In October 1945, British forces descended upon Surabaya, capital of East Java.
Why? A month previously, the Japanese had admitted defeat in the Pacific War (World War Two in Europe had ended earlier), having occupied Southeast Asia three years earlier. The Dutch government-in-exile was not ready to take up the reins on its old colony, the Netherlands East Indies, as Indonesia was then called.
The Allies decided that, in the interim, the (British) Indian Army should “mind the shop” in the western part of the Indies (which included Java), with a major task of organising the release from concentration camps of Dutch civilians and Allied POWs. Australia was to manage things in the eastern regions, including Bali and the ‘spice islands’. However, local nationalists had already declared independence and wanted to run their own new nation, but the Brits were unaware of the strength of the nationalist movement before they went in. Frictions and bloodshed sporadically broke out between the Indonesians, the Dutch and the Japanese, who were meant to maintain order until the Brits arrived in force.
In East Java, Admiral Shibata formally surrendered to the Dutch on 23 October but, being sympathetic to the Indonesians, contrived to allow weapons to fall into their hands. In East Java, the violence subsided and Republican officials considered their military bargaining position was much stronger now. Allied ships arrived at the harbour on 25 October and 3,000 troops of the 49th Indian Infantry Brigade disembarked. Their commander, Brigadier Mallaby, reached agreement with the Republican commander, Major General Moestopo, to limit the spread of the British troops, at least for that day.
Next day (26 Oct), Mallaby and Moestopo agreed that the Allied Forces would assist with peace-keeping and that only Japanese were to be disarmed. However, British units expanded into the business districts and even reached the southern outskirts of the city. The Republicans watched with alarm and their mood shifted from cooperative to being ready for retaliation.
Late morning on 27 October, a Douglas aircraft from the capital in Jakarta flew low over Surabaya, dropping thousands of pamphlets signed by the commander of Allied forces in Java. They said that unauthorised persons carrying arms must hand them in within two days on pain of death, and that the Brits would occupy the city by force if there was non-compliance.
This was contrary the agreement with Mallaby, so the Indonesians felt betrayed by these Britishers they had dared to trust. Republican leaders angrily confronted Mallaby, who’d had nothing to do with the leaflet, as it had been arranged in Jakarta without consulting him. He agreed to extend the hand-in of arms by twenty-four hours.
Through the day, there was a lot of frenzied activity on both sides. Republican (TKR) and British vehicles rushed about on their own errands. There was an air of awful expectancy, but night finally came without bloodshed. Surabayans did not expect peace to last and felt the time for armed resistance had arrived.
On 28th October, about 12,000 armed militia plus perhaps 100,000 ordinary folk rose up against the British troops, which were scattered in small units. Some TKR officers tried to rein in the wilder militia elements but they were beyond control. British casualty numbers were not great but the manner of their deaths was often savage. Many Dutch and Eurasians were also butchered. The whole city and surrounding countryside were in turmoil, so Mallaby signalled Allied HQ for assistance, asking whether Republican President Sukarno could intervene.
Mallaby also instructed the transfer of ex-internees from detention camps to a safer part of the city. In one instance, Allied vehicles collected 200 Dutch women and children, and had reached the neighbourhood of Deuteron when TKR soldiers barred their way, wanting to take both the British troops and internees into custody. The two sides began to parley. One truck became separated from the rest and a civilian mob surrounded it with yells of Kill the Dutchies! The passengers cowered in terror as several were dragged over the tailboard and disappeared into the milling crowd. Then the blockade was torn down as the TKR soldiers turned their attention from the Brits to the mob and struggled
to assert their authority. After several hours, the TKR realised they had lost control and worked instead to save as many Whiteys as possible, hiding some in houses and shops. By the end of the day, half of the ex-internees couldn’t be accounted for.
The following day, 29 October, President Sukarno and other senior men from the Republican Government arrived by plane and parlayed with Allied leaders, as angry crowds milled outside and TKR tanks rumbled down the street. During the day, Republican radio continued to broadcast calls for national uprising. The situation was very grave for British troops in the suburbs, who only had the ammunition they carried. Some in a Mahratta Regiment were defending a radio station when their ammo ran out; the station was set on fire and survivors tried to fight their way out, but were cut down with knives and machetes. Other units were also put to the sword.
By nightfall, the Republican and Allied leaders had hammered out a cease-fire agreement. Sukarno broadcast details of the truce on radio and gave a guarantee for the safety of internees, but many Indonesians ignored the truce, as well as some Allied troops. There was sporadic gunfire through the night.
As 30 October dawned, isolated British units were still embattled. President Sukarno and the Allied leaders held another talk and a new truce was reached. The British disavowed the air-dropped pamphlet and agreed to control only the harbour area and the European quarter of Darmo district. Mallaby toured the city with TKR officers to enforce the cease-fire, bravely exposing themselves to the mobs. Despite their efforts, there was a lot of skirmishing in different places during day. A company of Mahrattas found itself in the Internatio bank building, surrounded by a twitchy mob.
Mallaby visited to calm things but, when he left, about 500 pemuda (nationalist irregulars) massed in square. There was occasional fire on the bank from other buildings, with some casualties. The pemuda blocked exit from the square and closed in on the bank. As the sun set, Mallaby with Captains
Smith, Laughland and Shaw plus Republican leaders returned in several cars with white flags flying, but a crowd surrounded them. They explained the terms of the cease-fire and it seemed to settle the crowd. Then the convoy moved off in the direction of Jembetan Merah (‘Red Bridge’) across the Kali Mas canal but was stopped by a hostile mob. The pemuda demanded that the troops in the bank lay down arms and march out, promising safe passage back to the airfield. Mallaby decided that to fight would be hopeless and sent Capt. Shaw back into the bank building to instruct the Mahrattas to surrender. Noting that machine guns had been set up facing the entrance, he and the Indian commander inside took it upon themselves to open fire. An intense gun-fight erupted, lasting a couple of hours.
Mallaby, Smith and Laughland were trapped in their car. A pemuda came up to it and shot Mallaby. Smith lobbed a grenade out the window and he and Laughland made their escape in the confusion, jumping into the canal. It took them five hours in the filthy water to may their way to an Allied outpost and safety. McMillan* says Mallaby’s murder was the most serious episode of the British occupation, precipitating the Battle of Surabaya and “casting a shadow right up until the final departure of British forces” a year later.
That night, Radio Surabaya broadcast calls for the pemuda to stop fighting but these were later countered by the voice of ‘Surabaya Sue‘, a British woman who had reinvented herself through two previous identities and whose current incarnation was as heroine of the local masses. Next morning (31 October), Republican leaders tried to adhere to the terms of truce but there was still some random fighting. The Brits dropped supplies to the Darmo area and started moving ex-internees to the port again. The whole situation remained tense.
For what happened next, see DUTCH EAST INDIES November 1945: the Battle of Surabaya part 2 …
* Accounts differ about the Mallaby incident, even by those who were there. I’ve relied mainly on Richard McMillan, 2005, “The British Occupation of Indonesia 1945-1946″ Routledge, London.
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.