So, after a disk error wipes out part 2 of the AAR and all my notes, let the rewrite begin...
After the excitement of the Russian's opening salvoes, the next day is somewhat quieter, with assorted patrolling and advances. The rebels seem to be quiet in Brunei for the moment, and the Herc finally arrives there with the munitions for the A-4s, so they load up with an multipurpose assortment of ordnance (bombs, Mavericks, and Sidewinders). My ships keep cruising along, with the Newcastle catching up to TG Endeavour shortly before rounding the corner of North Sulawesi and heading NW. The SS Onslow has been preceding the TG, looking for subs, but she can't keep ahead of the formation any more, so she's assigned to keep patrolling here.
Intel lets us know about a suspicious LPG carrier, somewhere out west of Australia. A couple of F-18s go out for a look, and find it much closer than expected. They buzz it, and all seems normal. One of our coast-guard patrol boats is ordered out to meet the tanker, and will probably report in sometime in the evening.
The most activity is in the air, where two flights of F-18s get dragged north on a pair of tankers, hoping to catch the MiG-25s which keep pressurizing me over the South China Sea. Of course, when we get there the skies, which were full of signals from Bears and Flankers and MiGs, are completely empty! The planes press on much further NW than intended, and finally meet and kill a pair of MiG-29s, as well as an unexpected tanker, but it's a risky operation and they end up running away from packs of MiG-21s which come to investigate. They end up dumping unused missiles to increase fuel efficiency, then pick up the last dregs of gas from the two tankers, before finally meeting the third one half-way home with great relief. Overall, a bit risky, and not necessarily worth the effort.
The F-5s show how to do it more efficiently. We've taken to advance-basing one in Brunei, and it manages to pop out and whack an incautious Bear that comes too far south. Fortunately, the MiG-25s either don't spot us, or choose to ignore us, and the F-5 gets away. Another airplane from Brunei takes a moment to buzz one of the merchant ship contacts that we’ve been watching intermittently out by Swallow Reef. It turns out to be a Vietnamese frigate, not a merchant at all, and it’s presumably feeding the Soviets all sorts of spotting reports. But we’re not at war, so our forces (reluctantly) leave it alone.
Shortly after noon we get more Intel on that Russian convoy, P-9417. It contains multiple large merchants, and a big RORO, packed to the gills with all manner of Soviet military nastiness. HMS Spartan is on station off Cam Ranh Bay, waiting to ambush it, but relying on one sub to stop the convoy is not a sound strategy. I’d definitely like to hit the convoy much earlier and further away than that. The trouble is, that it is so far away that our strike assets can’t reach it in effective numbers.
That’s when the grinning P-3 guys put a folder on my desk labelled ‘Operation Dolittle’. The routes are reviewed, the figures are double-checked, and it all works out. The majority of the P-3s are ordered to finish their patrols, return to base, load Harpoons, and get some rest. They will have a busy night. (Naysayers point out that this will leave us very low on ASW assets in the meantime, but the potential payoff is very high. The operation will proceed.)
As dusk falls, the Patrol Boat Geelong is approaching the LPG tanker Berget Danuto. The ship has been cruising towards Darwin at a steady 18 knots all day, but now it’s nearly come to a stop, and the crew seems to have left in several small speedboats. As the watchkeeper looks on through his glasses, several plumes of white vapour erupt from the decks of the ship, coiling around it in a spreading cloud that obscures the vessel. The young sailor only has a moment to look to his officer with a puzzled expression, before the tanker vanishes in a cataclysmic flash that destroys it and everything around it.
Seismic stations in multiple nations record the effects of the blast, and WMD experts are quick to point out the catastrophic consequences if this had occurred in port. An immediate media blackout is clamped down over the event to prevent public hysteria and panic about further acts of sabotage. Dissemination of this information is on a need-to-know basis only.
GO FOR DOLITTLE
At 8:00 PM we get another Intel update on the convoy. HQ needs it destroyed before it gets to Vietnam, and they’re so serious about it that they’ve given us B-52s and tankers at Guam, and F-111s and RF-111s at Amberley, in order to do it. The trouble is, the first P-3s from Christmas Island are already lifting off to attack!
What the P-3 guys had pointed out was that if you take a P-3, load up 4 Harpoons, and throw out all the other useless stuff – the 8 torpedoes, 140 sonobuoys, racks of sonar equipment, the ASW operators, and even their chairs and snacks – you can get quite an impressive boost in fuel efficiency and range. It’s enough to fly up to the northern end of the Philippines and even get home again. Our first strike wave is composed of 8 P-3s at Darwin, 2 at Christmas Island, 2 at Butterworth, and 2 in Guam, plus two F-18s and their tankers, all lined up and ready to go for a time-on target of roughly 3:00 AM. Three more P-3s won’t be ready on time, so they’re scheduled to form a second wave three hours later.
The planners had considered delaying the attack for just one late wave, but the benefits of an attack in total darkness, delaying visual detection of incoming missiles, was judged superior to three extra planes in a dawn attack. Now, the B-52s can be added to the second wave, and their crews are hastily briefed on the ongoing operation. The F-111s, unfortunately, are too far away to participate in time. Operation Dolittle will proceed as ordered, and the first P-3s get underway on their six-and-a-half-hour journey to the target.
(Getting the partial loadouts requires a bit of editor work. Launch the plane, subtract the torpedoes and sonobuoys from the weapons screen, and then open the magazines in the base and add them back in there, to keep the accounting straight. A bit clumsy, but it works.)
At 8:30 we’re contacted by officials of the government of Papua New Guinea, requesting our assistance. Apparently, a small passenger plane has gone down in the mountains, and they’d like our assistance finding it. Why they think we’re in the rescue business, I couldn’t say, but we need to keep our allies happy, I guess. I only have three P-3s left in theatre, and the closest two of those are 1500 miles away to the south, transiting from New-Zealand to Darwin. One of them is diverted north to join the search, and one of our RF-111s is also sent to look for the downed fliers.
They participate in the hunt for the next couple of days, but nothing ever turns up. The jungle has swallowed the small plane tracelessly. (Some commentators wonder whether the plane suffered mechanical failure, or whether there was some sort of rebel activity which shot it down. So far we don’t know.)
It had to happen.
At 2:11 AM on the 16th, the captain of HMAS Westralia makes a sudden Mayday call. His vessel has been struck by a missile, and more are coming in. He makes a desperate attempt to alter course, but the action is futile, and more missiles hit, turning the Westralia into a flaming wreck and sinking her within minutes.
Westralia, full of vital supplies for the American carrier groups, had been transiting the narrow strait between Seram and Buru Islands alone. Its ‘escort’, the Newcastle, had long since dashed ahead to join TG Endeavour, when the Westralia diverted to pick up a helicopter from Darwin at the start of the operation. The finger pointing starts the moment the news reaches base. Why don’t they have P-3 cover? (They’re all off to attack the convoy, right?) Why wasn’t the strait swept in advance? (It had been, by TG Endeavour and P-3s when it passed through – but the day before.) There’s plenty of time to play the blame game… (It was a reckless decision of mine to send the Westralia out alone, trusting that what was safe yesterday was safe today. Bad idea, and a mistake which keeps biting me in multiple scenarios. Even more heartbreaking was that before I changed my mind and decided to divert for the helicopter, I had it going through a different strait, which would have avoided the issue!)
We know the missiles didn’t come from a surface ship (passing P-3s have seen nothing on radar), and the possibility of a shore-based launcher is remote, so that means a submarine. I had expected SSs or SSKs in this region, but this is probably an SSGN, either a Charlie or maybe an Echo. My other ships have been travelling radar-off, but if there are SSGNs down here I can’t do that any more. Each group of ships is ordered to turn on at least one air-search radar. So much for stealth, but stealth doesn’t help if you’re dead.
The other question is how the Westralia was spotted. It could easily have been the sub itself, but the possibility of shore-based spotters can’t be ruled out. After all, this happened in the very narrowest part of the strait. Some observers even wonder if the Indonesians are complicit in this, trying to exert pressure on our forces to join their push against the East Timorese.
It’s near 3:00 AM, in the dead dark of early morning, when our P-3s converge on the location of Convoy PQ-9417. The Philippine F.27-200MAR has been tracking the convoy from a safe distance, using its powerful radar, and it vectors the P-3s and F-18s in to strike the convoy from the south-east, in its left flank.
There are 11 ships, in a 13-mile-long formation, but their radars are off, and we have no idea which ship is which. Our 14 P-3s and 2 F-18s have 60 missiles between them, and they unleash them in a broad salvo along the entire length of the convoy. The P-3s turn and leave as the missiles drop away to cruise quietly through the night. The enemy doesn’t react until the missile heads turn on, and then the entire fleet lights up, but by then its much too late. The F-18s can see dull distant flashes of light through the clouds, and the loitering F.27 starts losing contacts from the back of the formation. The missiles are getting through.
By the time ten or fifteen minutes have passed, the radar operators report that they only have two contacts left on radar, conditionally identified as a pair of cruisers, and they’ve slowed to approximately 6 knots. The F-18s, who have been refuelling, duck below the clouds and report a distant orange point of light in the direction of the convoy. Someone is burning.
The P-3s of the second wave are ordered to turn back now, and take their missile home with them. They will resume ASW patrols as soon as they can rest their crews and reload. Meanwhile, the B-52s will continue to advance, and they duly arrive at dawn, and finish off the remaining two cruisers without undue difficulty. HMS Spartan, loitering patiently off Cam Ranh Bay, is going to have a very long wait indeed.
THE AIR OFF BRUNEI
Once the F-18s have refuelled they aren’t ordered directly home. Instead, they’re sent to the South China Sea, where they attempt to pounce on the MiG-25s from an unexpected direction, but once again all the planes vanish as I arrive. It’s infuriating! Fortunately, this time a second pair shows up, and my pilots manage to shoot both of them down, and another tanker. Interestingly, a glimpse of the MiGs shows they’re not fighters. They’re the Wild Weasel version instead, and all this time I’ve been tiptoeing around in fear of planes which would not have been able to harm me.
Abruptly, radar operators on the ground in Brunei start calling out Vampire contacts, and my heart sinks. Has another Blinder flown in to sink another tanker? Or is an SSGN about to start destroying my oil platforms? I’ve already taken plenty of damage to the oil infrastructure, and any more could decisively limit our war objectives. Instead, as the contact courses are refined, it looks like the missiles are headed for my Bruneian airbase instead.
The ready F-5 is scrambled immediately, then the A-4s, and anything else which can fly, just to get them off the ground before the missiles can hit. Fortunately, there don’t seem to be too many of them, and the fighters manage to get them all. However, the F-18s report radar contacts on more missiles further out to sea, and it’s becoming apparent that we’re under attack by the SLCMs of a Yankee Notch. It’s probably somewhere off the coast of Vietnam, which means we don’t have a hope of finding it. The one saving grace is that the distances are so large, and the reload rate on a Yankee Notch is so slow, that we have time to fly in more F-5s from the Philippines. Between Sidewinders, cannon, fire, and the F-18s acting as off-shore radar pickets, my forces manage to intercept all the missiles, and keep both airbases safe.
Except, of course, there’s always a leaker or two, and we gradually get reports of a blast at the Shell Oil facility between the bases. The buildings are furiously aflame, and despite their best efforts the local fire-fighting units are unable to stop the conflagration. The facility burns for a day, choking the air with black smoke, until it is completely destroyed.
The destruction of the convoy is excellent news, of course, but it’s almost entirely offset by the loss of the Westralia, and further damage to the oil infrastructure in Brunei. Our forces are definitely pulling ahead, and the sinking of those cruisers will give us more freedom to operate in the theatre, but the lack of supply will definitely slow down the pace of upcoming carrier operations.
The next task is to get our remaining supply ships safely to their destinations, and we can’t afford any more screwups. All it would take is one undetected sub (or, God help us, a minefield) to completely wreck the pace of future operations.