Gordon R Birkett unravels myths and facts about how 75 Squadron RAAF got into action for the first time.
Where are our fighters? Despite the dispatch of numerous Kittyhawks and Hurricanes to the Pacific theatre, the complete absence of any RAAF single-seat fighters in Australia at the dawn of 1942 was a matter of grave concern. Repeatedly promised Kittyhawks were nicknamed ‘Neverhawks’ but there was a squadron on the way, with a magpie as its crest.
The failure to acquire single-engine fighters for Australia between 1940 and late 1941 was due to two factors. Firstly, the apparent risk from German commerce raiders around the coast, and secondly, the concept of ‘forward defence’ with Australia participating in Singapore’s aerial guard with a single squadron of fighters - Buffalos of 21 Squadron RAAF. As we now know, this concept proved disastrous. (A second Squadron of Buffalos, 453 (F) Squadron RAAF was an Article XV Squadron on RAF Strength and was not a RAAF controlled unit.)
With the increase in commerce raiding and threat of mines sown by the German’s Kriegsmarine towards the end of the southern winter of 1941, the Australian Government issued a requirement for two squadrons of twin-engine long-range fighters that would be able to safely fly out to the sea lanes along the eastern coast from the RAAF Base at Richmond.
The RAAF requirement would be for two squadrons, each composed of twelve aircraft with six reserve aircraft each, making a total of thirty-six aircraft. A small OTU establishment and a twelve-month attrition reserve would add another eighteen aircraft to make a total of fifty-four aircraft to be ordered.
The official order was placed in July 1941, with deliveries anticipated to arrive by ship from the United Kingdom from September 1941 onwards. The two squadrons would be numbered 30 and 31 Squadrons (LR) RAAF. But, due to external factors, these twin-engine fighter aircraft (Bristol MkVI Beaufighters) would not arrive until March 1942.
By then, as we know, events in the Far East had already been overtaken by commencement of hostilities by the Japanese Empire on the 7 of December at Pearl Harbor and on the other side of the international date line, an hour earlier, at Kota Bharu in Malaya 8 of December, 1941.
With the rout and destruction of the allied air forces in the Far East by late January 1942, the loss of Rabaul, Gasmata, Lae, Salamaua and the bombing of Port Moresby followed soon after. The Australian Government was desperate to obtain single-seater interceptors to protect Port Moresby and the mainland from any future Japanese attacks. Urgent requests to the United Kingdom and the United States to obtain Tomahawk fighters were made in January 1942.
As the defence of the Netherlands East Indies was receiving the priority of both the United States and the United Kingdom (shown by shipping all available single-engine interceptors from both sources of supply there), Australia’s request for some 150 Tomahawks or Hurricanes were largely sidelined.
Meanwhile, during late January 1942, USAAF P-40Es, enough to equip twelve Pursuit Squadrons with reserves, were all earmarked for the Netherlands East Indies under command of America, Britain, Dutch and Australia Command (ABDA). Requests by Australia to the United States Forces in Australia (USAFIA) to have one of these Pursuit Squadrons based at Port Moresby was made on 23 January 1942 - within days of the loss of Rabaul.
Although initial logistical and air route plans were undertaken by the Air Staff of the RAAF, USAAF Colonel Hoyt and his operations officer, Captain Floyd J. Pell, the request of these 25 P-40Es was vetoed by ABDA, and the unit was ordered to Java on the 26 January 1942. These were the first of the promised Kittyhawks that became, through the next weeks of February and March 1942, the “Tomorrow hawks” to those on the ground at Port Moresby.
An idea was proposed to USAFIA that they could immediately divert some of their P-40Es from reserve stocks, to be replaced by aircraft re-directed from RAF Defence Aid (DA3) shipments, as soon as deliveries were completed to the first eight Pursuit Squadrons. This diverted batch would be enough for three RAAF fighter squadrons, and had the benefit of enabling replacement P-40Es from a joint pool.
Meanwhile, also in January 1942, experienced Middle East Tomahawk pilots arrived and formed a cadre of veterans. The next three Pursuit Squadrons (of the planned 12 squadron total) would be manned by RAAF personnel.
As they were without aircraft, an agreement was made to attach these eighteen pilots to the last three ‘green’ Pursuit Squadrons of the 49th Pursuit Group (six each for each squadron). In fact, some of them had already been attached to the Amberley Erection Depot for test flying the re-assembled P-40E aircraft.
But the situation was still fluid, with Japanese victories at Sumatra, Timor, Bali, and finally Java throughout February 1942. As presented in previous Flightpath articles, the supply and ferrying of P-40E aircraft to the Netherlands East Indies, by air and by sea, reached a crescendo on the 27 February 1942 with the last shipment of crated P-40E and E-1s arriving there by sea, on the SS Sea Witch. Even after some 138 USAAF P-40Es and E-1s (along with another 138 RAF Hurricane Mk.IIBs) were dispatched by air, carrier and ship to the war north of Australia, Australia itself was still without single seater fighters.
75 (F) Squadron’s birth
At the beginning of March 1942, despite the limited availability of experienced USAAF Pilots returning from the combat zones and the inexperienced USAAF pilots within the 49th Pursuit Group, the Group’s three Squadrons were complete, with twenty-five aircraft each, plus a Group reserve pool of sixty-eight aircraft located at Bankstown, Archerfield and Amberley. These were the remaining aircraft from some two hundred and eighty-two P-40E and E-1s that had arrived in Australia.
Order ACS-4, dated 4 March 1942, signed by Brigadier General Ralph Royce, Headquarters USAFIA Melbourne, authorised the USAAF Commanding Officers of three locations, to issue a total of twenty-five P-40E aircraft to the RAAF to enable the formation of a RAAF fighter squadron at Townsville. They were seven repaired P-40Es held at Archerfield, eight (five newly assembled) P-40Es held at Amberley and ten aircraft held in reserve at Bankstown with the 7th Pursuit Squadron. Arrangements were made to have all aircraft to gather for ferry to Townsville at Archerfield.
On that same day a number was allocated; 75 (F) Sqn RAAF. Total strength would be sixteen Officers and 186 Airmen (including 28 pilots) along with eighteen Kittyhawks (composed of twelve aircraft immediate equipment and six in-use reserve aircraft) in two flying flights and a Headquarters Flight. Ground crew were drawn from 24 Squadron RAAF based in Townsville.
This was a change of plan, as the Squadron that was to have been re-equipped with Kittyhawks was 23 Squadron, a mixed unit, based at Archerfield, and equipped with two flights of Wirraways. By late February 1942 they had already transferred the third flight of four Hudsons to the newly formed 32 Squadron in Port Moresby – in anticipation of the arrival of Kittyhawks. But 23 Squadron’s destiny lay in another direction.
Meanwhile, on the 6 March 1942, five of the Amberley Kittyhawks under the command of Flt Lt Turnbull left for Archerfield, and departed on the seventh to become the first P-40Es to arrive at Townsville. On the flights there, they carried their USAAF markings, serials and group numbers, and were repainted with RAAF national markings, camouflage and A29 serial numbers at Garbutt. (Intriguingly, they were originally to be marked in the A10 series.)
On the 7 March 1942, RAAF Station Port Moresby was advised to prepare camouflage revetments and facilities for a squadron of Kittyhawks that would be soon arriving. 75 Squadron was on its way.
There was some confusion in the serial numbering of these aircraft. On the 8 March, at Townsville, the crews were ordered to apply (when possible and without interfering with training) RAAF camouflage and serial sequence A29 starting at A29-1. However following research, it appears the first aircraft was numbered as A29-5, the first four losses being ‘numbered’ in paperwork terms after their accidents. They thus ran sequentially from A29-1 to A29-4 prior to the 13th March 42 when all numbering was completed.
Seven days later, after training, and some performance data checks (due to limited RAAF documentation on the type) they sent eighteen Kittyhawks north to Port Moresby via Cooktown and Horn Island. This squadron was to become the first fully manned, Australian piloted, RAAF Fighter Squadron to engage the Japanese. The initial Kittyhawk serials of those deployed first with 75 Squadron are confirmed (from the Squadron records) as A29-5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 22, 23 and 25.
The ‘Tomorrow Hawks’ arrive at last
On 21st March 1942, the arrival of four of the long awaited “Tomorrow-hawks” at Seven-Mile Strip was a major event, and almost a debacle. With the men on the ground not used to seeing Allied fighters, the Kittyhawks came under immediate fire from Army machine gunners when landing, damaging two Kittyhawks, A29-10 and A29-18 (Coded X and U). One bullet in A29-10 narrowly missed the flight leader, Squadron Leader Peter Jeffery, who was then CO of 75 Squadron.
After refuelling, an air raid warning was sounded and an intercept was undertaken by two of the undamaged Kittyhawks, piloted by Flying Officer Cox and Flying Officer W.L. Wackett in A29-17 (Q) and A29-6 (F).
At 6000 feet they sighted a lone twin-engine Japanese aircraft and climbed up to 10,000 feet to intercept. Both delivered stern and quarter attacks as the aircraft headed for cloud cover. A burst by Flying Officer Cox knocked out the port engine, and the enemy aircraft started to lose height. Flying Officer Wackett placed a burst into the starboard engine at 500 feet causing the Japanese aircraft to explode and to dive into the sea. This was the first aerial combat and the downing of a Japanese reconnaissance aircraft over Port Moresby by an allied fighter.
The remaining flight of thirteen fighters, lead by Squadron Leader (Acting) John F Jackson DFC arrived safely an hour later. The missing eighteenth aircraft, A29-19 (Coded J), piloted by Lloyd had returned to Cooktown due to engine trouble on the flight up to Horn Island.
75 (F) Squadron strikes the enemy’s nest
The operational Kittyhawks were re-fuelled and armed through the night for an immediate strike the next day, the 22. Squadron Leader John F Jackson DFC would lead a formation of ten Kittyhawks to attack Japanese aircraft based at Lae Aerodrome.
This attacking force was divided into three forces; strafing, top cover and Hudson bomber flights as follows: The tenth Kittyhawk, A29-22 (C), one of the intended top cover aircraft piloted by Pilot Officer John Le Gay Brereton, was damaged when it swerved on take-off to avoid a taxying 32 Squadron Hudson. His aircraft missed the bomber, but the wingtip struck a mound and ground looped, ripping off the main undercarriage.
Though the aircraft caught fire, the pilot was rescued by Flight Lieutenants Dean-Butcher, McGlynn (both Medical Officers) and Church, an Engineer Officer. The remaining nine Kittyhawks took off for Lae, with four providing top cover while five were to attack the strip.
The Hudsons of 32 Squadron took off at 0734hrs after 75 Squadron nine aircraft formation departed, as part of the follow-up force to bomb and photograph the strip after the strafing attack. They would be protected over the target and on their way back by the Kittyhawks.
On arrival, the ground strafing flight noticed some 12 Zero fighters on the strip, with other dispersed bomber aircraft along the side of the strip. Following a sweep out to sea and dropping down to 1,000 feet inbound to the strip, Jackson begun strafing, along with two others of his flight, line astern and at half mile intervals on the twelve Zeros.
Piper flew so low that part of his outer wing underside struck one of the target bomber’s propellers. This seriously affected his aircraft’s performance for the remainder of the sortie. The other two, led by Cox, began strafing the dispersed bombers.
After a second previously unplanned strafing run, Jackson’s flight climbed to provide additional top cover for the incoming 32 Squadron Hudsons. The two Hudsons arrived and began their attack, dropping bombs on the runway, buildings and installations.
Flying Officer Stuart Hermes in Hudson A16-169 took post-strike photographs which later confirmed that nine Zeros and three bombers had been destroyed, with a further two fighters and three bombers damaged during this operation. As the Hudsons left, both came under attack by a sole Zero over the sea, which was shot down by both bomber’s gunners, while two crew members of A16-134, Sergeant R C Richards and Pilot Officer R E Richards were wounded in the attack.
At around 08.05hrs, while the strafing flight was in action, the top cover flight dived from 4,000 feet to engage the standing patrol of three Zeros at 1,000 feet and managed to shoot down two of them, Squadron Leader P Turnbull and Sergeant J Pettett claimed one Zero each.
After leaving Lae, the airmen realised that two Kittyhawks were missing. Flight Lieutenant Anderson’s A29-16 (Y) was last seen by Turnbull at 1,000 feet near a hill at Lae trailing white smoke and out of control. The white trail was conjectured to be either glycol or smoke, both of which would require a forced landing. Nobody saw what happened to Flying Officer Wackett.
Luckily Wackett escaped capture, and returned to the unit, after having ditched his Kittyhawk some eight miles offshore and then trekking back to allied lines where he was picked up by members of the Papua New Guinea Volunteer Rifles at Bulolo. He would later recount that he too saw a Kittyhawk with smoke trailing some four miles off the coast being pursued by a Zero. Another witness, Flying Officer J Woods, flying at 300 feet, also saw an out of control Kittyhawk below him, and at that height it was considered that he was too low to bale out successfully.
It has also been conjectured that Flight Lieutenant Bruce Anderson was captured and executed later in 1942 at Rabaul. If this were true, he would have had to have bailed out unseen near the hill, or alternatively have survived a sea ditching. Perhaps one day the truth will be unearthed, but RAAF Records have his fate as being killed in action on this day, 22 March 1942 - with no mention of capture.
75 (F) Squadron RAAF personnel would continue to fight on, engaging the enemy from Port Moresby to Lae, until relieved and withdrawn to Australia in May 1942 left with only one serviceable Kittyhawk. They would return to New Guinea in August 1942 where they and 76 (F) Sqn would defend a forward position codenamed ‘Falls Creek’, then located at a place known as Milne Bay.
The author would like to acknowledge help and support from Craig “Buz” Busby, Neville Rourke and William “Bill” H Bartsch for this story.