Excerpt from: “A Rude Awakening”
Just after midnight, when the Japanese troop ships had heaved into sight about a mile offshore, a single British 18-pounder gun had opened fire on them. Thus, one hour before the Japanese struck at Pearl Harbor, the defences at Kota Bharu fired the opening rounds in the Pacific War.
The Australians of No. 1 Squadron RAAF had sortied their Hudson bombers in the dark, vainly searching for the enemy in the high winds and monsoon rains, so different from the clear Singapore skies. At daybreak they had taken off again, attacking the swarms of Japanese landing craft struggling through the rough seas towards the coast. Sortie after sortie they flew through such withering anti-aircraft fire that a few hours later only five serviceable Hudsons were left. Flight Lieutenant John Leighton-Jones and his entire crew were killed. After hitting a large troop transport and setting it afire, their Hudson had crashed into a Japanese landing barge, taking it and its sixty occupants to the bottom of the Gulf of Siam
The Japanese ships, 3 altogether, were relentlessly attacked the rest of the day by the Hudsons of Nos. 1 and 8 Squadrons as well as by Blenheims of Nos.27, 34, 60 and 62 Squadrons and the ancient Vildebeests of Nos. 36 and 100 Squadrons. A total of 86 bombers went after the few invasion ships off Kota Bahru and managed to set one of them on fire.
But the main Japanese invasion force off Singora and Patani remained untouched, apart from an inconclusive raid by No.60 Squadron.
Formations of 27 to 60 Japanese bombers flew from their bases in Indochina and attacked Sungei Patani, Penang and Butterworth with light bombs that wrecked aircraft and killed people but did little damage to the airfield installations.
Just after No. 60 Sqn. had landed at Alor Star, 27 Japanese bombers attacked the field. When they noticed the absence of AA fire, they came back at tree-top level and shot up the field. Only two of the eleven Blenheims survived the attack.
Only 50 Blenheims and 14 Hudsons were still airworthy by nightfall on December 8. Mechanics at Butterworth were working through the night to get No. 21 Squadron’s four remaining Buffaloes and one Blenheim ‘Fighter’ airworthy.
Orders were issued on the next day, December 9, to attack the Japanese forces at Singora. The first attack was carried out by six Blenheims that had hurriedly been flown up from Tengah (Singapore). They went in without fighter cover and, as the Japanese Air Force had moved squadrons of Ki.27 fighters into Singora Airfield, the Blenheims did not stand much of a chance. Only three returned and no damage was done, either to the invasion fleet or Singora airfield.
Two Buffaloes had hastily been repaired overnight at Butterworth and Flying Officers Darryl Sproute and Geoffry Sheppard took off at 10.40 am on a reconnaissance mission. They found the Singora Road packed with tanks and trucks of the main Japanese invasion force and left four trucks burning as they beat it back to Butterworth.
The other two Buffaloes had also been repaired and Flt. Lieutenants Fred Williams and Clifford Mc Kenney took off to meet with Blenheims for Singora. When no Blenheims arrived after a while, they turned back to Butterworth, only to find it under heavy attack. The Blenheims of 34 and 62 Squadrons had been about to take off when the Japanese bombers struck. Just a single Blenheim managed to take off, piloted by Squadron Leader Arthur Scarf (see my post ‘Unknown Heroes of the Malayan war – 3’)
Williams and Mc Kenney managed to get their “Buffs” down, only to find the fuel bowser padlocked and no service personnel in sight. They took off again but Mc Kenney was almost immediately attacked by a Ki.27. His fuel tank was hit and exploded. He managed to bail out and landed, badly burned, in the Penang Channel right on top of a fish trap to which he clung until he was rescued by some Malay fishermen.
Williams’ “Buff” had hardly left the ground when the engine backfired and cut out. He crashed straight into the trees surrounding the airfield but miraculously survived.
On the other side of the Malay Peninsula, at Kuantan, things went badly as well. Squadron Leader Henderson, commanding the remnants of Nos. 1 and 8 RAAF Squadrons had urgently asked Singapore HQ to allow him to move his valuable machines from this exposed base. Sime Road HQ took its time and sent a laconic message back.
“Tell S/L Henderson to stay where he is. The bombing of Kuantan is not in the scheme of things”.
By the time Henderson received this message, the Mitsubishi G3M’s from the Genzu Kokutai had paid Kuantan a visit. They made two bombing runs that flattened the place. Then, for good measure, they too came back flying low and shot up everything in sight.
By the end of the day, the situation was dramatic.
The airfields of Alor Star and Sungei Patani were lost, Kota Bahru had been abandoned and personnel at Butterworth had received orders to evacuate. Kuantan was a chaos and would be evacuated the next day. Thus, after two days of war, four major airfields were lost and the total remaining RAF / RAAF strength was now down 50 serviceable aircraft.
That evening, two serviceable Blenheims were flown from Butterworth to Taiping, the two remaining Buffaloes to Ipoh. Six damaged but flyable Blenheims went back to Singapore. The next day, three more or less flyable Hudsons left Kuantan for Singapore, together with some hastily patched up Vildebeests.
The Commonwealth Air Forces had been swept from the skies of North-Malaya and would never be able to regain the initiative. The Commonwealth ground troops were deprived of air cover and would be exposed to Japanese bombing and strafing attacks.
It was a total disaster.
John Burton: “Fortnight of Infamy; the collapse of Allied Air Power West of Pearl Harbor”
Allan Warren: “Britain’s Greatest Defeat – Singapore 1942”
Mark Stille: “Malaya and Singapore 1941 / 42 – the fall of the British Empire in the East”
“10 Days at Butterworth”, article in ‘Eastwards’, Journal of the RAF Butterworth / Penang Association
“Report on the air operations during the campaigns in Malaya and Netherlands East Indies from the 8th December 1941 to the 12th March 1942”, The London Gazette, 26 February 1948
Author’s private collection.