The CAC Wirraway was ordered by the Royal Australian Airforce (RAAF) to meet their needs for a general purpose and training aircraft. In the general purpose role they replaced the attractive but obsolete Hawker Demon. In the training role the Wirraway fulfilled the new function of advanced trainer, a new category which was introduced with the curriculum for the Empire Air Training Scheme (EATS).
Wirraways were initially allotted to service squadrons, with the first deliveries going to No. 12 (General Purpose) Squadron who were immediately deployed to Darwin and then to No. 22 Squadron at Richmond NSW, followed by No. 23 Squadron at Archerfield, Queensland (Qld).
The first Wirraways allotted for training duties arrived at No. 2 Service Flying Training School at Forest Hill near Wagga in October 1940, with larger numbers arriving at No. 3 SFTS at Amberley, Qld in January and February 1941.
By the time war broke out in the Pacific in December 1941 Wirraways equipped seven RAAF squadrons: Numbers 4 and 5 (Army cooperation squadrons) and Numbers 12, 22, 23, 24 and 25 (General Purpose squadrons). But the RAAF found itself ill prepared for war—with no front-line fighter aircraft available. This lack of planning by the Defence Department and the Air Board resulted in the Wirraways of 21 Squadron and 24 Squadron being deployed as fighters in the defense of Malaya and Rabaul respectively. It was a scandal that the RAAF had no alternative but to send aircraft which were not designed for this role – Wirraways were all they had.
In Malaya, 21 Squadron were able to convert to Brewster Buffalo fighters before they had to enter combat. Five of their Wirraways were shipped back to Australia and six were transferred to a hastily-formed RAF Operational Training Unit at RAF Kluang. As the fighting moved closer to the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula these Wirraways were pressed into combat against Japanese ground invasion forces on 19 January 1942 five Wirraways accompanied by Dutch Glenn Martin bombers and escorted by Buffalo fighters attacked Japanese troop concentrations around the Maur area. Piloted by New Zealanders with Australian observers, these aircraft had some limited successes, but without any armor protection they were vulnerable to small-arms fire and suffered heavy losses. One Wirraway was shot down by Japanese fighters and three were damaged.
On the island of New Britain the brave pilots of 24 Squadron vainly attempted to fight off multiple waves of Japanese bombers protected by vastly superior Mitsubishi Zero fighters. On 6 January 1942, the squadron attempted to intercept Japanese seaplanes flying over New Britain; only one Wirraway managed to engage an enemy aircraft, marking the first air-to-air combat between RAAF and Japanese forces. Two weeks later on 20 January 1942 the squadron sent eight Wirraways into action against a force of more than 100 Japanese bombers and fighters. They lost six aircraft destroyed or damaged and six aircrew were killed and five wounded in action. On 22 January the squadron withdrew to Townsville and Rabaul fell to the Japanese on 23 January.
Despite the tragic results in Rabaul, Wirraways were again called into action in Papua New Guinea with No. 4 Squadron in November 1942, but this time in an army co-operation role for which they were more suited. On 26 December Pilot Officer J. S. Archer shot down a Japanese A6M Zero aircraft after he spotted it 1000 feet (about 300 meters) below him and dived on it, opening fire and sending the Zero into the sea. This was the only occasion that a Wirraway shot down an enemy aircraft.
The most valuable service which the Wirraway gave to its country was in the advanced training role. At the peak of the EATS, 356 aircraft were allotted to various training schools including Numbers 1, 2, 5 and 7 Service Flying Training Schools, Central Flying School (CFS), Numbers 1 and 2 Armament Training Schools (ATS), Numbers 2, 4 and 8 Operational Training Units (OTU) and the School of Army Co-Operation. The largest user of Wirraway trainers was No. 5 SFTS at Uranquinty, with a peak allocation of 162 aircraft on strength plus 81 in reserve. A total of 1,515 pilots passed through Wirraway training at Uranquinty in 34 course groups between November 1941 and June 1945.
Many front-line squadrons of the RAAF had at least one Wirraway attached to serve as a squadron “hack”, employed on errands such as visits to headquarters or other bases. Several Wirraways were allotted to USAAC and RAF units operating in Australia, and at least two aircraft were marked with United States Army Air Corps (USAAC) national insignia.
© Derek Buckmaster 2014
Images courtesy Australian War Memorial.