Seletar’s Sunderlands

Sunderland Papa-Gan

Papa, ML797
(Anchored of RAF Gan)

205 Squadron, originally No. 5 (Naval) Squadron RFC, born on April 1st 1918 – birthday of the service in which it played such a distinguished part – was disbanded in 1923. But on January 8th 1929, at an informal ceremony on Seletar’s waterfront, the squadron was reformed – from the Far East Flight – hence the motto, Pertama Di Malaya (First in Malaya) on its Crest. Since then it served continuously in the Far East and, except for a period encompassing WWII, was based at Seletar, which it considered to be its home. From 1946 it flew Sunderlands until the end of RAF Flying Boat operations in 1959.

Crew launch

Crew Launch

First and last they may have been, but 205 didn’t introduce the Sunderland to the Far East. That honour belongs to 230 Squadron, who were also based at Seletar in 1938. (Flight engineer Dicky Knott was on 230 Squadron the day the first Sunderland arrived at Seletar, he was also serving there, still on Sunderlands, on May 31st 1959, the last official day of an RAF flying boat squadron.)

The first of these magnificent aircraft to be accepted for overseas service settled elegantly onto the Straits of Johore on June 22nd. Its captain,Flight Lieutenant William A Hughes, and crew (all of 210 Squadron, Pembroke Dock), had, in a gentle, thirteen day flight, brought into South-East Asia
one of the finest aircraft ever built.

A far cry from 230’s previous mount, the Short Singapore, the sleek Sunderland was a more advanced, spacious, better-equipped aircraft. All the comforts of home…. relatively speaking. There was ample room to move around in the galley; and a comfortable wardroom in which to do the meals justice. They carried better defensive armament, too. And lots of it: nose turret; pilot-operated fixed machine guns in the nose; Heavy machine guns in
the waist hatches; Mid-upper turret; tail turret. It was on account of this firepower they were referred to by the Germans as the Flying Porcupine.
Take off run

Take off Run

In his book, Flying Boat, Kenneth Poolman states: Every Sunderland of the Royal Air Force was fitted with a socket in the eye of the bows to take a pukka flagstaff, to which the Union Jack was bent on the necessary occasions, being hoisted at sunrise and dipped at sunset with varying degrees of decorum according to the character of the skipper. And a proper white canvas awning could be rigged on stanchions which fitted into sockets on top of the Sunderland’s hull. With flag flying, snowy awning spread and silver paintwork gleaming in the tropical sun, a Sunderland of the Far East Air Force conveyed the dignity and power of Imperial Majesty every bit as well as the tiddliest gunboat in the Royal Navy.

Henceforth, with the exception of the war years, Sunderlands of various marks were to be based at Seletar right through until June 1959, a period of over twenty years, making it the longest serving aircraft type in the Royal Air Force, Far East.

The first RAF aircraft to make a return to Seletar post war were flying boats, as befitted this station. Six Sunderland’s arrived on detachment from Koggala, Ceylon, aircraft of 205 & 209 squadrons. The detachment ended in December 1945 with the arrival of 230 Squadron, who remained until relieved by 209 Squadron in 1946. 205 were to return to Seletar in 1949, all these squadrons now flying Sunderlands.


Sunderland Silhouette

The Korean war called for a major effort. During the three years of United Nations’ action against Communist aggression, Sunderlands flew half a million plus miles over Korean and Japanese waters. Come the end of the Korean War, 88 Sqn moved from Hong Kong to Seletar, forming the Far East
Flying Boat Wing along with 205 and 209 Squadrons.

Since the “Malayan Emergency” began, Sunderlands carried out hundreds of sorties against bandits who had every reason to fear the huge aircraft, which, with their long endurance could patrol above the Communists’ jungle rat holes for hours.

Eventually, Pembroke Dock, main Sunderland base in the RAF, slowly began to filter their aircraft out to Seletar to bolster 205 and 209 squadrons, these eventually becoming the last of the RAF’s Sunderland squadrons. The 209 numberplate disappeared in 1958, leaving 205 as the sole remaining RAF Sunderland operator. These last aircraft, belonging to 205 Squadron (Sunderland Detachment) for the final months of their lives – 205 itself by now based at nearby Changi, and equipped with the Shackleton – were the last of a long line of flying boats to be operated by the Royal Air Force.

It was on May 15th 1959 the last two Sunderlands took off from the Straits of Johore to conduct an around the island formation flight. Then, it was back to Seletar for the finale, a very low pass over that famous jetty, Papa, ML797 and Whiskey, PP198, and round for a final landing; although Sunderlands don’t actually land, they alight.
Whatever, it was the end of an era. And amongst those watching, probably not a dry eye in sight.

Watch Video

This is a very brief resume on the Sunderlands at Seletar. For more comprehensive information on the aircraft and their operations:

Seletar, Crowning Glory – David Taylor
Flying Boat. Kenneth Poolman – William Kimber 1962
Short Sunderland – Andrew Hendrie
Sunderland Over Far Eastern Seas – Grp Cpt Derek Empson
Short Sunderland – Ken Delve
Ocean Sentinel – John Hamlin


Sunderland Hangar