Even as the war raged in Burma Lord Louis Mountbatten - Supreme Commander Allied Forces SEAC and his services’ commanders were planning ambitious assaults to re-capture Malaya, Singapore and the East Indies. These assaults were to be from land, sea and air. Glider and airborne training was to be with squadrons 668 – 663 using Horsa and Hadrian gliders and Dakotas and later Halifax tugs. Commandos of the Royal Marines were to be used as sea attacking forces and the Royal navy had built-up a formidable number of assault boats. The X1Vth Army would advance overland from the north the operation code name was ‘Operation Zipper’.

What of the Royal air Force? It was decided that SEAC must have heavy bomber squadrons to support the X1Vth Army and to destroy strategic targets held by the Japanese: shipping, airfields ammunition dumps, command post and communications and general targets in the Army’s area and behind. Lying in the Indian Ocean about 1,000 miles from Singapore where the Cocos and Keeling Islands, which were owned by the family who were descendants of John Clunies Ross who in 1825 bought the Cocos Islands; Captain Keeling had discovered these Islands in the early 17th Century. On North Keeling are the remains of the German cruiser ‘Emden’ which was destroyed by the Royal Australian Navy in November 1914. The Emden had sunk many tons of shipping before she was destroyed. The wreck of the Emden is still to be seen on north Keeling today.

The island’s labour force and inhabitants were Tamils and Malays who produced copra and oil from the palms that cover the island. SEAC Command chose the largest of the Cocos Islands called Brown’s West Island to construct an airstrip long enough to allow the landings and take offs of large aircraft. Unobtrusively, in 1944, the Royal Engineers of the X1Vth Army moved in units, by sea, onto Brown’s, equipped with what was very modern equipment then: Bulldozers, rollers and scrapers. When they had cleared the island of most of it’s palms they laid ‘Pierced Steel Planks’ (PSB) to create the runway.


Cocos airstrip under construction

Cocos airstrip completed 1945

 The runway was tested by a Consolidated (amphibious) Catalina and found to be short so was extended further to 2,000 yards and completed on time in early 1945. The Catalina belonged to 321 Squadron.

Because they could be vulnerable to Japanese air attacks the first squadron on the island were equipped with Spitfire LFV111 aircraft, which were shipped from the UK by sea in wooden crates and unpacked and assembled on arrival. The Squadron was 136 Squadron and its main duties were fighter cover for the airfield and escort for all coming and going. They had previously been equipped with Spitfire Vc’s and Hurricane 11b’s and 11c’s and had served throughout the SEAC area since 1942. They had the highest number of Japanese kills in SEAC and had fought over and ahead of the battles at Kohima and Imphal as well as escorting supply dropping Dakotas, which were of great importance to the X1Vth Army. On Cocos they were brought up to readiness by June 1945, pilots and personnel having arrived on 7th April 1945.

136 Squadron Line up on Cocos

Fast flypast over Cocos by a 136 Squadron Spitfire

Coloured drawing of MT567 by J.E.H. Fail

HM-L 136 Squadron JG111

That move completed it became imperative to get the two Liberator bombers Squadrons: 99 and 356, both equipped on station with Liberator BV1’s. The Navigation Officer of 231 Group as the pathfinder for the Liberator move had flown a previous flight, planning the route to Cocos. It was via Kankesanteria (KKS to the crews) onto Ceylon for refuelling and then eastwards to Cocos. 99 Squadron did this on the 16/17th July 1945 and 356 on the 20th of July.


99 Squadron arrival on Cocos 17th July 1945

356 arrivals codes 'B' and 'F' serials KH270 and KN752

 Their call signs to Cocos were ‘Bowler’ and ‘Batsman’ respectively for instance if ‘C’ for Charlie of 99 contacted Cocos the call sign would be Bowler-Charlie, the Squadrons kept these call signs during all their service on Cocos. It was intended at a later date to move 231 Group onto the Island with 159 Squadron as the Pathfinder for the group but V.J. occurred first. 356 had been formed on January 15th 1944 and was an experienced squadron which amongst its many attacks on the Burma Siam railway, depots and bridges, and other strategic targets had taken part with 99 Squadron and other 231 Group aircraft in saturation bombing of Ramrea Island escorted by Thunderbolts thus clearing the way for amphibious landings by the XVth Corps, this was in January 1945 and eventually led to the recapture of Mandalay on March 20th 1945.


99 Squadron Takeoff wheels retracting

99 Squadron Takeoff wheels retracted

99 Squadron, amongst its operations, when flying Wellingtons had aided the X1Vth Army, not by bombing, but by ferrying 250lb bombs for the ‘Hurribombers’ to attack the Japanese Imperial army at Imphal.

99 Squadron converted to Liberators in September 1944. 356 prior to Cocos had served its entire service at Salbani. Whereas, 99 who had been in India since 1942 had served on many stations all personnel were under canvas even to the Station Post Office, which was supplied by Curtis Commando C46 aircraft with incoming mail. After becoming redundant as a pilot W/O Tom Henthorne ran the post office. Tom became surplus after his captain F/Sgt Len Wilkinson (RCAF) was shipped home for ‘demob’ in Canada. Tom had previously done a full tour with 99 and was serving with 356, when this happened. The winds on Cocos never ceased and this did not lend itself to personal comfort. There were a few Bashas (long huts made from bamboo) as there were all over SEAC service stations generally as Messes and Station Cinemas.

GRVIs of 321 Squadron J & F serials KH999 and EW321

GRVI of 321 (Dutch) Squadron takes off from Cocos on patrol

 From Browns a vast sea and land area could be covered by the long range Liberators and within four days of arrival 99 Squadron attacked shipping on Java the raid was only partially successful due to the fact that the detonators had been incorrectly fitted to their bomb loads. They did, however, manage to rake the shipping with their .5mgs. As well as the bombers, coastal aircraft for anti shipping duties were brought on to Cocos. These were mainly Liberators GRV1’s and GRV111’s. 321 Dutch Squadron on detachments was moved to Cocos from China Bay, the GR squadrons which supplied Liberators all came from 222 Group and the two other Squadrons on detachment was 203, and 160 Squadron was used for ferry duties while 203 detachment was on full GR duties. 160 used Cocos mainly as a staging post. The occupation of Cocos was coded operation ‘Pharos.


GRVI of 160 Squadron coded 'A' serial KL877

GRVI of 203 Squadron coded 'A' serial KG849

 An Australian Liberator of the RAAF was the first to crash fatally on Cocos where it had stopped for refuelling after a raid. On its way back to its base it took off from Cocos when number 4 engine (Starboard outer) began to over rev much too rapidly, the pilot tried to rectify this fault by feathering the wrong engine. Instead of number 4 engine, he feathered number 1 (port outer) with disastrous effect, the aircraft crashed onto a coral reef at the end of the airstrip and into the sea killing the crew.

This crash resulted in a strip barrier being placed across the end of the airstrip to avoid that type of accident happening again. The barrier was similar to those used on aircraft carriers varies but longer in length. However, the unforeseen was to happen, a Liberator, coded ‘N’, when landing struck the wire with its front wheel causing the aircraft to plunge onto the airstrip and disintegrate killing all on board.

99 Squadron BVI coded 'T' Oct 1945

356 Squadron BVI coded 'F' serial KN752

  Photo-recognisance aircraft produced evidence that two Japanese airfields at Benkeolen in Sumatra could pose a direct danger to Cocos airstrip so 99 Squadron flew their last wartime bombing mission against these bases bombing and then strafing the airfield and aircraft and ground equipment on August 7th 1945. This was actually the last RAF bombing mission of WW11. On the sixth of August 3 Liberators of 356 had bombed and staffed Benkoden airfield, both these airfields were S.E of Benkoelen. Both Squadrons supplied drops before V.J. 99 sent three Liberators to ‘DZ Funnel;’ 1113 in Malaya on August 12th 1945, while on 13th August 1945 356 sent four aircraft on a Malaya drop, one aircraft aborted and never reached the DZ (dropping zone). On the 15th of August 99 Squadron was about to do a shipping strike on Singapore when the station C.O. Major General Durrant of the SAAF, took a large piece of chalk and wrote cancelled on the ops board, saying that Japan had surrendered after the second atom bomb. That night was a riotous one on Cocos everyone celebrating V.J. (the complete unconditional surrender of all Japanese forces ordered by the Emperor himself)

356 BVI coded 'F' serial KN752 disarmed

356 BVI against typical Cocos background

On the 14th August the day before V.J, 203 Squadron lost the last Liberator through enemy action in WW11 when one of the aircraft was on a mission to investigate shipping movements and was attacked, reported between Java and Sumatra and was shot down by the Japanese fighters in Sunda Sound near Rakata Island (very close to Krakatao) The 356 ORB states the lost Libereator was a 321 Squadron aircraft but this is wrong. The aircraft had been briefed for this mission three of 321 and two of 203. The aircraft of 321 went u/s (unserviceable) and the two 203 Squadron aircraft proceeded with the mission taking off at 0100 and 0110 on the 14th of August. The shot down aircraft was Liberator GRV1, KH123 and the pilot was P/O Law. Several of the crew were killed when the aircraft ditched into the sea. 356 Squadron sent a radar equipped Liberator, KN746/G (a G after the serial means guarded full time) on 356’s last operation of WW11 searching for survivors.

After hostilities helping allied POW’s took full priority and supply dropping began. 99 Squadron lost a Liberator Serial KL491 when dropping urgently needed food and medical supplies at Pelembang on Sumatra on 1st September 1945 flying in low, when to the horror of the POW’s it crashed into the ground killing the crew. 321 Squadron dropped supplies to the Dutch POWs on Java and Sumatra. 321 Squadron had only one crash in its service career on Liberators and that was Liberator KH296 at China bay on 8the July 1945. When the aircraft failed on take off, rose in the air stalled into the sea killing all the crew.

The war now over 136 Squadron was shipped on HMS Smiter to Singapore and later moved to Kuala Lumpar.

In October 1945, 321 Squadron moved to Java and on the 8th of December ceased to be under RAF control becoming part of the Royal Netherlands Konkinkijke Marine at Sourbaya.

160 Squadron continued its ferry duties between Cocos and Minneriya Ceylon. In July 1946 it returned to the UK in stages to Lenchars, disbanded in 1946 reformed as 120 Squadron, equipped with Avro Lancasters. The conditions for POWs and other passengers when ‘trooping’ on Liberators were often primitive consisting of shutting the bom-bay doors and bolting wooden planks across the main bomb-bay spar as seats.

The last 99 Squadron Liberator to leave Cocos was KN751 (now in RAF Aerospace Museum Cosford) by W/C Webster DSO, DFC, Commanding Officer of 99 Squadron and Major General Durrant (equivalent to AVM in RAF) of the SAAF, Commanding Officer of Browns as second pilot. KN751-coded ‘R’ developed a mechanical fault and had to return to Cocos for repairs after which the aircraft then completed the flight from Cocos.

Although not stationed on Cocos mention must be made of 232 Squadron, equipped with Liberator transports, which flew a daily schedule from Delhi (Palam) to Ceylon and every ten days or so flew round trips to Australia via Ceylon and Cocos from April 1945 onwards. Later 232 Liberators were joined by Douglas C54s (Skymasters) in June 1945 on loan from the USAAF to the RAF for the Sydney run via Singapore and also the Butterworth mail run. The C54s were returned to the US in February 1946 and the Skymasters were replaced by Avro Lancastrians (civil version of the Lancaster) VM733 and VM734, being two of these aircraft. Eventually the project was taken over by civilian airlines such as Quantas and BOAC. 232 Squadron disbanded at Poona 15th August 1946

The Liberators of 99 and 356 joined other Liberator Squadron aircraft at 322 MU Chakeri where they were systematically made unusable. All Liberator Bomber Squadrons had been ordered to disarm in October 1945 at end of lend lease by US and 99 and 356 Squadrons were disbanded on 15th November 1945.

Former 355 Squadron Liberator KH168 used by 99 Squadron as a backup aircraft in 1945


Foot Note 1: A few years ago a row broke out between the Ross family and the Australian Government who wanted to absorb Cocos. The Ross family put forward a strong argument against this, stating "All Australia really wanted was ownership of the airstrip" Small world!

Foot Note 2: The C/O of the 356 Squadron was W/C Sparks who unfortunately died of Polio on Cocos. The Co of 321 Squadron was LT Cdr. W van Prooyen and the C/O of RAF Cocos was Mjr.Gen. J.T. Durrant SAAF, an officer of the South African Air Force whose rank was the equivalent of an Air Vice Marshal.