Forgotten Heroes of the Malaya – NEI Campaign
In December 1941, the Commonwealth forces were driven relentlessly down the Malayan peninsula in a humiliating series of military disasters. Defenceless against swarms of strafing Japanese fighters and harassed by scores of light tanks that, according to British General Staff doctrine, could not operate in the Malayan jungle, they had to retreat from one strategic position after another. In a desperate effort to stem the tide, a single squadron of light tanks was sent from the Middle-East to Singapore.
It was one of the most ill-advised, ineffectual and altogether futile decisions taken during the whole Malayan campaign.
‘B’ Squadron of The Kings Own 3rd Hussars was chosen for this overseas duty and its CO, Major P. William-Powlett (*), was allowed to pick whoever was willing to go with him. He chose seven officers and 138 NCOs and men. According to the regimental records, the squadron had 18 Vickers Mark VIb and VIc light tanks, including three reserve vehicles. The squadron left their base in Cyprus for Egypt on January 7, 1942. For some reason, it was not until the end of that month that the 3rd Hussars embarked aboard S.S. Hermion and sailed through the Suez Canal, toward the Dutch East Indies. After a three day layover in Colombo, their ship sailed for Oosthaven, now Bandar Lampung, at the extreme southern tip of Sumatra.
The ship docked in the evening of February 13, 1942, and since Japanese troops had already invaded Singapore Island, Major William-Powlett sought guidance from GHQ. He was ordered to unload his tanks and immediately occupy the two airfields in the Palembang area; the tanks were to go by train, the crews by road. The CO pointed out that his objective was 170 miles to the north and that, after several weeks at sea, he needed time to unload his tanks, charge batteries, de-grease the guns and to re-fuel (if he could get hold of petrol). It would take at least 24 hours to get all tanks in shape so their arrival at Palembang could not be expected before the early morning hours of February 18th. GHQ ordered him to stick to his orders and, as all stevedores had fled the port, it was up to the sweating men of the 3rd Hussars to unload their tanks directly onto flatcars at the quayside.
Japanese paratroopers landed at Palembang P1 in the early morning of February 14 and it was obvious that, long before the tanks could get there, Palembang would be occupied. In another acrimonious discussion with GHQ, Major William-Powlett proposed to wait for two Australian infantry battalions, expected to arrive soon. Together with Dutch troops, this force would be able to defend southern Sumatra. But GHQ rudely told him to ‘obey his orders’ and take his squadron to Palembang forthwith. Captain Pat Lancaster, sent ahead to make contact, returned from P.2 on a borrowed motorcycle. The R.A.F. officer in charge had been about to board the last aircraft to take off for Java and the airfield was to be abandoned.
So, on February 15, when all tanks, trucks and stores had been unloaded, GHQ ordered the 3rd Hussars to load everything back onto S.S. Hermion, embark the troops and head for Java! Unfortunately, the ship had already left (buzzed off to a safer place, as some said) and it took them until the next day to find transport, a small steamer called Silver Larch. Its derricks could handle the tanks but not the heavy ammunition lorries and most of them had to be left behind. Working deep into the night, they loaded ten tanks on the Silver Larch and eight on a lighter towed by a Dutch tug. Around 04.00 on February 17, the ships left Oosthaven, with all tanks, 80% of the transport vehicles but only 25% of the ammunition on board. Six hours later, the ships docked at Merak, a small port at the extreme western end of Java, just across Sunda Strait. After debarking most of the Hussars and other troops, the ships sailed on to Tanjong Priok, the port of Batavia. There, a team of 30 Hussars would unload the tanks and vehicles for the second time.
The next week was one of turmoil, chaos and confusion.
The main body of the 3rd Hussars had gone by train to Batavia which they reached on the night of the 18th. The CO assembled them in the station forecourt and told them to wait while he went in search of a Transport Officer. When he finally had found one, his troops had disappeared; an over-zealous Dutch officer had ‘discovered’ them and sent them to barracks at the outskirts of Batavia, of course not the ones they were supposed to go to.
While this problem was being unravelled, William-Powlett received the alarming news that Silver Larch had been ordered to leave the port immediately. It took some fairly dramatic pleading at naval headquarters to get permission to complete the unloading of his tanks and vehicles. Next, he had to find out whom to report to and which orders there were for him. This took several days and he returned from his visit to GHQ ABDACOM in Bandung with the firm impression that there was no general plan and that he and his men would be left behind.
On his return he found maintenance in full swing. But when the radios were tested they proved to be totally inadequate; the maximum range over which could be communicated was just one mile. William-Powlett next had a look at the countryside he was supposed to operate in. It was absolutely unsuitable for this type of tank; swampy rice paddies interspersed with patches of light jungle, with only a few roads and some muddy tracks.
Then, on the night of the 26th, he was ordered to Buitenzorg (now Bogor) where he met Brigadier Arthur Blackburn VC, commander of an improvised Australian brigade called ‘Blackforce’, to which the 3rd Hussars were to be attached. The squadron was stationed in a rubber plantation, 8 miles west of Buitenzorg on the road to Batavia. Some semblance of order had finally been established but there still was no consensus on the deployment of the British tanks.
The Japanese 26th Army invaded West-Java on March 1, 1942 and moved rapidly toward Batavia and Bandung. The planned counterattack by ‘Blackforce’ became impossible when the Dutch blew up bridges across several rivers. They also ordered the withdrawal of all forces toward Bandung. By the evening of March 2, the retreat was suddenly cancelled, replaced by orders for a planned counter attack around the bridge across the Llewilliang river. Then, at 0200 in the night of March 3, this counter attack was cancelled and new orders for withdrawal received. At 0600 the 3rd Hussars were about to depart when, in torrential rains, an intelligence officer arrived with the news that the withdrawal was cancelled and Llewilliang Bridge was to be attacked…
Australian troops sitting ready in their trucks hurried down the road, followed by the tanks. The Australians reached the bridge at the same time when Japanese advance guards arrived and in a heavy fight the Australians managed to halt them and throw them back. ‘Blackforce’ would hold the bridge for two days, supported by the 3rd Hussars and the excellent gunnery of the 131st Field Artillery, the single US Artillery unit in West-Java. But the Japanese pressure mounted and by the afternoon of the March 4 it was clear that ‘Blackforce’ would have to join in the general withdrawal of the Dutch forces on Bandung. The 3rd Hussars and one company of Australians were ordered to remain behind and hold up the enemy for twenty-four hours.
Before withdrawing on the morning of March 5, , a unit of the 3rd fought off and killed about a dozen of a strong Japanese patrol that had come cycling down the Semplak-Buitenzorg road. The 3rd Hussars disengaged and reached Bandung on March 6. Major William-Powlett learned that the Dutch were about to capitulate. Plans were made for the British and Australian troops to move south over the mountains. But when the Dutch surrendered on March 8, Major William-Powlett knew that there was no hope of further action against the enemy, and he had to obey a written order from General Sitwell to destroy his tanks. They did this by sending them tumbling down a ravine into a strongly flowing river.
It turned out that 60% of the men wanted to ‘walk home’ and they started off during the night. But none of them escaped from Java. The seaworthy boats on Java’s south coast had been destroyed by the Dutch, and by March 28, most of them were together again – in the Prison compound near Bandung. They had to endure three and a half years of captivity, during which nearly half of them died of starvation, sickness and brutality.
Perhaps the best epilogue has been written by David Fletcher in his book ‘British Light Tanks 1925 – 1945’
‘There was not a lot that could be done with tanks such as this [in Java], but throwing them away on, what we now know to be such a futile expedition and losing the men with them for the rest of the war, seems little short of insane…’
(*) The CO’s full name was Peter de Barton Vernon Wallop William-Powlett.
“The ‘Black Force (Java)” – The AWM monographs
“Brief Diary of ‘B’ Squadron 3rd Hussars” – Major P. William-Powlett, M.C.
“The British Tank Unit in the East Indies” – Jacques Jost
“British Light Tanks 1925 – 1945” – David Fletcher
“British 3rd Hussar Tank Squadron in the Dutch East Indies, 1942″ – from “The Galloping Third” by Hector Bolitho.