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Royal New Zealand Air Force



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.

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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.

1 Sqn Ldr J. Rees, BEM; RNZAF; born Thames, 28 Dec 1914; electrician.

2 Flt Lt F. S. Johnstone; Hamilton; born Timaru, 15 Aug 1914; theatre assistant.