History of the Spitfire
Spitfires over Australia
By Peter Malone
Its unmistakable lines created the most distinctive and recognizable aircraft silhouette of WWII. However, on August 25, 1942 its presence was so secret; it flew under the code name Capstan.
The Spitfire has celebrates over 60 years since the first flight of the Spitfire in Australia.
At R.A.A.F. Laverton Squadron Leader Ken James reached forward and pushed the starter and booster coil buttons. As the prop started to turn he vigorously worked the priming pump. One…. two…. three…. four blades, the engine coughed and then with a belch of exhaust smoke burst roughly into life. Soon the Merlin settled down into its familiar rough idle and staccato crackle from the exhausts. Ken released the buttons and stowed the primer pump as the engine warmed up. All the vital signs looked good – oil pressure and temperature in the green, coolant temperature well within limits, brake pressure up to 120 psi – time for the power and magneto checks.
Ken ensured that he had two men on the tail. He then opened up to maximum boost with weak cruising fuel mixture and exercised the constant speed propeller. No problems there. He then applied full throttle and checked that he was able to attain maximum take off power of 12 inches of boost at 3,000 rpm. Then, coming back to 7 inches of boost and 2,650 rpm, he cut each magneto in turn and observed the drop in revs. Less than 150; that’s OK. As he throttled back to idle he again checked temperatures and pressures. All were within limits. It was time to fly.
As he taxied out, Ken did his final checks. Trim, elevator one division nose down, rudder full right; flaps up; radiator shutter open; mixture rich; pitch fine. He turned on to the runway and slowly opened the throttle. Countering any tendency to swing with a boot-full of rudder, he held the Spitfire VC straight until, he gently lifted off the runway and retracted the undercarriage as the aircraft accelerated to 170 mph. As he pulled into the climb, the thought passed through Ken James’ mind that it was three months since he had last had the joy of flying a Spitfire. That had been half way around the world in the United Kingdom and he had been flying operations against another enemy. Now he was back in Australia to help save his homeland from the Japanese.
Two Australian Spitfire squadrons had been flying in Great Britain since the middle of 1941. Nos 452 and 457 Squadrons had been formed as Commonwealth squadrons operating within the RAF. Both had acquitted themselves extremely well in offensive fighter sweeps over France, No. 452 at one time being the top scoring squadron in Fighter Command. The pilots had flown against the Luftwaffe’s best pilots flying the latest Messerschmitt Bf-109s and the new Focke Wulfe Fw-190.
However, the war at home had been going badly for Australia. Following its surprise attack on Pearl Harbour, the Japanese military machine had swept down through Asia and the Pacific. Singapore fell and thousands of Australian troops were captured.
The RAAF’s fighter and bomber squadrons on the island were decimated. Other RAAF units in the South West Pacific that came up against the Japanese also suffered severe losses. The war reached Australia on 19 February 1942 when Imperial Japanese Navy aircraft twice raided Darwin. To say that the defenders were caught unprepared would be an understatement. Panic ensued. To make matters worse, the Japanese landed in the North of New Guinea.
The RAAF found itself unable to protect the country. It had no fighter aircraft at home, the general-purpose Wirraway being pressed into the role. The Australian Government appealed to its allies for fighters. The Americans, who were moving men and equipment South to counter the Japanese advance, were the first to provide assistance. They had large numbers of P-40E and P-40E-1 Kittyhawks being landed in Australia but had insufficient pilots to man them. Enough aircraft were made available for the RAAF to form three Kittyhawk squadrons, Nos 75, 76 and 77. No. 75 was the first into action, taking its aircraft to New Guinea in March for a gallant defense of Port Moresby. However, the defense of Darwin still depended on the P-40Es of the USAAC’s 49thFighter Group, assisted after July by the Kittyhawks of 77 Sqn RAAF.
The Australian Government made strong representations to the British Government and, the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, agreed that three fully manned and equipped Spitfire squadrons would be sent to Australia. The two Australian squadrons, Nos 452 and 457, would return and would be accompanied by No. 54 Sqn, RAF. It was agreed that each squadron would initially be equipped with 16 Spitfire VC aircraft and would be supplied with attrition replacements of roughly five a month per squadron. These Spitfires would be drawn from the aircraft that were being prepared for overseas service at 47 and 215 Maintenance Units.
The Squadrons’ personnel embarked on the Stirling Castle at Liverpool and the convoy sailed on 20 June. Six of their Spitfires were carried on the StirlingCastle and the remainder on the Nigerstown. On 2 July the convoy put into Sierra Leone on the West coast of Africa and the Nigerstown’s aircraft were diverted to Takoradi in Ghana. They would be ferried East to Khartoum and then North to the Western Desert where they were urgently required. The remainder of the convoy, with only six Spitfires for three squadrons, sailed on to Australia, arriving in Melbourne, Victoria on 13 August.
The squadron personnel were all given three weeks leave, apart from a small group of 54 Sqn ground crew who would remain at RAAF Laverton and assemble the six remaining Spitfires. All were warned that they were not to talk about Spitfires. The aircraft were given the code name Capstan, (a popular cigarette of the time), and their engines were to be known as Marvels!
The 54 Sqn personnel set about their task and uncrated, assembled and checked out the six aircraft at 1 Aircraft Depot, RAAF Laverton. The aircraft arrived in three crates.
The fuselage and the removed wings were in one, the tail unit in another and the engine in the third. Various fairings and fittings were distributed amongst the crates. Following much hard work, and application of not a little ingenuity, the ground crew had the first ‘Capstan’ ready for flight in late August. As related above Squadron Leader Ken James made the first Spitfire flight in Australia just before midday on the 25thAugust. He demonstrated the aircraft to an audience of assembled VIPs and film-camera men. After assembly the six aircraft were ferried up to RAAF Richmond, near Sydney, NSW.
A new wing, No. 1 Fighter Wing, was formed to manage the operations of the three squadrons. Group Captain A.L. ‘Wally’ Walters AFC, a highly respected permanent RAAF officer was appointed to command the RAAF’s first fighter wing. His Wing Leader was 21.5 victory ace Wing Commander Clive R Caldwell, a much-decorated veteran of the fighting in the Western Desert. No. 452 Squadron was commanded by Squadron Leader Ray ‘Throttle’ Thorold-Smith, No. 457 by Squadron Leader Ken ‘Skeeter’ James and 54 by Squadron Leader Eric ‘George’ Gibbs.
Although, nominally, the three squadrons were manned by experienced combat veterans this was not entirely true. No. 54 Squadron had mainly new personnel and its CO had little fighter experience, having recently been posted in from a general reconnaissance squadron. Both flight commanders, Bob Foster and Robin Norwood, were Battle of Britain veterans, however. No. 452 Squadron had seen intensive fighting between August 1941 and March 1942 and its CO, Squadron Leader Thorold-Smith, was credited with 8 victories. Several of 452 Squadron’s more experienced pilots, including then CO, ‘Bluey’ Truscott, had been posted back to Australia in early 1942 and now formed the nucleus of No.76 Kittyhawk squadron. Most of the replacement pilots had seen little or no combat. The balance was partly redressed with the posting in of Malta veterans, Tim Goldsmith and John Bisley, who would later become Flight Commanders.
No. 457 Squadron had commenced operations over France in March 1942, but was withdrawn at the end of May to return to Australia. Although the pilots of both squadrons had flown many operational hours over France, combat was relatively rare. The three most experienced pilots in 457 Squadron had been involved in combat only 12 times. The type of combat they were to experience over Australia’s North would be quite different, being defensive in nature rather than the long-ranging fighter sweeps they were used to. The enemy, his aircraft and his tactics would also be quite different.
The six Spitfires were ferried up to RAAF base Richmond where the wing had been formed. They were allocated two to each squadron, each of which also received two Wirraways and a Ryan ST-M trainer. This lack of aircraft was a major hindrance to training but the wing made the best of what it had. On 9 October, BR471, flown by Sergeant Michael Clifford of 452 Squadron crashed into the sea. This was the first Spitfire fatality in Australia, but the loss was also the pointer to a problem, which would cause the loss of more aircraft in the future.
The de Havilland constant-speed airscrew on the Spitfire VC suffered from oil leaks and had a propensity to overspeed, causing engine failure. This problem was never fully rectified and continued to plague the aircraft throughout its Australian service. Another Spitfire, (BR568), was damaged in a landing accident on the 27th, further reducing the aircraft available for training. The wing was desperately needed in the North, but until replacements for the aircraft repossessed by the RAF arrived, they lacked the feathers to fly.
The situation improved in October when three more ships arrived in Melbourne carrying a total of 64 Spitfires. These were quickly assembled at No. 1 Aircraft Depot, Laverton, and most were taken on the strength of No.1 Wing during November. The typical time from an aircraft arriving at No.1 AD, to its being delivered to No.1 Wing, was about three weeks, although some were delivered in about half this time. This was a minor miracle as it meant that the aircraft depot was assembling and checking out approximately two Spitfires a day. From this time, Spitfires arrived in Australia in a steady stream and it became possible to equip an Operational Training Unit and consider the establishment of yet another Spitfire Squadron. The RAAF would face no more problems with shortages of Spitfires.
In early November No. 452 Sqn moved to Bankstown and No. 457 took up residence at Camden. This prevented congestion at Richmond, where No. 54 Sqn remained, but the three squadrons were still close enough to practice wing exercises. Throughout December training proceeded at a furious pace. To add even more workload it was found necessary to re-camouflage the Spitfires. These had been prepared for overseas service before dispatch to Australia. As well as fitting engine dust filters, pressurized fuel systems and other mechanical improvements, the aircraft had been painted in the RAF specified camouflage scheme for overseas service. This consisted of the RAF colours Dark Earth and Middlestone on the upper surfaces and Azure Blue on the under surfaces.
These colours were deemed unsuitable for service in Australia’s far North where the predominant colours were green and brown. It was decided that the lighter of the two upper surface colours, Middlestone, would be overpainted with the RAAF colour Foliage Green. This entailed extra work for the harassed ground crews.
The move North to the Wing’s new operational area commenced as the New Year dawned. It had been six months since the squadrons had left England and the pilots had done little flying. Many had not flown an operational sortie for over nine months, and the new boys had no operational flying at all, but now they were to move up to Darwin to protect that city and the surrounding military installations from Japanese air raids.
The ground crews were taken north by ship and the air echelon commenced its move in the middle of January. The route was Richmond – Mildura – Oodnadatta – Alice Springs – Daly Waters – to Batchelor Airstrip, some 90 km South of Darwin. The Australian Spitfire squadrons were forced to wait for a few days at Batchelor until Nos 76 and 77 Squadrons had cleared the area. No. 452 Squadron then moved into Strauss Airstrip, about 43 km South of Darwin, and 457 took up residence at Livingstone Airstrip 55 km South of Darwin on 31 January, 1943. No. 54 Squadron had proceeded directly to the RAAF Darwin Aerodrome. (Also known as Nightcliff).
On 2 February a Japanese ‘Dinah’ reconnaissance aircraft was reported approaching Darwin. Several Spitfires from No. 54 Squadron scrambled, and Flight Lieutenant Bob Foster dispatched it into the Timor Sea just off Melville Island. No.1 Fighter Wing had its first victory and the Japanese had been denied photos of the presence of the Spitfires. It was somewhat in vain however, as the next day another ‘Dinah’ flew over the area unmolested.
The rest of the month slipped by and the anniversary of the first Darwin raid passed quietly. The Japanese were probably evaluating their intelligence to assess how many Spitfires the RAAF had in the Darwin area. On 2 March they made their move. This was Raid No. 52 in the Darwin area. According to noted historian, Christopher Shores, the attacking force consisted of nine Mitsubishi ‘Betty’ bombers escorted by some twenty Mitsubishi A6M Zero ‘Zeke’ fighters, although RAAF reports claim rather more bombers and also the presence of ‘Kate’ light bombers. The main force attacked the airstrip at Coomalie Creek where RAAF Beaufighters, which had been causing the Japanese considerable pain, were based. Nos 54 and 457 Squadrons each scrambled twelve aircraft. They were led by the Wing Leader, Caldwell, who had as his No. 2 Group Captain Walters. No. 457 Squadron did not make contact with the enemy but Caldwell and elements of No. 54 Squadron did. In the ensuing fight Caldwell was to claim one ‘Kate’ and one ‘Zeke and, Squadron Leader Gibbs a ‘Zeke’.
The Japanese were to claim three fighters, which they identified as Buffalos and P-39s, shot down. In fact neither side had suffered any loss!
No. 457 Squadron had their first success on the 7th when Flight Lieutenant Don Maclean and Flight Sergeant McDowell gave chase to Mitsubishi Ki-46 ‘Dinah’ reconnaissance aircraft and brought it down aflame into the sea.
On the 15th the wing managed its first full wing interception. The full story of this raid, (and all those that followed), is an article itself so won’t be covered in detail here. Suffice it to say that this interception drove home the communication and control problems that existed in Darwin and the lack of training for the squadrons in operating as a wing. The poor information that was fed to the pilots by fighter control, which in turn did not always receive accurate plots from the radar, was to be a major thorn in the side of the defending squadrons and it is remarkable that they achieved the level of success that they did.
At the end of the day the wing had lost four Spitfires and three pilots killed, including the CO of No. 452 Squadron, Ray Thorold-Smith. They claimed six fighters but no bombers destroyed and, one fighter and two bombers probably destroyed. Christopher Shore’s research indicates that the Japanese lost only one aircraft, a ‘Zeke’. In return their claims were for ten aircraft destroyed! These figures are presented not to belittle the efforts of the pilots, (on both sides), who fought in these battles, but to illustrate to the reader the difficulty of confirming ‘kills’ and identifying aircraft in the heat of battle.
The Darwin raids continued through to November 1943 with the Spitfires of No. 1 Wing rising to intercept most of them. It is doubtful that the Spitfires contributed greatly to the cessation of Japanese raids. This was probably due to major Japanese reverses in other areas and their need to move forces where they were most required to oppose the Allied advance. The Spitfires had probably demonstrated little more than parity with their Japanese foes in terms of aircraft destroyed or raids prevented, but their value in the boost to the morale of the Australian Forces and Public was inestimable.
A few more desultory Japanese flights were made over the Northern Territory, but these were generally by single aircraft, and the wing settled back into a mainly waiting game until they could be employed in the advance against the Japanese forces.
As the first three Spitfire squadrons were moving up to Darwin the Japanese were also re-enforcing their fortress on Rabaul. Admiral Yamamoto had taken command of the Japanese forces in the area and planned to destroy allied air power in New Guinea and the Solomons. The plan, known as Operation A, (I-Go Sakusen in Japanese), was indeed ambitious but, Yamamoto built his forces up to over 400 fighters and bombers. This placed considerable pressure on the allied air bases at Port Moresby and Milne Bay, which came under increasingly heavy air raids.
The allies had nine American and two Australian, (75 and 77 Squadrons), fighter squadrons in New Guinea. The Americans were beginning to replace their P-40s and P-39s with Lockheed’s P-38 Lightning. The latter proved to be an excellent long-range fighter, but it was not suited as an interceptor.
The P-39 and P-40 struggled on in the interceptor role but, unless an early warning was received, they had little chance of intercepting Japanese raiders. No.75 Squadron were still operating their P-40E Kittyhawks and No. 77 Squadron had upgraded to the P-40K. The –K model was lighter and had a little more power than the P-40E giving it a better climb rate, but it was still no match for the Japanese fighters. Above 15,000 feet, the Kittyhawk became sluggish and was easily outmaneuvered by the Zero. Its only advantage was its superior diving speed and acceleration, which enabled it to make hit and run attacks against the Zero, but the catch 22 was that it needed to be above the enemy formation to employ such tactics.
By the end of March 1943 some 135 Spitfires had been landed in Australia with another 50 expected by the middle of the year. There were now enough aircraft to equip a training unit and form a new squadron. In early December 1942 the Spitfire Flight was established at 2 Operational Training Unit, based at Mildura in Northern Victoria, and by the end of January it had eight aircraft on strength. The function of an OTU was to provide a continuous supply proficient aircrew for the operational squadrons. To this end it was required to operate the same type of aircraft that the operational units were using. In the course of approximately eight weeks the fledgling pilots were familiarized with and converted to their new mount and, then undertook a flying program to introduce them to the type of flying and operations they would experience when posted to an operational unit.
The flying was intensive and, due to its realistic nature, often hazardous. Attrition was high, for both man and machine. By the end of the war 2 OTU had trained over 1,200 pilots and had flown some 100,000 hours, quite an achievement!
In April 1943, the decision was taken to form another Spitfire squadron, No. 79, and send it to New Guinea to supplement the Kittyhawk Squadrons. It was officially formed at Laverton, Victoria on 26 April but was soon re-located to Wooloomanata, a Laverton satellite airstrip. Wooloomanata was in fact a sheep property with a beautiful bluestone homestead set in picturesque country at the foot of the You Yang Ranges to the West of Melbourne. Squadron personnel were housed in tents and workshops and stores in the homestead’s outhouses. A clear, level area just below the homestead was the site of the airstrip.
The Commanding Officer of the new squadron was Squadron Leader Alan Rawlinson, DFC and Bar. Rawlinson had had a distinguished career with 3 Squadron RAAF in the Middle East and Syria where he had flown Gauntlets, Gladiators, Hurricanes, Tomahawks and Kittyhawks achieving eight victories over French, Italian and German aircraft. He returned to Australia in early 1942 where he helped form and then became Chief Instructor of 2 OTU. In September 1942 he was posted to the Head Quarters Staff in Melbourne, and was there when the decision was taken to form 79 Squadron. HQ was lucky to have such a capable and experienced officer on hand to enable the squadron to be formed and made operational in such a short time. The Flight Commanders, Flight Lieutenant Max Bott and Flight Lieutenant Vanderfield, were also experienced pilots.
Bott had flown Kittyhawks with 76 Squadron in the defense of Milne Bay and, Vanderfield had flown Brewster Buffaloes over Malaya and Singapore, (and achieved victories!). Many of the aircrew were drawn from local squadrons where they had been brushing up their skills on Wirraways. Most converted to the Spitfire at 2 OTU.
The close proximity of 1 Aircraft Depot, Laverton to Wooloomanata ensured a rapid delivery of Spitfires and, the squadron had its full complement by the end of the month. While the pilots worked up on their new mounts and, the ground crews tried to get all their new equipment sorted and made ready, plans were already in store for the squadron to move to New Guinea.
On 17 May an advance party of 20 men left for Goodenough Island, situated some 100 kilometers North of Milne Bay at the Western tip of New Guinea. The main party followed shortly after and the move was completed when the Spitfires touched down on Vivigani strip on 22 June. They brought with them bad news. Flight Lieutenant Paul Brennan DFC DFM, an experienced pilot with claims of 10 aircraft destroyed over Malta, had been killed in an accident at Townsville. Nos 76 and 77 Kittyhawk Squadrons arrived shortly after, the three units forming 73 (Fighter) Wing.
The Spitfires of 79 Squadron were given the role of defending the island and Milne Bay from aircraft approaching from the North. The fitters removed the dust filter from the Spitfires in an attempt to improve their performance. New under-cowlings were hand-fashioned and considerably improved the shape of the nose, but the lack of a proper lip for the carburetor intake probably caused a loss of engine performance negating much of the gain.
The 20 mm cannon suffered many stoppages and, although, many adjustments were made, the problem was never really solved. Unfortunately for 79 Squadron, the Japanese chose this time to stop their daylight raids in the Milne Bay area and, there was no action for the eager pilots. There were however a number of accidents and, on 10 July, Pilot Officer McKellar had a long glide home in UP-O when the oil in the constant-speed control of his propeller froze at 36,000 feet during an altitude test.
In August the Squadron moved farther North to the island of Kiriwina, bringing them some 130 kilometers closer to the enemy. Unlike Goodenough which was of volcanic origin, Kiriwina was a tropical atoll and fairly flat. The move was completed on the 18th when 21 Spitfires arrived overhead in formation, breaking off to land on the newly completed strip, becoming the first allied aircraft to take up residence there. Allied command had expected the Japanese to vigorously oppose the establishment of the allied air base at Kiriwina but, much to the chagrin of the Spitfire pilots, the Japanese refused to oblige. No. 76 Squadron, soon joined No. 79 on Kiriwina, but the third element of the wing, No. 77, remained at Goodenough.
Eventually, a newly formed squadron, No. 78, joined 76 and 79 in 73 Wing in November. The Bostons of No. 22 Squadron and the Beaufighters of No. 30 Squadron also moved up to the Kiriwina at this time.
The Wing’s pilots thirsted for combat. “If the Japs won’t come to us”, they reasoned, “We must go to them”. The Kittyhawks were fitted with bomb racks and, in September, started making raids on the Japanese in New Britain. The Spitfire pilots looked on with envy but would have to wait for a while, as their role was defence of the island.
The Japanese did fly a few desultory sorties against Kiriwina and, 79 had to content themselves with trying to intercept these nuisance raids. Success finally came on 31 October when Purple Section, Sergeant Ian Callister, (JG807, P), and Sergeant Fawks, (ES349, N), were scrambled for a recce interception. After the plot was identified as a friendly, they remained on patrol and spotted a ‘Tony’, (Ki-61 Hien), emerging from cloud over the Northern end of the island. They gave chase and Callister fired a burst from 800 meters, slowing the ‘Tony’ down. He was then able to close to 300 meters and fired a long burst into the aircraft, which burst into flame and fell into the sea. Wing Commander Blake Pelly, OC 71 Wing, succinctly summed up the combat in his communiqué of 1 November, “Two Spits went up and TONY went DOWN.” The squadron’s celebrations were short lived however as tragedy struck only five days later when Callister was killed in a taxiing accident.
The squadron found this period particularly frustrating, as radar warning was often too late to enable an interception to be completed. Finally, in late November, 79 Squadron was able to take the battle to the enemy. They were to protect the Vivigani-based Bostons and Beaufighters and, the longer-ranged Beauforts, attacking the Japanese on New Britain. The new CO, Max Bott, led the first escort on 27 November when 32 Beauforts were escorted by a fighter force of 8 Spitfires and 33 Kittyhawks. No. 79 Squadron’s primary mission was still the defence of Kiriwina, so it was only able to participate in these raids with small numbers of machines. The next day Archie Moore was airborne in UP-E on air test at 28,000 feet when he was warned by control that an enemy aircraft was in his area. He spotted a ‘Dinah’ reconnaissance aircraft flying slightly higher and about 15 kilometers away, closed with it, and fired two bursts. The ‘Dinah’ crashed into the sea.
The Americans had landed on Bougainville at the beginning of November and were planning another landing on New Britain. All Australian and American squadrons in East New Guinea and on Goodenough and Kiriwina Islands were on maximum effort to inflict as much damage as possible to Japanese forces in the area. The Australians in particular flew repeated attacks against Japanese bases along the South of New Britain and, the main stronghold at Rabaul. On the morning of 15 December the men of the United States 112th Cavalry Regiment went ashore at Arawe to establish a foothold on the Southern coast of New Britain. The Japanese responded with heavy airborne attacks but, again the pilots of 79 Squadron were disappointed, they were on alert at Kiriwina awaiting Japanese raids, that never happened. Things improved later in the month when they were allowed once again to participate in escorts and offensive combat patrols over New Britain. The pilots found the 20mm cannon particularly effective against land installations and enemy barges and shipping.
As Admiral Halsey’s forces also closed in from the East, the Japanese withdrew their air and naval forces from New Britain which was now effectively isolated.
The allied advance could leapfrog past and, on 9 February, they landed on Los Negros, a small island at the Eastern tip of Manus Island. The RAAF’s No. 73 Wing had been selected to garrison the island and the first RAAF units landed on 2 March shortly after the airfield at Momote had been taken. Three days later twelve Kittyhawks of No. 76 Squadron landed and went on immediate readiness. No. 77 Squadron followed on the 13th, but it was not until the 28th that the Spitfires of 79 Squadron, re-fitted with their cumbersome air filters, finally reached the island. They immediately joined their sister squadrons in providing support for the American troops advancing across Manus. It was not a satisfying time for the pilots as they could see little result for their action. Often they were bombing or staffing on map references or smoke-signals provided by the ground forces.
It was an intensive period of operation and resulted in the unfortunate death of the CO, Max Bott, on 16 April, when his Spitfire was overtaken by another as he turned for take-off.
By the end of April the island had been secured and the Wing’s duty switched to protection of shipping and defence against possible enemy air attacks. Many of the Spitfires were very tired and were rapidly approaching the hours required for a major overhaul that was beyond the squadron’s capabilities. A number were flown south for servicing and, although a few replacements were received, strength sank as low as ten aircraft. There was little for the squadron to do now and, eventually in November, the squadron was withdrawn to Australia to re-equip.
The last of 258 Spitfire VCs was received on 16 November 1943. Up to this time aircraft had been allocated to units still bearing their RAF serials, but the RAAF now decided to allocate them RAAF serials.
This was done by assigning RAAF serials in the same order as the original RAF serials: thus AR510 became A58-1 and MH646 became A58-259. This has caused some confusion with historians who have often assumed that the RAAF serials were in order of the aircraft’s receipt in Australia. In fact A58-1 was the 114th Spitfire received. The aircraft in the first batch of six were numbered A58-22, 23, 25, 56, 57, and 58. Aircraft that had been written off were still assigned RAAF serials, although they would never have carried them.
The first batch of Spitfire VIIIs arrived on 21 November 1943. This mark of Spitfire was fitted with the more powerful Merlin 60 series engine with a two-stage supercharger. Extra fuel tanks were fitted giving an increased range and the aircraft were fitted as standard with Vokes air filters in a much cleaner installation than that used on the VCs.
At the end of 1943 two more Spitfire squadrons, Nos 548 and 549, were sent from the UK to Australia. This would allow Nos 452 and 457 Squadrons to be released from defensive duties at Darwin and formed into a new Wing, No. 80, to be used in the offensive role to the North. Nos 548 and 549 squadrons would join No. 54 Squadron in No. 1 Wing, which would remain at Darwin.
The first unit to receive the new Spitfires was to be No. 452 Squadron, which began to replace its Mk.Vs in January 1944. However, this re-equipment proved to be short lived as the Mk. VIIIs were bedeviled with problems and were withdrawn from service. Nos 452 and 457 Squadrons would have to retain their Mk.Vs for a few more months. It was April 1944 before most of the problems with the Spitfire VIIIs had been overcome.
It was now decided that No.1 Wing would be the first to be issued with the new Spitfires. Nos 548 and 549 Squadrons, based at Strathpine in Queensland, had been without operational aircraft for four months and desperately needed the new aircraft.
They received their first Spitfire VIIIs in April and, No. 54, which remained in the Darwin area, received theirs shortly after. In July, Nos 458 and 459 Squadrons moved up to Livingstone and Strauss airstrips just south of Darwin, freeing Nos 452 and 457 Squadrons to move further south to Sattler to also re-equip with the Spitfire VIII.
With No. 1 Wing now responsible for the air defence of Darwin, the newly formed No. 80 Wing could start preparing for its future offensive role. The two squadron COs, Tom Trimble of No. 457 and Lou Spence of No. 452, were both experienced veterans of the desert war with 3 Squadron, and they instituted a hard training program. Particular emphasis was placed on engine handling to achieve maximum range, navigation skills and formation flying. However, the wait turned out to be longer than expected and, it was not until the end of the year that a move was finally made.
As 1944 drew to a close, RAAF fighter and attack squadrons participated in the Allied advance westwards through New Guinea and the islands to its north. Plans were also being put in place to invade the Philippines. The US Fifth Air Force would provide the air support with the Thirteenth Air Force and RAAF units to be used in the supporting role. The ground assault forces were to be entirely American. This arrangement effectively excluded Australian forces from the Philippines campaign so that it could be promoted as a triumphant return by General MacArthur’s forces.
MacArthur planned to bypass the Japanese forces in the Celebes, Halmahera and Borneo Islands. These could be mopped up at a later date. However, he still needed to establish a major air-base closer to the Philippines than those the Allies now held on the Vogelkop Peninsula, on New Guinea’s Western tip. The island of Morotai, at the Northern tip of Halmahera, lay roughly half way between these bases and Mindanao and, would be ideal. Following extensive Allied air attacks on the island and surrounding areas, American troops landed on 14 September. They met little opposition and four days later the RAAF’s No. 14 Airfield Construction Squadron went ashore to repair and enlarge the airstrips at at Wama and Pitu. They were soon ready for operations.
American troops went ashore in the Philippines on 20 October, following a period of intensive attacks on Japanese installations throughout the Southwest Pacific Theater by both the USAAF and the RAAF. From their bases far to the South there was now little the Australians could do to help in the assault on the Philippines. The RAAF had been left in the American’s wake.
Rather than just leave the RAAF tasked with garrison duties in the New Guinea area, the Australian Command had reached an agreement whereby the RAAF would be used in support of forces carrying out further offensive and mopping-up operations in the SWPA. Wherever possible, the RAAF was to operate in direct support of Australian troops and, the Australians were to become self-supporting on land, sea and air.
To this end No. 10 Group was reformed as the First Tactical Air Force. It would consist of No. 77 Wing (Bostons and Beaufighters), No. 78 Wing (Kittyhawks), No. 81 Wing (Kittyhawks) and, two Airfield Construction Wings, Nos 61 and 62. In addition, Air Commodore Cobby had requested that the new Spitfire Wing, No. 80, based in the Darwin area, be made available as soon as possible. Cobby established his headquarters at Morotai in late October and RAAF units progressively began to move in as USAAF units moved on to the Philippines.
The first units to move in were Nos 22 and 30 Squadrons which brought their Bostons and Beaufighters to Morotai in November and, immediately participated in raids against Japanese positions in the Philippines. No. 22 was not to last long, however, as most of its Bostons were destroyed in a Japanese bombing attack on the night of 22 November and it was forced to withdraw to re-equip with Beaufighters. The Kittyhawks of 78 Wing would move up in December but, those of 81 Wing would remain at Noemfoor until April 1945. The Japanese raids had highlighted the need for a capable interceptor to be based at Morotai and Cobby pushed for No. 80 Wing to move North.
Back at Sattler, Nos 452 and 457 Squadrons had been preparing for their move North, but the timing was far from ideal. Both were in the process of replacing their tired F.Mk.VIII Spitfires with newly delivered aircraft. It was decided that 452 would be the first to go. They were re-equipping with the same F.Mk.VIII model and, by taking six of 457’s better aircraft, could be quickly brought up to strength. No. 457 were receiving the HF.Mk.VIII version with the higher-rated 70 series Merlin and would need another month before they were ready. And No. 79? As noted in Part Two, they had returned to Australia at the end of November. They had a large number of new personnel and were also undermanned. New Spitfire F.Mk.VIIIs were received in December but many of these were unserviceable and would have to be returned to No.6 Aircraft Depot for modifications.
On 9 December, No. 452, led by the Wing Commander, Group Captain Caldwell, commenced the long flight to Morotai. By Christmas Eve the squadron was in residence at Pitu Strip and fully operational. Flying Officer Jack Pretty was to draw first blood for the squadron that evening. A bit after 10 p.m. two ‘Helen’ bombers appeared over Morotai. Searchlights and anti-aircraft engaged as the first made its bombing run, but were unsuccessful and it escaped.
The anti-aircraft barrage had prevented an attack by fighters but, as the second began its run in, Pretty decided to take a chance.
Ignoring the searchlights and heavy anti-aircraft fire he closed in behind the ‘Helen’ scoring hits. The searchlights then lost the Japanese aircraft but Pretty was able to keep it in sight and made two more attacks, finally sending it down in flames. The American and Australian servicemen on the ground had witnessed the entire action and broke out in cheers. At last one of the troublesome Japanese raiders had been dispatched.
By the end of December, No. 457 had received most of its new HF.Mk.VIIIs. These aircraft had not been repainted and retained their original RAF camouflage colours of Dark Green and Ocean Grey over Medium Sea Grey. Alongside the browns and greens of the RAAF camouflaged aircraft they looked very smart. The new Commanding Officer, Bruce Watson, decided this could be used to unite the pilots and give them pride in their squadron.
“In my previous squadrons the aircraft were called anything, and I even had ‘Stardust’, (my favourite tune), painted on a Kittyhawk, but many had half-naked females, or Hitler being kicked in the butt with a boot, or some hideous painting.
I just loved the Spitfire and was hopeful we could mould a team spirit by adopting some name or sign suitable to all. I spoke to the Flight Commander, Ted Sly, and Ted agreed that a meeting of all pilots be called. It was Ted’s suggestion to the pilot’s meeting that the squadron adopt the shark’s mouth and, as the Grey Nurse was a typical shark in Australian waters, the squadron become ‘The Grey Nurse Squadron’. The suggestion made by Ted was strongly supported and did a lot to weld our team into a cohesive unit.
After Ted outlined the result of the pilot’s meeting, I conveyed our intended marking to Clive Caldwell and I remember Clive said, ‘Bloody good. Unifies the squadron, easy to know which squadron it is and, stops that advertising billboard look’. The initial shark’s mouth was small but eventually Ted, with the help of Lyn Gillam, 457 Squadron Defence Officer, produced the final larger shark mouth.” Bruce Watson’s A58-606, ZP-W, was the first Spitfire to painted in the new livery.
No. 457 Squadron commenced its move to Morotai on 17 January and, by 7 February was in residence at Pitu strip. It flew its first mission three days later. By now the Japanese aerial attacks had virtually ceased and the Spitfires were pressed into service for ground support operations. The 20mm cannons were useful against hardened targets such as barges, but were overkill against men and native huts. No. 79 Squadron was still waiting for its aircraft and its air and ground crew were sent to Morotai where they operated with the other two squadrons. Some Spitfires arrived in February but, it was not until April that No. 79 was fully equipped and No.80 Wing complete.
With the longer-ranged Beaufighters and Kittyhawks attacking Japanese positions in the Celebes, the Spitfires of No. 80 Wing were left to clean out Japanese remnants in the Halmaheras. The pilots found this a thankless task but they carried it out with enthusiasm. The Spitfire was ill-equipped for the task. It was limited in range and the liquid-cooled Merlin was very vulnerable to small arms fire from the ground. Apart from the onboard cannon and machine guns, offensive armament was limited to small 250lb bombs which were difficult to deliver accurately. Earlier, in Darwin, the Wing Leader, Bobby Gibbes, anticipating that the Spitfires would be required to carry out ground support duties, had experimented with fitting two Beaufighter rocket rails under each wing of a Spitfire. However, officialdom got wind of this experiment and, perhaps wisely, Gibbes was ordered to desist! Gibbes also had the wing-tips removed from an aircraft and wooden fairings, similar to those used on some Spitfires in Europe and the Middle East, fitted to increase the roll rate at low level, but once again officialdom frowned on his actions.
With the enemy on the retreat and the American forces sweeping on towards the Japanese homeland, political rather than military requirements began to influence Allied planning.
The Dutch, in particular, were anxious to regain control of their former colonies in the Netherlands East Indies. MacArthur, in a reversal of his earlier policy to leave the Japanese isolated ‘to die on the vine’ in pockets behind his advance, was forced by the Chiefs of Staff to now plan for the invasion of Borneo and the islands of the NEI. He assigned this task to the Australian Army and the RAAF. The principal objective of Operation Oboe was to re-establish the NEI Government in its capital in the NEI. Militarily, there was not a lot to recommend this plan and the Australian Government had some misgivings.
To a number of the RAAF’s commanders, who were already unhappy with the way the RAAF had been cut from the Philippines invasion by MacArthur and, who believed that the mopping up operations in the SWPA were a waste of men and material, Project Oboe was madness. They believed that they were already losing more men and aircraft than they were inflicting damage on the enemy.
Group Captain Arthur and Group Captain Caldwell made representations to the Commander of No.1 TAF, but were not received sympathetically.
As a result several officers, including Caldwell and Gibbes, submitted their resignations to Air Commodore Cobby. The Chief of the Air Staff, Air Vice Marshal George Jones, was forced to intervene and a number of changes were made at several levels of command.
Operation Oboe would continue. The Spitfires of No. 80 Wing would participate in the invasions of Tarakan and Labuan. The island of Tarakan, a few miles off the North East coast of Borneo, was oil rich and could be of some use to the Allies if its oil fields could be re-commissioned, but the primary objective was to capture the airfield to support the forthcoming Borneo operations. The RAAF and the USAAF’s Thirteenth Air Force began operations against Tarakan in mid April and the Army landed on 1 May. The original plan called for RAAF aircraft to fly in to the Tarakan airfield on 7 May but, conditions were so bad and the Japanese resistance so persistent, that the first Spitfires were unable to land there till 29 May. Conditions were appalling and the Spitfires found it almost impossible to operate, but were able to provide support for the subsequent Balikpapen invasion.
No. 457 Squadron would participate in the invasion of Labuan Island. This island occupied a strategic position at the opening to Brunei Bay in North Borneo. Its capture would allow the Allies to take the adjacent oilfields on the mainland and serve as an advance post for the invasion of British Borneo, (now the Malaysian province of Sarawak). The landing took place on 10 June and on the 18th the first Spitfires landed. The arrival was not auspicious as two aircraft crashed on landing and were written off.
The strip on Labuan was better than that at Tarakan but was still barely adequate for Spitfire operations. No. 457 Squadron was tasked with airfield defence and had their one and only success since 1943 when, on 20 June, Flight Lieutenants Campbell and Scrimgeour were scrambled to intercept an incoming raider. A ‘Dinah’ was sighted at about 13,000 feet. Campbell made a pass closing to about 50 yards before breaking away and then Scrimgeour made a pass also closing to 50 yards. As he pulled away he saw the ‘Dinah’s port engine to be on fire. Both pilots made further attacks and the ‘Dinah’ eventually crashed and exploded. During July and August, the Spitfires assisted the Kittyhawks with attacks against Japanese positions on the mainland.
No. 79 Squadron had remained behind on Morotai and, throughout June, July and August, carried out attacks against Japanese positions and shipping around Halmahera. These were to be the last operations by RAAF Spitfires and, following the Japanese capitulation, all operations ceased on 14 August 1945. The three Spitfire squadrons carried on training and local reconnaissance duties until they were disbanded in November. Nos 452 and 457 were disbanded at Tarakan and Labuan but No. 79 returned to Oakey first.
One other RAAF squadron had been equipped with Spitfires but did not see any action. This was No. 85 Squadron based at Guilford near Perth in Western Australia. As the other squadrons were re-equipped with the Spitfire Mk.VIII in 1944, this freed numbers of the Mk.VC version to be assigned to No. 85 Squadron, which received its first Spitfires in September. The aircraft were
somewhat tired and there were a number of accidents but they performed a useful garrison duty in WA. No. 85 was also disbanded in November 1945. The three RAF Spitfire Squadrons had been been disbanded by October 1945 and all operational Spitfire flying in Australia ceased, although a few individual aircraft soldiered on with No.1 Aircraft Performance Unit, the Central Flying School, and as unit ‘hacks’ for a few years more.
What did the Spitfire contribute to the defence of Australia and the RAAF’s war effort? Undoubtedly the Kittyhawk was the RAAF’s most valuable single-engine fighter during World War II, not only in numbers but, also in contribution made. Its range was greater than that of the Spitfire and it could carry a greater offensive load. It could also operate in conditions that defeated the Spitfire. But, it never had the charisma of the Spitfire.
The Spitfire was a thoroughbred. Its pedigree goes back to the Supermarine Schneider Trophy racers. Its form started with a winning performance duringthe Battle of Britain and continued into most theaters of war. Its exploits were known in every household and it was a public favourite. Perhaps the Spitfires greatest contribution to the Australian war effort was the effect it had on public confidence. Just knowing that Spitfires were in Darwin to stop the Japanese was a great boost to everyone’s morale. Certainly, it achieved more victories against the Japanese than any other RAAF aircraft could have, but it was only available to intercept eleven of the 64 raids against Darwin.
When sent North to New Guinea and the islands of the SWPA, it was sent to a war for which it was not designed. That it managed to acquit itself with honour says much for the basic soundness of the design, the pilots that flew it and, the fitters, armourers and engine mechanics that maintained it.
Web Master’s note: We are very pleased with Peter Malone’s splendid article on the History of the Spitfire in Australia and we are indebted to him for his work.
Written by Peter Malone – See profile in “Friends of the Association”