Chapter 20: Securing British Borneo
BY 16th June Brunei and Labuan Island, except for the Pocket, had been won and two subsidiary operations had been ordered. One, as mentioned earlier, was the landing of a reinforced battalion about Miri. The other was the seizure of Weston, on the mainland east of Labuan. This task was given to the 2/32nd Battalion, part of the divisional reserve; it had landed on Labuan on the 12th. The 2/32nd and troops attached to it were now to land and take Weston and thence reconnoitre across country and by river towards Beaufort with a view to the eventual capture of that town by the 24th Brigade.
The principal remaining element of the divisional reserve – the 2/12th Commando Squadron – was given the task of making sure that the outlying parts of Labuan Island were cleared of Japanese, while the 2/28th Battalion, with air and artillery support, reduced the Pocket. The squadron had embarked under the command of the 2/32nd Battalion, and had now been on Labuan Island for nine days. The island was divided into troop areas and patrolling began. In the next eleven days patrols took one prisoner and killed 27 Japanese, most of them after an enemy raid on the BBCAU area on 24th June. On the 26th Lieutenant Johnstone’s1 section found a party of Japanese, evidently those who had made the raid, and killed 14 in a swift skirmish in which two Australians were wounded.
Meanwhile the pressure against the Pocket had continued. On the afternoon of 14th June a company of the 2/28th had attacked the Pocket after the artillery had fired 250 rounds. The company met heavy fire from mortars and machine-guns, a flanking attack failed, and it withdrew. On
the 15th the 2/12th Field Regiment continued bombarding the Pocket and in the next five days and nights hurled 140 tons of shells into it.
Within the Pocket were three main areas of high ground: Eastman Spur overlooking the northern approaches, particularly Lyon Ridge which led in from the north; Lushington Ridge which dominated the eastern approach; Norman Ridge overlooking the whole area from the west. There were only two feasible approaches: a heavily-mined track on Lyon Ridge along which it would be possible for tanks to move, and a track through swamp to the razor-backed Lushington Ridge and along it to Norman Ridge.
On 15th June the 2/11th Commando Squadron had probed from the north and reported that the track on Lyon Ridge was suitable for tanks provided a large bomb crater was filled. So, on the morning of the 16th, Major Lyon’s company of the 2/28th with a troop of tanks (Lieutenant Hall2) attacked this side of the Pocket. The advance began at 8.45. One platoon moved forward and protected a bulldozer while it filled in the crater. Then the advance was continued, and by 10.20 the first ridge had been taken, but heavy fire from the next one pinned the infantry down and damaged a tank. Lieutenant Sweet’s3 section of the 2/11th Commando which was protecting Colonel Norman’s tactical headquarters was sent forward on the left of Lyon’s company. It came under sharp fire, the two leading men were killed and Sweet wounded. Corporal Carland4 took command, coolly reorganised the men, and put them in a defensive position.
At midday Lieutenant Avern’s troop of tanks relieved Hall’s whose tanks remained with a fresh company (Captain Eastman) which was digging in on the ground that had been taken. The tanks pushed 150 yards ahead of the infantry and killed 8 or 10 Japanese. One tank was hit with a bomb, which jammed the turret and wounded the driver; another was bogged 50 yards ahead of the infantry. In the day the six tanks fired 268 shells and 16,000 rounds of machine-gun ammunition. In the fight, which went on all day, Lyon and Padre W. E. Holt who was helping the wounded were hit, Holt mortally. Padre Ballard,5 who was with the 2/11th Commando, also went forward with stretcher bearers and organised the rescue of wounded. By 6.15 p.m. Eastman’s company had relieved the leading company, now under Lieutenant Graffin6; it had lost 5 killed and 23 wounded. It was decided to continue bombarding the area until it could be taken with fewer casualties.
The field guns bombarded the Pocket heavily for two days; and on the 18th the cruiser Shropshire also shelled it with its 8-inch guns, a spotter
in an Auster aircraft directing the fire; shell splinters weighing more than a pound fell hundreds of yards from the shell-bursts. On the 19th the infantry continued to probe the area, supported by Avem’s tanks, and killed 10 Japanese, Avern, who was directing fire from the ground by walkie-talkie, and two others being wounded. On 20th June the bombardment was intensified: the 12th Battery fired 1,440 shells into the Pocket and six bombers struck it. The battery brought its fire to within 40 yards of the forward weapon-pits without mishap. It was decided that the Pocket had now been “sufficiently softened up” and would be captured next day by two companies supported by tanks, including flame-throwers.
At 4.30 a.m. next morning troops in and round Labuan town were awakened by the sound of firing close by. For an hour or two there was confused fighting in which the engineers, pioneers and other troops of the Beach Group were involved. It eventually appeared that about 50 Japanese had stealthily moved out from the Pocket through the swamps and raided the base at Labuan. One small group attacked the guard of the prisoner-of-war cage where one Australian and two Japanese, armed with swords, were killed. The detachment of the American Boat and Shore Regiment was attacked and lost 3 killed and 8 wounded. One group attacked the lines of the 2/1st Docks Operating Company. Sergeant Antill7 organised a small party which, armed only with rifles, held the raiders off for two hours and then Antill organised a party which mopped up the remaining Japanese. This swiftly-arranged defence by a few men of a non-combatant unit probably saved heavy losses among large numbers of men sleeping in the area. Altogether 32 Japanese were killed round Labuan.
The 2/7th Field Company withstood attack by a subsidiary raiding party equipped with aerial bombs which thrust at the northern end of the airstrip, evidently with the object of destroying the Spitfires there. The engineers killed 11 and had one man killed and 4 wounded by Japanese bayonets. At 9 a.m. Colonel Norman sent a platoon into the town in trucks to help in the mopping up, but by that time they were not needed.
Meanwhile the 2/28th had opened its two-company attack on the Pocket, whose garrison had now been much reduced by the loss of the raiding parties. The artillery again bombarded the small area and at 10 a.m. on the 21st Captain Lushington’s company with a troop of tanks thrust westward along the track on Lushington Ridge while Major Lyon’s company with one troop of tanks and two flame-throwing Frogs thrust into the Pocket from Eastman Spur. In an hour and a half Lushington’s company was half way through the Pocket and under rifle fire. They were then halted by Norman lest they come under fire from Lyon moving down from the north, and now half way into the Pocket. The Frogs then overcame all opposition.
The enemy offered little resistance and appeared completely dazed as a result of the “softening up” process. Any offensive spirit which he had left was quickly
lost when the Frogs commenced projecting streams of flame at medium machine-gun positions. During the day 60 Japanese were killed and a considerable quantity of equipment of all types was captured.8
Later in the afternoon bulldozers were burying the Japanese dead of whom about 100 were counted, about 40 of these evidently having been killed in the earlier fighting and bombardments. Only six were taken prisoner. A few days later an additional 77 dead were counted. Every Japanese in the Pocket had been accounted for except 4 officers and 7 others who had escaped. At the outset the garrison had probably been about 250 strong. At this stage 389 Japanese dead had been counted on Labuan Island and 11 prisoners taken; the 24th Brigade had lost 34 killed and 93 wounded.
By 16th June General Wootten had decided that, as the enemy was withdrawing and showing no signs of attacking, he would gain control of the high country from Mempakul and Menumbok to Cape Nosong to prevent the enemy using the track from Kota Klias to Karukan and to gain beaches for use as supply points during an advance northward. On 18th June he discussed the exploitation on the mainland with Brigadier Porter, who told him that a naval reconnaissance party had been to Mempakul and formed the opinion that there was only a standing patrol there. Wootten told Porter that he could not spare any landing craft because they were all needed south of Brunei, but Porter obtained from the commander of the American Boat and Shore Regiment a spare LCI and his own headquarters craft (another LCI). With these and five LCMs allotted to Labuan for patrolling and lightering he was able to plan a landing. Wootten approved and the 2/43rd was ordered to make an amphibious reconnaissance of the Mempakul area next day.
Meanwhile the 2/32nd Battalion had firmly established itself on the mainland farther east. A patrol under Lieutenant Billett9 had landed at Weston from the frigate Lachlan on the 16th, moved 1,000 yards along the railway and found no Japanese there. The exits from the beach were very boggy; indeed the small and dilapidated town was hemmed in by swamps. The railway line leading out of the town was a single track of one-metre gauge.
The 2/32nd landed at Weston on the 17th. A few friendly natives appeared. Lieut-Colonel T. H. Scott sent one company along the railway line and by the end of the day it had a patrol in Lingkungan, having seen only three Japanese, who fled. On the 18th Lieutenant Brown’s10 platoon moved along the railway towards Maraba. Near Lingkungan they saw movement and Brown, leading a patrol forward, found 12 Japanese sitting on the railway line. In an exchange of fire Brown was killed
and two others hit. Lieutenant Ackerly’s11 platoon, patrolling near by, joined Brown’s and on Colonel Scott’s orders Ackerly attacked with artillery and mortar support and drove the Japanese off.
On 19th June Captain A. P. Denness took command at Lingkungan and several patrols probed to find the enemy’s positions. Natives informed the Australians that about 1,000 Japanese had moved into the area south of Lingkungan on 24th May but had gone north probably to Bukau, about half way to Beaufort, when the air bombardment opened. On the 20th and 21st there were some clashes with parties of Japanese. One patrol along the railway reached a point north of Lingkungan where the line was bounded by swamps, and was fired on by Japanese, but after artillery fire these were driven back.
There were two main lines of approach to Beaufort: along the railway or up the wide Padas River. Porter decided that the obvious line of
advance – along the railway – offered “unattractive prospects”: it presented a series of defiles between steep hills on one side and swamps on the other, and the only rolling stock at Weston was one box van and two flat-topped trucks. A better line of approach would be the one from the west. Thus Porter, as he wrote later, “decided to conform with local practice and travel by water”. He himself borrowed a launch from the Boat and Shore Regiment and prepared a water patrol program for himself and the two battalions, the ultimate object being to attack Beaufort using the waterways. The plan for patrolling the rivers was to move strong fighting patrols of about 100 men up each river in LCMs, with LCMs armed with 3-inch mortars and machine-guns, all sandbagged, in support. The patrols were to gain as much information as possible by peaceful probing, but were to fight if enemy were encountered. The type of information sought was such as would help Porter determine a line of approach for a brigade advance. Dry ground for establishing forward positions was needed, and information about the lines of communication between Beaufort and Kota Klias.
A company of the 2/32nd Battalion had established a base at Gadong on the Padas; patrols explored the surrounding country but found no Japanese. On the 23rd Colonel Scott established his tactical headquarters at Gadong, whence the 2/32nd patrolled along the Padas in small craft. If a whole company went on patrol it was normally carried in a gunboat containing the commander and others, and three LCMs each carrying a platoon. The craft went along the river with the gunboat 200 yards in the lead and the others at intervals of 100 yards.
By this time the 2/43rd Battalion and 2/11th Commando Squadron had secured a large area on the Klias peninsula and along the Klias River. Colonel Jeanes had landed at Mempakul with two companies on 19th June. Natives welcomed the troops as they landed and told them there were about 50 Japanese three miles away. On the same day the 2/11th Commando Squadron also landed with the task of clearing the peninsula.
The 2/43rd, on 21st June, sent an expedition up the Klias River to discover the possibilities of barge traffic along it, to find whether a force could be concentrated at Singkorap, and to learn the nature of the tracks from Singkorap, and the enemy’s strength and intentions in the area. The force was embarked in one gunboat and three LCMs, one mounting a section of Vickers guns on the platform aft, and included a company of the 2/43rd Battalion, a platoon of the 2/2nd Machine Gun Battalion, a party of engineers, a representative of the RAN beach commandos, and an interpreter. Captain Pollok12 commanded the force. Some distance below Singkorap natives on the bank informed the patrol that two Japanese had moved upstream in a prahu 24 hours before. The craft hastened on and Pollok made a landing and established a bridgehead at Singkorap and sent out patrols. The area was very swampy and there were no foot tracks to Nukohan on the Beaufort–Kuala Penyu track – the
natives moved about with the help of water buffaloes. It would plainly not be practicable to base a force at Singkorap.
The flotilla moved on towards Kota Klias. Three miles from it natives informed the Australians that Japanese were in a house just round a bend in the river. The craft hastened upstream, and, while the gunboat gave covering fire, two LCMs each carrying a platoon beached simultaneously, the troops dashed ashore and, firing from the hip, advanced on the house. They killed ten Japanese and the survivors fled. That evening the flotilla returned to Mempakul at the mouth of the river, having ascertained that the Japanese were not in strength along the Klias.
Thereupon, on the 22nd, Colonel Jeanes with the 2/43rd Battalion less two companies set out in an LCM up the Klias River from Mem-pakul. They travelled for five hours between banks covered with mangroves and sago palms. In the villages groups of natives stood at the salute as they passed. Near Kota Klias natives warned Jeanes that 200 Japanese were coming down the river and were about two hours away. Here the group landed in a muddy area among rubber trees and soon many natives appeared including an Indian who spoke English.
Meanwhile the 2/11th Squadron had been pressing northward along the Klias peninsula, against only slight opposition by the enemy, but through very difficult country. At Malikai a native led a patrol to a house where 8 Japanese were camped; all were killed. On 23rd June the squadron took Karukan and Sabang, and on the 27th Kuala Penyu.
The Padas River was explored by a water-borne patrol under Captain J. J. G. Davidson of the 2/32nd on 19th June. Davidson’s reconnaissance led Porter to the conclusion that he could make a quick advance along the Padas to the doors of Beaufort and that the enemy was not expecting such a move. Porter now decided to concentrate his troops for the attack on Beaufort at the position where the 2/43rd, moving across from the Klias, would reach the Padas. Time was all-important and plans were quickly made and orders issued.
Porter ordered the 2/28th Battalion less two companies to take over from the 2/32nd in and forward of Weston; the other two companies of the 2/28th, under Major Jackson,13 were to protect the axis of advance when the final approach to Beaufort began. The 2/32nd Battalion, part moving along the Padas and part along the railway, was to assemble north of the Padas Valley Estate and patrol for information south of the Padas. The 2/43rd, marching from the headwaters of the Klias, was to assemble north of the Padas and forward of Kandu and probe towards Beaufort. Brigade headquarters were to be established on the Padas just west of the battalions, but Porter’s tactical headquarters would move forward in his motor launch.
On 24th June the main body of the 2/43rd toiled along a track sometimes 10 inches deep in mud, and in great heat, from their barge point on
the Klias to the Padas. That day patrols of the 2/43rd and 2/32nd met west of Kandu.
By 25th June it appeared that there were 800 to 1,000 Japanese round Beaufort, without artillery, and that their main positions were sited to protect the town from a force approaching along the railway and the Padas River and overlooked the town from the east. Porter gave orders to the 2/32nd to seize the spur running down to the river just south of Beaufort, and also the railway terminus, by outflanking moves, while the other companies guarded the railway south of the Padas. This done, the 2/43rd using two companies was to seize high ground dominating
Beaufort from north and east by flanking attacks from the north while a third company pressed frontally. These attacks would have the support of 14 guns of the 2/12th Field Regiment which had been brought up the Padas in barges.
The leading companies of the battalions moved forward on the 26th. Two companies of the 2/32nd moved along the river and two astride the railway. At the end of the day Captain J. J. Thornton’s company of the 2/32nd was on the Padas about 2,000 yards west of the railway terminus and Captain M. H. E. C. Glover’s company of the 2/43rd on the railway north of the Padas a similar distance from Beaufort. On the 27th and 28th Thomton’s company took the railway terminus after meeting only slight opposition and Denness’ company made a wide flanking move
to the Padas just upstream from Beaufort; about 60 Japanese caught between the two companies escaped through the thick timber.
The attack by the 2/43rd opened at 2 p.m. on the 27th when Pollok’s company and Glover’s thrust along the Woodford Estate Road. Pollok’s company swung left to high ground dominating Beaufort from the north and Glover’s thrust south to the lower slopes of the same feature. Captain Lonnie’s14 company, following Glover’s, took a spur to the left of Glover’s axis of advance. Glover’s company encountered opposition north of Beaufort, pressed on and overcame it by 6.15. It was becoming dark and there was light rain, but Glover was ordered to push on and take his objective – the high ground overlooking the town. The company took this feature at dusk and, early in the night, was in control of the town itself.
Meanwhile Pollok’s company on the left had been ordered to hold the track junction with one platoon, attack south with the remainder and effect a junction with Glover’s company. At 2 p.m. Pollok’s men climbed to the top of Mount Lawley where they arrived at dusk weary and in drizzling rain. There were signs, however, that the Japanese were withdrawing from Beaufort so Pollok decided to push on to the junction of three tracks 2,000 yards farther on. This was done in the dark along a narrow track round the side of Lawley and took three hours. At the junction a Japanese guide, evidently posted to direct the withdrawing troops, was shot, and the company “dug in and awaited the approach of all outward bound traffic”. It was soon evident that the Japanese being driven out of Beaufort by the companies to the west were making their way back through the position held by Pollok; one party after another was shot by the troops holding the track junction. That night (27th–28th) the Japanese counter-attacked both Glover’s and Lonnie’s companies. Glover’s company was soon isolated and Glover himself wounded, but he carried on. Pollok’s company was out of communication throughout the night. It came on the air again at battalion headquarters at 10.30 a.m. on the 28th and reported its position. Colonel Jeanes impressed upon Pollok the need to push on southward, where the two other companies were still being attacked, and to lend help to Glover’s isolated company.
Thus Pollok left Lieutenant George’s15 platoon to hold the track junction and took the rest along a jungle pad towards Glover’s company down below. After 300 yards the leading platoon (Lieutenant Kennedy16) found Japanese well dug in along the track. As the Japanese in the first post opened fire Private Starcevich17 moved through the forward scouts firing his Bren gun from the hip and silenced the post.
Fired upon at once by a second LMG Starcevich, standing in full view of the gunners, coolly charged his magazine and then advanced upon this second post
(wrote a member of the company18). Starcevich [has] a method of approach which in itself must be most disconcerting to an enemy. Firmly and confidently believing that he can never be hit, he walks into an enemy post preceded by a single and unbroken stream of pellets. He is quite unmoved by returning fire and stops only when the enemy has been annihilated. The enemy in this second post must have been quite unable to “take it”, for as Starcevich neared them they endeavoured to leave their foxholes, and, caught in Starcevich’s fire, were at once killed. The company now proceeded along the track, meeting in a further 200 yards only single riflemen.
The company next encountered a third post. Starcevich and his No. 2, Private Porter,19 kept the post quiet with a hail of fire while Corporal Mason20 led a section through the bush on the right. Starcevich advanced firing his Bren and knocked out the enemy machine-gun post while Mason’s section dealt with riflemen farther on.21 Late in the afternoon the advancing company could hear Bren guns and Thompson sub-machine-guns firing close ahead, and might have walked into their fire had not a signaller speaking to battalion headquarters been told that the Japanese were using these British weapons. It was now near dusk.
All day the other two companies were hard pressed. In Lonnie’s company Private Kelly22 who was digging in by himself on the right became involved in a fierce struggle. A bullet hit him in the leg, and a Japanese slashed him with a sword on arm and shoulder, but Kelly fought on alone firing his Owen gun with one arm, and unaided drove off the enemy who left six lying dead.
Despite strenuous efforts by Pollok’s company to make contact with Glover’s, they were prevented from doing so by a steep gorge, and that evening, therefore, Jeanes decided to withdraw the forward companies slightly and concentrate artillery and mortar fire on the Japanese who were between them. Pollok’s company withdrew to the junction where, during the day, George’s platoon had killed many more Japanese who were trying to escape from Beaufort.
The engineers had been striving to get a troop of tanks forward. That evening these were landed on the river bank at the north-western end of Beaufort, but several obstacles lay between them and the forward companies, and they were not able to overcome these before the fight ended.
Bombarded by artillery and mortars throughout the night, the Japanese began to withdraw along the track held by Pollok’s company, and at intervals groups of two or three walked into the company area in the darkness and were killed. Fire was strictly controlled, and one platoon was credited with having killed 21 Japanese with 21 single shots fired at ranges of from five to 15 yards. One Japanese walked on to the track
50 yards from the foremost Australian Bren gun position and demanded the surrender of the Australians who were blocking the Japanese line of retreat. According to one observer his words were: “Surrender pliz, Ossie. You come. No?” He was promptly shot.
Pollok’s company counted 81 Japanese killed with “company weapons only” round the junction and estimated that at least 35 others had been killed; six Australians were slightly wounded. By the morning of the 29th the fight was virtually over and that day was spent in mopping up a disorganised enemy force. The attack on Beaufort cost the 24th Brigade 7 killed and 38 wounded; 93 Japanese dead were counted and two prisoners taken.
Meanwhile part of the 2/28th Battalion had been moving north along the railway line. On the morning of the 29th a platoon of the 2/28th under Sergeant Weston23 moved out along the railway line to contact the 2/32nd. In the afternoon they were at Lumadan village, which they searched. They were resting by the siding when they were fired on by riflemen and machine-gunners from high ground east of the line, from an overturned carriage near the railway, and from west of the line. Two men were wounded. They signalled to headquarters and Captain Eastman and a platoon hurried forward in rail motors and extricated them. Field guns from the Beaufort area shelled Lumadan that night, and next day no Japanese were found there, but natives said that about 100 had departed eastward in the night.
After the capture of Beaufort Brigadier Porter decided that his policy would be to pinpoint the enemy by vigorous patrolling, maintain contact, bring down maximum fire on enemy positions when they were found, and follow up fast. By these tactics the surviving Japanese, still resisting doggedly, were pushed back into the country east of Beaufort.
In the first day of July the 2/32nd was forward in the hills east of Beaufort north and south of the river, where on 3rd July Captain Denness was wounded and Lieutenant Williamson24 killed in patrol clashes. By the next day the 2/32nd had control of the area as far as the Montenior Besar railway bridge.
From July onwards the supply of the large force round Beaufort was eased by the fact that a train drawn by a jeep was running on the Weston–Beaufort line. On 3rd July a steam train was also in operation. Part of the 2/28th Battalion, which relieved the 2/32nd at Beaufort, was taken forward from Lumadan by train.25
The task next given to the 24th Brigade was to take Papar, using not more than one battalion group. The object was to gain control of the coastal route from Jesselton to Beaufort and Weston. It was believed
that only small parties of Japanese were astride the railway line to Papar and that there would be no serious resistance until the outskirts of Papar were reached. Porter gave the work to the 2/32nd, which had not so far been engaged as heavily as the 2/28th had been on Labuan or the 2/43rd round Beaufort.
The advance to Papar did not prove a heavy undertaking. On 5th July the battalion group, which included appropriate detachments of supporting troops, set out along the railway line and that day the leading company was near Membakut. A barge point was established on the Membakut River downstream from the village and on 7th July a train was run from Beaufort to Membakut. On 10th July a company in two LCMs established a beach maintenance area about five miles south of Papar, and a second company which had been advancing astride the railway joined it there. On 12th July Papar was occupied, its only defenders being two Japanese with a machine-gun who made off as the Australians approached.
In the Beaufort area the 24th Brigade continued to contain the Japanese east of the town. The brigade’s task was to advance only far enough along the Beaufort–Tenom railway line to secure the town and the eastern approaches to it. Porter decided that tactically the best ground to hold would be the line of the Montenior Besar, and later Wootten ordered that movement south of it be limited to protective patrols and outposts. Porter allotted areas of responsibility for patrolling to his units and instructed that contact be maintained to ensure good warning of any serious counter-offensive. The main enemy force was dug in some distance south of the Montenior Besar and remained there despite heavy artillery fire. This position was of no value to the brigade, and it was ordered not to attack it. Both Australians and Japanese patrolled vigorously. There were clashes almost every day in which two or three Japanese were killed but the Australians seldom lost a man.
Commanders now took great pains to avoid casualties. For example, Norman of the 2/28th decided that he should secure a knoll from which the Japanese were commanding one of the tracks along the ridge north of the Padas, but must do so without loss. This was achieved by a program of irregularly-timed harassing fire by the artillery lasting several days, after which the knoll was seized without a fight. Next day-3rd August – about 16 Japanese attacked. A two-man listening post forward of the platoon position established on the knoll engaged the enemy. When the fire was heard a section of five men was sent forward. They deployed and charged. One Australian was killed and another wounded, but Private Dale26 pressed on into the enemy’s position, killed three, and continued to engage the Japanese while the Australian wounded were taken out. At least 11 Japanese were killed.
As mentioned in the preceding chapter the 20th Brigade took Brunei town on 13th June. Brigadier Windeyer had considered landing the 2/13th Battalion at Tutong, but on the 13th orders arrived from General Wootten
for a wider flanking move: a battalion group built round the 2/13th, under divisional command, was to land in the Miri–Lutong area, and two companies of the 2/15th were to be in reserve to it. Thus, for a time, the available strength of the 20th Brigade would be reduced by about half.
On the 15th Windeyer established his headquarters in the Residency in Brunei. The 2/17th remained round Brunei and sent out patrols. The 2/15th probed along the river towards Limbang, where, natives said, there were 200 Japanese. A patrol of the 2/15th was ambushed on the river near Brunei and lost two men killed.
In Brunei eight natives were found chained to stakes and dead; others who had been chained up were released. The town had been severely battered by Allied bombers and Japanese demolitions. The troops were critical of the air force’s practice of bombing conspicuous buildings even when they were unlikely to contain anything of military importance. In Brunei, for example, the bazaar and the cinema were destroyed, but neither was likely to have contained any Japanese men or material and their destruction and the destruction of similar buildings added to the distress of the civilians. The infantryman on the ground saw the effects of bombing at the receiving end.
The impression was gained (says the report of the 20th Brigade) that, in the oil producing and refining centres – Seria, Kuala Belait, Lutong, Miri – much of the destruction served no military purpose. The destruction of the native bazaar and shop area in ... Kuala Belait, Brunei, Tutong and Miri seemed wanton.
The 2/17th Battalion remained in and round Brunei, whence patrols were sent out, until 16th June when one company, with another following, moved out towards Tutong, which was entered late on the afternoon of the 16th. A ferry was established across the mouth of the Tutong River by using a pontoon and a launch and by this means the leading companies crossed and moved towards Seria. From the Tutong onwards the road was the wide beach, fringed by tall casuarinas, and on the hard sand at low and medium tides vehicles could be driven at up to 50 miles an hour.
Leaving two companies in Brunei Colonel Broadbent moved his headquarters southward on the 18th. On the morning of the 20th the 2/17th could hear the sound of the naval and air bombardment supporting the landing of the 2/13th at Lutong. The 2/17th made no contact with the enemy until the Bira River was reached late on the 20th, when there was a short skirmish in which 12 Japanese were killed. On the 21st Seria was occupied without opposition. Windeyer, who wished to concentrate the 2/17th at Seria, ordered it not to advance beyond that town until further orders.
At that stage the 2/17th had advanced 75 miles, most of it on foot, since leaving Green Beach, with frequent deployments and several small engagements on the way. It had lost 6 killed and 10 wounded and had killed and counted 85 Japanese, killed perhaps 22 more, and taken 12 prisoners.
At Seria the oil wells were ablaze. From the broken pipes that formed the head of each well the burning oil was hosing as from huge, hissing Bunsen burners. The pressure was so strong that the oil, clear as petrol, did not begin to burn until the jet was a few inches from the pipe. Then it became a tumbling cloud of flame and billowing blue-black smoke. At about 1,000 feet the plumes from more than 30 fires mixed in a single canopy of smoke. Night and day this appalling waste continued. The men round Seria went to sleep to the hiss and grumbling of an entire oilfield in flames and woke to the same din.
The Japanese had set fire to 37 wells, burnt buildings and bridges, and attempted to render vehicles, pumps and other gear useless by removing essential parts and dumping them in the rivers or burying them. Thus the Australian engineers had to tackle the job of extinguishing the fires with the help only of their own equipment plus such abandoned gear as they could put into working order, or by finding buried parts (with the help of natives who had watched the Japanese concealing them), and “by improvisation and by selective cannibalisation”.27
Before the arrival of the Japanese in 1942 some of the wells had been sealed with cement. The Japanese had drilled out some of these and drilled sixteen new wells of their own. At some of the wells the oil now gushed from the broken pipe at the well-head at high pressure; at some the broken pipe hosed its oil horizontally. Often the ground had cracked round the well-head, blazing oil was oozing out, and the earth was on fire. In some wells the pressure was low and the oil burned less fiercely. A few such fires sanded up and went out of their own accord; a few mild fires were extinguished by enterprising troops who beat the fires out or smothered them with sand.
When Colonel Broadbent ordered a platoon of the 2/3rd Field Company under Lieutenant Underwood28 to extinguish the fires, Underwood and his men were faced with an imposing task, particularly as they were still responsible for maintenance of the road, including two ferries between Brunei and the Baram River, for the operation of craft on rivers leading inland and other tasks; and operations, to be described later, were in progress. At first only a detachment could be spared to fight the fires, but at length more sappers were freed for this work and some 200 Malay, Dyak, Chinese and Indian tradesmen and labourers were recruited. A few days after the capture of Seria Lieutenant Beukema, an officer of the NICA who was an oilfield engineer, arrived and provided valuable advice. He told the Australians – Underwood was a chemical engineer and had never seen an oil well before – how such a well was made. About this time the 2/58th Light Aid Detachment began repairing the workshops and fire-fighting gear.
Underwood and his men succeeded in extinguishing some fires by approaching them behind screens, in a favourable wind, and turning off the wheel of the master valve either by hand or with improvised long-handled tools up to 50 feet in length. Sand was then shovelled or bulldozed over any fire that remained where the oil was oozing from damaged casings. Where the flame was blazing out sideways it was sometimes made to burn vertically by shooting the damaged top off the wellhead with an anti-tank gun.
Soon only the larger and fiercer fires remained, and those in which the flames had melted the pipes and valves. One was extinguished by bulldozing sand over the well-head and pumping on water which turned to steam. Having proved the effectiveness of steam Underwood set up a battery of mobile boilers and bombarded several fires with steam, extinguishing them within a few seconds. Mud was prepared at the Badas River some seven miles from Seria, pumped to Seria along a system that had been damaged but was repairable, and used to hose on to certain fires. At some fires the oil blazing round the well-head was diverted into a pit dug by a bulldozer and the blaze round the well-head, having been thus reduced, was extinguished with steam and water. Others were subdued with the help of a long-handled snuffer. When each fire had been put out the engineers renewed the well-head fittings with those salvaged elsewhere on the field.
Of the 37 wells set on fire by the Japanese, four sanded up and went out of their own accord, three were beaten out, 11 extinguished by turning off the valves, one extinguished with water, three with steam, and two chiefly by diverting the main flow of oil. From mid-July onwards other experts arrived on the scene and eventually two American experts from Texas. The Americans considered Underwood’s methods of subduing the fires to be too dangerous. Under the guidance of the experts the Australians used a method whereby the well-head opening was plugged with a tapered pipe controlled by a crane, and fed with water (or mud) under pressure along a tributary pipe, and with a valve operated by remote control. Thus the flow of oil was stopped by water (or mud) pressure. Australian engineers improvised the necessary equipment and extinguished the remaining fires. A wingless aeroplane was towed close to some fires so that its propeller could blow the flame away from the crane. The work of extinguishing the fires took three months during which 7,600 man-days were worked, including 2,400 by troops.
This account of the fight against the oil fires has far outrun the story of the military operations. While the 2/17th Battalion was advancing to Seria the 2/15th was securing the Limbang area and the 2/13th taking Lutong from the sea.
The convoy of LSTs containing the 2/13th Battalion Group, about 1,900 strong, had moved off from Brunei Bay at 3 p.m. on 19th June. The troops were very crowded on the decks of the LSTs and were most uncomfortable when the wind increased and the sea became very rough.
As they were having breakfast at 5 o’clock on the 20th they could see great fires on the eastern horizon – the blazing oil wells at Seria. At 9.15, after a bombardment by three American destroyers, the first wave – two companies – moved towards the shore in American LVTs while three American LCIs fired machine-guns and launched rockets.
The first wave hit the shore and landed without opposition (wrote the battalion diarist). Contrary to plan the LVT4s did not move straight inland but halted on the beach where they remained firing inland. The second wave followed the first ashore ... immediately there was the spectacle of four waves of LVTs packed together on a beach some 25 yards wide. After a slight pause while pressure was being brought to bear on coxswains to proceed inland, the troops disembarked, formed up and made for their objectives on foot.
The objectives were reached without any Japanese being seen. At 11.45 General Wootten landed and repeated to Lieut-Colonel G. E. Colvin the order that Lutong was the main objective and the holding of Miri a secondary consideration; two destroyers would remain in support as long as Colvin needed them. Colvin told the general that he did not need the floating reserve – the two companies of the 2/15th – and would return them next day.
At 12.30 eight Japanese were seen in the distance near Lutong bridge but made off. In the afternoon about 90 emaciated Indian prisoners were recovered. By the end of the day all objectives were held except one position east of the Miri River which had not been crossed by LVTs because the approaches were so swampy. The area occupied included the whole of the Lutong refinery, the oil tank farm and the airstrip, on which were nine damaged aircraft.
The refinery proper was in ruins but a small Japanese oil-refining plant seemed to be in working order and there were undamaged storehouses containing great quantities of machinery. The oil wells had been set on fire, as at Seria, but Miri was an old field, the pressure was low, and the fires were easily put out. Natives who wandered into the Australian lines said that 400 to 500 Japanese troops had departed from Miri and Lutong in the days up to 15th June and were now astride the Riam Road seven miles from the town with a small force forward in the Miri hills.
On the 21st Colvin gave orders for an advance to the town of Miri and by 1.25 p.m. the leading sections of Captain Faulkner’s29 company had crossed the Miri River using a pontoon ferry which the engineers had contrived, and soon some jeeps were across. By the end of the day there had still been no contact with Japanese. The released Indian prisoners, most of them in a pitiful condition, now totalled 135, and more arrived on the 22nd. One group of 14 marched into battalion headquarters under an NCO who halted them in front of Colvin and reported: “Fourteen Indians and one Dutch prisoner of war, sir,” and then presented Colvin with a sword that he had taken from a Japanese whom he had killed.
Despite their weak state their military bearing remained and they were obviously proud to report in a soldierly way to a British officer. Many patrols were out on the 22nd but found no live Japanese. By the 22nd the 2/13th knew that the 2/17th was at Seria but was unable to get into wireless touch with the sister unit.
Indian prisoners of war had also begun to reach the lines of the 2/17th at Seria on the 22nd, and by the end of June 41 had come in. They reported that on 14th June the Japanese had slaughtered some of a group of more than 100 Indian prisoners at Kuala Belait; the Australians found 24 charred bodies at Kuala Belait, and evidence that others had also been killed. “Jap motive for massacre is not clear,” states a report by the 2/17th, “and whether a partial loss of rations, the waving of flags or simply Japanese brutality was responsible cannot be determined.” The surviving Indians were starving and many were ill. “The loyalty and fortitude of these Indians has been amazing and is a lesson to us all,” wrote Broadbent. “Even now their standard of discipline is high.”
Faulkner’s company of the 2/13th entered Miri on the afternoon of the 23rd and found it unoccupied. Interrogation of natives now made it appear that about 1,000 Japanese including civilians and women were withdrawing south along the Riam Road. Spitfires were strafing targets in this area and reported the destruction of vehicles. The local people, mostly Chinese, were now streaming back into Miri, where they were an embarrassment since they were in the way of the troops and were too numerous to be fed by BBCAU.
On the evening of the 26th a patrol of the 2/13th arrived at the south bank of the Baram River and one from the 2/17th, which had occupied Kuala Belait on the 24th, at the north bank. At this stage the 2/13th reverted to Windeyer’s command.
The enemy’s positions along the Riam Road were now being shelled from the sea and land as well as being strafed by fighters. On 27th June a platoon patrol clashed with the enemy on South Knoll. Warned by a Chinese that there were 10 Japanese on the knoll, the patrol moved in behind artillery fire. The Japanese counter-attacked and the patrol withdrew to the Riam Road but later found that four men were missing. That night Colvin ordered the platoon to search the South Knoll area next day. A second platoon was to pass through and take the knoll but, when information arrived that until a few days before up to 70 Japanese were on the knoll, the company commander, Faulkner, was told not to press home the attack against organised resistance, but to use artillery.
Before the attack opened the four missing men arrived in Miri, having found Chinese who guided them home. Soon after their return a platoon occupied the knoll, which the Japanese had abandoned. After this the 2/13th held with four platoons all the high ground astride the road overlooking the Pujut plain.
During July the 2/13th continued to patrol its area, and particularly to patrol down the Riam Road. On the 5th Colvin sent out a strong
fighting patrol of one platoon (Lieutenant Breeze30) with detachments of mortars, machine-guns and an artillery party, to make a sortie down the Riam Road in sand-bagged jeeps, inflict casualties and take a prisoner. The patrol went some distance in the jeeps, then advanced on foot with the jeeps following. At 10.30 they were fired on and the sergeant, Pepper,31 was killed. They brought down artillery and mortar fire and soon the enemy, evidently about 90 strong, and heavily armed, began an outflanking movement. Breeze withdrew, using all the infantry weapons to cover the movement while the artillery observer, Captain Dench,32 directed a heavy concentration. Breeze estimated that 26 Japanese were killed. Patrolling continued. On 10th July the area where Breeze’s patrol had fought was found to have been abandoned. There was a clash on the Riam Road on the 12th when a platoon was ambushed and its commander, Lieutenant Cumming,33 wounded but he continued to command, withdrew the patrol and brought down artillery fire. From mid-July onwards the Japanese on the Riam Road were harassed by patrols, aircraft and artillery. At length they withdrew their main force southward beyond Bakam, out of artillery range.
While the 2/13th was holding the coast road the 2/17th was patrolling deeply southward from Kuala Belait and particularly along the Baram River, and the 2/15th was patrolling along the valleys of the Limbang and Pandaruan. On 16th June as part of Windeyer’s plan “to make as strong a demonstration of strength as possible with the reduced forces at his disposal” a platoon of the 2/15th had been sent along the Pandaruan River in an LCM to raid Limbang, or, if the commander thought fit, to land and take that village. By 18th June Limbang had been secured by a company of the 2/15th without contact with the enemy, and next day battalion headquarters and a troop of the 58th Battery landed there. Reports from natives suggested that there were fairly large bodies of Japanese beyond Limbang: one report was that 200 including some women were moving towards Mengatai; some Dyaks arrived with the heads of six Japanese, and Dyaks reported 50 Japanese six miles South-west of Limbang; another report was that 500 ill-armed and weary Japanese from Mengatai were moving to the South-east; air reconnaissance reported 300 to 400 Japanese near Mengatai. On 20th and 21st June a river patrol of the 2/15th went up the Limbang River to Ukong to investigate reports that Allied prisoners were being held there. It picked up an SRD party which had been organising the Dyaks in that area but the report about prisoners proved false. Reports were now coming in daily about large bodies of Japanese moving into the mountains. The 2/15th had a somewhat anxious time at this stage. The battalion was two companies short
until after the 2/13th had landed at Lutong on 20th June. Colonel Grace did not know whether the Japanese, who were in greater strength than he was, would or would not fight. He was greatly dependent on craft for supply and patrolling, and few were available, and sometimes the boat regiment failed to produce craft when they were ordered.
The 20th Brigade had found the townspeople generally friendly, though they gave little help of military value. On the oilfields some Chinese and Indians seemed apathetic, even hostile. On the other hand the Dyak tribes of the interior – Ibans, Muruts, Punans and others – were almost embarrassingly anxious to hunt down and slay Japanese. “Great difficulty was experienced in preventing Ibans from beheading Japanese prisoners of war and even enemy dead and it was not uncommon for them to report to our troops with one or more heads as evidence of their prowess. The Ibans and others constantly asked for arms, but were as regularly refused. Weapons captured in fight they were allowed to keep, but it was considered undesirable – looking to the future – to arm the natives.”34
A Dyak who reached “C” Company from the Tutong River area reported that some days ago a party of 18 Japs reached their village and asked for guides to Tutong (wrote the diarist of the 2/17th). Result: 36 Dyaks, 18 Japs less bodies arrived at destination. The Dyaks offered to deliver the heads to “C” Company but said that they would prefer to keep them as they had a party on. Permission granted to keep heads.
With the help of these Dyak allies the guerilla leaders of the SRD (whose ranks ranged from major to private) had been harassing the Japanese from the flanks and rear. Among these leaders was, for example, Lieutenant Pinkerton,35 who was parachuted into central Borneo in May as a reinforcement. He went with a party to the Trusan River area of north Sarawak and on the day of the Australian landing made a series of raids on Japanese positions and standing patrols behind Brunei Bay, and took Lawas and held it until the AIF arrived.
The Japs in the Brunei Bay area have been cut off completely from their main source of supply and are suffering seriously in consequence (reported Major Harrisson). They have sent out numerous patrols and agents to force the natives to supply the food. We have liquidated all of these, and not one man has ever returned from the interior to the coast. This success in preventing people getting back, coupled with the absolute loyalty and security of the natives, has produced the extraordinary situation by which we have continued to operate for nearly three months on an extensive scale and even right down inside Jap towns, without their being aware that any whites have deliberately entered the interior.
Although the SRD parties had been provided with arms to equip Dyaks and had distributed them, Brigadier Windeyer decided that he would not do likewise. Throughout this later period the 20th Brigade was in touch with the guerrillas. It was not, however, until 21st June that the brigade had made contact with them and learnt their exact dispositions
and capabilities. The SRD provided information of Japanese movements but “SRD information was often too old to be acted upon as it generally reached this Brigade by native couriers some of whom travelled several days on foot and by canoe to deliver their messages. It is considered that a sound military training including a knowledge of how to deal with military information is as necessary for those engaged in guerilla warfare as for regular troops.”36 The SRD had preached among the Dyaks that the British would soon be driving the Japanese from their country, but this was not in fact the plan and the 20th Brigade found the Dyaks somewhat disappointed to learn that the Australians had halted while the surviving Japanese roamed through Dyak territory.
The coastal strip, with its ports, oilfields and rubber plantations, was the extent of the military objective. Its occupation fulfilled the whole military purpose of the invasion of British Borneo. The 9th Division had secured the coastal area and had defeated the Japanese by breaking up their army and driving it inland. The division then set out to restore civil order in all the main settled areas under its control – a very considerable territory. Extending the boundaries of restored civil rule was a quite secondary task for the division. It had to be sure first that it really held and controlled its gains, for a great number of Japanese were at large, although the Australians kept them dispersed. By degrees the Australians greatly extended their vast area by extensive patrolling in which junior leaders and troops showed great enterprise, initiative and interest. Sometimes, however, the SRDs guerillas in the interior seemed to the 9th Division to think that, instead of their activities being in support of the main military purpose of the army, they were the advance-guard or front line and that the army was failing to support them. In general, however, any distant patrolling by 9th Division units was exploratory and with a view only to extending the army’s influence and better securing its gains. The use of ambushes and such ruses was encouraged, but guerilla work and harassing dispersed enemy parties were mainly left to the natives – and the SRD.
Thus, on 27th June, with the help of Dyaks, a forward patrol base of the 2/17th was established by Captain Murphy37 at Balai, on the Belait River, from which to keep an eye on the Japanese escape route into the mountains. By the 30th two platoons had been moved by canoe to Balai.
Also on 27th June Broadbent sent out Lieutenant Graham38 and 14 men to patrol up the Menderam River to find whether any Japanese were there as had been reported. The Australians were taken up the Belait River in dugout canoes paddled by Dyaks. After reaching the end of navigable water they patrolled stealthily forward to within 50 yards of a Dyak village just as an aircraft appeared and a group of Japanese rushed out of the village to a hill near by. Graham decided that the ground
did not favour an attack – if a man had been wounded it would have been difficult to get him out – and wisely returned to the Belait.
On 11th July Graham’s platoon was sent to Ridan, three days’ march away, to form a base, harass any Japanese in the area and remain out until further orders. Karin, a reliable and enterprising Dyak who had guided Graham before, and 15 other Dyaks went with him. At Mount Teraja they found signs of Japanese occupation, including women’s clothing and cosmetics. At “Sandy Bar”, one hour from Ridan, was another abandoned Japanese bivouac. Here Major Carter of the SRD sent a messenger to Graham with news that he was in the Marudi area and that 48 Japanese had ambushed him and killed two of his Dyaks. Having learnt from a Dyak runner that Japanese were bivouacked an hour and a half on the Marudi side of Ridan, Graham took out his platoon, less eight men and plus 16 Dyaks, to set an ambush. They found Japanese in a clearing near Ridan, a section was put across the track, and soon four Japanese walked into the trap and were shot. But the Japanese promptly opened fire with a machine-gun, and there was much shooting during which each side used a light mortar. Graham, being three days’ march from medical attention, eventually withdrew, having had one man slightly wounded, but having killed 4 and wounded 4, as he found later.
As a result of the news that Carter had been forced out of Marudi a company group under Major Trebeck39 was sent to the Marudi area in LCMs escorted by an LCM gunboat and an unarmed launch. This was an important expedition because control of the Marudi area would help in control of the maze of rivers and break up the enemy’s inland communications. On the way up the Baram River on the 15th Trebeck received reports from natives that about 40 Japanese were at Ridan, and decided to make a landing there. After a strike by six Spitfires and a barrage of rockets from the gunboat two platoons landed, but found that the Japanese had gone towards Marudi. These platoons plodded to Marudi across country and the remaining troops went by barge, but again found no Japanese. The Union Jack was hoisted in Marudi. On the 17th Lieutenant Powell’s40 platoon set out to contact Graham’s platoon at Ridan. On the way they encountered 40 Japanese with four machine-guns. The Australians were moving through a swamp and the Japanese were on firm ground overlooking them. After a long fight, in which five Japanese were killed and one Australian (Corporal Howard,41 an original member of the unit) and one Dyak were killed, the platoon broke off the fight and moved back to Marudi in the dark carrying the wounded. The party of Japanese was met again on the Menderam–Ridan track by a ration party which drove them westward and then returned to the Menderam whence
a fighting patrol set out but failed to find their quarry. They were later reported east of Labi.
On 24th July a platoon was established at Bakung and patrolled thence. One section, under Corporal Lemaire,42 patrolling near the Arang River, was ambushed in tall grass by eight Japanese on 27th July. In the fight an Australian and a Dyak guide were killed. Lemaire, who controlled his section with great resource and coolness, shot the Japanese officer in command of the ambush and one other; two other Japanese were killed and the patrol withdrew through a swamp to Bakung. Natives reported that two strong parties of Japanese were approaching and the patrol withdrew in the dark to Marudi. Patrols moved out next day but found no Japanese; one platoon and later a second one occupied the Bakung area.
When the inhabitants returned to Marudi from refuges up the river the population was about 1,000. There were large rubber plantations in the area, neglected during the Japanese regime, and a large quantity of raw rubber in store which the owners were anxious to sell. The hospital at Marudi was re-opened and soon many natives were being treated there.
The Australians found that the Japanese treated the Dyaks with well-merited respect. They did not molest them or interfere with their women, nor did they try to employ them. The Dyaks for their part avoided the Japanese but if necessary would walk calmly through their bivouacs. They seem to have regarded the Japanese as mere raiders and to have been convinced that the British would return. At every Dyak village Australian patrols were invited in by the chief and given rice wine. Of all the Asian and island peoples among whom the Australian soldier campaigned and trained in six years of war – Arabs, Palestinians, Lebanese, Ceylonese, Malays, Chinese, Indonesians, Papuans, and others – none won more respect from him than did the Dyaks, with their courage, dignity, friendliness and generosity.
Cooperation by the natives, in particular the Dyaks, has been most helpful (wrote Broadbent in July). Many of the Dyaks have proved to be first-rate soldiers of undoubted courage with a distinct hatred for the Japs. They did much good work as scouts and were in the thick of the fighting when contact was made. Some Chinese have done very good work and have not been wanting in courage. They have been very good as interpreters. Everywhere we have been enthusiastically received by the local inhabitants irrespective of their nationality. They have all been treated harshly by the Japs and are agreeably surprised since our occupation. They are probably much more favourably inclined now towards British rule than at any other time in the past.
On 11th July the diarist of the 2/17th recorded that there was not a Japanese in its area of responsibility. It was evident that they were moving deeper into the mountains. It was soon known that their orders were to withdraw to Tenom.
In July and the first half of August the 2/15th from its base at Limbang was in contact with the SRD parties about Ukong and Trusan and sent out many patrols along the rivers and tracks. There were few contacts.
One clash occurred east of Limbang on 7th July. Sergeant Power43 and four others surprised from 25 to 30 Japanese in a swamp. The Australians opened fire and killed about 20. The survivors fled and blundered west into a company position of the 2/15th where two more were killed. All this firing caused some anxiety in the town of Limbang.
Next day it was decided that this party of Japanese had been the strongest surviving group of the 366th Battalion and had included Major Sato, the commander of the battalion. This group had been traced moving from Brunei via Rangau to the Pandaruan River. It was believed that the only survivors of the clashes on the 7th were Sato and one lieutenant; the remainder of the 366th were believed to be making off inland in twos and threes. On 10th July, however, Major Harrisson reported that at least 800 Japanese, perhaps 2,500, had moved across the lower Limbang, or in canoes by way of Rangau, far up the Trusan River to the Pa Tengoa, 30 miles upstream in a bee-line, where they were digging in and reorganising. He had got the air force to strafe them five times that day, and had 10 Europeans and 150 armed natives waylaying Japanese on the tracks leading to the Pa Tengoa. He considered that they probably intended to go to Tenom and rejoin the main force, but to do this they would have to march through a long stretch of mountain country peopled by Muruts. He planned to “give them a hard go” along the tracks to Tenom.
As we have seen, the 9th Division had reached its objectives, and it was not part of its task to extend its control throughout the hinterland or to “mop up” the broken Japanese army. The guerilla leaders on the other hand were concerned about their Dyak friends and allies, and felt some responsibility for the protection and rehabilitation of the native peoples in their areas.
By the beginning of July 1945 (wrote Major Harrisson later) many Japanese were on the move deliberately towards the interior. These were naturally our concern. More than that, it would clearly be an inexplicable thing if we let these Japanese do wide-scale damage inland or destroy the lives of these, our so loyal supporters and allies.
Thus, from this time on until the end of the war, Semut [code name of the SRD groups in this area] ceased to be engaged in intelligence and sabotage, and decreasingly in administration. Instead, we devoted the greater part of all effort directly to killing Japanese. This battle was to rage and roam for hundreds of jungle and mountain miles, and continue until long after the war was over.44
Harrisson reached the conclusion that not only the Japanese retreating from Brunei and Sarawak but others from the east and north were making for Sapong Estate near Tenom, a well-developed but isolated rubber plantation near the head of the railway from Jesselton. This, he thought, was to be the site of their last stand round General Baba’s headquarters. (In much the same way another Japanese army was preparing a last-stand position in the mountains inland from Wewak in New Guinea.)
Captain Edmeades45 of Harrisson’s force established a base at Tomani on the Padas south of the Sapong Estate, and deployed about 200 Dyaks about Bole astride the route of the Japanese marching over the mountains from Sarawak. Harrisson estimated that 400 Japanese were killed between Bole and the Padas River, some in despair dying by their own hands.46
In north Borneo as in other areas in which Australians fought in 1945 there was no anti-tank role for the anti-tank artillery and other tasks were found for them. We have seen that some anti-tank gunners in New Guinea were converted into heavy-mortar crews and others were fighting as infantry. The 9th Division’s anti-tank regiment, the 2/3rd (Lieut-Colonel Argent47), landed in Borneo and on 3rd July relieved the 2/28th Battalion round Weston enabling that battalion to rejoin the rest of its brigade at Beaufort. The role of the 2/3rd was to protect Weston, protect and conduct the railway to Beaufort, and patrol. Its patrols had occasional clashes. It did much work in restoring the civil administration, and in July shipped 10 tons of rubber to Labuan and returned some 1,760 civilians to their homes.
On 26th July the regiment was ordered to assume responsibility for the Sipitang area south to the Mengalong River, thus forming a link with the 2/15th Battalion. A force to occupy Sipitang was formed under Captain Rennison,48 comprising two troops and other small detachments. One troop was to hold the base at Sipitang while the other patrolled. The force made contact with a patrol of the 2/15th at Sindumin on 30th July.
By early July it was possible for the Australians to piece together the story of the Japanese forces in the Brunei Bay area. As mentioned, the infantry battalions in the area mostly belonged to the 56th Independent Mixed Brigade, originally of six battalions. The regiment with four battalions was ordered to march west to Brunei Bay; the 369th Battalion was sent to Bandjermasin, and the 370th remained at Tawao. Because so many fell ill on the march westward the battalions each were only 250 to 400 strong when they arrived. The 366th and 367th, as mentioned, were sent to Brunei, the 368th to Beaufort and the 371st to Labuan. At Miri there was already the 553rd; and at each centre there were engineers and other troops.
In the Brunei–Miri area the 367th Battalion withdrew to the Trusan River more or less intact; the 366th fought the rearguard action and withdrew through the Limbang area. It broke up into one group of about 40 and several smaller groups at Rangau about 14th June. Soon parties of troops and civilians of varying strength were moving up the valleys of the Baram, the Limbang and the Trusan in search of refuge, but finding none, because the Australian patrols and the air force pursued them, and the country into which they were moving was peopled, as we have seen, by hostile Dyaks, organised by officers of the SRD.
As the campaign proceeded the civil responsibilities of the 9th Division increased. To assist the division to re-establish British government it had
under command part of the British Borneo Civil Affairs Unit, whose early history has already been described. Five officers of BBCAU headquarters were attached to Wootten’s headquarters, 11 officers to the 20th Brigade and 13 to the 24th Brigade. I Corps, in an administrative order, stated that the functions of the unit were:
(a) to relieve combat troops of the necessity of providing for civil administration;
(b) the administration and control of non-military individuals, whether native or otherwise, in re-occupied areas of north Borneo;
(c) the distribution and control of relief supplies and services;
(d) the procurement, control, employment and administration of labourers;
(e) the rendering of every possible assistance to the operational forces.
On 10th June General Morshead, acting under the authority vested in him by General MacArthur, signed a document proclaiming martial law and delegating all powers under martial law to General Wootten.
On Labuan the Civil Affairs officers had been immediately faced with the task of caring for thousands of homeless people. The bombardments had destroyed practically every building on the island and soon some 3,000 civilians including a large number of emaciated Javanese labourers were in the compound established in the beach maintenance area. Troops had to be allotted to help BBCAU cope with these people and to handle the supplies provided for the relief of civilians.
In the opening stages two BBCAU officers who could speak Malay were attached to each forward battalion. As the operations developed army men were increasingly engaged on work done for the benefit of the civilians: drainage, restoring sewerage and water supply, medical care of natives, collection of rubber, re-opening of schools.
Wootten considered the BBCAU detachment far too weak in medical staff and vehicles. At the brigade level Brigadier Windeyer considered his detachment-11 officers (including one medical officer) and 13 others “hopelessly inadequate. ... But by the enthusiasm of many members of the Brigade ... who were detached from their normal duties to assist in the restoration of normal civilian life a very great deal was accomplished in a short time. ... The guidance and help given ... by those officers of BBCAU who had had experience in Borneo was invaluable.”49
On 6th July Wootten directed the attention of the Corps Commander to the fact that BBCAU had only three medical officers and that his division was doing most of the medical work required by BBCAU In 17 days 7,547 civilian patients had been treated at Brooketon and Brunei, yet these were drawn from only one-third of the division’s area. On 3rd August Wootten asked what action had been taken to move medical men forward and urged that they be sent in by air.
By the end of August thousands of natives were employed repairing roads, clearing plantations, getting timber and so on, and were being paid, but thousands were receiving free food and doing nothing. In the
24th Brigade’s area by the beginning of September the natives had consumed more rations than the troops. The rubber plantations were now mostly cleared of undergrowth but so far no trade in rubber had begun.
Miri had fallen into disrepair during the Japanese occupation because the greater part of the people had lost their employment and left the town. Drains and hygiene were neglected. Allied bombers had damaged the town, and before the Japanese departed they had blown up many buildings. When the people streamed back after the Australian occupation there were not enough houses for them, and hundreds were crowded into the oil company’s barracks. Colonel Colvin put Miri out of bounds to troops off duty, and a system was established whereby a party in a jeep on which was mounted a loud speaker moved round the town giving instructions and advice or reading the news, all in Malay.
There was much work to do clearing away rubble, cleaning drains, cleaning and repairing buildings, roads and bridges. By early September much of this work had been done: the streets and back yards were clean, the debris mostly cleared away. Largely through the efforts of the 2/8th Field Ambulance a native hospital was opened at Miri, and others at Kuala Belait and Brunei. Many of the patients were Javanese labourers, neglected by the Japanese, unwanted by the people of Borneo, and often suffering from malnutrition, ulcers, malaria or dysentery.
By 26th July the 2/3rd Field Ambulance (Lieut-Colonel K. J. J. Dorney) was conducting six civil hospitals with average daily totals of 125 in-patients and 970 out-patients. The largest, at Papar, had 30 inpatients and 350 out-patients. Twenty-two civilian dressers were employed and apprentices were being trained.
By the last week of July the divisional engineers on Labuan had widened and surfaced 29 miles of road; built light timber bridges of an average span of 40 feet, and two larger temporary bridges; built a wharf able to berth Liberty ships and more capacious than any the colony had possessed before; erected 10 oil tanks with a total capacity of 705,000 gallons; made an airfield 4,800 feet long with dispersal areas for 150 aircraft. In the Brunei–Miri area 100 miles of road had been widened and surfaced, seven bridges built, and gas and water systems repaired. In several districts sawmills had been reconditioned and were operating.
Wootten considered that the approach of BBCAU to its problems was not a sufficiently practical one. They had wanted to set up a normal administration straight away. He had been told that, in Europe, a divisional commander had a Civil Affairs officer on his staff. Wootten had replied: “The whole of BBCAU is on my staff. This division is not in the position of a division in Europe where it would be part of a big force. This is the only force here and I am the Military Governor for the time being. In fact, I have two staffs: my military staff, and my Civil Affairs staff, which is BBCAU”
As mentioned, Brigadier Macaskie, the commander of BBCAU, did not arrive at Labuan and take command until 22nd July. He told Wootten
that the unit was too large, containing, as it did, more officers than were in the Borneo administration before the war. These included a large number of Australians and these, Macaskie pointed out, would go away when the military administration ceased and the civil one took over. On two occasions Macaskie had asked for the appointment to BBCAU of former officials of the Borneo administration who were available in Australia but LHQ had not been willing to send them forward.
General Blamey had written to General Morshead on 20th July about “the background” of the formation of BBCAU The letter was not in Blamey’s normal crisp, unambiguous style, and it seems likely that it was drafted in the Directorate of Research and Civil Affairs. The letter mentioned “one or two difficulties in relation to the senior officers”; that there had been “certain delicacies in explaining the matter to the Australian Government”, which was “showing some reticence in accepting the full implication of the operational responsibility which you [Morshead] carry in this respect”; a “need to proceed with care and circumspection in the interests of our relations with the UK” There was a reference to the need for “a few minor precautions to provide for the careerists without military experience”, and a reference to a proposal that an economist from the Department of Post-War Reconstruction should visit Borneo and give “an Australian appreciation of the economic position of the territories for obvious reasons”; his services could be available for only three months. In another note handed to Morshead it was stated that “LHQ” was not satisfied with the quality of the advisers on whom he might be asked to rely.
In the forward area, on 31st July, Macaskie wrote to Wootten that he considered that “an organisation based on a rigid Detachment War Establishment” was not suitable for BBCAU, and he asked that he be allowed to allot officers arriving in the area as he thought fit. He would later submit proposals for a revised war establishment.
Wootten wrote to Morshead on 5th August, enclosing a copy of Macaskie’s letter and pointing out that so far he had not been officially supplied with a copy of the war establishment of BBCAU, although BBCAU had lent him one. Macaskie had told him that he had not been consulted in any way about the posting of officers under his command. Wootten asked whether it was intended to make recommendations to higher authority with the object of ensuring that the organisation of BBCAU was designed “to fit and suit British Borneo as regards the administration of civil affairs”.
On 13th August Morshead in his turn signalled Land Headquarters that until that day he had not seen a copy of the war establishment of BBCAU. He asked for a list of all officers of the unit with details of the experience and qualifications of those of the rank of Lieut-colonel and above. After discussions with Wootten and Macaskie he recommended that Colonel Rolleston, who was on the spot but not yet posted, should be appointed Deputy Chief Civil Affairs Officer.
In August some of the British officers were convinced that senior British officers still in Australia were being prevented from going to Borneo, and remarks which had been made suggested to them that the Australian Government hoped to take over British Borneo. It seems that such remarks were made, but that they were irresponsible; the fact remains that they were believed. The disagreements and friction within BBCAU were unfortunate, but were almost entirely confined to the higher levels in Australia and Borneo. The achievements in the field were admirable.
There the value of those BBCAU officers who knew the country was very great. They were able, by advice and direction, to make effective the ready cooperation of Australian officers and men released from ordinary military duties to help them. Without such assistance BBCAU would have been virtually impotent. Some idea of the scale of the work may be gained from a report of the situation in the 20th Brigade area to 5th August. There were then 27 Eurasians, 201 Chinese, 24 Indians, 37 Malays and 1,625 Javanese in compounds at Brunei, Seria and Miri. The BBCAU officers estimated that about 69,000 civilians were within the area of effective control, and 971 artisans and 1,730 labourers were being employed. Of these 386 were employed by or for the army. In the past week 158 civilians had been admitted to hospitals, and 8,500 treated at aid posts. Much re-building was being done; town water supplies were being restored and in Brunei, Seria and Miri were adequate. The schools throughout Brunei State were now functioning as before the war, under the direction of BBCAU. Rubber was being collected and sent to Labuan. The restoration of the oilfields was continuing.
The troops got on splendidly with the civilians – both the impassive, businesslike Chinese and the cheerful, unhurried Malays – and particularly with the children. Here and there the troops temporarily adopted abandoned children, whom they housed, fed and clothed – and spoiled – and to whom they taught slangy English. When the Australians first appeared the children had been frightened of them and would salute and bow. Gradually the bowing ceased; the salute became a cheery wave, and the frightened expression a broad grin. Soon the inhabitants were arriving at the soldiers’ open-air picture shows, where the troops gave up their seats to Chinese and Malay women and sat children on their knees. They gave clothing to civilians who were in need. Trading with civilians was officially forbidden with the object of protecting the civilians from bad bargains and preventing inflation – although the Chinese in particular were not likely to come off badly in any such transactions. As a result the civilians could not legally exchange fresh food, which the troops lacked, for meat, of which the troops had plenty. In some battalion and company areas, however, trading was winked at. Some companies appointed official buyers to prevent undue bargaining and variation in prices, and systematic trading was carried on to the great satisfaction of both parties. The civilians got tinned beef; the troops fruit, poultry and eggs.
When the fighting died down the troops in several towns organised elaborate entertainments for the civilians. Typical of these was a fair organised by the 2/43rd Battalion at Beaufort. Under the guidance of Captain Lonnie of the 2/43rd a committee including Malayan, Filipino, Indian and Chinese representatives was formed. The troops and the civilians built brightly-painted see-saws, swings, slippery dips and booths. The civilians built also a pagoda-like structure for the official guests. At 10 a.m. on 8th August Brigadier Porter, Colonel Jeanes (of the 2/43rd) and Colonel Stanner (of BBCAU) with other officers and leading civilians took their places in the pagoda. Fireworks, long hoarded by the Chinese, were set off. Porter made a speech, which an interpreter repeated in Chinese and Malay.
The troops then took charge of the youngsters and the colourful spectacle which the costumes of the native population provided became more animated. Children were sliding down the slippery dips, swinging, drinking cordial, playing hoop-la and darts, eating sweets and buns and watching the pedestrian events. Several stages had been erected and on these Malayans, of varying ages and stages of senility, performed their shuffling national dances to the rhythm of the cymbal-like instruments which resembled more than anything else the upturned covers of a number of land mines. This Malayan music could be heard all day and few Malayans failed to tread a measure or so.50
Band recitals and variety acts were given on a stage by both Australian and civilian performers; there were rides in jeeps, river trips in LCMs, a beauty contest, an eight-hour program of athletic events, aerobatics by 24 Kittyhawks, and finally a cinema show. The food provided included the troops’ allowance of canteen supplies for a week and three water buffaloes.
Comparable entertainments were organised at other places. In the 20th Brigade’s area, for example, there was an aquatic carnival organised by the 2/15th Battalion at Limbang; there were concerts and sports at Kuala Belait; and similar entertainments at Miri and elsewhere.
Some of the officers who had been in Borneo before the war complained of the friendly attitude of the troops towards the natives on the ground that it would lower British prestige. These men represented the British who would live in Borneo after the Australians had gone and their opinion had to be heeded. At the same time they were astonished at the way in which the Australians were able to persuade the civilians to work really hard, and still more astonished at the strenuous way in which the Australians themselves laboured in the trying climate – and shoulder to shoulder with the Borneo people.
The Australian view was that the spectacle of Europeans doing hard physical labour might even raise European prestige, and they would not agree that playing with local children would lower the Asians’ opinion of Europeans.
In Borneo as in New Guinea, as the fighting died down, the officers of the Army Education Service organised increasing numbers of classes for the troops. In the Beaufort area Brigadier Porter in August even
established a boarding school at the homestead of a rubber plantation. Here several hundred pupils slept in tents and attended classes in two big storehouses. The supervisor was Captain Kennedy,51 a former teacher. Blackboards and chalk were manufactured.
It was strange (wrote a diarist) to see the teachers – all privates – standing in front of their classes, books in hand, and the perspiring diggers in their faded green uniforms bent over their desks. One class of four was learning to read and write. (There are also classes for illiterates in the individual battalions.) There are four English classes the most advanced of which was having the verses of Henry Lawson read to it from the new paper-covered edition. There was a class in wool-classing with no wool but only chalk and blackboard, paper and pencil; one in elementary book-keeping, one in shorthand, and one in typewriting – three machines.
By the time the cease fire was ordered a great part of the force throughout north Borneo was largely employed on non-military tasks and the demobilisation of long-service men had begun. The story of the restoration of civil government in this and other areas will be continued in a chapter about the Japanese surrenders and their immediate consequences.
In the operations in north Borneo 114 Australians were killed or died of wounds and 221 were wounded but survived.52 In the 9th Division’s operations the number of Japanese dead who were seen and counted was 1,234; it was estimated that an additional 141 were killed; 130 were taken prisoner. The SRD groups believed that their guerillas killed more than 1,800 throughout north Borneo.