Category Archives: dutch east indies

Blood in the East Indies

November 1st marks the day when, in 1945 after the cessation of the Pacific War, British warships carrying 1,500 troops arrived in Surabaya, the regional capital of East Java in the East Indies, to reinforce troops already there.

It was bad news for the resistance forces of the newly-declared Republic of Indonesia, who had begun fighting for their nation’s independence from Dutch colonial rule. The Japanese had occupied the Indies during the war but had formally surrendered just a week previously.

British ships arrived two days later, disgorging 3,000 troops under Brigadier Mallaby, who reached an uneasy truce with the Republican commander. Things went wrong and hostilities broke out. More troops arrived on November 1st as mentioned and three days later, a further 9,000 troops disembarked, setting the stage for a battle ten days later.

There were over 100,000 Indonesian combatants present but, by the end of it all, British dead numbered about six hundred while Indonesian deaths were more than ten times that number. The whole business was a tragedy, but the battle was seen by the nationalists as a sign of Indonesian grit and a symbol of the freedom struggle, and is commemorated even today.

You can read more about this battle at and


Kartini Day: Indonesia’s proto-feminist heroine

Raden Ajeng Kartini was cloistered in an aristocratic family, but managed to befriend some progressive Dutch and Indonesian individuals who stimulated her thinking. She was determined to improve the lot of Indies women, even though her father made her the fourth wife of an older man. She poured her heart and hopes into letters to liberal-minded friends but died following childbirth at 25.

A collection of her letters was published posthumously, in English called “Through Darkness to Light” and later “Letters of a Javanese Princess”. These spread her ideas and are still republished today. For more, see:

Indonesian Independence Day

On 17 August 1945, just two days after Japan had admitted defeat in World War Two, Indonesia proclaimed its independence from Dutch colonial rule. The man doing the proclaiming was the new nation’s first leader, President Sukarno. See–5aOg


It wasn’t smooth sailing. The Netherlands did not accept the proclamation but was unready to reinstall government there immediately, so – ironically – the Japanese were left with the task of keeping the peace until Allied command for Southeast Asia (SEAC) could sent troops in. Indonesian nationalists didn’t fancy any of the above and hostilities broke out. In some cases, sympathetic Japanese commanders allowed arms and munitions to fall into the hands of the nationalists.

Then SEAC sent in its troops, mainly Indian sepoys with British brass. Hell broke loose. You can read about it at these links: DUTCH EAST INDIES October 1945: the Battle of Surabaya part 1 and DUTCH EAST INDIES November 1945: the Battle of Surabaya part 2.

After five years of struggle, Indonesia was finally recognised as an independedent nation. Happy Birthday, Indonesia!

Heroes Day: the eve of Armistice Day

We all know 11 November is Armistice Day, when we remember those fallen in battle, especially in major wars that everyone knows about. But few people other than Indonesians are familiar with the Battle of Surabaya, celebrated on 10 November as Heroes Day in Indonesia.

Indian troops under fire

This is despite the fact that one the main protagonists, apart from Indonesian nationalists, were the British armed forces (including many Indians), with numbers of Dutch personnel and a few Australians. It was a battle for independence for Indonesians and for reassertion of colonial power by the Dutch, with British and  – for a while – Japanese caught in between.

During the battle, there were propaganda broadcasts by ‘Surabaya Sue’, a Scots woman whose life included many moves, name changes, adventures and delusions. If she is to be believed, at least two Australians present crossed over to the Republican side, as did significant numbers of Indians.

BersiapinSurabayaTo see how the battle worked out, click  DUTCH EAST INDIES October 1945: the Battle of Surabaya part 1 and DUTCH EAST INDIES November 1945: the Battle of Surabaya part 2.

Happy Heroes Day to Indonesia, and respectful remembrance to all Commonwealth forces who did what they thought was their duty.

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.