No. 15 Fighter Squadron (RNZAF): Second World War

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No.15 Fighter Squadron, RNZAF, fought in the South Pacific, helping to defend Guadalcanal and taking part in the invasions of New Georgia and Bougainville and the later Australian campaign on Bougainville well as the long campaign to neutralise the Japanese base at Rabaul.

No.15 Fighter Squadron was formed at Whenuapai on 1 June 1942, taking advantage of an improvement in the number of Kittyhawk fighters available in New Zealand.

During 1942 the American and New Zealand commands came up with a plan in which New Zealand air crew and ground staffs would take over the aircraft of an existing American squadron. This only took place once, in October 1942, when the personnel of No.15 Fighter Squadron moved to Tonga and took over the P-40 Kittyhawks of the 68th Pursuit Squadron, USAAF. After this single experiment all future New Zealand squadrons to move overseas brought their own aircraft. Presumably this was partly because the incoming New Zealanders found their 'new' aircraft to badly maintained and in need of a great deal of work (hardly surprising given that the 68th knew they were about to leave them behind). The squadron also inherited two sets of American radar, but this time the change-over was better handled, with the American personnel staying to train the new arrivals.

The squadron had several roles on Tonga. It was to provide fighter cover over the island, so had to have aircraft on stand-by. It also had to fly dawn and dusk patrols over the surrounding seas, looking out for Japanese submarines. None were found.

1943

In February 1943 the squadron was moved to Espiritu Santo, where it operated in the air defence role. It was also used as a reserve for the fighter squadrons on Guadalcanal.

In March the squadron moved to Fiji to train with US Carrier Air Group 11. The idea was for the squadron to operate alongside the American carriers, but this plan was cancelled. No.15 returned to Espiritu where it received more modern P-40s, and then moved to Guadalcanal on 26 April.

The squadron had six main roles on Guadalcanal - to provide fighter patrols over Guadalcanal and the Russell Islands, to intercept any Japanese raids on those bases, to escort American convoys, to provide escorts for American bombers, to attack suitable ground targets and to carry out sweeps over Japanese bases in an attempt to tempt them into battles the Japanese couldn't really afford.

No.15 Squadron began operations on 29 April with the first of a series of uneventful patrols. Escort missions, both of bombers and surface ships, began in early May. The first contact with Japanese aircraft came on 6 May when two fighters escorting a Hudson shot down a float plane.

On 8 May the squadron took part in an attack on Japanese destroyers that had hit mines in the Blackett Strait near Kolombangara. The fighters strafed the destroyers before American bombers hit them with 1,000lb bombs.

On 7 June the squadron took part in the defensive fight against a large Japanese raid that was intended to hit the invasion fleet being prepared for the invasion of New Georgia (Operation Toenails). No.15 Squadron committed twelve aircraft to this fight, and shot down four Japanese aircraft. Four P-40s were damaged and two had to crash landings on the Russell Islands. The squadron also took off during a second Japanese raid on 12 June, but didn't make contact with the enemy. By the end of June the squadron had been relieved.

In September the squadron returned to Guadalcanal for a second tour, joining No.17 Squadron. This time the squadron remained in the combat area until the second week of November, longer than the usual length of tour for a RNZAF squadron.

On 14-16 September the Americans carried out a series of heavy raids on the Japanese positions at Kahili and Ballale, in the southern Bougainville area. Nos.15 and 17 Squadrons provided part of the escort, although the only clash with the Japanese came on 16 September when two pilots from No.17 Squadron were nearly shot down.

The two squadrons then provided fighter cover over Allied convoys that were moving troops from Guadalcanal to Vella Lavella.

On 1 October No.15 Squadron helped defend a convoy carrying part of the 3rd New Zealand Division when it was attacked off Vella Lavella. The squadron claimed seven Japanese dive bombers in this clash.

On 24 October No. 15 and No.18 Squadron both moved to the new New Zealand base at Ondonga, on the western coast of New Georgia. The Japanese greeted them with a bombing raid on 27 October, a reminder that the Japanese airfields on Bougainville were only 120 miles away. The two squadrons operated together as the RNZAF Fighter Wing. The two squadrons provided fighter escort for the American bombers attacking the Japanese bases on Bougainville throughout October.

On 27 October 1943 American and New Zealand troops invaded the Treasury Islands (Operation Goodtime). Nos.15 and 18 Squadrons provided fighter cover for this operation. Ten patrols were flown on 27 October, with No.15 providing four. Both squadrons were involved in a clash with Japanese dive bombers and fighters that attacked the landing during the afternoon and claimed four Japanese fighters.

On 30 October both squadrons provided part of the fighter escort for an American strike on Choiseul Island, carried out as part of Operation Blissful, a diversionary raid that was hoped to draw Japanese attention to the wrong part of Bougainville.

On 1 November the Americans landed at Empress Augusta Bay on the west coast of Bougainville (Operation Cherryblossom). At the same time a naval force bombarded the Japanese bases in the north of Bougainville. Nos.15 and 18 Squadrons provided part of the fighter escort for that raid, but saw no enemy aircraft.

On the night after the invasion the Japanese navy attempted to intervene but was fought off (Battle of Empress Augusta Bay, 1-2 November 1943). On the next day the Allies attempted to find the retreating Japanese ships and both RNZAF squadrons provided fighter escorts for the search aircraft.

In November the RNZAF Fighter Wing flew over 1,000 sorties. Amongst them were a large number of dawn patrols over their base and longer range missions to Empress Augusta Bay. They were also used to provide fighter escorts for American bombers and on ground attack missions.

Early in November No.15 Squadron was relieved by No. 14 Squadron. Later in the month No.18 Squadron was replaced by No.16 Squadron.

No.15 Squadron returned to the wing in the second half of December 1943.

1944

On 17 January 1944 the wing moved to Torokina on Bougainville. Their new base was completed by 23 January. The move was very welcome as it cut three hours flying off most operations.

As the main focus of the fighting moved away from the Solomon Islands most RNZAF squadrons were left behind (partly as a result of political arguments and partly for practical reasons - land based squadrons weren't so useful as the US Navy advanced across the Pacific Islands). No.15 Squadron remained in the Solomons for most of the war, moving between Guadalcanal, New Georgia and Bougainville, with spells on Espiritu Santo.

The Japanese retained a presence on Bougainville until the end of the war. No.15 Squadron had several spells on Bougainville after this debate - June-July 1944, November-December 1944 and June-September 1945, operating alongside Australian ground troops.

During the June-July 1944 spell the squadron provided part of the air defence for the Empress Augusta Bay area as well as flying offensive sweeps across Bougainville and the Rabaul area, normally operating as fighter-bombers.

For a short spell in November 1944 No.15 was the only RNZAF squadron on Bougainville. It was then relieved by No.24 Squadron. During this period the Australians began their offensive on Bougainville. On 7 December eight aircraft from No.15 Squadron was called to provide close support for Australian infantry at Piaterapaia, on the Numa Numa trail (part of their central advance across the spine of the island). The squadron dropped their 325lb depth-charges from 800ft, destroying the Japanese position. A week later the squadron carried out another attack in the same area to support an Australian attack at Retsiopaia.

1945

In February 1945 No.15 Squadron relieved No.16 Squadron on Green Island, between Bougainville and Rabaul. The squadron had several tasks on Green Island - to fly dawn and dusk patrols, to have aircraft ready to scramble to respond to a Japanese raid, to provide escorts for 'Dumbo' air sea rescue aircraft and to maintain a standing patrol over the isolated Japanese base at Rabaul.

In April the squadron was replaced on Green Island by No.21 Squadron.

In June 1945 the squadron returned to Bougainville as part of a mass relief of all four RNZAF fighter squadrons based on the island (replacing No.14 Squadron, RNZAF). It was still on Bougainville when the Japanese surrendered.

All four squadrons had to provide dawn and dusk patrols to guard against any possible Japanese air attacks. They were also used for ground attack missions, attacking tactical targets close to the Australian lines, troop concentrations behind the lines and targets around the main Japanese bases. Between them the four squadrons averaged over 60 sorties per day, with a peak of over 100.

The squadron was still on Bougainville when the Japanese surrendered in August 1945. It returned to New Zealand in September and was disbanded in October 1945

Aircraft
1942-44: Curtiss Kittyhawk
1944-45: Chance Vought F4U Corsair

Location
1 June 1942-October 1942: Whenuapai, New Zealand
October 1942-February 1943: Tonga
February-April 1943: Espiritu Santo
   March-April 1943: To Fiji for training
26 April-June 1943: Guadalcanal

September-October 1943: Guadalcanal
October-November 1943: Ondonga, New Georgia

December 1943-January 1944: New Georgia
January 1944-: Torokina, Bougainville

June-July 1944: Bougainville

September-October 1944: Santo
November-December 1944: Bougainville

May-June 1944: Guadalcanal

January-February 1945: Santo
February-April 1945: Green Island

June-September 1945: Bougainville

Books

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (5 June 2013), No. 15 Fighter Squadron (RNZAF): Second World War, http://www.historyofwar.org/air/units/RNZAF/No_15_sqn_RNZAF.html

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