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Royal New Zealand Air Force

CHAPTER 15 — Radar Units in the Pacific

page 227

Radar Units in the Pacific

Reference has already been made in Chapter 9 to the development of an air-warning system in New Zealand. In the operational areas of the South Pacific a similar system was developed, and it combined with the coastwatching organisation to give warning of approaching Japanese raids. Actual interceptions of enemy aircraft, particularly at night, were also directed by radar.

During the first year of the South Pacific campaign there was an acute shortage of trained radar personnel, and New Zealand was asked several times by the American Command to supply them. Demands could not always be met in full as the supply was limited and it took a long time to train more men. In 1943, however, the diminished threat of invasion in New Zealand made it possible to reduce the radar warning system at home and release a number of men for posting to the forward area.

Some units had gone overseas before then. Early in December 1941 Squadron Leader Gibbs,1 who was then Staff Radar Officer at Air Force Headquarters, went to Fiji to plan an air-warning system there. He selected a site on Malolo Island, a few miles off the coast from Nandi, and the original CHL set that had been obtained in England by Dr Marsden was sent there. It was installed by Mr T. R. Pollard, of the Canterbury University School of Engineer ing, and Mr H. Walker, an electrical engineer of Christchurch, both of whom were enlisted in the Army for the purpose. They were assisted by an RNZAF party under Warrant Officer Rowe.2 When the installation was completed Rowe and his party remained on the island and operated the set, until finally it was taken over by the Americans a year later. During its tour of duty the unit had no hostile aircraft to report but it plotted the tracks of numerous Japanese submarines round its sector of the coast.

When the Americans took over the defence of Fiji they installed a number of air-warning units there, and the RNZAF was not called upon to accept further responsibility for the area.

1 Wg Cdr R. J. Gibbs, OBE; RNZAF; born Lyttelton, 18 Jan 1906; joined NZ Permanent Air Force 1930; radio engineer.

2 Flt Lt I. S. Rowe; Wellington; born Eltham, 26 Aug 1913; joined NZPAF 1929.

page 228

radar units in tonga

In December 1942 an RNZAF radar party was sent to Tonga and was attached to No. 15 Fighter Squadron, which had been stationed there for some time. There were two radar stations on the island, manned by American troops. The Americans were needed at Guadalcanal and the New Zealanders took over from them. All the equipment was, of course, American, while the RNZAF men had been trained on British types. During the two or three days in which they took over the stations, they received instruction in the use of the equipment from the previous operators and were able to operate with very little difficulty.

One of the stations was in open country near the coast, and the other was located on the highest point of the island, five miles from Nukualofa. Both sites had their drawbacks—the former was too low-lying for satisfactory radar operation, and the latter was surrounded by bush—but they were the best available. Both were connected by telephone with an air-warning centre, which was also taken over by New Zealanders, near the airfield at Fuamotu. During the time the unit was on the island no enemy activity was reported, but plots were made of all friendly aircraft and shipping in the area.

Early in April 1943 another draft of American radar personnel arrived to take over the stations, and the New Zealanders stood by for orders to move to the forward area. Towards the end of the month they left Tonga on the USS President Hayes for Noumea.

They spent three weeks there in a transit camp, and then went to Guadalcanal in the first LSTs to be used in the Pacific. On arriving at Guadalcanal they were at first attached to No. 3 (BR) Squadron and took the place of the same United States Army personnel whom they had originally replaced at Tonga.

norfolk island

An RNZAF radar unit was installed by Flying Officer Mercer1 on Norfolk Island early in 1943, and became operational in May. By this time the island was no longer used as a base for operational aircraft, but it served as a staging point on the air route between New Zealand and the forward area. In view of the value of radar as a navigational aid, the unit remained operational until the end of the war and was responsible on several occasions for locating and homing aircraft in bad weather.

An instance occurred in the latter.part of 1943. An American Flying Fortress en route from New Zealand to New Caledonia page 229 developed engine trouble 90 miles south of Norfolk. The weather was extremely bad, with heavy rain and no visibility, and the aircraft was observed on the radar screen flying round in circles looking for the island. Contact was made by radio and the plane was brought safely in through the murk. Its captain later remarked that he had never before had any faith in radar, but now had entirely new ideas on the subject.

1 Flt Lt L. F. W. Mercer, m.i.d.; RNZAF; born Auckland, 8 Nov 1915; radio serviceman.

despatch of no.52 radar unit to guadalcanal

Early in January 1943, as a result of delays in the delivery of American ground radar equipment in the Pacific, the Commander-in- Chief Pacific Ocean Area asked the New Zealand Government to supply a British set manned by New Zealanders for use in the forward area. The equipment was available in New Zealand, and the Government agreed to hand over one GCI set to the Americans and to supply the necessary men to install and operate it.

The unit formed at Palmerston North and was trained and ready to go overseas in the middle of February. As there were no controllers in New Zealand with GCI experience, the Americans sent a party of three officers and a senior NCO, headed by Major E. C. Best, USMC, to help train the unit. Major Best recommended that an American fighter squadron, which was waiting at Hawaii to proceed to Guadalcanal to work in conjunction with the unit, should be sent to New Zealand to practise co-operation with it. The recommendation was endorsed by Air Headquarters on the grounds that even a few weeks' training in New Zealand would greatly benefit both the pilots and the controllers. The proposal was turned down by CINCPAC, who instructed that training should be co-ordinated with the calibration of the equipment on its operational site.

An advance party of the unit left New Zealand for Guadalcanal by air towards the end of February to select a site for the radar station. It was led by Squadron Leader Banwell,1 a New Zealander who had taken part in much of the early research in the development of radar in Britain and had been lent to New Zealand to help in its development here. In the next few months he did invaluable work in the siting of radar units in the Solomons. Another officer with the party was Flight Lieutenant C. A. Mills, RCAF, one of a number of Canadian officers and NCOs who were lent to the RNZAF to help to develop the radar organisation. The three American controllers and ten RNZAF airmen went at the same time,

1 Sqn Ldr C. J. Banwell, m.i.d.; Wellington; born Wanganui, 3 Jun 1908; physicist.

page 230 while the one New Zealand controller, Flight Lieutenant Hesketh,1 had flown to Guadalcanal a few days before.

The main body, consisting of the Adjutant, Pilot Officer Graham,2 and thirty-three airmen, travelled by sea in the USS George Clymer. The unit landed at Guadalcanal on 1 March and immediately started work on the installation of its equipment and the provision of accommodation. This entailed clearing a site, laying concrete foundations, and building huts. American troops helped to pour concrete and erect a Quonset hut, but all the other construction work was done by unit personnel with the assistance of two Works men sent up from Santo. The work was completed in three weeks, and on 21 March the unit became operational. The American fighter squadron from Hawaii, No. 6 Night Fighter Squadron under the command of Major S. Wharton, equipped with P70 Havocs, was flown in and the unit and the squadron set to work to evolve a suitable technique of co-operation.

The New Zealand GCI set was the first of its kind in the South Pacific. For the first two days after the Americans had landed on Guadalcanal in August 1942, fighter direction had been carried out from the USS Chicago and fighter cover had been flown from the carriers Saratoga and Enterprise. When the ships withdrew from the area the Americans had neither fighters nor radar.

By 20 August F4Fs and SBDs were based at Henderson Field, but no adequate provision had been made for fighter direction. A search radar model SCR 270-B was put into operation in September and was used for the purpose. The type was satisfactory in giving warning of the approach of hostile planes but was not suitable for plotting heights and tracks accurately, so that the American pilots in the air could seldom be vectored exactly on to the enemy. This limitation was more apparent after the middle of November when the Japanese began frequent night raids. For night-fighter control the SCR 270-B was inadequate.

The arrival of the RNZAF unit in March 1943, therefore, filled an important gap in Guadalcanal's defences. The GCI set could give the accurate readings, particularly in altitude, which were necessary for night interceptions. The set was operated by RNZAF personnel; and United States Army, Navy and Marine, as well as New Zealand, controllers directed the fighters. None of the controllers had had combat experience with GCI, and results in the first month of operations bore out Major Best's contention that a period of training in New Zealand for both controllers and pilots should have been arranged. Difficulties in interception were increased by

1 Flt Lt F. R. F. Hesketh; Auckland; born Auckland, 22 Mar 1907; commercial pilot.

2 Fg Off T. A. Graham; Kawhia; born Portsmouth, England, 30 Dec 1907; RAF 1927–33; RNZAF 1934–47.

page 231 the P70s' lack of speed at the height at which they were required to operate—20,000 to 25,000 feet—and by the occasional failure of both radar and radio equipment because of climatic conditions.

The unit kept watch twenty-four hours a day, except for an hour and a half each morning when it was off the air for maintenance. Two controllers were on duty each night, one experienced and one under instruction. During the day the duty controllers stood by in camp where they were on call in case of daylight raids. The operating crew was divided into four watches, each consisting of an NCO in charge and four airmen in the operations room, plus a radar mechanic. One airman acted as long-range warning plotter, one as GCI plotter, one as PPI reader, and the fourth as height-range reader.

The unit's first major operation took place on 7 April when the Japanese sent over a large formation of dive-bombers and fighters in a daylight raid. The unit gave accurate plots and heights to the Island Fighter Control, information which contributed largely to the Japanese loss of thirty-three aircraft reported as shot down by American fighters. After the battle it received a letter of commendation from COMAIRSOLS for its share in the day's work.

In the last big daylight raid on Guadalcanal, in the middle of June, the unit was equally successful. Nearly all the Japanese aircraft which took part were claimed as having been shot down, and most of the plots on which the fighter direction was based were passed to Island Fighter Control by the unit. After June there was progressively less enemy activity. The unit had no further opportunities to gain spectacular victories; but it had achieved its object, as its presence was one of the contributory factors in keeping the Japanese away from Guadalcanal.

During the first half of 1943 COMSOPAC (Admiral Halsey) asked for additional New Zealand radar units to be sent to the forward area, complete with technical personnel and operational research workers. There were difficulties in supplying manpower from New Zealand, but since national prestige was involved the New Zealand Chiefs of Staff decided that the request should be fulfilled. Accordingly, in the latter half of the year, a number of other units, equipped with two additional GCI and four COL sets, were formed and sent to the forward area.

To co-ordinate and administer these units a Squadron Headquarters was formed at Guadalcanal on 15 August, and thereafter all units sent overseas formed part of the squadron, which was designated No. 62 (Radar) Squadron. It was commanded by Flight Lieutenant Conyers-Brown,1 who was also appointed a member of

1 Flt Lt J. P. Conyers-Brown; RNZAF; born Melbourne, 8 Feb 1920; radio engineer.

page 232 the Joint Radar Planning Board, South-West Pacific, which consisted of United States Army, Navy, Marine and RNZAF representatives and was responsible for the planning and siting of units throughout the area.

no. 53 unit

The first of the COL units to go overseas was named No. 53 and was commanded by Flying Officer Gregory.1 It was formed in New Zealand in July 1943 and became operational at Cape Astrolabe, on Malaita, during the second week in October. It operated there continuously until February 1945, when it was withdrawn.

Its site on top of the cape was excellently located and enabled the unit to obtain first-class cover over the area for which it was responsible. As Malaita was never occupied by Allied forces, the unit was one of the most isolated RNZAF detachments in the Pacific. In addition to its normal radar duties it had for some months to provide its own protection, and machine-gun positions and defence posts were built. Later, in February 1944, half a rifle company of the 298th US Infantry Regiment was attached to it to provide guards.

Supplies were sent to the unit weekly from Guadalcanal by sea and from time to time urgent needs were met by flying boat. Christmas dinner in 1943 was provided with the co-operation of the 1st US Marine Parachute Regiment. One and a half tons of Christmas supplies were dropped from the air and included turkey, fresh vegetables, mail, parcels and twelve dozen bottles of beer. The drop was entirely successful; not even one bottle of beer was broken.

Like other small outlying groups, the unit suffered through being outside the areas of malarial control. Throughout its tour of duty, the sickness rate caused by malaria was particularly high.

During the greater part of the tour Japanese aircraft were rarely in the area and the unit was seldom called upon to report any. It was, however, responsible for the rescue of a number of Allied airmen whose aircraft had been forced down into the sea.

1 Fg Off N. Gregory; Petone; born Darlington, England, 2 Nov 1900; factory supervisor.

no.54 unit

The numbers 54 and 55 were originally given to the two RNZAF units in Tonga. When these moved up to Guadalcanal at the end of May 1943, they were combined and known as No. 54 Unit for some time. At the end of September the men were repatriated page 233 to New Zealand, having completed their tour of duty. A new No. 54 Unit was formed in New Zealand in October and went to Guadalcanal early in 1944. It had been intended to install it at Buka Hill, on Bougainville, but when it arrived at Guadalcanal its projected site was still in Japanese hands. As the unit was not required anywhere else it was split up and the men posted to other units to fill the many vacancies caused by sickness.

no. 56 unit

A mobile GCI unit, No. 56, was formed in New Zealand in July 1943 under the command of Pilot Officer Lawrence1 and was installed at Munda in September. The Americans were setting up a station on Kokohale Island just off Munda, but as theirs was a fixed set which it was expected would take a considerable time to install, the New Zealand unit began operations immediately. One of its controllers, Flying Officer Bell,2 was a New Zealander and the others were Americans. At the beginning of 1944 the unit was ordered to return to Guadalcanal and its equipment was dismantled and packed ready for the move. However, as the American unit was not yet functioning satisfactorily, it was instructed to continue operating for some time longer. It finally ceased operations at the end of February, handing over its equipment to the Americans. During its tour of duty it was responsible for three successful interceptions resulting in the destruction of enemy aircraft.

1 Fg Off E. Lawrence; Wanganui; born Lytham, England, 7 Mar 1907; radio audition officer.

2 Fg Off L. D. Bell; Taihape; born Hunterville, 4 Jan 1912; farmer.

nos. 57 and 58 unit

Nos. 57 and 58 COL Units were the next to be formed. The former was stationed on Rendova Island and commenced operations in November 1943, under the command of Pilot Officer Leatham.3 The latter started operating under the command of Pilot Officer Russell4 early in January 1944, at West Cape on Guadalcanal. The only access to its site was by sea, and it was as isolated from the rest of the Allied forces as No. 53 Unit was on Malaita.

3 Fg Off W. G. Leatham; Lower Hutt; born Auckland, 24 Nov 1903; radio engineer.

4 Fg Off J.Russell; Ashburton; born Papatotara, 8 Jul 1916; clothing buyer.

no. 59 unit

No. 59, another mobile GCI unit, went overseas in November 1943 and was installed on Guadalcanal on the site of No. 52 to enable the latter's equipment to be overhauled. Flight Lieutenant Mercer, who had relieved Flight Lieutenant Mills some time before page 234 as OC No. 52 Unit, then took over command of No. 59. The unit was destined eventually for Bougainville, and while it was operating on Guadalcanal a party of three officers went to Torokina to select a site for it.

They chose the only position available, close by the newly formed fighter strip. It was by no means ideal as the surrounding area was heavily wooded, especially to the north-west, which was the direction from which Japanese aircraft generally approached. There was also a large ration dump in front of the position of the aerial; this caused interference until it was later partially removed.

After the return of the siting party, an advance party of two officers and nine other ranks, headed by Flight Lieutenant Goetz,1 went to Bougainville to study local conditions and prepare the camp and technical sites before the arrival of the unit. Goetz, when he arrived, was invited to act as a night-fighter controller with the Americans, and as the beach-head was under frequent bombing attacks, he gained a great deal of valuable operational experience.

The main party left Guadalcanal by sea with its equipment on 3 December and arrived at Torokina the next day. During the voyage one LST with men and equipment on board was hit by a torpedo during a night attack by enemy aircraft, but the torpedo did not explode. One of the attacking aircraft was destroyed by an American night fighter and exploded in mid-air. The American, who had come in too close for the kill, was caught in the explosion and his aircraft also blew up.

The party was the first RNZAF unit to be posted to Bougainville. It hoisted the RNZAF ensign over its camp for the first time on 6 December. Operations began on the 10th after considerable technical difficulties in the installation of equipment had been overcome. In spite of its unsatisfactory position the unit achieved remarkably accurate results. Controllers from the USMC and later the USAAC were allotted to work with it, as Goetz was the only New Zealander trained in the work. The first ‘touch-down’ (enemy aircraft shot down) was scored on the night of 15 December, when American night fighters shot down one confirmed and claimed two probables. During the first fortnight, when Japanese air activity over the beach-head was at its height, bombs were several times dropped close to the radar and the camp but no damage was done to the equipment. In the same period the area was shelled three times by Japanese batteries and there were several severe earthquakes. Another ‘touch-down’ was made on the night of 1–2 January. By this time all the controllers had directed night fighters on to a number of enemy aircraft.

page 235

In night fighting, contacts with the enemy were either radar contacts or visual. In the former the fighter was directed by the ground station into such a position that he was able to pick up the enemy on his airborne radar screen. In the latter, which occurred on clear nights, he was directed close enough to see the enemy.

The Japanese made constant use of ‘window’—metal strips which were dropped from the aircraft. This practice, which had been developed in the European theatre, confused the readings on the ground radar screen and enabled a number of aircraft to escape detection.

Early in January 1944 No. 59 Unit moved to a new position on the top of Cape Torokina, the move resulting in a great improvement in the range at which the equipment could pick up hostile planes. During the month the unit recorded 103 enemy aircraft, of which twenty-four were contacted by American fighters. The total shot down as a result of the unit's activities up to the end of the month was five confirmed and two probables.

After the middle of February Japanese air activity practically ceased except for an occasional ‘snooper’ on moonlight nights. The unit continued to operate from Cape Torokina, achieving its share of success against such planes as did come over, until the beginning of August when it handed over to an American unit and returned to New Zealand. By that time it had been responsible for the detection of a dozen enemy aircraft destroyed and eight probably destroyed, as well as a number damaged.

1 Sqn Ldr G. Goetz, OBE; RNZAF; born Kuala Lumpur, 21 Jan 1918.

withdrawal of rnzaf radar units

By mid-1944 American radar equipment and personnel were available to meet most of the needs of the South Pacific area and more were on the way. At the same time the elimination of the Japanese air force had done away with the necessity for much radar activity. Consequently the RNZAF units, most of whose men had completed their tour of overseas duty, prepared to return to New Zealand, and No. 62 Squadron's headquarters was disbanded in October. COMSOPAC then asked that a number of RNZAF units should continue to function in the forward area for a while longer. New Zealand agreed to maintain them till the end of the year. After that, as practically all the men would have completed their tour of operations and as no replacements were available, it would not commit itself. Eventually the last three units in the forward area, Nos. 52, 53 and 58, were withdrawn in February 1945.

The set at Norfolk was maintained as a navigational aid, and in addition three sets in Fiji and Tonga which had been taken over page 236 from the Army were operated by the RNZAF during the last year of the war to obtain meteorological observations.

The history of active operations by RNZAF radar units in the forward area covers less than two years, but during that time they played an important role in the Allied defence of the recaptured Solomons. During the early part of the period, owing to the lack of suitable American equipment, their part was a major one. Besides the men who operated the units, New Zealand technical officers did excellent work in the face of very great difficulties. Sets had to be located in places which in almost every case offended all principles of radar siting, and their successful operation reflected great credit on the officers concerned.