Supermarine Spitfire Operational History - Asia and The Pacific - South West Pacific

South West Pacific

The Royal Australian Air Force, the Royal Indian Air Force and the RAF also used Spitfires against Japanese forces in the Pacific theatre. The first Spitfires in the Far East were two photo-reconnaissance (PR IV) aircraft which operated from airfields in India from October 1942.

In the far east they Spitfires found a worthy adversary in the A6M "Zero" long-range fighter that, like most Japanese fighters, excelled in manoeuvrability. To fight it Spitfire pilots had to adopt a "slash and run" policy and use their superior speed and diving superiority to fight, and avoid classic dogfights.

Japanese air raids on Northern Australia hastened the formation in late 1942 of No. 1 Wing RAAF, comprising No. 54 Squadron RAF, No. 452 Squadron RAAF and No. 457 Squadron RAAF, under the command of Wing Commander Clive Caldwell, flying the Spitfire Vc(trop). The wing arrived at Darwin in February 1943, and saw constant action until September. The Mk Vc versions received by the RAAF proved unreliable and, initially at least, had a relatively high loss rate. This was due to several factors, including pilot inexperience, engine over-speed due to the loss of oil from the propeller speed reduction unit (a problem resolved by the use of a heavier grade of oil), and the practice of draining glycol coolant before shipment, resulting in internal corrosion of the Merlin engines.

Another factor in the initial high attrition rate was the relatively short endurance of the Spitfire: most of the sorties were, as a matter of course, flown over the wide expanse of ocean between Australia, New Guinea and Timor. Even when fitted with drop tanks the Spitfires could not afford to fly too far from base without the danger of running out of fuel over water. As a result, when an incoming raid was detected, the Spitfires were forced to climb as fast as possible in an attempt to get into a favourable position. In the prevailing hot, humid climate this meant that the Merlin engines were often overheating even before combat was joined. The Spitfires were fitted with the Vokes tropical filters which reduced performance: in an attempt to increase performance the filters on several Spitfires were removed and replaced by the standard non-tropicalised air intake and lower engine cowlings which had been manufactured by the base workshops. The experiment proved to be a failure and the Spitfires were quickly refitted with the tropical filters.

Many of the Australian and British airmen who flew in 1 Wing were experienced combat veterans, some of whom who had flown P-40s with the Desert Air Force in North Africa, while others had flown Spitfires over Europe. They were used to being able to outmanoeuvre opposing fighters and were shocked to discover that the Zeros they were now flying against were able to outmanoeuvre the Spitfire. Several Spitfires were lost before the pilots learned not to attempt to get into a turning dogfight with the agile Japanese fighters. In spite of these problems the Spitfires were reasonably successful and at times were able to catch the Mitsubishi Ki-46 reconnaissance aircraft which had hitherto flown fast enough and high enough to evade interception.

The first of 410 Spitfire Mk VIIIs started replacing the Mk Vcs from October 1943, although, in the event, they were to see very limited air-to-air combat. By mid-1943 the heavy losses imposed on the Japanese Navy in the Solomon Islands campaign and in New Guinea meant that the JNAF could not keep up its attacks on northern Australia. Other units equipped with the Spitfires in the South West Pacific Area included No. 79 Squadron RAAF, No. 85 Squadron RAAF, No. 548 Squadron RAF and No. 549 Squadron RAF.

Politics also played a part; the supreme commander of the South-West Pacific theatre Douglas MacArthur did not want Australians or any other non-Americans to share in his triumphant return to the Philippines. As a result of this, RAAF Spitfire Vs and VIIIs were increasingly used in the fighter-bomber role in mopping-up operations against the large pockets of Japanese forces still remaining in New Guinea, and some Australian based units did not get to see any combat at all. The Australian pilots regarded the situation as intolerable and saw this as a waste of effort and lives, especially as many of them were experienced and battle-hardened. By the end of the Pacific war No. 80 (Fighter) Wing was based on the Morotai Island in the Halmaheras Group assisting Australian ground troops in Borneo. It was here that the so-called Morotai Mutiny took place.

Read more about this topic:  Supermarine Spitfire Operational History, Asia and The Pacific

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