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Unfit for sustained operations

(RAAF 21/453 Squadrons: the secret report, part 2)

continued from part 1

20. The reorganisation of the Station was also a serious and pressing problem. There was no appointed Station Commander. Food was an urgent need--the men were going without food and so were the pilots. There was no suitable accommodation and as the men and pilots were sleeping without mosquito needs under any available covering I feared malaria.

21. I therefore requisitioned accommodation in a Hotel at Ipoh and sent out the cooks with money to buy food, and I also tried to introduce certainty and reliability into the organisation so that morale should be improved.

22. Transport was lacking at first and caused grave difficulties. Spare parts for aircraft were usually obtained by the cannibal system, oxygen was not available. Neither 21 Squadron nor 453 Squadron were equipped with either men or equipment for the role they were given, and while expected to be self supporting they had neither trained cooks. MT [motor transport], nor sufficient specialist staff or equipment to do their duty as they would have liked to do it. Furthermore nearly all native labour on which we had to rely, had disappeared when the war became "dangerous." I believe from hearsay that these circumstances were foreseen by the RAAF Headquarters at Sembawang sometime before the war started, and a proposal put up by them to substitute RORs [?] for native labour was turned down.

23. My conclusions from the foregoing matters at Ipoh were that there was a lack of imagination in the prewar preparations made for Air Warfare in this area, and this resulted in a lack of air support for the Land Forces and in both No. 21 Squadron and 453 Squadron being forced into a state where they were unfit for sustained operations against the enemy.

24. While I was at Ipoh there was only one minor air combat and no land support operations were requested by Group Headquarters. ON the 20th December evening, the day on which our observer system fell to the Japanese advance troops, we received instructions to retreat to Kuala Lumpur at first light the following morning. Transport was "borrowed" but considerable difficulty was experienced through the night in preparing for the move, as we even lacked torches and the airfield was completed blacked out through lack of any form of lighting. Fortunately a crash and Repair Unit (also retreating I believe) reached us that evening and they were able to assist considerably with breaking up crashed aircraft and removing all value and transportable parts including engines.

25. On the 21st morning I flew with the pilots of 453 Squadron to Kuala Lumpur; it has been arranged for 21 Squadron pilots and ground crew to return to Sembawang to reorganise and for me to have my own ground crews from Singapore.

26. Kuala Lumpur airfield was a single strip which was being partly reconstructed. There were no dispersals and we had the aircraft spread out around the strip and covered with branches from trees. The ground crews with tankers [petrol bowsers or gasoline trucks] did not arrive until later that day, and no operations were carried out. An Operations room and warning system were again in the course of being formed but were not ready in time to control us successfully by the time we left for Singapore on the morning of the 24th. It did not seem at first that there was every chance of our being able to get down to some regular operations from Kuala Lumpur. The Japanese ground troops were about 100 miles away and I anticipated that we had 10 clear days at least in which to operate. No. 453 Squadron was similar to No. 21 Squadron, in that it was also not equipped satisfactorily for a Squadron expected to be self supporting in this theatre, there no cooks, no MT other than petrol tankers, and no MO or Intelligence Officer. Our first task was to get the aircraft fully servicable and to utilize our troops so that the Squadron was on a working basis with facilities for food and accommodation. The Group ops organisation had been placed in the hands of an experienced officer, Wing Commander Daley, and we were fortunately comparatively free of duties in connection with its functioning.

27. Only two operations took place during the three days we were at Kuala Lumpur. On the first occasion our aircraft were attacked as they were taking off, and in the second they were attacked from above just as they had formed up after take-off. In these two combats we lost three pilots killed, four wounded, and six aircraft written off from our remaining strength of 14 aircraft and pilots ... having lost five pilots killed and wounded and several aircraft at Butterworth and Ipoh before my arrival. No true record was available of the numbers of enemy aircraft shot down by the Squadron but we later heard indirectly from the Army that the wreckages of 25 Japanese aircraft were found around Kuala Lumpur.

28. On December 23rd, instructions were passed to us to return to Sembawang on the following morning. This was done.

29. On my return to Singapore a reorganisation of both 21 Squadron and 453 Squadron took place. Squadron Leader Allshorn, CO of 21 Squadron, was replaced by Flight Lieutenant Williams RAAF, who became Squadron Leader Commanding that Unit. On my recommendation Flight Lieutenant Kinninmont RAAF, ex 21 Squadron, took over 453 from me. This enabled me to leave all the administration and to lead both Squadrons of whom I was given tactical control. Owing to Flight Lieutenant Kinninmount's inexperience, Flight Lieutenant Wells the Adjutant of 453 Squadron was instructed to look after the administration of the men of that Unit.

30. The Buffalo aircraft with which both Squadrons were equipped were slow and less manoeuvrable than the Japanese aircraft with whom they came in contact, and who outnumbered them considerably. Before the Japanese war had started we were given no useful intelligence information on the enemy aircraft, the only information made available to use were some silhouettes of early Japanese biplanes, which resulted in both Units going into battle with a very wrong impression of the opponent they were going to meet. This was a very serious matter as it completely upset all the tactics that had been planned, thereby giving the enemy Air Force the initiative. Our pilots could not dog fight nor use dive and zoom tactics, and expect to get the better of the enemy fighters, who also had an appreciable advantage in the climb owing to their better power to weight ratio. A further serious setback was that above 14,000 feet the pilots had to pump his petrol to his engine continually by a hand pump if he wished to use more than about half throttle setting; this state of affairs made air combat a very uneven match.

31. I had decided at Kuala Lumpur to reduce the disadvantages of the Buffalo as much as possible, and on my return to Singapore I arranged for all aircraft to be stripped of as much surplus weight as possible. By reducing the petrol load and ammunition and replacing two of the four .5 guns with .303, we reduced the load by almost 900 lbs, thereby improving the performance in combat appreciably. However, not all aircraft were modified as there was a considerable amount of normal work to be done and we had no assistance beyond our ground crews.

32. Several good sorties were carried out on bomber escort and ground straffing duties.

33. During January 1941, the aerodrome was bombed a few times by formations of Japanese bombers who dropped many medium size bombs. This bombing was reasonably accurate and though our aircraft were in their pens or dispersed around our portion of the aircraft we lost many of them. This was infuriating as we felt we ought to be in the air before these raids came. A radar warning system was being operated by fighters ops at Kallang but we were not called on [line evidently missing] have handed them to the Japanese on a plate. The role of the two Squadrons was changed several times from that of Army Support to pure fighter interception, however we were somehow never on our fighter role when the Japanese were bombing the Island which was done fairly regularly. The main task of the squadron on most days seemed to be to send two aircraft out each morning as a recce. [reconnaissance] for the Army. I was several times approached by the pilots who spoke in a manner showing they had little confidence in the RAF's ability to run its affairs, and they were opening in favor of moving nearer to Australia so they could come under Australian control and put up a better fight. While there may have been considerable wisdom in what the Australians said, my orders were to get on with the job. At Kuala Lumpur for example I had a considerable disagreement with Flight Commanders who considered we ought to return and operate from Singapore under a reasonable working fighter control system, rather than lose our aircraft in penny packets for little apparent result at Kuala Lumpur. My orders, however, were to stay there and in supporting my superiors I made myself extremely unpopular with my Squadron. This was a very unenviable position for me to be in, and as these circumstances repeated themselves before the campaign was over I do believe the troops felt I was in league against them.

34. It may show the extent to which the dislike of the Royal Air Force was prevalent when I saw that it was necessary for the Station Commander, Group Captain McCauley, to assemble his officers before him and instruct them to cease drawing comparisons between the two Services [between the RAF and the RAAF, presumably].

35. After the war with Japan had commenced, work had been started to make dispersals for aircraft and the ground organisations in the rubber [plantation] away from the airfield. This made it difficult to keep an eye on the troops during raids, and Pilot Officer Pennial the Engineering Officer of 453 Squadron reported that he was finding difficulty in locating men to work on the aircraft. I found that some men were going off to their billets and into the woods and were not being stopped. I therefore let Flight Lieutenant Kinninmount lead the flying and [I] commenced to organise the men again in No. 453. Parades with roll-calls were organised throughout the day and I instructed Flight Lieutenant Wells to arrange a system whereby certain reliable NCOs were given approximately 15 men and they were responsible that their men kept at work. This did not prove entirely satisfactory as some of the NCOs were as lackadaisical as some of the men. Great difficulty had been experienced throughout in trying to develop a sense of responsibility and importance of position in the Officers and NCOs. There were no Warrant Officers and only two Flight Sergeants in the whole Squadron, one of whom Flight Sergeant [evidently a phrase missing]. Discipline was extremely weak, and the remaining Sergeants and Corporals had risen from amongst the men with rather mushroom-like speed, and too many of them were not satisfactory from the disciplinary aspect.

36. I had occasion to speak severely to Flight Lieutenant Wells who would not support me in making the men get to reasonably near shelter trenches in an air raid. He contended that they should be allowed to go to trenches some distance away, if they liked. This gave a bad lead to the NCOs and owing to the shortage of other officers I had to go around the dispersal points myself to ensure my orders were being obeyed. It was not practicable to obtain an exchange for Flight Lieutenant Wells at this stage, owing to the difficulty of obtaining an Adjutant who could take over immediately.

37. Towards the end of January, the two Australian GR [reconnaissance?] Squadrons who were now located at Sembawang, plus No. 21 Squadron, retreated from Singapore to Sumatra. The Station was placed under RAF control with Group Captain Whistondale as Station Commander. This officer was eccentric and often spent time discussing his hobby of stamp collecting with the airmen, when the Station organisation was in urgent need of assistance [The sentence was lined out]. At the same time as this change, all the remaining Buffalo aircraft in Singapore from the other Squadrons were given to me along with an assortment of pilots. A Fighter ops dispersal organisation had been set up, and we were now fully under the control of Kallang fighter ops. The aircraft we had been sent, however, had already been well used by other units and they required considerable checking and servicing in every case except one before we could operate them. Furthermore with the departure of all the RAF personnel except for one or two officers of the Headquarters Staff, and those of course of No. 453 Squadron, no RAF troops had been brought in, and out of a Squadron of 150 men we were forced to provide 50 for manning the Station. Some of the men worked extremely well and creditably although we were so short handed, but others were not so good, and we often had difficulty in finding them. I had, in fact, on one occasion to ask the AOC to assist me by talking to the troops.

38. As the aircraft were made reasonably servicable, they were tested, and it was found that a large proportion of the Cyclone engines were suffering from a serious lack of power. Spare engines were no available and the number of aircraft therefore available for operational work never exceed six, though there were several more flyable. The enemy had a constant fighter patrol five miles North of the aerodrome, and the controllers at Fighter Group refused to send pilots up [to intercept]. This was a form of stalemate, no policy was given for some while to the Squadron, and they stayed at readiness with no hope of flying. In fact, before one raid they were told by Fighter Control to clear off the aerodrome, as there was a raid coming. I was at this stage unable to tell the Flights what was required of them except to carry on and make the aircraft servicable. These matters were not well received, and the Flight Commanders had, understandably, no enthusiasm in the running of their Flights.

39. On the 4th of February occurred the occasion when half a dozen men of No. 453 Squadron were found some distance from the aerodrome without permission, by Air Vice Marshal Maltby, and it was also the occasion when Australian officers had spoke disrespectfully to the Provost Marshal in front of the troops. At approximately ten o'clock on that day I had gone to the Mess to bath[e] and change, when the enemy commenced to shell the aerodrome and buildings from across the Johore Straits. As the shelling continued, and shells were bursting about thirty yards away, I circumnavigated the Mess and made my way to the Guard Room. I learned here from the Engineer Officer that instructions had come through to fly all aircraft off the aerodrome to Tengah a few miles away, in order to avoid the shelling. A driver was sent round in a van to pick up the pilots from their dispersal; meanwhile, along with the few pilots present, I flew an unserviceable Hurricane belonging to 232 Squadron to Tengah, as it would have been left on the airfield owing to a shortage of Hurricane pilots. Altogether ten aircraft were flown off the aerodrome by my pilots under shell fire. Two aircraft were hit in taxying, and one pilot was hit and blown out of his aircraft by a salvo of three shells. Shortly after the first pilots landed at Tengah , that aerodrome, which was an equal distance from the enemy artillery at Sembawang, also came under fire, and the pilots had then to be asked to start their aircraft and fly them out to Kallang. It was difficult to keep the pilots and crews confident in the command when pilots are asked to fly out of one aerodrome being shelled into another an equal distance from the source of shelling.

40. I was detained for the remainder of the day by Group Captain Rice of the Fighter Group, who had order a Court of Inquiry to be held because our Squadron pilots were late at readiness that morning. [Handwritten note: He canceled that decree later that evening.] I was therefore away the whole day and had no opportunity to control the Squadron and ground troops which were, in my absence, under the control of Flight Lieutenant Wells the Adjutant. I had no idea that any of the men had gone down the roads towards Singapore town, and the first intimation I had that Australian officers had spoken disrespectfully to the Provost Marshal in front of the men was from Air Vice Marshal Maltby himself in Java.

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