Recently Disney took worldwide distribution rights to an Indonesian animation film. The film tells the story of a fictional young boy caught up in the turmoil that resulted when Indonesian nationalists declared independence from Holland once the Second World War was over. It is named after one of the seminal events that took place at that time. The film shows grim-faced imperialist enemy soldiers laying waste to Surabaya, and brave Indonesian freedom fighters battling the enemy.
Who were these grim-faced enemy soldiers? Surprise – none other than Indian troops. This battle took place in November 1945 and lasted twenty days. At the end more than 16,000 Indonesian soldiers lay dead and the Union Jack flew over Surabaya.
So how did Indian soldiers come to be involved on the side of the imperialists? Therein lies an interesting story.
On August 15 1945 Emperor Hirohito made his now-famous broadcast surrendering to the Allies, soon after Hiroshima and Nagasaki became the victims of the first atom bombs.
However, the Imperial Japanese Army was very much in control of Singapore, Malaya, Indo-China, Philippines and Indonesia. Trained in obedience to the Emperor, local Japanese commanders in these territories in turn waited to surrender.
Over the next two months Allied Commanders landed in these territories and formally took Japanese troops into custody. Until the Allies arrived, Japanese troops kept law and order.
In Indonesia, local Japanese commanders encouraged Indonesian nationalists to resist re-colonization. They gave their arms to the nationalists, and in some cases, Japanese officers joined the nationalists. With the active connivance of the Japanese, Dr Soekarno proclaimed the birth of the Indonesian Republic on August 18 1945.
As as important wartime ally and defender of the Dutch, Britain naturally moved to help protect Dutch interests in their colony of Batavia. Obviously this was not something the Indonesian nationalists liked.
In September 1945 the 23rd Indian Infantry Division landed in Jakarta from Malaya. British officers commanding these Division assured the Indonesians that their primary role was to take existing Japanese forces into custody.
Needless to say, tensions began to arise. Dutch civilians living in Indonesia found themselves in danger, and there were many regrettable incidents of Indonesian nationalists taking the law into their own hands. Women and children were killed. In many cases British and Indian personnel were attacked. Dutch civilians were interned in miserable conditions.
British officers tried to assure the de-facto commander of the Indonesians that there was no intention to take sides between the Dutch and the Indonesians. The 49th Indian Brigade was tasked with moving into Surabaya with strict orders not to inflame the Indonesians, and they secured important sites like the radio station and the port. This they did carefully and without much incident. They were deliberately lightly armed in order not to cause any concern.
The flashpoint came when the Commanding Officer of 49 Brigade was assassinated in public by a mob after a meeting with the Indonesian commander of Surabaya. Indonesian revolutionaries accompanied by mobs poured out and attacked the lightly armed Indian troops as well as Dutch civilians. Several hundred troops from the Mahratta Light Infantry and the Rajputana Rifles were hacked to death after running out of ammunition.
This was a grave provocation. The British met with Dr Soekarno and the Indonesian Republican leadership who confirmed that they had lost control of Surabaya. The British had to act.
The famed 5th Indian Division – which had fought Rommel in North Africa with great distinction – was in the theatre and they were deployed into Surabaya. The 49 Brigade by now was literally left with nothing more than the ammunition in their rifles while Indonesians, armed and assisted by the defeated Japanese, continued to assault them. 49 Brigade secured the port, and the 5th arrived quietly in Surabaya harbor.
Upon landing, the CO 5th Indians Gen Mansergh tried parlays with the nationalists. When these talks failed, the Punjabis, Dogras, Jats and Gurkhas who formed the 5th Division went into action and attacked Surabaya.
Over the next twenty days they battled the Indonesians house by house, street by street with strict orders to minimize civilian casualties. The Chinese population collaborated with the 5th, billeting them in houses and enabling the Indians to move through Chinese homes as they fought their enemy in the streets of Surabaya. The Indonesians were skillful, passionate and fought hard. But this was the 5th Indians – one of the most professional units of the Indian Army. It did not help the Indonesians that they had mutilated the dead of the 49th Brigade. There was no love lost. By end of the month the Indians controlled Surabaya.
After putting a civil administration in place, the Indians fanned out into the countryside chasing the defeated Indonesian revolutionaries who had fallen into guerilla mode. There were constant skirmishes and gunfights, some taking place in the paddy fields while peasants tended to their crops. From some villages they rescued Dutch civilians hidden there by the Indonesians. From November ‘45 to May 1946 the 5th Indian fought the Indonesian Army and restored some semblance of civil order and administration. They then handed over the city to the Dutch Army and evacuated back to Ranchi.
Not many people in Indonesia remember that the de-facto occupation of Java by the British Army was an entirely Indian affair. A free India and a free Indonesia became friends and partners, and this episode was airbrushed from history.
And that’s the back story of this new Disney movie!