Air Defense 'Down Under'

by James Bassett, Jr

What role are airplanes playing in British-Dutch plans far defending their vital Indies?

You have heard those romantic names: Malacca, Malaya, Java, Sarawak, Timor. They have occupied the motion picture screen while dulcet-voiced travelogue announcers talk about golden sunsets and waving palm fronds. More recently, although blitzkrieg headlines have tended to thrust them aside, they have occupied men's minds in a far different way. Will an enemy capture them? Seize these gems of the White Man's East?

This article is not concerned with the future, nor with such hypothetical problems as when or where Japan might attack these lush lands now held by Britain and the Dutch. Its purpose will be to describe, bluntly and without resort to adjectives, the startling role which air power may play in such an event. More particularly, the part that American-designed and American-built warplanes may assume if the torch is applied to that Heaven which lies, roughly, between 45° South, 25° North and 110°-130° West.

This writer witnessed first hand, late last year (1940), the furious preparations underway in the Netherlands East Indies, Singapore, Hong Kong, Australia and the "stepping stone" islands of the Pacific. It was an eye-opener. Of the first two areas, which would suffer at the outset in a Far Eastern war, we shall speak first. The others will bear consideration later.

Briefly: the Indies must be defended. In their defense, Singapore rates the front line trench position. But — with the British hammering at the Italians in the Mediterranean and patrolling the entire European coast, Singapore's vaunted naval base at the mouth of the Seletar, in the landlocked Strait of Johore, becomes a deserted fortress. Almost. Not quite — something remains. Something which Singapore's champions in the 1920s would have scoffed at: a big air fleet.

Let us visit this Manhattan-sized island at the crossroads of all Asiatic sea lanes, as I did late in 1940. First, one short paragraph of history, in order that Britain's rather embarrassing situation can best be understood. In 1922 the British, Japanese, China, France, Italy and ourselves, all signed the notorious Washington Treaty. By this token, England agreed (as did Nippon) not to fortify any zones east of 110°. For 10 years the paper held fairly good. Then it expired. Before you could say "disarmament," Japan had slapped guns, bases, harbors along the Asiatic east coast as far south as Hainan, off Indo-China, and had made the American passageway to Manila a gauntlet-run between bristling little islands (such as the Marshalls, the Pelews, etc). But Britain was slow. While ardent pacifists lobbied, Singapore remained impotent, even though it lay outside the treaty area. Not until 1934 did work really begin here. They spent $1,000,000 towing the fabulous drydock from England. They established mighty gun emplacements on islets leading to the island proper. And— they reclaimed swamps to construct airports.

For us, this is the crux. We reached Singapore aboard a KNILM-Douglas DC-3 one afternoon. Our pilot wisely steered clear of certain forbidden zones, for if he hadn't we would have been shot down by Archies like so many geese. As you overlook the city's bustling commercial harbor, you know why it must be guarded. Shipping. Sixteen thousand vessels clearing port each year with $1,000,000,000 worth of export-import stuffs.

But in an era of force, Singapore needs more than thin-hulled freighters between it and an enemy. Even the six-inch stern guns that Britons are helping Dutch skippers install on Malayan coasters won't turn the trick if the long-waited putsch begins this spring. What, then?

We saw bright new anti-aircraft guns, slightly larger than French 75s, that toss a 46-pound projectile 40,000 feet where they burst over a 200-yard area when a timed fuse detonates them. We saw acres of triple barbed wire along Singapore beaches, pillboxes for Vickers guns, tank traps, mobile artillery, fierce Punjab and Sikh foot soldiery. But you need more.

You see it on the sprawling field adjacent to the two-thirds-empty naval base. You see it in the dispatching to Singapore of that rugged, 62-year-old trouble-shooter, Sir Henry R M Brooke-Popham, Air Chief Marshal, who has been assigned to coordinate defenses. He has a tough job and he knows it. Japan lies closer, now, with jumping-off ports in Indo-China. Any time —

That is why we watched Bristol Blenheims winging into the Seletar field from England via India. Scores of them, flown by young reservists called into line duty You know the Blenheim: facet-nosed, clumsy looking, it can approach 300 mph on its twin 920-hp Mercuries, fly 1,500 miles on medium-load missions. By New Year's Singapore must have possessed more than 100 of these.

Then came the Hudsons. Out of 250 ordered, Australia actually received just 100 of these twin-engined Lockheed converted transports in 1939. The remainder went to England for duty with the hard-flying Coastal Command. Probably 80-odd Hudsons stand ready for service "down under" today — and if ever four-score aircraft were demanded in a dozen places at once, these are the ones.

We had watched the Hudsons roar skyward on patrol jobs near Sydney a few weeks earlier, heading out to sea to comb the ocean trade lanes along Australia's wide-open east coast. Now these selfsame machines were dropping into Singapore. Adjudged a military "secret" then —although the whole island knew it — their presence here was one of those miracles of transfer that only colonials, accustomed to making their way alone, can effect. The Indies, for example, built splendid landing fields smack-dab in the center of bamboo jungles and the Hudsons used them. Any day, you can observe their unmistakable double-finned tails zooming over the island.

Their pilots are Anzacs. Tough volunteers. One chap was in his late thirties. He carried with him photographs of his two kids. On the other hand, the Blenheims are flown by youngsters in their early twenties, all yearning for a "go" at somebody — anybody.

One lack is immediately visible: where are the fighter planes? Of course, you hear dozens of rumors in Singapore. One "reliable" source told us that 300 Hurricanes had been cached in hillside hangars, just awaiting the word to roll out and start after someone. Personally, I am of the opinion that part of this must be true, especially since Hurricanes have been reported at Malta, a base quite like Singapore, and since you can't combat carrier-based fighters without something of your own. Among the 200-odd craft we saw, none was capable of meeting scouts on equal terms.

Deep in the island hills are water reserves, food for months — and fuel for weeks of fleet operations. But you need more.

Eight hundred miles south, a group of grim men know this. They are the high command of the Soerabaja naval base on the northeast shore of Java. Theirs is the unenviable task of spotting an advancing enemy first, meeting him and holding him until help arrives. (From whence, exactly, we were not told.)

The Indies are worth fighting for. In brief, they give us rubber, Britain's Afro-Asiatic forces oil and everybody tin. In Borneo and Sumatra, the Dutch for the first time are cracking 100-octane aviation fuel. Plenty of hungry peoples, war-hungry and defense-hungry, want this. So much for the stake. What of keeping it?

Initially, the Dutch mean strict business. We saw this as our KNILM transport, after a "routine" swing across the 500-mile Timor Sea, let down into Koepang. Palm boles and wire-wrapped sawhorses obstructed all but one runway of this gateway city to the Indies. It's on the island of Timor; churchmouse-poor, but strategically vital. Rotterdam stays fresh in Dutch memories. They don't want another surprise invasion.

Then, at Soerabaja, we descended with a native sentry's machine gun tracing our flight course for many long seconds. Needle-sharp bamboo stakes, acres of them, had been placed a few feet apart around all military objectives. They would have made a hedgehog out of the unlucky parachute trooper who landed on them.

Java is the heart of Indies defense. It lies in the archipelago's center. It is 1,300 miles from Saigon, the Indo-Chinese port held now by Japan. It has 5,000 coastal miles which need protection. But how? We got our first lesson in the command office of the Royal Dutch Naval Air Force, where a white-jacketed captain thwacked a yardstick against a wall map. He showed the nether tip of Sumatra (oil and rubber) lying 1,500 miles away; and Tarakan, last Dutch port of north-eastern Borneo, 1,800 miles distant. Then he said calmly that both are within Soerabaja's jurisdiction.

He led us to the fleet air arm base. Black Dornier flying boats rode in the harbor. Bumbling old Fokkers wheeled overhead. Yet, somehow, they all looked good. Because you don't reckon on an enemy, even Japan, sending too strong an invasion force here immediately. The sturdy Dutch have about 150 naval planes backing up their staunch "pocket navy."

Most of the Yankee aerial contribution comes in the Army's flying corps. Yet you must consider, for a moment, the fleet. In March, 1940, less than three months before Germany invaded the lowlands, some 37 brand new Dornier tri-motored patrol-bombers flew to Soerabaja from Germany. They were engineered to tropical specifications and to the peculiar, arduous task the Indies offers them. Experts list them among the best of their kind in the world: better, because of their speed and range, than the Consolidated PBY and inferior only to the four-engined "dreadnaughts" we now are building. These Dorniers do 200 mph during a 10-hour mission, carry three months' rations for a six-man crew. Patrolling, they prowl over the Indies archipelago, week after week, without returning home. Throughout the islands, trusted parties have installed more than 50 ultra-secret bases, tucked deep in river deltas and behind wooded hills in coves. Copious fuel and food supplies always stock here, against the day when weary patrol flights will give way to grimmer missions against a tangible enemy.

The Dutch realize their appalling weakness, despite their confidence (and our candid belief) that they might withstand attack for upwards of six months Geography plays in their favor. But as the Finns discovered, it doesn't form a bulwark — forever.

Thus the Indies have ordered PBYs, more Lockheeds and Martins for their long range operations. Thus, too, the Dutch military air system a few hundred miles inland at Bandoeng, high in the hogback range of mountains that cuts through the archipelago from Sumatra to Timor. Over hundreds of acres that would be rice fields if war weren't threatening, spreads this Army air base. It is unpaved and, when the rains come, it is glucose. But under blue skies, on good days, the Yankee Martins lumber off the turf runways neatly. Sometimes long days elapse before they return to their gray-green camouflaged hangars where turbanned Javanese native mechanics pry cowlings loose for servicing.

Four years ago, the Indies bought their first American planes: Curtiss Hawk fighters, Martin bombers and a few Lockheed 12s for training purposes. They wish they had purchased more and sooner. With their own Fokker and Koolhoven (light trainers) factories in enemy hands, Holland-made aircraft no longer are procurable. When the blow fell the Dutch even had a giant multi-motored Fokker, designed for special archipelagan use, in wooden mockup form. This also became parcel of the Nazi invasion.

Besides the Martins, Bandoeng houses other machines: some fast-antiquating Dutch planes, the Lockheeds, and 100 Curtisses of the kind made famous by the French in dogfights over Flanders before Bordeaux. These aren't modern. But shading 300 mph, climbing to 30,000 feet and cruising 700 miles, they are the best fighting equipment in the White Man's East — unless the Hurricane-in-the-hill rumor at Singapore is true.

The Dutch command argues, with considerable justification, that they match the best that Japan could fling from the decks of her 11 aircraft carriers. Acting in conjunction with Soerabaja, Bandoeng might send aloft more than 400 adequate military planes. Only one feature gives you pause: what will happen after the first onrush has passed? When the attacker brings up his limitless reinforcements? When the home fleet has been decimated, as strategists agree it probably would, in initial combats? When we visited Java, they told us they had 360 ships on order, ranging from Ryan PTs to PBYs. Temporarily, at least, their contracts have been shelved in favor of Britain's which, practically anyone will admit, appear to be more urgent. Only the Ryans are proceeding on schedule. With the orange triangle (which replaced the quartered bull's-eye as the Dutch insignia when wartime experiences proved their similarity to French and British designs) painted on their sleek sides, these little machines have been sent to Java to train pilots. Desperately, however, they need more fighters and bombers — with a need, they inform you seriously, akin to Britain's on September 1, 1939. They can't afford to wait.

You turn sober when you reflect that the Indies are utterly dependent on imported planes. They don't make as much as a glider. Luckily, they do have splendid repair shops. This writer was amazed at the completeness of their plants at Soerabaja and Bandoeng, where an aggregate of 2,500 natives, each laboriously tutored in one element of mechanics, operate the latest lathes, drills, presses, punches. Given the parts, they could build whole ships. As it is, they repair what otherwise might be termed "complete washout," because the worst wrecks must be salvaged when the original supply is so scanty. Now that Holland is at war with Germany they look to America for machine tools — as good, but more expensive, than Nazi-made equipment, they say. To date, they have been looking in vain.

Formerly, pilots, radiomen and photographers all were taught their trades in Europe. Now they get it here. They've learned other lessons of self-sufficiency. For the first time, their hangars and supply stores are going underground.

Our biggest surprise came when we stumbled, quite by accident, into the rear of the medical building at the Bandoeng air base. We found the head physician perusing a copy of the American Journal of Aeronautical Medicine. He became my guide. Into the recesses of the converted hangar where he administered first aid he led me. Suddenly a giant cylinder, like a rocket, loomed up. We ascended four steps to the door of the apparatus and peered inside. Compression equipment, pressure gauges, and a half dozen varieties of oxygen masks lined the curving walls of the huge tube. He explained that the tank had been purchased in 1938 when Indies strategists convinced themselves that high-altitude operations would work an economy for a small air force. Thus, now, effects of flights to 50,000 feet can be studied under laboratory conditions. Tactical flights at 20,000 feet have become commonplace, he said.

Of course, Bandoeng plays host to only a small percentage of the 250-odd military planes under Army leadership. In some 40 widely scattered fields, from Sumatra to Borneo, the rest have been judiciously staked out. Larger hinterland airdromes, with major objectives to protect, house at least three squadrons of nine to 15 planes each. More than 1,000 pilots have been drilled for instant action — considerably more, actually, than the Indies now have planes for. It was strange to see a flight of Martins flattening the grass at Balikpapan with their propwash last autumn; Balikpapan on the east coast of Borneo which you reach only by steamer or plane. We remembered when Martins were the staple for the United States Army Air Corps and flew over California.

What will happen when war comes to this faraway paradise is any man's guess — and the Dutch high command's mean problem. They haven't much background of warfare, and they admit it. But they do know that they must hold out, somehow, pending succor from the friendly outside world. Which points straight at the US. Now that PBYs have been dispatched to the Philippines, there is new significance when Dutch patrols dip wings at Yankee squadrons over the Sulus between the lower Philippine archipelago and Borneo.

All-in-all, about 1,000 aircraft could be concentrated at any one threatened zone, given a few days' notice. This, however, would mean stripping most of Australia, Singapore, and possibly part of the Manila air garrison. It would take a lot of pondering. But unless the Indies get more Yankee planes — and soon — this extreme mobility of the skies must remain a salient aspect of defense of the White Man's East.

Down in Australia at Melbourne, Commonwealth is manufacturing a few Wirraways (versions of the North American trainer) each week, along with a smattering of Fairey Battles and, at long last, Blenheims. But as we ourselves have discovered to our unfeigned astonishment, starting from scratch to build planes in new factories takes time. Plenty of it. Especially when you have to produce the engines to power them.

Therefore, the Indies can't expect undue aid from this quarter. Australia has its own defense problem which, although linking closely with the archipelago's, still remains something for domestic consideration.

Finally, there is KNILM. With three DC-3s equipped like a maharajah's harem in blue semi-divans, four Lockheed Electras, three DC-2s, five ancient Fokkers, a twin-engined de Havilland Dragon Rapide that "stands still in a breeze" and a couple of Grumman amphibians for short inter-island hauls, this veteran line offers the No 1 fast transportation facility of the White Man's East. Farther south QANTAS, Australia's long range company, also helps join the two continents. But KNILM has the more immediate defense-transportation job. In the past year or two its pilots (including one former United Air Lines flyer) have mapped 25,000,000 acres of island land. This will be highly important on the day when trouble comes. Admirals and generals must know their terrain.

There you have it. The finger of responsibility aims at the United States. Give us planes, the Dutch say, and we'll be your bulwark until you bring up the major reinforcements. It may well be to our advantage to do this and quickly. For in the Indies' 743,340 square miles, 200,000,000-odd kilos of rubber are produced annually, as well as 5,000,000 yearly tons of tin, 5,000,000 tons of crude oil, 1,000,000 tons of coal — and sugar, coffee, quinine, tea.

This is a fat prize. Our place in the sun depends largely on our maintaining free trade in the Indies. And airplanes, the kind that defend trade, can turn the trick.

This article was originally published in the June, 1941, issue of Flying and Popular Aviation magazine, vol 28, no 6, pp 32-34, 82, 84.
The original article includes 6 photos: Photos are not credited.