The Battle of Surabaya is not well known beyond those with an interest in Indonesia. Many are surprised to learn that the British were involved in Indonesia after World War Two at all, let alone involved in a major struggle. It happened like this:

Surabaya, the capital of East Java, was occupied by the Japanese during World War Two, like the rest of the then Dutch East Indies. At war’s end, the nationalists – headed by the charismatic Sukarno – declared independence from the Dutch. In the chaos immediately following Japanese surrender, Britain (as the main Allied force in the region) had the task of taking over temporarily, since the Dutch colonial government was in exile and its army unready.

Hotel Oranje, Surabaya. It was here that young nationalists tore off the blue part of a Dutch tricolor flag, thus making the red & white flag of the republican movement. The incident became symbolic of the independence struggle.

The British forces’ main roles were to repatriate prisoners of war and to maintain order until legitimate government could be installed. The Brits had little idea of the full situation there, nor the force of the independence movement, though their sympathies generally changed quickly in favour of the Indonesians.

However, local nationalists perceived them as being there to hand Indonesia back to colonial servitude, and therefore extended conflict ensued. After six months, Dutch forces replaced the British and fought for another four years to try and reassert their control. However, nationalist resistance and pressure from other nations eventually won the day, and Indonesia’s independence was finally recognised by the world at large in 1949.

The whole business was a tragedy and nothing more so than the Battle of Surabaya, which occurred in November 1945 and left many thousands dead, most of them Indonesian. Despite this, 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 sojourn was that most of the troops were Indian, often with hopes of independence for their own country but forced to fight other colonised Asians. But perhaps the saddest thing about the Battle of Surabaya was that such slaughter need never have happened, had some individuals on all sides behaved differently.

See my post “DUTCH EAST INDIES October 1945”  for a more detailed account of the lead-up to Heroes’ Day, and see “DUTCH EAST INDIES November 1945” for the continuing story.

Key “Battle of Surabaya” into a search engine and you can find plenty of sites and videos, including 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.

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