Extract from Always First by David Wilson
Oboe Three (Bandjermasin), Oboe Four (Surabaya or Batavia), Oboe Five (Netherlands East Indies), and Oboe Six (British Borneo). Of these plans, only Oboe One, Two and Six reached fruition and the ACS's had essential functions to perform during each. 1ACS and 8ACSs were involved in the first of these operations, the landing at Tarakan Island off the north east coast of Borneo on 1st May 1945.
The men and equipment of 1ACS were loaded on LSTs 624, 742 and 924 for passage to Tarakan. 8ACS were transported aboard LST 924 and 1035, LSMs 224, and 267. Leon Bloom was aboard LST 742 and has recorded that the sea was calm and that the orderly progression of the convoy was marred by the appearance of a Japanese reconnaissance aircraft after breakfast on Sunday morning 29th April.
The convoy arrived off Tarakan during the early hours of 1st May. At 7.30am the preparatory bombardment of Lingkas beach commenced. Half an hour later the assault force landed and pushed inland against ever increasing Japanese resistance. LSTs commenced unloading at 10 am, but it was not until 11.30am that the first 1ACS vessel was called to the beach. LST 742 grounded twice before withdrawing to anchor off shore. In all probability the honour of being the first ACS members ashore at Tarakan belong to Flight Lieutenant Baylis and his party from 8ACS, who landed, under sniper fire, from LSMS 224 at North Pier. At 10 pm LSTs 626 and 924 were beached and a 109 metre pontoon drawn up to the bow of the former to enable it to be unloaded. LST 742 approached the shoreline early next morning. However, due to the state of the beach, traffic congestion, and conflicting orders between the Army and Navy authorities, unloading was not completed until the early hours of 3rd May. A corduroy ramp was built by hand bulldozers having become bogged attempting the task through a nine metre high bank above the high water mark to enable equipment to be driven onto the road parallel to the beach. This access became greasy due to intermittent rain falling during the night of 2nd and 3rd May. Trucks lost traction on the timber and had to be winched up the slope. To maintain the integrity of the corduroy construction, vehicles were unloaded before attempting to clear the beach. Problems were not only on shore. When LST 626 the first to leave the beach attempted to reverse from the shoreline the assistance of Patrol Torpedo Boats, and other small craft was requested to produce small waves behind the ship to break the suction between the hull and mud. The waves also had a detrimental effect. The pontoon, loaded with trucks, tractors, and trailers broke loose and was not secured to an adjacent LST until the next high tide. It had been a difficult day. As the contemporary 1ACS unit history recorded `Pilot Officer Borcher (sic) is to be commended for his determination, cool headedness and leadership exhibited in the extremely difficult task of unloading this LST. Flight Sergeants Hardy and Clark, Sergeant Gillespie and the men of both squadrons ably assisted him.
The inland advance had not proceeded as quickly as anticipated. Space for the parking of equipment was a premium, and Flight Sergeant Excell toiled for 24 hours without rest to control traffic and allocate parking areas at the junction of Anzac and Collins `highways'. The men, under spasmodic sniper fire, established a temporary headquarters in a house east of the former road. A workshop was constructed and accommodation found in nearby houses. One flight assisted 2/13 Field Company to repair Anzac highway and liaison was established with the 2/24th and 2/48th infantry battalions with regard to defensive positions to be maintained by 1ACS and 8ACS personnel. Defensive posts were manned at the rear of the area occupied. The first night ashore was quiet, although there was evidence of enemy activity on features to the rear of Headquarters. On the night of the 5th May Japanese troops infiltrated into the defensive position. During the early hours of the morning a Japanese hand grenade wounded Leading Aircraftmen Stevens and Kleidon. Stevens opened fire and killed one of the intruders.
Plans to commence work on the airfield on D+2 were impossible to fulfill. It was not until 5th May that the Army occupied one side of the strip. Next day the airstrip was recaptured, but an inspection by Flight Lieutenant G.W. Barlow and other officers confirmed that the airstrip was badly damaged, waterlogged and infested with mines and booby traps the Bomb Disposal Unit deloused 114 mines during 6th and 7th May. 22 Bomb craters, ranging from six to eighteen metres in diameter and up to three metres deep, were filled with water to within 60 centimeters of the surface. Side drains had to be excavated and the bomb craters pumped out to enable the airstrip to be consolidated. Although 1ACS prepared a serviceable area to enable an Auster Army Cooperation aircraft to commence flying at 4 pm, it was evident that the airfield would not be suitable for operational use by heavier aircraft in the near future.
Nature and the enemy hampered rehabilitation of the airfield. Drainage ditches were dug and pipes were laid by unit members and native labour the saturated soil caused by the high water table meant that `machines were bogged everywhere'. Overnight rain left unconsolidated areas soft and the porous nature of the airfield caused construction problems. Rollers, used to compact the filling of bomb craters, bogged in the mire, and graders left deep ruts in the soft airfield surface. There was perpetual competition between water and men. Bomb craters, once pumped out, refilled with overnight rain and ground "seepage. Low quality gravel was obtained from two pits at Snags Track. Rain was a constant factor. However, by 18th May the drainage effort had progressed to the point where most of the surface water on the airstrip was being carried away. It was evident that drastic action was required to make the airstrip operational, and the ingenuity of the engineers was taxed. One of the techniques tested to enable consolidation of material in badly cratered areas was to excavate down to 60 centimeters below the permanent level required, level the floor with selected gravel and then construct a raft of heavy bridging timber and salvaged metal over the base. This `raft' was then covered with gravel. Another method of consolidating soft areas was by using a combination of bags and old petrol tins as fill.
On 30th May the men began the slow process of laying matting and slow progress was made on the runway. The first use of the airfield was made when a damaged American B 24 Liberator belly-landed on the strip on 21st June. On 28th June 1945 Wing Commander C. Read landed Beaufighter A8 196 on the airfield, to be followed by Kittyhawk fighters of 75 Squadron. The arrival of the aircraft caused a `great uplift of spirits' for all the troops, who felt that they had `at last mastered the weather and the conditions'.
Leon Bloom noted in his diary on Sunday 13th May that while assisting to lay drainage pipes on the strip he `heard bullets whizzing by from snipers in the hills'. Larger calibre weapons also interrupted the already slow progress. A 75mm gun, sited in the hills to the north east of the strip, shelled the airstrip in a desultory fashion. On 21st May a Gletrac F.D. tractor suffered a direct hit, obliterating the driver's seat and resulting in `the natives and whites (in the lead) racing from the strip with the shells blowing up behind them'. The Army captured the gun on 25th May, thus removing the danger. The Japanese, however, were adept at infiltrating defensive positions. On 6th May a 75mm shell was discovered under the house occupied by the cooking staff. The movement of the domestic camp to a site near the airfield on 24th May did not ease the defensive problem. During the night of 31st May Leading Aircraftman Daniels tossed a hand grenade at infiltrators, killing one enemy soldier. However, Sergeant Bradshaw was killed and Sergeant Essenberg wounded when a Japanese hand grenade exploded in their tent during the action. Army troops killed four Japanese soldiers attempting to cross the airstrip. As late as 7th June intelligence reports were received to the effect that the enemy proposed to stage a `banzai' charge, and defensive measures in the airfield area were coordinated by Flight Lieutenant Burnell, the defence officer of 1ACS.
Once the airfield became operational, its shortcomings became obvious. Landings could only be made into the east, and take off to the west. As Flying Officer Neville McNamara (later Air Chief Marshal Sir Neville) recalls `it was one of the few airfields in the world where one end rose and fell with the tide. There was in fact a bulldozer buried beneath the strip because it just sunk to such a depth that they gave up trying to get it out'. The loss of a bulldozer may be apocryphal, but the airfield was never an operational success. It required constant maintenance. Matting required lifting and replacing. In the words of the commander of 8ACS, Squadron Leader H.V. Davies, the airstrip `while serving its purpose, can only be regarded as a apology for an strip...' He criticised the intelligence information that was made available to the planners of the landing regarding the state of the airfield and of the availability of construction material, which he considered misleading `in every particular and conjecture must occur whether the Dutch deliberately misled the Army so as to have their oilfields restored'. Due to the inability of the engineers to produce a serviceable airfield from where fighter cover could be given to the subsequent landings at Labuan and Balikpapan, later studies have classed the Tarakan operation as a failure. The failure was not due to the superlative effort of the members of the Airfield Construction Squadrons involved, but may be attributed to weaknesses in staff work by the overall planners of the operation.