27 February 2020

Last Stand in Singapore - Graham Clayton

Once again I am presenting the work of a guest reviewer as I continue to bash away at work and deadlines. As I'm still reading when I get the chance, the pile of books to have reviews written for them continues to grow. Ooh, there's some good stuff to write about (and some indifferent stuff too!). Anyway, here is Peter Ingman's take on Graham Clayton's 'Last Stand in Singapore'. This book is the first part of Graham's 488 Squadron RNZAF history, with the most recent instalment being 2019's 'Gone the Dark Night' from Bomber Command Books. Being a lesser known squadron in the great scheme of things makes for both books being valuable additions to the bibliography, but 'Last Stand in Singapore', as you can tell from the title, ups the obscurity stakes. Despite the groundbreaking efforts of Shores and Cull et al, the aerial defence of Malaya and Singapore remains a somewhat forgotten, even incorrectly remembered, aspect of the air war with the Japanese. That's why this book needs to be on your shelves if it's not already. Andy Wright

The Malaya and Singapore campaign lasted barely ten weeks at the start of the Pacific War and has been a source of much controversy and fascination ever since.  How could more than 100,000 Commonwealth personnel be defeated so comprehensively by a much smaller Japanese force?  

Perhaps the most well regarded source on the air campaign, the Bloody Shambles series, provides a far from subtle hint about the myriad of problems faced by the defenders in its title. A fresh new perspective on this campaign is given by Last Stand in Singapore, which is the story of 488 Squadron RNZAF. An attractive feature of this book is that it gives almost an outsider’s perspective of the campaign. This is because, unlike the RAF and RAAF units, as the sole New Zealand unit involved it was not subsumed by the greater campaign experience of the many thousands of ground, air and naval personnel. 

The squadron was formed in New Zealand in September 1941 and was quickly rushed to Singapore where it arrived in November just weeks before the Pacific War. It received worn Brewster Buffalo fighters from a departing RAF unit and faced a steep learning curve to make these machines operational. There were many problems, not least a dire shortage of tools and spares. From an aircrew perspective, only the squadron leader, Wilf Clouston (a Battle of France and Britain ace), and two flight leaders had operational experience. Not surprisingly, there were many accidents and two pilots were lost before the squadron faced the enemy. 

The role of 488 Squadron was air defence. Clouston and his flight leaders had designed a plan to provide continuous air cover for naval units operating in the South China Sea. However, after the His Majesty’s Ships Prince of Wales and Repulse had sailed, the squadron sat at readiness, but was never called up until after the ships had been sunk. The defence of Malaya and Singapore never recovered from this catastrophe.

During January 1942, the squadron had responsibility for the air defence of Singapore alongside another Buffalo unit, 243 Squadron RAF (which had a high proportion of Kiwi pilots). However, the slow-climbing Brewsters were always disadvantaged when trying to intercept high-flying bombers and reconnaissance aircraft often protected by JAAF ‘Oscar’ fighters flown by veteran pilots. Not surprisingly, Buffalo numbers steadily decreased due to attrition of all kinds. In addition, the squadron suffered direct attacks on its base at Kallang.

By the last week of January, just a handful of Buffaloes were still flying. Morale briefly rose on receipt of a few newly, hastily assembled Hurricanes, but the small numbers could not hope to change a rapidly deteriorating situation. Japanese air attacks were increasing and Singapore’s airfields were now in range of Japanese artillery in nearby Johore. As many aircraft as possible were flown to nearby Sumatra and meaningful squadron operations effectively ended at this time.

This left the bulk of 488 Squadron’s ground personnel in Singapore and the story of their escape by the skin of their teeth on one of the last large ships to leave the island is thrilling.  

The author of the book, Graham Clayton, is the son of a ground crewman and much of the story concerns the experiences and fate of these men. A long-time enthusiast of the squadron’s history, Clayton also draws on the records of several of the pilots, most notably one of the flight leaders, Flight Lieutenant John Hutcheson. The overall effect is a mix of ground and air perspectives that is told with great authenticity. Very little of the story is borrowed from other secondary sources.

However, this approach results in some obvious weaknesses, not least of which is a complete disregard for the Japanese side (and the almost ubiquitous description of Japanese fighters as ‘Zeros’ when they were mostly JAAF types). Some of the descriptions of the air fighting too show a lack of wider understanding of contemporaneous experiences. For example, the use of a fast dive to escape Japanese fighters is described as a ‘unique survival manoeuvre’ developed by the squadron when it fact it was commonly used by virtually all Allied fighter units across the Pacific to take advantage of their heavier machines.  

Overall the book is a very valuable record and one that will no doubt become richly drawn upon in future histories of the Malaya/Singapore campaign. It is very nicely produced with a vast trove of photos and an appendix listing squadron personnel. 

Originally published by Random House New Zealand in 2008, the book does not appear to have been widely distributed outside of New Zealand. Avonmore Books has some limited stock available for worldwide sale. 

ISBN 978-1-775530-77-0

1 comment:

  1. as you said in your intro to the review - this book is a very valuable addition to our knowledge of wartime squadrons which didn't get the 'limelight' that they deserved. It fills gaps for anyone interested in Singapore/Malaya theatre and the deficiencies of accuracy won't detract from the importance of filling the historical gap in that area. Thanks for posting the review.