Relief map of Tarakan

Tarakan (117.587E 3.312N) was an oil port on an island in the Sesayap River delta of east Borneo, with production of about 5.1 million barrels per year from two fields near the center of the island. Tarakan measured about fifteen miles (24 km) from northwest to south. Facilities were limited except for the refinery and four oil loading piers, which were located at Tarakan town on the southwest coast. There was a small, miserable airstrip about a mile northwest of the town that figured prominently in the Japanese offensive against Borneo and the Netherlands East Indies. There was also a seaplane base with two underground fuel tanks having a capacity of 220,000 gallons each. The interior is heavily forested while much of the coast is mangrove swamp except around Tarakan town. The interior is rugged hills reaching to about 100' (30 meters). The population was about 7000 persons.

The island fell to the Japanese on 12 January 1942 and the Japanese immediately moved up elements of the Tainan Air Group to cover further moves south.

Tarakan oil was light sour crude: It contained enough volatile fractions that it could be used as fuel for ships without any refining, but it also contained enough sulfur to embrittle iron boilers. By 1944, the Japanese Navy was sufficiently desperate for fuel that it began using raw Tarakan crude in spite of the risk of serious boiler damage.

First Battle of Tarakan. The Japanese invasion force, led by Hirose Sueto, consisted of sixteen transports, four minesweepers, and two seaplane tenders carrying 2 Kure Special Naval Landing Force, 2 Base Force, and elements of 56 Independent Mixed Brigade (Sakaguchi). Air cover was provided by 21 Air Flotilla and the transports were covered by a strong escort of four light cruisers and fifteen destroyers. This force departed from Davao on 9 January 1942 and arrived off Tarakan on 10 January. Tarakan was the first major Dutch territory subject to invasion in the Pacific War, and the formal declaration of war by Japan on the Netherlands was delayed until the day of the invasion, although the Dutch had declared war on Japan on 8 December 1941. The delay in the Japanese declaration of war may have been intended to keep the Dutch from demolishing their oil fields before the Japanese could seize them.

The Dutch defenders, consisting of a single battalion of infantry (VII Garrison Battalion) plus some coastal artillery, managed to sink minesweepers W-13 and W-14 before being overwhelmed the next day. Because the Dutch commander had already offered to surrender at the time the minesweepers were sunk, the Japanese executed 219 men from the gun crews, who had not yet received a surrender order.

Seven B-17 Flying Fortresses attacking from Malang encountered bad weather, forcing four of them to turn back. The other three scored no hits.

The invasion force was much stronger than necessary for this operation, but the Japanese intended to continue working the force south to become the Central Force for the invasion of Java, the ultimate objective of the Centrifugal Offensive.

Photograph of Australian troops advancing on Tarakan

Australian War Museum. Via Wikipedia

Second Battle of Tarakan. The island was softened up by RAAF air attacks beginning on 12 April 1945. The beaches were a considerable hindrance to landing operations, consisting mostly of soft mud of which just 10 to 15 yards (9 to 14 meters) was exposed at high tide. The difficulties were further compounded by four rows of beach obstacles and numerous offshore mines, including magnetic mines dropped by Allied aircraft to hinder tanker access to the port. This meant several days would be required to clear the mines and obstacles, which in in turn meant there could be no surprise. The minesweeper echelon arrived off Tarakan on 27 April 1945 and swept 44 mines over the next four days, suffering damage to two motor minecraft. On 30 April, an artillery force was landed on tiny Sadau Island to provide cover for the engineers demolishing the beach obstacles and for the main landings the next day. While covering the engineers, destroyer Jenkins was badly damaged by a mine.

The invasion force, consisting of Australian 26 Brigade, 9 Division (reinforced to 12,000 men), arrived on 1 May 1945 (OBOE I). The Japanese defenders numbered 2100 troops of 455 Independent Battalion and 2 Guard Force. Following the pattern of Japanese garrisons elsewhere in 1945, the defenders put up little opposition to the initial landings.  By 1340 the piers were secured and could be used for unloading, which was fortunate, as the falling tide would have prevented unloading over the beaches.

Although the Australians reached the town and airstrip the day after the landings, it took the Australians another seventeen days to drive the Japanese offthe high ground north and northeast of Tarakan town. Some 1000 Japanese in small groups remained at large in the northern part of the island. Casualties were 255 Australians killed and 670 wounded. The Japanese suffered 1600 killed and 252 captured, one of the highest Japanese surrender rates in the entire war. A few troops escaped the island and made it clear across Borneo to Brunei Bay. Another 300 turning themselves in after the general Japanese surrender.

The Australians hoped the oil field would ease the logistics of their Borneo campaign, but the Japanese so thoroughly demolished the field that it took a year to bring back into production. The airfield also proved of little value, its drainage being so poor that it could not be made operational in time to support the other Australian landings in Borneo.

References (accesssed 2008-1-7)

Gilbert (1989)

Morison (1948, 1959)

Sommerville (1989)

Rottman (2002)

Willmott (1982)

Womack (2006)

Van Royen and Bowles (1952)

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