The battle for Palembang, February 1942

On the day that Singapore fell February 15th 1942, a Japanese invasion fleet was sailing towards the Palembang oilfield in south Sumatra. Sumatra was at the time part of the Dutch East Indies. The oil in region was most abundant and among the sweetest crude oil produced anywhere in the world, and this made it something the Japanese wanted badly. The retreating allies had destroyed the refineries and wells in Borneo and Celebes. This annoyed the Japanese and gave them cause to issue a warning that "The head of every European will be cut off in an area where a well or refinery is fired". When this warning was first given during the invasion of Borneo, the Dutch civilian oil workers blew the massive Balikapapen oil refinery regardless.

The initial objectives of the Japanese in south Sumatra were the main airfield at Pangkalanbenteng (called P1 by the British) at Palembang in south Sumatra and the Royal Dutch Shell oil refineries at Pladju (Pladjoe) a few miles from Palembang. They needed the airfield to reinforce and resupply and to use as a base in the conquest of north Sumatra and Java.

From the Dutch point of view the key to the defence of Palembang and its attendant airfields was by holding the invaders at the Moesti River which had to be traversed before the three objectives could be reached. The Dutch knew it was pointless trying to stop the Japanese on the beaches because of the superior Japanese naval gunfire support.

To defend Palembang, under the command of KNIL Lieutenant Colonel L. N. W. Vogelesang, were about 2000 troops. They included one battalion of KNIL regulars at P1. One Landstrom battalion and 8 stationary 7.5 cm field guns at Palembang, plus two armoured cars (type unknown) at P1 and three more at the other airfield at Praboemoelih (known as P2 by the Europeans). A machine-gun company of KNIL regulars was stationed at the oil refineries. The RNN minelayer Pro Patria (Lt.Cdr. L.F. Guiot) and the two patrol boats P-38 and P-40 patrolled the Moesti River. Elements of the 6th RAF Heavy AA Regiment had six 3.7 inch AA and six 40 mm Bofors AA guns at both airfields and a further four of each type at the oil refinery. The ship carrying the ammunition for these guns had been sunk and the available ammunition had to be rigidly conserved. Elsewhere in Sumatra, there were six KNIL militia battalions plus some Landstrom companies. These units were scattered throughout central and north Sumatra and were largely immobile and so played no part in the battle for Palembang and south Sumatra.

Bamboo spears should stop the Japanese paratroopers

Bamboo spears should stop the Japanese paratroopers.

The Royal Air Force had set up 225th RAF (Bomber) Group at Palembang in January. Many of the planes had flown from the Middle East and Egypt. Most squadrons lost planes along the way. These planes were Blemheim 1, 1Fs, 1Vs and Hudson IIs and IIIs. In the Middle East these planes were considered out classed by the newer German fighters so they were released for service in the Far East. Their original destination had been Singapore but events overtook this planing and the planes ended up in Sumatra. These squadrons had been searching for, and mounting raids against, the incoming Japanese fleet and had lost many aircraft as a result. Most of the squadrons were low on serviceable planes on the morning of the invasion. About 35 assorted Hudsons of 1st RAAF, 8th RAAF, 59th RAF and 62nd RAF Squadrons were available, while 34th RAF, 27th RAF, 84th RAF and 211th RAF Squadrons had about 40 serviceable Blemheim bombers.

The 226th RAF (Fighter) Group had been set up at Palembang in early February. The aircraft from 232nd and 258th RAF Squadrons had flown their Hurricane Mk1s off the flight deck of the aircraft carrier HMS Indomitable on January 27th. Of the 48 Hurricanes that arrived at Palembang that day and a reinforcement of seven Hurricanes from Tjililitan on February 13th, only 15 remained serviceable by the time of the Japanese invasion. During the period leading up to the invasion the Hurricanes had given as good as they got from the Japanese, with a kill ratio of about one to one.

The Allied aircraft had caused the enemy some grief. In an attack by six Hudsons from 84th RAF Squadron on the morning of the 14th the Japanese transport ship Inabasan Maru was sunk and several others damaged. The same morning another 9 Hudsons were shot down while attacking the Japanese ships, mostly by the Japanese A6Ms of the 22nd Air Flotilla, operating from Kahang airfield, in southern Malaya. Some of the Hudsons and Blemheims found and attacked the Japanese aircraft carrier Ryujo, with one near miss being recorded. Flight Lieutenant Jim Douglas of 1st RAAF Squadron was recommended for a VC (posthumous) for this action, but this was refused and instead a DFC was awarded.

On the morning of the 13th the former Yangtse river steamer Li Wo, skippered by Lieutenant T.S. Wilkinson, RNR, whose ship was part of the general exodus of small craft from Singapore ran into the Palembang invasion force. Li Wo armed with a 4 inch gun and two machineguns fired at the Japanese transports setting one on fire and damaging several others. All the while the Li Wo was under fire from the escorting Japanese cruisers. This action continued for an hour and a half until the Li Wo ran out of ammunition. Wilkinson then rammed the nearest damaged enemy transport before his small ship was destroyed. Wilkinson received a posthumous Victoria Cross, the only VC awarded in the Netherlands East Indies Campaign.

When the Hudsons 84th RAF Squadron arrived back over P1 a very strange occurrence took place. They flew through a flight of 34 Lockheed 14s going in the opposite direction. These were Japanese licence built Ki 56 Transport aircraft of the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Chutais who had just completed their paradrop mission over P1 airfield. 18 Ki 21 bombers from 98th Sentai, who had dropped supplies for the paratroopers, accompanied the transports. A large force of escorting of Ki 43s from 59th and 64th Sentais were not distracted from their task of protecting the transports and ignored the Allied bombers. Even stranger the Blemheims of 211th RAF Squadron on their way home to P2 actually flew through the paratroopers descending on Palembang refinery. It was later found out that the Japanese were unaware of the existence of P2 and so it was not raided of assaulted by paratroopers.

All Hurricanes were ordered to return to base and attack the transports or the paratroopers on the ground. On the ground aircrew who had just landed, horrified by the sight of descending paratroopers, maned their planes and took off, inviting anyone nearby to jump aboard. All incoming planes were ordered to P2 as the Japanese had made no move against it. A Hurricane shot down one of the transports, this was confirmed by the Japanese. Most of the Hurricanes flew around P1 strafing the paratroopers. Three Hurricanes with faulty radios landed at P1 after it had been closed because of ground fighting but managed to take off again for P2, with tanks on dead empty. In the middle of all this chaos 9 Hurricanes from 488th RAF Fighter Squadron who had been ordered to move base from Batavia to Palembang, arrived over P1, unarmed and out of fuel. The A6Ms shot down two while four landed at P1 and were refuelled in record time and sent off to P2 two others failed to find P2 and crashed landed in the jungle.

Despite vigilant patrols by the RAF and US Catalina planes based further north, and an extensive network of coast watchers and lookouts. The slow, low flying Japanese paratrooper transports had managed to arrive over the target with complete surprise. This was largely due to the smoke from the fired oil wells to the north in Borneo and Celebes and the great fire at the fuel storage depot in Singapore, that had blanketed the entire region in grey smoke.

 The Japanese paratroopers in action at Palembang, Sumatra Island in 1942

THE ATTACK HAS COME FROM THE AIR ! The Japanese paratroopers are landing at Palembang, 14 February 1942

The 180 men from the 2nd Parachute Regiment (Colonel Seiichi Kume) dropped between the town and P1, a further 90 men came down west of the refineries at Pladjoe. Apart from the Dutch native troops the only regular British soldiers were the AA gunners, the RAF ground personnel had been issued with rifles and bayonets in England but these weapons had been taken away and given to the Army after they arrived in the East Indies. Of the 260 or so air and ground crew about 100 were unarmed, but steps were taken to remedy this! Machineguns were taken from unserviceable aircraft and set up on dirt mounds and the Bofors were prepared to fire horizontally over open sights.

Some Japanese paratroops set up a roadblock between P1 and Palembang. The roadblock changed hands numerous times during the day. One of the first RAF vehicles caught by this ambush was a petrol bowser which exploded and burned all day and night. An airman passing by this place latter in the day described it as being strewn with the bodies of Japanese, British and Dutch soldiers and airmen.

At P1 the Allies beat off the Japanese attacks. Most of the aircrew was evacuated during day and by the evening only 60-armed personnel remained. The fighting had been bitter, some of the newly arrived RNZAF reinforcement fighter pilots (from 266th Fighter Wing) found themselves involved ill-equipped and untrained for close quarter fighting with paratroopers. In the night the remaining unserviceable aircraft were destroyed and the store fuel in 44-gallon drums was collected and set ablaze.

At the Pladjoe oil refinery the Japanese managed to gain possession of the complex intact. A counter-attack by Landstrom and AA crews from P2 managed to retake the complex, but took heavy looses. The planned demolition failed to do any serious damage to the refinery but the oil stores were set ablaze.

Two hours after the first drop another 60 men were dropped from a dozen transports west of P1. Also the regiment commander arrived in a planned landing by a transport west of P1, the plane also contained a rapid-fire cannon.

Most of the Allied air strength in the East Indies had now assembled at P2 airfield - 35 Blenheims, 20 Hudsons and 22 Hurricanes (most of 266th Fighter Wing had been diverted to P2). A reconnaissance mission flown over Palembang by a 258th RAF Squadron Hurricane revealed an exodus of vehicles of all types away from the town towards P2 while the town itself was blanketed in black oil smoke from the burning stores. That night some Hudson aircraft were ordered to Java.

At dawn the next morning the Japanese troops disembarked from their transports into landing craft and proceeded up the Moesi, Salang and Telang rivers towards Palembang, the issue had now been decided but the fighting was not over. RAF Bombers attacked the landing ships and the Japanese transport ship Otawa Maru (5000 t) was sunk. Hurricanes flew up the rivers machine gunning landing craft full of soldiers. On the afternoon of the 15th all aircraft were ordered to Java on completion of allotted tasks along with unserviceable aircraft that could fly.

The oiltanks burning at Palembang, Sumatra Island in 1942

The oiltanks burning at Palembang, Sumatra Island on February 14, 1942.

In the action on the 14th the Japanese paratroopers failed in their attempt to take the airfield at P1 and took about 80% casualties in the attempt. The paratroopers at the oil refinery did take their objective but did not have sufficient strength to hold it. They did manage to disarm most of the demolition charges placed in the complex before they were driven out. This paradrop did however have the same hallmarks of earlier and latter drops, that is defending command structure hysteria and a general mass confusion as to what had occurred. The Allies evacuated southern Sumatra by the evening of Monday the 16th of February 1942.

Order of battle for Dutch Army

Koninklijk Nederlands Indisch Leger (KNIL Army)

  • Territorial Command "South Sumatra Island", commander was KNIL Lieutenant Colonel L.W.N. Vogelesang, with a headquarter in Palembang.
    South Sumatra Garrison Battalion in Palembang
    Stadswacht Infantry Company in Palembang
    Stadswacht Infantry Company in Djambi
    Artillery Battery (4 x 75mm L/35 guns)
    Artillery Battery (4 x 75mm L/35 guns)
    AA Detachment (2 x 40mm)
    several MG squads
    Mortar Platoon
    Mortar Platoon
    Mobile Auxiliary First Aid Platoon

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