(Last updated April 29, 2016)
The effort made by the Allies to halt the Japanese advance on the Netherlands East Indies (NEI) was significant and brave. Most of these squadrons started the fight against the Japanese in Malaya. They were gradually driven south by the Japanese conquest of Malayan airfields. Most of them were nearly or completely wiped out in ten weeks of hectic fighting. The surviving aircraft and crew fought their final battles from Java airfields…
I have compiled a short combat history of all Australian, British and New-Zealand squadrons that fought during the Malayan and NEI campaign.
1 Sqn RAAF Equipped with Lockheed Hudsons, No. 1 Squadron arrived at Sembawang, Singapore, on 4 July 1940. It relocated to Kota Bharu, near the Malaya–Thailand border early December 1941. On the night of 7/8 December, the Japanese force started landing on the beaches at Kota Bharu, close to the airfield. No. 1 Squadron launched a series of assaults on the Japanese forces, becoming the first aircraft to make an attack in the Pacific an hour before the attack on Pearl Harbor. The Hudsons sank a Japanese transport ship and damaged two more for the loss of two Hudsons. It continued to attack Japanese bases in Malaya and convoys in the Dutch East Indies until, by Christmas Eve 1941, No. 1 Squadron had five serviceable aircraft left. By the end of January 1942, No. 1 Squadron had withdrawn to airfield P.2 on Sumatra, along with several other Commonwealth units. The squadron relocated to Semplak, Java, in mid-February and took over the remaining Hudsons of No. 8 Squadron and No. 62 Squadron RAF, giving it a strength of 25 aircraft No. 1 Squadron suffered heavy losses and was ordered to withdraw its four remaining Hudsons to Australia on 2 March 1942
8 Sqn RAAF The squadron was re-equipped with Lockheed Hudson medium bombers in May 1940 and deployed to Singapore in August. It first saw action within hours of the outbreak of war in the Pacific in December 1941 when its 12 aircraft attacked Japanese shipping off Malaya. The squadron suffered heavy losses from anti-aircraft fire and Japanese fighters in the first days of the Malayan Campaign, during which time it undertook bombing and reconnaissance missions, and as there were no aircraft to replace its losses, the squadron was amalgamated with No. 1 Squadron in February 1942.
13 Sqn RAAF On 7 December, following the start of the Pacific War, No. 13 Squadron deployed two flights of Hudson light bombers to Ambon, where they were based at Laha Airfield. Three days later, the squadron’s commander, Wing Commander Joshua McDonald, was killed in an accident; Squadron Leader John Ryland took over and shortly afterwards the squadron deployed a third flight to Namlea Airfield on Buru Island. At the end of the month, the third flight moved to Babo in Dutch New Guinea. Flying in the face of heavy resistance, and lacking fighter support, the squadron’s aircraft conducted operations throughout the eastern islands of the NEI, during which several aircraft were lost. Others were also destroyed on the ground as Japanese aircraft attacked Laha. The surviving aircraft from these flights returned to Darwin in February 1942, as Ambon faced invasion.
21 Sqn RAAF The squadron was reformed as a fighter squadron and equipped with Brewster Buffaloes during mid-1941. It was based on Sembawang (Singapore) and flew missions alongside the other Buffalo squadrons such as 453 Sqn. No. 21 Squadron suffered severe losses to Japanese fighters, on the ground and in the air, during the first week of the campaign; replacements were only limited, resulting in the squadron’s operational merger with 453 Squadron. 21/453 Squadron as it was known. On January 26, its remaining aircraft were taken away and it was split from No. 453 Squadron. At this point, the squadron’s surviving pilots and ground crew were sent to Java where they undertook ground support duties before being evacuated to Australia. The squadron was disbanded in Fremantle in March 1942
453 Sqn RAAF The squadron had departed Australia without aircraft and arrived in Singapore, in two contingents, on 15 and 21 August 1941, where it was equipped with obsolete Brewster Buffalo fighters. These aircraft had been found to be no match for German aircraft in Europe and were shipped to Singapore under the assumption that Japanese aircraft would be far inferior. They were not. Following the Japanese invasion of Malaya on 8 December 1941, 453 Squadron was deployed to forward airfields at Ipoh and Kuala Lumpur. It valiantly strove to support the ground troops by providing air cover and attacking Japanese troops and transport, but suffered grievously in doing so. With just three serviceable aircraft remaining, 453 Squadron withdrew to Singapore on 24 December. Merged with the RAF’s 251 Squadron it continued to operate as the Japanese advanced relentlessly toward the island. 251 Squadron was evacuated from Singapore on 26 January 1941, leaving 453 the only operational squadron on the island. It fought on with just six Buffaloes until it was ordered to evacuate these to Sumatra on 5 February. The ground crew left by ship the next day, bound for Java. With no replacement aircraft or spares available in the theatre, 453 Squadron could not again be made operational. It landed at Adelaide on 15 March 1942 and immediately disbanded.
8 Sqn The day of Japan’s entry to World War II found 8 Squadron in the process of relocating to Kuantan, Malaya. Twelve Hudsons were immediately dispatched to attack the Japanese invasion forces at Kota Bahru and, despite strong fighter opposition and anti-aircraft fire, made effective attacks against Japanese troops and landing barges. After firmly establishing their bridgehead, Japanese aircraft destroyed the base at Kuantan, forcing 8 Squadron to withdraw to Singapore. On the 27 January 1942, 8 Squadron moved to Java where it continued to conduct vital reconnaissance and attack missions even after the Japanese invaded the island. With aircraft numbers dwindling, 8 Squadron was evacuated to Australia at the end of February.
27 Sqn After a long disbandment the squadron returned to operations as a Blenheim-equipped fighter squadron on October 21, 1940, and in February 1941 it moved to Malaya. When the Japanese invaded Malaya No.27 Squadron was based at Sungei Patani, in the north west of the country. The squadron attempted to attack the invasion fleet at Kota Bahru, but was foiled by poor weather. The Japanese struck next, destroying eight Blenheims on the ground on 8 December, and the squadron withdrew south to Butterworth, before a second move all the way to Singapore. From Singapore the survivors of the squadron moved to Palembang on Sumatra, effectively merging with No.60 and No.34 Squadron – the three squadrons could only produce around a dozen aircraft. No.27 Squadron effectively ceased to exist in February 1942. Many of its personnel managed to escape to India by devious routes.
34 Sqn No.34 Squadron received its Blenheim Is in July 1938, and took them out to Singapore in the autumn of 1939 (as did No.62 Squadron). No.34 shared the fate of every Allied squadron in the areas attacked by the Japanese at the start of 1942 – heavy loses followed by a forced retreat, in this case to Sumatra, then Java. By the end of February the squadron had ceased to exist as a fighting unit, and the surviving ground crew were evacuated to India.
36 Sqn 36 Squadron retained the obsolete Vildebeest biplane, and flew an unsuccessful attack against the Japanese cruiser Sendai during the Battle of Kota Bharu on 8 December 1941. It continued operating against the Japanese, where possible by night, bombing Japanese-held airfields and troops. Three Vildebeests were shot down 0n January 26, 1942, during an attack on Japanese forces landed at Endau, on the east coast of Malaya, 150 miles from Singapore. No 36 and 100 Squadrons repeated the attack two hours later with nine Vildebeests. This time a further five Vildebeests were shot down, and a further two more damaged so badly that they were written off. These losses—which included the commanding officers of both Squadrons—could not be sustained, and the remnants of the two squadrons were evacuated to Java on 31 January, being merged into a single unit. On 28 February, nine Vildebeests attacked a Japanese convoy off Rembang in Northern Java, claiming eight ships sunk but losing another commanding officer. It ceased to exist on 7 March 1942 after its last two Vildebeests ditched off Sumatra while attempting to evacuate to Ceylon
62 Sqn Originally based in Singapore and equipped with Bristol Blenheim the squadron moved to Alor Star (Alor Setar) in February 1940. After the Japanese invasion of Malaya on December 8 the Squadron moved to Butterworth Airfield near Penang. On December 9 the field was heavily raided and a number of Blenheims damaged. The squadron retreated Singapore on December 19. Having lost nearly all its aircraft due to Japanese bombing attacks the squadron re-equipped with Hudsons and moved to Palembang P2 in January 1942. The squadron participated in the attacks against the advancing Japanese in Malaya and lost several Hudsons. Two were lost on January 26 during an unescorted attack on a Japanese invasion fleet near Endau. The Japanese capture of Palembang P1 forced 62 Squadron to retreat to Semplak (Java) where, having handed over its remaining Hudsons to No. 1 Squadron RAAF , it was disbanded on February 20.
84 Sqn No.84 Squadron was one of a number of squadrons that moved from the Middle East to the Far East in an attempt to restore the situation. Equipped with Bristol Blenheim IV’s, the squadron reached Palembang P2 (Sumatra) in late January 1942 where it joined up with survivors of the defeat in Malaya. This combined force was soon threatened by the Japanese invasion of Sumatra and Java. At the end of February most of the ground crew were evacuated by ship back to India, with the remaining air and ground crew not far behind.
100 Sqn The squadron moved to Singapore In December 1933, as part of the overly leisurely construction of the fortress that was seen as the bulwark of the British Empire in the East. The Vildebeests were forced to lumber on long after they became obsolescent, especially after the outbreak of the Second World War in Europe in 1939, but in 1941 plans were put in place for the squadron to convert to the Bristol Beaufort, using aircraft constructed in Australia. A detachment was formed at Bankstown, near Sydney, and in November 1941 the first Beauforts arrived. The Japanese entry into the war ended this plan. A few of the Beauforts reached Singapore, only to almost immediately be evacuated back to Australia, where the detachment entered the Royal Australian Air Force as No.100 Squadron, RAAF. The main part of the squadron was forced to fight on with the Vildebeest, operating alongside No.36 Squadron. In January the Japanese landed on the east coast of Malaya, and on 26 January 1942 nine aircraft from No.100 Squadron and three from No.36, with a small escort force of Hurricanes and Buffaloes, attempted to attack the Japanese transports at Endau. Despite their best efforts very little damage was done, and five aircraft were lost, amongst them the Vildebeest of Squadron Leader I.T.B. Rowland, the leader of the attack. By February losses had mounted so much that the squadron was merged with No.36 Squadron. No.36 was then forced to retreat to Java and then Burma, where it was disbanded after the loss of the last Vildebeest.
211 Sqn. RAF The squadron was equipped with 24 Blenheim IV’s and had around 90 aircrew and over 400 ground staff. In January 1942, it was sent to Singapore but had to relocate to Sumatra on arrival. The squadron suffered heavy casualties during operations from 6 February to 21 February 1942. It lost ten aircraft with 19 aircrew killed or missing. After withdrawing to Java, on February 19, 1942 all surviving aircraft were passed to No.84 Squadron and the squadron personnel were dispersed
232 Sqn RAF In 1941 this Hurricane equipped squadron was dispatched to the Middle East but y the time the squadrons’ convoy reached Cape Town Japan had entered the war and the squadron was diverted to Singapore. The ground echelon disembarked at Singapore on 13 January 1942, but the airfields near the city were already too dangerous to use, and so on 15 January the squadron’s aircraft were embarked on HMS Indomitable, before flying off to Sumatra on 27 January from a point fifty miles to the south of Christmas Island. On 2 February the squadron’s air and ground echelons were reunited at Palembang, Sumatra, but the Japanese invasion of Sumatra forced the squadron to move again, this time to Batavia, Java on 15 February. Here the squadron operated alongside No.605 Squadron, while their aircraft were serviced by a composite unit formed from both fighter squadrons and from the ground crews of No.242 Squadron (this squadron’s pilots had remained behind on Malta when the squadron moved out to the Far East). The two fighter squadrons were in action from 17-27 February 1942, often operating at odds of ten to one or worse, and by noon on 28 February their combined strength was down to that of a single squadron. No.232 was chosen to remain on Java, where on 1 March it took part in the attack on the Japanese forces landing at Eretan Wetan. This last ditch defence was soon over and by the end of March the squadron had been disbanded.
On 12 March 1941, No.243 reformed at Kallang as a fighter squadron for the defence of Singapore. On December 7, 1941 12 Buffaloes were based at Kallang, Singapore; 2 at Kota Bharu, Northern Malaya. On December 12, 4 Buffaloes were flown up to Ipoh and attached to 21 Sq. The squadron lost 7 Buffaloes to accidents in the first week of January.Sq.The shortcomings of its Buffaloes were soon apparent and when Japanese fighters came within range, the squadron suffered heavy losses. and by the end of January 1942 was operating its surviving aircraft as part of a mixed force, the other Buffalo squadrons being in a similar state. Its identity was gradually lost by the evacuation of redundant personnel and by the time all fighters were withdrawn from the Singapore airfields, it no longer existed as a unit. It was disbanded on 27 January 1942 with planes and pilots going to 453 Sqn.
605 Sqn The squadron was equipped with Hawker Hurricanes and was posted overseas in October 1941. It arrived at Singapore in January 1942 and was almost immediate evacuated to Sumatra. After being moved to Java, the squadron took part in the air defence of Batavia from 17-27 February, alongside No.232 Squadron. By 28 February the two squadrons were at less than half strength and it was decided to keep No.232. Volunteers from No.605 filled the gaps in that squadron and the rest of the squadron was evacuated. No.605 ceased to exist in March 1942.
488 (NZ) Sqn The squadron arrived at Kallang Airfield Singapore in November 1941, where it took over the Brewsters of No. 67 Squadron RAF. Kallang was shared with a Brewster detachment of the 2-VLG-V of the Royal Netherlands East Indies Air Force, and No. 243 Squadron RAF, in which most of the aircrew were Kiwis. The squadron received nine Hawker Hurricanes at the end of January to partially replace the Buffaloes, but by 31 January, losses and the ground situation forced a withdrawal to Palembang, Sumatra and a few days later to Tjililitan airfield, near Batavia, Java, where Dutch East Indies Buffalo squadrons were facing a similarly unequal fight. On 23 February, the squadron evacuated Tjililitan, to Fremantle in Australia where it disbanded on 2 March, 1942.