Fighting Spirit: 75 Years of the RNZAF
by Margaret McClure
Random House, $55
Marking the 75th anniversary of the Royal New Zealand Air Force, Fighting Spirit celebrates the history and can-do nature which have given the Air Force a culture much admired in New Zealand and around the world. Author Margaret McClure chronicles the spirit and resilience of those who have served with the Air Force, tracing the broad sweep from the early 20th century to the first decade of the 21st, and extends beyond the romance of early military aviation and drama of World War II to describe the diversity of roles it has undertaken in recent decades. The following is an extract:
New Zealanders who had set their hearts on a glamorous role in Fighter Command arrived in England to face the "Devil's Lottery" of the posting centre at Uxbridge. Most found themselves in Bomber Command, which needed a constant stream of replacements because of the high death rate.
Although the Battle of Britain was over, the only means of penetrating into enemy territory was a heightened bombing offensive that would lift the morale of the British people and assure the Soviet Union and the United States that Britain was committed to an offensive war. Bomber Command was in action on 71 per cent of nights and 59 per cent of days through the following years.
Through 1940, Bomber Command targeted the oil works and railway networks of the industrial Ruhr Valley in western Germany. In August 1941 the Butt Report revealed the appalling inaccuracy of targeted bombing: aircrew were floundering in the dark, with only one-third of "successful" raids coming within 8 km of their target. Aircraft and lives were being wasted in vain.
The failure of strategic targeting led to a shift in policy in September to the area bombing of cities. Continued assaults on the Ruhr were the first to use incendiary bombs to make towns uninhabitable and unnerve workers.
Area bombing became more effective after Air Marshal Arthur Harris was appointed to head Bomber Command in February 1942. Under the direction of Prime Minister Winston Churchill and the Air Ministry, he worked with verve, changing bombing tactics and harnessing aircraft production and technology. The invention of the Gee radar system and further improvements made it possible to navigate through clouds, while the use of tinfoil strips as a countermeasure to radar detection, confused German radar and moderated the loss of bombers.
New aircraft and technology enabled Harris to direct streams of up to 1000 bombers through the darkness to overwhelm German night fighters and reach his goal of 58 cities. The new role of Pathfinders improved bombers' accuracy. Skilled pilots like Richard Bolt were allotted the specialised task of dropping flares, a dangerous job.
James Barron, 23 years old and a fine Pathfinder commanding officer, collided fatally with his deputy master bomber on his 79th sortie.
Many New Zealanders arrived in time to be absorbed into the huge 1000-bomber raids in May and June of 1942 over Cologne and the Krupps works at Essen. Harris called on all Bomber Command's resources - training aircraft made up one-third of the fleet. Alan Russell, an experienced pilot and instructor, was pulled into the first raid on Cologne with his pupils as crew.
Colin Fraser, fresh out of training school, joined one of these raids on his first operation. Caught by searchlights over Essen in his "clapped out" machine, he dived almost to ground level, saved his skin, and was back two nights later.
Night after night, aircrews faced powerful German fighters that met the bombers on their outward journey, pounced as they approached their target, and pursued them home. Flying among huge numbers of aircraft in a narrow stream, they could be bombed by accident from above, or collide with others when they made a dog-leg turn.
The tensest moments came when the pilot steadied the plane before the bomb was dropped and held a straight course - a sitting duck - until the camera beneath showed whether the bomb had hit its target. And many bombers crashed in fog on returning to England.
The arrival of faster day bombers assisted daylight missions against France and Holland. On May 3, 1943 Squadron Leader Leonard Trent led 487 Squadron, equipped with new American Venturas, on a doomed mission to Amsterdam. Their Spitfire escorts crossed the Channel too early, alerting German fighters.
Trent and his 11 crews were met by a swarm of 70 Focke-Wulfs and Messerschmitts that picked off the bombers one by one. Against incredible odds, Trent and another five aircraft pressed on after the other Venturas were blown to bits or burned. By the time he reached Amsterdam his aircraft was alone. His crew faced the gauntlet of fighters and flak to drop its bombs, then was hit as it turned for home.
The aircraft broke apart in the sky; two of his crew were killed, while Trent and his navigator landed and were imprisoned at Stalag Luft III. For his cool persistence against overwhelming odds, Trent was awarded the Victoria Cross. A single Ventura returned, crippled, to England.
Many young New Zealanders in Bomber Command showed a similar maturity and courage in the face of danger: men like Flight Lieutenant Jack Plummer in 75 Squadron, who on a raid to Duisberg had the nose of his Lancaster and the Perspex surrounding his seat blown away. With the cockpit transformed into a bitterly cold wind tunnel, he flew back for three and a half hours, his hands frozen to the controls.
In 1943 British and American leaders committed themselves to more intensive bombing. With the arrival of heavy bombers - Stirlings, Halifaxes and Lancasters - New Zealanders flew in the huge raids on Hamburg in July 1943 when incendiary bombs lit 1000C fires that ripped through the city at 240km/h.
Flying Officer John Pohe, one of the few Maori in the RNZAF, took part in a similar raid on Hanover; he was shot down in his Halifax in September 1943 and imprisoned with Trent at Stalag Luft III.
One of the most dangerous and ineffective campaigns was the Battle of Berlin in the winter of 1943. Sub-zero temperatures made for wretched conditions on the long haul there and back; new, bright flares exposed the bombers as they arrived, and German fighters were at their peak defending their capital city.
A few New Zealanders flew in 10 or more of the 16 raids on Berlin. Even with 14,562 sorties it was hard to make an impact on the sprawling city. Industry went on while wrecked planes littered the countryside.
Several thousand airmen were killed, including 66 New Zealanders, 54 of them in 75 Squadron flying Stirlings that had become death-traps.
Bill White was luckier, despite piloting a Stirling that lost part of its port wing and rear turret; two of his crew misheard his orders and bailed out. As a yachtsman at home he had studied navigation; without a wireless operator or navigator he pulled out of an apparent death dive over Berlin, delivered his bombs in the target area, set his course by compass and the stars and made it back to England.
Bomber crews usually completed 30 operations; in 1943 the average survival rate was between 12 and 17 sorties, and the odds on survival were less than even. When Grahame Turner found he was joining Bomber Command at this time, he cabled his father: "Get me out of here." Staying on, he took a careful approach: "My war was to get back."
The strong bonds among bomber crew helped to overcome men's fears. New Zealanders thrived on the friendly rivalry between nationalities and the broadening experience of joining mixed bomber crews. Bomber and fighter crews became hardened to losing members of their squadron: "In the mess in the evening it was glasses raised, toasting them, and they were never mentioned again. You didn't dare ... it would have preyed on your mind."
Back in England the pilots were fed "like warriors" to keep them fit for the gruelling demands of flying. With sheets on their beds, they felt for fellow New Zealanders in the army, "poor beggars ... out under tents all the time".
However remote an RAF station, there was always a pub and young women nearby. The Rider Scheme welcomed Commonwealth aircrew into family life. On leave there was London, with theatres, chorus girls, tea at the Savoy. "We worked hard, flew hard and played awfully hard" - and when they woke with a hangover, used oxygen to clear their heads. One airman reflected: "It was a peculiar war for Bomber Command. We lived in lovely conditions: it was a soft war - but you didn't come back."
THE GREAT ESCAPE
Several New Zealand airmen took part in the Great Escape from Stalag Luft III. In a prison specially designed to make escape difficult, 600 prisoners constructed a tunnel 9m beneath the surface that featured small railway-like trolleys, electric lighting and 6000 bed-boards to shore up the sand.
The escape took place on a bitter winter night in March 1944. The exit from the tunnel was a few metres short of forest cover and snow delayed the escapers.
Future Victoria Cross holder Leonard Trent was caught near the exit and returned to solitary confinement. Thousands of police and troops pursued the 76 men who escaped. Flight Lieutenant Mick Shand and Flying Officer Porokou (Johnny) Pohe were caught and imprisoned together.
Three New Zealanders were among the 50 escapers later executed on Hitler's orders. One of them was Pohe, who had been the first Maori pilot to enlist in the RNZAF. He removed his blindfold to face the firing squad.