This post is about a pivotal battle in the Indonesian struggle for independence. For an account of the first month of struggle, see https://mikecoppin.wordpress.com/2012/10/25/east-java-anniversary/
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.
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 http://www.shadow-chase.com, where you can also find other material related to Indonesia.