Chapter XII – OPERATIONS IN BORNEO

ALTHOUGH during the years which preceded the war it had gradually been assumed that the General Officer Commanding Malaya was responsible also for the military defence of British Borneo it had, as has been shown, never been possible through lack of resources to station more than token forces there. It was never in fact considered that these forces would be able to do much more than give time for the all-important oil-fields in East Sarawak and Brunei to be demolished and to force the enemy to deploy a larger force than they otherwise need have done to capture the air landing-ground at Kuching, thereby depriving them at least temporarily of the use of this force for operations elsewhere. In war, the General Officer Commanding Malaya, with no transport aircraft at his disposal, could obviously exercise little control over the operations in British Borneo, and equally the O.C. Troops Sarawak and Brunei would himself have little control over the Miri portion of his force. Kuching and Miri are, as the crow flies, some 400 miles of virgin jungle apart, and the only communication between them was by coastal steamer once a week, the journey in each direction taking thirty-six hours. There were no railways in Sarawak and no roads except in the immediate neighbourhood of the few small towns.

The oil-fields, which were worked by the Sarawak Oil-fields Ltd., were in two groups—the one at Miri in Sarawak, a short distance from the coast up the Miri River, and the other at Seria in Brunei, close to the sea-shore. These groups were thirty-two miles apart. The field at Miri was the older one of the two. From it the oil was pumped to the refinery at Lutong on the coast, from which loading-lines ran out to sea as there were no deep- water wharves at Lutong and no ocean-going vessels could come alongside. The Seria fields were comparatively new and still in the process of development. From it the oil was pumped through pipe-lines to the Lutong refinery. Seria, Miri, and Lutong were connected by a road which, for most of its length, ran either along or close to the beach, but a through journey for M.T. was not possible owing to river obstacles. The beach itself is practically straight and suitable for the landing of troops. The oil-fields were, therefore, for practical purposes, impossible to defend against a determined attack with the resources at our disposal. All that could be done was to ensure that they would be of little use to the Japanese if they captured them and, in accordance with instructions received from the Home Government in August 1941, a scheme of complete destruction had been drawn up with the object of making it impossible for the enemy to obtain oil from the fields at least for an extended period. The scheme was not to be influenced by any considerations of the eventual recovery of the fields for our own use. A party of civilian experts was flown out from Europe to advise on this scheme. The responsibility for carrying it out devolved upon the Army—no small responsibility in view of the exposed situation of the oil-fields and the great value of their contents to the Japanese if they could capture them intact.

As has already been related, in order to reduce the amount of work which would have to be done if and when the time came, steps were taken late in 1941 to cut down the production of the fields and to ship away the machinery thus rendered surplus. The Miri portion of the fields was closed down completely. At Lutong one of the two refining plants was closed down. At Seria all the flowing wells were closed and cemented up. All surplus machinery was then shipped away. Orders for the final demolition of the oil-fields reached the O.C. Troops Miri and Seria (Major Slatter of the 2/15 Punjab Regiment) on the morning of 8 Decem¬ber. The first step was the wrecking of engines, pumping machinery, and furnaces. The next was the denial of the gas-lift wells at Seria. Then the sea-loading lines were blown up and the various subsidiary plants, laboratories, etc., were laid waste. The programme went to time without a serious hitch and in a manner reflecting the greatest credit on all concerned, and particularly on Major Davis of the 2/15 Punjab Regiment and on the young R.E. officer, Lt. Hancock, upon whom the responsibility for most of the detailed arrangements had devolved. Although the Japanese claimed to be obtaining oil from the fields within a few weeks of occupying them, it could only have been in very small quantities. A long period must have elapsed before the produc¬tion and export of oil from Miri or Seria reached any figure worth  considering. The damage done to the Sarawak oil-fields was certainly among the most successful of those organized under the scorched earth policy.

On 13 December, H.M.S. Lipis (a former coastal steamer) and one other small steamer arrived at Miri from Kuching to take off the troops. There also arrived in the roads, unnotified, a steamer from Hong Kong with a British captain and a mutinous Chinese crew. A guard was put on this vessel and the three vessels left for Kuching, taking with them the troops, a detachment of Straits Settlements police, which had been sent from Singapore as reinforcements to Brunei, most of the senior officials of Sarawak Oil-fields Ltd., and most of the equipment of the 6-inch battery. At midday on 14 December, H.M.S. Lipis was attacked by a single enemy aircraft which was engaged by small arms fire but succeeded in inflicting casualties among the troops. Among the killed was the gallant Major Slatter, who had himself seized a light automatic and was engaging the enemy aircraft from the bridge. There were no other incidents on the voyage and the three ships reached Kuching safely. The 2/15 Punjab company rejoined its battalion; the remainder of the troops and the police returned to Singapore.

The destruction of the oil-fields had been completed not a bit too soon, for at 3.30 a.m. on the sixteenth Japanese troops landed at Seria. From here some of them proceeded by road to Belait and thence to Danau, which they reached on the twenty-second. On the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth, Dutch aircraft attacked Japanese ships lying off Miri.

From 16 December onwards, enemy reconnaissance aircraft were frequently sighted over Kuching. On the nineteenth the town of Kuching itself was attacked from the air with bombs and machine-gun fire, special attention being paid to the Chinese quarter. A general exodus from the town started and continued throughout the next day. By the twenty-third the O.C. Troops reported that there had been a complete break in civil labour. Air attacks were also made on the landing-ground but without much damage being done. Let me repeat here that there were no anti-aircraft defences of any sort, except small arms fire, at Kuching. When London and other British cities were attacked by the Luftwaffe in 1940 there was a considerable exodus to the countryside even though most of our cities had at least some measure of anti-aircraft defence. It is not for us, therefore, to criticize the people of Kuching for leaving a town which was for all practical purposes defenceless against air attack.

During the twenty-third, reconnaissance aircraft from Singapore sighted a force of nine Japanese warships and transports at sea, evidently heading for Kuching. Although the first sighting was made during the morning it was not until 8.30 p.m., owing to communication difficulties, that the information was received in Kuching. By that time O.P.s north and north-west of Kuching had already reported searchlights to seaward. Before arrival, however, the convoy had been attacked by submarines of the Royal Dutch Navy, who reported having sunk or disabled three transports and one tanker. There is no evidence to show whether this was before or after the sighting by our reconnaissance aircraft referred to above.

Ten minutes later, i.e. at 8.40 p.m., an order from Air Head-quarters Far East for the demolition of the landing-ground was received in Kuching. There is no doubt that this came as a great shock to the defenders who had been encouraged by the confident belief that the landing-ground was of strategical importance and who, not unnaturally, believed that our aircraft would be operating from it as soon as Kuching was threatened. The fact, of course, was that there were no aircraft to send there. This unexpected development also had the effect of putting the O.C. Troops (Lt.-Col. Lane) in the same quandary as that in which many other subordinate commanders found themselves during the course of the Malayan campaign. He had been told that his primary object was to secure the air landing-ground for the use of our air force and to deny it to the enemy, but it was now quite clear to him that our air force was no longer in a position to use it and, once it had been demolished, there seemed no point in denying it any longer to the enemy. At that time we in Singa¬pore were only just beginning to realize that it was not possible to deny the use of an aerodrome to the enemy by demolitions for more than a few days and Lane no doubt thought, as we had done, that the Kuching landing-ground, once demolished, would be useless for a very considerable time. In the instructions issued to him Lane had further been told that if, owing to the enemy’s strength, his primary object could no longer be attained, then he should act in the interests of the defence of West Borneo as a whole, his line of withdrawal being by the bush track into Dutch West Borneo. It is necessary here to explain what was in my mind when these instructions were issued. As British and Dutch air plans had become more closely coordinated, it had been decided that Singkawang II should become the principal Anglo- Dutch air base in West Borneo. This aerodrome was situated, not at Singkawang which is on the coast of Dutch West Borneo, but at Sanggau, sixty miles inland and about thirty miles from the Sarawak border. The R.A.F. already had a small ground staff with some stores there and it was through the W.T. station there, manned by Dutch personnel, that military communication between Singapore and Kuching was maintained. This aerodrome at Singkawang II was also of great strategical importance because it was only 300 miles or so from Singapore and from the communications between Singapore and the Sunda Straits through which our sea-borne reinforcements now had to come. In other words, in Japanese hands it would constitute a very serious threat both to the defence of Singapore and also to the security of Java and Sumatra. Looked at from the broad strategical point of view the denial to the Japanese of the aerodrome at Singkawang II was undoubtedly of far greater importance than the denial of the landing-ground at Kuching. Unfortunately, between Krokong, the end of the road on the Sarawak side, and the beginning of the road on the Dutch side, there was only a bush track quite impassable for wheeled transport. That meant that all the transport and much of the reserve ammunition, supplies, and other stores of a force moving by this route would have to be destroyed or left behind. The decision to use it was therefore one which no commander would lightly take. These were the considerations which now faced Lane, and they should be carefully weighed by anyone who passes judgment on the operations which followed.

The country between the town of Kuching and the sea is practically roadless but is intersected by a number of waterways which flow northwards to the sea. The main river is navigable for small ocean-going vessels as far as Pending, which lies some four miles east of Kuching. Some of the other waterways are navigable for light craft. The principal roads radiating from Kuching run east to Pending, north-west to Matang, and south to Serian, a distance of forty miles from Kuching. The Serian road passes the aerodrome some eight miles south of Kuching. At that point a road takes off to the west which, after passing Bau, terminates at Krokong, fifteen miles short of the frontier. The River Bintawa was crossed at Batu Kitang by a vehicle ferry.

On the morning of 24 December, observers at an O.P. north of Kuching reported Japanese transports anchored in Santubong Bay and landing-craft making for the Santubong River, one of the waterways referred to above. The first landing took place at Lintang on the banks of that river. Other craft penetrated farther inland, some being engaged by our forward posts at Pending and elsewhere while others succeeded in penetrating as far as Kuching Town itself. Many of the Japanese troops were dressed in British and Sarawak police uniforms, a ruse which on more than one occasion deceived the Indian soldiers.

These developments were unknown to Lane for some time as a cable upon which he depended for information from his forward posts had been cut during the bombing of the town. At 4 p.m., however, it became known that the enemy had entered Kuching and had planted the Japanese flag on the Astana, the residence of His Highness the Rajah; also that the Chief Secretary and the Secretary for Defence were in their hands. At 6.30 p.m., Lane ordered his forward detachments to withdraw to the aerodrome.

In Singapore little was known of these events nor were they to be heard of for several days to come. The civil W.T. station had fallen into enemy hands and repeated efforts from both the Singapore and Kuching ends to gain touch with each other via the Dutch station at Singkawang II failed except for one message. That was a request from Lane for further instructions in view of the new situation created by the demolition of the landing-ground. I replied to the effect that he should fight the enemy for as long as possible and that subsequently he should act in the best interests of West Borneo as a whole, withdrawing if necessary into Dutch territory. I do not know whether this message was ever received.

On the morning of 25 December, Lane decided to withdraw his force into Dutch West Borneo that evening. The European women and children, the sick, and some officials with the State records, were sent on ahead and crossed the river safely, but then trouble developed at the ferry after firing had broken out in the vicinity, the native ferrymen disappearing and leaving the ferry on the far side of the swift-flowing stream. The withdrawal from the aerodrome, which was now being attacked from the east and from the south, was expedited, but the rearguard company was unable to extricate itself and suffered heavily. The total casualties of this battalion during the fighting in Sarawak were four British officers and 229 Indian other ranks, a proportion of which could be classified as “missing”.

After trekking through the jungle on the twenty-sixth, the force crossed the frontier on the twenty-seventh and that evening reached Siloeas, the road-head on the Dutch side. Here it was met by the Dutch district officer and farther on by the Dutch military commander, who arranged for it to occupy the barracks which had been built for the R.A.F. at Singkawang II (Sanggau) aerodrome. In the meantime, Lane had been able to get a message through to Singapore, as a result of which containers of food, ammunition, and water were hurriedly prepared and an effort was made to arrange for the R.A.F. to drop these supplies. For lack of suitable and available aircraft the effort came to nothing. Efforts to ascertain the possibility of landing aircraft on the aerodrome itself were also unsuccessful as no information could be obtained as to whether it was in a serviceable condition. Eventually the supplies required by our troops there were sent by sea to Java, where we had a military liaison officer, with a request that they should be forwarded to Borneo as early as possible.

Sanggau was reached on 29 December and the force then came under the orders of the local Dutch commander. Its further adventures, therefore, do not belong to this history but may be briefly summarized to round off the story.

The 2/15 Punjab Regiment, after re-forming and being as far as possible re-equipped though still without transport, was allotted local defence tasks in the Siloeas-Sanggau area. Stragglers and local agents reported that the Japanese had landed 3,000-4,000 troops in Kuching. They soon had coolies at work on clearing and bridging the Bau road and on repairing the landing-ground, from which aircraft were operating within two or three weeks. On 7 January the Japanese arrived at the Sarawak-Dutch West Borneo frontier and between then and the eighteenth much bitter fighting took place between there and Sanggau. The 2/15 Punjab Regiment fought gallantly in an endeavour to prevent the enemy reaching this important aerodrome, losing about another 150 men, but it succeeded in gaining time for the aerodrome, its installa¬tions and bomb stores, to be demolished.

By that time the Japanese had landed another force on the west coast of Borneo, so retreat in that direction was out of the question. The battalion, therefore, struck south-eastwards, fighting a rear-guard action as far as Ngabang, where contact with the enemy was lost. The battalion was now operating independently again, and it was decided to move to the south coast in two columns in the hope of being able to find transport there to take it to Java. One column was to make for Sampit in the centre of the south coast and the other for Pankalang Boen, 120 miles farther west. The columns started on 3 and 5 February respectively and, after traversing wild and undeveloped country, reached their destinations simultaneously. The Sampit column, however, found the Japanese already in possession and, after a brief skirmish, moved off to join the west column, which it succeeded in doing after six days’ march through dense jungle on a compass bearing. By the end of March, officers and men were exhausted after a feat of endurance which assuredly will rank high in the annals of warfare. Since leaving Kuching most of them had marched over 800 miles through some of the worst country in the world, most of the time on half rations and carrying with them their light automatics, rifles, equipment, and ammunition. It says much for the morale of this fine battalion that it remained a formed and disciplined body till the end. The Netherlands East Indies had already surrendered to the Japanese and on 3 April the 2/15 Punjab Regiment became prisoners of war.

What did this battalion accomplish for all its journeyings? That is a question that may well be asked. It was not a political sacrifice, as has been suggested. It was sent to Sarawak, firstly to ensure that the important oil-fields at Miri and Seria did not fall intact into the Japanese hands, and secondly to secure for our air force the use of the landing-ground at Kuching and to some extent also of the Singkawang II aerodrome, but in any case to ensure that they also did not fall intact into Japanese hands. The force was never strong enough to stop the Japanese—that was due to lack of resources—but it did make the Japanese deploy a fair-sized force, it did gain time for both the oil-fields and the air facilities to be denied to the enemy as far as this could be done and it did help to prevent the enemy from occupying the all-important aerodrome at Singkawang II until 18 January, thereby making a definite contribution to the delay imposed on their southward advance. A military sacrifice it may have been, but it was a sacrifice which, judged by results, was in my opinion fully justified.

I must complete this story of the loss of British Borneo by relating briefly the events in Labuan and British North Borneo. It will be recollected that the only military force in these terri¬tories was a small volunteer force in British North Borneo which the Governor had been instructed by the Commander-in-Chief Far East to use for internal security purposes.

On 3 January a small Japanese force took possession of the Island of Labuan. On the same day a detachment from this force proceeded in a captured motor vessel to Mempakul on the coast of British North Borneo and from there to Weston, a small port at the mouth of the River Padar. At Weston, the detachment commandeered a train and proceeded to Beaufort, twenty miles distant. Here it was reinforced and on the sixth Japanese troops from Beaufort, moving by train, entered Jesselton, fifty-six miles distant. British North Borneo was divided into two administrative divisions, the West and the East Coast Residencies. The whole of the west coast area was now under Japanese control and the Governor, Mr. C. R. Smith, whose headquarters were at Sanda- kan, now severed all connection between the West and East Coast Residencies.

On 19 January a Japanese force, estimated at 600 strong, arrived at Sandakan, the capital of British North Borneo. It had assembled at Bangghi Island off the north coast of British North Borneo two days earlier. It came in two coastal vessels which had been captured in Brunei waters and in twelve Japanese motor fishing vessels. The troops from the latter, after landing in two creeks north of the town, reached Sandakan by land at 9 a.m. The two coastal vessels entered the harbour at about 9.30 a.m. The Governor surrendered the State and refused to carry on the administration under Japanese control. He and his staff were interned. Tawau, situated on the east coast near the Netherlands East Indies border, was occupied by the Japanese on 24 January, and Lahad Datu, between Tawau and Sandakan, on 26 or 27 January. Kudat on the north coast was occupied about 1 February. The whole of British Borneo was then under Japanese control.

British North Borneo, under the energetic and able leadership of its Governor, had done more than most of our possessions in the Far East to prepare itself, as far as its very limited resources would admit, for the possibility of war. It had co-operated readily in the preparations for the construction of the aerodromes and landing-grounds, which had been part of the original air plan, it had raised and equipped under its own arrangements a small volunteer force and it had prepared careful plans for the denial of military facilities to the Japanese should they come. In these plans the Governor had had the wholehearted co-operation of both the European and native population. Under his orders a great deal of denial work was done which incensed the Japanese occupying forces and made their treatment of the internees all the harsher. In particular, coastal vessels and local craft, including a number of Japanese-owned craft, were sunk. It is no reflection on the way this work was carried out, but a valuable lesson for the future, to state that the Japanese, without the help of heavy modern machinery, succeeded in raising many of these craft in a very short space of time. For all their faults they are in many ways a resourceful and practical people.

In pre-war days little was known by the general public about this outpost of our Empire, but the affection and loyalty shown to the Europeans there by the native population during the Japanese occupation is a wonderful proof of the benefits brought by British rule and of the soundness of our system of government. I have little doubt that in the years to come this will be appreciated more fully than it is now by many of those who cry so loudly for independence.

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