The Death Knell of the British Empire

Sixty-five years ago, the victorious British Army arrived in what is now Indonesia on what they believed was a humanitarian mission. Instead, the British walked unwittingly into a war of independence, the first step along a path that has led the army through many messy post-colonial conflicts and ultimately to the quagmires of Afghanistan and Iraq.

The flashpoint was the port of Surabaya in eastern Java. On October 25, 1945, a brigade of Indian troops sailed into the harbour on a mission to locate and repatriate prisoners of war and civilians interned by the Japanese. They were unprepared for the heavily armed nationalist militia that controlled the city. Five days later, their commanding officer, Brigadier A. W. S. Mallaby was dead, along with a couple of hundred of his men, and the British were haplessly embroiled in the independence struggle between the Indonesians and their Dutch colonial rulers.

British and Indian troops advancing in Surabaya in November 1945

How this came about, and what happened over the next year, remains instructive.

Asia and the Japanese war had been secondary to strategic thinking in both London and Washington. Beating Hitler had been the prime objective. But while the Americans with their industrial strength and large population had been able to prosecute a vigorous campaign against Japanese forces in the Pacific, the British effort in Burma had been a hand-to-mouth, sometimes desperate affair.

The abrupt end of the Japanese war on August 15 posed a new challenge: how to administer the vast areas still occupied by the Japanese. There had been an agreement that the British would be responsible for Burma, Thailand, Malaya and Hong Kong. But at the Potsdam Conference in July, the Americans had unexpectedly asked the British to take responsibility for Indonesia and part of Indochina. The British had little intelligence on local conditions. It did not help that halfway through Potsdam Winston Churchill lost the historic general election, and Labour’s Clement Attlee took his place at the conference table.

The situation was complicated by American determination to discourage the return of European colonial rule. Although the Americans had greatly increased the burden on British forces in Asia, they also refused to make merchant shipping available to help them. This made it hard for the British to fulfil their duties with any speed.

In charge of Southeast Asia Command (SEAC) was Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten. His orders were to occupy surrendered territory, repatriate prisoners of war and maintain good order until civil power could be reconstituted. Logistically, it was an enormous task, even without opposition. At his disposal were the battle-hardened 14th Army, fresh from victory in Burma, plus limited naval and air resources. But the British troops — about one-third of the total — were eager to return to Britain, where the Labour government was setting about the new Jerusalem, while their Indian comrades knew that their country’s independence was only a couple of years away.

In addition to the British, there were three conflicting forces in Indonesia. The Indonesians, under the nationalist leader Sukarno, had declared independence on August 17, and were determined to resist the return of their former masters. The Dutch were equally determined to reoccupy their wealthiest colony, but civilians and the local garrison had just been released from nearly four years in captivity and it would take many months to train and ship fresh troops from the Netherlands. Finally, there was a large Japanese army, whose task under the ceasefire terms was to maintain law and order until the British could take over. However, many of its senior officers were complicit in encouraging and arming the Indonesian resistance.

The objective to which the British devoted all available resources was RAPWI — the recovery of Allied prisoners of war and civilian internees. This was a mammoth task, for PoW camps were spread across all Japanese occupied territories.

The situation, especially in Java, was murky. Colonial rule was unpopular, the Dutch having been often brutal masters. Nationalist feeling had been growing throughout the 20th century, giving rise in particular to a militant youth (Pemuda) movement. It was Japanese policy to encourage the natives of the lands they conquered to turn away from their former masters, so long as they remained firmly under Tokyo’s thumb.

In late 1942, Queen Wilhelmina had broadcast from exile an offer to form a sort of Dutch Commonwealth, which would allow self-government to Indonesia and other colonies after the war.

As the war turned against them, the Japanese increased their support for the nationalists and in particular Sukarno, who had collaborated in sending several hundred thousand of his compatriots to Japanese labour camps. The Japanese army had begun to give military training to Pemuda groups in 1944. After the capitulation, some local commanders transferred weapons and ammunitions to the militias, strictly against the terms of the surrender.

Nationalist feeling was strong across Java, but the Pemuda were most heavily armed in the east around Surabaya. As August moved into September, Sukarno and the new nationalist authorities took nominal control of the chief cities, including Batavia (as Jakarta was known under Dutch rule), Bandung, Semarang and Jogjakarta. However, their control of the Pemuda was tenuous.

During the same period, Allied PoWs and Dutch civilians liberated themselves, though many remained in or around the camps in which they had been held. Among them was Lieutenant — Colonel Laurens van der Post (despite his name a British soldier), who began his own survey of the situation. Dutch officials tried at local level to re-establish their control, but were prevented by the Indonesian authorities, which had managed to restore some services. Worse, many Dutch, Eurasian and Chinese civilians were attacked by Indonesian militants. The Japanese mostly did their best to protect the former captives, but not always successfully.

The British plan, such as it was, was to occupy Batavia and Surabaya, establish working relationships with all who mattered and evacuate the POWs. However, while their orders were to avoid getting actively involved in supporting the Dutch, a civil affairs agreement drafted two years previously in fact committed them to handing over control to the Dutch as soon as possible. In the event, the British managed this contradiction with common sense and restraint, but it caused them great trouble.

The British did not appear in force for more than a month after the Japanese surrender, although RAPWI teams and some officers from Force 136 — special forces used in the post-war period in a quasi-political role — were parachuted into Java earlier. 

On September 15, a naval flotilla under Rear-Admiral Julian Patterson steamed into Jakarta harbour. Van der Post went aboard immediately, warning that violence was widespread and would get worse.

Events rapidly deteriorated, with widespread attacks on “anyone with a white face”, as one veteran later recalled. The plight of civilians was particularly desperate. Often their only protection came from the very Japanese troops who had until recently been their jailers. The British realised they were in trouble. Mountbatten put Lieutenant-General Sir Philip Christison in charge, and ordered the 1st Battalion Seaforth Highlanders to Batavia. The rest of 23rd Division was to follow, but would not arrive in force for weeks. The Seaforths were immediately in action, suffering the first British casualties of the campaign, but bringing limited order to central Batavia.

Batavia and other cities were festooned with liberation slogans written in English. This fact was not lost on a foreign press corps which initially at least outnumbered uniformed Britons in the city.

Christison persuaded one Dutch official to rebroadcast Queen Wilhelmina’s 1942 proclamation, which was greeted enthusiastically by Sukarno, but repudiated by the nominal Dutch Governor-General, Hubertus van Mook. He did not assist matters by arriving in Batavia with a uniformed staff bearing side arms. Several Dutch former PoWs had attempted to return to military duties in Batavia, despite often poor physical state. They were regarded by the British as undisciplined and trigger-happy.

Matters got worse as October progressed. Christison’s prime concern remained RAPWI, and the conditions at some of the main camps were deteriorating. At Ambarawang, in central Java, militia had shelled the camp, provoking the Japanese troops in the area to retaliate. Outnumbered Gurkhas sent from Batavia fought desperate battles to rescue civilians, and were glad of Japanese assistance. Further west, at Bandung, Japanese units under Force 136 direction temporarily cleared the city of armed nationalists.

But it was in the east at Surabaya that the situation was most acute. The Pemuda had acquired large stocks of Japanese guns and ammunition and taken over the city. There were several thousand Dutch and Eurasian civilian internees as well as more than a thousand PoWs in the area. The problems in central Java meant that more internees were also directed to Surabaya.

On October 25, 49 Brigade sailed into Surabaya harbour. The CO, Brigadier Mallaby, had been a major-general on Mountbatten’s staff during the war, and had dropped a rank to gain experience of command. He is remembered as a humane, thinking soldier who preferred jaw-jaw to war-war. It was a battle-hardened brigade of 4,000 Indian infantry, but many of its officers, such as Mallaby, had recently arrived from staff jobs.

An initial foray by Mallaby’s intrepid brigade intelligence officer, Captain Douglas MacDonald, established contact with the local commander, Moestopo, who agreed not to oppose 49 Brigade’s landing. Moestopo told MacDonald that Soerio, the political leader of Surabaya, had wanted him shot and thrown into the harbour. Detachments of troops began to land and move to positions throughout Surabaya. Brigade HQ was established near the port. One memoir of this day recalls the pervasive atmosphere of menace, with armed men peering from the shadows. Around Surabaya there were in fact at least 20,000 heavily-armed and well-trained members of the TKR, the new Indonesian army, as well as at least 100,000 armed Pemuda irregulars.

A relatively amicable meeting took place on October 26 during which Mallaby assured the Indonesians that he had no Dutch with him and that his task was evacuating PoWs and the Japanese garrison. The piecemeal advance of 49 Brigade continued, closely monitored by the Indonesians. The main refugee camp at Darmo, with 6,000 Dutch and Eurasian civilians, was occupied.

Matters seemed to be proceeding reasonably well. Although suspicious, the Indonesians were not directly opposing the British. Mallaby had chosen a bold course, relying on his ability to talk his way out of trouble and the swift movement of his experienced troops through Surabaya. But he knew that they were spread out and horribly outnumbered.

Disaster struck on the morning of October 27. Unknown to Mallaby, a British plane flew over Surabaya dropping leaflets requiring all Indonesians to surrender their arms within 48 hours or be shot. The leaflets were signed by the CO of 23rd Division, General Douglas Hawthorn, safe in his Batavia HQ. Hawthorn was loathed by most of his subordinates who regarded him as over-promoted and over-fond of the good life: his ADC, Captain Dirk Bogarde, was reputed to keep him supplied with women.

Mallaby told Moestopo that he had no choice but to break his agreement and enforce what he regarded as an order. He begged for understanding but from that moment meaningful contact was lost with the Indonesians. Despite this, troops continued to land and move into the city, while civilians continued to be moved from smaller camps to Darmo.

On the afternoon of October 28, the TKR and Pemuda struck all across the city, killing 11 British officers and 44 Indian other ranks in a matter of minutes. Numerous small outposts were overrun, and a lorry convoy with hundreds of Dutch and Eurasian women and children was attacked with great loss of life. Fighting resumed at first light next morning and the situation became desperate, as many detachments were short of ammunition. Survivors recalled the attackers’ reckless ferocity.

Mallaby contacted Christison, who persuaded Sukarno himself to fly to Surabaya to negotiate a ceasefire. This was only partially successful, and on October 30 Gen Hawthorn arrived to talk to Sukarno and Mallaby. It was agreed that the British would regroup and continue extracting internees, allowing the Indonesians to hold the centre of town. Whatever the terms negotiated by Sukarno, many Indonesians thought the British had surrendered. When they realised this was not so, fighting began again. Sukarno and Hawthorn had meanwhile returned to Batavia.

Against the advice of Force 136, which had been in the city for several weeks, Mallaby went to the centre of Surabaya to negotiate the cessation of attacks on a company of Mahrattas besieged in the International Bank, a large office building. Having achieved a momentary respite, he sent his Brigade Major and a Force 136 officer to deliver a protest to the nearby TKR HQ, but they were killed by the mob. Unaware of their fate, Mallaby gathered a group of moderate Indonesian leaders and toured under a white flag through the centre of Surabaya, calling for calm. This did not work.

The convoy was surrounded by an armed mob in the square in front of the International Bank, and the moderates melted away. Mallaby and two officers remained in their car, unarmed except for a concealed grenade, while another officer was allowed to enter the building to talk to Major Venu Gopal, the Mahratta company commander. Mallaby seems to have wanted the Mahrattas to be allowed to lay down their arms and leave the building, in the hope that some at least would survive. What his orders were, and what was said inside remains disputed, but within 15 minutes the Mahrattas opened fire on the armed Indonesians pressing into the building and “soon cleared the square”. Major Gopal — no desk warrior he — later testified that the order to fire was his and his alone. Stranded in no-man’s-land, Mallaby was shot dead in his car by an Indonesian youth, who was himself killed by the grenade thrown by the junior officers. 

“The shock of Mallaby’s murder went through the army like a lightning bolt,” according to my father, Louis Heren, who was in Surabaya with Force 136. “We thought we were the good chaps who had won the war and been sent to help people get on with their lives. Instead, we seemed to be the most hated people on earth. After that we took no chances.”

A ceasefire of sorts was patched up the following day, allowing isolated British units and some civilians to be withdrawn to their base round the port. The Surabaya militants were jubilant, but the British reaction was not long coming. Christison sent 5th Indian Division — some 10,000 men — with tanks and air support to recapture Surabaya and, though this was not publicly acknowledged, to teach the Indonesians a lesson.

The second Battle of Surabaya raged from November 10-29, and is thought to have cost the lives of 9,000 Indonesian fighters. November 10 is commemorated as Heroes’ Day in Indonesia.

For the British, the Surabaya episode confirmed that they could not trust Indonesian politicians to control their people. As the British could not leave Java until the Dutch had returned in force — at which point it would be their problem — they focused their attention on maintaining order in the bridgeheads and continuing to succour PoWs and vulnerable civilians.

This involved constant patrolling and low-level skirmishing, with occasional bigger battles. The British adopted a tough policy at local level, executing anyone caught with a weapon and burning villages in reprisal for attacks. Neither British nor Indian troops were enthusiastic about risking their lives, and there were occasions when Japanese troops were re-armed to help the British fight. Major Gil Hickey, a Gurkha company commander, recalled being allocated a Japanese company to assist in the rescue of hostages held in Bandung in March 1946. He explained his plan of attack with gestures and sketches. The Japanese were to attack first, and the Gurkhas to finish the job. “I watched the Japs closely as they went in. Couldn’t fault ’em — absolutely first-class!”

The Attlee government was under pressure from unfavourable press comment as well as left-wingers in its own ranks to bring about a settlement. In early 1946, Archibald Clark-Kerr, who had been ambassador to Moscow during the war, was sent to Batavia to broker an agreement. Clark-Kerr was a most unconventional but brilliant diplomat, and on his way to be ambassador to Washington. He took the task seriously enough, though like many British in Java he was both beguiled by the ease of Batavia life and puzzled by the unreality of the situation.

His ADC, Frank Giles (later the editor of the Sunday Times who bought the forged Hitler Diaries) recalled that the Indonesians were impossible to pin down, while the Dutch were primarily interested in drinking cold beer. The two men whom Giles thought got closest to an agreement were the two mystics, van der Post and Prime Minister Sjahrir. “They both had large liquid eyes, into which they gazed at length,” he told me, “but nothing ever came of all their communing.”

Clark Kerr also sent Giles to Force 136 headquarters to stop them assassinating Sukarno, an act which the special forces had proposed would break the logjam.

RAPWI was largely accomplished by summer of 1946, and the British made it clear to the Dutch that they would quit Indonesia before the end of the year. Lord Killearn then brokered the Linggadjati Agreement, under which both sides agreed in principle to form a United States of Indonesia under the Dutch crown. The last British troops departed in November 1946, leaving behind 1,022 dead and missing. The Dutch, after fighting a bitter war against Sukarno’s forces, acknowledged the independence of the Indonesian Republic in 1949.

The story of what happened in Java at the end of the war is complex and tragic. For the Indonesians, it is the proud foundation of their independence story, learned by every schoolchild. For the Dutch, it remains a painful memory of a crushing loss. In Britain, it is completely forgotten. Yet there are reasons to recall our intervention, especially as our overstretched armed forces are once again facing stringent cuts.

The commitment to Indonesia was dumped on the British by the US, and was most unwelcome at the end of six years of desperate war. SEAC was short of men and transport, and everyone was keen to get home. The army conducted itself with courage and determination, despite a greater-than-usual reluctance to risk life and limb. It started learning the lessons of guerrilla warfare and peacekeeping that stood it in good stead during the retreat from empire, right through to Northern Ireland.

A shortened line was held in Java, barely, by an inadequate number of men. Politicians who commit British forces to action need to ensure they are properly resourced. And, when it becomes evident that the task is beyond them, they must find the courage to withdraw them with due speed.

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