Not their finest hour…

The Troubled Start of No. 18 (NEI) Squadron RAAF

A fragment from “The Java Gold – The Odyssey” – Chapter one.

“… In a frantic, belated effort to re-arm the colony, the Dutch Government had pre-paid a staggering 260 million US Dollars for great quantities of airplanes, tanks, guns and rifles, recently ordered from various US Manufacturers. But when the rifles and tanks were about to be shipped, they had been confiscated by the US Army.
The Dutch Government also had 162 B25 Mitchell bombers on order. As an emergency measure after the Japanese attack, the US Government had diverted 60 B25’s from the regular USAAF production for priority delivery to the Dutch. The first batch of 18 was now on its way to Australia. But rumour had it that General Douglas Mac Arthur, in a desperate effort to rebuild his smashed Philippine air force, had already set his eyes on those B25’s…
Dutch Army commander Ter Poorten had privately come to the conclusion that the Dutch were no longer considered to be a factor in the fight against the Japanese. American theatre commanders would grab whatever they could to bolster their own forces… ”

In an attempt to prevent the B25’s from being snapped up by US or other forces, four Lockheed Lodestars were taken off their hectic schedule on February 14, 1942 and dispatched to Australia. Their mission was to deliver a hastily assembled group of 43 ML-KNIL pilots, mechanics and telegraphists/gunners to Archerfield near Brisbane. These scratch teams would accept the incoming B25’s and, after a hurried familiarization, ferry them to Java. They had been told they would be gone for a week, not more…

B-25_18sqn_8_42

Dutch B25C Mitchells on the flight line in Canberra, Australia, March 1942

March 2, 1942 saw the arrival of the first B25C, not at Archerfield but in Canberra. The Royal Australian Air Force had decided that Archerfield was not suitable as an instruction airfield and as a result the waiting crews had to be transferred to Canberra. By the time they had reached their destination and settled in, the Allied forces in Java had capitulated.

From that moment on, a tug-of-war started between the anxious Dutch and the plane-hungry USAAF 3rd Bomb Group crews that recently had arrived – without aircraft – in Australia. And by the end of March 1942, 3rd Bomb Group crews hurriedly departed from Canberra in B25’s that had been earmarked for the Dutch.  The legend written about this incident (The grim Reapers, How the 3rd stole the Dutch Mitchells…) is an amusing and comically embellished story, quite remote from what really happened.

The sad truth is that in March 1942 plans were made to create a mixed Dutch-Australian squadron around the B25’s (now 12 and standing idle in Canberra). But despite all their eagerness to get to grips with the Japs, the Dutch could not have formed an operational unit for some time. Why? Simply because none of the pilots was trained or qualified to fly a B25. Most of them had been trained on Glenn-Martins, some on Lodestars and some of them were Spitfire pilots sent from England to the Dutch East Indies. The same applied to the ground crews. The B25 was in a totally different class…

The Dutch commanding officers were still trying to find their feet after their hurried departure from Java. US Generals Brett and Eubank put them under heavy pressure with  brutal arguments of which“…The Dutch East Indies Army had capitulated and did not exist anymore so hanging on to new equipment without an organization able to deploy it was just short of sabotage…” was one of the mildest.
It did not take long before they caved in and meekly agreed to hand over their brand new B25’s to the USAAF.

It had a disastrous effect on morale. Many of the Dutch crews, when hurriedly transferred to Australia, had been strictly forbidden to bring family and possessions. These men were outraged to see whole planeloads of Dutch women and children (and even furniture) arrive during the final weeks of February 1942. They had been harshly forbidden to go back and bring out their loved ones, only to learn that the commanding officer had done just that…
They felt marooned in an alien country, hanging around the airfield with nothing to do. For a few weeks in March, they had pinned their hope on the B25’s trickling in via the Florida-Africa-Australia route. But when the USAAF crews took these planes and flew them out, morale reached an absolute low.

It took a long time to form the combined squadron, partly because the Australians objected to serving with or under ‘blacks’ as they called al colored personnel. But finally, on April 4, 1942, No.18 (NEI) Squadron RAAF was formed. Being busy with other matters the Dutch Army top had chosen an ex chief instructor from Java as commander of the new squadron. His rule was so disastrous that, after a scant 3 weeks, he was relieved from his command and replaced by someone more acceptable.

By the end of April, a large number of Dutch personnel were transferred to the USA where they would form the Royal Netherlands Military Flying School (RNMFS) in Jackson, Mississippi. Incidentally, those, who had been most vocal against the appointed CO’s, were amongst the first to be sent off…

The mixed Dutch – Australian squadron soon proved to be a mistake. On July 6, 1942 it was formally disbanded and reconstituted as a Dutch (ML-KNIL) squadron under RAAF command. Late in April,  few B25’s were made available for training duties but there were never enough. And blatant favouritism distorted the allotment of flying time.
In August 1942 the Dutch were tossed some clapped out A20 ‘Havoc’ bombers as a sop for losing their precious B25’s. The A-20’s were so bad the whole squadron refused to touch them and they were carted off some weeks later.

With little to do the crews and other personnel started raising hell in the area, gambling, drinking, womanizing…
There even was talk of a plan hatched by some drunken pilots to hijack a B25 and fly it back to Java. The pilots were arrested, charged with planning desertion and aiding the enemy, court-martialled and sentenced to long imprisonment on (what later proved to be) trumped up charges.
It was not the Dutch Army’s finest hour…

macdonald02

No18 (NEI) squadron B25 at MacDonald, early 1943

Gradually more B25’s arrived until 18 were available. Then, on December 5, 1942, the squadron was moved to MacDonald in the Northern Territories, an unfinished airfield that required a lot of work before it could be used. There was a short runway but no taxiways or dispersal areas. No.18 squadron personnel built them in the December heat, while drinking water still had to be trucked in. During heavy rains, the granite gravel airfield would wash out badly in many places and often required repairs.
Finally, on  January 19, 1943, the squadron flew its first operational sortie. It was almost a year after their escape from Java…

B_25_KNIL

No. 18 (NEI) Squadron B25’s over Bachelor, late 1944

Special thanks to Peter Dunn and his excellent website “Australia@war”  ( http://www.ozatwar.com )

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About Kingsleyr

Thank you for visiting my blog! The posts you find here are a direct result of my research into aviation and military history. I use the information I gather as a foundation and background for my books. You may call the genre historical fiction, a story woven into a background of solid and verifiable historical facts. However, the period and region I have chosen to write about (late 1930's - 1950's in South-East Asia) are jam-packed with interesting information and anecdotes. If I'd used them all I would swamp the stories. So this blog is the next best thing. It is an "overflow area" in which I can publish whatever I think will interest you. And from the reactions I get, I deduce I am on the right track. A lot will be about aviation in the former Dutch East Indies. This, because my series of books ("The Java Gold") follows a young Dutch pilot in his struggle to survive the Pacific War and its aftermath. But there's more in the world and you'll find descriptions of cities, naval operations and what not published on this blog. Something about myself; I am a Dutch-Canadian author, living in, and working out of the magical city of Amsterdam. My lifelong interest in history and aviation, especially WW2, has led me to write articles and books on these subjects. I hope you'll enjoy them!
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