By Lance Halvorson (with acknowledgment of Alan Stephens, Going Solo; and John & Adrienne Whitehead).
The RAF Far East Air Force (FEAF) evolved at the end of WW2 to reach its peak in the 1950s – a large force with strategic assets possibly greater than those of the RAAF.
The C-in-C FEAF was always a RAF Air Marshal. HQFEAF occupied two large three-storey buildings at Royal Air Force Base Singapore, based at Changi. HQFEAF had its own Officers Club, Fairy Point, on a hill with the Sailing Club on one side, and the Swimming Club on the other. The base housed 3000 personnel, No 4 RAF Hospital, No 14 Squadron (RNZAF), No 38 Squadron RAAF and a number of RAF transport squadrons. The base had all types of sporting facilities including a golf course, sailing club, swimming pools. A second Officers Mess at Temple Hill, separate to the Fairy Point Officers Club served RAF Base Singapore; the Changi Creek Transit Hotel was established for transit crews. The well-known Changi Beach, NAAFI and the neighbourly Changi Village, a delightful strip of shopping paradise, were close by.
A number of RAAF officers were posted to HQFEAF over the years from the late 1950s, through the 1960s. Some occupied junior and mid-level staff positions and others in more senior roles; all rotating with RAF officers. The most senior RAAF-occupied post in HQFEAF was that of Senior Air Staff Officer (SASO) who reported to the C-in-C FEAF. RAAF officers who held the SASO position were AVMs Hannah (1956-59), Candy (1959-62), A/AVM Gibson (1964-65), AVM Robey (1970-71).
Air Vice- Marshal F. Scherger assumed appointment as Air Officer Commanding (AOC) RAF Air Headquarters Malaya on 1 Jan 53. The appointment was the first British command given to an Australian air officer since the end of World War II. The mix of RAF and RAAF squadrons under his command was then engaged in anti-terrorist operations during the Malayan Emergency. The AOC was responsible for directing those operations under the overall authority of the Commander-in- Chief Far East Air Force (whose command ranged from the Indian Ocean to Hong Kong).
AVM Scherger quickly decided that his Air Headquarters should not be located in Singapore but alongside the Army’s Director of Operations, General Sir Gerald Templer, in Kuala Lumpur. When Scherger’s term ended after two years, the AOC post alternated between RAF and RAAF officers. Renamed No 224 Group in 1957-58 (Alan Stephens, Going Solo, AGPS 1995) , the HQ relocated to Seletar, Singapore. Three more Australians were appointed from 1957 until the position was terminated in 1968 – AVM Hancock, AVM Headlam and AVM Eaton. Following the downgrading of AOC No 224 Group, RAAF Chiefs of Staff were AVMs Eaton (68-69) and Hennock (69-70).
The Group Captain Ops positions in HQ No 224 Group were held by RAAF officers, Douglas and Newstead, again on rotation. There were also many more RAAF officers and other ranks posted in to ADC/PA positions and administrative jobs.
The main fighter and strike squadrons were based at Tengah on the north-west of Singapore. RAF elements were also at Hong Kong (Kai Tak, Little Sai Wan, Sek Kong), Kuantan and Labuan, all under HQFEAF command. HQ FEAF was responsible for the strategic air route between Europe and the Far East. With the loss of its transit bases in the former British colonies in the 1950s on the Indian Sub-continent, HQ FEAF developed RAF Gan in the Maldive Islands, in the Addu Atoll, 42 n miles south of the equator.
Gan was a major staging post for RAF aircraft transiting to the Far East and Australia. It handled all RAF aircraft, including V-Force bombers and strategic air transport. Fuel was provided by a Royal Fleet auxiliary (RFA) permanently moored at the atoll. During the Indo-Pakistan War in 1965, British civilair also transited through Gan; eg, British Eagle. British atomic tests at Monte Bello and Maralinga, as well as long range weapons testing at Woomera, relied heavily on this secure transport route. RAF Gan transferred to a civil ownership in the early 70s, with the RAF transferring its transit requirements to Diego Garcia, 400 n miles (740 km south).
Operations in 224 Group
RAF Canberras from England and Europe deployed to Singapore and Malaysia for exercises and during Confrontation. Early in May 1965, fifteen Canberra B(I) 8 aircraft of No 16 Squadron deployed from Laarbruch in Germany to Tengah and Kuantan. The squadron returned to Germany in June 1966 via RAF Gan, and as they had no HF radio, with ‘radio escorts’ provided by 3 x 2SQN RAAF, 2 x 45SQN RAF and 2 x 14 SQN RNZAF Canberras. All the éscort’ Canberras had HF radio to receive destination weather reports for each 16 Squadron Flight Leaders (in flights of three each, five minutes apart) at the destination, Masirah. Following receipt of good weather, the 16SQN Canberras continued to Bahrain and the escorting Canberras turned back to RAF Gan after passing the weather report or on reaching their Point of Safe Return (PSR) for Gan Is.
With the commitment of Australian forces to the Far East Strategic Reserve (FESR) on 1 April 1955, two RAAF fighter squadrons (3 & 77 SQNs), and a bomber squadron (2SQN) were to be based at Butterworth, near Penang. However, before the squadrons deployed the airstrip had to be upgraded. No 2 ACS re-built Butterworth to a standard suitable for modern jet aircraft in the Commonwealth and Allied Air Forces. A Mobile Control & Reporting Unit (114MCRU) and a helicopter squadron (5SQN) were to join FESR in 1959 and 1963.
In his book, Going Solo, Alan Stephens gives a detailed history of Commonwealth Air Forces in Malaysia and Singapore activities post World War II, and is an excellent read. The fighter and bomber squadrons were involved in many exercises and operations and postings to these units were career highlights for many RAAF members, not just in flying but in technical support, logistics, catering, medical, administration and other support positions.
A posting to No 2 Squadron at Butterworth was sought after by many from 82 Wing at Amberley, both air and ground crews. With the Canberra’s long range, flights to many locations in SE Asia were common. Lone Ranger flights to RAF Kai Tak, Hong Kong, were particularly attractive as were the flights to Australia and on to Ohakea Base, New Zealand. The panniers in the large bomb bay were often full with parts and essential items for safety of flight.
The squadron maintained an operational state of readiness and operated with allied air forces in Singapore, India, and Philippines. Various deployments were conducted for SEATO and other air defence exercises: Exercises “Air Boon Choo” to Ubon, Thailand, Joss Stick and Cope Thunder exercises are examples. 2SQN operated with Royal Navy Venoms, RAF Hunters and B2 Canberras (45SQN) and RNZAF B12 Canberras (14SQN).
2 Squadron crews ferried aircraft to and from Australia for major servicing and on occasions, for anti-corrosion treatment at Parafield, SA. Because of Indonesian Confrontation, aircraft tracked via Nicobar Is, NW of Subang on the tip of Sumatra. On the odd occasion, one or two crews ‘cut the corner’ and flew within 20n miles of Subang, enroute to Cocos Is.
RAAF Base Butterworth was handed over to the Malaysian Government on 31 March 1970 and following the British Government’s decision to withdraw its forces east of Suez by 1971, the Far East Air Force was disbanded the same year. An ‘íntegrated air defence system’ was to take its place.