MacArthur and the Battle of the Coral Sea 1942

Senior Allied commanders in New Guinea in October 1942. Left to right: Mr Frank Forde (Australian Minister for the Army); MacArthur; General Sir Thomas Blamey, Allied Land Forces; Lieutenant General George C. Kenney, Allied Air Forces; Lieutenant General Edmund Herring, New Guinea Force; Brigadier General Kenneth Walker, V Bomber Command.

MacArthur’s PR machine needed no cover: it was already on the offensive. In fact, under the auspices of Pick Diller, with heavy contributions from MacArthur himself, it had continued its Manila and Corregidor practice of cranking out ubiquitous press releases from the moment the Bataan Gang landed at Batchelor Field. On the one hand, Japanese propaganda boasted verbosely about the triumphs—real and imagined—of the Japanese army and navy, and MacArthur appears to have felt that part of his charge was to counter this stream with propaganda of his own. But on the other hand, his communications were released so quickly that they frequently did not have all the facts straight. In addition, they sometimes reported results for operations over which MacArthur had no direct command, and their revelations threatened to undercut the top-secret code-breaking operations being performed not only by the US Navy but also by his own intelligence unit.

Marshall called MacArthur to task for just those reasons after a press release datelined “Allied Headquarters, Australia, April 27,” reported in great detail on the buildup of Japanese forces at Rabaul. The Japanese had to suspect, Marshall told MacArthur, that reconnaissance alone could not have gathered such information and that their codes were compromised, if not broken. “This together with previous incidents,” Marshall admonished, “indicates that censorship of news emanating from Australia including your headquarters is in need of complete revision.”

MacArthur replied that after what he termed had been “a careful check,” the material in question had not been announced “by direct communiqué” from his headquarters. He professed to have Marshall believe that the term “Allied Headquarters, Australia,” had been loosely appropriated by reporters—despite MacArthur being so particular about such things—and that its use did not imply his control or approval. MacArthur blamed an Australian censor for the release, then pointedly noted, “As I have explained previously, it is utterly impossible for me under the authority I possess to impose total censorship in this foreign country.” But then the stakes got higher.

The US Navy’s code-breaking unit in the Philippines, code-named Cast, had been a high-priority evacuation from Corregidor early in February. A similar army unit, Station 6, delayed leaving until after MacArthur’s departure but was partially evacuated late in March. Both units reassembled in Melbourne and continued deciphering signal intelligence. The center of Pacific intelligence against the Japanese, however, was Station Hypo, located at Pearl Harbor under the leadership of Lieutenant Commander Joseph J. Rochefort.

Based on Rochefort’s intercepts, Commander Edwin T. Layton, Nimitz’s chief intelligence officer, sent a message through channels that advised Sutherland that the Japanese appeared to be preparing to extend their reach from Rabaul and that Port Moresby might be attacked by sea as early as April 21. MacArthur ordered an aerial reconnaissance of Simpson Harbor at Rabaul, but General Brett’s pilots found no concentration of ships that would suggest a major amphibious operation.

On April 22 in Hawaii, Layton reaffirmed his suspicions to Nimitz: despite the reconnaissance results, he still anticipated an imminent Japanese offensive from Rabaul, either against southern New Guinea or eastward into the Solomons. Given the predilection of the Japanese navy to advance under the protection of land-based air—the Battle of Midway was soon to be a major exception—Layton suggested that the target was Port Moresby.

Willoughby read the same decoded message and came to a different conclusion. Noting the reported presence of four Japanese carriers, Willoughby predicted an attack beyond the cover of land-based air, either against the northeastern coast of Australia or on New Caledonia, the critical link in the West-Coast-to-Australia lifeline. When Port Moresby remained quiet, additional naval intelligence convinced Sutherland that the attack had only been delayed a week or two. Willoughby backed off his appraisal and revised it: thereafter he expected a landing in division strength at Port Moresby between May 5 and May 10.

In response to Layton’s intelligence, Nimitz ordered the carriers Lexington and Yorktown, under the command of Rear Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher, to rendezvous and venture into the Coral Sea. Convinced by Layton that the Japanese were making a major offensive thrust, Nimitz also ordered the carriers Enterprise and Hornet, which were returning from the Doolittle Raid under Bill Halsey’s command, to join Fletcher. Bunching the only four American carriers in the Pacific into one force marked a major shift in the way the US Navy deployed its carriers—even though Enterprise and Hornet would arrive too late to engage—and, to Nimitz’s credit, it signaled his emergence as an aggressive theater commander. Nonetheless, it took Nimitz’s muscular lobbying with King to persuade him to do the bundling—and to do it without the millstone of lumbering battleships slowing him down.

The Japanese sortied three main groups: a battle, or “striking,” force from Truk under Rear Admiral Takeo Takagi, including the carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku; an invasion force from Rabaul bound for Port Moresby containing seven destroyers, five transports, and several seaplane tenders; and an escort, or “covering,” force that shadowed the invasion force and included the light carrier Shoho along with four heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, and a squadron of submarines.

The architect of the Japanese attack was Admiral Shigeyoshi Inoue, the commander of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s Fourth Fleet, based at Truk. In addition to Port Moresby, Inoue had his eye on a seaplane facility at tiny Gavutu, near the island of Tulagi, at the far eastern end of the Solomons. Capturing Gavutu and Tulagi would allow Japanese seaplanes to patrol the eastern reaches of the Coral Sea while an airfield for land-based air was constructed nearby on the larger island of Guadalcanal.

As a small force wove its way through the Solomons from Rabaul and made the Tulagi landings, Takagi’s striking force would sweep around the eastern end of the islands, sprint westward across the Coral Sea, and launch a surprise attack against the Allied airfields at Townsville, on the Australian mainland, crippling a chunk of MacArthur’s air force prior to the Port Moresby landing. Inoue did not expect that Takagi would encounter American carriers until Takagi moved northward after the Townsville raid to cover the Port Moresby landings. At least that was the plan.

On May 2, the small Royal Australian Air Force detachment at Tulagi learned of the advance of the Japanese landing force and escaped to the New Hebrides after demolishing some facilities. The following day, the Japanese force, landing unopposed, was observed by SWPA reconnaissance planes. MacArthur passed the report to Admiral Fletcher, who, unbeknownst to Inoue, was cruising on the Yorktown in the Coral Sea south of the Solomons. Fletcher ordered Yorktown north and launched a raid against Tulagi that returned with high boasts but did little actual damage to the invasion force. The result, however, was to warn Takagi of the presence of an American carrier and expedite his approach with the Shokaku and Zuikaku around the eastern end of the Solomons and into the Coral Sea by midday on May 5.

General Brett’s bombers, flying out of Townsville and Port Moresby, caught glimpses of the Port Moresby invasion force slowly making for Jomard Passage, between the New Guinea mainland and the Louisiade Archipelago. Repeated air attacks over the course of three days ended with little damage to the Japanese ships, but inexplicably, Brett, or perhaps it was MacArthur, did not relay any of these sightings or actions to Fletcher—just one consequence of a less-than-unified command.

Carrier USS Lexington under Japanese Attack.

MacArthur’s Navy

Elements of what would come to be called MacArthur’s Navy were, however, on the scene. Admiral Leary had sent the bulk of his SWPA naval forces—two Australian and one American cruiser and three destroyers—to assist Fletcher, but on the morning of May 7, Fletcher detached them westward to protect Port Moresby from any force steaming out of Jomard Passage. Successive waves of Japanese medium and heavy bombers found the ships and pressed attacks dangerously close, at one point straddling Rear Admiral John G. Crace’s Australian flagship with a spread of bombs. Barely had these planes departed when three more medium bombers dropped bombs from twenty-five thousand feet on one of the destroyers.

“It was subsequently discovered,” Crace later reported, “that these aircraft were U.S. Army B-26 from Townsville.” Photographs taken as the bombs were released left little doubt that they had attacked their own ships. “Fortunately,” Crace concluded, “their bombing, in comparison with that of the Japanese formation a few moments earlier, was disgraceful.”

Records showed only eight Allied B-17s then engaged anywhere in the vicinity. General Brett flatly denied that his planes—B-26s, B-25s, or otherwise—had attacked Crace’s command and rejected an offer from Leary to work on improving the air forces’ recognition of naval vessels. MacArthur seems to have stayed above this fray, but he held conferences with both Brett and Leary the next day, and the affair likely did not improve his regard for either man.

Meanwhile, both Fletcher and Takagi launched search planes to find each other’s carriers. They found targets, but not the ones they were looking for. The first strike from the Japanese carriers mistook the destroyer Sims and oiler Neosho, idling by themselves waiting for a refueling rendezvous, for a carrier and cruiser and sank them after a furious onslaught. The Americans fell victim to a similar problem of misidentification and launched full complements of aircraft from Yorktown and Lexington against reports of “two carriers and four heavy cruisers” 175 miles to the northwest. The nervous pilot had meant to encode “two heavy cruisers and two destroyers,” but dive-bombers from the Lexington stumbled upon the light carrier Shoho in the covering force, sinking it to one pilot’s cry of “Scratch one flattop.”

Finally, on the morning of May 8, planes from the two principal carriers on each side found their targets, leaving the Lexington and the Shokaku the most heavily damaged of the four and proving that carrier aircraft could fight major encounters without surface ships ever coming into direct contact with each other. The Americans made headway to save the Lexington, but gasoline vapors from ruptured fuel lines ignited and started a series of chain explosions. Sailors lined the flight deck in a calm evacuation, and Fletcher had the grim duty of ordering a destroyer to sink the flaming wreck to avoid any chance of its salvage by the Japanese.

Having already been instructed by Admiral Inoue to abandon the raid against Townsville, Takagi turned northward with the Zuikaku to follow the wounded Shokaku. The loss of the Shoho prompted a similar recall as both the Port Moresby invasion fleet and the remnants of its covering force turned around and sailed back to Rabaul. Tactically, the Americans had sustained heavier losses, but strategically, they had dealt the first major setback to Japan’s unchecked post–Pearl Harbor romp and managed to blunt the Japanese drive to cut Australia’s lifeline. King would never forgive Fletcher for the loss of the Lexington, but five months after Pearl Harbor, Fletcher had taken on a slightly superior force and, at worst, emerged with a draw. At best, he had saved Australia.

But the Battle of the Coral Sea was not quite over. There was to be a secondary fight of press releases between MacArthur and the American navy. During the course of the running naval battle, the Australian Advisory War Council had taken the unprecedented step of granting MacArthur just the sort of supreme censorship over SWPA operations that MacArthur had just told Marshall was “utterly impossible” to enforce. News was to come only from Diller’s SWPA communiqués. The first two dispatches of May 8 reported ten enemy ships sunk and five badly damaged in the Coral Sea action, with MacArthur’s bombers playing a leading role and without any mention of specific American losses, including the Lexington. It was an egocentric way for MacArthur to show he was “in the know,” but it had just the opposite effect. Such shabby reporting sparked criticism from the Australians and outrage from the American navy.

The Lexington had barely settled beneath the warm waters of the Coral Sea when Marshall told MacArthur that King and Nimitz were quite disturbed by his “premature release of information” concerning forces under Nimitz’s command because it imposed “definite risks upon participating forces and jeopardize[d] the successful continuation of fleet task force operations.” King decreed that thenceforth, news of Nimitz’s forces would be “released through the Navy Department only.”

Predictably, MacArthur took affront and immediately dispatched a characteristically lengthy reply: “Absolutely no information has been released from my headquarters with reference to action taking place in the northeastern sector of this area except the official communiqués. By no stretch of possible imagination do they contain anything of value to the enemy nor anything not fully known to him.” The forces so engaged, MacArthur noted, included a large part of his air force, a major portion of the Australian navy, and his heavily Australian ground forces at Port Moresby and elsewhere. The battle involved “the very fate of the Australian people and continent,” MacArthur maintained, “and it is manifestly absurd that some technicality of administrative process should attempt to force them to await the pleasure of the United States Navy Department for news of action.”

In response to this tirade, Marshall took his usual calm approach—he did not reply. It is difficult to imagine that Marshall would have brooked such insolence from another subordinate. Far from being cowed by MacArthur, Marshall was simply following the party line. The president had decided that MacArthur’s worth as an asset outweighed his liabilities, and Marshall would do his best to follow suit. That did not mean, of course, that Roosevelt did not share Marshall’s frequent exasperation.

“As you have seen by the press,” Roosevelt wrote Canadian prime minister Mackenzie King on May 18, “Curtin and MacArthur are obtaining most of the publicity. The fact remains, however, that the naval operations were conducted solely through the Hawaii command!”

Far from shying away from Nimitz, MacArthur complimented the admiral on the manner in which his forces were handled and announced he was eager to cooperate. “Call upon me freely,” MacArthur wrote. “You can count upon my most complete and active cooperation.” Meanwhile, MacArthur regaled his staff with stories of how his planes had discovered the Japanese invasion fleet. “He told it all in the most wonderfully theatrical fashion,” Brigadier General Robert H. Van Volkenburgh, his antiaircraft chief, remembered years later. “I enjoyed every second of it.

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Mercia-Anglo-Saxon Kingdom

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Since Bede observed in about 731 that the provinces of England’s bishops `south of the river Humber and their kings, are subject to Æthelbald, king of the Mercians’, historians have generally looked upon the eighth century as the great period of Mercian domination in Anglo-Saxon England, at least south of the Humber. That Æthelbald was duly followed by the greatest of the Mercian kings, Offa, and that between them their reigns spanned eighty years of the century, merely reaffirms the point.

Over the course of the century the confederation of peoples that Penda and his heirs had forged under their overlordship was to be converted into an enlarged and consolidated kingdom with a strong and increasingly centralised kingship. But how was this achieved, against a backdrop of emerging dynastic rivalries and the scrutiny of churchmen, and what did Mercian supremacy look like?

Mercian Exiles

When Æthelred abdicated his throne in 704 he appointed his nephew Coenred in his place. His reign was short but well-regarded. Mercian authority was maintained in the satellite provinces, Coenred confirming or making grants of land in Middlesex, Worcestershire, Warwickshire and Herefordshire, and contending with attacks by the Welsh; even the demons that Saint Guthlac confronted in the Fens were British-speaking. Coenred’s reputation for piety and `ruling nobly’ would seem to be consistent with his decision after five years to abdicate, and with Offa of the East Saxons, to depart for Rome where he took the tonsure and died not long afterwards. No fewer than six Anglo-Saxon kings, two of them Mercian, decided to abdicate their thrones for the religious life between 685 and 710.

Coenred’s abdication brought his cousin, Ceolred, to the throne, remembered rather less favourably by posterity. His authority and lordship seem to have echoed that of his predecessor although he also campaigned into Wessex in 716, fighting in Wiltshire. However, his reign marked two developments that pointed to the future. Firstly, as the direct line of Penda weakened and became more `distant’ there are indications of growing discontent among other branches of the royal kin, with their own claims on power and subsequent dynastic rivalries. One of these rivals was Æthelbald, forced into exile and `driven hither and thither by King Ceolred and tossed about among divers peoples’ (Felix). He went into the Fens and sought out the `holy man Guthlac’ from whom he took comfort and the prophecy that with God’s help, he would overcome his enemies and gain the Mercian throne. Guthlac had himself been an exile during the reign of Ceolred’s father and may have had little love for Penda’s descendants.

The second pointer to the future is revealed in Ceolred’s reputation. Although not universally adopted, there was a tradition that regarded him as profligate, a visionary at Much Wenlock during the king’s lifetime proclaiming that the angels surrounding him had removed their protective shield and abandoned him to demons because of the many crimes that he had committed; the story prompts a suspicion of dynastic interests at play. At the heart of this uncomplimentary tradition lay the testimony of Saint Boniface, set out thirty years after Ceolred’s death in a letter to King Æthelbald. The theme of the letter was a call for reform, in the course of which the example was raised of Ceolred, who, prompted by the devil, set a wicked example with `an open display of [the] two greatest sins in the provinces of the English’. These sins were described as `debauchery and adultery with nuns and violation of monasteries’. Personal immorality aside, Boniface was concerned with what he saw as the violation of church privileges, and although there is no further explanation as to what these violations were, it seems probable that the secular `abuse’ of minsters and their lands was among these, a recurrent theme later in the eighth century. As a consequence of his sins, while feasting in splendour with his companions, Ceolred was seized by madness and without repentance or confession he died `conversing with devils and cursing the priests of God’, to be buried, according to William of Malmesbury, at Lichfield.

The last of Penda’s direct descendants passed with Ceolred’s death in 716. The suggestion in a Worcester regnal list that he was succeeded by a man named Ceolwald cannot be otherwise verified, and if it was the case it can have been only fleetingly as in 716 Saint Guthlac’s prophecy, given to Æthelbald while in exile, was fulfilled.

A New Dynasty

Æthelbald’s accession marked the triumph of the Mercian royal lineage that traced itself back to Eowa, a brother of Penda, as did his successor, Offa. The two kings were first cousins, twice removed, and so the eighth century saw the replacement of one lineage with another. Barbara Yorke has suggested that there may have been mutual co-operation between these two branches of the family, and certainly signs of rivalry are lacking. Æthelbald, for instance, made a grant to Offa’s grandfather, Eanulf, whom he described as his kinsman and companion.

Æthelbald secured his position by favouring and promoting his kinsmen and friends to positions of power and influence in his service. A `gesith’ or retainer of Æthelbald during his years of exile was a man named Oba (Ofa) who at one point was healed by the touch of the sheepskin rug in which Saint Guthlac was accustomed to pray. Ofa regularly appeared as a witness to Æthelbald’s charters, on one occasion in 742 being described as `Ofa, patricius’, a title of distinction that probably signified his charge of the royal household. Another regular witness was the king’s brother, Heardberht, often described as `dux’ but more prestigiously in 749 as `primatum’, of pre-eminent rank.

In the early years of his reign it is probable that Æthelbald could do little more than ensure his position within Mercia until wider opportunities presented themselves with the death of Wihtred of Kent in 725 and the subsequent partition of his kingdom between three sons; and the abdication of King Ine of Wessex, whose probable ambitions on London and Essex were dissipated by a disputed succession. Even so, historians have recently urged a more considered and `defined’ view of Æthelbald’s overlordship around 731.

Securing the Mercian Heartland

Fundamental was the absorption of Mercia’s former satellite provinces into an enlarged and integrated kingdom, a phenomenon of Æthelbald’s reign that was continued under Offa, in both cases reflected by the way in which previously independent rulers became increasingly subordinated in their status, and their titles, descending from `king’, to `under king’ and then `ealdorman’. This latter vernacular title was used of royal kin, formerly autonomous rulers, and distinguished nobles to denote the king’s most important and prestigious officers. They had delegated powers of governance, military command and administration in the Mercian provinces, the precursors of the later shires.

The last independent ruler of the Magonsæte was a son of Merewalh, Mildfrith, regulus (sub king) but after about 740 this former province was integrated into the Mercian kingdom under a subordinate ruler, by Offa’s time, an ealdorman. Similarly, the Hwiccian royal family was gradually subordinated and their province integrated, reflected by Æthelbald and Offa regularly granting land within their province; indeed one of the earliest of the charters to survive from Æthelbald’s reign concerned an exchange of salthouses and furnaces near Droitwich with the church of Worcester. Among the witnesses when Æthelbald granted land at Stour in Ismere to his companion Cyneberht in 736 was Æthelric, `sub-king and companion of the most glorious prince Æthelbald’.

By Offa’s time there was a further but significant shift in how the Hwiccian rulers were described. For instance, there were several charters where Ealdred (fl. 757-790) was described as an under-king of the Hwicce, but in 778, in a charter of Offa granting land in Sedgeberrow (Worcestershire), he was described more precisely as `subregulus’ and `dux’ of the Hwicce, that is, under-king and ealdorman. The transformation of this province into a Mercian scir or shire was effectively marked by the synod of Brentford in 781 settling a dispute between Offa and the church of Worcester, but after which there were no further Hwiccian charters. The Mercian kings first made the authority of Hwiccian rulers dependent upon their support and confirmation, which Æthelbald and more particularly Offa took further by completely transforming the basis of their subordinate authority, now entirely derived from the Mercian king until they effectively became his officers. Something similar is thought to have occurred among the Middle Angles and in Lindsey.

Mercia’s Neighbours

As in the seventh century Mercian interests were greatly affected by relations with their neighbours, among them the East Anglian and East Saxon kingdoms where international trading networks were focused on the major entrepots of Ipswich and London. Similarly important was the kingdom of Kent, with links to Francia and the seat of the southern archdiocese at Canterbury.

The fact that Saint Guthlac’s Vita was dedicated to King Ælfwald of the East Angles, and the popularity of his cult in East Anglia, suggests crucially important cordial relations between the East Angles and the Mercians. Beyond the supposed implications of Bede’s statement, there is little to suggest direct East Anglian subordination to Æthelbald, other than perhaps his seniority within the community of kings. We might here envisage influence rather than direct control and it was Æthelbald’s good fortune that Ælfwald did not die until 749, after a reign of thirty-six years.

Among the East Saxons Æthelbald’s authority was more tangible. Mercian control of London was reasserted and Middlesex was effectively annexed into the Mercian kingdom, all at the expense of the East Saxon kings. Æthelbald may be found remitting tolls at London for the benefit of the churches of Rochester and Minster-in-Thanet (Kent) without any need to associate an East Saxon king, at least not in the surviving versions of the grant, although a clause admonishing any future attempts by kings or their deputies to invalidate the gift might prompt speculation. Of course, with London came the particular demands of a major trading centre, among these the need for large quantities of coin. From as early as around 720 Æthelbald was striking a silver Mercian coinage with his most important mint in London, but there is nothing to suggest that he sought to enforce or control the minting of coin by other kings.

Mercian control of London and interest in cross Channel trade must have affected the kingdom of Kent and influenced relations, but the evidence is equivocal and it is difficult to demonstrate that the Kentish kings were subordinate. Mercian influence, however, might be reasonably supposed, as when in 731 the priest Tatwine, from the monastery of Breedon-on-the-Hill (Leicestershire), was elected archbishop of Canterbury. This was not an isolated instance; in 734-5 Nothelm, a priest of London, and again in 740, Cuthbert, a probable former bishop of Hereford, were elected to Canterbury.

Relations with Wessex seem to have been largely framed by border disputes in which Æthelbald was successful in gaining territory, perhaps previously contested land. He appears disposing of lands in West Saxon areas and this, alongside the fact that Æthelbald and the West Saxon king Cuthred fought together in 743 against the Britons, leads some to suggest a Mercian overlordship of Wessex at this point; but that need not be so, and in any case, by 752, Cuthred put the Mercians to flight at Beorhford. However, Æthelbald still appears witnessing land granted in Wiltshire as `king not only of the Mercians but also of the surrounding peoples’.

Perceptions of Æthelbald’s Kingship

There can be no doubt that royal authority in Mercia itself was strengthened and the kingdom enlarged as former satellite provinces were incorporated with the Mercian heartlands, but what of the rest of southern England?

It has recently been suggested that Æthelbald’s ambitions were relatively limited, represented essentially by a `corridor’ of territory that ran south eastwards along the line of Watling Street towards London. Beyond this, there is little to suggest direct control in Kent, among the South and East Saxons, or in the East Anglian kingdom. Still more limited were Mercian ambitions north of the Humber, with only two raids into Northumbria, in 737 and 740; nor is there much evidence regarding Wales, although the border areas had become more volatile by the early eighth century.

Can we reconcile this more circumspect evaluation with the testimony of Bede, as a direct and well-connected witness, well able to appreciate the contemporary scene; and one subsequently borne out by such as Æthelbald’s confirmation of privileges to the churches of Kent in 742, the kind of act that we might associate with a king thought to wield real authority? Direct authority over the lands between the Mercian heartlands and London was essential, but elsewhere negotiation and fluctuation were possible based on influence, friendship and strength. Æthelbald pursued kingdom building in central England and secured its frontiers while elsewhere, to borrow a nineteenth-century phrase, he maintained `spheres of interest’.

Æthelbald’s aspirations and `profile’ may, to some extent, be reflected in the titles that he adopted, but such material must be treated with caution. The practices of individual scriptoria, particularly Worcester, played a part here and the styles they used need not have always represented the reality. The title of `rex Britanniae’, king of Britain, used in 736 is hardly credible, whereas in the text of the charter is found, `king not only of the Mercians but also of all the provinces which are called by the general name south English’, a description that comes closer to what Bede described a few years earlier. More commonly, as for Offa later, he was styled `rex Merciorum’, `king of the Mercians’, a more accurate reflection of Æthelbald’s authority, status and ambition.

The Unbelievable True Story of a Lone Soviet Tank’s Raid on Nazi-Occupied Minsk

Military journalist Alexander Khrolenko looks back on the incredible story of how a lone Soviet T-28 medium tank conducted a daring raid on Nazi-occupied Minsk in the early weeks of the Great Patriotic War.

On Sunday, Russia celebrates Tankers Day, the official holiday for tank crew established in 1946 in honor of the achievements of armored and mechanized forces in the Great Patriotic War. In light of the celebration, RIA Novosti contributor Alexander Khrolenko penned a piece about one of the most striking episodes of the tank crew heroics during the war: an incredible raid by a single Soviet T-28 crew on German-occupied Minsk in July 1941.

It Was the 12th Day of the War

In early July 1941, a T-28 medium tank commanded by Sargent Major Dmitri Malko was struck by a Luftwaffe raid as it made its retreat along with a column of other Soviet mechanized units near Berezino, about 90 km east of Minsk, which had been occupied by the Nazis soon after the start of the war. The tank’s engine was damaged. Malko, an experienced mechanic, managed to repair it, but ended up hopelessly behind the rest of the column. Rather than try to catch up, the officer and his crew decided to head west and pay a visit to the Germans in Minsk. Stocking up on ammunition at an abandoned military warehouse, the T-28 headed west to the Belarusian capital.

Field Marshal Hans Guderian’s tank forces had already advanced east, and the lone Soviet T-28 driving along the roads did not attract much attention from the Germans, who were used to seeing trophy enemy armored vehicles.

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A Soviet Т-28, one of the world’s first medium tanks, created in 1932

Fiery Breakthrough

Making their way west, Malko’s tankmen hit upon a column of German motorcyclists about 40 km outside Minsk at a bridge over the River Svislach.

Khrolenko wrote: “The T-28 crashed into the column, shooting up enemy forces with its cannon and four machine guns. After that, the crew destroyed two German trucks, a Hanomag armored personnel carrier and dozens of troops in front of a distillery. Moving further into the city, the T-28 ran over and shot Nazi troops in the streets and in Gorky Park (which contained a military encampment).”

‘Even the Stones Burned’: 75 Years On From Worst Bombing of Great Patriotic War

“In the course of their raid on Minsk, the six Soviet tankmen destroyed or disabled about 10 enemy tanks and armored vehicles, 14 trucks, and three artillery batteries. German troops suffered heavy losses totaling about 360 soldiers and officers.”

The brave crew of the T-28 drove through central Minsk, firing until it ran out of ammo, before German command finally realized what was going on. A lone Wehrmacht anti-tank gun fired on the Soviet tank, but its frontal armor absorbed the blow, after which Major Vasechkin returned fire, destroying the gun.

Khrolenko wrote that after their mission was complete, “the T-28 nearly managed to break out of the city, but on its outskirts, in the area of the Kalvariyskoe Cemetery, it got hit by flanking fire by enemy artillery and caught fire. The Red Army troops managed to escape the burning tank.”

Fate of the Crew

The tank’s crew would face differing fates. Tank driver Major Vasechkin left the tank through the commander’s hatch, firing from his TT handgun before being shot down by the Nazis. Cadets Alexander Rachitsky and Sergei (surname unknown) were also killed in the battle. Cadet Nikolai Pedan was taken prisoner and held for four years in a Nazi concentration camp. He was eventually freed, reinstated in the army, and demobilized in 1946. Cadet Fyodor Naumov went into hiding, joining Belarus’s powerful partisan movement. He was heavily wounded in 1943, and evacuated east.

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Sergeant Major Malko managed to escape Minsk and headed east, meeting up with Soviet troops. Khrolenko writes: “He fought in the tank troops for the rest of the war, his tank catching fire sixteen times…He met Victory Day in East Prussia, promoted by that time to deputy commander of a tank company. Exactly three years after the 1941 raid, on July 1944, Senior Lieutenant Malko found himself in liberated Minsk, and saw the burnt out husk of his T-28.”

“Later, in the spring of 1945, US counterintelligence interrogated German Major Rudolf Hale, who had been taken prisoner in the Ruhr area. During his interrogation, the major told the Americans that in the summer of 1941, his company and its equipment were almost completely destroyed after the unexpected appearance of a Soviet T-28 in Minsk. US command handed this testimony to the appropriate organs their Soviet counterparts. However, no one believed the stories of Tankman Dmitri Malko or German Major Rudolf Hale. Only in 1966, when Nikolai Pedan confirmed the story, would Malko be awarded the Order of the Patriotic War, 1st Class.”

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Dmitry Ivanovich Malko, T-28 tank driver who destroyed over 300 enemy troops and 10 armored vehicles in occupied Minsk.

Overshadowed by its younger cousin, the legendary T-34, the T-28 was one of the most formidable medium tanks in the world during the early war period. The steel monster had 80mm thick frontal armor, and 40mm side and rear armor. The tank’s unusual multi-turret configuration included a 76mm cannon and four 7.62mm machine guns. The tank’s cannon could penetrate armor up to 50 mm at distances up to 1,000 meters. Its 500hp engine allowed it to move at speeds of over 40 km/h, and successfully cross ditches, escarpments and other obstacles. The onboard radio station allowed for communications at a range of up to 60 km. The tank had a standard crew of six. In June 1941, the Red Army fielded about 250 serviceable T-28s. The last combat use of the T-28 would be reported in 1944.

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T-28s parading along Red Square, November 7, 1939

 

 

Hitler’s Plan to Attack America

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Picture Credit: Life, 1942

by Gerhard Weinberg

Gerhard L. Weinberg is emeritus professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the author of A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II (Cambridge University Press, 1994).

Editor’s Note (1999): In his new book, A Republic, Not an Empire, Patrick Buchanan claims that as of mid-1940 Hitler “was driven by a traditional German policy of Drang nach Osten, the drive to the East.” He did not want war with the West, insists Buchanan. (Pp. 268-69.) Why then did Hitler, following Pearl Harbor, declare war on the United States? Buchanan insists this was the irrational act of a madman. In fact, insists Gerhard Weinberg, it was consistent with an objective Hitler had long nourished.

It had been an assumption of Hitler’s since the 1920s that Germany would at some point fight the United States. As early as the summer of 1928 he asserted in his second book (not published until I did it for him in 1961) that strengthening and preparing Germany for war with the United States was one of the tasks of the National Socialist movement. Both because his aims for Germany’s future entailed an unlimited expansionism of global proportions and because he thought of the United States as a country which with its population and size might at some time constitute a challenge to German domination of the globe, a war with the United States had long been part of the future he envisioned for Germany either during his own rule of it or thereafter.

During the years of his chancellorship before 1939, German policies designed to implement the project of a war with the United States had been conditioned by two factors: belief in the truth in the stab-in-the-back legend on the one hand and the practical problems of engaging American military power on the other. The belief in the concept that Germany had lost the First World War because of the collapse at home — the stab in the back of the German army — rather than defeat at the front automatically carried with it a converse of enormous significance which has generally been ignored. It made the military role of the United States in that conflict into a legend. Believing that the German army had not been beaten in the fighting, Hitler and many others in the country disbelieved that it had been American participation which had enabled the Western Powers to hold on in 1918 and then move toward victory over Germany. They perceived that to be a foolish fable, not a reasonable explication of the events of that year. A solid German home front, which National Socialism would ensure, could preclude defeat next time; the problem of fighting the United States was not that the inherently weak and divided Americans could create, field, and support effective fighting forces, but rather that they were so far away and that the intervening ocean could be blocked by a large American fleet. Here were the practical problems of fighting America: distance and the size of the American navy.

To overcome these practical obstacles Hitler built up the German navy and began work on a long-range bomber — the notorious Amerika Bomber — which would be capable of flying to New York and back without refueling. Although the bomber proved difficult to construct, Hitler embarked on a crash building program of superbattleships promptly after the defeat of France. In addition, he began accumulating air and sea bases on the Atlantic coast to facilitate attacks on the United States. In April 1941 Hitler secretly pledged that he would join Japan in a war on the United States. This was critical. Only if Japan declared war would Germany follow.

As long as Germany had to face the United States essentially by herself, she needed time to build her own blue-water navy; it therefore made sense to postpone hostilities with the Americans until Germany had been able to remedy this deficiency. If, on the other hand, Japan would come into the war on Germany’s side, then that problem was automatically solved.

Hitler was caught out of town at the time of Pearl Harbor and had to get back to Berlin and summon the Reichstag to acclaim war. His great worry, and that of his foreign minister, was that the Americans might get their declaration of war in ahead of his own. As Joachim von Ribbentrop explained it, “A great power does not allow itself to be declared war upon; it declares war on others.” He did not need to lose much sleep; the Roosevelt administration was quite willing to let the Germans take the lead. Just to make sure, however, that hostilities started immediately, Hitler had already issued orders to his navy, straining at the leash since October 1939, to begin sinking American ships forthwith, even before the formalities of declaring war. Now that Germany had a big navy on its side (Japan’s), there was no need to wait even an hour.

This article is excerpted from Gerhard Weinberg’s Germany, Hitler, and World War II (Cambridge University Press: 1995).

 

 

Leuthen, 1757: Victory for Quality

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…furthermore called his generals and senior field grade officers to his tent where he delivered a rousing speech, calling on them to do their duty and uphold their honour, explaining his basic plan to attack the Austrians at Breslau.

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The summer and autumn of 1757 were not kind to Frederick. He had been forced to abandon his invasion of Bohemia after lifting his siege of Prague and had suffered a sharp defeat at Köln, before retiring to Saxony. Moreover, he found himself with more enemies when France, Sweden and Russia all declared war against him, and without his key ally, as Britain withdrew from the war in order to preserve her territorial interests in Hanover. Frederick was, however, able to stabilize the situation in Saxony with a decisive victory over a large force of French and Imperial troops at Rossbach on 4 November. The victory had tremendous implications internationally, bringing Britain back into the war and with her the cash subsidies to support Prussia, and the help of her troops in northern Germany.

But Frederick still had problems on his eastern flank. His forces in Silesia, the casus belli back in 1740, under the command of the duke of Bevern, were on the run. They had been defeated by an Austrian army under Charles of Lorraine and the veteran commander Field Marshal Leopold Daun outside of Breslau on 22 November and were driven back across the River Oder. Shortly thereafter Bevern himself was captured. Frederick had already begun moving to re-inforce his army in Silesia with 18 battalions of infantry and 23 squadrons of cavalry. He sent Hans von Ziethen, the commander of Prussia’s hussar regiments, to keep Bevern’s force together until he arrived. On 2 December, Frederick joined Ziethen and his troops. His original plan was to get Bevern’s forces ready for combat and attack the Austrians at Breslau, but the overall strategic situation forced Frederick to move almost immediately.

The stage was set for the Battle of Leuthen, which was fought just three days later. In this battle Frederick demonstrated the effectiveness of the Prussian army when led by a commander who understood its capabilities. In the course of this battle Frederick used the great manoeuvrability of his infantry to execute his oblique order of attack and to concentrate his outnumbered troops against one wing of the enemy. It also demonstrated the firepower that the well-disciplined Prussian infantry could deliver in the attack. Frederick’s first task was to restore confidence to the officers and men of Bevern’s command. The king strolled through the Prussian camp, talking to the troops, offering encouragement, and giving promises of rewards for merit in the action that was ahead of them. He likewise told the officers that they could redeem themselves in the battle they were about to fight. Frederick also encouraged interaction between the forces that had been defeated in Silesia and those returning from Saxony, flushed with the victory of Rossbach the previous month. Frederick hoped that the veterans of Rossbach would help raise the morale of the rest. He also took particular care to look after the comforts of his men, distributing additional rations and spirits to the troops to fortify their strength and courage. He furthermore called his generals and senior field grade officers to his tent where he delivered a rousing speech, calling on them to do their duty and uphold their honour, explaining his basic plan to attack the Austrians at Breslau. But he also promised punishments for failure, noting that cavalry regiments that failed to charge would be dismounted and downgraded to garrison service, and infantry regiments that did not press the attack would be disgraced, losing their colours, swords and having the facings cut from their uniforms.

Frederick allowed his troops to rest on 3 December but the next day advanced on Breslau. While on the march Frederick learnt that the Austrians had left the city and had deployed their army around the village of Leuthen. Frederick had looked for a decisive battle to restore the situation in Silesia and was grateful to Charles and Daun for this move. The Austrians certainly had reason to be confident since they outnumbered the Prussians by nearly two to one, with great advantages in both infantry and artillery. The Austrians had some 66,000 men and more than 200 artillery pieces, compared to the Prussian’s 39,000 men and 170 guns. Moreover, about two-thirds of the Prussians had been part of Bevern’s force, which they had already defeated. Frederick seems mistakenly to have believed the Austrians were comparable in strength to his own forces.

The Austrians were encamped along a front about five kilometres (four and a half miles) long between the small hamlets of Nippern and Sagschiitz, with the village of Leuthen behind their lines. Charles and Daun seemed ready to give Frederick an open battle, relying on their numbers to give them the victory. The Prussians made their advance to the battlefield beginning about 4 AM, and were deployed in two large infantry columns each flanked by a column of cavalry. There was also a sizeable advance guard of light infantry, including some rifle-armed Jager, and hussars led by the king himself.

Battle is Joined

The action began with the Prussian advanced guard easily brushing aside a small force of Saxon dragoons and Austrian light horse, taking 200 captive. Frederick ordered these men to be paraded past the army as it advanced, to raise the morale of his troops. As Frederick viewed the long white lines of Austrian troops deployed in front of Leuthen the great size of the enemy’s army became clear to him and it was plain that they had the numerical edge. But, using the coup d’oeil for which he was famous, he noted two key features of the battlefield’s topography. The first was that the Austrian left had not taken advantage of some marshy ground to anchor their left flank, which was consequently left exposed, although they had hastily constructed some barricades and redoubts for their batteries there. Moreover, there was a small ridgeline that ran in front of the Austrian left, which could be used to conceal his movements in front of the Austrian left flank.

Frederick quickly determined to take advantage of the vulnerable Austrian flank and to use the low ridges to mask his manoeuvre. To keep the enemy occupied, the Prussian cavalry of the left wing supported by some of the Prussian foot would feign an attack to keep the Austrian centre and right wing distracted. The idea of splitting an inferior force and marching a large part of it across the length of the enemy’s line, all the while presenting the flank of advancing columns to musket and artillery fire, might have seemed suicidal, but because of the nature of the terrain and the speed and manoeuvrability of the Prussian infantry Frederick was willing to take the risk. By 11 AM Frederick had made his deployments, with his left-flank cavalry, supported by a small force of infantry, slowly advancing against the right flank of the Austrian line. The Austrian commander there immediately called for assistance, assuming that his flank was the object of Frederick’s main assault. Charles and Daun responded by shifting their reserves to support the right, and galloped over to the right wing to oversee the engagement in person. In the meantime, the bulk of the Prussian infantry and their right-wing cavalry had begun their movement across the front of the Austrian line. The infantry, formed in two columns, moved with amazing speed due to their disciplined cadenced marching. In less than two hours they had started to form a line of battle at right-angles to the Austrian left flank, with the right-hand units extended slightly behind the Austrian line. The assault troops consisted of three excellent line infantry battalions, supported by a column of four additional battalions, three of grenadiers and one more from a crack line regiment. There were also 20 heavy twelve-pounder guns in support. The majority of the remaining Prussian infantry were deploying en echelon behind the assault force and spreading out to its left. Frederick retained 53 squadrons and six battalions in reserve. What made this manoeuvre possible was the low ridgeline that obscured the Prussians’ movements. The position was strengthened by the fact that the Austrian commanders had moved over to their left flank, and so were even less likely to discern Frederick’s intent. Indeed, although they noticed the Prussians moving behind the hill, they could not determine numbers or directions and assumed them to be in retreat. By 1 PM Frederick’s forces were in position and ready to begin the assault.

Where the Prussian attack hit the Austrian left the troops were composed mostly of soldiers of varied quality from those minor German states whose contingents were combined to form the Reichsarmee. They were under the command of General Franz Nadasdy, a bold Hungarian hussar general. The Prussians advanced on the troops of the Reichsarmee and engaged them in a fierce firefight, routing the Württembergers and pushing them back into the Bavarians, who joined in the rout. The firepower delivered by the assault troops must have been crushing – they were running out of ammunition by the time the supporting units arrived. Fortunately Frederick had brought ammunitions wagons with him. These units drew more cartridges and remained in the battle line. Nadasdy tried to restore the situation by attacking the Prussian foot with his dragoons and hussars, but he was countered by the 53 squadrons of Prussians from Frederick’s reserve under the command of Ziethen. The Prussian cavalry overthrew the Austrians. Rather than pursuing the cavalry, they turned to complete the destruction of Nadasdy’s broken infantry, taking over 2000 Württembergers and Bavarians prisoner.

Having realized that the attack on the right was a diversion, Charles and Daun tried to turn their centre 90 degrees to face the advancing Prussians. The Austrian line was to be anchored on the village of Leuthen itself. But there was little time to plan the redeployment and units were sent in piecemeal, not properly deployed into firing lines. The manouevre was much more difficult for the Austrians, who did not manoeuvre in the closed columns of the Prussians. As they performed it they were subjected to intense Prussian musketry and the fire of 40 twelve-pounders now moved up to the high ground overlooking Leuthen. At about 3:30 the Prussian infantry began their assault against the new Austrian position. After a sharp struggle they cleared Leuthen, which had been admirably defended by a few Austrian units and a Wiirzburg regiment of Reichsarmee troops. Another Austrian cavalry charge was made but was driven back by the Prussian cavalry. At this point, the Austrian army broke. Frederick attempted a pursuit but the weather, time of day and exhaustion of his troops prevented this being very effective.

Leuthen was a great victory for Frederick but it was also a costly one. Frederick lost 6000 men, nearly one-fifth of his forces. He in turn inflicted 10,000 killed and wounded, took more than 12,000 prisoners, and captured more than 100 cannon. A further 17,000 Austrians surrendered when Breslau capitulated later in the month. Leuthen demonstrated just what could be accomplished in the age of linear warfare with an army as disciplined as that of Prussia, especially when commanded by one of the ‘Great Captains’ of the period.

Corsairing [English] Operations in the Mediterranean

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In addition to traditional corsairing operations in the Mediterranean, several new ones were sponsored in the late sixteenth and the early seventeenth century by Christian states such as Spain, Tuscany, Sicily and Monaco. These states also licensed additional vessels to sail as temporary corsairs under their protection, usually as wartime auxiliaries, but sometimes independently. Among the permanent new enclaves, two were developed as the great period of the sixteenth-century war wound down. In northwest Italy the Grand Dukes of Tuscany operated a fleet against the Muslims in the sixteenth century, but they gave it up in 1574 and sold some of their galleys to the Knights of St Stephen, a crusading order founded by Cosimo II di Medici (1537–74). Though these knights never had the discipline or the prestige of the Knights of Malta, with whom they sometimes collaborated, they styled themselves Christian crusaders and were authorized ‘to seize the ships and goods of any states which were not Roman Catholic’. With their base in Livorno (known as Leghorn to the English), they launched their first assault on Muslim trade and ports in 1564. The sales of booty in Livorno enriched the city and its ducal patrons, just as similar sales enriched the Knights of Malta and the beys of Barbary. Merchants and corsairs from northern Europe, especially England and Holland, streamed into Livorno in the late sixteenth century, swelling the population to about 5,000 by 1601.

Nearby Savoy had an official galley fleet that sailed against Muslim shipping. In addition, for a share of the loot, the Dukes of Savoy licensed pirates who settled in Villefranche. The port was very active in the early seventeenth century, because Spain had resumed attacks on the corsairing ports of Barbary and Morocco. With the activities of the Barbary corsairs restricted, the Christian pirates of Livorno and Villefranche sailed in to fill a niche in the market for stolen goods. Like Livorno, Villefranche attracted an international mix of adventurers, including many English pirates and merchants, who made enormous profits from the seizure and sale of booty. Marseilles was another favored port for northerners, where the notorious pirate Danziker held a commission from King Henry IV of France.

Sizeable numbers of English pirates settled in North Africa as well as Italy after 1604, when an Anglo-Spanish peace treaty put privateers out of work. In response, they simply changed venue and continued preying on Spanish shipping. English pirates had few ships in the Mediterranean at that point, but they were able to seize prizes with swift and heavily armed sailing ships. Once established in Barbary, English pirates could easily find ships and crews for corsairing expeditions. Northern European pirates tended to sail from fall to spring, Barbary pirates favored the summer; combined, they presented a year-round scourge to the shipping of Venice and Spain, in particular. In the summer of 1608 alone Algerian pirates captured 50 vessels off the Valencian coast. The reintroduction of the armed sailing ship to the Mediterranean was one of the most lasting developments of the seventeenth century. After a century of development in the Atlantic and beyond, the most agile of these vessels were well suited to Mediterranean piracy and cheaper to operate. The Grand Dukes of Tuscany bought sailing ships in 1602, and there are reports of numerous raids by sailing ships in the eastern Mediterranean in the early seventeenth century. Galleys were still in use, of course, but they faced increasing problems of maneuverability as artillery became heavier.

Moth at Darwin


RAAF Anson

THE FORMATION OF DARWIN RAAF STATION

Planning for the first permanent RAAF involvement in Northern Australia began in 1937, and by late December of that year, had reached the stage where design drawings for an Air Station to be established at Darwin were sent from the Defence Department to the Department of Interior.

In April 1938, the Chief of Air Staff advised Wing Commander George Jones, then Director of Personnel Services at RAAF Headquarters at Laverton, and Squadron Leader Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton, then Station Headquarters Staff at Laverton, that they were to be appointed Commanders respectively of the new Northern Station and the Squadron. It was anticipated that this would come into being as early as September. These two Officers worked together over succeeding weeks in developing plans for the Station, and in mid-May flew to Darwin in Avro Anson A4-1 to carry out an inspection on the ground.

Despite the time-frame originally envisaged, matters progressed slowly. It was not until 21 February 1939, that the Air Board had estimates from the Works Branch of The Department of Interior for the construction of major buildings of the new Base. The Board was horrified to discover that the cost of two hangers was £95,000, but the Minister approved the project on 8 March 1939, directing that the Board’s concern regarding the cost should be referred to the Department of Interior.

By this time W/C Jones was posted to RAAF HQ, but S/Ldr Eaton was still appointed to command No 12 General Purpose Squadron, when it was formed at Laverton on 6 February 1939. Eaton was promoted to Wing Commander in March, and his Unit Equipment Officer, Flying Officer Arthur Hocking was ordered to form the Squadron immediately, and prepare to proceed to Darwin at short notice.

The new Unit was rapidly built up with equipment and personnel, and a week after formation, had a total of 14 officers and 120 airmen, along with 4 Avro Ansons and 4 Hawker Demon fighters. Preparations for the move north continued throughout the following week, and on 8 March, 250 beds were shipped on the steamer Montoro, followed a month later by 100 tons of barracks equipment on the Marella.

Three trucks were also dispatched, and other advance stores were packed in readiness for shipment. Delays continued to be experienced due to a shortage of aircraft. Four more Avro Ansons were awaited to complete the Squadron establishment, but it was not until the end of May that a further 3 machines were allotted from No 1 AD.

On 1 July, the move to Darwin finally began with the dispatch of an Advance Party of 30 NCOs and airmen. This group under Flying Officer Hocking, left Melbourne on board the Marella, being farewelled by 5 Avro Ansons and 3 Hawker Demons of the Squadron, flying in formation over the vessel. In Sydney the party transferred to the Montoro for the leg to Darwin, and was joined before departure by Flying Officer William Frogatt, the Unit Barracks Officer, who travelled up from Melbourne by train. Arriving at their destination on 24 July, the 32 members of this first element prepared the way for the drafts of personnel which were to follow.

Until the buildings of the permanent station, were completed by the Department of Interior, and available for occupation, the Squadron had to be accommodated in a temporary camp of field-huts and Bellman hangers at Darwin’s Civil Aerodrome at Parap. This camp had to be specially constructed, and it was this work which was the primary task for the Advance Party. This arrangement had allegedly been arrived at with the Department of Interior, both to expedite the work and to provide RAAF personnel with experience in handling and assembling reserve equipment used by their Service.

At a ceremony on 29 July 1939 the personnel of the advance party paraded for the Administrator of the Northern Territory, Mr Abbott, who formally welcomed them and turned the first sod at the site of the hutted camp. Meanwhile another party of 4 NC0s, (Sergeants H Hope and WC Hamilton with Corporals JL Truscott and JC Kane) had been sent by rail to Brisbane on 7 July 1939 for instruction in erecting Bellman hangers. Remaining until 3 August, when they flew to Darwin on board a QANTAS flyingboat, this group was accommodated in tin huts at the Acetate & Lime Factory, Cannon Hill in Brisbane, which proved to be excellent preparation for what awaited them at Darwin.

Until the advance party had finished erecting living quarters, its members were housed at the old meat works built during WW1, by the Vestey Pastoral Company to process and export beef. The enterprise was unsuccessful as these works had been closed for many years. As Darwin was then a town with a European population of less than 2,500, the range of options in temporary accommodation for a large influx of servicemen was limited. In fact, the advance party did rather well in having the substantial buildings of the meat works to begin with.

An Army artillery Unit had been sent to Darwin on HMAS Albatross to mount six-inch guns in defensive emplacements, and provide the town with a permanent garrison in September 1932. At that time FI/Lt Joe Hewitt of the ship’s RAAF detachment was intrigued with the lavish layout and potential uses of Vestey’s brick buildings. Darwin township, with its decrepit, ill-kept, corrugated iron buildings haphazardly fronting untidy dusty roads, could not compare with the prospects Vestey’s vacated meatworks offered with a clean up.

Despite this, life in 1939 had a distinctly raw, pioneering feel about it, for the members of the advance party. The quarters in the meatworks buildings, which were shared with personnel of the Army’s Darwin Mobile Force, wore very basic. The Air Force possibly benefited from some adverse publicity given by a Sydney newspaper as to the ’shocking conditions’ borne by the Army personnel prior to the arrival of the advance party. Even so, things remained primitive. Airmen slept on the first floor, on beds placed where-ever they could be fitted in amongst the disused machinery, and avoiding large holes left in the concrete floor where chutes or machinery had been removed.

These less than salubrious quarters were dimly lit with electricity from a diesel generator operated by the RAAF, which was turned off at 9 PM making it dangerous to move around after lights out. At 1030 PM on 9 September 1939, Air-Craftsman One PJ Hudson fell through one of the holes in the floor, sustaining injuries which led to his death on 12 September. He was buried the next day, in circumstances which graphically indicated the miserable conditions endured by the men.

GEORGE GRENDON recalls;
“The cemetery was down below the Botanical Gardens, in from Mindil Beach, and it was raining. When we went down to bury him, the grave was filled with water. We finished the ceremony by going up to the borders of the Botanical Gardens and carrying down rocks with which to sink the coffin.”

Another member of the unit, Jim Truscott, vividly remembers the primitive conditions under which the RAAF personnel initially slept, washed, ate and worked. He recalls that there were no entertainment facilities, and only Fanny Bay beach, or camping at nearby lagoons for recreation.

“Mail, except Air Mail, was generally a month in reaching Darwin, so the airmen generally felt marooned. Despite all this, there was no serious outbreak of disease, and morale was good. We were transported daily from Vestey’s to the Civil Drome, in a light tender, to work on the buildings erection. There were no formal parades; we just boarded the tender in any old clothes, as work togs. Starting early in the morning, we worked until lunch, then had a siesta before returning to put in some more hours later. There was no undue exercise, as we were advised to conserve energy for our own health, and to ensure the work, our number one priority, was completed. Dark glasses were issued to combat glare while working on the buildings, which were all made of angle and galvanised iron. The huts had to be erected by hand, and die girders and rafters of the hangers were assembled -and hoisted by block and tackle.”

On 20 August, orders were received from the Air Board for the Squadron Headquarters and the existing aircraft of ‘A’ and ‘B’ Flights to make the transfer to Darwin next day. The personnel of these Flights duly left Essendon on board a civil airliner, but the departure of aircraft was delayed due to adverse weather, and finally arrived 29 August 1939. The aircraft were housed in the Civil hanger, and the Bellman hanger already put up by the advance party. The arrival of the flying party and aircraft meant that the first air patrol out of Darwin was undertaken on 31 August.

Back at Laverton, on 1 September, ‘C’ Flight received 5 Wirraway aircraft to replace its Hawker Demons. The next day, with war breaking out in Europe, these aircraft and another Avro Arson, set out on the trip north, and the same day 77 Officers and Airmen embarked at Melbourne to make the slower passage by sea around the coast to Darwin.

[Editors Note . No. 12 Squadron was to experience many changes, in bases, aircraft, and duties. Following are accounts from some of the earlier Squadron members.]

TED ROBERTS

W/T Operator 1 Mechanic. Posted to the squadron May 1939.
“While the rest of the Squadron, and older units at Laverton were living high on the hog in the brick barracks close to the messes on the Station, poor old No. 12 Squadron, as a temporary unit on the Station, was housed in some old temporary hut from the. early days of the Training School, and a very long way from the messes and canteen, and the centre of life of the Station. No. 12 Squadron was formed with one immediate object in view, and that was to be the Darwin based section of the RAAF, and we were looking forward to shaking the southern dust off our shoes, and getting to grips with the realities of our tropical existence. If only we had known.

While we were only in temporary occupation of our quarters at Laverton, our aircraft created just as much hassle for the fully occupied hanger space. As a number of the members of the Service were still WWI men, with memories of the rapid development of the Australian Flying Corps and RFC Squadrons, during the latter stages of that war, their decision to house our aircraft in Bessoneaux hangers was the obvious answer. These were a canvas hanger, with wooden trusses to support the canvas walls and roof. There was no lateral timber structure, all the lengthwise stresses being taken by canvas, and the two end trusses being held down to large pegs by guy ropes.

They did a fine job with the dirt floors, but in those days little environment control was deemed necessary. Squadron offices were economically constructed from the packing cases in which the Seagull aircraft had been shipped from England.”

CEC FISHER

Cec was an Armourer with the Squadron at that time, and vividly recalls the graphic and geological difference between the tropical North and the more comfortable southern States.

“Our Commanding Officer, Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton, now happily reunited with his dog, informed us that the Squadron would have to construct its own camp, and that flying would be kept to a minimum until construction was complete, and this was vital before the full onset of the wet season. So there was the Civil Drome with heaps and heaps of sections of prefabricated galvanised iron huts with heaps of galvanised iron, angle iron struts and bearers, cypress floor joists, and six by six fabricated floor sections, with bags of round head bolts and nuts.”

Picture the scene, the area piled with this material, concrete stumps already point, whereas the miner or planter was more concerned with productivity. The philosophies of the missionaries and their more directed integration with the native, tended to estrange them from the other Europeans, particularly in the Mandated Territory where barriers of race and language were also a factor.

Most of the native population in the explored or controlled areas, adhered to one sect or another. A native mission teacher lived in most villages, teaching the rudiments of his faith under the guidance of the nearest missionary. The depth of belief varied from token adherence to complete dedication, however the influence of mission teaching was toward friendliness for and trust in, the European.

While the effect on the native of contact with whites has been studied by many learned scholars, the reverse effect rarely rates a mention in their dissertations. The Coastwatchers were conditioned by their experiences and association with natives. Europeans, who had lived four or five years in the Northeast Area, were generally known as Islanders. Constant dealing with native and having the authority over them, gave the Islander a habit of command, tempered with a sense of responsibility.

While reluctant to doing menial tasks, an Islander rarely shirked any hardship or danger, leading by example. Most were economically secure, which encouraged independence and a certain amount of arrogance; tempered with a lip-service gesture of discipline and conformity. Their own knowledge and experience indicated to them that order and system were necessary in the running of their affairs, but that enforced discipline was an impediment to natural progress. They could quickly evaluate a situation on its merits, and were intolerant of pompous officialdom.

They lived an exaggerated lifestyle and sometimes had less than harmonious relationships with their peers. However, they showed a united front to an outsider and were difficult to deal with. A feature of many Islanders was the deep friendships that developed between individuals over the years; a bonding where mutual loyalty was the paramount consideration and a friend’s weaknesses were opportunities to help, rather than reproach.

For all their acquired knowledge, it was impossible for any Islander to pass himself off as a native. The physical differences were such that any disguise would be penetrated in a short time, so Coast Watchers retained the form and status of Europeans when in enemy occupied zones.

As can be envisaged, a supply organisation was necessary, particularly for food, as the jungle is no larder, at best it can supply enough to sustain life for a short time. With the Coast watchers in their scattered and often remote locations, it was the established relationships with natives, that maintained the supply lines, These supply lines, of necessity, were a clandestine operation, and their success, not only for the logistics, but in preserving the security of the Coastwatchers, was a clear expression of the mutual respect between the Islanders and the natives.

The Islanders filled the key positions in the Coast Watchers. Without them the scheme would have been impractical and doomed to failure. Others played important roles, mainly on the staff.

Later, some naval officers and soldiers from the Independent Companies (Australia’s Commandos), after gaining experience from Coastwatchers in the field, were able to extend the operations. Some of these learnt their skills to the point that eventually they could not be distinguished from the Islanders. These men supplied the youthful energy to the Islanders, who, while sometimes hard-pressed with the strenuous duties they performed. Never flagged in their dedication and commitment.

With the drawbacks of inexperience and lack of training for a new form of warfare, the Coast Watchers to a man, put duty first and himself last.