Brunei in World War II

[Note: I was searching for images of Brunei and came across this page talking about an aspect of the Australian involvment in Brunei during World War II.]

The war heads north

ARRIVAL . . . Australian troops in landing craft.
Source: Australian War Memorial.

SIXTY YEARS AGO, AUSTRALIAN TROOPS LANDED AT BRUNEI BAY, BORNEO, TO BEGIN ONE OF THE MOST COMPLEX CAMPAIGNS INVOLVING AUSTRALIAN LAND, AIR AND SEA FORCES.

ON THE MORNING OF JUNE 10, 1945, THE NINTH DIVISION WAITED IN THEIR LANDING CRAFT. THEY KNEW OF THE TOUGH RESISTANCE ELSEWHERE IN BRUNEI. THEY KNEW THEIR ACTIONS THAT DAY WOULD NOT MAKE THE WAR END SOONER, BUT THEY DID THEIR JOB NONETHELESS.


JUNE 10, 1945 was the day the 9th Division, minus the 26th Brigade, which had been fighting at Tarakan, landed at Brunei Bay.
Preparation for this operation had been hampered by the shortage of shipping and the late arrival of units and equipment.

The 9th Division was commanded by one of the great characters of the Second Australian Imperial Force, Major-General George Wootten.

A former regular officer, Wootten had left the army after World War I and qualified as a solicitor. At the outbreak of World War II, he took over command of the 2/2nd Battalion as a lieutenant-colonel, and then commanded the 18th Brigade between 1941 and 1943 and the 9th Division from 1943. He was regarded as a superb trainer of troops.

The 9th Division's preparation for the Brunei Bay landings was detailed, with rehearsals at Morotai, about 1,700km to the east. From there they travelled to Brunei Bay in uncomfortable landing craft.

The commanding officer of one of Wootten's battalions, Lieut-Col Colin Boyd of the 2/28th, wrote: "In almost six years of war, this writer has never seen troops subjected to more deplorable conditions, and on June 10, after a fortnight of inactivity subjected to the full extent of existing climatic conditions, overcrowded and with far less than minimum adequate sanitary and washing arrangements, they were expected to carry out an assault."

It was just as well that the troops met no opposition, either at Brunei Bay or Labuan, to the north. The Queenslanders of the 2/15th, including Doug Maclean, found Muara Island unoccupied.

The main fighting at Labuan occurred nearly a week after the landings. The Japanese had withdrawn to a stronghold about 2,000 metres wide and 1,000 metres long. This feature, a tangle of ridges covered by trees and thick rainforest and fringed by swamps, was nicknamed The Pocket.

It was attacked only after the gunners of the 2/12th Field Regiment had fired 140 tonnes of shells. The Japanese resisted strongly, knocking out two tanks, so it was decided to increase the artillery bombardment with the cruiser HMAS Shropshire using its guns while bombers pounded the position.


ATTACK . . . Matilda tanks during the storming of Brunei.
Source: Australian War Memorial.

The final attack was carried out by infantry and tanks, some of which were fitted with flamethrowers, on the morning of June 21. The Japanese had had enough and were quickly overrun.

Elsewhere in north Borneo the fighting was on a much reduced scale. Battalions moved inland without meeting much opposition as the Japanese had little artillery and no air support. They simply withdrew to the hills.

The ceasefire seemed to come early for these Australian troops. Most were then employed on non-military tasks, and the long-service men started to leave the units for demobilisation.

Those left behind moved on to the task of reconstruction of civilian facilities. As Gavin Long writes: "In no other campaign had an Australian force faced such a heavy task of this kind. On Labuan, for example, the bombardment had destroyed practically every building and soon some 3,000 civilians had to be fed and otherwise cared for."

And then, after the end of the war, there was the problem of guarding the Japanese. Journalist Buzz Kennedy, then a young infantry captain, was commandant of a camp in north Borneo which included about 1,100 women.

He found it a troublesome task, for the women had no training in discipline and no obvious leader. His sergeant-major, Clem Taylor, suggested the task be given to a Mrs Orita, who had run a brothel in a nearby town.

Kennedy wrote that within a week she had the camp organised, troublemakers quelled and disciplined restored.

On Christmas Eve, 1945, Orita approached Kennedy and said she wanted to give him a gift because the Australians had treated them kindly and well.

The gift? Three girls, aged about 16. "For you, Captain, three virgins."

Kennedy writes: "I was speechless. Sar-Major Clem Taylor was so purple in the face he looked as though he might burst."

Kennedy explained that he really couldn't accept the gift and went outside to find Taylor, holding weakly to a post, laughing.

"A bloody great help you were!" Kennedy said.

"Skipper," Taylor replied, "it was worth five years of war just to see the look on your face."

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