The Battle for Miri and Sarawak, Borneo, WW II
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.
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