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Episodes & Studies Volume 2

No. 62 (Bomber) Squadron

No. 62 (Bomber) Squadron

During December eighteen Hudsons and crews, amongst whom were six New Zealanders, had been despatched from Britain to reinforce No. 62 (Bomber) Squadron, whose Blenheim aircraft had suffered heavily in the Malaya fighting. This flight, under the command of Squadron Leader L. G. W. Lilly,4 RNZAF, arrived in Singapore early in January and immediately began operations. Japanese attacks, however, were now becoming so frequent that the squadron was moved to Sumatra, where operations were carried out from a strip near Palembang, known as P2. For a while these consisted mainly of sea reconnaissance missions, but as the situation deteriorated the Hudsons were employed as a bombing force.

On 4 February an attack by Hudsons and Blenheims, with top cover supplied by Hurricanes, was directed against the aerodrome at Kluang, on the mainland of Malaya, from which Japanese fighters were operating. The Hudsons flew to Sembawang on Singapore Island, where the final briefing took place. Enemy snipers were active around the perimeter, and the locality was under artillery fire from the mainland. All six New Zealanders took part in the raid. Led by Lilly, the Hudson formation arrived over the target and observed enemy fighters taking off to intercept. Lilly fired two Very lights, and all bombs were dropped in a pattern as the second signal was given. The target area was well covered and the Japanese, apparently taken by surprise, failed to bring their anti-aircraft guns into action in time. On the way out from the target, however, the Hudsons were attacked by Zeros, and one New Zealand pilot, Sergeant D. Hunter,5 who was last seen lagging slightly behind the formation, failed to return. The Blenheims and Hurricanes did not appear at the rendezvous point, as just before take-off it was discovered that the breech blocks had been removed from the Hurricanes' guns, and the Blenheims, finding they had no top cover, dropped their bombs on a railway line and returned to base.

In the evening of Friday, 13 February, five aircraft of No. 62 Squadron were sent to attack a Japanese invasion fleet approaching Sumatra. On this occasion the squadron was led by Flying Officer E. J. Henry,6 who provides the following account:

‘Nobody was very keen to have a go this day, because in the first place the only bombs we had were “GPs”* while in addition the weather report was very poor, and a night landing would be inevitable. We were all much more keen to make an attack in daylight as it appeared we wouldn't make contact until last light. However, straws were drawn and it was decided that those who didn't go on this show would be airborne at first light the next morning to carry out an attack if contact was made. Airborne at 4 p.m., course was set for Banka Island, and from there a sweep was commenced 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. We had been briefed to make a low-level attack, singling out the transports as priority targets.

“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 a very accurate barrage page 6 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. After delivering their attack, the aircraft broke up formation and returned to base independently. On reaching the coast, however, we ran into the usual evening storm with heavy thunder, forked lightning, and a terrific downpour of rain. Radios became useless, beacons were non-existent, and the visibility was nil. Under such conditions it says much for the navigators that four aircraft got into Palembang aerodrome, while the fifth made P2, all without mishap. At Palembang a searchlight in the form of several Aldis lamps was put up as a guide, while the flare path consisted of 44-gallon drums of petrol, lit up and going full bore, fanned by a light breeze.’

The Hudsons were away again next morning with a mixed force of Australian Hudsons and RAF Blenheims to attack the enemy invasion fleet. From this sortie seven aircraft, including four from No. 62 Squadron, failed to return.

After a Japanese parachute attack on Palembang and P2, the aircraft were withdrawn to Java, whence they continued to operate until the island was overrun by the Japanese. Among the RNZAF personnel who served in Sumatra and Java during this period were seven pilots in No. 232 Hurricane Squadron, which had been sent out from England by aircraft carrier to reinforce Singapore. Flight-Lieutenants I. Julian7 and E. C. Gartrell8 were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for gallantry and leadership throughout these bitter actions. Julian, who led the final flight to operate from Java, 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 numerous ‘probables’. No. 232 Squadron fought on until the surrender, when its gallant personnel passed into captivity.