Operation Babel

This was the Allied reoccupation of Palembang on the island of Sumatra in the Netherlands East Indies after the surrender of Japan (October 1945).

On 4 October 1945 a convoy carrying the headquarters of Major General H. M. Chambers’s Indian 26th Division, Captain G. B. Sayer, the naval force commander, the headquarters of Brigadier H. P. L. Hutchinson’s Indian 71st Brigade and other elements including the 1st Lincolnshire Regiment, 6th South Wales Borderers and 1/18th Royal Garhwal Rifles as well as supporting administrative and technical elements sailed from Madras in southern India for Sumatra. At sea the convoy split, the naval headquarters, headquarters of the Indian 26th Division, headquarters of the Indian 71st Brigade, the Lincolns and the Garhwalis making for Padang, half-way down the south-west coast of Sumatra, while the headquarters of the Indian 26th Division’s artillery with the South Wales Borderers made for Medan on the north-east coast. Each part of the convoy had five tank landing ships, some of which joined en route from Malaya, Colombo and Chittagong.

At this time the Japanese forces on Sumatra totalled some 71,500 men of General Moritake Tanabe’s 25th Army, with the 2nd Imperial Guards Division to the north in the area of Medan, the 25th Independent Mixed Brigade on the west coast to the north of Padang, and the 9th Air Division to the south in the area of Palembang.

At Emmahaven, the port of Padang, the Japanese representatives, led by Major General Nakao Yahagi, the 25th Army’s chief-of-staff, went on board the large infantry landing ship Persimmon on 10 October to receive orders, and on the same day other representatives of the 25th Army went on board the destroyer Venus at Belawan, the port of Medan. Both towns were occupied on the same day and on 12 October Chambers established the Headquarters Allied Forces in Sumatra in the town hall at Padang.

Three days later the Indian 26th Division came under command of the Allied Force Netherlands East Indies, and on 21 October Chambers received the formal surrender of the Japanese forces from Tanabe and the senior Japanese naval officer in the island, Vice Admiral Sueto Hirose, who commanded the 9th Base Force.

As on Java, the primary tasks of Allied forces in Sumatra was to rescue and evacuate Allied prisoners of war and internees, maintain law and order in key areas, disarm and bring together surrendered Japanese troops in preparation for their repatriation, and arrest any Japanese wanted for trial on war crime charges.

When it arrived, the Indian 26th Division found Medan and Padang in a state of intense political disturbance, with the republican flag and numerous political parties, most of which contained a hard core of armed youths (Pemoedas) trained by the Japanese in guerrilla warfare and all violently anti-Dutch, much in evidence. Members of the self-styled ‘Government of the Sumatran Republic’, whose headquarters were in Medan, gave assurance that they were prepared to co-operate with the British, but it soon became clear that little would be forthcoming unless Dr A. Soekarno’s ‘Central Government’ in Java approved. They accused the Amboinese and the Netherlands Indies Civil Administration (whose head, Major General A. I. Spits, had arrived on 13 October to confer with Chambers) of organising terrorism, but agreed to hand over their arms provided the Amboinese were also disarmed.

Initially the general population was indifferent to the British-led occupation forces but became hostile when it found that the NICA was working with them. When the occupying forces reached Sumatra, the Japanese had been ordered to vacate Palembang, but on 16 October they reported that the situation in that area had deteriorated: Indonesian police had attacked an armoury and removed a quantity of arms, which the Japanese were trying to recover, and attempts were being made to abduct Dutch civilians. Reports from Recovery of Allied Prisoners of War and Internees’ sources requesting permission to suspend the concentration of internees in Palembang confirmed the Japanese statement, and as result Chambers ordered the Japanese to increase their forces in the town, restore order and ensure the security of the oil refineries. He also asked for reinforcements to enable him to have troops in that area, and on 24 October the 1st Burma Regiment of Major General E. C. R. Mansergh’s Indian 5th Division arrived at Palembang from Malaya.

Mansergh was warned that no official recognition was to be given to the self-styled ‘Republican Government’, although individuals belonging to it could be met as private citizens. He was to use the local police as much as possible to control the populace, retain Japanese civilians in key posts and make every effort to persuade the local leaders to arrange the surrender of all arms other than police swords. He could use Japanese troops to enforce law and order, particularly in Palembang town and in the oil refineries, all orders to them being issued through the commander of the 9th Air Division, whose chief-of-staff was to be summoned to battalion headquarters to receive them. However, men of the Dutch armed forces, whether European or native, were to be used only for the close guarding of internee camps. The arrival of the small Allied force at Palembang quickly restored order and the concentration of prisoners and internees from outlying camps was resumed.