Liberation and evacuation Print

Japan surrendered on 15 August 1945. Two days after the Japanese capitulation the nationalists, led by Sukarno, proclaimed the Republic of Indonesia. The allied powers were not prepared for this. The Dutch East Indies came under the authority of the British. Initially their attitude towards the Dutch colony, more or less forced by the limited availability of troops, was one of wait and see what happens. The reoccupation of British areas in South-East Asia and the removal of British prisoners of war had precedence. In the Dutch East Indies therefore, the Japanese remained in charge of administration and maintaining peace and order for the time being, while the Dutch in the camps had to stay where they were for their own safety. The food situation improved and the Japanese became a little friendlier, but there was no ‘true’ liberation yet.

Thousands of men and boys ignored the British prohibition and left the camps to find their families. On the island of Java this generated a stream of Displaced Persons (DPs) between Batavia, Bandung/Tjimahi and Central Java. Gradually a small group of Dutch former internees reappeared on the streets. The Europeans were generally left alone by the Indonesians and many experienced warm and helpful reactions from the native population. At the same time, however, nationalist agitation in the form of slogans, pamphlets and posters increased.

Even though an actual occupation of the Dutch East Indies by the allied forces was a long time coming, British commander L. Mountbatten did send so-called RAPWI-teams to the archipelago. The RAPWI - Recovery of Allied Prisoners of War and Internees – was an allied military organization responsible for tracking down the POW and internment camps and providing assistance and support to the former POWs and internees. The RAPWI teams maintained contact with the Japanese and the local Indonesian agencies. When the poor health condition of former internees necessitated it – later on the lack of safety also became a reason – they started the evacuation of internees and prisoners of war.

Dutch servicemen also participated in the RAPWI, but on 15 August 1945 the Netherlands did not have sufficient troops available in Asia to occupy the Dutch East Indies. In addition the Dutch lacked means of transport at that time: there were many Dutch troopships in service, but these were fully at the disposal of the allied forces and could not be used directly for their own purposes.

In areas outside the Dutch East Indies where many thousands of Dutch prisoners of war were held, such as Japan, Thailand, Burma and Singapore, the allied troops were relatively quickly on the scene. The Dutch in Japan were soon transported to the Philippines. In Bangkok, Singapore and Manila the fittest former prisoners of war were formed into new KNIL battalions.

The men wanted to return to the Dutch East Indies, where many had wives and children, as soon as possible. However, this turned out to be more difficult than expected. The situation in the Indonesian archipelago immediately after the Japanese surrender differed per region. On Borneo and the eastern part of the East Indies there were Australian forces that had no objections to a speedy arrival of KNIL units. As a result the Netherlands regained supervision of these parts of the Dutch East Indies as early as November 1945.

The first British troops did not land on Sumatra until October 1945. The former civilian internees on Sumatra, who were put up in a few large camps in the sparsely populated interior, were taken to the coast as soon as possible and concentrated in the cities of Padang, Medan, and Palembang. By the end of November all Japanese internment camps on Sumatra had been cleared. The Dutch POWs who had been forced to work on the Pakanbaru railroad were taken to, among other places, Padang and Palembang. On Sumatra the Japanese cooperated with the British, and the Indonesian nationalists were less militant than on Java, so the situation here, despite some rioting in Medan and Padang, was relatively peaceful by the end of 1945.

In the first half of September 1945 the situation on Java, where most Europeans and Indos were located, was also quite calm. On 15 September the first allied ships - one British and one Dutch cruiser – appeared in the Bay of Batavia. This generated unrest among the Indonesian nationalists, who saw the arrival of allied (and especially Dutch) soldiers as a threat to the new Republic.

Tens of thousands of young people had been members of the anti-allied paramilitary units created by the Japanese during the occupation. They interpreted the presence of former internees and RAPWI teams as the first signs of a return of the colonial Netherlands. In the second half of September a number of violent clashes took place between Indonesians and Dutch nationals on Java and between Indonesians and Japanese. These conflicts were as yet incidental, but the situation was very ominous.

On 29 September the first British-Indian troops landed in Batavia harbour. Taking stock of the complex situation and his own limited means, Mountbatten had no intention of occupying the entire Indonesian archipelago. The British and British-Indian troops had to limit themselves to a few key areas: Batavia and Surabaya on Java, and Medan and Padang on Sumatra. Soon circumstances forced them to also occupy Bandung and Semarang on Java and Palembang on Sumatra. Former internees could only be taken care of in the key areas and had to be brought there by the RAPWI.

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