- Francis, Richard and Robinson, John
- History - general
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- June 2003 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Originally built before WW2 for RAF bombers, the airfield came under Admiralty control in 1939. Post war it was rebuilt for RN squadrons of the Far East Fleet until vacated in the 1970s.
ROYAL NAVAL AIR STATION Sembawang was first commissioned by the ship’s company of HMS Narbrook in October 1945 as HMS Simbang – an unintentional play on the place name – on December 15th 1945.
The history of HMS Simbang began in 1934/35, when the site, originally part of the Bukit Sembawang Rubber Estate, was purchased by the Air Ministry. Approval for the construction of a grass airfield was given in 1936, and the British Army started work in the following year. Built for the Royal Air Force and originally planned for two bomber squadrons, the airfield was transferred to Admiralty control in 1939, but was again transferred in 1940, this time to the Royal Australian Air Force.
By August 1940 two Australian squadrons were established and the following year two fighter squadrons were added to the strength. The war reached Singapore in earnest in December 1941, and the station suffered heavy raids and many casualties. It was aircraft of No. 21(F) Buffalo Squadron, operating from Sembawang at maximum range, that attempted to assist in covering HM Ships Prince of Wales and Repulse. By January 1942 the situation on the ground in Malaysia had worsened and Sembawang was evacuated. By February 3rd 1942, the order of battle showed no aircraft operating from the airfield and Sembawang was occupied by the Japanese in the middle of February.
Little is known about the Japanese operations during the occupation. After the Japanese surrender in September 1945, a Naval advance party returned to take control. They found about 90 Zero fighters and a few Bettys on the airfield, and some 700 Japanese officers and men. The station was honeycombed with tunnels and foxholes and in an unbelievable state of filth and disorder. Work on rehabilitation began at once and Japanese prisoners of war filled in all the foxholes and tunnels that could be found, and laid the existing 1,200 yard pierced steel planking runway.
After a brief period the first commission of HMS Simbang ended when it was handed back to the RAF in January 1948. In September 1949, Sembawang was reduced to care and maintenance and did not become active again until January 1950, when with war again threatening in the Far East, the second commission started. The years 1950 to 1954 were very active – the workshops were built up to full Aircraft Repair Yard standards and the station had a throughput of about 20 aircraft per month. The ferry carrier HMS Unicorn operated between Sembawang and Korea, whilst HMS Perseus was the link between the United Kingdom and Sembawang.
The end of the Korean War overlapped the Malayan Emergency and in January 1953, Sembawang witnessed the operation of helicopters for the first time. These were the S.55 (Sikorsky) helicopters of 848 Naval Air Squadron, which arrived to give transport support. In July 1953, the station task was reduced to supporting 848 Squadron, aircraft from visiting carriers and a Holding Unit equipped with Sea Furies and Fireflies. Eventually the fixed wing aircraft returned to the United Kingdom in HMS Vengeance and by September 1955, the reduction in complement had been completed. At the end of the Malayan Emergency in April 1957, HMS Simbang was again reduced to care and maintenance.
Early in 1959, work began in extending the galleys and accommodation to transform Sembawang into a base for a Royal Marine Commando and a Naval helicopter squadron. The advance party of 42 Commando, Royal Marines arrived in January 1960. Alterations and additions went ahead rapidly and in June 1960 42 Commando and 848 Naval Air Squadron disembarked for a period from HMS Bulwark. During March 1961, HQ 3rd Commando Naval Brigade, Royal Marines, arrived and at the end of July 1961, 848 Squadron and 42 Commando were disembarked to Sembawang for three months.
HMS Simbang commissioned for the third time in September 1962, the Year of the Tiger. As confrontation with Indonesia developed, little was seen of 845 and 846 Naval Air Squadrons, for both HMS Albion‘s Squadrons were to spend long periods in Borneo. In late 1962 and early 1963, 814 and 815 Naval Air Squadrons spent periods disembarked at Sembawang. The years between 1963 and 1966 saw HM Ships Victorious, Centaur, Eagle, Ark Royal and Hermes operating in the Far East, and in each case the attached anti-submarine squadrons spent time disembarked at Sembawang.