Grub Street | Buffaloes Over Singapore

Reviewed by Tony Oliver

Grub Street
Buffaloes over Singapore
RAF, RAAF, RNZAF and Dutch Brewster fighters in action over Malaya and The East Indies 1941-42
Brian Cull with Paul Sortehaug and Mark Haselden
ISBN: 1 904010 32 6
70 b/w photographs
2pages maps
5 Appendices, Bibliography and index of personnel
Price: £19.99 (Nov 2003)

The B-339 Buffalo received much criticsm during its brief service with the RAF/ Commonwealth forces. Much of this condemnation was richly deserved whilst some of it wasn't. Considered unfit for service with the RAF in the ETO, the majority of the 170 Brewster fighters including diverted machines from a cancelled Belgian AF order, were crated and shipped to the Far East. It was believed by the Air Staff that there they would be more than a match for the opposition.

An opposition that was to prove far from the colonial idea of an inferior second rate air force.
But this was just the first in a catalogue of errors and inept leadership that led to the rout of Commonwealth forces from the Malay Peninsula and the East Indies resulting in the tragedy that was the fall of Singapore.

Brian Cull's book follows a similar format to his other titles all of which detail the fortunes of the aircraft and units involved in some of the lesser known and documented historic air battles of the 20th Century.

His previous titles 'Bloody Shambles' Vol's 1and 2 with Chris Shores and Yasuho Izawa (Grub Street) are an intense account of the Far East air war in the early years. This title is a logical addition and is a very thorough and detailed perspective. This is remarkable when its considered that the tide of war in this region and the swiftness of the Japanese assault on Malaya, must have left little time for accurate record keeping. Indeed reading the accounts, which are liberally spread throughout the book taken from personal diaries, squadron diaries and official records, it's obvious that the author spared no effort in thoroughly researching this title.

The title might suggest that its a reference work for Buffalo modellers, which it is not but it does have 20 pages of original black and white photographs, many of which provide clear reference for RAF and the few Dutch Buffalo schemes. There are also references in the text to specific aircraft and the elusive night-fighter Buffaloes 'Black Bess' and 'Black Beauty'. However if like me you enjoy reading and researching the historical aspect behind the mechanical subject, then this title is totally absorbing.

My one criticism would be a lack of reference maps throughout the book. It is difficult to get a mental image of the terrain and the geography of the Malay Peninsula and the location of the airfields in a strategic context, and having to flick to the back of the book for reference spoils the flow of reading somewhat.

But that said, the text brings to life via the recollections and diary anecdotes, a world and lifestyle gone forever. It also illustrates how the colonial existence among the rubber plantations was maintained right up to the point at which the Japanese were knocking at the door, indeed one of the senior officers was more concerned about saving his stamp collection than for the welfare of his ground staff!

It also dispels any myth of aerial chivalry at a time when the Battle of Britain had recently ended and along with it the popular notion of giving the other chap a fighting chance. Numerous accounts both detailed and bloody of the effects of war and deeds carried out in the name of the Imperial Japanese Emperor reinforce the image of a more barbaric campaign being fought over this outpost of the British Empire. Accounts of pilots machine-gunned in their 'chutes and strafed whilst escaping from a wreck are commonplace, as are the bombing of non-strategic targets such as residential areas and villages. I'm not saying that we should be surprised by this, as the war in the Far East is well documented in its cruelty but the accounts are vivid and original and make the book all the more real for this.

That the Commonwealth pilots were courageous in the face of overwhelming superiority of numbers and equipment goes without saying, but that courage is well illustrated here by some truly astonishing accounts of aerial conflict. Not only contending with an enemy numerically, tactically and technologically superior, but also having to cope with an aircraft so outmoded as a fighting aircraft that it couldn't be climbed on full power for fear of overheating must have made the pilots wonder whether the new day would be their last. However amongst this life went on and for the ones who made it back in one piece, or more often with pieces missing, its apparent that a damn good 'piss up' was the order of the day.

quote: "So our second engagement with the enemy was not so successful. Outnumbered ten to one, and taken completely by surprise, the boys had no chance. One lesson we have to learn is never to leave the ground when the enemy is directly overhead. Seven weary pilots went into town at night and took quarters at the 'Station Hotel' and the 'Majestic'. After a good feed and a few beers, all felt slightly better but all considerably shaken by our introduction to the real thing".

If you want to read something a bit different from the tales of the 8th AF and the Jadgdwaffe or the 'gentlemanly' conduct of the Battle of Britain and really get an insight into flying life in the Far East in the early Forties, then this would be a good place to start.

To finish here's some views on life as a Buffalo pilot from Sgt.Geoff Fisken DFC RNZAF

Reflections: The Buffalo:

"It was a real ladies plane, a beautiful plane to fly. Anybody could fly them. We flew them with the hoods open, it was cooler and there was no wind blast"

"I flew a Hurricane MkIIb, I didn't think it was as good as the Buffalo".

Lack of warning:

"The British always said they'd (the Japs) never come from the North. That's why all the guns pointed out to sea."

"We never got any warning, nine times out of ten, by the time we took off, they were over us."

Japanese Pilots:

"They were very good, they were very, very good over Singapore.

"You could only get away in a Buffalo by diving straight down, they never followed you down."

"Their aircraft were so much lighter, they were much more manoeuvrable, they had us beat."

"To dogfight with a Jap was committing suicide, it was impossible." (The Ki-43 Hayabusa could turn inside a Buffalo with ease.)

"The only way of getting a victory, was by bashing in, get a three second burst and then get out of it."

And finally fifty one year old Group Cpt. Rice; he was made prisoner after Singapore and did not survive his captivity. Sqn Ldr Howell forwarded Rice's report on the actions of 243Sqn to the Air Ministry on his release.

"Up against superior aircraft, and outnumbered 6 to 1, they showed a spirit equal to if not greater, than that of the pilots in the Battle of Britain (Rice served in the BoB). With practically no hope of rescue if shot down, they pursued the enemy and succeeded in shooting down in excess of 60 aircraft. The ground crews did all in their power to keep the aircraft in the air, under very trying and exhausting conditions. Great work was done by pilots and crews under difficulties"

Brian Cull's follow up to this title will be Hurricanes over Singapore. Recommended historical reading.

© Tony Oliver 2004

Related Content

This review was published on Saturday, July 02 2011; Last modified on Wednesday, May 18 2016