Reginald, or Reg as he was known to his mates, was born on the 8th December 1916 in Singapore, which at that time was part of Malaya, a British colony. Following full schooling, he went on to business training at the Raffles Institute and then to a job at the Czechoslovak Institute and then to a job at the Czechoslovak Consulate in Singapore. He had an urge to start flying and joined the Royal Singapore Flying Club. Even though he found this expensive, he achieved his flying licence in 1939. He bought a book, Teach Yourself Aerobatics, and gave himself some excitement and close encounters.
With the outbreak of war, he joined the Malayan Volunteer Airforce in November, 1939. Singapore became mobilised on the 1st December 1941 and on the 8th of December, Reg’s 25th birthday, he awoke to the rumble of bombing. Reg recorded these fearful days through his well produced diary of some 30 pages. Sadly space is not available, but one story of the Tiger Moths, carrying and dropping 20 pound bombs over the front line was recorded by a journalist, paying his respects to those desperate pilots on that tragic morning.
The following is condensed from his memoirs:
I learned to fly at the Royal Singapore Flying Club gaining my civil licence in April 1939 and flying mostly Tiger Moths. After the War broke out in Germany in August 1939, it was decided to train pilots who were fit and acceptable for service flying in the RAF to form the Malayan Volunteer Air Force (RVAF) which had RAF instructors to teach service flying in the Tiger Moths of the Singapore Flying Club. This was a bonanza for me as I no longer had to pay for flying. Training equipped me for instrument, cross country message dropping, reconnaissance and communication flights, and taking VIP military and naval personal visiting defences along the coast and borders of Malay States.
On the 7th December 1941, there was a lot of speculation and rumours flying around that a Japanese convoy was at sea and had been sighted heading in the direction of Singapore. On the 8th December, we were at war with Japan. We were informed over the radio that not only was Singapore attacked but also the Japanese naval aircraft had bombed Pearl Harbour, but limited damage was caused and Japanese aircraft were repulsed with casualties.
The MVAF operations continued, taking VIP and specialised equipment to various airbases throughout Malaysia. The risk of flying in wartime, piloting a slow light aircraft without guns was quite frightening. The only defence we had at the slow pace of these light planes was the ability to out-turn faster enemy aircraft while flying at treetop level. We were in the front line now and realised the war was much more serious than the press was telling the people. The Japanese were pushing ever forward. It was about three weeks since the invasion on the 8th December and already the allied planes were proving no match for the Japanese fighter planes and bombers that devastated the targets they attacked.
On the 31st December 1941, the MVAF was transferred back to Singapore and operated from the Singapore racecourse with a few serviceable aircraft. Orders came from the CO of MVAF to fit four 20lb bombs to four serviceable Tiger Moths, one of which I was operating. These aircraft were to take off at dusk and head for Johore Bahru where there were Japanese troop concentrations, and dive bomb them. This would have been like dropping peanuts on an elephant’s back. We were then to ditch into the sea.
Fortunately, we received countermanding orders from RAF Command. Our new orders were to fly to Sumatra. We landed in Palembang on the 3rd February 1942, where we were ordered to carry out reconnaissance, communication and air-sea rescue work by the RAF Station Commander.
On the 15th February 1942, Japanese paratroopers landed on our airfield and destroyed all our aircraft. We of the MVAF were ordered to stay together, go into Palembang town, commandeer a truck or bus and make our way 300 miles through the jungle to the port of Oesthaven, where there would be a ship to pick up service personnel. At this time, there was a large naval battle in the Sunda Strait in which several vessels of the Dutch, British and Australian navies were sunk. We found our way to a port on the south east coast of Java. We boarded one of 15 ships in the harbour to which we were assigned, called the Kota Gedi. It was to leave in a convoy the next morning, the 29th February, for what we thought was to be Western Australia. Just about sunset, two Japanese bombers flew over the harbour. This determined the convoy to leave promptly the next morning leaving our captain no time to take on more provisions. There were 2,500 people aboard the Kota Gede, which was only 5,500 tons. We traveled in the rear hold of the ship having very little food and water. The convoy was travelling at 5 knots. Our Dutch captain decided to break convoy and cruise alone at 16 knots and head for Colombo. In the eight days it took to reach Colombo, there were many cases of illness and five deaths. We also had bad news of the convoy. The Japanese bombed and strafed the 14 ships the next morning and several were hit and sunk. When they were out of range of the bombers, they were subjected to submarine attacks and on the 6th March only three ships limped home. In spite of our journey on the “hell ship,” we were lucky to be alive.
At Colombo the MVAF was disbanded. We had the choice of serving with the RAF or RAAF. If I joined the RAAF, I would be in the Pacific area, nearest to Singapore. I was keen to fly fighters to hit back at the Japanese and I was also told that the Aussies would give you a fair go, so I decided to join the RAAF and sail to Australia. I joined up on the 23rd May. They made me start from scratch, flying Tiger Moths in which I had more flying hours than my instructor. I progressed through the various training courses, and after successfully completing Service Flying Training at Uranquinty, I heard unofficially that I had been selected to be sent on a flying instructors course. I had a meeting with the CO and pleaded to be posted into a fighter squadron to give me a chance to get back at the Japanese.
On the 8th March, I reported to No.2 Operational Training Unit RAAF Mildura to train on Boomerangs, an Australian copy of the Brewster Buffalo, which I had seen shot down over Malaya and Singapore. The Brewster Buffalo was no match for the Japanese Zero fighters. I must say that the Boomerang was an improvement on the Brewster Buffalo, nevertheless, I could not help thinking to myself, “Reg Nathan, open your big mouth and see what you get!”.
At the end of the course at Mildura, six pilots from the Boomerang Flight, and six pilots from the Kittyhawks Flight were posted to an operational squadron which was being formed secretly, and supplied with aircraft to be known as “Capstans”. The squadron was to be based on a sheep station, and the ground staff had already been posted there and were living in tents. We were all excited about this posting and in mid-May 1943, we all got together at “Wooloomanata” and were introduced to our “Capstan” fighter aircraft, which turned out to be the Spitfire Vc armed with two 20mm Orlikon cannons and four Browning machine guns. My dream had come true!
At last I had command of an aeroplane that could hit back with. We had a selected crew picked by our Commanding Officer, Squadron Leader Al Rawlinson DSO & Bar, and half our pilots were veterans from the Middle East, UK and Malaya, and most of them were decorated as well. This was the 79 Squadron – a super squadron, and a lot was expected of it. I was delighted to be in such company.
We did not have much time practicing at Wooloomatta and after a month, the Squadron flew north to Townsville, Horn Island, Port Moresby, Milne Bay and finally to Goodenough Island off the north east coast of Papua New Guinea, our final destination. At last on the 21st June 1943, Spitfires were in place to protect Milne Bay and intercept the attacking Japanese. 79 Squadron then moved to Kiraweena Island where we were employed as top cover for Beauforts and also went on strafing missions over Japanese held territory in New Britain.
In the 79 Squadron group photo, Reg is in the front row, second from the right. In the smaller one, which was taken in December 1943, he is on the wing of his Spitfire, A58-166 UP-R. On his right is Rigger, LAC Tom Cornwall and on his left, is Fitter, Corporal Bob (Web Master: The surname is difficult to see in the original, but it could be Malon.)
By all accounts, Reg was a man of character, with an infectious sense of humour and a strong clipped English speaking voice. He was a great favourite with everyone. He was discharged on the 18th December 1945 and passed away in July 2006.
Gerald Nathan, David Hopton and Steve McGregor
Updated by Vince Conant
The Spitfire Association