Royal New Zealand Air Force
OUTBREAK OF WAR WITH JAPAN
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.