RAAF Black Cats
The Secret History of the covert Catalina mine-laying operations
to cripple Japan's war machine
Robert Cleworth and John Suter Linton
Allen & Unwin 2019
Paperback 288pp RRP $32.99
Reviewer: Neville Taylor, August 2019
In December 1944, at ten years of age, the author’s older brother told him, ‘I don’t think I’m coming back.’ Unfortunately, this prophecy came true in March 1945 (and confirmed in April 1947): a mother was devastated and no details of where or how were made available. After his mother’s passing, Cleworth set about determining the details of the exploits of these Catalina aircraft, their crews and his brother’s demise.
After the battle for Guadalcanal in 1942, General Douglas MacArthur eventually approved aerial mining to destroy shipping and interdict Japanese supply lines. The RAAF working with US Navy Seventh Fleet officers, formed a formidable team that laid 2512 mines in 1210 sorties between 22 Apr 43 and 1 July 45. There were eight Catalina squadrons (not including training units), and four of these, (11, 20, 42 and 43 Squadron), had their aircraft modified to sling mines under their wings and painted black to reduce visibility during the mine-laying night raids.
With very little information available in Australian archives and RAAF records, previous publications led the author to former Catalina pilots and the US Navy Seventh Fleet archives. All crew members volunteered to serve in the four squadrons. They were aware of the tremendous risk involved in flying so far behind enemy lines and the incredible personal strain of missions that often involved more than fifteen hours flying and some exceeding 24 hours. In order to extend their flying range, the crews sacrificed a number of inbuilt safety measures such as the self-sealing of fuel tanks and armour plating in seats.
After Peace in the Pacific was declared, the squadrons ferried vital medicine to Allied prisoners of war locations to ready the prisoners for the long repatriation flights back to Australia.
An aspect of World War II that was both clouded in imposed secrecy for so long and buried in the telling (as an almost overlooked part of the Seventh Fleet’s activity), there is no doubt of the tremendous impact the mining had on Japanese naval and logistic activities. In the final chapter the authors address the shortcomings of the lack of written history concerning the exploits of the ‘Black Cats’. Four invaluable maps preface the narrative: Japanese convoy routes, the Route between Cairns and Kavieng via Milne Bay, a chart of RAAF targets (from Sumatra to New Ireland to Formosa [Taiwan], and Allied mine laying between October 1942 and August 1945. A very generous and thorough spread of photographs has been included as an insert. Six Appendices include RAAF crew and aircraft losses, the 1942 mine laying proposal, the decrypt of a March 1945 Japanese intercepted message and the 1946 RAAF post-war report on the effectiveness of mine laying in the South West Pacific Area. A Glossary, Notes, Bibliography and very detailed Index round out the work.
The personal accounts of those involved provide fascinating reading in this very well-presented history of a dedicated band of RAAF servicemen. These were events the RAAF and all Australians should be very proud.
The RUSI – Vic Library thank the publishers for providing this book for review.