Royal New Zealand Air Force
CHAPTER 8 — No. 1 Aerodrome Construction Squadron in Malaya
No. 1 Aerodrome Construction Squadron in Malaya
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.
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.
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.
RETREAT TO SINGAPORE ISLAND
Work on Tebrau was carried on until nearly the end of the month, when the order was given to evacuate and prepare that aerodrome also for demolition. Coolies dug holes in the newly formed runways, and mines were laid in them ready to be exploded when the word was given. An airman bitterly expressed the opinion that, in future, it would be simpler to build mines into the foundations page 100 when the aerodromes were being constructed. The camp was stripped clean of all 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 25 to 30 feet across and 10 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 repair bomb damage on the main aerodromes, which were under daily attack, and parties were sent out 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 fields 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.
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 page 101 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 the next day, and by that evening most of the stuff 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, seventy men had loaded between 2300 and 2500 tons, ship's measurement, of heavy equipment, including tractors, trucks, stores and machinery.
The ship remained at the wharf again that night, and the men returned to their camp at the Dairy Farm. The 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 by bombs which exploded in the holds, and there were several more near misses. The working party was caught on board, and Flight Sergeant Gifford,1 the NCO in charge, was killed. He had worked splendidly during the last two days, and through his example and leadership all the equipment had been loaded. Seven men were seriously injured, with severe burns and shock, and one of them died 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 twenty-four-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.
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 transported 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 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. The men going aboard the City of Canterbury met with some opposition, as the ship was considered to be already overloaded; but the captain stated that he had embarked New Zealanders as the last troops to leave Greece and Crete, and decreed that they should be taken. The same captain and crew had also taken part in the evacuations of Narvik and Dunkirk. Both ships moved out into the stream to join up with 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, the last to leave Singapore, 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.
After lying at anchor in the stream all night the Darvel 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 turned and was brought back to her berth. Bad weather was brewing outside, and visibility had become too bad to risk going through the protective minefields page 103 beyond the entrance. That night she lay alongside the wharf and the men slept on her decks.
The next morning the men 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 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 and towering columns of smoke from burning oil tanks, the sky full of enemy aircraft 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 being seen 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 Bangka Strait, between Sumatra and Bangka 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 they 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 page 104 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 from 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.
The captain gave the order to abandon ship, but the state of the boats made this impossible. The fires were quickly brought under control, and then working parties, composed of New Zealanders, 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, under the direction of Sergeant Harris,1 cared for the wounded.
A naval officer, Lieutenant-Commander Griffiths, RN, took over the command of the ship and decided, rather than wait for another attack, 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 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 men from the 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.
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 in digging trenches and tank traps, but with the Japanese advance coming daily 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 aboard 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 Australia a week later.
The squadron remained aboard the Marella until she reached Melbourne. From there it went by train to Adelaide, where it was joined by other RNZAF men awaiting transport to New Zealand. Eventually the whole party, which comprised 233 men and three VADs, sailed in the MV Durban Castle on 18 March for New Zealand and reached Lyttelton on the morning of the 24th.