Royal New Zealand Air Force
NO. 488 SQUADRON'S COMBATS
NO. 488 SQUADRON'S COMBATS
No. 488 Squadron had its first major combat on 12 January. Eight aircraft, led by MacKenzie, were ordered to take off to intercept an enemy raid coming south. A further six aircraft, led by Hutcheson, took off twenty minutes later. The enemy force was sighted by MacKenzie's formation over Johore. The New Zealanders were at 12,000 feet and the enemy, comprising approximately twenty-seven Type O and Army Type 97 fighters in formations of nine, were 3000 feet above them.
MacKenzie ordered his squadron to fly into the sun and take evasive action, but the Japanese fighters dived and shot down Sergeant Honan1 and Sergeant MacMillan2 in a few seconds. Both of these pilots baled out and landed safely. Honan, who had a bullet wound in his arm, was admitted to Johore Military Hospital. Sergeant Killick3 fired at two enemy aircraft but they evaded him by their outstanding manoeuvrability. MacKenzie attempted to shoot down an Army Type 97 but was himself attacked by another Army 97. Altogether the formation lost two aircraft, had five damaged and two pilots wounded, without having inflicted any known casualties on the enemy. Both types of Japanese aircraft were able to outmanoeuvre the overladen Buffalos with the greatest ease. Also their weight of numbers gave them an overwhelming advantage. In the second formation Hutcheson was the only pilot to make contact with the enemy. He was attacked by a Type O but was not hit.
As a result of these actions, it was decided to reduce the amount of fuel and ammunition carried by the Buffalos in an effort to make them more manoeuvrable and better able to compete with the Zeros; but little improvement resulted.
The next day's operations were equally severe, and are well described in the squadron's diary:
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 below.
In the last two days, No. 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 Buffalos. Until we fly as Wings of 36 aircraft we will be unable to inflict heavy damage on the enemy.
From now on the Japanese were over Singapore every day. The defending squadrons, with most of their aircraft damaged and many destroyed, went up to meet them at every opportunity, but could do little against their superior quality and numbers.
No. 488 Squadron had its first combat success, and suffered its first battle casualty, on 15 January. Led by Hesketh, it took off to intercept a raid and was attacked by a swarm of Japanese fighters. Hesketh was shot down and killed. Sergeant Kuhn4 scored the unit's first victory when he attacked a Type 97 and sent it crashing to the ground. Most of the squadron's aircraft were damaged to some degree in the action but managed to escape individually into clouds and return to base.
On 18 January Hutcheson led a successful patrol of Nos. 488 and 243 Squadrons combined. In an encounter with nine Zeros they destroyed two and probably destroyed three with no loss to themselves. Pilot Officer Sharp,5 who was flying with No. 243 Squadron, and Sergeant Killick both sent enemy aircraft down in flames. Hutcheson led another patrol which was not so successful. He was shot down and crash-landed on a Dutch island, from which he was later rescued by an Air-Sea Rescue launch. Pilot Officer Cox6 was also shot down and was not heard of again.
The following day four members of the squadron accompanied No. 453 Squadron, RAAF, on an offensive patrol over the Muar area. They were attacked by a large formation of enemy fighters and Pilot Officer McAneny and Sergeant Charters1 were shot down.
MacKenzie and Sergeant Meharry2 at the same time did an offensive patrol over Mersing, during which they saw two Japanese aircraft which escaped into cloud. Later they carried out a reconnaissance of the town and aerodrome at Kuala Lumpur, 200 miles north of Singapore and over 100 miles inside enemy territory. By taking advantage of cloud cover and forest camouflage they reached Rawang, 15 miles north of Kuala Lumpur, unobserved. There they turned south and passed over the town at 5000 feet, continuing on to the aerodrome. They made two complete circuits of the aerodrome and carried out a thorough reconnaissance before being discovered by the enemy anti-aircraft guns. The aerodrome was packed with Japanese fighters and was apparently the main base from which the Japanese were raiding Singapore. When the enemy anti-aircraft barrage started, MacKenzie and Meharry retired to the hills west of Kuala Lumpur and eventually made their way back to Singapore. As a result of the reconnaissance Kuala Lumpur was raided that night by Flying Fortresses from Sumatra.
On 19 January the Dutch fighter squadron which had been at Kallang for just over a month was withdrawn to Palembang in southern Sumatra. This left 243 Squadron, RAF, and 488 Squadron, RNZAF, at Kallang, and on them rested practically the whole responsibility for the fighter defence of Singapore. The other two fighter squadrons, Nos. 21 and 453, RAAF, which were stationed at Sembawang, were used chiefly in co-operation with the army on the mainland and for escorting bombing raids. The total number of serviceable aircraft which the defending forces had available was 74 bombers and 28 fighters. Practically all the British aircraft were now based at Singapore. They were mainly of obsolete types and had been in constant operation since the beginning of the war. The two fighter squadrons defending Singapore thus had the dual handicap of old and unserviceable aircraft and of odds which varied from six to one to fifteen to one against them.
As the enemy advanced down the Malay Peninsula, the observer system responsible for giving warning of approaching air raids became progressively less effective. The radar installations on the island of Singapore also failed on numerous occasions to pick up approaching aircraft, with the result that raids frequently occurred with little or no warning. Only occasionally was sufficient notice received to enable the fighters to take off and gain sufficient height in time to intercept the bombers.
On the morning of 22 January Kallang was heavily raided with practically no warning at all. Four aircraft, led by MacKenzie, were taxiing out to take off when bombs started to fall on the aerodrome. The pilots immediately opened their throttles and took off amid a shower of dust and smoke. Three of them got away successfully but the fourth, Pilot Officer Farr,1 was blown into a petrol dump by a bomb which landed close beside him. He later died of his injuries. Two members of the ground staff, AC 1 Service, RAF, and AC 1 Anderson, RNZAF,2 were killed at their posts after starting up one of the aircraft. The station telephone operator, AC 1 Croskery, sat under a table during the raid and gave a running commentary to Operations Headquarters in Singapore. Two of the squadron's few remaining aircraft were destroyed and considerable damage done to station buildings.
On 23 January Clouston was posted for duty with RAF Headquarters, Singapore, and handed over the command of the squadron to MacKenzie. MacKenzie celebrated the occasion by carrying out a patrol with Sergeant MacIntosh and three pilots from No. 243 Squadron, covering a bridge on the mainland over which troops and transport were withdrawing. They were attacked by a superior force of Japanese fighters, and one pilot from No. 243 Squadron was shot down but bailed out and later returned to base. As a result of the action the squadron's serviceable aircraft strength was reduced from two machines to one.
On the 27th a formation of enemy bombers appeared over the aerodrome with very little warning, at a time when all the machines were on the ground refuelling after a patrol. All the Hurricanes except one were damaged and most of No. 243 Squadron's Buffalos were either damaged or completely destroyed. Two Blenheims on the aerodrome were burnt out. Another wave of bombers came over forty minutes later and did further damage. The aerodrome was pitted with bomb craters, making it unserviceable. For the next three days all personnel were engaged either in repairing aircraft or in filling in bomb craters, and by the end of the month three Hurricanes and a strip of the aerodrome had been made serviceable.