ABDACOM and the Sungei Patani Raid
The American – British – Dutch – Australian (ABDA) Command came into being early in January 1942. It was a direct result of the Arcadia conference during which Roosevelt and Churchill agreed on a unified command for South-East Asia. It was an attempt to coordinate intelligence gathering and distribution, target selection and resource commitment. But these high hopes were never fulfilled, and the overall command situation in Java actually deteriorated, since the ABDACOM bureaucracy made an absolute hash of intelligence gathering and distribution.
Just as an example: Under Dutch command, sighting reports from flying boats would be delivered to submarines or surface units within 10 minutes.
The ABDA intelligence clearing house took 6 hours or more to ‘process’ these same reports, and by the time they reached the intended recipients, they were completely useless. And target selection was whimsical to say the least– as was shown by the Sungei Patani raid.
On January 14, 1942, 5th Bomber Command felt the heavy hand of ABDACOM for the first time. Without warning they were ordered to bomb Sungei Patani airfield, ten miles north of Penang in northern Malaya.
This target, about 1100 miles from Singosari was, in the eyes of both 5th Bomber Command and the bomber crews a complete waste of time. This airfield had been in Japanese hands since December 15, the information they were to act on was more than two weeks old and the Japanese air force had, in all probability, long since moved its planes way down south. Another factor was that, although high altitude bombing would damage hangars and buildings, it had only a limited effect on runways. The Japanese merely had to fill in the holes, as the US Airmen knew all too well from their own Philippines experience.
But ABDACOM was adamant that all of the 19th Bomb Group’s available B-17’s would be dispatched and it soon became clear that Wavell himself was dead-set on this raid.
“To put some heart into Singapore…” he said, apparently keen to ‘Show The Flag’, though the Japanese invasions of Borneo and of Menado in Celebes were a much greater threat to the ABDACOM area right at that moment.
All available B-17’s left Singosari on Jan 14 at 07.30. (*)
Because of the distance involved and the routes to be flown, the 7 bombers had to stage through Palembang in Sumatra to refuel and bomb up. They arrived there in the late afternoon, and when they wanted to bomb up, there was confusion about the bombload. that lasted for some time. Whether it was due to misread or misinterpreted signals was not clear. Finally, Major Combs got really fed up and gave the order to load the B-17’s with 100 lb. demolition bombs.
The bombers took off for the raid on January 15 at 08.30 am in very bad weather. Lt. Teats lost the flight in the clouds and had to return to Palembang. And Lt. Vandevanter’s plane developed engine trouble, forcing him to turn back too.
The remaining 5 B-17’s duly bombed Sungei Patani; after damaging some buildings and starting a fire, they set course for Palembang. But they were so low on fuel by that time that they barely made it into the North Sumatran Thonga emergency field where they stayed overnight, as guests of the Dutch army.
Next morning Major Combs flew directly back to Singosari while the remaining 4 B-17’s staged through Palembang to re-fuel and pick up the other 2 B-17’s.
The 6 B-17’s left Palembang at 14.30 pm. When they arrived late in the afternoon, Bohnaker overshot the Singosari runway and wrecked his B-17 beyond repair.
All available bombers had been flying for 3 full days, had covered over 3000 miles and had lost one of their precious B-17’s after a raid that had started a fire and done some unknown damage to an unimportant airfield.
Looking at this abysmal balance sheet, it became clear that ABDACOM had sent the 19th Bomb Group on a futile prestige mission that lacked any strategic or tactical significance.
(*) According to Summary of Air Action in the Philippines / NEI, Jan 14, 1942, the planes dispatched were: 40-3061 (Combs), 40-3064 (Bohnaker), 40-3066 (Smith), 40-3067 (Schaetzel), 40-3072 (Vandevanter), 40-3074 (Parsel), and 40-3078 (Teats)
— To Be Continued —