Chapter 19: OBOE Six Opens
WHILE the Japanese were launching their final, hopeless counterattack against the 26th Brigade in the hills above Tarakan town the remainder of the 9th Division was landing in north Borneo. Its tasks were “to secure the Brunei Bay area of north Borneo, to permit establishment of an advanced fleet base, and to protect oil and rubber resources therein”.
Brunei Bay is the best harbour on the north-west coast of Borneo. It is about 30 miles by 30 and protected by a group of islands across the northern entrance, the largest being Labuan, a triangular piece of land with sides 8 to 12 miles long. Labuan town had a population, before the war, of 8,500 and possessed some port facilities; the Japanese had made two airfields on the island. Except for about 1,500 yards of beach in Victoria Harbour (named Brown Beach for staff purposes) and a few small beaches elsewhere, the island was surrounded by reefs. On the mainland about 25 miles east of Labuan was the town of Weston from which a light railway ran north-east through Beaufort to Jesselton, 55 miles away, and at this time the site of the headquarters of the XXXVII Japanese Army. The main network of communication was formed, however, not by the roads and railway but by the rivers: the Papar, Klias, Padas, Trusan, Pandaruan, Limbang, Belait and Baram.
At the southern tip of Brunei Bay was Muara Island, low-lying and scrub-covered. On the South-east of the island were two beaches that were considered suitable landing places (“White” and “Red” Beaches). On the eastern point of the Brunei peninsula near Brooketon were two more beaches (“Green” and “Yellow”) that were suitable for landing craft. From Brooketon a road travelled to Brunei, a town of some 12,000 people, and onwards to the coast at Tutong, and thence, skirting the shore, to the oilfields of Seria, Kuala Belait and Miri. Inland from this road the coastal plain was often swampy; a few miles from the shore the high, jungle-covered mountains began to rise.
There were three main elements in the population of north Borneo apart from the Japanese troops and the Indonesians and other civilians they had imported: the indigenous people popularly known as Dyaks,1 who occupied the mountain country and parts of the coast; the Malays; and the Chinese of whom when the war began there were some 50,000 in British Borneo. Most of these people and in particular the Chinese and the Dyaks of the mountains were ill-disposed towards the Japanese, who had treated the townspeople harshly and had failed to reorganise an economy that had been upset by the isolation of Borneo from its usual markets.
The Japanese had conscripted many people as labourers and had bought food and other produce at low prices. Imports ceased, and the people, dependent on imported rice, in return for which they had formerly exported rubber, began to go hungry. Many Chinese buried their valuables and went farming. The inland people retreated farther into the mountains to get away from Japanese interference. In October 1943 Chinese, helped by Dyaks, carried out a well-organised rebellion, took Jesselton and held it until driven out by Japanese forces. This led to the execution of hundreds of Chinese by the Japanese, and to harsher treatment of the civilians generally, with the result that many died of disease and malnutrition.2
The mountainous interior of Borneo, peopled as it was by warlike tribesmen who greatly respected the British and disliked and mistrusted the Japanese, provided suitable conditions for guerilla warfare and the establishment of Intelligence parties. Long before OBOE Six opened small parties mainly led by British officers who had worked in Borneo before the war had been at large in the interior. Among the leaders that were to be in touch with the Australians was Major Chester3 who, with others of the “Services Reconnaissance Department”, was landed from a submarine in British Borneo in October 1943 to report on shipping in the sea lanes between there and the Sulu Archipelago, and send out other Intelligence. This they did with considerable success. Later Major W. T. Jinkins (who had escaped from Ambon after the capture of the 2/21st Battalion there in February 1942) was also landed in east Borneo from a submarine to establish a coastwatching station. As an outcome of the success of these ventures, Jinkins and 10 others were attached to the American submarine force to assist in the rescue of airmen, the evacuation of people from enemy territory, and close reconnaissance of shipping.
Chester, who had been withdrawn in June 1944, was again landed in Borneo on the night of 3rd-4th March, leading a party including three other officers and three NCOs. They were landed from the American submarine Tuna at Labuk Bay. Their task, like that of later parties, was to establish a base on the east coast of British Borneo, set up a native Intelligence network, giving particular importance to information about the
prisoner camp at Sandakan, and ultimately to “organise such armed resistance by the natives as might be authorised by GHQ.”
Chester’s party, after establishing wireless contact with Australia, reconnoitred the coast and rivers in the Paitan River area in folboats, and soon Chester, who travelled 250 miles by folboat in this phase, had made contact with numbers of native people who knew him. About 10th April a new base was established at Jambongan Island, where stores were dropped on 20th April. On 3rd May a second group was brought in including a Chinese medical officer. By 20th May several native guerilla forces had been established. A party under Lieutenant Harlem4 had moved into the interior and found an area for a new headquarters, and a native Intelligence network was in working order. Information sent out by the group had resulted in several destructive air raids. Chester was taken to Morotai by Catalina on 21st May to be interrogated by Intelligence officers, and it was decided to send a party into the Beaufort–Jesselton area. In consequence Chester and three others were “inserted” near Kimanis on 24th May.
Another group, led by Major Harrisson,5 a British anthropologist who had worked in Borneo, parachuted into an upland valley some 90 miles South-east of Brunei on 25th March; a third, under Major Carter,6 was
inserted farther south in the Baram River basin on 16th April; and a fourth under Major Sochon7 on the Rajang River in southern Sarawak. These groups, when reinforced, were each up to 50 strong, mostly Australian.
In Sarawak Harrisson was given a warm welcome and during his first day more than 500 natives had collected round him. This party established a headquarters in the mountains. After reinforcements had landed he had seven parties in the field and some 300 rifles had been distributed to natives in the river valleys from the Limbang in the west to the Bahau. In each valley a European with 15 to 25 locally-recruited “regulars” controlled a varying number of guerrillas. By July the several parties had the support of more than 1,000 armed natives. An airfield was cleared in a valley in the interior and aircraft landed with men and supplies.8
News had reached Australia of the desperate situation of the prisoners of war in Borneo and the AIB parties were given the additional task of examining the possibility of rescuing them. One such party under Flight Lieutenant G. C. Ripley, RAAF, was put ashore in the Ranau area on 23rd June and at length it collected four escaped prisoners – four of the only six survivors of 2,512 who had been at Sandakan.9
The Japanese garrisons in Borneo were part of the XXXVII Army (Lieut-General Masao Baba) and were believed to include the 56th Independent Mixed Brigade in north Borneo, the 71st Independent Mixed Brigade in south Borneo probably with headquarters at Kuching, and perhaps the 25th Independent Regiment at Jesselton. There were indications that the north-eastern tip of the island was being evacuated and a general westward movement of troops was in progress. The total strength of the Japanese Army forces in Borneo was believed to be 31,000. Detailed information about the enemy’s deployment was at first scanty. Finally, by late May the Intelligence staffs placed about 650 Japanese on Labuan, 1,550 on the Brunei peninsula and about Seria and Miri, 6,600 round Jesselton. The main fighting units in the area to be attacked were believed to be the above-mentioned 56th Independent Mixed Brigade of six battalions –366th to 371st – and a seventh independent battalion. Of the battalions the 367th was believed to be at Brunei, the 368th about Beaufort, and the others moving south from Jesselton.
It was expected that although the enemy would not defend the beaches, he would fight hard to hold the Brunei Bay and oilfields areas; there were reports from natives suggesting that he might eventually withdraw inland to Ranau and Ukong and make stands at those places. The possibility of a raid by light naval forces had to be taken into account – there were
believed to be two or three cruisers and five destroyers in the Singapore–Netherlands Indies area. And since there were some 12 enemy aircraft in Borneo and 340 in the Indies, Malaya, Thailand and Indo-China harassing night attacks were considered possible.
The 9th Australian Division had returned to Australia in March 1944 after taking part in the New Guinea offensives of 1943-44, and had spent twelve months resting and retraining on the Atherton Tableland before its units began to embark for Morotai in March 1945. Its active service had now been most varied: North African campaigns, amphibious operations in New Guinea, and long and arduous jungle fighting there. The divisional and brigade commanders and four of the six infantry battalion commanders who were to serve in north Borneo had served in the same appointments during all or part of the New Guinea operations, and a majority of the troops were veterans of one, two or three campaigns. In its recent training it had concentrated particularly on jungle craft, warfare in open or semi-open country, amphibious warfare and advanced-guard tactics.
At the Manila conference in April General Morshead had learnt that OBOE ONE (Tarakan), OBOE Six (north Borneo) and OBOE Two (Balikpapan) were to be carried out in that order. Thirty-four LSTs would be allotted for OBOE Six but had to be released by 23 days after the landing. There were other fairly severe restrictions on the vessels available: the one boat battalion of the American Engineer Boat and Shore Regiment and the one amphibian tractor battalion allotted to OBOE Six had to be used for Balikpapan.
Morshead and his staff arrived back at Morotai from Manila on 21st April and next day the Corps issued its staff study of the north Borneo operation, and the 9th Division’s staff, which from 4th to 17th April had been planning an operation against Balikpapan, began preparing an outline plan for an attack on Brunei Bay instead. This was presented to Corps and approved on 26th April; the final plan, which contained no major changes, was approved on 16th May (and will be outlined later).
Meanwhile a variety of problems had arisen at the Corps level and above. On 1st May 2,200 troops and 1,200 vehicles (including guns) of the 9th Division were still in the Cairns or Atherton areas awaiting shipment, and some of the stores and equipment were not scheduled to arrive at Morotai until 25th May, two days after the proposed date of the landing. MacArthur’s headquarters were informed of this on 3rd May and on the 5th replied that the target date must be adhered to, but representatives of I Corps were required to visit GHQ with alternative plans.
At that stage it appeared that, on the day of the landing, the 24th Brigade would lack some unit stores and vehicles, and the 20th Brigade would possess only one battalion; there would be no field or antiaircraft guns, a shortage of signal vehicles and equipment, no equipment
for building wharves and bulk oil storage, and neither of the casualty clearing stations allotted would be present. Morshead decided to recommend to GHQ that the operation be reduced to the landing of a brigade on Labuan and only a battalion on Muara Island. To do even this it would be necessary to form a composite field artillery regiment by withdrawing a battery from Tarakan and supplementing it with 4.2-inch mortars, 75-mm pack howitzers and short 25-pounders (the latter being flown from Australia). Brigadier H. Wells, General Morshead’s senior staff officer, went to Manila with this proposal on 7th May. Next day it was decided, in Manila, to postpone north Borneo until 10th June, and, tentatively, Balikpapan until 10th July. On 17th May, however, GHQ informed Morshead that the Balikpapan operation would open on 1st not 10th July.
This reduction in the period between the two operations introduced new complications because certain units and equipment were required for both. Ultimately one amphibian tractor battalion was allotted to north Borneo; and, to Balikpapan, one company from another such battalion plus one company from the north Borneo battalion, after its release from that operation the day after the landing. The five APDs allotted had to be returned to Morotai by 20th June and thus would not be available for coastwise operations that were being planned. Components of a squadron of tanks of the 2/1st Armoured Regiment were divided between both operations.
With its added corps troops, base troops, and RAAF units totalling 5,700, the force commanded by Major-General Wootten of the 9th Division totalled over 29,000.10 The naval forces in the Naval Attack Force (Vice-Admiral Daniel E. Barbey), including the 6th Amphibious Group (Rear-Admiral Royal) and the Cruiser Covering Force (Rear-Admiral Berkey) possessed 3 cruisers (including HMAS Hobart) and 23 destroyers (including HMAS Arunta), 3 frigates (HMAS Hawkesbury, Barcoo and Lachlan), 12 motor torpedo boats, three Australian LSIs – Westralia, Manoora, Kanimbla – one AKA, one LSD, 7 APDs,11 35 LSTs, 55 LCIs, 21 LSMs and a number of other, mostly smaller, vessels.
The minesweeping and survey units of the naval force were to begin operations three days before the landing. General air support in the preparatory and assault phases was to be given by five heavy-bomber squadrons, a fighter and an attack wing of the RAAF, three bomber and one fighter groups of the USAAF; and a wing of the air force of the United States Marines. They were to attack airfields and other military targets, and, in particular, to destroy bridges on the railway to Jesselton to prevent reinforcements being brought to Labuan by rail.
By 30th May bombers had made the Papar River bridge unusable and thus cut this line. At length seven squadrons and other detachments from the 1st Tactical Air Force of the RAAF were to be established on Labuan Island.
The order of battle as set out in the division’s report occupies 14 typewritten pages. In brief the force comprised eight main groups and they included the following principal units:
20th Brigade Group (Brigadier W. J. V. Windeyer)-2/13th, 2/15th, 2/17th Battalions; 2/8th Field Regiment.
24th Brigade Group (Brigadier S. H. W. C. Porter)-2/28th, 2/43rd Battalions; 2/11th Commando Squadron; 2/12th Field Regiment.
Divisional reserve-2/32nd Battalion; 2/12th Commando Squadron.
1st Base Sub-Area-2/3rd Composite Anti-Aircraft Regiment less a battery, and 71 other units and detachments.
1st Beach Group-2/4th Pioneer Battalion and 30 other units or detachments.
American units-727th Amphibian Tractor Battalion, a boat company of the 593rd Engineer Boat and Shore Regiment, and other detachments.
British units – BBCAU, and SRD (guerilla) detachments.
RAAF units-1st TAF and component units.
Appropriate detachments of the 2/9th Armoured Regiment, 2/2nd Machine Gun Battalion, engineers, signals, Army Service Corps and so on, and of the American landing craft units were distributed among the groups.
The landing at Victoria Harbour (Brown Beach), at 9.15 a.m. on 10th June, was to be made by the 24th Brigade on a two-battalion front, with the 2/43rd on the right and 2/28th on the left. Its tasks were to secure a beach-head, and a covering position to protect a beach maintenance area, capture the Labuan airfield, destroy all hostile forces on the island, and prepare for future operations in the Mempakul–Weston–Beaufort–Papar area.
On the south shore, the 20th Brigade was to land the 2/17th Battalion on Green Beach and the 2/15th on White Beach on Muara Island, reported to be held by the enemy. The brigade’s initial tasks were to secure these beach-heads, capture Brooketon and the southern and western sides of Muara Island, exploit forward on the road to Brunei, seize Yellow Beach and land heavy equipment there, send a detachment including a troop of field guns in small craft to seize a position on the banks of the Brunei River to support the overland advance on Brunei, and advance on Brunei town.
After the capture of these objectives further operations would be undertaken to establish the above-mentioned air forces, occupy and defend the Brunei Bay–Beaufort area, seize and hold the Miri–Lutong–Seria areas and protect radar installations and oil and rubber resources therein, and, in general, re-establish British civil government in the occupied area.
The naval fire program and the air force bombing program for the Borneo landings had interesting features. In earlier landings the naval ships bombarded the fringe of jungle beyond the beaches, from which the enemy had usually withdrawn. Wootten, however, obtained agreement
to a timed program of concentrations of naval fire which would creep inland ahead of the advancing infantry. At Brunei Bay, as at Tarakan, the area to be seized was gridded, the grid squares on Labuan Island being 300 yards, and naval and air bombardment was directed on to a grid square rather than a feature.
Such an arrangement was not accomplished without the ironing out of opposing views (wrote Brigadier Porter later). In particular, the RAAF planning staff officers questioned the wisdom of offering pilots or bomb aimers a target which consisted of “squares drawn on a map”. They demanded something which could be seen to “go up in flames” when successfully engaged. Air Commodore Scherger12 eventually saw the possibility of combining both on occasions, and of yielding to Army claims that bombs which appeared to be dropped on tree tops were often of more value than those dropped upon abandoned houses.
In the operations against Tarakan, British Borneo and Balikpapan – the most complex amphibious assaults carried out by Australians in the war – planning involved weeks of work by commanders and staffs who, at this stage, had reached a very high standard of skill; it demanded exact and detailed coordination between not only the arms and services (now multitudinous) of the army but also between the army, navy and air force.
For many of the troops the rehearsals at Morotai, the period after embarkation and before sailing, and the voyage itself were as uncomfortable as any experiences that followed. Because of the limited number of ships available it was necessary to load 450 or more of the assault troops into each LST and 180 to 190 into an LCI At the time the commander of the 2/28th, Lieut-Colonel C. H. B. Norman, wrote a heartfelt account of the experiences of his unit (which was destined to have a heavy share of the fighting). It gives a picture of the kind of trials sometimes endured by troops taking part in amphibious operations requiring long voyages in tropical seas.
LST.637 fully loaded had 488 comprising 471 and USN Beach Party of 17. For these there were: 2 salt shower points, 12 wash basins, 6 latrines. In addition approximately 400 were compelled to sleep under or on top of the vehicles on the troop deck and were NOT allowed on the tank deck. As the ship had taken on one jeep and trailer and one 21-ton GMC, shut-out vehicles, in addition to the full load of vehicles, conditions on the deck had to be seen to be credited.
On 1 June a dryshod rehearsal was held to check on times for loading LVT(4)s, and to ensure troops knew their craft. On 2 June a rehearsal was held for 24 Aust Inf Bde Assault Teams. Troops were loaded in LVT(4)s and took the water at 0745.
Under crowded conditions-28 to an LVT(4) – with ammunition for LVT guns, battalion ammunition, and battalion support weapons, under trying conditions of heat, they were held in their LVT(4) for 6 hours 35 minutes because USN, owing to craft faults, required the exercise to be repeated. ...
According to RMO’s report, 90 per cent were affected in some degree, and some suffered severely. All officers complained of the worst headaches they had ever had, and one or two, as well as a number of troops, had to receive medical attention for heat stroke. ... Dirty, sweating and tired, with fresh water for drinking only, the troops returned to these overcrowded conditions where the only shade was that which they could get under vehicles, or under groundsheets they had erected over the hot iron deck. ...
On 4 June the convoy left Morotai and conditions were slightly alleviated by the breeze. Night 4-5 June it commenced to rain, and on and off kept on throughout 5 and 6 June. As there were no drains in the scuppers the decks were soon awash, and conditions for the troops became such that only those who were actually in 2½-ton lorries could keep dry. Naturally these few fortunate ones were not assault troops.
Permission was secured for members to sleep on the tank deck, but these had to be cleared for night emergency drills. The only ray of sunshine was the food. The LST cooks did a splendid job using some US rations to improve our own, but this food had to be eaten in the rain and standing up. The ship’s captain and staff did all they could, but the number of troops nullified their efforts.
In almost six years of war the writer has never seen troops subjected to more deplorable conditions, and on 10 June, after a fortnight of inactivity subjected to the full extent of existing climatic conditions, overcrowded, and with far less than minimum adequate sanitary and washing arrangements, they were expected to carry out an assault.
There were 83 ships in the convoy, the command ship Rocky Mount (16,700 tons) being by far the largest. On 8th July appeared the escorting ships: the American cruisers Boise, Nashville and Phoenix; the Australian cruiser Hobart and the destroyer Arunta.
While the convoy was making its 1,100-mile voyage the naval and air forces were preparing for the assault. From 7th to 9th June minesweepers swept a channel into the bay, destroying 69 mines. Air attack became intense on 5th June and reached its height on the 9th when 54 Liberators and 24 Mitchells attacked targets on Labuan, and 23 Liberators attacked the Brooketon area. On 8th and 9th June the cruisers shelled Brown, White and Green Beaches. The convoy arrived at the main channel between Labuan Island and Brunei Bluff before sunrise on 10th June and the ships containing the assault units moved to their areas.
In planning the landings by the 20th Brigade on the right Brigadier Windeyer had to take into account that it was essential to secure Yellow Beach which was the only safe all-weather beach for landing equipment but was not a suitable assault beach, the approach channel being too narrow. Control of Muara Island, reported to be held by the enemy, was essential to the use of Yellow Beach. Consequently Windeyer’s plan was to make simultaneous landings on Green and White Beaches. The 2/17th would land on Green and secure a beach-head embracing the area Green Beach–Brunei Bluff–Bukit Cowie; the 2/15th would land on White Beach and secure a beach-head round Cape Sapo from White Beach to Red inclusive. In the second phase the brigade would take Brooketon and the southern and western side of Muara Island to Ledong Point thus opening Yellow Beach and the approach to Muara Harbour, and exploit along the road to Brunei. In the third phase heavy equipment would be landed on Yellow Beach, a detachment in small craft would be sent to seize a position on the banks of the Brunei River to enable a battery to be landed to support the advance on Brunei, and the infantry would then take Brunei town and secure the area Bukit Tabur Bintang–Berak.
The naval vessels supporting the 20th Brigade opened a bombardment at 8.15 a.m. and the LSI Kanimbla carrying the 2/17th Battalion and
an LSM with a troop of tanks moved to its area off Green Beach. Landing craft were unloaded from the Kanimbla and the assault force assembled in three waves of LCVPs and a fourth and fifth of LCMs behind a line of departure 2,250 yards out from Green Beach. At 9.6 a.m. the first wave moved forward, preceded by craft firing rockets and guns. Pillars of smoke were rising from Muara Island and farther south from Brunei. The first wave of the 2/17th beached at 9.18, the first wave of the 2/15th in LVTs at 9.15.
There was no opposition, and it did not matter that the 2/17th was put ashore 1,000 yards east of the intended spot. By dusk the 2/15th had searched the swampy Muara Island and found no Japanese. On the mainland the 2/17th met no organised opposition; five Japanese were seen and killed. By dusk the foremost troops were a few miles along the road to Brunei, and the 2/13th had landed and moved into reserve behind the 2/17th.
That night a truck containing eight Japanese drove along the road into the position of the forward company of the 2/17th. The Australians fired with machine-guns, killed seven and captured the eighth, who said to an interpreter that he had heard nothing of a landing; he had heard naval gunfire but had drawn no conclusions.
Next day the 2/17th continued its advance. It moved along the road through a defile three miles long between wooded hills and swamp – an excellent position for defence, but it was not occupied. The troop of tanks was halted by a stream and was left behind.
At 4.20 p.m. the advance-guard of the battalion saw one Japanese, and the two forward scouts fired and wounded him. All the civilians who appeared during the day were as helpful as they could be and seemed happy to see the British returning. For their part the troops were kind and polite to the civilians then and later, and got on well with them. That morning Windeyer ordered Lieut-Colonel C. H. Grace of the 2/15th to send a company in landing craft up the Brunei River, and at 3 p.m. this company landed about four miles downstream from Brunei. Next day (12th June) no Japanese were seen by the 2/17th until the forward troops had passed the road junction near Serusup; there a small party was seen in the distance, and two Indian prisoners of war were recovered. By 1 p.m. the airstrip had been occupied and some Japanese fired from the hills south of it. The leading platoon (Lieutenant Kennedy13) attacked and took an enemy post killing three Japanese. A second platoon (Lieutenant Trudgeon14) moved through on the right and, briskly attacking through high grass, overcame other posts, killing 12; one Australian was killed and four wounded.
The battalion then established itself near the south end of the strip for the night. In the darkness the Japanese fired a machine-gun and mortar
into the area and small parties tried to infiltrate. The supporting field artillery and naval ships harassed the enemy. Next morning 13 Japanese were seen moving across the strip and all were killed. In the night and early morning two Australians, including Lieutenant Simpson,15 were killed and three wounded.
That day Windeyer conferred with his battalion commanders and instructed them that the 2/17th would go on to Brunei and then the 2/15th would pass through and advance to Tutong. Meanwhile the company of the 2/15th on the Brunei River would cross the river and block the Limbang Road. At this stage, although opposition had been light, there could be no certainty that the Japanese were not preparing a countermove, possibly from the Limbang area. After aircraft had attacked the Japanese positions facing the 2/17th on 13th June, the enemy was found to have withdrawn. Only small parties of Japanese were encountered by the troops advancing astride the main road, and by a company which entered Brunei town, where one group of seven Japanese made a brave but hopeless charge and were all killed.
Windeyer met Lieut-Colonel J. R. Broadbent at the outskirts of Brunei soon afterwards and put him in charge of the area with orders to clear it of Japanese, prevent looting or disorder by troops or natives, and be prepared to continue the advance. Brunei consisted of an old town of native buildings on stilts in the river and a new town and a number of scattered European-style bungalows, including the British residency, on the left bank of the river. On the flagstaff near the main wharf the Australians hoisted a Union Jack.
In the first four days the 2/17th Battalion had made good its landing, advanced 17 miles into enemy-occupied territory in sweltering weather, fought one short engagement, killed 52 Japanese but met no large-scale opposition. It had control of Brunei town, and soon made contact with a detachment of the 2/15th, landed a little distance below the town.
Later an officer of the 366th Japanese Battalion who was captured said that the air strikes on the 13th had broken the morale of the battalion, which had hitherto been resolved to defend Brunei to the last.
Brigadier Porter’s plan provided that the 24th Brigade should land on Brown Beach and capture a covering position north of No. 1 Strip with a view to securing Labuan port and the airstrip as soon as possible and then preparing for future operations. The operation was to be carried out in three phases. In the first the 2/43rd Battalion on the right with two troops of the 2/9th Armoured Regiment under command would capture the aircraft park; on the left the 2/28th with one troop of tanks under command would take Flagstaff Hill and Labuan. Porter decided that the battle for the main objectives would begin early and therefore artillery, tanks and heavy mortars must be landed very promptly. Consequently two troops of the 2/12th Field Regiment were to be landed
with the assaulting infantry in LVTs; this had never been attempted before. A troop of 4.2-inch mortars was also to come ashore with the assault waves. The 2/11th Commando Squadron was to be a floating reserve with the probable role of landing on Brown Two Beach and later embarking in LVTs and securing Hardy’s by an amphibious operation. In Phase Two the 2/43rd would capture No. 1 Strip and secure the area from the coast at the mouth of the Kerupang River to the western edge of the strip while the 2/28th held an east-west line from the road junction near Government House to MacArthur Road. In the third phase the 2/28th was to advance to a line from the junction of MacArthur and Hamilton Roads to the junction with Charlie Track to the west, and the 2/11th Squadron was to take Hardy’s and adjacent minor features.
As a result of this planning the bombardment of the enemy would be continuous. After the preliminary bombardment the naval fire would move
inland; 4.2-inch mortars would cover the front until the first 25-pounders were ready for action; and then the 25-pounders would create a curtain of fire behind the naval barrage. As the leading troops moved towards the beach LCIs armed with rockets, light guns or mortars would make sweeps towards the shore and rake the beach and the exits from it with fire.
As was expected there was no opposition on the beaches when the two battalions of the 24th Brigade landed. The 2/43rd had its first three waves ashore by 9.20 a.m. and 20 minutes later the supporting troop of tanks landed. Soon refugees began streaming down the road into the town. Two Japanese were killed in a drain by the road just before Generals MacArthur and Morshead and a group of war correspondents and photographers arrived to inspect the scene. In the evening stronger opposition was encountered but swiftly overcome by this battalion, which moved with a speed which gave the enemy no time to recover from the bombardment and mount a counter-attack. Before the end of the day the 2/43rd held the airfield. In the day it killed 23 Japanese and had only 4 of its own men wounded.
On the left the 2/28th landed without mishap at 9.15, one company secured the town, and there was no opposition until 10.45 when the leading troops came under rifle fire just south of Flagstaff Hill. This post was by-passed and Flagstaff Hill was taken in fine style by Captain Lushington’s16 company. Here a Union Jack was found and hoisted. The opposition now increased, particularly on the left. Near the junction of Callaghan and MacArthur Roads a bridge over a canal had been demolished and heavy fire was coming across the open ground ahead. Lieutenant Wood-ward’s17 platoon made a dashing effort to cross. He and one section were almost across the bridge and the rest of Captain Eastman’s18 company were following when a volley of rifle fire from the high ground beyond hit five men, including Lieutenant Brown19 of a rear platoon who was killed. Private Parsonage20 fell wounded on the bridge. Corporal Chivas21 ran to him but Parsonage could not move and was under accurate fire so Chivas plunged into the canal, shed his equipment, and made his way to company headquarters. He reported to Eastman and returned to his section. Parsonage was hit again and killed.
Private Walters22 was sent to the left forward platoon to obtain support, and guided a section into position whence it could launch a flank attack. The section leader and three others were hit but Walters attacked alone, killing 5 Japanese with a sub-machine-gun and dispersing others. His
ammunition exhausted he pursued these, throwing grenades until he fell wounded, whereupon he shouted directions which enabled the platoon to find the enemy and continue the attack. Around the post that Walters had taken 18 dead were counted. A section of machine-guns and a mortar fired on the ridge held by the Japanese. Colonel Norman ordered forward two tanks which arrived about 2 p.m. and Sergeant Hayes23 led them to the bridge and directed their fire. While the tanks fired, the two leading platoons advanced up the slope and hunted the Japanese riflemen out. Hayes was killed in this attack, and Corporal Gardoll24 led the platoon in the final stages. The right flank of the 2/28th was now coming under heavy fire from positions forward of and to the left of Flagstaff Hill and was halted.
Brigadier Porter had intended to use the whole of the 2/11th Commando Squadron (Major Clements25) to clear the Hamilton peninsula, but in the course of the morning natives reported that there were no Japanese on the peninsula. Therefore he sent only one troop north along Charlie Track. It met no opposition. That night Porter ordered the 2/28th next day to advance to the “divisional covering position”, an east-west line a mile north of the airfield, the 2/43rd to mop-up the area from their boundary with the 2/28th to the coast, and the 2/11th Squadron to stay put.
On the 11th the 2/43rd patrolled north and west and overcame some opposition, but it was evident that the main Japanese force faced the 2/28th. Its two leading companies moved off early in the morning, one to the west of Able route, the other along a spur to Baker route (MacArthur Road) and then along it. They advanced fairly swiftly against sporadic fire which caused nine casualties. By midday the left company was in contact with the 2/43rd. Then trouble began. The right company (Major L. H. Lyon) constantly lost communication with headquarters, and the indications were that it was up against Japanese who were well dug in. Then the left company was held by fire from wooded ridges. Norman decided to hold MacArthur Road – his axis – with a third company while his “B” Company pushed round the enemy. In this way they dislodged the enemy who had been holding them up, but progress this day had been slow and difficult.
By 12th June it seemed that the Japanese were strongly established in a group of positions astride MacArthur Road and to the west of it. It was evident to Porter that the enemy was not retreating across the island but to the left into what appeared to be a natural stronghold. Rather than attack this immediately Porter ordered both battalions to patrol with the object of mounting an attack supported by artillery and tanks. Patrols of the 2/43rd found that, except for one position about
1,000 yards north-west of the airfield, the way to Hamilton Road was clear. The battalion was ordered to link with the 2/11th Squadron at the junction of Charlie Track and Hamilton Road and to take the position mentioned above.26 By 5.40 it was in touch with the 2/11th Squadron, having met little opposition.
Meanwhile “C” Company of the 2/43rd with three tanks of the 2/9th Armoured Regiment was dealing with the position that had been by-passed by the remainder of the battalion. Several tracks led into it and these were blocked by trucks from which wires were stretched to aerial bombs, and these obstacles were covered by machine-gun fire. The tanks could advance only along the tracks as the ground fell steeply away on either side of them. Directed by Lieut-Colonel Jeanes,27 who was forward with this company, the tanks and the infantry knocked out the Japanese machine-guns one by one. Engineers disarmed the bombs and the tanks then pushed the road-blocks off the tracks; engineers sealed the mouths of tunnels that might contain Japanese. By the end of the day the infantry had secured the whole area and hastened the enemy’s retreat into his stronghold.
That day the 2/28th probed the strongly-held area just south of the one the 2/43rd was seizing. One company, with Lieutenant Avern’s28 troop of tanks, thrust west along a track towards MacArthur Road. For about 500 yards the infantry indicated targets to the tanks. Then the infantry were pinned down by fire from a heavy machine-gun and rifles, and soon the tanks were out of touch with the infantry behind them. Avern got out of his tank under fire to find the infantry officers. He was unable to do so but got an idea where the Japanese fire was coming from, re-entered his tank and pressed on after Sergeant Breaker’s29 tank, which had silenced a machine-gun. Avern now got into touch with the infantry through his third tank (Corporal Moore30) and was ordered to push on. He led the advance and the tank gunners killed three Japanese and fired on weapon-pits. Being still in the lead Avern reversed and while doing so a Japanese officer charged towards the tank with a bag of explosives but was shot. Avern left the tank and, finding the company commander, pointed out that it was impossible for the tanks to advance without infantry ahead and without being in contact with the leading platoon. At this stage engineers found a 250-lb bomb planted six inches from the right track of Avern’s tank. The advance was then continued with one section in front of Avern’s tank, which killed several Japanese; an ammunition dump exploded near by, either hit by fire from the tank’s
howitzer or blown up by Japanese. By the evening tanks and infantry had reached MacArthur Road.
By the end of a hard day the area in which the Japanese were strongly dug in was fairly well defined. It was about 1,200 yards by 600 and consisted of a tangle of small ridges covered with trees and dense undergrowth and fringed by swamps to the west and south. By this time the brigade had lost 18 killed and 42 wounded, nearly all in the 2/28th, and had killed at least 110 Japanese.
The task for the 13th was to continue to compress the enemy in “the Pocket”, as it was named, and continue mopping up the rest of the island. The 2/43rd occupied an emergency airstrip at Timbalai by 2 p.m. Lushington’s company of the 2/28th pressed on along MacArthur Road with Avern’s troop of tanks and made some progress. It proved impossible to withdraw the tanks at nightfall because of a crater in the road, so infantry were deployed to protect them, which proved a wise precaution as Japanese attacked in the night but were driven off.
By the end of the 14th the island was clear of enemy troops except for the Pocket, and it was evident that a strong, coordinated attack would be needed to reduce this position in which the Japanese garrison apparently intended to make a last stand.
After their conquest of Borneo in 1942 the Japanese established only small garrisons there. North Borneo, for example, was garrisoned by a force whose main component was the 4th Independent Mixed Regiment (two battalions). The Allied advance led, in the last half of 1944, to the progressive reinforcement of the Borneo garrisons. From July 1944 onwards the 56th Independent Mixed Brigade (366th, 367th, 368th, 369th, 370th, 371st Battalions) arrived and was deployed in the Tawao–Tawitawi area. In September the north Borneo garrisons were incorporated in a new XXX VII Army with headquarters at Jesselton. This army was instructed to help to establish a naval base at Brunei Bay, and four airfield units were added to the one already in north Borneo. The 25th Independent Mixed Regiment arrived from Japan in October, and by the end of the year the 71st Independent Mixed Brigade and two machine-gun battalions joined the XXX VII Army, whose area was now extended to include south Borneo.
In December the Japanese staffs decided that about March, when the Americans would probably have conquered the Philippines, the Australians would seize air bases on the east coast and at the same time land at strategic points on the west coast, specially round Brunei. Consequently they began to move units from the north-east corner of the island to the western side, a laborious process since it was almost impossible to move them by sea because of Allied air attacks, and nearly all movement was overland and on foot.
The original plan was to deploy the northern forces thus:
Jesselton, 25th Mixed Regiment less the II Battalion;
Brunei Bay area, 56th Brigade (366th, 367th, 368th and 371st Battalions);
Kuching–Natuna Islands, 71st Brigade;
Tawao–Sandakan–Kudat–Miri, five battalions.
The overland journey, via Ranau, proved so slow and arduous that, when the Australians landed, not all the Japanese units had reached their destinations. In a post-war report the Japanese staffs emphasised the effectiveness of Allied air attacks on communications in and round Borneo: “By the end of March, surface transportation was at a standstill and all weapons, material, provisions and medical supplies sent to north Borneo from the Singapore area ... remained stockpiled at Kuching.
... Inter-island sea transportation, as well as shipments from overseas, virtually came to a standstill by the end of 1944.”31
Despite the difficulties faced by the Japanese in their re-deployment to meet the expected Australian attack, at the time of the landing the strength of the Japanese in the whole target area had in fact been somewhat higher than the 9th Division had estimated. The actual strengths were about 550 on Labuan, 850 round Brunei, 1,700 at Seria–Miri, 200 in the Weston–Beaufort area. Both the 366th and 367th Battalions were in the Brunei area, and the 371st on Labuan; the 553rd Battalion was at Miri.