The Battle for the Skies of Darwin

In Military History, Featured

In today’s blog post, Peter Ingman, author of Spitfire VC vs A6M2/3 Zero-sen: Darwin 1943 gives a fascinating overview of the conflict upon which his book is focused.


Spitfire VC vs A6M2/3 Zero-sen Book Cover

 

In 1943 a fascinating air campaign took place over the skies of Darwin, a lonely tropical frontier town that is the capital of Australia’s Northern Territory. The opponents were the Imperial Japanese Naval Air Force’s 202nd Kokutai, equipped with Mitsubishi A6M2 Zeros, and No. 1 Fighter Wing, RAAF, equipped with Spitfire Mark VC s recently shipped from Britain. By this time the main axis of fighting in the South-West Pacific was far to the east in New Guinea and the Solomons. However, this meant these two units met repeatedly over Darwin for several months with no other fighter units being involved. The campaign was notable not only for the contest between these two classic fighter types but also due to the units involved and the different tactics and doctrine employed. It was also one of the last times that Japanese and Allied fighters battled on roughly equal terms before technological and numerical factors quickly tipped the balance far to the Allies advantage.

The 202nd Kokutai is relatively little-known but in fact has a very rich heritage and a background shared with the famous Tainan Kokutai. The latter unit is probably the best-known Japanese naval fighter unit in the West partly thanks to the widely circulated memoirs of ace Saburo Sakai. The 202nd Kokutai was established in 1941 as the 3rd Kokutai. Just before the outbreak of the Pacific War, the 3rd Kokutai was based in Formosa (Taiwan) alongside the Tainan Ku. A large portion of the pilots for both units were from the 12th Kokutai which had been flying operational missions in China since 1937. The 12th Kokutai was the unit which famously debuted the Zero in China in 1940.

With a large influx of experienced pilots, both the 3rd and Tainan Kokutais began the Pacific War in a very healthy position. Many pilots had over 1,000 hours in their logbooks and there were several aces spread within each unit. In December 1941 both units were engaged in long range missions over the Philippines which quickly neutralised American air power there.

Subsequently the 3rd and Tainan Kokutais worked side by side during the lightning Japanese advance through the Netherlands East Indies, often attacking targets at a range of 400 miles or more. These missions utilised the superb endurance and offensive qualities of the Zero. On 3 March 1942 the 3rd Kokutai flew a remarkable 600-mile over-water strike against the north-western Australian town of Broome where 23 large, multi-engined aircraft and flying boats were destroyed.

In March 1942 Java was captured and the Japanese conquest of Southeast Asia was complete. The Tainan Kokutai went east to New Guinea, while the 3rd Kokutai remained in the Netherlands East Indies to fly offensive missions against northern Australia. For the next six months the 3rd Kokutai pilots gained further experienced battling the Curtiss P-40E equipped 49th Fighter Group, USAAF, over Darwin. Towards the end of the year the 3rd Kokutai was redesignated the 202nd Kokutai.

Meanwhile the attacks on northern Australia in early 1942 had led to the granting to the RAAF of a wing of Spitfires for home defence, named No. 1 Fighter Wing. This was very much a political decision made to help restore Britain’s reputation in the public eye at a time when vast amounts of American personnel and war materials were flowing into Australia.

The RAAF had entered the Pacific War without any fighter force in Australia, so the units making up the new wing were drawn from existing ones in the UK. Two of these were Australian squadrons raised within the RAF with newly trained Empire Air Training Scheme pilots. These were Nos. 452 and 457 Squadrons, which were joined by a single RAF unit, No. 52 Squadron. All three of these squadrons had been flying Spitfires in Britain. No. 52 Squadron had served in the Battle of Britain, while the two Australia squadrons had experience flying fighter sweeps over France.

The decision to form No. 1 Fighter Wing had been made in May 1942, but it wasn’t until February 1943 that the new unit was ready for operations over Darwin. By that time many of its pilots hadn’t seen combat for a year or more, and all had spent time on long sea voyages without any flying. In addition, many of the more experienced pilots had been posted elsewhere. Hence the squadrons that arrived in Australia were a shadow of the experienced units that had fought over the skies of Britain and France during 1940–42.

The leader of No. 1 Fighter Wing was Wing Commander Clive Caldwell, RAAF, who had become an ace pilot flying Tomahawks in North Africa (and who would become the highest scoring Australian ace of WWII). There is no doubt that Caldwell was a brilliant pilot, but he was also something of an individualist and perhaps not best suited to understanding the needs of junior pilots. Caldwell was also a believer in Big Wing or ‘Balbo’ tactics by which he wanted to form up all three squadrons in a large formation prior to intercepting the enemy.

These factors meant that No. 1 Fighter Wing went into combat as somewhat less than a combat-hardened and cohesive unit. It also had limited time for training, especially in the Darwin environment. In contrast the 202nd Kokutai had been flying combat operations continually since December 1941. It too had suffered attrition of its best pilots, but the teamwork and tactical doctrine employed by the unit were initially much superior to that used by the Spitfire pilots.

Given the vast distances the Zeros needed to be flown, their radios had been removed to save weight. This meant that the 202nd Kokutai pilots flew much as pilots on the Western Front had in the latter stages of WWI: constantly scanning the skies for the enemy while keeping tabs on their squadron mates for visual signals. In contrast No. 1 Fighter Wing was much reliant on radios and direction from ground controllers. When large numbers of aircraft were engaged in combat the single frequency used by the Spitfires became garbled with traffic and effectively almost useless. In these conditions the Japanese tactics were more effective.

Lastly, Caldwell’s proclivity for properly forming up the wing took much time and fuel. By the time the full wing had climbed to the high altitudes used by the enemy, the bombing raid had generally been completed and the Japanese had turned back for their return flight over the sea. The Spitfires were now attacking with their fuel fast running out and on one well-known occasion almost catastrophic losses occurred.

These are some of the key issues governing the 1943 Darwin air campaign. Ultimately neither side scored a decisive victory against the other. Japanese airmanship remained at a high standard throughout, although there were signs that this was being diminished with a higher proportion of trainee pilots flying combat missions than had been the case a year or so earlier. No. 1 Fighter Wing meanwhile did well to oppose every Japanese raid in force despite serious material defects and at times questionable tactics.

To find out more, about this fascinating campaign, click here to pre-order a copy of the book.

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