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Defending Australia in the Air-Sea Gap — Alan Stephens

This month marks the 75th anniversary of one of Australia’s most important feats of arms, the defence of Port Moresby by the Royal Australian Air Force’s No. 75 Squadron in March/April 1942.

Between December 1941 and March 1942, Japanese forces shocked Australians when they swept southwards, capturing Malaya, the Netherlands East Indies and Rabaul in rapid succession.

Suddenly, the battle for Australia had reached New Guinea, only 150 kilometres from the northern tip of Queensland. Control of the air-sea gap that constitutes Australia’s natural defensive barrier was the key. If Port Moresby fell, intensified bombing followed by a sea-borne invasion, with its unthinkable consequences, seemed likely.

Army reinforcements which had been sent to Port Moresby in January were coming under heavy air attack from Rabaul, now a major Japanese stronghold. RAAF Catalinas and Hudsons based in New Guinea retaliated, but to little effect. As the supremacy of Japan’s elite fighter squadrons in the preceding months had shown, effective air defence demanded modern aircraft flown by skilled pilots.

75 Squadron Kittyhawk overhead Port Moresby [Image credit: Defence]

75 Squadron Kittyhawk overhead Port Moresby [Image credit: Defence]

Urgent representations to the United States resulted in the delivery to the RAAF of P-40 Kittyhawk fighters. In an atmosphere of crisis, three squadrons – Nos. 75, 76 and 77 – were raised in the first two weeks of March, and only a week later No. 75 Squadron was rushed to Port Moresby. Several pilots were veterans of the North African campaign, but for the others the word ‘training’ seems too formal to describe their introduction to the Kittyhawk. When they landed in Port Moresby some had flown a mere dozen hours in the aircraft and had fired the guns only once. Yet under the leadership of Squadron Leader John Jackson, they were about to achieve one of the great feats of arms in Australian military history.

They were fortunate in the Air Force’s choice of their leader. Born in Brisbane in 1908, Jackson had been a grazier and stock and station agent, as well as a member of the Citizen Air Force. He had fought in North Africa with No. 3 Squadron and had 5½ kills to his credit before returning to the Southwest Pacific Area.

Jackson assumed command of No. 75 Squadron on 19 March 1942 and led his unit north to war that very same day. Arriving at Moresby’s ‘Seven Mile’ strip (so named because it was seven miles from the town) on the 21st, the pilots of the first four Kittyhawks were fortunate to escape with their lives when Australian Army gunners opened fire, mistaking them for Zeros. All aircraft were hit.

Known affectionately as ‘Old John’ because his thirty-four years made him elderly for a fighter pilot, Jackson provided his untried unit with a calm head, a wealth of combat knowledge, and inspirational leadership. When two of his pilots shot down an enemy reconnaissance aircraft within an hour of the squadron’s arrival at Port Moresby and in full view of the garrison, spirits were immediately lifted.

The day after arriving Jackson led nine Kittyhawks – including one flown by his younger brother Les – on a strafing attack against Lae. Taking off at first light and catching the enemy by surprise, No. 75 Squadron swept in from the sea so low that the wing of one Kittyhawk struck a parked aircraft. Twelve enemy machines were left in flames and another five were damaged. That set the scene for the coming weeks as the squadron flew an exhausting schedule, alternating between daring strikes against Japanese strongholds and sudden scrambles to defend Port Moresby.

Squadron Leader John Jackson, 28 April 1942 [Image credit: RAAF]

Squadron Leader John Jackson, 28 April 1942 [Image credit: RAAF]

When Jackson failed to return from a reconnaissance mission on 10 April his squadron sank into a depression, a mood which was lifted eight days later when it was learnt he was safe. Having been bounced by three Zeros and shot down near Lae, Jackson had made a remarkable escape, firstly feigning death alongside his crashed aircraft so the circling Zeros would not finish him off; and then, helped by two natives, trekking bare-foot through the jungle for eight days, occasionally within earshot of Japanese patrols.

Nor was the drama over then. As the aircraft which brought him back to Port Moresby was about to touch-down it was attacked by a Zero, a bullet shooting off the tip of Jackson’s right index finger. It nevertheless landed safely and within days Jackson was back on operations.

Fate, however, is an ephemeral power. The intensity of sustained combat had by this time reduced No. 75 Squadron’s strength severely. On 28 April Jackson led the squadron’s five remaining serviceable Kittyhawks against an enemy force of eight bombers and their fighter escorts and, in the ensuing combat, after destroying a Zero, was shot down and killed.

In just over six tumultuous weeks, Jackson’s men had curtailed Japanese air power in New Guinea by destroying eighteen enemy aircraft in the air and seventeen on the ground. The price was severe: No. 75 Squadron had effectively ceased to exist, having lost twelve pilots and twenty-two aircraft. But Port Moresby was still in Australian hands; and on 3 May twenty-six USAAF Airacobra fighters arrived, becoming the first American aircraft to be based in New Guinea. The immediate threat to Australia had been contained.

Shortly afterwards, in a fitting memorial to one of Australia’s greatest feats of arms and to No. 75 Squadron’s inspirational commander, the Seven Mile strip was renamed ‘Jacksons’.

Australian Defence Force assets continue to operate from Jackson's International, Port Moresby [Image credit: RAAF]

Australian Defence Force assets continue to operate from Jackson’s International, Port Moresby [Image credit: RAAF]

Dr Alan Stephens is a Fellow of the Sir Richard Williams Foundation


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