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

19 February 2020

The Dark Haven - F.T.K. Bullmore

As I've been busy working on manuscripts, now the kids are back at school and I can actually do some work, the writing of reviews has been slower than usual. While frustrating, especially as I have some interesting books to write about, I have been blessed with several guest reviews from authors I hold in high regard. Here, then, is the oldest book to feature on ABR. As many of you know, I created ABR expressly to generate an online presence for some of the older aircrew books I had encountered, but could find nothing about. Such books had every chance of being forgotten, not shared with future generations, and I wasn't about to let that happen. While I've succeeded on that front to some extent, the vast majority of books featured on ABR have been relatively new. Thanks to Phil Vabre, an air traffic controller by trade, and an aviation historian otherwise, for this superbly, and thoughtfully, written review about the development of Flying Control. Andy Wright

Accounts of the Second World War in the air that focus on non-operational aspects are pretty rare. The Dark Haven, F.T.K. Bullmore’s account of the development of what was termed ‘Flying Control’ in the RAF, is such an account and nonetheless interesting for that.

In 1927 Bullmore was seconded from the Territorial Artillery to the RAF. He learned to fly in Egypt and then specialised as a night bomber pilot – experience he would draw on to good effect during the war. Bullmore was transferred to the Reserve in 1932 and joined Sir Alan Cobham’s Flying Display, remaining with him until 1935 when he settled down to life as a flying instructor. With the expansion of the RAF in the late 1930s, Bullmore was invited to re-join the RAF in 1937 as one of the original members of the Flying Control branch.

From the outset, the reader needs to understand Flying Control, as practiced in the RAF in the late 1930s and the early part of the war, is not the same as Air Traffic Control as we know it today. While Flying Control did have some limited aerodrome control functions, its role was primarily what we would term ‘operational control’. That is, each base maintaining a watch on who departed and who arrived and, in the case of bombers and patrol aircraft, communicating with the base’s aircraft while in flight.

This brings us to the biggest problem for modern readers with Bullmore’s otherwise fascinating book: it assumes a great deal of underlying knowledge about how the Flying Control system operated at that time, confining itself to primarily describing Bullmore’s (significant) role in bringing about improvements during the war. Written in the mid-1950s, Bullmore’s original intended readership was no doubt much more familiar with the operational systems of the day than we are. Many would have had first-hand experience with the wartime Flying Control system. Nevertheless, while the present-day layman might find it difficult to understand the context in which Bullmore’s account takes place, modern readers who are students of RAF operations in Europe during the Second World War will have at least some grounding in the technical aspects of the story.

Bullmore describes how, as Senior Flying Control Officer at Boscombe Down in February 1941, he became involved in attempts to recover a lost Bristol Beaufort circling at night above fog off the Isle of Wight. Although the Beaufort eventually ditched (the crew being rescued), the experience got Bullmore thinking about the problem of assisting lost or damaged friendly aircraft to a safe landing in blacked-out Britain. At that time, Bullmore’s station lay under the regular route for bombers from their bases in East Anglia to attack the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau in Brest harbour. So, in those days of relatively unreliable radios, there was plenty of such traffic about.

As a starting point, Bullmore arranged to visit the Royal Observer Corps (ROC) Centre at Winchester. We need to remember that in those days there was – deliberately – little or no RDF (radar) coverage over land. Instead, aircraft were tracked over Britain by the extensive network of ROC posts. These fed their reports to ROC centres and from there the plots were transmitted to Fighter Command’s Sector and Group Operations Centres. Having had his eyes opened to the air situation information available, Bullmore set up an unofficial arrangement with the Winchester ROC Centre for them to call him whenever they detected a possible friendly aircraft in trouble. Bullmore could then use the Flying Control network to assist the aircraft by, for example, turning on aerodrome lighting.

Although the surveillance, reporting and control system established by Dowding’s Fighter Command in the immediate pre-war period is well known for its contribution to winning the Battle of Britain, not so well known or understood is just how jealously Fighter Command guarded its access to what we would call the ‘air picture’, or indeed how uninterested other RAF Commands were in it. Quick successes achieved by Bullmore’s unofficial arrangements with the ROC convinced him more could and should be done. However, Fighter Command rigorously protected access to its air defence apparatus for non-air defence purposes – even if it potentially meant valuable friendly lives and aircraft saved. Bullmore describes how he managed to convince the AOC of 10 Group to allow him access to the Group Operations Centre, against the opposition of many subordinate officers, where the value of the expanded Flying Control scope quickly demonstrated its value. 

According to Bullmore’s account, it was by force of personality and dint of working around numerous obstructive staff officers that he was eventually able to extend the new Flying Control services, firstly into the 12 Group area and then, from the Air Ministry under the Directorate of Air Safety, into the rest of Great Britain. It is interesting to note it was 11 Group that resisted longest in allowing Flying Control personnel into its Operations Centre. The ambit of Flying Control eventually grew to incorporate the RAF’s Air Sea Rescue and specialised Mountain Rescue services. Innovations introduced included the ‘Sandra’ system of coned searchlights above selected aerodromes, serving as aeronautical lighthouses. Although the book itself does not say so, it is clear to see in these innovations the origins of Britain’s unique, modern-day ‘Distress and Diversion’ service, used by military and civilian aircraft alike.

Statistics kept by the Flying Control branch showed beyond doubt the value of the services it provided. Many thousands of aircrew, returning from operational sorties with their radios inoperative, or lost on a training flight above fog, owed their safe return to assistance provided by Flying Control. In his foreword to the book, MRAF Sir John Salmond pays tribute to the persistence of Wing Commander Bullmore (as he ended up) in establishing this enhanced form of Flying Control. Salmond describes it as '…a heartening story of lives saved in thousands in almost miraculous fashion – lives which, but for the Flying Control and Air Sea Rescue Services, would have been lost.'  That it is.