A SHORT HISTORY OF THE REGIMENT
19 Air Formation Signal Regiment was formed at Huddersfield on 17th October 1943- During the following year the Regiment was mobilized and sailed to India for overseas service in November 1944. Its first operational task was to provide communications for HQ Combat Cargo Task Force, an integrated RAF/ USAF force air-dropping supplies to the ground forces in Burma, The Regt. was based at Comilla in Bengal, with Companies in the Chittagong and Imphal areas. As the Burma campaign progressed, the Regiment moved south with the airforces and eventually into Rangoon. After the Japanese surrender detachments were then sent as far afield as Bangkok. Hanoi. Hong Kong and Shanghai, in fact it was the boast of the Regiment that it had detachments on every airfield in South East Asia. In 1946 the Regiment moved to Singapore where it has been based ever since. In 1947 it had Squadrons in Ceylon and Hong Kong, and in this year saw the start of a permanent affiliation with the Far East Air Force. In 1948 the regiment establishment was changed to incorporate Locally Enlisted Personnel (LEP). The Ceylon Squadron was disbanded in 1959 and Gan Island Signal Troop was formed, and in 1962 the Hong Kong Squadron was transferred from the Regiment. During Confrontation the Regiment had detachments in Brunei and Labuan Today the Regiment now covers the main airfields of Changi and Tengah the Microwave Stations throughout Singapore Island and in Penang and Butterworth and the Signal Troop at Gan.
PART 1 THE EARLY YEARS INTO SINGAPORE
One of the first units into Singapore after the Japanese Surrender was 7th Indian Air Formation Signals. At this time they had been rehabilitating the communications on the airfields with the additional help of sections from 19th Air Formation Signals who had preceded the main body. The sections now started to return to the Unit and in turn were deployed to build up the airfield systems. 104 Wing Sig Sect moved to Kuala Lumpur to take over commitments in Malaya, 100 Wing Sig Sect took over Changi and Seletar airfields and 103 Wing Sig Sect moved to Kallang to take over No. 2 Area FC. In August the latter section increased its responsibilities to include the airfield at Tengah. The main task of these sections was to resuscitate the airfield systems which consisted of a mixture of pre-war British and Japanese cables some of these were still in use in 1971! Outside the airfields two major projects were completed, a 14 pair UG cable from Jurong to Bukit Timah laid with the aid of Japanese labour and a 54 pair UG cable from Air Command to Changi airfield. Line work was for the most part confined to repairing existing underground cables and the internal wiring of equipment rooms, exchanges and offices. The element of the Unit left in Burma had its share of problems. In July, 65 Construction Section started work on a UG cable scheme from Victoria to Mingaladon. However there were several cases of sabotage in both UG and Quad routes in the Unit’s areas of responsibility and this tended to upset the good relations between the Army and the civilian population. One culprit was apprehended by one of the lineman and brought to court, charged and punished, but in many other cases neither the military nor civilian police had any success in tracking down the offenders.
The Diary records consistently from now on the acute shortages of tradesmen, particularly linemen and drivers. This was due to the large numbers of men proceeding to UK on LIAP, Python and release. In the last quarter of 1946, 3 Officers and 87 BORs left the Unit reducing the strength to 27 Officers and 618 British ranks. By March 1947 the strength had dropped to 21 Officers and 548 British ranks and was further reduced by June to 19 Officers and 408 Rank and File. Efforts were made to offset the driver shortage by misemploying operators in some cases and the employment of civilians whenever possible. Training courses were started for linemen on plumbing and jointing of UG cables and in order to maintain a good standard of teleprinter operating, a teleprinter school was established in Elim Camp. DR training took the form of DR trials and scrambles which aroused great enthusiasm.
On 8th November 1946 the new nomenclature of “Regiment”, “Squadron” and “Troop” was adopted and hereafter the Unit was known as 19th Air Formation Signal Regiment. The Regiment was still widely dispersed with RHQ and HQ 2 and 3 Squadrons and associated troops at Elim Camp Singapore. Wing Signal Troops had detachments at Changi, Seletar, Tengah, Kallang, Kuala Lumpur, Butterworth and Hong Kong. 1 Squadron was still based in Rangoon with detachments of its Wing and Line Troops on Mingaladon airfield and at RAF staging posts at Bangkok, Saigon, Port Blair in the Andaman Islands, Nicobar Islands, Mergui, Akyab, Pegu and Shanghai.
The general facilities at Elim Camp were not very satisfactory and the poor water supply was a contributory factor to a high incidence of skin disease and also had its effect on morale. In December a new water pipe was laid into the Camp. A further factor affecting morale was the decrease in the rates of demobilization; the men were naturally impatient to get back to UK and civilian life. A number of men posted in to the Regiment in the last few months caused some trouble by writing anonymously to the Press complaining of mal-administration and unnecessary restrictions. The press reports were exaggerated and gave a distorted picture. However the feature editor was quoted as having said “Its lines like this that sell the paper”. The Commanding Officer read out the anonymous letter on parade and showed that the complaints were unfounded. The effect on the Regiment appeared to have been beneficial in that it brought a realisation to the men that a great deal had been done for them whilst the irresponsible grousers were publicly discredited.
Lieutenant Stokes arrived at this time and was given the task of improving the Welfare facilities. Having served in Air Formation Signals before he had no compunction about tapping both Army and RAF resources and in two days had set up a complete Games room and a Library, with a Librarian running a small shop selling watches, pencil sets and the like. This officer was then posted to 102 Wing Signal Troop in Hong Kong, considered to be the best posting in the Regiment. The troop was based on RAF Homantin and its tasks were to maintain the switchboard and telephone and telegraph circuits at RAF HQ on Hong Kong Island, the airfield at Kai Tak and a poled circuit from Kai Tak to the radar station on the highest point on the mainland, Tai Mo Shan. The shortage of skilled tradesmen was acute and eventually the last cable jointer was released. The Troop Commander had to go cap in hand to the Hing Kong Telephone Company whenever a joint was required.
One amusing incident is worth recording. The RAF decided to give up the Radar Station and it was agreed that the Telephone Company would recover the wire, poles and equipment. The route had originally been laid by the Japanese. After a few weeks the Troop Commander was told to hand over the route to the elephone Company and so set out in his jeep up the track on the far side of the mountain. The route over the top followed a convex slope and from the top only about ten poles could be seen. With the Company’s representative he started down the mountain with the idea of counting poles and insulators as they went along. After ten poles there were no more — Johnny Chinaman had got there first and stolen the rest! Back in Singapore the problem of the accommodation for the Regiment was a matter of some concern.
The responsibility for Air Formation Signals accommodation was handed over from the Army, HQ Singapore District, to the RAF, Air HQ Malaya. Although the Officers’ Mess was situated in the Pasir Ris Hotel, the RHQ, offices and the remainder of the accommodation were mainly in tents and temporary huts of the most basic design. RAF representatives inspected the area and were disturbed at the amount of money that needed to be spent on it. Quite naturally they preferred that any money, which was limited, was put to better use on more permanent accommodation. Air HQ Malaya therefore investigated the possibility of moving the Regiment into RAF buildings on Changi Station. However this move did not take place until the end of 1948, some eighteen months later. Another drawback of Elim Camp was the lack of any suitable sports field in the vicinity and this was yet another factor affecting the morale of the men.
No. 1 Squadron, still in Burma, moved in May 1947 from Rangoon to RAF Mingaladon. The Gymkhana Club, which the Squadron had rehabilitated from a gutted ruin in August 1945 to an excellent dining-hall, cookhouse, canteen, workshops and vehicle park, was handed over to RAF Movements. The Squadron moved into basha huts on the RAF station at Mingaladon and though the accommodation was not as good as that in Rangoon it was nevertheless satisfactory and much more convenient for the operational work of the Squadron. The manpower problem was becoming acute in September 1947, and with the anticipated loss of further men on release, it was feared that by the end of the year the Regiment would not be strong enough to do more than maintain permanent communications. A vigorous drive was therefore made to remove all temporary installations and to replace these with more permanent and easily maintained material. It was hoped that this programme could be completed before the manpower shortage reached a point where further line construction or cable installation became impossible. The strength of the Regiment was now down to just over 300. “cap in hand” to the Hong Kong Telephone Company whenever a joint was required. In the last few months of the year a great deal of work was required in the two RAF Headquarters, Air Command Far East and Air HQ Malaya, and the three large airfields, and this kept the Regiment fully employed. The ‘N’ type switchboard at Air Command had been replaced by a similar type in June 1947. Even after only some six months use the efficiency of the board had dropped to 60-70%. The main trouble was the main frame cabling which could neither carry the existing ringing system nor tolerate the high humidity level. It was clear that some form of air-conditioning was required both for the switchboard and any associated line equipments.
As part of the plan to introduce more permanent installations the Regiment was called upon to start the first of many projects under the Fixed Signal Services system, later called Signals Works Services. The projects that followed included the installation of ‘N’ type switchboards at two of the major airfields, Seletar and Tengah.
Two of the outlying detachments ceased at the end of 1947, at Saigon and Kuala Lumpur, and the personnel were withdrawn to RHQ. No. 1 Squadron had now completed their task in Burma and the Squadron started preparations to return to Singapore. All communications systems were handed over to the Posts and Telegraphs, Burma and the stores and vehicles were returned to CSO Burma. At this time Colonel Stuart-Usher returned to UK and command passed to Lieutenant Colonel A.N. Griffiths, OBE. His command was short and by April 1948 Lieutenant Colonel R. Webb had taken over the Regiment. A revised establishment was now put forward for a mixed unit of British Other Ranks and Locally Enlisted Personnel (LEP). The CO’s comment at the time was that whilst this would alleviate the manpower problem it was felt that this would produce problems in administration and trade proficiency. This may well have been a fair comment in the early stages but looking back now on some twenty three years of a mixed establishment, it would be true to say that those problems were overcome and that the British and LEP tradesmen in the B and C trades were of a similar standard.
The operational work of the Regiment in mid-1948 was made more difficult by several factors. There was still a shortage of skilled tradesmen, and as yet no LEP had been posted in to offset this. Cables which had been laid in a hurry in 1945/46 were now deteriorating rapidly and added to this, considerable damage was done to cables by engineer working parties. To rub salt into the wound the first indications appeared of organised sabotage and looting of cables; a comment made at the time stated “This instance would appear to have all the hallmarks of organisation by Royal Signals Civilian Employees.” The establishment of an Imprest Store for FSS Maintenance and Project stores involved considerable clerical effort and supervision and it was clear that there should be a special increment to the establishment of the Regiment to cover this extra commitment. The P & T Department in Malaya took over the responsibility for RAF communications at Butterworth and gradually the detachment from 103 Wing Signal Troop was withdrawn.
An Air Formation Signal Regiment is in a rather anomalous position in that the responsibility for administration is divided between the RAF and the Army. The allocation of married quarters was, and still is, a vexed problem, as the RAF rules differ from those used by the Army, and there was considerable discontent amongst personnel of the Regiment over this matter. This was but one item but records of July 1948 said “that considering the Unit is, from an accommodation point of view, the responsibility of the RAF, it is unfortunate that no Senior RAF Officer has visited the Unit, except for social reasons, for over one year. The lack of interest and action taken by the RAF in the provision of a weatherproof canteen and a sports ground is most unfortunate.” After two years the Regiment was still under canvas!
On 1st October 1948 the first draft of LEP arrived in the Regiment. The details that follow were provided by Mr. Ariffin bin Junid, a former Sgt in the Regiment, who was working as SWS clerk in RHQ as a civilian right up to 1971. There were thirty one in this draft and two civilian cooks. Their original camp was on what is now the 8th fairway of the Golf course, behind Changi Village Post Office, and consisted of thirty small tents with three soldiers in each, and two large marquees, which were used as a recreation room and dining-hall and as troop office and stores. The LEP tradesmen were allocated initially to 7, 120 and 121 Construction Troops. From that original draft, in addition to Mr. Ariffin, three were working for the Regiment in 1971, ex-Lcpl Ibrahim on the Records Desk in the main Auto Exchange at Changi, ex-L-.cpl. Abdullah Majid in the Auto-Room at Seletar and ex-Sig Jaafar in the QM’s SWS Store.