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Episodes & Studies Volume 2

Building the Airfields

Building the Airfields

No. 1 Aerodrome Construction Squadron

No. 1 Aerodrome Construction Squadron, the first unit of its kind in the Air Forces of the British Empire, was formed in New Zealand in July 1941. It was sent to Malaya to help in the building of airstrips which were urgently needed as part of the defence system of Singapore.

Airfield construction was one of the major problems confronting the British command in Malaya. Suitable sites were hard to find, and there was a shortage of the necessary labour and machinery to develop them. Unskilled native manpower was available, but it was scarce and unreliable. There were very few men trained in the handling of heavy earth-moving machinery. The New Zealand Squadron, therefore, was to fill an important role in the defence preparations of the peninsula.

The men were recruited from all over New Zealand. They came from the Public Works Department, from private construction companies, and from the ranks of those already enlisted in the Air Force. Unlike the usual run of recruits who joined the Air Force in their early twenties, these were men of up to forty-five years of age, specially selected for their skill in the various trades and for their physical toughness and ability to do heavy work in tropical conditions. After assembling at Rongotai they were issued with tropical kit, and then, while waiting for shipping to take them overseas, were given an intensive course in drill, rifle and machine-gun training, and lectures on discipline, hygiene, etc. At the same time, most of the construction machinery in the country was gathered in Wellington, to be sent with the unit when it sailed.

An advanced party of four officers and fifteen airmen, who formed the Survey Section, left New Zealand towards the end of July in the Dutch ship Maetsuyker and reached Singapore on 15 August. A second party, including the Commanding Officer, Squadron Leader E. C. Smart,29 travelled by air and arrived two days after the first. The rest of the squadron, with the heavy equipment, sailed on 13 August in the SS Narbada. Accommodation on the Narbada was so inadequate that most of the men were put ashore in Sydney, leaving only a small party to continue the voyage in charge of the machinery. Several small drafts went on in regular Dutch passenger ships in the next few weeks, but the main body of the squadron, due to various causes, was delayed in Sydney for seven weeks and did not reach Singapore until 27 October.

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In Malaya the unit was based at Tebrau, in southern Johore. A camp had been built there under the direction of the Air Ministry Department of Works, and by the time the main body arrived it was ready for occupation. The men had expected to face rigorous living conditions in the jungle, and the sight of rows of long, green attap-roofed huts, set in the shade of rubber trees, came as a pleasant surprise. The living quarters were airy and comfortable, and recreation facilities were provided by a YMCA hut with canteen, library, writing room, and games equipment. Leave, when available, could be spent in Singapore, less than twenty miles away. The only cause for complaint was the food, which consisted of Army field service rations, and compared unfavourably with the peacetime diet still enjoyed by RAF stations on Singapore.

As soon as the squadron was settled in it began its first job, the construction of a bomber aerodrome. The site, consisting of two runways in the shape of an L, had already been marked out by the survey party, and the construction machinery had been assembled ready to begin work.

The whole area was covered by rubber plantations, miles and miles of trees, planted in orderly rows. The initial process in building the strips was the removal of the trees, which were uprooted by bulldozers and thrust aside to be cut up for firewood by Chinese coolies. 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 spoil in the hollows; lastly, the graders took over, smoothing out the rough spots and evenly distributing the gravel put down to surface the runways. The mechanical work was supplemented by the labour of hundreds of coolies. They swarmed everywhere with picks and shovels, putting the finishing touches to what the machines had done.

When the squadron started operations the north-east monsoon season had begun. With clock-like regularity the rain started in the afternoons, turning the newly-cleared ground into a quagmire of soft, sticky mud. It did not interfere seriously with the tree-felling by the bulldozers, but the tractors and carry-alls, working on the bare clay, became bogged to their axles. After a heavy afternoon's rain it was impossible to work them until next morning's sun had dried the ground. Then for a few hours, while the sun streamed down and the earth rose in choking clouds of dust, the excavating and grading went on until the rain again put a stop to it. Whenever a spell of fine weather occurred, work went on continuously, far into the night, to make up for lost time, and the peace of the countryside was shattered by the roar of bulldozers and tractors.

Towards the end of November, when the Tebrau field was well under way, the survey party, under the command of Flight Lieutenant A. G. Begg,30 was sent to Bekok, ninety miles to the north, to mark out the site for a second bomber aerodrome.

For news of the outside world the men relied mainly on the camp radio, and the broadcasts showed that the situation was growing daily graver. The road running past the camp, too, gave evidence that something was afoot. Every day it was crowded with military transport: staff cars, guns, truckloads of troops and arms, all hurrying north.

Early on the morning of 8 December Tebrau was wakened by the sound of air-raid sirens at Singapore, and the men trooped out of their huts into the moonlight to see what was going on. Soon after, they heard the drone of aircraft, and then the guns and searchlights opened up. From the camp they had a grandstand view of the first air raid over Singapore. They saw the flashes of the bombs and the tracer from the ground defences reaching up to the planes gleaming 17,000 feet overhead in the beams of the searchlights; but it looked so much like a ‘set piece’ that nobody page 21 realised it was the real thing and not just another practice. It was not until the eight o'clock news came over the radio that they knew for certain that Singapore had been raided.

The loss of airfields in northern Malaya in the first few days of the war made it vitally necessary to develop new ones in the south as quickly as possible. The most urgent need was for more fighter strips to accommodate the fighter reinforcements which were on their way. In consequence, the development of Tebrau was to be restricted to the completion as soon as possible of a runway of 1200 yards.

In the middle of December work at Tebrau was temporarily suspended, and the squadron was split up into several parties and employed on other urgent jobs. A large detachment was sent to the new site at Bekok and ordered to make a fighter strip there; another, of twenty-eight men, was posted to Singapore Island to begin a strip at Sungei Buloh, near the Causeway; smaller parties were stationed at Seletar and Tengah, helping with construction and repair work on the aerodromes; a salvage party was operating in northern Malaya; and the rest of the squadron began building another fighter strip on the site of the rifle range at the Johore Military Barracks.

Besides its main task of building aerodromes, the squadron was called on to do a multitude of other odd jobs whenever experience in handling heavy equipment or machinery was needed. The salvage party, formed at the beginning of the war, had been sent to northern Malaya to rescue and repair equipment in the battle zone. For the next six weeks, throughout the 500-mile retreat to Singapore, it was responsible for saving immense quantities of equipment from under the noses of the Japanese. Operating much of the time only one jump ahead of the British rearguard, it collected abandoned trucks, cars, steam-rollers and graders, put native drivers into them, and sent them rolling down the road to Singapore. From bombed-out aerodromes it collected lorry loads of precious radio and other equipment, and sent them also to join the southbound convoys. At the end of the campaign the squadron had more equipment than when it started.

Early in January the detachments at Seletar and Tengah were recalled to start work again on the Tebrau strip. Most of the Bekok party also returned. Having almost completed their job they were ordered to leave it, first dragging trees and other obstacles across the runway in case Japanese aircraft tried to land. A rear party was left behind to lay mines in preparation for later demolition. The survey party went back to Singapore, to survey yet another fighter strip at Yio Chu Kang, near Seletar.

The Rifle Range strip was finished, except for final grading and surfacing, by the middle of the month, and was being used by light aircraft of the Malayan Volunteer Air Force. It was the only one built by the squadron in Malaya to be used operationally, and was the last to be evacuated when the British forces retired to Singapore.

On 15 January, with the Japanese at the northern border of Johore, the Bekok camp was finally evacuated and the runway was blown up next day. Work at Tebrau was carried on while the fighting rolled nearer. To the north the mutter of gunfire could be heard, daily growing louder. There were reports of infiltrating parties of Japanese in the area, and every car and truck leaving the camp carried an armed guard. The roads south were thronged with the forerunners of the retreating army: military transport, ambulances, civilian refugees, and plodding natives.

Then came the order to evacuate the camp and prepare the airstrip for demolition. Coolies dug holes in the newly formed runways, and mines were laid in them ready to be exploded when page 22 the word was given. An airman bitterly expressed the opinion that in future it would be simpler to build mines into the foundations when the aerodromes were being constructed. The camp was stripped clean of every vestige of equipment, stores and personal gear, and the squadron moved out on the morning of 27 January, the last Air Force unit to leave the mainland. The next day a demolition party returned and exploded the mines at Tebrau and the Rifle Range. Both strips were left pitted with craters twenty-five to thirty feet across and ten feet deep which, it was hoped, would deny their use to the enemy for a considerable time.

On Singapore the unit was quartered at the Singapore Dairy Farm, in the centre of the island and about a dozen miles from the city. The men lived in tents hidden among the rubber trees, and the officers in one of the farm buildings. 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. When, at the beginning of February, the Japanese brought their artillery to bear on them, both had to be abandoned. There was also a constant demand for men and machinery to help in repairing bomb damage on the main aerodromes, which were under daily attack, and parties were sent out from the unit as they were needed. In addition, at the urgent request of the Army authorities, a detachment spent several days building tank traps in the western part of the island.

At the end of January it was plain that Singapore was no place for an aerodrome construction squadron. The airfields already in existence were being steadily pounded to bits, and any new construction would share the same fate. In any case, there were practically no aircraft left to use them. Once again, as in Norway, Greece and Crete, it was being proved that aerodromes without adequate fighter protection were valueless. At that stage it was still hoped that Singapore could hold out until sufficient forces were assembled in the Netherlands East Indies to launch a counter- offensive, and it was decided to send the unit to Sumatra to prepare landing fields there.

Evacuation of Singapore

On the morning of 1 February the squadron was ordered to embark with its machinery on the SS Talthybius. The equipment was sent down to the docks, and at one o'clock in the afternoon was all at the ship's side, ready for loading. As a result of the daily bombing of the port, all the native labourers had long since disappeared. No help could be had from the ship's native crew, who were untrained and useless as stevedores. Consequently all the work of loading, including working the winches and stowing the cargo, had to be done by the squadron. The ship's derricks were rigged, winches manned, and loading began at three o'clock.

Work ceased at nightfall, as a strict blackout had to be maintained. It was resumed at daylight next day, and by that evening most of the equipment was on board. There were numerous air-raid alarms during the day; but the work continued without a stop until enemy bombers were practically overhead, when the men took cover, some in shelters on the wharf, others in the ship's hold, to emerge again immediately the raid was over. Several times bombs fell close, but the Talthybius was not hit. In sixteen hours of working time, despite interruptions, the men loaded between 2300 and 2500 tons, ship's measurement, of heavy equipment, including tractors, trucks, stores and machinery.

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The ship remained at the wharf again that night, and the men returned to their camp at the Dairy Farm. Next morning a working party went down to straighten up the cargo and help to load some additional RAF equipment which was to be taken. In the middle of the morning there were two heavy air raids. The Talthybius survived the first, although bombs fell close by. In the second she received two direct hits from bombs which exploded in the holds, and there were several more near misses. The working party was caught on board, and one man was killed. Seven more were seriously injured, with severe burns and shock, one of them dying in hospital the next day. The ship was set on fire, and water poured in through holes in her side.

The fires were put out after a 24-hour struggle by the ship's crew, but she continued to make water fast in spite of the rigging of auxiliary pumps. Much of the cargo was destroyed by the bombing and fire, but the heavy excavating machinery and large quantities of medical, dental, and other stores were undamaged and it was hoped that a good deal could be saved. A party of volunteers went to the docks on the afternoon of 4 February and unloaded the medical stores and the men's kitbags, but lack of steam to work the winches prevented any of the heavier gear being taken off. Later the same afternoon another bombing attack set the ship on fire again and sank her.

The next two days were spent at the Dairy Farm waiting for fresh embarkation orders. By this time the Japanese were shelling the island, and the hazard of artillery fire was added to the constant bombing attacks. Shells burst all around the camp as the enemy fired at observation posts on nearby hillocks and searched for Australian batteries hidden in the neighbouring rubber plantations. Overhead, bombers swooped low as they dived to attack big oil installations half a mile away.

On the afternoon of 6 February the squadron was told it would be evacuated in a convoy sailing that evening. The men struck camp immediately and were taken in lorries to the docks. There, amid the litter of bomb wreckage and in the glare of burning buildings, they loaded all that was left of the unit's equipment on to the waiting ships. There was not much: only their personal kitbags, the medical supplies, and their rifles and ammunition.

Two parties were formed, one going on the SS City of Canterbury and the other on the SS Darvel. Both ships moved out into the stream to join their convoy, but the Darvel was ordered back to port by the Naval authorities, partly because she had insufficient crew and partly because she was too slow—her best speed was eleven knots—for the other three much faster ships which were going.

The convoy sailed that night, with a strong naval escort, for Java. The troops on the City of Canterbury suffered the discomfort of overcrowding and insufficient food, and there were frequent air-raid alarms; but the escorting warships warded off all enemy attacks, and the ships reached Batavia safely on 9 February. The Darvel, after lying at anchor in the stream all night, returned to the wharf again on the morning of the 7th. The men landed and were taken to an RAF transit camp near Seletar. There they were between the Japanese batteries on the southern tip of Johore and the British on Singapore, and the air was full of the roar of shells passing overhead.

The following afternoon they again went down to the docks and embarked on the Darvel. After some hours, during which there were several air raids, she eventually put to sea at dusk. She had just cleared the harbour when she was again recalled and brought back to her berth. page 24 Bad weather was brewing outside, and visibility had become too bad to risk going through the protective minefields beyond the entrance. That night the Darvel lay alongside the wharf and the men slept on her decks.

The next morning they were taken once more to the transit camp. During the night the Japanese had landed on the western part of the island, and by morning they had made considerable progress eastwards. Towards midday their artillery started shelling the camp and all personnel had to take to the shelter trenches. In the afternoon, during a lull in the shelling, the men scrambled into their trucks and once more made for the docks. This time they went straight aboard the Darvel, and she immediately headed for the open sea. She escaped just in time to avoid a heavy dive-bombing and strafing attack on shipping in the docks, and the last view of Singapore was one of blazing wharf sheds, towering columns of smoke from burning oil tanks, and the sky full of enemy planes and bursting anti-aircraft shells.

The ship sailed through the night, and at daybreak anchored off the southern tip of a small island to avoid observation by enemy aircraft. She was still short-staffed and members of the squadron virtually worked her. Some took shifts in the engine room and stokehold, others mounted and manned light anti-aircraft guns, and others took over the messing for all the troops on board.

The next stage of the voyage lay through Banka Strait, between Sumatra and Banka Island. Through its narrow waters all shipping from Singapore to Java had to pass, and the Japanese bombers patrolled it constantly during daylight. The ship got under way again at dusk and it was hoped that she would pass through the danger area in the night. But just before entering the Strait she was delayed for two hours assisting another vessel, the SS Kintak, which had run ashore during the day. In consequence, she was still in the Strait when the next day dawned. She anchored in the shelter of 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 some days before and abandoned.

The morning was peaceful until half past eleven, and then a formation of enemy bombers appeared. They were too high for the ship's anti-aircraft guns, so the gun crews withheld their fire and took cover. The planes altered their course slightly to bring them directly overhead, and then the bombs began to fall. For a minute all was confusion as the bombs rained down all round the ship, the explosions tossing her about like a cork and drenching her with spray. There were no direct hits, but concussion and splinters from near misses made the ship a shambles. Then it was over, and there was silence except for the hiss of steam escaping from burst pipes. Five minutes later the bombers returned, but this time they concentrated their attack on the abandoned steamer a few hundred yards away. They sank her and, having used up all their bombs, returned to their base.

The Darvel, although spared a second bombing, was in parlous condition. Her hull was riddled with holes by bomb splinters, and she was leaking badly. The steering gear was damaged, and so were all the lifeboats. Fires had broken out in several places, and many of the troops on board were killed or wounded. The New Zealand unit had one killed, seventeen wounded, and several more slightly injured.*

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The captain gave the order to abandon ship, but the state of the boats made it impossible. The fires were quickly brought under control, and then working parties from the Construction Squadron went below to fill in the scores of small holes with wooden plugs. Others set to work to repair the lifeboats and rigging and clear up the debris on the decks. There was no doctor on board, so medical orderlies cared for the wounded.

A naval officer, Lieutenant Commander Griffiths, RN, 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 safely, and at the southern entrance a halt was made to repair the damaged steering gear. Finally, at half past eight in the evening when welcome darkness covered the ship, course was set for Batavia. By next morning, 12 February, the Darvel was listing badly to port, and the Captain reported that she was sinking. All passengers and baggage were crowded to the starboard side, and members of the Construction Squadron went below and plugged more holes. After about two hours' work the leakage was brought under control, and the ship eventually arrived off Batavia at midday and berthed at two o'clock. Senior officers who had travelled in her reported afterwards that, although the New Zealanders formed only a small proportion of the troops on board, it was due entirely to their work and initiative that the Darvel reached Java safely.

On arrival at Batavia the wounded were taken to the Dutch Military Hospital and the rest of the New Zealanders rejoined the other half of the squadron, which was quartered in a transit camp at King Wilhelm III School. The next day the whole unit was moved to Buitenzorg where it remained for a week while the Commanding Officer, Squadron Leader Smart, discussed future plans with Allied Air Headquarters at Bandoeng. In the prevailing confusion it was difficult to obtain any instructions. While it was still thought that Java could be defended, suggestions were made that the squadron should be employed digging trenches and tank traps in Java, but with the Japanese advance daily coming closer, the situation was constantly changing and plans were made only to be discarded. Eventually it was decided that as the unit had lost all its equipment it should be evacuated, to reform and re-equip in Australia or New Zealand. Accordingly, on 20 February it returned to Batavia and went on board the SS Marella. Although Japanese air activity was by this time increasing over Java, the embarkation was carried out without incident. The Marella sailed at six o'clock that evening, in one of the last convoys to get away from Java unharmed, and reached the friendly shores of Australia a week later.

* Flight Lieutenant F. Butler commanded the party on the Darvel until he was wounded in the attack on 11 February, when he handed over command to Flight Lieutenant Begg.