GUNNERS IN JAVA - 1942
By Brigadier R J Lewendon (Retired)
Reproduced with the kind permission of the Royal Artillery Institution
The Netherlands East Indies (now Indonesia) comprised the large islands of Java, Sumatra, Dutch Borneo, Celebes and numerous other small islands. By far the most populous island was Java with some sixty million inhabitants. The Islands became Dutch Colonies in the Seventeenth Century and they were overrun and occupied by the Japanese in the first few months of 1942.
The dearth of information about a Gunner presence in the Netherlands East Indies in the earlier part of 1942 was brought home to me in the RA Library Archives. This is not surprising when it is remembered that:-
a. No Unit War diary has survived from the Java/Sumatra campaign of 1942 - precious few survived from the Malayan Campaign.
b. Such campaign accounts that do exist were mostly written over three years later at the end of a traumatic period as POWs of the Japanese in the most appalling and bestial conditions.
c. The events themselves lasted for barely four weeks.
The Royal Artillery commitment seemed to involve some 3500 men including the best part of five RAA AA Regiments. The following record is far from complete and its accuracy is suspect. I hope that as a result of publication, memories will be stirred and information will flow enabling the record to be completed, accurately, for posterity.
Setting the Scene - The story starts on 7th December 1941 with Japanese transports anchored off Kota Bahru in the North-East of Malaya, an area occupied by the 8th Indian Infantry Brigade. In the early hours of 8th January 1941 the Japanese stormed ashore and a few hours later, just after dawn, thousands of miles away, Japanese torpedo bombers struck the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbour.
On 6th December 1941 Convoy WS14 sailed from the Clyde bound for the Middle East carrying, inter alia, 21 and 48 LAA Regiments RA and 77 HAA Regiment RA. 21 Regiment RA was a TA Regiment from the Chester area comprising 48, 69 and 79 Batteries. 48 Regiment RA was a wartime Regiment formed in 1940 comprising 49, 95 and 242 Batteries. 77 Regiment RA was a TA Regiment from South Wales comprising 239, 240 and 241 Batteries. By the time the Convoy WS14 had reached Durban in South Africa early in January 1942, the destination of the AA Regiments had been changed by the UK Chiefs-of-Staff to Singapore. Their destination was changed again to Batavia (now called Djakarta) in Java by General (later Field Marshal) Sir Archibald Wavell who by now had been appointed Supreme Commander ABDA (American, British, Dutch and Australian Area). They arrived at Batavia on board the Empress of Australia on 4th February 1942.
An earlier convoy which sailed from the UK between 9th and 14th November 1941, also bound for the Middle East, had among the units on board, 6 HAA Regiment RA and 35 LAA Regiment RA. 6 Regiment was a regular Regiment comprising 3, 12 and 15 Batteries. 35 Regiment was a special (almost 3rd line) TA Regiment formed at Oxford on 2nd September 1939 for the defence of RAF airfields in the area against air attack. It recruited initially older men (aged 25 to 50) and by early 1940 comprised five batteries with Headquarters at Oxford, Abingdon, Gloucester, Cheltenham and Reading. In mid 1940 this Regiment reverted to a normal LAA Regiment and reduced to three batteries 78, 89 and 144. RHQ was located in Black Hall, St Giles, Oxford. This convoy was diverted en route to Singapore where it arrived on 13th January 1942.
6 HAA Regiment RA, whose equipment had gone to the Middle East, was rapidly re-equipped from stocks in Singapore and deployed to gun positions around the town including the Jap Golf Course overlooking Keppel Harbour. Meanwhile 35 LAA Regiment RA was similarly re-equipped and 144 Battery with two troops from 89 Battery crossed the Causeway and went into action in Johore.
On 30th January 1942 a convoy of small ships left Singapore carrying 6 HAA Regiment (less 3 Battery) and 78 Battery of 35 LAA Regiment RA reinforced by two troops of 89 Battery. They arrived at Palembang in Southern Sumatra on 2nd February 1942. The anti-aircraft guns were deployed to the two airfields P1 and P2. P2 was forty miles to the South of Palembang and it was defended by 12 HAA Battery and the LAA guns of 35 LAA Regiment. P1 airfield seven miles north of Palembang was defended by one troop of 15 HAA Battery whilst its other troop was deployed in the large oil refineries just outside Palembang.
These two airfields P1 and P2 had been covertly developed by the Dutch prior to the Japanese attack, for just such a contingency. The Japanese found P1 and began bombing it regularly from early February 1942 but it would seem they were unaware of the existence of the P2 airfield until at least the middle of February 1942. There were several thousand RAF Ground personnel in the area evacuated from Singapore, but largely unarmed.
On 14th February 1942 P1 airfield was attacked by a force of Japanese paratroopers who quickly took the airfield and pressed on to Palembang itself and the refineries. The Japanese presence made P2 airfield untenable and so the decision was taken to abandon South Sumatra and the melancholy process of evacuation started once more. The route out to Java was down a tenuous 300 mile road and rail route to Oosthaven in the Sunda Straits (now called Telukbetung). The ferries and the frail bridges en route forced the Batteries to abandon their guns and all but their light vehicles. By the 18th February 1942 the survivors of the three Batteries (two HAA and one LAA) had arrived in Batavia, Java minus, of course, their guns and other heavy equipment.
Prior to this move, on 4th February 1942, 77 HAA Regiment RA, 21 and 48 LAA Regiments RA had disembarked at Batavia with all their equipment together with Brigadier H D W Sitwell, CB, MC and HQ 16 AA Brigade. Brig Sitwell was the AA Commander in the NEI and answered directly to General Sir Archibald Wavell, Commander ABDA Area.
Meanwhile, back in Malaya, 144 Battery and the two troops of 89 Battery of 35 LAA Regiment RA in Johore had left the Malayan mainland and fallen back on to Singapore Island to rejoin the RHQ of the Regiment. It would seem that just before the fall of Singapore on 15th February 1942, the two troops of 89 Battery were ordered to rejoin the rest of the Battery, now en route from Palembang, Sumatra to Java. They sailed from Singapore but the ship carrying them was bombed by the Japanese and sank off Bangka Island, Sumatra. There was one lone survivor, L/Bdr R Spencer of Nottingham. RHQ of 35 LAA Regiment RA and 144 Battery were lost in the capitulation of Singapore on 15th February 1942.
AA Deployment in Java - To return to the situation in Java, after their arrival in Batavia 77 HAA Regiment RA less 239 Battery moved by road and rail to Soerabaja (now called Surabaja) in Eastern Java and went into action in that area about 6th or 7th February 1942. In the early hours of 6th February 1942 (0300 hrs) a troop train carrying part of 77 HAA Regiment RA was involved in a rail accident just outside Soerabaja when it smashed into an ammunition train on a single track on a bridge over a ravine. Some thirty members of 77 HAA Regiment RA were killed in the accident and nearly one hundred were injured. The third Battery of 77 HAA Regiment RA remained in Batavia for the air defence of that area.
21 LAA Regiment RA deployed one Battery to Eastern Java on airfield defence with 48 Battery in the Soerabaja area. The third Battery was possibly that which Wavell had ordered to be sent as a reinforcement for Koepang (now Kupang) in Timor.
48 LAA Regiment RA, on arrival in Batavia, sent 95 Battery to Oosthaven in Sumatra en route for the airfield around Palembang (P1 and P2) to reinforce the air defence already there. When they arrived in Palembang they found that the evacuation was beginning and they had time only to turn round, retire to Oosthaven and return to Java. 95 Battery, on its return, was deployed around Andir airfield near Bandoeng (now Bandung). 49 Battery was deployed around Kalidjati airfield, North of Bandoeng and 242 Battery with RHQ were deployed in Batavia.
Dissolution of ABDA - On 21st February 1942 General Sir Archibald Wavell was instructed to withdraw his ABDA Headquarters from Java but he countered by suggesting that in the circumstances it would be better if it was dissolved altogether and that control in the NEI reverted to the Local Dutch Naval Land and Air Commanders. This was eventually agreed and on 25th February 1942 General Wavell left Java for India. Singapore had fallen some 10 days before.
With the departure of Wavell, Brig Sitwell became GOC British Troops in Java with the rank of Major-General and formed his HQ from HQ 16 AA Brigade. On 25th February 1942 the order of battle and dispositions of the elements of five RA AA Regiments were as follows:-
77 HAA Regiment RA -
RHQ with 240 and 241 Batteries at Soerabaja and 239 Battery at Batavia.
21 LAA Regiment RA -
RHQ with two batteries on airfields in East Java (Singosari, Moaspati and Malang). One battery in, or en route to, or from Timor (?).
48 LAA Regiment RA -
RHQ and 242 Battery in Batavia. 49 Battery at Kalidjati airfield. 95 Battery at Andir airfield (Bandoeng).
6 HAA Regiment RA, now reduced to 12 and 15 Batteries only with under command 78 and 89 Batteries of 35 LAA Regiment RA, both depleted in strength from their previous losses, were in the Batavia area in an infantry role for the defence of airfields with one battery moving to Tjilitan airfield and another to Kalidjati.
Following an assessment of Intelligence Reports on likely Japanese moves against Java, General Sitwell ordered the following moves of AA units for the night of 28th February/1st March 1942.
1. RHQ 21 LAA Regiment RA and two troops from East Java to Andir airfield in the Bandoeng area.
2. Three troops of 21 LAA Regiment RA to Tjilatjap and two more troops to Jogjakarta; and thence to Tasikmalaja where they were estimated to arrive on 2nd March 1942.
3. RHQ with 240 and 241 Batteries of 77 HAA Regiment RA from Soerabaja to the Tjilatjap area. In the course of the move, one HAA troop was cut off and lost at Soerabaja.
During the night of 28th February/1st March 1942 (whilst the moves above were in progress) a strong Japanese force landed at Eretenwetan on the North Coast of Java and, with tanks, pressed inland. By 10.00 hrs 1st March 1942 they had taken the defences of Kalidjati airfield by surprise and had over-run it. 49 Battery of 48 LAA Regiment RA was destroyed as well as the battery from 6 HAA Regiment operating in an infantry role.
On 2nd March 1942 HQ 16 AA Brigade was reformed to take command of all AA Troops in Java. Major General Sitwell, the GOC British Troops in NEI now had two brigades under his command, 16 AA Brigade and Black Force.
Black Force was an 'ad hoc' brigade-sized group which was formed in Java in mid-February 1942. It was under the Command of Brigadier A S Blackburn, an Australian, and comprised Australians (2/3 MG Battalion, 2/2 Pioneers, 2/6 Field Company RAE, some RAAMC and RAASC), Americans (1/131st Field Artillery Battalion) and British ('B' Squadron of 3rd Hussars and later, RAF Ground Personnel organised as infantry and the Signal Section of 48 LAA Regiment RA.)
During 4th March 1942, amid growing disintegration of the Dutch Forces in Java as a result of strong Japanese pressure, British AA units in Batavia were ordered to concentrate in the Bandoeng area and so 239 Battery of 77 HAA Regiment RA and 242 Battery of 48 LAA Regiment RA moved accordingly.
As the situation grew more confused, 16 AA Brigade units were told to concentrate on Tasikmalaja airfield as a prerequisite for a kind of last ditch 'wolf's lair' type defence that was at one time contemplated and this they began to do on 6th/7th March 1942.
A further move into a more remote mountainous area (Tjakadjang) was ordered pm on 7th March 1942 which meant destroying the remaining heavy equipment and this was started.
Throughout 8th March 1942 General Sitwell was in consultation with his Dutch superiors who seemed to have no sympathy with his request for prolonged guerilla-type resistance to the Japanese.
By 08.00 hrs the next morning, 9th March 1942, the Dutch had laid down their arms. It was clear to General Sitwell that there was no possibility of any long term guerilla-type resistance and by noon on 9th March 1942 all British personnel had laid down their arms and capitulated.
In the last few days (3rd - 5th March 1942) twenty-six Japanese planes were certainly destroyed by the guns of 16 AA Brigade and thirteen more were probably destroyed.
Gradually over the next few weeks the POWs were concentrated in large camps, mainly in the Batavia area, where from about October 1942 regular drafts of 'slave labour' were sent either to Japan to work in the coal mines or to Thailand, via Singapore, to work on the infamous 'Burma' Railway.
Order of Capitulation (As issued by RHQ 6 HAA Regiment RA to the Batteries under its command (12, 15, 78 AND 89))
'To 12th, 15th, 78th, 89th Batteries:
Following are the Terms of Capitulation:
1. Unconditional capitulation is ordered.
2. All hostile acts to be stopped at once.
3. Sign of surrender - white flags to be hoisted.
4. All troops to be disarmed and to be surrendered immediately. Troops in fortified positions or fortresses after disarming to be assembled in given visible position. Other troops to be assembled in camp or Cantonments. Weapons and ammunition to be stacked under Guard.
5. Conditions 1 to 4 to be completed before 12.00 hrs on 9th March 1942.
6. Bodies of dead Japs, Jap prisoners of war to be given up as quickly as possible.
7. All destruction of material and weapons is forbidden.
8. Communication overseas is forbidden.
9. Military movements of Jap army will be continued.
10. If these conditions are not complied with, hostilities will be immediately re-opened. For assurance of carrying out these conditions and preservation of order and quiet, necessary steps must be taken. Amongst other things, provision of armed guard for which limited amount of arms and ammo can be spared (5%). These Guards, as far as possible and necessary, to be under command of Officer. Guard to have white armband and white flag.
11. Every man to be issued with 2 days rations.
12. Maj-Gen Sitwell deeply regrets this necessity and orders us to comply.
Signed: K CAMPBELL
Adjt 6 Hy AA Regt RA