US Navy floating dry docks In World War II

WW2 floating dry dock

Among the logistical marvels which made the US Navy so successful in the Pacific War of World War II were various kinds of floating dry docks it could deploy into areas close behind the westward-moving ‘front line’. These could be towed to advanced bases by tugs, and were designed and delivered in a variety of sizes to accommodate most of the US Navy’s combat and auxiliary vessels.

Planning for floating dry docks was prompted by the fortifications clause of the Washington Naval Treaty, which was signed by the USA, UK, Japan, France and Italy on 26 February 1922, with the exchange of ratifications following on 17 August 1923, and registration in the League of Nations’ treaty series on 16 April 1924. This Article XIX forbade any further development of fortifications and bases in the western part of the Pacific Ocean, and was in itself a significant victory for Japan, as US and British fortified bases would pose a serious problem for the Japanese in the event of any future war. The provision of the treaty essentially guaranteed that Japan would become the dominant power in the western part of the Pacific Ocean, and was crucial in gaining Japanese acceptance of the limits on capital ship construction.

The US’s response in an attempt to offset this Japanese advantage included the development and construction of floating dry docks as a matter of high priority, and the resulting docks came to be seen as an important ‘secret weapon’ in the event of war with Japan. Plans were considered for giving the largest floating dry docks their own propulsion plants to increase their mobility, but peacetime funding restrictions meant that the process of designing and building floating dry docks took place only slowly during the 1920s and 1930s.

An Initial Trio

At the time war broke out in the Pacific on 7 December 1941, the US Navy had three steel floating dry docks. One of these, YFD-2, was assigned to Pearl Harbor and was occupied by the destroyer Shaw when Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese in the ‘Ai’ carrier borne air assault. Both the destroyer and the dry dock were badly damaged, but were subsequently repaired. Another of the docks was Dewey at Olongapo in the Philippine islands group, and was scuttled to prevent it falling into Japanese hands as the Japanese seized Luzon Island. The third was ARD-1, which had been built in 1933 to a sophisticated design, was designed to be self-sustaining, once towed into place at an advanced base, and therefore possessed its own ballast pumps, power station, machine shops and crew accommodation, able able to lift ships of up to 2,200 tons. This too was assigned to Pearl Harbor.

Capitalising on the success of ARD-1, the US Navy ordered the construction of another 30 Auxiliary Repair Docks (ARDs) during World War II, and most of these were completed between  1942 and 1944. Six of the docks were 485 ft 8 in (148.0 m) long and could accommodate a ship 413  ft (125.9 m) long, 49 ft 4 in (15.0 m) wide and displacing upward of 3,500 tons. Thus these docks were sufficient for a destroyer or a submarine. The clear width of the other ARDS was increased to 59 ft (18.0 m) to permit the accommodation of a tank landing ship.

The Auxiliary Floating Docks (AFDs) were of welded steel construction, with a length of 200 ft (61.0 m) and width of 64 ft (19.5 m), and could lift a ship 45 ft (13.7 m) wide with a displacement of up to 1,900 tons. Thus the AFDs were suitable for repairs to smaller landing ships, minesweepers and patrol craft. The first AFDs were completed at a time late in 1943, and about 34 such units had been built by the end of the war.


Switch to concrete construction

By 1943, steel had been deemed a critical resource, and the US Navy ordered the construction of 13 dry docks in concrete. Each of these units had a capacity of 2,800 tons, which was sufficient to accommodate a large destroyer, and its dimensions were 389 by 84 by 40 ft (118.6 by 25.6m by 12.2 m). Each of these units had a floor divided into 12 compartments with a dry passage for personnel, and was fitted with a 5-ton crane on each wing wall. Of the 13 such units, six were outfitted with Diesel generators and manned by crews of five officers and 89 men for independent operation, and the other seven remained in developed ports. These concrete docks proved durable, and were surprisingly popular with their crews, as their massive construction provided considerable stability, and the considerable ballast represented by their lower hulls meant that the wing walls could be outfitted with extensive crew facilities.

Battleship and aircraft carrier capability

The Advance Base Sectional Docks (ABSDs) were huge floating docks, and were built in sections. The individual sections were small enough to withstand the stresses of being towed in heavy seas, and were then welded together once they arrived at the intended advanced base. The ABSDs were of two sizes, with the larger units built of 10 sections, each 256 ft (78 m) long and 80 ft (24.4 m) wide, and provided a lift capability of 10,000 tons. These were welded together to produce an assembled dock 927 ft (282.5 m) long and 256 ft (78 m) for the lift of a warship 827 ft (252 m) long, 133 ft (40.5m) wide and possessing a displacement of as much as 90,000 tons. The ABSD could therefore accommodate any ship in the US Navy’s inventory. The smaller version came in seven sections, each 204 ft (62.2 m) long and 101 ft (30.8 m) wide, and provided a lift capability of 8,000 tons. When assembled, it could lift a ship 725 ft (221 m) long, 120 ft (36.6 m) wide and possessing a displacement of as much as 55,000 tons. The sections possessed an approximate hull form, and this permitted them to be towed at speeds of between 6 to 8 kt; their side walls were folded down to reduce wind resistance and at the same timer to lower the centre of gravity. The units possessed their own Diesel generators and crew quarters, and each assembled dock was characterised by a pair of cranes, with a lift capability of 15 tons, and these ran on rails above the assembled walls of the dock.

Some 58 ABSD sections were constructed during the war, which was sufficient for three larger docks and four smaller docks. The first ABSD was assembled at Nouméa on the French island of New Caledonia during 1943, and a second was being assembled at Espíritu Santo, in the New Hebrides islands group, at the end of the year. The ABSD was in theory capable of disassembly for movement to another location, but this was attempted only with ABSD (later AFDB-1 Artisan) at Espíritu Santo, which was moved to the Philippine islands group, much closer to the ‘front line’, just as the war was coming to a close.

The total US Navy floating dry dock capacity increased from 108,000 tons at the end of 1942 to 723,000 tons at the end of 1943.

US Navy fleet train of WW2


At the end of World War I, US naval planners assessed the naval operations of that conflict and came to the conclusion that a fleet lost 10% of its combat capability for every 1,000 miles (1600 km) it operated away from its base. The implications of this assessment were then compounded by the fortifications clause of the Washington Naval Treaty of February 1922 and expressly forbade the further development of British, Japanese and US bases in the western Pacific. This compelled the US Navy to study the problem of creating a major fleet supply train to allow the Pacific Fleet to project US power far from its permanent bases. This paved the way to innovations in the design of floating dry docks and in the equipment and practices of underway replenishment, as well as prompting the US Navy to create a Service Force as a supply train. Although the number of auxiliary vessels need by the Service Force was very tightly limited in the period between the wars, when budgetary limitations inevitably meant that funding was allocated to warship construction rather than auxiliaries, the US Navy nonetheless gained a significant understanding of what would be required in war and how such a fleet train could be created and mobilised to provide the US Navy’s warships with the ability to operate independently of shore bases and over great ranges and extended periods.

In the first year of the USA’s involvement in World War II from 7 December 1941, the numbers of support vessels available in Admiral Chester W. Nimitz’s Central Pacific Area increased very rapidly from an initial 77 to 358 in December 1942. This made feasible one of the most essential US Navy innovations of the war, the At Sea Logistics Service Group. This began with the reorganisation of Service Squadron 4 at Funafuti atoll in the Ellice islands group as the first floating supply base.

Large rear-area forces

The At Sea Logistics Service Group rapidly developed into the core of the Pacific Fleet’s logistics tail, and by October 1944 it was a full-scale and full-capability floating naval base comprising 34 oilers, 11 escort carriers, 19 destroyers, 26 destroyer escorts, and several fleet tugs. These were grouped into as many as 12 replenishment task units for continuous at-sea rotation, with three or four such units (with between nine and 12 oilers) constituting a replenishment task group. This operated just out of the maximum radius of Japanese land-based warplanes, and each replenishment task unit was relieved by another every few days during active operations, the relieved task unit then steamed to Ulithi atoll in the Caroline islands group to replenish from merchant tankers. Each replenishment task unit also included one escort carrier to deliver replacement aircraft and pilots to forward units, and all were escorted by other escort carriers and destroyers. Tugs were assigned to each replenishment task unit and could be sent into the combat zone to tow crippled warships out of danger.

The US Navy’s underway replenishment capability in the Pacific campaign reached an early apogee with Rear Admiral Donald B. Beary’s Service Squadron 6 which, in the course of the ‘Detachment’ campaign to take Iwo Jima, delivered about 370,000 tons of fuel oil, about 14,000 tons of Diesel oil and 7,126,000 US gal (26970000 litres) of aviation fuel. Over the same period, Service Squadron 4 operated as a complete floating naval base with a complement of tenders, repair ships and concrete barges.

Some shortages

The most serious shortage was that of provisions storeships, which could not always bring forward enough fresh and frozen food for the fighting fleet, and on these occasions dry provisions such as beans and tinned meat had to be substituted for fresh food. Munitions ships were also in short supply, and had to be supplemented with ‘Victory’ ships converted as auxiliary munitions ships. An idea of US Pacific Fleet’s fleet train extraordinary capabilities is indicated by its supply deliveries in the course of the ‘Iceberg’ campaign to take Okinawa: 10.133 million barrels of fuel oil, 323.000 barrels of Diesel oil, 25.573 million US gal (96.804 litres) of aviation fuel, 16,375 tons of bombs and ammunition, 998 replacement aircraft, 220 replacement aircrew, 2,219 tons of refrigerated food, 4,005 tons of dry food, 575 tons of ship’s stores, 15,398 bags of mail, 1,240 passengers and 1,032 replacement personnel.


By the time of the ‘Iceberg’ campaign, the US Navy now had surplus capacity for the delivery of dry provisions, as exemplified by the fact that one such ship remained anchored in Ulithi atoll between 25 February and 13 June 1945 before a use could be found for its dry cargo. This surplus capacity was the result of the fact that the earlier shortage of provisions storeships had finally been rectified, and that ships in combat areas preferred fresh to dry provisions. It should be added, though, that about 100 ships were sunk by kamikaze attack or sent back to the west coast of the continental USA for repairs during the Okinawa campaign, and therefore had no need for supply by the fleet train.


An unintended result of the fleet train system’s efficiency was that it prove more efficient to deliver fresh supplies from west coast ports than to bring supplies forward from rear bases left in the wake of the US forces’ very rapid advances later in the Pacific War.

The Japanese conquest of Timor (II)

Switch to guerrilla tactics

By the end of February, the Japanese were in control of most of Dutch Timor and the area round Dili in the north-east. The Australians remained in the island’s south and east, however. The 2/2nd Independent Company was trained for stay-behind operations and had its own engineers and signallers, although it lacked heavy weapons and vehicles. The commandos were hidden throughout the mountains of Portuguese Timor, and now began a programme of raids with the aid of Timorese guides and carriers, and a heavier transport capability provided by mountain ponies. Though the Portuguese officials led by the governor Manuel de Abreu Ferreira de Carvalho remained technically neutral and in charge of civil affairs, both the Portuguese and the indigenous East Timorese were in general pro-Allied and made it possible for the Allies to use the local telephone network to communicate and thereby gather intelligence on Japanese movements. The Allied forces lacked any working radio equipment, however, and were therefore unable to contact Australia to forward information of their continued resistance.


Doi sent the Australian honorary consul, David Ross, to find the commandos and deliver a demand that they surrender. Spence refused, and Ross provided the commandos with information on the disposition of Japanese forces and also delivered a note in Portuguese, stating that anyone supplying the commandos would be later reimbursed by the Australian government. At a time early in March, the forces of Veale and van Straten joined the 2/2nd Company, and a working radio set was improvised to allow contact to be re-established with Darwin. By May, therefore, Australian aircraft were dropping supplies to the commandos and their allies.


The Japanese now despatched to Timor an experienced veteran of the Malayan campaign, a major known to history only as ‘The Tiger of Singapore’, and on 22 May this officer led a Japanese force toward Remexio. With Portuguese and Timorese assistance, the Australians ambushed this Japanese force and killed four or five of the Japanese soldiers, and then in a second ambush an Australian sniper shot and killed the ‘Tiger’. Another 24 of its soldiers were also killed, and the Japanese force fell back to Dili. On 24 May, Veale and van Straten were evacuated from the south-east coast by a Consolidated Catalina flying boat of the RAAF, and Spence became commanding officer with a promotion to lieutenant colonel. On 27 May launches of the Royal Australian Navy completed the first supply and evacuation missions to Timor.

Lack of resources

MacArthur, now commanding the South-West Pacific Area command, was advised in June by General Sir Thomas Blamey, the Allied land force commander, that a major Allied offensive in Timor would require a large-scale amphibious assault including at least one infantry division. As a result of this stated requirement and the overall Allied strategy of recapturing areas farther to the east, Blamey recommended that the current campaign in Timor should be maintained for as long as possible, but not expanded, and this recommendation was adopted.

Relations between Ferreira de Carvalho and the Japanese deteriorated. The telegraph link with the Portuguese government was cut, and during June 1942 a Japanese official complained that the governor had rejected Japanese demands to punish Portuguese officials and others who had aided the Australian ‘invading army’. On 24 June, the Japanese formally complained to Lisbon, but took no concrete action against Ferreira de Carvalho. Doi once more sent Ross with a message, complementing the Sparrow Force on its campaign so far, but again demanding its surrender. Doi added that the Japanese were receiving reinforcements and would soon be in a position to field the units necessary for a military victory. Ross did not return to Dili, but was instead evacuated to Australia on 16 July.

In August, Lieutenant General Yuitsu Tsuchihachi’s 48th Division started to reach Timor from the Philippine islands group and garrisoned Kupang, Dili and Malacca, relieving the ‘Ito’ Detachment. Tsuchihashi then began a counter-offensive in an attempt to push the Australians into a corner on the south coast of the island, and as part of this effort powerful Japanese columns moved to the south in the form of two from Dili and one from Manatuto on the north-east coast. Another moved to the east from Dutch Timor to attack Dutch positions in the island’s central southern area. The offensive ended on 19 August when the main Japanese force was withdrawn to Rabaul, but by this time the Japanese had taken the central town of Maubisse and the southern port of Beco. The Japanese were now additionally recruiting useful numbers of indigenous civilians, who provided intelligence on Allied movements. Meanwhile, late in August, a parallel conflict began when the Maubisse area rebelled against the Portuguese.

Naval support

In the course of September the main strength of the 48th Division started to reach Timor in order to take over the conduct of the campaign. The Australians also sent reinforcements in the form of the 450-man 2/4th Independent Company (Lancer Force), which reached the island on 23 September. The Australian destroyer Voyager ran aground at the southern port of Betano while landing the 2/4th Independent Company, and had to be abandoned after she had come under air attack: the ship’s crew was evacuated by the corvettes Kalgoorlie and Warrnambool on 25 September, and the destroyer was scuttled with demolition charges. On 27 September, the Japanese drove forward from Dili toward the wrecked Voyager, but achieved no significant success.

By October, the Japanese undertaking to recruit significant numbers of Timorese civilians had achieved a measure of success, but these Timorese suffered heavy casualties when used in frontal assaults against the Allies. The Portuguese were also being pressured to assist the Japanese, and at least 26 Portuguese civilians were killed in the first six months of the occupation, including local officials and a Roman Catholic priest. On 1 November, the Allies agreed to issue weapons to Portuguese officials; a policy which had previously been carried out on only an informal and sporadic basis. At around the same time, the Japanese ordered all Portuguese civilians to move to a so-called neutral zone by 15 November, and added that those who did not do so would be considered as aiding the Allies. This succeeded only in encouraging the Portuguese to work more closely with the Allies, who were asked to evacuate some 300 women and children.

Spence was evacuated to Australia on 11 November, and Major Bernard Callinan, the commander of the 2/2nd Independent Company, then became the Allied commander on Timor. On the night of 30 November/1 December, the RAN landed fresh Dutch troops at Betano and evacuated 190 Dutch soldiers and 150 Portuguese civilians. The auxiliary patrol boat Kuru was used to ferry the passengers between the shore and the corvettes Armidale and Castlemaine. Carrying the Dutch reinforcements, the former was sunk by Japanese aircraft and almost all of those on board were lost.

End of Australian resistance

By the end of 1942, the chance of any Allied recapture of Timor were decidedly remote as there were now 12,000 Japanese troops on the island and the commandos were coming into increasing contact with the enemy. The Australian chiefs-of-staff estimated that it would take at least three Allied divisions, with strong air and naval support, to retake the island. At the same time the Japanese efforts to wear down the Australians and to separate them from local support were becoming more effective, and the commandos were finding it increasingly difficult to maintain their operations. Likewise, with the Australian land forces fighting a number of costly battles against the Japanese beachheads around Buna in New Guinea, there were no longer resources sufficient to allow the continuation of useful operations in Timor. As a result, Australian operations on Timor were steadily decreased from a time early in December.


On 11/12 December, the all the remnants of the original Sparrow Force except for a few officers were evacuated, together with a number of Portuguese civilians, by the Dutch destroyer Tjerk Hiddes. During the first week of January 1943, it was decided to withdraw Lancer Force, and during the night of 9/10 January most of the 2/4th Independent Company and 50 Portuguese were evacuated by the Australian destroyer Arunta. A small intelligence team (S Force) was left, but its presence was soon detected by the Japanese. Using ‘folboat’ collapsible kayaks, and in company with the remnants of Lancer Force, S Force made its way to the eastern tip of Timor, where the Australian and British Z Special Unit was also operating, and were evacuated by the US submarine Gudgeon on 10 February. Some 40 Australian commandos were killed during this phase of the fighting, in which it is believed that the Japanese lost as many as 1,500 men.

While the campaign on Timor had possessed no real strategic importance, the Australian commandos had prevented an entire Japanese division from being used in the earlier phases of the New Guinea campaign, and had inflicted a disproportionate level of casualties on them. In contrast with those in Java, Ambon and Rabaul, Australian operations in Timor had been considerably more successful. They had also proved that in the right circumstances, unconventional operations could be both versatile and more economic than conventional operations, for which the Allies currently lacked the resources. Most civilian deaths, estimated variously at figures between 40,000 and 70,000, resulted from Japanese reprisal operations.

The Japanese remained in control of Timor until their surrender in September 1945. On 5 September 1945, the Japanese commander met the Portuguese governor, Manuel de Abreu Ferreira de Carvalho, effectively returning power to him and placing the Japanese forces under Portuguese authority. On 11 September, the Australian Timor Force arrived in Kupang harbour and accepted the surrender of all Japanese forces on Timor from the latter’s senior officer, Colonel Kaida Tatsuichi of the 4th Tank Regiment. Australian troops then organised the disposal of arms by Japanese work parties before returning to West Timor for the surrender of Lieutenant General Yamada Kunitaro, commander of the 48th Division.

The Japanese conquest of Timor (I)

The Battle of Timor resulted in the Japanese seizure of the island of Timor, on which the colonial powers were the Netherlands and Portugal, to the north-west of Darwin in the Australian Northern Territory. The Japanese invaded the island on 20 February 1942 and were resisted by a small Allied force. This Sparrow Force comprised for the most part Australian, British and Dutch personnel. Overcoming a brief but intense defence, the Japanese forced the surrender of the bulk of the Allied force after three days of fighting, although several hundred Australian commandos continued to wage an unconventional raiding campaign with the aid of supplies delivered by air and sea from Darwin, which lies 400 miles (645 km) across the Timor Sea. During the fighting which followed the Japanese suffered major losses, but were eventually able to contain the Australians, whose last survivors were evacuated on 10 February 1943.


By a time late in 1941, Timor was divided between two colonial powers: the Portuguese in the east with their capital at Dili, and the Dutch in the west with their administrative centre at Kupang. There was also a Portuguese enclave at Ocussi in the Dutch area. The Dutch defence included a force of 500 troops centred on Kupang, while the Portuguese force at Dili numbered just 150. In February, the Australian and Dutch governments had agreed that should Japan entere World War II on the Axis side, Australia would provide aircraft and troops to reinforce Dutch Timor. Under Japanese pressure, Portugal opted to maintain its neutrality. As a result of the Australian/Dutch agreement, after the Japanese ‘Ai’ carrierborne air attack on Pearl Harbor in the Hawaiian islands group, the small Sparrow Force reached Kupang from Australia on 12 December 1941. Totalling about 1,400 men, Sparrow Force was initially commanded by Lieutenant Colonel William Leggatt, and included the 2/40th Battalion, the 2nd Independent Company (a commando unit) under the command of Major Alexander Spence, and a battery of coastal artillery. Sparrow Force reinforced the garrison of the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Nico van Straten. The Dutch garrison included the Timor and Dependencies Garrison Battalion, one company of the 8th Battalion, one reserve infantry company, one machine gun platoon of the 13th Battalion and one battery of artillery. Air support was provided by 12 Lockheed Hudson light bombers of No. 2 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force. Sparrow Force was first deployed in the area round Kupang and the strategically important airfield of Penfui in the island’s south-western corner, but other units were based at Klapalima, Usapa Besar and Babau, while a supply base was created farther to the east at Champlong.


Portuguese attitude changes

Up to this point, Portugal had refused all thought of cooperation with the Allies, preferring instead to rely on its neutrality and national plans to send an 800-strong force from Portuguese East Africa (Moçambique) to bolster the defence of the territory in the event of a Japanese invasion. This refusal left the Allied flank severely exposed, however, and a 400-man Dutch and Australian force occupied Portuguese Timor on 17 December. In response, the Portuguese Prime Minister, Dr António de Oliveira Salazar, protested to the Allied governments, while the governor of Portuguese Timor declared himself a prisoner in order to preserve the appearance of neutrality. No resistance was offered by the small Portuguese garrison, however, and the local authorities quietly cooperated, while the population itself generally welcomed the Allied force. Most of the Dutch troops and the whole of the 2/2nd Independent Company were subsequently transferred to Portuguese Timor and distributed in small detachments around the territory. The Portuguese and British governments then agreed on the withdrawal of the Allied forces from Portuguese Timor once Portugal had sent a military force to replace them. The Portuguese force departed Lourenço Marques in Moçambique on 28 January 1942, but did not arrive before the start of the Japanese invasion.

In January 1942, the Allied forces on Timor became a key link in the so-called Malay Barrier defended by the short-lived American-British-Dutch-Australian Command under the command of General Sir Archibald Wavell. More Australian support personnel reached Kupang on 12 February, these additional personnel including Brigadier William Veale, who was to command on Timor. By this time, many members of Sparrow Force, of whom most were unused to tropical conditions, had fallen victim to malaria and other diseases. The airfield at Penfui in Dutch Timor also became a key air link between Australia and US forces fighting in the Philippine islands group under General Douglas MacArthur. Japanese aircraft attacked Penfui on 26 and 30 January 1942, but the raids were hampered by the British anti-aircraft gunners and also by 11 Curtiss P-40 fighters of the US Army Air Forces’ 33rd Pursuit Squadron at Darwin. Another 500 Dutch troops and the British 79th Light Anti-Aircraft Battery later arrived to reinforce Timor, while an Australian and US force was scheduled to arrive during February.

Meanwhile, Rabaul on the island of New Britain to the North of New Guinea fell to the Japanese ‘R’ attack on 23 January, followed by Ambon between Celebes and New Guinea on 3 February, and here both Gull and Lark Forces were destroyed. Later, on 16 February, an Allied convoy carrying reinforcements and supplies to Kupang under escort of the US heavy cruiser Houston and destroyer Peary, and the Australian sloops Swan and Warrego came under Japanese air attack so heavy that it had turn back to Darwin before landing any men and supplies. The reinforcements had included the Australian 2/4th Pioneer Battalion and the US 49th Artillery Battalion. Sparrow Force could now not expect further reinforcement. and as the Japanese moved to complete their envelopment of the Netherlands East Indies, Timor would clearly be their next objective.


The Japanese land

On the night of 19/20 February, 1,500 Japanese troops of the 228th Regimental Group of Lieutenant General Tadayoshi Sano’s 38th Division within Lieutenant General Hitoshi Imamura’s 16th Army, under the command of Colonel Sadashichi Doi, started to come ashore at Dili on Timor’s north-east coast. The Japanese ships had at first been assumed to be the vessels carrying the Portuguese reinforcements and the Allies were caught by surprise. Well-prepared, however, the Allied garrison started to pull back in an orderly fashion covered by the 18-strong No. 2 Section of the Australian commando stationed at the airfield, killing many of the Japanese. The commando’s No. 7 Section fared less well, though, for it drove into a Japanese roadblock. The Australians surrendered, but it is probable that all but one were killed out of hand by the Japanese. The surviving Australians, who were totally outnumbered, withdrew to the south and east into the island’s mountainous interior. van Straten and 200 Dutch East Indies troops moved to the south-west toward the border.

During this same night, the Allied forces in Dutch Timor also came under heavy air attack, which had already caused the small RAAF force to be withdrawn to Australia. After the bombing came a landing by the main body of the 228th Regimental Group , in the form of two battalions totalling some 4,000 men, on the undefended south-western side of the island at the Paha river. Five Type 94 Te-Ke tankettes, each armed with a single 6.5-mm (0.255-in) turret-mounted machine gun, were landed to provide support, and the force advanced to the north, isolating the Dutch positions in the west and falling on the position held by the 2/40th Battalion at Penfui. One company of the Japanese force drove to the north-east toward Usua with the object of cutting the line of any Allied retreat. In response the headquarters of the Sparrow Force was immediately relocated farther to the east, toward Champlong.

Leggatt ordered the destruction of the airfield, but the Allied line of retreat toward Champlong had been cut off by the dropping of about 300 Japanese naval paratroopers of the 3rd Yokosuka Special Naval Landing Force near Usua, some 14 miles (22 km) to the east of Kupang. The Sparrow Force headquarters moved farther to the east, and Leggatt’s troops launched a sustained and devastating assault on the paratroopers, culminating in a bayonet charge. By the morning of 23 February, the 2/40th Battalion had killed all but 78 of the paratroopers, but once more had been engaged from the rear by the main Japanese force. With his men running short of ammunition, exhausted, and carrying many badly wounded men, Leggatt complied when the Japanese demanded his surrender at Usua: the 2/40th Battalion had lost 84 men killed and 132 wounded. Veale and the Sparrow Force headquarters force, which included some 290 Australian and Dutch troops, continued to the east, crossed the border and linked with the 2/2nd Independent Company.

The Japanese conquest of Hong Kong

At the beginning of World War II, Hong Kong was a British possession on the south-west coast of China to the south-east of Canton in the Pearl River estuary. The Chinese had ceded Victoria island to the UK at the end of the 1st Opium War (1839/42), and the New Territories on the mainland were administered by the British from 1898 under the terms of a 99-year lease. The British created the city of Victoria on the north-west coast of Victoria Island, and Kowloon was developed across from Victoria on the mainland. By 1941, the colony’s strategic position was exposed and vulnerable. Among other things, the colony was sited on a particularly rugged section of the coast with only 13% of the land suitable for farming, so food constituted some 25% of all imports; Victoria Island’s water was supplied by a complex system of catchment basins and reservoirs and the population had been swollen by refugees from the 2nd Sino-Japanese War (1937/45) on the Chinese mainland. In June 1940, the colonial administration had ordered the evacuation of all European women and children, but a considerable number of the former evaded the order by enrolling as nurses, air raid wardens and clerks. Hong Kong had also become a haven for Kuomintang (Chinese nationalist) smugglers, who used the cover provided by the large fishing fleet to move as much as 6,000 tons of munitions per month to the Chinese interior.


Hong Kong’s defences included coastal artillery batteries on Stonecutters Island, Mount Davis, Jubilee, Devil’s Peak, and Pakshawan. The naval base was located at Aberdeen on the south coast, where it was protected from the mainland by the mountains of Victoria Island and sheltered from the sea by Aberdeen Island. The air force had to share facilities with the Kai Tak civilian airfield. The core of the colony’s land defences was provided by the Gin Drinkers Line, named for the fact that its western end was anchored on Gin Drinkers Bay. The line comprised a series of pillboxes and connecting tunnels along the ridges in the area to the north of Kowloon. Work on the establishment of the line had begun in 1937, following the Shanghai Incident (a conflict between China and Japan in Shanghai before the start of the 2nd Sino-Japanese War), and lasted two years. The key to the Gin Drinkers Line was the Shing Mun Redoubt, which covered a gap in the hills through which any attacker would try to descend on Kowloon.

Shortly before war broke out, some 34 ships in the harbour were ordered to depart, but seven had not yet done so by the time news of the Japanese ‘Ai’ attack on Pearl Harbor reached the colony.

Belated decision to remain

The British prime minister, Winston Churchill, had been minded to write off Hong Kong as the situation in Asia and the Pacific deteriorated, but for reasons of national prestige the British ultimately decided to defend the colony. Pairs of British, Indian and Canadian battalions were sent to join to the garrison, which had up to this time comprised a militia brigade. The British and Indian battalions were well trained, but had all lost many of their best officers, non-commissioned officers and men as cadres for new units. The Canadian battalions had previously been assigned as guards at prisoner of war camps and to other garrison duty, and were neither well trained nor well equipped, and were further degraded in capability when they were fleshed out with raw recruits just before departing for Hong Kong. The garrison had 58 pieces of artillery into five batteries, but air strength took the form of a mere three totally obsolete Vickers Vildebeest torpedo bombers and two obsolete Supermarine Walrus reconnaissance amphibians at Kai Tak, and local naval forces were built around Thanet, Scout and Stronghold, which were obsolete destroyers.

The Japanese allocated the task of taking Hong Kong to Lieutenant General Tadayoshi Sano’s 38th Division, part of Lieutenant General Takashi Sakai’s 23rd Army. A veteran formation, the 38th Division had some 20,000 strong and, by Japanese standards, were well supplied with motor transport and could call on the support from nearly 100 aircraft based at Tien Flo air base outside Canton. A flotilla of light warships from the China Area Fleet was assigned to enforce a sea blockade. The Japanese commanders had accurate intelligence on the latest British dispositions from Japanese agents operating across the border and from information bought from Triad agents in Kowloon and Victoria.

The British commander, Major General C. M. Maltby, was badly misled by his intelligence staff about Japanese capabilities and intentions. Maltby’s head of intelligence was well experienced, but while visiting Japanese officers across the border seems to have been fed disinformation that the Japanese had no plan to attack the British. Reports that up to three divisions of Japanese troops were massing across the border were discounted. However, this intelligence lapse was of no great consequence, since sightings of a Japanese convoy off Saigon in French Indo-China prompted Maltby to alert his forces the day before war broke out.

Japanese attack

It was at 06.00 on 8 December 1941, four hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor, that the Japanese crossed the frontier. Their leading elements advanced 4 miles (6.4 km) before meeting elements of an engineer and infantry covering force which had been instructed to demolish bridges and otherwise delay the Japanese. Maltby knew the frontier was indefensible with just three battalions, and therefore planned to make the Gin Drinkers Line his main line of resistance on the mainland, but even this shorter line was badly undermanned. A staff study in 1937 had estimated that two divisions (18 battalions with a full complement of supporting arms) would be required to hold the Gin Drinkers Line, but Maltby had only three battalions available for this task, and the key Shing Mun Redoubt was held by a mere 42 men. The two Canadian battalions were deployed on Victoria Island against the possibility of a landing on the south coast, while the 1/Middlesex Regiment, a machine gun unit, manned the island’s pillboxes. There was no reserve to counterattack any penetration of the Gin Drinkers Line.

Japanese aircraft attacked Kai Tak at 08.00, destroying four of the five RAF aircraft on the ground, and also eight of the 13 Douglas DC-2 civilian aircraft.

The 38th Division was well supplied with bridging equipment, so its infantry needed only two days to reach the Gin Drinkers Line, despite the demolitions. However, the latter were more successful in delaying the arrival of the Japanese formation’s artillery, which was therefore not available to support the initial attacks on the Shing Mun Redoubt. Here the British hoped to hold for some time, but the 3/228th Regiment drove the 2/Royal Scots out of the Redoubt in a night attack. Among the reasons for the rapid Japanese penetration of the Redoubt was the wholly inadequate strength of the garrison resulting from the overall British shortage of manpower and the unaggressive patrolling undertaken by the British. As far as the latter was concerned, one patrol reported no enemy force in the area, despite the fact that it should have run directly into the Japanese advance. As a result, the British lost the opportunity to call artillery fire down on the Japanese assembly points. Then a company runner inadvertently locked the commander of the Shing Mun Redoubt into an observation post, disrupting the command structure. Finally, 18 of the Royal Scots’ men fell back, without orders, about 1 mile (1.6 km) to the south-east to join the 5/7th Rajput Regiment. As a result of these and other errors, the Redoubt fell in a little more than 12 hours, despite the fact that it had been expected to hold for one week.


Unordered success

Sakai condemned the commander of the 3/228th Regiment for attacking outside his designated sector, and even went as far as to order the battalion to retreat from Shing Mun. The order was disobeyed, and only then, with some reluctance, did Sakai accept the reality of the situation. Sakai’s criticism prevented the 3/228th Battalion from undertaking a rapid exploitation of its success. With the aid of fire from the gunboat Cicala and a counterattack by the 5/7th Rajput Regiment, the Royal Scots were able to re-form their line along Golden Hill. The climb up the hill was tiring, however, and the position here was weak as they were only a few weapons pits on inadequate depth, no mines, and the barbed wire barriers had rusted toward disintegration.

The Indian troops fought well, but were now discouraged by rumours that the 2/Royal Scots had abandoned the Shing Mung Redoubt in panic. The Scots were so stung by the inaccuracy of the rumour that they fought with great tenacity when the Japanese tried to force Golden Hill, and even went as far as to counterattack with great determination against considerably larger numbers after being forced to retreat from the position. The counterattack achieved a short-term success, but fresh Japanese troops soon took the position.

The loss of Golden Hill cut the router along which supplies reached the 2/14th Punjab Regiment and 5/7th Rajput Regiment, and unhinged the Gin Drinkers Line, so during the night of 12/13 December the British had to fall back and evacuate their remaining forces to Victoria Island. Maltby initially ordered the 5/7th Rajput Regiment to hold Devil’s Peak, but this plan had to be abandoned. The evacuation was carried out in good order with the aid of the British destroyers, and the demolition of Kowloon’s facilities was thorough

Later on 13 December, the Japanese demanded that the British surrender, but were refused. The Japanese then started to bring up their heavy artillery, and Hong Kong was soon taken under a severe artillery and air bombardment. Maltby meanwhile reorganised his remaining strength into two brigades, the West and East Brigades, with responsibility for the corresponding halves of Victoria Island. The West Brigade had the 2/Royal Scots, 2/14th Punjab Regiment and Winnipeg Grenadiers, while the East Brigade comprised the 5/7th Rajput Regiment and the Royal Rifles of Canada.

As the battle took place, the Kuomintang attempted to distract the Japanese with increased guerrilla activities and the movement of 1.5 divisions in the direction of Canton. Sakai responded by deploying one regimental group some 40 miles (65 km) to the north-east of Hong Kong, and the Chinese diversion accomplished little. However, the Kuomintang agents on Victoria Island proved very helpful at keeping order among the Chinese civilian population.

The first Japanese attempt at a landing on 15 December was defeated, but this was in fact little more than a reconnaissance in strength by inferior troops. There followed by a second surrender demand on 17 December, and this too was refused. During the night of 17/18 December a small Japanese patrol crossed the harbour to undertake a reconnaissance of the Tai Koo Docks on the island’s north-east coast across from Devil’s Peak and just to the west of Lei Mun Passage. The patrol reported the positions of pillboxes and obstacles and noted that many of the pillboxes were unmanned, and Sakai therefore selected this area as the location of his planned major assault.

The Japanese land

The Japanese made their main landings on the night of 18 December in two waves, each comprising a single battalion of each of the 38th Division’s three regiments (228th, 229th and 230th Regiments), with the third battalion of each regiment in reserve. The Japanese rapidly secured a beachhead in the face of heavy machine gun fire and local counterattacks by Bren carriers, and began moving on their initial objective, the Wong Nei Chong Gap, whose seizure would sever the defence into halves.


The commander of the West Brigade, Brigadier J. K. Lawson, had established his headquarters close to the Wong Nei Chong Gap in an area which was under heavy machine gun and mortar fire by 06.30 on 19 December. Lawson later came under criticism for leading so far forward, but his reasons for so doing will never be known as he was killed that day while attempting to extricate his headquarters. One company of the Winnipeg Grenadiers held out at the Wong Nei Chong Gap until 23 December, when its ammunition had been exhausted and it was surrendered by its chaplain, who the only remaining unwounded officer.

With the Wong Nei Chong Gap in their hands, the Japanese were able to drive through the centre of Victoria Island, compressing the remnants of the British garrison forces in the western and southern ends of the island. The Japanese now started to advance along the north coast toward the city of Victoria. With the water supply cut, and fearing massive civilian casualties, Maltby surrendered on 25 December against the advice of his senior officers and the colony’s governor. Brigadier C. Wallis, commanding the remnants of the East Brigade at Stanley Fort, refused to obey the order until it was brought to him in writing in the early hours of 26 December.

Maltby estimated his losses in the battle had been 2,113 men killed and missing and 1,332 men wounded. Many of the survivors were killed in the subsequent atrocities, and the remainder endured years of dreadful treatment as prisoners of war. The Japanese suffered at least 2,654 casualties.

The battle was notable for the high degree of ‘fifth columnist’ activities and the atrocities which took place during and after the battle. There was considerable sniper activity on Victoria Island almost from the moment war broke out, and at least one Japanese officer was recognised by British prisoners of war as a barber who had worked in the British barracks. ‘Fifth columnists’ overran an important position on the Hong Kong shore of Lie Mun on the night of the main landings and helped guide the assault troops across the passage; some of these were captured with their signalling lamps and were summarily executed. A piece of 9.1-in (230-mm) artillery had been disassembled and its components smuggled into Kowloon before war broke out, after which  it was surreptitiously assembled in a shed near the Kowloon golf course, where it had a clear field of fire.

Atrocities committed by Japanese troops included the bayoneting of wounded men in captured British hospitals and the murder of many of their doctors and nurses. Prisoners were treated poorly, often being killed out of hand. One such massacre took place at a cliff on the north shore of Repulse Bay, where 54 prisoners were shot, bayoneted or beheaded. Nurses and other women were raped and murdered. Japanese commanders encouraged their troops to regard all local women as prostitutes and treat them accordingly. The rampage continued for two weeks after the capitulation, at which point discipline was suddenly and swiftly restored. Hong Kong remained under Japanese control throughout the remainder of the war.

Japan’s greatest Pacific base – Truk atoll

Truk ww2

The US geographical (rather than operational) codename for Truk atoll in the Caroline islands group of the central Pacific between 1941 and 1945 was originally ‘Anaconda’ and then ‘Panhandle’. A group of hilly islands, the tips of drowned mountain peaks, surrounded by a large barrier reef with five passes, Truk is a large atoll lying to the east of the centre of the Caroline islands group with the Palau islands group 1,035 miles (1665 km) to the west, Guam in the Mariana islands group 555 miles (895 km) to the north-west, Kwajalein atoll in the Marshall islands group 925 miles (1490 km) to the east, and Rabaul on New Britain islands in the Bismarck archipelago 690 miles (1110 km) to the south. The USA’s main base in the Pacific Ocean, Pearl Harbor in the Hawaiian islands group, is 3,260 miles (5245 km) to the northeast.

Truk atoll measures about 40 miles (54 km) on both its north/south and east/west axes, and is approximately triangular in shape. It is a complex atoll with 98 land masses in the form of 11 major islands, 46 smaller islands and islets in the lagoon, and 41 smaller islands and islets on the fringing reef, which has a circumference of 140 miles (225 km) and encloses a lagoon measuring 31 by 49 miles (50 by 79 km) with an area of 820 sq miles (2130 km²). Truk atoll’s land area is 35.93 sq miles (93.07 km²), and it highest elevation is 1,453 ft (443 m). Most of the rim islands and islets on the atoll’s eastern side are long and narrow, while smaller islets are scattered densely along its north-western side. The south-western side’s islets are more widely spaced. There are five main entrance passages into the lagoon: North (‘Wayward’), North-East (‘Alphonse’), Otta (‘Monsoon’) in the south-east, and South or Aulap (‘Forceps’) and Piaanu (‘Glowworm’) in the west. Just a few miles off the south-eastern corner of the atoll at Otta Passage is the elongated oval Kuop or Kunyuna atoll, measuring 18 by 5 miles (29 by 8 km), while the even smaller and circular Losap atoll is about 60 miles (96 km) to the south-east.

From west to east, the main islands within the lagoon are Tol (‘Portfolio’), Udot (‘Paleface’), Param (‘Codling’), Fefan (‘Calefaction’), Moen (‘Anathema’), Dublon (‘Adherent’) and Uman (‘Centimeter’). Tol is the largest of these, and islets located around it bear the names of days of the week. The islands inside the lagoon are covered with comparatively high hills, covered by palms and brush, and limned by narrow fringing reefs.

The two most important of the islands are in the lagoon’s western portion. The larger of the two, and the second largest in the lagoon, is Moen which in World War II had two airfields (Moen 1 and 2 at its northern and southern corners respectively) and a seaplane base. To the south of Moen is Dublon, the fourth largest island in the lagoon (after Fefan), which included the principal town and the Japanese administrative headquarters of the Central Caroline District. It was also the port of entry and possessed a seaplane base. Immediately off the south central shore of Dublon is the 83-acre (33.6-hectare) islet of Eten (‘Bannister’), whose shore had been shaped into a rectangle and included an airfield, thereby giving the islet an appearance not dissimilar to that of an aircraft carrier. Near the centre of the lagoon, Param also had an airfield. A small island on the eastern side of Otta Passage at the atoll’s south-eastern corner Mesegon island also sported a small airfield. Members of the local population were not permitted on these islands, and those living on them had been moved to other islands.

Before the start of the Pacific War, there were almost 3,000 Japanese civilians and persons of the 18,000 native population living on the atoll.

The Japanese presence starts

Japanese traders had arrived on Truk in 1891, when the islands were a Spanish possession. In 1898 Spain sold most of its Pacific island possessions to Germany, which lost them to Japan early in World War I. In 1920 Japan received a League of Nations mandate over the islands, and in 1939 began the large-scale development of Truk as its major naval base in the the Mandated Territory. It was fortified with coast-defence artillery covering the five passes, which were also blocked by command-detonated mines, while other guns were positioned to prevent landings on the outer islands. Most of the warplanes, troops, supplies and matériel for the Solomon islands, Bismarck islands, New Guinea and other early Japanese campaigns of aggression stages through Truk atoll, as later did those required to defend the Japanese empire’s shrinking perimeter. In February 1942 the headquarters of the 4th Fleet arrived on Truk from the Palau islands group and took up residence on Dublon island, which had about 1,200 buildings and facilities, including a 2,500-ton floating dry dock, to make temporary repairs on many types of warship. In July 1942 the Combined Fleet (elements of the 1st Fleet, 2nd Fleet, 3rd Fleet and 6th Fleet, of which the last was responsible for submarine operations) arrived on Truk. At the height of the atoll’s life as a Japanese base area, as many as 1,000 ships were on occasion to be found in the lagoon. While Truk was undoubtedly a superior anchorage and also well defended, its repair facilities were limited.

Large ground defence force

Truk was defended not only by major naval and air forces, but also by significant ground forces. These included the 52nd Division (69th Regiment and 150th Regiment but not the 107th Regiment, which had been detached to Ponape), most of the 51st Independent Mixed Brigade, and army service and support troops, as well as the navy’s 4th Base Force, 41st Guard Force, 101st Sasebo Special Naval Landing Force, and major air base service units as well as construction units with 5,200 labourers. Lieutenant General Shunsaburo Mugikura commanded both the 52nd Division and the 31st Army as well as the Truk District Group. Vice Admiral Chuichi Hara commanded the naval forces of the 4th Fleet remaining in the islands.

The Japanese construction of fortifications did not begin until 1940 and then proceeded at a comparatively leisurely pace until January 1944. The garrison had reached a strength of 7,500 army and about 4,000 naval personnel by February 1944, and as noted above coast-defence artillery was sited to cover all five passes, which were also protected by controlled mines. However, there were only 40 anti-aircraft guns with no fire-control radar.

In May 1945 there were an estimated 13,600 army troops and 10,600 naval personnel. Several of the atolls around Truk were also defended, and these included Woleai (5,500 men of Major General Katsumi Kitamura’s 50th Independent Mixed Brigade and Commander Yoshinobu Miyata’s 44th Guard Force); Puluwat (3,500 men of the 11th Independent Mixed Brigade and a naval detachment); Nomoi (2,400 men of the 51st Independent Mixed Brigade and a naval detachment); Ponape (8,000 men of Major General Masao Watanabe’s 52nd Independent Mixed Brigade, 107th Regiment and Captain Jun Naito’s 42nd Guard Force; and Kapingamarang (400 men of army and navy detachments).

The Japanese garrison peaked at 27,856 naval personnel under Hara’s command and 16,737 army personnel under the tactical command of Major General Kanenobu Ishuin, commander of the 51st Independent Mixed Brigade, on the atoll’s various islands, on which the Japanese Civil Engineering Department and Naval Construction Department had built roads, trenches, bunkers and caves. The whole defensive complex included five airfields, seaplane bases, a torpedo boat station, submarine repair facilities, a communications centre and a radar station.

To land or not?

The US forces had no strategically compelling reason for a direct assault on the Japanese in and around Truk atoll, which were therefore to be neutralised by air and sea forces in the manner which was being accomplished very effectively against Rabaul. The 5th Fleet attacked Truk atoll from the air in ‘Hailstone’ on 17/18 February 1944: eight aircraft carriers, six battleships, 10 cruisers and 28 destroyers of Task Force 58 approached Truk from the north-east and sailed around the atoll and back to the north-east while launching 30 air strikes of significantly more power than the two Japanese ‘Ai’ strikes on Pearl Harbor. The Combined Fleet, which TF58 had hoped to catch in the lagoon, had taken heed of indicators of the coming attack and had withdrawn westward to the Palau islands group on 10 February, however. The US strikes did sink two cruisers, two destroyers, one aircraft ferry, two submarine tenders, one auxiliary merchant cruiser, six tankers and 17 merchant ships, destroyed some 100 aircraft on the ground and in the air, and inflicted serious damage to shore installations.

The Americans did not make their final decision whether or not to assault Truk until 12 March 1944, when they decided that the base would be bypassed. Another series of carrier strikes was carried out on 29/30 April to destroy the remaining Japanese air power, which by then had been rebuilt to 104 aircraft. Of these, about 93 were destroyed in the air or on the ground, at a cost to the Americans of 35 aircraft: more than half of the downed US airmen were rescued by submarines or seaplanes, and included one crew within Truk lagoon itself. Occasional raids thereafter, flown mostly from Eniwetok and the Admiralty islands group, prevented the base from becoming once more any form of serious threat.

Truk torpedo

Consolidated B-24 Liberator and Boeing B-29 Superfortress heavy bombers continued to raid Truk on a frequent basis until the end of the war, and the atoll was seen as providing a good training target for newly arrived bomber units.

On 2 September 1945, Hara and Mugikura surrendered the Truk garrison and the outlying garrisons, a total of 130,000 military personnel and civilians, to Vice Admiral George D. Murray aboard the heavy cruiser Portland in the largest single surrender of the Pacific Ocean Areas. Occupation forces of the US Marine Corps did not arrive until 24 November, and were then based on Moen island.

Japanese surrender Truk

‘Fathead’ – A Far-Eastern ‘Mincemeat’?

The head of ‘GSI(d)’, one of the the British organisations responsible for deception activities in the Far East in World War II and which was merged in January 1944 with the Special Planning Section to create the ‘D’ Division, was Peter Fleming, a well known writer and brother of Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond. Early in 1943 Fleming came up with the idea of planting on the Japanese commander on the Arakan front in coastal western Burma a means of feeding false information and thereby providing direct support for the ‘Cudgel’ offensive the British were planning for November 1943. Fleming’s thinking was influenced by the success of ‘Mincemeat’ in the Mediterranean theatre, where a body laden with false information was released at sea for recovery by the neutral but pro-German Spanish, and also by an abortive project by the Special Operations Executive to distract the Japanese from their pursuit of a British officer operating behind their lines by paradropping a corpse which members of the local population would identify as his. Fleming therefore drafted a plan in which the Japanese would locate on their side of the front line an Indian ‘spy’ who had died when his parachute had failed to open, and with the body a radio transmitter, codes and evidence suggesting that he had been accompanied by a Burmese agent. The probability, Fleming reasoned, was that the Japanese would see in this an opportunity to create a deception channel to the British, who could then feed the Japanese false information. This ‘Fathead’ idea began to crystallise in July 1943.

Bengali Famine

The task of finding the body the plan required should have been simple, for the famine sweeping Bengal was at its height and Bengalis were dying in vast numbers. Yet no suitable body could be found, largely because an emaciated corpse would not serve as the basis for a plausible agent. Time passed and the arrival of the autumn indicated that ‘Cudgel’ would soon start. Even as the search for a body continued, all else was prepared. Extensive testing showed that the least suspicious way to indicate a parachute failure would be to have the static line ending in a broken clip, and the radio set, the codes and all the other impedimenta of an agent were ready.

By November, ‘Cudgel’ was on the verge of starting and a full-moon period, which was the only plausible time for such a drop, was approaching and the required aeroplane had been made available.

Bodies everywhere, but none suitable

On 11 November, Fleming sent an officer named Gordon Rennie to Calcutta with orders to find a body and carry out the operation. Over a five-day period Rennie searched famine-struck Calcutta, visiting hospitals and mortuaries but locating nothing suitable. The local police promised a body, but also failed. Rennie continued his search and eventually found a corpse suitable for the task, but at the last minute a family claimed the body. Rennie accompanied the truck-mounted teams, which every day to collect the bodies of famine victims who had died overnight on Calcutta’s streets but, as before, these were too emaciated or too rotten to be of use.


Finally, the army hospital at Fort William offered the body of a Bengali Hindu, which was loaded into a lorry and taken to a garage in Alipore on the south-western side of Calcutta. Here it was washed and dressed in Indian clothes with its pockets stuffed with cigarettes, matches, train tickets, a wallet, small change, etc. The prepared body was then pushed into overalls, a helmet was fitted over its head and the body was finally strapped into a suitably misfolded parachute.

At 04.00 on 17 November the aeroplane carrying the corpse and two containers packed with the radio equipment and agent’s equipment, together with Rennie, rose into the air from Dum Dum airfield and set course for the selected drop zone some 30 miles (48 km) to the south of Akyab. The pilot later remembered that as he climbed into the aeroplane he looked back at his cargo, which was covered with a white sheet, and saw an arm flop out and dangle down. The flight was smooth, without any evidence of the Japanese, but a strong smell soon became evident, filling the fuselage and cockpit. That this might happen had occurred to Rennie, who had therefore armed himself with a bottle of cologne and cotton masks for all on board.

The crew found the drop zone only with difficulty, descended to 800 ft (245 m) and dropped the cargo. By the light of the moon, the members of the crew saw the containers’ parachutes open while the corpse plunged un-braked to the ground, and then turned back to base.

After all this effort, ‘Fathead’ proved anticlimactic. The Japanese found the corpse and searched for the imaginary Burmese companion, but did not attempt to use the radio. Another transmitter, together with another set of instructions, was dropped by parachute in case the first had been damaged beyond repair in the original drop, but nothing happened. For six months the ‘Fathead’ team in Calcutta called and listened, but never heard a thing.

A successful British deception of WWII – the ‘Cyprus Defence Plan’

The ‘Cyprus Defence Plan’ was a pioneering and very effective British deception plan, created in the aftermath of the German seizure of Crete in ‘Merkur’. The plan suggested that Cyprus, which could have been Germany’s next target for airborne assault and would offer the Axis powers considerable strategic advantages, was held by forces considerably stronger than they actually were.


On 7 June 1941, while in Jerusalem, Lieutenant Colonel Dudley W. Clarke, the head of the Middle East Command’s fledgling deception apparatus, received from General Sir Archibald Wavell, the theatre commander, an order that with Greece and Crete lost to the Germans there was now a major fear that Cyprus might be the next German objective. Clarke was to create a plan to delay any such attack for at least two weeks to buy the time needed for reinforcements to sent to bolster the island’s currently small defence force. Clarke prepared what was known simply as the ‘Cyprus Defence Plan’ rather than any operational codename, and this proved to be of primary significance in the history of war as the first real and effective long-term order of battle deception.

In his plan, Clarke set out to represent to the Axis powers that Cyprus was held not by the 4,000 British troops currently on the island, but by something in the order of 20,000 men, representing one full division as well as local forces. Within this basic concept, on 13 June it was ordered that the command on Cyprus be redesignated as the wholly fictitious 7th Division and for the brigadier commanding on the island to assume the rank of major general. A false headquarters establishment was created on the island, a number of buildings were requisitioned for ‘military purposes’ and misleading signs were placed.

cyprus map

At the same time, rumours were started in both Egypt and Palestine. False orders were circulated, and fake military and civil telegrams simulated a high volume of orders and requests between Cyprus and the mainland. Further verisimilitude was added to the plan by the despatch of one squadron of dummy tanks and, perhaps most tellingly of all, a fake defence plan of Cyprus, complete with maps and the supposed order of battle, was planted, in a ‘haversack ruse’, on an Egyptian woman known to be in touch with both Japanese intelligence and a German female agent in Cairo.

‘Haversack ruse’

While the Germans never actually intended to attempt the seizure of Cyprus, the ‘Cyprus Defence Plan’ nonetheless served an important role in the progress of military events in the eastern part of the Mediterranean by fixing in the minds of the German and Italian military leaderships the notion that the island of Cyprus was in fact held by one or two divisions with more than 20,000 men: this belief was confirmed by documents captured early in July and confirmed by a report that the German military attaché in Turkey had indicated that Cyprus was more strongly defended than Crete had been. All this was confirmed by the capture, six months later, of an Italian intelligence bulletin containing a map of Cyprus and all of the primary features of the ‘haversack ruse’ documents, complete with further embellishment, and a troop estimate of some 30,000 men.

Kyrenia Castle

By the middle of July, the defence of Cyprus had been placed on a more realistic basis by the arrival of a real formation, namely Major General W. H. C. Ramsden’s 50th Division. However, as it had already gained something of a life of its own in the ‘Cyprus Defence Plan’, the fictitious 7th Division was allowed to remain in existence, and to ‘normalise’ the apparent presence of two divisions a fictitious headquarters on Cyprus was added as the equally fictitious XVIII (later XXV) Corps. The whole of this fake order of battle was continued, under several names, over the next three years, and captured documents combined with the information carried in later ‘Ultra’ decrypts of intercepted Axis signals to reveal that throughout this period the Axis powers accepted the false order of battle without question.

It was around this nucleus that Clarke’s great and enduring accomplishment in strategic deception, namely the long-term false order of battle, came into being.

Operation ‘Tabarin’ – a far flung British undertaking of World War II

The Schwabenland freighter

In 1938/39 Germany undertook its third Antarctic expedition. Led by Kapitän Alfred Ritscher of the German Navy, the expedition was to find part of Antarctica on which a German whaling station could be established as a way to increase Germany’s production of fat. Whale oil was then the most important raw material for the production of margarine and soap in Germany, and at the time Germany was the second largest purchaser of Norwegian whale oil. Besides the economic disadvantage of a dependence on imports, it was thought that Germany would probably soon be at war, and this would add a further burden onto Germany’s foreign currency reserves. Another objective was to explore the possibility of creating a German naval base in the Antarctic.

Pioneering aerial survey

On 17 December 1938, what was formally designed as the New Swabia Expedition departed Hamburg on the freighter Schwabenland, a freighter which had been built in 1925 and renamed in 1934 after the Swabia region of southern Germany, and could also carry and catapult aircraft. Prepared and launched in secrecy, the expedition had 33 members in addition to Schwabenland’s 24-man crew. On 19 January 1939 the ship arrived off the Princess Martha coast, in an area which had recently been claimed by Norway as Dronning Maud Land, and started to chart the region. German flags were placed on the sea ice along the coast. Naming the area Neu-Schwabenland, after the ship, the expedition established an interim base and in the following weeks teams walked along the coast recording claim reservations on hills and other significant landmarks. Seven photographic survey flights were made by the ship’s two Dornier Wal flying boats. About 12 4-ft (1.2-m) aluminium arrows, with 11.8-in (0.3-m) steel cones and three Swastika-embossed fins, were dropped onto the ice by the ‘boats over the points at which the machines made turnings.

Eight more flights were made to areas deemed to be of significance. In overall terms, the ‘boats covered a very large area and took more than 16,000 aerial photographs. The Schirmacher Oasis, an ice-free plateau, 15.5 miles long and with a maximum width of 1.85 miles (3 km) and dotted with more than 100 fresh-water lakes, was spotted from the air by Richardheinrich Schirmacher shortly before Schwabenland’s departure from Antarctica on 6 February 1939.

On its return passage the expedition made oceanographic studies near Bouvet Island and Fernando de Noronha, arriving back in Hamburg on 11 April 1939. Meanwhile the Norwegian government had learned about the expedition through reports from whalers along the coast of Queen Maud Land. However, Germany made no formal territorial claims to New Swabia, and built no whaling station or other lasting bases.

British response

But this German interest combined with the possible territorial ambitions of other nations led in 1943 to Operation ‘Tabarin’, schemed and implemented by the Admiralty and the Colonial Office to establish a permanent British presence in Antarctica. The operation’s bases were the first ever to be built in Antarctica.

Several reasons have been suggested for ‘Tabarin’, including the perceived threat of a possible German presence. Moreover, in 1943 British personnel from the armed merchant cruiser Carnarvon Castle found and removed Argentine flags from Deception Island, and there were also concerns within the Foreign Office about the possibility of post-war US activity in the region. The primary reason for ‘Tabarin’ was the establishment of British claims to various uninhabited islands and parts of Antarctica. This objective was also seen as a response to a general Argentine sympathy toward Germany.

A view of Deception Island

The Germans were known to be making use of remote islands as rendezvous points and as shelters for commerce raiders and U-boats, and for the supply ships on which these were reliant for replacement weapons, fuel, spare parts and fresh food. As early as 1941 the British had come to fear the possibility that Japan might attempt to seize the Falkland Islands group either as a base or for transfer to Argentina in the hope of gaining political advantage for the Axis and denying their use to the UK. In the British South Shetland Islands group, Deception Island possessed a sheltered anchorage with an old Norwegian whaling station, and in 1941 men of the armed merchant cruiser Queen of Bermuda had destroyed the coal dumps and oil tanks on the island to prevent their possible use by the Germans.

It has also been suggested that the operation may have been, at least in part, a disinformation exercise designed to suggest that the British suspected German naval replenishment activity and thereby help to conceal the fact that the British were able to read much of the German radio traffic enciphered by Enigma machines.

Led by Lieutenant James Marr, who had accompanied the British explorer Ernest Shackleton on his Antarctic expeditions in the 1920s, the 14-strong British party departed the Falklands in the minesweeping trawler William Scoresby and Fitzroy, on 29 January 1944. During February the party established bases near the abandoned Norwegian whaling station on Deception Island and at Port Lockroy on the coast of Graham Land on 11 February. A further base was established at Hope Bay on 13 February 1945 after the failure of an attempt to unload stores on 7 February 1944.
A view of Hope Bay

Meteorological ‘first’

The doctor of the ‘Tabarin’ expedition was Dr Eric Back, who also acted as the meteorologist and set up the Antarctic continent’s first weather station at Port Lockroy. After the end of World War II in 1945, the bases were handed over to civilian members of the Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey, which in 1962 became the British Antarctic Survey.

It seems that the decision to undertake ‘Tabarin’ was not political, as Prime Minister Winston Churchill was out of the country at the time and one of his memoranda, after news of the British bases had appeared in the press, indicated that he was unaware of the decision. In this memorandum Churchill expressed his worries that the operation might harm relations with the USA during the preparations for the ‘Overlord’ invasion of Normandy in June 1944. A reply from the Foreign Office indicated that ‘Tabarin’ reflected not any US failure to recognise British claims to the territory, but a reassertion of British territorial claims against the possibility of future Argentine and Chilean incursions.

Operation ‘Longshanks’


Operation ‘Longshanks’, which was otherwise known as ‘Boarding Party’ and ‘Creek’, was a peculiar British operation against a German merchant ship moored, as a neutral, in the Portuguese enclave of Goa in western India, and took place on 9 March 1943.

The operation was undertaken by members of the Calcutta Light Horse, a reserve unit of the Indian Army and inactive since the Boer War (1899/1902), and of the Calcutta Scottish Regiment, against the 7,752-ton Ehrenfels. The operation was organised by the India Mission of the Special Operations Executive (Force 136), and was long kept concealed to avoid the political ramifications of this contravention of Portuguese neutrality.

At this time a Bengali sympathetic to Germany provided information to ‘Trompetta’ (Robert Koch), the head of the German intelligence operation in Goa, on the destination, speed and cargo of British ships departing Indian ports, and this information was then passed to the captain of U-181 by means of coded signals sent from a secret radio transmitter on board Ehrenfels by the ship’s radio officer, who spoke seven languages and was also code expert.

At this time there were four Axis merchant vessels in Goa. On 28 August 1939, just three days before the start of World War II, Ehrenfels departed Bhavnagar for Bombay, but instead slipped into Mormugao harbour of Goa. On the following day another German ship, Drachenfels, which had just left Goa for Rotterdam returned to Mormugao and docked once more. Three days later still Braunfels, headed to Calcutta from Djibouti, also docked at Goa. About one year later, in June 1940, the Italian ship Anfora docked in Goa.

By 1942 the physical state of all four Axis merchant vessels was very poor, and of their crews many had deserted, some of them seeking asylum in Goa but also complaining to the International Red Cross that they were being ‘interned’ by the Goan authorities.

Enter SOE

Meanwhile, the SOE had established its Indian presence, later known as Force 136, in order to incite, organise and supply indigenous resistance forces in Japanese-occupied territories. The Indian mission was set up in Meerut by a former businessman, Colin Mackenzie of the J. and P. Coats clothing company, as the GSI(k). The task of taking covert action to eliminate the secret transmitter on board Ehrenfels was given to Colonel Lewis Pugh of the Indian Police, which was also an SOE operative and also a honorary member of the Calcutta Light Horse. A meeting in the SOE offices in Meerut was overseen by Mackenzie and Pugh. The first scheme was a plan to kidnap the German intelligence chief and then bribe the captain of Ehrenfels to take his ship to sea for seizure by the British. Stewart and Pugh made their way to Goa, posing as representatives of a trading company, seized Koch and his wife in December 1942, and transported them into India. Shortly after this, the German transmissions began once again, and it thus became obvious that British shipping information was reaching the German ship by another means. It was then decided that an attempt must be made to meet Roeffer, Ehrenfels’s captain, in what was probably ‘Creek’, and offer him a payment of £20,000 to desert. This scheme also failed.

Lewis Pugh

Eventually the SOE came to the conclusion that it must act on its own, and 18 men were chosen to undertake ‘Longshanks’ against the ship and its crew. The men were told no details of the planned undertaking, and Pugh was tasked with securing the required weapons and the training of the party, for which there were neither official backing or funding. Each of the men took leave from this job, stating he was about to attend a training course near Goa, and started preparing for the mission, now named ‘Longshanks’.

Indifferent but available

Pugh set about finding a vessel for the long passage round India from Calcutta on the north-east coast to Goa in the centre of the west coast, and managed to obtain a hopper barge name Little Phoebe and her a Bengali crew. Completed in 1912 and possessing a maximum speed of less than 9 kt, the barge made the passage via Trincomalee in Ceylon to Cochin, where it collected the men of the assault team, who had travelled across India by train via Madras, and then had to wait for four days for the barge to arrive. The barge then moved northwest along the coast of western India to Bombay as the attack team finalised its plan and divided into three teams: after boarding Ehrenfels, one party was to seize the bridge, the second to destroy the radio and the third to break the anchor chain.

Two men did not embark on the barge at Cochin, but instead travelled overland to Goa with the task of decoying as many as possible of the German crew members away from the ship on the night scheduled for the attack. This they planned to achieve by paying the owner of a Goan brothel to offer free services that night to the seamen, and bribing a Goan official to host a party to which port officials and ship’s officers would be invited. It was also arranged that there would be no taxis available to take the officers back to their ships.

On the night of 9/10 March, the boarding party headed by Colonel E. H. Grice met little opposition, and Ehrenfels’s radio equipment was quickly put out of action, while the ship’s captain and four of his men were killed in the light action which followed. Roeffer had anticipated this British move, however, and had already instructed the crews of the German ships to prepare for a British attack and plant charges in all of the ships for rapid detonation so the ships would be scuttled rather than fall into British hands. As the British boarding party seized control of Ehrenfels, therefore, the charges were detonated and sank. Those on shore soon decided that the crews, nervous, depressed, fearful of a British attack and possibly drunk, had set fire their own ships. The barge quietly slipped out of the harbour during this time. The re-embarked party were concerned that the Germans might have transmitted a final signal alerting the U-boats, one of which might possibly now search for Little Phoebe, which was not in fact molested as she made her passage back to Calcutta via Trincomalee.

The real need for the operation is suggested by the fact that while Axis submarines sank 12 Allied ships in the Indian Ocean during the first 11 days of March 1943, they sent only one to the bottom in the rest of the month.

Ehrenfels was salvaged in 1950 and later scrapped; Drachenfels was sold in December 1948 and scrapped in 1950. Braunfels disintegrated in the water; and Anfora was raised 1948 and scrapped at Bombay in 1949.