Oil Fields, Refineries and Storage Centers
Under Imperial Japanese Army Control

By Bob Hackett

Sumatra's location in relation to Sri Lanka (Ceylon), Singapore, Borneo and the Philippines and the Operation "Boomerang" B-29 Route from China Bay to Palembang

© Bob Hackett 2013-2016
Revision 4

During World War II, the Japanese Army controlled the former Royal Dutch Shell oil refineries in Sumatra including Pangkalan Brandan and Pladjoe (Pladju) and Standard-Vacuum Oil Company's (Stanvac) refinery at Sungei (Soengai) Gerong.

The oil refined at the small Pangkalan Brandan refinery in northern Sumatra was transported to port facilities at nearby Pangkalan Susu and from there directly to Singapore, Malaya and other locations in the region.

The center of oil production was at Prabumulih, 43 miles from Palembang in southern Sumatra, now the second-largest city in Sumatra, after Medan. Crude was transported via pipelines to the large Pladjoe refinery, a few miles north of Palembang.

Palembang, situated about 50 miles inland from the Banka Strait, was the site of two oil refineries constructed about 4 miles E on the S side of the Moesi River. The Nederlandsche Koloniale Petroleum Maatschappij (NKPM), an American owned Standard Oil refinery was built on the E bank of a tributary known as the Komering River. The Bataafsche Petroleum Maatschappij (BPM) refinery, owned by Royal Dutch Shell Oil, was built as two separate installations, one on the W side of the Komering River opposite NKPM and the other on the S bank of the Moesi.

On 15 February 1942, a time-delayed Dutch demolition charge exploded and destroyed about 80 percent of Standard Oil's NKPM refinery, but the Japanese 2nd Parachute Raiding Regiment captured the BPM refinery at Pladjoe intact because although the Dutch demolition charges set the oil stores ablaze they failed to do any serious damage to the refinery. The Japanese later named Pladjoe the "No. 1 Refinery" and was managed by Nihon Sekiyu. It was capable of refining 45, 000 barrels a day and its speciality was high octane aviation gasoline production.

Japanese paratroops landing in Palembang, Sumatra

Prewar, Stanvac, a joint venture between Jersey Standard (Esso) and Socony-Vacuum (Mobil), also operated several oil fields and transported its crude to its Sungei Gerong refinery, east of Palembang city. After the Japanese captured Sungei Gerong they named it the "No. 2 Refinery". It was also capable of refining 45 000 barrels a day and was managed by Mitsubishi Sekiyu. Together, these two refineries - the largest in Southeast Asia - had a reported annual capacity of 20,460,000 barrels of crude and were capable of producing 78 per cent of Japan's aviation gasoline and 22 per cent of its fuel oil.

The Japanese Army used mostly smaller captured British and Dutch tankers to transport fuel across the Musi (Moesi) River. The Musi joins the Ogan and Komering rivers near Palembang. Below Palembang, the Musi is deep enough for ocean-going vessels and about 50 miles north it enters the Bangka Strait.

Japan’s wartime demands for fuel were so great that almost daily trips were needed to transport the oil from Sumatra to Singapore for shipment to Empire and other distant destinations. Fuel also was transported either in bulk or by case (tins) to the smaller more remote locations in and around Malaya and the former Dutch East Indies.

Asiatic Petroleum, a subsidiary of Royal Dutch Shell Oil, formerly owned storage centers at Pulau Bukum and Pulau Sebarok near Singapore. Refined product was brought from Sumatra and stored in these captured storage centers near Singapore. Round trips from Palembang to Singapore and back, including loading and discharging fuel, averaged about one week, but many trips took longer, indicating possible loading and unloading difficulties and/or ships' engine troubles and perhaps groundings.

Left-Map of N Sumatara Showing Pangkalan Brandan, Pangkalan Susu, Medan and Belawan Right-Map Showing Palembang, Medan, Bangka in Sumatara and nearby Malaya (Malaysia)

The remote location of the captured refineries in Sumatra permitted their operation by the Japanese with impunity from Allied attack until the Combined Chiefs of Staff meeting at Cairo, Egypt in November 1943. The Cairo Conference (code named “SEXTANT”) was attended by President Franklin D. Roosevelt of the United States, Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill of the United Kingdom, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek of the Nationalist Republic of China and the British and American Combined Chiefs of Staff. The purpose of the meeting was to address future military operations against Japan. One of the important agreements made was to inititate very long range range (VLR) bombing of vital targets in the Dutch East Indies in 1944.

Left (British) from front: Unknown, General Hastings Ismay, Admiral of the Feet Andrew B. Cunningham, General Alan Brooke, Air Chief Marshal Charles Portal, Field Marshal John Dill, and unknown.
Right (American) from front: Admiral Ernest J. King, Admiral William D. Leahy, unknown, General George C. Marshall and General Henry H. Arnold.

On the night of 10/11 August 1944, the USAAF launched "Operation Boomerang." Fifty-four Boeing B-29 "Super Fortress” heavy bombers of the Twentieth (XX) Bomber Command’s 358th (Very Heavy) Bomb Wing at Chengtu, China staged through the newly completed 7,200-foot strip at RAF China Bay, near Trincomalee, Ceylon (Sri Lanka) to make a night radar attack on the Pladjoe refinery at Palembang, the first since its capture. The B-29s flew individually from China Bay straight to Siberoet Island, off Pandang, Sumatra and then direct to Palembang.

Left- World War 2 Twentieth Air Force Patch Right-444th Bomb Group B-29 "Super Fortress” heavy bombers with their distinctive diamond tail markings

A dozen planes failed for various reasons, but 39 reached their primary targets, two bombed the secondary target of Pangkalan Brandan refinery, one an airdrome at Djambi and eight mined the Musi River through which all of Palembang's exports were shipped. Only nine B-29's of the 444th Bomb Group reached Palembang and were forced to bomb through heavy overcast. They dropped 36 five-hundred pound GP bombs and 16 photo flash bombs. The results at Pladjoe were unobserved, but later deemed poor. As a result, no other B-29 raids were staged through Ceylon.

The 462nd Bomb Group "Hellbirds"eight minelaying B-29s had better luck. Dipping under the 1,000-foot ceiling to only 500 feet above the Musi River, they strafed Japanese ships and sowed 16 mines - the first such mining use of B-29s. They claimed three ships sunk, damage to two more and closed the river approach to the refinery for a month.

Left- 444th Bomb Group Patch Right-462 Bomb Group Patch

The 3,855 air mile, 19 hour, 40 minute flight from Ceylon to Palembang and the companion 4,030 air mile flight to the Musi and back were the longest single-stage flights made by USAAF combat aircraft in WW II. The British Eastern Fleet set up an elaborate air-sea rescue force including light cruiser HMS CEYLON, destroyer HMS REDOUBT, submarines HMS TERRAPIN and HMS TRENCHANT, smaller vessels and various aircraft types. The submarines, based at Trincomalee, patrolled W of Sumatra and acted as radio beacons.

One B-29 was lost on return because of fuel starvation and went down at sea, 90 ninety miles off China Bay. Planes and HMS REDOUBT homed in on a "Gibson girl" signal from the B-29's life raft. One gunner was killed in the ditching, but the other crewmen were picked up. This B-29 was the only one lost in the raid.

In conjunction with the long distance raid on Palembang and to maximize pychological impact on Japan's war leaders that same night the 444th Bomb Group flew a 3,120 air mile mission and bombed Nagasaki, Japan from 18,000 feet. Seven B-29s hit their primary target.

On 5 November 1944, the XX Bomber Command launched 76 B-29s from Kharagpur, India (W of Calcutta) on the USAAF’s first raid on Singapore. Each aircraft was armed with only two 1,000 pound bombs because of the extreme range to Singapore. The primary target was the former Royal Naval Base’s King George VI Graving Dock and the secondary target was the refinery at Pangkalan Brandan. Fifty-three B-29’s bombed Singapore while seven attacked Pangkalan Brandan.

On 20 November 1944, Rear Admiral (later Admiral of the Fleet/Sir) Philip Vian’s British Task Force 67 launched Operation "Robson", the first of a series of attacks on oil installations in Sumatra, collectively known as Operation "Outflank". "Robson" was an unsuccessful air strike on the Pangkalan Brandan refinery by carriers HMS INDOMITABLE and HMS ILLUSTRIOUS escorted by light cruisers HMS ARGONAUT, HMS BLACK PRINCE and HMS NEWCASTLE screened by destroyers HMS KEMPENFELT, HMS WAKEFUL, HMS WESSEX, HMS WHIRLWIND and HMS WRANGLER. Twenty-eight Grumman “Avengers”, 16 Grumman “Hellcats” and 16 Chance-Vought “Corsairs” attempted to attack the refinery, but because of bad weather over Pangkalan Brandan had to divert to the secondary target’s oil refineries, railway and harbor installations at Belewan Deli, Sumatra.

On 4 January 1945, Rear Admiral Vian’s Task Force 63 launched Operation "Lentil", a successful air strike on the Pangkalan Brandan refinery by carriers HMS INDOMITABLE, HMS VICTORIOUS and HMS INDEFATIGABLE escorted by light cruisers HMS SUFFOLK, HMS CEYLON, HMS ARGONAUT and HMS BLACK PRINCE and the 25th Destroyer Flotilla's HMS GRENVILLE, HMS UNDAUNTED, HMS URANIA, HMS URSA and HMS UNDINE and Destroyer 27th Flotilla's HMS KEMPENFELT, HMS WHELP and HMS WAGER.


The carriers launched 92 Avenger and Fairey “Firefly” bombers escorted by Hellcat and Corsair fighters. Sixteen fighters attacked the nearby airfields and 32 Avengers and 12 rocket-firing Fireflies escorted by 12 fighters bombed the refinery. Two aircraft were lost, but the crews were rescued. The fighters shot down two Japanese aircraft and destroyed seven others on the ground. Heavy damage was inflicted on the refinery, oil storage tanks, a small tanker was set on fire and two locomotives were hit. Seven enemy aircraft were shot down by the escorting fighters.

At 0600, on 24 January 1945, Rear Admiral Vian’s Task Force 63 returned to Sumatran waters, this time off Palembang, and launched Operation "Meridian One", a successful air strike on the refinery at Pladjoe. Forty-seven Avengers, 10 Fireflys and 48 Hellcats, Corsairs and Supermarine "Seafire" fighters attacked and badly damage the Pladjoe refinery while 24 fighters swept the airfield. The striking force was intercepted some miles short of the refinery and met considerable fighter opposition and anti-aircraft fire. Fourteen Japanese aircraft were shot down and six were probable kills; 34 were destroyed and 25 damaged on the ground. Seven aircraft failed to return to their carriers.

Refinery at Pladjoe under attack during Operation "Meridian One" at Palembang

On the night of 25/26 January 1945, the XX Bomber Command, as part of its anti-shipping campaign, began minelaying missions during full moon periods. Forty-one B-29s of the 444th and 468th Bombardment Groups laid six minefields in the approaches to Singapore. On 27/28 February 1945, ten B-29s laid 55 mines in the Straits of Johore near Singapore. On 28/29 March 1945, 22 B-29s also laid mines near Singapore. No aircraft were lost during these missions.

On 29 January 1945, Rear Admiral Vian’s Task Force 63 returned to the waters off Palembang and launched Operation "Meridian Two", this time the target was the Sungei Gerong refinery on the opposite side of Musi River from the refinery at Pladjoe. Forty-eight Avenger bombers, 12 Firefly and 40 Hellcat, Corsair and Seafire fighters attacked and badly damaged the Pladjoe refinery while 24 fighters again swept the airfields at Lembak and Tanglangbetoetoe. Drect hits wrecked important sections of the refinery including the cracking plant and power-house areas. Seven Japanese aircraft were shot down and three probably destroyed. Nine carrier aircraft were lost, but the crews of eight were rescued. During landing operations, a group of 12 Japanese bombers attempted to attack the carriers, but the attack was broken up by fighters, which shot down seven.

The two attacks on Palembang were the largest strikes by the Royal Navy's Fleet Air Arm during World War II. After the attacks, the refineries were completely out of action for two months and remained at a much reduced capacity for the remainder of the war.

On 12 March 1945, the XX Bomber Command launched three B-29 bomb groups to attack oil storage facilities on Bukom and Sebarok islands just off the south coast of Singapore and those on Samboe Island, a few miles south near Batam Island, Dutch East Indies. Forty-four B-29s reached the target area, but because of poor weather had to use blind bombing techniques that caused little damage. On the night of 29/30 March 1945, 29 B-29s again attacked Bukom Island from altitudes between 5,000 and 7,000 feet. This raid destroyed seven of the 49 oil tanks on the island and damaged three others. No B-29s were lost in either attack.