March 2, 1945
From the cockpit of the Australian Beaufort, Flight Sergeant Ron Smith stared at the aircraft’s starboard wing. A fist size hole had suddenly blossomed inboard of the engine and through the jagged metal he could see the jungle streaming past only fifty metres below. Smith’s first reaction was outrage that the Japanese gunners should damage his aircraft, however, this quickly turned to fear as another shell punched through the engine cowl and tore out the fuel lines. Both rounds exploded above the cockpit, ripping shrapnel through the perspex and shattering the instrument panel – one fragment slicing the glove across the back of his left hand then lodging in the prismatic compass.
Smith had no time to dwell on his luck for he now had his hands full controlling the aircraft. Even though the starboard engine stopped when the second round ripped through the fuel lines, the propeller continued turning in the slipstream. He tried the propeller’s feather control but it refused to work. Quickly he opened the throttle on the remaining engine but the combined effect of dead-engine drag and added power, swung the aircraft wildly to the right. To compensate he shoved in left rudder and aileron, creating more drag that needed even more power. He nudged the boost lever forward until the big Pratt and Whitney radial was delivering its maximum, but even then the aircraft barely maintained altitude...
Smith was no stranger to the Beaufort, in the six months he’d been with the squadron he’d chalked up almost four hundred hours on the aircraft. Before that he’d flown Beaufighters for a year - also in New Guinea. It was a faster and more powerful development of the Beaufort, so in anyone’s language he was rated as an experienced combat pilot. But now he realized, he was faced with a situation that would take all of his experience if he and his crew were to survive.
This morning’s mission had begun as most had, with a briefing in the Seven Squadron operations room at Tadji before first light. Here surrounded by aerial photos, maps and weather charts, the operations officer outlined reports from coast watchers, intelligence agents and army units advancing on the Japanese held port of Wewak one hundred miles down the coast. Today’s mission was the “usual” squadron raid – nine Beauforts would take off at dawn, gather into formation over the sea then head for Wewak at four thousand feet. Ten minutes from the target, all aircraft would descend to five hundred feet then cross inland to pick up the run-in marker north of the port and from there, in groups of three, they’d make their attacks.
Australian coast watchers had reported a Japanese freighter sneaking into harbor the previous night and the raid had been timed so that all aircraft arrived over the port just after sunrise. With luck they’d catch the freighter still unloading, hopefully with plenty of enemy soldiers and vehicles in the open as they tried to disperse the cargo. This was part of the strategy of denying the Japanese essential supplies and destroying those that did make it through the naval blockade. For this raid all aircraft carried a load of two, two hundred and fifty kilogram and four, one hundred and twenty kilogram bombs – the smaller bombs fused to surface detonate and cause maximum casualties among the dock workers.
Smith was leading a vic of three aircraft that had been assigned the dock area. For him and his crew this mission was just another in what now seemed to be an endless series of raids. However, although they’d made the Wewak run many times, they treated every mission as if it was their first. They knew that complacency was as much a danger as the enemy and that one momentary slip could turn luck against them.
Wewak was a hive of anti-aircraft fire and though they’d have an element of surprise with them, their approach would be reported and every Japanese soldier for miles around would be alerted for their arrival. Over the target they could expect to be met with everything from small arms to 80mm anti-aircraft fire, much of which was deadly accurate. To minimise their exposure all aircraft would hug the ground, drop their bombs at low level, then escape out to sea where they’d assess the attack and if necessary select targets of opportunity and hit them again.
That morning the briefing, the aircraft pre-flights, then take-off went as planned, with no delays or last minute mechanical problems that often left one or more aircraft behind. The squadron climbed out into the rising sun – an irony not lost on Smith – then turned south over the sea and set course for Wewak, twenty minutes away. To the west the Torecelli Mountains were cloaked in mist that clung to the trees like a white veil, while ahead the sky was clear with only a few cloud smudges on the horizon to indicate the storms that would build later in the day.
There was the usual after take-off chatter over the intercom as the crew settled into the mission – the navigator in his nose compartment cross checking with the pilot to ensure their instruments were in synch, the wireless operator in the compartment behind the pilot tuning his equipment and the gunner in the dorsal turret tapping off a few test rounds from his twin .303 cal machine guns. All were part of a ritual that not only served to confirm that everything was functioning correctly, but also helped calm the crew’s nerves.
Ten minutes into the flight an eerie silence descended among the crew. It was always this way, because now all knew they were approaching the half way mark. From here on the situation became deadly serious. Smith shifted in his seat and loosened his seat harness slightly. He had a habit of doing this, even though the full body Sutton harness was vital for protection, the straps also restricted movement to such an extent that it could actually hamper a pilot’s reach. Experience had taught him to compromise.
Today the three aircraft he was leading was the second group in the formation. He watched the lead group a hundred yards ahead, the three aircraft holding tight station on each other in the calm air over the sea. He remembered such a moment only a month back when they’d drawn fire from Japanese guns and one Beaufort suddenly erupted in a flash of greasy yellow fire. They’d flown through the heart of the explosion, the only effect some singed paint and a slight bump to mark the place in the sky where four men died.
It was experiences like that which worried him most. If a Japanese shell found the bomb-load, it didn’t matter how experienced or clever a pilot one was, because it would be game over in the blink of an eye. At least if they took damage in an attack, one had a fighting chance of controlling the aircraft and making it back in one piece.
But suddenly that morning, he doubted his own theory.
The attack had gone as planned. Five minutes from Wewak the formation descended to five hundred feet and flew inland. There they used a prominent hill as a navigation marker, turned south and spread out into their attack groups. Smith’s navigator then called the course to the target and he’d banked the aircraft onto the heading, then opened the throttles until the airspeed reached two hundred and seventy miles an hour. With the two other aircraft in his section streaming astern at five hundred meter intervals, he pressed lower until they were skimming the tree tops.
Beneath the Beaufort the ground unraveled like a green conveyor, the hills giving way to the neat squares of palm plantations near the coast. Sighting a road, Smith checked his course, then saw the harbor ahead and lined up on a row of warehouses. There was no sign of the freighter mentioned in the briefing – it had probably left the harbor before dawn. The dock area was stacked with cargo, a line of trucks suddenly breaking ranks as warning of the approaching aircraft sounded.
Smith held the Beaufort steady and aimed at the cargo stacks. Howling low over the dock, he heard the navigator call “bombs gone” and felt the aircraft lurch as the load fell clear. Behind him the dorsal gunner’s twin 303s were hammering away and in the nose the navigator joined in with his .50 calibre, the stench of cordite filling the cockpit. Banking further right to track along another line of warehouses, he sensed rather than heard the impact of the bombs behind them. Flicking off the gun safety, he pressed the yoke fire button and opened up with the two wing mounted fifty caliber machine guns. Using tracer to aim he marched the rounds into the waterfront buildings before banking left over the port and swinging into a wide turn that took them out to sea.
It was then that they were hit...