On Borrowed Time

When Squadron-Leader and Commanding Officer Geoffrey William Coventry of the 11th Squadron RAAF returned to base along with his crew after a raid on Manokwari Harbour in western New Guinea in early 1943, they had something for their Intelligence Officer’s narrative report. What they had was a frank admission that they were indeed back from their mission, but didn’t know how.

Catalina Rescue by Dennis Hill Adams

‘Catalina Rescue’ by Dennis Hill Adams VX93486, Official War Artist (1944)

Coventry had flown in a Catalina on a bombing and reconnaissance mission over Manokwari Harbour. They came in across the bay at a very low altitude and were immediately met by a concentration of light and medium anti-aircraft fire. “There was tracer flying past us on every side,” his crew later admitted, “it was the hottest show a Catalina had ever come out of.” Coventry told the intelligence officer that he thought he was now living on borrowed time.

Since the days of the first battles around Port Moresby, Coventry had been flying a lone Catalina through the night across long stretches of sea. For a few months he was a watch controller at the fighter sector, and on many a night when Moresby was raided by the Japanese, he sat through the monotonous ‘Dog Watches’, waiting for the Japanese flying boats to come down from Rabaul and attack the seven-mile strip.

Back in the Catalinas, Coventry played an important role in the Battle of the Bismarck Sea. On the night of March 2, 1943, he was stalking a Japanese supply convoy, radioing its position back to Bomber Command, whose great force of heavy and medium bombers was poised to strike its greatest blow the following morning provided the convoy came within range. Just before nightfall the convoy had turned toward Wewak from a point at the north of Vitiaz Strait. However, as night fell, it instead wheeled about and made full steam for Lae. Coventry hovered over the ships and sealed their doom, his wireless operator sending through regular messages. The staff chiefs at Bomber Command saw this new development to their advantage, as it meant that the convoy was entering the range of their medium bombers and Beaufighters. Coventry unloaded bombs at regular intervals during the long night and drew anti-aircraft from the destroyers, “just to give them a hell of a night”. He did not observe any direct hits, but his greatest contribution to the Bismarck Sea Battle was his regular plotting of the convoy’s course well into the dawn of Wednesday, March 3. Before lunch on that day most of the Japanese ships would be destroyed.

According to his RAAF colleagues, Coventry was always on top of his game and it was difficult to say which particular adventure was his greatest. His series of flights from Moresby across central New Guinea, for the Australian New Guinea Administrative Unit (ANGAU), were perhaps his most outstanding. He and his group of Catalinas were the first to make a series of such flights, and they brought back a wealth of material and reconnaissance that was invaluable later to the ANGAU.

Shortly after the Manokwari raid on the 2nd May 1944, Coventry was called upon to deliver a pump to a small American ship which was in difficulties due to a leak. The ship was lying some distance out from Milne Bay in open water. In heavy weather, and against his better judgment, Coventry set down his flying boat on the rough sea and delivered the pump to the Americans.  Damage had been done to the Catalina on landing, and, when the flying boat attempted to take off, rivets were sprung and the aircraft crashed on its nose. Coventry was killed, but the rest of his crew escaped.

Squadron-Leader Coventry had used up his borrowed time.

Advertisements

6 comments

Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s