Battle of Java
On the 1st of February 1942 the 2nd/3rd Machine Gun Battalion (less B Company), 2nd/2nd Pioneer Battalion, 2nd/6th Field Company and a number of support battalions boarded the troopship Orcades en-route to Australia. During transit the ship was redirected to Java following the Fall of Singapore as an invasion was considered imminent following the naval battles of the Java Sea and the Sunda Strait.
The 2nd/3rd Machine Gun Battalion was raised in South Australia and commanded by LTCOL Arthur Seaforth Blackburn VC. Although raised in South Australia the unit comprised soldiers from South Australia, Victoria, Tasmania and Western Australia. The Battalion served with distinction in the Syrian Campaign and in battles at Fort Mutulla, Damour and Fort Merdjayoun where it supported the 2nd/2nd Pioneers.
The Australian Troops were formed into ‘Blackforce’ and Blackburn was promoted to Brigadier to take command. BRIG Blackburn organised his troops into a Brigade. 1st Battalion led by LTCOL Lyneham included the 2nd/3rd Machine Gun Battalion. The 2nd Battalion commanded by LTCOL Williams, made up mainly of 2nd/2nd Pioneers, and 3rd Battalion under the control of MAJ De Crespigny included engineers, Guard Battalion, escapees from Singapore and approximately 100 reinforcements from Australia.
On the 21st of February 1942 GEN Wavell was instructed to withdraw the American British Dutch Australian (ABDA) Headquarters from Java, however Wavell suggested that the ABDA be disbanded and control revert to the Dutch East Indies Naval and Land Command. With this request approved, GEN Wavell’s departure on 25 February 1942 saw command of the Allied Land Forces fall to GEN Ter Poorten of the Dutch East Indies.
On the eve of his departure GEN Wavell met with BRIG Blackburn and “impressed upon him the value of the allied cause and to Australia in particular of every hour gained by resisting the Japanese invasion; explained that the troops under Blackburn’s command were practically the only British Troops in Java equipped and trained to fight; and said to use them in offensive operations against the Japanese wherever possible.”
The Japanese landed on Java on the night of 28 February. The Eastern Force landed at Kragan and quickly overwhelmed the defenders and took Surabaya. The Western Force split into two landing parties. The first party landed at Eretanwetan east of Batavia and was tasked to capture the Kalidjati airfield. They encountered brave resistance from a number of Hurricanes and British anti-aircraft gunners who fought until they were all but wiped out. The second party further split into two and landed at Bantam Bay and Merak at the western end of Java. Their task was to advance on Batavia by the coast road and on Buitenzorg by the southern road through the hills.
Blackforce’s planned offensive had to be abandoned due to the Dutch Commander’s withdrawal of all troops around Buitenzorg to Bandung as a result of the alarming rapid advance of the Japanese 230th Regiment.
The 2nd/2nd Pioneers occupied positions overlooking the bridge at Leuwiliang from 28 February 1942 overseeing the Dutch engineers’ demolition preparation of the bridge on 1 March. After the withdrawal of the Dutch East Indies troops from Leuwiliang GEN Schilling asked BRIG Blackburn to occupy the Dutch East Indies positions. Men of the 2nd/3rd Machine Gun Battalion took up positions on the flank of the 2nd/2nd Pioneers.
Japanese light tanks arrived on the other side of the river on 3 March. Blackforce opened fire disabling two tanks. Japanese reinforcements arrived and attempted to ford the river but were pushed back by the Australians. 131st US Artillery Battalion arrived in the afternoon, opening fire on the western side of the river. At 11am on 4 March the Japanese pushed forward infiltrating the 2nd/3rd Machine Gun Battalion from the left. With the help of the 2nd/2nd Pioneers the 2nd/3rd were able to hold their position.
GEN Ter Poorten had decided to abandon Batavia and Buitenzorg. He requested that Blackburn’s men hold the enemy for another 24 hours to cover the withdrawal.
A conference of Senior Allied Officers took place at 6pm on 5 March in Bundang. GEN Ter Poorten announced that guerrilla warfare would be impossible because of the great hostility between the Indonesians and the Dutch. Ter Poorten went on to say that many of the locals actually supported the Japanese hoping to eliminate the Dutch Occupation. He then pointed out that High Command could only be run from Bandung but that Bandung could not be held for much longer.
General Ter Poorten broadcast to all troops that resistance had ended and all were to lay down their arms at 9am on 8 March. Later that afternoon Air Vice-Marshall Maltby and General Sitwell issued the Dutch order to all allied troops.
Brigadier Blackburn attempted to send a message to Australia to advise them of their position, the wireless signal never got out.
You are to take the first opportunity of telling your men that this surrender was not my choice or that of Gen. Sitwell. We were all placed under the command of the Commander in Chief DEI and he has ordered us to surrender. In view of medical reports on the dangers of living in the mountains and the impossibility of obtaining food in the mountains and the fact that no reasonable prospect of escape in ships from the South Coast exists, there was considered by Gen. Sitwell to be no alternative except to obey the order.
On 12 March the senior British, Australian and American officers signed a formal surrender at Japanese headquarters in Bandung. Before it was signed the Japanese commander agreed to add a passage stating that the rights of prisoners under the Geneva Convention would be observed. The majority of Blackforce became prisoners of war, and were used either as labour on the infamous Thai-Burma Railway or left languishing in prison camps. 285 of the 865 men who were Prisoners Of War died while in captivity.