Monthly Archives: March 2012


On the first of March sixty years ago,  Japanese forces commenced their takeover of the vast island of Java in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). Only a few weeks beforehand they had conquered Singapore, Britain’s “fortress”, having swept down the Malay peninsula from landing points in the north. They then proceeded to push onwards through Sumatra in the west and the Phillipine and Molucca islands in the east.

                  Japanese invasion paths to the Netherlands East Indies                    (Malaya & Singapore top left, PNG at right & Australia at bottom)

Many people attempted to escape in all kinds of craft, but Japanese air and sea power put paid to many such efforts. Luckier ones made it either to the Indian Ocean and thence (usually) to Fremantle in Western Australia, or to the large islands of Sumatra or Java. Sumatra was no real sanctuary, as Japanese invasion of it had begun at the same time. As escapees there made their way toward Java, being variously aided or betrayed by locals, the Nips were on their tails.

Also in the days before the fall of Singapore, Dutch Rear-Admiral Doorman set out with a small Allied fleet northwards from Surabaya to join the fray, but were beaten back by Japanese fighter aircraft, as the invasion of that region of the Indies had already begun. The Dutch, British and Australian craft survived for the moment, only to come to grief later, along with USS Houston & HMAS Perth.

Japanese soldiers celebrate invading the west of Java

In the western highlands of Java, a hastily put-together collection of Australian and British soldiers called Blackforce put up resistance to harry the invaders and thus aid the escape of Allied forces and Dutch civilians. They were quickly betrayed and joined the thousands of unfortunate escapees from Singapore and elsewhere as POWs in atrocious concentration camps. (This was the situation depicted in the movie Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence, starring David Bowie.)

It took only eight days for the Japanese to establish beachheads at key points in the 900km-long island, securing the eastern port city of Surabaya on March 8. There was barely any resistance to speak of. It would be three and a half years before the residents were released from the Japanese yoke, and another four years before there was true peace, because of the struggle for independence by Indonesian nationalists.

Naval battle to the east of Surabaya

Here’s an extract from my novel Shadow Chase, available online now for Australian deliveries.   It is 8th March 1942, and Heleen, a Dutchwoman born in the East Indies, awaits her fate.

For Heleen Froger, the coming day was beyond prediction. Locked in her Surabaya bungalow, she was waiting for what would happen to her and little Eduard, waiting for Dirck to magically arrive home, waiting for the giant hand of God to pluck them away to safety. Safe from the Japanese.

When the Dutch troops had begun retreating in the face of the inevitable, panic had spread like contagion among the expatriate community. Heleen had felt it best to go nowhere, not without Dirck. But he – the fool! – had been off somewhere ‘doing his duty’ at some damned government office, and had then phoned to say he couldn’t make it home until late, but not to worry. Not to worry! She had fretted herself sick all through the night, at times peering through a crack in a window shutter into the darkness, as if that would make him appear. But he hadn’t appeared and then dawn had come, and with it a strange sound, a rumbly sound.

It was the sound of thousands of feet – feet in Nippon boots marching into all parts of the city. With it was a lesser noise, of little metallic creaks and clanks. Heleen had looked cautiously out and seen the source of it: bicycles! Bicycles being ridden or pushed by short, stocky men in dusty brown uniforms with old-style leggings, men in khaki cloth caps with sun-flaps over their ears and necks, men often with wispy moustaches and circular spectacles. Highly disciplined men following orders, occupying the city with virtually no resistance.

Surabaya in the 1940s

Then more waiting. Waiting all day with nothing happening, with no friends answering their phones, with government and military offices disconnected. Waiting in a state of extreme anxiety, fretting in her mind even as she played games with Eddie and pretended nothing was wrong. She half expected gunfire, screams and sounds of mayhem but, although she thought she’d heard the odd shot in the distance, all was quiet in her neighbourhood. The absence of signs of what was going on had made the tension worse. It had been worst of all when Eddie had his daytime sleep and she had nothing to do but wait in silence (the Dutch radio station had ceased broadcasting), fidgeting, fussing, praying. She had felt quite crazed by it all.

Now it was nightfall and Heleen was still waiting. Then it happened: a loud hammering on the door. Fearfully, she opened it a fraction…

[Most of the action of Shadow Chase occurs in the present day, and the events of the Pacific War and Indonesian independence struggle serve as a backdrop to what happens to some of the characters. The novel is now available at or, for Aussies, at Also available as paperback at]


When they heard a small aircraft buzz over Roebuck Bay on 2 March 1942, residents of the pearling town of Broome thought little of it.

After all, the town on the northern coast of Australia was a fueling and transit point for civilian and military aircraft, Australian, British, American and Dutch. The skies were often host to domestic flights, reconnaissance flights, and rescue flights to the East Indies and back. Flying-boats bobbed at mooring in the bay, some full of Dutch refugees, mainly women and children awaiting transit to Perth or elsewhere. The small plane disappeared.

Japanese aircraft attacks on northern Australian airfields during 1942-1943.Australian airfields attacked by the Japanese

Next morning at 9.30 am, nine more planes appeared in the distance. People noticed but at first assumed they were American planes returning from sorties. Realisation that the aircraft were in fact Japanese Zero fighters turned to panic as the enemy zoomed in on what were almost literally sitting ducks.

Only limited resistance could be mounted with no notice and, within an hour, the Zeroes had destroyed 16 flying boats in the bay and 7 aircraft on Broome airstrip, as well as doing a good deal of damage to the town and facilities. Only one Allied plane got aloft to do retaliatory damage, manned by a brave American. No operational Allied planes were left when the Zeroes departed.

Flying-boat in Roebuck Bay

Roebuck Bay was left covered with burning fuel and strong tides made rescue from the flying-boats even more difficult. Estimates of casualties range from 40 to 100, depending who’s telling the story. In any case, it is a fact that many were Dutch refugees. It is a sadly touching thing to read from the death list: Catharina aged 8, Frans 7, Elizabeth 5, Hendrik 4, Yohannes 1, “unknown Dutch child”, etc.

The first plane had of course been a Japanese reconnaissance flight. It had been launched from the island of Timor, which the Nippon forces had only just occupied. They wasted no time at all in mounting an attack on Australia. On the same day, they also attacked the small port of Wyndham, further along the coast.

Allied personnel fight back

Official censorship kept the attack secret for a while, but the leaked news eventually had a massive psychological effect on the Aussie population, especially in Western Australia, where preventive measures like blackouts and bomb shelters were stepped up.

There has long been debate about whether Japan intended to invade Australia, but the balance of probabilities is that they had no plan to do so, at least until Asia was subdued. The air-raids on Australia were most likely in order to handicap Allied ability to launch air strikes against Japanese targets, and also to damage Australian morale (like the submarine attack on Sydney Harbour).

For air raids on northern Australia:
For a Dutch view: ttp://
For a more detailed account (with good pics):
For more on Broome: