BLUF

In the WW2 battle of Milne Bay, RAAF provided the Australian Army with close air support and achieved local air supremacy, which resulted in a notable victory for Australian forces.

Summary

The WW2 Kokoda Trailthe Battle of the Coral Sea, and the Darwin attacks should be well known to most Australians. But it was at Milne Bay, Papua New Guinea, in August – September 1942, Australians first broke the myth of the invincible Japanese Military

Key points about RAAF involvement:

  • In early 1942, Port Moresby was the primary Allied airbase in Papua New Guinea.

  • Japan planned to capture Port Moresby and make it part of their Pacific defensive perimeter

  • Japan never intended to invade Australia, but they did plan to cut it off from USA forces operating in the Pacific. See: Japanese invasion a myth: historian (theage.com.au)

  • Milne Bay was chosen as a second airbase when decoded messages showed Japan intended to attack Milne Bay as a prelude to building an airbase.

  • By August, one of three planned airfields had been built at Milne Bay using an American pierced steel plank called 'Marston Matting' runway.

  • A radar station provided warnings of medium to high-altitude Japanese air attacks.

  • Radio equipped coast watchers provided visual warnings of incoming raids.

  • 75 and 76 Squadron Kittyhawks moved to Milne Bay with a core of consisting of very experienced pilots.

  • Spitfire ace 'Bluey' Truscott was one.

  • 6 and 32 Squadron detachments of Hudson reconnaissance bombers were also Milne Bay based.

  • Initially, the Japanese were unaware of the Milne Bay base.

  • In the first attack on the new airbase, two Zero fighters, one Adachi Val dive-bomber and one Kittyhawk were destroyed.

  • Further air attacks were relatively small as Japanese bombers focussed on stopping American forces on Guadalcanal, the Solomon Islands.

  • The first elements of the Japanese invasion force came ashore on Goodenough Island, to the north of Milne Bay, to rest before their attack.

  • In a decisive attack, 75 Squadron Kittyhawks destroyed their transports, preventing these marines from getting to Milne Bay.

  • The following main (motorised landing craft equipped) Japanese invasion force sustained some damage from the Hudsons and Kittyhawks before landing on the jungle-clad northern shore of Milne Bay. 

  • Once again, the RAAF destroyed the landing craft, also a considerable amount of supplies.

  • In the following days, RAAF aircraft continued to bomb and strafe Japanese troops and maintain air defence. 

  • It was only at night that the Japanese could advance.

  • While attempting to destroy the two Japanese light tanks, 76 Squadron's commanding officer, Squadron Leader Peter Turnbull, was killed.

  • There was excellent co-operation between the Kittyhawks and the troops on the ground that eventually caused the Japanese to withdraw.

  • The Japanese failure to take the Milne Bay airfield denied them air cover over the Kokoda Trail, resulting in another Japanese defeat.

  • Under the command of Major General Cyril Clowes, the Australian army fought well and hard, with Cpl John French winning a posthumous VC.

  • Milne Bay is a good example of a combined arms operation where the RAAF provided the army with vital close air support.

  • The RAAF was able to provide such support because it had achieved local air supremacy over Milne Bay.

 

See Runway Post:  Holding New Guinea: A First Defeat For Japan’s Land Forces. | The Runway (airforce.gov.au)

References