Article 038 [Beaufighters] Beaufighters For Barges
BEAUFIGHTERS FOR BARGES
By KIM KEANE
Sun War Correspondent in New Guinea
With an armament of four cannon and six machine-guns, the heaviest armament of any fighter aircraft in the world, Beaufighters are ideal for barge busting, in which they and their crews are specialists. Our correspondent accompanied one sortie and gives a graphic description of the technique which has sunk hundreds of Japanese supply boats.
THERE was a small patch of coconut plantation moving along near the coast of New Britain at a brisk eight knots, a small plantation – with a bow wave.
Two Australian-manned Beaufighters, racing along almost on the water, wheeled abruptly and curled up to 150ft. Then they swept in viciously on the mobile plantation. Japs jumped desperately into the sea as cannon shells ripped into the camouflaged barge. Within four minutes the barge was sinking.
That is the kind of job being done every day by men of a R.A.A.F. Beaufighter squadron stationed close to Japanese-held territory.
The Japs use hundreds of barges for conveying supplies to their coastal outposts. They sneak along the coasts at night and camouflage themselves during the day, lying snugly in inlets or up rivers.
The discovery and demolition of these barges is a Beaufighter specialty, which the men fly Beaufighters have turned into something like a fine art. The result has been that hundreds of barges have never reached their destination, and hundreds of Japanese have been hurled incontinently into the company of their ancestors.
CREWS for barge sweeps have a specialised sort of briefing. Hundreds of miles of coastline are discussed by the intelligence men of the squadron, who go over the proposed course of the sweep mile by mile, checking off the ack-ack positions to be avoided, the places from where Zeros might be expected to intercept, the positions where barges seem most likely to be, the probable positions of friendly ships and any other air operations which may be going on in near or adjacent areas.
Then comes a discussion of many things bearing on the particular sweep – previous observations, peculiarities of terrain, and so on. After which – though everyone has heard it a thousand times – the instructions on what to do in the emergencies of interception or forced landing.
Then, early next morning, or perhaps on the same day, the Beaufighters go out and do the job. Sometimes they are successful. Sometimes not. But if they get nothing, it at least means that there is probably nothing on the coast that would have got through anyway.
One sweep that I was on, although not successful in the sense of finding and destroying barges, may give an idea of the job, an especially of its difficulties.
Weather was bad in the morning and some operations were postponed. It was a dirty day, grey and stormy. Early in the afternoon the weather lifted a trifle, and it was decided to send out two Beaufighters on their own to sweep an important stretch of enemy coast that might have a bearing on operations in which Australian ground troops were engaged.
From the leading plane, sea and sky looked villainous as we headed north, fairly low. We had been travelling half and hour, with bad visibility, when we found ourselves in heavy rain, approaching the nastiest storm I have ever seen, on sea or land. Squadron Leader Bob Maguire clapped on speed – the Beaufighter is a fast aircraft indeed – and we dodged round the menace.
THE rain seemed endless, and Maguire opened a small window in the cockpit through which the surface of the sea could be seen a little more clearly. By now we were nearing the enemy coast, and we moved even lower so as to cut down our chances of being intercepted.
As the weather men had been hold enough to predict, the rain eased off close to the coast. The jungle coastline was clear, but hazy, with a low cloud base everywhere and characteristic columns of rain.
We sneaked into the coast a few miles from an enemy strip where we knew there was ack-ack possibly some fighters. The the sweep proper began.
Banking and turning, scraping past treetops and brows of low cliffs with a few feet to spare, we followed the coastline exactly. Where there were rivers of any size we went inland and followed them back to the coast again. The water’s edge was watched continuously – but we saw no barges over any of the many miles we covered.
Occasionally we went across to toy islands and circled them. Once we bore down on an object that looked suspicious through the murk. The cannon were cocked and the object, if Japanese, would have had no hope. But it turned out to be a large canoe, with natives teetering on the edge, ready to jump. We whisked over it as they recognised an Australian plane and waved.
During this whole performance the other Beaufighter was keeping nit in the usual way, a little higher than us and on a constant lookout for Zeros.
JUST before we got to a Jap base – we could see it even through the haze – we turned again to scuttle home.
We ran straight into heavy rain, came almost down to the surface, and scraped under clouds that seemed to have decided, but only as a great concession, to let us through. This went on for an hour, durig which we got a wireless instruction to come home by way of a lonely island, which meant a change of course.
In a way that seemed uncanny, pilot and observer pinpointed their position on the strength of a fleeting glimpse of a small dark object that looked like any of many other islands. We followed instructions, but had hardly turned once more for home when a message came through that the weather at our base had collapsed completely. We had to go elsewhere to land.
By this time it was getting dark. Rain still made everything grey. We were a few feet from the sea, cruising at rather more than 200 miles an hour. But Maguire came dead in on our strip and we slid down to earth without fuss.
After an enormous meal and the odd experience of a signing cowboy film – even Gene Autry comes to New Guinea – we passed round our one towel between five of us and went to bed raw. Early next morning we took off and came home.
That is the sort of weather the Beaufighters may have to contend with. Sometimes they have other things to meet – generally Zeros. And then there is a wild helter-skelter, in which skill is matched against skill. Even when shot up, the Australian’s nearly always win.
BACKGROUND stories from this patch of sea and air are almost countless.
It is not uncommon for Beaufighters on one job to overhear on the wireless the comments from combat planes in a mix-up elsewhere. Quiet barge-sweeps have been punctuated by a sudden: “Look out, he’s on your tail!” Which unnerves the diligent sweeper until he realises that it is someone in another scrap. Sometimes the whole course of a fighter battle can be heard as the Beaufighters sweep in and out of peaceful inlets.
Anything, or almost anything, can happen. Beaufighters on a sweep a week or two ago ran into a Jap. bomber and dutifully shot it down. On another occasion, Beaufighters bounced over the top of a cliff which until then had been innocuous and found themselves in the middle of a brisk ack-ack barrage. One Beaufighter came to grief another time, and his comrades found him next day and circled round him in relays for hours while arrangements were made for rescue.
IT was a Beaufighter who sighted the crew of a Catalina that had come to grief in a rare way.
Not far from a Jap. base, the Catalina had dropped a depth charge on a submarine. The depth charge produced such an explosion that the Catalina suffered some damage and came down in the sea. It sank slowly – the crew had nearly a quarter of an hour in which to get comfortable in their rubber boats and take with them what they wanted.
Night was falling and they were four miles from the enemy harbour. So they rowed vigorously all night, and in the morning were five miles from the harbour. Sails gave them speed and three days later they were sighted, dead on the course for home.
There are stories of high courage, too. The Beaufighter pilot who replied coolly: “Yes, any minute now” when a comrade shouted at him by wireless that a wing base was shot away and the wing would collapse. It collapsed, and he was lost. His even tone made the squadron think of Finucane’s famous: “This is it.”
The Beaufighter men know the stories of other squadrons as well as their own. This patch of sea and air has many tales. There was a Kittyhawk pilot who actually went into the air with a thousand-pound bomb and four 40-pounders tied on below – and dropped the lot on Gasmata. There was the squadron leader whose guns jammed before the fight, but who led in his squadron twice and then dropped low and tried to crowd Jap bombers into the sea. All without a gun working.
But these things are another story.