By the end of January 1942 Japanese forces had conquered most of the islands surrounding Java. Their fighters and reconnaissance planes flew standing patrols from recently captured airfields while the Japanese Navy swept the sea-lanes leading towards the few ports on the Java coast that were still ‘open’. As a result, supplying the Dutch and Allied troops and air forces by sea became increasingly difficult and uncertain. Urgently needed supplies and spares were meanwhile piling up on the Australian east- and south coast, notably in Sidney.
The Dutch military desperately cast about for a solution. Then someone realized that, since July 1938, the East-Indies division of KLM (KNILM) had operated Douglas DC-3’s and Lockheed L-14’s twice a week on a scheduled service from Batavia (Jakarta) to Sydney, Australia. In a frantic attempt to expedite the transport of essential supplies for the armed forces this civilian experience was quickly ‘militarized’.
And so the Broome – Bandung airlift came into being…
It started off on February 14/15, 1942 when five Douglas DC-3’s and two Lockheed L-14 ‘Super Electra’s’, flew all the way from Java down to Sidney, jam-packed with KNILM personnel (and their families). Within a few days a rudimentary organization was set up while a group of ‘import specialists’ hastily selected essential supplies.
They focused on modern American (portable) anti-tank guns, Johnson .30-06 light machine guns and Thompson .45 submachine guns, ammunition for the various weapons as well as urgently needed spare parts for RAAF and USAAF aircraft. The cargo was flown to Broome where it hurriedly was distributed over three waiting KNILM DC3’s. The first of these took off late in the afternoon of February 24, the others following at two hour intervals. All planes reached Andir (Bandung) on the morning of February 25 after an eight and a half hour flight…
That day the DC-3’s were joined in the desperate shuttle by the ML-KNIL’s Lockheed L-18 ‘Lodestars’. Some of them had an extra 100 Gallon fuel tank installed which increased their range somewhat but reduced the payload by a whopping 22% . To avoid this loss of cargo capacity, the ML-KNIL decided not to fit all L-18’s with an additional tank. Those without the extra tank had to refuel at Malang in East Java before they could fly the distance to Broome.
The direct route from Andir to Broome usually took eight and a half hours flying time. This was the maximum endurance of a fully loaded Lodestar, leaving no safety margin. The slightest navigational error could be fatal.
The risks were aggravated by other factors. At that time of the year the unpredictable monsoon could cause sudden head winds or push the aircraft way off course. The Japanese had already established bases at Timor and the risk of meeting an enemy fighter was a real possibility. Most of the route led over the shark infested waters of the Timor Sea. And the chances of being rescued in case of an emergency landing at sea were negligible.
The flight in the opposite direction was just as risky. The Andir radio station could be used as a navigational aid but the KNILM DC-3’s were not equipped with radio compasses… Once they had crossed the immense expanse of the Timor Sea, the pilots made their landfall near Tjilatjap on the southern coast of central Java. Next they had to cross the mountain range that surrounded the Bandung plateau on which Bandung and Andir airfield were located. The elevation of the mountain range exceeded the maximum ceiling of the airplanes, forcing them to fly through one of the passes, a risky business in poor visibility.
On the night of February 26/27, disaster struck. Three DC-3’s left Broome for Bandung but they encountered very strong winds and drifted off-course to the south. Only one of them made it to Bandung without serious problems. The crew of the second DC-3 finally realized they were lost. They managed to get some kind of position fix which revealed they were far south and west off their course. Andir was out of reach so they finally touched down at Kemajoran (Batavia) after a nine and a half hour flight. On leaving Broome they had exceeded the allowed max take-off weight by carrying an additional 100 gallons of fuel. It was a stroke of luck they did so because they landed with almost empty tanks …
The third DC-3 never arrived…..
After the war its tail section was found on the Sumatra coast near Tandjung Batu and the fate of its crew was investigated by the Dutch government. According to locals the crew survived the emergency landing almost unscathed. At a nearby village they tried to organise a boat to get to Palembang but they were betrayed to Japanese forces and on March 1st soldiers attacked their hideout. In the following shoot-out two crew members were killed. A third crew member was hit in the shoulder, escaped to the river and presumably drowned. Radio operator Pieter Pronk managed to escape and made it back to the village, but later was handed over to a passing Japanese patrol and beheaded on March 4th…
During the last nights of February 1942 the shuttle flights continued and steady trickle of much needed cargo arrived at Bandung, while personnel, wives and children were taken to Australia on the outbound flights.
On March 1, 1942, the Japanese invasion forces landed on two widely separated spots on the Java coast and started to force their way inland.
Evacuation orders were issued and that night four Lockheed L-18 Lodestars’ left for Broome, two of them loaded with gold, currency, gems and securities, the property of the Java Circulation Bank.
Two KNILM DC-3’s also departed; one of them ran unfortunately into the Japanese fighters returning from their attack on Broome. They attacked and set the port engine on fire. Captain Ivan Smirnoff managed to make an emergency landing on the shore of Carnot Bay, 117 miles from Broome. The surviving crew members and passengers were finally rescued after an long ordeal on a deserted beach.
The ‘shuttle’ between Broome and Bandung continued and each flight back to Australia carried a large number of military as well as civilian refugees, usually accompanied by their wives and children.
Return flights from Broome still came in but by then it was obvious the Japanese could not be stopped. The situation around Andir airfield became increasingly untenable with the Japanese advancing daily. When the Tjiater Pass was lost and the fighting entered the suburbs of Bandung it was decided to terminate the airlift.
The last ‘shuttle’ flight left for Broome during the night of March 7, 1942. Piloted by Captain Eddy Dunlop it carried the deputy Governor General Dr. H. van Mook to safety in Australia.
And it had taken a direct, written order from his superior to make him go.
Special thanks to Dr. P.C. Boer for his publication: The Depot Squadron of the KNIL Army Aviation Corps and the Java-Australia airlift in the period February-March 1942