Bloody shambles

Written By: - Date published: 5:30 am, April 25th, 2011 - 1 comment
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They called it the “flying coffin”. The Vickers Vildebeest, top speed 95 miles and hour. They joked that its only defence was that when the Japanese pilots  saw it they would die laughing. In Singapore in 1941 it was restricted to night flying as it was so vulnerable. My uncle Andy Fleming was a pilot in 36 squadron which flew Vildebeests and also had three Fairey Albacores, another obsolete  biplane torpedo bomber, a coffin with a cabin.

The squadron had flown twice the night before Japanese transports were sighted off Endau, on Malaya’s east coast, on January 26 1942. The high command decided that they should be attacked with bombs as the fleet would be in shallow water, with Vildebeests as well as more modern Hudsons. The book “Bloody Shambles” has a full account of the raid and one of the men describes how the crews felt when they got the news that Japanese fighters were expected:

There were a number of tired, old, young men grouped around their Squadron Leader in the operations room. They were tired because most of them had been on two bombing missions the night before, and they were old for war makes men that way. Most eyes were following the navigation oficer as he pencilled in the names of the crews on the big blackboard. 36 men would be selected for the operation, and as we had slightly more men than that, some lucky ones would be free to go back to bed. I rather hoped my name would not be on the board (I think nearly all were hoping the same), but it was.

It wouldn’t have made a difference for there were actually 72 men selected. Two waves of 12 aircraft, each with three crew, from 100 and 36 Squadrons. The first wave had some cloud cover, but Andy was in the second wave when the clouds were gone and the fighter protection was late. As Bloody Shambles says:

With no fighter protection or cloud cover, a feeling of impending doom must have been prevalent amongst the crews, their pilots struggling to hold position as they strove to reach the transports.

The defence of Singapore was a disaster and this raid was only one of the disasters, but it perhaps summarised all that was wrong as air defence had been promoted as the island fortress’ saviour. Of the 72 crew in the raid, 27 were killed, Uncle Andy among them. One other was killed by Japanese troops after his aircraft had crashed.  Of the 24 aircraft in the two bombing waves, 12 were totally lost, 2 were written off, and the other ten damaged. One pilot reported at his debrief:

On my return to base I went, as was my duty, to the Squadron Ops room for debriefing. Our Ops Officer started to question me but I was so damned angry that I told him that it was nothing less than a “bloody shambles”. I added that I would tell Command AHQ myself. And I did. For I was just about certain who it was who had ordered those two suicidal sorties.

Nearly sixty years later I am glad someone was angry at the time. It’s small comfort, but I have often thought how Andy must have felt as he climbed into his slow and elderly plane. I’m sure he would have been staunch; the sense of duty that led him to volunteer early in 1939 for flying training would have kept him going to the last. The same sense of duty that sent his brother Jack over Germany one year later for one flight only, from which he also did not return. My generation has not had to face those choices – they were brave men indeed.

For many good reasons the Singapore campaign has stayed alive in more memory than mine. Bloody Shambles account concludes:

Air Vice Marshal Maltby, from Air HQ, visited the survivors of the Vildebeest squadron, congratulated them of the results of their attacks, and assured them that they would never again have to undertake a similar daylight mission. The crews had earlier been promised that they would not be ordered to fly day sorties, but the desperate situation had forced Air HQ to take desperate measures.

Had such gallantry occurred nearer home, a plethora of decorations, including perhaps a Victoria Cross or two, would have been announced for the actions performed on this day.

Small comfort again, but this is my tribute on Anzac Day to Uncle Andy’s gallantry. Per ardua ad astra.

One comment on “Bloody shambles”

  1. RedLogix 1

    The two World Wars tore the heart out of my family. Although my family has been in this country between four and six generations, WW2 in particular left such a gap that I knew only one of my grandparents briefly as a child, only one younger aunt and her husband… and I have no first or second cousins that I have ever met.
    But we do have the WW1 dairy of that uncle. He kept a meticulous, unemotional … but harrowing account of how he survived every major trench battle of that war, without so much as a scratch; at least none that you could see.
    Like many he never spoke of his experiences. But I do recall however one family lunch, I think I would have been still a teenager. My father at one point asked some question about uncle’s war years. I recall my aunt’s look of apprehension… this was verbotten territory. But my uncle relaxed back, thought a little… and then said, “Any man who goes to a war… is a fool”.
    Auntie later told my mother that in all the years she lived with him, those were the only words he ever spoke about those remarkable four years he served as a very, very young man in those nightmare trenches.
    And they are words still burnt into me. Uncle was not an overt pacifist, but in that short sentence he clued me into all that was so unnecessary, so tragic and so ultimately futile in how these unwordly, naieve young men who were so cynically, callously exploited in these wars.  For while we may respect and acknowledge the courage and sacrifice of the men, both those who died and those who returned… I can only abhor the fact that War must truly represent the ultimate, humiliating failure of the collective human spirit.
    Since the beginning of agriculture came the concept of territory and property. With property came the need to defend it, came the need for captive females to breed armies, came the need for authoritarians to command them.  This is the root paradigm of the last ten thousand years that like a potent drug has marvelously expanded the boundaries of human knowledge, science and technologies… but all the while coming with a terrible cost.

    It is all very fine somberly paying our respects, teaching our young ones the phrase ‘lest we forget’ and it’s meanings… but the men who paid the price would desire nothing more than for us to learn the lesson… to change the world so as war would become obsolete, a dark memory of a dimmer age past.

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