Royal New Zealand Air Force
CHAPTER 7 — No. 488 Squadron in Malaya
No. 488 Squadron in Malaya
THE keystone of British strategy in the Pacific was the great naval base at Singapore, and in the first two years of the war every effort was made to strengthen the garrison there. The conception of its defence had changed in the past few years. Up till the early thirties Singapore had been regarded as a base which could be attacked only from the sea, and its defensive dispositions were designed to counter the possibility of seaborne assault. With the increased range and striking power of air forces, however, it became clear that the original plans made for its defence would be inadequate. It was now necessary not only to provide for the defence of Singapore Island, but for the whole of the Malay Peninsula. Furthermore, it was recognised in 1939 that the British Home Fleet, whose despatch to the Far East in time of war had been regarded as one of the mainstays of Singapore's defence, might be too occupied in European waters to be sent.
This meant that the forces in Malaya would have to hold out against attack for a longer period than had been anticipated. Consequently, a stronger garrison was necessary than had been originally envisaged. The need to strengthen both land and air forces in Malaya came at a time when the resources of the Empire were already severely strained by the necessity of building up forces to beat the Germans in Europe and the Middle East. Consequently, it was not possible to provide sufficient troops or equipment to make Singapore secure from Japanese aggression.
New Zealand had always been aware of the importance of Singapore in relation to its own security, and all appreciations of the forces necessary for local defence had been based on the assumption that Singapore would not be lost. In recognition of this, it had contributed a substantial amount to the original cost of the base.
The strengthening of the RAF squadrons based in Malaya, and the formation of new ones, was helped in 1940 and 1941 by the sending of a monthly quota of pilots trained in New Zealand under the Commonwealth Air Training Plan, and New Zealand representation in many of the squadrons reached a very high proportion.page 79
In the middle of 1941 the British Government asked, in addition, for two complete units to be sent to Singapore: a fully manned fighter squadron and an aerodrome construction squadron. After a careful survey of the manpower position at home, the New Zealand Government replied that it could send the two units, although the pilots for the fighter squadron would have to be deducted from the regular monthly quota.
The aerodrome construction squadron was formed in July, and the advance party reached Malaya in the middle of August. The remainder of the unit arrived in various drafts until the third week in October, when the squadron was brought practically up to its full strength of 15 officers and 140 other ranks.
The fighter squadron assembled at Rongotai early in September, and after it had been equipped and had undergone a short course on drill and weapon training the first draft left New Zealand in the middle of the month. The second body followed six weeks later. The total strength of the squadron was 12 officers and 143 airmen.
The first party, consisting of ninety-six officers and men, arrived at Singapore on 10 October in the Dutch passenger liner Tasman after a peaceful voyage via Australia, New Guinea, and Java. Some of the men had been landed in Sydney because the ship was over-crowded, and reached Malaya in various ships later in the month. The second main draft arrived in November.
The Tasman party was met at the Singapore docks by the squadron's future Commanding Officer, Squadron Leader Clouston, DFC,1 and the two flight commanders, Flight Lieutenants MacKenzie, DFC,2 and Hutcheson,3 who had been sent out from England to take charge of the new unit. Arrangements for the men's reception were excellent. Within an hour of landing they had been transported to RAF Station, Kallang, which was to be their home for the next five months, and were eating their first meal on Malayan soil.
The pilots had come straight from the flying training schools in New Zealand, and their only experience of modern aircraft had been a short conversion course on Harvards. They were sent to an operational training unit which had been formed in Kluang, in Johore, to do a conversion course on Buffalos,4 the aircraft with which they were to be equipped.
The aircraft were in various states of disrepair and needed a lot of work to make them serviceable for operational flying. No. 67 Squadron when it left had taken with it all its tools, spare parts and accessories, and No. 488 Squadron found that the total equipment left to it comprised six trestles, six chocks, one damaged ladder and six oil-draining drums. No preparation for the squadron's arrival had been made by the equipment section at Kallang, and the unit's equipment officer, Flying Officer Franks,1 had to start from scratch to build up a complete range of maintenance material.
The equipment organisation at Kallang suffered severely from the red tape of peacetime administration, and the acquisition of stores through official channels was painfully slow. Franks established friendly relations direct with the RAF equipment depot at Seletar, and was not only able to equip his own squadron in remarkably quick time but helped to equip No. 243 Squadron, RAF, which also was stationed at Kallang.page 81
As equipment came to hand—tools, spare parts, etc.—the main tenance crews set about modifying and repairing the aircraft. By hard work and considerable ingenuity they had machines ready to fly by the time the pilots came back from their conversion course at Kluang towards the end of the month.
Clouston had been ordered to make his squadron operational in the shortest possible time, and throughout November training proceeded at high pressure in the face of many difficulties. The pilots, who should have been converted to Buffalos at Kluang, had had only a few hours' refresher flying there on Wirraways. Consequently, at Kallang they had to start from the beginning. They began by practising circuits and landings on the aerodrome, and then went on to aerobatics. When they could handle their machines proficiently, they progressed to operational exercises: map reading, reconnaissance, army co-operation, formation flying and combat tactics.
In the early stages training was hampered by the lack of any radio equipment, which meant that briefing on the ground had to be more than usually detailed and that no instructions, other than by visual signals, could be given in the air. Even when R/T (radio telephony) became available towards the end of November, the sets, obsolete TR9D type, were unsatisfactory and gave poor results.
Clouston was busy much of the time with administrative work, so most of the burden of training the squadron fell on the shoulders of the two flight commanders. Their load was lightened at the beginning of December when two more New Zealanders, Pilot Officers Hesketh1 and Oakden,2 were posted on loan from No. 243 Squadron as assistant flight commanders.
During the training period the aircraft, old and decrepit in the first place, suffered all the wear and tear that might be expected in a squadron manned by inexperienced pilots. Besides this, they had to be fitted for operations. As already mentioned, R/T sets had to be installed; armour plate had also to be fitted behind the pilot's seat.
The ground crews, who had been brought from New Zealand in accordance with the establishment laid down by Air Ministry, were not nearly sufficient to cope with the amount of work to be done. Additional men were posted to the squadron from other units in Singapore, but still they were overworked.
Under Flight Sergeant Chandler,1 who acted as squadron engineer officer, they performed prodigies in servicing, repairing, and modifying their aircraft. Because they were able to keep a good proportion of the machines airworthy, the squadron achieved a much higher standard of operational efficiency than could have been reasonably expected.
OUTBREAK OF WAR WITH JAPAN
Towards the end of November tension in Singapore rose rapidly. On the 28th a report was received from Saigon that the Japanese intended landing troops in southern Siam on 1 December. On the 30th a Japanese fleet was reported from British North Borneo to be moving south.
On 1 December General Headquarters, Malaya, ordered second-degree readiness, which meant that all forces had to be ready for operations at short notice, and the air-raid warning system started to operate. Three days later Japanese forces were officially reported to be moving south, and full air reconnaissance of the waters to the east and north of Malaya was ordered.
Bad weather prevented reconnaissance from aerodromes in northern Malaya, but a Dutch squadron stationed in the southern part of the peninsula carried out patrols and reported no sign of the enemy. At midday on 6 December a Hudson of No. 1 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force, patrolling from Kota Bharu on the north-east coast of Malaya, sighted a Japanese convoy, apparently steering into the Gulf of Siam. Shortly afterwards it sighted another convoy which might have been heading for northern Malaya.
Seaplanes of the New Zealand Flying School, Kohimarama, Auckland, c. 1916
OFFICERS OF THE NZPAF, c, 1929 Back row: Flight Lieutenants T. J. Denton, V. J. Somerset-Thomas, S. Wallingford, A. de T. Nevill Front row: Flight Lieutenant H. B. Burrell, Squadron Leaders L. M. Isitt, T. M. Wilkes, and J. L. Findlay, Flight Lieutenant M. W. Buckley
Vildebeestes being inspected at Hobsonville in 1935 by Major-General W. L. H. Sinclair-Burgess (GOC) and Lord Galway (Governor-General) on right
Synthetic bombing instruction, Ohakea, 1941
Refuelling Anson aircraft, Navigation School, New Plymouth, 1943
Vincents of No. 1 Squadron, Whenuapai, 1941
Hudsons of No. 3 Squadron leaving Whenuapai for the forward area, October 1942
Pilot preparing to take off, Kallang
The main camp at Espiritu Santo, July 1943
Servicing Kittyhawks, Guadalcanal, July 1943
Met. officer receiving reports from No. 3 Squadron crew, Guadalcanal, July 1943
Air Commodores M. W. Buckley and S. Wallingford, Wing Commander T. O. Freeman, Sir Cyril Newall (Governor-General), and Major-General H. E. Barrowclough, beside the Fighter Wing Score Board, Ondonga, New Georgia, November 1943
Timber mill, Los Negros
Pilots of No. 25 Squadron, Bougainville, reporting after a strike
Airstrip, Green Island, March 1945
Throughout 7 December the weather continued to be bad, with almost continuous rain and low cloud. Reconnaissance was limited and the only sightings reported by aircraft were of single merchant ships. Thus, for thirty hours after the first sighting, no contact was made with the main Japanese invasion force.
At two o'clock in the morning on 8 December, Hutcheson, who was duty officer at Kallang, was informed that the Japanese had attacked Malaya. Two hours before, an enemy force had appeared off the coast at Kota Bharu and had landed troops on the beaches under cover of fire from escorting warships.
Shortly after four o'clock Japanese bombers flew over Singapore and attacked aerodromes at Seletar and Tengah. They had been picked up by radar when still 130 miles away, but owing to a breakdown in communications the lights of Singapore had not been extinguished and no blackout was in force. At daylight four aircraft of No. 488 Squadron, led by Hutcheson, took off and carried out the first defensive fighter patrol over Singapore. During the day many more patrols were carried out by the squadron, but all the aircraft intercepted were friendly.
In the first two days of the war the Japanese established bases in northern Malaya and occupied the aerodromes at Kota Bharu, Alor Star and Kuantan. Two squadrons of the Dutch Air Force arrived to reinforce Singapore. One, a bomber squadron, was stationed at Sembawang, and the other, a fighter squadron of nine Buffalos, joined Nos. 488 and 243 Squadrons at Kallang.
As a result of the efforts to strengthen the defences of Malaya over the past few years there were, at the beginning of December, some twenty-three airfields on the mainland in various stages of completion and of various sizes, and four on Singapore Island itself. The available air forces comprised one Hudson squadron with seven operationally serviceable aircraft, two squadrons of Mark I Blenheim bombers and one of Mark I Blenheim night fighters, with a total of twenty-seven aircraft, and the Operational Training Unit at Kluang, on the mainland of Malaya. On Singapore Island there were two squadrons of Vildebeeste torpedo-bombers with twenty-seven serviceable aircraft, one general reconnaissance squadron with three Catalina aircraft, one general reconnaissance squadron with eight Hudsons, four fighter squadrons with a total of forty-three Buffalos, one bomber squadron with seventeen Mark IV Blenheims, and an anti-aircraft co-operation unit with twelve miscellaneous aircraft. In addition, there were six maintenance and servicing units, four radar units in operation, and the RNZAF Aerodrome Construction Squadron. Practically every unit contained some New Zealanders.page 84
The fighter squadrons had all been formed in Malaya during 1941. The pilots had been recruited from among bomber pilots already in Far East Command and from pilots sent to Malaya from flying training schools in New Zealand, while the squadron and flight commanders were all experienced officers sent out from Britain. No. 488 Squadron RNZAF and No. 453 Squadron RAAF had both been formed as Dominion squadrons under Article 15 of the Commonwealth Air Training Plan. No. 243 was an RAF squadron, and the fourth fighter squadron, No. 21, RAAF, had come to the Far East Command in 1940 as a general purpose squadron and had been re-equipped with Buffalos as a fighter squadron in October 1941.
All squadrons except No. 488 had been passed as ‘trained to operational standards’ by the time war broke out, but experience was to show that their training had been based on an underestimate of the Japanese Air Force.
Early on the morning of 10 December, No. 488 Squadron was told that it might be required to provide air cover for two warships: no names were given. Two aircraft were to take off every half hour, fly to a given patrol area, remain there for half an hour, and then return. Later in the morning news was received that the battleships Prince of Wales and Repulse were being attacked by enemy aircraft some 170 miles from Singapore. The two ships had arrived at Singapore with escorting destroyers a few days before war broke out, and when attacked they were returning from an attempt to intercept enemy convoys in the Gulf of Siam.
The weather off southern Malaya had given them protection against air attack in a layer of cloud, and they were not escorted by friendly aircraft. During the morning they ran out into clear weather and were discovered by Japanese planes.
At half past two in the afternoon Flight Lieutenant MacKenzie and Sergeant MacIntosh1 of No. 488 Squadron took off as part of the force of fighters to give cover to the ships. By the time they arrived at the scene of the action both ships had been sunk, but they escorted a destroyer which had picked up survivors and was steaming south. Later in the day other members of the squadron in sections of two patrolled the area, where survivors were still being picked up.
This would have been satisfactory had the Japanese machines been as poor in their performance as the Allied pilots had been led to believe. In fact the Japanese proved to have good aircraft and well-trained pilots. Against these the Buffalo was almost useless.
While training was going on the more experienced pilots of the squadron took part in a number of patrols in attempts to intercept Japanese reconnaissance aircraft. On 15 December four members of the squadron, led by MacKenzie, unsuccessfully chased a Japanese reconnaissance aircraft. The next day, sixteen of the squadron's aircraft took off to intercept another one. Flight Lieutenant Hutcheson and Sergeant Clow1 sighted it, but they did not have sufficient height to intercept it and its superior speed allowed it to escape.
Towards the end of the month arrangements for the reception of convoys bringing reinforcements from Britain became the principal task of the Air Force in Singapore. For several days before the arrival of each convoy reconnaissance aircraft carried out wide sweeps in search of enemy submarines and other naval units, and a considerable proportion of the other aircraft at Singapore was kept in readiness in case the convoys were attacked. This reduced the scale of support which could be given to the Army on the mainland of Malaya, but the safe arrival of reinforcements was of paramount importance.
It was the first major operation in which the squadron had taken part. The pilots proved the value of their training by their excellent flying under adverse conditions, while on the aerodrome at Kallang the ground crews toiled all day, checking the aircraft as they came in, refuelling them and making them ready for the next patrol.
A second convoy arrived on 13 January bringing, among other forces, fifty-one Hurricane aircraft and twenty fighter pilots. The continued advance of the Japanese down the Malay Peninsula, the apparent ease with which they had disposed of two of Britain's strongest warships, and their patent superiority in the air had had a most depressing effect. Now, it was thought, the enemy would at least be halted, and the Hurricanes would sweep his air force from the skies.
The military situation, however, had seriously deteriorated. By the middle of January the bulk of the British forces on the mainland of Malaya had fallen back to the northern boundary of Johore, barely 100 miles from Singapore. With the possession of aerodromes in northern and central Malaya, the Japanese were able to launch increasingly severe air attacks against the island of Singapore itself. Hitherto, except for night raids which had only a nuisance value, their activities over the island had been confined to reconnaissance.
In January, however, they began making heavy daylight raids, concentrating mainly on the aerodromes. The first aerodrome to suffer was Tengah. Kallang, where No. 488 Squadron was stationed, was severely bombed for the first time on 9 January. In addition to the squadron's offices, the station equipment store, ammunition store, and oil stores were practically demolished. Next day the aerodrome was bombed again, but by that time much of the equipment and stores had been salvaged and dispersed in evacuated Chinese houses near the aerodrome.
After the first raid on each aerodrome all the native labour disappeared. This caused a serious dislocation in the ground services and put the burden of repairing aerodrome surfaces on members of the squadrons.
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.
DECISION TO EVACUATE AIR FORCES
Meanwhile, on the mainland of Malaya the situation had become rapidly worse. The reinforcements which had arrived earlier in the month, and additional air reinforcements which had come from the Middle East more recently, were too late to stem the Japanese advance. On 27 January it was decided to withdraw all the land forces to Singapore. This was done, and the causeway connecting the island with the mainland was blown up on 31 January.
There was now considerable congestion on the island. The four aerodromes on Singapore were the only places from which our air forces could operate in Malaya. To reduce the congestion all bomber and reconnaissance squadrons were transferred during the latter half of January to Sumatra or Java, leaving only the fighter squadrons for the immediate defence of Singapore. Constant bombing of the aerodromes and the lack of sufficient fighter forces to defend them made operations practically impossible. Three of the aerodromes, Tengah, Sembawang and Seletar, were situated on the north coast of the island. After the Army's withdrawal from the mainland these became exposed to observed artillery fire from Johore at a range of less than 2000 yards. Consequently it was necessary to evacuate them, and Kallang was then the only aerodrome from which aircraft could operate. Kallang itself was practically unserviceable owing to enemy bombing, and it therefore became necessary to reduce the fighter forces remaining in Singapore.page 92
On 30 January it was decided to keep only eight Hurricanes and the remaining Buffalos at Singapore. All other fighter forces were to be evacuated to Sumatra or Java. Fighter reinforcements arriving on the aircraft carrier Indomitable were to be based in Sumatra to support those at Singapore and reinforce them as opportunity offered. At this stage it was still hoped that sufficient forces would be available to hold Singapore and eventually to launch a counter-offensive.
Of the fifty-one Hurricanes which had arrived in the middle of January only twenty were now available, the rest having been destroyed or damaged; and of the original force of Buffalos only six remained operational. The fighters still at Singapore and in Sumatra were too few to affect materially the scale of the enemy attack. They did their best, flying almost continuously during daylight, but could do no more than harass the Japanese.
At nine o'clock in 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 up all of the serviceable Hurricane equipment and stores and their personal clothing into cases and loaded them on lorries. The lorries were then dispersed in the rubber plantations around the aerodrome and the squadron awaited further orders.
Next morning, however, it was told that it would not be evacuated but would remain in Singapore to service the aircraft of No. 232 Squadron, which had recently arrived from the United Kingdom with aircraft and pilots but without ground staff. No. 488 was thus the last squadron whose ground staff remained on the island.
On 2 February the squadron's four serviceable Hurricanes were flown to Palembang, in Sumatra. By this time the constant bombing of the aerodromes had made fighter operations practically impossible, and in addition the Japanese were maintaining fighter patrols over the island and the surrounding waters. The next day large formations of Japanese bombers concentrated on the harbour. The oil tanks near the naval base were hit and the whole island was covered by a thick pall of black smoke.
On 4 February Pilot Officer Gifford and Flight Sergeant Rees1 took a party of men to Sembawang to service the Hurricanes of No. 232 Squadron. When they arrived they were greeted by a salvo of shells. This was the first shelling of Singapore Island by the Japanese. They returned to Kallang the next day after getting all the serviceable aircraft off the aerodrome at Sembawang. Pilot Officer Johnstone,2 who was attached to No. 453 Squadron, was page 93 taxiing to take off in a Buffalo when it was hit by a shell. He immediately dashed over to another Buffalo and took off amid a shower of shells.
Later in the day the party went to Tengah aerodrome, which was being shelled, to assist in getting the aircraft away from there. They succeeded in flying all the aircraft, mostly Hurricanes and Buffalos, to Kallang.
Squadron Leader MacKenzie and eight sergeant pilots sailed for Batavia on the cruiser HMS Danae. Flight Lieutenant Hutcheson and Pilot Officer Oakden, after a day spent in searching the dispersal areas of Tengah, Sembawang, and Seletar for any serviceable machines that might have been overlooked, joined the remainder of the pilots on the SS City of Canterbury and sailed at 11 p.m. for Batavia, where both ships arrived on the evening of 8 February.
Meanwhile No. 488's ground crews in Singapore began to service the diminishing force of aircraft which were being flown by the pilots of No. 232 Squadron. The Japanese landed on the island on the night of 8–9 February, but although all hope of withdrawal seemed to have gone, the pilots of the new squadron received as good a service as had ever been given to the original pilots of No. 488 Squadron. Finally, on 10 February, the last of the Hurricanes was flown away from Singapore and the ground crews were left with nothing but a few battered machines apparently of no further use. However, under Flight Sergeant Chandler they set to in an endeavour to get one more Hurricane serviceable so that Squadron Leader Clouston, now at Operations Headquarters, might be able to escape if surrender became inevitable. He did not manage to escape and was captured when the enemy occupied Singapore; he spent the rest of the war in Japanese prison camps.
On the morning of the 11th the ground staff went down to the aerodrome, expecting to find the pilots of No. 232 Squadron back with fresh aircraft from Sumatra. None appeared so they returned to their barracks. Reports were received of parties of Japanese infiltrating close to the billets, and patrols were sent out. The men were issued with rifles and told to dig in among the rubber trees round the aerodrome. At midday these instructions were cancelled and the squadron was told that it would be evacuated by sea that afternoon. Each man was allowed to take one kitbag of personal gear and the officers could take what they could carry.
The squadron retired to the docks and at four o'clock went aboard the Empire Star. Two waves of bombers raided the docks as they were embarking. At half past six the ship pulled out into the stream and anchored. Finally, at half past six next morning, she sailed for Batavia. When she was two hours out she was page 94 dive-bombed by several waves of Japanese aircraft and suffered three direct hits. A number of men were killed or injured, none of them from No. 488 Squadron. Members of the squadron manned Lewis guns and tommy guns and others fired rifles. As a result of the fusillade put up, one enemy aircraft was destroyed and one damaged.
Waves of bombers continued to come over until after midday, but the defensive fire kept them high and they scored no more hits. The Empire Star arrived at Batavia on the evening of the 13th and the men went ashore next day.
The pilots of the squadron had arrived in Java on the 9th. The majority of them had immediately gone to Buitenzorg, a rest camp 40 miles from Batavia. After a conference at Air Headquarters, Batavia, MacKenzie was told that No. 488 Squadron was to be re-equipped with Hurricanes and would undertake the fighter defence of Batavia. Its ground personnel was to consist of Hurricane crews already on the island.
MacKenzie was put in charge of Hurricane delivery at Tjililitan aerodrome, 10 miles from Batavia. He established a temporary base there and organised ground crews to check new Hurricanes and harmonise their guns prior to their despatch to Palembang.
On the 11th the squadron's pilots returned from Buitenzorg and helped to ferry Hurricanes from Batavia civil airport to Tjililitan for checking. They were joined by the four pilots who had left Singapore by air some days before them.
On the morning of 14 February Hutcheson, leading a formation of nine Hurricanes, took off for Palembang. Apart from Pilot Officer Sharp and Sergeant Meharry, all the pilots in the formation were from the various RAF squadrons.
Their arrival at Palembang coincided with an attack by Japanese paratroops. Escorting Japanese fighters attacked the formation which, after the long flight from Batavia, urgently needed refuelling. Meharry managed to land at Palembang despite the fighting going on between the Japanese paratroops and the RAF ground crew. Later it was found possible to refuel his aircraft and he flew to a secret aerodrome known as P2, from which he made attacks against the invading Japanese until his aircraft was no longer serviceable. Later he was evacuated to southern Sumatra by rail.
The other pilots, finding it impossible to land, fought back at the Japanese fighters until they ran out of fuel or were shot down into the jungle. Neither Hutcheson nor Sharp was injured when page 95 they crashed. Sharp managed by various means to get back to Java by 16 February. Hutcheson, who joined Meharry at Oosthaven in southern Sumatra, arrived a day later.
Other pilots from the squadron continued to carry out defensive patrols from Tjililitan in company with those pilots from Nos. 232 and 258 Squadrons who were able to reach Java after the fall of Sumatra. Among them they had twelve serviceable aircraft.
It had been hoped that southern Sumatra as well as Java could be held, but on 15 February, the day Singapore surrendered, all units on Sumatra were forced to withdraw. After the paratroop landing on the 14th, the Japanese had occupied the aerodrome at Palembang, and P2, at which all the available Allied air units were concentrated, was also in danger of being overrun.
The speed of the enemy's advance had frustrated the hopes of building up a large Allied strength in the East Indies, and Java itself was now under imminent threat of invasion. It was therefore decided that the Supreme Commander, General Wavell, should withdraw his headquarters, which had been removed from Singapore to Java some days previously, and turn over the remaining Allied forces to the command of the Dutch.
The Dutch at this time had about five bomber, three fighter, and two observation squadrons in Java. In addition there were twelve to fifteen American heavy bombers and a few fighters. There were also the British squadrons which had been evacuated from Singapore and Sumatra. All squadrons were depleted in strength as a result of operations over the past few weeks, the serviceability of their aircraft was low, spares and equipment were scarce, and the whole force suffered from disorganisation and confusion.
On 22 February MacKenzie was instructed that he was to move his squadron to Australia and hand over his aircraft to No. 605 Squadron, RAF, together with one flight commander and five other pilots. No. 258 Squadron, RAF, was to do the same, to bring No. 605 Squadron up to strength. The men left behind were to be evacuated when RAF replacements arrived. Pilot Officer Oakden remained behind as flight commander, together with Pilot Officers Sharp, Pettit1 and White,2 and Sergeants Kuhn and MacIntosh.
The rest of the squadron embarked on the MV Deucalion on the afternoon of 23 February and sailed for Fremantle. They arrived in Australia at the beginning of March, and at the end of the month returned to New Zealand on the Esperance Bay.page 96
The six pilots who were left behind were not relieved. They fought throughout the rest of the campaign until Java surrendered on 8 March. Sharp was shot down behind the Japanese lines, and although he made a good crash-landing and was seen to get out of his machine and wave to the other members of the squadron, he was not heard of again. The other five were taken prisoner after the surrender. Pilot Officer White died while a prisoner of war, and the others survived three and a half years in Japanese prison camps and returned to New Zealand after the end of the war.