09 May 2017

44 Days - Michael Veitch

I watched one of those ‘vox pop’ style videos on Facebook earlier today where some young interviewer asks people on the street, in this case what looked like Times Square in New York City, several related questions. The theme was what these people knew about the Second World War. While the sample size in the video was appallingly small, about six people, the results were quite disturbing. In short, they had no clue. Granted, all appeared to be in their twenties, and there was the obligatory older chap who just shook his head with dismay at the results, but it would appear they all spend their time with their heads stuck in the sand. I cannot fathom walking this earth and not acquiring any knowledge about the war. It defies belief. When Michael Veitch’s new book about 75 Squadron RAAF’s defence of Port Moresby in mid-1942 was touted as a story “largely left untold”, I thought that was just a marketing ploy. To some extent it is, as this period has been covered as part of books looking at the New Guinea campaign as a whole. However, here I was, wartime aviation nut that I am, thinking that surely it was such a well known part of the campaign that many would at least have heard of it. I can still remember the excellent documentary, also titled 44 Days, from the early 1990s and had just assumed that knowledge of the defence had grown from there. Everyone has heard about the Kokoda Track and Port Moresby is at its southern end after all. How wrong I was. However, all is not lost, as this book has been widely available since its release and is about to go into its second printing.

At the outbreak of war in 1939, despite all manner of rumblings and the massive expansion of the RAF, the Royal Australian Air Force was woefully, embarrassingly, dangerously ill-prepared. Two years later, with many eligible young men being trained to fly for service in the northern hemisphere, things were not much better. Moves had been made to acquire modern aircraft – Hudsons, Catalinas and the like – but Japan’s entry into the war still found the RAAF as a feeder force for the war against Germany. The bombing of Darwin in February 1942 was largely unopposed with the only thing approaching an airborne defence being USAAF Warhawks in transit for their nightmare in Java. For the previous two decades, Australian men and women, the former having vast experience flying in the Great War, had crisscrossed the world setting records, breaking others and generally leading the way for a nation that had wholeheartedly embraced aviation. That the RAAF was so poorly prepared for war on its doorstep speaks volumes for the apron strings still tied to Mother England and a myriad of other apparent ‘security blankets’ that this is not the place to discuss (and has already been covered elsewhere in a manner that I could only dream of).

What the RAAF did have, however, by virtue of it feeding fine aircrew to the war against Germany, was some very experienced operational leaders. Importantly, they had current experience and were quick to learn. Some soon found themselves on their way home, not so much for a rest, but to throw themselves at the Japanese juggernaut.

Of the pilots who came together to form 75 Squadron, only four could be regarded as being experienced in combat. Joining them were pilots whose experience ranged from short periods serving on active squadrons to being fresh out of training. They were expected to get to grips with their new Kittyhawks and then fly them to Moresby where they would almost immediately go up against Japanese flyers who, as the Australians trained in Queensland, flew unhindered over Moresby and its surrounds, taking their time to select targets during the two or three daily raids on the town.

The first four Kittyhawks arrived at 7-Mile on 21 March and all were damaged by gunfire from twitchy soldiers who had been promised the arrival of the ‘Neverhawks’ for months. Shortly after being repaired, two of the fighters intercepted and shot down a ‘Sally’ much to the joy of the weary defenders on the ground. The next day, the squadron mounted a strafing attack on the Japanese aircraft lined up at Lae on the other side of the Owen Stanley ranges. The attack officially announced the arrival of the Australians to the Japanese and there was now to be no let up. The Kittyhawk pilots rarely had time to climb to the height of the bombers as they sailed over Moresby and, of course, there was no point dogfighting the ‘Zeroes’. Accidents, regular strafing attacks and air combat losses always had 75 Squadron on the back foot, but like much of the Allied effort at the time, there was no giving up. The most important thing was that they were there. There was resistance and the Japanese had to pay attention.

As the number of Kittyhawks was whittled down, the Americans arrived and the Australians were soon escorting A-24 dive-bombers. While the Americans suffered heavily as well, it was the beginning of a build-up that would see the airfields around Moresby house an impressive striking force and something the Japanese, ever more stretched as the war progressed, failed to counter effectively with what became sporadic attacks with little follow up to keep the pressure on.

The Australians made numerous claims, the Japanese even more so, and these scores have always added to the ‘legendary defence of Port Moresby’. Subsequent research has revealed that few of the claims could be equated to destroyed Japanese aircraft. Again, though, these young men, who lost their superb leader after a month of hectic operations, made a stand and held the line to allow time for further Allied air assets to arrive. Several were killed. Others were shot down and made it back to the squadron shortly thereafter or, in the case of Wilbur Wackett, after a month in the jungle. When the squadron finally left to return to Australia, immediately following a strafing attack by ‘Zeroes’, just one Kittyhawk made the flight.

In his typical style, the author has written a very readable narrative that focuses on the men of the squadron as opposed to the tactical side of the campaign. That framework is there, of course, but it is the first hand accounts that fill in the holes. In the summary above, I have deliberately only mentioned one name as to list the likes of Peter Turnbull, John Jackson and Peter Jeffrey is to skirt danger by going off and writing about what incredible flyers and leaders they were. They are, after all, some of the great names of the RAAF’s operational leadership and they feature heavily. They were, however, being experienced and able to relate to each other on those terms, part of a clique that developed in the squadron that led to some of the junior pilots feeling like they weren’t part of the family. This was further driven home when Les Jackson took command as, for the first twenty chapters, there is regular mention of his peculiar nature and apparent inability to relate to his charges despite being quite inexperienced himself. There is little explanation of his quirks until almost the end of the book when a chapter, perfectly titled ‘Erratic Leadership’, is devoted to examining the younger Jackson’s time in command.

One theme throughout the book is that the squadron was let down at every turn and by every level above. Terrible living conditions, bad food, the clique, and little recognition for their work, just had to be overcome. Senior leadership back in Australia had little idea and were in quite a flap as they scrambled to catch up. That didn’t stop them from criticising the good work the squadron managed to achieve in these conditions, however, and that criticism led to something that should never have happened. 

Despite the heavy, morbid content that comes with fighting a losing battle, the narrative almost skips along at times. Cleverly, and rightly so, the most poignant comments come from those who were there and the author moulds the story around these accounts. Losses are not dwelled upon too much which reflects the coping mechanism of the hard working combat flyer, but also hints at the lack of squadron cohesiveness at times. Everything was just so rushed and underdone. A shining light among the excellent personal accounts is the squadron doctor, Deane-Butcher. Both his memoirs and the results of an interview with the author are a common thread throughout the narrative and, in his roles as confidant and the maintenance of squadron health, the good doctor is a strong foundation.

What is really pleasing about 44 Days, as hinted above, is that it achieved widespread distribution beyond where many aircrew books can sometimes be found. Importantly, it is an informative, well-written account of 75 Squadron’s first tour in New Guinea. Some technical errors and typos did manage to creep in, but these are being addressed in time for the second printing. Again, the fact that there is a second printing is important. It means the story is getting out there and, as I write this on the 75th anniversary of the squadron’s departure from Moresby, that is wonderful news. Had this been a ‘scholarly’ book, eminently heavier to read, there is little doubt it would not have sold much beyond the wartime aviation history market. Instead we have a flowing, but detailed, narrative that doesn’t get bogged down and keeps its sights firmly on squadron life (admittedly at the expense of a thorough examination of the Japanese side of things and making the brave decision to reference an event from a Martin Caidin book). While it won’t be classed as the ultimate reference work on this period, it is the first book in a very long time to devote itself entirely to this vital period in an esteemed unit’s history. That alone is great, but 44 Days offers so much more.

ISBN 978-0-7336-3363-8