The Battle of Surabaya in 1945 is regarded by Indonesians as one of the most important events in their history and is celebrated in Indonesia with Heroes Day on 10th November.
The Battle of Surabaya was a 19 day confrontation by Indonesian militants against British and Dutch armed forces in the city of Surabaya in the east of Java island.
The British arrived in Surabaya on 25th October 1945 under the command of Brigadier General Mallaby with the 49th Indian Infantry.
Their mission was a humanitarian one – to repatriate prisoners of war, other foreigners who were still in Indonesia, the Japanese soldiers back to their homeland and to de-arm the Indonesian militants of the weaponry they had seized from Japanese garrisons in contravention of the Potsdam Conference Agreement of 1945.
World War Two came to an end in Europe on 1st May 1945 and in Asia-Pacific on 15th August 1945. The Potsdam conference took place in Germany in July 1945. Indonesia was proclaimed as an independent nation state by Soekarno on 17th August 1945.
Despite the fervour for independence, power vaccuums still existed in Indonesia and the new Indonesian leadership found it difficult to control its people.
The British had a lack of necessary intelligence for the task ahead. They did not have enough military personnel to undertake it and Britain to a man did not want to engage in another war so long after the end of world war two.
On the morning of 27th October, a British plane, sent on the instructions of General Hawthorn who was based in Jakarta, distributed leaflets by air to the citizens of Surabaya calling for them to give up their military arms.
This was seen as a provocative act by the people of Surabaya and skirmishes broke out around the city leading to the first loss of life of British and Indian soldiers. The skirmishes escalated into more serious fighting over the next few days.
A ceasefire was supposedly negotiated on 30th October by President Soekarno himself in Surabaya with Generals Hawthorn and Mallaby.
The Indonesian militants interpreted this as a British surrender which was not the case.
Soon a large mob headed towards the International Bank Building in the centre of Surabaya near the Red Bridge, perhaps motivated by secret radio broadcasts from fringe leaders such as Soetomo to not trust the British presence in Surabaya and continue the fight for their cause of independence.
Brigadier Mallaby approached the scene with a convoy of Indonesian moderates and two junior officers only while flying the white flag.
His intention was only to spread the word of the ceasefire just negotiated.
The building was protected by both Dutch armed personnel and the Mahrattas of Mallaby’s 49th Brigade.
The Mahrattas supposedly fired shots into the air to scatter the crowd and not at the mob directly with the intention to cause injury.
Brigadier Mullaby, perhaps nieve in his approach to the situation and not necessarily incompetent, was in a helpless position.
He was shot by a Pemuda youth while sitting in the car.
The two junior officers used a concealed hand grenade to effect to escape the chaotic scene and swim across the Kali Mas river.
British retaliation was inevitable. Reinforcements were sent and an ultimatum was given to Indonesian forces.
The Battle of Surabaya began on 10th November and more than nine thousand Indonesians were killed during the 19 days of engagement.
Those fallen men and women are considered heroes by Indonesia and hence the celebration of Heroes Day.
The British had accomplished their goal of repatriation by the summer of 1946 and were gone from Indonesian shores by the end of November 1946.
Within two years, Dutch forces would have left too and Indonesia achieved its own goal of being universally recognized as an independent republican nation state free from colonial rule.
British history books will tell you it was the forgotten war. The war nobody wanted. Indonesian history books tell it quite differently.
It could and should have been avoided.
In all probability, there would probably have never been a battle of Surabaya in 1945 if the British had been better supported and equipped for the task and communication of military orders had been more correctly applied based on actual intelligence.
It does not mean that Indonesia does not deserve to have heroes for the cause of the republican fight towards independence or that independence would have been that much more longer in forthcoming.
President Soekarno and General Sudirman were men with different missions but they shared the same vision for an independent Indonesia.
Indonesia, at the time, was a new nation in transit and its people cannot be blamed for wanting to be dictated to by outside ‘powers’ on their own territory.
Soekarno took that vision a step further at the Bandung Conference of 1955.
Britain learnt their own lesson from ‘Surabaya’ and applied it on future humanitarian missions to Afghanistan, Iraq and of course Northern Ireland.
The Battle of Surabaya in 1945 is not forgotten.
It is remembered for all the right reasons.