Battle of Darwin
The Japanese used the Mitsubishi Ki-46 'Dinah' as their main reconn aircraft across the North West Australian theater. This aircraft would fly across at high altitude and take photographs of the Australian and American aircraft, shipping and logistics in Darwin and the surrounding territory. When the P40s were defending Darwin the Ki-46's would often climb away or put themselves into a shallow dive to build up speed and it was usually enough for them to get away from the Kittyhawks.
The Spitfire was a generation of fighter past the P40 and had greater altitude performance including climb and level speed. The first interaction that 1 Wing RAAF had with the Japanese was the Ki-46 when two 54 Squadron aircraft led by Bob Foster were vectored onto an incoming Ki-46.
The Japanese aircraft tried to climb away but the Spitfire Mk.Vc slowly out climbed it. The Japanese pilot put his aircraft into a shallow drive but again the Spitfire gained on it. Foster opened fire at 300 yards and the Japanese aircraft caught fire and spiraled down into the ocean below. If there was one thing the Spitfire defence forced the Japanese to do in 1943 it was to constantly change their tactics and in this case the Japanese 70th reconn squadron now had to be wary of Spitfires being vectored in on them by the RAAF's ground radar.
March 2nd Raid
On March 2nd the Japanese came over in strength with nine Navy bombers flying Penfui and the twenty one Zeros staging through Timor. There was also a Ki-46 in the raid which was to break off in the confusion and collect intelligence while the Spitfires were distracted by the Zeros and Bettys.
The target for the Japanese bombers was Coomalie Creek were 31 Squadron RAAF was based with their Beaufighters. The Beaufighters had been a thorn in the Japanese side strafing airfields in Timor and Dutch New Guinea and successfully destroying aircraft on the ground. The Japanese were replying in kind.
54 Squadron took off to intercept with Wing Commander Clive Caldwell leading their squadron formation. Caldwell preferred the 'Big Wing' strategy for the Spitfire wing and wanted to attack the Japanese formation en-masse with all three squadron striking at the same time.
The raid was a trap. The bombers did not cross the coast and were bait to draw the Spitfire squadrons out to dogfight or be bounced. One group of Zeros flew in low and strafed Coomalie Creek destroying a Beaufighter on the ground.
The remaining Zeros headed out to sea at 12,000 feet. Caldwell brought six aircraft of 54 Squadron into attack the Zeros which were flying in formation. The top group broke but they got one pass in one the main formation of Zeros with Caldwell claiming one. Bill Gibbs, 54 Squadron's squadron leader, was attacked during the pass and got into a dog fight with a Zero. He fired into the Zero at close range as both were stalling out in a climb. Gibbs saw the Zero crash into the sea.
79 Squadron RAAF Spitfires in the Pacific in World War II
In April of 1943, 79 Squadron was the first Australian Spitfire Squadron raised in Australia. The other Article XV Spitfire squadrons had been raised in England and transported to Australia. The RAAF worked with the US 5th Air Force from 1943 onwards in pushing through New Guinea toward the Philippines. The Australian squadrons were used for base defence of the airfields which the American B17s and B24s would operate from. 79 Squadron was formed to fill this need.
As the allies stabilized the front in New Guinea and the Solomons. They started pushing north of New Guinea invading islands for new airfields which gave fighters the range to support the heavy bombers to Rabaul. 79 Squadron was formed to satisfy the need to protect these new airbases and the heavy bombers on them from being attacked by the Japanese.
One of the advantages the RAAF had when forming squadrons was that many of the Australian pilots had already fought their way across North Africa with the RAAF and RAF. Many of the same pilots had also resisted the Japanese in the early days of the New Guinea campaign. Plenty of other pilots were still fighting in the European Theatre with RAAF and RAF squadrons as well. To add to this; by 1943 the Empire Air Training Scheme in Australia was producing pilots in large numbers. Squadrons being formed in Australia, such as 79 Squadron, were receiving a good complement of experienced combat pilots and newly trained pilots.
Jeff Wilkinson was a good example of this kind of experience. Starting out as an EATS pilot in Australia and Canada, he had fought in England with 452 and 457 RAAF flying Spitfires before returning to Australia and fighting with 75 Squadron during the Milne Bay invasion. Wilkinson was the first pilot official pilot in 79 Squadron RAAF.
The squadron received Spitfire Mk Vc's which were tropicalized with the large Volkes filter on front for the Australian environment. The pilots loved the Spitfire. It is a beautiful aircraft and by all accounts from pilots it was a dream to fly. The problem for the RAAF was that it was designed for the British theatre and the defensive fighter doctrines of the 1930s. Operationally it had too short a range for the Pacific theatre and was unable to take the fight to the Japanese on distant islands and locations.
Another problem was logistics. Australia did not do logistics well in World War II. The United States was the master of logistics by 1943 and was able to transport men, machines and equipment in huge amounts to anywhere in the world very quickly. The British were pretty good at it as well, but Australia was low on the ladder for receiving items. Supporting Spitfire squadrons on remote Pacific islands far from London and Brisbane was constantly a problem for the RAAF and the pilots and ground crew of 79 Squadron.
In 1943 Australia was still torn between being an independent nation, recently being part of the British Empire and the reality that the Anglosphere was now dominated by the United States which Curtin realized with his speech aligning Australian foreign policy to American strategic policy. Even with all that going on, Spitfires in Australia was politically important for the Australian and British governments. Britain being seen to still important to Australia and Britain, not to mention Britain's desire to be geo-politically relevant in the Pacific in the eyes of Australia and America.