War History Page 5

Flying through heavy weather on the 24th July, twelve of the squadron aircraft reached the target area, again Taberfane, where a total of thirteen floatplanes were observed on the water and in the air. Consequent clashes with the airborne aircraft resulted in four enemy aircraft damaged. The price to the squadron for this effort was one Beaufighter missing through ack-ack fire and two others damaged. Flying Officers Gillespie and Cameron did not return from this mission.

During July, the long-range fighters of No. 31 Squadron were also deployed to escort surface vessels and to afford protection against enemy air attacks. This was evidenced on the 2nd when two unidentified twin- engined aircraft were warded off from a convoy by the alert Beaufighter cover. Again, the following day, two “Haps” were forced away by the escorting aircraft. On this occasion, one Beaufighter’s guns jammed.

Two days later, a further attempt was made on ‘the convoy by a “Rufe” and two “Jakes”, and once more the guns on the same Beaufighter jammed. Besides all this activity, there were searches for missing aircraft and navigational training flights.

The month ended with a raid on Tanimbar Island, carried out by six aircraft. Villages were strafed and bombed and a small native craft and jetties shot up. During August, specific instructions were issued that aircraft were to be employed in accordance with the roles of the Squadron to which they were allotted. Hence No. 31 Squadron, being a long-range fighter squadron its Beaufighters were escort for surface vessels, for use in the destruction by low-flying attacks of enemy aeroplanes, particularly float- planes at bases within range and stores, fuel barges and small surface craft, concentrations of personnel and motor transport.

Taberfane was the target for the squadron throughout August. Five missions were flown, involving thirty-five sorties, besides four abortive ones through aircraft failing to reach the target. In the attack staged on the 11th eight Beaufighters damaged one “Pete” in aerial combat and another at its moorings, besides sinking three small vessels without loss to themselves. At this time it was noticed that floatplanes now in use had better performance than those previously encountered and could keep pace with the Beaufighter flying capacity.

On the 17th August, not entirely through the spectacular nature of their assignment, the Beaufighters burst again into the limelight.

Briefed to attack floatplanes at Taberfane, eight aircraft strafed a lugger containing troops on the Serwatoe River. The craft was set on fire and forty to fifty Japanese in the water were killed. At the same time, a thrilling dogfight ensued with five enemy aircraft – three “Rufes” and one “Pete” being destroyed and the remaining “Pete” damaged.

Four days later, over the same area, Beaufighters in dogfights destroyed two “Rufes” and claimed one “Pete” as probable. Two of our strafers collided in mid-air and were lost, killing Flight Lieutenant Gardiner and Flying Officers Dyne, Leithead and Graves. On the 26th and 30th August, similar tasks increased the squadron’s bag in the air and on the ground. In the latter attack No. 31 Squadron lost one aircraft. It was last seen being pursued by two floatplanes. Flight Lieutenant Willard and Sergeant Butler failed to return.

Early in September, the enemy attempted retaliation against the squadron by two weak night raids on Coomalie Aerodrome. Both, however, failed to effect any damage whatever. On the 13th September, Wing Commander F.W.B. Mann assumed command of No. 31 Squadron from Wing Commander C.F. Read, D.F.C. This was the first change of command since the squadron’s formation. September was marked by wing strikes in which the Beaufighters figured prominently.

Throughout the month No. 31 Squadron’s aircraft were deployed on harassing raids. Three were staged on Selaroe Island, chiefly on the strip located there, one armed reconnaissance was flown over Tanimbar Island, and one strike on the 16th at the old spot, Taberfane, in the Aroe Group. In this latter raid, in which seven Beaufighters figured, one “Pete” was destroyed. On the return trip to base one aircraft, damaged by aci-ack, made a forced landing in a swamp, fifteen miles from Millingimbi, while two others landed out of fuel in Arnhemland.

There was another forced landing at the emergency strip on Bathurst Island a few days previously. A characteristic incident involved six of the squadron’s aircraft, briefed to attack Selaroe, early on the 9th October. While bombing the strip and suspected dump areas, the attackers shot down a bomber in the act of landing. Two twin-engined aircraft attempted interception and were engaged by one Beaufighter piloted by Squadron Leader Gordon.
He first jettisoned its load of bombs, and closing to 25 yards shot one of the interceptors into the sea. Shortly after he saw another enemy aircraft attacking his formation; again, he attacked and sent this aircraft spinning into the sea. No. 31 Squadron was now concentrating on sweeps for enemy shipping in and around the various islands scattered throughout the Arafura Sea.

Six Beaufighters, on the 19th October, in their endless searches for floatplanes, barges and enemy shipping, happened on some small vessels moving along the Serwatoe River. These were strafed and left in a damaged condition. Accurate rifle fire from the vicinity of the old Krei Village cost the squadron one aircraft missing from this attack. It was seen to crash into the sea fifty miles south of Trangan Island, killing Flying Officer Gridland and Pilot Officer de Pierres. On this particular mission a barge, approximately 400 feet long, and a small single-mast vessel with personnel aboard were strafed, causing damage and casualties.

On the 18th October, No. 31 Squadron’s aircraft moved up to the R.A.A.F. Aerodrome at Darwin. Six Mitchells and six Beaufighters bound for the Serwatoe River on the 21stOctober failed to locate the target due to a navigational error; returning to the same scene two days later they successfully strafed villages and barges in the same strength. During these sweeps a new air-strip was discovered and duly reported. Similar raids were staged on the 29th when missions visited Tanimbar Island.

November 1943 opened with the usual shipping reconnaissance cover over the Arafura Seas. Most of the offensive operations during this period were composite missions, in which the Beaufighters escorted Mitchell bombers. In one such characteristic mission on the 2nd six of each aircraft raided Trangan Island uneventfully, except on turning for home, three “Rufes” attempted to intervene near new Krei Village. One of the enemy aircraft sustained damage, together with one Beaufighter which received cannon fire damage in the port wing.