453 Sqn RAAF Brewster Buffaloes in Malaya

The sad fate of No. 453 RAAF Squadron in Malaya, 1941

My research for “A Rude Awakening” yielded this extraordinary story of a freshly created RAAF squadron that lost five pilots, had seven severely wounded and went down from 16 to three operational airplanes in just two weeks of combat. They were outnumbered, outperformed and outgunned by the Japanese. But there was as much amiss on the ground as in the air…

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No. 453 Sqn was formed on May 23, 1941 at RAAF Bankstown as an Article XV squadron under the Empire Air Training Scheme (EATS). This meant the squadron would be an Australian unit and consist of Australian aircrews. And this sums up all control the Australians had over the squadron they paid for. They had no say in what kind of squadron it would be, or where it would be posted; and no operational control over their own unit whatsoever.

raaf_posterOn July 5, 1941, the 19 pilots and 145 groundcrew were told that No. 453 would become a fighter squadron and NOT a general reconnaissance squadron, for which some of them had specifically volunteered. On arrival in Singapore  on August 15, the squadron was allotted Brewster Buffaloes, planes neither the pilots nor  ground crews had seen before.

The young pilots were fresh out of flying training school and had only the barest minimum of flying time. And those of them, who had trained on twin-engined Avro Ansons, first had to re-convert to Wirraways, the Australian version of the T-6.
Getting used to the Buffalo was tough, getting used to the “Singapore Mentality” was worse. The Aussies were completely ostracized by the RAF and other British Servicemen. Clubs, bars and hotels closed their doors to anyone under the rank of Lieutenant and most civilians gave them the cold shoulder. The Aussies responded by contemptuously calling them all “pommies” and ignoring them whenever they could. The situation was aggravated by a turf fight between Group Captain McCauley RAAF (Station Commander), and Group Captain Rice RAF (fighter-group controller) about who had control of the squadron.
And, to cap it all, the Air Ministry – in their immeasurable wisdom – decided there was no suitable Australian available to command this squadron. They attached Flight Lieutenant Harper to the RAAF and appointed him CO of No. 453 Sqn. Harper, a 25 year old instructor with No.57 OTU, sailed on August 20, 1941 from the UK and arrived in Singapore on October 6.

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Sgt. M.B. O’Mara’s Buffalo after a hard landing

 The novice pilots had been training on the Buffalo and, as could be expected, various mishaps such as wheels up landings and engine failures or forced landings due to lack of fuel had occurred. These losses  had been replaced and 19 Buffaloes were available when. the squadron was declared operational on November 19.

The incidents however had angered Harper so much that he set off for Australia to find “…a higher caliber of pilots…” Unfortunately, he chose a singularly bad time to do so, since a few days later the Japanese struck and the acting CO, Flight Lieutenant Tim Vigors DFC, was left to carry the can.

The first bombardment on Singapore took place on December 8, but, despite a clear sky and a bright moon, the squadron was not allowed to act. For the next three days, it was held at readiness at Sembawang tasked with fleet protection duties, but was called in too late to prevent the Prince of Wales and Repulse from being sunk by Japanese bombers.

By December 11, the Japanese invasion of North-Malaya was well under way, with systematic air strikes on the airfields of Alor Star, Sungei Patani and Butterworth and the city of Penang. The single RAAF fighter squadron up north, No.21 “City of Melbourne” was badly mauled and No. 453 Squadron left for Ipoh on December 12, to reinforce the dangerously low fighter strength.

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The Butterworth Massacre

The next day, December 13, five Buffaloes, led by Vigors, flew on to to Butterworth. They had just landed for refuelling when a large number of Japanese Ki.27’s attacked the field. Vigors and his wingman managed to get airborne and fought the enemy over Penang, Vigors was shot down but survived (although with severe burns), his wingman made a forced landing at Kuala Kangsar.. The remaining Buffaloes were attacked just when they were taking off and one Buffalo was shot down in flames, killing Sgt. Ronald Oelrich. Another made a forced landing in a rice paddy, the Malayan farmer delivering its pilot back to Butterworth airfield on a bicycle. The last remaining pilot managed to nurse his damaged Buffalo back to Ipoh, despite a seriously wounded foot. This first day of “real” combat had cost No. 453 Sqn one pilot killed, two pilots wounded and five Buffaloes written off.

On December 15, three Buffaloes from Ipoh intercepted a raid on Butterworth by Ki-48 bombers and one Ki-48 was shot down, despite repeated gun stoppages.

The Japanese continued to attack the northern airfields and by now the fast and well-armed Nakajima Ki. 43 “Hayabusa” (‘Oscar’)  was encountered more frequently . On December 17, Butterworth was raided again and an attack on Ipoh was intercepted by a standing patrol of three Buffaloes. Eight buffaloes were scrambled to support them and while the fighters were engaged, Japanese bombers raided the airfield at their leisure, destroying buildings and aircraft.
The raids on Ipoh continued on December 18 and by December 19, six Buffaloes of 453 Squadron (and one of 21 Squadron) were flown back to Singapore, leaving nine serviceable aircraft and five pilots at Ipoh. By the evening of that day, another Japanese raid had left two aircraft unusable and 453 Squadron flew its remaining Buffaloes to Kuala Lumpur.

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Kuala Lumpur: The final curtain.

Sunga Bresi airfield had housed a flying club before the war and the clubhouse was a convenient flight office for No. 453 Sqn. Its Buffaloes flew defensive patrols on December 20th, the day the Japanese occupied Butterworth airfield. The next day, December 21st, the first bombers appeared over Kuala Lumpur but the field’s AA guns kept them at a decent altitude. Two Buffaloes, flown by Sgts. Leys and Peterson, attacked the formation. Leys was shot down but bailed out, Peterson claimed two bombers (probably Ki.48’s)

The next day, the Japanese returned in force just after the standing patrol had landed to refuel. Six Buffaloes got shot down or crash landed after the engagement. Four Japanese fighters (probably Ki.43’s) strafed the airfield in the afternoon, shooting down the single Buffalo that tried to get off the ground and killing Pilot Officer Drury.
By the end of December 22nd, 453 Sqn had lost three pilots killed and four injured; three Buffaloes were shot down, two worn out in crash landings and four were seriously damaged. It was the end of the line. The next day, the four remaining serviceable Buffaloes were flown back to Sembawang (Singapore). Two days later the remains of Nos. 21 and 453 Squadrons were amalgamated in the new 21/453 Squadron under command of Squadron Leader Harper who had by now returned from Australia.

The heavy fighting in North-Malaya laid bare the Buffalo’s weaknesses.
Its performance was abysmal. It took 30 minutes to reach 20.000 feet and as fuel pressure, supplied by the engine pump, fell off at altitudes above 18.000 feet ,the pilots had to work the manual fuel pump to keep the engine running. The civilian 1100hp Wright Cyclone G-105A engines had no superchargers and the pilots continually over-boosted the engines. As a result, spark plugs had to be replaced very often. And finally the guns: two of the four .50 cal. guns were synchronized through the propeller. The ammo was preserved in grease and upon firing, the grease would evaporate and the propwash would send it back in a spray that covered the cockpit windscreen.

Back in Singapore, ground crews started to modify the Buffalo, removing all unnecessary equipment (such as cockpit heaters, flare chutes and even radio’s). This reduced the fighter’s gross weight with nearly 1.000 lbs. and, coupled to limiting the fuel load to 45 gallons, gave the Buffalo at least an acceptable performance.
By early January 1942 the squadron had twelve Buffaloes operational and was tasked with the defence of Singapore, sometimes against impossible odds. They also supported offensive operations undertaken by Dutch Glenn Martin bombers against the Japanese advancing down Malaya. Their number steadily dwindled until the Japanese crossed the Johore Strait and invaded Singapore Island. The few remaining Buffaloes were set on fire by the crews, marking the end of the squadron in South-East Asia.

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No. 453 Sqn Pilots during the Malayan campaign

Name Details Claims
Sqn Ldr .W H Harper RAF  CO, absent until Dec 24
Flt Lt Tim Vigors RAF DFC Acting CO; shot down Penang,13 Dec injured
Flg Lt R D Vanderfield RAAF Flight leader 2 Ki-48 13 Dec Bomber 15 Jan

Ki-51 19 Jan

Flt Lt B A Grace, RAAF flight leader
Flg Off F Leigh Bowes RAAF Bomber 15 Jan
Plt Off G L Angus RAAF Crashed Ipoh, 13 Dec.
Plt Off D R L Brown RNZAF On attachment from 243 Sqn, Crashed Butterworth 13 Dec, killed
Plt Off R W Drury RAAF Crashed Kuala Lumpur ,22 Dec, killed
Plt Off T W Livesey RAAF Crashed Butterworth 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 Shot down 22 Dec, killed Ki-51, 13 Dec
Sgt S G Scrimgeour RAAF Shot down Kuala Lumpur, 22 Dec
Sgt V A Collyer RAAF Ki-51, 13 Dec
Sgt W R Halliday RAAF
Sgt A W B Clare RAAF Ki-43 17 Jan
Sgt Keith Gorringer RAAF Crashed 29 Jan Ki-51 19 Jan
Sgt R R Oelrich RAAF Shot down Ipoh, 13 Dec, killed
Sgt E A Peterson RAAF Shot down Kuala Lumpur, 22 Dec, killed
Sgt G R Board RAAF Crashed Ipoh, 19 Dec, shot down Kuala Lumpur 22 Dec, bailed out
Sgt J Summerton RAAF
Sgt K R Leys RAAF Shot down Kuala Lumpur, 21 Dec, bailed out.
Sgt M B O’Mara RAAF
Sgt Geoff Seagoe RAAF Shot down 1 Feb ‘42

Updated December 24, 2016

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About Kingsleyr

Thank you for visiting my blog! The posts you find here are a direct result of my research into aviation and military history. I use the information I gather as a foundation and background for my books. You may call the genre historical fiction, a story woven into a background of solid and verifiable historical facts. However, the period and region I have chosen to write about (late 1930's - 1950's in South-East Asia) are jam-packed with interesting information and anecdotes. If I'd used them all I would swamp the stories. So this blog is the next best thing. It is an "overflow area" in which I can publish whatever I think will interest you. And from the reactions I get, I deduce I am on the right track. A lot will be about aviation in the former Dutch East Indies. This, because my series of books ("The Java Gold") follows a young Dutch pilot in his struggle to survive the Pacific War and its aftermath. But there's more in the world and you'll find descriptions of cities, naval operations and what not published on this blog. Something about myself; I am a Dutch-Canadian author, living in, and working out of the magical city of Amsterdam. My lifelong interest in history and aviation, especially WW2, has led me to write articles and books on these subjects. I hope you'll enjoy them!
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6 Responses to 453 Sqn RAAF Brewster Buffaloes in Malaya

  1. GP Cox says:

    Fantastic research. I always learn something new from you, thanks!

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  2. M Haselden says:

    Shame so many of the “facts” are untrue. For example, 453 Sqn was not reduced to just 6 airframes in mid-November 1941. The Squadron was declared operational on 19 November and lined up 19 aircraft all of which were combat ready. The A6M was seldom engaged by Buffalos and the Buffs certainly could get up to 25,000ft. You state the first day of combat for 453 Sqn had “laid bare the Buffalo’s weaknesses” and yet most of the losses were due to inexperienced pilots getting bounced as they were taking off. Any fighter is at its most vulnerable when taking off and landing and so losses under those conditions demonstrate nothing except the wider issues that plagued the air campaign in Malaya – lack of early warning and a non-existent ground control capability to direct fighters towards incoming Japanese aircraft. Matt O’Mara’s Buffalo that he force-landed at Kuala Kangsar was not written off. He simply ran out of fuel and landed on a polo field. He took off from the polo field the following morning and returned safely to Ipoh. The statement about all spark plugs having to be replaced after every mission is absolute nonsense – there are numerous examples of the same airframe flying multiple times a day which would be impossible if the plugs were changed after every fight. Finally, 453 Sqn did not burn their remaining aircraft in February 1942. At least 10 and perhaps 12 Buffalos were evacuated from Sembawang during the period 5-9 Feb to the Netherlands East Indies with the intent of carrying on the fight. Your list of credited kills is also incorrect. Both Vanderfield and Clare were listed as aces in the Buffalo, achieving 5 credited kills each. Also, “Austrain” was Jim Austin and “Gorringer” was Keith Gorringe. The Buffalo was far from being a great aircraft, indeed it was decidedly mediocre…but presenting incorrect information does nothing to educate people about the campaign or the bravery of the pilots and groundcrew who operated under some of the most challenging conditions.

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    • Kingsleyr says:

      Thanks for your opinion which I greatly appreciate. I do present the facts as I have collected them, without bias and without the idea to show something is “bad” or “good”. There is considerable discussion on a variety of forums on the Buffalo performance, on the sequence in which the Ki.43 entered the Malayan conflict and the presence (if at all) of the A6M. I will re-check the facts and – if necessary – correct the post.
      Robert Kingsley

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      • M Haselden says:

        Hi Robert. Thanks for the response. I’ve studied the air campaign over Malaya and Singapore for a number of years, including accessing primary sources not available to most researchers (eg pilot logbooks and diaries, unit records and a plethora of other data spread across numerous files at the UK’s National Archives). Feel free to email me directly if you have any questions or require source information for my assertions.
        Kind regards,
        Mark

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      • Kingsleyr says:

        Thanks Mark, I will write in more detail to your MSN address. Your comments are very valuable since, as I said, I try to paint an honest picture. The only bias I may have is my growing anger with the incredible complacency and mind boggling official stupidity of that time. I am writing a historical fiction novel based upon the Malayan and NEI campaigns and I must confess I sometimes find it hard to restrain my words.
        Thanks again; I’ll be in touch.
        Robert

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