The British Far Eastern Fleet, with USS Saratoga, sailed from Trincomalee, on 16 April 1944, and on 19 April 1944 attacked the port of Sabang, on the northwestern tip of Sumatra in the Dutch East Indies. The Japanese were caught completely by surprise and the combined effort destroyed oil refineries, huge storage tanks and transportation facilities. In addition the minelayer Hatsutaka, and the transports Kunitsu Maru and Haruno Maru were sunk.
See records of US Carrier Air Group 12
This was a truly multinational force including aircraft the carriers HMS Illustrious and the USS Saratoga, the French battleship Richelieu as well as Dutch and New Zealand ships.
Reuters correspondent Alan Humphrey was there to give this dramatic account for the worlds’ press:
At the rate of ten tons a minute, 350 tons of steel and high explosive struck Sabang in the 35 minutes the bombardment lasted. Battleships; cruisers and destroyers poured shells varying from 4-in. to 15-in. into the base at close range. When the flagship turned away after completing her ﬁring she was only two miles from the green, jungle-covered hills which rise steeply from the sea around Sabang.
It was the ﬁrst time that any Allied naval surface force had been in sight of Sumatra since the dark days of the Japanese onrush in 1942.
The ﬂeet reached its objective unobserved and the ‘ﬁrst thing the Japanese knew was intensive straﬁng by carrier-based Corsair fighters. Among the Corsairs’ targets were three airﬁelds, including one at Kota Raja on the Sumatra mainland. Conﬁrming suspicions that Japan’s air strength was’weak,’ only four aircraft were found and all destroyed. Disturbing as was the air raid to serene Japanese slumbers, the ﬁrst reaction of the defenders when they saw the powerful battle ﬂeet closing in must have been one of extreme dismay.
The ﬂeet was divided into ﬁve forces for the operation. The carriers with their escort stayed a considerable way out at sea. The aircraft went straﬁng, were ready to deal with any Japanese aircraft coming up, provided an umbrella over the warships and acted as spotters for the guns. Battleships made up another force. A third force which included Dutch warships penetrated the harbour and dealt with installations at Sabang. Two other forces were devoted to attacks on coastal targets east and west of Sabang.
Just before 6.55 a.m. — zero hour — the loudspeakers announced: “Two minutes to go !” An unusual silence developed, so that sounds normally unnoticed became insistent, the remote slap of spray, the faint hiss from the funnel, the bubbling whistle, of wind in the wires just overhead. Then with a great belch of ﬂame, a greater belch of orange-brown smoke, a blast of hot air and a jolt back on to the heels, the first salvo was ﬁred from the big guns at a range of 17,000 yards.
A rating ﬁred his own shot. “Share that lot amongst you!” he said, as the guns roared. One by one resonant booms told that the other battleships had joined in the bombardment. Then began the process described beforehand by a gunnery ofﬁcer; of “inflicting the maximum damage in the minimum time”. The particular target of the ﬂagship was the military barracks area, and in the words of the same gunnery oﬂicer, the Japanese garrison there was given “a new type of reveille in the form of a 15-in. ‘brick’”.
For the next quarter of an hour it was a rapid succession of jarring explosions. The force going into the harbour was firing furiously, one destroyer depressing a multiple pom-pom and spraying the defences with that also.
Three Japanese batteries inside the harbour engaged these warships, a number of bursts throwing up grey gouts of water all round and close to them. On the run in one battery was silenced, the workshops and wharves were attacked, and a large crane was seen to topple over.
Two batteries were silenced on the run back. The report on the operations concluded with the words “quite a skylark!”.
The remainder of the ﬂeet carried out the bombardment unmolested; it appeared there were no coastal batteries. All the time a great cloud of smoke was steadily thickening over Sabang, a testimony to the weight and accuracy of the bombardment.
The Japanese defenders, who made only the slightest reaction to the air attack, apparently nettled at last, whistled up their aircraft, possibly from Sumatra, possibly from Malaya.
Two hours after the ﬂeet withdrew, a Japanese two-engined bomber was reported approaching. It was shot down by Corsairs. Shortly afterwards a Zero ﬁghter found the ﬂeet. He came in as close as ten miles, then started to run home. He reported from 14 miles away, then 25, then 28. At this point‘ the ﬁghters‘ cried “Tallyho!” and a moment later the Zero went into the sea 30 miles away.
See also New Zealand History