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Library Reference Number: 182

Sunderlands Over Malaysia

David Caldwell, Scottish Saltire Branch, ACA.

The year was 1950, and in September I was called up for National Service. I was lucky enough to be selected for RAF aircrew, but not lucky enough to have my first choice of Pilot unless I signed on for a longer term. I refrained from spending a longer time with the RAF as I had just qualified as a Chiropodist at the College of Chiropody and wished to return to civilian life within a modest period time to resume this profession.

I was offered training as a Navigator and sent to RAF School of Navigation at Jurby, Isle of Man. Having passed out there as a Sergeant Navigator, I was then posted to the Operational Training Unit (OTU) at Pembroke Dock in Wales. This Unit had a long history as a Flying Boat Station and which may have influenced me to opt for Coastal Command. Perhaps thinking I would be taking up duties around British coastal waters, the RAF had other ideas, as I was given a posting to Singapore at the southern tip of Malaya.


Some of my fellow ACA branch members have already described their experiences when undertaking 3,000 mile return trips from Ceylon to drop mines right down the Malacca Straits to Singapore when this area was occupied by Japanese forces a few years earlier. According to official figures provided by Dr. Arthur Banks in his book “Wings of the Dawning” ten enemy ships had been sunk by this method.

Quite undeterred by all this, we made our way to Singapore by ship and I can only assume that the mined area had been cleared, or the magnetic mines lying on the seabed around Singapore had passed their “sell by date.”

At this point I must mention that my Flying Log Book, the aide-mémoire of all forgetful aircrew, in my case came to a regrettable end. It was discarded by mistake along with other college books and material I was throwing out on the occasion of reorganising our new home after my marriage in 1957. The passage of time has somewhat dimmed my memory for names, numbers and times, but I shall do my best to describe events following my arrival in Singapore and flying in Sunderlands over post-war Malaysia.

To set the scene, I am once again referring to fellow ACA members who have already described the position a few years earlier in Japanese-occupied Malaysia. Ceylon based B24 Liberators from No.160 and other Units, had flown the longest operational flights of World War Two, not only to mine surrounding waters, but to also systematically drop in guerilla fighters and agents to fight the Japanese deep inside their occupied territory. This was the work of Force 136 Special Operations and where agents had been dropped over an extremely wide area from secret guerilla camps in the Cameron Mountains, into jungle, villages and other widespread areas.

Unfortunately, many of the people the RAF had been helping by dropping weapons and supplies, had become deeply immersed in Communist philosophy, and had hidden away those supplies to fight for Communism once the Japanese had been driven out. The outbreak of the Malayan trouble gave the SAS their first post war fight against communist terrorists.

In June 1948, the Malayan Racist Liberation Army, whose training by the SAS enhanced their skill as jungle fighters, launched attacks against estate owners and rubber plantations. Coupled with local knowledge, the Communist terrorists were able to launch a campaign of terror and intimidation at will before disappearing into the dense jungle. Little did I realise that my job flying in Sunderlands would be to seek out those hidden groups.

This then, was the situation when I arrived in Singapore in 1951 and where I was sent to RAF Seletar Far East Flying Boat Wing, comprising Nos: 205, 88 and 209 squadrons which were dispersed between a stretch from Hong Kong and Iwakuni in Japan. These were all Sunderland Squadrons.

Joining No. 209 Squadron at Seletar, we were allocated the task of incursions against the communist bandits in North Malaya. Our brief was to fly to the Siamese (Thailand) border, and in cooperation with the ground forces fly map references and proceed to bomb those sites guided by radio instructions from the Police and Army Units on the ground.

The ordnance we carried were quite small bombs which were carried in racks beneath the wings else pushed out from the fuselage. The jungle was so thick that the gunners who were observing the bombs fall could not see the detonations. I did not envy the troops on the ground who had to force their way through the forest.

On one occasion, after dropping the bombs, the gunners asked the skipper to make another run over the target area which he did. The gunners then proceeded to dump worn and broken motor vehicle spares at the request of the MT Section at RAF Seletar! Our return to base was via the coast, as Lincolns, Brigands and Hornets from RAF Tengah (also Singapore) were doing their bit inland.

Another variation in our duties occurred when we were sent to the South China Sea. The objective, on this occasion, was to seek out Malay pirates in motorised junks who were terrorising the normal traders. We usually carried a Naval Officer and photographer, and flying at low level, we examined the registration of suspicious looking vessels.

Our efforts were unrewarded on those trips as we never detected any pirates. The long flight times of 8+ hours apparently didn't suit the rest of the crew, as they kept asking for the latest estimated time of arrival for Seletar. I think they probably had dates arranged that evening in Singapore!

Unusual spectacles we did observe in the South China Sea were giant waterspouts, launching hundreds of feet high in the air and moving like tornadoes across the surface of the sea and turbulence at their tops. Returning on one trip, one of our gunners jammed his hand in the mechanism of his gun and I was elected to administer first aid. Just as well that the crew launch on return to base carried medics to hand him over into good hands!

When the boat was out of the water on refit, I was seconded to No.52 {Far East Communication} Squadron at Changi Airfield. As of April 2008, there were about 4,340 weekly flights operated by 80 airlines to over 116 cities in 59 countries from Changi Airport and it was thus an important contributor to the Singapore economy with 13,000 people employed at the airport.

At the time of my secondment in 1951, however, the word “Changi” was synonymous with death and torture and where residents were struggling to overcome its recent horrific reputation and where it had once been the site of many prisoner-of-war camps during the brutal Japanese Occupation. Despite this, Changi has remained in history records as as a place where so much pain, torture and human suffering was inflicted.

At that time, however, our remit was to convey personnel and stores from there to units in Malaya and Borneo, Kuala Lumpur, Butterworth, Ipoh, Kota Bahru and Labuan in North Borneo. In addition to taking in personnel and supplies to all those destinations, we brought back men who had been found too ill to be treated locally, and flew them to British Military Hospitals in Singapore.

One Big Day was when the Squadron was visited by Lady Mountbatten and we were all issued with pristine white flying suits and which were swiftly recovered immediately she left the area! Shortly afterwards, my tour was almost due to come to an end and just when the Squadron was about to leave for Hong Kong and Japan. As I had so little time left, I had to stay in Singapore to await my repatriation.

A Hastings of No.46 Squadron carrying wounded from the Korean Campaign was on its way through to the U.K. when it was discovered the Navigator had appendicitis. He was rushed to hospital and I was asked to replace him and at the same time take the opportunity of returning home early.

Post-war Malaya was a country in great turmoil and while brutal war and Japanese atrocities had raged throughout the country, communist propaganda, literature and materials had found its way to those who wanted and embraced these beliefs and ethics. Support was mainly based on around 500,000 ethnic Chinese then living in Malaya where there were around three million Chinese in total. The ethnic Malay population supported them in smaller numbers. Communist guerrillas had hideouts in the highly inhospitable tropical jungle with limited degrees of infrastructure. The groups had commissars, instructors and secret service agents. They also had lectures about Marxism-Leninism and had political newsletters for distribution to the local people.

The evaluation of my time served in Malaya was summarised at a debriefing attended by Senior Police and Army Officers. At the end of a series of strikes, they were giving us an update on the Emergency. When asked if our bombing had any effect on the “belligerents”. the reply was that it had kept them on the move, and disrupted their attempts to set up large stock-piles of supplies, weaponry and ammunition. Had those stock-piles been allowed to grow then conflict in Malaya would have become much more serious.

As such, we can, perhaps, claim some satisfaction in knowing that our actions reduced the terrorist attacks on civilians, estate workers, rubber plantations and other targets contributing significantly towards the Malaysian economy.

On demob, I joined BEA (British European Airways) flying out of Renfrew to the Hebridean Islands and other locations in Northern Scotland. Although far removed from Malaysia and Sunderland flying boats, I had my fair share of “hairy” moments but that's another set of stories beyond the remit and scope of this web site.

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