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Feature Extract: Battle of the Banda Sea

 

Battle of the Banda Sea

The actions that resulted in the Royal Australian Air Force’s 2 Squadron receiving a US battle honour are described by Andrew Thomas.

Long-standing tradition has it that a Commonwealth air force squadron’s Standard (flag) is emblazoned with scrolls bearing the battle honours the unit has earned for taking part in major combat operations. For the US forces, the equivalent of such awards take the form of a streamer carried on their flag, often representing a Presidential Unit Citation. On January 4, 1943 US President Franklin D Roosevelt uniquely gave such an accolade for ‘Banda Sea 1942’ to 2 and 13 Squadrons, Royal Australian Air Force, and in March 1943 the acceptance of the honour was given Royal approval.

When World War Two began, 2 Squadron RAAF under Sqn Ldr Alan Charlesworth began mounting convoy escorts off the Australian east coast with its obsolescent Avro Ansons. These continued after the unit’s re-equipment with Lockheed Hudsons in mid-1940.

A year after the start of the conflict, Wg Cdr Frank Headlam was in command and in December 1941, the squadron began moving north with Flt Lt Rob Cuming leading ‘A’ Flight to Kupang on the island of Timor and the CO taking the remainder to Darwin, where news of war with Japan broke.

Early on December 8 (7th in Hawaii, which lay east of the International Date Line), Fg Off Bob Law-Smith of ‘A’ Flight attacked and set on fire the 300-ton (270-tonne) Japanese ship Nanyo Maru and forced it aground on the coast of Timor – the first action in this theatre. Patrols of the sea-lanes around Timor continued and at the end of December four aircraft moved to Ambon on Seram Island on the north of the Banda Sea, as the southward surge of the Japanese continued.

Guerrilla Unit Resupply

On January 11, 1942 No.2 Squadron mounted its first offensive sorties of the war when the Ambon-based Hudsons attacked an enemy invasion force north-east of Celebes (now Sulawesi), when a cruiser was hit and two floatplanes shot down. However, by the next day the Japanese had fighter cover Mitsubishi A6M Zeros that shot down Hudson A16-46, flown by Flt Lt Parker Hodge, and A16-12. The latter, flown by Fg Off Peter Gorrie, was seen to catch fire after the fighter attack and spin into the sea from 12,000ft (3,650m). Hodge had managed to ditch, but only Plt Off Ted Howard survived to become a prisoner; he was one of just two 2 Squadron PoWs to survive Japanese captivity. Two Hudsons of 13 Squadron were also lost in this brutal introduction to the war.

Ambon rapidly became untenable and by late January, the two squadrons had lost 17 aircraft between them, including four to strafing Zeros on the 26th, ironically Australia Day. These effective attacks continued, as did 2 Squadron’s reconnaissance sorties until the evacuation, though some, including Fg Off Bill White who was later awarded 2 Squadron’s first DFC, were captured and executed, the fate of most of the unit’s captives.

Attacks on Timor also increased and soon Kupang could only be used by night, and early on Thursday February 19 the last Hudson left for Darwin shortly before Dutch Timor fell. There was little respite as the first enemy air raid on Darwin destroyed four more Hudsons (Mk.I A16-6, Mk.IIs A16-57 and A16-78 and Mk.IVA A16-135) on the ground just three hours after their arrival. The surviving aircraft were therefore then dispersed around the area.

Action soon resumed with six aircraft bombing their old home at Kupang on March 18, beginning a sustained period of operations over the Banda Sea from northern Australia. During a raid on the 23rd, Flt Lt Jack McAllister in A16-109 attacked a flying-boat in Kupang, but was then intercepted by a Zero. The Hudson’s gunners shot it down, but the crippled bomber crashed into the sea with only its pilot surviving to enter a cruel captivity.

These RAAF raids continued almost daily with some success, but the Hudsons were always vulnerable to enemy fighters as one (anonymous) 2 Squadron pilot described: “He used his cannon well and one burst put the turret guns out of action. The aircraft became more difficult to handle when another burst from the Zeros put my port engine out of action. An instant later it burst into flames…” On April 24, No.2’s Hudsons flew their first supply drop to the Sparrow Force, a commando unit that had remained behind to conduct guerrilla operations on the island of Timor.

“He used his cannon well and one burst put the turret guns out of action. The aircraft became more difficult to handle when another burst from the Zeros put my port engine out of action”

Shipping Attacks

At around this time, Sqn Ldr (later Wg Cdr) ‘Tich’ McFarlane became CO and led the squadron to Darwin. This relocation was despite continued air attacks. But RAAF operations up into the Zero-infested skies of Timor and Ambon continued to prevent the Japanese from consolidating their gains.

As well as shipping recces over the Banda Sea, harbours and airfields on Timor, Ambon and Dili were primary targets, as was resupply to the Sparrow Force in Portuguese Timor. The CO conducted a daring daylight recce that resulted in an attack on the shipping in Ambon harbour by nine Hudsons. One crew flew a recce of Soembawa Island on a nine-hour, 30-minute sortie, for example.

On May 11, McFarlane conducted a hazardous daylight reconnaissance of the Banda Sea ports, noting shipping at Ambon. Two days later he led eight Hudsons on a dusk attack on Ambon harbour in two sections. In the face of heavy Japanese fire, the CO led his section in at mast height, but as Plt Off John Venn’s bombs struck a 3,000-ton (1,360kg) ship, his aircraft exploded under enemy fire. One of the crew survived, only to be executed by the defenders. The next section dive-bombed, the attack sinking one ship and damaging a second. The CO led a repeat raid on a destroyer and several merchant vessels on May 22, though they were covered by five Zeros that immediately attacked and shot down two Hudsons. Defensive fire prevented further loss.

Strikes against targets on islands around the Banda Sea continued including one on June 16 to Penfoei near Kupang, during which Fg Off Arthur Sharp’s crew had to ditch on the return flight. Raids on Dili on the north coast of Timor were in support of Sparrow Force, one being a night sortie on July 1. This was repeated on the 9th after which the CO reported that after bombing: “Our aircraft returned to the target area, diving to 200ft and machine gunned the buildings.”

 “Our aircraft returned to the target area, diving to 200ft and machine gunned the buildings”

Then followed several missions to Saumlaki, on Yamdena – one of the Tanimbar group of islands – while, on the afternoon of July 17, Fg Off Ian Hay flew a recce to Kupang. As the aircraft approached it was intercepted by a pair of Zeros, one of which was hit by the Hudson gunners, forcing the pilot to bale out. The reconnaissance preceded a night attack in clear skies on the 26th led by Flt Lt Simon Fraser. Three days later, off Ambon, Fg Off Hay in Hudson IIIA A16-234 intercepted a 150-ton vessel despite the attention of a Zero. The next day, three aircraft flew a patrol off the Tanimbar archipelago that was caught off the Kai Islands by a seaplane, probably a Mitsubishi F1M ‘Pete’, which collided with A16-243 flown by Fg Off Robert Muecke’s crew. The latter crashed.

Fg Off Ralph James (second from left) and his crew are congratulated after landing from their first mission on September 25, 1942 when his gunners shot down two Zeros.

Then, on the 30th, Flt Lt Fraser’s crew, flying A16-200, flew a recce to Banda Island where they spotted an 8,000-ton Kako-Class heavy cruiser. They bombed the vessel and claimed several near misses.

No.2, in company with 13 Squadron, continued harassing attacks against enemy bases around the Banda Sea, though resupply to the Sparrow Force became of increasing importance. The CO led a raid by nine aircraft against two escorted transport ships off Timor on August 7, leaving one vessel burning.

This exciting feature concludes in the September issue of Britain at War – in the shop NOW!

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