The Air Force
The Royal New Zealand Air Force, set up as a separate service in 1937, numbered only 756 Regulars and 404 Territorials at the start of the war, though it had already contributed over 100 trained pilots to the RAF. Its main concern was to supply trained aircrew for service in the RAF, and its quota under the Empire Air Training Plan was eventually fixed at 880 fully trained pilots per year and 520 pilots, 546 observers, and 936 air gunners partly trained and then sent to Canada to complete their training. This high rate of output was expected to be reached by the end of 1940; but by straining all resources to the utmost an annual rate of 1,480 fully trained and 850 partly trained pilots was reached by January 1941. Only an instructional and maintenance staff was retained in New Zealand, plus aircrew and ground staff for three bomber-reconnaissance squadrons.
New Zealanders in the RAF
Many New Zealanders had stayed in the RAF after the First World War or had joined it between the wars and, including those trained by the RNZAF, they numbered 550 in September 1939. Several of them held high positions. Air Chief Marshal Sir Keith Park (as he later became) was chief of staff to the head of Fighter Command. Air Marshal Sir Arthur Coningham was then a group commander in Bomber Command, as was Air Vice-Marshal C. T. MacLean. Park commanded the RAF at Malta at the height of its ordeal in 1942, then the RAF in the Middle East, and finally became Allied Air C-in-C, South-East Asia. Coningham commanded the Western Desert Air Force, then the 1st Tactical Air Force in Italy, and finally the 2nd Tactical Air Force in the invasion of Europe. Air Vice-Marshal F. H. M. Maynard was sent to command at Malta early in the war.
At the outset the Government waived its claim to 30 Wellington bombers ordered in 1937, the first six of which were about to be flown to New Zealand. These, with their New Zealand crews, were therefore formed into the New Zealand Flight and this built up by April 1940 to squadron strength and became No. 75 New Zealand Squadron, RAF. Other RNZAF men attached to the RAF were already serving in France in support of the BEF and one of them, Flying Officer “Cobber” Kain, with 14 enemy aircraft to his credit by June 1940 (when he was killed), became the first air ace of the war. The last Hurricane to fly over Cherbourg in June 1940, when the BEF left, was piloted by Park.
The Battle of Britain
The Luftwaffe began to exert its great strength against south coast shipping, ports, and airfields on 10 July 1940 and began its grand assault on 15 August. Park, as commander of No. 11 Fighter Group, directed the defence. Four New Zealanders commanded fighter squadrons and 95, in all, fought as fighter pilots in the battle. Several proved outstanding. But fighter pilots were not the only heroes of the battle. Bomber and Coastal Commands were also engaged, and of the 47 New Zealand airmen killed in the Battle of Britain, 32 belonged to these two commands. Other New Zealanders served as night-fighter pilots when the Germans turned to night bombing of English cities and, of the 90 night raiders shot down in May 1941, 16 were claimed by New Zealanders.
New Zealand Units of the RAF
Besides 75 Squadron, New Zealand units were formed in the RAF (though by no means exclusively of New Zealanders).
Some other units at various times gained a strong New Zealand flavour and one, No. 258 Fighter Squadron, in 1941 had a majority of New Zealand pilots. It adopted a fernleaf emblem, and became an “unofficial” New Zealand squadron.
The bare details of the varied operations of these squadrons are impressive. No. 485 flew 10,717 sorties and claimed 63 aircraft destroyed, 25 “probables”, and 32 damaged. No. 486 flew 11,019 sorties, destroyed 81 aircraft with five probables and 22 damaged, accounted for 223 flying bombs, and probably sank 16 ships at sea or in port. No. 487 suffered heavy loss when flying Ventura day bombers, only one out of 11 returning from an attack on 3 May, when the squadron leader, L. H. Trent, won the V.C. With Mosquito bombers it bombed Amiens Prison to help condemned patriots to escape and, as an aid to the Resistance, bombed Gestapo headquarters at Jutland from rooftop height. In the course of 3,112 sorties, it did much other damage, especially to transport facilities. No. 488 in 2,899 sorties destroyed 67 aircraft, with four probables and 10 damaged. No. 489, in daring low-level torpedo attacks against fierce anti-aircraft fire in the North Sea, sank 11 ships totalling 38,700 tons, mostly off the dangerous coast of Norway, and damaged a further 13 of 30,000 tons. In the last year of the war it formed, with an Australian squadron and an English one, the Anzac Strike Wing, which attacked shipping off Holland and then off Norway; it sank 19 ships of 67,000 tons and 12 escort vessels and damaged 18 cargo ships and 49 escorts. In 2,380 sorties the squadron lost 31 aircraft, from which very few of the aircrew survived. No. 490 flew only 463 sorties, but these averaged 10 hours each. Only once did a squadron flying boat sight and attack a submarine and by a coincidence another submarine was attacked less than 100 miles away at that very time by a New Zealander, L. A. Trigg. From the evidence of survivors of the submarine about the way in which Trigg maintained his attack despite his crippled aircraft, he gained a posthumous V.C.
Most RNZAF men attached to the RAF served in heavy units of Bomber Command, which fought the greatest air campaign of the war against Germany and suffered the heaviest losses. Their experiences, if they survived, usually followed the pattern of operations of No. 75 Squadron, which began with Wellingtons, gained four-engined Stirlings towards the end of 1942, and changed these for Lancasters in the spring of 1944. Their worst enemy at first was the weather. Then, as navigation and bombing aids improved, they had to contend with stiffening air defences, and the most costly raids were quite late in the war. No. 75 Squadron won a V.C. in August 1941 – that of J. A. Ward. In May and June 1942 it took part in the first 1,000-bomber raids. In the Battle of the Ruhr in the first seven months of 1943 and in laying mines in enemy waters between January 1943 and February 1944, the unit lost about 50 Stirlings. Re-equipped with Lancasters, the squadron resumed the bombing of Germany and flew many an anxious night sortie into the heart of this fortress – missions which strained courage and endurance and tested skill as searchingly as any other task of the war. In the final battle the unit lost 32 Lancasters – more than 200 aircrew. This brought the total to 8,150 sorties, averaging five hours each, in which 21,630 tons of bombs were dropped and 2,344 mines laid. In addition, 75 Squadron probably shot down 45 fighters.
Strengths and Losses
There were 6,127 RNZAF men attached to the RAF in October 1944, the peak figure. The cumulative total, plus New Zealanders known to be in the RAF, was 10,950. Of these, 3,285 were killed, at least 138 seriously wounded, and 568 captured. This was a very high rate of loss indeed. Losses would have been far fewer had New Zealand sent aircrew and ground staff in balanced proportions to serve in the RAF. But in that case some memorable pages in the history of the RAF could never have been written.