(WWII) The Royal New Zealand Navy and the Pacific Campaign 1941-1945

Although many New Zealanders served with the Royal Navy in all theatres during the Second World War, our fleet after 1941 mainly operated in the Pacific. Read about the campaigns undertaken in the Pacific.

 

Although many New Zealanders served with the Royal Navy in all theatres during the Second World War, our fleet after 1941 mainly operated in the Pacific.

The following ships operated in the Pacific between 1941 and 1945

Cruisers:

HMNZS Arabis

HMNZS Arbutus

Corvettes:

HMNZS Achilles

HMNZS Gambia

HMNZS Leander

Armed Merchant Cruiser

HMNZS Monowai

Minesweepers/Anti-submarine trawlers

HMNZS Moa

HMNZS Tui

HMNZS Kiwi

Support vessel

HMNZS Matai

25th Fairmile Flotilla

Coastal craft

Our ships operated under American and British Command during the operations in the Pacific. In addition by 1945 25 percent of all Fleet Air Arm aircrew operating with the British Pacific Fleet aircraft carriers were New Zealanders. HMNZS Moa was sunk in 1943 while at Tulagi and HMNZS Leander sustained such damage in July 1943 she had to go to America for repairs. HMNZS Gambia was loaned to the RNZN, and she is to date the largest warship to have served with the RNZN. New Zealanders who were serving aboard HMS Exeter were taken as POWs and kept in camp on Java. Over 40 New Zealanders lost their lives in the fall of Singapore.

Campbell Buchanan and the sinking of Japanese Submarine I-1[1]

This is the kind of story that would not be out of place in a Tom Clancy novel. The plot includes audacity, heroism, code breaking and sacrifice. The chapters unfold in exotic locations and involve ships, submarines and aircraft. But this is not a work of fiction, rather it is one of the more intriguing incidents our fledgling Navy was engaged in during WWII – and yet very few know the full story. Here then, is the tale of how the death of a former factory worker from Port Chalmers became a link in the chain of events that resulted in the state-sponsored assassination of a military genius.

Leading Signalman Campbell Howard Buchanan and his twin sister Chris were born on 7 April 1920 to Joseph and Emma Buchanan of Fox Street, Port Chalmers. Campbell went to Port Chalmers School and left at age 14 to work at Cadbury Fry Hudson in Dunedin before joining the Navy Volunteer Reserve in 1937 (RNZNVR service number 0/7366). By 1940 he was in England serving onboard submarines for a year before joining HMNZS Kiwi (Lt Cdr Gordon Bridson RNZNVR of Auckland commanding) as commissioning crew.

Campbell was just 22 years old when he died on 31 January 1943. His death was the result of wounds he had received two nights previously during the sinking of the Japanese Submarine I-1 by HMNZ Ships Moa (Lt Cdr Peter Phipps RNZNVR of Christchurch commanding) and Kiwi in the waters off the island of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands.

Kiwi, Moa, and Tui were 600 ton (900 ton full load) Bird class minesweeping antisubmarine trawler Corvettes. Orders for their construction in the United Kingdom were placed in September 1939 as training ships and they were completed in late 1941. The Corvettes were 51 metres long with a beam of 9 metres and draught of 4.6 metres. Armament comprised a single 4 inch gun, minesweeping equipment, ASDIC (the forerunner of SONAR) and a 20 mm Lewis machine gun. The ships carried a crew of 35 and with their 1100 horsepower steam plant were capable of a maximum speed of 13 knots.

Kiwi received damage in a storm during her delivery voyage from England and was delayed in Boston, USA for repairs. Whilst waiting for the repairs to Kiwi to be completed Moa managed to get the (dry) US Navy to provide and fit a 20 mm Oerlikon for the princely sum of two bottles of gin! The three ships finally arrived in NZ in August 1942, but before the year was out Kiwi and Moa had joined the 25th Minesweeping Flotilla operating out of Tulagi in the Solomon Islands under the direction of US Navy Admiral William F. ‘Bull’ Halsey, Commander US Pacific Fleet.

Not to be outdone by Moa the crew onboard Kiwi set about acquiring and mounting an Oerlikon of their own, as Leading Seaman E.C. McVinnie recalled about an event that occurred in late January 1943:

“We eventually noticed a ship on the beach, an American ship…and we went alongside and stripped it of what we could. One of the things we got off it was this Oerlikon and… the only place we thought of putting it was right on the peak of the bow. One of our crew was a very good chippy and he went ashore to the Seabees. The Americans…supplied him with all the tools he wanted and he chipped out (a)… great big chunk of… some native wood, mahogany or something… They even made us the bolts for us to bolt this right on the peak of the bow.”

That Oerlikon proved to be a godsend only a few days later.

Our story begins in earnest on the particularly dark night of 29 January 1943 with Kiwi and Moa a mile apart, patrolling up and down the coast a mile off Kamimbo Bay at the North West end of Guadalcanal. At 1830 the Japanese submarine I-1 surfaced in the bay, however, on the realisation that the phosphorescent water had revealed her silhouette to Kiwi the I-1 promptly dived.

I-1 was commanded by Lieutenant Commander Eiichi Sakamoto, Imperial Japanese Navy and had sailed from Rabaul five days earlier on a re-supply mission to Guadalcanal. Onboard were rice, bean paste, curry, ham, sausages and a three man crew for a number of Daihatsu landing barges lashed to her hull. At 96 metres long and 2035 tonnes surface displacement the I-1 was larger than both Kiwi and Moa combined.

With a crew of 82 the I-1 was originally fitted with a seaplane hangar but had been modified and now sported a 125mm gun that not only had a greater range than those fitted to the New Zealand ships but also fired a shell more than twice as heavy. The submarine was additionally fitted with a six-pounder stern gun and two machine guns. To cap it off the I-1 was also capable of making 18 knots when surfaced, an advantage of six over her opposition.

Leading Seaman McVinnie was Kiwi’s ASDIC operator and he soon located the dived submarine at a range of 1600 metres. As Kiwi closed to drop a pattern of six depth charges the outline of the submarine could be seen in the phosphorescent water, enabling the depth charges to be placed with a degree of accuracy. This resulted in one of the depth charges detonating near the submarine’s stern with the shockwave damaging the I-1’s port electric motor and flooding her aft storeroom after popping some hull rivets in the vicinity. All of the lights went out and the submarine rapidly fell to the bottom, a depth of over 180 metres, some 100 metres deeper than her test depth of just 80… The uncontrolled impact with the bottom damaged both forward torpedo rooms.

On the surface Moa had been standing off and acting as ASDIC guide whilst Kiwi circled to regain contact and make another depth charge run over the submarine. This combined strategy had proven to be effective as ASDIC contacts tended to be lost when the target passed underneath and were further hampered by the depth charge explosions disrupting the water. Kiwi was unable to regain contact on her second pass over the submarine but was successful on her third and dropped another pattern of six charges.

This second set of depth charges coupled with I-1’s restricted ability to manoeuvre and loss of forward torpedo tubes served to force Sakamoto to surface and attempt to reach Guadalcanal under cover of darkness. His chance of escape was reasonable given that the I-1 could still make 11 knots on the surface despite being restricted to her starboard diesel engine only (due to the damage to the electric motor on her port shaft) and her ability to out gun her adversaries.

Unfortunately the I-1 surfaced within sight of the two minesweepers who turned to close, opening fire with 4-inch star shells for illumination and high explosive rounds for effect. Kiwi’s third H.E. round found its mark, however, I-1 returned fire with her 125 mm deck gun with the result that two shells passed over Kiwi with the “noise like an express going through a tunnel” (Yeoman of Signals J.L.W. Salter, BEM, MiD, RNZNVR RTD). Another three shells passed uncomfortably near Moa causing Moa to call up Kiwi and ask “Are you firing at us?” to the response of “No, that’s the submarine”.

Given that the I-1 was now only 365 metres from Kiwi and beam on, Lt Cdr Bridson decided to ram the submarine. As Kiwi gained speed Moa delivered support by firing star shells to provide more general illumination. Sakamoto realised what was afoot and managed to initiate a turn to starboard resulting in Kiwi striking a glancing blow port side abaft the conning tower. Such was the force of the impact that Kiwi had to use full astern power to pull free from the now holed submarine.

Once clear Kiwi gathered speed and rammed a second time, striking a glancing blow well aft that damaged the port hydroplane. Despite the mounting damage toll the Japanese were by no means ready to give up the fight. Many submariners on deck returned fire with 0.303 rifles in addition to more rounds from the submarine’s main gun, which fortunately all missed.

Kiwi returned fire with as many weapons as could be bought to bear whilst withdrawing from the submarine. The liberated Oerlikon was put to particularly good use clearing the bridge, killing the submarine’s Commanding Officer Lt Cdr Sakamoto in the process. The 125 mm gun crew suffered the same fate and I-1’s main gun finally fell silent.

The accuracy of the fire was greatly enhanced by the illumination provided by Leading Signalman Buchanan at his station on the ship’s signalling lamp, pressed into service as a searchlight. The barges lashed to the submarine’s deck also caught fire and provided additional light.  Kiwi’s signalling lamp drew a lot of fire in an attempt to halt its operation and as the corvette closed to ram a third time one of the submariners succeeded in mortally wounding Buchanan, with the high velocity .303 round actually passing through the gun shield. Buchanan nevertheless remained at his post until officially relieved.

Kiwi’s third and final ramming was the heaviest yet, striking the submarine on the port side abaft the conning tower. Such was the force that Kiwi rode right up onto the I-1 and several submariners were flung into the sea. The impact ruptured some of I-1’s oil tanks and as Kiwi once again used full astern power to pull free the submarine was seen to be well down by the stern. The I-1’s First Lieutenant and Navigator (a 3rd dan Kendo swordsman) both unsuccessfully attempted to board the Kiwi with swords in hand.

Kiwi was not without damage herself, with the three rammings serving to not only severely crumple her bow but also render her ASDIC gear unserviceable due to the repeated shock of impact. Her 4-inch gun was also inoperable having become too hot from the repeated firing. Just an hour had elapsed from the first sighting of the submarine and Kiwi now stood aside to allow Moa to take the lead in the chase.

The crew on I-1 had not been idle and managed to not only coax 12 knots out of the one good engine but also put out the fire on the casing. With the 125 mm gun out of action the submarine resorted to the six-pounder mounted aft, to which Moa replied with her 4-inch.

A manoeuvring duel then took place with the submarine attempting to avoid Moa’s fire. I-1’s Executive Officer Lt Koreeda Sadayoshi (later Lt Cdr and CO of RO-115 and CO of the Kaiten base at Hikari) aimed to run the damaged submarine aground before her stern slipped further under the surface. Meanwhile Moa sought to prevent the submarine’s six-pounder stern gun being bought to bear whilst signalling lamps and a steady stream of star shells kept the submarine illuminated. Several of the corvette’s shells were observed to find their target.

The action drew to a close roughly two hours after it started when at 8.40 PM the submarine ran aground on a submerged reef at 09-13S, 159-40E. Moa loitered in the vicinity until dawn when it became apparent that the forward 15 metres of I-1 was protruding from the water at an angle of 45 degrees. As daylight broke shore based Japanese artillery fire forced Moa to move off but not before a submariner was shot off the submarine’s casing and a wounded officer pulled from the sea.

The corvettes had collectively expended 58 x 4-inch rounds resulting in 17 definite hits and 7 probable. The unofficial 20 mm Oerlikons fired 1,259 rounds and a further 3,500 machine gun and rifle rounds were expended. One NZ Sailor (Buchanan) was killed in return for 26 Japanese, including Lt Cdr Sakamoto, the submarine’s Commanding Officer. Despite Kiwi’s bow being stove in, her ASDIC gear out of action and minor damage sustained from enemy gunfire she returned to NZ and was soon repaired. The unofficial Oerlikon was removed before arrival in Devonport!

Kiwi’s Commanding Officer Lt Cdr Bridson was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for his exploits whilst Phipps (later Vice Admiral Sir Peter Phipps, KBE, DSC and Bar, VRD who went on to become the first NZ born Chief of Defence Staff) received a bar to his Distinguished Service Cross. Steward Ernest Barton from Moa was Mentioned in Despatches for his gallantry during the attack (and was himself to be wounded in another action only a couple of days later, receiving the Distinguished Service Medal in the process for remaining at his post until he collapsed).

The Naval Secretary in Wellington sent the following in a letter to Mrs E. Buchanan, 14 Fox Street, Port Chalmers, Dunedin on 31 May 1943:

Dear Madam,

I have been requested by the Minister of Defence to advise you that your son, the late leading Signalman Campbell Howard Buchanan, 0/7366, has been Mentioned in Despatches (Posthumously), in recognition of his gallantry in the action which resulted in the destruction of a Japanese submarine early this year. 

I also desire to advise you that the posthumous award of Mentioned in Despatches for gallantry in action is a very high honour, and comes next to the Victoria Cross, these being the only posthumous awards which are conferred by His Majesty for such gallantry

Buchanan was also awarded the US Navy Cross with the following letter from the South Pacific Force of the United States Pacific Fleet, Headquarters of the Commander:

In the name of the President of the United States, the Commander South Pacific Area and South Pacific Force takes pleasure in awarding the NAVY CROSS, posthumous, to:

 LEADING SIGNALMAN, C. BUCHANAN, ROYAL NEW ZEALAND NAVAL VOLUNTEER RESERVE for service as set forth in the following

 CITATION:

For extraordinary heroism and distinguished service in the line of his profession while serving onboard a corvette which participated in the action against a Japanese submarine near Guadalcanal Island on the night of January 29 and 30, 1943. Leading Signalman BUCHANAN, although mortally wounded, courageously remained at his battle station during the entire action. He skilfully trained a searchlight on the submarine and kept the target illuminated for the guns of his ship. During the engagement the submarine, after being forced to surface by depth charges, was rammed twice {actually three times} and hit several times by the gunfire from his ship. His valorous action, taken with complete disregard for his own safety, contributed materially to the destruction of the enemy, and was in keeping with the highest traditions of the Naval Service”

 (Signed) W.F. HALSEY,

Admiral, U.S. Navy

The Solomons Campaign

  • Under Operation WATCHTOWER the first American forces landed on the island Guadalcanal in 7 August 1942 in order to neutralise the major Japanese base at Rabaul on New Britain. – six major naval engagements between the Japanese and US Navy
    • Savo Island                 8/8/1942
    • Eastern Solomons      24/8/1942
    • Cape Esperance         11-12/10/1942
    • Santa Cruz Islands      26/10/1942
    • Guadalcanal                12-15/11/1942
    • Tassafaronga 30/11/1942

At the conclusion of this series of battles both sides had badly depleted naval forces. Guadalcanal was finally occupied on 9 February 1943

  • HMNZS Achilles and Leander escorted convoys of troops and supplies to and from the island.
  • The 25th Minesweeping Flotilla consisting of HMNZS Matai, Tui, Moa and Kiwi began operations in December 1942 conducting anti-submarine patrols.
  • 5 Jan 1943 HMNZS Achilles X-turret hit by bomb – pulled out and sent to the UK for a refit
  • Night of 29-30 January 1943 HMNZS Kiwi and Moa sink Japanese submarine I-1
  • 7 April 1943 Moa sunk at Tulagi
  • 13 July 1943 Leander struck by torpedo at Battle of Kolombangara – she leaves RNZN service when the repaired vessel is sailed to Boston.
  • Ironbottom Sound – the location off Guadalcanal where five Allied heavy cruisers, three Japanese destroyers and one heavy cruiser were sunk

Personal Reminiscence Petty Officer Brown 

Later in 1941 I was given a commission and my own ML.  I had been a cadet in the Merchant Service, having sailed around the Horn in a British Training ship, the Joseph Conrad before the war as well as an ordinary seaman on other vessels.  After passing an Asdic Course I joined HMNZS Tui as ASPO, on her first spell in the Solomons.  The other ships were HMNZS Matai, Kiwi and Moa.  As is well recorded that Kiwi and Moa sunk a 2,000 ton Jap Sub off Guadalcanal.  Tui sank several large Jap landing barges and Moa was sunk by Jap planes in Tulagi later.  It was just the luck of the draw as Tui was waiting to fuel after Moa.

The CO’s of the three New Zealand ships were: – Kiwi Lieutenant Commander Bridson, Moa Lieutenant Commander Phipps and Tui Lieutenant Commander Hilliard.  Tui was in Suva working up prior to going to the Solomons and our first experience of war was when an American shore battery tried to sink us on our approaching the eastern tip of Guadalcanal.  Fortunately they were not very good shots, and they were called off finally by the Command Base of the Canal.  We arrived just after the Coral Sea Battle and were employed day and night patrol (Asdic) around merchant ships unloading and the relief of the American Marine by the American Army on Guadalcanal.  The Americans only held the Henderson Airfield and areas around it, together with Tulagi which was a small harbour on another Island about 20 miles across from Guadalcanal.  We arrived at the Solomons December 15th 1941, the Marines had landed in August (17th I think).

We suffered constant day and night bombing by the Japanese and saw several US destroyers sunk, together with many Jap planes shot down.  The US dive bombers accounted for the sinking of many Jap ships.

The American PT boats based in Tulagi did a lot of damage to the Japs, but lost many boats and crews.  The Japs were coming down at night with food and provisions for the Japs still left ashore, throwing over 45 gallon drums containing this and we would go out and sink them before they could be washed ashore.

Things were torrid over this period, but we were young and did not worry about being killed ourselves, all we wanted was to get another Jap submarine.

The RNZN and the last shots of the Second World War

From Petty Officer Wireman R.B. Harvey’s oral history  

Kamaishi was situated, according to the ship at the time, 11 miles up this estuary. Although we were close to the coast we were still bombarding quite a way inland and those British cruisers didn’t carry aircraft at that time and so we had to borrow one I believe of the [USS} Indiana’s  aircraft to spot for us, because each ship had a spotter, This American that spotted for us was pretty good too. He had exceptionally good reports of the firing, accuracy etc, and really and truly it is not hard to hit your target fairly regularly when the target is stationary and you are moving at a slow speed.

Bombardment speed was slow speed for the purpose of accuracy and we [HMNZS Gambia] just cruised up and down off the coast for about two hours. We were getting ready for it from about 11 o’clock because we knew what was coming up. They gave us an early lunch consisting of Tiddy Oggies’ (a large pastie) and they also gave us our tot early. I know this is correct because Jack Haddleton while he was at sea never drank, Well he was very kind because he gave a few to the torpedomen, every one over the age of 20 got a tot that day if I remember rightly. We got it before we had the Tiddy Oggie. We didn’t start bombarding until about half past 12 and it finished about half past two. By the time we finished the sky was black. The smoke started to rise out of the town or the city, Kamaishi, the iron works where they were bombarding. The wind was blowing it out to sea and it went over the top of us and by the time we had finished bombardment it was right over the top, right over to the horizon and vanishing over the horizon, a tremendous lot of smoke, absolutely tremendous.

They say that we fired the last shot against Japan, according to what I have read, the reason was that we had to clear guns, there were some up the spout and we had to get the approval of the Americans to fire the last shots because they had stopped the bombardment. They gave permission and fired them and so we fired the last shot against Japan. That was quite a thrill that bombardment really and what was so thrilling about it and I really mean thrilling too was the fact that here we were, we had been fighting these poor devils, these terrible people for quite a few years, three years or more and there we were off their coast firing shells in the middle of the day firing at this country that was so full of Kamikazes and people who wanted to give their lives away to get rid of you. It made you feel quite important when it happened.

MONOWAI’S SUBMARINE

Remembered by Lieutenant S.W. Hicks RNZNVR

‘As the Signal Officer I was Officer of the Watch at Action Stations and when entering and leaving harbour.  As we cleared the Suva Harbour entrance Captain Deverell ordered me to commence a zig-zag pattern.  I put the helm over to starboard, looked up the zig-zag book and started the clock.  We hadn’t gone very far on the first course when there was a huge double explosion two to three hundred yards on our port quarter.  This took us all by surprise as Monowai was not used to this sort of caper.  We lifted our skirts and took off as fast as we could which I must say was not much more than seventeen knots.  We taught our look outs, we thought very well, to report the bearing and then the distance and then the object of anything sighted.  All we got from the lookout on this occasion was, “It’s a …………… submarine.”

We traced this lookout to the port quarter and sure enough about eight thousand yards off was this huge submarine which had just surfaced.  We saw the orange tongues of flame from her four inch and he started to fire bricks at us.  Fortunately they fell short.  Paddy Bourke was the Gunnery Officer and he was screaming his head off in the Gunnery Control Tower above us for the Captain to open his A arcs.  Johnny Watson a RNR Lieutenant had charge of the twelve pounders on the Poop Deck aft.  He didn’t wait to be told and let fly.  Unfortunately the fuses had been set to “short barrage” and they exploded almost as soon as they came out of the barrel which was a cause for some hilarity.

The Captain opened his A arcs to port, we got three of four salvoes off and the shooting was quite superb considering we had no radar, just a range finder operated by Leading Seaman Holstrom.  I am sure we straddled the submarine but the Japs thought better of it and submerged.

We normally went down the east side of Mbenga Island but the Captain turned to Bronc Edwards the navigator and told him to through Mbenga Passage.  We were the biggest ship ever to go through the passage and Bronc Edwards sweated blood and tears navigating us through the coral reefs.  We met up with Taroona, who we had escorted up to Fiji and she wisely turned away to Lautoka.  We sent our enemy report away and the Air Force arrived about four hours later and said, “And what is all the fuss about”.’

From the Monowai’s Log for 16 January 1942

‘1603 heard and observed two heavy explosions bearing approx 103° Dist approx 3/4. Assumed to be bombs. Action Stations Repeated alterations of course [zig zag]

1608 U Boat surfaced bearing 070° [Monowai] opened fire with 6” + 3” guns. U Boat returned fire.

1614 U Boat dived.

1615 Course and speed as required for passing through Mbenga Passage’[2]

Subject:  BAXTER, Evan John Ty. Sub-Lieutenant FAA

Evan Baxter was born in Auckland on 28 September 1921 and grew up in Ellerslie and joined the Royal Navy as a Temporary Sub-Lieutenant (A) in October 1942 to serve with the Fleet Air Arm.

He was assigned to FAA 1833 Squadron that was equipped with single-seat Corsair fighters. This squadron was formed on 15 June 1943 (motto In caelo regimus – We rule the skies) and was one of 19 FAA squadrons to be equipped with this carrier-based fighter.[3] It was part of the 15th Naval Fighter Wing when it returned to Britain aboard HMS Trumpeter. It embarked aboard HMS Illustrious on December 1943 to join the Eastern Fleet.[4]

In 1945 he was serving aboard the carrier HMS Illustrious with the British Pacific Fleet undertaking sorties for Operation MERIDIAN I. This operation was under taken to destroy the oil refineries in the Palembang (Sumatra) area of Indonesia in January 1945. The Task Force 63 left Trincomalee on 16 January 1945. Along with Baxter and his squadron aboard Illustrious were the fleet carriers Indomitable, Victorious, and Indefatigable (flagship of the British Pacific Fleet).[5]

During Operation MERIDIAN I, 1833 Squadron was tasked with conducting fighter sweeps over Japanese airfields in Sumatra. These were known as Ramrod Sweeps. The aim was to destroy the Japanese planes on the ground so they could not defend the refineries that were the main target of MERIDIAN from the flights of Avenger bombers flying off the carriers.[6] At Lembak 34 Japanese aircraft were successfully destroyed on the ground and another 13 lost in air-to-air combat.[7]  The raids were very successful. The raid of 24 January and the follow-up raid of 26 January put the refinery complex out of action for the rest of the war, denying Japan’s war machine with its lifeblood.[8] These raids were the largest air strikes carried out by the FAA during the Second World War.[9]

Over the airstrip at Talangbetotoe, Baxter was shot down by Japanese anti-aircraft fire on 24 January 1945[10] while attempting a strafing run. He successfully bailed out and was seen by other pilots of the squadron landing safely near Simpang which is a few kilometres from Lake Ranau. There were six Corsairs and one Hellcat lost in air combat during this raid.[11]

As can be expected, FAA pilots made every effort to avoid being captured by the Japanese.[12] A search was undertaken of Lake Ranau which was a rendezvous point for shot down pilots but Baxter was never sighted because he had already been captured by the Japanese immediately after he landed.[13]

Baxter and eight[14] other survivors of the raid on Palembang were taken to Outram Road Goal in Singapore in February for interrogation by the Kempei Tai (Japanese Secret Police). After being held there Baxter was blindfolded and taken from the Goal in a closed bus to a beach north of Changi.[15] There he was executed by beheading and his body dumped at sea along with Sub-Lieutenant J K Haberfield RNZNVR[16] from the Illustrious; Lieutenant K M Burrentston RNVR, Sub-Lieutenants W E Lintern and D V Roebuck RNVR, PO (A) I Barker and W J S McRae – crews of two Avengers from Squadron 849 aboard HMS Victorious; Sub-Lieutenant R J Shaw from 1833 Fighter Squadron aboard HMS Illustrious.[17]

Initially, the Japanese stated that the men had been drowned aboard a Japanese vessel sunk whilst taking them to Japan. This falsehood was discovered as the Allies conducted investigations when they returned to Singapore after the Japanese surrender.[18]

The perpetrators Major Toshio Katoako, Captain Tateki Ikede[19], and Lieutenant Tsuyoshi Miyashita left a document in which they admitted to killing the prisoners but committed suicide before they could be brought to justice in Singapore.  Katoako left a note explaining:

‘We took nine prisoners from Outram Road in a lorry to the beach at the northernmost end of Changi and executed them with Japanese swords. The bodies were put into a boat prepared beforehand and sunk in the sea with weights attached. Now that the responsibility must be borne out publicly, I hereby pay for my deeds with suicide.’[20]

He is remembered on the memorial wall at HMNZS Philomel along with Haberfield. The pilots are also commemorated at Changi with a plaque.

Baxter and Haberfield along with their comrades would not be the only FAA pilots to be executed. On 15 August 1945 Sub-Lieutenant (A) F Hockley RNVR of 887 squadron flying a Seafire off HMS Indefatigable was shot down over Tokyo by flak. Upon landing he was taken prisoner and subsequently executed by shooting. Of the three Japanese officers found responsible for this war crime, two were hung and the third sentenced to 15 years in prison.[21]

Prisoners Of War of the Japanese[22]

We have looked into the matter of Prisoners of War who fell into Japanese hands during Operation MERIDIAN in January 1945. Confusion has surrounded the exact number of casualties ever since 1945. The list prepared by the Admiralty Casualty Branch, at the outset, was at variance with the casualties listed by Flag Officer Commanding Aircraft Carriers British Pacific Fleet in his Report of Proceedings.

We list the casualties at Annex B, with the surviving information on how the met their fate and where the’ are commemorated.

Of the 29 aircrew shot down over Sumatra, two were seen alive after baling out or ditching and fourteen were buried in Sumatra (possibly including the former two) A number were known to have been taken by the Sumatran Gendarmerie. Some of these were subsequently transferred to Singapore and one, at least, to Japan. None of them survived the war and the balance of probability is that they died in captivity, of wounds, maltreatment or execution.

It may never be possible, with surviving records, to describe the exact fate of individuals. A study, without preconception, of original records in the Public Record Office (at Hayes), the Naval Historical Branch of the MOD, the Fleet Air Arm Museum and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission has provided a picture from which the conclusions in this paper have been drawn.

Aircrew who were not buried in a named grave are commemorated on Commonwealth War Graves Commission Memorials at Lee-on-Solent and Wellington (New Zealand).

The opportunity was taken, whilst studying the documents, to look at the broader picture of aircrew who fell into Japanese hands during their service in the Eastern and Far-Eastern theatres. It is clear that a number of these died in captivity and, at least in one case, murderers were identified and brought to justice as War Criminals.

There are two conclusions to be drawn from this study,

  1. A significant number of Fleet Air Arm aircrew, from a number of different operations, were executed after having been taken prisoner by the Japanese.
  1. In this context it is entirely inappropriate to single out any one group. There is no unequivocal evidence to indicate that there was a ‘Palembang Nine’. The pre-suicide statements by five Japanese officers who claimed to have murdered the nine on Changi beach followed previous false statements and were described as flawed from the outset. We do not believe that they form a factually reliable basis for the legend of the ‘Palembang Nine’.

It now appears that 12 British prisoners were murdered on 20th July 1945. These include Sub Lieutenant J.W. Tomlinson of 888 N.A.S. HMS Emperor, who ditched near Port Dixon: Major Maxwell and S/Major Smith RM, captured during a beach reconnaissance of Phuket Island. The balance of nine were probably Palembang survivors but might have included survivors from the 1944 Nicobar raids by the Eastern Fleet. Sub Lieutenant D.V. Roebuck of 849 N.A.S. was known to have been a prisoner of war in Japan in April 1945. It is, therefore, extremely unlikely that he was one of the un-named nine.

Summary

Our research makes it clear that 12 Fleet Air Arm and Royal Marine prisoners were murdered by five Japanese Army officials in Singapore in July 1945. The deaths of Major Maxwell and S/Major Smith RM and Sub Lieutenant Tomlinson on 20th July were corroborated by witness statements. This is consistent with the deaths of the Rimeau prisoners and a number of Chinese and Malay guerrillas on 10th July. The legend of the ‘Palembang Nine’ stems from SO(l) Singapore 640/53/E dated 12 July 1946, which summarises local investigations. In this, the author, Cdr H.C. Guernsey RN, states at paragraph 2

These men were removed from Outram Road Gaol almost certainly in July 1945 and executed.

Unfortunately at paragraph 8, he further stated

One distressing aspect is that the executions of the airmen probably took place after the Japanese surrender. The pre-suicide statements of the three [sic] Japanese officers deny this and give the date as late March but Maj. Kobayashi admits that the airmen were in Outram Road Gaol for four or five months and it is thought that they were not brought over from Palembang until February or March.

Regrettably, the author of the Naval Staff History The War Against Japan and John Winton in his book The Forgotten Fleet used this misleadingly authoritative secondary source as the basis for their statements about the ‘Palembang Nine’ and did not research back into the primary material.

There is evidence that the two unofficial memorials are already giving rise to mis-information. The lack of exact nominal information makes it regrettable that particular individuals have been named and others have not.

Recommendation

The Flag Officer Naval Aviation is recommended to adopt the line that naval aircrew who died in the service of their country, but have no known grave, are commemorated on the Memorials set up by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. The erection of subsequent memorials by veterans groups cannot but detract from the dignity of the original and should not be officially supported.

ANNEX A AIRCRAFT MISSING OVER SUMATRA
AVENGER      6    =    19 Aircrew (6 complete crews + 1 extra in an Avenger that ditched)
HELLCAT       1    =      1 pilot
CORSAIR       8    =      8 pilot
FIREFLY         1    =      2 pilot & crew

SEAFIRE        0    =      0  

16         30

Of these 30 one died in HMS Whelp of wounds after ditching. 14 were buried in Southern

Sumatra. Three of these were in single, marked graves: an Avenger crew of three in a single,
marked grave and eight in an unmarked mass grave at Padang, south east of Palembang, near the Headquarters of the Kempei Tai.

 

[1] Article by Lt Cdr Phil Bradshaw, RNZN Resident Naval Officer Dunedin

[2] HMNZS Monowai  Ship’s log for Friday 16 January 1942 – ship logs held in RNZN Museum

[3] Reginald Longstaff, The Fleet Air Arm: A Pictorial History, London: Robert Hale, 1981, pp.115-116.

[4] Ray Sturtivant, The Squadrons of the Fleet Air Arm, Tonbridge: Air-Britain, 1984, p. 412.

[5] Reginald Longstaff, The Fleet Air Arm: A Pictorial History, London: Robert Hale, 1981, p. 116. See also Ministry of Defence (Navy), War with Japan: Volume VI the Advance to Japan, London: HMSO, 1995, pp. 20, 24.

[6] John Winton, The Forgotten Fleet, London: Michael Joseph, 1969, p. 88. See also Longstaff, pp. 116-117, and Ian Cameron, Wings of the Morning: The Story of the Fleet Air Arm in the Second World War, London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1962, p. 223. See also Waterman, p. 122. Due to a late launch the Ramrod fighters were late in reaching the target airfields and failed to prevent a number of fighters taking off to engage the Avengers.

[7] Reginald Longstaff, The Fleet Air Arm: A Pictorial History, London: Robert Hale, 1981, p. 117.

[8] Ian Cameron, Wings of the Morning: The Story of the Fleet Air Arm in the Second World War, London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1962, pp 232-233.

[9] Lt Cdr J. Waterman, The Fleet Air Arm History, London: Old Bond Street Publishing, n.d., p. 122.

[10] S. D. Waters, The Royal New Zealand Navy: Official History of New Zealand in the Second World War 1939-45, Wellington: War History Branch Department of Internal Affairs, 1956, p. 537 has it as 26 January. See Longstaff p. 117, Cameron, p. 223., BR 1829 Principal Naval Events 1944 and 1945 Index and Chronology, entry for January 24 1945, Ministry of Defence (Navy), War with Japan: Volume VI the Advance to Japan, London: HMSO, 1995, pp. 24-25, show the date as 24 January. The source of confusion may be due to the second raid carried out on 26 January.

[11] Reginald Longstaff, The Fleet Air Arm: A Pictorial History, London: Robert Hale, 1981, p. 117. See also Ministry of Defence (Navy), War with Japan: Volume VI the Advance to Japan, London: HMSO, 1995, p. 27.

[12] Ian Cameron, Wings of the Morning: The Story of the Fleet Air Arm in the Second World War, London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1962, p. 231.

[13] John Winton, The Forgotten Fleet, London: Michael Joseph, 1969, p. 98.

[14] Some sources mention that there were nine FAA pilots captured. Waters has it at eight. See Ministry of Defence (Navy), War with Japan: Volume VI the Advance to Japan, London: HMSO, 1995, p. 28. There are nine listed on the official list of casualties.

[15] There is some confusion as to the actual date when Baxter and the other pilots were executed. The CWGC site gives the date of his death as 31 July 1945 and so does the Auckland War Memorial. Winton states it was some time between 18 and 20 August after the Japanese surrender whilst Waters has it at the end of July.  A memo to Naval Intelligence from the Air Department in Wellington dated 6 February 1946 states the men were executed in late March.

[16] Haberfield from Southland was part of 1839 Squadron aboard HMS Indomitable and was shot down on 24 January 1945 while flying a Hellcat fighter while providing escort for the Avengers from Indomitable returning from the MERIDIAN I raids. His was the only Hellcat lost that day. He had trained with Baxter on Course 33 at St. Vincent. See Reginald Longstaff, The Fleet Air Arm: A Pictorial History, London: Robert Hale, 1981, p. 113 and Ray Sturtivant, The Squadrons of the Fleet Air Arm, Tonbridge: Air-Britain, 1984, p. 418 and Ministry of Defence (Navy), War with Japan: Volume VI the Advance to Japan, London: HMSO, 1995, p. 25, and Fleet Air Association News Letter April 1992.

[17] John Winton, The Forgotten Fleet, London: Michael Joseph, 1969, pp. 98-99. See also Fleet Air Arm Association News Letter dated April 1992.

[18] Letter from F Jones for Minister of defence to Baxter’s mother dated 16 July 1946 – Baxter Personal Collection EZB0018

[19] Memorandum from Air Department to Naval Intelligence dated 6 February 1946 – Baxter Personal Collection EZB0018

[20] S. D. Waters, The Royal New Zealand Navy: Official History of New Zealand in the Second World War 1939-45, Wellington: War History Branch Department of Internal Affairs, 1956, pp. 538. See also report issued on the deaths of Baxter and Haberfield in 1946 Baxter Personal Collection ref. EZB0018.

[21] Lt Cdr J. Waterman, The Fleet Air Arm History, London: Old Bond Street Publishing, n.d., pp. 151-152.

[22] Letter from Naval Historical Branch to Admiralty Board dated 1995. Supplied by David Hobbs.