Arthur Scarf’s Victoria Cross
On 9 December 1941, Squadron Leader Arthur Scarf completed a supreme act of valour for which he was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. Scarf’s Victoria Cross was one of only twenty-two awarded to the RAF in the Second World War and the only such award made to the RAF for service in the Far East during the War.
Scarf was born in Wimbledon on 4 June 1913 and attended school in South London before deciding to join the RAF in 1936 and training to become a pilot. One of Scarf’s flying instructors at No. 9 Flying Training School was Flight Lieutenant John Grandy, who would later become Chief of the Air Staff in 1967 and retire with the rank of Marshal of the Royal Air Force. After training, in October 1936, Scarf was posted to No. 9 Squadron at Scampton who were equipped with the Handley Page Heyford.
In 1937, following a short detachment to No. 206 (GR) Squadron flying the Avro Anson, Scarf was briefly posted to 61 Squadron, equipped with the Hawker Hind. After four weeks of familiarisation on the Hind, Scarf was posted to the newly raised No. 62 Squadron. In 1938, they re-equipped to the Bristol Blenheim Mk I, a more modern aircraft than the Hind, as the RAF increased the tempo of its rearmament in the period immediately before the outbreak of war with Germany. In 1939, however, Scarf’s Squadron was sent to Singapore as part of the RAF’s defensive forces in the event of a war with Japan. Despite these reinforcements, Britain’s overall position in the region was precarious and it was unable to deploy large enough forces to act as a meaningful deterrent to Japanese aggression.
In April 1941, Scarf married Elizabeth ‘Sally’ Lunn. Having originally served as a member of Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corps, Elizabeth volunteered for the Colonial Nursing Service. Elizabeth was now able to work at Alor Star – where Arthur and No. 62 Squadron were based. Although on ‘active service’ with the RAF this was a period of exercises and training for Scarf, and the newly married couple lived together. Then, in the early hours of 8 December 1941, Japan launched its invasion of what is today Thailand.
The Japanese invasion of 8 December was part of the first stage of their operations to seize the Malayan peninsula and Singapore. The RAF looked to make an immediate counterblow that same morning. They were, however, prevented by weather conditions from making an attack on their primary objective against the invading Japanese forces. Instead, No. 62 Squadron targeted Japanese landing craft in the morning and began to prepare for a second operation. Following a heavy attack by some 30 Japanese bombers, however, Scarf and No. 62 Squadron were withdrawn from the exposed airfield on Alor Star. As a result, it was not until the afternoon of 9 December, having relocated to an airfield 45 miles further south, that Squadron Leader Scarf – ‘Pongo’ to his friends – prepared to lead a daylight attack on the Japanese air force which was operating from captured airfields in southern Thailand.
Scarf and the crew members of his Blenheim were the first to take off. As Scarf became airborne, a formation of Japanese bombers swept over the airfield. Powerless to protect his Squadron, Scarf could only hope that there might be some surviving aircraft to join him in the air. However, the Japanese attack had destroyed or damaged every British aircraft that had been on the ground.
Realising that none of his Squadron’s aircraft had survived the Japanese bombing Scarf resolved to complete his Squadron’s allotted task. Unlike many Victoria Cross actions, Scarf was not thrown straight into action and asked to confront a single moment with valour. Instead, what makes this Victoria Cross extraordinary is the cool and determined bravery. Scarf assessed the situation and made the calculated decision that for his Squadron, his Service, and his country, the sortie was necessary despite the incredibly high risks that would need to be confronted. Having made this decision Arthur Scarf had the time to turn back. As minute after minute, and mile after mile, passed as Scarf headed straight towards the enemy, he must have fought the urge to turn back. Scarf resisted that temptation.
Flying low for some 30 miles into enemy occupied Scarf skilfully evaded several attacks by Japanese fighters. As Scarf neared the enemy airfield, however, fresh Japanese fighters arrived to attack the lone British bomber.
Despite the danger Scarf flew the Blenheim on a steady run and released his bombs whilst his crew manned their machine guns and strafed the aircraft beneath them, which had been parked like a row of taxis. As Scarf turned for home, his task complete, more Japanese fighters arrived and pressed their attacks at close-range. Greatly outnumbered, hopelessly outgunned, and in aircraft slower than his enemies, Scarf flew at treetop height, throwing his Blenheim around huge limestone outcrops, desperately seeking whatever protection he could find.
Despite using every ounce of his skill to evade the worst of the attacks, cannon and machine-gun fire from the Japanese aircraft riddled Scarf’s Blenheim. Scarf himself was grievously wounded, with one burst of fire shattering his arm, and another ripping through the in the unarmoured pilot seat of the Blenheim into his back.
Mortally wounded, Scarf’s crew mates had to hold him tight to keep him upright in his shattered seat as he grimly struggled to bring them home. With the aircraft seemingly doomed, the Japanese fighters finally abandoned their attack. Scarf, realising he would be unable to return the long distance to their original base, made course for the British controlled airfield at Alor Star.
Only a few minutes flying time away, Alor Star was where Scarf had been based before the Japanese invasion. It was an airfield his crew knew well, and as they aided Scarf control the plane that may have contributed to his decision. Equally, in these final moments it may have been that he turned for Alor Star because it was where he had lived alongside his wife, and where they had celebrated the news that she was pregnant with their first child. Scarf crash landed the aircraft without injury to his crew but died from his wound shortly afterwards.
Later accounts are conflicted as to whether Scarf saw his wife one last time before his death. In the post-war period, when Scarf’s Victoria Cross was awarded, reports were run that Elizabeth Scarf had been at Alor Star and had been on duty when a casualty was brought in from a Blenheim which had crash landed. Elizabeth was later reported to have been at Alor Star. Newspaper stories from 1946, recount that she was not only able to exchange some final words with Arthur, but to provide two pints of her blood as a transfusion before he died. Other reports suggest that Elizabeth had been evacuated before 9 December.
Despite the overarching chaos that engulfed the British position in the Far East following the Japanese invasion it does seem unlikely that Elizabeth would have remained at Alor Star following the heavy attacks that had forced the withdrawal of No. 62 Squadron. There is, however, no disputing the closing words to the citation for Arthur’s Victoria Cross. On 9 December 1941, Arthur ‘displayed supreme heroism in the face of tremendous odds’ and ‘his splendid example of self-sacrifice will long be remembered.’
In October 2022, it was announced that the Arts Minister, Stuart Andrew, following the advice of the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest had decided that Squadron Leader Scarf’s Victoria Cross was of National Importance. A temporary export ban was placed on the Victoria Cross. This decision followed the sale of Squadron Leader Scarf’s Victoria Cross, along with four other medals awarded to him, at auction for £660,000. This was a record for a Victoria Cross awarded to a member of the RAF.
In January 2023, because Scarf’s Victoria Cross was recognised as being of national importance, the RAF Museum was offered the opportunity to match the sale price. However, we only have until 30 April 2023 to save Arthur Scarf’s Victoria Cross.
If you would like to help us save Arthur’s Victoria Cross, and use it to inspire a new generation, then you can make a donation today by visiting www.gofundme.com/f/save-the-scarf-vc