Wilfrid Clouston


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 for Britain a year later to join the Royal Air Force (RAF). In June 1937, 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 August 1938.

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.

In August 1941 he was appointed to command No. 488 (NZ) Squadron, which was being formed in New Zealand for service in the Far East. Clouston was already in Singapore when the squadron arrived from New Zealand in early October. He quickly set about bringing it 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. After the island fell to the Japanese Clouston was taken prisoner off the coast of Sumatra 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

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Richard Greville Clouston

Posted: 22 Apr 2018

Thank you for this short biography of my father. I have spent last year writing a biography of Dad and have some facts you would be unaware of- he arrived in U.K. On 23 July 36 and was not posted to 19 Sqn until June 37. He spent that year at various training sites- confirming he could fly, learning to fly the RAF way, learning how to march, salute etc. 19 Sqn was not issued with Spitfires till August 38.
He did not return to NZ until 1957. He was posted to Singapore to form the newly established 488 Sqn arriving in early September in time to greet his two flight commanders- John MacKenzie and John Hutchison- fellow Kiwis serving in the RAF in England. The remainder of 488 Sqn arrived in Singapore on 10 October from NZ..
He together with several others was eventually captured off the coast of Sumatra.