Chapter 2: The Fall of Singapore
The first of the armed forces to go into action on that morning of 7th December. 1941 was the Allied Air Force, whose pilots soon found themselves in close combat with skilful and resolute men of long experience in the Chinese war, flying far superior aircraft. At that time the Japanese Air Forces were allowed a wide measure of freedom in their choice of methods, but were regarded as less than the equal of the Japanese Army and Navy, to which they served as an auxiliary. For this purpose there were two air forces. The Army Air Force was designed to strike fast and hard in close support of the armies in the field. The duty of the Naval Air Force was to attack shipping, to bomb suitable targets on shore, and to cover naval units. In other words, the Japanese air arms were almost entirely tactical and their duty was to secure for the two other arms the highest measure of freedom in action. They were not regarded as wholly independent, and were not therefore used strategically as a general rule, though on occasion they could be and were. In this conception lay a hidden defect. The Army Air Force and the Navy Air Force being kept apart, performed each a different service and were not interchangeable; there was little cooperation between them.
Units of the 3rd and 5th of the five Air Divisions which made up the Army Air Force were used in the attacks on Kota Bharu, Alor Star and the other airfields in northern Malaya. Of the three remaining Divisions, the 1st never left Japan and the 2nd and 4th did so only towards the summer of 1944. Each Air Division was divided into two Air Brigades and two Air Sectors. A Brigade was composed of Flying Regiments of three squadrons made up of sixteen aircraft each. The Sectors were manned by an average of ten Airfield Battalions responsible for construction and maintenance. This was the basis of their organization, the flexibility of which made it possible to meet emergencies. It approximated that of the Luftwaffe.
There was a firm bond between the Navy and the Naval Air Force, whose task it was to control both the skies and the seas. The
Japanese were fully persuaded that, to quote from one of their appreciations, ‘The main role in control of the sea has passed from the surface forces to the air forces. Air battles which were formerly considered to be the preliminary skirmishes before the decisive battle of the fleets have themselves become decisive battles ... Because control of the air precedes control of the sea, it is no longer possible to win and maintain control of the sea only by destroying enemy surface forces in a decisive battle ... Air power will from now on by the mainstay of the navy ... It is necessary to discard the relics of the outmoded tactical idea founded on previous theories which stakes everything on a decisive fleet engagement’.
The Japanese Naval Air Force consisted of about ninety Air Groups, with complementary forces beneath them on the ground or on the sea. The groups were not all of equal size and the largest comprised some eighty-four aircraft, manned and maintained by about 2,000 officers and men. Between forty and fifty Groups were organised into Air Flotillas and Fleets, and of these it was the 22nd and 23rd Air Flotillas, part of the 11th Air Fleet, which operated with those units of the Japanese Navy ordered to take part in the invasion of French Indo-China, Malaya and the Dutch East Indies.
The armament used by both air services was more or less identical. Bombs ranged in weight from 15 to 1,000 kilograms. Neither Service used bombers for minelaying, and generally, in bombing attacks, bombs were released simultaneously on a signal from the leading aircraft. In raids on airfields or carriers, aircraft on the ground or on the deck were considered to be the most important targets. When attacked by Allied fighters, bombers would tighten their formation and usually increased speed, but did not lose height. Their pilots had obviously studied the war in Europe very carefully and could cope adequately with all the more usual forms of attack. After a month or two, however, pilots of the Royal Air Force discovered that by varying their tactics and making use of unexpected manoeuvres the Japanese bombers were thrown into confusion, of which the first sign was a loud outbreak of conversation on the radio telephone, followed by a breaking up of the formation into individual units which could be dealt with piecemeal.
When bomber formations were given escort, the fighters normally flew in three groups, two at 3,000 feet below, one to port, the other to starboard of the bomber formation and the third at 3,000 feet above it, and slightly to the rear. Three to one was considered to be the ideal ration of fighters to bombers.
At the outbreak of war the standard formation for bombers was made up of thirty-six aircraft. This number soon fell to twenty-seven, then to eighteen and finally to three. The ‘box’ formation was thought to be the best protection against fighter attacks and evasive action to counteract anti-aircraft fire was rarely take. As the war progressed, suicide pilots, all volunteers, were recruited. In the Army Air Force they were known as Tokkatai and in the Navy as Kamikaze and were sworn to fly their aircraft into the chosen target, there to perish with it. Had it proved necessary for the forces of Mountbatten to carry out the invasion of Japan, plans had been made by the Japanese to use about 1,000 suicide pilots in the Tokyo area and about 3,000 in Kyushu. Such were the formidable enemies which the Royal Air Force with the Royal Australian Air Force and their brothers in arms, the American Army and Navy Air Forces and the Dutch Air Forces, were called upon to fight.
The campaign opened with an attempt on the part of the Hudsons of No. 1 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force, to interfere with the landings of the Japanese Army at Kota Bharu. The weather on the 7th had cleared about midnight over this station, but the surface of the airfield was boggy as the result of recent heavy rain. All was quiet until about one o’clock, when a Japanese cruiser began to shell the coast. At the same time eight to ten transports were observed to be anchored off shire and landing craft to be moving from them towards the beaches. These ships were part of the main convoy, of which the remainder had made for Singora. For the political reasons mentioned in the last Chapter, they had been allowed to approach unmolested, and the Station Commander, mindful of his instructions not to assault the enemy at sea without express orders, had to wait some forty minutes until new orders arrived before attacking the transports. Altogether that night seventeen sorties were made by the Hudsons, which were able to destroy one transport and to damage severely two others. Landing barges were also attacked and the estimated casualties among the Japanese were 3,000. In this affair, two Hudsons were lost. At dawn, Vildebeests of No. 36 Squadron, Royal Air Force, flying from Gong Kedah in heavy rain, unsuccessfully attacks the cruiser with torpedoes. By then the situation at Kota Bharu appeared to be in hand, for the Japanese naval force was withdrawing. It had accomplished its immediate object and was soon to return, reinforced. The attack on Kota Bharu was a secondary operation but its effect was very grave for it lured all the squadrons of Norgroup but one towards that area.
Meanwhile, the main Japanese landings were taking place, unmolested, in Singora, in Siam, the Government of which had
surrendered immediately. These were discovered by the only Beaufort in Malaya. On its return, badly damaged, to Kota Bharu, the pilot reported a large concentration of Japanese vessels from which troops were pouring on to the beaches at Singora and Patani. More ominous still, the photographs taken revealed the presence of some sixty aircraft, mainly fighters, on Singora airfield. Tactical surprise had been achieved.
While a fierce and not unsuccessful action was being fought at Kota Bharu, the town of Singapore itself was recovering from its first air raid. This had taken place at four o’clock that same morning, the eighth, and bombs had fallen close to the airfields and the harbour. They caused little military damage but killed sixty-one civilians, mostly Chinese, and injured 133. The defence had received thirty minutes’ warning from the radar and observer posts and duly went into action. Although three Buffalos of No. 453 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force, at Sembawang, were at once warmed up, permission to take off was not granted, to the chagrin of their pilots, one of whom described the oncoming Japanese bomber formation as ‘the most perfect night-fighter target which I have ever seen’. Headquarters preferred to leave the guns to deal with the raiders. This may, or may not, have been a mistake, but about the behaviour of the Air Raid Precautions organisation there can be no doubt. Its headquarters were not fully manned and no reply was received to repeated summonses by telephone to go into action. Not until a direct approach was made to Sir Shenton Thomas, the Governor, did the air raid sirens sound, and even then the brilliant street lighting of the city was not extinguished. This omission was not so serious as might appear, for there was a full tropic moon that night in the rays of which Singapore in all its detail was visible.
On the following day, the ninth, while its inhabitants were gaping at the bomb-holes—their behaviour was very similar to that of other unhappy citizens in other unhappy citizens in other zones of war—the fighting at Kota Bharu was still continuing. By four o’clock in the afternoon, the Japanese had landed in force and reached the boundaries of the airfield. The small military force covering the beaches, fighting with the greatest desperation and heedless of casualties, was driven back and the station could no longer by defended. Its evacuation was ordered and five Hudsons and seven Vildebeests retired successfully to Kuantan. To enable them to do so a stout resistance was put up on the airfield itself, both by the remnants of the Army elements of the 11th Indian Division, and the air force ground staff. ‘We fought with rifles and tommy-guns, from billet to billet’, says Aircraftman H. G. Edwards, who that day was
seeing action for the first time. ‘The Japanese would be in one, we in the other, and the range was twenty yards. Very soon all aircraft which had not got away were burnt mass of twisted metal, and still the Japs came on’. The ground staff held out till the next day and eventually, under cover of the ‘merciful rain’, got away, first to Kuala Lipis, then by rail to Singapore.
The quality of the pilots engaged in this, this first action of the war in Malaya, may be judged from the bearing of an unknown Blenheim pilot who, his aircraft on fire, disdained to take to his parachute and dived into a landing craft destroying it and its occupants. A Japanese, subsequently captured, testified to the admiration caused in the ranks of the enemy by this gallant sacrifice.
Before the Royal Air Force bombers could be switched to what should have been the main objectives at Singora and Patani, our airfields in northern Malaya themselves became subject to heavy and continuous attacks from Japanese bombers escorted by fighters. Throughout 8th December Sungei Patani, Penang, Alor Star and Butterworth were assaulted by formation varying in size from twenty-seven to sixty. The bombs used were anti-personnel and fragmentation, and they did serious damage to aircraft and men, but none to the surface of the airfields. These the Japanese were anxious to use as soon as possible, and they wished to capture them in good condition. It was noticed that the raids very often took place when our own squadrons were either landing or taking off, and evidence that information of aircraft movements was reaching the enemy was presently discovered. The most serious of these attacks was that delivered at Alor Star by twenty-seven Japanese aircraft, which succeeded in destroying all but two of the Blenheims of No. 62 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force, and No. 27, the night-fighter Blenheims, were reduced, while still ground, each to four serviceable aircraft. The guns of the Buffalos had proved defective and all were unserviceable.
By the evening of that disastrous day, out of 110 aircraft available in the morning for combat in northern Malaya, only 50 remained in a serviceable condition. It was obvious that the cancellation of operation ‘Matador’ was to have a far-reaching influence on the operations of the Royal Air Force in northern Malaya. The airfields at Singora and Patani were in the hands of the enemy; more, they were already being used by him. To attack them without delay was essential if the position was to grow no worse. Accordingly on the next day, the 9th, the two depleted bomber squadrons, Nos. 34 and 62, reinforced by a Blenheim squadron from Kuantan, attempted two
counter-attacks. The first, carried out in the afternoon with the loss of five aircraft, was markedly successful and the congested airfield at Singora was repeatedly hit. The second was never launched. As the remnants of the two squadrons were about to take off from Butterworth, the Japanese made a high level bombing attack, followed by low level machine-gun attacks. So successful were these—every aircraft but one was put out of action—that a single Blenheim only, piloted by Flight Lieutenant A. S. K. Scarf, was able to leave the ground. Heedless of the fact that he was alone, he pressed on towards his objective. Over Singora he was attacked by enemy fighters, but dropped his bombs, and turned for home hit in the back and left arm, and mortally wounded. Still conscious, he maintained a running fighter until the Malay border was reached. Then, almost dead from loss of blood, he landed successfully in a paddy-field near Alor Star. His navigator was unhurt, but he himself died that night. Five years later he was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, the first to be gained in Malaya.
The losses sustained in bombers were so heavy that Pulford reluctantly decided to make no more attacks by day. Already then, before the war was two days old, the situation of the Royal Air Force in northern Malaya, and therefore the country as a whole, always weak, had become gravely compromised. Further blows were soon to follow, the heaviest of them within twenty-four hours.
It will be remembered that HMS Prince of Wales, the latest of our battleships of 35,000 tons displacement and armed with ten 14-inch guns, had arrived in Singapore accompanied by the Repulse, an older battlecruiser of 32,000 tons recently reconditioned and armed with six 15-inch guns. These two powerful units had been sent to reinforce our Far Eastern defences. By 2nd December, therefore, it could no longer be said that these consisted of a naval base without a fleet. The two great ships, with their escort of four destroyers, reached Singapore six days before the outbreak of hostilities under the command of Admiral Sir Tom Spencer Vaughan Phillips. Hardly had the first Japanese shells fallen on Kota Bharu, when this short, slight man, in whom the spirit of Drake and Nelson burned with a fierce fire, decided to put to sea with all his force. His purpose was to move north-west up the east coast of Malaya and inflict all the hurt he could upon the Japanese ships, busily engaged in landing troops and equipment in the Singora area of Siam. That such an enterprise was hazardous he well knew, for though there were two powerful ships under his command, either of which was capable of dealing with the Japanese naval escort, there was that unknown quantity, the Japanese Air
Force. Concerning its strength, disposition and efficiency very little known in Singapore. Admiral Phillips was aware that both the Royal Air Force and the Regia Aeronautica possessed torpedo-carrying aircraft with a theoretical range of 500 miles. He was equally aware that no attacks by such aircraft had been made beyond a distance of 200 miles. The best information available led him to believe that the Japanese air forces, both naval and military, were of much the same quality as the Italian and markedly inferior to the Luftwaffe. Provided, therefore, that his ships came no nearer than 200 miles to a Japanese air base, they would be immune from dive bombing or torpedo attacks. Bombing from a high level, which he expected, did not unduly trouble him. His ships would be moving at high speed.
The question whether his fleet, which was known as Force ‘Z’, should be provided with fighter cover and air reconnaissance had been discussed with Pulford, to whom Phillips made three requests. They were, first, that the air force should carry out reconnaissance a hundred miles to the north of his ships from dawn on Tuesday, 9th December; secondly, that they should reconnoitre Singora at an average distance of ten miles from the coast, the reconnaissance to begin at first light on 10th December; and third, that fighter protection off Singora should be provided from daylight onwards on that same day. At a meeting held soon after noon on 8th December, the Admiral told his Captains that if he could achieve surprise and was granted fighter protection, there was a good chance of ‘smashing the Japanese forces’ of invasion. He proposed, he added, to attack them soon after dawn on 10th December. Force ‘Z’ sailed at 1735 hours on 8th December.
It will be noted that at this meeting Phillips made it clear that success depended on the provision of fighter support. For capital ships to enter without it an area dominated by the air power of the enemy would be to run a grave, almost certainly a mortal, risk. Yet it was precisely fighter support which Pulford could not guarantee, and said so. Reconnaissance to the north of Force ‘Z’ could be provided on the 9th; so, he thought, could reconnaissance up to Singora on the 10th; and in point of fact he was able to provide both on the appointed days and at the appointed hours. Fighter protection, however, could only be given in that area by aircraft flying from airfields in northern Malaya. When, on 8th December, Phillips first approached him, Pulford was unaware of the exact situation there, though he knew it was grave. Reports from Kota Bharu showed that it was under heavy attack from sea, land and air; Sungei Patani, Butterworth and Alor Star all reported
heavy bombing attacks and great damage. It was, therefore, in the highest degree improbable that fighter squadrons could use them. Since, however, the Brewster Buffalo with which they were armed had a very short range, it was useless, or almost useless, for them to operate over Singora from airfields situated in central and southern Malaya. If they did so, they could give only negligible protection, for they would be unable to remain over the area of operations for more than a few minutes.
Before the day was out, Pulford knew that his fears were realized. The northern airfields had all been put out of action, and the nearest which might possibly be used was that at Kuantan, more than 300 miles to the south of Singora. There could be no fighter cover.
All this Pulford explained to Rear Admiral A. F. E. Palliser, Phillips’ Chief of Staff, who had remained behind in Singapore and was in touch with the Commander-in-Chief. By the time he had heard what Pulford had to say, Force ‘Z’ had sailed. Palliser immediately sent Phillip a signal, of which the relevant passage read: ‘Fighter protection on Wednesday 10 will not, repeat not, be possible’. It was received at 0125 hours on 9th December. There is evidence that the Governor of Singapore urged the retention of fighters for the defence of the port and the island and that his views were accepted. Certainly Admiral Palliser sent a signal on the next day, received by Phillips at 3202 hours, reporting bad news of the fighting in northern Malaya and the presence of enemy bombers ‘in force and undisturbed’ in southern Indo-China. The signal also stated that the Commander-in-Chief was contemplating the concentration of all ‘the air effort’ on the defence of Singapore. This would seem to confirm the view that the counsels of Sir Shenton Thomas had prevailed. Long before the second signal had reached him, however, Phillips had decided to press on.
Under low clouds the great ships, with their attendant destroyers, ploughed the wastes of ocean. No word came from them until, in the early hours of Wednesday, 10th December, a signal was received in Singapore indicating that they might return sooner than had originally been planned. Then the curtain of silence fell once more, only to be torn apart at 1219 hours, when a report was received from the Repulse that she and the Prince of Wales were under air attack in a position about sixty miles east of Kuantan. Six minutes after receiving this message, eleven Brewster Buffalos of No. 453 Squadron, which had been specially detailed for the defence of the fleet, took off, led by Flight Lieutenant T. A. Vigors. They reached the scene just in time to see the dark, smoke-enshrouded
bulk of the Prince of Wales plunge beneath seas already disfigured by patches of oil and crawling with survivors. Of the Repulse there was no sign. What had happened was this.
On reaching the open sea, Force ‘Z’ sailed first towards the Anambas Islands and then, having passed them, turned to the northward. Throughout the next day, the 9th, weather conditions were excellent for its concealment. Rainstorms were frequent and heavy clouds drifted low above the waves. As the afternoon drew on, however, a breeze sprang up and drove them away. By 1700 hours the weather had cleared, and soon after, what were thought to be three Japanese naval reconnaissance aircraft, were sighted from the Prince of Wales. Captain L. H. Bell, who was with the Admiral on the bridge, had no doubt that they were what he has described as ‘Japanese float planes’. They kept company for some time with the British vessels but presently flew away. Not unnaturally, Phillips felt certain that they had reported the presence of his fleet at sea and that all chance of surprising the enemy at dawn on the 10th at Singora was lost. Most of the Japanese vessels would now have ample time in which to withdraw. Moreover, if he held on his present course, he would assuredly be exposed to heavy air attack, for he would come well within 200 miles of Japanese bombers and torpedo aircraft. Reluctantly, therefore, he abandoned the enterprise and at 2015 hours on the 9th set course for Singapore.
At the moment when the float planes disappeared in the gathering darkness, Phillips could not possibly have been aware that in fact, they had sent no message. Yet this was so: they had remained silent. Captain Sonowaka, Commander of the Genzan Group which sank the Prince of Wales and the Repulse was quite clear on this point when questioned after the war. No Japanese reconnaissance aircraft were in the air at the time. The float planes were in all probability acting as air escort to two Japanese warships, the Kongo and the Haruna which, unknown to Force ‘Z’, were in the neighbourhood. In the uncertain light the Japanese pilots seem to have mistaken Force ‘Z’ for these warships. This explanation may appear extraordinary but, having regard to the fact that they made no report, what other is possible?
Yet though Force ‘Z’ had not in fact been seen from the air, Admiral Phillips had nevertheless taken the right decision, for his ships had been sighted by a Japanese submarine which at 1400 hours that afternoon had reported their position as 7° north 105° east, steering north. The Japanese naval bombers at once prepared to attack them, but it was not until darkness was falling that these aircraft had finished exchanging the bombs, with which they were
being loaded when the submarine’s signal arrived for torpedoes. This operation completed, they set off hoping to have the aid of the Kongo and Haruna in destroying what was obviously a grave threat to the invasion fleet lying off Singora. For six hours they searched in vain the night-shrouded sea and then returned, balked, to their base at Saigon. That they should have filed to find the British ships is not surprising, for the commander of the Japanese submarine had miscalculated and reported Admiral Phillips to be 140 miles north-northwest of his actual position when sighted. In the early hours of 10th December a second Japanese submarine sighted Force ‘Z’ and sent a signal which showed that it was now heading south, presumably returning to Singapore. This assumption was correct and was to prove fatal to the British fleet.
For nearly four hours it had held on its southerly course when shortly before midnight Phillips received a signal stating that Kuantan was being attacks. This place and its airfield, situated on the east coast some 200 miles from Singapore, was considered a key military position in the defence of Malaya, and to reach it only a small deviation of course was necessary. The Admiral did not hesitate. Though fate had denied him the chance of engaging the main forces of the enemy in the north, he might still strike a blow farther south. He arrived off Kuantan at eight o’clock on the morning of the 10th ready to engage any enemy who might there be found. None was to be seen and one of the destroyers, HMS Express, which made a tour of the harbour, reported ‘complete peace’.
The ‘complete peace’ in Kuantan discovered by the navy at 0800 hours was already know to the Air Staff in Singapore, for Hudsons arriving in the area at dawn had reported no evidence of the enemy’s presence and no sign of battle. What the Air Staff did not know, however, when this report was received soon after dawn, was that Admiral Phillips and his fleet were approaching Kuantan from the north at twenty-five knots; for he had not informed Singapore of his change of plan, nor did he do so after his fruitless examination of this small port. As soon as Express had rejoined him, he turned east to avoid a suspected minefield and to investigate a number of small vessels observed on the horizon. He was much pre-occupied with the possibility of being attacked by submarines and had no intention of betraying his presence by breaking wireless silence in order to inform Pulford in Singapore of his whereabouts. Of air attacks he had no fear, for being some 400 miles from the nearest enemy air base, he considered himself out of range.
Since Pulford received no signal, he was given no chance to provide the air cover soon to sorely to be needed. He the Air Vice-Marshal known that Force ‘Z’ was returning, he could have despatched No. 453, acting as Fleet Defence Squadron, to Kuantan in the early morning of the 10th and it would have been ready to operate at least an hour before the Japanese made their attacks upon the capital ships. True, Kuantan was being subjected to intermittent bombing, but who can doubt that the Air Officer Commanding would have accepted this risk and sent his fighters there had he known that the fleet was to pass so close to that air base?
Meanwhile the Japanese were doing their utmost to put into the air a large striking force. Three groups—the Genzan, the Mihoro and the Kanoya—comprising the 22nd Air Flotilla, and number in all eight-eight aircraft of which twenty-seven were bombers and sixty-one torpedo-bombers, were brought to immediate readiness before dawn. Without awaiting a sighting report from reconnaissance aircraft, they took off from their bases in Cochin China and flew southwards in nine flights along the 105th meridian. They were preceded by nine reconnaissance aircraft which carried out a sector search, for some hours in vain. Not until 1100 hours, when they were on the last leg, did the pilot of one of them catch sight of Force ‘Z’. He at once sent a sighting report and twenty minutes later the first flight of the bombers were over their targets. They attacked the Repulse and scored one hit, a bomber falling upon the port hangar and bursting on the armour below the marines’ mess deck. A fire broke out on the catapult deck was soon under control. The first round had been inconclusive. There was a pause of twenty minutes and then nine torpedo bombers which had been seen dodging behind clouds came in on the port bean, and ‘in no way perturbed by our gunfire’ carried out their attack with great coolness. By skilful use of the helm the Repulse avoided their torpedoes; but the Prince of Wales was less fortunate. She was hit twice, once on the port side aft of the bridge and once in the stern. It was this second torpedo which made her fate certain, for it badly damaged the steering gear and propellers. The balls signifying that the Prince of Wales was not under control were hoisted and the Repulse immediately began to close, reporting in her turn that she had escaped all the torpedoes fired at her to the number of nineteen. She did not remain unscathed for long. Low on the horizon eight enemy aircraft were coming in again with torpedoes. They split into two formations and dropped them from a distance of about 2,000 yards. Approaching as they did from two opposite directions, it was impossible for the Repulse to elude them. She was hit amidships on
the port side but still maintained her speed. Almost immediately, a fifth attack, also by torpedo bombers, was made and she was hit four times more. These blows were mortal. She at once took a heavy list to port, and sank in six minutes at 1233 hours, taking with her 444 officers and men. As the remainder struggled in the viscous embrace of the fuel oil pouring out of the gaps in her hull, they beheld the end of the Prince of Wales. Ten minutes earlier she had received three torpedoes, two in the after-part of the ship near the stern and a third on the starboard side under the compass platform. Mortally hit already, these were the coup de grace, though even then her modern construction kept her afloat for almost an hour, during which a signal asking for tugs was sent to Singapore. At 1320 hours the Prince of Wales, capsizing to port, went down. Admiral Phillips and Captain Leach went with her and with them 215 of her crew. 1,285 officers and ratings were picked up.
The Japanese pilots had shown skill, daring and resolution of a high order. The fiercest anti-aircraft fire, which both great ships developed to the full extent of their armaments, had not deterred them, and they accomplished their task with the probable loss of only four aircraft. On quitting the scene of their triumph, they left behind them a number of reconnaissance aircraft, which made off on the appearance of the Buffalos of No. 453 Squadron. Beneath them the destroyer escort, which had not been attacked, was engaged in the work of rescue. The survivors, officers and men of the Royal Navy, had maintained its traditions with unbroken spirit. ‘I passed over thousands’, records Flight Lieutenant Vigors in his official report, ‘who had been through an ordeal, the greatness of which they alone can understand ... It was obvious that the three destroyers were going to take hours to pick up those hundreds of men clinging to bits of wreckage and swimming around in the filthy oily water ... Yet every man waved and put his thumb up as I flew over him ... Here was something above human nature’.
The loss of His Majesty’s Ships Prince of Wales and Repulse, together with the virtual destruction of the American fleet at Pearl Harbor, gave the Japanese undisputed command of Far Eastern waters within two days of the outbreak of war. It also marked the end of sea power as Mahan preached and Nelson had practised it.
Hardly had the inhabitants of Singapore recovered, if they ever did recover, from the shock caused by the loss of these two ships, when news came that Georgetown on the island of Penang had been severely bombed by Japanese aircraft some eighty strong. The first attack made on 8th December had achieved little result. The second, however, caused heavy casualties among the population, especially
among the Asiatics who, with tragic curiosity, swarmed the streets to watch what they thought was to a repetition of the first which had been carried out against the airfield. In neither case was there any opposition either from the ground or in the air. Such anti-aircraft guns as were available in Malaya had been allotted for the protection of more important targets—the naval base, airfields in general, the harbour of Singapore, and Kuala Lumpur, the Federal capital. No fighters appeared over Penang, for by then the first phase of the Japanese attack, of which the success was hourly more pronounced, was in full development.
Well aware of our weakness in the air, the Japanese commander had decided to strike hard and often against our airfields. The scale of his efforts on the 8th, 9th and 10th December, though small by the standards of the war in Europe, was more than enough to achieve his purpose. A daily average of some 120 sorties sufficed to render all the airfields in north-east and north-west Malaya untenable. Despite the arrival on the 9th of twenty-two Dutch Glen Martins and one Dutch fighter squadron on nine Buffalos from the Netherlands East Indies, in accordance with an agreement for mutual aid concluded before war broke out, the air defences of Malaya were already so gravely depleted as to make withdrawal essential. From Butterworth in north-western Malaya No. 62 (Bomber) Squadron, reduced in number to two aircraft, was brought back to Taiping, and No. 21 (Fighter) Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force, with six dubiously effective Blenheims, to Ipoh. No. 27, the night-fighting Blenheim Squadron, did not leave Butterworth. It had no aircraft left in which to do so.
Though the attitude of the pilots towards these heavy losses of aircraft it was their duty to fly was, in general, one of determination to get at grips with a hard-hitting enemy, the demeanour of the ground staff was not always so firm. Some, such as those at Kota Bharu, fought, as has been related, with great courage, abandoning their airfield only when the enemy was upon it. Others showed less stoutness of heart. They became discouraged and more and more inclined to lend an ear to rumours to defeat and disaster, which buzzed about like cockchafers. This attitude can for the most part be traced to the prevailing conditions and to the feeling of helplessness engendered by the frequent bombing of airfields scantily protected. At some stations, such as Butterworth, there was no more effective warning system than that provided by an aircraftman standing on the perimeter and waving a white handkerchief on the approach of hostile aircraft. Nevertheless, the majority of the ground crews
continued to carry out their duties in circumstances which grew worse and worse with every day that passed, and to serve a steadily diminishing band of pilots who, flying aircraft markedly inferior to those of the enemy, entered upon the campaign with odds against them of six to one, and still did not falter when at the end of it these had lengthened to fifteen to one.
The misfortunes of the air force was increased by the behaviour of the native labourers, who fled the airfields as soon as the bombing began and did not return. For this they can scarcely be blamed. They did not feel the quarrel to be theirs. Such stores and equipment as had been left intact after the bombing attacks would not have been brought back to the south had it not been for the efforts of a number of the ground staff who maintained the railway in operation when the native drivers had departed. They were in the charge of Flight Lieutenant R. D. I. Scott, who drove a locomotive himself.
Not only had the hard-pressed units to evacuate the northern airfields, they had also to render them unserviceable, if they could. this task was exceedingly difficult, and all their efforts did not retard by more than a few hours the use of the airfields by the Japanese. Bombs were hastily dug into the surface of the runways and exploded (in this the Royal Engineers gave great assistance) and petrol dumps set on fire everywhere except at Sungei Patani, where 200,000 gallons were left behind to the great satisfaction of the enemy. The stocks of road metal accumulated beside each perimeter were used immediately by the Japanese to fill in the craters, natively labour being ruthlessly rounded up and employed for this purpose. The attempted destruction of airfields by Norgroup had inevitably a depressing effect on the spirits of the army who, holding positions in front of them, had but to turn their heads to see large fires and columns of smoke in their rear, a truly disconcerting spectacle. Penang had to be abandoned and the army, fighting in northern Malaya, to be robbed of air support. After the bombing of the town on 11th December, the position there grew rapidly worse until it became out of hand. Law and order disappeared’ ‘The friendless bodies of unburied men’ strewed the streets and their stench ‘in the tropical heat was indescribable. Rats left godowns where they usually operated for the more lucrative field of the open streets, where food in the shape of dead humans was plentiful’.1 About 600 persons were killed and 1,100 wounded in the air raids. On 13th December orders were given to evacuate the European and Indian populations, but only Europeans, to the number of about 520, got away.
While these scenes of confusion and horror were being enacted in that lovely city of tall trees, exotic flowers and baroque buildings, where peace and plenty had reigned for more than a century, the army, almost entirely deprived of air support, was struggling back through the jungles. Two or three Buffalos of No. 21 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force, based at Ipoh, sought to give aid to the hard-pressed 11th Indian Division. These were reinforced by No. 453 Squadron, royal Australian Air Force, three days after it had witnessed the end of the Prince of Wales and the Repulse. On arrival at Ipoh they went straight into action, attacked Japanese convoys on the roads and carried out tactical reconnaissance with some effect, for they claim to have shot down five Japanese aircraft over Penang. Six Buffalos of No. 21 Squadron jointed them on the 15th, five having made forced landings on the flight from Singapore. The rate of wastage, however, soon proved so high that Air Headquarters was forced to order the squadrons based at Ipoh to confine themselves to the work of reconnaissance. This task they continued from Kuala Lumpur, to which enemy attacks had driven them on 19th December. While the efforts of the air force to give close support to the army achieved very little success, the attempts to bomb the Japanese Air Force on the northern airfields, which they had seized, had even less. The enemy had enough reserves immediately to replace the small casualties which were all our attenuated squadrons could hope to inflict. As the days went only too swiftly by and the army struggled back., first from Kedah Province to the Krian river and finally to the northern frontier of Johore, less than a hundred miles from Singapore, the lesson, that airfields which cannot be defended are a liability and not an asset, was driven remorselessly home. Those which had been so laboriously, and with such difficult, constructed in the months preceding the outbreak of war had now to be held by the army, not in order that the Royal Air Force might operate from them—that had already become impossible—but so that the Japanese Air Force might be denied their use. The effect of this task on the spirit of the troops can easily be imagined.
Throughout this period, and indeed until the fall of Java wiped it out, the air force was served with great gallantry by the Malayan Volunteer Air Force, which, as its name implies, was manned by volunteers, both British and Malay. This small force had been formed in September 1940, and its pilots had carried out their training on Avro Cadets, Tiger and Leopard Moths and other light aircraft, of which none could fly faster than 100 miles an hour; nor
were any of them armed. When war broke out they were all that were available for the Volunteer Force, which had taken them over from various flying clubs and unhesitatingly took them into battle. They were used principally to maintain communications, but they also carried out many reconnaissance flights and helped in the work of jungle rescue. The little Moths flew only just above the treetops and, being camouflaged, they were not easy to see. This was as well since camouflage was their only protection. Sometimes, in addition to being bombed on the ground, they found themselves attacked by their own side. On 8th December, for example, a Dragon Rapide arrived with a cargo of explosives at Butterworth during a raid. By flying very low behind the coconut palms, its pilot escaped detection, landed and rid himself of his dangerous cargo. Before he could take off, however, another attack developed and he returned to his Rapide from a nearby machine-gun post to find two burning Blenheims on either hand. The pilot taxied to the runway on one engine, induced the second one to start and was half-way down the runway on the take-off when a Buffalo, cleaving the pall of smoke which hung over the airfield, struck the ground immediately in front of him. The wheels of the Rapide scraped the wreckage, but the machine remained airborne, to be fired at a moment later by a returning Blenheim which in the murk mistook it for a Japanese. The instrument panel was shattered and one engine put out of action, but the Rapide was successfully flown to Ipoh on the other. These volunteer pilots flew between 1500 and 2000 hours during the eleven weeks of fighting and earned the respect and admiration of their more professional brethren.
With matters in such poor shape in Malaya, it is not surprising that the Japanese attack on Borneo, mounted in the third week of December, should have been immediately successful. During that week a convoy of more than a hundred ships was discovered crossing the South China Sea and by 24th December it was obvious from the frequent reconnaissance made that the Japanese were heading for Kuching in British Borneo. To that island, as to Hong Kong, no air forces had been allotted for defence. With the capture of Kuching on 26th December, Borneo fell into Japanese hands: Hong Kong had been taken by them twenty-four hours before.
It was at this juncture, with the army stumbling back through the thick jungles of Malaya, unable to find any position at which to make a prolonged stand, that the Commander-in-Chief, Air Chief Marshal Sir Robert Brooke-Popham, was replaced by Lieutenant General Sir Henry Roydes Pownall. The new Chief fared no better than his predecessor. He took over at a time when the situation was steadily
growing worse. Reinforcements, it was true, were close to hand, and a few aircraft had already arrived, but their numbers were quite inadequate. By Christmas Day, 1941, only six Hudsons and seven Blenheims had reached Malaya but there was a promise of fifty-one Hurricanes in crates and twenty-four pilots. They landed on 3rd January, but on the 18th, excluding the Hurricanes which were still being unloaded, the total strength of the air force was only seventy-five bomber and reconnaissance aircraft and twenty-eight fighters. Moreover the new pilots were quite unaccustomed to local conditions; they had arrived either after a long and arduous flight from as far away as Egypt, or after a long and perilous sea voyage. Circumstances, however, made it necessary to throw them immediately into the fight, where they made up for their deficiencies in experience by the stoutness of their conduct.
Their task was truly formidable. If the aircraft allotted to them were Hudsons or Blenheims, they were required to carry out long reconnaissance flights over the South China Sea and bombing attacks by night, such operations in daylight having been abandoned for lack of fighter cover. If they flew fighter aircraft, they were called upon to protect Singapore, to cooperate with the hard-pressed army on the ground and to give protection to convoys approaching with reinforcements. In view of the ludicrously small number of aircraft, this programme, which would have taxed the whole strength of the Royal Air Force at that time, was necessarily fulfilled in an imperfect and haphazard manner. The reconnaissance squadrons, aided by the small but efficient Dutch Air Force, made numerous flights over the South China Sea in order to discover any surface vessels which might be moving against Singapore. They also helped the fighters to cover the Banka Strait along the coast of eastern Sumatra, through which ran the route followed by our convoys of reinforcements. Such a task involved daily sorties by at least two Catalinas, six Hudsons and four Glen Martin aircraft, a force far too small but all that could be spared. The remainder had to be kept at short notice to go the rescue should the convoys be attacked.
The result of this policy of protecting the convoys, indispensable though its adoption was, soon became painfully apparent. After the loss of the Prince of Wales and the Repulse, no effective aid could be rendered by the Navy, and the task of covering the ships until they reached port fell, therefore, entirely on the Royal Air Force, which could only fulfil it at the expense of the struggling armies in the jungle. They were wholly deprived of air support, and in consequence suffered heavily. All the convoys of reinforcements reached Singapore in safety. Their arrival momentarily raised the drooping spirits of the
population, for it was known that fighter aircraft, superior in performance to the Buffalo, were on board. ‘It is difficult’, report Air Vice-Marshal Maltby, who was himself but newly arrived from England, ‘adequately to convey the sense of tension which prevailed as these convoys approached Singapore, and the sense of exaltation at their safe arrival. The feeling spread that at last the Japanese were going to be held on the ground, if no driven back, whilst it was confidently expected that the Hurricanes would sweep the Japanese from the sky’.
The Hurricanes, from which so much was hoped, took part in the defence of Singapore for the first time exactly one week after their arrival. On 20th January, 1942, twenty-seven unescorted Japanese bombers appeared over the city. The Hurricanes shot down eight of them. To the inhabitants, who had not quite recovered from the news that the Army had withdrawn from Kuala Lumpur and Port Swettenham, it seemed that at least the tide was beginning to turn. The next day brought disillusion. Once more Japanese bombers attacked Singapore in daylight, but this time they were accompanied by Zero fighters, which forthwith showed their superiority over the Hurricanes by shooting down five of them without loss to themselves. Though not so fast as the Japanese Navy Zero at low heights, the Hurricane possessed the advantage in speed, rate of climb and dive at heights of 20,000 feet and over. Unfortunately, the Japanese often preferred to attack at low levels. Moreover, as the Hurricanes had been destined originally for the Middle East, their engines had been fitted with special desert air-intake filters which reduced their speed by as much as thirty miles an hour.
Though by then the Air Staff in London was aware of the performance of the Japanese Navy Zero fighter, they were unable to send any type of aircraft better than the Hurricane to meet it. Spitfires were still regarded as essential for the defence of Great Britain and not even the air forces in the Middle East could obtain any adequate number. Outclassed as they were in many respects by the Zero fighters, the Hurricanes none the less contrived to cause losses to the Japanese bombers by adopting tactics which were novel. Such efforts were, however, constantly hampered by the increasing shortness of the warning period. Never at the vest more than thirty minutes, it presently fell to twenty, and before the end of the siege almost to nothing. This lack of warning was due to the loss of the radar stations, which were overrun one by one or were dismantled before the enemy reached them. The closing down of the station at Mersing, which took place about the middle of January 1941, some time before the site was lost to the enemy was of even graver
consequence to the depleted Buffalo squadrons then to the Hurricanes. With ammunition reduce to 350 rounds, petrol to 84 gallons and the substitution of the .303 machine-guns for the .5, the rate of climb of the Buffalo aircraft still remained far too slow. It took somewhat more than half an hour to reach 25,000 feet, the average height at which, before the arrival of the Hurricanes, the Japanese bombers and their escort carried out many of their raids, and those who had the misfortune to fly the machine were, after the closing down at Mersing, at a great tactical disadvantage, for they were always beneath the enemy. Despite this very grave hardship, ‘it says much for the quality of the pilts’, reports Squadron Leader Clouston commanding No. 488 Squadron, ‘that there was no weakening of morale’.
As the campaign developed, and the army reeled back ever faster in face of an implacable attack sustained by highly trained and fanatical troops, the raids on Singapore increased in numbers and severity, though they never approached the proportions which London had endured without flinching a year earlier. Most of them were carried by formations of twenty-seven bomber aircraft and the maximum number of Japanese bombers which attacked the area of Singapore in any one day was not more than 127. Endeavours, which can only be described as frantic, to provide shelters against the raids, were made by the civil authorities goaded too late to take decisions which should have been reached months before. The original scheme, under which in the event of an air raid the inhabitants were to leave their houses and enter evacuation camps erected in the outlying districts of the city, broke down with the falling of the first bombs. It could, indeed, scarcely have been otherwise. How the inhabitants of a congested city could successfully make their way a considerable distance to an unbuilt-on area or a rubber plantation in the brief space of half an hour, was not explained to them. It is hardly surprising that when the moment came they ignored such dubious provisions for their safety.
‘The raid took place at eleven o’clock’, says an eye witness present throughout the siege of Singapore, ‘and resulted in the complete destruction of forty-seven shops and tenement houses ... There were no slit trenches, dugouts or bunding in this area, and there were few buildings sufficiently strong to warrant being turned into air raid shelters. Slit trenches were, of course, out of the question ... They (the authorities) tried to erect shelters, and even went so far as to buy or requisition concrete-spun pipes, six feet in diameter, and these they placed end to end in the street ... They afforded some measure of protection ... The Japanese used anti-personnel bombs
almost exclusively ... I counted eight decapitated bodies in one narrow street. These bombs were made for streets and open places; it almost seemed as if they had been specially designed for Singapore slums, slums which contained no shelters ... I looked at the drains on each side of the narrow street. They were full of water—bloody water’. Scenes such as these were soon to become a part of the daily life of Singapore.
With every day, almost with every hour, the war drew closer and closer to Singapore. Whenever the troops in the field attempted to hold a defensive position for any length of time, they were immediately outflanked, either by a swift and silent penetration of a supposedly impenetrable jungle or by landings further down the mangrove-fringed west coast. Moreover they had to endure attacks from the air of a kind similar to those made by the Luftwaffe upon the armies of Poland two years before, deprived like themselves, of all means of defence against them. On 26th January the Japanese landed at Endau on the east coast of Malaya and moved at once to join with their forces on the west. The Royal Air Force made a desperate effort to prevent them. At one o’clock in the afternoon, nine aircraft of No. 100 Squadron and three of No. 36 Squadron, flying the obsolete Vildebeests with a top speed of 137 miles an hour, accompanied by a small force of Hurricane and Buffalo fighters, attacked the Japanese transports and landing craft off the small port. Zero fighters were there in plenty, but the Vildebeests held on their course, going in to bomb and losing five of their number, including the aircraft flown by Squadron Leader I. T. B. Rowland, leader of the attack. The pilots, who had spent the previous night on operations, did their best to dive-bomb the Japanese shipping but without very much effect. Two hours later the attack was repeated, this time by No. 36 Squadron with a fighter escort, and eight aircraft were shot down, among the pilots lost being Squadron Leader R. F. C. Markham, its commander. The fighter escorts to these assaults did all they could to drive away the Japanese Zero fighters; but they were outmatched by the superiority of these aircraft. These two attacks were typical of the attempts made at that time by men who, to quote Major General Percival’s Despatch, ‘throughout the later stages of the Malayan campaign, went unflinchingly to almost certain death in obsolete aircraft which should have been replaced many years before’.
The landing at Endau meant that any further defence of the Malayan Peninsula was out of the question. From the 28th to 31st January Percival’s exhausted troops, their confidence shaken by the supremacy of the enemy on the sea and in the air and by the
numbers of armoured fighting vehicles used against them, wounded their way across the eleven hundred yard granite causeway into the island of Singapore itself. There they took up defensive positions outside the city and on the edge of the docks. The Japanese immediately increased their air attacks and carried them out by day and night. Their continual pounding, to which shellfire was soon added, made it exceedingly difficult to keep the airfields in serviceable condition. That at Kallang, which was built on reclaimed land, was soon more or less permanently out of action, for the mud oozed up through the bomb craters. Conditions at Tengah were little better. To repair the airfield there was almost impossible, for all native labour had long since vanished. On 7th January, the Singapore War Council, of which Duff Cooper was the Chairman, appointed a Director of Labour, a post which might with advantage have been created months, if not years earlier. This step was of little avail, for there was no one left to direct.
The harassed, indomitable Pulford, was now faced with the grimmest decision of all. There was nothing for it but to order evacuation. The air force had done its utmost to help the army. The fighter squadrons in particular had been employed far beyond wastage point in an unceasing effort to support the troops in the field, to protect the incoming convoys and to try to drive Japanese bombers away from Singapore. The meagre reinforcements of Hurricanes had done their best, but by 28th January, of the fifty-one aircraft torn from their crates and hastily erected barely a week before, seventeen had been destroyed, thirteen were under repair and only twenty-one remained serviceable. At that date the number of Buffalos was six, made up of the remnants of Nos. 21 and 453 Squadrons of the Royal Australian Air Force. The bombers and reconnaissance aircraft had for week been reduced to a ‘token’ force. They were the first to be withdrawn from Malaya, and by 27th January all had left it for Sumatra where they were presently joined by a small number of Hudsons just arrived as belated reinforcements. The three Catalina flying boats, which had come in on 7th January, were also sent away, and by the last day of that month, apart from the fighters, only three Swordfish under army control,. for the purpose of spotting for the coast defence guns, were left on the island. At that date such fighter squadrons as remained were pinned to the four main airfields. Three of them, Tengah, Sembawang and Seletar, were on the northern edge of the island and could be shelled from the mainland at a range of 1,500 to 2,000 yards. Every effort was still being made by the ground staff to maintain them in operation. On one occasion a bush fire on the edge of the airfield at Tengah
was extinguished by the driver of a bulldozer who, at imminent risk to his life, succeeded in creating a fire break between the burning bushes and ammunition dump. But with the Japanese artillery in Johore, it was impossible to make any further use of these airfields. It was therefore decided by General Sir Archibald Wavell, who had assumed Supreme Command of the Far East Forces on 15th January, to withdraw all fighters except with Hurricanes and the remaining six Buffalos. Any fighter reinforcements—Hurricanes carried in the aircraft carrier HMS Indomitable were expected—would go to Sumatra. In that island, Air Commodore Vincent was ordered to form No. 226 (Fighter) Group with headquarters at Palembang, and No. 151 Maintenance Unit was to be established in Java, while Air Commodore Silly was to set up a new air headquarters in Sumatra.
The evacuation of the Air Force proved a task of very great difficulty. By 7th February, the port and shipping arrangements in Singapore were in a state of chaos. Few ships were available and some of their masters were not prepared to take their vessels alongside the crowded, bomb-riven quays to load equipment and stores. Moreover the ships had to be dispersed as widely as possible in an attempt to reduce the size of the targets offered to the Japanese bombers. As their attacks increased in intensity, so did the disorganization. Plans were hastily made, and still more hastily abandoned. Ground units, some of them already shaken by their previous experiences, became inextricably mixed up with each other and the loss of efficiency can hardly be exaggerated. Equipment urgently needed by the bomber force, which had been evacuated to Sumatra, could not be loaded and was left behind. Some 200 motor transport vehicles of inestimable value were lost on passage to that island. More than one ship sailed without her full complement of air force passengers and equipment; others were sunk or badly damaged by the triumphing Japanese Air Force.
The evacuation took fourteen days to complete. During that period the pilots of the Buffalos and Hurricanes continued to fight grimly against overwhelming odds. The first to succumb entirely was the improvised photographic reconnaissance flight of Buffalos which, under the command of Squadron Leader Lewis, had flown over 100 sorties in aircraft unarmoured and without guns. Though repeatedly attacked and many times hit, none of them was destroyed in the air. Hurricane pilots, with an average of only ten aircraft a day at their disposal, maintained the fight for ten days. They took off without any adequate ground control and did what they could, first to give cover
to the troops crossing the causeway, then to deal with dive-bombers after the Japanese had landed on the island, an event which took place on 8th February, and finally to protect reinforcements which were still arriving. With the exception of the Empress of Asia bombed and set on fire, the Japanese made no very determined attacks upon the ships conveying them. They knew well enough that the troops on board would only serve to swell the army of prisoners who would be theirs as soon as the doomed fortress fell. Instead they concentrated their blows against the shipping moving away, and not all the efforts of the Hurricane pilots could prevent heavy losses. Nevertheless, even as late as 9th February, the day before the last aircraft was withdrawn, six Japanese bombers were shot down and fourteen damaged, our own losses being but one pilot. By then all the remaining air strips but one had been under steady shellfire for four days. At least only boggy Kallang was left. By almost ceaseless labour, a landing strip 750 yards long was kept in operation for three days more. Even so, the pilots had the greatest difficulty in avoiding the numerous bomb craters. On 10th February, the end came, and the last fighter aircraft were withdrawn to Sumatra.
They had fought to the end, and had, since the opening of the campaign, destroyed an estimated number of 183 Japanese aircraft. Now for a few more bitter days they were to carry on the fight from the islands of the Dutch East Indies. They left behind them airfields hastily ploughed up and equipment, for the most part, destroyed or damaged. They also left behind Air Vice-Marshal Pulford who, though he had been given leave to go away on 5th February, preferred to remain with the army commander until the 15th, when he was at least persuaded to depart. This gallant postponement of his departure cost him his life, for the motor boat, in which he left with Rear Admiral Spooner, R.N., was damaged by bombs, and driven ashore on one of the islands of the Juju group. For two months the survivors in this malaria-ridden spot evaded capture; then, after eighteen of them had died, they at length surrendered. Among the dead were the Rear Admiral and the Air Vice-Marshal.
Long before that day Singapore had fallen. On 15th February, hemmed in on all sides with no hope left, the troops of a supposedly impregnable fortress laid down their arms. ‘This episode’, said Churchill, addressing the House of Commons in secret session on 23rd April, ‘and all that led up to it, seems to be out of harmony with anything that we have experienced or performed in the present war’. The verdict of history can only endorse and enhance this most restrained judgment.