In March 1942, the Japanese were at the gates to Australia. America was still getting its act together after Pearl Harbor, the Japanese had captured Rabaul and Lae in New Guinea (then an Australian territory), they staged constant air raids on strategically vital Port Moresby which had no aerial defence, and an invasion of Port Moresby, followed by Australia, seemed imminent. The RAAF had no front-line fighter aircraft to defend Port Moresby; its squadrons were either fighting with the British in North Africa or had been smashed by the Japanese in Malaya (now Malaysia) a few weeks earlier. In desperation, the RAAF got hold of some P 40 Kittyhawks from the US, threw in some green pilots just out of training school along with a very few veterans back from North Africa, christened it "number 75 Squadron RAAF",, then sent it to Port Moresby in late March 1942 with orders to hold the line against the rampaging Japanese. After 44 days of vicious air fighting and 12 pilots killed in action, the squadron was down to one serviceable Kittyhawk when it was finally relieved by US air units and withdrawn. So a legend was born.
Author Michael Veitch has written a gripping and fascinating account of 75 Squadron's trial by combat in Port Moresby in his recent book "44 Days: 75 Squadron and the Fight for Australia ". The
75 Squadron's adventures over Port Moresby are not unknown: David Wilson's 1991 book, "The Decisive Factor", recounts 75 Squadron's exploits at both Port Moresby and, later, Milne Bay; while a very entertaining, hour-long ABC TV documentary in 1993, presented by Geoffrey Robertson (yes, the famous one), and also called "44 Days", examined the episode and included fascinating face-to-face interviews with some of the surviving 75 Squadron members. (The documentary is available online; I watched it on YouTube just a week or so ago.) Yet Veitch feels the squadron's 44 days in Moresby are insufficiently known and celebrated and his eminently readable book is the result.
It wasn't just the Japanese that 75 Squadron had to contend with. The airfield at Moresby, known as the "7 mile strip" (today Jackson International airport), was primitive. No buildings, no hangers, no machine shops, no sanitation, gunsights that often didn't work, and radios that were problematic. Just tents, dysentery and tropical diseases, bad food, and, at least in the beginning, the pilots' almost total lack of battle experience.
The fighter flown by the Australians, the American P 40E Kittyhawk, was fast, rugged and well-armed, but could not dogfight the lighter, far more manoeuvrable, Japanese Mitsubishi Zero. When the enemy realised they were up against an Australian fighter squadron, they countered by increasing the number of fighter escorts for their bombers and bringing in a group of their most experienced, veteran fighter pilots. The air war became a grim struggle of attrition in which the outnumbered Australian pilots usually fought at a disadvantage.
The Australian squadron's CO, Squadron Leader John Jackson, a former grazier and businessman from Queensland who was an experienced fighter ace from North Africa and almost worshipped by his men, knew the Kittyhawk's limitations. He told his men: don't dogfight the Zero. Gain the height advantage, then dive on them, open fire, then zoom away out of danger, using the Kittyhawk's superior dive speed. Claire Chennault and the AVG had already worked this out in China. This tactic brought some success to Jackson's pilots, but annoyed senior Air Force brass in Moresby. They intimated to Jackson that refusal to dogfight Zeros might mean his men were cowards and not up to it. Stung, Jackson tried to implement these changes in late April 1942 – with tragic results.
Jackson's preferred tactics required enough warning to the pilots of an impending raid so they could gain the height advantage. Sadly, this only happened sometimes. On many occasions, the pilots didn't get enough warning. Veitch points out there was a radar station at Port Moresby – a point overlooked in some earlier accounts of the Port Moresby action – but it was plagued by technical faults and its range was limited by nearby mountains. Mostly, the squadron relied on a network of visual observers up-country, including the famous Coast Watchers, to give warning of approaching Japanese aircraft. Usually, this gave the squadron about 20 minutes to get airborne and gain height. It often wasn't long enough. As Veitch explains, many interceptions were carried out on the climb, with the Australian aircraft below the Japanese. This was one of the worst ways to initiate an air battle.
Also unlike some other accounts, Veitch doesn't paint the squadron as always a band of happy, united brothers-in-arms. There was some rivalry between the North African veterans and the newbies. Battle training and discussion of tactics was minimal; but then there often simply wasn't
But, as Veitch explains all too clearly, by the end of April the squadron was worn down to the point of being overwhelmed. Constantly outnumbered, constantly being bombed and strafed at the 7 mile, losing more men and aircraft than they could afford, number 75 was close to no longer being an effective fighting unit. Admittedly, they started to receive some support from dribs and drabs of American air power now starting to arrive in New Guinea. But it wasn't enough; too little, almost too late.
Number 75's nadir occurred on 28 April 1942. That day, John Jackson led a mere handful of remaining aircraft and pilots to intercept another air raid. He'd only been back at the squadron for several days, after an epic two-week trek overland from Lae where he had survived being shot down. On the 28th, it seems Jackson attempted to follow his superiors' orders, namely, mix it with the Zeros in dogfights. It was a disastrous failure. Jackson and another pilot were shot down. Both were killed. Once more, younger brother Les took over the squadron's command. A few days later, on the eve of the Coral Sea battle, number 75 was relieved by a couple of American pursuit squadrons. Over six weeks, the Australians hadn't done too badly: 18 Japanese aircraft destroyed in air combat and another 35 destroyed or damaged on the ground. However, 75 squadron's losses were high: 21 Kittyhawks destroyed and 12 pilots killed.
And so the survivors, with one remaining Kittyhawk, withdrew to Australia to refit and regroup before moving on to other campaigns.
Michael Veitch writes well. He narrates the story well, too. His style is not the dry, technical writing of the academician, nor the superficial, manipulative style of the journalist. His prose is direct and authoritative. He gives praise where it is due, criticism if he thinks it's justified, and shows sadness where necessary. Above all, he explains the situations number 75 found itself in, clearly and convincingly. In my time, I have read several accounts of number 75's 44 days over Port Moresby; the first one back in my childhood when I was starting to discover my romance with aviation. I found Veitch's book to be one of the most accessible and informative. Enjoyable even, if one can use that term to describe a tragedy.
The author laments the fact that the saga of the 44 days is not more generally known. He also laments the paucity of decorations handed out to the men of 75 squadron for their heroism over Port Moresby. They must rest content with the knowledge that they were perhaps the first Allied fighter force in the Pacific – and an Australian one at that – to give the Japanese air force a taste of its own medicine and to show that the invincible Zero was not invincible, if you used the right tactics. They held the line in the air over Port Moresby just long enough for the Americans to intervene in force.
Not a bad epitaph. I strongly recommend this book to anyone interested in the history of Australian military aviation.
PS: I have a slight, personal connection with the 44 days. Back in 1995, Australia went through a series of commemorations called "Australia Remembers", a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II. One of those events was a really good air show, including many warbirds, at Kingaroy airfield in Queensland. I attended it with a friend. One night at our motel in Kingaroy, we were having dinner. At the next table, there was a group of old veterans also dining. They looked familiar. I racked my brains trying to recall the connection. Then the penny dropped. The airshow was staged only a year or two after the ABC TV documentary "44 Days" had been screened, in which some of the surviving squadron members were interviewed. Lo and behold, the guys at the next table were some of those pilots! They were guests of honour at the airshow. I was fortunate enough to exchange a few words with one of them, Bill Deane-Butcher. He was the squadron's medical officer at Port Moresby, and figured prominently in the TV documentary. Deane-Butcher wrote his own memoir of those days and played a leading role in the squadron's affairs during those 44 days. After the war, he became a renowned eye specialist. By the time I encountered them in 1995, they were all old men in their late 70s or early 80s. Bill Deane-Butcher died over a decade ago. I don't know if any of the others are still alive, but at least I had the honour to meet some of them, however briefly.
My only other personal connection with those momentous events is much more indirect. Back in the 1980s, I knew a family on the Gold Coast who had lived close to Les Jackson. After a glittering career in the RAAF, he survived the war and retired to the Gold Coast in his later years. Yes , they informed me with indulgent smiles, even in his old age Les had still been eccentric, difficult, and too fond of a drink. Les Jackson died in 1980, nearly 40 years after his older brother had been killed trying to carry out his superiors' daft wishes.
Les may or may not have been eccentric, but at least he survived the war. So many of the “44 days” participants didn't.