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Episodes & Studies Volume 2


IN NOVEMBER 1941 there were over 400 Royal New Zealand Air Force personnel serving in Malaya and Burma. The pilots of three fighter squadrons—Nos. 67, 243, and 488—belonged almost entirely to the RNZAF, while apart from representatives of the other aircrew categories who were dispersed amongst the bomber and flying boat squadrons, New Zealanders were also engaged on such duties as aerodrome construction, medical, signals, equipment, administration, radar and balloons, and as engineers, armourers and chaplains. Throughout 1941 the threat of war in the Far East increased, until towards the end of the year it had become evident that the Japanese were bent on the expansion of their empire. On I December 1941 General Headquarters Malaya ordered ‘second-degree readiness’, with all forces warned for operations at short notice.

About half past eleven on the morning of 6 December, the routine reconnaissance flown by Hudsons of No. 1 (General Reconnaissance) Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force (Far East Command), watching the approaches to the Gulf of Thailand, reported having sighted two Japanese convoys, consisting of warships and transports, steaming westward approximately eighty miles south-east of Cape Cambodia, the southerly tip of Indo-China. Two Hudsons were despatched at 4 p.m. to shadow the convoys until relieved by a Catalina flying boat which, with the aid of radar, was to maintain contact throughout the night. The Japanese were favoured with ideal weather to cover their approach, and in conditions of low cloud, rain and restricted visibility, succeeded in escaping further detection by both Hudsons and the Catalina. For a time it was thought that the convoys had turned north into the Gulf of Thailand, but early on 7 December a second Catalina was ordered to search the area in which, from the last-known bearings, the convoys could be expected. No reports were received from this flying boat and it was subsequently learned to have been shot down by the Japanese—the first act of war in the Far East.

On 7–8 December 1941 the Japanese struck at Pearl Harbour and, nine hours later, at Manila. Landings were made in Thailand without more than token resistance being offered, and in the early hours of 8 December Japanese troops landed at Kota Bharu and commenced the invasion of Malaya. Apart from two RAAF Hudson squadrons and three Blenheim squadrons (one of which was caught on the ground by Japanese bombers while refuelling), the only striking force available to oppose the enemy landings consisted of two Royal Air Force squadrons, Nos. 36 and 100, both equipped with obsolete Vickers Vildebeeste aircraft and trained for torpedo- bombing. In these two squadrons, which from the outbreak of hostilities usually operated together, were some twenty-five RNZAF pilots. The Vildebeeste, with a top speed of 100 miles per hour, was a cumbersome machine with which to attack modern warships with heavy anti-aircraft defensive armament. Throughout the campaign, however, these two squadrons carried out some most gallant and hazardous operations.

The Japanese advance down the Malay Peninsula was supported by a number of seaborne landings on both the east and west coasts. On the morning of 26 January a patrolling Hudson sighted two transports and a number of barges, escorted by two cruisers and eleven destroyers, approaching Endau, on the east coast some eighty miles north of Singapore. The Japanese were supporting the landing with land-based fighters operating from Kuantan. A striking force (in which was a strong New Zealand representation) consisting of nine Hudsons of Nos. 1 and 8 (GR) page 4 Squadrons, RAAF, together with twenty-one Vildebeestes and three Albacores of Nos. 36 and 100 Squadrons, escorted by nineteen Buffaloes and sixteen Hurricanes, was despatched to dispute the landing. The attack was organised in two waves, but unfortunately, as both Vildebeeste squadrons had been operating throughout the whole of the previous night, the first wave could not be launched until the early afternoon.

The first wave attacked in rather cloudy conditions, but with the arrival of the second wave comprising the Vildebeestes of No. 36 Squadron, the weather suddenly cleared and enemy fighters intercepted the attacking aircraft before they could reach their target. Nevertheless they continued on their course with great determination, and as a result of the whole operation one cruiser and two destroyers were sunk and two transports set on fire. In addition, twelve Zeros were shot down for the loss of two Hurricanes and one Buffalo.

As was to be expected, however, the slow Vildebeestes suffered badly, eleven being shot down, together with two of the three Albacores, the loss including both squadron commanders. Two New Zealand pilots, Sergeants T. S. Tanner1 A. M. H. Fleming,2 were killed on this raid. Pilot Officer R. C. Barclay,3 although shot up by enemy fighters and with his gunner killed, flew through to the target in the face of an intense anti-aircraft barrage put up by the ships. After delivering his attack he was shot down into the sea but, together with his observer, managed to swim ashore. They walked down the coast for two days, when they fell in with the survivors from a sunken destroyer. The whole party then continued on their journey and reached Singapore a week later. For his gallantry on this and previous operations Barclay was awarded an immediate DFC.

After their heavy losses at Endau neither No. 36 nor No. 100 Squadron was employed in Malaya again, both being withdrawn to Java to reorganise. They were amalgamated under the title of No. 36 Squadron and based at Tjikampek. They did not have long to wait before being in action again.

During the early part of February the Japanese were observed to be building up shipping concentrations at Balik Papan, and on the 26th a convoy of fifty ships was sighted steaming south towards Sourabaya. The Vildebeestes were immediately moved to Madioen, near Sourabaya, to co-operate with a squadron of American Flying Fortresses.

The moon was one day past the full and the wind off shore. All was evidently set for simultaneous landings—one at the eastern end of Java, probably just west of Sourabaya, and two at the western end in the vicinity of Batavia. No. 36 Squadron attacked the convoy north of Rembang, some 100 miles west of Sourabaya. Most of the pilots claimed hits on transports and execution amongst the barges; in all, eight ships were claimed by the Vildebeestes and a further seven by Fortresses. Once more the squadron suffered heavily and three Vildebeestes, again including that flown by the squadron commander, failed to return. Each air crew of this squadron, operating from a strange airfield, carried out two night attacks in twenty-four hours, involving over fifteen hours' flying in open cockpits—a very fine performance judged by any standards. Throughout the next few days the squadron operated almost without respite, until by 4 March it was reduced to five aircraft, of which four were only just serviceable. Nevertheless, they continued to carry out two sorties every night.

Following attacks on Kalidjati during the nights of 5 and 6 March, in which large fires were started and considerable damage inflicted on the enemy, only two aircraft remained serviceable. page 5 Orders were given for these to be flown north in an endeavour to reach Burma. They left on 7 March. Both crashed in Sumatra, and the crews were either killed or captured. No. 36 Squadron had literally fought to a finish. Of the New Zealanders, six fell into the hands of the enemy, but the remainder got away to Australia before Java surrendered.