Monthly Archives: November 2012

ARMISTICE DAY (Remembrance Day)

November 11th is celebrated as Remembrance Day, which was originally to recall the end of World War One and for sombre recollection of the terrible slaughter. Ever since then, it has been used for reflection upon the slaughter of all wars.

British Bren gunners in Surabaya

In Surabaya, East Java, on this date in 1945, fierce fighting continued between Indonesian nationalists and British troops who’d been sent there to release former prisoners of the Japanese (who’d occupied the Dutch East Indies, as the country was then) and to keep the peace until Dutch was government reinstalled. However, local nationalists suspected the Brits of wanting to hand their land back to colonial rule, and armed conflict broke out. On 9 November, the Allied command issued an ultimatum that all unauthorised arms must be handed in immediately. The Republicans refused to be cowed, and next morning the British forces commenced operations to occupy the whole city.

There was savage fighting, including hand-to-hand combat, but the Indonesians rarely seemed to lose courage. Allied artillery and aircraft tore holes in business districts and residential areas alike, while British warships shelled the northern and eastern parts of the city. By the end of the day, hundreds of Allied troops and many thousands of Indonesians lay dead. Regrettably, it was just the start of three weeks of serious fighting and ongoing conflict after that.

To find out what happened before and after this fateful day, see my posts “DUTCH EAST INDIES October 1945” and “DUTCH EAST INDIES November 1945”.

The East Indies in the late 1940s forms the setting for a major strand of my novel, Shadow Chase. Check it out at, where you can also find other material related to Indonesia.

IN AUSTRALIA, two important events occurred on this date:-

Ned Kelly (photo:

Back in 1880, 25-year-old NED KELLY was hanged in Melbourne Gaol, his decapitated body thrown into a mass grave and his skull taken to be used as a paper-weight! Why? The murder of three policemen, who were out to capture him for horse-stealing. Ned and his three henchmen went on to commit bank robberies and at least one more murder.

Knowing they were surrounded by police, the gang finally took innocent people hostage in a small pub, but the building was set on fire. The hostages nearly all escaped or were released, but two gangmen died in the blaze and one was shot in the groin. Ned escaped and confronted police in home-made armour, but was gunned down (also in the groin) and brought to trial.

He had become a celebrity while alive and his legend continued to grow. Even now, he is often depicted as a sort of Robin Hood standing up for little people, especially those of Irish blood like him. This overlooks that he did not spread stolen wealth around (except perhaps to his mum and sisters) and that the brave cops he killed were also Celtic, but facts rarely get in the way of a good story.

Gough Whitlam (photo from

Also remembered in Australia on this date is the sacking of the Labor Government in 1975. Under Australia’s complicated political system, it has an elected executive government headed by a Prime Minister, a monarch (currently Queen Elizabeth) who is its symbolic head of state, and, since she’s rather busy elsewhere, a nominated ‘Governor-General’ (GG) who undertakes ceremonial duties in her stead. The GG is meant to follow the convention of accepting the advice of the Prime Minister on what he/she should do.

It had long been assumed that this was all the GG would or could do. However, the federal government under Prime Minister Gough WHITLAM got itself into trouble, in that it could not secure the legislation needed to get money to run the country and was becoming increasingly desperate as funds ran out.

The GG, Ian KERR, exercised his ‘reserve powers’ (till then assumed to be dormant), revoked the Whitlam government’s commission, installed a caretaker government and forced an election, held a month later. It caused an uproar at the time and hot debate for many years. It is ironic that Australia’s system of checks and balances on executive power caused the nation to have an unelected government for a month – something it can never erase from its history as a democracy.

DUTCH EAST INDIES November 1945: the Battle of Surabaya part 2

This post is about a pivotal battle in the Indonesian struggle for independence. For an account of the first month of struggle, see 

British forces advancing in Surabaya.

On 1st November, a further 1,500  British troops arrived in Surabaya on warships. The regional Republican government and army seemed to want some degree of order, even peace, but rebel elements within them plus groups beyond their control continued to cause trouble; no area of the city was really safe. Some survivors of ambushes and captivity found their way to safe haven, giving accounts of torture and butchery. The Brits were taken aback at this and outraged at the murder of Brigadier Mallaby the previous day.

On 4 Nov, the 5th Indian Division (including Gurkhas)  under Major General Mansbergh arrived as reinforcements, with 9,000 troops, two dozen tanks and bomb-equipped combat aircraft, which perked morale. However, negotiations with the Republican regional governor, Soerio (or Suryo) soured after Mansbergh was perceived by him to be overbearing and threatening.

Truth was that the British were already preparing extended military action. On 9th November, they demanded that all Allied captives be released and that all irregulars hand in their arms or risk being shot. Tension grew as the hour of the British ultimatum (6am next morning) approached, but the nationalists did not buckle to the demand.

Governor Soerio

On November 10, the British troops advanced methodically through Surabaya, with support from aircraft cannon and bombs as well as shelling form their ships in the harbour. The Indonesians fought bravely and fanatically (“Freedom of death!” was their battle cry), with many of them armed only with knives or bamboo stakes. The regular Republican army, TKR, was equipped with captured Dutch or Japanese arms and tanks, but it had no anti-aircraft guns. Estimates of the two sides’ forces vary according to whom you read, but there were perhaps 6,000 British troops on the ground and well over 100,000 Indonesian TKR, militia and irregular fighters. The outcome was a slaughter of nationalists.

November 10 has become known as National Heroes’ Day in Indonesia, but the conflict did not stop then. The British advanced slowly thereafter, moving from building to building to clear them, and half the city was secured in three days. As they went, the Brits tried to secure the release of internees (including women and children), but many of these were massacred before help arrived.

To give a sense of what it was like at the time, here is an edited extract from my novel, Shadow Chase, based on real accounts from the time. A British soldier writes in his diary at the end of November: It’s ten days since 9 Brigade occupied the Chinese quarter, where the locals refused to move and suffered a lot of grief for several days. Sections of 3/2nd Punjab dug into their gardens and even punched holes through the sides of houses to connect up: Punjabis with machine guns in front rooms, Chinese families out the back! The rebels fought like fiends but the 3/2nd won out. During the fighting we ran out of bombs, our artillery was limited and we weren’t allowed to damage Chinese or Dutch areas. We made progress, but at awful cost to the rebels – thousands of native lads fell to machine guns. At last, we occupy all of Surabaya. What a tough few weeks! The first 3 days were worst, but it’s taken all this time to secure the city. Our chaps have been scouring it to make sure no rebels are hiding with their weapons, but we’ve been subjected to sniping, shelling and mortaring. Now we’ve got ‘mopping up’. We plan to clear a strip ten miles wide all around Surabaya to keep snipers and heavy guns out of range of the city.

Hundreds of thousands of civilians fled to the countryside during the worst of the fighting.

By the end of it all, British dead numbered about 600, while Indonesian deaths are variously estimated at 6,000 to 10,000, or even upwards of that. The whole business was a tragedy, but the battle was seen by nationalists as a sign of Indonesian grit and a symbol of the freedom struggle. One of the sad things about the British foray was that most of the troops were Indian (in the British-run Indian Army), often with hopes of independence for their own country but forced to fight other colonised Asians.

Similar resistance occurred in other parts of Java but not quite so intense except, perhaps, in Bandung. Gradually more Dutch troops (KNIL) arrived and the Brits handed over, with the last British troops departing in November 1946. The Dutch fought for another four years to try and reassert their control, but nationalist resistance and pressure from other nations eventually won the day, and Indonesia’s independence was finally recognised by the world in 1949.

VIDEO: Google “Battle of Surabaya” to find old film footage of the times.

Surabaya in the late 1940s forms the setting for a major strand of my novel, Shadow Chase. Check it out at, where you can also find other material related to Indonesia.