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[Home] [Airfields of 103 Sqn] [RAF Changi]

Changi – Singapore

Duke of Edinburgh Inspection Changi February 1965

Duke of Edinburgh Inspection Changi February 1965

Unlike the other major Singapore airfields Changi began life as an army artillery base located to cover the eastern sea approaches to the Straits of Johore. Covered in jungle and swamp the area was surveyed in 1927 and work then began to prepare it for the siting of a 3 x 15-inch heavy gun battery, ranging and support facilities and military base. After three years of construction work was suspended due to the economic crisis in Britain but resumed in 1934 after Japan's occupation of Manchuria led to a reassessment of British defence policy.

By 1941 the work had been completed. With the Japanese advance down Malaya came the  realisation that these guns which had been sited to defend against a seaborne attack were useless. Changi's troops were therefore withdrawn to defend the city against Japanese forces which landed in Singapore in February 1942 and the 15-inch guns were destroyed.

Following the surrender of Singapore the Japanese decided to add an airfield to the excellent facilities of the Changi garrison. The plan was to construct two intersecting earth landing strips, one running north/ south and the other east/west.

Work was begun by a ground levelling party of Allied POWs in 1943 and the initial force of about 800 men was gradually expanded to include survivors from the Burma railway. Soil and rock to fill swamp areas was moved in hand trucks along a network of narrow gauge railways. Japanese aircraft began to operate from the airfield in late 1944, many arriving in crates and being assembled in hangars constructed by the Japanese which remained in use long after the war. Numerous box type dispersals were laid down around the airfield but these saw little use before the Japanese surrender in 1945.

The name of Changi will always be associated with the disgusting and brutal prison camp endured for more than three years by countless POWs and civilian internees both in the barracks area and in the notorious Changi Jail a couple of miles away.

In the post-war reorganisation Changi was earmarked as a transport base and a perforated steel planking runway was laid. This enabled the station to open officially on 8 April 1946 and begin accepting four-engined aircraft. At the same time the first permanent squadron, No 48 with Douglas Dakotas, transferred from temporary accommodation at Kallang.

Changi was chosen as a site for the HQ Air Command South East Asia (HQACSEA) which moved in from Singapore city.

During May the 439 aircraft used the airfield including Lancastrians, Liberators, Skymasters, Catalinas, Dakotas, Mitchells, Expediters, Harvards, Spitfires and Mosquitoes. In addition to visiting aircraft from Qantas, the US Air Transport Command, the US Navy and the French armed forces, RAF Avro Yorks of 511 Squadron made a daily night stop, departing the following morning.

By the end of the year HQACSEA had been renamed HQ Air Command Far East (HQACFE), sharing accommodation at Changi with a subsidiary formation, Air HQ Malaya.

In June 1949 HQACFE would become the more familiar HQ Far East Air Force (HQFEAF).

During the first two months of 1947, four Lancasters of 7 Squadron were detached from the UK to carry out a series of exercises, involving practice bombing sorties on targets in Malaya. No 48 Squadron's VIP task was taken over by the Far East Communications Flight later expanded to a full squadron and known as FECS which formed with five aircraft in January. Four other squadrons were taken on strength throughout the year: 52 and 110 (Dakotas), 84 (Beaufighters) and 81 (Mosquitoes), while 1914 Flight's AOP Austers were also based here until January 1948, when they moved to Sembawang.

At the declaration of the Malayan Emergency in mid-1948, 81 and 84 Squadrons had moved on but the transport squadrons,starting with 110, began providing detachments to the Task Force formed at Kuala Lumpur for Operation Firedog. Reinforcements in the shape of a detachment from 41 Squadron RNZAF, operating Bristol Freighters arrived in September 1949 and the following month a De Havilland Devon arrived for FECS, which was now carrying VIPs as far afield as Saigon, Hong Kong and Aden. In August, after a reorganization of the AOP Austers, the HQ of 656 Squadron returned from Sembawang. Finally the new permanent runway begun in February 1949 was completed in early 1950 enabling the airfield to become an RAF Transport Command terminal in March.

Because the ground operations of the Malayan Emergency were carried out in a jungle environment, casualty evacuation by helicopter was essential and the use of helicopters in FEAF began at Changi (the location of the RAF hospital) with the formation, on 1 April 1950, of the Casualty Air Evacuation Flight. Initial equipment consisted of three Westland Dragonflies. In 1953 the Flight was expanded into 194 Squadron and relocated to Kuala Lumpur. September 1950 marked another inaugural air evacuation when the first Handley Page Hastings air ambulance left Changi for the UK. It was during this month that communist leaflets were found on the Station.

By October 1950 a detachment of 38 Squadron RAAF, with Dakotas had arrived, for Changi's Dakotas generally were very busy at this period. In addition to their normal work they were conducting experiments with paper parachutes, and even being employed for fire bomb attacks on a bandit garden in Malaya. Similarly, the role of the Dragonflies was widened when in December, they flew airborne street patrols during the worst riots in Singapore for many years.

Through the 1950s Changi's role continued to be that of FEAF's main transport airfield, the terminus for Transport Command's Far East schedules and a route stop for flights to Hong Kong and even Australia when the Woomera atomic testing range was active. Two previous tenants which both returned from Kuala Lumpur for extended stays were 52 Squadron from July 1951 to September 1959 and 110 Squadron from October 1951 to December 1957. Both units had by now replaced their Dakotas with Vickers Valettas. In 1957 48 Squadron exchanged its Vickers Valettas for Handley Page Hastings. The Squadrons later formed a Flight of Blackburn Beverleys, which then moved to Seletar as the basis of 34 Squadron. In addition to Valettas, FECS was flying the Hastings C4 on VIP tasks.

Handley Page Hastings C1A 48 Squadron

Handley Page Hastings at Changi

Some months after forming at Changi in May 1958 with Avro Shackleton MR1s, 205 Sqn lost a crew. One of the unit's aircraft disappeared over the sea while on a routine anti-piracy patrol in December. Despite an extensive search nothing was found until a week later  when the crew of another Shackleton spotted the symbols a distress message marked out in coral on an island. There the crew of a New Zealand frigate later found the grave of one of the missing Shackleton's crew members. He had been buried by Chinese fishermen who had witnessed the crash and anticipated a search.

Avro Shackleton MR2 205 Squadron

Avro Shackleton at RAF Changi

Changi's main preoccupation in the 1960s was the Indonesian Confrontation. The Station was involved in the opening rounds of this campaign when Hastings of 48 Squadron helped to fly troops to Borneo to quell the Brunei rebellion of December 1962. A Transport Command Bristol Britannia which happened to be at Changi was also used at short notice. The situation became so serious that it was decided to evacuate British personnel from Djakarta. The airlift duly took place in September 1963 and was carried out by 48 Squadron supplemented by three Armstrong Whitworth Argosys from 215 Squadron which had moved to Changi from the UK in July/August.

Armstrong Whitworth Argosy C1 215 Squadron

Armstrong Whitworth Argosy at RAF Changi

Throughout 1963 Changi was at full stretch supporting operations in the North Borneo territories, and in February 1964 Nos 48 and 215 Squadrons completed their thousandth supply sortie to Labuan and Kuching. No 41 Squadron RNZAF also played a significant part in the transport operations. Faced with a threat of Indonesian saboteur landings, 205 Squadron flew anti-invasion patrols while 26 Light Anti-Aircraft Sqn, RAF Regiment, took care of airfield defence. The Station also temporarily took on all commercial traffic after a BOAC Comet crash-landed at Singapore's Paya Lebar airport in March 1964. The workload was now such that to enable 205 Squadron to participate in a large SEATO exercise in Manila a reinforcement detachment of three Shackletons of 204 Squadron was sent out from the UK in May.

The declaration of a state of emergency in Malaysia in September 1964 following Indonesian para drops resulted in all leave being cancelled. In preparation for possible air attacks, slit trenches were dug and aircraft dispersed around the airfield, and in November a Hastings flying near the Indonesian border was hit by machine-gun fire. During the same month Argosys and Hastings flew a leaflet raid over Indonesian bases on the islands near Singapore. More reinforcement Shackletons, this time from 203 Squadron in Northern Ireland, arrived to help out 205 with its nightly patrols of the waters around Borneo and with search and rescue commitments at Changi and Gan. The air power available was further boosted by the arrival of North American Sabres from 77 Squadron RAAF. In addition Fleet Air Arm Blackburn Buccaneers of 801 Squadron which disembarked from HMS Victorious. Tragically 801 lost two of its aircraft in November, one of these crashing into the sea just after take off from Changi. The year closed with armed Shackletons being scrambled on Christmas Eve to observe Indonesian sampans in the Straits of Malacca.

In 1965 further detachments of Royal Navy Buccaneers of 800 Squadron from HMS Eagle and RAAF Sabres of 3 Squadron arrived at Changi. As part of HRH Prince Philip's 1965 visit to the Far East, a representative of every FEAF aircraft type was assembled at Changi for his inspection on 27 February. Other visitors during the year included the Historic Aircraft Preservation Society's Lancaster en route from Australia to the UK and USAF HC-97 Stratofreighters detached here in June and October for the Gemini space capsule returns.

From June 1967 to November 1967 Changi was closed due to the construction of the new air terminal and passenger services. The aircaft used RAF Tengah during this period.

From July onwards the Station's many Hastings were grounded as a result of a fatal crash in the UK. The Vickers VC10, on the other hand, would soon become a familiar sight following the arrival of XR808 in August on its route-proving flight. During the same month 120 Squadron replaced 201 Squadron in the continuing series of Shackleton detachments from the UK, and the Confrontation officially ended.

The task of providing realistic training for front-line units in the Far East was met by Changi based 1574 Flight which had been flying Meteor T7s, F8s and TT2Os in the target facilities role since December 1959. Prior to the Confrontation the Flight had formed a FEAF acrobatic team but now, in response to Indonesian landings in Johore its ageing F8s were put on a high alert state alongside the other FEAF fighters.

Throughout the Confrontation the Station had handled a steady flow of freight aircraft both military and civil including Hercules of the Pakistan, Australian and New Zealand air forces.

The move here from Tengah of the Naval Aircraft Support Unit (NASU) in 1965 resulted in a dramatic increase in the number of visiting Royal Navy aircraft disembarked from aircraft carriers. Until its closure on 1 May 1969 these included Sea Vixens Scimitars, Buccaneers and Gannets.

Hawker Hunter T8 Royal Navy NASU

Hawker Hunter at RAF Changi

The British withdrawal from the Far East brought many changes at Changi. The first unit to be axed was 215 Squadron which relinquished its first Argosy in November 1967, at about the same time that 48 Squadron began to re-equip with the Hercules. Several 215 Squadron aircraft and crews went direct to 70 Squadron in Cyprus.

The last RAF Shackleton MR2 and Hastings C4s) were all scrapped in January 1960. FECS then became a VIP Flight of 52 Squadron which brought its Hawker Siddeley Andovers to Changi from Seletar in February. The following month 103 Squadron and 110 Squadron  with their Westland Whirlwind HAR10s together with the De Havilland Beavers of 130 Flight, Royal Corps of Transport also transferred from Seletar. Changi's aircraft now took part in numerous exercises and the Station hosted detachments of Lockheed P-3 Orions from the US Navy, RNZAF and RAAF.

In December 1959 52 Squadron disbanded after more than 25 continuous years service in the Far East. The Squadron Andover CC1s were ferried back to the UK, its two C2s remaining behind as the Far East Communications Flight, attached to 48 Squadron. The reinforcement exercise Bersatu Padu gave Changi a brief respite from the running down process and resulted in a flurry of visiting transport aircraft in April 1970. The remaining units which disbanded at Changi throughout 1971 included the FEAF Survival and Parachute School at which FEAF aircrew had learned their jungle survival theory, 110 Squadron in February and 205 Sqn in October, while 103 Squadron transferred to Tengah in September. With the demise of HQFEAF on 31 October 1971, Changi came under the control of Air Support Command in November and a farewell parade to mark the Station's closure was held at the Changi Creek transit hotel on 9 December 1971.

Having been returned to the Singapore government the airfield was developed into the new Singapore International Airport, a role it took over from Paya Lebar airport.

Written by David Fell the main reference course being Action Stations Overseas by Tony Fairbairn. Top photo Anne Bihan. Other photos from my own archive

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