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Enemy planes are coming in at 25,000 feet. At least 76 of them; 36 Japanese medium bombers, 10 dive-bombers, 30 Zeros. Their objective is shipping in New Guinea's Milne Bay.
A fresh young Australian Kittyhawk squadron has spiralled up to 28,000 feet. They have been waiting impatiently, eyes and minds working as swiftly as their motors.
Down below on the still mirror of the sea, shipping is getting under way; ready to manoeuvre, to fight back. Ground gunners have locked in their first clip of shells; they sit tensed, waiting.
Convoy in Milne Bay, 1943
The noonday sun is harsh and hot. There's not a breeze to stir the fronds of the coconut palms. The trees stand as though petrified; they stretch away in ordered plantation lines to the tangle of jungle at the foothills.
Around the Bay, hearts are beating faster. "There they are!"
They are coming in in tight formation. Zeros are weaving above, like wicked spirits over mechanical hounds of hell. On the ground you can pick up the heavy drone of massed motors.
Squadron-Leader Wilfred Arthur calls his flights into line-abreast. He's only 23; but he's been in many scraps before. He served in the Middle East with No.3 - Australia's most famous fighter squadron. There he shot down seven enemy planes. (Four of them in one battle, two German Junkers and two Italian fighters.) For that he was awarded the DFC. Before that, he had been Mentioned in Despatches. He had also been shot down in action.
The Japanese are heading across the Bay.
The Kittyhawks roar down for a head-on attack.
The Squadron-Leader presses the gun button that will send six streams of bullets at the leading V of bombers . . . Nothing happens! He presses again.
His guns won't function. They're out!
Sensitive lips in a good-looking young face press into a straight, thin line. No matter. He must go on. To head out would break up his plan of attack. That is unthinkable. Blue eyes glint quickly, turn to steel, with the light of the killer.
So he leads them in, head-on. Each of them takes his mark. Swift bursts of fire. They break away according to plan. They wheel. His guns are still out. He leads them in again. This time against the second V of bombers. The enemy do not break formation, but they waver. Their pattern-bombing is inaccurate.
No time now for a third attack. The Zero top-cover dives down. It's every man for himself in the dog-fights that follow.
The Squadron-Leader, guns still dead, dives alone across the Bay. He sees six dive-bombers, with fighter escort, flying east. He turns nose-down and darts toward them. He sham-attacks one bomber, trying to cut it out. Just as they used to cut the steers from the mob in the west of Queensland. But the bomber sticks close.
The Squadron-Leader turns to starboard. He sees two dive-bombers low over the water. They are outside the further ships. He gives chase. He tries to "fish-tail" one into the sea. It flies too low for him. He gives up and returns to base …
Heavily outnumbered on that day, two Australian squadrons brought down at least 22 enemy aircraft. With U.S. Lightnings also in the fight, they shot out of action a total of 30.
This was the third swoop by the Japs in four days. On April 12 they mass-raided shipping at Oro Bay, losing 23 of the 45 bombers and fighters engaged. On April 13, 100 of them attacked Moresby and 37 were destroyed or badly crippled.
Back at Land Headquarters, General Sir Thomas Blamey told war correspondents that the Japanese were making a bid to regain air supremacy. "The next few weeks in New Guinea," he said, "will be important to all of us."
But the Japs didn't come on. After Milne Bay, on April 15, 1943, they licked their wounds and remained on the defensive. General Kenney, Allied Air Chief in the South-West Pacific, sought them out with bombers and fighters and began the sweeps that led to Lae, Finschhafen, Gloucester, Arawe, Gasmata, the Admiralties, Madang, Wewak, Hollandia, and opened the perimeter to the Philippines.
For his part in the Milne Bay battle, the 23-year-old Australian Squadron-Leader won the Distinguished Service Order. He was promoted to Wing-Commander and given control of a fighter wing when the squadrons advanced to Goodenough Island and the Trobriands.
"The gallantry, matchless leadership, and devotion to duty displayed by this Squadron-Leader," said the official announcements of the Governor-General, "were the chief factors in the success of the day's air fighting."
The official operational comment said:
"The action of this commanding officer is highly commendable. It should be an inspiration to all fighter pilots."
Son of a Queensland stock inspector, Wilfred Arthur, like many other renowned Australian airmen, has the strength of the land in his soul. Tall, slim, and wide-shouldered, he went to the RAAF aged 19, just before war broke out in Europe. Into battle he always wore a long-barrelled revolver, souvenir of the Middle East. He wore it in an extended holster, strapped low. Like the famed gunfighters of the Wild West, he would be quick on the draw.
Once he took a thousand-pound bomb in his Kittyhawk fighter to drop on the Japs at Gasmata.
He used to drill his men in the air and review their mistakes in the mess at night. Nothing escaped his quick eyes - he wanted dead Japanese, not dead Australians. Then he would read his books and shyly make a note of passages that impressed his mind.
In the Middle East they called him "Woof." In New Guinea they call him "Wolf." There, his A.I.F. brother was killed by the Japs.
Editor's Note: "Woof" Arthur has an interesting 1989 AWM Interview available on: http://www.awm.gov.au/transcripts/kmsa/s00731_tran.htm.
Woof's Kittyhawk aircraft from that day, Serial A29-133, has been preserved in the Australian War Memorial.
Besides his distinguished operational flying career, Woof controversially instigated the "Morotai Mutiny" in 1945, gathering the support some of Australia's greatest fighter aces against the wasteful usage of the RAAF fighter-bombers at that time. Regrettably, some of these distinguished aces (including Bobby Gibbes and Australia's top WW2 ace, Clive Caldwell) then became the subjects of vindictive persecution from the offended authorities.
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