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Roebuck Bay
Broome Flying Boat wrecks

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On March 3rd 1942 nine Japanese Imperial Navy "Zero" fighter aircraft attacked the small town of Broome that was used as a refuelling point for allied seaplanes. The raid occured at a time when allied aircraft were evacuating personnel and refuges during the invasion of Java by Japanese Forces.

 

During the air raid the Japanese fighters succeeded in destroying all but one of the operational military aircraft located in Broome at the time. This included 15 flying boats at anchor in Roebuck Bay, 7 aircraft at the airfield, a Dutch DC3 over Carnot bay and an American B24 Liberator which was shot down 7 miles out to sea off Cable Beach. The B24 has never been relocated.

The attack lasted an hour with only light resistance from the ground forces stationed in Broome. The lack of defences at the time allowed the Japanese fighters superiority throughout the attack and they succeeded in attacking the airfield, destroying 7 aircraft and sinking 15 flying boats at anchor in Roebuck Bay.

Tragically the Dornier, Catalina and Short Empire flying boats in Roebuck Bay were occupied by Dutch civilian refugees that were being evacuated from Java at the time.

Approximately 80 men, women and children, many of whom will never have their identities known, lost their lives on board the sunken plane wrecks; five of which are exposed on spring low tides on the mud flats off Broome's Town Beach. The 15 sunken wrecks lay scattered on the edge of the mudflats descending into a deep water channel a kilometre from the local boat ramp. On spring low tides, five of the flying boat wrecks can be accessed on foot.

During the attack, further north, a Netherlands DC 3 was shot down over Carnot Bay north of Broome carrying refugees and a box of diamonds said to be worth 20 million dollars in today's currency. On inspection of the wreck site nothing could be found of the valuable cargo but nearby a seal of the Dutch Embassy from the box was found discarded on the nearby beach.

Exposed at low tide: Of the 15 flying boats sunk during the Japanese attack, 6 sunk on top of the mudflats extending out from town beach. On a low spring tide beneath 1.1m they are exposed on the drying mudbanks, tourists can walk out around a kilometre from the town beach boat ramp and walk around the deteriorating wreckage of a number of Catalina wrecks and Dutch Dornier flying boats.

Although little remains of the wrecks, the flying boats are easily visible from the town beach carpark, it is best to arrive before low tide and allow 15 minutes to walk out to the wrecks and then return as the tide begins to turn.

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Above: exposed wreckage at low tide with the town of Broome in the background. Top: A PBY5 Catalina wreck being submerged as the tide comes in

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A Wright Cyclone R1820 radial enginer from a Dutch Dornier on display in the Broome Museum - Well worth a visit for their excellent displays including the March 6th attack on Broome.

The Deep Wrecks: The remaining nine flying boat wrecks lost during the attack all foundered in deeper water off the edge of the mudflats. Some are still to be located. A number of surveys have been completed by the WA Maritime Museum locating most sites through side scan sonar. A number have been dived and been confirmed as sites associated with the Japanese attack. Over the decades it is also known that local divers from Broome have visited a number of the sites with artefacts donated to the local museum and anecdotal stories of 303 caliber machine guns being used as garden ornaments attracting the attention of authorities. 

Following our 2021 dives on two PBY Catalinas the BBC ran a small online video segment featuring our work and the history of the attack.

Diving the deep wrecks can be very challenging, uncomfortable and due to the large tides and currents in the area, Roebuck Bay can only be dived at certain times otherwise the area is to be considered far too unsafe to dive. The area of the wreck sites can experience currents up to 4 knots and area is located near the mouth of a tidal mangrove system that has occasional crocodile sightings. Visibility is poor due to the currents and tidal flow surrounding mudflats and a diver could expect at best 3 metres of visibility at worst 0m vis. The sites are best dived in the middle of the year when water temps are lower leading to less organic matter in the water column, this is also however the time of year when easterly winds blow onshore stirring up visibility in the bay, so it really takes the stars to align to dive these sites. On top of the previously advised preferred conditions the main factor in diving the site is diving during times of low tidal flow. Generally diving around neap tides (small tides) is advised as with any strong current, visibility will be non-existent and swimming against the flow will be impossible. For that reason, diving with surface support is extremely important and a lookout should be present when diving the sites in case a diver is unable to return to the vessel and being swept away. Generally diving the neap tides at the top of the incoming tides a day or two after the smallest tides would theoretically bring cleaner water over the site and better diving conditions. Divers should be warned that the site often has reports of large sharks and saltwater crocodiles, there is an increased risk of dangerous marine life interactions at this site.

Site 03 - PBY 5 Catalina

Due to the site being considered a war grave in need of protecting from interference the GPS location will not be listed.

Site 3 was identified as a Dutch PBY 5 Catalina site due to the two 14 cylinder twin radial engines on the site. The site had a depth of 10 metres when dived during neap tides on a high tide of around +5.0m for the Broome tide station. The site consisted of the wing structure with one engine cowling still intact but with both engines dislodged from the wing structure. One engine sits upright with the propellor still intact with the second engine with it's propellor down in the mud. Adjacent to the upright engine, the nose area of the aircraft is still visible. The windscreen of the cockpit has deteriorated away and at the nose of the aircraft, the forward gun turret is easily distinguished. Due to being somewhat shallower, visibility on the dive was around 2.5 metres as a shallower depth allowed slightly more natural light to penetrate the site. Only one successful 3D model was completed on this site due to the challenging conditions of completing the dive.

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Site 02 - PBY 5 Catalina

Due to the site being considered a war grave in need of protecting from interference the GPS location will not be listed.

Site two was also confirmed as a PBY 5 Catalina due to the engines and wing configuration of the wreckage. This site was slightly deeper at 14 metres max depth on a +4.8m tide height for the nearby Broome tide station. Visibility was down to nearly a metre on this site at a time when conditions should have been at their best. One standout feature of this site was a complete engine still in its cowling standing upright balanced on its propeller rising up 4 metres off the seafloor. Most of the site consisted of the wing structure, a small section of the aircraft's fuselage, the wings seem to be upside down as one of the float supports reach upwards. A modern danforth anchor found in the wreckage suggests the site is used by fisherman. Unfortunately, all 3D model attempts including the impressive engine position failed due to poor conditions for site recording.

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