Australia to join US military effort to protect shipping in the Strait of Hormuz

Troops, planes and warships to help guard strait in Middle East where tensions are flaring with Iran, but critics warn involvement could breach international law.

Australian forces will make a “modest, meaningful and time-limited” contribution to a United States-led mission in the Strait of Hormuz aimed at protecting freedom of navigation in the Gulf region.

Labor has supported the new mission as “appropriate”, but critics are warning the involvement of Australia’s military in the region could be seen as an “act of aggression” in breach of international law.

The prime minister, Scott Morrison, announced on Wednesday that Australia would send forces to the Middle East because “destabilising behaviour” in the Gulf was a threat to Australian interests.

“The government has been concerned over incidents involving shipping in the Strait of Hormuz over the past few months,” Morrison said.

US defence strategy in Indo-Pacific region faces ‘unprecedented crisis’

“This destabilising behaviour is a threat to our interests in the region, particularly our enduring interest in the security of global sea lanes.

“The government has decided it’s in Australia’s national interests to work with our international partners to contribute to an international maritime security mission … in the Middle East.”

Morrison said about 15% of crude oil and 30% of refined oil destined for Australia came through the Strait of Hormuz, meaning instability in the region was also an economic threat that needed to be confronted.

“Freedom of navigation through international waters is a fundamental right of all states under international law,” he said.

“All states have a right to expect safe passage of their maritime trade consistent with international law.”

Australia has committed a frigate, surveillance and patrol aircraft and personnel to the Middle East as part of the US-led mission, known as the international maritime security construct (IMSC).

The United Kingdom and Bahrain are the only other countries to join the US in the Strait of Hormuz, but the UK has appealed to European allies to join the mission to safeguard shipping lanes.

Australian defence force members will join the IMSC taskforce based in Bahrain, which hosts the US navy’s central command and fifth fleet.

The defence minister, Linda Reynolds, said the Royal Australian Air Force would send a P-8A poseidon maritime surveillance aircraft to the region for one month before the end of 2019, while an Australian frigate would be present for six months from January.

“Australia’s core interest in this mission is de-escalation,” Reynolds said.

“The announcement today is clearly in Australia’s national interest and we’re very proud to be working with our allies and our friends to promote the global rules-based order and also the rule of law.”

Labor’s shadow minister for defence Richard Marles said the opposition supported the commitment on the basis that it was “tightly framed” around freedom of navigation for commercial shipping in the Gulf.

“This is an appropriate measure for Australia to take,” Marles said.

The commitment to join the US comes after tensions simmered in the region over the seizure of an Iranian ship by Gibraltar, with the backing of the UK, that was believed to be heading to Syria in breach of UN sanctions.

In July, Iran seized two oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz, which marked a dramatic escalation in the worsening standoff in the Gulf.

The US and Iran have been engaged in brinkmanship in the Gulf since the US withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal in May 2018, after which the US announced a “maximum-pressure” strategy on Tehran.

Former secretary of the defence department, Paul Barratt, told the Guardian Australian involvement in potential military action in the Gulf could be illegal, and argued it was “very foolish for us to get involved in this provocative behaviour”.

“This is an application of military force. There ought to be a debate in the parliament, and we ought not to engage in any activity that would foreseeably involve the use of military force without that debate.”

In correspondence with the prime minister, Barratt, now president of Australians for War Powers Reform, argued that in the absence of any credible threat to Australia or an authorising resolution of the UN security council, any Australian involvement in attacks on Iran would be an act of aggression and therefore illegal.

“We appeal to you for a debate in our parliament on the growing tensions between the US and Iran, and steps which Australia could take to reduce them. Such a debate and a vote by all our elected representatives, and authorisation by the governor general, as the only person with the constitutional power to authorise the deployment of the ADF into international armed conflict, must be absolute prerequisites before any military action is undertaken.”

In response to Barratt, assistant minister to the prime minister, Ben Morton, said the Australian government was deeply concerned by current tensions in the Middle East. “A deterioration in the situation would be counter to regional security, global trade and the best interests of Australia and the world. We have urged Iran to refrain from escalatory action.”

Morton said the Australian government supported the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, “which serves the international community’s interests in non-proliferation”.

Defence White Paper Expert Panel report, Guarding against uncertainty: Australian attitudes to defence [PDF 1.7 MB]

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Arafura Class OPV

Australia’s current Armidale class and Cape class patrol boats are planned to be replaced with a single class of Offshore Patrol Vessel (OPV), under Project SEA 1180 Phase 1, to be built in Australia by German shipbuilder, Lürssen’s subsidiary, Luerssen Australia partnering with Australian shipbuilder, Civmec in the joint venture, Australian Maritime Shipbuilding & Export Group (AMSEG).

The twelve Australian vessels are based on the PV80 design with the first two vessels to be built at ASC’s Osborne shipyard in South Australia before production moves to Civmec’s Henderson shipyard in Western Australia.

On 15 November 2018, the Chief of Navy, VADM Mike Noonan, announced that the OPV will be known as the Arafura Class with construction commencing at the Osborne shipyard.

The primary role of the OPV will be to undertake constabulary missions, maritime patrol and response duties. State of the art sensors as well as command and communication systems will allow the OPVs to operate alongside Australian Border Force vessels, other Australian Defence Force units and other regional partners.

The OPV design will support specialist mission packages, such as a maritime tactical unmanned aerial system, and into the future, rapid environmental assessment and deployable mine counter measure capabilities.

Design and features of Arafura class OPVs

The design of the Arafura class OPVs is based on the Lürssen OPV80 platform. The compact design of the OPV offers enhanced seakeeping characteristics and superior performance.

The spacious aft deck will have enough room to house three rigid-hulled inflatable boats (RHIB). Two 8.5m-long boats can be launched from the side of the vessel while a 10.5m sea boat can be launched from the stern of the ship.

The OPVs will have a length of 80m, beam of 13m, and draught of 4m. The displacement of the vessels will be 1,640t. The ships will be manned by a crew of 40 members and will offer accommodation for more than 60 passengers.

Armament and navigation features of the OPV

The Arafura class OPV will be primarily armed with a 40mm large cannon mounted on the forward bow deck to protect the ship from onshore attacks. It will also feature dedicated mounts, which can be armed with .50 calibre machine guns.

The firepower of the vessel can be further improved by the advanced 9LV combat management system designed by SAAB Australia. The control system will be complemented by the on-board electronic warfare system.

The navigation bridge integrates all the communication, navigation, and sensor systems. The navigation requirements of the vessel will be addressed by next-generation 2D radar and electro-optical sensors.

The vessel will feature an aft flight deck to enable unmanned aerial system (UAS) operations.

Propulsion and performance of Inspector 120

The Arafura class vessels will be equipped with two diesel engines with a maximum-rated power production capacity of 8,500kW each.

The power plant will enable the vessels to sail at a maximum speed of 20kt and attain a maximum range of 4,000nm.

The lead vessel, HMAS Arafura is planned to planned to enter service in 2021.

Type      Offshore Patrol Vessel (OPV) RAN Arafura-class

Roles    

    Maritime border patrol

    Maritime constabulary roles including interdiction

    Fisheries patrol

    Humanitarian and disaster relief

    Minehunting

    Hydrographic Survey

Builder Luerssen Australia and Civmec

Displacement 1,640 tonnes

Length 80 metres

Beam 13 metres

Draught 4 metres

Propulsion 2 x 4,250KW diesel engines

Speed 20 knots (maximum)

Range 4,000 nautical miles

Boats    

    2 x 8.5 metre sea boats (side launched)

    1 x 10.5 metre sea boat (stern launched)

Weapons           

    40mm gun

    2 x 50 calibre machine guns

Company 40 crew with accommodation for up to 60 personnel

The Battle for Sari Bair

30 May

Birdwood first unveiled plans to capture the initial objectives, including the Sari Bair Range

6 August

Birdwood’s plans for a final assault are launched with diversion at the Vineyard and Lone Pine

2.30pm

Artillery bombardment commences for 2½ hours in area known as the Vineyard to create a diversion from main assault

5pm

Allied troops move to attack at the Vineyard sector; the attack achieved nothing and dragged on to 13 August

5.30pm

Attack at Lone Pine launched by Australian 1st Division, following lifting artillery bombardment; battle raged for three days, Ottoman trenches captured but ultimately failed to distract Ottomans from main assault

Night

Main assault commences: Monash’s troops get into difficulties and 4th Brigade halts for the night

6pm

1/6th Gurkha Rifles halt within 200ft of their objective, Hill Q

7 August

Dawn: New Zealanders reach Rhododendron Ridge on the path to Chunuk Bair, other units are lost; Johnston waits for reinforcements

4.30am

The Light Horse move to attack the Nek, despite not having the support of the waiting New Zealanders; the Ottomans inflict severe casualties

5am

Gurkhas assault Hill Q, but falter due to lack of support

8 August

3am

New Zealanders are reinforced; Wellington and the Glosters take peak of Chunuk Bair

5am

Ottomans counterattack at Chunuk Bair, inflicting heavy losses on the New Zealanders and New Army units

9 August

Allied troops under Baldwin assault Hill Q, but are driven off by their own naval bombardment

10 August, 4.30am

Kemal leads a fresh Ottoman counterattack on Chunuk Bair, overwhelming the Allied forces; the Ottomans regain Hill Q and Chunuk Bair, symbolising the end of the campaign

There was little hope that the plans to capture Achi Baba could be re-ignited, and with the loss of both Generals Hunter-Weston and Gourard, there was no stomach for limited objective offensives. Instead, attention turned back to the Anzac sector, held on the defensive since the Ottoman counteroffensives had been repelled, with great loss of life.

Priorities changed when General Birdwood, commanding the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps came up with a plan that he hoped would break the deadlock at Anzac. The plan went through several iterations – each time revising its objectives in the light of a more realistic assessment of success. On 30 May Birdwood came up with a new plan that presented the view that he could achieve the objectives that had been set on the very first day of the landings, just over a month before: the capture of the heights of the Sair Bair Range, namely, Chunuk Bair, Hill Q and Hill 971 (Koçacmintepe). Using the Anzac Corps and the Indian 29th Brigade, Birdwood planned an assault from the eastwards facing slopes of the range, with two columns advancing in darkness to assault the hilltops. These troops would be commanded by Major General Godley and would initially comprise the 4th Australian Brigade, the New Zealand Brigade and the 29th Indian Brigade.

In addition to the columns attacking up the lower slopes of Sari Bair, an attack at the apex of the current line (at the top of Walker’s Ridge on the saddleback feature known as the Nek) would, if it succeeded, allow the Anzacs to trap the Ottoman defenders in a pincer movement. All was to be expended in this great push, and Birdwood was confident that the attack could work; from here the Allies would command the heights. He hoped that this would offer the chance of siting heavy artillery pieces at this prime location, artillery that would be in a position to shell the Narrows and once more open the possibility of letting the fleet through. A vision that had literally faded from view in all the recent failed Allied offensives, as the objectives contracted.

There were also to be feints that were intended to draw Ottoman attention away from the main assault on the peaks at dawn the next day. The first of these was in the south at Helles, once more the focus of the 88th Brigade of the unfortunate 29th Division, committed to battle at Fir Tree Spur, across the patch of ground known as ‘The Vineyard’. As was customary at Helles, the attack was in broad daylight in the late afternoon of 6 August, the assault at 5pm following a 2½ hour bombardment. Like others before it, it was a failure; trenches were taken and lost to the seasoned Ottoman troops. Inexplicably, the battle was rejoined with another bombardment the following day, the 42nd Division taking the brunt. It too was to achieve nothing. The diversion would drag on until 13 August; the Ottomans were aware of both the feint and the likely British intent, and, unconcerned, committed two divisions from Helles to the battlegrounds of Anzac.

Closer to the point of conflict was another diversion at Lone Pine, the distinctive single-pine ridge across from 400 Plateau, along Second Ridge. The intention here was an all-out assault to distract the Ottomans, while the British were similarly engaged in the south. Yet, at Lone Pine, trench warfare had been developed to a high science. The Ottomans had created a formidable fortification, their trenches reinforced and roofed with timber baulks to prevent losses by shell and grenade. Like the battles at the Vineyard, Lone Pine has become a microcosm of the whole Gallipoli campaign at Anzac; hard-fought, but ultimately futile. So, on 6 August, at 5.30pm the attack was launched by the Australian 1st Division, following an artillery bombardment in ‘lifts’, the line of exploding shells moving progressively inland. Attacking over open ground, they found their route blocked by barbed wire, the roofed trenches with loopholes almost impossible to assault from the front. Not to be outdone, the Australians found their way into the underground maze from the rear, along communication trenches; the resulting hand-to-hand fighting below ground bitter and bloody, its aftermath, a charnel house.

Our casualties in this fighting amounted to 2,000 men, but the Turks themselves acknowledge losses totalling 6,930 in their 16th Division, and of some 5,000 were sustained in a small sector of the Lone Pine trenches. God forbid that I should ever see again such a sight as that which met my eyes when I went up there: Turks and Australians piled four and five deep on one another.

Lieutenant General W. Birdwood, ANZAC

Like the diversion at Helles, this battle was to rage for three days, and though capturing the Ottoman trenches, it failed in its prime purpose. Rather than diverting the attention of the Ottomans at Anzac away from the main assault, it was to attract reinforcement of two regiments from the 9th Division in Helles, and this at a cost of 2,200 Australian casualties, and goodness knows how many Ottomans.

The assault against the peaks of Sari Bair was to be commanded by Major General Godley of the Australian and New Zealand Division. On the night of 6 August, as the two feints were being fought out, the two assaulting columns were to leave the Anzac perimeter, striking out to the west to circle around the westwards facing foothills of the Sari Bair Range. The left-hand column was composed of the Australian 4th Brigade and the 29th Indian Brigade; closer to its target the two brigades would separate to form three assaulting columns, the Australians targeting Hill 971 (Koçacmintepe), the Indians Hill Q. The right-hand column was composed of the men of the New Zealand Infantry Brigade, its main focus was to be Chunuk Bair. However, both columns were understrength and included men weakened by dysentery, an inevitable by-product of the summer months’ campaigning in Gallipoli.

The two columns moved to the margins of the Anzac perimeter, in the hands of guides who had knowledge of the intricate mass of gullies and ridges caused by the action of wind and water over centuries. Any Ottoman defences soon evaporated, but the left-hand column, commanded by Brigadier General Monash, got into difficulties. Fighting its way through the scrub to a watercourse, the Aghyl Dere, Ottoman resistance stiffened. Exhausted, the 4th Brigade would go no further that night: Hill 971 would have to wait. In fact, the left-hand column would never get close to Hill 971; though resuming the attack approach on the morning of 8 August, there was still confusion about which direction to take. Hill 971 would remain unassaulted. Behind them was the Indian Brigade; slowed up by the tortuous terrain, they too would be dispersed, a long way off their objective.

Only the 1/6th Gurkha Rifles got anywhere near Hill Q, within 200ft of their objective by 6pm. They would make their assault the next morning at 5am, following a naval bombardment. With no other battalions in support – all the others were lost in the gullies – they made a heroic assault on the hill that drove off the Ottomans. Tragically, they would become victims of their own naval support, and with no reserves, they lost their tenuous grip on Hill Q.

The right-hand column of New Zealanders, operating within the more familiar Anzac perimeter, fared a little better – but were still held up by Ottoman resistance. By dawn on 7 August some had reached Rhododendron Ridge, a spur that leads right up to Chunuk Bair; while others were lost in the complex terrain of ridges and gullies. Brigadier General Johnston, commanding the column, waited until he had sufficient men to continue the assault against what was still an unknown level of resistance. This was to prove a costly decision; it was to deeply influence the outcome of the attack by the Light Horse Brigade at the Nek, which was to take place at 4.30am on the 7th.

As the Light Horse were pushing to Baby 700 – the hill that had been the focus of so much attention during the landings – it had been intended that the New Zealanders would be pressing on from their newly captured positions at Chunuk Bair, thereby crushing the Ottoman defenders between them. It was not to be. In the absence of the New Zealanders, the attack at the Nek went ahead on the orders of Godley. Rising out of their trenches, the attackers were armed only with unloaded rifles and bayonets. The Ottomans wrought havoc with their withering fire, and the three successive waves of light horsemen were mown down – 378 casualties out of 600, 230 of them killed. Their bodies would remain on the battlefield, only to be gathered in after the war was finally ended.

For the New Zealanders on Rhododendron Spur, things were difficult. The Ottoman defenders were stiffening, the commander of the 9th Division, Colonel Kannengiesser was in position on the hilltop.

Godley issued the terse order: ‘Attack at once’. The Auckland Battalion took heavy casualties; while Johnston ordered the Wellington Battalion into position, its commander refused to attack in daylight. Dug in as best they could, the New Zealanders were reinforced by two newly arrived battalions of the 13th (Western) Division, the 7th Gloucestershires and the 8th Welsh. At 3am, the peak of Chunuk Bair was to be taken by the Wellington men, and the Glosters. The navy had played its supporting role – the Ottomans had no way of digging down into what was hard and rocky soil, and were hopelessly exposed. However, this factor would come to count against the Allies.

The new defenders of the peak now found themselves in Ottoman crossfire, from Battleship Hill to the south and from Hill Q to the north – both of which would have been taken by now if things had gone to plan. By 5am, the Ottomans launched a desperate counterattack, reinforced by the 8th Division recently arrived from the Helles front. As the scale of the assault unfolded, von Sanders appointed Mustafa Kemal as commander in charge of the defence of Sari Bair. By that evening, the New Zealanders and New Army men held on grimly, their casualties mounting – the Wellington Battalion would lose 711 out of 760, the New Army battalions suffering similarly.

With Chunuk Bair holding, Hill Q would be assaulted on 9 August by a mixed force, led by Brigadier Baldwin, of four battalions from the 38th, 39th and 40th brigades of the 13th Division, and two battalions from the 29th Brigade of the 10th (Irish) Division. Climbing to a flat area called ‘The Farm’, they moved up a feature known as Chailak Dere in order to take the assault to Hill Q, while New Zealanders from Chunuk Bair and the Indian Brigade would also attack the hill. Baldwin’s men met with stiff opposition. The only force to reach Hill Q was a battalion of Gurkhas, but they would be driven off by their own naval artillery fire, delivered from the newly arrived ‘monitors’ (gunships sent out to replace the capital ships) and the ageing battleship HMS Bacchante.

On the morning of 10 August Mustafa Kemal led an overwhelming Ottoman counterattack on Chunuk Bair at 4.30am, narrowly avoiding being wounded. Turkish historian Kenan Çelik has described the action:

When Mustafa Kemal gave the signal, 5,000 men in 22 lines charged on the New Zealanders and the British at Chunuk Bair. One second later there was only one sound – ‘Allah … Allah … Allah.’ The British did not have time to fire and all the men in the front-line trenches were bayoneted. The British troops were wildly scattered. In four hours’ time, the 23rd and 24th Regiments regained the lines at Chunuk Bair. The 28th Regiment regained Pinnacle (the highest point on Rhododendron Ridge). Just after the Turks regained Chunuk Bair, the Navy and artillery began firing. Hell let loose. Iron rained from the skies over the Turks. Everybody accepted their fate. All around people were killed and wounded. While Mustafa Kemal watched the fighting, a piece of shrapnel hit his pocket watch. The watch was broken but protected his life. He had a bruise on his chest, but nothing else. He was destined to save the country.

Kenan Çelik

The exhausted New Zealanders had been relieved by the 6th Loyal North Lancashires, who had arrived at 10pm (a second battalion, the 10th Wiltshires, had not yet arrived). The force of the Ottoman attack was to prove too much; breaking over the British battalions and sweeping them down the slope into the confusion of gullies below. Baldwin’s men at the Farm would suffer the impact of the Ottoman charge. Hill Q was no longer occupied and Chunuk Bair, so fleetingly held by the Allies, was now firmly back in Ottoman hands. The struggle for the heights was over; the campaign effectively finished, dead in the dark waters of the Dardanelles Straits.

GALLIPOLI IN FILM

Peter Weir’s 1981 film Gallipoli famously covered the charge of the Australian Light Horse at the Nek. Controversially, the film linked the order for the second and third waves to continue with the charge in the face of Ottoman machine guns (the artillery barrage having been lifted due to an error in timing) as a ‘support’ for the British at Suvla Bay – who were famously described as ‘drinking tea on the beach’. Yet the Suvla Bay landings had nothing to do with the attack at the Nek.

RAAF FIGHTERS: THE DESERT CAMPAIGNS, 1939–43

Tomahawk Mk.IIb Unit: 3 Sqn, RAAF Serial: X (AN343) Pilot – F/O Bruce Evans. North Africa. He was shot down and KIA on November 15th, 1941.

Kittyhawk Mk.I Unit: 3 Sqn, RAAF Serial: CV-J North Africa, 1943.

P-40L (Kittyhawk Mk.II) Unit: 3 Sqn, RAAF Serial: CV-V Pilot – CO of 3 Sqn, RAAF (in future Air Vice Marshall) Brian A. Eaton

BY DAVID WILSON

On 20 September 1939, the Australian Government approved the plan to raise a six-squadron air expeditionary force for service overseas. Although this plan was later negated by the decision in November that RAAF resources should be employed to ensure the success of the Empire Air Training Scheme, a RAAF flying unit was deployed to the Middle East to assist the 6th Division of the Second Australian Imperial Force as an element of General Wavell’s army that was protecting the Suez Canal and Egypt. This unit was 3 Squadron, which had been flying Hawker Demon two-seat biplane fighters from Richmond. Under the command of Squadron Leader I.D. McLachlan, the squadron personnel departed from Sydney aboard the Orontes on 5 July 1940. The personnel arrived at Port Tewfik on 20 August. They commenced training with Westland Lysander army cooperation aircraft at Ismailia, before moving to Helwan, south of Cairo, on 16 September. At Helwan 3 squadron was finally equipped with two flights of Gloster Gladiator biplane fighters, four Gloster Gauntlet biplane fighters, and a flight of army cooperation Lysander aircraft from RAF sources. The Gladiator pilots trained in air fighting tactics, the Gauntlets were used as improvised dive- bombers and the Lysander crews practised for their tactical reconnaissance role, before the Gladiators and the Gauntlets were flown to Gerawla, east of Mersa Matruh, early in November.

The squadron fought the Italian Air Force (Regia Aeronautica) for the first time on 19 November 1940. Flight Lieutenant B.R. Pelly, escorted by Squadron Leader P.R. Heath, and Flying Officers A.C. Alan Rawlinson and H.H. Alan Boyd, was reconnoitring east of Rabia, when the formation was intercepted by eighteen Fiat CR-42 fighters. The Australian Gladiators, for the loss of the popular Heath, claimed to have shot down or damaged six Italian fighters. From this time until the commencement, on 9 December, of Wavell’s offensive to force the Italians from Sidi Barrani, the squadron maintained three fighters on stand-by to counter any enemy aerial incursions. The fighters were not required, but the unit did undertake practice dive-bombing exercises with the Western Desert Force.

In a brilliant campaign, General Richard O’Connor forced the more numerous Italian forces from the fortress of Bardia and captured Tobruk. After cutting off the retreating Italian Army at Beda Fomm on 7 February, the Western Desert force was poised to attack Tripoli. However, the situation that developed in Greece during January 1941 resulted in the weakening of the desert force to bolster the Greek Army against German invasion. The Regia Aeronautica proved ineffectual in combating the superiority of the three RAF fighter squadrons, one of which was the Gladiator-equipped 3 Squadron, which, for the loss of five Gladiators and two pilots (Flight Lieutenant C.B. Gaden and Flying Officer J.C. Campbell), was credited with the destruction of twelve enemy aircraft. During February the Australian squadron was equipped with Hawker Hurricane monoplane fighters and, from its base at Benina, was assigned the task of defending Benghazi from attacks by Luftwaffe aircraft based in Sicily and Tripolitania. Due to the lack of early warning facilities and the Luftwaffe tactics of attacking just before dawn or after dusk, 3 Squadron could claim only one success—on 15 February, Flying Officer J.H.W. Saunders succeeded in destroying a Junkers JU-88.

Luftwaffe operations indicated that General Erwin Rommel, who had arrived in Tripoli during the later days of February with the Afrika Korps to assist the Italians, would not be prepared to accept a passive role. On 24 March, he initiated an offensive which resulted in the capture of Benghazi on 3 April, and the subsequent retreat of the British forces to the vicinity of Bardia by the 11th, leaving the 9th Australian Division surrounded in Tobruk. The RAF fighter squadrons had limited success in covering the retreat and protecting the British forces from the Luftwaffe. During the ten-day, 800-kilometre retreat, 3 Squadron operated from nine separate bases. After evacuating from Benini on 3 April, it undertook a fighting withdrawal. Although it was impossible to supply adequate cover for the retreating troops, the squadron did claim some victories against the Luftwaffe. Eight Hurricanes destroyed five Junkers JU-87s during the afternoon of 5 April while they were covering the withdrawal of the 2nd Armoured Division near Charruba. An hour later Flight Lieutenant J.R. ‘Jock’ Perrin led a formation of nine Hurricanes that surprised twelve JU-87s and claimed the destruction of nine of the enemy. On 14 April, the squadron was operating from Sidi Barrani when Flying Officer W.S. ‘Wulf’ Arthur and Lieutenant A.A. Tennant (South African Air Force) combined to shoot down two twin-engined BF-110s near Tobruk. The following day Squadron Leader Peter Jeffrey shot down a Junkers JU-52 transport and successfully strafed three more that had just landed near the Bardia–Capuzzo road. The Australian squadron was withdrawn to Aboukir, for rest, on 20 April.

The reverses in the Western Desert, the fall of Greece and the invasion of Crete marked the nadir of British fortunes in the Middle East and Mediterranean. There was no respite for the hard-pressed Wavell and his forces. As 3 Squadron was being withdrawn for rest, the situation in Vichy French-controlled Syria compelled military action to prevent the potential that German aircraft could refuel at Syrian bases and threaten the oilfields of Persia and Iraq. Wavell, who was preparing for Operation Battleaxe, an offensive to be mounted in June with the aim of relieving Tobruk, was ordered, in combination with Free French Forces, to invade Syria to prevent any such incursions. The force assigned for the Syrian campaign comprised the 7th Australian Division, the 5th Indian Brigade, some composite mechanised units and the Free French Division. A light-bomber squadron, one army cooperation and one fleet air arm squadron, as well as two and a half fighter squadrons supplied air support. Having converted to the American Curtis P-40 Tomahawk fighter at Lyddia in Palestine, 3 squadron was to play a prominent role in the campaign. Their first operation was a strike by five Tomahawks that left six French Morane fighters destroyed on the ground at the Rayak airfield on 8 June. That afternoon four Tomahawks escorted Bristol Blenheims that attacked oil tanks at Beirut. The squadron flew various roles over the next two weeks: interceptions, naval patrols, tactical reconnaissance, close air support of the ground troops and bomber escort duties, all of which gave the opportunity to engage the enemy in combat. On 14 June, Peter Jeffery led eight Tomahawks into combat against a like number of JU-88s (with Italian markings) during which three of the German bombers were shot down.

The Anglo-French advance proceeded quickly until 12 June, when the Australians were halted by Vichy French counterattacks near Merdjayoun. The Free French had advanced to within sixteen kilometres of Damascus, and the British fighter units supported both forces by offensive patrolling. On the 15th, 3 Squadron reconnaissance flight sighted twelve Vichy tanks and 30 motor vehicles near Sheikh Meskine, and Jeffrey and Flying Officer Peter Turnbull each destroyed a Vichy Glenn Martin bomber. Attacks on enemy targets in the Kuneitra area failed to prevent the Vichy French ground forces from threatening the British line of communications. The Vichy Air Force was active, and the demand for protective patrols by the limited British fighter force could not be met.

The hardening of Vichy French resistance led to a reorganisation and reinforcement of the attacking forces. Lieutenant General Lavarack assumed command of I Australian Corps, which had been augmented by a brigade from the 6th British Division and an independent force (Habforce) moved from Iraq to threaten Palmyra. Air reinforcements consisted of the combined 260 Hurricane squadron (comprising RAF pilots and RAAF ground crew) and a Blenheim bomber squadron, thus enabling 3 Squadron to be allocated to support the Australian Corps. The Australian Tomahawks attacked tactical targets and the aggressive strafing of enemy airfields destroyed many enemy aircraft on the ground. Tomahawks also escorted the Blenheims on raids to assist Habforce. On the 28th, nine 3 Squadron Tomahawks escorted Blenheims on a raid before intercepting and shooting down all six enemy Glen Martin bombers that were attacking Habforce units. Flight Lieutenant Alan Rawlinson was credited with three victories; Peter Turnbull was credited with the destruction of two bombers and Sergeant R.K. Wilson claimed the remaining bomber. However, action was not always in the Australians’ favour. On 10 July, they were escorting Blenheims on a raid near Hammara when five Dewoitine fighters, attacking from below the formation, shot down three of the Blenheims before the Tomahawks could intervene. But retribution was swift. Peter Turnbull shot down two Dewoitines and Flying Officer John Jackson, Pilot Officer E.H. Lane and Sergeant G.E. Hiller claimed one each.

When Syrian operations were suspended on 12 July, 3 Squadron moved to protect Beirut from possible German air reaction from bases in the Dodecanese Islands and Crete, before returning to the Western Desert, where it resumed operations from Sidi Haneish on 3 September. Many of the original pilots, like Rawlinson, Perrin and Turnbull, returned to Australia toward the end of 1941. In May, Squadron Leader Gordon Steege had been posted from 3 Squadron to assume the command of 450 Squadron, which finally became operational with Australian ground and aircrews in January 1942. The dilution of experience within 3 Squadron continued with the appointment, on 13 June 1941, of Flight Lieutenant B.R. Pelly to command the newly arrived 451 Squadron. When Pelly returned to Australia he passed the command to Squadron Leader V.A. Pope, RAF on 25 June 1941. Despite its lack of experience, the unit built its proficiency during a series of artillery shoots, photographic and tactical reconnaissance sorties.

Operation Battleaxe proved a failure and the lull in ground operations resulted in 451 Squadron flying only 372 sorties in the period 1 July–14 October. On 9 August, Pope inaugurated photographic sorties to photograph the German positions surrounding Tobruk, and plans were made for a detachment of two Hurricanes from the squadron to operate from within the perimeter. These aircraft operated for some months, where, despite almost daily aerial reconnaissance missions and air raids, the Axis forces were never aware of the underground shelters in which they were housed. Despite increasing Luftwaffe activity in September—the squadron lost six aircraft—the unit was able to report the presence of enemy tanks near Acroma on 11 September and to closely monitor the movements of this column as it advanced to Rabia and then its withdrawal to its start line.

Operation Crusader, the offensive planned by General Auchinleck, the new Commander-in-Chief of the Allied Forces in the Middle East, to destroy the German Army’s armoured forces, relieve Tobruk and clear Tripolitania, commenced on 18 November. Both the Australia fighter squadrons were involved in the preparatory and subsequent operations. The RAF fighter squadrons were reorganised into three groups: one party would move to a forward airfield to prepare for the arrival of the aircraft; a second party would maintain the aircraft and then follow and relieve the first party that would then be available to move further forward. These two groups preceded the third group— the headquarters, workshops, stores and transport—thus ensuring the mobility of the squadron. Given the fluidity of the subsequent actions in North Africa, this proved a sensible arrangement. Although the BF-109F flown by the Luftwaffe was superior to the desert-modified British Tomahawk and Hurricane fighters, the Luftwaffe did not seriously impair the tactical reconnaissance operations of 451 Squadron or engage 3 Squadron fighter sweeps. On 22 November, two aerial battles were fought that established the superiority of the British fighter units. During the morning 3 Squadron escorted a formation of Blenheim bombers when they were intercepted by fifteen BF-109s. In the ensuing melee, three Tomahawks and two BF-109s were shot down. That afternoon 3 Squadron joined with 112 Squadron, RAF, in a battle with twenty BF-109s. Although the Germans had the height and speed advantage, the two formations assumed defensive circling manoeuvres, with individual pilots seeking to exploit any momentary vulnerability of their opponents. Being further from their home bases that the British, the German fighters, due to lack of fuel, were forced to break the stalemate by disengaging and flying west.

Although the ebb and flow of the ground battle between the Eighth Army and the Afrika Korps fluctuated between the combatants, the Axis aerial situation, despite the balance of aircraft losses being in favour of the Luftwaffe, did not, in general terms, threaten RAF freedom of action during the campaign. The 451 Squadron Hurricanes, allotted to undertake tactical reconnaissance for XIII Corps, did so with little interference from enemy aircraft. The squadron did, however, lose personnel as a result of the fluid ground battle. On 27 November, Flight Lieutenant Carmichael, Sergeant ‘Nil’ Fisher, Corporal Keith Taylor and Aircraftman Don Bailey, Arthur Baines, ‘Tubby’ Ward and five other airmen were captured by an enemy column that attacked the landing site at Sidi Azeies.

The fighters however, were able to give substantial cover to the ground forces. For example, on the afternoon of 25 November Peter Jeffery led 3 and 112 Squadrons over Sidi Rezegh, where they encountered an enemy formation of 70 BF-110s and JU-87s that were attacking New Zealand troops. The RAF Squadron engaged the top cover of German and Italian fighters, while 3 Squadron attacked the BF-110s and JU-87s. Much to the delight of the ground troops, the Tomahawk pilots dispatched seven of the enemy, probably destroyed one and damaged another eight, for the loss of one Tomahawk. The British force destroyed a total of ten enemy aircraft.

Early in December, 3 Squadron re-equipped with the Curtis P-40E Kittyhawk. This aircraft was a development of the basic P-40, but was more heavily armed than its predecessors. In the meantime 450 Squadron had deployed to Gambut Main, where it joined the Desert Air Force on 16 February 1942. Six days later Sergeant R. Shaw claimed its first aerial victory: a JU-88 shot down in flames.

Rommel, with his usual resilience, mounted a counterattack in January 1942. The Eighth Army withdrew to Gazala, where Auchinleck planned to hold the Germans prior to initiating a British offensive. The defence was based on a series of strong points such as Bir Hacheim and Knightsbridge, which, together with the armoured killing ground that became known as ‘The Cauldron’, was synonymous with the heavy fighting. The two Australian fighter squadrons, 3 and 450, were active from the opening of the battle on 27 May. During that day 3 Squadron Kittyhawks dropped 22 250-pound bombs, damaging several tanks. Consequent actions were a mix of ground attack sorties in support of the British Army or protecting the same from the incursions of the Luftwaffe: the Free French defensive position at Bir Hacheim was the target for 350 enemy sorties per day. The statistics for operations flown on 16 June indicate the intensity of the Australian squadrons’ effort. From only thirteen aircraft available, 3 Squadron flew 62 operational sorties while 450 Squadron flew 25 bomber escort missions and then another fifteen fighter-bomber missions later in the day.

After the bloody battles of June, the Eighth Army was forced to withdraw under the wings of the Desert Air Force to a defensive position with its right flank resting on the Mediterranean Sea and its left protected by the impassable Qattara Depression. On 1 July Rommel opened the first Battle of El Alamein, advancing toward El Alamein and the approaches to El Ruweisat. The Desert Air Force opposed this advance with vigour. The two Australian squadrons flew with Boston light bombers to attack Deir el Shein, fighting a running battle with BF-109s during the outward journey that resulted in the loss of a Kittyhawk. With the priority given to close support of the troops on the ground and the interdiction of German transport, aerial victories were few. One was claimed on 4 July—a relatively typical operational day during the battle. The two Australian units reconnoitred the coastal road to Daba and strafed a supply column near Ras Gibeisa. That afternoon they bombed landing grounds west of Daba before 450 Squadron machine-gunned a long column of enemy transport on the road. Flight Sergeant D.H. McBurnie shot down a BF-110 reconnaissance aircraft. To finalise the operations for the day, 3 Squadron bombed trucks at Sidi Abd el Rahman and 450 Squadron spied on enemy movements as far west as Fuka.

Although 3 and 450 Squadrons were active in covering the British retreat, 451 was withdrawn to Haifa in Palestine during February 1942. During March the squadron deployed to Cyprus to protect the island from high-flying German reconnaissance aircraft. The squadron removed the armour and half the guns to lighten the Hurricanes to improve their performance. One pilot, Flight Lieutenant R.T. Hudson, claimed to have flown his Hurricane to an altitude of 12 000 metres (2000 metres above the fighter’s normal service ceiling), but only one success was claimed. Flying Officers Lin Terry and Jack Cox combined to shoot down an Italian Cant 107-C reconnaissance aircraft. On 8 January 1943, the unit moved to Mersa Matruh, from where they were involved in mundane patrols over the Nile Delta. Even the attachment of three Supermarine Spitfires did not improve morale. In the first six months of 1943, the unit had a single action. On 22 February, a JU-88 had the better of a brief fight. On 23 July 1943, 451 Squadron lost three of six Hurricanes that had joined a strike force of Martin Baltimore light bombers, Beaufighters and Spitfires on an ineffective strike on targets on Crete.

The squadron was re-equipped with Spitfires and commenced a new phase of operations from Poretta, Corsica on 23 April 1944, when it escorted a formation of 24 North American B-25 Mitchell bombers to attack a railway bridge at Orvieto, Italy. During the return flight the formation was intercepted, and Flying Officer Wallis claimed a share in the destruction of a FW-190 fighter. Even though the majority of the bomber escort and armed reconnaissance flights from Poretta were unopposed, the Luftwaffe was still capable of making its presence felt. On the night of 11 May, a JU-88 dropped anti-personnel bombs on Poretta, killing two pilots and six of the squadron ground staff. In the air the Luftwaffe was less deadly. On 25 May, Flight Lieutenants House, Thomas and Bray each claimed the destruction of a FW-190 after a sharp encounter over Roccalbegna, north of Rome, accounting for three of the seven enemy aircraft shot down by 451 Squadron during the month. Another highlight was the covering of the landing by French commandos on the island of Elba.

Squadron Leader W.W.B. Gale assumed the command of 451 Squadron early in July, but was shot down a week later while engaged in a reconnaissance flight over the bridges spanning the Arno River between Florence and Empoli. Squadron Leader G.W. Small assumed command on 7 July. Next day the squadron moved to St Catherine, from where it flew fighter sweeps over Marseilles and Toulon prior to flying cover for the Allied landing on the coast of southern France on 15 August. The unit moved to St Cuer, from where, as has been already noted, it deployed to Hawkinge.

While 451 Squadron was stalled in Palestine, the two other Australian fighter squadrons were withdrawn for rest before participating in the second Battle of El Alamein. During this period Flying Officer A.W. ‘Nicky’ Barr enhanced his reputation. On 11 January 1942, he claimed victories over a single Italian Fiat G-50, and two BF-109s. During the combat Barr was wounded in the legs, and his Kittyhawk was badly damaged, forcing Barr to crash land behind enemy lines. Assisted by the local tribesmen, Barr was able to gain information on enemy dispositions that proved valuable after his return to the unit. Barr was promoted to the rank of squadron leader and assumed temporary command of 3 Squadron. On 30 May, Nicky made a spectacular high-speed crash landing, but was able to return to the Allied lines on foot, having passed though a tank battle en route. However, on 25 June Barr, badly wounded, bailed out of his severely battle-damaged Kittyhawk. He was captured, but managed to escape from captivity. In an eight-month period evading recapture in Austria and Italy, he eluded the enemy again and again, finally becoming involved with an Allied Airborne Special Services unit, for which he was awarded the Military Cross. He had previously been awarded a DFC and bar, and remains, with a score of twelve enemy aircraft to his credit, the highest scoring 3 Squadron pilot of the Second World War.

At the end of September the Kittyhawks reverted to the fighter-bomber role, when they attacked Axis positions near Sidi Abd el Rahman and Ghazal. Sorties during October were a mixture of interceptions, fighter-bomber and bomber-escort missions. These missions enabled the respective commanders of 3 and 450 Squadrons, Squadron Leaders R.H. ‘Bobby’ Gibbes and J.E.A. Williams, to blood new pilots, thus ensuring that the units were at peak efficiency for duties during the forthcoming battle at El Alamein.

General Montgomery began the battle on 23 October 1942, but it was not until 4 November that the Axis forces were in full retreat. The British fighter units escorted light bomber formations, undertook tactical reconnaissance flights and strikes against Luftwaffe bases. Throughout the battle, the Luftwaffe resisted stoutly, despite the long-range efforts of the Kittyhawks to disturb their airfields. Although profitable, these operations were not without cost; 450 Squadron lost its commander when he was forced down near Buq Buq on 31 October. Williams was captured and, like Catanach, was imprisoned in Stalag Luft III, one of the Gestapo victims to be executed as a result of his efforts in the ‘Great Escape’.

Once the Eighth Army broke through the Axis lines, the Desert Air Force was utilised to hinder the enemy retreat. Between 6 and 19 November, the fighter units were based at seven separate airfields. One task was escorting light bomber formations. On 9 November, Sergeant Dave Borthwick, of 450 Squadron, was part of the high cover for a formation of Bostons when he was shot down. Although wounded, he managed to parachute to the relative safety of the desert. On landing, he used his parachute material to bind his wounds. Despite his bindings, he could not walk, and crawled on hands and one leg for four days, eating beetles and licking the early morning dew from desert plants to sustain him. He finally found an Arab tomb, and was discovered by a King’s Royal Rifle Regiment patrol. He had lost 25 kilos in weight during his ordeal. Borthwick was awarded an MID for his fortitude.

So keen was the fighter force that on 9 November the advance parties of the 3 and 450 Squadron’s ‘B’ echelons appear to have been leading the whole Allied Forces pursuit. For example, a 3 Squadron party was located to the west of Sidi Barrani when they were strafed by BF-109s while watching the forward element of the Eighth Army’s armoured spearhead advancing behind them. Similarly, a 450 Squadron ‘B’ echelon was advised by the surprised armoured column commander who found them that it may be wiser for them to wait on the fall of Sidi Barrani before proceeding to the airfield. The advance from Amiriya, near Alexandria, was so rapid that 3 Squadron had advanced 800 kilometres in ten days and operated from five separate airfields. On 18 December the Australians had reached the airfield at Marble Arch in Libya. The effort was marred by the loss of five 3 Squadron ground crew members, the victim of an enemy landmine that had been laid near the landing field.

Despite the Allied landing in Morocco during November 1942, ensuring that the Axis forces in North Africa could not recover the initiative in the theatre, hard fighting ensued before the final African victory. The Australians had a reputation of making every effort to rescue downed pilots during the campaign—successful rescues had been previously completed by, among others, Peter Jeffery and Flying Officer Lou Spence—and the effort of Bobby Gibbes to rescue Sergeant Rex Bayley on 21 December 1942 is an excellent example of the hazards involved. Six 3 Squadron aircraft successfully strafed the German airfield at Hun, leaving six enemy fighters destroyed in their wake. Defending anti-aircraft fire shot down two of the attackers. One of the victims was Rex Bayley, who, after successfully crash landing his Kittyhawk, radioed that he was unhurt. Gibbes, despite Bayley’s protestations, landed his aircraft. After releasing the half-full drop tank from the Kittyhawk’s fuselage, Gibbes unstrapped himself from the cockpit and moved the ejected tank from under the aircraft. When Bayley arrived, Gibbes removed his own parachute and sat on his lap. The take-off was hazardous. There was only 300 metres available before the ground dropped off into a wadi. Under full power, the Kittyhawk became airborne, but not before the port wheel of the undercarriage was demolished when it hit the earth on the opposite side of the wadi. On landing at Marble Arch, Gibbes skilfully balanced the aircraft on its remaining starboard wheel on landing. The aircraft ground looped, but suffered only minor damage. Incidentally, Gibbes was himself shot down on 14 January 1943, but evaded capture for five days before returning to Allied lines.

The Allies accepted the final surrender of Axis forces in Tunisia on 13 May 1943. During the March 1943 breakthrough of Rommel’s defensive line at Mareth, the squadrons flew similar roles to those at El Alamein, and contributed to the inability of the Luftwaffe to resupply and protect the Axis troops in Tunisia. For 3 Squadron to have been— with the exception of Operation Battleaxe—involved in every major operation during the North African campaign was a proud achievement. With over 200 victories, it was the highest scoring Desert Air Force squadron. 450 Squadron had, with less opportunity, also made its mark. In sixteen months of operations this squadron destroyed 47 enemy aircraft in air-to-air combat, and, to give some credence to the varied role of fighter-bombers with the Desert Air Force, destroyed 584 enemy motor vehicles.

Australian fighter pilots also served with the RAF. The most outstanding was Clive Robertson Caldwell, who, with 28 confirmed victories, was the highest scoring Australian ‘ace’ of the Second World War. By the time he arrived back in Australia during September 1942, he had scored at least twenty victories and commanded 112 Squadron, RAF. He was acknowledged as a superb shot, and his ‘shadow shooting’ technique—a pilot would fire live rounds at the ground shadow of an accompanying aircraft, thus honing his skills in deflection shooting as well as allowing for the time taken for the projectiles and targets to meet at the same spot (leading the target). He was awarded a DSO, DFC and bar and the Polish Cross of Valour while in the Middle East. A contemporary was John Lloyd Waddy, who served in 250 Squadron, RAF, and 4 Squadron, South African Air Force (SAAF), before returning to Australia in February 1943. During his service in the Middle East he was awarded a DFC and scored twelve aerial victories.

RAAF IN SOUTH-WEST PACIFIC 1942–44 PART I

By David Wilson

The attack on Darwin on 19 February marked the first attack made on continental Australia by an enemy force. It was not the first attack on Australian territory. On 4 January 1942, 22 Nells bombed the airfield at Lakunai, near Rabaul, New Britain, part of the Australian Mandate of Papua New Guinea. The defence of the strategically important Rabaul, with its deep-water port and facilities, was the responsibility of 24 Squadron, commanded by Wing Commander John Lerew, which had deployed with four Hudson and thirteen Wirraway aircraft early in December 1941. Flight Lieutenant R.A. Yeowart and his 6 Squadron crew made a long-range photographic reconnaissance flight in a specially modified long-range Hudson over Truk, the Japanese fleet base in the Caroline Islands on 6 January 1942. When Yeowart returned, after evading defending aircraft and anti-aircraft fire, his report of the presence of twelve warships, a hospital ship, transports and many aircraft at all adjacent airfields made Lerew aware of the vulnerability of his base to invasion. On the same day, Japanese flying boats bombed Vunakanua airfield, destroying a Wirraway and damaging a Hudson. The aircraft flown by Flight Lieutenant B.H. Anderson was the only one of the four Wirraway aircraft that attempted to intercept the flying boats to make contact. He made a climbing attack from the rear of one flying boat and expended all his ammunition, without visible effect, from 275 metres.

The attrition of the defending aircraft continued on the 7th, when a Hudson and three Wirraways were destroyed by a formation of Nells, despite the valiant effort of three Wirraways to attempt to intercept. Clearly the Wirraway was totally outclassed by the attacking aircraft, and Lerew requested modern fighters as reinforcements for his meagre force. None were available. The climax to the gallant defence of Lae came on 20 January. A formation of 50 enemy high-level bombers, dive bombers and fighter escorts were sighted over Duke of York Island. Seven Wirraways attempted the interception, but Anderson and Pilot Officer C.A. Butterworth crashed on take-off due to engine failure. Three aircraft were lost in the ensuing combat, one destroyed on takeoff and two seriously damaged in crash landings. Six crewmen had been killed and five wounded in the ten-minute combat. It was as a result of this action that Lerew sent his famous signal to the Air Board: Nos morituri te salutamus (we who are about to die salute you).

With an invasion imminent, Lerew evacuated wounded men on 22 January, when Squadron Leader J. Sharp flew the remaining serviceable Hudson to Port Moresby. Lerew withdrew his men to the Wide Bay area, where flying boats from Port Moresby could evacuate the survivors. Next day a total of 96 men were evacuated by 33 Squadron Short Empire flying boats flown by Squadron Leaders J.L. Grey and M.V. Mather. Grey flew to Tol next day, where he successfully embarked 49 airmen and soldiers. A trio led by the radio officer at Sum Sum, Sergeant F.G. Higgs, who had remained behind to secure the communications link with Port Moresby until the 27th, were ordered to withdraw. Higgs and the two other airmen appropriated a five-metre sailing boat and, after an epic 21-day voyage, reached Cairns.

While 24 Squadron was fighting for its existence at Rabaul, the Catalina flying boats of 11 and 20 Squadrons were also attempting to curb the Japanese advance. When it moved to Port Moresby in September 1939, 11 Squadron was equipped with two Short ‘C’ class Empire flying boats that had been pressed into service from Qantas, and two Supermarine Seagull amphibians. The famous Empire flying boats may have been successful on the commercial route to England, but when armed with a single Lewis machine-gun and bomb racks, it was of limited usefulness as an offensive maritime reconnaissance aircraft. Consequently, 11 Squadron welcomed the delivery of the first of its new Consolidated Catalina flying boats in March 1941. This aircraft, with power supplied by two 1200 hp Pratt and Whitney Twin Wasp engines, had a maximum speed of 315 kph and a range of 4989 kilometres. It was to equip four active RAAF squadrons and prove to be a versatile, reliable aircraft. The advent of this aircraft, and the raising of 20 Squadron at Port Moresby on 1 August 1941, gave the Australian defences a robust maritime reconnaissance force.

The Catalina squadrons were the only units capable of taking advantage of the information provided from Yeowart’s successful reconnaissance of Truk and other long-range reconnaissance missions. A force of six flying boats from the combined squadrons attempted to attack Truk on 11 January, but foul weather en route forced the aircraft to return to Port Moresby. Another attempt was made on the 16th, but Squadron Leader T.H. Davis and his crew were lost when their aircraft crashed on take-off after refuelling at Kavieng. Three of the four aircraft that proceeded with the attack were unable to find the target due to poor visibility. Flight Lieutenant Ern Beaumont, who arrived an hour later, made two bombing runs to drop sixteen 250-pound bombs, but to no apparent effect.

Squadron Leader J.A. ‘Dick’ Cohen flew a long-range reconnaissance mission that showed the extraordinary endurance of the Catalina. On 13 January he departed from Tulagi, a small island adjacent to Guadalcanal where an advanced operational base had been established, to undertake a 19 hour 37 minute reconnaissance of the northern Gilbert Islands. Reconnaissance missions could be lethal. On 21 January, Corporal T.H. Keen was the sole survivor of a Catalina, captained by Lieutenant G.H. Hutchinson, US Navy, that had been shot down in flames over Salamaua by five enemy fighters. Flight Lieutenant Robert Thompson had departed from Gizo on the same date to search for the Japanese task force that had attacked Rabaul on the previous day. Thompson found the task group and was ordered to shadow the warships. His aircraft had come under accurate antiaircraft fire and, worst of all, he could see fighters taking off from the aircraft carriers below. The inevitable damage to the Catalina in the subsequent action forced the burning flying boat to force land in the open sea. The survivors, fearing that the burning aircraft would explode, abandoned the aircraft. They were later picked up by a Japanese cruiser and became prisoners of war.

After the fall of Rabaul the Port Moresby-based Catalinas and the ten Hudsons of the newly formed 32 Squadron, under Wing Commander Deryck Kingwell, were the only RAAF strike force in Papua New Guinea. The Catalinas striking at Rabaul met considerable resistance. For example, on the night of 3 February, Pilot Officer B.G. ‘Tubby’ Higgins was flying one of five Catalinas bombing Simpson Harbour, when, at 10.00 pm, the flying boat was attacked by a Zeke. The enemy fighter hit the Catalina, wounding the wireless operator in both ankles. Higgins evaded the Zeke by diving to sea level through the cloud billowing up from one of the active volcanoes that perpetually threaten the town of Matupi. Flight Lieutenant G.E. Hemsworth was also attacked. His aircraft was hit in the port engine, forcing him to jettison the bomb load and take evasive action. Sergeant Douglas Dick, on his first operational flight, returned fire from the port blister. As a result of his fire an enemy fighter was seen to spin and crash into the sea. Hemsworth made a five-hour, single engine flight to Salamaua, where he made a perfect landing just before dawn. After making temporary repairs, he was able to take off using both engines, but once the aircraft had climbed to 600 metres, the port engine had to be shut down. After the Catalina landed at Port Moresby, 157 bullet holes were counted.

Attrition of the flying boats and crews resulted in an operational combination of the two squadrons. Aircraft, crews and tasks were shared, but men and machines could not be replaced. Lieutenant Ern Beaumont was lost on the night of 24 February. On the same day, five Zekes escorted eleven enemy bombers and raided Port Moresby, with a disastrous result for the flying boat squadrons. Three Catalinas were destroyed, and another damaged, at their moorings. It was obvious that the increasing number of Japanese raids would make the position of the three squadrons at Port Moresby untenable. Although Squadron Leader Deryck Kingwell, the commander of 32 Squadron, recorded a direct hit on a 6 000-tonne transport, part of the Japanese invasion force of eleven ships in Salamaua Harbour on 7 March, enemy pressure resulted in 32 Squadron being completely withdrawn to Horn Island on 26 April.

The two Catalina squadrons withdrew further south to Bowen, Queensland, from where they made long-range strikes on targets such as Tulagi and along the northern coast of New Guinea and the island of New Britain.

Unfortunately, in January 1942, there were no RAAF fighter squadrons in Australia to contest for aerial superiority with the Japanese over the important airfields at Port Moresby. It was not until 4 March that the first Kittyhawk fighter squadron, 75, was raised at Townsville. The raising of 76 Squadron at Archerfield, Queensland on the 14th and 77 at Pearce, Western Australia two days later, followed this unit. On the 21st, Wing Commander Peter Jeffery, although having handed the command of 75 Squadron to a fellow 3 Squadron veteran, Squadron Leader J.F. ‘Old John’ Jackson, survived being shot at by defending anti-aircraft gunners while landing with the first four Kittyhawks to arrive at the Seven Mile airfield. Within hours the squadron made its presence felt. Flying Officer Wilbur Wackett, the son of Lawrence Wackett, and Flying Officer Barry Cox scrambled at 3.53 pm to intercept the daily Japanese reconnaissance aircraft. The two Kittyhawks closed with their prey, and after several well-directed bursts of machine-gun fire, the bomber exploded and dived into the sea west of Baslik Point. The combat, an emphatic victory in full view of the defending ground troops, was a great tonic to morale. But Jackson was not satisfied with this initial victory.

Next day, 22 March, Jackson led nine aircraft from the Seven Mile to take the battle to the Japanese. Photographic evidence had been produced that indicated that a force of Mitsubishi G-4M ‘Betty’ bombers and Zeke fighters was based on the airfield at Lae. To attack this attractive target, Jackson led five strafing Kittyhawks. Flight Lieutenant Peter Turnbull (another 3 Squadron veteran) led the top cover of four fighters. The ground strafers made two runs over the airfield, so low that the aircraft flown by Flight Lieutenant John Piper collided with the propeller of one of the parked enemy fighters, tearing one of the Kittyhawk’s wing guns from its mount and severely damaging the wing main spar. It was reported that nine Zekes and three Bettys were left burning as a result. Anderson, of 24 Squadron Rabaul fame, fell foul of the defending fighters. Turnbull and Sergeant J.H.S. Pettett, members of the top cover, succeeded in destroying a Zeke each. Wilbur Wackett had a combat that resulted in his being forced to ditch his engine-damaged fighter in the sea halfway between Lae and Salamaua. He swam ashore. After an epic adventure that entailed crossing the Owen Stanley Ranges on foot, Wackett returned to Port Moresby on 22 April.

On an almost daily basis, the pilots of 75 Squadron fought against overwhelming odds and tactical limitations. But the presence of the fighters enabled United States Army Air Corps Douglas A-24 bombers to attack targets at Lae, and also enabled American medium bombers to stage through the Port Moresby airfields with a degree of safety. It was John Jackson’s leadership that was inspirational, and his failure to return from a lone reconnaissance of Lae on 9 April was met with great sadness, and also a spirit of vengeance. On the 18th, the news that he was safe and well at Navos was greeted with relief. But this was to be short-lived. John Jackson’s final mission highlights the heroic defence mounted by 75 Squadron.

At 11.15 am, 28 April 1942, Jackson led five Kittyhawks to intercept a superior force of Japanese bombers and fighters north of Port Moresby. Jackson and Barry Cox died fighting the Zeke escort that had the advantage of height over the slow climbing Kittyhawks. Flying Officer Peter Masters spun out of the combat, and Flying Officer Le Gay ‘Cocky’ Brereton was slightly wounded when his Kittyhawk was hit in the wings and fuselage. Jackson’s aircraft was seen to crash on Mount Lawes. When the crash site was located, the engine was found embedded two metres into the ground from the force of the impact.

In its epic 44-day defence of Port Moresby 75 Squadron destroyed eighteen and damaged 29 enemy aircraft in aerial combat for the loss of 21 aircraft and twelve pilots. When the unit was withdrawn on 7 May, the Japanese tide had reached its height; the US Navy was in the process of fighting, and ultimately winning, the Battle of the Coral Sea. The engagement was the result of strategic intelligence and the efforts of Australian long-range reconnaissance missions that warned of the Japanese approach. Enemy fighters attacked Hemsworth and his crew after they reported the presence of two enemy destroyers south-east of Misima Island on 6 May. Later in the afternoon, Flight Lieutenant P.J.E. Pennycuick, flying a 32 Squadron Hudson, reported an aircraft carrier, six destroyers and four enemy merchantmen in the same area. The build-up of Japanese naval force was noted through daily reconnaissance flights and the situation built to a climax on 7 March, when the American Admiral Frank J. Fletcher launched the air groups of the aircraft carriers USS Yorktown and USS Lexington to sink the Japanese aircraft carrier Shoho and badly damage the larger Shokaku. Lexington was lost, but a strategic victory had been won; most importantly, the Japanese invasion force that had planned to attack Port Moresby was forced to withdraw. The turning point of the Pacific War, the carrier battle centred on the island of Midway, was fought on 4 June.

RAAF IN SOUTH-WEST PACIFIC 1942–44 PART II

The outcome of the battles fought in the last six months of 1942 in Papua New Guinea and Guadalcanal were pivotal to the defeat, or victory, of either of the protagonists. On 21 July, the Japanese landed at Gona, and commenced to advance toward Kokoda, thence across the Owen Stanley Ranges toward Port Moresby. However, the focus for the Australian fighter squadrons was further east, at Milne Bay. Peter Turnbull had assumed command of 76 Squadron in May, and led the squadron there at the end of July. En route they flew the first Kittyhawk fighter-bomber mission in the South Western Pacfic Area, an aborted strike on Napapo on 22 July. The presence of enemy fighters above the seven Kittyhawks forced the Australians to drop their bombs before closing with the enemy. In the subsequent inconclusive action, Turnbull’s aircraft was slightly damaged, but this did not prevent him from landing at Milne Bay. The only aircraft loss was that flown by Flight Lieutenant V. Sullivan, who was forced to land eight kilometres from Port Moresby due to engine failure.

From 25 July, 76 Squadron was based at the newly constructed airfield at Milne Bay, Gurney strip. The first action was an unsuccessful attempt to intercept a Kawanishi H8K ‘Emily’ flying boat that had bombed Townsville that night. A rejuvenated 75 Squadron deployed to Milne Bay at the end of July. There was an expectation that the Japanese would attempt to capture it as a base for a pincer movement to take Port Moresby, and Hudson aircraft arrived on 6 August to give some long-range warning of any approaching enemy. Two days before, the Japanese showed interest in the Allied developments, when Zekes strafed Gurney and destroyed a Kittyhawk. Flying Officer P.H. Ash evened the score when he destroyed an enemy Zeke. The second Japanese air raid occurred on the 11th. The two Australian squadrons lost four pilots, but claimed the destruction of two Zekes, the possible destruction of two, and to have damaged a further six. Another brisk combat took place on the 24th. Next day, John Piper led nine 75 Squadron Kittyhawks to strafe Japanese landing barges and enemy troops that had been sighted at Cape Watts, Goodenough Island. This force was intended to land at Taupota, and the successful destruction of the barges eliminated a northern threat to the defenders of Milne Bay. Also on the 25th, an American Boeing B-17 crew reported the presence of a Japanese naval force en route for Milne Bay.

As inclement weather prevented any long-range B-17 attacks on this force, it was left to a combination of the Australian Kittyhawk and Hudson aircraft to defend Milne Bay. At mid-afternoon of the 25th, Peter Turnbull and ‘Cocky’ Brereton led a force of twelve Kittyhawks and a single Hudson to contest the Japanese approach. Armed with a single 300-pound bomb, the fighters were restricted to making low-level strafing and bombing attacks, instead of the preferred high-level dive-bombing approach, because of the overcast conditions. The strike force returned to Gurney strip and rearmed. Unfortunately the low cloud and failing light prevented any further contact. It was left to Pilot Officer Martin Law from 6 Squadron to make two bombing passes out of the cloud later in the evening. Despite having inflicted minor casualties on the enemy, the air assault did not prevent the landing of Japanese troops at Ahioma, from where the Japanese troops advanced along the northern shore of Milne Bay toward the airfields.

Squadron Leader Les Jackson, who had assumed command of 75 Squadron on the death of his elder brother, ‘Old John’, led six Kittyhawks on a strike on the Japanese landing barges that had been sighted on the beach near the KB Mission. This sortie was the first of a pattern of operational flights made by the two fighter squadrons to supply close support to the hard-pressed Australians. When not so involved, the fighters defended the bay from any enemy aerial encroachments. On 27 August, Les Jackson and Sergeant Roy Riddell each shot down a Zeke, but not before an American B-24 Liberator bomber burned as a result of the enemy strafing the Gurney strip. Flight Sergeant Stewart Munro was reported missing after the fight. Later, 76 Squadron lost its commander. Late in the afternoon Peter Turnbull was killed when his aircraft crashed as he attempted to strafe a Japanese light tank. Squadron Leader Keith ’Bluey’ Truscott, of 452 Squadron fame, assumed command of the squadron. He remained in this appointment until his death on 28 March 1943, when he crashed into the sea while undertaking fighter training with a flying boat off Exmouth Gulf in Western Australia.

The expectation of an enemy assault on the airfield complex on the night of 28 August resulted in the overnight withdrawal of the fighters to Port Moresby. The expected attack did not eventuate, and the aircraft returned to Milne Bay on the 29th. Group Captain W.H. Garing also arrived to assume the overall command of the RAAF units involved in the battle, which reached its climax during the early morning of the 31st. Desperate, but unsuccessful, attempts by the Japanese to overwhelm the Australian defences at Turnbull airfield (No. 2 airfield had been renamed to commemorate Peter Turnbull) proved the apogee of the Japanese advance. Steady pressure by the Australians forced the withdrawal of the invaders on the night of 5 September.

The Japanese Navy had made its presence felt during the campaign. On the night of 7 September a salvo of shells hit the supply ship Anshun, which capsized at the Gili Gili wharf. Garing was particularly perturbed at the enemy navy’s freedom of action. He was aware of the raising of 100 Squadron and its new Beaufort torpedo bombers. As a result of his pleadings Wing Commander J.R. ‘Sam’ Balmer led six Beauforts north from Laverton on 4 September. En route the Beauforts were loaded with American Mk XIII torpedoes at the RAAF base at Nowra. During the morning of 7 September, two 6 Squadron Hudsons attacked a Japanese cruiser and a destroyer and reported the incident to Milne Bay. An attack force of six Beauforts, three 30 Squadron Beaufighters and ten Kittyhawks took off to strike at the force off Normanby Island. The strike force did not discover the enemy vessels and returned to Milne Bay. However, they were not to be denied. At 4.55 pm three Beaufighters, and the eight 76 Squadron Kittyhawks led by Truscott, closed to within 800 metres of the enemy before commencing to strafe the bridge and upper works of a cruiser. The enemy formed a defensive circle as the Beauforts commenced their low-level run. Under fire from the cruiser’s heavy guns, the Beauforts dropped their torpedoes from a range of 1500 metres. Results were disappointing. No hits were made, but lessons were learnt that were to be applied in future anti-shipping operations. Unfortunately, from the perspective of the torpedo bomber force, this strike was indicative of the problems that were faced. The torpedo used proved unreliable, and the subsequent eighteen torpedo bomber operations were to prove disappointing. Squadron Leader Noel Quinn was shot down and captured after flying the RAAF’s final torpedo bomber sortie against Rabaul on 4 December 1943.

The Kittyhawk squadrons returned to Australia for rest and reequipment. 76 Squadron flew to Batchelor in the Northern Territory, and Truscott was able to add the last entry to his list of claims: a Betty destroyed on 21 January. After serving at Horn Island and Cairns, 75 Squadron returned to Milne Bay in January 1943. In the meantime, the Allied airfields had been developed in the Port Moresby area. The efforts of 1 Mobile Works Squadron (later 5 Airfield Construction Squadron) from July 1942 resulted in the development of Ward’s airfield to enable the Beaufighters of 30 Squadron and Boston light bombers of 22 Squadron to operate against the Japanese forces along the Kokoda Track and at Buna, Gona and Sanananda. It is also a period where the influence of air power in the theatre was becoming apparent. For example, the difficultly of supplying the forward troops on the Kokoda Track resulted in the deployment of the Special Transport Flight of Hudson aircraft from 1 Operational Training Unit to Ward’s airfield to augment the sparse aerial transport resources in the theatre. The flight made its first supply drop at Soputa on 14 December 1942. Next day the hazards of these operations became evident. Three Hudsons departed from Ward’s, penetrated the overcast conditions over the notorious ‘Gap’ in the Owen Stanley Range and dropped much needed ammunition at Soputa. Squadron Leader W.A. Pedrina made two circuits before dropping his stores on the third. The aircraft then went into a steep turn and crashed, with Flight Sergeant L. Callaghan the only survivor.

The short operational career of Flight Lieutenant W.E. Newton is typical of the tasks that were being undertaken by the Australian squadrons at Port Moresby during this period. After joining 22 Squadron, Newton flew his first operational sortie on 1 January 1943, strafing Japanese positions near Sanananda Point, landing at Dobodura due to a mechanical problem with his Boston light bomber. On 22 January 1943, the Australian and American forces finally secured the area from Gona to Buna. The Australian Bostons had played an effective role in supporting the land battle, and Newton was to participate in an action in March that sealed the fate of the Japanese defenders at Lae. Prior to this climactic event, Newton flew missions to prevent the Japanese from capturing the airfields at Wau. During February, Newton flew five of eight sorties supporting the hard-pressed infantry in the Wau–Mubo–Salamaua area. Using photographs exposed by the Wirraways of 4 Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron, the Bostons flew at 400 kph through anti-aircraft fire, between ridges and mountains, often battling through monsoonal rain and clouds to bomb and strafe enemy positions. These operations, which required courage and flying skill, contributed to the heavy Japanese casualties.

On 2 March, Bill Newton flew one of six Boston bombers, which in the face of heavy anti-aircraft fire, swept across the airfield at Lae, leaving a trail of destruction. This action was aimed at destroying enemy fighters that had been deployed to Lae to give protection to a Japanese convoy. The ships had departed from Rabaul on 28 February to reinforce the garrison at Lae. The convoy was attacked by American B-17 bombers during the 2nd, but it persevered. Next day it came within range of the specially trained Australian 30 Squadron Beaufighter and American B-25 Mitchell bomber crews, who vindicated the many hours of low-level ‘skip bombing’ training that they had undertaken on the wreckage of the SS Pruth. To prevent interception of the attacking force, Newton and two other Boston captains attacked the Lae airfield early in the morning. The three Bostons, armed with four nose-mounted 0.303 machine-guns and a 2000-pound bomb load caught the enemy fighters as they prepared for take-off, leaving many burning on the cratered runway.

Out in the Bismarck Sea the Japanese convoy was bombed by a force of B-17 Flying Fortress bombers, thirteen 30 Squadron Beaufighters and a number of Mitchells, leaving a swathe of burning and sinking vessels in their wake. Ammunition expended, the Allied aircraft returned to Port Moresby to rearm and refuel. The Allied aircraft returned during the afternoon. Wing Commander C.C. Learmonth led five 22 Squadron Bostons to join in the fray, claiming two direct hits on enemy vessels. The Australians were under pressure from defending Zekes. Flying Officer H.B. Craig attracted four of them. By boldly turning into his attackers with all guns blazing, Craig forced the enemy to break away.

Newton did not participate in the later attacks.

On 16 March, Newton was flying one of a formation of six Bostons that attacked newly constructed fuel tanks on the Salamaua isthmus. From a height of 1500 metres, Newton dived on the tanks, while his wingman, Dick Fethers, strafed the adjacent gun sites. The tanks exploded, and the resultant fireball and column of smoke could be seen for 80 kilometres. As the other Bostons dropped their bombs, Newton returned to strafe the area. His aircraft received four direct hits and, with instruments, hydraulics and control surfaces badly damaged, Newton turned south-east for safety. To further compound the situation, one engine had to be shut down. Newton, with superb airmanship and luck, coaxed the Boston back to Ward’s. For his action on this day, Newton was awarded the Victoria Cross. But it was a posthumous award. On 18 March, Newton and his crew, along with Sergeant Basil Eastwood and John Lyons, ditched after attacking Salamaua. Eastwood was killed in the crash, and Newton and Lyons were captured. Lyons was bayoneted to death soon after, and on 29 March 1943 the 23-year-old Flight Lieutenant W.E. Newton was executed by his Japanese captors.

Admiral Yamamoto had established an advanced headquarters at Lae to attempt to counter the reverses at Guadalcanal and along the northern New Guinea coast. He identified the growing Allied air strength as the major threat, and instigated a series of air attacks on Guadalcanal, Oro Bay, Port Moresby and Milne Bay to redress the balance. In this he was unsuccessful. At Milne Bay the enemy efforts were intercepted by the Lockheed P-38 Lightning fighters of the USAAF 9th Fighter Squadron and the Kittyhawks of 75 and 77 Squadrons. The latter had arrived in November 1942, and 75 Squadron returned on 13 February 1943. The action, the last major aerial combat to which the RAAF fighter force contributed in the South West Pacific Area, took place on 14 April 1943. The two Australian units’ contribution was the destruction of six Betty bombers, a Aichi D3A ‘Val’ and three Zekes. Squadron Leader W.A. ‘Wulf’ Arthur, the 75 Squadron commander, epitomised the courage of the Australian pilots. Finding that his guns would not fire, he requested permission to land. While diving across Milne Bay, he sighted six Vals and made dummy attacks on the formation, before unsuccessfully attempting, by aggressive flying, to force another Val to land.

To facilitate the westward advance from Milne Bay, 6 ACS deployed to Goodenough Island and to Kiriwina to prepare airfields to be used by Kittyhawks and Beauforts to strike at targets at Gasmata and Rabaul. During this period, 75 Squadron operated two Lockheed F-4, the photographic reconnaissance version of the P-38 Lightning fighter, on missions over Cape Gloucester, Gasmata and the Trobriand Islands for the US Sixth Army and RAAF 9 Operational Group. Squadron Leader Geoff Atherton and Flight Lieutenant ‘Monty’ Mountseer flew the majority of the flights. The squadron operated from the new airfields at Vivigani on Goodenough Island and Kiriwina that had been developed by 6 ACS. In the meantime, 7 ACS contributed to the construction of the airfield complex at Nadzab, the communication road from the complex to Lae and the construction of a fuel pipeline from that port to the airfield. This area became a major base for American heavy and medium bombers preparing for the subsequent landings at Cape Gloucester in New Britain and at Aitape and Hollandia. From 19 January 1944, 75 squadron operated from Newton Field, one of the Australian contributions to the Nadzab complex. Then they commenced operations with the newly arrived 78 Squadron.

The operation of the two units included escorting formations of USAAF B-24 Liberators and B-25 Mitchells. In addition, the two Kittyhawk units flew close escort for the Vultee Vengeance dive bombers of 21, 23 and 24 Squadrons that were flying precision strikes against enemy facilities at Alexishafen, Sair Island, Hansa Bay and Madang. The three dive-bomber units had deployed to New Guinea between 30 August and 15 February 1944. Although the aircraft supported the Australian 9th Division at Sattelberg and gained a reputation for close air support to ground troops, they did not remain operational in the theatre for long. On 8 March, 23 Squadron flew its last sortie; 21 Squadron was only based in New Guinea for fifteen days before all the dive-bomber units were returned south. Ultimately, they were to form the nucleus of the RAAF Liberator heavy bomber force.

When not involved in escort duties, the Kittyhawks struck at enemy targets and flew close support missions. These were risky. On 27 January 1944, 75 Squadron lost Flight Sergeant J.N. Stirling and Pilot Officer Hunt when they collided while strafing Jombo Island, south of Madang. Flying Officer E.H. Weber was shot down over Malala on 2 March 1944, to become 78 Squadron’s first operational casualty. Squadron Leader Col Lindeman gained some revenge when he damaged two Oscars that had attempted to intercept the Liberator formation that he was escorting. Japanese sources state that two Oscars were lost on this day, but they do not state whether this was the result of air-to-air combat or to another cause. This was to prove the last combat of this type that involved 75 Squadron.

On 12 March, 75 Squadron commenced operations from Cape Gloucester in New Britain in support of the 1st Marine Division that had landed as part of the operations to isolate the Japanese Rabaul garrison and to prepare bases for the next step forward: the landings at Aitape during March. The personnel of 7 ACS were in the second wave of troops that landed at Aitape, and the members of 5 ACS on the 23rd reinforced them. These highly professional units had a fighter strip operational on the 24 April, and a bomber strip two weeks later. The Kittyhawks of 78 Squadron landed at Aitape on 25 April, and 75 Squadron aircraft joined them next day. The two squadrons directed operations against the Japanese defences between Hyaparake and Cape Boram, as well as covering the progress of the naval bombardment force that included HMAS Australia and HMAS Shropshire. Both were to be involved in the landing at the island of Biak in May.

The two RAAF fighter squadrons moved westwards to Hollandia on 25 May. On 27 May, they covered the landing of the US 41st Division at Biak. These operations were undertaken at the extreme range of the Kittyhawks, and the flights gave little opportunity for the fighters to close with the enemy. However, when the opportunity was presented, the Australians took full advantage. In one of the last major air-to-air combats in Papua New Guinea, 78 Squadron shot down eight Japanese aircraft on 3 June. Fifteen Kittyhawks intercepted a Japanese formation of twelve Oscars and three Nakajima B5N ‘Kate’ attack bombers. Flight Lieutenant R.S. Osment, the formation leader, shot down a Kate in flames. Pilot Officer R.R. Cowley closed to within 50 metres of an Oscar before shooting it down, also in flames. Blue section joined the furious dog fight. The leader, Flight Lieutenant G.H. White, shot the wing off an Oscar before disposing of a Kate, which was seen to invert just before it hit the water. Other victorious pilots were Flight Lieutenant D.R. Baker, Flight Sergeant C.I. Smith, Flight Lieutenant J.C. Smith, Flight Lieutenant J.C. Griffiths, and Flying Officer R.E. Barker, who were credited with the destruction of one Oscar apiece. In addition, Griffiths and Flying Officer N.F. Blessing shared in the destruction of another enemy fighter.

On 10 June, Flight Lieutenants D.R. Baker and G. Giles scored the final air-to-air victory credited to RAAF fighters over New Guinea when they destroyed an enemy aircraft while covering an Allied convoy near Japen Island.

The next phase of MacArthur’s advance was the capture of the island of Noemfoor, from where air power could be projected over the Vogelkop peninsula and the Ambon–Ceram area. To ensure the rapid utilisation of the Noemfoor airfields, Group Captain W.C. Dale, the commander of 62 Works Wing, was appointed as the chief engineer to oversee the rehabilitation and construction of the airfields at Kamiri and Kornsoren. The airfield construction troops landed within thirty minutes of the initial assault, and Kamiri was suitable for 78 Squadron to fly to Noemfoor on 20 July, where 75 and 80 Squadrons joined it on the 22nd. The three squadrons harassed enemy forces in the Geelvink Bay and Vogelkop peninsula as indirect support to the Allied landing at Sansapor, and were joined in this task by 22 Squadron Bostons and the 30 Squadron Beaufighters early in August.

When Morotai was taken after an unopposed assault on 14 September 1944, the men of 3 and 14 ACSs were among the first to land. By 20 September, they had completed preparatory work and commenced the upgrading of the Wama airfield. Morotai was to become a main concentration point for RAAF front-line units assigned to the RAAF’s 1st Tactical Air Force. These included 1 (Mosquito), 13 (Ventura), 21, 23 and 24 (Liberator), 30 and 93 (Beaufighter), and 452 and 457 (Spitfire) Squadrons. To this must be added the assets of 22 Squadron that had deployed to Morotai on 17 November 1944 with sixteen Bostons. Nine Bostons were either destroyed or extensively damaged during Japanese air raids on the night of 22–23 November, forcing the unit to be withdrawn to Noemfoor for rearming with Beaufighters. The fighters, Bostons and Beaufighters operated extensively over the Halmaheras to ensure that the Japanese forces could not be deployed to reinforce the defences of the Philippines. These operations were to act as a catalyst for the so-called ‘Morotai Mutiny’ of April 1945, when a group of senior commanders took action to bring the futility of these operations to the attention of higher authority.

Blocking a Blitzkrieg: the battle of Vevi, 10–13 April 1941 Part I

Codenamed Operation Marita, the German invasion of Yugoslavia and Greece sent the German Second Army, composed of four army corps and a panzer group, into Yugoslavia from Bulgaria, Hungary, and southern Austria. Against Greece, the Germans assembled their Second Army, comprising the XXX Korps in the east, the XVIII Gebirgs (Mountain) Korps in the centre (opposite the Rupel Pass), and the formidable 40 Korps on the German right. The key lines of attack for the Germans into Greece were through the Rupel Pass and the Metaxas Line, a task given to the mountain troops of XVIII Gebirgskorp, and a flanking manoeuvre further west by the 40 Korps. This unit included two panzer divisions, the mechanised SS Leibstandarte Brigade, and the 72 Infantrie Division.

Its commander, General Georg Stumme, was an experienced soldier who had led a light armoured division in the invasion of Poland. Now at the helm of a powerful armoured corps, he directed the 2nd Panzer Division through what the British called the ‘Doiran Gap’ (named for the nearby lake), cutting down the valley of the Axios River to Salonika. At the same time, Stumme sent the rest of his corps sweeping through southern Yugoslavia, crashing through the Yugoslav Third Army, strung out along the border with Bulgaria in a classic ‘double envelopment’ manoeuvre in which the German armoured formations specialised. What his inner wing did not cut off in Salonika, Stumme would deal with courtesy of his outer wing, driving down the Monastir gap into central Greece. As we have seen, this latter move had been accurately forecast by British military intelligence five weeks earlier.

While the British W Group attempted to consolidate on the Vermion–Olympus line, Papagos had left four-and-a-half divisions in Thrace, organised as the Eastern Macedonian army. The Greek commander-in-chief was determined not to besmirch his nation’s honour by a premature withdrawal, as the British desired, or dash his hopes of keeping open a supply route to the Yugoslavs, for which the communication and supply line running north from Salonika was essential. The eventual accession of Yugoslavia to the Allied cause validated Papagos’ defence of Thrace, but it counted for little because of the rapidity with which Yugoslav defences collapsed. Like Papagos, the Yugoslavs were determined to defend their national sovereignty, and they allowed this political calculation to override military logic. Papagos correctly identified the best defensive option for the Yugoslavs: mobilise around a central position in southern Yugoslavia where a junction could be affected with the Anglo–Greek forces in northern Greece.

Such an option was probably never open to the Yugoslavs, any more than abandoning Salonika was agreeable to Papagos: the disposition he favoured for the Yugoslavs meant, in practice, abandoning Belgrade to its fate, and few national armies would willingly abandon their capital in favour of a position preferred by allies. However, their patriotic determination left the Yugoslav armies strung out along the borders with Austria, Bulgaria, and Hungary; lacking depth, they were quickly penetrated by panzer spearheads.

The Greek troops on the Bulgarian border were better prepared, to the extent that they occupied the fixed fortifications of the Metaxas Line, but they were wholly without air cover. Contrary to some of the unkind observations made of their army by the British and Anzac commanders, the Greeks in the Metaxas Line fought magnificently. Subjected to repeated Stuka attacks, they held out in their mountain bunkers for days, forcing the German mountain troops to blast them out. So fierce was the Greek resistance, the Germans gave up their attempts to take a number of bunker complexes, preferring to take the line of least resistance and bypass the most difficult garrisons. The German mountain troops (Gebirgsjaeger) were admittedly hampered by the snow and their inability to get more than pack artillery up the mountains; nevertheless, the fighting was ‘hard, bitter and sometimes fanatical.’ A German war correspondent later reported that Greeks lying wounded in captured trenches still fought on with knives and bayonets. It took four days for the Germans to take Rupesco, the last bunker complex guarding the Rupel Pass; at the end of the fighting, the 5th Gebirgs Division buried 160 of its men.

While the Greeks fought hard on this, the eastern end of their line, the Allies rapidly faced a debacle around Doiran and further west. The 2nd Panzer Division pushed the Greek 19 Division aside in its drive down the Axios River, and Salonika itself fell on 9 April, even before the last of the Greek forts on the border had capitulated. Further west again, the rest of the 40 Korps drove through southern Yugoslavia such that, by 8 April, its leading formation, the SS Leibstandarte Brigade, was already rushing toward the Monastir Gap. This opening in the mountain ranges of the Balkans allowed the Germans to threaten the Florina Valley in northern Greece — by cascading down this valley, the Germans could not only complete a double envelopment of the Greeks in Thrace, but turn Wilson out of the Vermion–Olympus line as well.

Rowell later wrote bluntly that ‘our troubles started on 8 April’. At a command conference at 11.00 a.m. that day, Wilson attempted to deal with this crisis by creating a blocking force ‘to stop a blitzkrieg down the Florina gap’. Orders from this conference went to Mackay at 7.30 p.m., instructing him to take command of the Florina Gap operation.

Wilson chose the Australian 19 Brigade as the basis of ‘Mackay Force’; but, with only two of its three battalions available in time, he brought its infantry up to strength by attaching to it the 1/Rangers taken from Briagadier H. Charrington’s 1st Armoured Brigade. To stiffen his roadblock, Wilson also added to it half of the 27 MG Battalion of the NZ Division, together with a range of artillery units, including the British 2 Royal Horse Artillery and the 64th Medium Regiment. The artillery element was then completed with the 19 Brigade’s own 2/3rd Field Regiment and, to cope with the expected German tanks, a divisional unit from Mackay’s 6th Division, the 2/1st Anti-Tank Regiment. In charge of the whole operation, Mackay devolved local command forward at Vevi to Brigadier G. A. Vasey of the 19 Brigade. On 9 April, Vasey got orders to hold the northern entrance to the Kleidi Pass, south of the tiny village of Vevi, for as a long as possible, so that the rest of W Group could prepare a position on the Aliakmon River and the defiles around Mount Olympus.

What Vasey lacked was tanks. Wilson, who had driven the tank expert Percy Hobart out of the British army in 1939, showed his ignorance of armoured warfare on arrival in Greece by deploying his only tank unit — the 1st Armoured Brigade — as an old-fashioned cavalry screen. Rather than hold back its hitting power for the decisive moment, Wilson sent the 1st Armoured forward to the northern end of the Kozani Valley, where it was ‘given the role of holding the line of the River Vardar [Axios] with the object of delaying the enemy and covering the preparations for demolitions’. With this work done, the brigade withdrew into reserve under Mackay, albeit with its infantry battalion and artillery detached to Vasey, leaving just the tanks at the rear. This misuse of the only Allied armoured unit would prove disastrous.

Vasey would need all of the artillery Wilson gave him, because the German force approaching the Allies at Vevi was led by one of the most feared units of the Reich. To give his conquests an overt political flavour, many of Hitler’s attacks were led by units of the Waffen Shutzstaffeln — the fanatical SS. And so it was in Greece, where heading toward the Australians and their allies at Vevi was the premiere unit of the Waffen-SS, the Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, then a brigade-sized formation and, later, expanded to a full division. This would be the only time in the whole of the Second World War that Australian troops were in action against these notorious Nazis.

Hitler’s ascension to power had been achieved by an adroit combination of credibility at the ballot box and force of arms on the streets, and it was the SS that played a leading role in the violence. Translated, schutzstaffeln means protection squads, and this was the literal role of the SS — to protect Hitler and other leading Nazis from the strong German communist movement, and to advance Nazi aims where violence was needed to achieve them. Yet as Nazi political strength grew, so too did tensions within the movement. Along with Hitler, Ernst Röhm was a founding member of the Nazis, and indeed had mentored Hitler while the latter was still a corporal in the defeated German army in 1919. Under Röhm’s leadership, the SA (Sturmabteilung), or ‘Brown Shirts’, developed as the Nazi Party’s paramilitary wing but, throughout the 1920s, Röhm and Hitler squabbled over its control and mode of operation. To Hitler, the Brown Shirts were a sub-component of the larger Nazi organisation, and therefore subject to its political needs and strategy. For Röhm, the SA was a means by which the spirit of German militarism could be kept alive, so that when the German army was freed from the restrictions of the Treaty of Versailles, a mass army would be readily at hand; at that moment, the SA would be merged into the Wehrmacht, the regular army.

Röhm’s ideas alarmed the generals, which at this stage of his career Hitler could ill-afford. As political differences over the role of the SA intensified, Hitler’s need for a paramilitary counter-weight grew, something he found in the expansion of the Nazi bodyguard organisation. As the violent spearhead of Nazism, Heinrich Himmler’s SS embodied its most fundamental beliefs. First was an unquestioning commitment to the Fuhrerprinzip — loyalty to the leader. When Hitler’s personal bodyguard unit was reorganised in November 1933 as the Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler, its members swore an appropriate oath: ‘We swear to you Adolf Hitler, loyalty and bravery. We pledge to you and to the superiors appointed by you, obedience unto death. So help us God.’

Second, the SS practised the anti-Semitic racism on which Hitler built his wider political program. Qualification requirements for the Leibstandarte therefore included not only rigorous physical requirements (a minimum height of five feet eleven inches), but also a genetic test — ‘pure Aryan blood’ dating back to 1800 for the enlisted men, and a similarly pristine lineage to 1750 for officers. It was these fanatics who dealt with Röhm in the Night of the Long Knives on 30 June 1934, rounding up and murdering hundreds of SA leaders on Hitler’s orders. The commander of the Leibstandarte, Josef ‘Sepp’ Dietrich, played a prominent role in this gangland war. On Hitler’s express orders, he murdered the Munich leadership of the SA, including several former close comrades.

Still in command of the Leibstandarte, it was Dietrich who led the Germans into action at Vevi against Mackay Force. He had joined the Nazi Party in 1928, and rose rapidly through the ranks of the SS. Like many Nazis, he was a disillusioned veteran of the First World War. A highly experienced soldier, he helped pioneer storm-troop tactics, in which specially trained assault units were equipped with a combination of arms to achieve maximum firepower in breakthrough operations. Beside their revolutionary military doctrine, the development of these elite forces had ideological consequences that Dietrich would later personify. The storm-troopers were granted a range of special privileges, and a greater sense of egalitarianism existed between men and officers than prevailed anywhere else in the hide-bound army of the kaiser. The success of storm-troop tactics on the battlefield generated a joy of conquest that resulted in a ‘spiritual, almost mystical state of mind compounded by a profound contempt for the civilian world and bourgeois way of life’. Many storm-troopers, unable to adjust to civilian life, joined the Freikorps: right-wing vigilante groups formed by militant officers opposed to the Treaty of Versailles.

Schooled in this milieu, Dietrich had rounded out his military education with service in the first tank units of the German army in 1918. During the tumult of the German civil war in 1919, Dietrich served in the Bavarian police force. Far from keeping the peace, this was a bastion of far-right extremism that cooperated with, and protected, the various Freikorps brigades, which had slaughtered the German left in a series of street battles at the behest of the weak constitutional government newly established at Weimar. Having supped with the devil, the Weimar cabinet then found the Freikorps activists bent on a campaign of assassination against even themselves, including foreign minister Walter Rathenau, Germany’s munitions-production expert in the First World War. He was gunned down in 1922; in a sign of things to come for Germany, one of Rathenau’s ‘crimes’ was that he was Jewish. Dietrich was a fixture in this reign of terror. His services were in constant demand, and his pre-Nazi street-fighting career ended with a spell in the Reinhard Brigade, another Freikorps force established to repel a Polish attempt to occupy Upper Silesia. The success of that campaign in 1921 later became a standard in Nazi folklore. Coincidentally, Dietrich met Hitler for the first time that year.

Dietrich’s senior commanders at Vevi had much in common with him. The Nazi movement was built on lower-middle and working-class discontent, by men who had served Germany in the First World War, and who bitterly resented the failure of traditional, conservative German politics as represented by the Prussian, Junkers aristocracy. Casting around for a new political force to revive German nationalism, they found their leader in Hitler. Few had a university education, or occupied leadership positions in business or public administration — Nazism truly was a revolution of the corporals.

Before 1914, Dietrich was an apprentice in the hotel trade, and after the war he worked as a clerk and garage attendant. The commander of his reconnaissance unit, the Aufklärungsabteilung, was Kurt Meyer, the son of a factory worker — Meyer himself worked as a factory hand and miner, and was wounded in the First World War. In command of the Leibstandarte’s I Battalion was Fritz Witt. Too young to have seen service in the kaiser’s army, his civilian career in textile sales never rose to dizzy heights. In Germany, Witt’s generation was brought up in the shadow of wartime slaughter, and then felt the white heat of post-war economic catastrophe: their most popular cultural response was to recoil from the modern world, and to seek solace in return-to-nature movements. Idyllic perhaps, but a contemporary commentator observed of young Germans like Witt that ‘their most significant feature is their lack of humanity, their disrespect for anything human’. Witt would honour the epithet with horrifying commitment.

Like the Australian infantry at Vevi, the Leibstandarte already had extensive war experience, and through it gained a reputation for brutality and atrocity. In Poland, the Wehrmacht sought to have Dietrich court-martialled for atrocities against civilians, but the Nazi leadership solved that problem by removing the SS from the legal jurisdiction of the army. In the blitzkrieg campaign against France and the Low Countries, Dietrich’s men were again to the fore, driving rapidly into Holland and ending the campaign at Dunkirk. Faced there with stiffening British resistance, Dietrich narrowly avoided death when his car was ambushed by British machine-gunners. The men of the Leibstandarte responded to this affront by massacring 80 British prisoners outside the Belgian village of Wormhouldt. The SS mixed this kind of bestiality with extraordinary bravery under fire. In one of the few substantial British counterattacks in May 1940, Witt won Nazi Germany’s highest decoration, the Knights Cross, by taking on 20 Matilda tanks armed only with hand grenades.

The SS naturally took their military philosophy from the tenets of Nazi ideology. Hitler himself was anti-modern, in the sense that he valued the will to victory and selfless attack as supreme military virtues: he therefore disliked the machine-gun because it heralded the end of hand-to-hand combat. The mythic figure of an invincible Aryan warrior hurling himself at the enemy at all costs was at the heart of SS tactical doctrine. Personifying the point, Meyer later acquired the nickname ‘Speedy’ in the fighting in the Soviet Union, in honour of his propensity for lightning attacks, pressed home whatever the situation. The SS cultivated for themselves an image as latter-day Teutonic knights whose duty in life was to preserve German blood from contamination by Semites, Slavs, and communists. Publicity portraits of Dietrich, Meyer, Witt, and other SS ‘stars’ celebrated the Nazi enthusiasm for martial pageantry, a propaganda role they revelled in. Witt in particular was known as an immaculate dresser who took great pains with the arrangement of his SS regalia and decorations, a celebrity image completed by his frequent companion — a pet German shepherd, Bulli.

Paradoxically, despite the Nazi indifference to technology as a determinant of battle, the SS enjoyed the use of some superb equipment in the first half of the war. Despite massive rearmament in the 1930s, German munitions production was still quite limited between 1940 and 1941, forcing the Nazis to concentrate their best weapons in a handful of units. This turned their army into something of an anachronistic spear, with a mechanised, twentieth-century tip and a nineteenth-century horse-drawn shaft. The Leibstandarte and the panzer divisions were definitely at the sharp end and, due to the excellence of German science and engineering, went to Vevi with outstanding equipment. Their automatic infantry weapons, the MP38 machine pistol and the MG34 machine-gun, combined mechanical reliability with light weight and high rates of fire — the MG 34 fired at twice the rate of the British Vickers, but weighed only half as much. For battlefield mobility, the SS could call on the SdK 251 armoured personnel carrier, which had no rival in British ranks. A ‘half track’, the SdK 251 had normal truck wheels at the front, and tracks like a tank at the rear. This married truck-like speed with the cross-country performance of a tank. Atop this chassis was an armour shell, which allowed the SdK 251 to carry its section of ten infantrymen into battle on all terrains with the benefit of armoured protection.

For close-fire support, the Leibstandarte had the StuG III assault gun, a kind of turret-less tank. A brute of a machine, with its pushed-in nose the StuG III looked uncannily like a bull terrier, and for good reason — both were designed for close-quarter combat. Erich Manstein, the officer whose brilliant plans were the basis of the German campaign against France, developed the StuG III in the mid-1930s, looking for an uncomplicated armoured vehicle that could provide support to infantry in attacks on defended positions. He achieved his goal by removing the turret from a standard tank and installing a 75-millimetre gun into the body of the vehicle itself. Brought up close to fortified positions, it simply blasted a way through for German troops; with its heavy armour, the StuG III was invulnerable to the standard two-pound anti-tank gun of the British armies (a gun named for the weight of the shell it fired). The Leibstandarte had a battery of StuG III assault guns at Vevi; for anti-tank and anti-aircrarft artillery, the SS had batteries of the dual purpose 88-millimetre gun, an outstanding weapon that would dominate battlefields until 1945.

In using these fearsome weapons, the SS also benefited from the revolution in German tactical doctrine that had taken place between the wars. Whereas the British, content with their victory in 1918, reverted to tradition and neglected the innovative possibilities of armoured warfare, German officers like Heinz Guderian took up the lessons of the first tank actions and theorised a totally new way of waging war. Central to this thinking was not so much the tank in isolation, but the combination of all arms around the tank. Guderian understood that infantry now needed to move at the same pace and with the same protection as the tank, to accompany it into battle and deal with its enemies — anti-tank and field artillery. Likewise, artillery needed to be mechanised, so that it, too, could go where the tank could. The point of this combination was not to batter against the enemy’s strongest fortifications, in repetition of the Somme and Verdun, as the British anticipated with their Matilda tanks. Instead, Guderian and his disciples sought out the line of least resistance. A breakthrough at the weakest point of the enemy line would then allow the fast-moving armoured columns to penetrate to, and destroy, the heart of modern armies — their supply and command organisation. Even with the quality of their equipment, it was these doctrinal advances that gave the German army its advantage over its British rival in the first half of the war.

These differences in military philosophy extended to how the aeroplane should be used over the modern battlefield. Apart from the SS, the Luftwaffe was the German armed service most imbued with Nazi politics. Germany had been banned from forming a military air service by the Treaty of Versailles, and it was the Nazis who publicly resuscitated a German air force. Even by then, however, the German army had conducted a rigorous analysis of air tactics and doctrine during the 1920s, and even formed a clandestine air wing, using a rented base in the Soviet Union as a training venue. While the British and Americans spent the inter-war years pursuing the fantasy of ‘independent’ strategic bombing as a war-winning weapon, the Germans emphasised the aeroplane’s use as an assault and reconnaissance weapon on the battlefield itself (one British air force officer, who wrote a pre-war book which argued that the bomber was not a battlefield weapon, remarked with some chagrin after the Luftwaffe’s efforts in the Battle of France that he was now being ‘considerably ragged’ for it).

Each of the German panzer divisions in Greece commanded their own aircraft reconnaissance squadron; and, of course, blitzkrieg itself was indistinguishable in the popular imagination from the dive-bombing raids of the bent-winged ‘Stukas’, the Junkers 87s, which blasted defensive positions right in front of attacking troops. The doctrinal superiority of German air-support tactics was then infinitely compounded by the sheer weight of aircraft they could put into Greek skies.

In Bulgaria, for the close support of the invading German army, was Fliegerkorps VIII with 414 aircraft; further back, in Austria and Rumania, Luftflotte 4 had a further 576 aircraft available. Even these formations did not exhaust the German riches; in Sicily was Fliegerkorps X with another 168 aircraft, which was already being used to interdict Allied sea routes, operations crowned by the obliteration of Pireaus. The British, by contrast, had to split their Mediterranean airpower between North Africa and Greece, where they could deploy just ten squadrons, most of them based on airfields around Athens, with a nominal strength of 72 twin-engined Blenheim bombers, 36 modern Hurricane fighters, and even 18 antique Gloster Gladiators biplanes, which were little different in design, construction, and armament from a First World War fighter. Small wonder that Australian and New Zealand veterans remarked that in the three weeks of fighting in Greece, they scarcely saw any friendly aircraft overhead.

Blocking a Blitzkrieg: the battle of Vevi, 10–13 April 1941 Part II

The well-equipped and highly motivated fanatics of the SS descended on Vevi with great speed. In countering them, Vasey’s problems at Vevi were prodigious: the Allied position lacked both depth and fixed defences, the weather was poor, and many of his units were tired from the route marches needed to get to the front. A regular soldier, George Alan Vasey had served as an artillery officer and brigade major in the first AIF. Between the wars, he graduated from the Indian army’s staff college at Quetta, and then served on exchange for two years with the Indians. Leadership at Vevi would be Vasey’s first brigade command, after he spent the Libyan campaign on the staff of 6th Division. He came to the 19 Brigade in curious circumstances. Brigadier Horace Robertson, who led the unit through the desert fighting, concluded well in advance that the Greek campaign would be a disaster. He took the opportunity to repair to hospital for treatment on his varicose veins to avoid being associated with it, hoping for more propitious command opportunities in the future. His strategic acumen was commendable, but his career planning less successful: it would be 1945 before Robertson got another combat command.

In these slightly unseemly circumstances, Vasey stepped into Robertson’s place. Described as ‘highly strung, thrustful, hard working’, Vasey would need all of these personal qualities, and more. Upon arriving in the area, Vasey found his force bolstered by only two Greek units — the 21 Regiment and the Dodecanese Regiment, the latter manned by troops from the Aegean islands. These formations were typical of the Greek army: individually brave, but poorly equipped, often with antique rifles that pre-dated even the First World War, and supplied not by railway or truck, but by mule trains.

At Vevi, the Monastir Valley narrows into a pass that traverses the higher country to the south. It was, in effect, the side door to the whole of Greece for the invading Germans. The village of Vevi itself was like many other hamlets in the Greek high country: a cluster of stone houses and dirt roads, snow-bound in winter. In ancient times, forests clad the mountains, home to abundant game and even big cats now long-extinct on the European mainland, but thousands of years of human habitation had stripped the ranges of timber, leaving the uplands completely denuded. Vevi stood at the head of the pass, through which passed a railway line and road, running in parallel to the south.

To guard the barren ranges around the pass, Vasey was forced to string his units out over a line that he estimated to be 13 to 15 kilometres in length. The map distance was one thing, but the mountainous country compounded the defence problem because it was so liable to infiltration. Vasey did at least have some engineering capacity to work with. A detachment of the 2/1st Field Company arrived on-site at 7.00 a.m. on 9 April, and immediately began work. Three roads entered Vevi, from the north-west, north-east, and the south: each was cratered by explosive charges. Sergeant Johnson later reported on how these roadblocks were prepared:

[W]e set to work with bar and hammer. After jumping two holes approximately 4 feet deep, a stick of gelignite with fuse and det was placed in each hole to bull chamber sufficient for each charge. After getting holes ready for charge, we placed approximately 50 lbs of gelignite in each of two charges and blew the crater by 10.00 hours. This showed a crater of approximately 8 feet deep and approximately 16 feet wide. After directing a stream of water that was coming from the village into the crater, we built a stone wall as a tank stop approximately 5 feet high and 30 feet long.

The railway was also blown, once on the outskirts of Vevi and again at the head of the pass, where a small bridge was demolished. The 2/1 Field Company completed its work by laying fields of anti-tank mines: the largest of them south-west of Vevi, another at the head of the pass behind the railway–road demolition, and a third within the pass. Smaller minefields were also laid on the eastern flank, along roads leading into Petrais and Panteleimon.

While the engineers had heavy equipment to help them, the infantry struggled on the high ground to prepare weapon pits in the rock-hard mountain slopes. On the extreme left was the Greek 21 Regiment and, next to them on a four-mile front, the 2/4th Battalion. In the centre, Vasey placed the 1/Rangers, just south of Vevi village and astride the road in the bottom of the valley, buttressed by the 2/1st Anti-Tank Regiment. On the crucial high ground to the east of the British (Point 997) was the 2/8th Battalion; on their right, the Dodecanese held a long line right up to the shores of Lake Vegorritis. At the southern end of the pass, Vasey deployed his artillery, coordinated by observation posts on the forward hills. Vasey kept his considerable artillery force under a centralised command, and had the good fortune to have with him for this role the commander of the 6th Division’s artillery, Brigadier Edmund Herring. Behind this thin line was the British 1st Armoured Brigade at Sotir, less its infantry and artillery. Even this small tank force was then split in two: the cruiser tanks of the 3rd Royal Tank Regiment were with Charrington at Sotir, but the light tanks of the 4th Hussars were a further 50 kilometres south, at Proastin. Vasey positioned his own force headquarters to the west of the Vevi road, under trees near the village of Xynon Neron.

The first unit to go into position was the 1/Rangers; the 2/4th Battalion, the 2/1st Anti-Tank, and the New Zealand machine-gunners followed on the morning of 9 April. The 2/4th moved up onto the high ground to the west during the day, only for its men to spend the night digging three separate positions as they were moved about the hills. Conditions were cold and miserable: Lieutenant Claude Raymond of the battalion’s signals unit resorted to singing Christmas carols to keep up the spirits of his men.

To his Australian and British infantry, Vasey added the firepower of the Kiwi machine-gunners from 1 and 2 companies, the 27 MG Battalion. This unit had been broken up to distribute the available Vickers guns, and while one half went to Vevi, the other, made up of 3 and 4 companies, buttressed the 5 NZ Brigade at Olympus Pass. The 27 MG Battalion was a model of imperial defence, not just for the flawed organisational doctrine it represented, but for the way the constituent parts of the empire came together within it: Kiwi crews manning British-designed guns, manufactured at the Australian Small Arms Factory at Lithgow, New South Wales.

Operating to a shared doctrine, these machine-gun battalions could in theory go where they were most needed — while the Australian 2/1st MG Battalion reinforced New Zealand infantry at Servia Pass, the Kiwi machine-gunners did the same for Vasey’s men at Vevi. These units could also be broken down into their constituent companies to reinforce a position where a full battalion could not be employed — thus, while two companies of the 27 MG Battalion went to Vevi, its 3 and 4 companies stiffened the New Zealand brigade holding the passes at Mount Olympus. Less satisfactory was the assumption that units could be broken up and distributed as required, and retain their cohesion under the stresses of battle when these sub-units fought alongside strangers.

At Vevi, the Kiwi machine-gunners were deployed mostly through the line on the left held by the 2/4th Battalion, and further west by the Greek 21 Regiment. In the centre, only two sections were in position to help the Rangers — Lieutenant W. F. Liley, a 26-year-old platoon commander from New Plymouth, thought the English infantry were ‘extremely thin on the ground’, estimating that ‘some sections were 50 yards apart’.

The Germans first tested this fragile defence line on the night of 9 April. The 1/Rangers reported that a platoon on patrol had been missing since 8.30 p.m. on 9 April, and a sentry in forward position was killed later in the night. Sappers of the 2/1 Field Company, waiting to blow another demolition to be timed with the approach of the Germans, bore witness to this first contact with the SS. Sergeant Johnson again reported:

At exactly five minutes past twelve (10 April), we were awakened by the sound of shooting and sentries whistles. On investigating, we were met with the sight of one of the sentries killed. He had gone forward to investigate and challenge a party of seven dressed in Greek uniforms. They all seemed to get around him, and he was trying to explain to them that no-one was allowed to go past him. Suddenly, two of the patrol fired. They turned out to be Germans and fifteen .303 and eight .38 bullets were fired at point blank range. We searched the locality but could find no sign of the party. At approx. 01.30 hrs, we heard a motor start and a car go off in the direction of the German lines.

The inexperience of the 1/Rangers evident in these first exchanges with the ruthless SS did not augur well, but the front was still fluid, allowing a New Zealand armoured-car patrol to go forward into Yugoslavia on 10 April. The day was cold and wet when Lieutenant D. A. Cole led three Marmon Herrington cars north toward Bitolj with orders to destroy a stone bridge, a mission that resulted in the first award for valour in the 2nd NZEF. Finding their bridge south of Bitolj, Cole covered the demolition work, and sent further forward the car commanded by Corporal King as a point guard.

The New Zealanders had hardly begun laying their charges when they were interrupted by the arrival of a column of the Leibstandarte. To hold up the Germans for as long as possible, King boldly advanced and challenged their fire, for which he received the Military Medal, only to be killed a week later in an air attack. Even with the bravery of King and his crew, Cole could not complete the demolition as the German fire intensified: ‘the enemy were using explosive bullets and the outsides of the cars were rapidly getting stripped of such things as bedding and tools’. Conditions inside the Marmon Herringtons were also decidedly uncomfortable, as German rounds pinged against the armour plates, dislodging the asbestos insulation and covering the crews in a fine dust. In danger of being overwhelmed, Cole got his cars together and sped away before the bridge could be blown; by way of compensation, he burnt two wooden bridges as the New Zealanders made good their escape to the south. They were not yet home, however: coming to a Yugoslav village, Cole found a German detachment already in occupation. Gunning the big cars, the New Zealanders sped through the village, firing as they went, and returned safely to Allied lines.

The size of the German column heading south had already come to the attention of the RAF, and during 10 April the infantry on the high ground around Vevi at least had the satisfaction of watching friendly bombers attack the approaching German columns. During these raids, a British Hurricane fighter was shot down by the Germans. As an integrated all-arms formation, the Leibstandarte was well equipped with automatic 37-millimetre anti-aircraft cannon, deadly to low-flying aircraft. The British pilot, Flight Lieutenant ‘Timber’ Woods, crash-landed his fighter in no-man’s-land, and was brought back into friendly lines by a patrol from the 2/4th Battalion led by Lieutenant K. L. Kesteven (Woods was killed in action over Athens later in the month, in the last great air battle to defend the Greek capital).

The Germans coming up to Vevi were also harassed by Allied artillery fire: Captain G. Laybourne Smith of the 2/3rd Field Regiment was pleased with his battery’s work in laying fire onto Germans debussing on the plain, directing the shoot from his observation post in the hills. The artillery fire was not the only obstacle facing the SS. Leading the German column approaching Vevi was Untersturmfuhrer Franz Witt, younger brother of the commander of I Battalion: his car hit a mine laid by the 2/1st Field Company. Despite efforts to aid him, Franz died of his wounds; on the eve of the battle, a visibly distressed Fritz viewed his younger brother’s body laid out in a Greek house.

Throughout 10 April, the 2/8th Battalion struggled to get forward. Having been trucked as far as Xynon Neron (hampered by refugee traffic, the last 96 kilometres took six hours to traverse), the 2/8th had a 25-to-30-kilometre route march over broken country to take up its position. It only reached its objective, Point 997, in the evening gloom at 6.00 p.m. The unit’s medical officer was horrified by the condition of the troops, a fifth of them new recruits, insufficiently hardened for the campaign. As the men climbed up Point 997, some even began to suffer from altitude sickness. Snow and mist compounded the misery of the Australians. When they finally began digging in, they found the ground to be mostly rock; with their light entrenching tools, they were unable to excavate weapon pits of any depth. To afford some protection to their firing positions, they threw up sangars (another term taken from the Libyan campaign, describing a firing position formed by building a stone wall on top of the ground) as best they could. Finally, the 2/8th discovered that the Bren-gun carriers, which should have given them all-terrain capability, were useless in the conditions. Standing only 1.5 metres tall, and with a modest 65-horsepower motor, the gun carriers had insufficient ground clearance for the sodden earth in the bottom of the valley, or the power to climb the hills above. They were soon bogged in mud once they left the main Kleidi–Vevi road. This meant that the men were unable to bring forward hot food, which further dented morale.

The hasty assembly of the defending force showed in myriad ways, one of the more comical being the arrest by Greek police of Lieutenant Colonel J. W. Mitchell, a Melbourne company director and now CO of 2/8th Battalion — the suspicious local constabulary thought the Australian colonel was a spy.

The defenders endured yet another snowfall during the night of 10 April, equipped only with greatcoats and blankets, sustained by hardtack and bully beef. In the cold and snow, the two sides fought further patrol actions, and the result for the Allies was not propitious. A German force of about 20 men infiltrated the centre-right of Mackay Force and, confusing their opponents by calling out in good English, captured 11 New Zealanders, six Rangers, and six men of the 2/8th Battalion. Fire-fights then broke out in front of the foremost element of the 2/8th Battalion, the 14 Platoon, entrenched on the forward slope of Point 997. In this confused action, two wounded SS men were taken prisoner, and from their insignia the Australians first learnt that the Leibstandarte was in the line against them. The more lightly wounded German was removed to Corps Headquarters near Elasson, where he was interrogated by Private Geoffery St Vincent Ballard, a German-speaking signaller with the 4 Special Wireless Section. Sitting on the tailgate of a truck, Ballard struck up a conversation with ‘Kurt’, established he was from Berlin, and gathered from him some ‘low-level information’ about the composition and role of the Leibstandarte.

The eleventh of April opened with a blizzard, and the Allied troops were united in their misery. The New Zealand machine-gunners had spent the night in sodden gunpits, their boots waterlogged. In the morning, they even found several guns frozen and unable to fire. Conditions on the higher ground occupied by the Australian infantry were more difficult again: the 2/8th Battalion, at least, finally found a use for their cumbersome and despised anti-gas capes, which helped to keep the men dry. Regardless of this modest protection, men began to drop out with frostbite.

At six o’clock that morning, Dietrich issued his divisional orders, forming a kampfgruppe (battle group) around his I Battalion by adding to it artillery reinforcements and StuG III assault guns, and by instructing the grieving Fritz Witt to push on to Kozani through the Kleidi Pass. In an attempt to fulfil those orders, 7 Company of I Battalion pushed through Vevi village and launched an assault on Point 997 from 7.30 p.m.: the attempt was abandoned due to inadequate artillery support and the gathering darkness. The 2/4th Battalion on the left also reported defeating a heavy attack at this time, and a number of Allied units reported that, in the course of the fighting, two German ‘tanks’, undoubtedly the assault guns, had been disabled on minefields. It would seem from German records that what the Anzacs in fact observed was merely the withdrawal of these vehicles, as Kampfgruppe Witt abandoned its efforts for the day. Vasey duly reported to Mackay at 9.50 p.m. that he had the ‘situation well in hand’.

Nevertheless, the Germans were obviously gathering their strength for a decisive assault on the Allied position. The hard-driving Vasey, clearly appreciating the difficulties facing his men, demanded that they not shirk the issue. He issued an order of the day on the evening of 11 April that said much about his own blunt character: ‘You may be tired,’ he acknowledged, ‘you may be uncomfortable. But you are doing a job important to the rest of our forces. Therefore you will continue to do that job unless otherwise ordered.’

Mitchell, in command of 2/8th Battalion, followed up Vasey’s exhortation and ordered that no member of the unit leave his post from 9.00 p.m. An hour later, the Germans attempted their infiltration trick again, complete with cultured English voices, but on this occasion were met by an alert 14 Platoon that responded with heavy fire. In their unit diaries, the Germans noted the nervousness in the Allied line — any noise during the night was met by a barrage of artillery fire; indeed, the 2/3rd Field Regiment later acknowledged that it spent much of the night firing into a hillside on a false alarm that German tanks had penetrated the pass. Such incidents might seem comical in retrospect, but they also eroded Allied strength: earlier on the 11 April, a squadron of precious cruiser tanks from the 1st Armoured Brigade was despatched from the reserve at Sotire to investigate a report that German tanks were sweeping around the extreme right, along Lake Vegorritis. They found nothing in the barren snow-clad hills, and managed only to disable six of their cruiser tanks when their tracks broke on the rough ground.

By 12 April, the Mackay Force units had nearly accomplished their task, and indeed had orders to begin withdrawing from 5.30 p.m. that evening. Unfortunately, that planned withdrawal was upstaged by the long-heralded German attack. At 6.00 a.m., Dietrich gave his men their final orders: Witt was to punch through the Allied centre and advance on Sotir; a second assault force drawn from the 9th Panzer Division, recently arrived on the scene (Kampfgruppe Appel), would flank the Allied left through Flambouron; and on the Allied right, another impromptu formation from the Leibstandarte, Kampfgruppe Weidenhaupt, would attack Kelli. Meyer’s reconnaissance battalion was ready to exploit any breakthrough, and the Leibstandarte’s assault-gun battery was moved in behind Witt to force the issue.

The decisive action between the Allies and the SS was now at hand. In the bottom of the valley, helping to guard the two-pound guns with the 2/1st Anti-Tank Regiment, was Kevin Price, manning a Bren gun. The first thing that warned Price of the impeding battle was the noise — mechanised warfare brought with it the hum and roar of thousands of petrol engines: ‘We could hear the sound, this tremendous roar as they came down the road, with their tanks and weapons, their motor bikes were out in front, they were testing where we were dug in.’ Shortly after eight in the morning, up on the high ground to the right, Bob Slocombe and the rest of the 14 Platoon, 2/8th Battalion, were getting their first hot meal for days. This welcome breakfast, however, was interrupted by German shelling, and the SS infantry followed in hard behind.

In this foremost Australian position, the 14 Platoon was quickly in trouble. Slocombe remembers his platoon commander, 20-year-old Lieutenant Tommy Oldfield, trying to rally his troops, drawing his service revolver, and moving gamely into the open. A more experienced soldier, Slocombe yelled, ‘For Christ’s sake, Tommy, come back.’ But it was too late, and Oldfield was cut down in this, his first action. As the official historian recorded, Oldfield had enlisted at eighteen, been commissioned as an officer at nineteen, and was now dead at twenty. Even with these heroics, the 14 Platoon was in grave jeopardy, and a number of sections were overrun. Slocombe himself fought his way out to the safety of a reverse slope, where with 17 or 18 others he helped to hold up the Germans until mid-afternoon.

Slocombe’s temper would probably not have been helped had he known that, at 11.50 a.m., headquarters of the 6th Division recorded the action being fought on Point 997 as a ‘slight penetration’ of the defences. The staff of higher command had their minds elsewhere at the time, being deep in conference with Colonel Pappas, a staff officer with the Central Macedonian army, on how the withdrawal of the Dodecanese on the right might be achieved. Without trucks, the Greeks faced the prospect of leaving behind 1200 wounded. The Australians did not always excel at the diplomacy needed to manage relations with their allies: on this occasion, they were clearly frustrated by the scale of the problem presented to them by Pappas; at 1.00 p.m., Mackay finally issued orders to make 30 three-ton lorries available to the Dodecanese. The wounded soldiers whom the trucks could not carry would apparently have to march out, or face capture.

Although headquarters might have been sanguine, the loss of the forward slope of Point 997 had much more profound and unfortunate consequences for the 19 Brigade. In the valley, the 1/Rangers were effectively fighting alongside strangers, having been removed from their familiar role as the infantry element in a tank brigade. The English soldiers, seeing the 14 Platoon in trouble, thought their right had been turned, and began pulling back. In reality, the fighting that morning on Point 997 was only a patrol action, in conformity with Dietrich’s orders that vigorous patrols be sent out prior to the main attack scheduled for 2.00 p.m. However, to exploit any success by these patrols, Dietrich ordered that ‘wherever the enemy shows signs of withdrawing, he is to be followed up at once,’ and the dislodging of the 14 Platoon encouraged the Germans to continue to press the Australians.

Thus, even though the main assault was still being prepared, the German success on Point 997 prompted further local attacks to exploit the opening. Mitchell soon found both B and C companies, on his left, in trouble: he launched a counterattack mid-morning, borrowing a platoon from A Company, on the right, for the purpose, and supported it with covering fire from D Company, in the centre. This had some success, regaining part of the high ground, and the position of the 2/8th was stabilised, at least for the moment.

Down in the valley, however, the withdrawal of the 1/Rangers went on unabated. An officer of the 27 NZ MG Battalion, Captain Grant, the OC 1 Company, attempted to persuade the English infantry to hold their position, without success. Manning his Bren gun, Kevin Price remembers the British infantry streaming past the Australian anti-tank gunners. The withdrawal of the Rangers left these guns, along with the outposts of the New Zealand machine-gunners, without infantry support, and therefore in danger of being overrun. The only option for the gunners was to pull out. Unfortunately, five of the precious two-pounders could not be extricated from the mud in time, and had to be abandoned. By midday, the shaky line of the 2/8th Battalion on the heights on the right formed a large salient, as the Allied centre gave way down the pass; and, on the extreme right, the Dodecanese crumpled in the face of the advance by Kampfgruppe Weidenhaupt.