The RAAF campaign in the south-west Pacific began from 7 December 1941 until 15 August 1945. When Japan entered the war, the RAAF like the rest of the military, was wrong-footed. It had precious few squadrons scattered throughout the island archipeligos to the north.
Most of the enlisted and training strength of the RAAF was either in Europe / the Mediterranean, or at various points in the training continuum of the Empire Air Training Scheme, the aim of which was to prepare and train aircrew to enable RAF operations in NW Europe.
The few RAAF Squadrons in Malaya were the first to face the Japanese onslaught.
No.1 Squadron, operating Lockheed Hudson patrol bombers managed to sink two Japanese transport ships off Kota Baru as the invasion fleet arrived in the early hours of 7 December 1941. No. 1 Squadron was driven south as Japanese air supremacy was quickly imposed. No. 453 Squadron equipped with obsolete Brewster Buffalo fighters, was shot out of the sky or destroyed on the ground. No. 2 Squadron, also equipped with Hudsons was harried across the Indonesian archipeligo. No. 24 Squadron was forced to flee Rabaul in their Hudsons in the face of a Japanese carrier task force (the same one which had attacked Pearl Harbour). Catalina Flying Boats began extracting key personnel and anyone who could fit on them for the slow and hazardous jouney home.
Readers are invited to view the attached You Tube links "Beaufighter - Whispering Death - The Forgotten Warhorse" - although focussed ostensibly on the role of Bristol Beaufighter aircraft it gives a good synopisis of the SW Pacific air war. The other clip " 44 Days - 75 Squadron's defence of Port Moreseby" gives a detailed account of the desperate measures taken to provide air cover for the bastion of Port Moresby in the darkest days of the defence of New Guinea.
With a host of aircrew training units and the associated support and logisitics units in place, Australia was well placed to generate aircrews. What was lacking was aircraft that could take on the Japanese with better than a faint hope of survival.
In the immediate term, the RAAF went to war with what it had - which was not much.
Desperate requests were relayed to the British, although it was apparent they were overwhelmed with their own problems and had nothing to spare. Similarly the Americans with their Pacific Fleet a smoking ruin in Pearl Harbour, were now setting their minds to the task of equipping and manning a Pacific war effort although they had simultaneously declared war on Germany, where it was agreed the main effort would go first.
The RAAF gained some initial respite with consignments of aircraft intended for the Dutch in their colonial outpost in modern day Indonesia, diverted instead to Australia as the Dutch defences collapsed. Included among these were modern Douglas A20 Boston light bombers, North American B-25 Mitchell medium bombers, Curtiss P40 Kittyhawks which were to become the mainstay of the RAAF Pacific fighter force, and small numbers of Bell P39 Airacobra aircraft and Consolidated PBY Catalina flying boats.
Arrangements were also in train to build aircraft locally; the Bristol Beaufort patrol bomber, and later its very lethal derivative, the Bristol Beaufighter strike aircraft and just before war's end the superb deHavilland Mosquito fighter bomber.
In the absence of any more fighters on the horizon, the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation undertook a design and build of the Boomerang fighter. It was to be based on the Wirraway, itself a derivative of a training aircraft, the North American T6 Texan known in British Commonwealth service as the Harvard. The CAC succeeded getting a prototype in the air in the ridiculously short time frame of ten weeks. Although never a match for the Japanese Zero the Boomerang did go on to provide excellent service as a ground attack and Army Cooperation aircraft.
Spitfires were supplied by Britain but rough landing grounds and the Spitfire's relatively narrow track undercarriage meant many were lost in taxiing accidents. Their limited endurance was also a handicap and the need to fit the ungainly Volkes 'chin' air filters detracted from their performance. The Kittyhawk, with lesser peak performance, was more suited to the conditions and were the undisputed mainstay of the single-engined fighter wings.
The RAAF's Sunderland force remained in Britain engaged in the Battle of the Atlantic although a small detachment was sent out to Australia. It was the very long-range Consolidated PBY Catalina twin-engined flying boat that gave the RAAF reach in to Japanese held waters with the 'Black Cats' conducting mining operations, and other aircraft providing Air Sea Rescue capability.
RAAF Long Range bombing operations were the almost exclusive province of the US Consolidated B24 Liberator based out of northern Australia across the Dutch East Indies, augmented by North American B25 Medium Bombers in relatively small numbers.
By the end of the war, the RAAF with elements spread across Britain and the SW Pacific, was the fourth largest airforce in the world. It was a momentary event though, because the scrapper's torch was taken to its vast fleet of aircraft in very short order.
(C) Steve Larkins July 2014