Japanese parachute troops met with only limited success in the early
operations of the current war. The Japanese themselves make very modest
claims for their achievements, and admit frankly that the Parachute Corps
must be greatly expanded and that more thought must be devoted to the training of
these forces and their use in combat.
The first serious efforts toward creating a Parachute Corps in Japan were
made in the late spring and early summer of 1941, when four parachute training
centers were established at Himeji, Kasumigaura, Akitsu, and Koko (northwestern
Taiwan). There were rumors and unconfirmed reports that as many as five
other training centers had been established by October 1941. At least one was
reported to be in the vicinity of Canton, China.
The four original fields were equipped with 400-foot parachute towers and were
prepared to take care of the entire training of the paratrooper from his enrollment
in the Corps to graduation with his unit. The other centers reported
were said to be regular airfields to which parachute battalions were moved after
the personnel had completed basic training. These were parachute training
centers only insofar as parachute units were stationed there and conducted advanced
training with air and ground forces.
The personnel which composed these units were men not over 28 years of age
carefully selected from the infantry, engineers, and signal troops. The men
were reported to be all volunteers, and undoubtedly many of them were; but in at
least one observed case four men in one signal platoon were detailed without
being given a chance to express their desires in the matter. One of these men, a
sergeant, evinced a lively distaste for the work.
In the summer of 1941 the course of training lasted 12 weeks, but soon
after it was cut down to 2 months, probably in an effort to speed up the expansion
of the very small force then available for combat duty -- some two and a half
battalions. The trained units were broken up into cadres to absorb the new
battalions, and when the war came in December the Japanese found themselves
with a number of parachute battalions in training but only one composed of
sufficiently well-trained men to permit its use at the front. Even this battalion
had had little combined training with other ground troops or with the Air Corps, and
had never participated in any large-scale maneuvers.
The original plan had called for a 3-month training period in China against
an active enemy but "the sudden and unexpected outbreak of war," as the Japanese
reports put it, prevented this valuable part of the training program from
being carried out. (The real reason for the change was undoubtedly the desire
for secrecy.) At any rate, the Parachute Corps, at the outbreak of war, was
probably the one branch of the entire Japanese Army that was not fully prepared for
action. Even the best trained battalion was kept out of fighting until the middle
of February, when it became evident that the use of paratroops was the only hope
of preventing the destruction by the Dutch defenders of the oil refineries
Palembang, an important oil-refining center situated on the Moesi River
about 50 miles southwest of Banka Strait in southeastern Sumatra, became
an objective of the Japanese southward drive on February 14, 1942. Dutch
troops and RAF units defending the area were supported by British antiaircraft
units grouped under the command of the 6th Heavy AA regiment. This regiment
consisted of two heavy AA battalions, each armed with eight 3.7-inch guns; a light
AA battalion armed with twelve 40-mm Bofors automatic AA guns; and an additional
light AA company armed with three 40-mm Bofors guns.
The regiment arrived in Palembang on January 30, after having completed a period of
training in England. This training had emphasized the employment of AA weapons
and defense against ground attack, special units within the regiment having
been drilled in antiparachute and antitank tactics.
At the time of the Japanese attack, the disposition of AA forces in the
Palembang area was approximately as follows:
At the Palembang airport, 12 miles northwest of the city--eight 3.7-inch AA guns
and seven 40-mm Bofors automatic AA guns. These guns were disposed in a
perimeter for the defense of the airfield.
At the Shell Oil refineries at Pladjoe, immediately south of the Moesi River
and 4 miles east of Palembang--four 3.7-inch guns and four Bofors guns.
At the Standard Oil refineries at Soengei Gerong, adjoining the eastern side
of the Shell refineries--four 3.7-inch guns and about four Bofors guns.
The mission of the Japanese parachutists was divided into two parts: (a) to gain
control of the airfield at Palembang; and (b) to seize the two large oil
refineries there before they could be set afire or otherwise put out of commission. The
airfield and the two refineries were so widely separated that the battalion
had to be divided into three combat teams. Two hundred men were employed
against each of the 2 refineries, while the remaining 300 made up the force
attacking the airfield. Each of these forces had to operate independently and
beyond supporting distance of the units attacking the other two objectives. The
strength of the force employed, about 700 men, was insufficient by far for the
task involved; at least 2 battalions should have been used.
The battalion, flying in 70 transport planes of the Lockheed-Hudson type, arrived
over its objectives at 0830, February 14. Heavy bombers had carried out high-level
bombing of the facilities on the airfield and of the wooded area enclosing the
field to a depth of two or three hundred meters, but there had been no bombing or
strafing in the vicinity of the refineries for fear of causing damage to the
refineries themselves. This proved to be a serious error, as was the failure to
strafe thoroughly the perimeter of the airfield with fighters and dive-bombers, for
the Dutch force in this area was stronger than the Japanese had expected, and
antiaircraft fire from the British batteries, unhindered by low-flying
attacks, was so effective that the transports were unable to come down
to what a Japanese officer called "a proper altitude for jumping." Many
of the Japanese pilots had never been under fire before, and in their
attempts to avoid the sudden heavy barrage from the ground rose too
high and in many cases got off their proper line of flight. The
result was that the parachutists were widely scattered when they
alighted and had considerable difficulty in finding their leaders and
organizing into combat teams for the assault on their objectives.
The plan called for the unit attacking the airfield to land on the field itself but as
close to the protection of the woods surrounding it as possible. The men were then
supposed to assemble by sections and fight their way around the perimeter of the
field in both directions, converging on the hangars, shops, and other installations
for the final assault. The groups whose mission was to seize the refineries were
instructed to drop inside the enclosures and prevent the destruction of the facilities.
One group of the Japanese who landed in the vicinity of the airport immediately
captured a Dutch armored car, with which they started on the road to Palembang. Using
hand grenades, they killed the driver of a gasoline truck and the operators of several
other vehicles. They then overturned these vehicles in the road, forming a block which
they effectively covered with the fire of a light machine gun and so cut highway
communications with the town. The crew of the armored car was eliminated by British
machine-gun fire, but the road block was still covered by the fire of other parachutists.
South of the airport itself, numerous Japanese snipers climbed into trees near the
antiaircraft position and fired upon the British gunners. The British finally cleared
them out by firing the 3.7-inch guns into the ground in front of the trees. Later this
gun position was again threatened by the enemy, who had captured a Bofors gun, mounted
a Japanese flag above it, and prepared to open fire. The gun, tractor, and
Japanese crew, however, were quickly destroyed by direct fire from the 3.7-inch gun.
As soon as the snipers had been dispersed, the British attempted to withdraw the
guns from the airport position. Only one prime mover was available, however, so
that only two guns could be moved. After removing the strikers from the other
guns, the crews abandoned them and slipped into the bush in an effort to
destroy the Japanese light machine gun guarding the road block. Several
attempts were made to silence the gun, but numerous snipers provided it with
effective protection. Late in the afternoon the Japanese machine gun was finally
silenced with the assistance of Dutch forces, and the two 3.7-inch guns, which
by this time had reached the main road, were withdrawn in the direction of
Palembang. Unfortunately, one of these had to be abandoned on the way, since
light machine-gun fire had riddled the tires. Earlier in the afternoon orders had
been given to withdraw the antiaircraft personnel from the airport to Palembang, and
the movement was successfully executed, although it involved using extra
men to protect the unarmed gun crews.
The airfield had come into the possession of the Japanese at about 1700 hours, when
the defending troops withdrew toward Palembang. Only 30 parachutists were
left of the 300 which had composed the original attack group in this area, and
the Japanese admit that a counterattack during the night or early the next
morning would have retaken the field without difficulty.
That night the Japanese light machine gun changed its position and again effectively
covered a section of the road between the airport and Palembang. During the
night most of the members of the AA Regiment fought their way back to Palembang, losing
only eight men.
The attacks on the oil refineries failed utterly. Sixteen Japanese airplanes were
destroyed by the AA defenses at the two refineries. The parachutists were so
effectively engaged by specially trained squads that there was little interference
with the demolition work, and by the time a huge sea-borne force
captured Palembang the next day, both refineries were shambles.
At Pladjoe, where only a small number of parachutists actually landed inside
the enclosure, the British AA antiparachute squad was the first unit to reach
the refinery. They effectively engaged the Japanese and, aided by the arrival
of the Dutch troops, brought the situation under control.
All of the parachutists attacking the refinery at Soengei Gerong came down outside
the fence and were quickly disposed of by the alert ground-defense units holding
this important plant.
The entire operation was characterized by the utmost confusion. Parachutists
came down widely scattered because of the erratic course of the planes, the
excessive altitude from which the men had to jump, and the slowness with which
individuals followed each other out of the transports. Many men landed in trees
in the thick jungle and were unable to extricate themselves; equipment bags were
lost in the dense forest and undergrowth; and only two radio sets were recovered
undamaged. The men fought with tenacity and courage but this did not
compensate for lack of experience in this type of fighting, coupled with
the complete breakdown of command communications.
Before executing a parachute attack definite information of enemy dispositions
and strength must be obtained. This information must be kept up to date. The
Dutch reinforced the garrison at Palembang 2 days before the attack and
after the Japanese had completed their estimate of the situation.
The parachute attack should be preceded by dive-bombing and low-level
bombing and strafing to neutralize local antiaircraft defenses so that the troop
carriers can come in low over their objectives without interference. The high-level
bombing carried out by the Japanese at Palembang destroyed RAF planes and
facilities, but had little or no effect on the defending ground troops.
Troops and pilots should be so trained that parachutists can land in roads
and other small cleared areas in woods and jungles. The Japanese troops at
Palembang were helpless when they landed in the midst of thick jungle.
Equipment bags, radio sets, etc., should be carried and dropped with
group to which they belong. The Japanese carried all of their equipment in two
planes. One of these was shot down and the other flew around dropping equipment
indiscriminately. As stated above, most of this was lost.
The parachutists must follow each other out of the plane in rapid succession. Failure
on the part of the Japanese to emphasize this point in training
contributed greatly to the wide scattering of their men at Palembang.
Men must be trained to assemble on their leaders and to go into action as
combat teams--not individually. The Japanese had met with so much success when
they infiltrated small units behind the fixed defense lines of the British in the
Malay peninsula, that they thought the same results would be obtained at
Palembang. Here, however, they found strong posts scattered throughout the
area, organized for all-around defense, with strong aggressive patrols working
between posts. Because of their failure to assemble and because of the
breakdown of communications, the Japanese were rarely able to concentrate enough
force to overcome these strongpoints.
It should be remembered that the failures and omissions listed above apply to the
first use by the Japanese Army of parachutists on a large scale. The Japanese
Army is among the first to recognize its own weak points and to profit by its
mistakes. It should not be assumed that these mistakes will be repeated. Although
they met with only half-hearted opposition at Timor, the
well-timed and well-executed attack at that place is ample proof, if any is needed, that
the Japanese learn fast.
Troops allotted to the static defense of the perimeter should be in posts
sited for all-around defense. Parachute troops will land on all sides of the AA gun
positions, and unless these sites are protected by a surrounding cordon of troops
armed with automatic weapons and rifles the guns will soon fall to the
attackers. Gun crews of antiaircraft weapons, both heavy and light, should be
armed with rifles and submachine guns for the final defense of their
positions. British AA and RAF ground personnel included a considerable number of
unarmed men who had to be protected and who seriously hampered the actions of
the few combat troops available.
A high proportion of the available troops must be kept as a mobile reserve. These
men must be thoroughly trained in jungle warfare. The role of such a reserve is to
meet and destroy paratroops outside of the area of static defense. The initial
position of these troops should be inside each strongpoint mentioned above and
under the protection of its garrison. As groups of paratroopers are located, the
reserve should move out and destroy them by aggressive action. When
the mission is accomplished, the unit should reassemble, if possible, for further
action inside the strongpoint.
Patrols or armored cars should operate between strongpoints as soon as the
attack starts. They should be provided with some means of reporting the
location of enemy groups to the nearest mobile reserve.
Routes of withdrawal and communication should be patrolled in sufficient
strength to prevent the enemy from holding any portion of it for a long enough
time to interfere with the movement of our troops or with the arrival of
reinforcements and supplies. The Japanese placed a road block across the only
road between Palembang and the airfield, and thereby effectively prevented the
withdrawal of the guns around the field, as well as the arrival of reinforcements
which had been ordered up from Palembang. The reduction of this road block, once
it was established and protected by machine guns, was a long drawn-out affair. Had
there been sufficient patrols on this road, the Japanese would have been routed
while they were organizing the block, and much time and many lives as well
as the guns would have been saved.
The air force ground staff should be trained and included in the ground
defense "plan." Ground crews and other air force personnel must be armed, preferably
with submachine guns, so that they can protect themselves and participate in
the defense of their installations. There must be the closest cooperation between
air force and ground defense headquarters. Problems of command and other
matters which may give rise to controversy must be worked out in advance and
thoroughly understood by all concerned. One of the greatest difficulties encountered
by the British in this action was lack of coordination between the air commander
and the CO of the ground defenses.