The real battle for Australia
New South Books, 2022
Paperback 568pp RRP $34.99
Reviewer: Mike Rawlinson, February 2023
What is not well known about the Japanese air raids on Darwin on 19 February 1942 is that for almost two years afterwards north-west Australia was routinely subjected to Japanese air raids. Some 70 air raids during 1942-43 constitute the only sustained and intensive direct assault on Australian territory in the whole of World War II. Anthony Cooper provides a detailed and very readable history of Australia’s air battles over this period.
At the time of the first Japanese attack on Darwin on 19 February 1942 the RAAF did not have any fighters in Australia.
The first Spitfires for the defence of Darwin (North West Area) arrived in January 1943. Compiled from both RAAF and Japanese records, Darwin Spitfires tells the story of the RAAF's No.1 Fighter Wing - composed of both Australian and British Spitfire pilots, and their air combat over the Top End.
There were three Spitfire squadrons, one at Darwin airfield and two at outlying bush strips created by the US Army. Each squadron had from 12 to 25 aircraft.
The fighter Wing represented a learning experience. Senior officers in the headquarters were experienced RAAF officers and pilots – but not fighter pilots. The wing had a few experienced combat pilots but no experienced fighter leaders. Generally, there was a low level of experience and a lack of training. Most pilots had few flying hours on Spitfires – some were straight on their first posting to an operational unit.
Following the Battle of Britain example, ‘Big Wing’ tactics were employed by the Spitfires, whereby the bombers would be confronted by the three squadrons of aircraft flying in formation and positioned for maximum advantage. Anthony Cooper fully explains that this is much easier said than done.
Japanese Bomber formations flew out of Timor and consisted of about 30 twin engine bombers protected by a similar number of fighters. Japanese aircrew presented as being well trained and highly professional.
Cooper gives exciting and detailed accounts of fighter dogfighting and bomber engagements.
The Spitfire V and the Japanese Zero fighter were both high performance aircraft but with different characteristics. Their relative performance is fully covered. The Spitfire was limited in range but superior above 30,000 feet and faster in a dive. A dive tactic was used to escape if ‘bounced’ by the highly manoeuvrable Zero. The Spitfires were plagued with blockages of their 20mm cannons and failures of the engine’s constant speed unit, causing the propellor to overspeed. Both problems usually resulted in an aircraft’s withdrawal from the combat and return to base.
Claims of aircraft shot down were overestimated by both the Spitfire Wing and the Japanese. While not as effective as claimed, the Spitfire Wing did keep the enemy at high altitude where their bombing was less accurate and did little damage. While technology and tactics have changed, Darwin Spitfires still offers important insights in the conduct of air operations that are still relevant today.
If you want to find out about air combat with guns, this is the book for you.
The RUSI – Vic Library thanks the publisher for making this work available for review.