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The Invasion of British Borneo in 1942

The following 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.


The Invasion of British Borneo 1942

In 1863 Great Britain granted recognition of Sarawak as an independent and sovereign country. However, this was not what Sir James Brooke, 1st Rajah of Sarawak, desired. He tried several times to gain Protectorate Status of Sarawak from Great Britain. For he knew that in time of war, Sarawak would not be able to defend itself without the help of one of the Great Powers of the time. Sadly, this proved to be true during the Chinese Uprising of 1857. Sarawak was nearly defenceless until the rather late arrival of a British Fleet from Singapore. It was during this time that Sir James Brooke began to think seriously about offering Sarawak to the United States as a colony. Several years prior to 1863, Sir James sent a letter to then U.S. President James Polk. In this letter he offered Sarawak to the United States. The only pre-condition was that he be allowed to remain in power. Sadly, this letter was never read by President Polk. The United States, then pre-occupied with the looming Civil War between North and South, never seriously considered Sir James' offer. It was not until 1863 that President Abraham Lincoln replied to the letter sent almost 4 years earlier by Sir James. President Lincoln politely declined Sir James's offer. Sir James then offered Sarawak to the Dutch, Belgians, Italians, French, and finally the Portuguese. The only serious offer came from Belgium. However, the King of the Belgians set too many strict preconditions which did not suit Sir James Brooke. With the exception of Belgium, the other nations being pre-occupied with their own issues in the region did not wish to expand their already over-stretched resources by taking in Sarawak. As a result, Sir James Brooke was "forced" into the arms of Great Britain, a nation whose respect he had yet to earn.

In 1888, Great Britain, after refusing to offer protection to Sarawak for so many years suddenly offered it. 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.

In accordance with this 1888 Agreement, Great Britain despatched troops and material to bolster the defences of Sarawak during the 1930s. During the late 1930s 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 defence 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 proposed 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.


The prelude to the war

The island of Borneo is a land of primeval jungle. The coasts are fringed with mangrove and swamp, and over nine-tenths of the interior is covered with thick evergreen forests. In 1941 the population was small – that of the whole island was estimated at less than three million – and there were less than a dozen settlements large enough to be called towns. There were few roads and only one short railway; communication was by the many waterways or by narrow jungle paths. Much of the interior was unexplored, or very inadequately known. It was rich in oil and other raw materials.

The island was partly Dutch and partly British. British Borneo lay along its northern seaboard and comprised the two states of British North Borneo and Sarawak, the small protected State of Brunei, and the Crown Colony of Labuan Island.

Borneo occupies a position of great strategic importance in the south-west Pacific. It lies across the main sea routes from the north to Malaya and Sumatra on the one hand, and Celebes and Java on the other. Strongly held, it could have been one of the main bastions in the defence of the Malay barrier, but neither the Dutch nor the British had the necessary resources to defend it. The available forces had to be concentrated further south for the defence of Singapore and Java, and all that could be spared for Borneo and the outlying Dutch islands were small detachments at important points which it was hoped might prove a deterrent to attack.

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 defence 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 to 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 defence 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 Engineers
These troops were entrusted with the destruction of Miri Oil Fields. It was to be known as the Miri Detachment.

At Kuching was deployed a force of 1 officer, and 52 other ranks:
• 6 Platoons of infantry from 2/15 Punjab Regiment
These troops were to conduct a delaying action at the Bukit Stabar Airfield outside of Kuching. They were to be known as the Kuching Detachment. The other troops from the 2/15 Punjab were to be deployed piecemeal at the other airfield and oil facilities in Sarawak.

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.

Order of Battle for British forces
Sarawak, December 1941
Lieutenant Colonel C.M. Lane (commander)
2nd Battalion of 15th Punjab Regiment
heavy 6-inch gun battery from the Hong Kong-Singapore Royal Artillery
detachment of 35th Fortress Company (Royal Engineers)
Sarawak Rangers
Coastal Marine Service
plus other native troops

The country between Kuching and the sea is roadless, but is intersected by a number of winding waterways which flow through mangrove swamps to the sea. There are two main approaches to the town: the first by the Sarawak River, which is navigable by vessels up to sixteen foot draught; and the second by the Santubong River, which will take vessels up to twelve foot draught. The roads from Kuching run east to Pending, north-west to Matang, and south to Serian a distance of forty miles from Kuching. The airfield lay seven miles south of the town on the Serian road. At the airfield a road branched off to the west; after crossing the Sarawak River at Batu Kitang, where there was a vehicular ferry, it terminated at Krokong fifteen miles short of the Dutch frontier.

There were two plans of defence that were proposed- Plan A and Plan B.
Plan A called for a mobile defence. The objective was to hold the Bukit Stabar Airfield as long as possible. Further delaying actions were also to be conducted so as to allow for the proper execution of the denial schemes. If enemy resistance was such that it could not be delayed, then the airfield would be destroyed and the entire force would retreat into the mountains and jungles in small parties and fight as a guerrilla force for as long as possible. Unfortunately, at the Anglo-Dutch Military Conference during September 1941 held in Kuching, it was pointed out that Plan A could not be carried out if the Japanese landed 3,000 to 5,000 men with air and sea support. J.L. Noakes, the defeatist Sarawak Secretary for Defence, had continued to argue the inadequacy of SARFOR and that it had no hope against the Japanese if they landed in force. His idea was to take a 'wait and see' attitude and continue to appeal to Singapore for more troops and equipment. In the event that this was not forthcoming, Sarawak should surrender so as to prevent any bloodshed. Rajah Sir Charles Vyner Brooke, was completely against this defeatist talk and vehemently argued that Sarawak should put up a fight, a fight to maintain the honor of the Brooke Raj. At the end it was decided that the town could not be defended against the weight of attack which was to be expected, and the plan was reluctantly changed to one of static defence of the airfield.

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 defence 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".

As a result of Percival's assessment of Sarawak's defences, an alternative plan of action was proposed, Plan B. This was based on static defence. All available troops and supplies were to be concentrated within a 5.5 kilometer perimeter of the Bukit Stabar Airfield to ensure that its destruction was not interfered with. The rationale for Plan B was presented by Brooke-Popham as follows: "The only place which it was decided to hold was Kuching, the reason for this being not only that there was a modern airfield at this location, but that its occupation by the enemy might give access to the Dutch airfields in Borneo, furthermore, it would also give the enemy access to Singapore. Being only some 350 miles from said place".

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 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.


  The map of the Dutch East Indies 1941-1942
The map is courtesy of Graham Donaldson

The war in British Borneo, December 1941 - January 1942

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, southern China, which had been previously under the command of the 18th Infantry Division:

Order of Battle for Japanese forces
Sarawak, December 1941
Major-General Kiyotake Kawaguchi (commander)
35th Infantry Brigade Headquarters
124th Infantry Regiment
one platoon of the 12th Engineer Regiment
a unit from the 18th Division Signal Unit
a unit from the 18th Division Medical Unit
4th Field Hospital, 18th Division
a 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 Battalion
one company of the 26th Independent Engineer Regiment
(minus two platoons)
2nd Independent Engineer Company
80th Independent Radio Platoon
37th Fixed Radio Unit
a unit from the Oil Drilling Section of the 21st Field Ordnance Depot
1st Field Well Drilling Company
2nd 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 had to change their equipment and would have to be given 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 is 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 are 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. About this time 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 then make their way to capture Kuching and its nearby airfield.

Japanese destroyer Fubuki

Japanese destroyer Fubuki.
The destroyer took part in the British Borneo Operation, December 1941, as part of Support Force.

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 surrendred 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 only 40 casualties between 16 and 23 December, 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) of 1,950 tons off Miri, while another flying boat X-33 damaged a transport ship. The destroyer could not take the pounding and went down with her entire crew of 228 officers and men. Kuching realized that its turn was soon to come and work went on day and night to complete the airfield defences. 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 harbour, 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". [1] On 8 January, Kawaguchi proceeded to Jesselton and having occupied that town and Beaufort, where he disarmed the small police unit. Using ten small fishing boats, two infantry companies (minus two platoons), commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Watanabe, captured Sandakan, the seat of government of British North Borneo, and rescued the 600 interned Japanese citizens. On the morning of the 19th January, the Governor Robert Smith surrendered the State and, refusing to carry on the administration under Japanese control, was interned with his staff. This unit then captured Tawau and Lahad Datu on the 24th and 31st respectively. This time they freed a further 1,500 Japanese citizens. The Japanese forces suffered no combat casualties during this operations.

The convoy which left Miri on the 22nd of 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 the 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. Air Headquarters, Far East, agreed and during the afternoon of the 24th the aircraft were flown to Palembang. The convoy did not however 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. Their own torpedoes 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 defence 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.

While awaiting a reply Lane concentrated his battalion at the airfield, with forward detachments in the Pending area east of the town and on the roads to the north of it, 18-pounder gun and 3-inch mortar detachments covering the river approaches, and a Punjabi gunboat platoon, working with the Sarawak Rangers and the Coastal Marine Service, patrolling north of Kuching.

The convoy proceeded westward, arriving at a point, east of Cape Sipang at 0300 on the 24th. At 0120, the IJN transport Nichiran Maru with Colonel Akinosuke Oka arrived at the prearranged anchorage off the mouth of the Santubong River. At 0400, the unit aboard the IJN transport Nichiran Maru, commanded by Colonel A. Oka, completed its transfer to landing barges and proceeding west of Cape Sipang. At about 9 a.m. twenty enemy landing craft were observed approaching the shore. The small Punjabi gunboat platoon, hopelessly outnumbered, withdrew up the river without loss. At 11 a.m. as they neared the town the landing craft were engaged by the gun and mortar detachments, who sank four before themselves being surrounded and killed. During the afternoon three more craft were sunk by gunfire, but the remainder were able to land their troops on both sides of the river, and by 4.30 p.m. the town was in Japanese hands.

Meanwhile Lane had been instructed by Percival to hold the Japanese for as long as possible and then act in the best interests of west Borneo as a whole. Since the capture of the town threatened to cut off the forward troops, Lane ordered them to withdraw to the airfield. The Japanese followed up and before dark made contact with the airfield defences. Throughout the night sporadic firing went on as they felt their way round the perimeter. Major-General Kawaguchi received a report from his intelligence officer that there was approximately 400-500 British troops in the vicinity of the Kuching airfield. As Christmas Day dawned, firing temporarily ceased and advantage was taken of the lull to send the hospital detachment with the women and children on ahead into Dutch Borneo. During the morning the Japanese encircling movement continued, and a company was sent to hold the ferry crossing at Batu Kitang so as to keep the road clear for escape.

A general withdrawal into Dutch Borneo was ordered to start at dusk, but heavy firing was heard to the north of Batu Kitang shortly after noon and, fearing that his line of retreat would be cut, Lane decided on immediate withdrawal. The enemy, reinforced by the 2nd Yokosuka SNLF, soon aware of his intention, launched a full-scale attack on the two Punjabi companies forming the rearguard. Of these two companies only one platoon succeeded in rejoining the main body. The remainder, totaling four British officers and some 230 Indian troops, were cut off and either killed or captured. At about 1640 on the 25th, the Japanese troops completely secured the Kuching airfield. The Japanese losses during this operation (including those at sea) were about 100 killed and 100 wounded. The rest of the battalion reached Batu Kitang without loss to find the village deserted and the ferry unattended. They had great difficulty in crossing the river, but by dark all except the covering force were over. Most of the transport had to be left behind. Renewed Japanese attacks threatened to cut off the covering force, but it managed to make good its escape to the southward, and after a march of about sixty miles through dense jungle with little food or water rejoined the battalion at Singkawang II airfield on the 31st. Following the capture of Kuching airfield, the Detachment commander ordered Colonel Oka to secure the strategic area around Kuching with the main force of the 124th Infantry Regiment, while he with one infantry battalion (excluding two companies) left Kuching on the 27th and returned back to Miri.

The main body made its way to Krokong. There the road ended, and the remaining vehicles and heavy equipment had to be abandoned. There, too, the Sarawak State Forces, in view of their agreement to serve only in Sarawak, were released to return to their homes. From the 26th ‘Sarfor’ ceased to exist as a combined Indian and State Force, and the Punjabis, much reduced in strength, carried on alone. On the morning of the 27th the column crossed the border into Dutch Borneo and two days later arrived at Singkawang II airfield where there was a garrison of 750 Dutch troops. The women and children were sent on by road to Pontianak on the coast, whence they escaped by ship on the 25th January, only four days before the Japanese occupied the town. Lane placed his battalion under Dutch command for the defence of the airfield and the surrounding area. There followed a breathing space while the Japanese prepared for their next advance, though clashes took place between patrols near the border.

Japanese troops in Singkawang, 1942

The Japanese troops in Singkawang, 1942.
The man with the moustache on the right is Major-General Kiyotake Kawaguchi.

It was realized at Headquarters, Malaya Command, that the Punjabis would be urgently in need of food and ammunition. On the 30th December air reconnaissance confirmed that the airfield was unfit for use. Thereupon Air Headquarters made arrangements for supplies to be dropped and the following day three Blenheims from Singapore, modified to carry containers, successfully dropped 900 pounds of supplies on the airfield.

The Japanese planned to attack the airfield from the north, and also from the west by a force landed on the coast. This attack was held up by bad weather for nearly a week, but on the 24th January five companies advanced along the road from the Dutch border, and by the 25th had reached a village two and a half miles north-east of the airfield. Having destroyed the stores and barracks, the defenders launched an attack on the 26th which was repulsed. That evening a counter-attack succeeded in turning their flank and early on the 27th the order was given to evacuate the airfield. A Dutch tank was used to hold a crossroads for a while. During the withdrawal two Punjabi platoons were surrounded but, refusing to surrender, they fought on under their Indian officer until late in the afternoon. It was only when their ammunition was expended and the enemy was attacking in overwhelming numbers that the gallant little party laid down its arms. Japanese reports have since given their casualties at the hands of these two platoons as between 400 and 500 killed or wounded. Of the seventy Punjabis engaged only three escaped. The remainder were never seen again; there is evidence to show that they were brutally put to death by the infuriated Japanese. On the evening of the 27th January the remnants of the Punjabis crossed the Sungei Sambas and took up a position on the high ground at Ledo, fifteen miles south-west of the airfield.

Meanwhile three Japanese companies had left Kuching in small craft during the night of the 25th and by daybreak on the 27th had landed at Pemangkat due west of the airfield. Striking north-east and south and meeting with little opposition, they quickly captured the coastal villages and moved towards Bengkajang, thus threatening to surround the Allied force at Ledo.

After the fighting at Singkawang II airfield the British-Dutch forces retreated to Sanggau. There this force was split and the Dutch troops went to Sintang, while the British-Indian troops went to Nanga Pinoh. On the 29th, after a series of rearguard actions, the Punjabis withdrew to Ngabang and two days later to Nanga Pinoh. By this time further resistance was useless, and on the 4th February the Punjabis with Dutch agreement set out in two columns for Sampit and Pangkalanboeoen on the south coast. The British tried to get out of Borneo by going south. Their aim was to find a radio station at Sampit (or if that failed at Pangkalanboen) in order to get contact with Java Island or to reach one of the harbours in the south of Borneo.

The force at Nanga Pinoh was split in three parts: A (Sikh), B (PM) Company and part of Staff (Hindu) Company under command of Major Milligan formed the western column, which took the shorter route, C (Khattack), D (Jat) and part of Staff (Hindu) Company under command of Lieutenant Colonel Ross-Thompson formed the eastern column, which took the longer route and the blitzparty. The blitzparty consisted of 2 officers and 4 men and it was their task to go as fast as possible to Sampit in order to get contact with Java Island.

Of the adventures of the two columns on their long journey through the almost unexplored jungles and swamps of southern Borneo much might be written. Travelling by forest track and by raft and boat on treacherous rivers, short of food and clothing, and constantly exposed to tropical heat and rain they finally reached the coast. The blitzparty arrived at Sampit on 14th February 1942, where they found that the radio station had been destroyed, so they immediately went, via Samboeloe, to Pangkalanboen, where they arrived on February 19th. In the meantime were C and D Company split into three marching groups. The Staff Company arrived as first in Sampit on 1st March 1942. From Sampit boats were sent to pick up C Company, while D Company was ordered to halt at Kotabesi. C and Staff Company marched from Sampit south but on March 7th they got word that the Japanese troops had landed 14 km south of them. A platoon of C Company was sent on a reconaissance mission but very soon they came under fire. As the British soldiers had very little ammunition, they broke off contact and returned back to Sampit. Exhaustion took its toll and 104 men had to be left during the retreat. From Sampit the remaining men went up to Kotabesi where they joined up with D Company and together they went to Pandau, where they were informed that the Dutch East Indies Army had capitulated on Java Island. By boat they went to Kenamboi. In the meantime a Japanese broadcast was calling on all Allied forces in the Netherlands East Indies to lay down their arms. The broadcast was accompanied by a threat of reprisals if resistance continued.

The A and B Company tried to reach Kotawaringin airfield. They didn’t meet any Japanese soldiers and they arrived about the 23rd February at Kenamboi, where they were re-united with C and D Company. On 31st March 1942 a Japanese ship arrived at Pangkalanboen (or Koemai). Retreat into the jungle-covered mountains was considered, but the bitter experience of the past few weeks had made it clear that troops could not long survive the trying climatic conditions. The order to surrender was therefore given and on 1st April 1942 all arms were surrendered.

At Kotawaringin airfield was stationed a small Dutch force (ca. 250 men). This garrison was never engaged in any fighting and they probably laid down their arms on the same day the British did.

In the ten weeks since leaving Kuching 2/15th Punjab had fought many actions, inflicting heavy casualties on the enemy, and had traveled under most adverse conditions over 800 miles through extremely difficult country. They had carried with them their light automatics, rifles and ammunition. As General Percival has said, it was ‘a feat of endurance which assuredly will rank high in the annals of warfare. It says much for the morale of this fine battalion that it remained a formed and disciplined body to the end.’


Note The British North Borneo (Sarawak) region formed part of Malaya Command and therefore came directly under General Percival’s control.

Note Japanese Order of Battle for the British North Borneo Operation:
• Kawaguchi Detachment (35th Infantry Brigade) of Major-General Kiyotake Kawaguchi aboard the IJN transport ship Katori Maru
• 18th Division - 124th Infantry Regiment - 3,275 men
• 2nd Yokosuka SNLF - 746 men aboard IJN transport ship Hokkai Maru
• 4th Naval Construction Unit - 260 men aboard IJN transport ship Tonan Maru#3

Note The Right Flank Unit was composed of the 124th Infantry Regiment (minus 3rd Battalion and the 8th Company of the 2nd Battalion), one platoon of the 1st Company of the 26th Independent Engineer Regiment and two companies of 2nd Yokosuka SNLF. The unit landed at Miri and Lutong.

Note The Left Flank Unit was composed of the 3rd Battalion of the 124th Infantry Regiment and one platoon of the 26th Independent Engineer Regiment. The unit landed at Seria, Brunei.

Note Japanese Ship Losses during the British North Borneo Operation:
23 December 1941 - destroyer Sagiri torpedoed and sunk off Kuching by Dutch submarine K-XVI
18 December 1941 - destroyer Shinonome sunk by bombs off Miri by Dutch flying boat X-32
24 December 1941 - IJN transport ship Hokkai Maru and Tonan Maru#3 were mined and grounded at Kuching
24 December 1941 - IJN transport ship Unyo Maru#2 was sunk by KNIL at Kuching
23 December 1941 - IJN transport ships Hiyoshi Maru and Katori Maru were sunk by Dutch submarine K-XIV and 34th RAF Squadron enroute to Kuching
24 December 1941 - IJN transport ship Nichiran Maru was sunk by mine at Kuching

Note List of IJN transport ships, British North Borneo, December 1941:
IJN transport ship Hokkai Maru
IJN transport ship Tonan Maru#3
IJN transport ship Unyo Maru#2
IJN transport ship Unknown Maru
IJN transport ship Unknown Maru
IJN transport ship Hiyoshi Maru
IJN transport ship Kenkon Maru
IJN transport ship Myoho Maru
IJN transport ship Nichiran Maru
IJN transport ship Katori Maru, command ship of Major-General Kiyotake Kawaguchi

Note [1]  World War II Plus 55  by David H. Lippman

Note "X-32 and X-33 returned to Tarakan to refuel and rearm for another attack on Miri. On the night of the 17-18th they flew to Miri and attacked shipping. 9 miles north of Miri, the planes sighted a convoy of three ships off Lutong at 0650, and attacked in the face of light AA fire. X-33 dropped four 500lb bombs on a merchant ship, but all missed. X-32 dropped six 500lb bombs on the largest warship, which was thought to be a cruiser. One bomb failed to drop, but two were direct hits and a third a near miss, leaving the ship listing dead in the water and heavily afire.
The "cruiser" was actually the 1,950 ton destroyer
Shinonome of the Imperial Japanese Navy's 12th Destroyer Division. She could not take the pounding and went down with her entire crew of 228 officers and men.
Shinonome's loss has been the subject of some confusion, although Japanese monographs list her as a victim of air attack. Most English sources attribute her loss to a Dutch mine, but Miri was British territory and well north of any Dutch minefields.
Other sources report her to have been torpedoed by X-33. However, the Do-24 was not designed to carry torpedoes and there are no other documented cases of it doing so in the East Indies or European Theater. Since Dutch and Japanese records are in agreement, this appears to settle the debate concerning the loss of
Shinonome"-- Tom Womack.

Bibliography . Article List

Copyright Klemen. L. 1999-2000
Forgotten Campaign: The Dutch East Indies Campaign 1941-1942

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