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On Target: A Forgotten Campaign: The USAAF 49th Fighter Group over Darwin

Brian Weston 'On Target 'SA Forgotten Campaign: The USAAF 49th Fighter Group over Darwin' in Australian Aviation' September 2017

This year has seen many 75th anniversaries of battles and campaigns from the darkest hours of 1942 with the Battle of the Coral Sea (4 to 8 May) prominent. But in all these commemorative activities there has been no mention of the air campaign over Darwin conducted by the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) 49th Fighter Group from March to September 1942.

The prelude to the 49th Fighter Group campaign over Darwin, covers some of the darkest days of the Pacific War: the fall of Singapore on 15 February; the bombing of Darwin on 19 February, during which the Japanese shot down nine of the ten P-40s of Major Floyd Pell’s 33rd Pursuit Squadron; and the sinking of the USS Langley (CV-1) on 27 February, taking with it thirty-two P-40s and thirty-three pilots from the USAAF 13th Pursuit Squadron.

With the Netherlands East Indies and Philippines lost, American re-enforcements of three USAAF fighter groups ‒ two with the Bell P-39 and one with the Curtis P-40E ‒ were reconstituting in Australia. In March, the most advanced group, the 49th Fighter Group, commenced its move to the “Top End” where US and Australian units were feverishly constructing airfields and associated facilities. By April, the 49th, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Paul Wurtsmith, was in situ, with its three squadrons, the 9th, 8th and 7th, located at Livingstone, Strauss and Batchelor respectively.

Wurtsmith was a career officer, specializing in “pursuit” operations. He was a graduate of the US Army Air Corps Tactical School, with 4,800 flying hours. His Executive Officer, Major Don Hutchinson, was another pursuit specialist with 2,500 flying hours. The 49th Fighter Group was fortunate to have such experienced leaders plus a handful of veterans from the Philippines campaign, but that only masked the inexperience of the group as out of its initial strength of 102 pilots, ninety-five had never flown the P-40.

Supported by the RAAF No 5 Fighter Sector with its radars at Dripstone Caves (No 31) and Point Charles (No 105), and with the sector now including personnel from the USAAF 49th Fighter Interception Squadron, the 49th’s sixty P-40s provided Darwin with its only fighter defence from March to September 1942, against a threat comprising mainly fast and well-armed Mitsubishi G4M “Betty” bombers escorted by Mitsubishi A6M “Zero” fighters.

Darwin’s 3.7 inch anti-aircraft artillery forced the G4Ms to ingress at high level ‒ generally between 25,000 to 27,000 feet. Such a high ingress altitude sorely tested the P-40E fighters as their Allison V-1710 engines suffered from an inadequate mechanically-driven supercharger. The Allison, while rugged and reliable, lost considerable power at higher altitudes, with the operational ceiling of the P-40E limited to around 27,000 to 28,000 feet.

With “time-to-height” and operational ceiling limitations, Wurtsmith scrambled his squadrons in small maneuverable formations of four aircraft, with each flight leader listening to the No 5 Fighter Sector broadcast. This ensured each raid was subject to multiple interceptions by flights of P-40s, which effectively tied the escorting Zeros to the bomber formation to ensure unchallenged flights of P-40s did not slip through to engage the G4Ms.

But with the intercepting P-40s unable to climb above the Zeros, Wurtsmith’s pilots remained at a tactical disadvantage as the escorting Zeros invariably dived down upon them. Acknowledging the threat posed by the higher and more maneuverable Zeros, Wurtsmith exhorted his pilots to avoid dogfighting and immediately disengage when challenged by Zeros.

Over the period March to August 1942, Japanese records reveal nineteen Japanese aircraft were lost in the raids on Darwin. Losses comprised one reconnaissance aircraft, seven fighters and twelve bombers, plus several more aircraft damaged. In turn, the 49th Fighter Group lost nineteen fighters, including four pilots, with another eight pilots lost in non-combat related accidents.

Given the limitations of the P-40E as a high altitude interceptor, and the low experience level of the bulk of the USAAF pilots, the 49th Fighter Group can rightly claim to have done its job well. But in August, with the Japanese diverting their air forces to the Guadalcanal campaign, the Darwin campaign tailed off and the 49th Fighter Group commenced their move to Papua and New Guinea. The air defence of Darwin was passed to No 77 Squadron, which moved to Batchelor in August, and No 76 Squadron which, having returned from Milne Bay, moved to Strauss in October.

As for Paul Wurtsmith, he continued to serve with distinction in the South-West Pacific. As a brigadier general he commanded V Fighter Command in 5th Air Force, and then as a major general commanded 13th Air Force. His contribution, and that of the USAAF 49th Fighter Group and supporting units, deserves far greater recognition than it has received.

This column largely has been sourced from the paper “Darwin 1942: The Missing Year” by Anthony Cooper

Air-Vice Marshal Brian Weston (Retd) was CO No 75 Squadron in 1980, CO Base Squadron Richmond in 1986, OC Base Support Wing Richmond in 1987, and CDR Tactical Fighter Group from July 1990 to July 1993. Brian is a Board Member of the Williams Foundation and this On Target article appears in Australian Aviation magazine.

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On Target - 201709 - September - A forgo
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