British and Japanese Troops Cooperate in SE Asia, 1945
The end of World War Two also promised the end of world-wide tyranny. Yet while the Allies celebrated victory over Germany and Japan, those same Western nations were ensuring that other nations remained under a foreign power’s yoke. Even stranger, this process briefly united former enemies as co-belligerents. In time, at the end of 1945, Britain, France and Japan would fight alongside each to deny Vietnam and Indonesia their rights of self-government.
Vietnam, along with sections of Cambodia and Laos had been part of France’s overseas empire since 1887. During World War Two, the colony’s administration fell into Vichy hands and remained so even after Japan invaded. Following Germany’s surrender in 1945, the Japanese—fearing their nominal French allies would turn on them—executed the French administrators and declared Vietnam an independent nation within their Co-Prosperity Sphere. Laughable as that may seem, this gave the Vietnamese a real hope they would soon attain independence. After Japan’s surrender local Vietnamese political groups moved in to take charge. Ho Chi Minh, the infamous leader of Communist forces during America’s Vietnam War, addressed a crowd of 800,000 in Hanoi about the new era that seemed imminent. At end of his speech he even quoted the Declaration of Independence.
However, world leaders had different ideas. Though Britain and the United States advocated for the dissolution of old colonial empires, the need to oversee Japan’s disarmament, the repatriation of soldiers and POWs from both sides and the orderly transfer of power in these territories meant some form of occupation. At the Potsdam Conference in 1945, the Allies divided Vietnam along the 16th parallel. China and Britain would be responsible for accepting the surrender of Japanese forces in the north and south respectively.
Though formal hostilities ended on August 15, 1945, logistical circumstances kept the English forces out of Vietnam until September 5th. In the meantime, the Viet Minh and other Vietnamese independence groups seized control of Saigon’s administrative facilities and government. When British soldiers arrived in force under Major General Douglas Gracey, they found a Saigon occupied by armed Vietnamese.
However, without a true central authority, crime and violence were pervasive in Saigon. Gracey feared anarchy was the next step. He banned demonstrations and shuttered the local press but lacked sufficient manpower to police Saigon and disarm the Japanese. In a move that exceeded his authority, Gracey rearmed French POWs and handed control of Saigon back to them.
Angry Vietnamese mobs massacred several hundred French and French-Vietnamese civilians. Over the following days armed Viet Minh groups battled British-Indian soldiers in the streets. Though the experienced Indians soon prevailed in Saigon proper, air reconnaissance showed the Viet Minh had the city besieged. Gracey realized Japanese repatriation would have to wait until the countryside was under control. He paused in Japanese disarmament and allowed them to operate against the Viet Minh.
October saw fighting all around Saigon. The Viet Minh attacked the airport three times in an attempt to completely strangle the city. Each attempt was repulsed by combined Indian-Japanese forces. A Viet Minh assault against a Japanese base just north of Saigon at Phu Lam resulted in 100 Viet Minh killed. The city’s power plants, docks and water supply all came under attack.
Near the end of the month the British mustered “Gateforce”—named after its commander, Lt. Col. Gates of the 15/13th Frontier Force Rifles—to press the Viet Minh surrounding the city. Along with Indian infantry and armor, the force consisted of a Japanese infantry battalion. Sporadic battles occurred throughout the rest of the year, with the Vietnamese forces always coming out on the losing end.
In January 1946 the French were present in sufficient numbers to allow Gracey to hand over the Vietnam to its former colonial rulers. The last British forces, the 2/8 Punjab, left in May of 1946.
The Potsdam Conference in 1945 also tasked the British with administering Java, assigning the goals of the release of POWs, repatriation of Japanese soldiers and evacuation of non-Indonesians. Events in former Dutch Indonesia followed a similar path as in Vietnam, but the fighting there exceeded anything in French Indochina.
Like Vietnam, the people of Indonesia expected to gain their freedom after Japan’s surrender, especially since the Japanese had allowed the nation a measure of self-government. Near the end of the war the Indonesians were granted the right to form two legislatures: the 67-member Badan Penjelidik Oesaha-oesaha Persiapan Kemerdekaan Indonesia (BPUPKI) representing most of Indonesia’s ethnicities, and the 21-member group charged with formulating the shape of the Indonesian nation. The widely popular Sukarno was allowed to assume the office of president and declared Indonesia a free country on August 17, 1945.
As soon as news of the Japanese surrender came over the radio, Indonesians began flying the national flag in the open and gathering in large patriotic demonstrations. Though jubilant, the mood was also tense. The Indonesian people had long tired of foreign occupiers and it was evident from public statements they were ready to resist the entrance of yet another foreign army onto their islands.
However, the British were seriously undermanned and relied on the Japanese military to maintain control. In most cases the Japanese were unwilling to go far in exercising their authority. They relinquished weapons, materiel (including food, medical supplies and currency), factories and government buildings. Estimates claim Indonesian fighters possessed thousands of small arms, millions of bullets, tanks, and even anti-aircraft guns. The stage was set for significant armed resistance.
Clashes with Indonesians revolved around three major cities. In Bandung local control broke down as competing groups attempted to assert their authority. Rampaging mobs took the lives of over a thousand Europeans and Chinese. Japanese and British soldiers fought alongside each other to quell the violence. Eventually, two British battalions established a safe zone in the city’s northern section and shelled the rest of the metropolis with artillery and naval bombardment.
Similar events transpired in central Java around Semarang. There militia groups moved against the Japanese directly. Six days of fighting left 600 Japanese soldiers dead and three times that many Indonesians. When the British arrived on October 20, they attempted to negotiate a peaceful entrance to the city. They promised only to evacuate Westerners and Japanese soldiers. Sukarno, who flew in to prevent further bloodshed, helped broker a cease fire. Unfortunately, events in early November in Surabaya inflamed tensions and shooting resumed. Only air strikes, shelling from the cruiser Sussex and resistance from battle-hardened Gurkhas kept the operation from ending in disaster.
The largest battle occurred in Surabaya. Nationalist fever gripped the metropolis after the war’s end. Home to a large, educated middle class and several nationalist political organizations, as well as having links to a tradition of rural militant Islam, Surabaya was at the center of Indonesian independence. As the East Asian scholar Theodore Friend wrote of Surabaya, “The spirit of neighborhood organizations for mutual assistance, and the energy of sons and daughters of free professionals and free labor, gave Surabaya a stubborn, independent style distinctive in Java.”
Unfortunately, this spirit of independence was hard to contain. Various political, religious and militia leaders stoked tensions against former colonial occupiers, immigrants, the Japanese and the arriving British. Sukarno’s young government was helpless to contain the fervor or maintain control. The Japanese, worn down by years of war and also somewhat sympathetic to Indonesian demands, did as little as possible to exert their authority or simply surrendered their weapons to large mobs.
When the British arrived October 25 with 6,000 men of the 23rd Indian Division the city was ready to contest invaders. Though well-armed, the British had no hope of policing Surabaya, disarming the militias and evacuating internees. Once again Sukarno stepped in to calm his countrymen. A cease-fire agreement allowed British forces to move out westerners and the Japanese.
In such an atmosphere the situation quickly degenerated. A skirmish killed Brig. Gen. Mallaby on October 30 while he traveled through Surabaya. Though it was possible he was a victim of friendly fire, British command ordered local militia groups to disarm and turn over Mallaby’s killers, requests that were rejected. The British decided they had only one choice, to evict the armed groups by force. They massed an additional 24,000 troops from the Fifth Division, including 20 Sherman tanks and artillery. The operation began November 10.
The fighting was intense, the close-range and hand-to-hand combat typical of urban warfare, but whenever possible British tanks, planes and ships bombed insurgent strongholds. What the Indonesians lacked in training and weapons they made up for in enthusiasm. Many fought solely with bamboo spears or knives.
Sukarno described the horrific scene: “The city itself was pandemonium. There was bloody hand-to-hand fighting on every street corner. Bodies were strewn everywhere. Decapitated, dismembered trunks lay piled one on top of the other.”
Main combat took only three days but sporadic fighting persisted for three weeks. British casualties numbered over 600 killed. Estimates for Indonesian dead are as low as 5,000 and as high as 10,000.
A year later the Dutch had returned in sufficient numbers to reclaim Indonesia as a colony. Though Surabaya was a total defeat for Indonesian independence, the country celebrates November 10 as Heroes’ Day.
About the Author:
Stefen Styrsky is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C. He has published other military history articles in World at War magazine.