THE BATTLESHIP RICHELIEU
On August 9, 1944, the XX Bomber Command sent 54 of its B-29 Superforts to the Royal Air Force Base at China Bay, Ceylon. Their mission was named Operation Boomerang. The bombers, from all four Groups in India, staged overnight, and on the next day, launched a strike against the Pladjoe Oil Refinery at Palembang, Sumatra. After dropping their bombs, they returned to China Bay. The 4,000 mile round-robin flight over the Indian Ocean was the longest combat mission of any flown in World War II.
Since its capture by the Japanese, the Royal Dutch Shell Refinery was producing most of the aviation fuel used by the Japanese Empire. A few planes in the strike force were the first B-29s to lay mines in combat. They dropped mines in the Moesi River, the waterway to the refinery, while the other bombers dropped high explosives on the refinery complex.
Allied Operations Staff Officers who planned the mission were unaware of the serious lack of cooperation between the Southeast Asia Fleet Commander and the Free French Commander of the battleship Richelieu. Before Operation Boomerang was completed, their differences neared the breaking point, and had an unsettling impact on the B-29 aircrews.
The RAF base was located on the northeast coast of Ceylon near China Bay, a large anchorage where the entire Southeast Asia Fleet was anchored. A disabled battleship, named Richelieu, was tied up at a pier only 600 feet from the landing threshold of the base's 7,000 foot east-west runway. The huge ship weighed 35,000 tons, and was more than 800 feet long with a vast superstructure topped by a 150-foot mast. The ship was moored directly astride the approach path for planes landing to the west. Its mast extended into a landing plane's glide path.
Fortunately, the prevailing wind required planes to land to the east. The Richelieu did not pose a hazard to the small fighters, light bombers, and rescue aircraft stationed at the RAF base even when the surface wind forced them to land to the west down the runway from the ship. However, the battleship would be a critical hazard to B-29s if they attempted to take off to the east or land to the west. An additional hazard was presented by a large hill, topped by oil tanks, south of the Richelieu. If a pilot had to land to the west, he would make a right-hand traffic pattern, look across the cockpit, and make a blind right turn onto the cross wind leg of his pattern.
Orders from the Allied Fleet Commander to move the Richelieu before the arrival of the B-29s was ignored. The Free French Commander refused to allow anyone to approach his ship, and was unmoved by the RAF Commander's explanation of the risk involved should a B-29 have to land to the west or take off to the east.
When the bomber stream from India approached the RAF base, the Pilot of the lead plane was ordered to make a right-hand traffic pattern and land to the west. After making a few choice objections about the battleship, the Pilot complied with the order. His B-29 crossed over the bow of the Richelieu in a steep turn so near to the ship, that the planes prop wash blasted a group of French sailors who were lounging in that area. They quickly scampered to safety.
The right wing tip of the B-29 almost scraped the ground as the Pilot rolled his plane out of the steep turn and lined up over the center of the runway. After holding the plane airborne to bleed off excess speed, the Pilot made a hard landing about halfway down the runway. One by one, the remaining 53 bombers made the same type approach with a variety of smooth and hard landings. It was a miracle that every plane landed without any damage considering the hazards presented by the Richelieu and its 150-foot mast.
That evening, an elderly, portly RAF Pilot told a B-29 Pilot how much he enjoyed watching the B-29's approaches and landings. Then he laughingly called the event, "A Yankee Air Show." The B-29 Pilot responded with a harsh criticism of the RAF Pilot's Commander for not having the Richelieu moved away from the airport traffic pattern. The B-29 Pilot spoke for all Yankees.
Launching of the strike force was scheduled for the following afternoon, and the Richelieu Commander was ordered to move his ship before take off time. During the final briefing, the RAF Commander advised the aircrews to not worry, because the ship would be moved. A few Pilots voiced their concern that since the wind was blowing from the east, take off would be directly toward the ship and its mast. The ship must be moved. The RAF Commander repeated his assurance. It would be moved before take off time. He did not know that the Free French Commander intended to show his true feelings for Operation Boomerang.
When the B-29 aircrews climbed aboard their planes and started their engines, they could see that the big ship had not been moved. The field's wind sock was fully extended indicating the wind to be 10 to 15 miles an hour. It also indicated that the wind was blowing from the east. This meant that take off should be toward the Richelieu. When it was time for the lead aircraft to taxi to the take off end of the runway, tension on every plane built to an incredible level.
Suddenly, an American voice on the tower frequency directed the lead Pilot to taxi to the end of runway 27 (which was next to the battleship, and meant take off would be downwind away from the ship). The voice reported the surface wind to be light and variable, but mostly calm! The lead Pilot called attention to the wind sock, and asked for a recheck of the surface wind. He also gave a strongly worded objection about the ship being in the take off path.
The American voice came back in a sharply worded reply that repeated the order to taxi to the end of runway 27. Then radio transmissions stopped. The Pilot led a stream of B-29s as ordered, and at the briefed time, he applied engine power and thundered down the runway. All eyes on the other 53 planes were focused on the lead B-29 as it slowly gained speed. Near the end of the runway, the Pilot eased the nose wheels off the pavement in the correct lift-off position, but the main wheels remained solidly on the ground. Then just as the plane was about to roll off the runway, the plane lifted off the ground ever so slowly, and the Copilot quickly moved the landing gear switch to the UP position.
All of us felt relieved. Providence had provided an open bay several miles wide to the west of the airfield, and the lead Pilot used this advantage by flying level as he gained speed. He skimmed so dangerously close to the water that we could see a giant wake formed by the engine's prop wash. Eventually, the wing flaps were retracted and the plane gained enough speed to start a climb to cruise altitude. In spite of the tail wind and short runway, the remaining 53 bombers staggered off the ground safely, and proceeded on their way.
While the strike force was airborne, the Free French Commander continued to be pressured to move the Richelieu. Finally, he grudgingly consented. When we returned to the base some 19 hours after departing, the Richelieu was anchored far from the runway. The aircrews were so tired during the debriefing that little was said concerning the battleship or the downwind take off. One Pilot asked, "Who was the American in the control tower who gave us the wrong surface wind information?" None of the debriefing team members seemed to know. The aircrews were too tired to argue, so after eating a hot meal, and taking a hot shower, they turned in for a well-deserved rest.
This successful launch of 54 B-29s under hazardous conditions was an example of the prime strengths of the aircrews and support personnel of the four Groups of the XX Bomber Command. B-29 aircrews displayed the required skill, discipline, and enthusiasm for their assigned combat mission. The Superforts were maintained in superb condition by dedicated maintenance personnel, and when a malfunction occurred, corrective action was swift and sure. Evidence of this testimony is apparent in this final story.
I can personally attest to the difficulty of making a downwind take off at China Bay. Our crew had to make two of them. Shortly after taking off with the strike force, we had an oil leak that forced us to return to the RAF base for a heavyweight landing. Once the leak was repaired, and the fuel tanks topped off, we made another downwind take off on runway 27. By then, we felt that the Commander of the Richelieu was not on our side.
* From Ira V. Matthews' Eighty-one War Stories. *