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Civilian Casualties from British Military: The Indonesian War of Independence

This section provides a detailed account of recorded civilian casualties that resulted from the British military’s involvement in the Indonesian War of Independence.

When did this conflict occur?

17th August, 1945^ – November, 1946*

^ – Though the Indonesian War of Independence is officially considered to have begun with the declaration of independence by Sukarno and Mohammad Hatta on the 17th of August, 1945, British and Indian forces only began arriving in Jakarta six weeks later on the 29th of September. [1]

* – Despite the withdrawal of British and Indian troops in November of 1946, the Indonesian War of Independence continued until the creation of the United States of Indonesia by the Dutch government on the 27th of December, 1949. [2]

What is the background to this conflict?

On the 9th of March, 1942, the Governor General of the Dutch East Indies was forced to surrender to an overwhelming Japanese invasion force which had landed on the main island of Java in late February. [3] The islands remained under Japanese control under the end of combat operations in the Pacific Theatre in August of 1945; however, the decision by Allied planners to bypass the Dutch East Indies resulted in the creation of a power vacuum between the Japanese surrender and the reestablishment of Dutch civilian administration. On the 17th of August, 1945, two days following the surrender of Japanese forces in Asia, Indonesian nationalist leaders Sukarno and Mohammad Hatta declared independence and began the process of assembling a centralised Republican government in Jakarta. [4] The Netherlands declared the new government illegitimate and a product of Japanese collaboration but, critically weakened in the aftermath of the Second World War, was forced to turn to the Allies for assistance in reassuming control of the islands. [5] British and Indian troops arriving in September of 1945 encountered determined opposition from Republican forces and were soon thrust into the heaviest fighting of the Indonesian War of Independence. Though British troops succeeded in quelling Republican forces and landing the Netherlands Indies Civil Administration, the ferocity of Indonesian resistance resulted in the British decision to withdraw from Indonesia and transfer security responsibility to the Dutch by November of 1946.

What role did British military forces play?

The initial British military presence in Indonesia consisted of small, four-person teams under the command of the Royal Air Force Airborne Control Unit in Sri Lanka. Composed of a commissioned officer, signaller, and two medical specialists, these teams were inserted by parachute into Indonesia as part of the RAPWI,  Repatriation of Allied Prisoners of War and Internees, effort undertaken by Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten’s Southeast Asia Command. [6] Despite the presence of multiple RAPWI teams, however, the situational awareness possessed by Southeast Asia Command remained limited, with Dutch intelligence officials asserting that resistance to the reimposition of Allied control would be limited. British forces arriving in September of 1949 were largely drawn from the 1st Indian Infantry Brigade followed by the 49th Indian Infantry Brigade which landed the following month. Resistance, ranging from stones thrown at vehicles to sniper attacks and ambushes, began almost immediately with British forces encountering opposition startling in both ferocity and sophistication. [7] On the 30th of October, Brigadier Aubertin Mallaby, commanding officer of the 49th Indian Infantry Brigade, was assassinated in Surabaya, sparking the fuse for the most intense urban battle of the Indonesian War of Independence as British and Indian troops battled for control in Surabaya. Though Allied forces succeeded in securing the city, clashes continued in rural areas of Indonesia until the British withdrawal and transfer to Dutch civil administration in November of 1946. 

Can a figure of civilian deaths due to British military action be determined?

No, a total number of civilian deaths due to British military action cannot be determined. In contrast, a confirmed total of 1200 British military personnel died in the conflict. [8]

Are there any trends or incidents of note?

While a precise figure of civilian fatalities caused by British forces cannot be provided, available evidence indicates that noncombatants were killed as a result of both Allied tactics in addition to frequent instances of summary killings. The Battle of Surabaya in October and November of 1946 saw the heaviest close quarters fighting of the Indonesian War of Independence, as British and Indian troops encountered Indonesian Republican forces equipped with small arms, artillery pieces, and Japanese armoured vehicles. Close air support and naval gunfire was frequently employed, and, despite assertions by the War Office that the use of these armaments in populated areas had the effect of “clearing the fighting area [and] leaving the field clear for the more organised forces”, it can almost certainly be stated that a proportion of the estimated 7000 deaths were civilian fatalities stemming from British artillery. [9]

Additionally, British and Indian forces were suspected of conducting extrajudicial killings throughout Allied involvement in the Indonesian War of Independence. In the space of four days in December of 1945, for instance, a total of twelve Indonesians were shot immediately for suspected rebel activity or while ‘trying to escape’ British and Indian troops [10]

  • 7th December, 1945: members of the Royal Lincolnshire Regiment searching for a missing British Brigade Major and Red Cross worker conducted a raid on the island of Padang, located off the coast of Sumatra. Upon discovering hand grenades and explosive devices inside a residential structure, the Indonesian homeowner was publicly shot with another local while attempting to flee. 
  • 8th December, 1945: acting on intelligence gathered from a local source, British Brigadier Hutchinson instructed local leaders to hand over two individuals believed to have been involved in the murder of the aforementioned British officer and female Red Cross worker. When four men were brought to British security forces, the two suspects were immediately executed and the remaining two killed upon attempting to escape.
  • 9th December, 1945: a British patrol discovered the body of a missing British sailor in Emmahaven,  the busiest port on the Western coast of Sumatra. When two Indonesians nearby were questioned, both men attempted to flee and were immediately shot while escaping.
  • 11th December, 1945: in light of escalating violence against British troops stationed in Sumatra, Brigadier Hutchinson issued a directive requiring that all spears, swords, daggers, and knives be handed over at the risk of execution. When a snap cordon and search operation uncovered ammunition inside two Indonesian homes, four local men were shot on the scene and both houses burnt.

Endnotes:

[1] Newsinger, John, “A forgotten war: British intervention in Indonesia 1945 – 1946”, Race and Class 30, no. 4 (1989): 51-66. doi: https://doi.org/10.1177/030639688903000404

[2] Netherlands/Dutch East Indies, University of Central Arkansas, 2022, https://uca.edu/politicalscience/dadm-project/asiapacific-region/netherlandsdutch-east-indies-1927-1949/

[3] Ricklefs, M C. A History of Modern Indonesia c.1300 to Present (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1981): 187-199. 

[4] Kahin, George, “Sukarno’s Proclamation of Indonesian Independence”, Indonesia 69 (2000): 1-3. https://www.jstor.org/stable/3351273

[5] McMahon, Robert J, “Anglo-American Diplomacy and the Reoccupation of the Netherlands East Indies”, Diplomatic History 2, no. 1 (1978): 1-23. https://www.jstor.org/stable/24909941 

[6] McMillan, Richard, “British Military Intelligence in Java and Sumatra, 1945-1946”, Indonesia and the Malay World 37, no. 107 (2009): 65-81.

[7] McMillan, Richard. The British Occupation of Indonesia: 1945-1946 (Oxfordshire: Routledge, 2006): 21-26.

[8] Kirby, S Woodburn. War Against Japan Volume V: The Surrender Of Japan (Uckfield: Naval and Military Press, 2009): 258.

[9] Jordan, David, “‘A Particularly exacting operation’: British Forces and the Battle of Surabaya, November 1945”, Small Wars and Insurgencies 11, no. 3 (2000): 89-114. doi: https://doi.org/10.1080/09592310008423290

[10] McMillan, The British Occupation of Indonesia, 119-120.