Royal New Zealand Air Force
operations by nos. 25, 30 and 31 squadrons
operations by nos. 25, 30 and 31 squadrons
During March the strength of the RNZAF on Bougainville was augmented by the arrival of two dive-bomber squadrons and their page 248 servicing units. No. 25 Squadron had formed at Seagrove in July 1943 with Squadron Leader MacLean de Lange1 as Commanding Officer, and was initially equipped with SBD3s taken over from US Marine Aircraft Group No. 14, which had been stationed there. Its servicing unit, No. 25, was officially formed in October and was organised into three flights, of which two were to go overseas before the end of the year with the squadron, while the third was to remain at Seagrove and service the aircraft that were to be left there for training a second SBD squadron. A and B Flights left New Zealand on 7 December on board the USS Octans and arrived at RNZAF Base Depot, Santo, on the 12th. There they took over SBD4s and got them into flying condition in readiness for the aircrews when they should arrive. C Flight moved to Santo by air in January 1944. It had been decided not to proceed with the formation of a second SBD squadron, and the flight was therefore no longer needed for servicing duties at Seagrove.
The aircrew of No. 25 Squadron arrived at Santo at the end of January and spent February in operational training in conjunction with American dive-bomber units.
No. 30 Squadron had formed at Gisborne in June under the command of Squadron Leader Hartshorn2 and had been trained as a torpedo-bomber squadron. It was equipped for the first few months with Harvard aircraft and Vincents taken over from the original No. 8 (BR) Squadron which had been based there. Later, TBFs became available and the squadron was re-equipped with them. The ground staff became No. 30 Servicing Unit in September.
The servicing unit was to have left New Zealand by sea for Santo on 24 January 1944, but was prevented from doing so by shipping difficulties. As the squadron was due to move early in February, an advance party of three officers and twenty-three airmen travelled to Santo by air on the 27th to prepare for the squadron's arrival. When they reached Santo it became obvious that the party was not big enough to cope with the amount of work that would have to be done, and a further detachment of forty-four men was flown up on the 30th. The squadron's aircraft were flown to Santo via Norfolk Island and Tontouta in two echelons, leaving New Zealand on the 28th and 30th, and the balance of the servicing unit travelled by sea in the USS Alchiba, arriving at Santo on 10 February.
Early in March both the servicing units embarked with their equipment and travelled by sea to Bougainville, calling at Guadalcanal on the way. Their convoy reached Empress Augusta Bay on the 15th. The men went ashore in amphibious landing craft, which carried them to their camp site in an area that had been occupied by Marine Air Group 24.
The first week was spent in unloading equipment, improving the camp, digging foxholes and preparing for the arrival of the squadron. The camp site was only 1000 yards from the front line, and as the units had arrived in the midst of the Japanese attack on the perimeter they quickly learnt what it was like to be under fire. Shell and shrapnel landed in and near the camp on several occasions, and on the night of the 17th several tents were hit by rifle fire. Shortly after landing the men were organised into platoons and allocated positions in the third line of defence in case the Japanese should break through.
The aircraft of Nos. 25 and 30 Squadrons were to have flown in from Santo shortly after the servicing units had landed, but their arrival was postponed until the risk of shelling on the Piva strips had been reduced. The first echelon of No. 25 Squadron eventually reached Piva on the 23rd, and next morning it began operations when two aircraft took off at dawn to spot for Allied artillery over the Japanese positions outside the perimeter. During the day the squadron made nineteen sorties, four for artillery spotting, and the rest bombing attacks on enemy gun positions.
No. 30 Squadron and the balance of No. 25 flew in on the 24th and next day joined in operations. On the 25th, No. 25 Squadron made fourteen sorties and No. 30 Squadron twelve. Targets were enemy troops and gun positions round the perimeter. They were so close to the airstrip that the aircraft had merely to bomb up, fly round the circuit, make their attacks and land. The ground crews had a perfect view of the bombs falling on the enemy. For the next fortnight, until the Japanese attack was finally crushed, both squadrons bombed and strafed the enemy by day and carried out perimeter patrols by night.
On 26 March Nos. 25 and 30 Squadrons were detailed to take part, with American units, in an attack on Kavieng airfield. American troops had landed on Emirau, 75 miles away, a few days before, and the raid was made to ensure that the Kavieng airstrip was made unserviceable and to prevent Japanese air reinforcements being flown in from the north to interfere. No. 25 Squadron did not rendezvous with the rest of the force and had to return to base page 250 without completing its mission; but the seven aircraft sent by No. 30 Squadron, together with fifty-two American SBDs and TBFs, successfully bombed the target. Of the twenty-eight 500-pound high-explosive bombs which the New Zealand planes carried, twenty-two fell on the runway. Next day the squadron was congratulated by General H. R. Harmon, COMAIRSOLS, on the success of the strike.
The main effort of the squadrons while stationed in the combat area was against Rabaul and its airfields. In conjunction with American squadrons, they sent over flights of six or twelve aircraft each every day except when prevented by bad weather. The Vunakanau and Tobera strips, which the Japanese showed most industry in repairing, were the most frequently attacked. Following the usual practice, the SBDs dived on the surrounding anti-aircraft positions to silence them and were immediately followed by the TBFs, which plastered the runways. By the end of April the continuous attacks had had an appreciable effect on the ack-ack defences. Although for many months yet they were to be formidable, they were not as strong as they had been earlier in the year.
Over Bougainville itself the squadrons took part in a variety of operations. After the Japanese counter-attack had petered out they were used against numerous targets all over the island: bridges, supply dumps, artillery positions and barge hideouts. They also worked in direct support of American ground forces, destroying road blocks and bombing enemy troops.
Both squadrons remained at Piva until the latter part of May, when they were withdrawn to New Zealand on the completion of their tour and disbanded. A second TBF squadron, No. 31, came up; it was under the command of Squadron Leader Wilkes.1 It had formed at Gisborne after the departure of No. 30 Squadron and had trained there until it left for Bougainville in the fourth week of May. Six of its aircraft were flown up and the rest of the aircrew came by transport plane, taking over No. 30 Squadron's machines when they arrived. The squadron also took over the intelligence and operations officers who had been with No. 30 Squadron, and its machines were serviced by No. 30 Servicing Unit.
During May a new type of target came into vogue. The sea and air blockade of the Solomons-Bismarcks area was practically complete, and to eke out their supplies of food the Japanese on Bougainville had planted gardens and were growing their own vegetables. At the end of the month there were four to five acres of cultivated land on north-west Buka and many clearings on northern Bougainville, while in southern Bougainville, in the area west of Kahili, there were gardens extending two and a half miles inland from the coast.
As the Allied policy of bypassing isolated Japanese garrisons included starving them out, the American command regarded the destruction of crops as an important objective. TBFs, including New Zealand formations, carried out experiments in south-western Bougainville, spraying the gardens with diesel oil. Later the technique was modified, the spraying being followed by incendiary bombs. The operations were not easy as spraying had to be done from a low level, and the aircraft came under very accurate fire from small arms and the automatic anti-aircraft gun positions with which the Japanese had surrounded their cultivated land.