- Cox, Leonard J.
- WWII operations
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Nepal
- September 1998 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
This article refers to the British Eastern Fleet’s first attack on Sabang in Northern Sumatra, in April, 1944. To relieve some of the pressure on his own forces, Admiral King had asked the British for this strike against the Japanese.
On the 16th April, 1944, a British Task Force left its anchorage at Trincamalee to attack a Japanese Naval Base in Northern Sumatra. It was the beginning of the road back for the British. Not since that disastrous Java Sea Battle in February, 1942 had the Royal Navy been in a position to carry the fight to this enemy.
For some months, Admiral Somerville had been gathering this powerful Force. The list of ships was pinned to the notice board in the radio room of the Australian destroyer “Nepal” complete with the various ships’ names and their “coded” call signs.
They were divided into two groups. Force 69 included the battleships, “Queen Elizabeth” and “Valiant”. Force 70, the battle cruiser “Renown” and the French battleship “Richelieu”, the aircraft carriers “Illustrious” and the American “Saratoga”.
The Cruiser Squadrons consisted of “London”, “Ceylon”, “Nigeria”, “Newcastle”, “Gambia” and the Dutch “Tromp”. The destroyers forming the two screens were, Royal Navy “Penn”, “Petard”, “Racehorse”, “Rotherham”, “Quadrant”, “Quilliam” and “Queenborough”; the Australian destroyers were “Napier”, “Nizam”, “Nepal” and “Quiberon” and the Dutch “Van Galen”. The American destroyers accompanying their Carrier were “Cummings”, “Fanning” and “Dunlap”.
On the 18th April at 1600, the two forces were 350 miles from their objective “Sabang” and on the morning of the 19th at 0430, the planes began taking off from the carriers. The “Nepal’s” ship’s company went to an early breakfast and action stations.
Our aircraft began returning from 0830 onwards and expecting a hostile air attack, Force 69 joined Force 70 and they did not have long to wait. Enemy torpedo bombers attempted to get at the carriers and were destroyed by the fighter screen.
Two were shot down on the Fleet’s starboard side and one right aft of the cruiser “Ceylon”.
The operation was reported to be very successful. Two merchant ships and two warships were sunk in the harbour. Twenty-seven aircraft were destroyed on the ground besides hangars, workshops, oil wharves and a wireless station.
The Royal Navy submarine “Tactician” observing the attack rescued a pilot whose aircraft had ditched a mile offshore. The submarine had to travel on the surface for two miles whilst under attack from shore batteries.
At dusk, Admiral Somerville split his two forces again and at 1930, Force 69 opened fire on torpedo aircraft approaching the ships on the port side. It was an amazing sight observing two battleships firing their main armament at night. At 2230 the sky was again brilliantly lit when Force 70, 12 miles distant opened fire on aircraft.
Later during the night, a lone DC3 transport en route from Cocos Islands was approaching Force 70’s destroyer screen. The destroyers in turn opened fire on the unfortunate aircraft right out in the Bay of Bengal. One could have imagined the aircraft’s crew would have thought they had the sky and the ocean to themselves and had neglected to turn on their IFF (indicate friend or foe transmitter).
The next afternoon, the Admiral ordered “Nepal” to approach the flagship and collect a package. It was an order to join the Carrier escort screen. Light rain was encountered en route and emerging from one rain squall into another, the two capital ships were momentarily seen several miles away beautifully silhouetted against the setting sun. “Renown” was firing her twin 4 inch armament at what we thought must have been enemy torpedo bombers somewhere ahead of us. Seconds later when we emerged from another rain squall, “Renown” was still firing but then the firing suddenly ceased.
In the half light, the tracer curves of the shell groups could be readily seen, then suddenly it was obvious they were heading our way. For the ships’ company observing the scene on the upper deck, there was a mad scramble to take cover.
During the next few seconds, the air was filled with screaming shells as they passed over the ship to burst off our starboard side.
“Renown” unaware of our orders to join the Carrier Force, had mistaken “Nepal” for a Japanese destroyer and was taking no chances. From her bridge, she was signalling “report casualties”.
At midday on the 20th April an excited BBC announcer broadcast the news of a successful operation which was the best news the British had heard in this area for a long time. Admiral Somerville remarked the Japanese were caught with their kimonos up and their heads down.
The Fleet entered harbour on 21st April, 1944.
Editors note: The British Eastern Fleet was later called the British East Indies Fleet (Nov. 1944)