A FORTNIGHT AFTER THE FORMATION OF THE RAF REGIMENT – THE FIRST GALLANTRY AWARD WON BY THE REGIMENT, AND THE LAST TO BE AWARDED AT THE END OF THE SECOND WORLD WAR
THE BATTLE OF PALEMBANG, SUMATRA, NETHERLANDS EAST INDIES (INDONESIA): 14-16 FEBRUARY 1942
The RAF Regiment were in action in the war in the Far East from the moment of its inception. Ground Defence flights had been deployed with their RAF squadrons to face the Japanese onslaught. What few are aware of is that Flying Officer Matthys Tauté has the unique privilege of being the first Regiment officer to earn a gallantry award, the Military Cross. It was awarded for his role in the defence of PALEMBANG airfield in SUMATRA on 14 Feb 1942 when assailed by a force of Japanese parachute troops. Only a fortnight after the formation of the RAF Regiment.
The northern airfields of MALAYA were quickly overrun, following the Japanese invasion on 7 December 1941. It soon became clear to Air HQ Far East that SINGAPORE was no longer a sound base for operations and aircraft were re-deployed to the NETHERLANDS EAST INDIES (present day INDONESIA), and particularly to the two large islands of JAVA and SUMATRA.
The two vital Sumatran airfields were P.1 and P.2. P.1, the civil airfield, was a large L-shaped aerodrome with two hard runways. This would be the base for the Hurricanes of No 226 (Fighter) Group. P.2 was a secret military aerodrome located in a jungle clearing 40 miles to the south-east and would host the RAF Blenheims and Royal Australian Air Force Hudsons of No 225 (B) Group.
Airfield Defence at P.1
Vital to ground defence at P.1 were 60 ground gunners in two parties formed from the RAF ground defence personnel of Nos 232, 258 and 605 (F) Sqns. Each aerodrome was also allocated 150 Dutch and Ambonese troops. Other than some British Ack-Ack gunners, there were no other British or Australian Army units in SUMATRA.
Despite these shortcomings, the RAF ground defence for P.1 was to be led by three impressive individuals. The OC No 266 (Fighter) Wing, Wg Cdr Harold Maguire, and two young RAF Regiment Fg Offs, Matthys ‘Bill’ Tauté and ‘Paddy’ Creegan; the Ground Defence Officers for Nos 258 and 232 (F) Sqns, respectively, would show considerable bravery and resourcefulness. With limited numbers, a properly constituted continuous defensive perimeter was organised with three shifts of eight hours. Tauté continues:
You did what you could to make sure that you had machine guns – we didn’t have too many. Lewis guns, which were pretty useless and we had two Vickers Maxims; they weren’t too bad.
These two small flights of ground gunners were the sole representatives of the newly-formed RAF Regiment, which came into existence on 1 February 1942, a fortnight before they would receive their baptism of fire.
Hundreds of Parachutes!
On the morning of 14 February, the airmen of P .1 glanced skywards to see 50 Japanese transport planes spilling 360 parachute troops from their fuselages. Their objective the oil refinery and the airfield. At the same time the airfield was heavily attacked from the air.
The ground defence force on P.1 now faced a direct threat from parachute troops. With some presence of mind, W/Cdr Maguire instructed the airmen to strip the Browning machine-guns from unserviceable Hurricanes on the strip and they were loosely mounted on mounds of earth to meet the coming attack. No record exists as to their effectiveness. The Army 3.7-in and Bofors AA gun crews prepared to fire in the ground role over open sights and to defend their posts with small arms and hand grenades. With no communications the airmen awaited the onslaught.
So I decided the best thing to do was to go and find them
Tauté had just arrived at P.1 with his gunners to relieve the night shift. He continues:
We were in our various positions and then this red flag ran up on the control tower, and probably a few minutes later we saw aircraft approaching form the north. We thought they’re friendly, our own aircraft… they circled slowly. Then we realised they were fighter[s]… which looked like Japanese Zeros. And then the parachutes began to drop… They fell beyond the perimeter of the airfield…; we were between them and the airfield.
So I decided the best thing to do was to go and find them. They were in the area of this 3.7-in AA gun to the south. There was lot of noise going on because the gunners in their Bofors pits were shooting off their guns, and some of our boys had a go with their Vickers Maxim, but they didn’t hit anything. So I gathered as many men as I could and we set off through this perishing pineapple plantation. Ever walked through a pineapple plantation in a hurry? My God it’s a painful procedure!
He and his men then plunged into a patch of jungle where some were immediately set upon by swarms of large red biting ants, managing with ease to find the most sensitive parts of the anatomy. Undeterred, they moved on towards the sound of firing, and found the Japanese paratroops were in the trees sniping at the AA gunners. The latter were firing their guns over open sights and heavy casualties were being taken on both sides. He continues:
We more or less made a semi-circle [around the gun emplacement] and shot a few of these fellows. Came tumbling out of the trees. That was very satisfactory, because although you knew there were plenty more where those came from, at least you were knocking some of them off.
Tauté could still hear firing so he moved to the far side of the gun emplacement and then came under fire when he reached a jungle path. He sent off his Sgt and Cpl to fetch the Vickers machine-gun, meanwhile continuing to stalk the enemy in the dense jungle. The two airmen soon returned with the Vickers and Tauté, while under fire, directed the setting up of the machine-gun in an exposed position:
We put it up on the edge of the road and just then a whole group of Japanese came storming up the road. They couldn’t have known we’d brought up a machine-gun at that moment, and so we gave them bit of a fright. They soon disappeared. Then all the shooting stopped, and we imagined all right they’ve gone away, they’ve had enough for the moment.
George Crowsley, a Ground Gunner with Tauté recalled:
Bill’ Tauté’s section was a small one of only about 20 men. Our small unit, however, had a small satisfaction of making approximately 50 enemy paratroops run like hell from the airfield at Palembang after Tauté had ordered us to; 'Sell your lives dearly lads!'
Withdrawal from Sumatra
Much more happened at P .1 and P .2 over the ensuing days, with considerable bravery shown by airmen of both the RAF and RAAF. But the outcome was inevitable, and eventually both P .1 and P .2 were evacuated. Maguire, Tauté, Creegan and their party escaped from SUMATRA and made their way to JAVA, but were eventually forced to surrender. They spent the next three years suffering cruelties and privations as prisoners of war of the Japanese. One-third of the 5,100 airmen captured during this campaign would die in captivity.
Tauté was the first RAF Regiment officer to perform an act of gallantry which led to the award of the Military Cross, however, as both he and his CO, Maguire, were interned until 1945 and his recommendation was not submitted until March 1946. It was to be the last to be gazetted for the Second World War. His citation reads as follows:
On 14th February 1942, this officer, with about 20 men of his Defence Unit, attacked and drove back a force of 150 parachute troops leading west from Palembang aerodrome. As a result a battery of No. 6 Heavy A.A. Regiment were shielded from attack, and eventually extricated from their battery site without loss. This officer showed great personal courage and leadership, and was responsible with an airman, for the bringing up, under fire and the operation of a Lewis [sic] machine gun in an exposed position, thus causing the Japanese attack on the site to be broken off. In the subsequent phases of the campaign Fg Off Tauté maintained the high standard of leadership shown on this occasion.
The full account of the Battle of Palembang and the defence of P .1 and P .2 can be found in CENTURION Issue No. 34 (2015).
Drs Nigel Warwick, Corps Historian RAF Regiment & Sean Carwardine RAAF Airfield Defence & Security Force Historian & Airfield Defence Association of Australia Historian