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I could not understand Harper's attitude

(RAAF 21/453 Squadrons: the secret report, part 3)

continued from part 2

41. I found out in Java that two of the men who were concerned in the departure from the airfield to Singapore, were individuals who were mentally unbalanced and had been under observation by the Station Medical Officer for some time, and they most probably influenced the other four who were with them. With regard to the occasion concerning the Provost Marshal, I question my [illegible line]

42. Early in February [1942] we were instructed that the squadron ground crews were to stay at Singapore and fight with Ground Arms--all aircraft which could fly were to go to Palembang in Sumatra. I instructed Flight Lieutenant Kinnimont to take the aircraft and their pilots to Sumatra and I remained with my ground troops. There was some feeling among the men at this order [because they considered?] this was a case of misemployment of trained personnel, and again in supporting my superiors I made myself unpopular. I quote an extract from a Court of Inquiry which was held in Australia on the subject of No. 453 Squadron in 1942, which will, perhaps, explain the situation:

Evidence by Flight Lieutenant Kinninmont RAAF in answer to questions by the court:

"I could not understand Squadron Leader Harper's attitude at all. He had a queer attitude towards the whole thing, and did not seem worried whether the Squadron left Singapore or not. I could not understand Squadron Leader Harper's attitude at all in the end, but he had the Squadron in sections ready to defend the aerodrome and more or less fight with the Army.... I think his attitude was more or less the attitude of the British Command there to fight to the end and die for Singapore, or just stay there and be killed. However, he looked after the troops very well, he was always trying to organise things and get decent food, and also arrange sleeping quarters, and with the pilots he was always trying to get them a day off and that sort of thing. He always briefed us properly before the job right to the end, he treated the Squadron very well including men and pilots. Towards the end when it was hopeless and only a matter of a day or two, he did not seem concerned whether the Squadron got away on a ship, and she chaps were prepared to stay although they could not have done any good had they stayed, because they had few arms, about four or five Tommy guns and few rifles, and that was what annoyed the chaps as they could see no good reason why they were staying there to be killed or taken prisoner."

The last part of Flight Lieutenant Kinnimont's statement is partly incorrect. We had more arms than Flight Lieutenant Kinnimont has said, and the men were rather resigned to staying on the Island than prepared. However, when the troops were reconciled to it, considerable effort was put into preparing the ground defences; machine guns were taken from crashed aircraft and mounted on tripods made out of parts of crashed Blenheim air frames, and the men were armed and prepared in squads. Arrangements were also made of the men to be led by trained Army Officers in the event of any hand to hand fighting.

43. On the afternoon of the 5th February, contrary to expectation, we were given orders to embark at Singapore and to go to Java. I believe this information was available before but had not been given until the last possible minute as a corrective measure for the troops. Actually it resulted in us not being able to leave our sections as tidily as we hoped and I apologised to Group Captain Whistondale for this.

POST SINGAPORE PERIOD

44. We reached Java aboard the Cruiser Danae on the 9th February, and the Squadron was billeted at Buitenzorg Transit Camp. I reported to the RAF Headquarters in Batavia and was given a billet with a Squadron Leader McKenzie in a local private house. I was anxious however to get the Squadron on its feet and operational. All the Buffalos we had sent to Palembang had been destroyed with the exception of two, which were now located at an airfield near Batavia.

45. I approached the Dutch Divisional Staff Headquarters and persuaded them to leave me have some transport so that I could get to Buitenzorg and Bandoeng.

46. Considering the circumstances the Squadron was reasonably housed at Buitenzorg and they were given a good rest. I meanwhile proceeded to Bandoeng ABDAIR [probably meaning the Air section of the American-British-Dutch-Australian command] to try and find out what was happenings and to see if I could get some aircraft. I paid three visits to ABDAIR and spoke to Air Commodore Williams and Group Captain Roberts, but I could get no definite orders for my Squadron nor any promise of aircraft.

47. On about the 17th February, Air Vice Marshal Maltby instructed me to return to the Unit as he now had matters in hand and had taken over control.

48. Previous to Air Vice Marshal Maltby's instruction to me, I had been approached by the Adjutant, Flight Lieutenant Wells who said the men were very keen to rejoin the RAAF. He said he wanted to visit some RAAF people whom he knew at ABDAIR to enquire if this was possible. I said I had no objection as long as I knew what transpired and all arrangements must be made through me. On his return from ABDAIR I gathered that he had been negotiating to get the Squadron back to Australia, though I had no proof of this. Shortly after Air Vice Marshal Maltby's instructions to me I was again approached by Flight Lieutenant Wells to go to ABDAIR, but I refused him permission this time. He then said that he was expected to go by the RAAF authorities there, but I told him that he must telephone them and explain the situation. He telephoned Wing Commander [blank] of the RAAF who instructed him to go and see Group Captain McCauley, who had arrived from Sumatra. I refused to agree to this however, and spoke to Wing Commander [blank] telling him clearly that the Unit was now under Air Vice Marshal Maltby's control and I refused to take instructions which did not emanate from him. His reply was, "We can soon stop this nonsense". I warned Flight Lieutenant Wells not to leave camp; however, acting on the Wing Commander's orders he reported to Group Captain McCauley. I immediately telephoned Air Vice Marshal Maltby who said he would visit us the next day, but that afternoon I received instructions from the RAF, through the Camp Commandant, to embark my Squadron at Batavia and to go with it. This was done and we reached Colombo on the 27th February.

49. At my own requst I was kept at Colombo to organise the fighter defences for the Island as an attack by the Japanese was expected.

50. Among the personnel of the Squadron, Pilot Officer Pennial, RAF Engineer Officer, and the Armourer Sergeant Haines RAAF, did outstandingly good work in exceptionally trying and often hazardous conditions, and are very worthy of reward.

[signed] W.J. Harper, S/L

Air Ministry
Branch [illegible]
14 Jan. 1946