New Zealanders with the Royal Air Force (Volume III)
CHAPTER 11 — Malaya, Sumatra, and Java
JAPAN'S invasion of Malaya was not wholly unexpected for it had long been evident that she was determined to establish herself as the controlling power in South-east Asia and only awaited the opportunity to fulfil this ambition. But the blow which fell in December 1941 was swift and sudden and it achieved astonishing success. Within seventy days the whole of the Malay peninsula, Britain's richest tropical possession, the world's chief source of rubber and one of its best sources of tin, was completely in enemy hands. Two powerful British warships— Prince of Wales and Repulse—sent out at the last minute to strengthen our Far East defences, were both at the bottom of the sea, torpedoed and bombed by Japanese aircraft. Singapore and its great naval base, previously described as ‘an impregnable fortress’ and ‘the Gibraltar of the Far East’, had fallen after a brief siege. And seventy thousand weary and exhausted defenders had passed into a captivity so rigorous and brutal as to bring about the death of more than half of them.
This disaster, as great as any suffered by British arms, has been ascribed to a combination of circumstances. There was the climate and the apathy of the local population towards the defence of the territory. Our troops, although superior in numbers to the enemy, were untrained in jungle warfare and they became worn out and dispirited by their continual and long retreat. The efficiency of the Japanese in air warfare was greatly underestimated and the sinking of the British warships, coupled with the crippling of the American Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbour, gave the enemy almost complete freedom of movement in the neighbouring seas.1 Certainly these were all contributing factors but behind them is the fact that the preparations and plans made by Britain, Australia and New Zealand in the pre-war years were unequal to the situation which developed in 1941.
1 Early in the morning of 7 December 1941, waves of Japanese aircraft flown from carriers had appeared over the Hawaiian island of Oahu, where the American Pacific Fleet lay in Pearl Harbour. It was a complete surprise. Ships, airfields, troops, all alike were caught off their guard. Within a matter of minutes virtually the whole fleet was out of action, sunk or incapacitated for a considerable period.
For twenty years these plans and preparations had been based on sea power and they were mainly concerned with the defence of Britain's naval base at Singapore, built at a cost of £65,000,000. Through those years the general opinion was that this would be the first objective of the enemy and that it would be attacked by warships supported by carrier-borne aircraft. The possibility that an assault might be made from another direction seems to have been largely discounted and as late as the autumn of 1939 attention was still concentrated on Singapore. There powerful batteries of fixed guns were in position to defend the naval base, with arcs of fire covering a wide area of sea to the south of the island, but these batteries had no forts or fixed defences to protect their rear, a fact which Winston Churchill later described as ‘one of the greatest scandals that could possibly be exposed.’ Supplementing the guns there were four bomber squadrons, of which two were torpedo-bombers, and there were also two flying-boat squadrons. Their presence, however, was regarded as of secondary importance and the defensive plan remained essentially a naval one. British warships based on Singapore would control the sea approaches to Malaya and deal with any enemy forces in the vicinity.1
2 Author's italics.
This weakness of our air forces, due largely to their neglect in the years of peace, was probably the main reason why the Japanese were able to achieve such a rapid and overwhelming victory. But it was accentuated by a lack of preparedness in other directions which it is impossible to discuss here. The whole sad tale, however, now lies unfolded in the pages of the official British history—The War Against Japan, Volume I—and its concluding chapter, in particular, deserves careful study by all who seek to understand and to avoid a repetition of the melancholy events here related.
To support their invasion of Malaya the Japanese had a force of 300 land-based aircraft deployed in Indo-China in addition to those which were carrier-borne. They included the twin-engined Army types ‘97’ and ‘99’ for bombing and reconnaissance and the Navy type ‘96’ for use as a torpedo-bomber. Their principal fighter aircraft were the Army types ‘I’ and ‘97’ and the Navy type ‘O’. The latter, better known as the ‘Zero’, proved one of the greatest surprises of the campaign. Fast, well-armed and extremely manoeuvreable, it was more than a match for our fighters, whose pilots, unaware of its high performance, suffered many casualties through adopting the wrong tactics against it.1 The Japanese squadrons were trained for certain definite roles. That of the Army Air Force units was to strike hard in close support of the armies in the field while the Naval Air Forces had the duty of attacking shipping, bombing suitable targets on shore and covering their own warships. The enemy pilots, many of them with long experience in the Chinese war, were skilful and resolute men. They gave eloquent proof of these qualities on the second day of the campaign when they flew through fierce anti-aircraft fire to sink the Prince of Wales and Repulse, a task which they accomplished with the probable loss of only four aircraft.
1 Reasons why nothing was known about the Zero are thus recorded in the RAF Official History: ‘The Japanese had made use of the Navy Zero against the Chinese in the spring of 1940. Some details of its performance had been divulged by American newspaper correspondents stationed in Chungking who had seen it in action at that time, and in the same year more details had reached the Air Ministry from other sources in that city. On 2 September 1941, this information was duly forwarded to the Far Eastern Combined Bureau for transmission to Air Headquarters. It never arrived there. Moreover, in addition to the information on this fighter provided by Air Ministry a detailed description of it, written in Chinese, reached Singapore in July and was duly translated. What happened next is a matter for conjecture since all records have been destroyed; but it seems probable that this very important report formed part of the mass of accumulated files with which the makeshift Intelligence Section, set up at Air Headquarters in October 1941, attempted to deal. When war broke out they had by no means completed their task and the report remained undiscovered.’
Facilities for the repair and maintenance of these machines were sadly lacking. Such as did exist were concentrated in the workshops at Seletar on Singapore Island. These workshops, although equipped only to deal with the requirements of two squadrons at the most, were called upon to service the whole air force in Malaya; the magnitude of their task may be gauged from the fact that twenty-seven modifications had to be made in the Brewster Buffalo fighter before it could be used in battle. Of two other maintenance units that were authorised, one never passed beyond the embryo stage while the other, though possessed of personnel, was lacking in equipment.
Our squadrons were seriously short of trained and experienced pilots. Many of those serving in Malaya had come straight from flying training schools in Australia and New Zealand, where most of them had never flown anything more modern than a Hart and had no experience of retractable undercarriages, variable pitch propellers or flaps. Furthermore, when the Japanese attacked, the Buffalo fighter squadrons had only been formed a few months and half of them had not reached full operational efficiency.
1 It had been laid down that each airfield was to have eight heavy and eight light anti-aircraft guns but the best-defended airfield was Seletar, which had eight Bofors. Those in central and southern Malaya and a number in the northern districts had no anti-aircraft defences at all.
Another serious feature, especially for the fighter defence, was the lack of radar units to detect the approach of hostile aircraft and ships. On the east coast of Malaya, where the first landings took place, only two were operational, the remaining five still being under construction. On the west coast one had been completed and two others were approaching completion. Only on Singapore Island itself were there three posts all in working order. At some stations there was no more effective warning system than that provided by an aircraftsman standing on the perimeter and waving a white handkerchief on the approach of hostile aircraft. These were some of the handicaps under which our pilots and crews went into action against the Japanese invaders.
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On the morning of 6 December 1941 the great, humid, prosperous city of Singapore went about its business as usual. The streets were thronged with people, the markets bustled with activity and the wharves and docks were busy with the loading and unloading of ships. There was no indication as to how rudely this peaceful scene was soon to be disturbed, yet that same morning the Japanese invasion fleet was already moving southwards. First news of its approach came from a Hudson aircraft on routine reconnaissance over the approaches to the Gulf of Thailand which reported two convoys steaming westwards off Cape Cambodia. More aircraft were sent out but low cloud and rain prevented them from finding the ships and a Catalina flying-boat sent to continue the search failed to return—actually it was shot down by Japanese warships. For the next twenty-four hours the whole situation was shrouded in uncertainty, but in the early hours of the 8th the roar of guns off the coast at Kota Bharu and the sound of exploding bombs in the streets of Singapore itself left no doubt as to Japanese intentions. The invasion of Malaya had begun.
Counter-attacks were launched the next day. The first, carried out in the afternoon, was markedly successful and the congested airfield at Singora was repeatedly hit. But as our squadrons were about to take off for a second assault Japanese bombers came over and, after dropping their bombs, followed up with low-level machine-gun attacks on the airfield. All the aircraft were put out of action except for one single Blenheim. Its pilot, Squadron Leader Scarf,2 a Londoner, despite the fact that he was alone, flew on towards his objective. Over Singora he was attacked by enemy fighters but dropped his bombs and turned for home. He had been hit in the back and left arm and mortally wounded, but, still conscious, he maintained a running fight until the Malay border was reached, then landed successfully in a paddy field near Alor Star. His navigator was unhurt but he himself died that night. He was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross.
|Base||Unit||Type||Strength in Aircraft|
|Seletar||No. 36 (TB) Sqn RAF||Vildebeeste||6|
|No. 100 (TB) Sqn RAF||Vildebeeste||12|
|No. 205 (FB) Sqn RAF||Catalina||3|
|Tengah||No. 34 (B) Sqn RAF||Blenheim IV||16|
|Sembawang||No. 453 (F) Sqn RAAF||Buffalo||16|
|Kallang||No. 243 (F) Sqn RAF||Buffalo||30|
|No. 488 (F) Sqn RNZAF||Buffalo||30|
|Sungei Patani||No. 21 (F) Sqn RAAF||Buffalo||12|
|No. 27 (NF) Sqn RAAF||Blenheim I||12|
|Kota Bharu||No. 1 (GR) Sqn RAAF||Hudson||12|
|Det No. 243 (F) Sqn RAF||Buffalo||2|
|Gong Kedah||Det No. 36 (TB) Sqn RAF||Vildebeeste||6|
|Kuantan||No. 8 (GR) Sqn RAAF||Hudsons||12|
|No. 60 (B) Sqn RAF||Blenheim||8|
|Alor Star||No. 62 (B) Sqn RAF||Blenheim I||11|
On Singapore Island there were also three Catalinas manned by Dutch crews.
Against the first enemy landings in Malaya itself—at Kota Bharu— our bombers were able to achieve some success. During the night of 8 December they sank one transport and severely damaged two others. Landing barges were also attacked and the estimated casualties among the Japanese were 3000. It is recorded that during this phase an unknown Blenheim pilot was seen to dive his burning aircraft into an enemy landing craft, destroying it and its occupants. But the success at Kota Bharu was only temporary. The airfield had to be abandoned the next day after a fight in which the ground staff, along with elements of 11 Indian Division, gave a good account of themselves. Eleven aircraft got away south.
Well aware of our weakness in the air, the Japanese continued to strike hard and often against our airfields and it was not long before all the bases in north-east and north-west Malaya were rendered untenable. What aircraft were left had to be withdrawn southwards.
Throughout this period the difficulties of all units were increased by the fact that the native labourers usually fled the airfields as soon as bombing began and did not return. Nevertheless many fine individual efforts were made to bring back stores and equipment. The demolition of buildings and runways was also attempted but this did not retard by more than a few hours the use of the airfields by the enemy. Moreover, such demolitions inevitably had a depressing effect on the spirits of the soldiers who, holding positions in front of them, had but to turn their heads to see large fires and columns of smoke in their rear.
Within the first few days the Japanese thus obtained virtual control in the air over northern Malaya. Their troops had already thrust from Singora towards Alor Star, and they now began advancing down both coasts with infiltrating groups moving forward through the jungle. Our own ground forces were compelled to give ground and fight a series of rearguard actions. Two squadrons of Buffalo fighters sent north to Ipoh to give them some support went straight into action, attacked Japanese convoys on the roads, reconnoitred to good effect and claimed some success in air combat. But enemy bombing soon forced these squadrons back to Kuala Lumpur. Here they again came under attack and by 22 December possessed only four serviceable aircraft between them. Thereafter our troops had to meet the full force of the Japanese onslaught with negligible close support from the air.
Our few remaining fighters were meanwhile active in defence of Singapore and of shipping in its vicinity; Hudsons continued with coastal reconnaissance and the remnants of the bomber force attacked enemy airfields, bases and troop movements in northern Malaya and Thailand. These latter missions entailed long flights by night and often through violent tropical thunderstorms. Damage and casualties were certainly inflicted on the enemy, but it is equally certain that he had more than sufficient reserves to replace his losses without delay.page 253
Reinforcements of troops and aircraft began to reach Singapore by sea at the beginning of January and the convoys were safely escorted through the dangerous approaches by relays of aircraft, a task which absorbed a good deal of the available air effort. However, before these reinforcements could intervene in the fighting the situation farther north seriously deteriorated. Taking full advantage of their command of the sea the Japanese had begun to make landings behind our positions, and such action, combined with heavy frontal attacks, forced our troops to make further withdrawals. Both fighters and bombers did what they could to help the hard-pressed Army, but the few hundred sorties that were flown, although they inflicted some damage, did not seriously upset enemy plans. Bomber crews made a last gallant effort at Endau on 26 January when reconnaissance reported two cruisers, eleven destroyers, two transports and many small craft approaching the coast. All the aircraft that could be mustered for a strike went out against them in two attacks. The convoys were well protected by fighters and our losses, especially of the slow and out-dated Vildebeestes, were heavy. But the attacks were pressed home. Both transports were hit and thirteen enemy aircraft were claimed destroyed.
By this time the Japanese had extended their air attacks to the island of Singapore, directing them mainly against its four airfields. Daylight raids, first by bombers alone and later by bombers escorted by fighters, took place with increasing intensity, and as the days passed the continual pounding of the airfields made it difficult to keep their surfaces usable. Heavy rainfall seriously handicapped repair work and, to complicate matters further, practically all native labour disappeared. Our depleted fighter squadrons did their utmost to ward off the enemy's attacks. Hurricanes which had arrived in crates were assembled with all speed, but it was 20 January before they first took to the air. For a few days these modern fighters did much damage but before long Japanese superiority in numbers began to take its toll. Our fighter pilots fought on gallantly under growing pressure but it was soon obvious that their resistance could not long be sustained.
By the end of January our ground forces had withdrawn to Singapore, and of the four airfields on the island three were being shelled and all four continually bombed. The remnants of the bomber force had already been sent to operate from Sumatra along with what remained of the reconnaissance squadrons; only a few fighters were kept—eight Hurricanes and the last six Buffalos. Taking off without any adequate ground control, they did what they could to help our troops, to intercept enemy bombers and to protect shipping leaving the port. That they were able to operate at all was due to the incredible efforts of the servicing staffs and the men who went out after every raid and repaired the runways. It is recorded that as late as 9 February our pilots page 254 were able to claim six Japanese bombers destroyed and a further fourteen damaged. But this was their final gallant gesture of defiance and on the following day, with their last base out of action, they had to be withdrawn. Singapore fell on 15 February.
For a few more bitter days our squadrons carried on the fight from the islands of the Dutch East Indies. Reinforced by some Hurricanes flown off HMS Indomitable, they gave a good account of themselves, notably in the battle of the Palembang River, before their bases and airfields were again overrun by the invading Japanese. Thereupon some men managed to escape by sea to Australia, suffering all manner of torments in small ships and open boats that were mercilessly bombed and machine-gunned by enemy aircraft. But the large majority were taken prisoner and for four long years they had to endure the misery, privations, and often the cruelty of Japanese prison camps. By the time due retribution had fallen from the skies above Hiroshima upon the sons of Nippon hundreds had succumbed to their treatment, and among the survivors there were many sick and broken men.
* * * * *
In this first brief campaign in South-east Asia over 400 New Zealanders took part. They were especially prominent in the small fighter force where No. 488 Squadron personnel, both pilots and ground staff, were almost entirely from the Dominion, along with a majority of the pilots in No. 243 Squadron. There was also a substantial representation of pilots, observers, wireless operators and gunners in the bomber and reconnaissance units and among the crews of the flying-boats. In addition New Zealand engineers, mechanics and armourers shared in the work of servicing, maintenance and repair of aircraft, and there were others engaged in signals, radar, equipment, medical and administrative work. Last, but not least, a New Zealand airfield construction squadron did particularly good work both before and during the fighting in Malaya.
While at 9,000 feet in pursuit of nine enemy bombers, I observed a bomb burst approximately three miles ahead …. Turning sharply to port I saw a Japanese aircraft about 2,000 feet below. I overhauled the enemy but as my windshield was covered with oil I was able to get only occasional glimpses of him. At 350 yards, as near as I could judge in the 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 the enemy returned my fire …. Breaking away downwards I returned to base while the enemy aircraft continued on its course to the north-east, presumably to Saigon. The combat was broken off ten miles out to sea.
Also serving with the flight at Kota Bharu was Sergeant Wareham,1 who now began a career as photographic reconnaissance pilot which was carried on with distinction throughout the later campaign in Burma. In Malaya the PR flight of Buffalos flew over one hundred sorties, most of which ranged as far north as Singora, the airfield in Thailand from which the Japanese launched their early air attacks. Throughout their operations these aircraft carried no armour or guns and when intercepted pilots relied solely on evasive action to get through.page 256
Back in Singapore pilots of No. 243 Squadron flew defensive patrols over the island and over shipping in the approaches. As daylight raids on the city developed there were frequent ‘scrambles’ and it was during one of these that Sergeant Kronk1 and Sergeant Wipiti,2 a Maori pilot, shared in the destruction of the first Japanese aircraft over Singapore. Thereafter, as enemy activity over the southern area steadily increased, pilots were often in action and, despite the absence of an adequate warning system and the inferior performance of their fighter aircraft, they achieved a certain measure of hard-earned success. No details of the squadron's operations during this phase are available but its Commanding Officer reports that Pilot Officers Marra3 and Pevreal4 and Sergeant Kronk were prominent in the air fighting. Marra, he says, shot down three enemy aircraft and after one sortie skilfully brought his fighter back although the controls were severely damaged. Pevreal and Kronk each destroyed two enemy machines and damaged others. Another young pilot, Pilot Officer Bonham,5 showed great fortitude after he had been seriously injured during a dogfight over Singapore, when he flew back and landed successfully before collapsing at the controls. ‘In the cold light of the aftermath of a lost campaign’ adds the Squadron Leader, ‘the efforts of the men involved may appear small but the Squadron was called upon to do all manner of work including day and night fighting, bomber escort, convoy work, reconnaissance and front line patrols. The enemy was far superior in numbers and it was an uphill fight all the time. The majority of pilots lost were New Zealanders who had only left their training schools in New Zealand four months before and without the advantage of an O.T.U. training; they went into the battle with a cheerfulness and spirit of which their families and New Zealand can be justly proud.’
It was November before the complete squadron arrived at Kallang airfield. An intensive training programme was thereupon commenced with the pilots, who had no experience of operational aircraft, doing refresher flying on Wirraway aircraft—an Australian version of the Harvard trainer—before converting to Buffalo fighters. Many difficulties were experienced. In particular the conversion to Buffalos was delayed because the aircraft allotted were in a bad state of repair and engines, airframes, instruments, guns and radio equipment had all to be cleaned, checked and repaired; there was also a shortage of tools, spare parts and accessories. However, largely through the initiative of the squadron's equipment officer, Flying Officer Franks,3 the shortages were made up and after some very hard work the aircraft were made serviceable. The weather at this time of the year was unhelpful and frequent heavy tropical thunderstorms, which reduced visibility almost to nil, interrupted training and grounded the aircraft.
No. 488 was thus not fully operational when war came but the more experienced pilots were at once employed on patrols over Singapore and the sea approaches. On 10 December squadron aircraft were among the fighter force sent to aid the Prince of Wales and Repulse on receipt of a message that they were under attack from Japanese bombers. When the first Buffalos from No. 488 Squadron reached the scene, over 170 miles away, both ships had already been sunk; all the fighters could do was to cover the ships that were picking up survivors and escort them southwards. At Singapore during the first weeks there were frequent night raids but not much enemy activity by day except for reconnaissance. No. 488 took advantage of the respite to continue its training and before the end of the month almost all the pilots had been passed as fit for combat flying, although facilities for gunnery training were scarce. On several days pilots had been ordered off the ground in pairs to intercept Japanese reconnaissance aircraft, but the enemy, flying high, always escaped before the slow-climbing Buffalos could reach them.
Kallang had its first raid on 9 January when the squadron's offices, equipment store and the oil and ammunition stores were hit and almost completely demolished. Three days later the New Zealanders had their first serious encounter with the enemy. In the early morning eight aircraft that were standing by at readiness were ordered to take off and intercept a raid coming south. Led by Mackenzie they began climbing over Johore, but had barely reached 12,000 feet when they sighted the enemy force several thousand feet above them. It comprised twenty-seven fighters. Realising that his small formation was heavily outnumbered and at a serious disadvantage in height, Mackenzie at once ordered the pilots to fly into the sun and take evasive action. The enemy, however, had already spotted them and swept down to the attack. Two Buffalos were shot down in the first few seconds but their pilots, Sergeants Honan1 and MacMillan,2 both baled out and landed safely fifteen miles from Johore. Five other machines were damaged and three pilots wounded but all managed to return to base.
The next day's operations were equally severe, six aircraft being lost or seriously damaged without loss to the enemy. There were several narrow escapes. Sergeant Meaclem3 got out uninjured when his machine crashed in a swamp; Pilot Officer Oakden4 and Sergeant Clow5 both survived after being shot down into the sea—Oakden was picked up by fishermen in a sampan and Clow swam 400 yards to a small island, where he was found by some Chinese and returned to Kallang two days later.
Three days later a patrol led by Hutcheson scored a major success when, in a battle with nine Zeros, they shot down two and probably destroyed three more without loss to themselves; Pilot Officer Sharp3 and Sergeant Killick4 both sent their opponents down in flames while Hutcheson, along with Sergeants Meaclem and MacIntosh,5 claimed the probables. During a second patrol the same day, also led by Hutcheson, Sergeant Kuhn sent another Zero into the sea but Hutcheson and Pilot Officer Cox6 were shot down; Hutcheson crashed into jungle but was unhurt; Cox was killed.
Yet despite these valiant efforts by the defending fighters and their ground staffs it was impossible to ward off the ever-increasing enemy attacks. Kallang was heavily raided on 22 January just as four New Zealand aircraft were about to take off. Three of them got away safely amid a cloud of smoke and dust, but the fourth was destroyed by a bomb and its pilot, Pilot Officer Farr,7 was fatally wounded.
Very few of the squadron's original twenty Buffalos were now left. The number available for operations varied from day to day between one and four as the ground staff succeeded in making them serviceable. Too few to operate effectively by themselves, they flew with what was left of No. 243 Squadron. Even so, the combined formations were pitifully weak in comparison with those of the enemy, but the pilots, having gained their experience the hard way, were now fully seasoned fighters and could give a better account of themselves.
For the next few days everyone worked feverishly repairing the least damaged aircraft and filling in bomb craters, so that by 30 January a single strip had been cleared and three Hurricanes were able to take the air. But by this time the whole situation at Singapore had seriously deteriorated and the following evening No. 488 Squadron was ordered to prepare to leave. Thereupon the aircraft that could be made serviceable were flown out to Sumatra. Then it was decided that No. 488 ground staff should stay to keep the last few remaining fighters flying. On 4 February, therefore, a party led by Pilot Officer Gifford1 and Flight Sergeant Rees2 went to Sembawang to service aircraft of No. 232 Squadron. They arrived just as the Japanese started shelling the airfield from across the Strait. They worked on machines that night, and next morning the pilots took off under shellfire and flew all the serviceable planes to Kallang; one was hit whilst taxi-ing out, but the pilot immediately leapt out and jumped into another which he flew off. Later in the day the same party went to Tengah and succeeded in getting all the aircraft left there to Kallang.
No. 488's pilots and ground staff were reunited in mid-February at Tjililitan, near Batavia, which base they now shared with No. 232 Squadron. Between them the two units could muster only a dozen aircraft, but these were kept flying on patrols over Java. The maintenance of even these few machines amid the prevailing chaos and disorganisation was an outstanding achievement, for no equipment had been brought from Singapore and tools and spares were scarce. But by hunting in the docks and warehouses of Batavia the equipment staff found quantities of goods originally destined for Malaya and were able to supply what was necessary to the servicing crews. However, it was soon clear that the Japanese would very quickly overrun the whole of the Dutch East Indies. There was indeed very little to stop them, for our squadrons were depleted after weeks of continuous operations, serviceability was low, equipment scarce and the whole force disorganised. To avoid their inevitable capture, those units which could not be profitably employed were therefore withdrawn. No. 488 Squadron was among those instructed to leave and on 23 February the men sailed for Australia aboard the Deucalion.
The men who flew bomber and reconnaissance aircraft—the Blenheims and Hudsons and the Vildebeeste torpedo-bombers—had a most unenviable experience for their bases came under heavy enemy air attack from the outset. Their squadrons were forced back and compelled to operate under very difficult conditions, but they did their best to keep up attacks against Japanese bases and airfields and against their landing places on the Malayan coast. In his despatch the British Army Commander, Lieutenant-General Percival, pays tribute to these aircrews who ‘throughout the later stages of the Malayan campaign went unflinchingly to almost certain death in obsolete aircraft which should have been replaced several years before.’
There were twenty-five New Zealand pilots with Nos. 36 and 100 Vildebeeste Squadrons which carried out some very hazardous operations during the campaign—notably that against Japanese landings at Endau. Here, on 26 January 1942, twenty-one Vildebeestes escorted by a small force of Buffalos and Hurricanes were sent to attack enemy ships off the coast. Before they reached their target they page 262 were intercepted by fighters, and those which got through met sharp anti-aircraft fire from the ships. Eleven Vildebeestes were shot down, together with four of their escort, the loss including the commanding officers of both Nos. 36 and 100 Squadrons. Two New Zealanders, Sergeants Tanner1 and Fleming,2 were among the pilots killed on this raid. A third, Pilot Officer Barclay,3 had his machine badly shot up by enemy fighters and his gunner killed, but he flew through to the target where he delivered an attack in the face of an intense anti-aircraft barrage. A few moments afterwards his aircraft was shot down into the sea, but Barclay, together with his observer, managed to get clear and swim ashore. They walked down the coast for two days, then they fell in with the survivors from a sunken destroyer, with whom they continued their journey and reached Singapore a week later.
After their heavy losses at Endau Nos. 36 and 100 Squadrons were withdrawn to Java, where they were amalgamated as No. 36 Squadron and based at Tjikampek. They were soon in action again against one of the Japanese convoys carrying invasion forces to Java. The ships were sighted about 100 miles west of Sourabaya and most of the pilots claimed hits on transport and barges; but three Vildebeestes, including that flown by the squadron commander, failed to return.
The remaining crews continued to operate almost without respite until, by 4 March, the squadron was reduced to only four serviceable aircraft. Nevertheless they continued to fly two missions each night against enemy landings until the morning of the 7th, when only two patched up aircraft remained. Orders were given for these to be flown north in an endeavour to reach Burma. They left that day, but both crashed in Sumatra and the crews were either killed or captured. The squadron thus literally fought to a finish. Of its New Zealand members, six fell into enemy hands, but the remainder got away to Australia before Java surrendered.
3 Flight Lieutenant R. C. Barclay, DFC; born Dunedin, 27 Feb 1916; salesman.
When the Japanese invaded Sumatra, No. 62 Squadron attacked their ships, on one occasion losing almost half the force despatched. Here is an account of a sortie made by five squadron aircraft on the afternoon of 13 February. It is provided by Flying Officer Henry,1 who led the formation that day.
Airborne at 4 p.m. we set course for Banka Island, and from there commenced a sweep over the estimated course that the convoy was steering. Before long smoke was sighted on the horizon and the formation dived to sea level, altering course to bring us in for a beam attack. There was no cloud to speak of and visibility was good. The time was about 5.30 p.m., which left about half-an-hour until dusk, which was followed very quickly by complete darkness.
When we were about five miles away the enemy ships opened up with very accurate fire from heavy calibre guns. Their object appeared to be to put up a barrage a short distance in front of us, hoping that we would be caught in the ensuing spouts of water and explosions. Evasive action was taken and course altered towards the head of the convoy in order to make an attack from the east and obtain benefit from the failing light. The ack-ack was very accurate at this period, and although we were ‘right down on the deck’ and doing about 145 knots, one salvo actually landed in the middle of the formation, which fortunately at this moment was in a very broad ‘vic’. My turret gunner reported that the other aircraft completely disappeared in a cloud of spray, but they all came through untouched, although one side gunner received a wetting. The formation then pulled up and attacked in a shallow dive. Each aircraft singled out a ship, and I attacked three transports which appeared to be hove to in the form of a triangle. Other aircraft attacked the naval ships, consisting of three cruisers and three destroyers. Very little flak came up, and hits were observed on one cruiser and one destroyer, while the transports received near misses.
Other New Zealanders served in Sumatra and Java at this time as Hurricane fighter pilots with No. 605 Squadron, and in No. 232 Squadron which had been sent out from England by aircraft carrier to reinforce Singapore. Flight Lieutenants Julian1 and Gartrell2 were par ticularly prominent in the last bitter actions. Julian led the final flight to operate from Java, by which time he had destroyed at least four enemy aircraft in the air and one on the ground, while Gartrell also had four definite kills to his credit as well as several probables. Nos. 605 and 232 Squadrons fought on until the final surrender in Java, when their gallant personnel passed into captivity.
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The story of the New Zealand airfield construction unit is one of hard work, devoted effort and dogged perseverance in the face of all manner of difficulties and the final frustration of retreat. Formed at Wellington in July 1941, this unit, the first of its kind in the air forces of the British Commonwealth, included men from private construction companies, the Public Works Department, and from those already en listed in the Air Force. All were specially selected for their skill in various trades, for their physical toughness and their ability to do heavy work in tropical conditions. By mid-August an advanced party of four officers and fifteen men, who formed the Survey Section, had arrived at Singapore together with the Commanding Officer, Squadron Leader Smart.3 Owing to shipping difficulties, however, it was another ten weeks before the complete unit reached Malaya.
Its first base was at Tebrau in southern Johore. Here a camp had been built by the Air Ministry Department of Works and the rows of long, green-roofed huts set in the shade of rubber trees came as a pleasant surprise to men who had expected rigorous living conditions in the jungle. The living quarters were, in fact, very comfortable and recreation facilities adequate; Singapore with its multiple attractions was less than twenty miles away. The only complaint was about the army field service rations, which compared rather unfavourably with those enjoyed by RAF stations on Singapore Island.
The squadron's first task was the construction of a bomber airfield at Tebrau. Two runways had already been marked out by the survey section and the construction machinery assembled ready to begin work, but as the whole area was covered by rubber plantations hundreds of trees had first to be uprooted by bulldozers and cast aside. Then came the rough levelling of the ground by ‘carry-alls’, enormous scoops drawn by 18-ton tractors, which took the tops off the hillocks and deposited the soil in the holes; next the graders took over, smoothing out rough spots and evenly distributing the gravel put down to surface the runways. Hundreds of coolies swarmed every where with picks and shovels, putting the finishing touches to what the machines had done. The north-east monsoon which had already begun did not interfere seriously with the tree-felling, but the tractors and ‘carry-alls’ working on the bare clay often became bogged to their axles after the heavy rainstorms. However, whenever a fine spell of weather occurred, work went on continuously far into the night to make up for lost time.
Towards the end of November, when the Tebrau airfield was well under way, a survey party led by Flight Lieutenant Begg1 was sent to Bekok, ninety miles to the north, to mark the site for a second bomber airfield. But within a fortnight came the Japanese attack, and this soon enforced a change of plans. For the loss of airfields in northern Malaya during the first few days of the war made it necessary to develop new ones in the south as quickly as possible, the most urgent need being fighter strips to accommodate the reinforcements that were expected. The development of Tebrau was therefore restricted to the completion as soon as possible of a runway of 1200 yards, but in the middle of December this work was suspended and the squadron split up into several parties for work on other urgent jobs. A large detach ment was sent to the new site at Bekok to make a fighter strip there; another party was posted to Singapore Island to begin a strip at Sungei Buloh, near the Causeway; smaller groups were sent to Seletar and Tengah to help with the construction and repair work; the rest of the squadron began building another fighter strip on the site of the rifle range at the Johore military barracks.
Early in January the detachments at Seletar and Tengah were re called to start work again on the Tebrau strip. Most of the Bekok party also returned, but just when they had almost completed their job they were ordered to leave it. Trees and other obstacles were dragged across the runway; and a rear party began to lay mines in preparation for later demolition. The survey group meanwhile went back to Singa pore to mark out yet another fighter strip near Seletar.
By the middle of the month the Rifle Range strip was virtually finished and it was being used by light aircraft of the Malayan Volunteer Air Force. This strip was in fact the only one built by the squadron in Malaya to be used operationally, and it was the last to be evacuated when the British forces retired to Singapore Island.
On 15 January, with the Japanese at the northern border of Johore, the Bekok camp was finally evacuated and the runway blown up next day. Work at Tebrau was carried on while the fighting rolled nearer, but soon came the order to evacuate the camp and prepare the runway for demolition. The camp was stripped of equipment, stores and moveable gear and on the morning of 27 January the squadron moved out; it was the last Air Force unit to leave the mainland.
On Singapore Island the New Zealanders were quartered at the Singapore Dairy Farm about a dozen miles from the city, and for the next few days, despite frequent interruptions by enemy bombers, work was continued on the two new strips at Sungei Buloh and Yio Chu Kang, both of which were by then almost completed. There was also constant demand for men and machinery to help repair bomb damage on the main airfields, which were now under daily attack. In addition, at the request of the Army, another detachment spent several days building tank traps in the western part of the island.
By the end of January, however, it was clear that Singapore was no longer the place for an airfield construction squadron. The airfields already in existence were being steadily pounded and any new con struction would share the same fate. Therefore, on the morning 1 Feb ruary, the New Zealand squadron was ordered to embark on the SS Talthybius. All loading had to be done by the New Zealanders them selves but, despite frequent air raids, it proceeded well. Then, on the morning of the 3rd, there were two heavy air raids in which the Talthybius received direct hits; she was set on fire and also badly holed, and of the working party caught on board one was killed and seven page 267 more seriously injured. The fires were put out after a long struggle, but within a few hours another bombing attack set the ship on fire again and she sank.
For the next two days the New Zealanders waited at their camp for new embarkation orders. It was anything but pleasant, for by this time the Japanese were shelling the area and there were constant bombing attacks on nearby targets in Singapore. Eventually, on 6 February, the New Zealand squadron was told it would leave on a convoy sailing that evening.
At the docks two parties were formed, one going on the SS City of Canterbury and the other on the SS Darvel. Both ships moved out to join their convoy but the Darvel was soon ordered back by the naval authorities, partly because she had insufficient crew and partly because her speed was too slow for the other ships which were going. The convoy sailed that night for Java, and although the men in the City of Canterbury had the discomfort of overcrowding and insufficient food, and there were frequent air-raid alarms, the escorting warships warded off enemy attacks and the ships reached Batavia safely on 9 February.
Meanwhile the Darvel had returned to port and the men aboard her were taken to a transit camp. The following afternoon they again em barked on the Darvel and, after several hours, during which there were more air raids, she eventually put to sea. But barely had she cleared the harbour when she was again recalled—bad weather was reported out side and visibility had become too low to risk passage through the minefields beyond the entrance. Once more the men returned to their transit camp, but towards midday the Japanese artillery began shelling the area and a few hours later, during a lull, the men scrambled into their trucks and returned to the docks. This time they went straight aboard the Darvel and she immediately headed for the open sea. Within the hour there was a heavy bombing attack on the docks and the last view the men had of Singapore was of blazing wharf sheds, columns of smoke rising from burning oil tanks and a sky full of enemy planes and bursting anti-aircraft shells.
The Darvel sailed through the night and at daybreak anchored off the southern tip of a small island to avoid observation by enemy aircraft. The ship was still short-staffed and members of the squadron took turns in the engine room and stokehold; others mounted and manned light anti-aircraft guns and helped with the organisation for the troops on board. The next stage of the voyage lay through Bangka Strait, between Sumatra and Bangka Island, whose waters were constantly patrolled by Japanese bombers during daylight, but it was hoped to pass through this danger area under cover of darkness. The ship therefore got under way again at dusk, but just before entering the strait she was delayed for two hours assisting another vessel that page 268 had run ashore, and in consequence she was still in Bangka Strait when the next day dawned. The Darvel thereupon anchored near a group of small islands in the hope that the Japanese would not see her. Close by was another small ship which had been bombed and abandoned some days before.
The morning passed quietly, but just before midday a formation of enemy bombers appeared. They came directly overhead and released their bombs. For a minute all was confusion. There were no direct hits but the explosions tossed the ship about like a cork, drenching her with spray. Moreover, concussion and splinters from near misses caused casualties and damage. Five minutes later the bombers returned, but fortunately this time they concentrated their attack upon the aban doned steamer a few hundred yards away; they sank her and, having used up all their bombs, new away.
The Darvel, although spared a second bombing, was in a bad way. Her hull was riddled with holes from bomb splinters and she was leak ing badly; the steering gear was damaged and so were all the lifeboats; fires had broken out and many of the troops on board were killed or wounded. In the New Zealand unit one man was killed, seventeen wounded and several more slightly injured. The captain now gave orders to abandon ship but the state of the boats made this impossible. The fires were quickly brought under control, and then working parties from the squadron went below to block the scores of small holes. Others set to work to repair the lifeboats and clear up the debris on the decks. There was no doctor on board so medical orderlies cared for the wounded. A naval officer took over command of the ship and, rather than wait for another attack, decided to risk steaming through the rest of the strait in daylight. The passage was accomplished, and with the welcome onset of darkness course was set for Batavia where, leaking badly and with all passengers and baggage crowded to one side, she arrived the following day.
At Batavia the New Zealand squadron was reunited and moved to a camp at Buitenzorg. There it remained for a week while Squadron Leader Smart discussed future plans with Allied Air Headquarters. In the prevailing confusion it was difficult to obtain any instructions. At first it was thought that Java could still be defended and that the squadron would be employed digging trenches and tank traps, but with the Japanese invasion coming closer the situation was constantly changing. Eventually it was decided that the New Zealand anit, having lost all its equipment, should be evacuated, and accordingly, on 20 February, it left Batavia aboard the SS Marella. She got away without incident, sailing in one of the last convoys to leave Java unharmed, and reached the friendly shores of Australia a week later. It was a fortunate escape.