The Battle of Surabaya

Following the Japanese surrender at the beginning of September, 1945 British forces were in action in French Indochina and the former Dutch East Indies, Indonesia. One empire was collapsing – another was struggling to be born…

By September Mountbatten could no longer put off tackling the tumult in Indonesia. Although the SOE was being wound down, SEAC was receiving misleading reports from Dutch agents, known as ‘Flying Dutchmen’, that the situation in Java was calm. SEAC had set up RAPWI (Recovery of Allied Prisoners of War and Internees) to locate the POW and internment camps in Java and Sumatra and provide assistance and support to the prisoners. An agreement had been hammered out with the Dutch on 24 August that handed responsibility for Java and Sumatra to the British and the outer islands to the Australians. They would work towards the ‘Netherlands Indies Civil Affair Administration’, the NICA, that had been established in Australia by the Dutch colonial government in exile. In the Netherlands Queen Wilhelmina was under pressure from the Dutch business elite to ‘sort out the Indonesians’. The Queen obliged by insisting that her kingdom was ‘indivisible’. With an eye on the Americans the Dutch government made a few token gestures towards promising reform but clearly imagined that the ridiculous ‘Indonesian Republic’, which had after all been underwritten by the Japanese, could be safely ignored. They would be grossly mistaken. Although Mountbatten did not directly question the matter of Dutch sovereignty in Indonesia, he was increasingly queasy about the situation on the ground, though the intelligence he had was, to say the least, partial. In a report on ‘Post Surrender Tasks’, Mountbatten recollected ruefully that:
‘…Dr. H.J. van Mook, Lieutenant General of the Netherlands East Indies, had come to Kandy [SEAC HQ] on the 1st September, had given me no reason to suppose that the re-occupation of Java would present any operational problem, beyond that of rounding up the Japanese… The seriousness of the position was not suspected…’

The Dutch Lieutenant Governor, Dr Hubertus J. van Mook, was short sighted in every sense. He had been born in Java: now he was ‘coming home’. He believed passionately that he and his Dutch forebears – not the Sukarnos and Hattas – had gifted Rust en Orde to the splintered ethnic world of the archipelago. The Dutch were the makers of Indonesia not its native peoples. And yet Dr. van Mook was seen as a dangerous liberal by the Dutch colonials – a ‘lover of natives’. So too was Charles van der Plas: known to Indonesians as ‘piss-puddle’. When van der Plas took up residence in Jakarta he went on the radio to promise retribution for the ‘collaborators’ Sukarno and Hatta. It was van der Plas who reassured Mountbatten that the Indonesians were ‘too nice a people to fight really hard.’ It is telling that when Dr. van Mook stumbled off the boat in the port of Jakarta on 1 October without his spectacles he was greeted by a crowd of Indonesians waving placards. ‘What do they say?’ he asked. ‘ “Death to van Mook”, your excellency’ was the less than reassuring reply. Mountbatten sensed that Sukarno would not be so easily pushed aside. He realised that his ‘case is similar to Aung Sang, traitor patriot according to point of view…’ But Mountbatten could not persuade the Dutch that they could by ‘dealing with him [Sukarno] now…avoid having to deal with extremists later.’ In the Dutch colonial mind shame, wish fulfilment, nostalgia and sheer obstinacy simmered together with calamitous results. Mountbatten had little room for manoeuvre. If British power could be restored in Malaya and Singapore, and French rule in Indochina, it followed that the agreement with the Dutch would have to be honoured.
Mountbatten was an expedient and opportunist politician. He had simultaneously supported and rebuked Gracey’s blunt assault on the Vietnamese government. To command SEAC forces in Java he chose a ‘soldier statesman’ who understood the political uses of subtle ambivalence. Lt. General Sir Philip Christison was the fourth ‘Christison baronet’. He was, as Laurens van der Post discovered, an unusual kind of soldier. Christison had read anatomy and physiology at Oxford. He joined the Officer Training Corps and won a Military Cross at the Battle of Loos. After the war he got to know Bill Slim at the Staff College, Camberley, and would become one of the heroes of the Burma Campaign in 1944: he had been knighted in the field after the Battle of Imphal and led the 15th Indian Army Corps, known as the ‘Fighting Hockey Sticks’, into Rangoon in May. Van der Post was intrigued to discover that the tall, broad-shouldered general ‘loved birds’ and was the author of a number of well-regarded ornithological studies. He was, he sensed, ‘truly religious’. When he received news of his new appointment Christison was not happy at all. He had been warned that ‘things look pretty rum in Java and Sumatra.’ Would he ‘carry the can for Dickie’?
In the meantime Mountbatten deviously reshaped the agreement with the Dutch. He emphasised that SEAC forces could not afford to be ‘drawn into internal troubles’. This was, of course, both disingenuous and, as it would transpire, impractical. Restoring law and order, as SEAC was obliged to do, meant confronting the nationalists. Who, in short, would rule liberated Indonesia? Mountbatten’s options had narrowed. The Indonesian operation would need to rely on Indian and Gurkha troops and with India lurching towards independence Mountbatten concluded that Christison had less than seven months to settle matters in Indonesia. That meant that NICA would be obligated to take on the restitution of Dutch colonial power – as soon as Dutch troops became available. Mountbatten refused to guarantee ‘finishing the job’ with SEAC forces. When he met Christison the British Secretary of State for War, Jack Dawson, muddied the water still further: ‘nothing should be done to suggest that your troops are going to re-impose Dutch colonial rule. You must not take sides…’ This secretive redrafting of the Anglo Dutch agreement would drag SEAC into a tangled thicket of acrimony.
On 15 September the first Allied forces arrived in Jakarta on board HMS Cumberland. The British chose the occasion to send a blunt message to the Dutch. The first regiment to step ashore at Tanjong Priok harbour was a battalion of the 29 Seaforth Highlanders. This was the very same battalion that led Sir Stamford Raffles’ campaign in Java in 1811when they helped rout Dutch and French forces. Raffles had been appointed Lieutenant Governor of Java and tasked by the British government to reform Dutch rule. The point was not missed on Charles van der Plas. Soon after his arrival General Christison appeared to openly provoke the Dutch. At a press conference he reiterated SEAC objectives in Indonesia: protecting and evacuating Allied POWs and other internees, disarming and repatriating the Japanese and maintaining law and order. He went on: ‘The British have no intention of meddling in Indonesian internal affairs…’ As to the nettlesome subject of law and order he proposed that the Japanese 16th Army would be ‘held responsible’ for internal security in non-occupied areas, and that pending a Dutch-Indonesian agreement he would ask ‘present party leaders’ to ‘treat him and his troops as guests’.  The Dutch were stunned. ‘Present party leaders’ meant the traitors Sukarno and Hatta. Chistison concluded: ‘British forces will not move outside the designated occupation areas of Batavia [Jakarta], Surabaya, Medan and Padang for any purpose.’ From the Hague came an almighty cry of rage. To the Dutch it appeared that SEAC was empowering both the hated Japanese and Indonesian demagogues. Dutch prisoners languishing in the former Japanese concentration camps in the interior of Java and Sumatra, outside ‘designated occupation areas’, had been abandoned to their tender mercies. This was intolerable. Writing a few years later Hubertus van Mook denounced Christison’s broadcast as virtual recognition of the upstart Indonesian Republic. He was at least half right. Mountbatten did believe that the Republic was a fact on the ground that SEAC disregarded at its peril. He knew that Chistison’s job would be a lot easier if the Dutch could be persuaded to take a softer line. As he put it: ‘Our one idea is to get the Dutch and the Indonesians to kiss and make friends and then pull out.’ Christison’s statements had, unfortunately for him, the opposite result. The inadvertent consequence of Christison’s remarks was to entrench Dutch obduracy and galvanise the nationalists.
As it soon became clear Sukarno and his KNIP government had only the most tenuous control of unfolding events. The ‘Proclamation of Independence’, made on his doorstep in Jakarta on 17 August, was echoed by local declarations in provincial capitals, smaller inland towns, and villages across Java and Sumatra. As Anderson puts it ‘a hidden impulse emanating [from Jakarta] spread across the island, creating a rhythm linking locality to locality where organisation, planning programmes and ideology as yet scarcely existed.’ It was the Pemudas who set, or forced, the pace of Merdeka. They personified its wild spirit. As the Japanese fled the prison camps in Sumatra and Java, Dutch and Eurasian prisoners, many profoundly traumatised, began to slip away to try and return to their homes. Starving bedraggled Dutch families began to reappear in Jakarta, Yogyakarta, Surabaya and other cities hoping to take back their old houses. At first many of the Indonesians they had known before the war treated them kindly and gently. But as the numbers of Dutch refugees escalated, tempers frayed and Christison soon discovered just how tough it would be to dodge ‘internal affairs’. He was forced, as Gracey had been in Saigon, to turn to the Japanese. Mountbatten had, in any case, insisted that Japanese forces must maintain law and order. But as Sukarno warned inviting back the Japanese enraged the Pemudas. His warning was prescient. With British connivance Japanese forces reoccupied Bandung in West Java on 10 October, pushing aside and humiliating local Pemuda leaders, who received gifts of lipstick from their comrades in East Java. Gangs of young men began killing Japanese. When the British turned to the local commander Major Kido to help defend the nearby prison camp the Japanese took advantage to enact revenge. The cycle of violence cost thousands of lives. The undefeated Japanese relished any chance for action. Japanese security operations in East Sumatra at the market town of Tebing Tinggi provided a pretext for mass murder: at least 5,000 Indonesians died there. As in Indochina and Malaya many embittered Japanese joined the nationalist rebels,or supplied them with arms and ammunition.
The situation deteriorated further when former soldiers of the Royal Netherlands Indies Army set up ‘Battalion X’ to seize back by force their lost colony. Like the Dutch colonial armies that conquered Aceh at the end of the nineteenth century ‘Battalion X’ was bolstered by mercenaries from ethnic groups considered loyal to the Dutch, in this case Christian Ambonese. The island of Ambon, as Laurens van der Post reminds us, was where the story of the Dutch in Southeast Asia began – and in a very nasty manner. The Dutch rolled up in Ambon in 1623 and slaughtered a small community of English traders. The Ambonese readily converted to Christianity and became brave and loyal subjects of the Dutch regime. These Ambonese recruits in ‘Battalion X’ behaved like trigger happy vigilantes. By the beginning of October the death toll across Java, Sumatra and Kalimantan was mounting. Dead and mutilated bodies floating through Jakarta along the Tijiliwoeng River to the sea became a common and grisly spectacle.  Canals, culverts and road side ditches were putrid cemeteries. In the rural hinterlands, as roaming Pemuda gangs clashed with Dutch vigilantes, terrified Europeans fled back behind barbed wire. In the meantime the Dutch blamed the British and refused to talk to the nationalists. But at the end of September the volcanic forces of the Indonesian revolution would erupt on the streets of Surabaya in East Java.
The ‘City of Heroes’ was, and still is, a heavily industrialised port city. The people of Surabaya collectively embraced a long tradition of assertive independence and celebrated a pantheon of folk heroes who had, since the sixteenth century, resisted Madurese, Javanese, and finally Dutch, incursions.  The native, or ‘arek’, Surabayan is admired – or feared – as a bloody-minded and headstrong free thinker to this day. The Dutch did all they could to crush the spirit of Surabaya. They razed the old city, expelled its recalcitrant peoples to the periphery and built a grand new commercial and naval hub. By the end of the nineteenth century Surabaya was the largest and richest city in the Dutch East Indies – and the second biggest naval base in Southeast Asia after Singapore.  Though Surabaya was a symbol of colonial rule, and a mini police state, the Dutch could not hold back the emergence of a fiercely determined nationalist movement. A single word encapsulated the ideals of this diverse and often argumentative Javanese intelligentsia: ‘Pergerakan’. It means both movement, change, and ‘The Movement’. By the beginning of the 1930s Surabaya was at the heart of a number of different Pergerakan groups that insisted: ‘We are all headed home…’ – to independence.
Surabaya was oddly quiet in the aftermath of the Japanese surrender. The calm ended quickly and bloodily when Dutch refugees began pouring into the city in August. As former prisoners stepped off the train at Surabaya Station many were astonished to find the city so ‘Easternized’. A colonial officer recalled that it was ‘like looking into a dark room’. There was no welcoming party. Surabaya was now a city of strangers. Native deference had been supplanted by disdain or insolence. This hardening of attitudes was reciprocated. Shock soon modulated to hostility. The Dutch openly expressed contempt for the theatrics of merdeka. Most Dutch laughed at the new ‘Indonesian’ authorities, and defied their regulations. Tense encounters took place between the Dutch and Indonesians with new powers, such as policemen, railway workers and hospital staff. Surabaya was awash with the red and white Indonesian flag: plastered on walls and vehicles, and sewn into clothing. Both the Dutch and the Indonesians were ready for a fight. An incident with a flag at the Oranje Hotel provided a casus belli, and when a Dutch naval officer called P.J.G. Huijer staged a coup all hell broke loose. An Indonesian militia called the Badan Keamanan Rakyat (BKR), later renamed the TKR, seized arms from Japanese depots.  The great Sumatran born writer Idrus (1921-1979) lived in Surabaya during these tumultuous months. His little book ‘Surabaja’ is a lyrical documentary account of the unfolding drama. Now that the Japanese had armed the revolution,
‘People were drunk with victory…All their self confidence bubbled over like the foam on a beer. Rational thinking declined, people acted like beasts…A new God had arrived, and he was known under various names: bomb, machine gun, mortar…’

The self-appointed leader of the Surabaya rebels was a nervous, bespectacled and pale-skinned graduate of Surabaya’s School of Dentistry, and a former PETA officer. Dr. Moestopo had suffered a traumatic encounter with the Japanese in 1942 when he had been mistaken for a European. He emerged from prison a changed man. He stopped speaking Dutch and refused to wear western clothing. According to Anderson he was ‘eccentric, flamboyant and given to mysticism’. Dr. Moestopo feared and admired the Japanese – he had enthusiastically volunteered to join the Japanese sponsored militia, the PETA, and rose to battalion commander. Now in 1945 Dr Moestopo took over the once exclusive colonial Simpang Club as his headquarters and unleashed a reign of terror directed against the Dutch, the Ambonese, the Madurese and the Chinese. Dr. Moestopo was a man of action. The ideological voice of the Surabayan revolution emerged from the loud mouth of Sutomo – known as ‘Bung’ or ‘Brother Tomo’. ‘Small and pretty’ with ‘sparkling eyes like the rays of a lighthouse’ according to Idrus, Sutomo was the twenty-five year old son of a middle class kampong family who, during the occupation, had carved out a career as a journalist for the Japanese Domei News Agency. By the end of the war he was second-in-charge of the Indonesian desk. Bung Tomo was an archetypal cocky arek Surabayan, who noisily criticised the slow pace of the Indonesian revolution and dared, it was said, argue with Sukarno himself. Now he adopted the full Pemuda get up – pseudo military attire, long hair and, in his case, a rule of chastity until Indonesia had won its freedom. Bung Tomo managed to get hold of an abandoned Japanese radio transmitter and set up ‘Radio Pemberontakan’, ‘Radio Rebellion’. The writer Idrus recalled that his voice was ‘loud and harsh’ – but his speeches were spiced with a ‘Pergerakan’ longing for freedom:
‘We extremists and the masses cannot now trust in sweet talk. We distrust every movement they make…It is the masses in their thousands, starved, stripped and shamed by the colonialists who will rise to carry out the revolt….We extremists…would rather see Indonesia drowned in blood… than colonised any more… God will protect us! Merdeka!’

At dawn on 25 October HMS Waveney steamed into Tanjung Perak, the port of Surabaya, to crush the revolution. On board was a single brigade, the 49th Indian Infantry. The Indian soldiers would be led into battle by their commander, Brigadier Aubertin Walter Sothern Mallaby.Standing on the foredeck with his intelligence officer Captain Douglas MacDonald, Mallaby peered intently through his binoculars at the port. MacDonald recalled later that ‘what we saw were a lot of agitated natives dashing about. They were armed to the teeth with bandoliers of ammo, tommy guns, rifles, swords and anything else portable you care to think of.’ Mallaby turned to MacDonald:  ‘We shall have to pussyfoot our way in and you shall be pussy… We come in peace.’ Mallaby was not an experienced officer, but he was close to Mountbatten who had concluded that Surabaya would be an ‘easier assignment than Jakarta because there were no Dutch to complicate matters’. Mallaby and hundreds of the men under his command would not get out of the City of Heroes alive.
On the afternoon of 26 October Mallaby sent small units of Indian troops into Surabaya’s business district where they took over buildings and set up command posts. They commandeered cars and trucks. A ‘Mahratta’ unit got as far as the Wonokromo Bridge on the southern edge of the city where they set up a machine gun nest close to a kampong. In Indonesia eyes this was surely not peace keeping but occupation.  Worse was to come. That evening Mallaby sent a platoon to spring from jail Captain Huijer, the Dutch naval officer who had tried to occupy Surabaya singlehanded. Huijer and a handful of other RAPWI staff were successfully liberated after a fire fight. Evidently the British and the Dutch were planning a joint operation. (In fact, Mallaby sent Huijer back to Jakarta.) Dr Moestopo acted decisively. Through ‘Radio Rebellion’ he warned Indonesians that their revolution was in grave danger. Throughout the night of 27/28 October the Indonesian militias quietly spread out across the city. The following morning was calm. Then at tea time the storm broke. A tidal wave of armed Indonesians engulfed the scattered Indian troops. The TKR troops were reinforced by at least 80,000 very determined kampong folk. The Indonesian rebel army extinguished Mallaby’s army in six hours of savage fighting. All over Surabaya, wherever Mallaby had posted his men, crowds of Pemuda and enraged kampong villagers fell on stunned British troops. According to a British report ‘bestial scenes’ unfolded ‘rivalling the vilest moments of the French Revolution’. The Indonesian leaders were astonished by the violent rage of the kampong villagers:  ‘The rakyat [the common people] have begun to move…’ a journalist observed with some ambivalence: ‘The rakyat alone… the masses are now led by extremists and pemuda.’ This was the beginning, Sukarno said in his ‘Autobiography’, of ‘the infamous, savage, never to be forgotten Battle of Surabaya, the first battle of the Republic… The British were hacked to pieces with knives, literally torn limb from limb, brutally slain… there is the soul of a tiger in the Indonesian.’ And yet it was Sukarno who would bring the battle to an end.
At his headquarters in Jakarta the cascade of reports from Surabaya left General Christison in no doubt that his mission was in peril. As the Japanese commander Hitoshi Imamura had done in 1942 he turned to Sukarno. He had no time to waste mollifying the Dutch. A British journalist summed up the situation: ‘the heroic resistance of the 49th Brigade was bound to end in extermination unless someone was able to quell the passions [of the Indonesian nationalists]…all hopes rested on Sukarno’s influence.’ It is not difficult to understand Sukarno’s response to Christison’s plea. He was Robespierre facing the terror of the sans-culottes. He feared the armed might of the pemudas. The language he used in his ‘Autobiography’ underlines this: ‘The city was pandemonium… Bodies were strewn everywhere. Decapitated, dismembered trunks lay piled on top of one another… Indonesians were shooting and stabbing and murdering wildly.’ At midday on 29 October Sukarno, accompanied by Vice President Hatta and Minister of Defence Amir Sjarifuddin, flew into Surabaya airport ‘amidst a hail of bullets’ with General Hawthorn.  Sukarno hurriedly brokered a temporary ceasefire with Mallaby. He claimed that he toured the city in a jeep ‘to do what I’d been brought to do… the moment they [Indonesians] saw me and heard my voice they obeyed.’ A deal was hammered out and the British agreed to withdraw to the port. But then on 30 September Mallaby was killed, quite possibly by ‘friendly fire’, when he tried to stop fighting that had erupted in Union Square.
Revenge was not long in coming. Christison vowed to crush the Indonesian rebels using ‘all the weapons of modern warfare’ if the perpetrators of the ‘foul murder’ were not arrested and handed over. The killing of Mallaby looked like provocation. Christison blamed the Indonesians. He was infuriated when an Indonesian photographer took a photograph of Mallaby’s burned out Lincoln sedan framing the wreckage against a billboard that proclaimed ‘The Indonesian Republic: Once and Forever’. ‘A grain of arsenic had poisoned a whole glass of water’ Sukarno lamented. In Surabaya rumours spread that the British had surrendered. Crowds filled the streets. ‘Idrus’:
‘They fell in love with carbines and revolvers as if they were beautiful girls; they caressed them, kissed them, and sold them at very high prices. Their faces looked very happy and proud.’

By then the 5th Indian Division had begun debarking at Tanjong Priok. The commander was Major General E.C. R. Mansergh, who insisted that ‘Crimes against civilisation cannot go unpunished.’ Bung Tomo replied: ‘Our slogan remains the same: Freedom or Death!’ As Jihad was proclaimed from the minarets of mosques all across East Java, Sukarno once again fell silent. From the bellies of British convoy ships, tanks and armoured cars clattered onto the harbour wharves. Two cruisers and three destroyers lurked off shore. The Allied hammer blow fell on Surabaya on 10 November. The Battle of Surabaya, the biggest British engagement since the end of the war, would last for three terrible weeks. From the sea came a massive barrage as RAF Thunderbolts and Mosquitos roared low over Surabaya tearing a trail of smashed concrete and blood across the city. At the port the engines of Sherman tanks snarled and spluttered. Then their drivers engaged their engines and roared off into the city.
‘Idrus’ again:
‘…from people’s mouths came the moans of death. The air stank of cordite and human and animal carcasses…Now and then an explosion could be heard, followed by black smoke billowing up into the sky. The rain was full of a dirty black dust which hurt the eyes and heart alike…’

The RAF punished Surabaya with more than five hundred bombs. The Indian troops pushed resolutely into the maze of streets, and the Indonesians made them fight for every district. As the TKR brigades fell back, entire city blocks burst into flames. This was a ‘slash and burn’ retreat. Bung Tomo fled to Malang where he continued broadcasting: Allahu akbar! Allahu akbar! Allahu akbar! For one British soldier the Battle of Surabaya was reminiscent of the bloody Burma campaign: ‘heat, flies, dirt, mosquitoes… The air is full of the sickening sweet smell of human bodies.’ It took the British three weeks to subdue the revolt: until an official statement declared that ‘the lawless Indonesian element has been cleared from the city…’ Allied casualties were light: a few hundred or so. But by the time the fighting ended more than seven thousand Indonesians had been killed. As 90% of the population of Surabaya fled the city lay empty, ruined and dowsed in black ash.
The crushing of the Surabayan revolution was, as it would soon become all too clear, a catastrophe for SEAC. Mountbatten had insisted that Christison must not be dragged into ‘resolving internal disputes’ and ‘re-imposing Dutch colonial rule’… Now British troops had been dragged into a violent revolutionary war. Surabaya had ripped away SEAC’s benevolent face and exposed the true face of imperialism. Sukarno appealed, not for the last time, to the international community to condemn Allied brutality. The Battle of Surabaya handed the Indonesian nationalist movement a thrilling symbol of resistance and sacrifice. A ‘native’ army had taken on the might of colonial forces. They would not give up now… For the British, there were frightening lessons to digest.

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