One regiment plus a battalion involved in the capture of Hong Kong formed the core of the Japanese invasion force, which departed from Cam Ranh Bay in two convoys on 9 and 11 February. Light escorting forces were supplemented by a distant heavier task force under Vice Admiral Ozawa Jisaburo that included an aircraft carrier. During the voyage, the Japanese encountered a large number of British ships fleeing Singapore. One was the former Yangtze River steamer Li Wo. Although armed only with a 4-inch gun and two machine guns, Li Wo's scratch crew set one transport on fire and then rammed it. Royal Navy Lieutenant T. S. Wilkinson received a posthumous Victoria Cross for his leadership in this action.
Allied reconnaissance planes soon spotted the invasion convoys. Dutch Rear Admiral Karel Doorman, commander of the ABDA (Australian-British-Dutch-American) strike force, tried to intervene with his ships, but he was forced to return to Java with minor losses because he lacked air cover. By 14 February, the invading Japanese force was proceeding up the Moesi River to Palembang.
The defenders on Sumatra included seven battalions of Dutch troops, but they were forced to cover an area larger than the Japanese home islands. Only 2,000 Dutch troops were near Palembang. They were concentrated around the main targets, the Royal Dutch Shell refineries at Pladju and the main airfield at Pangkalanbenteng (known as P1), both near the city of Palembang itself. Although the refineries and oil storage tanks had been prepared for destruction, production continued up to the last minute.
On the morning of 14 February, aircraft at P1 attacked the Japanese invasion convoys. As the aircraft returned home, they flew through formations of Japanese planes bound for the same destination. These included 34 Japanese Kawasaki Ki-56 ("Thalia" in the Allied code system) transport aircraft, which then dropped 270 paratroopers of Colonel Kume Seiichi's 2nd Parachute Regiment. They were accompanied by 18 Ki-21 ("Sally") bombers, which dropped antipersonnel bombs and equipment for the paratroopers. One hundred eighty Japanese paratroopers landed at P1. British planes trying to set down were taken under fire while the two sides also battled on the ground. Most of the British ground crew at P1 were unarmed and were sent to the backup airfield of P2 50 miles away. The remaining 90 Japanese paratroopers landed at the refineries, which they soon overran. The Japanese then disarmed the demolition charges. Although the Dutch were able to retake the refineries, they were not able to destroy them.
The Japanese were soon reinforced by another 60 paratroopers, who jumped onto P1 two hours after the original landing. Although armed only with light weapons, they managed to control the airfield through the remainder of the day and night. On the morning of 15 February, the seaborne invasion force began coming ashore at Palembang, and another 100 paratroopers were also dropped.
The Japanese sea and airborne forces linked up late on 15 February. The Dutch ordered a retreat after setting the oil storage tanks on fire. The Japanese soon extinguished these fires and restarted the virtually undamaged refineries. By 16 February, in only three days, the Japanese had secured one of their key war objectives.
Tim J. Watts
Saburo Hayashi. Kogun: The Japanese Army in the Pacific War. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1959.; Shores, Christopher, and Brian Cull. Bloody Shambles. Vol. 2, The Defence of Sumatra to the Fall of Burma. London: Grub Street, 1993.; Wilmott, H. P. Empires in the Balance: Japanese and Allied Pacific Strategies to April 1942. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1982.