Over Rabaul in a Beaufort

by Frank Smyth

WINGS correspondent who flew with the squadrons.

This wartime story is reprinted from WINGS, 23 January 1945.

Down through the Markham Valley passed squadrons of Beauforts to join another squadron in a series of night attacks on the enemy in New Britain and Rabaul. These raids were to culminate in a combined bomber and RAN action on a Japanese strong post in Wide Bay where the concentration of enemy forces forms one of Nippon’s main Rabaul defences.

Putting down on an island within good striking range of the targets, the crews received a thorough briefing. Some airstrips held by the Nips were still serviceable. Two serviceable Zeros were standing near one landing ground. The Japs had ten to a dozen float planes in the area. Ackack could be expected at certain points. Its range and accuracy had been noted, concentrations of supplies and equipment pin-pointed and noticeable enemy activity marked. The programme was drawn out on photographs and maps.

Then the weather man talked of ‘fronts’, winds, cloud formations. It was the usual routine, but the routine that spells success or failure in a bombing mission. In the failing daylight our Beauforts took off. They left the strip singly with a two-minute interval between, moved into pairs and as far as the eye could see were strung out across the sea. That night dumps of stores and equipment and concentrations of enemy troops around Tobera aerodrome got a pasting.

‘The strip stood out in the moonlight for a great distance before we reached it,’ crews told the interrogator. ‘We couldn’t miss it … Our bombs landed in here.’ They pointed to a spot on the map dead in the centre of the target. Later arrivals reported that bombs were seen exploding all along the area.

The first strike had been almost too easy. The target for the following night was Rabaul itself. Reconnaissance aircraft reported that there was something there to burn and something worth burning. Buildings undamaged in previous raids were believed to hold stores and equipment. The Nips were still strongly entrenched. The formation would pass directly over ackack gun posts, the biggest of which was on the bombing line.

‘You’ll turn sharply there and strike across the coast to the sea,’ W/Cdr Brian Waddy, of Frewville, SA, told the crews. The squadrons were under the general command of the wing commander, who was leading the attacks. Aircraft, he said, would go in singly and each pilot was given the minute at which it was his duty to be over the target.

It seemed no time before crews were back at the base, reporting to intelligence officers. The ‘Do’ had been successful. W/Cdr described it as a ‘dead hit’. A successful ‘Do’. That generally summed up the story told by the crews. They spoke of bombs bursting along the extent of the settlement and of fires. Characteristic of W/Cdr Hugh Conaghan’s brevity was his ‘Dead right release’. Some of them met ackack but generally the discharges were so weak as to appear to the airmen to explode just above the ground.

Paltry searchlights were in action. The best of them might have reached our bombers (although that was questionable) but for the Jap’s sense of direction, and the lights were operated nervously. Then came the biggest event of the session. The Wing Commander pointed to a spot on the map and announced, ‘Tomorrow we expect to join with ships of the Royal Australian Navy in a shelling and bombing action on enemy concentrations on the coast up here.’

F/Lt Joe Hogan, of Port Augusta, SA, built up the story. There was a Jap headquarters there, a wireless station, lookout posts and a considerable force of troops. The air action was being directed by Group Captain L.V. ‘Snow’ Lachal, of Melbourne, who was aboard a destroyer. We were called out at 2.30 am, had a cup of tea and a scone, and gathered up our Mae Wests, phones and whatnots. (The number of ‘doovers’ carried by the navigator always intrigues me.)

Off to Rabaul

I climbed in alongside pilot F/O Stan Polkinghorne of Griffith, NSW. We flew across the sea in formation, the bomber in which I was flying leading the second flight.

The Navy ships were steaming into the bay as we struck the coast at the break of dawn. All points in the meeting had been nicely timed. We went over the bay as if to go on further, not with the idea of misleading the enemy, but to give our flight commanders an opportunity of looking over the target. The rear squadron then broke formation and led by W\Cdr Hugh Conaghan, of Coolangatta, Qld, went in on a line to unload their cargoes on a target just below the entrance. Other squadrons continued on across the inner bay.

Bombs away

Keeping an eye on the navigator P/O Harry Marsh, of Inverell, NSW I saw his hand move significantly. Then I sat up to see bombs hurtling down to the ground below from the aircraft around us.

As we moved on, those behind us were unloading their sticks. Of the installations picked out by leaders of the flights, an anti-aircraft gun stood out before F/Lt Al Waymond, of Melbourne, and a stick fell across it. Bomb craters were dug along the extent of the bay. W/Cdr Conaghan’s squadron registered similar results.

As the RAAF Beauforts passed over the coastline, the RAN warships opened up and shelled Jap installations around the harbour for an hour and a half. Two Bombers stayed to spot for the Navy. Some of our aircraft carried cameras. The pictures secured, with the observations of spotters, left no doubt as to the success of the mission and the change in physical features wrought on Wide Bay that morning.

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