- Hobbs, D.A., MBE, Commander, RN
- WWII operations
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- September 2000 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
The enemy attacked from the Fleet’s port quarter at about 50 feet. It was thought that they were attacking with torpedoes and ships were manoeuvred accordingly but in fact they were armed with bombs. They all succeeded in reaching the main body but the fighters followed them to within range of the Fleet’s close range anti aircraft weapons, contrary to their briefing but very much to their credit. Of the 7 hostile aircraft, 3 were splashed by Seafires, 2 by combinations of Seafires, Corsairs and Hellcats, 1 by a Hellcat and 1 by gunfire. The standard of fire discipline in the Fleet was poor and Illustrious was hit by 2 shells, fired by one of our own ships, which caused 12 dead and 21 wounded together with damage to the forward part of the island and radar equipment.
From 1212 to 1430 the Fleet was apparently shadowed by an aircraft which stayed 45 to 60 miles to the eastward possibly by keeping track of radar or beacon transmissions. At 1818, a few minutes before sunset, a single bogey approached from the northeast at 15,000 feet. A section of Corsairs was vectored to intercept and got within 3 miles of the enemy but they were brought down to 6,000 feet as it was thought that he was descending and they failed to see him. They were recalled to land on before darkness fell and thus failed to intercept in the rapidly failing light. The bogey remained on radar until 1910 but then faded. Force 63 proceeded westwards at 23 knots throughout the night of 29/30 January and replenished with fuel from the tanker group on 30 January. The carriers arrived in Fremantle on 4 February 1945.
Weak points in the planning and execution
The British Pacific Fleet had formed in November 1944 and this was the first operation using the full strength of the First Aircraft Carrier Squadron. Avenger squadrons had only just replaced the Barracudas and it was the first prolonged operation relying on replenishment at sea for success. It would, therefore, have been remarkable if there had been no imperfections in the plan and its execution.
With the wisdom of hindsight, it was probably a mistake to attack the refineries singly even allowing for the fact that the planners expected 3 not 2 strikes. Leaving Soengei Gerong untouched when Pladjoe was attacked telegraphed the fact that the Fleet would return soon to finish the job. Moreover smoke from early hits made it difficult for the later aircraft to aim their bombs as accurately as possible. Simultaneous attack on both refineries might have given the appearance of a ‘tip and run’ attack like those typical of the Eastern Fleet, would have left more aiming marks visible and would not have compromised the third attack had fuel allowed it to happen. In the event losses in the first 2 raids would have made any third attack a much reduced affair.
The balloon barrage was not predicted by intelligence and no clear plan existed to defeat it. Whilst this was inevitable in Meridian 1, a better plan should have been prepared for Meridian 2. The rendezvous was too far from the target and the lengthened escape route in Meridian 2 made matters worse as there were not enough fighters in the close escort to cover the whole 25 mile route.
Search and Rescue plans were not yet specific enough. Aircrew were lost who were seen both to land safely after parachuting over land and to get into a dinghy after ditching. The evasion plan, which called for aircrew to cross Sumatra on foot to Lake Ranau in 2 days if they were shot down, was incapable of fulfilment due to the nature of the jungle, mountains, wild animals and hostile natives.
The destroyers did very well off the west coast of Sumatra, however, and on the 2 strike days, 11 crews of ditched aircraft were recovered. Most reports of ditchings, survivors and aircraft in distress were vague and unsatisfactory both from aircraft and ships with the result that, even after the war, the Admiralty Casualty Branches were unable to account for what happened to all the lost aircrew. In a separate paper, to be forwarded later this year, the author will examine what happened to the aircrew who were shot down and try, as far as is now possible, to get at the truth of what happened to them.