|Dutch Indies Campaign - Part I: Hell Furnaces of Sumatra|
|by Pete Gade|
A Serious Threat
At the onset of World War II, only the Soviets and Germans fielded airborne forces of any note. Arguably, 1940 proved itself as the year that a significant number of military powers came to realize the potential, and the pure shock value, of airborne forces. During Germany’s sweep through the Low Countries of Europe, it was realized that with proper planning, execution, and good fortune, handfuls of parachute and glider borne forces could secure major objectives that would have thwarted large numbers of traditional land forces.
The Belgian fortress of Eben Emael offers the early war’s most notable airborne operation, where an entire fortification complex fell to German glider troops. Built upon granite 150 feet above the surrounding countryside, this warren of machine gun nests and artillery guns dominated the region of the German-Belgian border near the Albert Canal. It seemed impregnable, a feat of military engineering, at least when viewed from ground level. From the air, that was another matter.
On 10 May 1940, inserted by gliders with barbed wire wrapped around their slides to arrest their landing, German paratroops assaulted the complex from above. They blasted gun cupolas with shaped charges, then ferreted their way through the dark and smoke-filled corridors of the fortress. Despite holing up behind barricades and the efforts of an outside relieving force, the Belgians conceded defeat after a day of skirmishes. Conventional German forces, free from care of Eben Emael’s big guns, rolled westward and onto a smashing victory that completely re-drew the map of Western Europe.
The world took note.
Developed in Secret
In Japan, both the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy created their own airborne units. These were developed separately, and not without a certain degree of inter-service rivalry typical of the Japanese military at that time. Sources state that Japanese War Minister and Chief of the Army Staff, General Hideki Tojo, fell under particular sway of the German successes. He directed the army to raise and train its own airborne forces, and in December 1940 the first such facility opened on the south coast of Honshu. When later moved just outside of Tokyo, trainees were instructed to dress as university students when entering and leaving the facility. The military kept the program a secret, and the existence of such units remained largely under wraps until they were actually deployed in combat.
Eventually moving to Miyazaki Prefecture on Nyutabaru, the army’s training facility readied five classes of Japanese airborne forces. In December 1941, the first three classes, of some 800 trainees in all, formed the 1st Raiding Regiment. The fourth and fifth classes formed the 2nd Raiding Regiment in January 1942.
Likewise, the navy initiated its own training program in 1940 and created two airborne units in November 1941 as part of the navy’s Special Naval Landing Forces (SNLF). This was perhaps the most logical association for these new troops, as the navy created SNLF units with the intention of striking enemy naval bases and leading invasion forces—that was their mission, save that they did it from the air. It was through these units, the Yokosuka 1st and 3rd SNLF, that the Allies would first bear the brunt of Japanese airborne might. Striking Across the Pacific
After scrapping plans for airborne assaults on Dutch oilfields on Borneo, the Imperial Japanese Navy targeted the northern tip of Celebes. In January 1942, the 1st and 3rd SNLF secured a number of the area’s key airfields while amphibious troops of the Sasebo 1st and 2nd SNLF, defeated Dutch defenders along the coast. Then, in February 1942, the 3rd Yokosuka followed up with another combined forces operation on West Timor, which helped the Japanese bypass stubborn Allied beach defenses on the southwestern tip of the island.
From here, the Imperial Japanese Navy planned all manner of similar, and far-flung airborne operations from Port Moresby on the south coast of New Guinea to Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. None of it came to pass—the catastrophic losses at Midway saw to that.
Come December 1942, the Yokosuka 1st and 3rd SNLF were consolidated into an amphibious unit, the Yokosuka 1st SNLF. It did not engage in any further airborne actions and was eventually deployed to Saipan where US Marines destroyed the unit during their Saipan landings of 1944.
Palambang is Burning
Emboldened by the navy’s success with airborne operations, and as part of a plan dating back to August 1941, the army sought to secure Dutch oil refineries in Palambang, Sumatra with an airborne and amphibious assault. The operation entailed dropping sticks of Japanese paratroopers around a British airfield north of the city while simultaneously dropping yet more paratroopers south of the city and its refineries. One day after the landings, the 229th Infantry Regiment of the 38th Division would relieve the paras by approaching Palambang via landing barges on the Musi River.
The 3rd Platoon, 1st Company of the Second Raiding Regiment found itself tasked with taking one of Palambang’s refinery compounds, operated by the Dutch company NKPM. Dropped south of its objective, the unit recovered its cargo containers and immediately ran into resistance. The road to the refinery ran through a swamp that offered little to no cover from Allied fire. Meanwhile, secretly, the Dutch were sabotaging the refinery with delayed-fuse charges that would set the complex alight….
Scenario: Hell Furnaces of Sumatra
This scenario represents an airborne Japanese raid on a lightly defended Allied oil refinery. For the Japanese, simply capturing this facility is not enough—it must be captured intact. Meanwhile, Dutch forces frantically buy time to stash time-delayed demolition charges before they retreat.
Under the command of Lieutenant Hasebe, the 3rd Platoon advanced to the refinery’s outskirts. An Allied round dropped him, the attack stalled, and it’s likely that the remaining Japanese troops thought twice about all that open ground. Just prior to midnight, they pressed the attack again only to find the refinery empty. Their victory was short-lived. At 0600 the following day, a delayed-fused charge placed by the Dutch ripped through the compound and eventually destroyed the overwhelming majority of the former NKPM facility.
Author’s Note: Given the lack of western resources on the subject of Japanese airborne forces, the author would like to acknowledge a recently published text that made creating these scenarios possible: Rottman and Takizawa’s “Japanese Paratroop Forces of World War II.”