The story of the ill-fated 27th Bomb Group

a-24-banshee“…Simply because our A-24’s have truck tires on the wheels, hand triggers on the guns, control sticks that can only move a few inches because of the armored seats, no self-sealing tanks, oil burning engines and unreliable guns, it still doesn’t mean we can’t do a dirty job…”

This phrase, uttered by a disgruntled commanding officer, accurately sums up how the first (and only) US Army Air Corps dive bomber group went into action in February 1942.

Impressed by the successful deployment of dive-bombers by the German Wehrmacht, the US Army decided to take a leaf from their book. They decided to order an Army version of the Douglas SBD-3 “Dauntless” dive bomber, then in full scale production at the Douglas El Segundo factory. The 27th Bomb Group (L), was earmarked to be equipped with A-24’s and was created in February, 1940 at Barksdale Field, La. After working up, the group moved to Savannah in October 1940 for training in dive-bombing and ground strafing, with Maj. John H. Davies of Oakland, Calif., as its operations officer.


Douglas A-24 production lot at the El Segundo factory

By the time the squadron participated in the 1941 maneuvers in the East Texas-Louisiana area, the tension in South-East Asia mounted rapidly. Concerned about a possible Japanese attack, the US Government belatedly decided to send reinforcements. The 27th sailed for the Philippines by the end of October 1941 with Davies in command. The men arrived in Manila aboard USS Coolidge on November 20, 194, but without their planes. Those had been left behind on the San Francisco docks and still had not arrived when the Japanese attacked the Philippines, December 8. Unknown to the group, the ship with its planes was a part of the Pensacola convoy that had been diverted to Australia.

Except for operating a couple of tired B-18s, the men of the 27th would not fly a mission in the Philippines. A complete air corps unit was left high and dry with no airplanes with which it could fight. The “Powers that be” decided to turn the ground echelon of the Group into an infantry outfit. It became the 2nd Battalion (27th Bombardment Group) Provisional Infantry Regiment (Air Corps), fighting for almost 100 days as an infantry regiment, the only Air Force regiment in history to do so. The approx. 900 strong unit was captured in its entirety by the Japanese and forced to endure the brutal and savage Bataan Death March and ensuing enslaved captivity. Fewer than half survived the war

On December 18, 1941 Davies received the message that USAT Meigs had delivered his 52 Douglas A-24’s … but to Brisbane, Australia. After a hurried consultation with the ‘higher-ups’, Davies decided to take 20 pilots to Australia to fetch the planes and ferry them back to the Philippines. He managed to get hold of a C-39 (an impressed civilian DC2) and a clapped out Douglas B-18 ‘Bolo’ bomber.

Douglas B-18

A Douglas B-18 Bolo in pre-war livery

The group of pilots assembled at Nichols Field under the strictest secrecy, aware of the sprawling Japanese espionage network in the Philippines. They climbed aboard the C-39, that was to be flown by Fred Hoffman, with “Salvi” Salvatore as his co-pilot. They barely made it off the bomb-holed 2500 foot runway and set a course for Mindanao. When Salvatore, who never before had been in a C-39, let alone as a co-pilot, tried to shut off a cold air vent, he found that it was a gaping hole, caused by a Japanese shell. When daylight came they counted 30 such gashes in the hull. Hoffman and Salvatore battled their way through tropical storms, first to Del Monte field in Mindanao, then onwards to Tarakan in Dutch Borneo. The weather over Borneo was so bad that they had to divert to Balikpapan, much further south. They made it, with only 28 gallons of gas left in the tanks. And on they went, via Macassar and Kupang until, four days out of Nichols Field, they reached their final destination Darwin.

After a day of ‘kitting out’ (which meant getting into Australian uniforms of shorts and short sleeved shirts), and fighting the heat and mosquitos of Darwin, they got permission to board  a  Short “C Class” flying boat (A18-10 – ex Qantas ‘Centaurus’), that would take them down to Brisbane. The cabin had been stripped bare of all seats and amenities so the Americans had to make themselves comfortable on the hard wooden floor. They took off in the early morning hours and travelled for two whole days in sweltering heat until they finally landed in the Brisbane River on the evening of December 24, 1941.
A convoy of six taxi cabs delivered them to Lennon’s Hotel  and as they heaped bags, gasmasks, tin helmets and pistols in untidy piles onto the sidewalk, one G.I. Colonel, Johnson by name and C.O. of the Brisbane area, happened along. His expression at seeing U.S. insignia’s on what had once been clean Aussie uniforms and now mere greasy filthy rags (after two days of rough living on the floor) was indescribable. He immediately demanded of Major Davies an explanation of this “non-regulation” attire and was promptly set right by a “diplomatic” explanation.


An A-24 ‘Under Construction’ at Amberley Field, January 1942

Next day, after a rather “wet” party on Christmas Eve, the squadron went out to hunt for their planes. They had been unloaded at the Brisbane docks and when inspected, the A-24’s were found to be in rather a bad way. Instruments were bad, engines using oil, tires defective, and numerous other things were wrong. Packed carelessly, or in a hurry, the control cables were not anchored, making the job tougher still. And the armament was a total mess. Here is a fragment from Major Davies official report:

“…The parties responsible for providing armament supplies and equipment for the A-24 airplane should be charged with criminal negligence. Without delicate machine shop work, neither the front guns nor the rear guns will fire. No bombs will fit the racks without adding another lug. No sights were sent and no solenoids. By using improvised methods one airplane has been rigged to fire the forward guns…”

Despite all this, ‘Bob’ Ruegg took off from Amberley on December 29 in 41-15816, the first A-24 and probably the first American warplane assembled on foreign shores by American crews. Soon, a sizeable number were flying, waiting only for armament before they were ready for combat. The 7th Bomb Group was the assembling force and though they had been working on Flying Fortresses for a year, they soon had the A-24’s mastered.
As with the P-40’s, the pilots were the major headache. Most of them had few, if any, flying hours on the A-24. A pilot training program was hastily improvised, covering such items as basic flying practice, dive bombing, gunnery, navigation and enemy aircraft recognition. Unfortunately, only a few hours could be spent on each topic.
Time had already ran out for a ferry to the Philippines and Java was chosen as the next destination that needed help badly. It was decided to form three A-24 Squadrons, Nrs. 91, 16 and 17, all under command of Major John Davies.


Bombing up an A-24

Movement orders for No. 91 Squadron came on February 3, 1942;

SUBJECT: Movement Orders and Instructions.
TO : Commanding Officer, 91st Bomb Sq., Archer Field, Qld.

  1. The 91st Squadron with 15 A-24’s, fifteen Officer pilots and fifteen enlisted men will move to Surabaya, Java, Feb. 4, 1942 or as soon as possible thereafter.
  2. Route out: Archerfield – Charleville – Cloncurry – Daly Waters – Darwin RAAF Field. At Darwin you will contact the C.O. American Air Unit (Captain Connelly) and request a signal be sent to the commanding General American Air Forces in Java announcing your presence and request information as to your exact destination in the NEI and the route thereto. You will send departure and arrival messages commencing at Archerfield to include number of airplanes and personnel.
  3. You will take advantage of the pursuit squadron due to depart Amberley Field, Feb. 5, 1942, for the purpose of fighter protection en-route north from Darwin. Their destination is the same as yours and use of this unit for this purpose has been granted.
  4. You and the C.O. of the pursuit squadron will arrange for the type of protection best suited for this purpose at Darwin. Do not leave Darwin without this fighter protection unless so directed by the Commanding General American Air Forces in Java. Notify this department at Amberly field upon departure from Darwin.
  5. Air Force Melbourne states sufficient Navy type bombs for A-24 bomb racks available at your destination.

Major, Air Corps, Commanding.

And so the 91st went to war.


Coming up next:
The 91st in Java


Posted in Aircraft, Australia in WW2 and later, Java Campaign 1942, Pacific War, Uncategorized, USAAF in Australia, USAAF Pacific | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Lancaster Mk.X – A Flying WW2 Icon

One of Ontario’s best kept secrets is its magnificent Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum.
Located just outside Hamilton, it houses a glittering collection of warbirds. And its crown jewel is the beautifully maintained Lancaster Mk. X, one of the worlds two Lancaster’s still flying!

The museum’s documentation gives the following information:
The Avro Lancaster is probably the best known British bomber of the Second World War. Thousands of Canadian airmen and ground crew served with RCAF and RAF Lancaster squadrons in England, during the war. By late 1944, the Canadian No. 6 Group of Bomber Command operated thirteen squadrons of Lancasters in the war against Germany. At home, thousands more Canadians worked at Victory Aircraft in Malton (Toronto) to produce 430 Lancaster Mk. Xs, between 1943 and 1945.


The Lancaster X in its pristine glory. Because of her squadron code, volunteers have started to nickname her ‘Vera’ , but the flight crew frowns upon this…

After WW II, about 230 Lancasters served with the RCAF in several roles including, Arctic reconnaissance, maritime patrol and as a bomber. The Lancaster was ceremonially retired from the RCAF at Downsview (Toronto) in April 1964. In total 7,377 Lancasters rolled off the production lines in Britain and Canada, during WW II. Today, 17 Lancasters survive around the world, but only two are in flying condition.


January 1952 at Trenton; a collapsing landing gear caused extensive damage

The Museum’s Lancaster Mk. X was built at Victory Aircraft, Malton in July 1945 and was later converted to a RCAF 10MR configuration. In 1952, it suffered a serious accident and received a replacement wing centre section from a Lancaster that had flown in combat over Germany. It served as a maritime patrol aircraft, with No. 405 Squadron, Greenwood, NS and No. 107 Rescue Unit, Torbay, Newfoundland for many years and was retired from the RCAF in late 1963.
With help from the Sulley Foundation in 1977, it was acquired from the Royal Canadian Legion in Goderich, Ontario, where it had been on outside display. Eleven years passed before it was completely restored and flew again on September 24, 1988. The Lancaster is dedicated to the memory of P/O Andrew Mynarski and is referred to as the “Mynarski Memorial Lancaster”. It is painted in the colours of his aircraft KB726 – VR-A, which flew with RCAF No. 419 “Moose” Squadron. Andrew Mynarski won the Victoria Cross, the Commonwealth’s highest award for gallantry, on June 13, 1944, when his Lancaster was shot down in flames, by a German night fighter. As the bomber fell, he attempted to free the tail gunner trapped in the rear turret of the blazing and out of control aircraft. The tail gunner miraculously survived the crash and lived to tell the story, but sadly Andrew Mynarski died from his severe burns

The museum’s Lancaster flies during the summer months. Those of you who wonder what it’s like to fly in a real WW2 vintage bomber can book a ride. You’ll be airborne for an hour but you’ll probably have to raid your piggy bank; flights are priced at Can $ 3.500 per seat.

Whenever you are in the greater Toronto Area, do yourself a favor and visit the museum. It is opened all year round (except on X-mas) and easily accessible via highways 403 and 6.

171017_Lanc_3Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum
9280 Airport Road
Mount Hope, ON
L0R 1W0


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Trial by Fire

The Experimental Units of the Condor Legion


The Spanish Civil war broke out on July 17, 1936 and the Nationalist leader, General Francisco Franco almost immediately asked Germany for direct support in the form of transport planes to ferry “loyal” troops from Morocco to Spain. Adolf Hitler decided on July 26 to support his rebellion, justifying this decision by arguing that he was saving Europe from “communist barbarism”. On July 27 he sent 30 Junkers 52s from Berlin and Stuttgart to Morocco. Over the next couple of weeks the aircraft transported over 15,000 troops to Spain, tilting the balance in favor of the Nationalists.

It immediately dawned on Hitler and his Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe leadership that providing military aid to the Nationalist Army would give them the opportunity to test out commanders, weapons and tactics.
Germany started to supply war materiel to the Spanish Nationalists in July 1936 under the code name “Operation Feuerzauber” (Magic Fire) and in its wake a “Sonderstab W” (Special Staff W) was set up in Berlin to direct the experimental projects. Prototypes of future frontline aircraft such as the Messerschmitt Bf-109, Junkers Ju-87 “Stuka”, the Heinkel 111 and Dornier Do 17 were rushed to Spain to be tested against the Republican opposition.



Heinkel 112 V9 flown by Oberleutnant Harro Harder, here at La Cenia


Other types to be tested were the Heinkel 112 (runner-up in the 1933 fighter competition won by the Bf-109) and the Junkers 86 bomber.
The tests were carried out by “Versuchs Staffeln” (Experimental Squadrons) VJ88 (fighters) and VB 88 (Bombers) and this book follows their actual operations in detail. The summarized “information bulletins” allow the reader to follow the operations of the various squadrons on an almost daily basis and a number of firsthand accounts are also included in the text. The book is lavishly illustrated with many hitherto unpublished photographs and contains a series of full color drawings of the various types in Spanish Nationalist color schemes.
It is a pity the authors have not added some maps as background information since the text is replete with references to “… the Vizcaya Campaign…” and “… the Battle of Brunete…” etc.
What I also miss is a chapter “Lessons Learned.” The Luftwaffe sent a considerable number of pre-production aircraft to Spain and the accumulated frontline experience must have had great influence on their subsequent development and production. There are some glimpses of this, such as the successful testing of a 20mm cannon armed Heinkel 112 (The “Kanonenvogel”) against Republican armored cars and tanks or the withdrawal of the Junkers Ju-86, due to the dismal failure of its Jumo 203 diesel engines.



One of the Ju-86’s in Spain, arguably one of the ugliest aircraft ever designed. I still wonder how even an experienced pilot could land this big plane on such a clumsy, knock-kneed undercart.


On the whole, the authors have done a very good job in clarifying an obscure period of aviation history. A must for all those interested in this particular period and for model builders looking for authentic photographs and color schemes.

Originally published by Galland Editorial Books in 2013 titled: “Unidades Experimentales de la Legion Còndor.”
Published 2017 by Frontline Books, Pen&Sword Ltd.
ISBN 978 1 4738781-4
94 Pages (Illustrated)

Posted in Aircraft, Book Reviews, Luftwaffe, Spanish Civil War | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

‘Coming Down in the Drink”

“Coming Down in the Drink” is the (slightly misleading) title of an Irish airman’s full-blown war-time flying record. The book covers most of his life, from the bleak days of his youth in County Kilkenny, all through the 2nd World War, his service in the peacetime RAF and his subsequent civilian career.

PENSW_BrennanJohn Brennan emerges from this book as a sturdy, independent individual who ran away from home at 16 years of age, was successful in a number of civilian jobs in the late 1930’s and enlisted as an airman in the RAF during the summer of 1940. His preference was to be an air-gunner but, as a result of the twisted military logic that sometimes sends experienced truck drivers to a cook’s school, he ended up being trained as a wireless operator.

The book follows John through his training and his posting as a Sergeant to an operational squadron flying Vickers Wellingtons in the North African desert. It provides the reader with a graphic view of the desert war, as well as the dangers and mishaps that occurred during that hectic time.
Teething troubles with a new, Merlin powered version of the Wellington that caused loss of life, sand storms and maintenance problems in the desert and of course enemy action. During this tour, John becomes a member of the ‘Goldfish Club’ as his Wellington has to ditch near the African coast and the crew has to paddle to safety.

At the end of his ‘desert tour’ (40 operational missions as an air-gunner / wireless operator) John is posted to an OTU in Kinloss (Scotland). Frequent crashes caused by the combination of bad weather, mountainous terrain and inexperienced aircrews make this assignment nearly as lethal as fighting the enemy. In November 1943 John is promoted to officer. His two years of instructing end in mid-1944 and he is assigned to an operational bomber squadron equipped with Handley Page Halifax heavy bombers. He completes a second tour of twenty missions in March 1945, surviving raids on heavily defended targets in Germany and France. John is awarded the DFC in September 1945.

The book is well written and gives a personal view of the war, interspersed with statements by John. It is also very detailed – down to the serial numbers of individual aircraft mentioned in the narrative. I recommend this book to those who are deeply interested in the history of bomber command.

Published by Pen & Sword Aviation (
ISBN 978 147389153 1
190 Pages

Reviewers note on “The Goldfish Club”.

C. A. Robertson, the Chief Draftsman at the PB Cow & Co., (manufacturers of air-sea rescue equipment), decided to form an exclusive club for airmen who owed their lives to their life jacket, dinghy, etc. The club was formed in November, 1942 and named The Goldfish Club: gold for the value of life, and fish for the water. Each member was presented with a heat-sealed waterproof membership card and an embroidered badge. Uniform dress regulations prohibited the wearing of the Goldfish Club badge on British and American uniforms but many RAF & USAAF airmen placed their badge under the flap of their left hand uniform pocket.

Posted in Book Reviews, WW2 Europe | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

New cover for “The Odyssey”

I am proud to announce the launch of “The Odyssey” with a new cover, designed by Daniela Colleo.   (


The Java Gold Series

Follow a few desperate men in their quest for a cargo of pure gold that got lost at the outbreak of the Pacific War. A riveting tale that takes the reader to three different continents and through one of the most violent periods of human history. A story that will keep you turning pages, packed with deadly action, drama, intrigue and romance .

Look at “The Books – Java Gold Series” for more information
or just go to to secure your copy!

Posted in Australia in WW2 and later, Dutch East Indies, My Books, Pacific War, WW2 Pacific | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

British Tanks in Java – 1942

Forgotten Heroes of the Malaya – NEI Campaign

3rd Hussars_BannerIn December 1941, the Commonwealth forces were driven relentlessly down the Malayan peninsula in a humiliating series of military disasters. Defenceless against swarms of strafing Japanese fighters and harassed by scores of light tanks that, according to British General Staff doctrine, could not operate in the Malayan jungle, they had to retreat from one strategic position after another. In a desperate effort to stem the tide, a single squadron of light tanks was sent from the Middle-East to Singapore.

It was one of the most ill-advised, ineffectual and altogether futile decisions taken during the whole Malayan campaign.


A Vickers Mk VIb light tank during training exercises at Aldershot in 1937

‘B’ Squadron of The Kings Own 3rd Hussars was chosen for this overseas duty and its CO, Major P. William-Powlett (*), was allowed to pick whoever was willing to go with him. He chose seven officers and 138 NCOs and men. According to the regimental records, the squadron had 18 Vickers Mark VIb and VIc light tanks, including three reserve vehicles. The squadron left their base in Cyprus for Egypt on January 7, 1942. For some reason, it was not until the end of that month that the 3rd Hussars embarked aboard  S.S. Hermion and sailed through the Suez Canal, toward the Dutch East Indies. After a three day layover in Colombo, their ship sailed for Oosthaven, now Bandar Lampung, at the extreme southern tip of Sumatra.

The ship docked in the evening of February 13, 1942, and since Japanese troops had already invaded Singapore Island, Major William-Powlett sought guidance from GHQ. He was ordered to unload his tanks and immediately occupy the two airfields in the Palembang area; the tanks were to go by train, the crews by road. The CO pointed out that his objective was 170 miles to the north and that, after several weeks at sea, he needed time to unload his tanks, charge batteries, de-grease the guns and to re-fuel (if he could get hold of petrol). It would take at least 24 hours to get all tanks in shape so their arrival at Palembang could not be expected before the early morning hours of February 18th. GHQ ordered him to stick to his orders and, as all stevedores had fled the port, it was up to the sweating men of the 3rd Hussars to unload their tanks directly onto flatcars at the quayside.


A 3rd Hussars Vickers Mk VIb at the Tanjong Priok quayside, February 1942

Japanese paratroopers landed at Palembang P1 in the early morning of February 14 and it was obvious that, long before the tanks could get there, Palembang would be occupied. In another acrimonious discussion with GHQ, Major William-Powlett proposed to wait for two Australian infantry battalions, expected to arrive soon. Together with Dutch troops, this force would be able to defend southern Sumatra. But GHQ rudely told him to ‘obey his orders’ and take his squadron to Palembang forthwith. Captain Pat Lancaster, sent ahead to make contact, returned from P.2 on a borrowed motorcycle. The R.A.F. officer in charge had been about to board the last aircraft to take off for Java and the airfield was to be abandoned.

So, on February 15, when all tanks, trucks and stores had been unloaded, GHQ ordered the 3rd Hussars to load everything back onto S.S. Hermion, embark the troops and head for Java! Unfortunately, the ship had already left (buzzed off to a safer place, as some said) and it took them until the next day to find transport, a small steamer called Silver Larch. Its derricks could handle the tanks but not the heavy ammunition lorries and most of them had to be left behind. Working deep into the night, they loaded ten tanks on the Silver Larch and eight on a lighter towed by a Dutch tug. Around 04.00 on February 17, the ships left Oosthaven, with all tanks, 80% of the transport vehicles but only 25% of the ammunition on board. Six hours later, the ships docked at Merak, a small port at the extreme western end of Java, just across Sunda Strait. After debarking most of the Hussars and other troops, the ships sailed on to Tanjong Priok, the port of Batavia. There, a team of 30 Hussars would unload the tanks and vehicles for the second time.

The next week was one of turmoil, chaos and confusion.
The main body of the 3rd Hussars had gone by train to Batavia which they reached on the night of the 18th. The CO assembled them in the station forecourt and told them to wait while he went in search of a Transport Officer. When he finally had found one, his troops had disappeared; an over-zealous Dutch officer had ‘discovered’ them and sent them to barracks at the outskirts of Batavia, of course not the ones they were supposed to go to.
While this problem was being unravelled, William-Powlett received the alarming news that Silver Larch had been ordered to leave the port immediately. It took some fairly dramatic pleading at naval headquarters to get permission to complete the unloading of his tanks and vehicles. Next, he had to find out whom to report to and which orders there were for him. This took several days and he returned from his visit to GHQ ABDACOM in Bandung with the firm impression that there was no general plan and that he and his men would be left behind.
On his return he found maintenance in full swing. But when the radios were tested they proved to be totally inadequate; the maximum range over which could be communicated was just one mile. William-Powlett next had a look at the countryside he was supposed to operate in. It was absolutely unsuitable for this type of tank; swampy rice paddies interspersed with patches of light jungle, with only a few roads and some muddy tracks.
Then, on the night of the 26th, he was ordered to Buitenzorg (now Bogor) where he met Brigadier Arthur Blackburn VC, commander of an improvised Australian brigade called ‘Blackforce’, to which the 3rd Hussars were to be attached. The squadron was stationed in a rubber plantation, 8 miles west of Buitenzorg on the road to Batavia. Some semblance of order had finally been established but there still was no consensus on the deployment of the British tanks.


Map of West-Java and the Japanese landings of March 1, 1942


The Japanese 26th Army invaded West-Java on March 1, 1942 and moved rapidly toward Batavia and Bandung. The planned counterattack by ‘Blackforce’ became impossible when the Dutch blew up bridges across several rivers. They also ordered the withdrawal of all forces toward Bandung. By the evening of March 2, the retreat was suddenly cancelled, replaced by orders for a planned counter attack around the bridge across the Llewilliang river. Then, at 0200 in the night of March 3, this counter attack was cancelled and new orders for withdrawal received. At 0600 the 3rd Hussars were about to depart when, in torrential rains, an intelligence officer arrived with the news that the withdrawal was cancelled and Llewilliang Bridge was to be attacked…
Australian troops sitting ready in their trucks hurried down the road, followed by the tanks. The Australians reached the bridge at the same time when Japanese advance guards arrived and in a heavy fight the Australians managed to halt them and throw them back. ‘Blackforce’ would hold the bridge for two days, supported by the 3rd Hussars and the excellent gunnery of the 131st Field Artillery, the single US Artillery unit in West-Java. But the Japanese pressure mounted and by the afternoon of the March 4 it was clear that ‘Blackforce’ would have to join in the general withdrawal of the Dutch forces on Bandung. The 3rd Hussars and one company of Australians were ordered to remain behind and hold up the enemy for twenty-four hours.
Before withdrawing on the morning of March 5, , a unit of the 3rd fought off and killed about a dozen of a strong Japanese patrol that had come cycling down the Semplak-Buitenzorg road. The 3rd Hussars disengaged and reached Bandung on March 6. Major William-Powlett learned that the Dutch were about to capitulate. Plans were made for the British and Australian troops to move south over the mountains. But when the Dutch surrendered on March 8, Major William-Powlett knew that there was no hope of further action against the enemy, and he had to obey a written order from General Sitwell to destroy his tanks. They did this by sending them tumbling down a ravine into a strongly flowing river.

It turned out that 60% of the men wanted to ‘walk home’ and they started off during the night. But none of them escaped from Java. The seaworthy boats on Java’s south coast had been destroyed by the Dutch, and by March 28, most of them were together again – in the Prison compound near Bandung. They had to endure three and a half years of captivity, during which nearly half of them died of starvation, sickness and brutality.

Perhaps the best epilogue has been written by David Fletcher in his book ‘British Light Tanks 1925 – 1945’

‘There was not a lot that could be done with tanks such as this [in Java], but throwing them away on, what we now know to be such a futile expedition and losing the men with them for the rest of the war, seems little short of insane…’

(*) The CO’s full name was Peter de Barton Vernon Wallop William-Powlett.


“The ‘Black Force (Java)” – The AWM monographs
Brief Diary of ‘B’ Squadron 3rd Hussars” – Major P. William-Powlett, M.C.
“The British Tank Unit in the East Indies” – Jacques Jost
“British Light Tanks 1925 – 1945” –
David Fletcher
British 3rd Hussar Tank Squadron in the Dutch East Indies, 1942″ – from “The Galloping Third” by Hector Bolitho.

Posted in Dutch East Indies, Java Campaign 1942, Malayan Campaign 1941-42, WW2 Pacific | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

USAAF P-40’s in Java – Part Ten


The loss of the Langley and the final curtain

When USAT Monroe docked in Brisbane on January 31, 1942, she brought in 70 additional P-40’s while the SS Mariposa delivered 4000 US servicemen, including personnel of the 49th fighter group. On paper it looked like there were now 142 P-40’s available to equip four USAAF squadrons. Reeling under the Japanese onslaught on Singapore, Borneo and Celebes, ABDA Command sent out desperate appeals for more fighters. Appalled by the loss-rate during the ferry flights and aware that the Japanese could cut off the supply route at any moment, the USAAF decided to send the next P-40E reinforcements by sea.
Orders were issued on February 9 to two of the still forming provisional squadrons, the 33rd and the 13th, to fly their 50 P-40’s to Fremantle, Western Australia for shipment to Java. The seaplane tender USS Langley (AV-3), at anchor in Darwin, was ordered on February 11 to sail to Fremantle to pick up the P-40’s. ABDACOM’s repeated demands for more fighters also led to the re-routing on February 12 of USAT Seawitch, loaded with 27 crated P-40E’s, originally intended to go from Melbourne to Karachi.

Handmade Software, Inc. Image Alchemy v1.9

On that same February 12, Major Floyd S. Pell who had just flown a 15 ship flight of the 33rd from Sydney to Port Pirie in South Australia, was ordered to turn north to Darwin and then on to Kupang, in response to a frantic demand for fighters (see Part Six of this series).  Twelve P-40’s left Port Pirie for Darwin. Three stayed behind with mechanical problems.
When the remaining 10 P-40’s of the 33rd came staging through Port Pirie on February 15 on their way to Perth’s Maylands Airport, they were joined by two of the stranded P-40’s. The third, flown by Lt. Pringree, was still down. When repairs were completed on February 19, he took the fighter up for a test hop and was killed in a crash close to the airfield.

usaaf p40warhawk-WRG-0020978

The lack of trained pilots to fly these fighters again became  painfully clear during the relatively easy transit of the 13th to West Australia. When the squadron reached Maylands Airfield on February 17, it had lost two planes at Williamstown and three at Grafton. It lost a sixth fighter when 2nd Lt. J.P. (Joe) Martin upon landing at Perth managed to hit a 15 feet high windsock pole with his right wing.

During the night of February 21 – 22, a convoy of 32 flatbed trucks towing P-40’s slowly made its way along the twenty miles of main road from Maylands Airfield to the Fremantle docks. The transfer went without a hitch, especially since some very tall trees along the route had been furtively cut down, to the consternation of the owners. As soon as the P-40’s were hoisted aboard the Langley, they were followed by 33 pilots of the 13th and 33rd Pursuit Squadron.


The USS Langley (AV3, formerly CV-1) as a seaplane tender in 1938

The USS Langley and USAT Seawitch sailed on February 22, 1942 as part of convoy MS-5. But that same night Langley’s skipper, Commander Robert P. McConnell received a direct order from Vice-Admiral Helfrich (by now ABDA naval commander in chief), to leave the convoy and at her best possible speed – which was 13 knots – set a direct course for Tjilatjap, a port on Java’s south coast that was still relatively safe. As this port had no airstrip, orders were given to clear roads of trees and obstacles so that the planes could eventually take off.

The plan called for USS Langley to reach Tilatjap in the afternoon of February 27, risking a daylight arrival. The Dutch Navy had promised a minesweeper and Catalinas as escorts but Langley lost precious hours in steaming on various courses while the minesweeper never turned up. Reversing course again, she teamed up with two damaged destroyers, USS Whipple (DD-217) and USS Edsall (DD-219), and started her final run in.

Unfortunately, the time lost in searching for the minesweeper proved to be fatal. At 11:40 in the morning of February 27, at a point about 75 miles from Tjilatjap, nine Japanese Mitsubishi G4M bombers appeared over the ships. They belonged to the 1st Chutai, Takao Kokutai that had moved up to Den Pasar airfield on Bali the day before. Their commander, Lt. Jiro Adachi, immediately singled out the Langley as the important target. His bombers made two unsuccessful runs but the third one was deadly. Adachi and his bombardier PO Ozaki anticipated the ship’s next course change and lined up exactly before they released their 250 kg bombs.
The Langley took three hits that set fire to the P-40’s on deck and the drums of gasoline that were stowed between them. Then a fourth and a fifth bomb hit increased the conflagration, near misses buckled the hull and water was rushing inside. Escorting Zero fighters strafed the decks of the burning ship and soon, the Langley was a raging mass of unquenchable fires. Listing badly and out of control, Commander McConnell had no choice but to order ‘abandon ship’ . Out of a crew of 300, 16 were killed and the survivors were taken aboard the escorting destroyers. To prevent the Langley from falling into Japanese hands, they used torpedoes and 4 Inch shells to sink her.

Then one of the cruellest tragedies of the Pacific War started to unfold.

On March 1,when the destroyers sheltered behind Christmas Island to transfer the Langley survivors to the tanker Pecos (AO-6), the Dutch High-Command ordered the Edsall to land the pilots of the 13th in Java and ordered the Seawitch to set course for Tjilatjap so that pilots could be paired up with airplanes. The Edsall set course for Java and was never seen by Allied ships again.


USS Edsall DD219

Many years after the war, her story has slowly come to light. The Pecos, a T-3 tanker carrying 700 refugees from Java as well as the Langley survivors, was attacked late in the Morning of March 1 by waves of carrier dive-bombers and fighters. Its distress signals were heard by various ships, including the Edsall. The old destroyer turned back on its course to help rescue survivors and sailed straight into a Japanese fleet under Vice Admiral Mikawa Gunichi. For 3 hours, two battleships and two heavy cruisers bombarded the four-stacker, firing off the astonishing total of 1.335 shells and registering one or two hits that did not stop her. Angered by this failure, Admiral Gunichi finally sent three groups of Aichi D3A (‘Val’) dive bombers against the ship, leaving her dead in the water, to be sunk by gunfire. The Japanese picked up only a handful of survivors, leaving the others to perish in the waves. Those picked up by the Japanese were later summarily executed on shore and dumped in mass graves.

Only 2 of the 13th and 33rd Pursuit pilots survived; 2nd Lts William P.Ackerman and Gerald J. Dix. They were amongst the 232 survivors of the Pecos that were picked up by USS Whipple.

The USAT Seawitch did get through and arrived at Tjilatjap on February 28, 1942. The crated P-40’s were unloaded on barges in record time. After taking 40 USAAF survivors on board, she sailed on the tide of March 1, 1942 and made it safely back to Fremantle.
By that time the Japanese troops had invaded Java. The remaining P-40’s at Ngoro had flown their final mission and the surviving crew members were being evacuated to Australia. 32 crated P-40E’s were on barges and on the shore of Tjilatjap and there are conflicting reports on what happened to them.  It is certain that a number of them have not been destroyed as the photograph below shows.


A Japanese propaganda photograph showing a line-up of captured P-40E’s in the markings of the Tachikawa Technical Research Centre – with a B17 and a Brewster Buffalo in the background

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