March 2, 1942,
Knowing the Japanese invasion could not be stopped the Dutch Naval commander Admiral Helfrich ordered a number of his surviving flying boats (three PBY Catalina’s and five Dorniers) to evacuate to Australia. Crammed with refugees, they arrived in the evening of March 1 and joined a number of British and Australian flying boats already anchored in Roebuck bay.
The Dutch commanding officer decided to keep all passengers and most personnel on board because of the difficulties of disembarking in the falling darkness and the limited amount of accommodation available in the town. Next morning he decided to postpone disembarking again because of the very strong ebb-tide.
It was a fateful decision.
At 9:30 am local time on the morning ofMarch 2 Nine Japanese Mitsubishi A6M ‘Zero’ fighters arrived overhead Broome and immediately jettisoned their long-range belly tanks. Three of the Zeros attacked the bombers and transports at the airstrip, three others swooped down on the flying boats in Roebuck Bay, while the remaining three Zeros provided “top cover” against any possible Allied fighters. But there were no Allied fighters within hundreds of miles of Broome that day and the “top cover” Zero’s soon joined their companions on their strafing runs against the Allied airplanes moored in Roebuck Bay. Within minutes all 15 Allied flying boats were ablaze and sinking.
The first flight of Zeros shot up the Allied bombers and transports on the Broome airstrip and within minutes these were burning furiously. A single USAAF B24 Liberator managed to take off but was quickly intercepted. Riddled with bullets the bomber crashed flaming into the bay, killing all aboard.
By coincidence a Dutch pilot, Flt. Lt. Gus “Wild Bill” Winckel, had taken a machine gun from his Lockheed Lodestar to service it. When the Japanese fighters swept down, he grabbed the heavy gun, ran outside and, in pure “Rambo”-style, fired off burst after burst from the hip at the low flying Zero’s. One burst riddled the aircraft of Osamu Kudo, and his Zero crashed into the sea. Kudo was to be the only Japanese casualty of the raid but it was reported later that all Zeros returning to Timor had bullet holes in them…
The carnage was horrific, due to the large numbers of Dutch refugees, mainly women and children, crammed inside the various aircraft.The real death toll wil probably never be established. Officially it is estimated that about 70 aircrew and refugees perished in the flaming disaster. However, as nobody had bothered to make out proper passenger manifests during the chaotic departure from Java, the true number is probably much higher but will never be known…
The day after the disastrous raid on Broome the the following statement was made by the Australian Prime Minister:
‘…The rumors to the effect that loss of life in the Broome raid yesterday, was very heavy, is utterly untrue. It is not in the national interest to make any statement giving details of casualties in any particular place, as this would give valuable information to the enemy. I can assure the Australian public however, that while some losses have been incurred – whether they be of life or property – the raid was not of a kind to give that satisfaction to the enemy which he expected….’
One would think the loss of 22 multi-engined Allied aircraft, for the loss of just one of their single-engined fighters, would have given the Imperial Japanese Navy a great deal of satisfaction!
This photo, taken by Don Marinis in 2012, shows the remains of the Dutch Navy Dornier “X-36” at extreme low tide in Roebuck Bay, the muddy, unmarked grave of so many unknown victims…