RAAF No 453 Squadron

Motto: Ready to strike

Formed at Bankstown on 29 July 1941, it was destined for service in Singapore, where it arrived on 15 August. It was equipped with Brewster Buffalo fighters which had been considered in inadequate for operations in Europe, but were considered to be suitable in the Far East. The squadron became operational less than three weeks before the Japanese attack on Malaya and was immediately pitted against superior forces, both in terms of numbers and equipment.

Having moved further north to protect the fleet, it was forced to retire to Kuala Lumper after only six days and by 22 December the squadron was down to three aircraft. On the 25th it moved back to Singapore and joined forces with No 21 Squadron RAAF before moving to Batavia in February. However, the end was in sight and the squadron returned to Adelaide, where it disbanded on 15 March 1942.

The squadron reformed at Drem on 18 June 1942 as a result of No's 452 and 457 Squadrons being withdrawn for operations in Australia. Beginning operations in July, these mainly consisted of convoy patrols and lasted until August when the squadron moved to Hornchurch, but still in a defensive role acting as escort cover. In March 1943 it re-equipped with Spitfires IXs, having operated Mk Vs until then and it now began to to build up a number of victories. In June 1943 it moved to Ibsley and now added anti-shipping strikes to it duties, but in October it moved to Scotland for defensive duties .

Returning south in January 1944, the squadron joined No 125 Airfield (later No 125 Wing) of the 2nd Tactical Air Force and was now involved in fighter-bomber operations in preparation for Operation Overlord. Having provided cover for the invasion, it began operating from advanced bases in France from 15 June and moved onto the continent fully on the 25th. However, its time in France was cut short when it was posted back to Coltishall in late September from where it carried out anti-'Diver' patrols and Jim Crows. As the fighting moved closer to Germany the squadron found it harder to reach the front line and became more involved with withdrawal escort duties, finally disbanding on 31 May 1945 at Hawkinge.

Squadron Codes used: TD May1941 - Mar 1942; FU Jun 1942 - Jan 1946

RAF 453 Squadron 18 Buffaloes and 1 Tiger Moth at Kallang, Singapore

18 Buffaloes and 1 Tiger Moth at Kallang, Singapore. 16 Buffs were sent north to Ipoh on 13 Dec, and the squadron earned the first solid air-to-air claim for a Buffalo that day, though the station commander and another pilot were killed when they crashed out of fuel. The newly appointed station commander, Wing Cdr L J Neale RAF, crashed 13 Dec and was injured. Got new a/c and withdrew to Kuala Lumpur, southern Malay, 19 Dec. First major air-to-air combat with the 64th Sentai on 22 Dec, 12 Buffs vs 18 Nakajima Ki-43 Hayabusas. With 3 a/c remaining, withdrew to Singapore island and got more aircraft, with the merged 21/453 Sq having 16 Buffaloes on 25 Dec. The Japanese by this time were flying from British airfields in Northern Malaya. With 4 Buffs remaining on 24 Jan, this was the only Buffalo squadron still functioning at the end of that month. At least 7 Buffs were flown out to Dutch Indies first week of February, and another (evidently the last) on 11 Feb.

Malaya and Singapore

The squadron was deployed to Singapore in August 1941, as fears of war with Japan increased. The squadron, along with No. 21 Squadron RAAF No. 243 Squadron RAF and No. 488 Squadron RNZAF flew Brewster Buffalo fighters, but the Buffalos supplied to these squadrons proved to be poor in quality. Following the Japanese invasion of Peninsular Malaysia on 8 December 1941, 453 Squadron was deployed to airfields at Ipoh and Kuala Lumpur. The squadron strove to support the ground troops by providing air cover and attacking Japanese troops and transport, but suffered high losses in doing so. The squadron withdrew to Singapore on 24 December with only three working aircraft. In Singapore, 453 Squadron merged with 21 Squadron.

The squadron fought on until 5 February with just six operational Buffaloes. In spite of many mechanical problems the Buffalo squadrons claimed a 2:1 kill ratio against the Japanese.

The squadron was to provide air cover for Admiral Phillip's Force Z (see Sinking of Prince of Wales and Repulse), but a radio message giving the location of the Fleet was only sent out by the Repulse an hour after the first Japanese attack. Flt Lt Vigors from 243 Squadron was acting CO of 453 Squadron while Sqn Ldr W. J. Harper was in Australia. He wrote about the loss of the two ships:.

'I reckon this must have been the last battle in which the Navy reckoned they could get along without the RAF. A pretty damned costly way of learning. I had worked out a plan with the liaison officer on the Prince of Wales, by which I could keep six aircraft over him all daylight hours within 60 miles of the east coast to a point north of Kota Bharu. This plan was turned down by Admiral Phillips. Had I been allowed to put it into effect, I am sure the ships would not have been sunk. Six fighters could have made one hell of a mess of even 50 or 60 slow and unescorted torpedo-bombers. As we could do nothing else, we kept virtually the whole squadron at readiness at Sembawang while the Fleet was out. I was actually sitting in my cockpit when the signal eventually reached us that the Fleet was being attacked. Phillips had known that he was being shadowed the night before, and also at dawn that day. He did not call for air support. He was attacked and still did not call for help. Eventually it was the captain of Repulse who called for air support just before his ship sunk'.

When 453 Squadron arrived in Java it could not again be made operational. It was ordered back to Australia, and was disbanded at Adelaide on 15 March 1942.

Europe

The squadron was reformed from Australian personnel in the UK at RAF Drem, near Edinburgh, in Scotland on 18 June 1942. The squadron was equipped with Supermarine Spitfire aircraft, and joined the RAF Fighter Command. The squadron provided defensive air patrols over Britain and surrounding waters, escorted bombers over enemy-controlled Europe, and conducted offensive strikes in its own right attacking targets on both land and sea. After the invasion of Western Europe the squadron began operations over enemy territory. From November 1944 to March 1945, 453 Squadron was heavily engaged in striking at assembly and launch sites used by the Germans in their V2 rocket attacks against Britain. On 2 May 1945, the squadron escorted the aircraft that returned Queen Wilhelmina to The Netherlands after three years in exile. This was 453 Squadron's last mission of the war. After the war it was planned that the squadron would form a long-term Australian presence among the occupation forces but sufficient volunteers could not be found to make this a viable proposition. Thus, on 21 January 1946 the squadron disbanded.

During the war the squadron suffered 29 (28 Australian) fatalities.

Sqn Ldr Harper W H Harper RAF
Flt Lt Tim Vigors RAF DFC (shot down 13 Dec; injured)
Flg Lt R D Vanderfield RAAF, flight leader (claimed 2 Ki-48s on 13 Dec; claimed a bomber 15 Jan; claimed a Ki-51 19 Jan)
Flt Lt B A Grace, RAAF flight leader
Flg Off F Leigh Bowes RAAF (claimed a bomber 15 Jan)
Plt Off G L Angus RAAF (crashed 13 Dec)
Plt Off D R L Brown RNZAF, on attachment from 243 Sq (crashed 13 Dec; killed)
Plt Off R W Drury RAAF (crashed 22 Dec; killed)
Plt Off T W Livesey RAAF (crashed 13 Dec; injured; crashed 22 Dec)
Sgt J Austrain KC
Sgt Harry Griffiths RAAF (crashed on patrol 3 Jan; injured)
Sgt M N Read RAAF (claimed a Ki-51 on 13 Dec; shot down 22 Dec; killed)
Sgt S G Scrimgeour RAAF (shot down 22 Dec)
Sgt V A Collyer RAAF (claimed a Ki-51 on 13 Dec)
Sgt W R Halliday RAAF
Sgt A W B Clare RAAF (claimed a Ki-43 17 Jan)
Sgt Keith Gorringe RAAF (claimed a Ki-51 19 Jan; crashed 29 Jan)
Sgt R R Oelrich RAAF (shot down 13 Dec; killed)
Sgt E A Peterson RAAF (shot down 22 Dec; killed)
Sgt G R Board RAAF (crashed 18 Dec; shot down 22 Dec)
Sgt J Summerton RAAF
Sgt K R Leys RAAF (shot down 21 Dec)
Sgt M B O'Mara RAAF
Sgt Geoff Seagoe RAAF (shot down 1 Feb)

RAAF No. 453 Squadron Pilots (1941-1945)

Name Rank Number Status Date Detail
Aldred, H. D. Flight Sergeant 409367      
Allshorn, William F. Wing Commander        
Andrews, Donald G. Squadron Leader 404795      
Barclay, Kevin Milne Squadron Leader 407662      
Bennett, W. R. Flight Lieutenant 414189      
Boulton, J. A. Flight Sergeant 420544      
Bundara, C. Flight Sergeant 419636      
Carmichael, J. D. Warrant Officer 414991      
Cock, John Reynolds Flying Officer 40674 Passed away 29th August 1988 N/A
Cooper, D. A. Flying Officer 421171      
Cowpe, F. Warrant Officer 412490      
Daff, K. F. Warrant Officer 409090      
Darcy, D.          
Davidson, Douglas M. Squadron Leader 402321      
Douglas, William A. Pilot Officer 90896      
Dutneall, R. A. Flight Sergeant 418083      
Esau, Ernest A. R. Squadron Leader 405473      
Fuller, B. Warrant Officer 412427      
Giles, K. M. Flight Lieutenant 263012      
Grace          
Harper, William John Flying Officer 40110      
Hilton, Toderick E. Flight Lieutenant 400249      
Inglis, Brian Scott Flying Officer 418230      
Kemp, M. A. Flight Lieutenant 416218      
Kinninmont          
Kinross, K. C. Warrant Officer 409147      
Lancaster, Vern A. Flying Officer 409149      
Lawrence, K. L. Flying Officer 286340      
Lyall, R. Warrant Officer 409160      
McCauley          
McDade, Pat V. Flight Lieutenant 403000      
McKenzie          
Morello, Francis Victor Wing Commander 39256      
MacKinnon, H. R. Sergeant 14319      
Olver, J. F. Flying Officer        
Pennial          
Ratten, John Richard Wing Commander 405111 Killed 27th February 1945 unknown
Rice, Clarence Athol Flying Officer 411643      
Robertson, W. Squadron Leader 400486      
Scott, J. W. Warrant Officer 405939      
Sharp, Henry Squadron Leader 1892      
Slater, James Hogarth Wing Commander 33174 Killed 14th March 1943 unknown
Smith, Donald H. Squadron Leader 4134296      
Stewart, A. Squadron Leader        
Vanderfield          
Vern, A.          
Vigors, Timothy A. Wing Commander 5817778 Passed away 14th November 2003 N/A
Walker, V. G. Flight Lieutenant 256955      
Wells, William Keith Wing Commander 261032      
West, Michael Flying Officer 406586      

The guns would not fire
SECRET REPORT ON NO. 21 AND NO. 453 RAAF SQUADRONS

INTRODUCTION

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.

THE PRE JAPANESE WAR PERIOD
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.

THE MALAYAN/SINGAPORE CAMPAIGN
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'].

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.

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 some 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

Web Reference:

http://www.warbirdforum.com/secret1.htm
http://www.warbirdforum.com/secret2.htm
http://www.warbirdforum.com/secret3.htm

 

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This webpage was updated 25th January 2019