Operation Battle of Palembang

The 'Battle of Palembang' was fought between Japanese and Allied forces near Palembang, on the island of Sumatra in the Netherlands East Indies (13/15 February 1942).

The Royal Dutch Shell oil refineries at nearby Pladjoe were among the highest-priority targets of the major objectives for seizure by Japan in the first stages of the Pacific War, because of the oil embargo which had been imposed on Japan by the USA, the Netherlands and the UK after the Japanese had invaded China and committed massive atrocities such as the rape of Nanking. With the Palembang area’s abundant reserves of oil and an airfield, Palembang offered significant potential as a military base to both the Allies and the Japanese.

In January, General Sir Archibald Wavell’s American-British-Dutch-Australian Command decided to concentrate Allied air forces in Sumatra at two airfields near Palembang: Pangkalan Benteng, also known as 'P1' and a secret air base at Praboemoelih, or 'P2'. The British Royal Air Force created No. 225 (Bomber) Group at Palembang, and this included two Royal Australian Air Force squadrons and a large number of Australians serving with British squadrons. The group could muster only 40 Bristol Blenheim twin-engined light bombers and 35 Lockheed Hudson twin-engined light bombers. The Blenheim aircraft had flown from the Middle East and Egypt, where they were considered too old in design to cope with more modern German and Italian fighters. A small number of Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress four-engined heavy bombers of Major General Lewis H. Brereton’s US Far East Air Force also operated out of Palembang for a short time in January, but these had been withdrawn to airfields on the neighbouring island of Java and in Australia before the 'Battle of Palembang'.

The RAF’s No. 226 (Fighter) Group also reached Palembang early in February: this group had two squadrons of Hawker Hurricane single-engined fighters transported to Sumatra by the aircraft carrier Indomitable. On Sumatra the Hurricane fighters were joined by the remnants of British, Australian and Royal New Zealand Air Force Hurricane and Brewster Buffalo squadrons as these retired from the Malayan peninsula after their mauling in the 'E' (i) campaign, which had been characterised by intense air battles over the Malaya and Singapor.

The Royal Netherlands East Indies Army’s South Sumatra Island Territorial Command, its command in the Palembang area, comprised about 2,000 troops under Luitenant-kolonel L. N. W. Vogelesang: the command’s constituent elements were the South Sumatra Garrison Battalion and a Stadswacht/Landstorm infantry company in Palembang, a Stadswacht/Landstorm infantry company in Djambi, as well as various artillery and machine gun units. (Dutch land forces in other parts of Sumatra lacked mobility and played no part in the fighting.) The Royal Netherlands navy was represented by the minelayer Pro Patria and the patrol boats P-38 and P-40 on the Musi river.

The Japanese plan for the assault on Sumata was 'L' (i) undertaken by he Western Force operating from Cam Ranh Bay in French Indo-China. While Allied warplanes attacked the Japanese ships carrying amphibious forces toward south-eastern Sumatra on 13 February, Kawasaki Ki-56 'Thalia' twin-engined transport aircraft of the Imperial Japanese army air force’s 1st, 2nd and 3rd Chutai dropped Teishin Shudan (raiding group) paratroopers over Pangkalan Benteng airfield. At the same time Mitsubishi Ki-21 'Sally' twin-engined medium bombers of the 98th Sentai dropped supplies for the paratroopers. The formation was escorted by a large force of Nakajima Ki-43 'Oscar' single-engined fighters of the 59th Sentai and 64th Sentai.

As many as 180 men of the 2nd Parachute Regiment, under the command of Colonel Seiichi Kume, dropped between Palembang and Pangkalan Benteng, and more than 90 men came down to the west of the refineries at Pladjoe. Although the paratroopers failed to capture the Pangkalan Benteng airfield, they did manage to gain possession of the entire Pladjoe oil refinery complex undamaged. A makeshift counterattack by Landstorm troops and anti-aircraft gunners from Praboemoelih managed to retake the complex but only at the expense of heavy losses. 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 Japanese paratroopers were dropped near Pangkalan Benteng airfield.

On 14 February, the surviving Japanese paratroopers advanced to the Musi, Salang and Telang rivers, near Palembang.

The main Japanese invasion force, an amphibious assault fleet under Vice Admiral Jisaburo Ozawa, was already en route from Cam Ranh Bay in Indo-China. This force’s landing elements were the army’s 229th Regiment and one battalion of the 230th Regiment. A small advance party set out eight transports escorted by the light cruiser Sendai and four destroyers. The main force followed in 14 transport vessels, escorted by the heavy cruiser Chokai and four destroyers. The covering force included the light carrier Ryujo, four heavy cruisers, one light cruiser and three destroyers. Additional air cover was provided by land-based Japanese navy air force aircraft and the Japanese army air force’s 3rd Air Division.

On the morning of 13 February, a river boat commandeered by the British as Li Wo under the command of Lieutenant Thomas Wilkinson, was ferrying personnel and equipment between Singapore and the Netherlands East Indies, and encountered the Japanese fleet. Although Li Wo was armed only with a 4-in (101.6-mm) gun and two machine guns, her crew fired at the Japanese troop transports, setting one on fire and damaging several others even though she was herself under fire from the Japanese cruisers. This action continued for 90 minutes until Li Wo's gunners had used all their ammunition. Wilkinson then ordered the ramming of the nearest transport, before his vessel was destroyed by Japanese fire.

On 15 February, an ABDACOM naval force of five cruisers (the Dutch De Ruyter, Java and Tromp, the British Exeter and the Australian Hobart) and 10 destroyers, under the command of Schout-bij-nacht Karel W. F. M. Doorman, made an abortive attempt to intercept the Japanese force, but aircraft operating from Ryujo and land-based aircraft made a series of attacks on the Allied ships, forcing them to withdraw to the south of Sumatra.

As the Japanese landing force approached Sumatra, the remaining Allied aircraft attacked it, and the Japanese transport ship Otawa Maru was sunk. Hurricane fighters flew up the rivers, machine-gunning Japanese landing craft.

During the afternoon of 15 February, however, all surviving Allied aircraft were ordered to pull back Java, where a major Japanese attack was anticipated, and all Allied air units had withdrawn from south-eastern Sumatra by the evening of 16 February. Other personnel were evacuated via Oosthaven by ships to Java or India.