Episodes & Studies Volume 2
First Combat Success and Casualty
First Combat Success and Casualty
No. 488 Squadron had its first combat success, and suffered its first battle casualty, on 15 January. Led by Pilot Officer G. L. Hesketh,21 the readiness section took off to intercept a raid and was attacked by a swarm of Japanese fighters. Hesketh was shot down and killed by a Japanese fighter, and most of the other pilots had their machines more or less badly damaged. Sergeant E. E. G. Kuhn22 scored the unit's first victory when he attacked a Type 97 fighter and sent it crashing to the ground.
On 18 January Hutcheson led a successful patrol of pilots from No. 488 Squadron and No. 243 Squadron, RAF, which was also stationed at Kallang. During a battle with nine Zeros they shot down two, and probably destroyed three more, with no loss to themselves. Pilot Officer N. C. Sharp23 and Sergeant Killick both sent their opponents down in flames, and Hutcheson and Sergeants Meaclem and Macintosh claimed the probables. A second patrol the same day, also led by Hutcheson, resulted in Sergeant Kuhn shooting down another Zero into the sea and in Hutcheson and Pilot Officer E. W. Cox24 being shot down. Hutcheson crashed in jungle but was unhurt. Cox was killed.page 11
The next day offensive patrols were flown over the mainland of Malaya. MacKenzie and Sergeant H. J. Meharry25 made a reconnaissance of Kuala Lumpur, 200 miles to the north of Singapore and 100 miles inside enemy territory. Taking advantage of cloud cover and forest camouflage, they reached Ramang, fifteen miles north of their objective, unobserved. Then they turned south and flew over Kuala Lumpur. The aerodrome was packed with Japanese fighters and appeared to be the base from which the enemy was attacking Singapore. The New Zealanders made two complete circuits before the anti-aircraft guns opened up on them, and then they retired behind the sheltering hills to the westward and returned to Singapore. As a result of their reconnaissance Kuala Lumpur was raided that night by a force of Flying Fortresses from Sumatra.
From the middle of January until the end of the campaign, Nos. 488 and 243 Squadrons shared between them practically the whole responsibility for the fighter defence of Singapore. A Dutch squadron which had been stationed at Kallang for a month was withdrawn to Sumatra, and the only other fighter units in Malaya, Nos. 21 and 453 RAAF Squadrons at Sembawang, were needed for Army co-operation work and bomber escorts.
As a result of continuous losses, the total British air strength by 19 January was only seventy-four serviceable bombers and twenty-eight serviceable fighters. Against these the Japanese were using an estimated 250 bombers and 150 fighters. No serviceable aerodromes remained in British hands on the mainland, and to relieve congestion on Singapore all bombers were sent to Sumatra or Java, leaving only the fighters for local defence.
With such odds against them, the obsolescent, overworked Buffaloes could do little to ward off the ever-increasing weight of Japanese attacks. Kallang was heavily raided on 22 January, just as four aircraft were about to take off. Three of them got away safely, amid a cloud of dust and smoke, but the fourth was destroyed by a bomb landing close by and the pilot (Pilot Officer L. R. Farr26) was fatally wounded. Two airmen who had been helping to get the aircraft off were killed, and the squadron's headquarters was wrecked. Five airmen distinguished themselves immediately after the raid when, disregarding exploding ammunition, they succeeded in putting out a fire which had started in the armament filling room.
On 23 January Clouston was posted to Headquarters Operations Room, and the command of the squadron passed to MacKenzie, who was shortly afterwards promoted Squadron Leader.
Very few of the original twenty-one Buffaloes were 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 when combined the formations were pitifully weak in comparison with the enemy, but they went up to attack whenever the occasion demanded. The pilots, having learned their experience the hard way, were now fully seasoned fighters and could give an excellent account of themselves.
During the next few days No. 488 Squadron was re-equipped with nine Hurricanes from the shipment which had arrived earlier in the month. Changing to a new type of aircraft in the prevailing conditions was not a simple matter. The pilots, in between operations, had to learn to fly them and become acquainted with their characteristics; and the fitters, riggers, and armourers had to familiarise themselves with new equipment, new tools, and new techniques. The ever-present threat of air raids did nothing to help matters. But the change-over was made, and spirits rose all round at the thought of what the pilots could do with modern planes.page 12
They were to have little chance of operating in them. At ten o'clock on the morning of 27 January, when all the machines were on the ground refuelling, twenty-seven bombers appeared over the aerodrome with very little warning and everybody had to dive for cover. The bombers dropped their entire load on Kallang, destroying two of the new Hurricanes and damaging six others. Eight pilots sheltering in a sandbagged gun emplacement were buried when a bomb burst close by, but were dragged out unhurt. When the raid was over a party of airmen rushed to the hangar to put out a fire, which they got under control with extinguishers and buckets of water. Another party, working among exploding ammunition, carried a quantity of explosives to safety. A third party hurried to give help to No. 243 Squadron which had had most of its Buffaloes destroyed or damaged. Two Blenheims on the aerodrome were completely burnt out, three petrol tankers set on fire, and much motor transport badly damaged. Forty minutes after the first raid, a second wave of twenty-seven bombers came over and again dropped everything they had on Kallang. They destroyed two more of No. 243 Squadron's Buffaloes and pitted the aerodrome with craters, making it completely unserviceable.
In the next few days the men of the squadron worked feverishly repairing the least damaged of the aircraft and filling in the bomb craters. On 30 January they were able to put three Hurricanes into the air, operating from a single strip which had been cleared. Meanwhile, the situation on the mainland had become rapidly worse. More convoys of reinforcements arrived, but they had come too late to stem the Japanese advance and the British forces were obliged to withdraw to the island of Singapore. The causeway between the island and the mainland was blown up soon after dawn on the 31st, after the Army's rearguard had withdrawn across it.page 13
With the enemy in possession of the northern shore of the Strait of Johore, three of Singapore's four aerodromes, Tengah, Seletar and Sembawang, became untenable. They were on the north side of the island and were exposed to Japanese artillery fire from a range of less than 2000 yards. Kallang, the fourth, was practically unserviceable after repeated bombings, so it was decided to send most of the remaining fighters to Java and Sumatra, keeping at Singapore only eight Hurricanes and the few Buffaloes which were left.
At nine o'clock on the evening of 31 January MacKenzie was told that No. 488 Squadron must be ready to move immediately. Throughout the night, interrupted by frequent air raids, the men prepared for the move. They packed all the Hurricanes' equipment and spares, and their personal clothing, into cases and loaded it on lorries ready to be taken to the docks. Then they dispersed the lorries in the rubber plantations round the aerodrome and awaited the order to go. The next day they were told they were not to go but were to stay and service the aircraft of No. 232 RAF Squadron which had recently arrived from England. The ground staffs of all other squadrons were being evacuated, and that of No. 488 was the last to remain on the island.
February opened with increasing bombing raids by the Japanese, who were able to attack the aerodromes and the harbour at will. Oil tanks near the Naval Base were hit and blazed furiously, covering the island with a dense pall of black smoke. The few fighters left at Singapore and in Sumatra could do little more than harass the enemy. They flew almost continuously during the daylight hours, but because of the short warning they received they could rarely catch the bombers before they had dropped their loads. That they were able to operate at all was due to the superhuman efforts of the servicing staffs and the men who repaired the runways after every raid. No. 488 Squadron managed to make four of its Hurricanes serviceable and they were flown out to Sumatra on 2 February. In the next few days more machines were repaired and flown out.
On 4 February Pilot Officer P. D. Gifford27 and Flight Sergeant J. Rees28 took a party of men to Sembawang to service the aircraft of No. 232 Squadron. They arrived just as the Japanese started shelling the aerodrome from across the Strait. They worked on the aircraft that night, and next morning the pilots took off in a hail of shells and flew all the serviceable ones to Kallang. One was hit while taxi-ing out, but the pilot leapt out and dashed to another which he flew off. Later in the day the same party went to Tengah and succeeded in flying all the aircraft there, mostly Hurricanes and Buffaloes, to Kallang.
On the evening of 6 February the pilots of the squadron left by ship for Batavia, where it was hoped they would be re-equipped with new machines. The ground staff remained to look after No. 232 Squadron, now at Kallang. Raids on the aerodrome were a daily occurrence, but somehow Kallang managed to put planes into the air. On 8 February the defending fighters turned back three waves of enemy bombers, and the next day, the last on which operations were flown from Singapore, they totalled sixty-four hours on interceptions and patrols.
The Japanese landed on Singapore Island on the night of 8–9 February, and two days later they were well across the island. No. 232 Squadron flew all its serviceable aircraft, which were badly in need of repair, to Sumatra, intending to return with new ones. On the morning of 11 February the ground staff went down to the aerodrome as usual, expecting to see them back. They did not appear, so the men returned to their barracks. Reports were received of parties of Japanese infiltrating close to the station, and patrols were sent out. The men were issued with rifles and told page 14 to dig in among the rubber trees surrounding the aerodrome. At midday these instructions were cancelled and the squadron was told it would be evacuated by sea that afternoon. The men retired to the docks, taking with them only what personal gear they could carry, and at four o'clock, with bombs falling all around them, went on board the Empire Star. At half past six the ship pulled out into the stream and anchored.
After a night of suspense she sailed at half past six next morning for Batavia. Two hours out from Singapore she was attacked by waves of dive-bombers, which scored three direct hits. Men from No. 488 Squadron manned Lewis guns and others blazed away with rifles, and as a result of their fire one enemy plane was shot down and another damaged. More waves of bombers continued to come over until after midday, but they remained high and scored no more hits. Eventually the battered ship reached Batavia, and the men went ashore on 14 February.
The squadron's pilots had arrived in Java on the 9th, and most of them had been sent to a rest camp at Buitenzorg, forty miles from Batavia. Squadron Leader MacKenzie was put in charge of Hurricane deliveries at Tjililitan aerodrome, ten miles out of the city. He established a temporary base and organised ground crews from among RAF personnel there to check new Hurricanes and harmonise their guns before they were flown to Palembang. After two days' rest at Buitenzorg the rest of the pilots joined him and assisted in ferrying aircraft from Batavia civil airport, where they had been unpacked from their cases and erected, to Tjililitan.
The ground staff, after reaching Batavia, were to have gone to Buitenzorg for a few days, but the situation in Java was so serious that they were recalled when on the point of leaving and reported to Tjililitan instead. The aerodrome was now occupied by Nos. 232 and 488 Squadrons, which had twelve Hurricanes between them. No. 232 had been stationed at Palembang for a few days after leaving Singapore; but the Japanese had landed there on 14 February, and to escape being overrun all air units on Sumatra were withdrawn to Java next day. On the same day, Sunday 15 February, Singapore surrendered.
Until 22 February the two squadrons carried out patrols over Java but made no contact with the enemy. The maintenance of twelve aircraft amid the prevailing chaos and disorganisation was, in itself, an achievement. No equipment had been brought from Singapore, and tools and spares had to be provided from somewhere. By hunting in the docks and warehouses of Batavia, the equipment staff found quantities of goods originally destined for Malaya, and so were able to supply what was necessary to the servicing crews.
It was now clear that the Japanese would probably overrun the whole of the Netherlands East Indies, for there was very little to stop them. The Dutch had only five bomber, three fighter, and two observation squadrons in Java, and in addition there were a few American aircraft and the British squadrons which had been evacuated from Singapore and Sumatra. All units were depleted after weeks of continuous operations, the serviceability of their aircraft was low, spares and equipment were scarce, and the whole force was disorganised. To avoid their inevitable capture, those units which through lack of equipment could not be profitably employed were as far as possible withdrawn. No. 488 Squadron was instructed to leave. On 23 February the men went aboard the MV Deucalion and sailed for Australia the same afternoon.
From the time it left New Zealand in September 1941 until it returned at the end of March 1942, the squadron set a record of hard work, resourcefulness, and cheerfulness in the face ofpage 15
A Brewster Buffalo fighter destroyed on the ground during one of the heaviest raids on Kallang airfield
A Hawker Hurricane fighter under the trees beside the airfield at Kallang
Surveying for a bomber aerodrome at Tebrau, Southern Johore
The bomber strip at Tebrau nearing completion by No. 1 Aerodrome Construction Squadron
Tents among[gap — reason: unclear]bber trees of Singapore ho[gap — reason: unclear]irmen evacuated from Te[gap — reason: unclear]
An air attack at Singapore on the wharf adjacent to the SS Talthybius
At Batavia after the journey from Singapore
No. 67 SQUADRON GROUP at MINGALADON
—back left to right
Sergeant C. V. Bargh, Pilot Officer C. McG. Simpson
Sergeants G. A. Williams, E. E. Pedersen, E. L. Sadler, Flying Officer P. M. Bingham-Wallace (RAF), Flying Officer C. S. Sharp, Sergeants K. A. Rutherford and J. MacPherson.
danger which it would be hard to surpass. At the beginning of the Malayan campaign it was a half-trained, untried unit. At the end Air Vice-Marshal P. C. Maltby, Air Officer Commanding the Royal Air Force in Java, said of it, ‘I consider 488 Squadron as the squadron which has done the best job in Singapore.’
A paragraph in the despatch of the GOC Malaya, Lieutenant-General A. E. Percival, reads as follows:
I wish here to pay tribute to the gallant air crews 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….