You are here:   Features > The Death Knell of the British Empire
 

Sixty-five years ago, the victorious British Army arrived in what is now Indonesia on what they believed was a humanitarian mission. Instead, the British walked unwittingly into a war of independence, the first step along a path that has led the army through many messy post-colonial conflicts and ultimately to the quagmires of Afghanistan and Iraq.

The flashpoint was the port of Surabaya in eastern Java. On October 25, 1945, a brigade of Indian troops sailed into the harbour on a mission to locate and repatriate prisoners of war and civilians interned by the Japanese. They were unprepared for the heavily armed nationalist militia that controlled the city. Five days later, their commanding officer, Brigadier A. W. S. Mallaby was dead, along with a couple of hundred of his men, and the British were haplessly embroiled in the independence struggle between the Indonesians and their Dutch colonial rulers.

British and Indian troops advancing in Surabaya in November 1945

How this came about, and what happened over the next year, remains instructive.

Asia and the Japanese war had been secondary to strategic thinking in both London and Washington. Beating Hitler had been the prime objective. But while the Americans with their industrial strength and large population had been able to prosecute a vigorous campaign against Japanese forces in the Pacific, the British effort in Burma had been a hand-to-mouth, sometimes desperate affair.

The abrupt end of the Japanese war on August 15 posed a new challenge: how to administer the vast areas still occupied by the Japanese. There had been an agreement that the British would be responsible for Burma, Thailand, Malaya and Hong Kong. But at the Potsdam Conference in July, the Americans had unexpectedly asked the British to take responsibility for Indonesia and part of Indochina. The British had little intelligence on local conditions. It did not help that halfway through Potsdam Winston Churchill lost the historic general election, and Labour's Clement Attlee took his place at the conference table.

The situation was complicated by American determination to discourage the return of European colonial rule. Although the Americans had greatly increased the burden on British forces in Asia, they also refused to make merchant shipping available to help them. This made it hard for the British to fulfil their duties with any speed.

In charge of Southeast Asia Command (SEAC) was Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten. His orders were to occupy surrendered territory, repatriate prisoners of war and maintain good order until civil power could be reconstituted. Logistically, it was an enormous task, even without opposition. At his disposal were the battle-hardened 14th Army, fresh from victory in Burma, plus limited naval and air resources. But the British troops — about one-third of the total — were eager to return to Britain, where the Labour government was setting about the new Jerusalem, while their Indian comrades knew that their country's independence was only a couple of years away.

View Full Article
 
Share/Save
 
 
 
 
aria
May 20th, 2015
12:05 PM
Hi Pat, there is commonwealth soldiers cemetery in Jakarta, at Menteng pulo. The maj. general who died on surabaya battle is burried there.

Pat oPnymous
April 16th, 2014
11:04 AM
Thank you Patrick for sharing the story of the post war in Java. I wonder if you could help.We are trying to trace the grave for James Mills. He was one of the British sent on a humanitarian mission to restore order in Java. The Commonwealth graves show names of soldiers killed during WW2. As the post war revolution in Java, Oct 1945-Nov 1946 is not regarded as part of WW2 where are the fallen soldiers buried and how does one find them?

jon symes
February 6th, 2014
3:02 AM
Hi Patrick, I found this while tracing my father from India/Burma/Singapore/Malaysia/Indonesia who was with the Chindits. He told me when they were sent to Indonesia they were not happy and did not want to fight but go home. New officers from UK were sent out who were 'gung ho'.....they were dispensed of with a bullet believe it or not. True story. Another forgotten war.

Bastian
November 24th, 2012
1:11 PM
Hi Patrick H Thank you for sharing this story as an Indonesian i belive this story can give us new point of view on how our story is seen by foreigner. In this story i am greatful and proud that i am an indonesian who fought his liberty with pride and honour . My great grandfather also exs Tkr in soerabaya from brigade genie don bosco and have survive from this battle

Marco van Beek
June 3rd, 2011
2:06 PM
Just found out one of my uncles was in Force 136, and was parachuted into Padang, in Sumatra.

Post your comment

CAPTCHA
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.