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The RNZAF in World War II

1939-41 Empire Defence

When war was declared on 3 September 1939 the RNZAF personnel strength was 91 officers, 665 airmen in the Regular Force, with 79 officers and 325 airmen in the Territorials. There were 102 aircraft, mostly second-hand Baffins and Gordons; the only new aircraft were five Oxfords ( twin-engine trainers) and nine Vildebeestes (single-engine biplane bombers).

The first year of World War II saw accelerated expansion of the RNZAF, with new flying training schools established at Taieri, Harewood, New Plymouth and Whenuapai and air gunners' and observers' schools at Ohakea. An Initial Training School was set up at Rongotai, later moving to Levin. Flying obsolete Vildebeestes, Vincents and Baffins, three of the four territorial squadrons were mobilised and positioned to patrol the approaches to Auckland, Wellington and Lyttelton harbours. The 30 Wellingtons in the UK with their New Zealand air and groundcrews (awaiting delivery to NZ) were offered to the Royal Air Force and became No.75 (NZ) Squadron of the RAF.

In mid-1940, German success in Europe led to a review and expansion of the BCATP which would continue at full pace until mid-1944 before winding down to finish in March 1945. Of the final total of 131,553 aircrew graduates, 7002 were New Zealanders. Graduates of the BCATP, along with others who were trained in New Zealand (and proceeded from NZ direct to the RAF) served with distinction in all theatres of the war.

Many New Zealanders served in the seven "New Zealand" RAF Squadrons Nos. 485– 490, established under Article XV of the BCATP Agreement, to ensure a continued linkage of airmen with the nations that formed the British Commonwealth.

The deeds of the New Zealanders in service with the RAF are well recorded in books and other material on the air war in WWII. Among them, three New Zealanders won the VC during air operations:

  • Sergeant James Ward,
  • Squadron Leader Leonard Trent and
  • Flying Officer Lloyd Trigg.

On the home front in 1940, the threat from German surface raiders and the increasing prospect of further military action by Japan resulted in strong pleas from the New Zealand Government for modern aircraft to defend the country. The British Government agreed to release Lockheed Hudson bombers, which began arriving in mid-1941.

To overcome a shortage of men for New Zealand duties, the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) was established during 1941. Over 4700 WAAFs served in the RNZAF during WWII.

To meet New Zealand's responsibility for reconnaissance and protection of the Fijian Islands, four old Short Singapore flying boats were gifted to the RNZAF from RAF stocks at Singapore, shortly before the Japanese entered the war on 7 December 1941.

Pacific War

On 8 December 1941, the RNZAF had 641 aircraft, the majority for training. Only the 36 Hudsons could be called modern. During the hectic struggle against the invading Japanese in Malaya and Singapore in 1941-42, the RNZAF was represented by No.488 Squadron RAF, flying Brewster Buffalo fighters, and the RNZAF's Aerodrome Construction Unit in Malaya and Singapore, and later in Java. Other New Zealand airmen served in Singapore, Burma and India.

By early 1942 the threat grew for a possible Japanese invasion of New Zealand. All available aircraft were allotted to shadow defence squadrons under the Forces Available For Anti-Invasion (FAFAI) scheme. Plans for arming even Tiger Moth biplane trainers and other second line aircraft were put into action.

Following further strenuous pleas to the British and United States Governments for aircraft to defend New Zealand, Kittyhawk fighters began arriving in March 1942, and New Zealand-based fighter squadrons were formed, beginning with No.14 Sqn at Masterton.

The first RNZAF squadron to engage the Japanese in direct combat was No.3 Squadron [Hudsons] which moved to Henderson Field at Guadalcanal in November 1942. It was joined in April 1943 by No.15 Squadron [Kittyhawks], who had completed their operational training with Kittyhawks taken over from the USAAF in Tonga.

The Solomons Campaign

By 1943 more squadrons were formed and moved to the South West Pacific operational area. At the end of 1943, a New Zealand Fighter Wing with supporting servicing units was established at Ondonga (New Georgia) and a Group HQ at Guadalcanal. New Zealand Fighter Wing pilots shot down 99 confirmed Japanese aircraft, plus 24 ‘probably destroyed’. Four other Japanese aircraft fell to the guns of Hudsons and Venturas, bringing the total enemy aircraft destroyed by the RNZAF in the Pacific to 103.

During 1943, Air Vice Marshal Leonard Isitt became the first New Zealander to be appointed as Chief of Air Staff for the RNZAF. (Isitt was to become very influential in the development of the Air Force and civil aviation during the latter war years, immediately post-war and through the early 1950s.) Later that year, following lobbying by the New Zealand Government, the US Government agreed to the US Navy [under whose control RNZAF squadrons would operate] providing new combat aircraft to the RNZAF.

Operational squadrons of the RNZAF were progressively equipped with Corsairs, Venturas, Avengers, Dauntless dive bombers and Catalina flying boats. Transport aircraft support to the South West Pacific Area of operations was with Lend-Lease Dakotas, Lodestars, converted Hudson bombers and, in late 1944, four Sunderland flying boat transports supplied from the UK. 

During 1944, the RNZAF's operations in the South West Pacific were mainly concentrated on Bougainville, with strikes against Japanese forces there, and at their major base at Rabaul (New Britain).

Fighter sweeps and bomber escort were the main tasks of the New Zealand Fighter Wing. The Bomber Reconnaissance squadrons patrolled the sea lanes and coastal shores of Japanese held islands, and carried out bombing raids on Japanese installations.

In early 1944, the Japanese withdrew most of their Navy and Air Force aircraft to Truk. With no air opposition, the Kittyhawks, followed later by Corsairs, switched from the fighter escort role to fighter-bomber missions. A Dauntless squadron and two Avenger squadrons made a single operational tour each from Piva airfield at Bougainville. The New Zealand Bomber Reconnaissance squadrons with Venturas carried out raids on Japanese positions on most of the islands that make up the North Solomons. Meanwhile No.6 Flying Boat Squadron (Catalinas) operated over the area carrying out reconnaissance and rescue missions.

Until 1945 the RNZAF’s role in the SW Pacific was to provide combat squadrons to support US operations in defeating Japanese forces in the Solomon Islands. As US operations moved north of the Solomon Islands, the RNZAF took on a garrison role, harassing Japanese ground forces trapped on the various islands. Support facilities were expanded for the RNZAF operations including repair depots and aircraft assembly units.

In early 1945, agreement was reached with the US and Australian Governments for the RNZAF to take part in operations in Borneo with the Australians, or in the Philippines with the US. However, both of these commands were using US Air Force combat aircraft types, so the RNZAF would need to re-equip to be compatible. Mustang fighters were ordered to form new fighter squadrons, and while 30 were delivered, the war ended before they could be brought into service.

On VJ Day the RNZAF had more than 7000 personnel stationed throughout the Solomon Islands from Espiritu Santo to Los Negros. From 3 September 1939 to 15 August 1945, 3,687 RNZAF personnel died on active service, the majority in Bomber Command squadrons of the RAF. The RNZAF had grown from a small pre-war force to 42,000 in June 1944. The aircraft fleet reached a peak of 1,336 by the end of 1944. Twenty four RNZAF squadrons had seen service in the Pacific.