I love hearing about new books that have been hitherto unknown to me. While I try to keep my finger on the pulse of such things I certainly don’t proclaim to be across everything. Therefore, it is always a nice surprise to learn about a forthcoming book and even more of a surprise to stumble upon one recently published. This was the case when Peter Ingman, author and publisher, contacted me out of the blue late last year. He mentioned his new book, Zero Hour In Broome, and how it was written to set the record straight on what was the second deadliest air raid on Australia during the war. While not immediately my forte the book was intriguing as my knowledge was limited to a passing reference learnt at school and a very few magazine articles filled with photos of burnt-out aircraft and ‘general’ details of the massacre on board the flying boats moored in Roebuck Bay. Review it? Why not? If a book purports to challenge the status-quo then it must have good reason to.
In early 1942, as the Japanese swept all before them down the island chains of South-east Asia, Australia was reminded how ill-prepared its defences were when Darwin was bombed. The aftermath of this and subsequent raids resulted in Darwin largely being evacuated – its civilian population heading south. In the months leading up to the first attack on Broome (and Darwin a fortnight earlier), Japanese Mavis flying boats were very active in the north-west with attacks on shipping in particular being a regular occurrence. All of this activity, reaching further and further down the coast from Darwin, gave the Japanese a detailed understanding of not only the remoteness of the area but also the apparent light defences of the few ‘major’ towns in the region. Indeed, if anything, they over-estimated said defences but, arguably, were able to develop a much better ‘big picture’ of the military side of things than the senior Allied commanders charged with defending the thousands of miles of coastline that make up Australia’s west.
Broome is roughly the same distance – around 1,000 kilometres – from Timor as other towns in the area (Darwin, Wyndham and Derby). Its location on Roebuck Bay made it ideal for flying boat operations – extreme tidal movement aside – and the Americans in particular had recognised its small airfield was an important staging post for the expected withdrawal from the Dutch East Indies as considerable development work had been hurriedly and expertly completed by local contractors before the March 3 attack.
Indeed, it was Broome’s remoteness that made it an attractive destination for the evacuation flights. There was less chance of fighter interception due to the long over-water route. QANTAS, the Australian airline, had been ordered to set up operations in Roebuck Bay for this very reason after losing an Empire flying boat to fighters off Timor. Dutch airliners found Broome to be almost at the limit of their range but the skill and dedication of the aircrew meant they performed above and beyond what was expected of them time and time again and the civilian aircraft were a familiar sight as they shuttled evacuees to Broome and then south to the safety of the Australian cities.
This flurry of activity – RAAF aircraft, Dutch military and civilian aircraft and American heavy bombers – indicated the importance of Broome. The men flying in and out of the town knew it. The civilians and service personnel fleeing the clutches of the advancing Japanese were grateful for it. Even the Japanese recognised it. The senior commanders of the Allied forces in the region were perhaps the last to realise it, however, and Broome was, save for some local militia, defenceless when the Zeroes appeared on the morning of March 3.
The devastation caused by the Japanese fighters during this attack is certainly the most well-known aspect of the Broome debacle with several of the flying boats present – some alighting just hours before – being caught with their mostly civilian passengers still on board (the task of unloading them quickly at their moorings being another of Broome’s inadequacies). Carnage is really the only word that can describe the results of the Japanese strafing attacks. They left no aircraft untouched both on Roebuck Bay and at the airfield on the edge of town.
Understandably, the days after the attack were infused with panic. Rumours abounded and steps were taken to deny any Japanese force of useful infrastructure should an invasion seem likely. As with Darwin, large groups of people – not just Dutch evacuees - were flown and sailed south. Some even tried the overland route. Perhaps perpetuating many of the rumours, and certainly doing little to quell the rising state of panic, was the local American commander who comes across as quite highly-strung and prone to distraction. That said the evacuation of Broome was performed remarkably efficiently.
If anything, the attack stung command into action with a sudden realisation of just how vulnerable things were in the north-west. Within less than a month of the first attack – notwithstanding the second raid which resulted in the airfield being bombed and strafed – plans were underway to bolster the defences or to at least make it harder for the Japanese. These arrangements stood in stark contrast to the apparent neglect exhibited by senior commanders during the time leading up to the first attack. Surprisingly, it couldn’t be said that ‘heads were rolled’ because of this neglect. While resources weren’t numerous, there was a definite lack of initiative to use what was available – or at least direct it to where it would have been most useful.
The attacks on the northern coast of Australia (and the submarine attacks on Sydney Harbour) provided the ‘kick up the bum’ desperately needed by military commanders and the government. Australia had already been at war for more than two years and Japanese activity had been very aggressive (an understatement) since early December, 1941. Three months later, the northern coast – the area closest to fighting at the time – was grossly neglected in terms of military resources. Opinions at the time perhaps centred on defending the major cities and letting any invading force deal with the harsh and remote northern climes but this led directly to any form of transport in the northern quarter of the country effectively being open to attack at any time of day or night. Sadly, for the men, women and children in Broome fleeing the surprisingly unstoppable Japanese, this vulnerability was fully exploited on that sunny morning in early March, 1942.
ZHIB is an easy read. Its detail and level of discussion ranges far wider than what I’ve written above. Well-presented, this deceptively thin paperback gives equal treatment to the variety of people involved in the lead-up to the attack as it does to those who survived and then struggled to maintain an even keel in the confusing aftermath. While the people involved are introduced and discussed in the main text, the machines that attracted the attention of the Japanese in the Broome area are not forgotten. As much a study of the human aspect of the attack, ZHIB also provides a comprehensive understanding of the ‘hardware’ available to both sides at the time. ‘Profiles’ of the aircraft involved – Japanese, American, Australian, Dutch and British – abound and provide significant information for each type and the specific examples present at the time.
It is these profiles, however, that caused the greatest amount of frustration for me. All repeat considerable detail found in the main text so I was left with a distinct feeling of déjà vu which, in turn, raised questions about the proof-reading. However, the detail in these profiles allows them to be read as stand-alone ‘articles’. Simply reading the main text and ignoring the profiles would avoid this repetition although there are several instances where you catch yourself thinking “I’ve just read this.” With so much going on concurrently, particularly ‘peripheral’ things like the preparations for moving the civilian pearling fleet south, it was necessary to touch on an event or a person’s actions several times throughout the book either directly or in providing context.
In among all of this detail, activity and facts, the authors challenge many of the myths surrounding the attack and particularly tackle the accepted number of Dutch ‘officially’ reported to have moved through Broome. The ‘official’ number is 8,000 but the authors believe it was roughly a quarter of that. Similarly they ask questions of the command structure and its inability to forecast an escalation of Japanese activity in the region ... or even listen to those who knew the area and the danger it faced due to its proximity to Japanese territory and its remoteness from Australia’s major cities. Civilian organisations like QANTAS also come under the microscope with the Australian airline’s attitude towards the Americans in particular and sharing of resources being regarded as a possible contributor to the inefficiency of flying boat ‘handling’ in Roebuck Bay.
The important thing with all of these questions and alternate views is that the authors provide answers/reasoning that are at once sensible and clearly well-researched and referenced. Indeed, on that last point, each chapter is heavily footnoted and ably supported by a clear and extensive bibliography. Japanese sources are used to advantage, particularly when detailing the damage the surviving Zeroes returned home with – evidence of some resistance by those few men with access to weapons – and with regard to the two fighters lost. Perhaps the bravest action by one of the ‘defenders’ - Gus Winckel wresting an aerial machine-gun from his soon-to-be-destroyed aircraft and firing it ‘mounted’ on his forearm – is also scrutinised but done so honourably so as not to detract from his gallantry. The accepted outcome is challenged through logic, eye-witness accounts and referencing and while the authors reach a different conclusion, in no way do they ‘get personal’ with regard to this well-respected and determined pilot.
Coupled with appendices that span less than 20 pages but are phenomenally detailed (quick reference aircraft and vessel histories) and particularly sobering in places (groups of victims with the same surname), ZHIB offers an intelligent analysis of an event ‘everyone’ in Australia and Holland ‘knows’ of but is perhaps not ‘educated’ about (I know I wasn’t). It does so in a clear and effective manner with the authors taking obvious care to keep the language straight-forward and easy to follow. The text is illustrated by an impressive array of photographs and diagrams with the photos in particular not being ‘blown up’ to such an extent where their obvious grain detracts from the image. As a result there are many small images throughout but never is it a struggle to discern detail. Add to that a cover which cleverly combines a surprising amount of information and you’ve got a book that has become a landmark in the study of the war in Australia’s north-west. The authors refer to the official Australian war histories as the “obvious first resource”. With regard to the attacks on Broome I think ZHIB can be counted almost as a parallel resource.
ZHIB is presented as a crisp, clean paperback. Although less than 200 pages long the book has a solid feel to it and the organisation of the discussion and arguments is a perfect foil to the obvious disorganisation of the Broome defence situation.
It occurred to me this book should be considered by education boards as part of the curriculum for schools teaching Australian wartime history. While the avid adult reader of this genre will get a lot out of ZHIB, it is written in a way that will appeal to most ages and, despite the obvious ‘serious’ title of one of the authors, it never comes across ‘academically’ i.e. an effort to read.
I’ve seen the book in several stores and it is available direct from the publisher, Avonmore Books. While not an obvious bargain physically – it is not a huge book – it is well-priced in terms of content, both information and illustrations.