Operation Cockpit – the Japanese surprised at Sabang

A surprise raid on Sabang in northern Sumatra. A general view from one of the attacking planes showing a blazing oil tank with oil spreading out over the harbour area, burning docks, warehouses and ships. In the foreground is a Japanese destroyer which was set on fire by fighters. 19 April 1944

A surprise raid on Sabang in northern Sumatra. A general view from one of the attacking planes showing a blazing oil tank with oil spreading out over the harbour area, burning docks, warehouses and ships. In the foreground is a Japanese destroyer which was set on fire by fighters. 19 April 1944

Throttled back, an American built Chance-Vought Corsair starts to sink to the deck of HMS ILLUSTRIOUS prior to landing

Throttled back, an American built Chance-Vought Corsair starts to sink to the deck of HMS ILLUSTRIOUS prior to landing

Seventeen Fairey Barracuda bombers and 13 Chance-Vought F4U Corsair fighters from HMS ILLUSTRIOUS and 11 Grumman TBM “Avenger” torpedo-bombers, 18 Douglas “Dauntless” dive-bombers and 24 Grumman F6F“Hellcat” fighters from USS SARATOGA attacked Sabang harbor and nearby Lho Nga airfield. The attack caught the Japanese by surprise and there was no fighter opposition.

Seventeen Fairey Barracuda bombers and 13 Chance-Vought F4U Corsair fighters from HMS ILLUSTRIOUS and 11 Grumman TBM “Avenger” torpedo-bombers, 18 Douglas “Dauntless” dive-bombers and 24 Grumman F6F“Hellcat” fighters from USS SARATOGA attacked Sabang harbor and nearby Lho Nga airfield. The attack caught the Japanese by surprise and there was no fighter opposition.

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

Grumman F4F-3 Wildcats of fighter squadron VF-3 on the U.S. aircraft carrier USS Saratoga (CV-3) in October 1941. The plane on the aircraft elevator is 3-F-9 (BuNo 3982), piloted by Ensign Gayle Hermann. This plane was in service with VF-6 in December 1941 and hit by "friendly" fire near Ford Island, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii (USA), on the night of 7 December 1941 while trying to land after a combat air patrol. It was badly damaged but the pilot could land the plane and luckily was uninjured.

Grumman F4F-3 Wildcats of fighter squadron VF-3 on the U.S. aircraft carrier USS Saratoga (CV-3) in October 1941. The plane on the aircraft elevator is 3-F-9 (BuNo 3982), piloted by Ensign Gayle Hermann. This plane was in service with VF-6 in December 1941 and hit by “friendly” fire near Ford Island, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii (USA), on the night of 7 December 1941 while trying to land after a combat air patrol. It was badly damaged but the pilot could land the plane and luckily was uninjured.

The U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Saratoga (CV-3) in 1943/44. The photo was taken from one of her planes of Carrier Air Group 12 (CVG-12), of which many aircraft are visible on deck, Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bombers (aft), Grumman F6F Hellcat fighters (mostly forward), and Grumman TBF Avenger torpedo bombers.

The U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Saratoga (CV-3) in 1943/44. The photo was taken from one of her planes of Carrier Air Group 12 (CVG-12), of which many aircraft are visible on deck, Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bombers (aft), Grumman F6F Hellcat fighters (mostly forward), and Grumman TBF Avenger torpedo bombers.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

John L Patton April 21, 2014 at 9:20 pm

I was aboard the sara in vt3 amm3

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