For those who have a little extra change in their pockets—for Americans perhaps thanks to a buoyed-up stock market from POTUS D. Trump’s first several weeks in office—a good place to spend that windfall on is Tom Lewis and Peter Ingman’s cleverly titled Zero Hour in Broome (2010). In a word, it is an excellent and eminently readable book, reflecting a lot of research and a lot of effort in putting it together. The book represents, at least in my ken, the most complete story of the March 3, 1942, raid on Broome, Western Australia, including reasons why it needn’t have been such a bloody fiasco for the ABDA powers. For technonerds, such as myself, there is an plethora of photos and color renderings of not only the relevant aircraft types, but the vessels that steamed, often briefly, into Roebuck Bay and Broome itself. The maps provided show various parts of the Northwest Coast of Western Australia, for those needing a refresher or an outright introduction to the region, as well as the air routes from Java so critical to understanding the IJN raid.
The air raid itself was only one of several mounted on the Northwest Coast, and the second worst on Australia after the Darwin strike. This surprise attack revealed the astonishing dichotomy that existed in the port town: the harbor and its essential flying boat anchorage were strictly under Australian control, whereas the airfield in the middle of town was by default under American supervision. There was almost no command liaison between them. Whereas the latter was a deal better organized than the former, neither had proper defenses by any definition. In fact, the U.S. Navy, rightly concerned about Broome’s proximity to islands not long before captured by the Japanese, had shifted its seaplane base and other ops to Exmouth Gulf, little farther from Tjilatjap than Broome. The authors discuss the various personalities involved, both at Broome and at a distance. One who does not come off well is Maj. Gen. Eric Plant, GOC Western Command, who in his allocation of almost no weapons, troops, or other resources to the Northwest, provides new definition for the term ‘neglect’. Perhaps significantly, Plant’s eventual successor was Maj. Gen. Gordon Bennett, a decided improvement.
As alluded to previously, the color renderings of the aircraft and ships involved in this expanded tale, replete with detailed textual descriptions and histories, are fine indeed. Never-before-revealed or rarely published photos accompany the book, e.g., one of Lieut. Jack Lamade’s SOC-3 Seagull, which he had flown off USS Houston and landed at Broome during the ill-fated convoy attempting to reinforce Timor. Another is of the B-24A Liberator that crashed on attempting takeoff the night before the raid.
In one of their later chapters, the authors demolish certain myths that have long attended the flying boat operations, the foremost one that there was an extensive general evacuation of the NEI (there was not), and its contrary-to-instinct corollary, that 8000 Dutch and other evacuees passed through Broome, which was repeated among others by Messimer and Womack, whose works are frequently cited in this forum. Perhaps the biggest blow to legend is the authors’ conclusion that the tail gunner of B-24A Arabian Nights shot down the attacking Zero even as the A6M shot down the American bomber-transport. Heretofore, the lionhearted Dutch naval pilot Gus Winckel has received credit for the kill, now likely untenable.
Another favor to history is the authors’ criticism of the official Australian military histories as being annoyingly, and perhaps intentionally, incomplete. This woeful tendency is not unique to Australia, but unfortunately extends too often to military histories throughout the British Commonwealth, where frank—and frequently brutal—truth is sacrificed to the school of history professing “All of our officers were gallant and all of our lads were brave and dutiful.” On page 90, the authors reveal that certain Australian historians have attempted to fob off part of the blame for the Broome tragedy on—who else?—the senior USAAF officer at the airfield, which Lewis and Ingman dismiss with, “Another factor to consider is the apparent Australian necessity for finding a scapegoat to help explain the disaster at Broome.” This despite the exemplar of the excellent U.S. Army Green Book series, where completeness and veritas headed the guidelines.
Yeah, there are some errors. That ABDA as abbreviating “Australian British Dutch American” (p. 26) escaped both authors and the editor must baffle the minimally knowledgeable reader. The authors carefully point out that for the sake of long familiarity, they use the English first names applied to IJA and IJN aircraft by the Allies, despite such nicknames not yet adopted at the time of the Broome raid. Quite acceptable, but they use “Zero” as one of those names (p. 20). That name was admittedly somewhat casual, but in frequent use by both the Japanese and the Allies. The correct name in the McCoy system was “Zeke”, in keeping with the multitude of first names for other aircraft.
And a couple of personal gripes: The print for the endnotes is so small that an electron microscope is needed to read it. Do the publishers think their target readership has a mean age of 17 fer crissakes? Too often, the first names of the principals in the story are omitted. This is simply not good history, and is handily rectified by a little more thorough research, quite often accomplished on-line. For example, Lieut. Lamade’s first name, Jack, is easily found in virtually any wartime history of USS Houston. IMO, the final Index could have been a deal more complete. Those nits aside, I enjoyed this book and it now resides in my library as a valuable reference source.