The Air Battles
On the morning of 9th December 1941, six Blenheim light bombers took off from Singapore to attack Singora. They were expecting fighter cover, but the fighters allocated to defend them when they reached northern Malaya, were busy defending their own airfields from Japanese air attacks. The Blenheims pressed on in the face of heavy flak and fighter attack and bombed Singora. Only three aircraft re-crossed the border to land at Butterworth to re-arm and refuel to continue the attacks, with six Blenheims from 62 Squadron based at Alor Star.
Squadron Leader “Pongo” Scarf had just taken off from Butterworth in the lead Blenheim, when a formation of Japanese aircraft bombed the airfield destroying the other bombers on the ground. Scarf continued alone and bombed Singora again at low level, while his Wireless Operator/Air Gunner Sergeant Rich strafed the parked Japanese aircraft. Scarf got out at treetop height, hotly pursued by Japanese fighters. During one of the attacks, Scarf had his left arm shattered and his back smashed by cannon shells. Scarf was held in his seat by Sergeant Rich and managed to crash land the Blenheim in a paddy field, 100 yards from the hospital at Alor Star, where his wife Sally was a nurse. Scarf saw his wife just before he was carried into the operating theatre and squeezed her hand.
“Keep smiling, Sal,” he told her.
Then he died. Squadron Leader Scarf was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross in 1946, when the story of his courage became known.
The air component of British Commonwealth Forces in Malaya was hamstrung by having too few aircraft in the wrong place, no Radar coverage of the northern airfields and flawed planning assumptions regarding the Japanese capability. When hostilities broke out, the Allies in Singapore and Malaya had had four fighter squadrons: No’s 21 and 453 RAAF, 243 RAF, and 488 RNZAF. They were equipped with the Brewster Buffalo B-399E, a plane that aviation historian Dan Ford characterized as pathetic. Its engine had fuel starvation problems and poor supercharger performance at higher altitudes. Manoeuvrability was poor and the engine tended to overheat in the tropical climate, spraying oil over the windscreen.
The remaining combat aircraft consisted of four squadrons of Blenheim MKs I and IV light bombers, two RAAF squadrons of Lockheed Hudsons and two squadrons of the Vickers Vildebeest torpedo bombers, which were considered unsuitable for operations in Europe and the Middle East. There were also two Catalina PBY flying boats based in Singapore.
The Allied squadrons were hampered by a lack of spare parts and lack of support staff and antagonism between the RAF and RAAF contingents. The Japanese were fully aware of the shortfalls and dispositions of the Commonwealth squadrons before they invaded, thanks to their network of intelligence gatherers. Many of the Allied pilots lacked combat experience and twenty of the original 169 Buffalos in the Far East and Australia were lost in training accidents.
From the start of the air campaign, the focus of the Japanese attacks were the Allied airfields, with Mitsubishi Sallys of the 7th Hikodan, destroying sixty Allied aircraft on the first day. The aircraft that did manage to get up, were severely mauled by Zero and Oscar fighters operating from the captured airfields in Siam. It was a classic Offensive Counter-Air operation and the Allied fighters were overwhelmed both in the air and on the ground. At the RAF Command and Staff courses at the Defence Academy, the Battle of Britain is extensively studied. In my opinion (for what it’s worth) the Japanese air offensive over Malaya should receive far more attention.
By 9th December, Japanese fighters were operating out of Singora and Patani, Thailand, and Kota Bharu airfield was in Japanese hands. On 10th December No 21 Squadron RAAF was withdrawn from Sungai Petani to Ipoh to protect Force Z, the Prince of Wales and the Repulse. By then the two capital ships were already sinking. It was joined there on 13th December by 453 Squadron RAAF, but on 15 December both Squadrons were pulled back to Kuala Lumpur.
The Japanese Air Force continued to maintain pressure on the Allied air component and both 21 and 453 Squadrons RAAF were forced back to Singapore on 24th December. Nos 1 and 8 Squadrons RAAF were amalgamated due to losses and 64 Squadron had lost all of its aircraft. The surviving air and ground crews were shipped to Burma. This effectively meant that the Allied Army had no air support, unlike the Japanese forces, which enjoyed close air support from day two of the campaign and as the Japanese forces moved south to capture the airfields, the Japanese aircraft moved with them. The Air Component was reinforced with two squadrons of Glen Martin bombers and a squadron of Buffalo fighters from the Dutch East Indies.
On 3 January 1942, 51 disassembled Hurricane Mk IIBs arrived in Singapore along with 24 pilots (many of whom were veterans of the Battle of Britain) who had been transferred to there with the intention of forming the nucleus of five squadrons. The 151st Maintenance unit assembled the 51 Hurricanes within two days and of these, 21 were ready for operational service within three days. The Hurricanes were fitted with bulky ‘Vokes’ dust filters under the nose and were armed with 12, rather than eight, machine guns. The additional weight and drag made them slow to climb and unwieldy to manoeuvrer at altitude, although they were more effective bomber killers. The recently arrived pilots were formed into 232 Squadron. In addition, 488 (NZ) Squadron, a Buffalo squadron, converted to Hurricanes. On 18 January, the two squadrons formed the basis of 226 Group. The following day 453 squadron provided an escort of eight aircraft for five Wirraways and four Glenn Martin bombers of the Dutch Air Force, attacking Japanese troops on the Maur River. All the Martins and one of the Wirraways were lost.
No 243 Squadron RAF, equipped with Buffalo fighters, was disbanded on 21 January and 232 Squadron became operational on 22 January, the same day as the Genzan Air Group attacked Kallang Airport. 232 Squadron thus had the first losses and victories for the Hurricane in Southeast Asia that day. Most of the bombers were moved to Sumatra midway through January. The Hawker Hurricanes, which fought in Singapore alongside the Buffalos from 20 January, also suffered severe losses from ground attack and most were destroyed.
The performance of the Air Component has been criticised as dismal and there were some discreditable incidents, such as the premature abandonment of Kota Bharu airfield. However, despite the losses of aircrew and machines, the morale of the RAF pilots remained high, flying their outclassed machines from waterlogged airfields, to take on an enemy that was both technically and numerically superior.
Force Z – The Sinking of the Prince of Wales and Repulse
Churchill publicly announced earlier in 1941, that the Prince of Wales and the Repulse plus four destroyers were being dispatched to the Far East. Initially the planning was for a third ship, an aircraft carrier to accompany the Battleship and battle-cruiser. It was proposed to send HMS Indomitable, but she ran aground in the Caribbean Sea. As a result of this public announcement, the Japanese sent 36 Mitsubishi G4M Betty bombers to reinforce the existing Mitsubishi G3M Nell-equipped Kanoya Air Group and Genzan Air Group, whose pilots began training for an attack on the two capital ships.
His flagship, the Prince of Wales, had one of the most advanced naval anti-aircraft systems of the time, the High Angle Control System, which demonstrated accurate long-range radar-directed AA fire during Operation Halberd in August and September 1941. However, the extreme heat and humidity in Malayan waters rendered her AA FC radars unserviceable and her 2 pounder ammunition had deteriorated as well. Royal Air Force technicians were called in to examine the Prince of Wales’ radars but needed a week to effect repairs, and Force Z would be underway in a few days.
The objective of Force Z was to intercept the Japanese invasion fleet north of Malaya and Admiral Phillips outlined the situation on board the Prince of Wales on the morning of 8th December. Phillips wanted to be underway just before dusk maintaining radio silence, to avoid and patrolling enemy submarines, steam east to avoid the minefields, then north then west-north-west to arrive off Singora at daybreak on the 10th. Phillips asked Pulford to conduct air reconnaissance east of Siam, but the northern airfields were already under concerted Japanese air attack. Pulford agreed but warned that the RAF was unlikely to be in a position to provide air cover over Singora. At 04:30 on 9th Pulford was told that Kota Bharu airfield, vital for the defence of Force Z had been abandoned. With the attack on Pearl Harbour only a few days earlier, the Malayan engagement illustrated the effectiveness of aerial attacks against even the heaviest of naval assets if they were without air cover.
No. 453 Squadron RAAF, which was to provide air cover for Force Z, was not kept informed of the ships’ position. No radio request for air cover was sent until one was sent by the commander of Repulse an hour after the Japanese attack began. Flight Lieutenant Tim Vigors proposed a plan to keep six aircraft over Force Z during daylight, but this was declined by Phillips. After the war, Vigors remained bitter towards him for his failure to call for air support on time. He later commented, “I reckon this must have been the last battle in which the Navy reckoned they could get along without the RAF. A pretty damned costly way of learning.” Perhaps not a very helpful, accurate or fair comment. Phillips had known that he was being shadowed the night before, and also at dawn that day. He did not call for air support. He was attacked and still did not call for help. Daytime air cover off the coast was also offered by Wing Commander Wilfred Clouston of No. 488 Squadron RNZAF, but his plan, “Operation Mobile”, was also rejected.
Surprise was lost on the afternoon of 9th December, when a Japanese submarine spotted Force Z east of Malaya. On receiving the submarine’s sighting report, the Japanese conducted extensive air reconnaissance to hunt down Force Z. About 1730, just a half-hour before sunset, the force was spotted by three Aichi E13A seaplanes, which had been catapulted off the Japanese cruisers Yura, Kinu and Kumano, which were escorting the transports. These aircraft continued shadowing. At about 1830, the destroyer Tenedos was detached to return to Singapore, because she was running low on fuel, with instructions to contact Rear Admiral Arthur Palliser, detailed to act as liaison to the RAF in Malaya, Phillips’ intention was no longer to attack Singora, though Phillips changed course at 1900 toward Singora, to deceive the shadowing aircraft, then south toward Singapore at 2015, when darkness covered him. Tenedos dutifully reported at 2000, thereby preserving the secrecy of Phillips’ position. A night air attack was attempted by the Japanese because they feared that the British would find the convoy, but bad weather prevented them from finding the ships and they returned to their airfields at Thủ Dầu Một and Saigon about midnight.
At 0050 that same morning, 10 December, Phillips had received a report of Japanese landings at Kuantan, on the east coast of Malaya, halfway between Singapore and Kota Bharu. Phillips headed in that general direction, without however signalling Palliser his intentions, which would have revealed his position. Palliser failed to anticipate this and request air cover over Kuantan from Sembawang’s F2A Buffalos. It transpired that not until a radio message was sent by Repulse an hour after the first Japanese attack were RAF aircraft dispatched. At 05:15, objects were spotted on the horizon; thinking they were the invasion force, Force Z turned towards them. It turned out to be a trawler towing barges. At 0630, Repulse reported seeing an aircraft shadowing the ships. At 0718, Prince of Wales catapulted off a Supermarine Walrus reconnaissance aircraft; it flew to Kuantan, saw nothing and reported back to Prince of Wales, then flew to Singapore.
Phillips was unaware that a large force of Japanese land-based bombers were looking for his ships, but not having anticipated his detour to Kuantan they were searching much farther south. At around 10:00 the Tenedos, having been detached from the main force the previous day and now about 140 miles southeast of Force Z, began signalling she was being attacked by Japanese aircraft. The attack was carried out by nine Mitsubishi G3M ‘Nell’ twin-engine medium bombers from the Genzan Air Corps, 22nd Air Flotilla, based at Saigon, each armed with one 1,100 lb armour-piercing bomb. They mistook the destroyer for a battleship and wasted their bombs without scoring a hit. At 1015, a Navy 98 Babs scout plane to the north of most of the Japanese aircraft piloted by Ensign Masato Hoashi, spotted Force Z and sent out a message detailing their exact position.
The radars on the Prince of Wales and Repulse had detected the Babs, but more worryingly, a large smudge of approaching bombers on the radar return to the south of their position. The first wave of Nell bombers ran into a sky heavily pockmarked with bursting flak. Eight bombs narrowly missed the Repulse, but one crashed through the deck and exploded in the Marines’ mess, starting a fire.
The torpedo bombers arrived fifteen minutes after the first wave of bombers had departed and although late, the attack was highly effective. They ran in through a wall of flak to deliver their torpedoes. Captain Tennant of the Repulse managed to turn his ship 45 degrees, offering the stern to the incoming projectiles. The flagship was less fortunate and at 11:44 the Prince of Wales was hit in the stern by two torpedoes. They damaged the rudders and propeller shafts and the battleship listed heavily to port and began to steam in a circle, no longer under control. The British ships finally sent a signal: Enemy aircraft bombing.
At 12:00 another wave of Japanese aircraft arrived and this time that attacks were well coordinated. Tennant continued to manoeuvre the Repulse with great skill, and moved in close to the Flagship to offer assistance. There was no communication from the Prince of Wales. At 12:30 a third wave of aircraft attacked the ships from several directions, releasing torpedoes from many angles. Tennant knew that he would be unable to avoid a multi-directional attack and warned the crew to be ready for torpedo strikes. The Repulse was struck amidships but continued to fire, although listing. Out of control and barely making fifteen knots the Prince of Wales was doomed. Four more torpedoes hit the Repulse and Tennant ordered every man below up on deck and the Carley floats to be released. At 12:33 the Repulse rolled over and the destroyers Electra and Vampire picked up Tennant, forty-one of sixty-nine officers and 734 of 1,240 ratings.
Just after the Repulse slipped below the waves, nine Japanese bombers attacked the Prince of Wales. She was hit once and started to sink and at 13:10 her underside was seen in the oily debris, yet ninety of 110 officers and 1,195 of 1,502 ratings were saved. Phillips and his flag-captain Leach went down with the ship. At 12:04 the signal that the ships were under attack reached the Operation Room at Air Headquarters. Eleven Buffalos took off from Sembawang at 12:26 and arrived over the surviving ships at 13:20. There was little they could do but circle helplessly over the men in the water, many of whom shook their fists in anger at the RAF aircraft. It is rather difficult to know what difference eleven Buffalos would have made to the air battle, even had the RAF known where the ships were and that they were under attack.
The key to the disaster lies with Phillips. Like so many naval officers of his generation he failed to understand the potential of air power, underestimated the bravery and tenacity of the Japanese aircrew and overestimated the power of anti-aircraft guns. Palliser reasonably expected his admiral to break radio silence to inform him of his decision to investigate Kuantan and Phillips expected his Chief-of-Staff to send aircraft to Kuantan after the report of the landings there. Phillips had taken on a difficult mission and apart from his failures in communicating his intentions, it is hard to see what else he could have done.
On the morning of 10th December, Churchill was in bed opening dispatch boxes when the telephone rang. It was the First Sea Lord.
“Prime Minister, I have to report to you that the Prince of Wales and Repulse have been sunk – and we think by aircraft. Tom Phillips is drowned.”
“Are you sure it’s true?”
“There is no doubt at all.”
Churchill put the telephone down. He later wrote: I was thankful to be alone. In all the war I never received a more direct shock.
© Blown Periphery 2019
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