Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Remember the 8th that came before the 7th.

The Japanese attack on the US Naval base and airfield at Pearl Harbor, 'The day that will live in infamy' is unlikely to be forgotten as an event that changed the course of world history. It is often given as the start of the war in the Pacific.

It was a key strike in the Japanese war plan, but it was not the only one, and not the first. Hours earlier, the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) had been in action against the Japanese landings at Kota Bharu, in Malaysia.

The world's only airworthy Lockheed Hudson bomber, appropriately flying in Australia. Author.
No. 1 Squadron, RAAF, based at Kota Bharu airfield launched Hudson bombers to attack the Japanese transports sinking the IJN Awazisan Maru, although in the seventeen sorties flown they lost two Hudsons shot down and three badly damaged. One crippled Hudson is reported to have crashed into a fully laden landing craft. All the transports were damaged in these attacks.
Despite the shock effect of the attack, and the fact that these airmen, and the British forces on the ground had little or no actual combat experience, they gave the Japanese forces a tough time. The British Indian Army Dogra regiment were effective:
"The enemy pillboxes, which were well prepared, reacted violently with such heavy force that our men lying on the beach, half in and half out of the water could not raise their heads."
Colonel Masanobu Tsuji
Inevitably overwhelmed in time, as were all the Allied forces in the initial months of the Pacific War, their efforts and story has always been overshadowed by the events thousands of miles away in Hawaii. To some degree that's understandable, given the unarguable effect and importance of the Pearl Harbor attack.

The Japanese were attacking a beach that was no distance from the RAAF's airfield.

I think Don Dowey said he lit a cigarette when he took off and he was still smoking it when he came back. That's how close it was.

Oscar Diamond, DFC, RAAF was one of the pilots flying the Hudsons that day, and he gave this (edited) account on ABC:

Well that was a lot rain and it was very bad conditions. The aerodrome was water-logged but we managed to get off all right, and the first thing I saw actually was the ship, unloading troops and I think they had small tanks - small Japanese tanks. That was the first ship I saw that came into my view and straight away we attacked it and we did two runs on it. I dropped a couple of bombs on the first run which I think straddled it but on the second run we we seemed to have hit it right in the middle with two bombs and there was terrific explosion so we knew that we'd done the job on it. And at the same time, my aircraft got badly damaged from the the flak - I suppose that came off the bombs, because all the flying we did was masthead attack, we weren't high level, it was masthead, straight into the air, into the shipping. So I when I got back the fellow said, 'This aircraft won't fly again, it's too badly damaged'. So that was my original aircraft A16-52 and that was after I had two flights.
Flight Lieutenant Charles 'Spud' Spurgeon [of 8 Sqn RAAF] broke away to conduct yet another attack on the derelict Awagisan Maru. He gained on hit on the doomed ship, but the resultant explosions riddled his low-flying Hudson with shrapnel from its own bombs. None of the crew were injured, but Spurgeon was obliged to execute an emergency wheels-up landing in the grassy apron of the Kota Bharu airfield.
Flt Lt Emerton of 1 Sqn RAAF:
...was also pursued by a fighter his crew described as a 'Navy Zero'. Like Hitchcock, Emerton quickly received some bullets from this attacker before his gunners could respond. He was able to avoid more damage by abruptly turning his bomber into the path of his opponent, forcing the Japanese pilot to overshoot ... Emerton seized the initiative and turned to chase the enemy fighter. Firing with his two nose guns, the aggressive bomber pilot startled his former pursuer into breaking off the attack on the other Hudson.

(From Fortnight of infamy: the collapse of Allied airpower west of Pearl Harbor by John Burton).

And that was just the beginning. Blenheims of 60 Squadron RAF joined the battle, and scored hits and suffered in return as their Australian colleagues had.

The engine from RAAF Hudson A16-19 on show at the Australian War Memorial. Author.

Another reason this battle isn't recognised as a starting point of this war is that while the attacks in Malaya occurred before the attacks on Pearl Harbour, because of the international date line, they occurred on the 8th of December 1941, while Pearl Harbor was attacked scant hours later, but on the 7th of December. History is full of tricks, but this is certainly an unusual case where a moment is almost forgotten; in part due to the tick of a clock on the turn of the earth.

Not quite forgotten of course. In 1995, the RAAF Memorial at Kota Bharu was established by the Australian Government and the Government of the State of Kelantan to "commemorate the first commitment of Australian combat units against the forces of Imperial Japan at Kota Bharu in the early hours of Monday 8th December, 1941". The memorial also honours the aircrew from No 1 Squadron RAAF who were killed in this action. (AWM Reference.)

In just over three and a half years from that 1941 December day when the undeclared war was unleashed by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor and Kota Bharu, the world was changed utterly. The full stop at the other end was the atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. The nascent militarist Japanese empire was crushed; Britain, victorious in the East and Europe was effectively bankrupt; America had gone from a semi-agricultural nation to becoming the biggest military industrial complex the world has ever seen; and Australia went from a nation that had sent the cream of its young men and forces to fight in Europe and the Mediterranean for Britain, to (as Prime Minister John Curtin said nineteen days after Kota Bharu) having a completely different orientation:
"Without any inhibitions of any kind, I make it clear that Australia looks to America, free of any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship with the United Kingdom.''
Some of the horrors, shock, confusion and shame of those early days of this war are easily overlooked in favour of more successful, later martial endeavours. But those who hold the enemy in the early days, despite the shortfalls of training and equipment, the strength and experience of enemy forces buy time for the necessary response, and later victory.


  1. A well-researched and pleasingly thorough piece, James. I've visited Pearl Harbor twice in the past three years and the attack's commemoration is, naturally, superbly done and extends to the atmosphere of the area. However, both times we were there, and whenever I see mention of the attack, I immediately think of Malaysia. From a Hudson point of view I am very much looking forward to reading David Vincent's The RAAF Hudson Story Book Two in the very near future for what will be my first proper and comprehensive look at what these brave men did so early on.

  2. Hi James,
    I just came across your article, "Remember the 8th that came before the 7th" and was pleased to see that at least someone made mention of this story as the rest of the world were talking about the 70th Anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbour.
    The following is a Letter to Editor which I sent last week to the Courier Mail in Brisbane. As far as I am aware it wasn't published.

    70th Anniversary of the Bombing of Pearl Harbour

    Seventy years ago this Thursday, the 8th December, just after mid-night, a young Brisbane man from New Farm raced from his barracks to his aircraft, a Lockheed Hudson bomber, which was parked on the airfield at Kota Bahru on the east coast of Malaysia just below the Thai border.

    It was about 12:30 am on the morning of the 8th December Malaysian time – 6:30 am on the 7th December Hawaiian time.

    It wasn’t long before Flt. Lieutenant Oscar Diamond, at just 25 years of age, was hurtling down the water logged grass airstrip in the middle of the night and heading his aircraft out to sea.

    And there below him was a flotilla of Japanese warships with landing-craft already disgorging hundreds of troops onto the beach.

    As Diamond flew in low over those ships he managed to drop a bomb on one of them, the Awasaki Maru, and by those simple actions, `Ossie’ Diamond was involved in the beginning of the war in the Pacific, while the residents of Honolulu were still sleeping.

    In a few short hours though, they would awake to the horrendous attack by the Japanese airforce as they bombed Pearl Harbour.

    Oscar Diamond went on to be awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his bravery while under enemy fire and later spent 3½ years as a POW eventually being released in Mukden, Manchuria.

    On the 14th September 1945 he was the one of first POW’s to return home to Brisbane where for many years he ran Diamond’s Dry Cleaning business.

    Oscar Diamond passed away on the 25th August 2003 and a plaque which was unveiled in his honour at RAAF Base Amberley in July 2004 bears the words: `The RAAF pilot who struck the first blow in the Pacific War’ - `A Rare Breed of Aviator, Officer and Australian’.

    Robert Swan
    Oscar Diamond's Son-in-Law