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Royal New Zealand Air Force


THE Aerodrome Construction Squadron, formed in New Zealand early in July 1941, was recruited from Public Works employees, from men already in the Air Force, and from men employed by private construction companies. Generally speaking, the men were older than the normal RNZAF recruit, the average age of the squadron being thirty-six. They had been selected because of their ability to do hard work under tropical conditions. Most of them were tougher and more rugged than the majority of recruits.

The advance party, comprising four officers and fifteen other ranks who formed the Survey Section, left New Zealand towards the end of July in the Maetsuyker and arrived in Singapore on 15 August. A second party, including Squadron Leader Smart,1 Officer Commanding the squadron, left by air on 11 August and arrived two days after the advance party. The main body of the squadron sailed from New Zealand in the Narbada on 13 August. Accommodation on the ship was entirely unsatisfactory and the majority of the men were off-loaded at Sydney. A party of twelve remained on the ship in charge of the squadron's heavy equipment. Those who had been landed in Sydney went forward in three parties on regular Dutch passenger ships, the last party arriving in Singapore in the third week of October.

The advance party established a base camp at Tebrau, in Johore. The camp was built by native labour working under contract with the Air Ministry Department of Works, under the supervision of New Zealand personnel, and was fully ready for occupation when the main body arrived.

The squadron's first major work was the construction of a bomber aerodrome at Tebrau. 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 area was covered by rubber plantations. The initial process in building the strips was to remove the trees, which were uprooted

1 Sqn Ldr E. C. Smart; Wellington; born NZ 11 Jun 1903; aerodrome engineer.

page 98 by bulldozers and thrust aside to be cut up for firewood by Chinese coolies. Then the ground was roughly levelled by carry-alls, drawn by 18-ton tractors, which took the tops off the hillocks and deposited the spoil in the hollows. Lastly, graders were used to smooth out the rough spots and evenly distribute the gravel put down to surface the runways. The mechanical work was supplemented by the labour of hundreds of coolies, who 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. Every afternoon with clock-like regularity the rain started, turning the newly cleared ground into soft mud. After a heavy afternoon's rain the tractors and carry-alls became bogged to their axles, and it was impossible to work them until the next morning's sun dried out the ground. Whenever a spell of fine weather occurred work went on through the night to make up for lost time. Towards the end of November when the Tebrau field was well under way, the survey party, under the command of Flight Lieutenant Begg,1 was sent to Bekok, 90 miles to the north, to mark out the site for a second bomber aerodrome.

Early in the morning of 8 December the camp at Tebrau was wakened by the air-raid sirens at Singapore and the men trooped out of their huts into the moonlight to see what was going on. They had a grandstand view of the first air raid over Malaya. They saw the flash of bombs exploding on the island, and the tracer from the ground defences going up to the aircraft 17,000 feet overhead in the beams of the searchlights. None of the men realised that it was a raid 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 bombed.

The loss of aerodromes 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 Tengah. Smaller parties were stationed at Seletar and Tengah, helping with construction and repair

1 Flt Lt A. G. Begg; Dunedin; born Dunedin, 8 Jul 1901; civil engineer.

page 99 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.

The salvage party, formed at the beginning of the war, had been sent to northern Malaya under the command of Flying Officer Gaby1 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 that, too, to join the south-bound 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.

Except for final grading and surfacing, the Rifle Range strip was finished 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.

1 Flt Lt W. A. Gaby; Hamilton; born Wellington, 5 Nov 1906; constructional engineer.