The air war in Malaya began on December 8, 1941. And contrary to popular belief, the few Commonwealth fighter squadrons were not opposed by the lethal Mitsubishi A6M “Zero’s” but initially by the nimble Nakajima Ki.27 fighter.
This airplane was the winner of a 1935 competition for an advanced fighter, the specification drawn up by the Imperial Japanese Army. It was chosen because of its simple, rugged construction (air cooled engine, non-retractable landing gear, easily maintainable in the field) and its superlative manoeuvrability. Known as the Army Type 97 Fighter Model A, the Ki.27 went into production in 1937 and soon won the Japanese air-superiority in China in 1938. Nakajima built 2.020 Ki.27’s until production ended in 1942. When the type was phased out of front line units, replaced by the Ki.43 Hayabusa (“Oscar”), it was relegated to homeland defence duties and – later – to ‘Kamikaze’ units.
Back to the Malayan campaign. In November 1941, the Imperial Japanese Army secretly built an airstrip on Phu Quoc Island, on the other side of the Gulf of Siam, 300 miles to the north-east from Kota Bharu.
According to one Japanese officer, this strip was pivotal in the early Malayan Campaign.
“…it played a vitally important role in effecting a landing at Kota Bharu, for the Japanese Air Units could operate freely from this newly acquired base, thus accomplishing perfect protection of our convoy of transports and air cover for the landing of our troops at Singora, Patani, and Kota Bharu”.
Once the Japanese invasion forces had secured the Singora and Patani airfields, their fighters could stage through Phu Quoc and start operating in Malaya. This was quickly done and by the end of December 8, 1941, a force of 117 Ki.27 Fighters was assembled in Siam (Thailand). It consisted of
|1st Sentai||42 Ki-27|
|11th Sentai||39 ki-27|
|77th Sentai||27 ki-27|
|4th Chutai||9 I-27|
From mid December 1941 on, their offensive role would gradually be taken over by the 56 battle ready Ki-43 “Hayabusa” (Oscar) fighters of the 59th and 64th Sentais.
Thus, in December 1941, the 18 Buffalos of 21 Sqn and 3 Buffalos of 243 Sqn in northern Malaya were facing a force of 173 Japanese fighters. And although most Ki-27’s of the 77th Sentai went to fight in Burma, it left the Japanese forces with an overwhelming 9 against 1 majority in the air battles of December.
The Brewster Buffalo was certainly a match for the lightly armed and relatively slow Ki.27. But their overwhelming numbers and the battle experience of their pilots tilted the scales in their favor.
Updated December 27, 20