44 Days: 75 Squadron and the Fight for Australia

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Hachette Australia, Jul 26, 2016 - History - 336 pages

'Brilliantly researched and sympathetically told, 44 DAYS is more than just a fitting tribute to brave but overlooked heroes. It's also a top read.' DAILY TELEGRAPH

In March and April 1942, RAAF 75 Squadron bravely defended Port Moresby for 44 days when Australia truly stood alone against the Japanese. This group of raw young recruits scrambled ceaselessly in their Kittyhawk fighters to an extraordinary and heroic battle, the story of which has been left largely untold.

The recruits had almost nothing going for them against the Japanese war machine, except for one extraordinary leader named John Jackson, a balding, tubby Queenslander - at 35 possibly the oldest fighter pilot in the world - who said little, led from the front, and who had absolutely no sense of physical fear.

Time and time again this brave group were hurled into battle, against all odds and logic, and succeeded in mauling a far superior enemy - whilst also fighting against the air force hierarchy. After relentless attack, the squadron was almost wiped out by the time relief came, having succeeded in their mission - but also paying a terrible price.

Michael Veitch, actor, presenter and critically acclaimed author, brings to life the incredible exploits and tragic sacrifices of this courageous squadron of Australian heroes.

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I think it's important that this pivotal moment in Australian history, not just its military history, should finally become better known, through a major publication such as
this - now written about with so much flair, by Michael Veitch. The pilots who flew under the command of their revered leader John F Jackson - killed in action himself under controversial circumstances - inevitably became collectively known in RAAF circles as: Jackson's "Few", reflecting the 'more than passing resemblance' which the Air Battle of Port Moresby, fought on Australia's doorstep just across the Torres Strait to our north, tends to have (in hindsight) by comparison to the Battle of Britain, fought over SE England and the English Channel.
An obscure self-published monograph with the title: 'Jackson's Few' - now long since out of print - of which I once saw a copy, through its simple choice of title (as above) effectively evoked the irresistible temptation to make this perhaps, initially, seemingly unlikely (even outrageous) comparison relating to 75 Squadron RAAF which Michael Veitch now writes about in this gripping account of the events of March through May 1942. The comparison I'm referring to is one that's often been casually made, between these 75 Squadron RAAF pilots and those RAF squadrons/pilots involved in a similar critical few weeks during the Battle of Britain. As rudimentary as the 'raw material' may have been, in that self-published earlier attempt to grapple with this difficult subject, its title was of course a very simple and effective allusion to the famous words of Winston Churchill: "Never have so few done so much for so many".
Michael Veitch is an excellent story teller, who has now written a fascinating, absorbing and important record of those perilous months in early 1942, when 75 Squadron RAAF defended Port Moresby alone (in the air) but very much alongside the Australian Army's 39th Battalion: the militia, defending what is now the site of Jackson's International Airport at 'Seven Mile' just outside Port Moresby. It was at the heart of a complex of airfields which the Australian Army and Air Force were defending together, as well as all of the various ground and shipping installations. The 39th Battalion, along with the 2/14 Battalion and a number of other very famous units, were yet to set out on the Kokoda Track and suffer a proportionally similar (utterly devastating) loss of life, and other casualties on a much larger scale, again - by virtue of being ground troops, and thus involving much greater actual numbers of combatants.
I strongly recommend this invaluable and beautifully written book, preserving what was not only a very special 'chapter' in Australia's aerial history but was also an incredibly precarious moment in the history of the nation.
-a WWII military aviation enthusiast.

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Papua New Guinea’s main airport, at its capital of Port Moresby, is Jackson’s International Airport. Many of us know that Sydney airport is named after Charles Kingsford-Smith, an
Australian aviation hero, but few would have heard of John Jackson, another equally deserving Australian hero. Squadron Leader John Jackson was killed in action whilst leading a small group of Australian fighter pilots of No 75 Squadron defending Port Moresby against a massive Japanese air threat in a 44 day period in early 1942. This book tells the story, largely unknown or forgotten today, of this extraordinary air campaign which literally saved Australia.
Michael Veitch has had a lifelong passion for aircraft and aviation and has previously published a couple of other WWII aviation related books. He displays great depth of research and obvious affection for the subject, and has done a great service to 75 Squadron's heritage, and general awareness.
Even though I’m a former Commanding Officer of 75 Squadron, with these events in my DNA, I was still turning pages to see what happened next. As we used to say, this book is a ‘cracking good read’. Michael has the happy knack of re-creating the period and making the reader feel right in the thick of the appalling conditions at the Seven Mile strip outside Port Moresby. The only consolation was that the Japanese at their bases north of the Owen Stanley Range endured equally appalling conditions. The Moresby air campaign is a tribute to Australian resilience, adaptability, and refusal to be beaten.
It’s easy to get angry about the squadron’s apparent abandonment by higher HQ in Australia because of the atrocious conditions and slow logistics support. But things happened so fast in pure desperation, and everyone was totally committed to operations, that they just had to make the best of it. These days, instead of a single unsupported squadron, we'd normally deploy at least a wing, and usually a group, with plenty of capacity to oversee these issues.
Despite some obvious errors which will be corrected for the second edition, Michael Veitch clearly shows how the initial, largely chaotic but ultimately successful air defence of Port Moresby had a disproportionate strategic effect. Moresby’s complex of airstrips, ground installations and harbour facilities was absolutely vital for an Allied counter-attack, and by preventing Japanese air power from neutralising it, 75 Sqn and its Kittyhawks bought valuable time, but at great cost. The circumstances surrounding the death of the squadron’s beloved CO, ‘old’ John Jackson, are particularly poignant.
’44 Days’ is an essential part of Australia’s history, and one which should make us better remember our true heroes. I thoroughly commend this wonderfully readable book.
Bill Evans

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About the author (2016)

Michael Veitch is well known as an author, actor, comedian and former ABC television and radio presenter. His books include the critically acclaimed accounts of Australian airmen in World War II, 44 Days, Heroes of the Skies, Fly, Flak and Barney Greatrex. He lives in the Yarra Valley, outside Melbourne.

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