Operation Cockpit

This was a British carrierborne air attack on Sabang island off the north coast of Sumatra in the Japanese-occupied Netherlands East Indies (19 April 1944).

By March 1944 the British had five naval air stations in Ceylon and southern India, and these were capable of supporting 34 Fleet Air Arm squadrons and possessed the maintenance and repair facilities sufficient to handle 400 aircraft. The possibility of farther-flung operations was constrained, however, by the fact that Admiral Sir James Somerville’s Eastern Fleet, in the Indian Ocean, had only one fleet carrier, Illustrious, as the departure of Victorious from Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser’s Home Fleet had been delayed to enable her to take part in the attacks on the German battleship Tirpitz, and the ship was now due to arrive only in July. Somerville was also scheduled to receive the fleet carriers Indomitable and Formidable in due course.

In the meantime, the Eastern Fleet’s carrier strength was to be boosted by the loan of the US Saratoga, which was on her way from the Pacific by way of Australia. In March two British escort carriers, Shah and Begum, also joined the Eastern Fleet. Another addition was a number of long-range escorts for convoy protection, which made it possible for some of the Eastern Fleet’s destroyers to be returned to their primary task of escorting the larger warships.

On 21 March the battleships Queen Elizabeth and Valiant, battle-cruiser Renown, carrier Illustrious, four cruisers and 10 destroyers left Ceylon to sweep the maritime route linking Australia and the Middle East, which had recently been raided by a Japanese cruiser force, and to meet Saratoga. The sweep also allowed the undertaking of fleet exercises and the practice of under-way refuelling in preparation for carrierborne air attacks far from any land base. In the period 24/26 March the ships refuelled satisfactorily, and on 27 March they met the Saratoga and her US Navy escort of three destroyers. The fleet reached Trincomalee in Ceylon on 2 April.

On the orders of Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten’s South-East Asia Command, Somerville now prepared a carrierborne air attack on Sabang, on the north-eastern tip of Sumatra, where there was a Japanese naval base guarding the entrance to the Malacca Strait as well as operationally important installations such as a radar station, port and airfields. At this time, Japanese forces in Burma were under pressure and suffering serious supply problems: the raid was expected to exacerbate these problems and thereby assist Lieutenant General Sir William Slim’s British 14th Army. A further gain was the opportunity for Royal Navy and Fleet Air Arm crews to work with US Navy personnel and learn procedures needed for their subsequent deployment as part of Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser’s British Pacific Fleet.. However, a request from the US Navy for the Eastern Fleet to carry out a diversionary raid in the Indian Ocean caused a postponement.

Admiral Ernest J. King, the US Chief of Naval Operations, asked for the operation to be implemented during the middle of April so that Japanese naval aircraft, many of which were known to be concentrated in southern Malaya, would not be diverted to New Guinea, where General Douglas MacArthur’s South-West Pacific Area command proposed its 'Reckless' assault on Hollandia during 22 April.

At this time the Japanese knew that the Eastern Fleet lacked the strength to offer a serious challenge to their position in South-East Asia, and also discounted the threat of any large-scale seaborne offensive. They clearly perceived the Pacific to be the decisive theatre, as is indicated by an order issued by Admiral Mineichi Koga, commander-in-chief of the Combined Fleet, on 8 March: ‘The Combined Fleet is currently directing its main operations to the Pacific, where…it will bring to bear the maximum strength of all our forces to meet and destroy the enemy, and to maintain our hold on vital areas…If during these operations a strong enemy attack takes place in South-East Asia, and with the situation in the Pacific permitting, air reinforcements will be sent so that the occupation force and enemy fleet will be destroyed…Consideration must be given to ensure that this diversion of strength…shall not gravely impede the disposition of forces for a decisive battle in the central Pacific.’

Koga was killed when his aeroplane disappeared at sea on 31 March, but his successor, Admiral Soemu Toyoda, maintained the policy.

On 16 April the Eastern Fleet departed Trincomalee with Somerville flying his flag in Queen Elizabeth. The Eastern Fleet was at this juncture an Allied formation as it comprised Somerville’s own Task Force 69 (battleships Queen Elizabeth, Valiant and French Richelieu, light cruisers Newcastle, Nigeria, Ceylon, New Zealand Gambia and Dutch Tromp of Rear Admiral A. D. Reid’s 4th Cruiser Squadron, and destroyers Rotherham, Racehorse, Penn and Petard, Australian Quiberon, Napier, Nepal and Nizam and Dutch Van Galen), and Vice Admiral A. J. Power’s Task Force 70 (battle-cruiser Renown, fleet carriers Illustrious and US Saratoga under the tactical command of Rear Admiral C. Moody, heavy cruiser London, and destroyers Quadrant, Quilliam and Queenborough, and US Cummings, Dunlap and Fanning).

Early in the morning of 19 April the Eastern Fleet arrived undetected at the flying-off position south-west of Sabang. At 05.30 the carriers started to launch their aircraft, which consisted of 17 Fairey Barracuda attack aircraft and 13 Vought Corsair fighters from Illustrious, and 11 Grumman TBF Avenger attack aircraft, 18 Douglas SBD Dauntless dive-bombers and 24 Grumman F6F Hellcat fighters from Saratoga.

The US carrier’s air group arrived over the target just before 07.00, and attacked immediately. Illustrious’s group followed a minute later, and attacked from a different direction. The Allies had gained complete tactical surprise, so there were no Japanese fighters aloft and the anti-aircraft guns did not open fire until after the first bombs had dropped. Oil storage tanks, shipping and installations in the harbour were the principal targets for the bombers, while the fighters strafed aircraft on Sabang airfield and on another airfield 25 miles (40 km) distant on the mainland. Three out of the four oil tanks were destroyed, and major damage was inflicted on the harbour and airfield. The port was practically bereft of shipping, however, so the only shipping which the Japanese lost was a single small merchantman and another forced ashore.

Some 21 aircraft were destroyed on Sabang airfield, and three more on the more distant airfield. The Allied loss was just one of Saratoga’s fighters, which was shot down. The British submarine Tactician, lying off shore on air/sea rescue duty, succeeded in rescuing the pilot under the fire of a shore battery. As the ships of the Eastern Fleet pulled back west, fighters from Saratoga intercepted and shot down three Japanese torpedo bombers nearing the fleet.