The guns would not fire

(RAAF 21/453 Squadrons: the secret report, part 1)

[A tip of the virtual hat to "BuffaloBil2", who forwarded this report, filed AIR 20/5578 at the Public Records Office near London. The author was Squadron Leader W.J. Harper, commander of 453 Squadron RAAF and later of the combined 21/453 Squadron. (Harper himself was an RAF officer and veteran of the Battle of Britain, but by his own account seems to have been hugely deficient in command ability.) I have made minor corrections to the manuscript, including taking out the fulls stops in RAAF and RAF, and I boldfaced some interesting stuff. -- Dan Ford]




1. For the purpose of clarity this report is divided into three periods, with a Pre-Japanese War Period, the Malayan/Singapore Campaign, and the Post Singapore Period. While there is little cheerful reading in this report it should be borne in mind that the period covered was one when we suffered a set-back, and much of the matter therefore, concerns our inadequacy of the time.


2. I arrived by air from the United Kingdom at RAAF Station Sembawang on the 4th October, 1941, and after an interview with the AOC [commander], Air Vice Marshal Pulford, I took command of No. 453 RAAF Squadron which was equipped with Buffalo aircraft. Also on the station were the RAAF Headquarters and No. 8 RAAF Squadron (Hudsons) and No. 21 RAAF Squadron (Buffalos). I was amazed to notice amongst many of the Australian personnel on the Station the prevalent dislike that some of them bore for the English--Englishmen were spoken of as "Pommies" with an air of contempt. I did not pay a great deal of attention to this, but it was this that grew into the strong dislike for RAF administration later in the war. It should be noted in turn that RAF personnel elsewhere ostracised the Australians.

3. This matter was aggravated by the obvious and to my mind unwarranted dislike that the Fighter Group controller, Group Captain Rice, had for the two Australian Fighter Squadrons, and this was later a distinct fillip to inducing a lack of confidence in both Nos. 21 and 453 Fighter Squadrons in the controlling of the air campaign. I believe the crux of this matter lay between my Station Commander, Group Captain McCauley RAAF, and Group Captain Rice RAF, and centred I believe on the question of whose Headquarters should have control of my two Squadrons. Whatever the cause, however, this imposed a strain on me as CO of 453 Squadron and later as Tactical Command[er] of the two Fighter Squadrons, and ... it resulted in Fighter Group Headquarters taking practically no interest in us and our equipment and organisation. It may explain the situation that arose from this, when I say that when we were later expected to operate in defence of Singapore, the Fighter Group were unable to control us at first, because a normal fighter dispersal ops. with telephones, an elementary requirement, had not been laid on. This method of conducting warfare is bound to affect units adversely and is most unfair on the Squadron Commanders, who have enough to do without having to convince regularly both pilots and men that the Higher Command are doing their best.

4. The aircrew personnel of No. 453 Squadron with the exception of the two Flight Commanders, Flight Lieutenant Grace and Flight Lieutenant Vanderfield, were pilots straight from PTS [pilot training school], and some of them told me when I questioned them, that they had no desire to be fighter pilots and had been given no choice in the matter. The officers consisted of two Flight Commanders who had very little experience in operations and very little in Service matters, and also three Pilot Officers who came from the same PTS, and were of the same seniority as the Sergeant Pilots--besides these there were the Adjutant, Flight Lieutenant Wells, and the Engineer Officer, Pilot Officer Pannial. The ground crews were entirely Australian with the exception of nine WT [wireless telegraphy or radio] operators who were ex-RAF.

5. No. 21 Squadron was a regular Australian squadron and was commanded by Squadron Leader Allshorn RAAF. Though I had no control of this squadron until after the war started with Japan, I was responsible for teaching them their fighter tactics and air drill, as none of their pilots had any operational experience.

6. The Pilots of both Squadrons were put through their OT [illegible] Squadron operational training in a remarkably short time. Everyone was extremely keen and the units well knit. On the occasion of the AOC's inspection, Air Vice Marshal Pulford said he was extremely pleased with the advance of the units, and Group Captain McCauley RAAF Station Commander expressed the progress made as an unprecedented personal achievement. I say this because I feel sure Captain McCauley realized the gulf of feeling lying between the Australians and the English that had to be bridged.

7. About six weeks after my arrival in Singapore I realized that war with Japan was highly probable, and I approached the AOC in order to change some of the pilots in my Squadron--I hoped to obtain in place [of them] some experienced officers who were more suited for fighters. I was instructed by him to fly to Australia where I was to try to get some more pilots, unfortunately I was unable to achieve any results and I was told that any available experienced pilots were required to form a Higher OTU in Australia in June of the following year.

8. At this stage the Japanese war commenced and I immediately returned to Singapore.


9. I returned to Singapore on about the 19th December to find that two thirds of the pilots of the Squadron had been sent to Northern Malaya to assist No. 21 Squadron which had not fared too well on its own. [21 Sq. was caught on the ground on 8 Dec, and when it retreated next day only six aircraft could be made airworthy. Four of these were shot down on 10 Dec.] I was instructed by Group Captain Rice (Fighter Group) to go up and pull the two units together, and I understood from him that the morale of the two squadrons was very poor. (Group Captain McCauley was away on a tour of the Middle East at that period.)

10. I flew up to Ipoh the next day with the remaining pilots and aircraft. I found on arrival that the morale of both Squadrons had dropped. Both units had suffered some losses and the Officer, Flight Lieutenant Vigors who had come from Kallang to command No. 453 in my absence had been shot down in flames on his first sortie.

11. Several matters required immediate attention, but the most serious was the considerable losses we were suffering [to] our irreplacable aircraft, that were being destroyed on the ground, and I decided that if we were to be able to operate at all at the end of another seven days we must stop this heavy drain on our numbers.

12. The landing ground position was disastrous for fighter operations. There was only one landing ground and that was at Ipoh, the surrounding country was jungle, rubber [plantation], or mountainous, and we had no facilities for airfield strip construction. Ipoh airfield consisted of a usable strip with another at right angles to it at the North end, but which was too small for any but the lightest types of aircraft. A narrow Macadam taxi track led off from the usable strip and off this track lay the dispersal pens. However, there were no pens [revetments] and also no other possible means of dispersing the aircraft on the strip itself owing to the Japanese ground straffing tactics, and our only alternative was to have to the aircraft either in the air or along the taxi track in their dispersal pens as we had no warning system.

13. The taxi track to the dispersal pens was exceedingly narrow and [illegible; I think he's saying they needed an erk to guide each wingtip]; furthermore the aircraft which had become bogged through running a wheel off the track it was necessary for all pilots to excercise extreme care; as many of the pens were a remarkably long way distant at the end of this winding track it was nearly impossible to get a flight or Squadron onto the strip for take-off in less than 20 minutes, by which time it would have been too late to intercept any enemy aircraft.

14. The airfield was located in the valley and if no air cover was in the air while the aircraft prepared for take-off, Japanese fighters or bombers, signalled by spies located in the nearby hills, would attack our aircraft when they were on the ground or taking off. Furthermore almost invariably when our aircraft were landing, Japanese aircraft attacked if no top cover was available, in any case they usually attacked the top cover when it attempted to land.

15. This problem was discussed with Wing Commander Forbes[?] the Officer Commanding NOR Group and I proposed that the only solution to operating from Ipoh lay in some form of warning system. This was agreed and I was instructed to prepare a fighter ops. system.

16. A crude observer system was available which theoretically gave us reasonable cover. However, there were practically no signal specialists available to us, and very little equipment, we had to rely on asking the assistance from the local AA [anti-aircraft artillery] Unit for our telephone equipment. The telephones which literally must have been some of the first that were ever made were totally unreliable. The observer system which I had to use had been organized by fighter ops Kallang, and under it we were unable to get reports on approaching enemy aircraft direct from the observer posts, but got them through the Railway Station Master at Kuala Lumpur. Owing to the delays attendant on this system we usually got our warnings that the Japanese were 40 miles away just as the raid was on. I had with me in the ops. room the Colonel Commanding the local AA Unit and we occasionally got helpful information from him on approaching enemy raiders. Considerable delays were experienced however, through the telephone lines which ran through the jungle being cut either by 5th columnists [Japanese collaborators] of whom there were plenty, or by bombing.

17. As soon as the operations system was completed I tried to instruct the four Flight Commanders so that they could take a turn at controlling in order to relieve me, but they had no knowledge of controlling units and they needed supervision if we were to intercept any raiders. Unfortunately the day after the completion of the ops. system, the Army lost ground and we [lost] our observer posts.

18. During the two days that were necessary to construct the fighter control system, including the provision of a suitable ground station, as there was none up to that time, I arranged for a constant cover of four aircraft from each of the two Squadrons throughout daylight. This was expensive as we anticipated, on engine hours, but as we were not attacked once during that period it gave us two days valuable respite in which to reorganise and repair the aircraft.

19. The need for reorganisation was considerable. The Aircraft of the two Squadrons were being serviced by the ground crews of only No. 21 Squadron [since only the aircraft of 453 Sq. had moved up to Ipoh]. This Unit's ground crew strength was totally inadequate for one Squadron, let alone two, and the vast majority of guns in the aircraft would not fire, because of the rust which the troops had not had time to clean off. I had signalled to Singapore for Armourers from my own Squadron as soon as I had reached Ipoh, and these men had arrived before we retreated from the airfield, and had improved the guns considerably before we left. Inspections were also not being done and the aircraft were rapidly becoming unreliable. The ex civil Airline engines on the Buffalos were quite unsuited to the treatment they were getting in combat and on the ground, and many developed serious loss of [illegible, but probably intending "loss of oil" or "loss of power"].

Click here for part 2