RAAF/NZ/RAF Squadrons in Malaya 1941

Doing additional research for a forthcoming book, I am becoming more and more impressed with the deeds of the men serving in Commonwealth and NEI squadrons during the bitterly fought 55 day Malayan campaign that ended with the surrender of Singapore. Today, I have updated my overview of Commonwealth squadrons – notably about No. 243 and 453 squadrons. One of the other finds was this photo.


Hurricane IIc, presumably of No.488 (NZ) Sqn at Singapore’s Kallang airfield, Jan/Feb 1942 (Source B.Hackett)

It shows a Hawker Hurricane at Kallang airfield, probably early February 1942. By that time the other Singapore airfields had come in range of the Japanese artillery across the straits of Johore and had been abandoned. No. 488 (NZ) Squadron is reported to have received nine of these cannon armed Hurricanes though the operational history is sketchy (to say the least).

Another “find” was the official “Report on air operations in Malaya and the Netherlands East Indies 1941 – 1942” , published as a supplement to the “London Gazette” of February 26, 1948. For those of you interested in the state of preparedness of the defence of Singapore and Malaya it is a real eye opener


RAF Order of Battle in Malaya as of November 22nd 1941

The air defence of the whole, immense peninsula had to be carried out with 43 Brewster Buffalo fighters. The defence against enemy shipping was put on the shoulders of two squadrons equipped with obsolete Vickers Vildebeest biplane torpedo bombers that could not even top 100 Mph…
And still, they fought with what they had.

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The “Akutan Zero”

Was it “a prize almost beyond value to the United States” and did it “much to hasten Japan’s final defeat”? Or was it a good additional source of information, confirming what was already known through diligent intelligence work and patient investigation of recovered wreckage? This discussion is still going on.

But whatever the discussion, the discovery and salvage of an almost brand new Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero in a swamp on the island of Akutan is one the most intriguing tales of the Pacific war.

Akutan Zero 3_1

Koga’s Zero at Akutan Island (Source: US Navy)

On June 4, 1942, Chief Petty Officer Makoto Endo led a three-plane Zero section from the carrier “Ryujo”. The other pilots were Flight Petty Officers Tsuguo Shikada and Tadayoshi Koga. Koga was a small nineteen-year old son of a rural carpenter. His light gray Zero, serial number 4593, had left the Mitsubishi Nagoya aircraft factory on February 19, only three and a half months earlier.

Akutan Zero_Koga

A Japanese Navy photographs of Flight Petty Officer Tadayoshi Koga.

They had orders to raid Dutch Harbor in the Aleutians, probably a diversion to lure American forces away from the developing battle for Midway. Endo’s flight attacked and severely damaged an American PBY-5A Catalina not far from Dutch Harbor. Its pilot, Bud Mitchell, made an emergency landing at sea. He and his six crewmen crowded in a dinghy and tried the reach the nearby shore but Endo’s flight strafed them until they were all killed.

After massacring the PBY’s crew Endo and his flight then joined eleven other Zeroes that were strafing Dutch Harbor. Together with twenty bombers they blasted oil storage tanks, a warehouse, a hospital, a hangar, and a beached freighter. The Americans on the ground retaliated with everything they had. Members of the 206th Coast Artillery Regiment and sailors on various US Navy ships put up a hailstorm of bullets, mostly from .50 caliber machineguns but also from even smaller weapons. Flying through this intense ground fire  Koga’s Zero was hit in several places. One .50 slug severed the return line between the oil cooler and the engine and the plane immediately began trailing oil.

Knowing it was only a matter of minutes before his engine would seize up, Koga headed west to Akutan Island, 25 miles distant from Dutch Harbor. He knew a Japanese submarine was waiting near that island to pick up downed pilots. With an overheating engine, Koga circled a grassy valley floor half a mile inland from Broad Bight. The ground looked firm  but coming down he saw the gleam of water beneath knee-high grass. It was a bog and he should have made a belly landing. But it was too late; his engine had seized up and his wheels and flaps were down and he was committed. Then his wheels touched and they dug in, flipping the Zero violently onto its back, throwing up a cloud of water, grass, and mud. It came to a rest upside down and without a sign of life from Koga.

All Japanese pilots had standing orders to destroy any disabled Zeroes lest they fall into enemy hands. Koga’s wingmen couldn’t bring themselves to shoot the plane up, fearing they might kill their friend. They returned to their carrier, not knowing Koga hadn’t survived,: His neck had broken when the plane flipped over.

For more than a month, the wrecked Zero lay in the bog, unnoticed by U.S. patrol planes and offshore ships. Then, finally, on July 10 a U.S. Navy Catalina returned from an overnight patrol. They had navigated by dead-reckoning and were unsure of their position. Recognizing the Shumagin Islands they returned to Dutch Harbor by the most direct course—across Akutan Island. Crossing the island, the plane’s captain, Albert Knack, called, “Hey, there’s an airplane on the ground down there. It has meatballs on the wings.” Lieutenant William “Bill” Thies, circled the wreck to make sure and hurried to Dutch Harbor. There he persuaded his squadron commander Paul Foley to let him take a party to have a look at the downed plane.


Thies and his party at the downed Zero (Source: US Navy)

He returned the next day, July 11. The team extracted Koga’s body from the plane by having Knack (the smallest crew member) crawl up inside the plane and cut his safety harness with a knife. They searched it for anything with intelligence value, and buried Koga in a shallow grave near the crash site. Returning to Dutch Harbor Thies reported the plane as salvageable and a team was sent out on July 13 to retrieve it. Several attempts to right the plane failed. The tripods they used sank almost a yard in the mud and heavy equipment could not be unloaded as the salvage ship had already lost two anchors. Finally, on July 15, the salvage team managed to free the Zero from the mud.The plane was too heavy to turn over with the equipment on hand, so it was left upside down while a tractor dragged it on a skid to the beach and a barge. At Dutch Harbor it was turned over with a crane, cleaned, and crated, wings and all.


The “Akutan Zero” at Dutch Harbor, prior to being crated (Source: US Navy)

When it arrived at North Island Naval Air Station, San Diego, a twelve-foot-high stockade was erected around it, inside a hangar guarded by armed Marines. Salvaging what they could and fabricating the few new parts needed, Navy mechanics brought the plane back up to flying condition. On September 20, Lieutenant Commander Eddie Sanders became the first pilot to fly a Zero in American colours. Sanders flew 24 test flights in 25 days.

During those flights Sanders discovered several critical flaws in the Zero’s performance, notably a difficulty of performing rolls at moderately high speeds and a carburettor fault, causing the engine to falter during negative G’s at high speed.

Akutan Zero 4

Lt. Cdr. Eddy Sanders taxiing the “Akutan Zero”, just before its first test flight

Some historians dispute the degree to which the Akutan Zero influenced the outcome of the air war in the Pacific. For example, the Thach Weave, a tactic created by John Thach and used with great success by American airmen against the Zero, was devised by Thach prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, based on intelligence reports on the Zero’s performance in China. As another example, Grumman used intelligence reports drawn up after examining the wrecks of 9 Zero’s downed at Pearl Harbor to improve the F4F Wildcat and re-design the XF-6F-1 Hellcat. But nothing beats the possession of an enemy’s prime fighter to develop tactics and train aviators.

The Akutan Zero was destroyed during a training accident in February 1945. While it was taxiing for a take-off, a SB2C Helldiver lost control and rammed into it. The Helldiver’s propeller sliced the Zero into pieces. Only a few parts were salvaged an later donated to various museums.

Note: I have also updated the “Mitsubishi A6m Zero-Sen” page

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Fokker T-IX – the “Might Have Been…”

Fokker was quite upset by the loss of his commercial market to Douglas and the Dutch East Indies military market to Glenn Martin. In an attempt to re-coup their losses, Fokker Aircraft belatedly switched to all-metal aircraft construction. One of their key projects was the Fokker T-IX medium bomber, seen as a possible replacement for the ML/KNIL’s Glenn Martin B-10 fleet that was rapidly approaching obsolescence.


Preparing the sole T-IX for another demonstration flight. Schiphol Airport, early 1940 – Source unknown

The T-IX, made its first flight at Amsterdam Schiphol Airport on September 10, 1939, piloted by T.H. (“Hidde”) Leegstra. Its two Bristol Hercules II 14-cylinder twin row radial engines of 1,375 hp gave it a top speed of around 440 Km/h (270 mph). The airplane carried a crew of five and its armament consisted of a nose mounted 20mm gun and two defensive 7.7 mm guns (0.303 Inch) in dorsal and ventral positions. A maximum bomb load of 2000 Kg (4400 Lbs.) could be carried over short distances.

On September 23, 1939 a demo session was held for a ML/KNIL delegation (for which the T-IX was re-serialled “701”) but no orders were placed. From then on the plane was serialled “970”. On March 8, 1940, while making a routine landing at Schiphol Airport, the T-IX’s landing gear collapsed and the aircraft suffered considerable damage


March 8, 1940: T-IX on its belly after its landing gear collapsed during a routine touch-down.- Source: H. Dekker

Before the airplane could be repaired the German Wehrmacht unleashed its “Blitzkrieg” against the Low Countries. The Netherlands capitulated on May 15, 1940 and all Fokker’s assets were seized. Luftwaffe technical teams inspected the wreckage of the T-IX but showed no interest, apart from removing the Bristol Hercules engines.

The airframe was damaged further during allied bombardments of Schiphol Airport. At the conclusion of the war in Europe some T-IX parts ended up at Delft Technical University and at Gilze Rijen Airfield. They were scrapped in 1960.

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Ryan STM – First Solo Flight

in 1941, the Dutch Naval Air Service (MLD) embarked on a crash program to train pilots for the numerous aircraft it had on order in the US. To speed up training the MLD hired no less than 12 (!) American instructors and a great number of pupils went through their hands.


The moment of truth! MLD instructor sending his student on his first solo. Morokrembangan, 194141

Dutch instructors, however, were responsible for the end result. Here’s a fragment from a Dutch Navy propaganda film (“Wings of the Navy”) released in 1941. It shows the classical moment of truth: an instructor sending one  of his student pilots on his first solo-flight…

Read more about the Ryan STM trainers at “Aircraft: Ryan STM in Dutch Service”

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PBY Catalina – The Dutch Navy’s “Eyes in the Sky”

The first Consolidated PBY-5 Catalina’s were ordered by the end of 1940 and delivered in 1941.


Early delivery PBY-5 Catalina’s in Dutch wartime camouflage – mid 1941. (Source Royal Dutch Navy)

A total of 75 Cats found their way to the Dutch Naval Air Service. The initial order was for the ‘standard’ PBY-5 version; subsequent orders were for the more versatile PBY-5A amphibian. The Type would see continuous use with Dutch Navy until the final “Cat” was withdrawn from use in the summer of 1957 (!)

The Dutch navy used its seaplanes as “Eyes in the Sky”, guiding submarines to their targets This tactic was remarkably successful during the opening phase of the pacific war when the Japanese forces had not yet established their air superiority. The Dutch seaplanes had to abandon their offensive role when Japanese fighters started to operate from captured airfields around the Java Sea. From then on, the remaining seaplanes (Cats and Dornier 24K’s) were relegated to reconnaissance duties.

26 Catalina’s were shot down or destroyed during the fierce fighting for the Indonesian islands. After the Battle for Java was lost, a number of survivors, some of them overloaded with refugees, escaped to Australia (Broome) or Ceylon in early March 1942. (See my post “Broome, Australia’s Pearl Harbor)

In April 1942 it was decided to establish a Dutch Naval squadron at China Bay, Ceylon, under RAF control. It was formed around the surviving ‘Java’ PBYs, to which another five were added that had been delivered to Australia at the time of the Dutch capitulation. The unit was officially established at the end of May as RAF 321 squadron, part of 222 Group Coastal Command. 321 Squadron’s Catalina’s served all over the Indian Ocean until the squadron transitioned to B-24 Liberators early in 1945.

Y-38 Morokrembangan 1941

PBY-5 Catalina “Y-38” at anchor at Morokrembangan, Java, mid 1942. (Source: Royal Dutch Navy)

More information on the Dutch Cats can be found on the page “Consolidated PBY Catalinas in Dutch service”

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Curtiss CW22 “Falcon” – the KNIL’s mystery plane…

Remarkably little is known about the Curtiss CW 22 “Falcon” in Dutch service. The type was developed as a descendant from the CW-19 design (as was the CW 21 “Interceptor” fighter). Powered by a 420 Hp Wright R-975 – 28 Whirlwind radial, it made its first flight in 1940. The two-seater could be used for training, reconnaissance or communications purposes. It also had a (limited) ground attack capability, being armed with one fixed and one movable machine gun.


A couple of early delivery KNILCW 22 “Falcons” in flight during 1941 (source unknown)

Seen as a suitable replacement for the rather antiquated Fokker C-X and Koolhoven FK-51 bi-planes in use with the ML-KNIL as reconnaissance and courier planes, the Netherlands Purchasing Commission placed an initial order of 36 CW 22’s with the Curtiss-Wright St. Louis division. 35 were delivered during 1941 and the planes were serialled CF-464 to 499. An order for 25 additional CW 22’s was placed by the end of 1941. Twenty one were en-route for Java (14 aboard MS “Tjibesar” and 7 aboard MS “Sloterdijk”). They were unloaded in Australia and confiscated by the USAAF. The five remaining airframes never left the US but were transferred to the US Navy as SNC-1’s.

From then on the trail of the “Falcons” gets obscure…

The ML-KNIL Order of Battle of December 7, 1941 shows the allocation of 23 “Falcons”, 12 attached to VKA-1 (Reconnaissance Squadron 1) at Tjikembar (West Java) and attached to KNIL HQ. Another 11 CW22’s were allocated to VKA-2 (Reconnaissance Squadron 2) at Yogyakarta (East Java). This leaves 11 CW 22’s unaccounted for.


A captured KNIL CW 22, seen here with a CW 21 and a Boeing B-17 at the Tachikawa Technical Centre in Japan, sometime during 1942

One possible explanation is that some machines were kept in reserve while others were hastily sent to various “outstations” such as the Pameungpeuk airstrip at Java’s south coast.

Recent research has, however, supplied a more sinister reason for a number of CW 22’s dropping out of sight. It has been established that a number of CW 22’s have been involved in the KNIL’s chemical warfare program.

Alarmed by the Japanese use in China of various gas weapons (mustard gas, lewisite) the KNIL decided to prepare itself for (defence against) chemical warfare. A complete chemical plant was ordered from the Dutch State Armament Factory near Amsterdam. It was shipped out (including the base-chemicals) and re-built on a military site at Batujajar (near Bandung, West Java) in 1939. Its five underground storage tanks could hold 65 tonnes of mustard gas. Thus, the Netherlands East Indies possessed a (modest) volume of battle-ready chemical agents of the lethal kind.

Delivery was a headache. Although proof of the exact devices used (or foreseen to be used) is not available, circumstantial evidence points towards plans to equip a squadron of Glenn Martins with 300 Kg ‘chemical bombs’. It is certain though that Curtiss Wright CW-22 Falcons were prepared for spraying operations. These planes have been seen with aluminium spray-installations at Andir (Bandung, Java). There is also evidence of mechanics have been trained in the handling of mustard gas and the use of full protective clothing.

During the three months war with Japan (8 December 1941 – 8 March 1942) both sides refrained from using chemical weapons. But one peculiar (and disturbing) detail has come to light.

On the 1st of March 1942, with Japanese forces streaming ashore at the Java coast near Eretan Wetan, a number of CW-22’s were suddenly fitted with spraying gear while orders were submitted to fill the tanks with mustard gas. It is uncertain whether intentions were to apply the gas on the Japanese invasion force ‘as a last desperate act’ or whether the intentions were to spray the gas across the ocean to prevent it from falling into Japanese hands.

It can nevertheless not be ruled out that some impulsive action had been on the verge of happening. Fortunately for all concerned, somewhere up the line a wise man decided to call the thing off. The Japanese would have been overjoyed to announce to the world what ordeal had come upon them, particularly in the light of the Chinese accusations at the League of Nations in 1937…


Japanese Special Naval Landing Forces with gas masks and rubber gloves during a chemical attack, Battle of Shanghai, 1937


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Swim for your life! A survivors tale…


Sergeant Melvin O’Donoho’s survival after being shot down at Broome. 
b24-321sqn-cocos-islandsOn March 3, 1942 at 09:15 at Broome Airfield, Australia, the pilot of an Air Transport Command B-24A (40-2370) was given a list of nineteen evacuees from Java to be flown  to Perth. Among the passengers was Captain Charles Stafford (7th Bombardment Group medical officer) with wounded under his care, and seven ground crew from the 17th Pursuit Squadron, including sergeants Melvin O’Donoho and William A, Beatty.
Piloted by Major Edson E. Kester and Lt. William E. Ragsdale, the B-24 took off from Broome Airfield at 09:23, just prior to the Japanese air raid. The overloaded B-24 struggled to climb away when, at 600 feet altitude, it was attacked by a Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero piloted by Warrant Officer Osamu Kudo who had just strafed the airfield.

O’Donoho recalls: “I was in the bomb bay. The plane had been converted into a transport for the emergency evacuation, and there were about 25 or 30 of us in it—army officers, medical personnel and some sick men…”

“I saw the incendiaries tearing into the plane; [(they] hit the gas tank and set the ship afire. Flames were seeping [into] the bomb bay and I got as low as I could. The plane was so full there wasn’t anywhere to move to…

The bomber crashed into Roebuck Bay roughly 10 miles from shore and 7 miles off Cable Beach. On impact, the fuselage broken into two pieces, the wings separated and the pieces sank within three minutes. Beatty and O’Donoho were thrown clear. They glimpsed Doctor Stafford trying to get his wounded out of the front section, just before men and plane disappeared. For a while there was yelling and screaming but soon they were alone in the water, struggling against the waves and a very strong current. They could not see the coast but the tower of smoke from the burning amphibians served as a landmark.


Broome, Roebuck Bay, after the Japanese strike om March 3, 1942. Photo by a Japanese reconnaissance plane

They swam steadily all afternoon and towards evening they were close inshore. Then the tide turned. It falls 29 feet at Broome and swept them out to sea again. They swam all night. When Beatty weakened, Donoho took him between his legs an kept swimming for the coast. By morning they were about 200 yards from the shore. But the tide started to turn again and Donoho could make no headway while towing Beatty. He had to leave him and go for help alone. The tide swept him five miles down the coast and he almost gave up. Finally, 33 hours after the crash he waded ashore. He scanned the sea but there was no sign of Beatty. There was a lighthouse in the distance but it turned out to be deserted. Forcing himself to stumble along the shore, he made his way back to Broome and reached the airfield at sunset, stark naked, badly sunburnt and totally exhausted…


Newspaper article about Melvin O’Donoho’s miraculous survival – Source: “Ancestral Ties”

Rescuers found Beatty the next day – he also had managed to get ashore. But he was delirious when they found him and they rushed him to the Perth hospital on the next plane but though he reached the hospital still alive he never regained consciousness and died…

Melvin O’Donoho fully recovered and was sent to serve as an armourer in New Guinea for (in his own words) “…15 hellish months, ducking into ditches when Japs bombed and running for [his] life when they strafed…”

He was the sole survivor. The rest of the crew were officially declared dead on March 3, 1942. Beatty and Bunardzya were officially declared dead on July 3, 1942.

Crw and passengers on board were:
Pilot Major Edson Eugene Kester, O-22354 (MIA / KIA) FL
Co-Pilot Captain William “Bill” Ragsdale, Jr., O-022514 (MIA / KIA) TX
Passenger Sgt Melvin O. Donoho, 18003946, 17th PS, armorer (survived) Covington, OK
Passenger Sgt Willard J. Beatty, 6256686 24th PG, 17th PS (MIA / KIA) CO
Passenger Captain Charles A. Stafford, 022686 Medical Corps (MIA / KIA) WY
Passenger Keats Poad, O-421213 (MIA / KIA) PA
Passenger 2nd Lt. Richard L. Taylor, O-427045 (MIA / KIA) NY
Passenger SSgt Howard C. Cliff, 7021697 (MIA / KIA) PA
Passenger SSgt John M. Rex, 6581412 (MIA / KIA) UT
Passenger SSgt Elvin P. Westcott, 6386186 (MIA / KIA) MS
Passenger Sgt Samuel F. Foster, 6252463 (MIA / KIA) AR
Passenger Cpl Jack T. Taylor, 18034892 (MIA / KIA) TX
Passenger Pvt Richard G. Sheetz, 13000321 (MIA / KIA) VA
Passenger 2nd Lt. Howard K Petschel, O-412158 7th BG, HQ (MIA / KIA) MN
Passenger Captain Charles A. Stafford, O-022686 Medical Corps (MIA / KIA) WY
Passenger Captain Harry W Markey, O-021663 (MIA / KIA) WA
Passenger Pvt Joseph N. Gordon, 34044808 52nd Signal Battalion (MIA / KIA) TN
Passenger Pfc Nicholas D. Bunardzya, 6999625 (MIA / KIA) PA
Passenger Pvt Clarence B. Johnson, 20911984 43d Material Sq, 32d ABG (MIA / KIA) CA
Passenger SSgt Leo D. Steinmetz, 6914316 (MIA / KIA) KS
Passenger Cpl Hubert McDonald, 14029544 (MIA / KIA) GA
All are memorialized on the tablets of the missing at Manila American Cemetery.

Based on the newspaper account in ‘” Ancestral Ties” – Clarence O’Donoho’s family website, Bob Livingstone’s “Under the Southern Cross – the B-24 Liberator in the South Pacific and information from the Air Transport Safety Database.

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