Episodes & Studies Volume 2
Nos. 243 and 488 Squadrons
Nos. 243 and 488 Squadrons
Meanwhile in the aerial battle for Singapore the New Zealanders were playing a major role. With Royal Air Force resources heavily committed in the European and North African theatres, it was decided to reinforce the Far Eastern Air Force with New Zealand pilots straight from RNZAF Flying Training Schools. Nos. 67 and 243 (Fighter) Squadrons, formed at Singapore in April 1941, were brought up to establishment by the inclusion of RNZAF personnel, the former squadron being transferred to Burma shortly after it had been passed as operationally efficient.
In September 1941 No. 488 Squadron, classed officially as an RNZAF ‘infiltration’ squadron, was formed at Rongotai as a complete unit. Comprising 155 officers and airmen, it was the first fighter squadron to be formed in the Royal New Zealand Air Force. The Commanding Officer, page 7 Squadron Leader W. G. Clouston, DFC,9 and the two Flight Commanders, Flight Lieutenants J. N. MacKenzie, DFC,10 and J. R. Hutcheson,11 were New Zealanders already serving in the RAF and were sent out from England to meet the squadron at Singapore. The first party from New Zealand, consisting of ninety-six officers and men, arrived at Singapore in October and the remainder in November.
Based at Kallang, the squadron settled down to an intensive training programme. The pilots, who had had no experience of operational aircraft, were first sent to a training school at Kluang, where they carried out refresher flying on Wirraway aircraft—an Australian version of the Harvard Trainer. After ten days they returned to Kallang to convert to American-built Brewster Buffalo fighters and begin operational training in earnest. Flying was carried out under extreme difficulty, as the aircraft allotted to the squadron were ‘left-overs’ from No. 67 Squadron and were found to be in a bad state of repair. Engines, airframes, instruments, guns, radio equipment, all had to be cleaned, inspected and checked, repairs made, and worn-out parts discarded and replaced. To make matters worse the outgoing squadron had taken with it all tools, spare parts, and accessories.
However, largely through the personal initiative of Flying Officer C. W. Franks,12 the squadron Equipment Officer, shortages were made up, and after hard work by all hands the aircraft were made serviceable. The weather provided another handicap to the flying programme. At this time of the year frequent heavy tropical thunder showers, which reduced visibility almost to zero, interrupted training and grounded the aircraft.
When war broke out on 7 December, No. 488 Squadron was not yet fully operational, so the initial burden of defending Singapore devolved upon No. 243 Squadron, in which twenty-six RNZAF pilots were serving. At 4 a.m. on 8 December Japanese bombers raided Singapore. They came over high in the clear moonlit sky and were immediately picked up by searchlights. The anti-aircraft defences opened up, but the bombers came on unperturbed to drop their loads on the city and the aerodromes at Tengah and Seletar.
As soon as the sirens went the ground staff and pilots at Kallang dashed to the aircraft dispersal bays and warmed up the engines ready for an emergency take-off. At daybreak four members of No. 488 Squadron, led by Hutcheson, took off and carried out the first defensive patrol over Singapore. Other pilots continued to patrol throughout the day, but no enemy aircraft appeared. Meanwhile No. 243 Squadron, now fully operational though based at Kallang, maintained a detached flight in northern Malaya at Kota Bharu.
On the first day of the war Pilot Officer R. S. Shields,13 in company with an RAF pilot, strafed enemy barges on the Kelantan River, and later in the day, while patrolling to intercept a formation of nine bombers, had the first aerial engagement. Shields' sortie report illustrates the difficulties that were to be experienced so frequently with Buffalo aircraft:
‘While at 9000 feet in pursuit of nine enemy bombers, I observed a bomb burst approximately three miles ahead at one o'clock. I immediately turned sharply to port, through 180 degrees, and saw a Japanese aircraft about 1000 feet below me. As a result of my turn I was coming up on the bomber from astern. I saw it to be a twin-engined aircraft with a single rudder. Its shapely nose was oval and transparent; its body well streamlined although it had no transparent structure above the fuselage just aft the wing. I am unable to identify this aircraft by reference to any silhouette with which I am familiar. The camouflage of the bomber was a single shade of dark green above; a dirty grey-blue colour below. The markings were normal, with the addition of a vertical band of red towards the rear of the rudder. I overhauled the enemy at about 25 m.p.h. As my windshield was covered with oil, I was able to get only occasional glimpses of him. At page 8 350 yards, as near as I could judge in these circumstances, I opened fire. After one burst three of my guns stopped; the remaining gun stopped after two further short bursts. I was unable to see whether, despite his rear gun, the enemy returned my fire. Indeed, I am of the impression that the rear gun was not manned, because the enemy took no evasive action as I approached. Breaking away downwards I returned to the aerodrome, while the enemy aircraft continued on its course to the NE, presumably to Saigon. The combat was broken off ten miles out to sea.’
Also serving with the detached flight at Kota Bharu was another New Zealand pilot, Sergeant C.B. Wareham,14 who in these early stages of the war began a career as a photographic reconnaissance pilot which was carried on with distinction throughout the later campaign in India and Burma. In Malaya the Photographic Reconnaissance Flight of Buffaloes carried out over a hundred sorties, most of which ranged as far north as Singora, an important aerodrome in Thailand from which the enemy launched all his earlier air attacks. Throughout their operations these Buffaloes carried no armour or guns, and although intercepted and hit by Japanese fighters on numerous occasions, the pilots relied solely on evasive action to get through.
Back in Singapore it fell to a Maori, Sergeant B. S. Wipiti,15 also of No. 243 Squadron, to achieve the honour of shooting down the first Japanese aircraft. During December there was not much daylight activity by the enemy, who confined most of his aerial efforts over Singapore to reconnaissance. Night bombing raids, however, became more frequent, but apart from being uncomfortable and inconvenient caused little damage. No. 488 Squadron, which was not yet considered fully operational, took advantage of the respite to continue its training, and by Christmas nearly all the pilots had been passed as fit for combat flying, although opportunities for aerial gunnery training were scarce. During this period the more experienced pilots were called upon for operational duties, and on 10 December MacKenzie and Sergeant W. J. N. Macintosh16 were ordered to locate and protect the Prince of Wales and Repulse, which were being attacked by Japanese high-level and torpedo bombers 170 miles away. By the time they arrived, however, both ships had been sunk, but the Buffaloes provided escort to a destroyer which had rescued survivors and was heading south at full speed. Following up, other members of the squadron, flying in pairs, maintained until dusk a continuous patrol over the oil patches where survivors were still being picked up.
Several times during the month pilots were ordered off the ground in pairs to intercept Japanese reconnaissance aircraft, but the enemy, flying high, always escaped before the Buffaloes could reach them.
On 3 January 1942 No. 488 Squadron flew five patrols, totalling over sixty-four hours, providing cover for a convoy bringing reinforcements into Singapore. The weather was bad all the time, with low cloud and periodical rainstorms, which while having the advantage of hiding the convoy from the enemy, at the same time added to the difficulties of locating and escorting the ships. The aircraft had to fly at 1000 feet or less to keep below the cloud. This restricted their range of vision and gave them very little height for manoeuvre.
Although there were no attacks by the enemy, this was the first major operation in which No. 488 Squadron took part. By their excellent flying under most adverse conditions, the pilots proved the value of their training, while on the aerodrome at Kallang the ground crews maintained their reputation for hard work and efficiency as they toiled all day checking the aircraft as they came in, refuelling them, and making them ready for the next patrol.page 9
A second convoy arrived on 13 January bringing, among other forces, fifty-one Hurricane aircraft and twenty fighter pilots. The effect of these reinforcements on morale in Singapore was terrific. The continued advance of the Japanese down the Malayan Peninsula, the apparent ease with which they had disposed of two of Britain's strongest warships, and their superiority in the air had had a most depressing effect. Now, it was thought, the enemy would at least be halted, and the Hurricanes would sweep his air force from the skies. The situation was indeed sufficiently grim. On land the British forces had fallen back to the northern boundary of Johore, barely 100 miles from Singapore. In the air the Japanese had extended their daylight bombing raids to Singapore itself, concentrating on the aerodromes.
Tengah was the first attacked, in the first week of the New Year, and Kallang had its first major raid on 9 January. No. 488 Squadron's offices and equipment store and the oil and ammunition stores were hit and practically demolished. As soon as it was over, as much as possible of the stores and equipment was salvaged from the damaged buildings, and when the Japanese returned next day on another raid a great deal had been dispersed and stored in evacuated houses near the aerodrome.
The squadron's first fight occurred on 12 January. Eight aircraft, which were standing by at readiness, were ordered to take off to intercept a raid coming south. Led by MacKenzie, they climbed as quickly as possible to the north-west. When they were at 12,000 feet, over Johore, they sighted the enemy force, consisting of twenty-seven fighters, 3000 feet above them. MacKenzie, seeing that he was heavily outnumbered and at a serious disadvantage in height, ordered his pilots to fly into the sun and take evasive action. The enemy spotted them, however, and dived on them en masse.
Two New Zealanders, Sergeants T. W. Honan17 and R. W. MacMillan,18 were shot down in a few seconds. Both baled out and landed safely fifteen miles from Johore, Honan with a bullet wound in his arm. Five other machines were damaged and two other pilots wounded, but all managed to return to Singapore. MacKenzie and Sergeant P. E. E. Killick19 attempted to press home attacks on enemy fighters, but failed to score decisive hits before they were in turn attacked and forced to break off the engagements.
A second formation, consisting of six aircraft led by Hutcheson, took off twenty minutes after MacKenzie. Hutcheson was the only one to make contact with the enemy. He was attacked by a Zero, but after being outmanoeuvred broke off the action. Another member of the squadron, who was flying on patrol with two Dutch pilots, was attacked by six Zeros but escaped into cloud.
Later in the morning MacKenzie and four other pilots flew a further patrol over Singapore, and at midday Clouston led all the squadron's remaining serviceable aircraft on another patrol. In the afternoon both flights took off again to intercept enemy raiders, but could not gain enough height to make contact. One aircraft was lost when it crash-landed in a swamp after engine failure, but the pilot, Sergeant V. E. Meaclem,20 escaped uninjured.
Generally speaking, the Buffalo proved a disappointing aircraft. It did not stand up well to sustained climbing at full throttle, and frequently suffered from loss of power due to a drop in oil pressure and overheating. It could not operate above 25,000 feet, took thirty minutes to get there, and its speed was less than had been expected of it. This, combined with the unexpectedly high performance of the Japanese aircraft, particularly the Zero fighter, was to put the New Zealand squadron at a grave disadvantage during the campaign.page 10
The next day's operations were equally severe, and are well described in the squadron's diary:
At 0630 hours Pilot Officer Hesketh led four aircraft of A Flight on a security patrol, but no contact was made with the enemy. At 1100 hours Flight Lieutenant Hutcheson took off with eight aircraft, some being from a Dutch squadron, to intercept 30 Type 96 bombers, making contact with them and attacking from astern. The speed of the bombers was such that the Buffalo aircraft could only just overhaul them but could not get into position for beam or overhead attacks. Flight Lieutenant Hutcheson was shot up by rear-gun fire and crash-landed at base. Pilot Officer Greenhalgh attacked an Army 96 bomber. Although only two guns fired, he managed to get smoke from one engine. Pilot Officer Oakden was shot down into the sea by rear-gun fire from a bomber, and was rescued by a Chinese sampan, sustaining slight injuries to his face. Sergeant Clow was shot down in the sea, swam 400 yards to a small island, and was picked up by some Chinese in a sampan and returned to Kallang two days later. Pilot Officer Hesketh and Pilot Officer Gifford were unable to get sufficient height to attack. Pilot Officer McAneny had to break off his attack through gun failure. Sergeant de Maus was hit before he got within range. The Dutch pilot went missing. Casualties: five aircraft written off and one damaged with no loss to the enemy.
Today, although we did not meet up with the fighters because we did not attack from above, we were badly shot up from rear-gun fire. The Japanese bomber formations of 27 packed aircraft throw out such an accurate and heavy rear-gun barrage that they are very difficult to attack. Some way must be found to break up these mass formations and attack bombers independently. No doubt there was fighter escort in the near vicinity, but it did not pick up our fighters owing to cloudy conditions and also because we attacked from astern.
In the last two days 488 Squadron has lost seven aircraft and had many others damaged, with no loss to the enemy. No blame can be attached to the pilots, who have done their best with Buffaloes. Until we fly as Wings of 36 aircraft we will be unable to inflict heavy damage on the enemy.
The squadron's aircraft strength was now down to fourteen, most of which were damaged. In addition to normal servicing and maintenance work, the ground staffs had to repair machines after every engagement to enable them to fly again. From now on the Japanese were over Singapore every day, and as long as they had aircraft to fly, the defending forces went up to meet them.