Zero Hour & Carnot Bay

By March 1942, the Japanese military domination of South East Asia by its land, sea and air forces, had reached the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). With the invasion of Java only a matter of days away, the allied command decided that the only remaining option for the Dutch nationals to escape from Java was an evacuation by air. The logical and realistic safe haven at this stage was Broome, a sleepy pearl fishing town near the top of Western Australia, a distance of 900 kilometres (nine hours) by air from Java.

Unfortunately events transpired that turned this idyllic location into a tragic nightmare. On the morning of March 3rd 1942, Broome was packed with allied aircraft. Flying boats were moored overnight in Roebuck Bay, whilst bombers and transports were arriving and departing from the town airstrip. At 9.30, nine Japanese Zero A6M fighters peeled off to the attack. Some thought they were aircraft of the Australian Air Force doing a flyby. They made three to four strafing attacks with very accurate canon and machine gun fire. In no time the fuel laden flying boats were exploding in fireballs and sinking. The people inside the aircraft fortunate enough to escape the hail of gunfire, died in the burning waters as the leaking fuel and oil caught fire.

Those unfortunate enough to survive the burning fuel, were only to be taken by sharks. The remaining handful of survivors were picked up in small boats after being carried out to sea by the strong tide. The survivors told of the horrific sights they had seen, and the ghastly injuries people had suffered. The Japanese attack on Broome took Australia and the world by surprise. Nobody thought that an air attack would be mounted on the Australian mainland, or that it could be so fast and so devastating.

In just twenty minutes, twenty-three allied transports, bombers and flying boats were either burning furiously on the airstrip, or sinking in Roebuck Bay. The awful irony of this tragic attack is the fact that the Japanese Commander Shibata had no idea who, or what was in the aircraft. All he knew was that here was a large concentration of allied aircraft in an area with no defenses, and therefore legitimate military targets.

Aerial view of the Broome region

Present day aerial shot, taken from the end of the airfield, looking towards Roebuck Bay
Image copyright WA Museum

Although the town of Broome was straffed during the attack, it was not the prime target. In a letter to Merv Prime (Author of Broome's One Day War) in the late 1970's, Shibata, the Japanese Commander apologised by saying "..Please accept my apologies if some stray bullets fell into the town". The Japanese pilots concentrated their fire on the moored flying boats and the aircraft on the town airstrip, the Imperial Japanese Navy killed scores if not hundreds of innocent civilians whose only crime was simply to be caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. Over the course of the previous two weeks 8,000 Dutch and other Allied civilians were airlifted out of Java to escape the Japanese invasion. They were transported by a collection of aircraft from different nations, RAAF, USN, RAF, KLM, USAAF and the MLD using Catalina, Dornier and 'C' Class Empire flying boats, plus B17, B24, DC3 bombers and transports.

Crashed plane from World War Two battle

Burnt out bomber on the Broome airstrip. Photo Via J.D. Rorrison
Image copyright WA Museum

The flights took about seven hours to reach the‘safe haven’ of Western Australia. On any one day, up to 57 aircraft were arriving and leaving Broome. On the morning of the 3rd March, 15 flying boats crammed with civilians were moored in Roebuck Bay, an assortment of transports and bombers were also on the town airstrip. All the passengers stayed on the flying boats overnight due to the lack of accommodation in Broome, plus the infamous 8 metre tides hampered ship-to-shore ferrying. Most aircraft were being refueled for the journey to Perth and other mainland destinations, whilst others were arriving after the long flight from Java.

Aircraft Destroyed

The twenty-five aircraft destroyed as a direct result of the attack included:

  • 5 x Dornier Do24 (Marine Luchtvaardienst) flying boats
  • 2 x Consolidated LB30 Liberator (USAAF) bomb/transport
  • 2 x Boeing B17 'Flying Fortresses' (USAAF) bomber
  • 1 x Lockheed Lodestar (NEI) (bomber/transport
  • 2 x Douglas DC-3 Dakotas (NEI) transport
  • 2 x Mitsubishi A6M Zeros (Imperial Japanese Navy) fighter
  • 8 x Consolidated PBY Catalinas (USN/MLD/RAF) flying boat
  • 2 x Short S.23 'C' Class Empire' (BOAC/QEA/RAAF) flying boats
  • 1 x Lockheed Hudson (NEI) bomber/transport

The Carnot Bay Episode

Following the attack the Zero's headed up the coast en-route to their base on Timor. They were not expecting any more action and were therefore surprised to intercept a Dutch DC-3 airliner approaching the WA coastline near Carnot Bay.

Soliders boarding a World War Two bomber

Soliders boarding a bomber plane
Image copyright WA Museum

Partially submerged plane at the Broome coastline

Exposed wreckage of a flying boat in Roebuck Bay. The massive spring tides in Broome expose these hulks every year. The deep water wrecks are the subject of The Zero Hour documentary
courtesy Merv Prime

Two soliders seated on

Army personnel sitting on a Japanese drop-tank from one of the attacking Zero fighters. These fuel tanks gave rise to the mistaken belief that Broome was bombed
courtesy Merv Prime

Broome Aftermath

Following their successful raid on Broome, the remaining eight Japanese Zero’s, well pleased with the morning’s pickings headed up the WA coast to their base onTimor. They were not expecting any more action and were therefore surprised to intercept a Royal Dutch East Indies Airlines DC-3.

The aircraft, piloted by the celebrated Ivan Smirnoff, had left Java with eleven persons on board bound for Broome. Just before he left Java, Smirnoff was handed a small package wrapped in brown paper, he never opened it and had no idea what it contained.The Japanese wasted no time & quickly shot the DC-3 down. With his aircraft on fire, Smirnoff managed a brilliant crash-landing on the beach at Carnot Bay just north of Broome. The Zero’s continued straffing the crashed aircraft and wounded some of the passengers. During the five days on the beach, four people died of their wounds including a mother and her 18-month old baby. To add to this, the day after the crash they were bombed by a large Japanese flying boat returning from a reconnaisance of Broome.

Initially, the flying boat dropped biscuits, but upon intercepting the downed aircrafts distress signals, and assuming that Australian fighters would soon be on the scene, they promptly dropped bombs as well. Following their harrowing ordeal, Smirnoff was questioned by the authorities about the package. More worried about protecting his passengers than the package, he was surprised to learn that it contained a vast fortune in diamonds. They had been retrieved from Amsterdam to avoid being taken by the invading Germans and were to be held by the Commonwealth Bank in Australia for safekeeping. The diamonds had a value of $300,000, which translates to about $20,000,000 today.

In the ensuing weeks after the crash, a local fisherman noticed the aircraft and searched the wreck site, in doing so he found a small package, he said that he only found a few of the stones! Following long drawn out court cases, only a small portion of the diamonds were ever recovered. Stories abound as to where they may have ended up, from Aborigines to fishermen and locals in Broome. It would seem that a vast fortune in diamonds is still unaccounted for. Wreckage from Smirnoff’s DC-3 still lies entombed in the mud at Carnot Bay.

A film crew examining a world war two plane

The Prospero crew and members of WAMM at the Carnot Bay site
Image copyright WA Museum

The B24 Liberator Crash

An American Consolidated LB24 Liberator was shot down just after take-off during the raid, killing 33 personnel aboard. This aircraft is thought to have crashed into the sea about 10 kms off Cable Beach. There were no eye witnesses to the actual crash and judging by the direction the wind was blowing on the day (Japanese aerial photo) it is thought that Roebuck Bay may be the site. It has been found that these servicemen were all wounded aircrew on their way to Perth and other hospitals in Australia, therefore were unable to survive the crash considering the aircraft went in at a shallow angle. Only one man (Donoho) survived the crash, reaching shore 24 hours later. There are reports of a second survivor who died on the beach, but there is no proof of this statement. It appears to have originated from a Chicago Herald newspaper article.

The Lost Zeros

The only allied ‘kill’ that morning was a Zero fighter, shot down by a Dutch airman, Flt Lt ‘Gus’ Winckel, who grabbed a machine gun from his aircraft as the attack began. Resting the heavy calibre aircraft machine gun on his arm, he hit a Zero piloted by Warrant Officer Osamu Kudo. The Zero caught fire, trailed smoke and vanished into the history books. Kudo never returned to his base in Timor and nobody actually saw his machine crash, but stories abound as to where he may have gone down. The wreckage and his remains could be in the sand dunes or ocean anywhere between Broome and the top of Western Australia. This same Zero was responsible for shooting down the LB24 liberator.

A second Zero crashed into the sea off a small island near Roti Island on its way back to base on Timor. Following a two hour swim to shore, the pilot was rescued and returned to his squadron. This machine ran out of fuel no doubt due to to the extra half hour over Broome, plus it was suffering from battle damage. No search has ever been mounted for the wreckage of the LB24, the remains of Kudo's Zero, or the Zero of Roti Island.

Portrait Warrant Officer Osamu Kudo

Warrant Officer Osamu Kudo
Image copyright WA Museum

Portrait of Flt Lt Gus Winckel

Flt Lt Gus Winckel
Image copyright WA Museum

The Film Story

Western Australian based film company Prospero Films (Dive School & Paying for the Piper) are currently producing a series of three films The Shipwreck Detectives dealing with underwater wreck sites in WA waters. The Zero Hour is one of these stories. Prospero Films organised for the handful of surviving aircrew to be in Broome during the filming. Their interviews form the background of the story. 

(Link: Link to the production of Bay of Fire

The WA Maritime Museum were tasked with the finding of the wrecks, excavating the artefacts and conserving the site for future generations.