RABAUL, on the north-east tip of New Britain, was captured by the Japanese on 23 January 1942. Its harbour and port, protected from behind by jungle-covered mountains, made it an ideal naval and air base for their campaign in the south and south-west Pacific; they lost no time in fortifying it, building five airfields nearby, and installing one of the heaviest concentrations of anti-aircraft guns in the world.
From Rabaul they occupied New Guinea and the Solomons, but any plan to capture Port Moresby and New Caledonia and to attack the east coast of Australia was frustrated by the Coral Sea battle in May 1942 and the American landing at Guadalcanal three months later. Rabaul, though, was still a menace to the Allies, and its destruction as a naval and air base was one of the chief objects of their South Pacific campaign.
When the main Allied attack started in December 1943 the Japanese were estimated to have two hundred combat aircraft in New Britain and ninety in the New Ireland area, against which the Allies had 531 fighters and bombers in operational condition in the Solomons area. The Royal New Zealand Air Force had two fighter squadrons stationed at Ondonga in New Georgia— Nos. 14 and 15* led respectively by Squadron Leaders J. H. Arkwright1 and S. G. Quill.2 They were known as the New Zealand Fighter Wing and were commanded by Wing Commander T. O. Freeman.3 Both squadrons were on their second tour of duty in the Pacific and had seen action over Guadalcanal earlier in the year. Between them they had destroyed thirty-one Japanese aircraft.
The first major air operation from the Solomons against Rabaul took place on 17 December, when a fighter sweep of eighty aircraft—American Corsairs and Hellcats and twenty-four Kittyhawks from the two New Zealand squadrons—left Ondonga at 5.30 in the morning under Wing Commander Freeman. They flew first to the Torokina airstrip at Empress Augusta Bay to refuel, and there the time-table was interrupted by the emergency landing of two American aircraft. As a result the formation was split into two groups, the first, led by Freeman, getting away at nine o'clock, and the second, led by Quill, twenty minutes later.
The New Zealanders flew in sections of four, and at twenty minutes past ten the two sections in the lead, Freeman's and Arkwright's, crossed the coast of New Britain over Kabanga Bay, twenty miles south-east of Rabaul, at 20,000 feet. By now there were only two aircraft in the third section, one having turned home with oxygen trouble and another with a faulty generator.
As the pilots circled above the target they knew they had taken the enemy by surprise, for the anti-aircraft batteries did not open fire at once and there were no Japanese fighters in the air, though dust on the airfields showed where they had taken off. The weather, except for a layer of wispy cloud at 21,000 feet, was clear, and aircraft could be seen lined up on the runways.
While the formation was making its third circuit, four Zekes* dived from the cloud on the two aircraft of the third section, hitting one in the starboard wing with cannon shell. Arkwright at once led his section in a sharp right turn to come to the rescue, but he turned too tightly and went into a spin. So did his No. 2.** The rest of the section followed them down to protect them, but not before Sergeant A. S. Mills4 had fired a short burst at a Zeke and had seen it break in half.
Arkwright climbed up again and was joined by his section, except for Mills, who, with a Zeke on his tail, was weaving with a Kittyhawk piloted by Flying Officer M. E. Dark.5 After re-forming,
* The Zeke was an improved model of the Zero, a Japanese fighter aircraft.
** The RNZAF fighter aircraft flew in pairs, or in sections of two pairs, for protection, the leading aircraft being known as No. I, the second as No. 2. When likely to meet enemy fighters, each aircraft in a pair, or each pair in a section, zigzagged constantly, crossing over or under its opposite number so that between them the pilots could watch the whole sky. This was called ‘weaving’.
Rabaul, but it was attacked by Zekes and forced to turn home, the Japanese making a running fight of it for forty miles out to sea.
The first section, meanwhile, was attacking aircraft that had climbed from the Rabaul airfields. Freeman and his No. 2, Flight Sergeant E. C. Laurie,6 dived on eight or nine Zekes above Praed Point, shooting down one each, but Laurie's Kittyhawk was hit by cannon shell in the port wing while he was pulling out of his dive to look for Freeman, and he was forced to turn home. Later he joined Dark, who had attacked the Zeke on Mills's tail and then a dive bomber, and together they went to the assistance of a lone Kittyhawk in trouble with seven or eight Zekes and trailing smoke or glycol. This proved to be Freeman's aircraft. Together the three Kittyhawks shook off the enemy and flew to the coast of New Ireland, where Freeman began to circle a valley with the plain intention of making a forced landing. The other aircraft kept guard as long as they could, but Laurie was attacked by a Zeke and Dark had to chase it away. When they returned to the valley there was no sign of Freeman.
The rest of the section—Flight Lieutenant M. T. Vanderpump7 and his No. 2, Flight Lieutenant J. O. MacFarlane8—had dived on eight Zekes that were weaving above shipping in the harbour. Vanderpump shot down an aircraft over Talili Bay, then chased a Zeke that was attacking his No. 2 and shot it down in the bush at the foot of Mt. Towanumbatir, just north of Rabaul. Directly afterwards he was attacked by a number of Zekes and Tonys* but escaped by diving over Rabaul through an intense barrage of light anti-aircraft fire. MacFarlane, though, was shot down.
Of the second formation, which had left Torokina twenty minutes after the first, only the third section, led by Flight Lieutenant P. S. Green,9 saw action. Flying at 16,000 feet, with four American Corsairs 5000 feet above them as top cover, they met fifteen Zekes over Credner Island in St. George's Channel, and when these seemed unwilling to come to grips Green manoeuvred his section to allow the Corsairs to get at them. They scattered at once, three of them, followed by the Kittyhawks, diving to sea-level. Flying Officer H. J. Meharry10 chose one and opened fire at 700 yards, closing to 300. Smoke came from the Zeke's port wing root and flame from its fuselage. Then it rolled on its back and dived into the sea. The other two escaped inland, skimming the tree-tops.
That gave the New Zealanders a score of five aircraft out of nine shot down at a total cost to the whole sweep of two RNZAF Kittyhawks, but they had lost in Freeman a leader of outstanding quality. The lesson of the operation was that Allied aircraft could attack successfully the most strongly defended enemy base in the South Pacific.
* Single-seater Japanese fighters.