Monday, October 12, 2015

The forgotten air war of Malaya, 1941 to 1945

I remembered my late father telling me that the Royal Air Force was no match for the Japanese Imperial Air Force once the air war began in late 1941 over Malaya and Singapore. Why? He said the mainstay of the RAF fighter fleet based in Singapore was the ungainly American-built Brewster Buffalo (what a name, but then perhaps appropriately so!) which was no match for the Nakajima Oscar (and the superbly agile Zero) fighter on the enemy side. It seemed that the Brits sent over some Hawker Hurricanes -- the famous victors, together with the Supermarine Spitfires, over the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain -- but these were mostly destroyed by the Japs while on the ground!

So, it was Buffalo vs Oscar and Zero, and before long the Japs had total command of the air and its air force easily sank the battleship Prince of Wales and the cruiser Repulse on Dec 10, 1941.

Here's what one website said about the Buffalo:
The Sorry Saga of the Brewster Buffalo

And here's what Wikipedia has to say about the Buffalo's record of combat service in this air war:

When the Japanese invaded northern Malaya on 8 December 1941, the B-339E initially performed adequately. Against the Nakajima Ki-27 "Nate", the overloaded Brewsters could at least hold their own if given time to get to altitude, and at first achieved a respectable number of kills. However, the appearance of ever greater numbers of Japanese fighters, including markedly superior types such as the Nakajima Ki-43 "Oscar" soon overwhelmed the Buffalo pilots, both in the air and on the ground. Another significant factor was the Brewster engine's tendency to overheat in the tropical climate, which caused oil to spray over the windscreen, usually forcing an aborted mission and greatly complicating attempts to intercept and destroy enemy aircraft. In the end, more than 60 Brewster Mk I (B-339E) aircraft were shot down in combat, 40 destroyed on the ground, and approximately 20 more destroyed in accidents. Only about 20 Buffalos survived to reach India or the Dutch East Indies.[49]

The nagging question, with the benefit of hindsight is: What if the RAF had better fighters, and in sufficient numbers with combat-exposed pilots as well (the Battle of Britain had been well over by then)? Who knows, there might have been no Japanese Interregnum, no Syonan-to.

The other interesting bit I came across was that the USAF, later in the war, began bombing raids over Singapore and even my little island in the sun, Pulau Bukom!

I had joined a Facebook group, On a little street in Singapore,  and this photo and caption that Jerome Lim posted intrigued me:

B29s attacking the Naval Base. The primary target the King George VI graving dock can quite clearly be seen. Also can identify the roundabout at the dockyard entrance gate, Canberra Road, Admiralty Road West, Bermuda Road etc (photo source: Zafrani Arifin)

It led to some questions from me:

"B-29 in flight" by Licensed under Public Domain via Commons -
Hmm, B29s are long range superfortresses. Fully loaded and fuelled, they wd need large airfields. Guam? And the fighter escorts must have come from aircraft carriers, since Guam is too far for them?

James Tann supplied these answers:

The B-29 flew out of Calcutta and headed straight for Saipan after the bombings. They did not have fighter escorts and relied on their own turret machine guns.
Due to the extreme long range from Calcutta to Singapore, each B-29 could only carry 2x1000lbs bomb each. However, the lack of munitions were made up by its accuracy using their new secret weapon - the Norton Bombsight.
This is a great picture man! priceless

The 1st raid by 53 B-29s was in Nov 1944 and was very successful due to their unexpected arrival which caught the Japanese by surprise. The KGVI graving dock was hit and damaged along with other facilities. After the raid, local civilians working at the docks were indiscriminately rounded up and in retaliation were shot as spies suspected of giving information to the enemy for the raid.

Subsequent raids were carried out in Jan & Feb 1945 after which Lord Louis Mountbatten stopped the bombing of the Naval Base as he was already planning for the re-occupation of Singapore and would need to used the Naval Base for this purpose.
A further 7 raids were carried out by B-29s but these focused on the Keppel Harbour and oil refineries (at Bukom).

ChanPeew Wan added this:

History has it that the Brits themselves tried to blow up the KGVI graving dock to deprive the Japs from using the facility. They managed to knock off part of the pump house.
Part of the pump house was replaced by the Japs and when the war was over, the Brits never replaced the Jap parts.....KGVI drydock served to its present day....

I learnt so much from their sharing.

Finally, I found online this very informative piece by one Goh K. Loon:

The Forgotten Air War of Malaya

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