More than 75 years ago Spitfire squadrons helped defend Australia from Japanese air attack, as Andrew Thomas describes.
On 19 February 1942, 188 Japanese aircraft raided the port of Darwin, northern Australia, sinking eight ships in the harbour. It was the first of 64 raids across the next 20 months. With the seemingly invincible Japanese sweeping all before them, there was a genuine fear of a landing in Australia, something compounded by a devastating attack on Broome in early March. With the paucity of fighter defences the Australian Government requested the return of two RAAF Spitfire squadrons from Britain.
Churchill recognised the importance of this request and directed that a wing of Spitfires be sent to Australia with all haste, as the deployment was a matter of faith for the Australian Government. In Britain, the two RAAF Spitfire squadrons, 452 and 457, were ordered to move. In addition, an RAF unit, No.54 Sqn under Squadron Leader Eric Gibbs, was also ordered to Australia. These squadrons began their long voyage on 21 June, arriving in Melbourne on 13 August, though their original complement of Spitfires had being commandeered in the Middle East – much to Churchill’s irritation!
No.54’s began assembling at Richmond on 7 September and the tropicalised Spitfire Mk.Vcs finally arrived in early October to form No.1 Fighter Wing, commanded by Group Captain Alan ‘Wally’ Walters with the leading RAAF ace, Wing Commander Clive Caldwell as Wing Leader. In mid-January 1943, 54 Sqn began moving to Darwin, followed by the Australian units. There, the oppressive humidity, thunderstorms and resulting mud made life difficult for both men and machines.
No.54’s first, albeit uneventful, scramble came on 26 January but the Spitfire’s first action in Australia was not long in coming. Flight Lieutenant Bob Foster vividly described the events of 6 February: “I had been on standby against another possible Jap raid and was scrambled from our base at Darwin with my No.2 and ordered out to the northwest over the sea after an unidentified ‘plot’. After what seemed an interminable number of changes in direction, not helped by my aircraft suffering from radio problems, I spotted a lone aircraft and positioned us for a stern attack on what we thought was a Dinah recce job – and this it indeed proved to be so.
…soon after I opened up again I saw flames shooting out of one of the engines which rapidly spread
“When I eventually opened fire, although I could see my cannon hitting the port engine, there was no apparent effect – and neither did my next burst. Having closed in somewhat, my third burst struck both engines and the fuselage and soon after I opened up again I saw flames shooting out of one of the engines which rapidly spread to the rest of the aircraft and we watched as it dived away in a smoky arc until it hit the water, still burning furiously.”
The Japanese aircraft that came down near Bathurst Island at 12.50 hrs was a Ki 46 Dinah of the 10th Sentai’s 70th Chutai flown by Lieutenants Kurasuki Setaguti and Fumio Morio, flying the unit’s first reconnaissance to Darwin from their base in Timor. It was first Japanese aircraft to fall to the guns of a Spitfire – and ‘The Churchill Wing’ had been blooded.
Tuesday 2 March 1943 dawned fine over Northern Australia with scattered cloud and fair, if hazy, visibility. On Timor at 10.30 hrs (local time) Lieutenant Commander Takahide Aioi led off 21 A6M Zero fighters of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s 202nd Kokutai to escort to nine G4M Betty bombers of the 753rd Ku, led by Lieutenant Koshiro Yokomizo. It was the 52nd raid on Australia. That morning Wing Commander Caldwell was scrambled with 54 Sqn followed by 457 Sqn but it was only the section led by Caldwell that made contact.
Although concerned about their fuel state Caldwell led them into the enemy fighters 20 miles off the coast for the first major clash between the Spitfire and the Japanese. Caldwell claimed two destroyed while Squadron Leader Eric Gibbs dived on what he thought were three single-engined bombers with a pair of Zeros: “I fired a short burst at one of the larger E/A without observing any result then pulled up and to port. I felt strikes on my A/C and tightened my climb, assuming a vertical position, and fired a 1-sec burst at almost point blank range, observing hits on the cockpit of the E/A. I then stalled, turned off and followed the E/A down to 6,000 feet observing him hit the water.” Gibbs then nursed his damaged aircraft home, landing with just five gallons of fuel remaining. His wingman Pilot Officer Ashby also claimed a Kate damaged.
There was considerable over-claiming by both sides and the explosions seen on the sea probably being from jettisoned long-range tanks. Furthermore, although claims were made against Kates, none were present so they were clearly misidentified Zeros. A few days later the Australian Prime Minister announced that: “…the famous British Spitfire fighters were being used in the South West Pacific Area and that they had already engaged Japanese planes in combat over Darwin.” Winston Churchill also expressed his satisfaction, though their delight made the wing something of a hostage to fortune.
The next raid came a week later on 15 March when in good weather 25 bombers with an equal number of fighters attacked Darwin’s oil facilities and harbour. The town was badly hit. If the the wing’s pilots had not already known it, the reality of what a tough opponent they had in the A6M was brutally brought home as the Spitfires suffered several losses. The height advantage was critical, though the Spitfire’s ruggedness and firepower also proved a blessing. Heading for the bombers 54 Sqn was bounced from out of the sun by Zeros and a gunner on an anti-aircraft battery said: “They clashed right overhead. Dogfights ranged from about 25,000ft down to almost ground level with some of the Spits going straight at the bombers. Planes wheeling, milling, planes on fire, pilots baling out – it’s hard to imagine this happened in Australia.”
Bob Foster bagged his second Japanese aircraft when he shot down a Betty while Flight Lieutenant Norwood and Flying Officer Granville Mawer each claimed a Zero, the former encountering a Zero head on and firing a short cannon burst before his guns all jammed. However, 54 lost F/Sgt Varney and Sgt Albert Cooper, a recent arrival. Foster’s philosophy was simple: “You go in, hit hard, you get out. You don’t hang out. You can’t relax at all. If you relaxed and didn’t keep sharp you might die.”
I pulled away to port and to rear and finding I had only 22 gallons of fuel returned to base, landing with two gallons
The next raid developed on 2 May when some 50 aircraft – an equal mix of G4M Betty bombers and A6M Zero fighters – led by Lieutenant Commander Suzuki Minoru – headed for Darwin and 33 Spitfires rose in response. Caldwell elected to try for height advantage and by the time this was achieved the bombing had begun. Nonetheless, 457 and 452 went for the bombers with 54 engaging the escort. In a lengthy engagement a number victories were claimed, but 15 Spitfires were lost, though only five to enemy action – the rest ran out of fuel.
Going after the fighters, 54 claimed two Zeros destroyed, one of them by Eric Gibbs: “The Zeke I took apparently had no knowledge of what happened to him, and he turned to starboard and went straight down smoking.” His wingman, Flying Officer Wall said: “I saw incendiary 20mm strike behind the cockpit of this Zeke.” However, his final sentence highlighted the problem many of the pilots faced: “I pulled away to port and to rear and finding I had only 22 gallons of fuel returned to base, landing with two gallons.”
Most landed having been airborne for almost two hours. Fg Off Farries engaged the raiders and was credited with a Zero shot down plus another probable and a third damaged, however, he too was hit and forced to bale out off Perin Island. After five hours Farries was rescued.
Bob Foster also commented on the effect the presence of Zeros had on tactics: “As far as the Zero was concerned the Mk.V had the advantage of speed and could outclimb and outdive it. However, as with any other Allied aircraft it could not match it for manoeuvrability; one didn’t try to ‘mix it’ with the Zero. The escorting Zeros were always a menace and at least one Squadron had to be detached to deal with them leaving fewer to attack the bombers, hence their losses were not as high as they might have been.”
It had been a chastening experience for the wing.
Japanese reconnaissance flights presaged a further raid when on the hot and cloudless morning of 20 June 21 Ki 21 Sallys from the 61st Sentai, escorted by Ki 43 Oscars of the 59th Sentai, headed south. The wing scrambled 46 Spitfires and claimed nine bombers and five fighters in the most successful encounter by the RAAF over Darwin.
First to sight the enemy formation over Bathurst Island was 54 Sqn, led by Bob Foster. They attacked as they turned south for Darwin. Over Shoal Bay Foster attacked the leader of the starboard formation of the bombers, sending it down in flames. He then engaged one of the escorts: “One Zeke broke towards me and I gave him two bursts of two and three secs, one ahead and one underneath as he turned, seeing on the second burst my de Wilde ammo striking his port wing.” Thus did the 23 year old achieve his fifth success, becoming an ace.
Another who claimed was one of his fledglings, Sergeant David Wheeler, the son of a rector and so nicknamed ‘The Flying Bishop’. He recalled: “My big day came! I got one bomber which was a Betty confirmed but my aircraft had plenty of Jap bullets but managed to return to base.” In concentrating on his victim he had overflown another bomber and almost paid the price as the gunners opened up. Spitfire EE605/DL-C, flown by Sgt Sid Laundy, also shot down a ‘silvery-grey Zero with a red band encircling the fuselage just forward of the fin.’
As I broke away I looked up and saw him still going down burning
Also successful with 54 was Flying Officer Michael Hughes, who destroyed two bombers at 10.30 hrs: “I attacked one in the middle of the formation, closing from 500 to 50 yards dead astern and below, coming up. No strikes were seen but the middle part of the fuselage round the gun position burst into flames, and E/A took a gentle dive out of position burning fiercely in the middle. I then turned to the A/C on the port side of the formation and gave a two sec burst from a similar position to that used before. No strikes were seen, but the port engine and middle of the fuselage of the E/A burst into flames and E/A took a gentle dive out of formation. As I broke away I looked up and saw him still going down burning.”
However, he then suffered an engine failure and force-landed near Lee Point.
As June drew to a close, Japanese activity increased and on the 30th a force of 27 Bettys and 20 Zeros attacked Fenton, home of the USAAF’s 380th BG. Thirty-eight Spitfires intercepted the Japanese some 20 miles west of Batchelor. The laurels went to 54 Sqn which claimed five destroyed, two of which fell to the CO who also shared a third with a pilot from 457 Sqn. Thus, he became an ace and the second Spitfire pilot to destroy five Japanese aircraft over Australia.
Flight Lieutenant Bob Foster also destroyed a Betty as did F/Sgt Sid Laundy who: “…attacked the extreme starboard bomber of the starboard vic. Attack made from beam as before, closing to 150 yards, and the starboard engine and the leading edge of the mainplanes of the E/A burst into flames and burned brightly. This A/C is claimed as destroyed.” However, having sustained damage he had to abandon his aircraft near the Adelaide River. Plt Off J C Wellsman was killed, whilst after his engagement over Anson Bay Sgt Holmes had to crash-land and Sgt Harker’s aircraft was also heavily damaged.
The lengthy logistics chain for spares and support was having its effects on serviceability – with engine problems being especially prevalent as Bob Foster commented: “As the months went by, aircraft serviceability became a problem. Although plenty of aircraft were arriving in Australia, none of them reached Darwin except as replacements for combat losses. For my last action on 6th July we had seven serviceable aircraft.” Even so, June had been ‘The Churchill Wing’s’ most successful month and there was a corresponding rise in morale.
Although they had suffered significant losses, reconnaissance flights by the 70th Independent Chutai’s Dinahs early in July proved to be the harbingers of a further attacks on Darwin. This materialised on the 6th when a force of 26 bombers and 21 fighters headed south once more. No.54 led by Squadron Leader Gibbs was ordered to climb to 32,000 feet and on sighting the enemy he ordered Foster’s section to attack followed by the remainder. The squadron was credited with four Bettys destroyed, one probable and two damaged.
Eric Gibbs described his last victories: “I closed in and brought my fire head on I saw strikes apparently of cannon rake the port engine, nose and across the starboard side of the fuselage to the starboard engine. Thick black smoke came from the port engine of the E/A which started to drop back out of position.” He then broke downwards before evading a fighter and closing on the bombers once more. Once again, Eric Gibbs landed with little fuel – but his persistence was rewarded as he was credited with a Betty destroyed and a second damaged, despite again suffering from cannon stoppages.
Flight Lieutenant Bob Foster also made his final claim: “I first sighted the formation crossing over Cape Ford at one o’clock to us. In my first attack I opened fire at the leading aircraft of the starboard formation of nine plus aircraft. Heavy return fire was experienced from the blisters; it bore a resemblance to large white flashes and I am of the opinion that it was either 20mm or 12.7mm cannon. Breaking away to port underneath the bombers I commenced to climb into sun and when up about one mile from the bomber formation I observed a lone bomber flying NW about 18-20,000ft in the opposite direction to the bomber formation. I dived after him and delivered a stern attack, opening up a one second burst from 300 yards. This bomber broke down. I eventually saw it crash on land, burning fiercely. As my petrol position was rather serious I returned to base.”
He was subsequently credited with one Betty destroyed and another damaged, and he became the third Spitfire pilot to claim five over Australia; the award of a DFC was announced six weeks later.
The Last Raids
After the successes against the recce aircraft the night raid on the 20th was something of an anti-climax and although five Spitfires of 457 and five of 54 scrambled there were no intercepts in the hazy conditions. The earlier large-scale daylight raids had drawn the comment from Bob Foster that they were: “Reminiscent of the Battle of Britain, the squadron acted as top cover and engaged mainly with Zeros.” And, like the Luftwaffe, in the face of heavy losses the Japanese began flying night raids. Recces still continued by day, however, though in the light of recent losses the next – on 7 September – was heavily escorted.
At 09.25 hrs the wing scrambled after a Dinah, protected by an escort of some 30 fighters. A section from 54 led by Bob Foster intercepted the Japanese with the Dinah and two Zeros damaged, one by Flying Officer H.O. Leonard and the other by Flying Officer Appleton. Sadly, Warrant Officer Hinds was shot down and killed near Pioneer Creek. His aircraft is thought to have been the last Spitfire shot down over Australia.
At the end of the month Bob Foster left the Squadron – and celebrated with a lively Mess party! A few days later Eric Gibbs was told of his award of a well deserved DFC and the following night the Japanese launched the 64th and final air attack on Darwin when nine Bettys conducted a night raid. Six aircraft from 54 were launched but had no joy, though 457 creditably shot down two.
With the change in Japanese priorities in the face of Allied successes elsewhere in the Pacific, this marked the final bombing raid on the Australian mainland. In nine months the Spitfires of 1 Wing had been credited with 65 aircraft destroyed for the loss of 15 pilots. Although standby was maintained, the war had largely moved away.
Although the last raid on Darwin happened in November 1943 there were still occasional encounters between the Spitfires of No.1 Fighter Wing and reconnaissance aircraft into 1944. In part to relieve the monotony, on 18 April Spitfires from all three squadrons – 54, 452 and 457 – combined with Beaufighters from 31 Sqn to attack a radio station on Babar Island. Shortly afterwards two notionally RAF-manned squadrons, 548 and 549, were formed and replaced the RAAF units in 1 Wing.
At 07.30 hrs on 20 July 1944 Lieutenant Kiyoshi Izuka and his observer Lieutenant Hisao Itoh lifted their Dinah off from Koepang and headed for the Australian mainland. Just over an hour later the radar station at Cape Leveque detected the intruder and three Spitfires from 54 Sqn scrambled. Flight Lieutenant Gossland led Flight Lieutenant Meakin and Flight Sergeant Knapp as they intercepted the Japanese aircraft at 27,000 feet. Gossland’s first attack hit both engines, the port wing and fuselage. It then dived away towards the sea followed by Fred Meakin whose fire resulted in the starboard wing detaching.
Gossland recalled: “I saw a Dinah approaching from 3 o’clock about 1,500 ft above, so I tallyhoed and turned port, which positioned me 7-800ft astern and below the Dinah. I gave a short burst and saw strikes on the port engine along the fuselage and the starboard engine. The Dinah started burning and went into a very steep dive, with smoke pouring from both engines, right in front of Red 1 who followed him down, firing at his belly. I saw strikes from his burst on the port wing which went up in a sheet of flame and shortly after fell off outboard of the port engine. The Dinah went into a flat spin burning furiously. I saw a disturbance in the sea off shore. The port wing was still airborne, it settled about half a mile from the main crash.”
This was the last of almost 160 Japanese aircraft downed over Australia during the war and was the swansong for ‘The Churchill Wing’.