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The Battle for Miri and Sarawak, Borneo, WW II
By Franz L Kessler   

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This text combines several articles from the internet and other sources, that provide facts of the war in Sarawak (Borneo) spanning the time from 1941 until 1945. I have edited these pieces of text only by little, so that the original flavor remains preserved within the frame of my article. Additional information was added wherever available. My (ongoing) research focusses on areas surrounding Miri, the city I live in. I gathered verbal records and narratives. These describe the war from the angle of the native population. It's work in progress.

The Second World War commenced in Borneo at the end of 1941, after several years of mounting regional tension. The Japanese invasion of Borneo was driven by a number of different objectives.

First, there were the Seria and Miri oilfields, and the Lutong refinery. These formed important cornerstones of the widening attack, from a supply standpoint. Second, Borneo provided an ideal platform to attack adjacent Indonesia, Java in particular. Last not least, the Borneo-Chinese population was seen as an enemy - active fund-raising, organised by community leaders, had helped to fund the mainland China resistance, a war of attrition that was absorbing a large number of Japanese troops, without delivering the  desired imperial outcomes.

Given the above, the invasion of Borneo didn't come as a surprise, but precision, efficiency and tactical prowess of the Japanese attack had not been foreseen by the opposing western colonial powers.To understand the balance of power in Borneo, and the the region ahead of World War II, one has to step back another fifty years of time. Borneo was split, then, in four units:

- The Sultanate of Brunei, a weak, uneventful state under British protection;

-Northern Borneo (Sabah), a protectorate; Dutch-administrated East-Borneo,

- Kalimantan; and

-Sarawak, ruled by the second Rajah Brooke.The inner part of the Borneo island was covered by dense forests, rugged and remote, and hardly any reliable maps existed. There were no roads, and even rivers were only navigable up to the first rapids.

Communication in Sarawak was provided by steamers, that linked the (only) four 'cities' of Kuching, Sibu, Bintulu, and Miri. The latter was nothing but a combination of fisher's village plus (since ca. 1920) facilities and service providers common for a mid-scale oilfield, oil storage and refining operation.

Like the other 'cities,' Miri was surrounded by dense, impenetrable coastal jungle.There was a weekly steamer arrival from Singapur, and Kuching, bringing passengers, mail and tool parts.Outside of town, most of the (still sparse) population was concentrated in a narrow cordon of some 15 km off the coastline, with settlements being located only along the river mouths'.

Both politically, and militarily, Sarawak (as part of) Borneo was a kind of 'terrain vague,' a backwater of colonial interest. Both Dutch and British forces were located essentially in two locations: the Island of Java, and Singapor. Miri, until the end of the thirties, only had a police station.There was no enemy until the Japanese entered the scene as an emerging regional, and aggressive power.

In 1888, Great Britain, after refusing to offer protection to Sarawak for so many years suddenly changed her position. However, it was not granted in the protection of the interests of Sarawak, but in the interest of the British Empire. Apparently, Great Britain suddenly became aware that another European Power could easily take Sarawak for themselves. This is the reason why the British finally offered Sarawak protection.

Under the 1888 agreement, negotiated by Sir Charles Anthony Brooke, 2nd Rajah of Sarawak, all the foreign affairs of Sarawak were to the responsibility of British Government. Internal affairs remained the responsibility of the Brooke Rajahs.The large Island of Borneo, partly British and partly Dutch, was clearly of great strategic importance, lying as it did between the main routes linking Japan with Malaya and Sumatra on the one hand and Java and the Southern Areas on the other, and containing large supplies of oil and other raw materials.

1. Preparing for War

Unfortunately neither the British nor the Dutch were able to fund adequate garrisons for this island.At the outbreak of war, the British portion of Borneo consisted of: -British North Borneo: - a territory controlled by the British North Borneo Company, whose headquarters were in London. The Governor and officials of British North Borneo were in the employ of that Company.

Labuan Island:- A British Colony administered by a Resident.

Brunei: - A British Protected State with its own Sultan.

Sarawak: - A Malay State which had for many years been governed by members of the Brooke family.

In September 1941, however, the ruling Rajah made over much of his responsibility to a Council. He then left Sarawak for a holiday and was in Australia when hostilities broke out. His efforts to return to Sarawak were unsuccessful. There had for some time been a project to open up air facilities in British Borneo. Aerodrome sites had been selected and surveyed.

Ultimately, however, as there was no immediate prospect of British aeroplanes being available to use the aerodromes, the project was postponed except as regards an air landing ground at Kuching in Sarawak and a landing strip at Miri.In accordance with this 1888 Agreement, Great Britain dispatched troops and material to bolster the defenses of Sarawak during the 1930's. During the late 1930's the Royal Air Force based 205th RAF Squadron at Kuching. This was a seaplane squadron consisting of Walrus Flying Boats. However, this was withdrawn in 1941 and returned to Singapore.

Realizing that war was imminent, the Brooke Government, under Sir Charles Vyner Brooke, conducted preliminary work to establish airstrips at selected locations throughout the country. These airstrips would be located at Kuching, Oya, Mukah, Bintulu, and Miri. By 1938 work was completed on all the airstrips except Bintulu, which was discontinued in October 1938 due to financial reasons. On 26 September 1938, the Kuching Airstrip was opened. It was situated at the 7th Mile (Bukit Stabar) and measured 700 meters long by 300 meters wide. However, despite the modern air facilities available, the RAF stationed no aircraft in Sarawak during 1941. In addition, the Royal Navy withdrew from Sarawak, and the British Protectorates of Labuan and North Borneo in 1940.

With no air or sea forces stationed in or around Sarawak, the British government encouraged the Brooke Regime to adopt a "scorched earth policy" in the event of a Japanese attack. The Singapore Conference of October 1940 further presented the dismal defense situation of Sarawak by stating that without command of the sea or air, it would be pointless to defend Sarawak and the other British colonies in the area. An alternative plan was propose by Air Vice-Marshal Sir Robert Brooke-Popham which suggested that 200 RAF and Royal Dutch Aircraft be used to defend the territories of Sarawak, Labuan, Brunei, and British North Borneo. Brooke-Popham stated that this should be sufficient to defend the territories against any Japanese attack. His request for such an outrageous amount of aircraft was declined by the British and Dutch governments on the grounds that they were simply not available.

Later, it was proposed to develop a Denial Scheme. Returning to the "scorched-earth" policy mentioned earlier, Denial Schemes were in place to destroy the oil installations at Miri and Lutong. In addition, the Bukit Sabir Airfield (11 km south of Kuching, the capital of Sarawak), was to be held as long as possible, then would be destroyed.To gain control of the oilfields, to guard the flank of their advance on Malaya and to facilitate their eventual attack on Sumatra and western Java, the Japanese decided, as a subsidiary operation to their Malayan campaign, to seize British Borneo. This operation was launched by Southern Army eight days after the initial attack on Malaya.

The oilfields in British Borneo lay in two groups: one at Miri close to the northern boundary of Sarawak, and the other thirty-two miles north, at Seria in the State of Brunei. The crude oil was pumped from both fields to a refinery at Lutong on the coast, from which loading lines ran out to sea. Landings were possible all along the thirty miles of beach between Miri and Lutong and there was, with the forces available, no possibility of defending the oilfields against determined attacks. Plans had therefore been made for the destruction of the oil installations. Sir Robert Brooke-Popham, Commander-in-Chief Far East, decided it would be prudent to honor the 1888 defense agreement with Sarawak. Consequently, in late 1940, he ordered the 2nd Battalion, 15th Punjab Regiment, a heavy 6-inch gun battery from the Hong Kong-Singapore Royal Artillery, and a detachment of 35th Fortress Company (Royal Engineers) to proceed at Kuching (British North Borneo).

In December 1940 a company of 2/15th Punjab was sent to Miri for the protection of the demolition parties, and in May 1941 the rest of 2/15th Punjab was sent there to provide a garrison. This lone battalion consisted of approximately 1,050 soldiers under the command of Major C.M. Lane. For the defense of Sarawak region, it was deployed as follows:

At Miri was deployed a force of 2 officers, and 98 other ranks:• 1 Infantry Company from 2/15 Punjab Regiment• 6" Hong Kong-Singapore Royal Artillery Battery• 1 Platoon of Royal EngineersThese troops were entrusted with the destruction of Miri Oil Fields. It was to be known as the Miri Detachment.In addition, the Brooke Government mobilized the Sarawak Rangers. This force consisted of 1,515 troops who were primarily Iban and Dyak tribesmen trained in the art of jungle warfare led by the European Civil Servants of the Brooke Regime. British Lieutenant Colonel C.M. Lane who commanded the battalion was placed in charge of all forces in Sarawak, which included the native Volunteer Corps, Coastal Marine Service, the armed police and a body of native troops known as the Sarawak Rangers. Collectively, this force of 2,565 troops was known as "SARFOR" (Sarawak Force).

In August 1941 a partial denial scheme, which reduced the output of oil by seventy per cent, was put into effect. It was also decided that no attempt should be made to defend British North Borneo, Brunei or Labuan, and the Governor of North Borneo, Mr. Robert Smith, was informed that the Volunteers and police were to be used solely for the maintenance of internal security. It was however decided to defend Kuching because of its airfield, and because its occupation by the enemy would give access to the important Dutch airfield at Singkawang II, sixty miles to the southwest and only some 350 miles from Singapore.

During late November 1941, Lieutenant-General A.E. Percival, GOC Malaya Command, took a 2-day tour of Sarawak to assess the adequacy of its defense preparations. He summarized the situation as follows:

"Nobody could pretend that this was a satisfactory situation, but at least it would make the enemy deploy a larger force to capture Sarawak than would have been necessary if it had not been defended at all and that, I think, is the true way to look at it...the best I could do was to promise to send them a few anti-aircraft guns and too tell them of the arrival of Prince of Wales and Repulse, which were due at Singapore in a few days...not that I expected anit-aircraft guns to be of much practical value. But I felt that the moral effect of their presence there would more than counterbalance some slight dispersion of force."

The above comment clearly shows how far General Perceival had removed himself from reality, and colonial layed-back arrogance wouldn't help in the days to come. General Perceival's view might have also been influenced by WW I experiences- in particular, the Battlegroup "Goebel" comes to my mind. In late summer of 1914, these ships had controlled the Eastern Mediterranean, interdicted the Bosporus, and paralyzed the Russian Blacksea fleet. 

This wasn't 1914, however. "Prince of Wales" and "Repulse" were the first capital ships actively defending themselves to be sunk solely by airpower on the open sea. The below text views the scene from a Japanese angle. Captain Sonakawa of the Genzan Air Corps takes us through the final moments before battle commenced.

We received the first sighting reports from a submarine at 1600 hrs on December 9th. The message was originated at 1400 hrs but not received at the 22nd Air Flotilla H/Q until two hours later. At the time we were in the process of loading bombs for an attack on Singapore harbor. So we-re-armed with torpedoes as quickly as possible, but this wasn’t finished until 1800hrs.

"At 0315 hrs on December 10th a contact report was received from a second submarine which gave a new position indicating the ships were heading south, returning to Singapore. Because of this, at 0600 hrs 10 planes from my squadron armed with 60 kg bombs were launched to conduct a sector search for the enemy ships.

"About an hour later the main striking force, composed of 27 bombers and 61 torpedo planes was ordered to proceed to the best estimated position of the enemy ships. The striking group was organised into 9 plane flights, which, once rendezvoused, proceeded south along the 105th Meridian. Because of reduced visibility the search planes didn’t discover the ships until beginning their return leg when at 1100 hrs they broadcast ‘contact’ to our striking groups and H/Q”.

This defeat drove home to the Allies the necessity of aircraft carriers to protect naval forces from aerial attack which made the new ship class the predominant one in naval warfare for the rest of the war, and many years thereafter.

According to this article, Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill later said of this event, "In all of the war I have never received a more direct shock."

With more alarming signals, further orders were issued by Vyner Brooke that all the Civil Servants not assigned to the Sarawak Rangers were to remain at their posts. No thought must be given to the abandonment of the native population by any European officer of the Brooke Raj. The noble Raja himself, however, choose to run away from the enemy.

2. The invasion

The Brooke Government which had already heard of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (on 7 December 1941) quickly ordered the complete and total destruction of the oil fields and airfields at Miri and Seria. Orders for the demolition of the refinery at Lutong and the denial of the oilwells reached the officer commanding at Miri on the morning of the 8th December, and by the evening of the same day the task was completed.

On the following day the landing ground there was made unfit for use, and on the 13th the Punjabis and the oil officials left by sea for Kuching. The destruction of the oilfields had been completed none too soon.

On 20 November 1941, the Kawaguchi Brigade was activated in Tokyo (Japan), and placed under the direct command of the Southern Army. It was commanded by Major-General Kiyotake Kawaguchi and it was composed mainly of the following units stationed at Canton, south of China.

Order of Battle for Japanese forces Sarawak, December 1941: Major-General Kiyotake Kawaguchi (commander);

  •  35th Infantry Brigade Headquarters
  • 124th Infantry Regimentone platoon of the 12th Engineer Regimenta
  • 1 unit from the 18th Division Signal
  • 1 unit from the 18th Division Medical
  • 1 unit, 4th Field Hospital, 18th Division unit from the 11th Water Supply and Purification Unit.

In addition, the following units from Japan and Manchuria were to be used to reinforce the Detachment:

  • 33rd Field AA Battalionone company of the 26th Independent Engineer Regiment(minus two platoons)
  • 2nd Independent Engineer Company80th Independent Radio Platoon
  • 37th Fixed Radio Unita unit from the Oil Drilling Section of the 21st Field Ordnance Depot
  • 1st Field Well Drilling Company2nd Field Well Drilling Company
  • 3rd Field Well Drilling Company
  • 4th Field Well Drilling Company
  • 48th Anchorage Headquarters
  • 118th Land Duty Company.

While in Tokyo Major-General Kawaguchi was informed that the enemy strength in British Borneo was estimated at approximately 1,000 regular soldiers (mostly Indians) and 2,500 native volunteers, with a probable further 5,600 Dutch soldiers in Dutch Borneo. Intelligence sources reported that the entire island was covered with dense jungle with only a few poor roads near the river mouths. The only means of transportation was possible by water. Information in regard to weather and terrain was very scant and not very reliable and there was only one small scale map of the island available.

Immediately upon his return to Canton from Tokyo, the Detachment commander proceeded to Sanya, Hainan Island, to attend a conference with the Commander-in-Chief of the Southern Expeditionary Fleet and the Direct Escort Fleet commander in order to reach an agreement on co-operative measures in the event of war.

It was decided that the first landings would be made at Miri and Seria in order to capture vital oilfields and airfields in these towns. Part of the force would remain in this area to reestablish Miri oilfield while the main body would advance and capture the Kuching airfield. All units of the Kawaguchi Detachment had to receive special training in landing under cover of darkness and in jungle fighting, and naturally they also have to change their equipment and would have to be given a special survival and field sanitation training.

 At 1300 on 13 December 1941, the Japanese invasion convoy left Cam Ranh Bay, Indo-China, with an escort of cruiser Yura (Rear-Admiral Shintaro Hashimoto) with the destroyers of the 12th Destroyer Division, Murakumo, Shinonome, Shirakumo and Usugumo, submarine-chaser Ch 7 and the aircraft depot ship Kamikawa Maru and 10 transport ships carried the Japanese 35th Infantry Brigade HQ under the command of Major-General Kiyotake Kawaguchi (known as Kawaguchi Detachment), 124th Infantry Regiment from the Japanese 18th Division, 2nd Yokosuka Naval Landing Force plus the 4th Naval Construction Unit. The Support Force consisted of Rear-Admiral Takeo Kurita with the cruisers Kumano and Suzuya and the destroyers Fubuki and Sagiri.

Distant cover for the Malaya and Borneo operations northeast of Natoma Island from 15 to 17 December 1942 was provided by Vice-Admiral Nobutake Kondo with the heavy cruisers Atago and Takao, the battleships Haruna and Kongo and the destroyers Ikazuchi, Inazuma, Asashio, Oshio, Michishio and Arashio. To protect westwards, the Japanese submarines I-62, I-64, I-65 and I-66 were stationed in the passage between Natoma Island and Northwest Borneo.

The convoy at first proceeded toward the Southwest but, during the night, it changed course to the Southeast and made directly for Miri. It relied essentially on a combination of stealth , as no significant air cover had been provided.

Then, the Left Flank Unit aboard IJN transport ship Hiyoshi Maru separated from the main body and proceeded toward Seria. The Japanese invasion plan called for a landing to be made at Miri and Seria to capture the oil fields. A large force would then be left behind to initiate repairs to these oil facilities, while the rest of the force would make their way to capture Kuching and its nearby airfield.

The convoy crossed the South China Sea without being sighted, and at about 2330 on the 15th, the main body of the convoy arrived at the Miri anchorage, approximately two nautical miles from the shore, while the Hiyoshi Maru arrived at the Seria anchorage at midnight. Immediately upon reaching the anchorage, both flank units commenced to transfer to landing barges. At first the sea was relatively calm but about 0100 on the 16th, the wind velocity increased and the waves grew high. Transfer from ships to barges was extremly difficult until it became impossible to keep the landing barges close to the ships and the units were forced to continue the transfer operation by ship's crane.

Finally between 0510 and 0610 the Right Flank Unit completed its landing, while the Left Flank Unit landed about 0440. The Right Flank Unit quickly captured the government buildings and the post office at Miri as well as the surrounding district with plantations. In the meantime, the Left Flank Unit landed on the west coast near Seria and occupied the large copra plantations, the Seria oilfields, and the strategic sector north of Seria to prepare for an attack against Brunei. There was offered very little resistance by the British forces, and during the morning on the 16th, the two units secured the oilfield at Seria and oilfields and airfield at Miri.

The main body of the Kawaguchi Detachment found only about 50 members of the police unit defending Miri. They surrendered with very little fighting. Two companies of the 2nd Yokosuka SNLF landed on the coast near Lutong and within two and a half hours captured the important Lutong oil refinery. It then proceeded to occupy and secure the Miri airfield without meeting any resistance. Part of the Detachment was immediately assigned the mission of restoring the oilfields at Miri and Seria, while, after 17 December, the main body of the Detachment prepared for the next operation - the landing at Kuching.

The Japanese troops suffered between 16 and 23 December only 40 casualties, most were drownings as a result of Japanese amphibious operations.News of the landing did not reach Air Headquarters, Far East, until 9 p.m. on the 16th. Reconnaissance aircraft from Singkawang II were ordered to investigate at daylight on the 17th.

Dutch naval aircraft attacked the ships at anchor later that day and again on the 18th, but without effect. On the 19th December 1941 the Dutch flying boat X-32 from Tarakan Island sank the Japanese destroyer Shinonome (Cdr. Hiroshi Sasagawa) off Miri, while another flying boat X-33 damages a transport ship. The Japanese destroyer of 1,950 tons, part of a convoy of troop transports, heading towards the Malayan Penninsula, was sunk 20 miles west of Miri, by two bombs from a Dutch three engined Dornier DO-24K flying boat of the Dutch Naval Air Group based on the island of Tarakan. The Dornier, piloted by Flying Officer B. Sjerp, dropped three bombs, two making direct hits, the third a near miss. The Shimonome blew apart in an enormous explosion causing fires to break out on the vessel. It took only a few minutes for the destroyer to roll over and sink. There were no survivors. The captain, Commander Hirosi Sasagawo and his entire crew of 228 men, perished.

When news of the amphibian landing reached Kuching, the allied high command realized that its turn was soon to come and work went on day and night to complete the airfield defenses. This work was delayed on the 19th by a raid on the town by fifteen Japanese bombers which set fire to a large petrol store but otherwise did little material damage. A large part of the native population however fled from the town, and labour, which had been difficult to obtain before, became almost unprocurable.

On the 22nd December the main body (two battalions) of the Japanese invasion force re-embarked at Miri and left for Kuching, leaving one battalion to secure all British Borneo outside Sarawak. Although after the occupation of Miri the Detachment commander, Major-General Kawaguchi, was unable to obtain any additional information in regard to the enemy's strength or disposition, he did learn that there is one small railway on the western coast and no roads through the jungle. Consequently, an attack on north Borneo would have to be made from landing barges. On returning back to Miri on 28 December, Major-General Kawaguchi ordered Lieutenant Colonel Watanabe to advance on the 31st by landing barges to Brunei with one infantry battalion and there to collect small boats to be used for the attack on north Borneo. The Japanese soldiers of the Watanabe Force, however, discovered that the British had already destroyed all big ships in the harbor, so that only small native boats remained.

On 1 January 1942, two infantry platoons commanded by a company commander landed on Labuan Island, capturing the British Resident, Hugh Humphrey who later recalled: "I was repeatedly hit by a Japanese officer with his sword (in its scabbard) and exhibited for 24 hours to the public in an improvised cage, on the grounds that, before the Japanese arrived, I had sabotaged the war effort of the Imperial Japanese Forces by destroying stocks of aviation fuel on the island".

The convoy which left Miri on the 22nd December was escorted by the cruiser Yura, the destroyers Murakumo, Shirakumo and Usugumo, the minesweepers W 3 and W 6 and the aircraft depot ship Kamikawa Maru. Covering Force was consisted of cruisers Kinu, Kumano and Suzuya, with the destroyers Fubuki and Sagiri. West of Covering Force was 2nd Division of the 7th Cruiser Squadron (Mikuma and Mogami) with destroyer Hatsuyuki. It was sighted and reported to Air Headquarters, Far East, by Dutch reconnaissance aircraft on the morning of the 23rd, when it was about 150 miles from Kuching. At 11.40 that morning twenty-four Japanese aircraft bombed Singkawang II airfield, so damaging the runways that a Dutch striking force which had been ordered to attack the convoy was unable to take off with a bomb load. Despite the critical situation the Dutch authorities urged the transfer of their aircraft to Sumatra.

The lucky timing of the Japanese bombing raid on the Singkawang II airfield may be seen as the decisive event for the war in Borneo.Following the allied defeat in Singkawang, the allied Air Headquarters Far East, agreed to pull out and during the afternoon of the 24th the aircraft were flown to Palembang. The Japanese convoy, however, did not escape unscathed. On the evening of the 23rd it was first attacked by Dutch submarine K-XIV (Lt.Cdr. C.A.J. van Well Groeneveld) sank two enemy ships and damaged two others, and the following night of 23/24 December 1942 another Dutch submarine K-XVI (Lt.Cdr. L.J. Jarman) torpedoed the IJN destroyer Sagiri (1,750 tons) near Kuching, Sarawak. The own torpedoes were caught on fire and the ship simply blew up, killing immediately 121 officers and men. The IJN destroyer Shirakumo and minesweeper W 3 rescued 120 survivors. The K-XVI was herself sunk by Japanese submarine I-66 (Cdr. Yoshitome) on her way back to Soerabaja. Five Bristol Blenheims of 34th (B) RAF Squadron from Singapore, at almost extreme range, bombed the ships at anchor the same evening, but did little damage. The convoy was seen at 6 p.m. on the 23rd approaching the mouth of the Santubong River.

Two hours later Colonel Lane received orders from Singapore to destroy the airfield. It was too late to change back to mobile defense and, as there seemed to him no point in attempting to defend a useless airfield, he asked General Percival for permission to withdraw as soon as possible into Dutch north-west Borneo.

The Japanese victory in Borneo had been a complete and decisive one, though by no means obvious. Almost without air support, the Kawaguchi fleet had been exposed to disaster - if the colonial powers would have managed a luckier timing. Later, in the Battle of Guadalcanal, reality would catch up with Kawaguchi and his tactical plunders.

In Borneo, however, he had been a lucky winner against a poorly organized opponent.

3. Jungle warfare and special forces

Though contacts between the Baram tribes people and Japanese invaders started on friendly terms, the relationsship soured over time. Japanese officers demanded locals to be drafted, but this was denied by village chiefs, with the argument that there were not enough men to provide food for the longhouse communities. Consequently, the Japanese army confiscated all hunting guns and ammunition, which lead to further food shortages.

As the war continued to roar, the Kayan, Kenyah and Kelabit were in a mood to fight the Japanese.The idea of sending a handful of European/Austalian officers deep into the interior of Borneo and behind Japanese lines, with the objective of organizing the indigenous inhabitants to conduct a guerrilla war against vital enemy targets, namely the oil installations, was discussed early within Allied intelligence circles.

These proposals, collectively referred to as "The Borneo Project", sowed the seeds of what became the covert operations undertaken by the Australian Services Reconnaissance Department (SRD) in North Borneo and northeastern Sarawak during the months leading to the launching of OBOE 6.

Harrisson and members parachuted into Bario in the Kelabit Highlands during the later part of March 1945. Initially Harrisson established his base at Bario; then, in late May, shifted to Belawit in the Bawang valley (inside the former Dutch Borneo) upon the completion of an airstrip for light aircraft built entirely with native labour.

In mid-April, Carter and his team parachuted into Bario, by then securely an SRD base with full support of the Kelabit people. Shortly after their arrival, members of moved to the Baram valley and established themselves at Long Akah, the heartland of the Kenyahs. Carter also received assistance from the Kayans. Moving out from Carter's party in late May, Sochon led to Belaga in the Upper Rejang where he set up his base of operation. Kayans and Ibans supported and participated in operations. The nomadic Punans also extended a helping hand to Sochon and his comrades.

SEMUT 2 party at Long Akah, May 1945. Prior to 10 June 1945 SRD operatives in North Borneo (AGAS) and northern Sarawak were relaying intelligence to Blamey's Advanced Land Headquarters at Morotai in the Halmaheras. Furthermore, SRD parties – particularly SEMUT – in their respective areas of operations were organizing, training, and arming native guerrilla bands. Four days before the launch of OBOE 6, SEMUT 2 captured the Japanese wireless station at Long Lama in the Baram; on the eve of D-Day, SEMUT 1 attacked small Japanese garrisons in the vicinity of the Brunei.

Remarkable success had also been achieved by SEMUT, particularly 1 and 2.47 As of June 1945, SEMUT 1 had armed units operating in the Lawas, Trusan and Limbang Rivers and the surrounding vicinity approximating the entire portion of northeastern Sarawak. Furthermore SEMUT 1 had penetrated into North Borneo with an outpost in the Pensiangan area and a party in control of the Padas River as far north as Tenom. Also, an operational base was established at Berang on the Mentarang River in Dutch Borneo while secondary bases were on the Sembakong and Karayan rivers. Loembis and Malinau were secured and patrols reached the Kayan River area.

An extensive native intelligence network throughout the operational area had supplied invaluable intelligence on enemy dispositions and movements in Tutong, Brunei, the Brunei Bay area, the sector from Brunei to Weston, and the Pensiangan-Keningau area. SEMUT 1 had knowledge of Japanese escape routes from the Tarakan and Malinau areas on the eastern coast towards North Borneo, and from Brunei Bay up the Limbang and Trusan Rivers. The party also relayed information about POWs and civilian internees in the operational area. Medical service and supplies have been given to the natives. The completion of an airstrip at Belawit facilitated the landings by Auster aircraft. Practically all the native settlements in the Trusan valley and its hinterland were under the control of SEMUT 1.

Some semblance of pre-war administration had been re-established. Moreover, inhabitants in this operational area had been organized and trained for defense and for possible expansion of control in the near future when the situation permitted. About 600 native militiamen were trained; a large number of them supplied with arms and ammunition, and employed in offensives against the enemy.

SEMUT 1 parties in the field had been encouraging the native population to deny food and labour to the enemy. Several Japanese patrols sent to investigate and re-establish the supply line to the interior were ambushed and decimated. Employment of this tactic resulted in the stoppage of enemy movement northwards via Malinau and hindered the completion of road construction from Weston to Brunei via Lawas, thereby effectively preventing the southern movement of troops into the Brunei area.

From its headquarters at Long Akah, SEMUT 2 fielded parties on the Baram and Tutoh Rivers, established a sub-headquarters at Long Lama on the Baram River and a detachment in the Tutoh basin. A strong patrol made its presence in the vicinity of Marudi. Another sub-headquarters was located at Long Lebang on the Tinjar River; and attempts were made to effect control of the entire Tinjar valley and towards the coast south of Miri.

Native agents under the auspices of SEMUT 2 moved in and out of enemy-occupied territory from Brunei southwards to Bintulu. By June the operational area of SEMUT 2 had extended westwards, from the Baram River to a line from Bintulu to the Upper Rejang.

A native intelligence network established by SEMUT 2 provided information of Japanese dispositions and troop movements in the Labuan, Miri, Lutong, Kuala Belait, and Upper Rejang areas. Moreover, enemy outposts and hideouts along the Baram and Tutoh Rivers were known, as well as Japanese cross-country escape/evacuation routes southwards from Bintulu to Long Nawan. Like the operational area in SEMUT 1, briefings and direction given to native chieftains by SEMUT 2 created an approximation of the pre-war administration in the Baram valley and neighbouring surroundings. Small units of the 350-strong native guerilla force, organized, armed and led by SEMUT 2, had engaged in skirmishes with the enemy.

By June, SEMUT 3 had reached Belaga in the Upper Rejang and was working westwards towards Kapit, with the intention of identifying suitable points for Catalina landings. The party was in the process of making contacts with the native population in order to establish an intelligence network.

SEMUT's military successes were proudly highlighted by one of its major players, Tom Harrisson. In his account published in 1959, he quoted claims in a booklet produced by "Z" Special (SRD) for the ceremonial unveiling of a war memorial on Garden Island, Western Australia, that: "The Unit had inflicted some 1700 casualties on the Japs at the cost of some 112 white lives".

 This same source credited Semut 1 with "over 1,000 Japanese killed", out of the "Z" total of 1700, and noted that of the 112 white deaths, none were lost in Semut I (or II, or III) operations.

On intelligence gathering by SEMUT, Harrisson's biographer offers the following insight to his effective strategy:

Another result of Tom's policy of scattering his operatives thinly over a wide terrain was that it gave Tom, to whom the SEMUT 1 men reported by radio and runner, an extraordinarily complete up-to-date picture of the military and economic situation and the climate of local opinion throughout northern Borneo, from Brunei Bay to Tarakan Island. Drawing on this data, Tom sent frequent wireless messages to "Z" Special headquarters, giving detailed intelligence on enemy troops all along the coast of northern Borneo and recommending specific targets for pinpoint bombing.

The sheer size of the area covered by SEMUT – northern and central Sarawak, southwestern British North Borneo, and northeastern Dutch Borneo – was an impressive accomplishment in itself. Harrisson attributed the success of this vast coverage to "the remarkable response of the native peoples of Sarawak and all within Borneo".

A final engagement occurred, when Japanese army troops evacuated the bombed Miri to search shelter upriver.They were engaged by some 600 Kayan and Kenyah warriors near Marudi. The Japanese were able to hold position, thanks to a few large-caliper guns. Then however, the native warriors called in the RAAF by radio.

After a short engagement, the Japanese troops were left with no option other than to withdraw, given that further upriver the enemy was holding ground.

 4. Civilian suffering

Gradually, as the Japanese occupation forces were cut-off from overseas supply, they were starved in food, carburant and ammunition. In vain the Japanese had hoped to put the oil fields back on stream, but production was only minor from both field and refinery. Cut-off from overseas, the remaining occupation force relied on local food supplies, which meant taxing or looting the indigeneous population even further then previously.

As the guerilla warfare unraveled, longhouse communities in the Upper Baram were drawn increasingly into the hostilities. The few special forces scattered over the jungles could do little to protect the indigenous population from Japanese atrocities and reprisal actions. In fact, the natives of the Upper Baram paid a high price. When Japanese food procurors came to raid a village, the native Orang Ulus had to watch in silence as their food supplies (rice, pigs, chicken) were carried away in front of their eyes.

If the soldiers saw fresh eggs, they would drink the raw eggs immediately. A bad glance, the uttering of a word, a sentence would provoke outbursts of Japanese anger. Babies were shot frequently by the occupation forces, when they didn't stop crying.

The villagers did their best to hide their pretty young women in remote locations as well as they could. Japanese troops frequently captured women and girls, to be taken to the jungle, to be gang-raped and subsequently shot dead.

No-one was ever sentenced for these terrible war crimes.

5. The war offshore Miri, and raids from the air

On 29 December 1942, USS Trout stood out to sea to patrol off North Borneo. The submarine contacted a large tanker off Miri on 11 January 1943 and fired three torpedoes from a range of 2000 yards. The first two hit the target amidships, but the third exploded prematurely. Four minutes later, there was a heavy explosion from the direction of the target.

Since postwar examination of Japanese records shows no sinking, the damaged ship must have managed to limp back to port.

On 7 February, she sighted tanker Misshin Maru moored off Lutong. She made a submerged approach, fired two torpedoes at the target, heard one explosion, and observed smoke rise from the stern of the tanker. However, no sinking upon this occasion was confirmed.

The later part of 1944, however, witnessed the increasing effectiveness of the American navy in cutting off Japanese shipping lines between the home islands and the Southern Area. Moreover, Allied bombing raids were continuously carried out on oilfields and other strategic areas of Borneo from Australia. As the American offensive gained ground in the Philippines, the Japanese home islands increasingly lost their links with sources of oil supply in Borneo.

21 April 1945 ( Far East Air Force):. On Borneo, B-24s bomb Miri, Kudat, Manggar, and Sepinggang Airfields and P-38s hit Tarakan Island and Sandakan, Miri Airfield, oil storage near Lutong, and, with B-24s, attack targets of opportunity along the SW Celebes coast.

24 April 1945 B-24s bomb Miri in Borneo.

26 April1945 On Borneo, B-24s hit Miri Airfield

6. Recapturing Miri

The final campaign fought by Australian troops in the war was an attack by two divisions on Borneo. The operation was divided into three phases.

On 1st May, 1945 a brigade group of the 9th Division, assisted by a small Netherlands East Indies force, went ashore on the island of Tarakan off the east coast and by June had taken possession of the island. This action was followed on the 10th June by the landing of the rest of the division on the former British territory of North Borneo.

On 1st July the 7th Division landed in the Balikpapan region of the east coast. Enemy opposition in each case was strong but at the time of the cessation of hostilities valuable territory had been recaptured.The Japanese occupation forces finally withdrew to Labuan Island, where they surrendered.


Parts of the above article is taken from the British Official History book "The War Against Japan – Volume I - The Loss of Singapore (Chapter XIII) by Major-General S. Woodburn Kirby, the Japanese Monograph No.26: Borneo Operations 1941-1945, USAFFE 1958 and from numerous additional information kindly provided by Allan Alsleben, Henry Klom, Tim Hayes, Coen van Galen, Pierre-Emmanuel Bernaudin and Graham Donaldson. - 47k -


Prelude to invasion: covert operations before the re-occupation of Northwest Borneo, 1944-45 Ooi Keat Gin

http://www.britainat As always, a great ressource on the Battle of Malaya, the Battle of Singapur, and the sinking of a Royal Navy taskforce.

Also: James Ritchie, The legacy, Temenggong Oyong Lawai Jau - a book produced by the Sungai Dua Nawan family.

Also: Verbal accounts about the war collected in Upper Baram region by the author/editor

(c) 2007 compiled by Franz L Kessler  

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