Today marks 75 years to the day since the Battle of Endau, which was fought off the eastern coast of Malaya. When a Japanese fleet was discovered heading towards the coast of Malaya with the intention of landing troops at Endau, it was realised they would be positioned further south than the Allied troops already trying to hold the Japanese advance back on the peninsula and therefore this new force could cut off the Allied Army. Every possible aircraft was put into the air to attempt to intercept the Japanese ships and prevent the landing.
This consisted of the the Vildebeest and Albacore bombers of No.’s 36 and 100 Squadrons that were based at Seletar in Singapore. There were 25 New Zealanders serving with those two squadrons. Since the outbreak of war with Japan the two units had been performing night bombing operations on Japanese held airfields and camps up and down the Malay Peninsula with quantifiable success as the Japanese fighters did not fly at night, and their gunners on the ground had considerable trouble hitting the Vildebeests, usually firing too far in front of the lumbering aircraft. Their five Albacores, which had been ‘found’ after being left by the Navy, were having even more success. However they were now being thrust into the attack at Endau in broad daylight, against a very well defended fleet, virtually suicide. Two RAAF Hudson crews had spotted the Japanese convoy at 07:45 on the 26th of January, but their radio messages were jammed so word did not get back to base in Singapore till they landed at 09.20 hours. Both Vildebeest squadrons had flown operations the night before so had to rest till they were fit to fly again.
So it was not till the early afternoon when the first wave took off. It was made up of 12 Vildebeests and nine Hudson bombers, with a fighter escort composed of twelve Brewster F2A Buffalos and nine Hawker Hurricanes. The Japanese landings on Endau had been in progress for over four hours by the time the planes arrived at 15:00. The Japanese naval force had air cover consisting of 19 Nakajima Ki-27s and a single Nakajima Ki-44 fighter. Despite heavy opposition, the two transports carrying troops were bombed, and men and equipment on the beach were strafed. Five Vildebeests were lost in the attack, including the commanding officer of No. 100 Squadron, while one Ki-27 was shot down.
The second wave consisting of seven Vildebeests and three Albacores of No. 36 Squadron and two Vildebeests of No. 100 Squadron took off at 16:15 hrs. They arrived over Endau at 17:30, but their escort of 7 Hurricanes and 4 Buffalos were late and the biplanes were set upon by ten Ki-27s and two Ki-44s before their escorts could reach them. Five Vildebeests, two Albacores and one Hurricane were lost from this wave. Andy was flying one of the Albacores. Of the 72 aircrew from Nos. 36 and 100 Squadrons who participated in the raids, 27 were killed, seven were wounded and two were captured. The returning pilots were congratulated by Air Vice-Marshal Paul Maltby, who promised them that further daylight attacks were unnecessary.
Six Palembang Hudsons of No. 62 Squadron RAF attacked next unescorted in the third wave. Two were shot down by six Ki-27s.
A fourth raid, consisting of five Palembang-based Bristol Blenheims of No. 27 Squadron RAF, aborted the mission when darkness fell before they reached the target. Despite claims to have scored multiple hits on both transports and a cruiser, neither the transports, nor any of their escorts were damaged; the former were hit by splinters that killed 8 and wounded 18, but Sendai and the smaller ships were untouched.
My uncle Andy Fleming was shot down and killed flying an Albacore in the second wave. One of the survivors of Endau was RNZAF pilot Ron Reid, who’d flown night operations against the enemy from the war’s beginning, and carried on the fight after this raid, including when the remains of his No. 36 Squadron withdrew to Java. Eventually he was captured, and spent three and a half years as a POW. For a significant period he was a prisoner in camps on Java, before he was shifted to Sumatra along with hundreds of others who were put to work building a Japanese railway line.
I met Ron in 2014 shortly before he died at the age of 92. He was alert and remembered it well. I thought he was a very brave and modest man. In this Wings Over New Zealand Show Episode 132, Dave Homewood interviewed Ron Reid in 2010 about his time in the RNZAF, his service in Singapore, Malaya and Java, and his time in Sumatra on the death railway. This very special episode is released to mark the 75th Anniversary of the Battle of Endau, to remember those who took part and those who died – none of whom ever received any medals, awards or special recognition for their extreme bravery on that fateful day.