- Hobbs, D.A., MBE, Commander, RN
- WWII operations
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- September 2000 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser, the Commander-in-Chief of the embryo BPF called on Admiral Chester Nimitz in Pearl Harbour during December 1944 to discuss the way forward and it was the latter who suggested the attack on the Sumatran Refineries. Sir Bruce Fraser was quick to agree, since he saw the potential for his Fleet to prove its effectiveness.
Force 63, the First Aircraft Carrier Squadron and its escorts, sailed from Trincomalee at 1430 on Wednesday 16 January 1945. On 20 January it refuelled from Force 69, the Underway Replenishment Group, before arriving off southern Sumatra. During the nights of 21/22 January and 22/23 January Force 63 approached the planned flying off position but on both nights torrential rain and low cloud coupled with bad forecasts caused the first strike to be postponed. A further approach was made on the night of 23/24 January and dawn on the 24th was clear with the Barrisan Mountains clearly visible on the horizon.
The First Strike
Flying off commenced at 0615 and the striking force took departure at 0710 from a position about 70 miles south east of Engano Island. The second range comprising the 24 Corsairs of the fighter sweep, the Fireflies and the small strike intended to neutralise Mana airfield was delayed by several aircraft returning with unserviceabilities and did not depart until 0720. As a result, the Fireflies did not take up their bow escort position until the Avengers were only minutes from deployment and the fighter ramrod was later over the enemy airfields than had been intended.
The Flag Officer Aircraft Carriers BPF took tactical command of the force during flying operations following the USN practice. A CAP of Seafires was maintained by Indefatigable and the carriers manoeuvred to remain close to the flying off position while the strikes were away.
The fighter sweep, known as a “Ramrod”, overtook the main strike on its outward journey and surprised the enemy at Lembak airstrip. It comprised three Flights, each comprising 8 fighters, with callsigns Whippet I, II and III. Typically one would CAP over a target while the other two strafed aircraft and installations on the ground. After Lembak the Ramrod moved on to Palembang and then Talengbetoto airfields where, the enemy having been given warning, anti aircraft artillery (AAA) fire was more intense and there were fewer aircraft on the ground. Despite this, the aim was achieved, the enemy’s defences discomfited and 34 aircraft destroyed on the ground.
A measure of the Ramrod’s success can be drawn from the fact that the Avengers were not intercepted by enemy fighters until they were within 15 miles of the target despite an air raid warning having been given as they crossed the coast. Both heavy and light AAA was encountered as the strike aircraft deployed; inaccurate at first it increased in accuracy as the attack developed.
Intelligence had discounted the possibility of balloons at the briefing but the target was found to be surrounded by an extensive barrage, which had clearly just been released and was still rising as the attack developed. It posed a problem to the Strike Leader since accuracy would be lost if the Avengers bombed from above the balloons but there was considerable danger to his crews if they dived below them, since their cables would not be visible to pilots committed to their attacking dives. In the event he ordered the Fireflies to shoot down the balloons but with all the R/T chatter at the time, only two aircraft heard and obeyed and they were unable to cut a patch through the barrage. To their credit, the majority of Avengers dived below the balloons, which had climbed to between 4,000 and 6,000 feet, to release their bombs with pinpoint accuracy from 2,500 feet.
The targets were well hit but, inevitably, oil storage tanks were set ablaze and dense black smoke rapidly began to obscure the refinery before the later aircraft could release their bombs. The line of attack, after a circular deployment, had been from south to north with 40 seconds between squadrons. After weapon release the Avengers turned west along the Musi River towards the rendezvous position at Semoental Island, about 15 miles west of Palembang. It was during this phase that the bombers were most vulnerable, since the escort fighters found it difficult to see them as they emerged from the dense smoke over the target. Many of them were engaged with enemy fighters and were not as close to their charges as the plan had intended but protecting the straggling line of bombers over the 15 miles before they reformed into their defensive formations was an extremely difficult task. The Fireflies had dived with the Avengers to attack pin-point targets with 20mm cannon fire and were, thus, close to them and well able to provide support; many distinguished themselves in doing so. The withdrawal route was also found to pass over extensive AAA batteries near Palembang, which caused problems but the form up was carried out effectively, despite low cloud over the island, which made it difficult to recognise.