where seventy to 100 aircraft were based; Ballale, which had a small number of planes, mainly bombers; Buka, used primarily as a staging point for aircraft moving between Rabaul and Kahili; and Rabaul, where the main Japanese reserves were stationed.
In the attempt to prevent the loss of Munda the Japanese were forced to draw heavily on their aircraft reserves. They put up a stubborn and persistent air defence of the area in an effort to prevent the American forces from capturing the airfield. From 30 June to 7 July they made eleven air attacks in force and several more on a smaller scale. With one exception on 2 July, interception by Allied fighters was highly successful, over 160 enemy aircraft being shot down for an Allied loss of 29 in eleven major actions. Generally the Japanese pressed their attacks vigorously, but they suffered from the weakness of their aircraft, particularly the lack of armour and self-sealing petrol tanks. Allied pilots reported that enemy aircraft exploded or disintegrated when hit by bursts from 50 calibre guns. The Japanese pilots varied in ability, but their general standard was definitely lower than it had been six months before, and their gunnery was reported to be poor. Their air attacks were generally ineffective and their losses high. Lack of rescue facilities meant that the loss of an aircraft resulted also in the loss of its crew, and the shortage of fuel and training facilities at home made it impossible for the Japanese to replace the highly trained combat pilots with whom they had started the campaign. During the day fighters and twin-engined bombers were employed, and at night float-planes and bombers harassed American convoys in the New Georgia area. Night fighters attempted to protect Kahili from American bombers and the Japanese air force continued its day and night reconnaissance.
After the defeat of a major attack on 15 July the enemy gave up his attempts to attack the Allied forces in daylight. In the last phase of the battle, although his land forces needed all possible air support, his offensive operations were limited to fighter sweeps, page 189 sometimes accompanied by a small number of dive-bombers, and to the night harassing of American land and naval forces by float-planes and medium bombers.
Fighter squadrons were employed by the American Command as bomber escorts for daylight patrols over Rendova and for the defence of the Russells and Guadalcanal. Allocation of aircraft to meet all the requirements of these operations was one of the major problems involved in the campaign, and every available aircraft was employed. For the Rendova patrol a daily schedule was evolved, putting thirty-two fighters over the island each morning and keeping that number on station until half past four in the afternoon, with sixteen remaining there until five o'clock. To maintain a constant patrol ninety-six fighters were required, which left only eighty to one hundred available for other operations. The patrol covered most of the light bomber attacks against Munda and Vila, but for heavy strikes on these targets additional fighter protection was required for the bombers. When on station the patrol circled round Vega, the American radar station which had been set up on the island immediately after landing. Usually the aircraft were ‘stacked up’, changing their altitude from time to time to cut down individual oxygen consumption. When protecting bombers attacking the airfield at Munda, patrols moved from the orbit area so as to be in a position to intercept Japanese fighters which might try to interfere with the raid.
The maintenance of a constant patrol was criticised by some since it meant having a limited number of aircraft constantly in the air and vulnerable to attack by large enemy formations. However, the patrol was seldom seriously challenged. Its success in warding off enemy air attacks is indicated by the fact that in the entire operations, lasting more than five weeks, only three hits were scored on ships by Japanese bombers and torpedo-planes and none of the ships was sunk. Only one horizontal bombing attack reached its objective in daylight and this occurred when there was no Allied fighter patrol in the area. As a result American shipping bringing vital supplies and reinforcements to the land forces on New Georgia was never seriously interfered with. Nor, except for dusk attacks, was the enemy air force able to press home bombing attacks against the American troops ashore.