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ESCAPE AND EVASION - They didn't dally over Dili


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INTRODUCTION

Dutch airmen who escaped to Australia after the Japanese invasion of the Netherlands East Indies (NEI) were brought together to form Dutch squadrons under RAAF command.  First among these special squadrons was 18 (NEI) Squadron, formed at Canberra on 4 April 1942. Although nominally made up of Dutch nationals, the RAAF supplied many co-pilots, air gunners, bombardiers, photographers, and ground staff.  The US provided supplies and equipment.

In December the unit moved to MacDonald airstrip in the Northern Territory and began transforming the undeveloped site into a workable airbase.  From January the squadron commenced offensive operation missions over East Timor and the Tanimbar and Kai Islands.

During a raid on Dili on 18 February 1943 a Mitchell aircraft was forced down at sea.  The crew, later rescued by HMAS Vendetta, explained that the pilot and bombardier had been killed in the attack.

This terrific story of courage under fire and persistence was told by WWII aviation historian Robert Kendall Piper in an article published in the January 1984 issue of RAAF News and is republished here.


ESCAPE AND EVASION
They didn't dally over Dili [1]

By Robert Kendall Piper [2]


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Little Willy of Dili was a Japanese pilot famous for his daring attacks on the B-25 Mitchells of No 18 (NEI) Squadron during World War II.
In fact, the mixed Dutch and Australian crews had encountered him on their very first mission when they bombed Dili with nine aircraft on January 18 1943.  Beside him all other Zero pilots were second rate and Little Willy always pressed home his passes with enthusiasm and vigour.  The Americans in long range B-24 Liberators had also met him when overflying the area.  History does not record who dubbed Willy with his title but Allied intelligence sources at the time thought he was the commanding officer of the enemy fighters at Fuiloro 'drome, on the eastern tip of Timor.

The No 18 Netherlands East Indies squadron was formed at Canberra in April 1942 within the framework of the RAAF and under their operational control. Initially, there were 242 Dutch and Javanese members as well as 206 Australians.  Some of the former were ex-KLM and KNILM crews.

Captains of the aircraft were always Dutch with the RAAF often acting as co-pilots, air gunners, navigators, bombardiers, photographers and ground crew.  The cost of operating the unit was met by the Netherlands Government in exile, which also supplied the aircraft.  But the squadron was largely equipped and maintained by the RAAF.

Sometimes known as the unit with two commanding officers, the RAAF men were responsible and disciplined under their rules and senior officer, while the Dutch answered to theirs.  Official notices were posted in both languages even though all the Dutchmen spoke English with varying degrees of fluency.  It was an unique establishment, but it worked!  The squadron operated throughout the former Netherlands East Indies (now Indonesia) flying unescorted missions both day and night.

Stationed first at MacDonald and later Batchelor, in the Northern Territory, medium-level attacks were launched against enemy-held towns, ports and air bases with occasional low level sweeps for shipping.  Supply drops to guerrillas in occupied territory were also made.
Their unofficial badge, ‘The Dutch Cleanser’, featured a Dutch housewife in traditional dress sweeping up with a large broom.  Numbering on the aircraft consisted of three digit serials with the prefix ‘N5’, painted in white.

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Throughout the war the popular and robust North American B-25 Mitchell was the only aircraft used by No 18.  Eventually, 150 served with this and No 2 Squadron (RAAF) during the conflict.

On February 18, 1943, two flights, each of three aircraft, had been ordered to attack shipping, the aerodrome and general Dili area.  Designated MacDonald Operation 15, it was marred by one of the squadron's Mitchells being shot down into the sea by a persistent Zero, thought to be none other than Little Willy.

The six aircraft left MacDonald 'drome at 7.25 am local time and climbed to the planned cruise altitude of 10,000 feet.  Each B-25 carried three 500 lb bombs as well as 34 small incendiaries.  Weather was fine and warm with 20-30 miles visibility, except above the mountains of Timor and over the target, where half the sky was covered by stratus cloud.  Unfortunately, there was not to be enough of the latter for evasive action by the allied planes.

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Two Zeros were sighted as the Mitchells made landfall on the inward run.  Both were at the same height as the bombers and passed west to east without attempting to intercept.  The enemy fighters apparently were content merely to shadow the B-25s.  Four more Zeros were sighted again, to the rear and above, on the final approach to the target.  Diving over Dili to pick up speed, the Mitchells pattern-bombed a heavily camouflaged 6,000-ton ship moored opposite the former Customs House.

It was surrounded by power launches, which scattered in all directions on the bombers' approach.  Nil results were observed despite the entire bomb loads of the six Mitchells being dropped.  Intense Bofors and heavy anti-aircraft fire was encountered from the land defences and entire length of the ship.

A pair of drab-green Zeros closed in behind the B-25s at the end of their bombing run, as they swung south for the trip back home.  At this stage Two Flight was leading One Flight by about four miles.  All Two Flight's top-turret gunners fired on the leading fighter as it began to attack.  It seemed the Japanese pilot was hit, and the tail of his plane shot off.  The Zero was last seen falling into the hills at the back of Dili, near the former Governor's residence.

Both flights now descended into cloud cover and closed up for improved defence.  The remaining fighter tagged along at a safe distance, above and between them.  Obviously, he was relaying their progress and position back to base.

Three more Zeros joined the one following, near the south coast of Timor.  Splitting into pairs they re-commenced attacks on each B-25 flight.  Approaches were made above and to the rear from the four to eight o'clock positions.

As the island passed behind them the bombers, now at 2,000 feet, raced for home over the sea.  Forty miles out from shore, One Flight's gunners also scored a Zero.  The Mitchell crews saw it break off and head back smoking heavily.  There seemed little chance of it reaching the coast safely.

The B-25 pilots now adopted the evasive tactic of weaving each time they were approached.  At the same time their gunners began firing at ranges out to 1,200 yards to keep the fighters further at bay.  It seemed to have the desired effect as the incoming Zeros were now breaking off at 600 yards.

But one determined Zero pilot, when the battle was 100 miles out to sea, closed to 60 yards and shot out the port engine of aircraft N5-144 with his cannons.  Return fire from the Mitchell gunners' tracers appeared to strike the attacker but he flew off apparently undamaged.  Undoubtedly this was the audacious Little Willy.

The same Zero now made five more attacks from directly above and out of the clouds.  FSGT W. S. Horridge (RAAF), mid-upper turret, discovered to his horror that his guns had jammed.

Pilot of N5-144, Lieutenant B.J. Grummels (NEI), as well as the RAAF bombardier/nose gunner SGT R. J. Tyler, were killed by machine-gun fire in the first overhead pass.  Dutch co-pilot Ensign C. M. Fisscher, although wounded, immediately took over the controls and called for help from the other five Mitchells.

The next three vertical attacks were thwarted by Fisscher.  Each time the fighter came in the co-pilot swung the nose guns of his staggering B-25 towards him.  At the same time SGT Horridge followed around with his weapons, making a pretence of firing.  The Zero pilot broke off.
But in the final pass the fighter had pressed close home, hit the starboard engine, aileron and a rudder, which tore off.  By now the rest of the Mitchells had seen and heard what was happening, returned to help and drove off the Zero, which headed back to Timor.

Although N5-144 lumbered on for another 20 miles as its remaining engine steadily lost oil pressure and power, it was by now practically uncontrollable.  Wind howled through the bullet holes in the front Perspex, making it almost impossible for Fisscher without goggles, to see.
At 10.50 am the bomber skidded into the sea tail first and lower turret stilt down.  Fisscher and the engineer.  SGT W.L. van Hoek (NEI) escaped by sliding side windows near the pilots' seats.  Although both wounded, they managed to launch a rubber dinghy.  The aircraft sank in two minutes.  This gave Fisscher just time to smash in the top turret Perspex with his hands and drag out, aided by van Hoek, the top and bottom gunners.

These airmen were also wounded, the former seriously, but to make things worse they had also been knocked about in the crash landing, were dazed, resisted rescue and had to be forcibly extracted.  As the last man was hoisted clear and hauled into the dinghy the Mitchell slid below the surface.

In the rubber boat Horridge and Van de Weert (NEI), the lower gunner, were laid in the bottom while Fisscher and Hoek sat on opposite sides.  The B-25s overhead, low on fuel, only had time to circle quickly and take a bearing before heading off home.
Within ten minutes a shark broke the surface, rose across the edge of the dinghy and snapped at the co-pilot's back.  He and the engineer beat the water to frighten it off and then also retreated to the bottom of the boat.  By six that evening three RAAF Hudsons of No 13 Squadron found the downed airmen and dropped supplies.  Their attention had been attracted by the men in the dinghy igniting five of the six flares on board.

The RAN destroyer Vendetta hove into sight at 1 am the next morning, guided by the survivors' last flare.  All aboard the dinghy were safely retrieved and subsequently recovered from their ordeal and wounds back at Darwin.
History is vague about what eventually happened to Little Willy of Dili.  Rumour has it though that a RAAF air gunner, on his first engagement, eventually sealed the Zero pilot's fate.  Since that day nobody saw or heard of Willy again, which seems to prove that perhaps the claim was true.  Anyway, that's the way the story goes ….

 

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The Dutch engineer, van Hoek, was awarded the Dutch Flying Cross and Ensign Fisscher received the RAAF's Air Force Cross, both as a result of the action on that fateful day.

Sergeant ‘Tim’ Tyler, the RAAF nose gunner/bombardier who was killed, was posthumously honoured by having an airstrip officially named after him.  It is just north of Daly Waters in the Northern Territory.

Japanese historian and writer Professor Ikuhiko Hata recently advised that the unit which attacked the Mitchells was the 59th Sentai (Army) flying Oscars (Nakajima fighters), not Zeros.  Two pilots participating in the attack were Lieutenant Kuwata and Sergeant Shinichi Kubo.  The latter, an ace, was credited with the downing of N5-144 and later went missing over Wewak the same year.

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JAPAN. 1945. JAPANESE AIRCRAFT, NAKAJIMA Ki-43 "OSCAR" FIGHTER IN FLIGHT. SINGLE ENGINE, SINGLE SEATER, LOW WING MONOPLANE. (DONOR: MR PETER SELINGER)

REFERENCES

[1] ‘ESCAPE AND EVASION’ (1984, January 1).  RAAF News (National : 1960 - 1997), p. 16. Retrieved January 28, 2021, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article259010183

[2] Robert Kendall Piper was a researcher and author of many articles and several books on World War II aviation and topics related to the Pacific War.  As a young man he lived in Port Moresby and learned to fly in Papua New Guinea (PNG).  He later became the official Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) historian for 15 years then worked with Veterans Affairs for another 12 years before retirement.  He was also involved with studies of aircraft crash sites and erecting memorials.  Since the 1980s he wrote for Australian newspapers and Flightpath Magazine and conducted research as ‘Military Aviation Research Services – Canberra’.  He was the author of two books: Great Air Escapes (1991) and The Hidden Chapters (1995).  See https://pacificwrecks.com/people/authors/piper/index.html

 

 

 

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