During the night of April 11, 1945, eight Australian Z Special commandos landed on Japanese-held Muschu Island, off the coast of New Guinea. Their mission was to reconnoiter the island's defenses and confirm the location of two concealed naval guns that commanded the approaches to Wewak Harbour. But the secret mission went horribly wrong. Unknown to them, their presence had been discovered within hours of their landing. With no means of escape, the island became a killing ground. Nine days later, on the New Guinea mainland, the only survivor staggered back through the Japanese lines to safety. This is the remarkable true story of that survivor.
|Publisher:||Allen & Unwin Pty., Limited|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)|
About the Author
Don Dennis is the nephew of Mick Dennis, the central character in this book. He is a former army officer, serving in Vietnam, and is the author of One Day at a Time and the coauthor of The Antipodes Deterrent.
Read an Excerpt
The Guns of Muschu
By Don Dennis
Allen & UnwinCopyright © 2006 Don Dennis
All rights reserved.
TADJI, PNG: 2 MARCH 1945
From the cockpit of the Australian Beaufort A9-572, Flight Sergeant Ron Smith stared at the aircraft's starboard wing. A fist-sized hole had suddenly blossomed inboard of the engine and through the jagged metal he could see the jungle streaming past only a hundred feet below.
Smith's first reaction was outrage that the Japanese gunners should damage his aircraft, but this quickly turned to fear as another shell punched through the engine cowl and tore out the fuel lines. Both rounds exploded above the cockpit, ripping shrapnel through the perspex and shattering the instrument panel — one fragment slicing the glove across the back of his left hand before lodging in the prismatic compass.
Smith had no time to dwell on his luck: he now had his hands full controlling the aircraft. Even though the starboard engine stopped when the second round ripped through the fuel lines, the propeller continued turning in the slipstream. He tried the propeller's feather control but it refused to work. Quickly he opened the throttle on the remaining engine, but the combined effect of dead-engine drag and added power swung the aircraft wildly to the right. To compensate he shoved in the left rudder and aileron, creating more drag that needed even more power. He nudged the boost lever forward until the big Pratt & Whitney radial was delivering its maximum, but even then the aircraft barely maintained altitude.
Smith was no stranger to the Beaufort: in the six months he'd been with the squadron he'd chalked up almost 400 hours on the aircraft. Before that he'd flown Beaufighters for a year — also in New Guinea. It was a faster and more powerful development of the Beaufort, so in anyone's language he was rated as an experienced combat pilot. But now he was faced with a situation that would require all his experience if he and his crew were to survive.
This morning's mission had begun as most had, with a briefing in the 7th Squadron operations room at Tadji, in the Upper Sepik region of Papua New Guinea, before first light. Here, surrounded by aerial photos, maps and weather charts, the Operations Officer outlined reports from coastwatchers, intelligence agents and Army units advancing on the Japanese-held port of Wewak 150 kilometres down the coast. Today's mission was the 'usual' squadron raid — nine Beauforts would take off at dawn, gather into formation over the sea, then head for Wewak at 4000 feet. Ten minutes from the target, all aircraft would descend to 500 feet, then cross inland to pick up the run-in marker north of the port and from there, in groups of three, they'd make their attacks.
Australian coastwatchers had reported a Japanese freighter stealing into harbour the previous night, and the raid had been timed so that all aircraft arrived over the port just after sunrise. With luck they'd catch the freighter still unloading, hopefully with plenty of enemy soldiers and vehicles in the open as they tried to disperse the cargo. This was part of the strategy of denying the Japanese essential supplies, and destroying those that did make it through the naval blockade. For this raid all aircraft carried a load of two 250-kilogram and four 120-kilogram bombs — the smaller bombs fused to surface-detonate and cause maximum casualties among the dock workers.
Smith was leading a V formation of three aircraft that had been assigned the dock area. For he and his crew, this mission was just another in what now seemed to be an endless series of raids. However, although they'd made the Wewak run many times, they treated every mission as though it was their first. They knew that complacency was as much a danger as the enemy, and that one momentary slip could turn luck against them.
Wewak was a hive of anti-aircraft fire, and although they'd have an element of surprise, their approach would be reported and every Japanese soldier for miles around would be alerted to their arrival. Over the target they could expect to be met with everything from small arms to 80 mm anti-aircraft fire, much of which was deadly accurate. To minimise their exposure, all aircraft would hug the ground, drop their bombs at low level, then escape out to sea where they'd assess the attack and if necessary select targets of opportunity and hit them again.
That morning the briefing, aircraft pre-flights and take-off went as planned, with no delays or last-minute mechanical problems that often left one or more aircraft behind. The squadron climbed out into the rising sun — an irony not lost on Smith — then turned south over the sea and set course for Wewak, 20 minutes away. To the west, the Torricelli Mountains were cloaked in mist that clung to the trees like a white veil; ahead, the sky was clear, with only a few cloud smudges on the horizon to indicate the storms that would build later in the day.
There was the usual after take-off chatter over the intercom as the crew settled into the mission — the navigator in his nose compartment cross–checking with the pilot to ensure their instruments were in sync, the wireless operator in the compartment behind the pilot tuning his equipment and the gunner in the dorsal turret tapping off a few test rounds from his twin .303 calibre machine guns. All were part of a ritual that not only served to confirm that everything was functioning correctly, but also helped calm the crew's nerves.
Ten minutes into the flight, an eerie silence descended among the crew. It was always this way when they approached the halfway mark. From here on the situation became deadly serious. Smith shifted in his seat and loosened his seat harness slightly. He had a habit of doing this. Even though the full-body Sutton harness was vital for protection, the straps also restricted movement to such an extent that it could actually hamper a pilot's reach. Experience had taught him to compromise.
Today the three aircraft he was leading comprised the second group in the formation. He watched the lead group a hundred metres ahead, the three aircraft holding tight station on each other in the calm air over the sea. He remembered such a moment only a month back when they'd drawn fire from Japanese guns and one Beaufort suddenly erupted in a flash of greasy yellow fire. His own plane had flown through the heart of the explosion, only some singed paint and a slight shudder marking the spot where four men died.
Experiences like that worried Smith the most. If a Japanese shell found the bombload, it didn't matter how experienced or clever a pilot was — it would be 'game over' in the blink of an eye. At least if a plane sustained damage in an attack, the pilot had a fighting chance of controlling the aircraft and making it back to base in one piece.
But suddenly that morning, Smith doubted his own theory.
The attack had gone as planned. Five minutes from Wewak the formation descended to 500 feet and flew inland. There they used a prominent hill as a navigation marker, turned south and spread out into their attack groups. Smith's navigator then called the course to the target and he'd banked the aircraft onto the heading, then opened the throttles until the airspeed reached 300 kilometres an hour. With the two other aircraft in his section streaming astern at 500-metre intervals, he pressed lower until they were skimming the treetops.
Beneath the Beaufort the ground unravelled like a green conveyor belt, the hills giving way to neat squares of palm plantations near the coast. Sighting a road, Smith checked his course, then saw the harbour ahead and lined up on a row of warehouses. There was no sign of the freighter mentioned in the briefing — it had probably left the harbour before dawn. The dock area was stacked with cargo, a line of trucks suddenly breaking ranks as warning of the approaching aircraft sounded.
Smith held the Beaufort steady and aimed at the cargo stacks. Howling low over the dock, he heard the navigator call 'bombs gone' and felt the aircraft lurch as the load fell clear. Behind him the dorsal gunner's twin 303s were hammering away and in the nose the navigator joined in with his .50 calibre, the stench of cordite filling the cockpit. Banking further right to track along another line of warehouses, he sensed rather than heard the impact of the bombs behind them. Flicking off the gun safety, he pressed the yoke fire button and opened up with the two wing-mounted .50-calibre machine guns. Using the tracer to aim, he emptied the rounds into the waterfront buildings before banking left over the port and swinging into a wide turn that took them out to sea.
It was then that they were hit.
* * *
Later analysis revealed that the Japanese had been observing the behaviour of the Australian aircraft for some time and had noticed their tendency to use prominent turning points during their attacks. This was a standard procedure, essential to maintain orientation during group operations — not only did it allow pilots to quickly identify their position, but it also helped prevent aircraft from getting in each other's way in an unordered melee around the target. The Australians were well aware of the risks involved with becoming predictable and varied their attack patterns whenever possible.
However, that day it was the Japanese who struck it lucky. With a cluster of anti-aircraft weapons concentrated on a known turning point, Smith's aircraft was hit by two shells, possibly of 80 mm calibre. Fortunately the fuses of the Japanese shells were faulty, probably due to prolonged storage in damp tropical conditions, so instead of exploding on impact — which would have blown the Beaufort's wing off — the shells ripped through the aircraft before detonating.
For Smith, however, this was of little comfort. He now had a battle just to keep his plane in the air. At the best of times the Beaufort was notoriously sluggish on one engine, but when combined with battle damage it became a losing struggle against gravity, and the aircraft was now almost uncontrollable. With maximum boost on the port engine, the thrust was swinging the plane to the right. To compensate, Smith had his foot jammed on the left rudder pedal and the yoke held hard over in a vain attempt to drag the aircraft straight. He'd managed to complete the turn and they were now at 200 feet over the water about 4 kilometres off the coast, heading north. Ahead on the left he could see the port, part of the dock area now burning with thick oily smoke drifting inland, driven by a gentle sea breeze.
The other aircraft in his section were nowhere to be seen.
He thumbed the intercom button and tried talking to the crew, but the circuit was dead. Forward he could see his navigator in his seat, looking anxiously back at him. The navigator pressed his throat microphones to his neck, spoke briefly, then raised two fingers and gave a thumbs-up, indicating that the radio operator and dorsal gunner were OK.
Smith nodded back, then pointed ahead with his right hand. The course they were on would take them between the port and the island of Muschu, but with the unbalanced thrust from the remaining engine they were swinging further out to sea. Suddenly, the entire airframe shuddered, swinging the plane even further to the right. A glance at the damaged engine told him why — the engine mount had fractured and the entire assembly was now drooping, adding even more drag.
Now they were in real trouble. The aircraft seemed to be drawn towards the eastern end of Muschu Island like iron to a magnet and there was a risk that they would slam into the hills. He couldn't climb, he couldn't turn and they were too low to bail out. All he could do was throttle back and hope it would allow the aircraft to swing away from its collision course. In doing so he would lose precious altitude, but he had no choice.
Smith snatched the throttle, eased off power and felt the aircraft slowly swing away. The island was closing in fast. Hilly and green, with white beaches surrounded by clear blue lagoons, it looked more like a scene from a tourist brochure than an enemy haven. They would pass so low they'd be looking up at the small hills that bounded its eastern end. It was going to be close.
Palm trees blurred past the starboard wing. Glimpses of vines, shadows and light. A cleared area under the trees on the side of the hill. Japanese soldiers pointing. Machine guns surrounded by sandbags. A fleeting glimpse of two large guns beneath camouflage nets.
Tracer fire winked up at them. Bullets slammed into the aircraft, ripping more holes into the wing. Then finally they were past, a few tracers snapped by and floated off into the distance.
They were down to 100 feet and Smith could see the aircraft's shadow skimming the water's surface. He shoved the throttle wide open and the engine responded. The descent slowed, then stopped 50 feet above the water. For a moment he allowed himself to breathe easier, but he knew their problems were far from over. The aircraft was still trying to head out to sea and it was taking all his strength to keep the left rudder pedal shoved to the firewall. He doubted he could keep this up for the 30 minutes or more it would take to get back to Tadji airfield.
A quick check of the instruments told him that they were on borrowed time. The hydraulic pressure was zero, which meant the wheels couldn't be lowered, which in turn meant a belly-landing. That was not a good idea: Tadji's steel-plank runway had a habit of ripping aircraft apart, as well as creating sparks that ignited leaking fuel. Even if they did walk away from the wreck, there'd be hell to pay — the damage would put the strip out of action for hours and the Commanding Officer would not be pleased. Squadron standing orders were to crash anywhere except on the runway.
One option was dropping the aircraft into the jungle canopy, a technique used by some Army light observation aircraft — but hardly a choice in an aircraft the size of a Beaufort. Another was ditching in the ocean. Of the two, ditching was preferable, but was not without its dangers, for although the procedure was described in the flight manual in simple terms Smith knew it was far from so. And then there was the small matter of the sharks — the water along the coast was infested with them, mostly big, ugly hammerheads. However, even being chased by man-eaters seemed preferable to crashing and burning.
But Smith had little time to consider the options. Already the temperature gauges were hard against their stops, while the engine was trailing a thickening haze of blue smoke and emitting strange metallic noises. He signalled his navigator to tell the crew to make ready to ditch.
Everyone on board had trained for the procedure. It was a simple matter of the radio operator and dorsal gunner taking positions against the fuselage bulkhead facing the tail. The navigator's position was in a jump seat at the right of the pilot where he could assist with the controls, since Smith needed both hands on the yoke if he was to keep the aircraft straight when it hit the water.
Fortunately they were already heading into wind — a 10-knot nor'easter by the look of the sea. Lining up, Smith aimed for a position between the shallow wave troughs about a kilometre off the mainland. He pumped at the flap lever. Slowly they lowered, but at fifteen degrees they stopped. Shoving hard on the lever, the flaps moved a few more degrees then jammed.
With only part flap they'd be landing hot. They'd hit the water at 100 kilometres an hour. Fast but not impossible.
No point using the altimeter, he noted, glancing at the shattered instrument. He guessed they were down to about 30 feet and he'd have to do everything by feel: even the airspeed indicator was useless.
The water rushed past, clear and smooth, making it difficult to judge height. He could clearly see the sandy bottom and to his left the aircraft's shadow, racing up to meet them. At what he estimated to be 15 feet above the water he hauled back the yoke.
The nose came up, but still the Beaufort kept flying, hanging on the Pratt & Whitney, which was now screaming in its final moments of over-boosted torment. Smith felt the shudder of an approaching stall and called to the navigator to close the throttle. The navigator dragged back the lever, then flicked the electric's master switch. The engine died and for a moment the sudden quiet seemed overwhelming, replaced by the gentle whisper of the slipstream.
Smith had timed the landing perfectly. Nose high, the Beaufort stalled, then hit the water tail-first. He braced, crossed his arms in front of his face and held on to the canopy frame. The next few seconds were a montage of whirling sky, water and sound. He later likened it to being inside a washing machine.
The aircraft pitched forward, nosed under then recoiled, throwing Smith hard against his harness. Then there was silence punctuated by the hiss of water on hot metal.
Excerpted from The Guns of Muschu by Don Dennis. Copyright © 2006 Don Dennis. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Contents1. TADJI, PNG: 2 MARCH 1945,
2. SIXTH DIVISION HQ, AITAPE, PNG: 2 MARCH 1945,
3. ALLIED INTELLIGENCE BUREAU, BRISBANE: 4 MARCH 1945,
4. ALLIED TRANSLATOR AND INTERPRETER SERVICE, BRISBANE: 5 MARCH 1945,
5. SIXTH DIVISION HQ, AITAPE: 6 MARCH 1945,
6. 1ST AUSTRALIAN ARMY HQ, LAE, PNG: 9 MARCH 1945,
7. 1ST AUSTRALIAN ARMY HQ, LAE: 13 MARCH 1945,
8. Z SPECIAL UNIT, AITAPE: 27 MARCH 1945,
9. SRD BRIEFING ROOM, AITAPE: 8 APRIL 1945,
10. AITAPE HARBOUR: 11 APRIL 1945,
11. MUSCHU ISLAND: 12 APRIL, 0600 HOURS,
12. MUSCHU ISLAND: 12 APRIL, 0630 HOURS,
13. MUSCHU BAY: 12 APRIL, 0800 HOURS,
14. MUSCHU ISLAND: 12 APRIL, 0900 HOURS,
15. MUSCHU ISLAND: 12 APRIL, 0915 HOURS,
16. MUSCHU ISLAND: 12 APRIL, 1100 HOURS,
17. MUSCHU ISLAND: 12 APRIL, 1300 HOURS,
18. MUSCHU ISLAND: 12 APRIL, 1500 HOURS,
19. EAST OF MUSCHU ISLAND: 12 APRIL, 1800 HOURS,
20. SIXTH DIVISION HQ, AITAPE: 13 APRIL, 0700 HOURS,
21. CAPE SAUM: 13 APRIL, 1800 HOURS,
22. MUSCHU ISLAND: 14 APRIL, 0600 HOURS,
23. SIXTH DIVISION HQ, AITAPE: 14 APRIL, 1600 HOURS,
24. MUSCHU ISLAND: 15 APRIL, 0500 HOURS,
25. SIXTH DIVISION HQ, AITAPE: 15 APRIL, 1600 HOURS,
26. MUSCHU ISLAND: 16 APRIL, 0500 HOURS,
27. SIXTH DIVISION HQ, AITAPE: 16 APRIL, 1600 HOURS,
28. MUSCHU ISLAND: 17 APRIL, 0500 HOURS,
29. OFF MUSCHU ISLAND: 17 APRIL, 1900 HOURS,
30. OFF MUSCHU ISLAND: 17 APRIL, 1900 HOURS,
31. SYDNEY: 17 APRIL, 2400 HOURS,
32. OFF MUSCHU ISLAND: 18 APRIL, 0500 HOURS,
33. ALLIED INTELLIGENCE BUREAU, BRISBANE: 18 APRIL, 0730 HOURS,
34. PNG MAINLAND: 18 APRIL, 1100 HOURS,
35. TADJI AIRFIELD: 18 APRIL, 1530 HOURS,
36. PNG MAINLAND: 18 APRIL, 1600 HOURS,
37. MUSCHU ISLAND: 18 APRIL, 2000 HOURS,
38. PNG MAINLAND: 19 APRIL, 0600 HOURS,
39. SIXTH DIVISION HQ, AITAPE: 19 APRIL, 1300 HOURS,
40. PNG MAINLAND: 19 APRIL, 1400 HOURS,
41. SIXTH DIVISION HQ, AITAPE: 20 APRIL, 0700 HOURS,
42. PNG MAINLAND: 20 APRIL, 0800 HOURS,
43. SIXTH DIVISION HQ, AITAPE: 20 APRIL, 1600 HOURS,