Normally I upload new episodes of my podcast on the 1st and 16th days of each month, but because February is the shortest month, I am giving you the second episode a day early. For Episode 39 we will see how the Japanese conquered most of Indonesia, an area the Dutch had dominated for more than three centuries, in only three months.
(Transcript, added 08/05/2020.)
Episode 39: Japan Goes South
Greetings, dear listeners! Today we continue the World War II narrative that we began at the beginning of this year – 2018. So far we have seen Japan bomb Pearl Harbor, capture islands in the mid-Pacific like Guam, conquer Malaya and Singapore, and invade the Philippines. So where are the Japanese going to attack next? We saw previously that the part of Southeast Asia they wanted most of all was Indonesia, or as it was called back then, the Dutch East Indies. Although the Japanese have conquered many lands so far, they have not yet taken a place that has oil. And you can’t run a modern economy, or a modern military machine, without fossil fuel. However, Indonesia has the largest oil reserves in the Far East; back in Episode 33 I told you about the oil discoveries. The islands are also abundantly blessed with other resources, especially bauxite, iron, rubber and tin. Now the way has been cleared for the Japanese, with the conquest of the territories between Japan and Indonesia, and they are ready go for what they see as the big prize, the “brass ring” as my generation called it. Will it go as well as their other conquests have gone so far?
I hope this isn’t the first episode of this podcast you have listened to, but if it is, I recommend you also listen to Episodes 17, 22 and 33 to learn about Indonesia during the period when the Dutch were involved there. Episode 17 covers the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the time of the Dutch East India Company, Episode 22 covers the nineteenth century, when the Dutch took over, and Episode 33 covers events in the early twentieth century, before World War II began. And speaking of World War II, to catch up on events in the Pacific theater of that conflict, the episodes you need to listen to are 36, 37 and 38. And now let’s get into the battle for the Indies.
We don’t have as many records for the campaign in Indonesia as we do for the campaigns in Malaya and the Philippines, because the Japanese advanced so quickly; in most places they cut through the Allied defenses like a knife through butter. Japanese Imperial Headquarters predicted it would take six months to conquer the Indonesian archipelago, but except for Timor and western New Guinea, the job was completed in only three months. As a result few pictures were taken, and some records were probably destroyed. To give one example, I could not find any videos recorded at the battle of the Java Sea. Therefore, when I tell you everything I found concerning the Indonesian campaign, it may take less time than you would expect.
On the eve of the invasion, the British had 1,000 regular soldiers, mostly Indians, and about 2,500 native volunteers, to defend the part of Borneo they ruled, Sarawak, Brunei, and North Borneo. Four new airfields were built in Sarawak in 1941, but with most available British forces committed to the fighting in Europe, North Africa and the Atlantic, there were no planes or ships left for Borneo. The Dutch force in the Indies was way down from prewar levels, of course, because it had been more than a year since the Netherlands fell to Germany. Still, the number of Dutch and Indonesian soldiers in late 1941 were 50,000 on Java, 8,500 on Sumatra, 6,600 on Borneo, 2,300 on Sulawesi, 600 on Bali, 500 on eastern islands like West Timor, and 1,300 on and near western New Guinea, for a total of 69,800.
On the other side, the Japanese eventually committed the largest force that it would send anywhere in Southeast Asia: 52 warships, 18 submarines, 193 tanks and armored cars, 2,017 artillery pieces, 5,898 other motor vehicles, 11,750 horses, and 609 aircraft. A total of 107,800 personnel were sent; unfortunately I couldn’t find anywhere how many of these were combat troops. Most of the soldiers would come from the Japanese XVIth Army, led by Lt. Gen. Imamura Hitoshi. They were organized into two divisions, the 38th and the 56th. In addition, the First Paratroop Raiding Group would be used for the Sumatra landing, and when all forces were ready to land on Java, the 2nd Division would be sent from Japan, and the 48th Division would be sent from the Philippines. All these units formed three groups, which would be called the Western Force, the Central Force and the Eastern Force, after the location of the islands they were expected to conquer.
The Allies knew Japan would eventually go for the resource-rich Dutch East Indies, if they could not stop the Japanese in Malaya and the Philippines. Japan showed it was interested in this long before the Pacific War began; while the main fighting was in China, Japan occupied two groups of tiny islands in the South China Sea, the Paracel Islands in 1938, and the Spratly Islands in 1939. Nobody lived on these islands, though in the early twentieth century they had been claimed by China and France. These islands would be useful as stepping stones, for any offensive directed southward, towards the thousands of islands in Southeast Asia.
Podcast Footnote: You may have heard of the Spratly Islands, because they were in the news more recently, when China occupied them and dredged up sand to enlarge one of the islands, making it big enough to build an airbase on it. The Spratly Islands have also been claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei; Philippine fishermen work in the area with their boats, for instance. At the moment, it looks like the Philippines and China won’t fight over the matter, but with the other claims still up, I don’t think this is the last we have heard of this territorial dispute. End footnote.
In the last two episodes, we saw that Japan began its invasions of Malaya and the Philippines on December 8, 1941, right after the raid on Pearl Harbor. At first, the Japanese were planning to wait at least until January to see what the Dutch would do, and quote, “treat the Netherlands as a quasi enemy until actual hostilities … occur.” Unquote. Well, they didn’t have to wait for long, because the Dutch declared war on Japan on December 8, the same day as the American and British war declarations. Therefore the plan for invading the Dutch East Indies was activated ahead of schedule. The main Japanese concern was that the Dutch would try “scorched earth” tactics and destroy the oil wells to keep them from falling into Japanese hands, so Japan’s strategists and generals emphasized speed; they had to capture the Indonesian oilfields before the Dutch could do anything with them. Thus, on December 13, less than a week after the war declaration, the Western Force left Cam Ranh Bay, in Vietnam.
The Japanese invasion began with an assault on northern Borneo, the British-ruled part of that huge island. Borneo at the time was mostly jungle, with mangrove swamps along the coast. Little was known about the interior, and the only roads that exists were around the river mouths, and they of poor quality. This meant all the objectives that needed to be taken were on the coasts, and the army had to rely on boats for transportation.
The first landing was 10,000 Japanese soldiers coming ashore at Miri, in northern Sarawak, on December 16. Here they captured their first oilfield in the region, but the British had already capped the wells, and removed the equipment and personnel needed to run the wells, sending them to Singapore. The Japanese were right about the need to capture the oil-producing areas quickly. Until they could replace what had been taken away, no oil for them! Or as a famous guest on the Seinfeld show paraphrased it:
<No soup for you!>
The Japanese immediately split into two groups and marched north and south on the coast of Borneo. The group going north invaded Brunei and conquered it, after six days of fighting, Then they captured the offshore island of Labuan on the first day of 1942, before continuing into North Borneo. The sultan of Brunei and most of the officials under him were allowed to keep their jobs; in fact, the Japanese enlarged the sultan’s tiny realm by giving him North Borneo to govern as well. As for the soldiers marching south, they took Kuching on December 23, thereby completing the conquest of Sarawak. We saw back in Episode 23 that the current ruler of Sarawak was a British private citizen, Charles Vyner Brooke, the so-called “White Rajah.” He was on vacation in Australia at this time, and thus avoided getting captured, but the Japanese occupation of Sarawak meant Brooke could not return home until after the war ended. Next, the Japanese force in Kuching marched around Borneo’s western tip and began taking the Dutch part of the island, capturing the towns of Pemangkat on January 27 and Potianak on January 29.
Meanwhile in the eastern part of the Indies, the weakest link in the line of defense against the Japanese was the Portuguese half of Timor. Long-time listeners will remember that in 1640, Portugal and the Netherlands ended a fight over Timor, the island nearest to Australia, by dividing it in two, with the Dutch getting the western half, and the Portuguese getting the eastern half. Still there were disputes over where the property line ran between the two halves, until a treaty signed in 1859 established a permanent border. By this time the Portuguese Empire was no longer important, and while the Lisbon government still gave some attention to its other colonies, like Mozambique and Macao, they positively neglected Portuguese Timor. Investment in infrastructure, health, and education was minimal, and about all they did with the colony was turn it into a Portuguese version of “Devil’s Island,” using it as a place to exile criminals that were seen as quote-unquote “problems,” especially political prisoners.
Portugal stayed neutral when World War II broke out, but the Allies felt the Japanese would grab Timor anyway, like they had occupied French Indochina, so they could not leave the colony alone. On December 17, a force of Dutch and Australian troops occupied Portuguese Timor. Australia was involved in the war at this point because her membership in the Commonwealth of Nations required involvement on Britain’s side; on the day Britain entered the war, Australia entered it, too. Anyway, Portugal protested, but Lisbon did not miss the colony enough to enter the war, or otherwise try to take it back. The Allied presence turned Portuguese Timor from the weakest link into one of the strongest links, and ironically guaranteed that the Japanese would eventually invade the island.
1942 began with the Allies putting themselves under a unified command, modeled after the one they had on the Western Front in World War I. This organization was called ABDA COM; the first A stood for the Americans, the B stood for the British, the D stood for the Dutch, and the second A stood for the Australians. All Allied forces in Southeast Asia and nearby places like northern Australia and New Guinea, what the British called the “Southwest Pacific,” would be under this military umbrella. The commander in chief was the general commanding the British forces in India, Archibald Wavell, and his headquarters was at Lembang, on western Java. Still, it would take more than reorganization to halt the Japanese offensive, for the Allied forces were spread too thin, over an area too large. By themselves, the Indonesian islands and the surrounding sea are about as large as the continental United States. Allied naval strength was down to 9 cruisers, 23 destroyers, and 36 submarines; no battleships or carriers were available. Because it would take time to build enough ships to match the vastly superior Japanese Fleet, the Allies would need a miracle to succeed at this point.
ABDA COM’s first test was already on the way; the Japanese XVI Army had left its home base, at Palau in Micronesia, in the middle of December. In Episode 38 we saw that this army and its support ships had assisted in the Philippine campaign, by taking the city of Davao and the island of Jolo. Now it was approaching Indonesia, and it split into the Central Force and the Eastern Force. The Central Force speeded toward Borneo, and landed on the east coast, taking Tarakan on January 11. Four Allied destroyers rushed to engage the Central Force and they met it off Balikpapan, the site of Borneo’s largest oilfield, before dawn on January 24. This clash, called the battle of Makassar Strait, was the only Allied triumph I can tell you about today; the destroyers escaped unharmed after sinking 4 Japanese transports and a patrol ship and damaging some of the other vessels. Nevertheless, the Japanese were able to take Balikpapan, and went on to take Bandjermasin, on the south coast, on February 10. With that the entire coast of Borneo was in Japanese hands, and since the interior was only fit for the primitive tribes living there, this meant the conquest of Borneo was complete.
The Eastern Force landed at Manado, on the northern tip of Sulawesi, on January 11, the same day as the landing on east Borneo. From there they sailed between Sulawesi and the Moluccas, until they reached the bodies of water called the Flores Sea and the Banda Sea. On Sulawesi they finished conquering the island by landing at Kendari on January 24, and Makassar on February 9. Next, four destroyers escorted two troop transports as they crossed the Java Sea to land their soldiers on Bali, on February 18. This was the first Japanese landing in the southern, more heavily populated layer of Indonesian islands; everything else they had captured up to this point had been in the northern tier of islands. The Allies could not ignore a Japanese presence on Bali; if the Japanese captured the island’s airfield, their planes would be able to strike targets on Java. To deal with this threat, they managed to scrape together a larger naval force: three cruisers, seven destroyers, and two submarines, backed up by twenty planes. The resulting battle, fought off Bali on the night of February 19 & 20, is called both the battle of Lombok Strait and the battle of the Badung Strait. Though the Allies outnumbered and outgunned the Japanese, they could not coordinate their attacks, and the Japanese showed they were better at night battles, by sinking a Dutch destroyer, the Piet Hein, before their ships withdrew. On Bali the mostly native garrison surrendered without a fight, allowing the Japanese to take the airfield intact.
Meanwhile to the east, another part of the Eastern Force captured Amboina, modern Ambon, the most important island in the Moluccas, on January 30, before proceeding on to Timor. This force included four of the six aircraft carriers used against Pearl Harbor. On February 19, when the carriers were just east of Timor, they launched their planes against the nearest Australian city, the capital of Australia’s Northern Territory, Darwin. The air raid wasn’t followed up — the planes would be needed to assist in the landing of troops on Timor — but Darwin was so devastated that it was abandoned for a while. This was the first time a foreign power had ever attacked Australia; before the war ended sixty-four air raids would strike Darwin.
For Timor, there was an amphibious assault on Dili, the Portuguese capital, and a paratroop landing took the Dutch city of Kupang; both of these actions happened on February 20. However, 400 Allied soldiers, mostly Australians, chose to become guerrillas, and they continued to resist the Japanese on the eastern end of Timor for almost a full year, with aircraft and ships from Australia keeping them supplied. We will come back to them in a few minutes.
In the west it was now time for the Japanese to go for Sumatra, the big western island. The Allies had been expecting this as early as December, and tried to strengthen Sumatra’s defenses. Near Palembang, the main city of Sumatra, antiaircraft guns were set up at the two airfields and at the local oil refineries; however, there wasn’t enough ammunition for the guns, because the ammunition delivery ships had been sunk by the Japanese before they could arrive. 3,400 troops, mostly Australians, were transferred to Sumatra from Malaya when it became clear they couldn’t hold onto the Malay peninsula. The last planes based on Singapore were evacuated to Sumatra, too, when the Japanese landed on Britain’s fortress island.
The Japanese staged their first air raid against Palembang on February 6, and the invasion force designated for Sumatra was assembled at Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam. This was the 229th Regiment of the 38th Infantry Division, and one batallion from the 230th Infantry Regiment, with their troop transports and the escort ships that would go with them. They left Cam Ranh Bay in three groups, organized as follows:
1. Eight transports, one cruiser, four destroyers, five minesweepers and two submarine hunters left on February 9. This group would invade Bangka, a small nearby island, as well as Palembang.
2. Six cruisers, four destroyers and the aircraft carrier Ryujo left on February 10.
3. Finally the largest group, thirteen transports, one cruiser, one frigate, four destroyers and a submarine hunter left on February 11.
The battle for Sumatra began on February 13. Allied aircraft left Sumatra to attack the approaching fleet, 180 Japanese paratroopers landed on one of the Palembang airfields, and 90 more paratroopers came down near one of the refineries. The paratroopers failed to take the airfield, and though they captured the refinery intact at first, the Allies drove them out again, suffering heavy losses of their own in the process. The paratroopers who survived these clashes were joined by 60 more dropped later in the day, and they were able to hold out until the main force arrived.
All attempts to stop the Japanese fleet failed, both with ships and with planes. There was one especially heroic attempt by one boat that had no chance of succeeding. I will read for you Wikipedia’s description of the incident, though I found the story in more than one of my sources. Quote:
“On the morning of 13 February, a river boat commandeered by the British Royal Navy, HMS Li Wo — under Lieutenant Thomas Wilkinson — ferrying personnel and equipment between Singapore and the Dutch East Indies, ran into the Japanese fleet. Although Li Wo was armed only with a 4-inch (100 mm) gun and two machineguns, its crew fired at the Japanese troop transport ships, setting one on fire and damaging several others, while under fire from the Japanese cruisers. This action continued for 90 minutes until the Li Wo ran out of ammunition. Wilkinson then ordered the ramming of the nearest transport, before his ship was destroyed by Japanese fire. Wilkinson received a posthumous Victoria Cross (VC), the highest award for gallantry in the British Commonwealth, and the only VC awarded in the Dutch East Indies campaign.”
One Japanese transport, the Otawa Maru, was sunk as it approached Sumatra, while the rest landed their troops on Sumatra and Bangka on February 14. They took Palembang the next day, thereby capturing the key oil port on Sumatra; the Dutch gave orders to destroy all oil and rubber supplies in the neighborhood, and General Wavell ordered all remaining Allied aircraft to withdraw to Java. This left 8,000 Dutch reserve troops and 1,200 paramilitary policemen stranded in central and northern Sumatra. And as if they didn’t have enough problems to deal with, the community of Aceh, on the northwestern tip of the island, launched an anti-Dutch, pro-Japanese revolt. They would. We saw in Episode 22 that this was the hardest part of the Indies for the Dutch to conquer, and the residents of Aceh never fully accepted Dutch rule afterwards. The Japanese began their mopping up operation in this area with an invasion of 22,000 soldiers, which crossed the Malacca Strait from Singapore to northern Sumatra on February 28.
After all this, which Indonesian island was left to the Allies? Did I hear a listener from Seattle say “Java?” And you weren’t making a joke about coffee? Go to the head of the class! Yes, the Japanese saved Java for last because they expected a bigger fight than they had gotten elsewhere; more than seventy percent of the Dutch soldiers were stationed here. For that reason, the Japanese waited until their reinforcements arrived. The Allies also expected a big battle. Because ABDACOM had failed to even slow down the Japanese advance, it was dissolved on February 23, and General Wavell was evacuated to India. For his next assignment, he would command British forces in both India and Burma.
However, the showdown between Japan and the Allies did not come on land but in the waters north of Java, the Java Sea. At 4 PM on February 27, 1942, the Dutch admiral Karel Doorman spotted the approaching Eastern Force, only fifty miles north of Surabaya. Doorman’s only hope was to stop the Japanese ships before they landed their troops, so he moved to engage them, signaling to the rest of the fleet, quote: “Ik val aan, volg mij.” Unquote. This was Dutch for “I am attacking, follow me,” and is considered heroic because the admiral knew the odds were stacked against him.
The Japanese had ten troop transports, escorted by three heavy cruisers, four light cruisers and fourteen destroyers. Against this the Allies had two heavy cruisers, the Exeter and the Houston; three light cruisers, the De Ruyter, the Java and the Perth; and nine destroyers, four of them American, two of them Dutch and three of them British. Admiral Doorman’s flagship was the De Ruyter, though it was not the largest ship he had. Unfortunately morale on the Allied ships was poor, and so were communications between them; in fact, because the ships came from four different countries, the crews hadn’t learned how to work together. The one area in which the Allies held an advantage was superior air power; would that be enough to decide the battle?
At first the two sides simply exchanged shots without inflicting much damage for an hour. Then the Exeter was hit, suffering heavy damage. Doorman ordered the Exeter to return to Surabaya, with one of the Dutch destroyers, the Witte de With, as an escort. Twenty minutes later, a torpedo sank the other Dutch destroyer, the Kortenaer. With the Allied ships now in confusion, Doorman had them fall back and regroup, before engaging the Japanese fleet again. The second clash resulted in the sinking of another Allied destroyer, the Electra, this time by gunfire. On the Japanese side, three destroyers were hit and one of them, the Asagumo, was forced to withdraw.
For a little while Doorman thought the Japanese were doing a maneuver called “Crossing the T,” which would have exposed his ships to maximum gunfire from the Japanese ships. Therefore he ordered a withdrawal to the southeast, except for the four American destroyers, which would lay a smoke screen to cover their retreat. Then after sundown he changed his mind and tried to go around the Japanese warships, in order to get at the troop transports. In so doing one destroyer, the Jupiter, struck a Dutch mine and sank, and then when they passed the spot where the Kortenaer went down, the last available destroyer, the Encounter, stopped to pick up survivors. As for the American destroyers, they returned to Surabaya because they were low on both fuel and ammunition.
Now with only four cruisers left, Doorman attacked the Japanese fleet once more at 11 PM. The De Ruyter and the Java were sunk by torpedoes; Doorman went down with his flagship. The last two cruisers, the Perth and the Houston, followed Doorman’s last instructions, and escaped to Tanjung Priok, the main harbor of Batavia.
The sacrifice of all those Allied ships and men only delayed the Japanese landings on Java by one day. The Eastern Force, the fleet Doorman had tried to stop, made landfall on February 28, forty miles west of Surabaya. Another invading fleet, the Western Force, arrived at Bantam Bay, near the northwestern corner of Java, on the same day. The Perth and the Houston picked up a Dutch destroyer at Batavia and on the evening of February 28, they tried to slip around Java to the south coast, where they thought they could get reinforcements from the Australian Navy. Instead they blundered into the Japanese fleet at Bantam Bay, and this battle, the battle of Sunda Strait, resulted in the sinking of both cruisers, while the Dutch destroyer ran aground on a reef. The Japanese in turn suffered light losses: one minelayer sunk, three troop transports sunk, one troop transport grounded, and one cruiser damaged.
As for the Allied ships at Surabaya, they departed in different directions on February 28. The four American destroyers that had been in the first battle of the Java Sea went by way of Bali Strait, and though they encountered a Japanese destroyer on the way, they made it to Australia. All aircraft remaining to the Allies were flown to Australia as well. The two damaged ships, the Exeter and the Encounter, left Surabaya with an American destroyer, the Pope, hoping to slip through the Sunda Strait and get to Sri Lanka for further repairs. Instead, they encountered the Eastern Force again, just south of Borneo, and were all sunk on March 1; we call this the second battle of the Java Sea. The last Dutch destroyer, the Witte de With, was also heavily damaged in that battle, and was scuttled the next day.
With the Allied planes and ships gone, the end was in sight for the troops remaining. On March 1 the Japanese Western Force made a third landing on Java, at Eretan Wetan, a town on the coast east of Batavia. Batavia fell to the invaders on March 5, and the Dutch East Indies government surrendered unconditionally on March 8. The Dutch soldiers in central and northern Sumatra refused to recognize the surrender, but with the Japanese pressing on them from both the north and the south, they couldn’t resist much longer than that; these Dutch gave up on March 28.
That left the Australians holding out on Timor. This group lasted as long as it did because the native Timorese overwhelmingly preferred the Allies over the Japanese. The Timorese gave the Aussies food and shelter, provided ponies for carrying heavy equipment, acted as porters and guides, and helped set up ambushes; some even joined the Australian guerrilla force. The handful of Portuguese officials on Timor that the Japanese left in their prewar jobs also favored the Allies, though officially they were supposed to be neutral. Over the course of 1942, reinforcements from Australia brought the size of the guerrilla force up to about 700; air raids on Japanese targets by American and Australian planes helped as well. As a result, the Japanese brought in reinforcements of their own, until they had both the 38th and 48th divisions, and five regiments from other units, all on the island; they also turned against the Portuguese, and began removing any Portuguese citizens they got their hands on. The Australian Navy began covertly removing Portuguese, Dutch and Australian citizens from Timor in December; the last of them departed the island on February 10, 1943. Afterwards, native Timorese attempted to continue the struggle, and they suffered terribly at the hands of the Japanese; estimates of the number of Timorese killed during the war range from 40,000 to 70,000.
If there is a bright side to the last story, it is that the fighting on Timor tied down several Japanese units that could have been used on New Guinea, after the war shifted to there. Thus, it is possible that such a diversion kept the Japanese from bringing a force large enough to conquer all of New Guinea; the people of Port Moresby may have to thank the Timorese as well as the Australians, for saving their city. And one of the units mentioned a minute ago never left Timor; the 48th Division, which had previously been used to conquer the northern Philippines and Java, had to perform garrison duty on Timor for the rest of the war.
Okay, that pretty much takes care of Indonesia for World War II. There won’t be any big battles after this – the first battle of the Java Sea was the biggest one – and most of Indonesia will remain under Japanese rule until the end of the war. In a matter of weeks the Dutch had lost a huge area that they had dominated for centuries. 100,000 prisoners were captured, most of which were marched to prisoner of war camps, and forced to do hard labor for the next three and a half years. With the Indonesian story done, it is now time to move to another theater of the war. Currently I plan to return to the Philippines, and wrap up the campaign which started there in Episode 38. So join me next time to find out how that campaign turned out.
If you enjoyed this episode and would like to support the podcast, you can make a donation through Paypal, by clicking on the Paypal button, at the bottom of this episode’s Blubrry.com page. Donations start at one US dollar, and can either be one-time donations, or you can set up Paypal to draw a monthly amount. Either way, I will mention your first name at the beginning of the next episode to be recorded after I receive it. If you cannot see the button, or want to donate another way, contact me on the podcast’s Facebook page. If you cannot donate at this time, you can also help the podcast by writing a review on iTunes, or wherever you listen to or download your favorite podcasts. “Like” the History of Southeast Asia Podcast page on Facebook, so you won’t miss extra content like pictures. And tell anyone you know who might like the podcast; word of mouth advertising is often the best kind of advertising. Thank you for listening, and come back when the monsoon winds are blowing right!