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A History of Butterworth Airbase, Malaysia
– 3 Squadron’s Home from the 1950s to the 80s

As described by Squadron Leader Tony Fairbairn in his book "ACTION STATIONS".

3 Squadron Sabres on the taxi-way at Butterworth, late 1950s

In December 1941, British airfields in Northern Malaya came under heavy Japanese air attack and the situation was becoming desperate.  By the 8th of December, the airfields of Singora and Patani, just over the border in Thailand, were in enemy hands and an Allied attack on them was essential if the Japanese raids originating from them were to be stemmed.  

Accordingly, on 9 December, the remaining machines from two badly-depleted Blenheim squadrons, No.s 34 and 62, attempted two counter-attacks.  The first mission was successful, but just before the second could be launched, Japanese bombers arrived overhead as the Blenheims were preparing to take off.  Only one Blenheim, piloted by Flight Lieutenant A. S. K. Scarf, was able to leave the ground.

Undaunted by the vulnerability of his solitary aircraft, Scarf headed for his target, the airfield at Singora.  There, despite being attacked by fighters, he dropped his bombs, but was hit in the back and left arm and mortally wounded.  Struggling to maintain consciousness, he turned back to the Malayan border and although now very weak from loss of blood, he managed to put the Blenheim down in a padi-field near Alor Star.  His navigator was unhurt but Scarf himself died that night from his wounds.  His actions were recognized five years later in the award of the Victoria Cross, Malaya's first.

The airfield from which Scarf had struggled into the air was Butterworth, situated at the northern end of Malaya's west coast.  Opening in October 1941, the Station was still under "Care and Maintenance" when Japanese air raids began unexpectedly in December.   It was to this somewhat inadequate environment that a number of flying units were sent to consolidate during December, including No.s 27, 34 and 62 Sqns (all Blenheims), together with the Brewster Buffalo fighters of 21 Sqn, RAAF.  Later in the day of Scarf's fateful mission, the Station suffered yet another low-level attack, in which aircraft on the ground were picked off one by one.  Some RAAF Buffaloes were in the air and tried to intercept, but they were an inadequate match for the Japanese fighters and two were shot down, other Buffaloes were destroyed or disabled by Japanese ground-strafing.  So bad was the destruction that 62 Sqn, with only two serviceable Blenheims, was withdrawn to Taiping while RAAF 21 Sqn's six remaining marginally-effective Buffaloes retreated to Ipoh.  No.27 Sqn, a Blenheim night-fighter unit, had no machines to send anywhere.

Wrecked Brewster Buffaloes

After the war in the Pacific, the Station re-formed in January 1946 and for six months was the HQ for 231 Air Sea Rescue Unit, whose motor-launches carried out anti-smuggling patrols in local waters.  Another arrival at the beginning of the year was 47 Sqn whose period of tenure, with Mosquito FBVIs, was even shorter.  Later in the year it was announced that the future role of the Station, which was already handling transiting Yorks, Expediters, Mosquitoes, Spitfires, Beaufighters, Mitchells and Dakotas, would be that of a permanent staging post and heavy bomber airfield. Accordingly, a York of 511 Sqn from the UK arrived in October to carry out take-off tests.  By the end of 1946, No.1300 Meteorological Flight was established for daily PAMPA weather sorties.  Lack of wood for repairs grounded the Mosquitoes for a long time, and training sorties in the Flight's Harvard were all that could be managed.

By March 1947 some civilian traffic was being handled; an Airspeed Consul of Malayan Airways made several visits while surveying proposed air routes, and other callers included South Eastern Airways and Orient Airways Vickers Viking G-AJJN, passed through on a test flight to New Zealand in April, while in May, RN Seafires and Fireflies disembarked from HMS Theseus for local flying.  Equipped with Beaufighters and Harvards, No.27 Armament Practice Camp was established here in early 1949 as a training facility for FEAF's front- line squadrons.

Although the Malayan Emergency had begun in mid-1948, Butterworth did not become heavily involved until the spring of 1950, when it began hosting detachments of fighters and light bombers needed to provide air support in Northern Malaya.  One of the first such units to be taken on strength was 33 Sqn (in May) with Tempest F2s, which carried out rocket attacks on bandit positions.  By early 1951 the poor serviceability of the Tempests, the last in RAF service, led to their replacement by De Havilland Hornets.  During the first week of Operation Sword (which lasted from July 1953 to March 1954), the Hornets took part in attacks on known terrorist camps in Malaya.  Since Butterworth was only 30 miles away, 33 Sqn was able to put its Hornets over the target area continually during daylight.  In 1954, as part of Operation Eclipse, the Hornets struck at targets pinpointed by Austers.  In addition to Beaufighters, Brigands and Vampires, the Station also handled Yorks, Dakotas, Austers, and the occasional Lincoln from Singapore.  Operating alongside these regular forces was the Penang Squadron of the Malayan Auxiliary Air Force which, with Tiger Moths, Harvards and later Chipmunks, mounted low-level reconnaissance sorties over a seven-year period beginning in 1950.

The succession of detachments reached a milestone in February 1955 with the arrival of four Canberra B6s of No.101 Sqn from the UK, the first RAF jet bomber squadron to fly on war operations.  No.101 was succeeded by Canberra detachments from No.617, 12, and 9 Sqns, which in effect replaced the earlier Lincoln detachments at Tengah.

On the last day of March 1955, 33 Sqn amalgamated with another Far East Hornet squadron, No 45 at Tengah, under the latter's numberplate and based at Butterworth.  However, the Squadron soon began retraining on the jet Vampire prior to re-equipping with Venoms in October, when it also moved to Hong Kong.  The Hornets were flown to Seletar for scrapping, but sadly not before two had collided and crashed into a padi-field within sight of Butterworth.

In a changing political and military scene, Butterworth was handed over on 1 July 1958 to the RAAF which had plans to use it as the base for a fighter and bomber Wing under the build-up of the Commonwealth Strategic Reserve in Malaya.  No.2 and No.3 Sqns (Canberras and Sabres respectively) of the RAAF arrived in November, joining small, periodic detachments of RAF Bomber Command Valiants.  A further RAAF Sabre squadron, No.77, was added in 1959, intended but not needed for the Firedog [anti-insurgency] campaign, which was drawing to a close.  Although the airfield was now under RAAF ownership, RAF units continued to be based here.  No.110 Sqn with Sycamore and Whirlwind helicopters moved in during September 1959, tasked with resupplying forward positions and casualty evacuation, finally departing for Seletar in 1964, while in 1960 it became home for 52 Sqn's Valettas, which remained until April 1966.  The late 1950s and 1960s also saw many Bomber Command Vulcan detachments from the UK mounted in response to both Firedog (Vulcan B Is) and the later Indonesian Confrontation (Vulcan B2s).  Later still it was used by the RAAF's No.3 and 75 Sqns on Mirage IIIs in the fighter/ground attack role, together with Dakotas of 38 Sqn on search and rescue and utility work.

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