Wilfrid Greville Clouston was one of the first New Zealand air aces of the Second World War. He survived the Battle of Britain only to spend the majority of the war in a Japanese prisoner of war camp.
Born in Auckland on 15 January 1916, Clouston grew up in Wellington. He completed most of his schooling in the capital but spent his final year at Nelson College before starting work as an office clerk.
Clouston learnt to fly with the Wellington Aero Club at Rongotai. After gaining his pilot’s licence in 1935 he left New Zealand a year later to join the Royal Air Force (RAF). On arrival in Britain he was posted to No. 19 Squadron at Duxford, near Cambridge – the first RAF squadron to be equipped with the new Supermarine Spitfire fighter in June 1937.
Following the outbreak of war in September 1939 Clouston’s squadron was tasked with protecting allied shipping in the North Sea. These defensive patrols were largely uneventful and it wasn’t until the German invasion of the Low Countries and France in May 1940 that Clouston had his first taste of combat. With French and British forces in full retreat across the English Channel, No. 19 Squadron was shifted south from their Duxford base to cover the withdrawal of the encircled British Expeditionary Force (BEF) from Dunkirk. Over the next ten days the 24 year-old shot down four planes and claimed another two probable victories. With the remnants of the BEF successfully evacuated, 19 Squadron returned to Duxford. Clouston was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) for his efforts during the Battle of France.
Clouston’s squadron entered the Battle of Britain in late August 1940. Over the next two months he destroyed three aircraft, had two probable victories and shared in another. Two of these victories were achieved on 9 September 1940 when Clouston’s patrol intercepted a formation of Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighters over southwest London. He describes the ensuing action:
[I] was about to attack when two crossed my sights so turned on them. The rear one emitted smoke after a short burst and then caught fire. Attacked the second firing the rest of my ammunition, saw my shots register and he went down apparently out of control.
In November 1940 Clouston was given command of the newly formed No. 258 Squadron. The majority of the squadron’s pilots were New Zealanders and the silver fern was adopted as the unit’s unofficial insignia. Based in the north of England, they were initially tasked with defending the city of Belfast and northern English ports before flying offensive sweeps over France.
Clouston returned to New Zealand in August 1941 to take command of No. 488 (NZ) Squadron, which was being formed for service in the Far East. Posted to Singapore, he set about bringing the squadron up to operational standard – a difficult job given the inexperience of the pilots, shortage of tools and spare parts, and poor weather. On the ground Clouston’s mechanics and engineers were constantly overworked ensuring the squadron’s fleet of ancient Brewster Buffalo fighters remained airworthy.
The New Zealanders were still finding their feet when the Japanese landed in Malaya on 8 December 1941. Five weeks later No. 488 Squadron took part in its first major operation, with its first combat encounter nine days later. Clouston’s pilots soon discovered their Buffalos were no match for the more manoeuvrable Japanese fighter planes. Outnumbered and facing well-trained Japanese pilots, the Allied squadrons defending Singapore suffered heavy losses. By the end of January, No. 488 Squadron had only two serviceable planes left.
With the situation in the air looking increasingly hopeless Clouston was posted to RAF Headquarters in Singapore, handing over the squadron to another Battle of Britain veteran, Flight Lieutenant John Mackenzie – grandson of former New Zealand Prime Minister Sir Thomas Mackenzie. When the island fell to the Japanese Clouston was taken prisoner and spent the rest of the war in captivity.
Clouston remained in the RAF until his retirement in 1957, by which time he had attained the rank of Wing Commander. He returned to New Zealand to take up farming and died in Waipukurau in 1980 at the age of 64.
By Gareth Phipps