WW2 – Singapore 1939-42

When war was declared, the squadron airmen were ordered out of the Station Cinema at Seletar to prepare three aircraft for operations. The three aircraft, K6379, K6384 and K6385 were fully armed and ordered to deploy to Alor Star on the northern coast of Malaya, for an indefinite period.

Briefings for this deployment were on a ‘war footing’, with sealed orders and instructions that radio silence was to be maintained. WOPs were ordered to ‘listen out’ but not to transmit. Arrival at Alor Star entailed ‘manhandling’ and making ready bombs, as there were no bomb trolleys available. Additionally, it was deemed necessary to institute a permanent state of readiness. The detachment at Alor Star was ordered to investigate some (rumoured) reports of a German naval force sailing off the coast of Malaya. After two weeks of fruitless searching, with no German shipping having been sighted, the three aircraft returned to Seletar.

The following two years passed, more or less, uneventfully. The Squadron continued training but with three of the Vildebeests on permanent standby for any operational emergencies. Even so, Squadron flying time was halved to conserve fuel. One such emergency arose in February 1941 when the presence of an unidentified submarine was reported in the Straits of Johore, but it turned out to be a false alarm. Everyday life in Singapore resumed its tranquillity with the feeling ‘it won’t happen here’.

Early in December 1940, hopes and morale on the Squadron were raised when it was heard that the ageing and obsolete Vildebeests were to be replaced by Australian built Beauforts, then the fastest medium bomber in the world. On 15th August, the Squadron received two Blenheims to begin the process of converting the pilots to twin-engine aircraft. In July 1941, Fg Off Mitchell with an advance party of five had flown to Fisherman’s Bend in Australia for familiarisation with the Beauforts. Crew training under the command of Wg Cdr McKern, the CO of 100 Squadron then took place, and a flight of six Beauforts were flown to Singapore via Alice Springs, Darwin and Surabaya to Seletar. The whole station welcomed this flight when it arrived at Seletar at 15:00 hours on 6th December 1941. These aircraft became ‘Q’ Flight of 100 Squadron, and we shall return to ‘Q’ Flight a little later in our story.

On 2nd December 1941, Singapore had been heartened by the arrival of Churchill’s Force ‘Z’; this consisted of the battleships HMS Prince of Wales, and HMS Repulse with a destroyer escort, which would defend Singapore from attack. Quite amazingly, there was no aircraft carrier in Force Z, with HMS Indomitable still carrying out her working up trials in the West Indies. The elation was to be short lived, and 100 Squadron’s real entry into World War II began on 8th December 1941 when Flt Lt Mitchell was ordered to carry out a high level sortie in his Beaufort to photograph a Japanese naval convoy heading south west from Saigon.

The fleet was located some 30 miles off shore, and photographs were being taken from 20,000 feet when the navigator spotted six Zeroes taking off from an aircraft carrier. Mitchell and his crew came under attack from these aircraft and, on entering a steep turn, the port engine was hit by gunfire, causing the Beaufort to go into a spin from which Mitchell recovered at 10,000 feet, and quickly headed for cloud cover. The gunner, Sgt Barcroft, was hit during the fight, but reported that he had in turn hit one of the Zeroes, which he thought he had shot down. The WOP, Sgt Gibson, also received slight wounds to his thigh, but Mitchell managed to land the Beaufort safely at Kota Bharu in the middle of a Japanese strafing attack. Mitchell managed to get the photographs back to Seletar by flying there in a Brewster Buffalo. Attempts to repair the damaged Beaufort were continually thwarted by Japanese air attacks until the aircraft finally caught fire and burned out.

The first Japanese air raid on Singapore came on 8th December, with bombs falling on Seletar airfield at 04:00 hours, along with reports of landings in Thailand and northern Malaya. The raid on Singapore caused little damage, but morale took a dent. Five Beauforts remained at Seletar, all of them minus bomb and torpedo racks, and guns, and all suffering various technical deficiencies such as inadequate fuel feed lines, airscrew problems and inefficient brakes. It was clear that these aircraft needed modifications and improvements before they would be fit for combat, although it has also been suggested that they were being returned to Australia to prevent them falling into enemy hands. On 19th December 1941, four of the five Beauforts of ‘Q’ Flight took off for the first leg to Surabaya under the command of Wg Cdr McKern.

So, the RAF was ‘back to square one’ in terms of aircraft complement with only the Vildebeests, Albacores and Hudson’s, plus a few Hurricanes as fighter cover, with which to defend Singapore. It was decided that the Vildebeests of 36 and 100 Squadrons were too vulnerable for use in daylight attacks, and they were to be held in reserve to deal with any emergency or Japanese sea borne attack on Singapore. 100 Squadron was therefore sent to Kuantan to join 36 Squadron along with the Australian Hudson’s of 1 and 8 Squadrons, and the Blenheims of 62 Squadron, although both 36 and 62 Squadrons returned to Singapore the next day.

The Japanese attacked Kuantan on 10th December; little damage was caused to the airfield although one Vildebeest was lost. Basil Gotto, in his superb diaries, told of the panic and lack of leadership from the top. Kuantan managed to hold out for another two weeks. The next day, 11th December, disaster struck again, when Force Z. which had sailed to intercept the Japanese invasion fleet, came under attack. Force Z had sailed without air cover; the battleships engaged the Japanese invasion fleet, and came under attack from Japanese submarines using torpedoes. Both battleships were damaged, and were then attacked from the air by high-level bombers. Both battleships ‘Prince of Wales’ and ‘Repulse’ were sunk leaving Singapore and Malaya vulnerable to sea borne Japanese attacks.

The tragedy of Force Z is a story in itself, but it serves to illustrate the muddle and indecisive approach, which pervaded the whole of the Malayan chapter of World War II; the muddle which led to 100 Squadron paying dearly with lives, aircraft and many men suffering the horrors of Japanese POW camps.

The Japanese had gone ashore in the three-pronged attack at Singara, Kron and Kota Bharu on the north east coast of Malaya. By the end of 1941, the Japanese invading forces had occupied much of the western coast of Malaya. Due to the lack of fighter cover, the slow flying Vildebeests were restricted to making night attacks only, and throughout December Allied ground forces were obliged to make a series of withdrawals. The Japanese advance continued and they captured Singora, Kota Bharu, Alor Star, Georgetown, Butterworth, Penang, Taiping and Ipoh. By early January 1942, 100 Squadron were making bombing missions in an attempt to halt the Japanese southward march.

Despite these bombing missions, the Japanese advance continued; Kampar fell on 2nd January, the Slim River was crossed on 7th, and Kuala Lumpur was taken on the 11th of January 1942. On 20th January, 11 Vildebeests of 100 Squadron attacked Kuantan destroying six Japanese aircraft, and on the 24th, accompanied by 3 Albacores, they destroyed a vital rail bridge at Labis. On the night of 25th January, the Squadron took part in an action covering the evacuation of an Australian battalion trapped near Bata Bahat. For this difficult operation, the crews received a commendation from AHQ Singapore. On return to base, news was received of a large Japanese invasion force sighted twenty miles north east of Endau. The force consisted of 2 cruisers, 11 or 12 destroyers and two large merchantmen.

If the Japanese made a landing at Endau, the new force could link up with those on the west coast cutting off Singapore from the north, so trapping the Allied forces still fighting there. There were no long-range bombers or army co-operation aircraft available, and many of the Hurricanes sent to provide fighter cover were still in packing cases and awaiting the arrival of ground crews. As Wing Commander Brookes wrote, “100 Squadron was ready to pay the price for 10 years of gross negligence and apathy.“ 100 Squadron paid that price on the 26th January 1942. 100 and 36 Squadrons were ordered to attack the invading Japanese force north east of Endau. 10 Vildebeests of 100 Squadron, and 2 from 36 Squadron, along with 9 Hudson’s with a fighter escort of 8 Hurricanes and 15 Buffaloes, took off in the early afternoon of 26th January.

Padre A S Giles watched the force take off, and it is worth recalling his words in their entirety: “I saw the Squadron setting out on that last raid on Endau. Their actions were more than the ordinary fulfilment of duty; for flying Vildebeest aircraft on a daylight raid, they knew they had little chance of coming through unscathed. As I spoke to many of them before they set off, I knew a good deal of their own feelings; their gallantry, therefore, to me, is a very real thing.” Bob Hampton recalls, “They made a brave sight as the Vildebeests circled the airfield and headed outwards towards their target on the east coast of the peninsula. Bravery itself, however, was not enough. The Endau airmen remain unsung heroes.” The force scored direct hits on two large merchantmen, and further hits on a cruiser, barges and troops landing on the coast. It was, however, already too late as the landings had been in progress for over four hours. The British fighters shot down 9 enemy aircraft, but 100 Squadron paid dearly. At torpedo dropping height, the Vildebeests were ‘sitting ducks’ for the guns of the Japanese Naval Force; decimation was the result with 100 Squadron losing their CO, Sqn Ldr Rowlands along with 5 Vildebeests and their crews.

A second, and final, desperate effort to halt the invasion was made late in the afternoon by 9 Vildebeests from 100 and 36 Squadrons, accompanied by 3 Albacores and escorted by 4 Buffaloes and 8 Hurricanes. They were met by a large force of Japanese Zero and Army fighters. Although this second force scored hits on a transport vessel, the whole operation was an exercise in heroic futility. 5 more Vildebeests, all of the Albacores, and 1 Hurricane were lost along with their crews.

At the end of January 1942, the Vildebeests of 100 and 36 Squadrons loaded up with torpedoes and whatever spares that could be carried in preparation for evacuation to Java. However, and much to its dismay, the remaining Vildebeests of 100 Squadron were handed over to 36 Squadron. 100 Squadron lost its identity and operated under the command of Sqn Ldr J T Wilkins of 36 Squadron for the remainder of its fight in the Far East. There was some resentment amongst 100 Squadron personnel, but unknown to them, ‘Q’ Flight was operating as 100 Squadron at Richmond in Australia, and we shall return to this aspect later.

The final days of the fighting in Singapore and Java are confused, and it is difficult to piece together a definitive story. However, it seems that the remaining Vildebeests left Singapore for Tijikampok in northern Java on the 8th of February 1942. On 15th February, the aircraft and aircrews were joined by the ground crews, but much of their equipment, spares and indeed the 100 Squadron Silver had been lost in the transit between Singapore and Java via Sumatra. All of the 100 Squadron Records were also lost in the chaos and turmoil of the evacuation from Singapore. This loss is likely to be the major factor in the total lack of decorations awarded to 100 Squadron for their part in the Battle for Endau.

The combined 100/36 Squadron had 12 remaining Vildebeests, but these were deteriorating due to lack of spares and one was ‘cannibalised’ to supply parts for the remainder. Torpedoes were discarded in favour of 250-pound General Purpose bombs. On the 27th February the Squadron was ordered to Mandeong in preparation for an attack on a Japanese convoy of 57 ships off the north east coast of Java. This was to be the prelude to the Battle of the Java Sea. At Mandeong, the Squadron met up with an American Flying Fortress Squadron, and all were briefed for this mission. 8 Vildebeests and 1 Albacore made up the RAF contingent, along with 4 or 5 Fortresses. Cloud base was 2,500 ft, and the Vildebeests went in at 2,000 ft with the Forts bombing from 8,500 ft. Nine enemy vessels were sunk, and considering the cloud cover it is most likely that the Forts failed to score any hits. Returning to base the engine of Basil Gotto’s Vildebeest ‘died’ on him and he crash-landed in a paddy field. The crew were uninjured and made their way back to Mandeong.

The Japanese made landings on the north coast of Java the following day some 60 miles from Mandeong. The base was ordered to be evacuated and destroyed, and the Americans loaded up their Forts in preparation for evacuation to Australia. As an example of the bravery of the men of 100 Squadron in their determination to fight on, we will take up the story of Basil Gotto. The Americans gave Gotto the choice of a Buffalo or a Dauntless dive-bomber. Gotto chose the Dauntless, and was given 30 minutes of ‘instruction’ on the aircraft in a hangar. Sergeants Barnes and Toohey, his WOP/AG and Navigator commandeered a lorry, loaded it up with supplies, a radio, two .5 machine guns and ammunition. They set off for AHQ at Bandung. Gotto took off, and after a hair raising flight of over three hours landed at Tijikampok to find the base already deserted. He then walked for two days to get to Bandung where he met up with the surviving members of the Squadron.

On 4th March, Gotto and Fg Off Reg Lamb set off in a truck loaded with bomb detonators for Tasikmalaja. The remnants of the Squadron were making an attack that night and were scheduled to return to Tasikmalaja. The following night, 5th March, the three remaining Vildebeests attacked a Japanese base at Kalidjati destroying a building and 4 aircraft. Sgt Appleby was killed although his crew managed to escape.

On 7th March, the Dutch surrendered in Java, and the end was rapidly approaching. Sqn Ldr Wilkins had been killed earlier; so Flt Lt Allanson and Fg Off Lamb, who were the two most senior surviving officers, persuaded Air Cdre Staton, the AOC, to allow them to take the two last Vildebeests and to fly as far as possible, ditching in the sea off the west coast of Sumatra in the vague hope of commandeering a junk in which to cross the Indian Ocean. Lots were drawn to decide the crews for the aircraft. The normal crew for a Vildebeest was 3, but it was decided to cram 4 bodies into each aircraft. Included in the list of 8 names was Basil Gotto, and at 01:45 hours on 8th March 1942 the last two Vildebeests K6393 and K6405 took off on what was to be the final flight for 100/36 Squadron in the Far East War. By 06:30 hours with fuel gauges on red the pilots were searching for a suitable place to ditch off Bencoolen. K6393 ditched successfully, and the crew scrambled ashore to a sandy beach. Making their way inland, they were ‘greeted’ by a part of 20 armed Japanese and taken prisoner. K6405 also ditched, but three were drowned with only Sgt Melville survived the crash. He eventually joined the rest of the crew of K6393.

During his time in Japanese POW camps, Gotto kept a detailed diary in a series of ‘Notebooks’. These have survived, and have been transcribed by Group Captain Mike Peaker. This transcription has been given to us and is held on CD in the Archives of 100 Squadron. Gotto survived the Japanese POW camps, and took up farming in Ireland. This intrepid 100 Squadron aviator died in 2006 and was in good form well into his nineties.

Although this was the end of 100 Squadron’s fight in the Far East War, it was not to be the end of 100 Squadron. ‘Q’ Flight was still alive in Australia! The story of 100 Squadron in the Far East War in 1941-42 is an epic of very brave men flying obsolete aircraft against a ruthless and well-equipped foe. The losses suffered by 100 Squadron were severe, and many of our dead comrades rest in cemeteries in Kranji, Yokohama, Ambon, Jakarta, Sumatra, Kanchanburi and Chungkai.

Air Vice Marshall John Herrington has made a visit to several of these cemeteries and memorials. He has provided us with a reasonably definitive listing of the 100 Squadron casualties resting in Far East Cemeteries.
In closing this Chapter of the history of 100 Squadron, we salute those who fought bravely and died, and those who suffered and died in captivity in the Far East War. However, 100, like the Phoenix, would rise from the ashes later in 1942. For the moment, 100 Squadron lived on as ‘Q’ Flight in Richmond Australia.