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"Japanese Parachute Troops" from Tactical and Technical Trends

The following military intelligence report on Japanese airborne troops, with particular emphasis on the airborne operation at Palembang, is reproduced from Tactical and Technical Trends, No. 9, Oct. 8, 1942.

[DISCLAIMER: The following text is taken from the U.S. War Department publication Tactical and Technical Trends. As with all wartime intelligence information, data may be incomplete or inaccurate. No attempt has been made to update or correct the text. Any views or opinions expressed do not necessarily represent those of the website.]


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 at Palembang.

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.


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