The relative peace of the arctic shore was disturbed on July 30th 1941. The Fleet Air Arm had launched two strikes against German ships in ports of northern Norway and Finland. The raid on Kirkenes and Petsamo would become a black day for the FAA.
Following the start of Operation Barbarossa in June 1941, an alliance was formed between the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union. To solidify the Anglo-Soviet agreement, British leaders started to seek ways to assist their new ally. They decided to attack ships supplying German troops trying to reach the Arctic port of Murmansk.
The strike force of Operation EF set sail a week before the raid. The raid was to be conducted by two carriers, the HMS Furious and HMS Victorious, which were supported by two cruisers and six destroyers. The attack was planned as a surprise, but this was wishful thinking well inside the Arctic Circle in July. In the 24 hour light of the Arctic summer, it was impossible to approach the ports discretely. Right before the attack, the unit was spotted by a German Do-18 flying boat and the element of surprise was lost.
The attack on Petsamo was conducted by Furious, consisting of 9 Swordfish and 9 Albacore bombers as well as 6 Fairey Fulmar fighters carrying bombs. The more advanced Sea Hurricanes were assigned to protect the fleet, and did not fly to Petsamo. When the strike reached the Finnish port, they discovered an almost empty harbour. Only two small merchant ships were docked at the time of the attack. One steamer, loaded with rum, was sent to the bottom of the bay by the bombers. The British proceeded to destroy jetties and oil tanks, eventually switching to gun positions and dock buildings before returning to the carriers.
Initially, the German AA mistook the attackers for friendly Ju 87 Stukas, but once the British started dropping bombs and torpedoes, the airspace over the harbour was filled with dense flak. Two Fulmars and one Albacore were lost, and the crews of both Fulmars were killed in action. The three man crew of the Albacore was eventually rescued by Soviet force
At the same time, the strike from Victorious approached Kirkenes in northern Norway. Consisting of 21 Albacores and 12 Fulmars, the force managed to sink a 2,000 ton freighter and damage another. However, the Germans had been expecting the raid, and Bf 110s as well as Bf 109s were scrambled.
The obsolete Fulmars were no match for the Bf 109 T-2s of as well as the Bf 110s of Jagdgeschwader 77, and could not protect the Albacores. Out of the 21 Albacores, eleven were shot down and a further eight damaged. In addition, two Fulmars were lost. 25 FAA airmen from the strike to Kirkenes became PoWs, and 13 were killed in action. The British claimed four German aircraft shot down, and at least one Bf 110 is confirmed to have been downed by a Fulmar, while a Ju 87 was shot down by an Albacore. The claims also included a pair of unconfirmed Bf 109s.
British losses were severe, and the strike had failed to achieve it’s goals. The disaster at Kirkenes forced the Royal Navy to reconsider their capability to attack German ports in the north. While the target of the attack was German supplies, in Petsamo, Britain had attacked Finnish territory without a formal declaration of war. The declaration was made in December 1941, but the strike on Petsamo would remain the only attack British forces conducted against Finland.
Juho “Rautaa” Maijala
"It was a bastard of a place. It rained solidly for weeks and the mud was waist deep in parts and if you fell, you drowned.”
- Angus Suthers, Captain 2/12 Battalion
Allied troops arrived in Milne Bay at the eastern tip of New Guinea in June 1942, consisting of an Australian militia battalion and US airfield construction teams. Surrounded by mountains and often shrouded in low clouds, the area receives 200 inches of rain a year. This “tropical paradise” was rife with malaria, scrub typhus, leeches and parasites, and the constant rain insured everything was always wet. This would take a heavy toll on the troops.
On the 21st of July, the first of three airstrips built at Milne Bay was ready, completed with steel Marsden matting over the crushed coral base. Any plane leaving the matting would sink into stinking mud. The very next day, the first RAAF P-40 Kittyhawks of No. 75 and No. 76 Squadron arrived.
The Japanese first attacked on August 4th with four Mitsubishi Zero fighters and one D3A Val dive-bomber. One Kittyhawk was destroyed on the ground, while 8 Kittyhawks from No. 76 Squadron shot down the Val. The remaining Zero's withdrew taking with them valuable information of the allied presence.
The Japanese returned on the 27th of August. Eight Val dive bombers and seven Zero fighters would make a desperate attack on the number 1 airstrip with the support of a flight of Betty Bombers. However, a patrol of Kittyhawks was able to fend off this attack, with the loss of just one Kittyhawk. The Japanese lost five planes.
Meanwhile, the IJN had landed their troops and was pushing the Australians back along the coast road. Casualties were heavy on both sides as sickness and exhaustion kicked inl. The Australians committed only small forces to delay the Japanese and prepared to defend Milne Bay. The construction details spent this time readying the cleared area of the 3rd strip to become a thousand yard wide killing zone. This was no hurried position, the American engineers had bulldozed all the topsoil to the western side of the runway, and formed a continuous line of defensive works armed with Vickers machine guns. These were backed up by American half-tracks with their heavy machine-guns, mortars, and 25-pounder artillery to the rear. The flanks of this position were secured by multiple Bren guns.
The early hours of August 31st would decide the outcome of the battle for Milne Bay. At 3am, the Japanese began an all-out night attack, making at least three “banzai” charges across mined runway of the No.3 strip. Tracer fire lit up the battlefield so well that the signals officer Lieutenant Ernie Bain of the 25th battalion claimed he was able to read his map by the light.
Each Japanese attack was broken up by heavy defensive fire, the onrushing Japanese were mowed down in swathes. Commander Hayashi, the CO of the the Japanese force at Milne Bay, would later be found amongst his men on the field. Shortly before dawn, a single bugle was heard signalling the end of the attack.
All this was achieved with the odds stacked in favour of the Japanese. The IJN had complete control of the sea. They could dictate when and where the battle would take place, but the Japanese forces ended up charging against machine guns over the 3rd airstrip. Most of the Australians were were not ready, trained, or prepared for the terrain and the fighting methods required. However the one thing the Australians had that tipped the balance in their favour, were the Kittyhawks. The RAAF’s 75th and 76th squadrons tireless, relentless and at times reckless sacrifice proved the deciding factor.
Aaron “anglomanii” Lentz