Briton relives landing 50 years ago

THE Japanese army invaded Labuan in Jan 1942, and on May 16 the same year, the allied forces surrendered and Borneo came under Japanese rule.

MEMORABLE: Crouch, KKIA staff during the plaque presentation.

The people did not go down without fighting, however, and resistance groups, including the Kinabalu Guerrillas, led by Albert Kwok in the west, and another, led by the late Tun Datu Mustapha Datu Harun in the northern part, made their presence felt.

Kwok’s execution along with his members ended his movement.

From 1942-45, Japanese positions in Borneo were bombed by allied planes from the South West Pacific Area Command, including devastating air attacks on Sandakan, Jesselton and Labuan.

The Australian 9th Division began their landings in Brunei and Labuan on June 10, 1945 and on September 10 the same year, the war in North Borneo was brought to an end with the surrender of the Japanese 37th Army, under Lieutenant General Baba Masao, in Labuan.

After the hostilities ended, the transition was not easy but there was assistance from the allied forces, including Squadron 656 (AOP) which, among others,  helped to fight piracy which was rampant at that time.

On September 14, 1945, the Squadron reportedly took part in a fly-past during with the victory parade at Kuala Lumpur. The Squadron headquarters was then located in Kuala Lumpur with flights coming through to Kuala Terengganu, Ipoh, and Sourabaya in Java.

Two flights were maintained in Malaya for the rest of the year, opening up the country. The Squadron served from 1945 to 1969, according to records.

Significant feat

For Sabah, the most significant feat may well be Major Chris Crouch’s flight to Kota Kinabalu, then Jesselton, in 1957. He landed on a 150-yard long airstrip of rough scrubs where the Kota Kinabalu International Airport (KKIA) stands today.

He believes he is the first person from the Royal Armoured Corps to land an aircraft — Auster MK9 — there and applied to fly during peace time.

After qualifying as a fixed wing pilot, he served in Malaya and was based at Noble Field in Kuala Lumpur and also at Sembawang Royal Naval air station in Singapore.

On four occasions, he brought some of his Auster MK9 aircraft to Sandakan inside a Bristol Freighter of the Royal New Zealand Air Force. Their duties included working with the police to curb piracy, and improving the coastal airstrips.

Other than that, Crouch was engaged in planning the location and the initial facilities of the airfield in Kota Kinabalu. His duties not only covered development of air strips but also mercy flights to villages from Tawau to Labuan. The latter were especially challenging as back then, there were no aeronautical charts across the land.

Crouch was later awarded the Distinguish Flying Cross as commander of a helicopter unit in the Middle East.

Reliving history

Now a retired major and a member of the 656 Squadron Association, he came to Sabah recently to commemorate his 1957 landing.

He re-lived history by landing in Kota Kinabalu again although, this time around, in relative comfort of a commercial plane touching down on an international aerodrome in stark contrast to the smallish cramped Auster MK9 which had to make do with a bumpy strip of land, barely cleared of bushes, 50 years ago.

To mark his arrival, he presented a memorial plaque to KKIA, represented by its senior manager, Kamaruzzaman Razali. Also present were Sabah Tourism Board chairman Datuk Tengku Zainal Adlin and general manager Datuk Irene Charuruks.

According to Crouch who flew in from England with his son, the plaque is made of English Oak – a type of hardwood. It was initially presented to the Malaysia High Commission in England in 2009.

“This plaque has travelled some 24,000 miles to Sabah so that it can be presented to the airport. It was on this very site that my landing took place 50 years ago,” Crouch said.

The plaque is being prominently displayed at the airport.

Besides his son, Crouch, who he has fond memories of Sabah, was accompanied by Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Simkins, co-founder and president of 656 Squadron Association.

Simkins who has served in various places, including Bosnia and Afghanistan, is a Fellow of the Royal Geographic Society and Founder of the AAC Hot Air Balloon Club.

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