Following the declaration of war with Japan in World War Two on December 8th, 1941 and their rapid invasion of the South-West Pacific and New Guinea, by 1942 Australia was under the imminent threat of Japanese Invasion. Between February 1942 and November 1943 Japanese aircraft attacked targets in the north of mainland Australia (Northern Territory, Western Australia and Queensland) along with nearby shipping and islands at least 97 times. The worst attack made was upon Darwin on February 19th, 1942 killing between 235 to 250 people and causing widespread destruction of the city and military targets including ships and aircraft.
The RAAF was not well equipped with modern combat aircraft at the start of World War Two and in the first two years of war many of the RAAF pilots and air crews were serving in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. As an emergency measure to counter Japanese attacks the RAAF was supplied with readily available fighter aircraft like the obsolete Brewster Buffalo. By March 1942 delivery of the far more capable Curtiss P-40 Kittyhawk began (enough for 3 squadrons), but more aircraft were required to defend Australia. Interestingly the Bell P-39 Airacobra was used as an interim measure by the RAAF until more suitable and capable fighters could be delivered for air defence (more Curtiss P-40 Kittyhawk’s and then Supermarine Spitfire’s were delivered from August 1942 onwards until 1945).
The P-39 was an unusual fighter aircraft in its day. The engine was behind the pilot, it had a tricycle landing gear, a 37mm cannon fired through the propeller hub and it had doors like a car to get into the cockpit! The P-39 was well armoured to protect the pilot and also had a lot of firepower. In addition to the cannon the P-39 had 2 x .50 caliber machine guns in the nose, 2 x .30 caliber machine guns in the wings and it could carry up to 230kg / 500 pounds of bomb. Ultimately the performance of the Airacobra was better suited to lower altitude operations as it lacked an effective engine turbo-supercharger (not great for intercepting enemy aircraft) and with its heavy armament it was more suited as ground attack aircraft than as a fighter but there wasn’t much else available at the time to defend the skies of Australia (interestingly the Soviet Union used the Airacobra to great effect as a fighter and shot down a large number of German aircraft with the type).
On May 31st, 1942 an attack force of 3 Japanese midget submarines entered Sydney Harbour in New South Wales (they were launched from larger submarines off the coast). The attack was not overly successful but heightened the fears of invasion. The Japanese only managed to sink one ship – HMAS Kuttabul a barracks ship was hit after they missed USS Chicago (US Navy cruiser). 21 navy personnel died aboard HMAS Kuttabul. All the subs were lost during and after the attack. The first sub became entangled in anti-submarine netting before an attack could be made and was scuttled by its crew; the second was the one that fired its torpedoes, sunk the ship and made it out to sea. For 64 years the fate of the second sub was unknown until November 2006 when divers found it off the coast of New South Wales (it remains untouched there today as a tomb to its crew); the third sub was sunk by depth charges in the harbour before it could fire any torpedoes. The 2 subs lost in the harbor during the attack were recovered and a composite of these can now be seen in the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.
The submarine attack on Sydney Harbour and further attacks on shipping along the east coast of Australia by the larger submarines that launched the midget subs highlighted the need for better defences around Australia. As such Airacobras on loan from the U.S. 5th Air Force were used by the RAAF for air defence of rear areas such as the city of Sydney until better suited fighters could be delivered.
The first Airacobras were delivered to the RAAF in mid 1942 after being repaired in Australian workshops (in July 7 x P-39F were delivered to RAAF Bankstown, in August 7 x P-39D were delivered for RAAF use near Brisbane in Queensland, 9 other P-39D & F models received as replacements for crashed aircraft and as additional aircraft, at least 4 of these did not enter service and were returned). By November 1943 the P-39 Airacobra ended its brief career with the RAAF when all surviving aircraft were returned to the USAAF.
In 2008 I went to the Classic Jets Fighter Museum in Parafield, South Australia to see their restoration of a P-39K (S/N: 42-4312 – one of only 3 in Australia including a P-39F that is reportedly being restored to flying condition by Precision Aerospace in Victoria). They originally started with main planes and tail but no fuselage. They were later able to obtain damaged fuselages and parts from within Australia and Papua New Guinea to build a new composite fuselage to complete the Airacobra.
I returned to the Classic Jets Fighter Museum in 2011 to see the completed P-39K restoration. The aircraft looked fantastic. A job well done!
The restored P-39K is painted in the colour scheme of RAAF 24 Squadrons first Airacobra (A53-12). The aircraft it represents was flown in defence of Sydney from RAAF Bankstown following the 1942 Japanese midget submarine attack on Sydney Harbour.
Although the P-39 had only a short career with the RAAF and was never required in combat, it filled an ominous void in times of great fear. For this alone the P-39 has a special place in Australian military history.
Addendum: As of 2016 the Classic Jets Fighter Museum is being closed and the collection sold off. The P-39 is apparently on its way to a buyer in Russia and no doubt will soon be repainted in Soviet colours. Its a pity it couldn’t stay in Australia but as with many of the aircraft there, they are now headed all over the world (luckily some are going to other Australian buyers).