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The EK1

Japanese Attack on Sarawak in December 1941 and the fighting withdrawal of 2/15th Punjab Regiment

“…a feat of endurance which assuredly will rank high in the annals of warfare… It says much for the morale of this fine battalion that it remained a formed and disciplined body till the end." (1)

British-protected Borneo in 1939

Borneo, the third largest island in the world, lies to the east of Malaysia and between the Philippines, Sumatra and Java.  In 1939 most of Borneo was Dutch colonial territory, (2) but the strip running along the northwest coast up to the northern tip was protected by Britain.  North Borneo was administered by the chartered British North Borneo Company.  Lying off the southwestern tip of the Company’s territory was the Crown Colony of Labuan Island, (3) and southwest of North Borneo on the coast was the independent State of Brunei.  Sarawak occupied most of the remainder of the northwest coastline. It was a state owned privately by the Brooke family who had been gifted the land by the Sultan of Brunei. The Brookes ruled their territory from Kuching. (4)  Britain had treaty obligations to protect British North Borneo, Brunei and Sarawak.

In 1939 Borneo was undeveloped, but it was abundant in timber and agricultural and mineral resources, especially rubber and oil.  Britain exploited oilfields at Serai in Brunei and at Miri in Sarawak, and pumped the oil to a refinery at Lutong on the coast; from the refinery loading-lines ran out to deep-water points where tankers could load.  Although British-protected Borneo had strategic importance in that it commanded the eastern approaches to Singapore and Malaya, there were no British garrisonsthere and each territory provided its own small police forces.

As World War II progressed Japan, albeit still neutral, flexed its muscles and developed strategic plans to seize the whole of Borneo as part of the Japanese-designed Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.  The prize was Borneo’s oil which was also being exploited by the Dutch on the east side of the island. It was a vital commodity that Japan desperately needed. With this in mind, the Imperial General Staff in Tokyo determined that Borneo, together with the rest of the Netherlands East Indies, would be seized after simultaneous attacks had been launched on Malaya and the Philippines.

Above:The island of Borneo, British territory edged in red and Dutch territory edged in yellow.


The defence plan for British Borneo, which had been devised in Singapore, was not afforded a high priority in terms of resources.  Initially an infantry brigade was laid down as the minimum requirement for a successful defence, but finally this formation was reduced to one battalion with a few supporting engineers and artillerymen.  It was decided not to defend North Borneo but to prepare a static defence around Kuching and its airfield in southwestern Sarawak.  The Brunei and Miri oilfields were to be demolished before an enemy landing could seize them intact.  Although Labuan Island was an important cable and wireless station, no attempt was made to defend it.

The 2nd Battalion of the 15th Punjab Regiment was selected to be the principal unit in Sarawak Force which was referred to as Sarfor.   Besides the Punjabis, and the sappers and gunners Sarfor would contain the four Sarawak state forces:  

·         The Sarawak Coastal Marine Service
·         The Sarawak Rangers
·         The Sarawak Armed Police
·         The Sarawak Volunteer Force  

It was envisaged that Brunei, as part of Sarfor, would produce a unit of Volunteers.  SARFOR was not allocated any dedicated air or naval units.  Liaison with the Dutch forces across the land border was made but without much commitment from Singapore, despite the Dutch possessing military aeroplanes and vessels as well as ground forces.

Above: Officers of the 2.15th Punjab Regiment prior to the outbreak of war

prepares for a Japanese attack  

The 2nd Battalion of the 15th Punjab Regiment was a ‘class company’ battalion with one company each of Sikhs (‘A’ Company), Punjabi Musalmans (‘B’ Company), Khattacks (‘C’ Company) and Jats (‘D’ Company).  The Battalion had come from Poona to Singapore as part of 6th Indian Infantry Brigade.  In Singapore the Battalion worked on defence duties and counter-invasion measures until December 1940 when one company was tasked to go to Sarawak.  ‘C’ Company, commanded by Major C.A.L. Davis was selected, and Davis with 2nd Lieutenant J.E.S. Temple and 98 men sailed to Miri whilst Lieutenant J.H.C. Brown and 52 men went to Kuching.

‘C’ Company was referred to as Pundet, an abbreviation of Punjab Detachment, and its mission was to provide security for demolition parties that would be provided by the Sarawak Oil Company; later the mission was broadened to include the training of local forces.  In March 1941 a two-gun detachment of 6-inch coastal artillery arrived at Lutong, manned by the Hong Kong Singapore Royal Artillery and commanded by Captain H.N.P.R. Halstead.  Pundet also received seven medium machine guns, one anti-tank rifle, two trucks and several rifles for use by Volunteers.  Major Davis was based in Lutong and in his office was the control switch that would demolish the loading-lines.  Six sappers from 34th Fortress Company, Royal Engineers, under Lieutenant W.St.P.M. ‘Tubby’ Hancock, and a platoon of 24 men of The Loyal Regiment (North Lancashire) under Lieutenant G.G. Withers, all trained in demolition work, arrived at Lutong in July to work alongside the Sarawak Oil Company Staff. 

Major Davis and Lieutenant Brown commenced training the Sarawak Volunteers at Lutong and Kuching.  The government of Sarawak was not keen that the Volunteers should fight any invaders, but it reasoned that if the Volunteers confined themselves to being involved in demolition duties then reprisals could be avoided.  The oil workers themselves had requested that they be uniformed so as not to be treated as saboteurs by an enemy, and this request had triggered the formation of the Volunteers.

Above: The Astana, Rajah Brook’s old palace, on the north bank of the Sarawak at Kuching

In May 1941 Lieutenant Colonel C.M. Lane MC brought the remainder of the Punjabis to Kuching and intensive reconnaissance of the Kuching area commenced; Colonel Lane being appointed Officer Commanding Troops Sarawak and Brunei.  The training of the Sarawak State Forces was speeded up and Punjabi gun detachments were trained to man three elderly 18-pounder guns that were issued to the Battalion.  As the Battalion had first-line and second-line reinforcements with it, plus an attached platoon of Jats from the 4/15th Punjabis, the Battalion strength was 1,075 all ranks.  When the state forces of Sarawak and Brunei were added Sarfor numbered 2,565 all ranks.  In December ‘G’ Detachment of 19 Indian General Hospital under Major J.E. ‘Jimmy’ O’Donnell, Indian Medical Service (IMS), was sent to join the Battalion.  Two other IMS officers, Captains M. Sharma and S.H. Ahmed, assisted Major O’Donnell.

In view of the Borneo terrain of thick jungle, very few roads and many rivers, Colonel Lane appreciated that a static defence would not last long against a determined enemy prepared to march through jungle or to seize boats on rivers in order to outflank a defensive position.  He therefore proposed the concept of mobile defence whereby after demolishing the oilfields, invaders would be harassed and Kuching airfield would be held until enemy pressure determined that the airfield and its Royal Air Force (RAF) direction-finding equipment should also be demolished.  Sarfor would then operate in small sub-units from jungle bases where supplies had been cached, using guerrilla warfare tactics to deny the enemy freedom of movement along the roads, tracks and rivers and on the airfield.  In June Air Chief Marshal Sir Robert Brooke-Popham, Commander-in-Chief Far East, visited Kuching and endorsed Colonel Lane’s proposal which was termed Plan ‘A’.

Brooke-Popham’s endorsement was a significant step forward for Colonel Lane, as since his arrival he had been frustrated by Singapore’s different view of the situation in Sarawak.  This had occurred because two staff officers from Singapore had earlier briefly visited Kuching and reported misleading statements such as ‘the jungle and coastal swamps were impenetrable’ and that ‘the airfield could be defended by a couple of platoons’.  Sadly this erroneous reporting stuck in the minds of other staff officers in Singapore who denied Sarfor resources such as finance and weapons and uniforms for Volunteers.  Colonel Lane had to go to Singapore personally to rectify some of these problems, whilst in the meantime the Sarawak government and the oil companies provided, free of charge, resources such as vehicles and fuel.   In September Rajah Brooke went to Australia at a time when his leadership was really needed in Sarawak by his government and his people. He did not return before the Japanese invaded, much to the disapproval of the Punjabis who were in the meantime working harmoniously with the local population.

Prior to Colonel Lane’s arrival there had been no dedicated counter-intelligence activity by the Sarawak police.  This was unfortunate as several Japanese civilians were established in Sarawak managing agricultural estates or working professionally in jobs such as dentistry.  Colonel Lane established an internal security police section but little could be done about the Japanese civilians until war was declared. During the invasion several groups of Japanese wore Sarawak police uniforms, which indicated the prior planning and military efficiency of at least some of the estate managers and dentists. 

Meanwhile more resources had trickled into Kuching, perhaps the most useful being an Intelligence Officer, Captain D.H. James MC, who had lived in Japan for many years, speaking the language and understanding the military culture.  Other arrivals were a Royal Engineers advisor, Lieutenant ‘Teddy’ Marston; an adjutant for the Sarawak Rangers, Captain Bruce, Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders; and three Permanent Staff Instructors for the Sarawak Volunteers in Kuching and Miri and for the Brunei Volunteers in Seria.  Captain James pulled no punches when describing the very professional military abilities of the Japanese, but as this was not in line with the dismissive British propaganda being disseminated from Singapore about Japanese military inadequacies, James was soon recalled from Borneo. (5)  Captain B.W. Cahusac (6) of the Intelligence Corps became the Sarfor Intelligence Officer.  The General Officer Commanding, Malaya Command, General A.E. Percival, visited Kuching in late November for two days and talked with government officials and Sarfor.  He then rejected Colonel Lane’s mobile defence plan.  The close static defence of Kuching airfield was re-ordered, without any depth in the defences being allowed.  This became known as Plan ‘B’.  All that mattered was that the Kuching airfield be kept open for as long as possible for the potential use of Allied fighter aircraft.  This demoralising decision meant that the jungle caches of supplies had to be recovered and returned to Kuching and the Punjabis’ mobile guerrilla mission was cancelled.  General Percival had sounded the Last Post for the 2/15th Punjabis.

War and the action at the oilfields  

When war with Japan was declared on 8th December 1941, 2/15th Punjabis was commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel G. Ross-Thompson, Colonel Lane being the Commander of Sarfor.  Major F.G. Milligan was the Sarfor staff officer, and Captain J.E.S. Temple was the Battalion Adjutant.  Captain Mohd. Mataul Mulk, brother of the Prince of Chitral, (7) was Liaison Officer to the local state forces.  The Battalion contained fourteen or fifteen British officers, about half of them being attached from the Sarawak State Forces, and twenty Indian officers.

By now, unfortunately, the Brunei Volunteers and the Sarawak Volunteers at Miri were fading away due to reluctance by their employers to let them be used in any capacity outside of the oilfields.  However the Volunteers in Kuching thrived energetically, and the Sarawak Coastal Marine Service was trained in river and estuary reconnaissance and coast-watching.  The Sarawak Rangers, many of them from headhunting tribes, had been trained in guerrilla warfare, and the Sarawak Armed Police were effective.  But the Sarawak government by now realised that Sarfor could not stop a Japanese invasion, and it was not happy about any of its people offering open resistance to an invader.  The absence of the Ruler, Rajah Brooke, did not help matters, and it could well have been that this government reluctance influenced General Percival’s decision to cancel the guerrilla warfare aspect of the defence plan.

At Miri, Major A.W.D. Slatter’s ‘B’ Company had replaced ‘C’ Company, Major Davis having been recalled to India. (8) In Seria, Miri and Lutong the demolition teams had been working to a partial denial programme for several months; the Miri field had been closed down and the Seria wells had been sealed with cement.  On 8th December, along with the news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, came the order from Singapore to complete the Miri and Seria demolitions; these were achieved in good order and ‘B’ Company, the sappers, the Loyals’ demolition platoon and the gunners with one 6-inch coastal gun concentrated at Miri, the other gun having been dumped in a river that it could not be got across.  On 13th December three British ships arrived at Miri and embarked all military personnel and oilfield technicians there, plus important pieces of technical equipment from the oil fields that were destined to be stored in Singapore. 

During the next day a Japanese bomber attacked the small convoy and whilst not materially damaging the ships it engaged an anti-aircraft Bren gun crew on Major Slatter’s ship, HMS Lipis.  Major Slatter was manning the gun and returned fire but he and three of his Punjabis were killed during the action, whilst eighteen more men were wounded, including Sapper V. Green and one of the Loyals.  The convoy then reached Kuching without further incident and disembarked ‘B’ Company before moving on to Singapore with the Loyals platoon and the gunners.  The ‘scorched earth’ demolition operations at Miri and Seria had been concluded successfully and when a Japanese naval force arrived on 16th December it found that both oilfields and the refinery were unusable.


The war arrived at Kuching on 19th December when sixteen Japanese bombers raided the town and the airfield, killing 25 civilians and wounding around 80 others whilst setting a petrol dump alight and causing other damage.  Allied aircraft did not intervene.  Four days later a Japanese naval convoy arrived off the coast, and Singapore ordered the immediate destruction of Kuching airfield. The sappers destroyed the airstrip and the direction finding equipment that night, using 50 boreholes that had been drilled across the strip in preparation.

Above: Major Japanese invasion routes

Map by
Graham Donaldson and Previously on the "The Dutch East Indies Campaign 1941-1942"

A Japanese force had sailed from Camranh Bay in French Indo-China (9) and consisted of the Japanese 35th Infantry Brigade Headquarters and 124th Infantry Regiment augmented by the Yokosuka 2nd Special Naval Landing Force.  The Japanese first landed at Miri and left one battalion to occupy North Borneo, Brunei and Labuan Island before sailing to Kuching.  Japanese aircraft supplied vital support to the force by bombing the Dutch Singkawang II airfield that lay west of Kuching.  The bombing of the runway prevented Dutch planes from taking off to attack the Japanese ships, and later that day the Dutch were authorised to remove their planes to Palembang in Sumatra.  However two Dutch submarines engaged the enemy ships, sinking two and damaging two others; a Japanese submarine then stalked one of its Dutch adversaries and sank it.  Five British Blenheim aircraft from Singapore, operating at almost the limit of their range, attacked the Japanese ships but did little damage.

The following morning, 24th December, twenty enemy landing craft approached the mouths of the Santubong and Muara Tebas rivers that led to Kuching.  First to engage the Japanese were the Sarawak Coastal Marine Service and the Sarawak Rangers, firing from the swamps.  A Punjab Regiment gunboat platoon, firing anti-tank rifles from its small craft, went into action for two hours but then moved up-river when it was out-gunned.  As the landing craft approached Kuching the Punjabis’ 18-pounder guns started scoring hits, supported by a 3-inch mortar detachment.  Seven craft were sunk before the Japanese landed and overran the gun and mortar positions, seizing one gun before it could be withdrawn.  Colonel Lane had been given Percival’s permission to withdraw after holding up the invasion for as long as possible, and fighting between Captain P.Y. Fairburn’s Sikh ‘A’ Company (10) and the invaders continued until 16.30 hours when Kuching was in Japanese hands.  To save the civilian population Kuching had been declared an ‘open city’ and there were no British defence activities within the town.  ‘A’ Company then withdrew to join the Battalion at the airfield. On the way a platoon of ‘A’ Company under 2nd Lieutenant J.H. Farwell, having already been dive-bombed, was badly ambushed at the Kuching suspension bridge by an enemy group wearing Sarawak Constabulary uniforms. Those of the platoon not killed were captured including John Farwell.  The Japanese wasted no time in deploying and by nightfall they were testing the airfield perimeter defences; these probes continued throughout the night.

Next day, Christmas morning, after unsuccessfully requesting orders from Singapore Colonel Lane ordered a withdrawal into Dutch Borneo.  A group of British women and children along with the hospital detachment were sent ahead during a lull in the firing, and ‘A’ Company went to secure the vital ferry crossing at Batu Kitak.  As these movements were proceeding a large Japanese force attacked the 2/15th Punjabis rear-guard in strength.  After a stiff fight, particularly by the Khattacks who machine-gunned a considerable number of advancing Japanese, four British officers, six Indian officers and 230 sepoys were killed or taken prisoner, wounded prisoners being bayoneted by the Japanese.  Captain J.H.C. ‘Bruno’ Brown, OC ‘B’ Company, was amongst the dead having killed two Japanese with his revolver before a third bayoneted him.  Lieutenant D.A. ‘Doggy’ Hodges, OC ‘C’ Company, was amongst the prisoners, having surrendered his company when it was surrounded and only two platoons were still able to fight.  Only a few sepoys trickled back to re-join the Battalion.  The Japanese casualty list for this rear-guard action was believed to have included 374 men killed, including the formation commander.

At the Batu Kitak ferry confusion reigned when firing broke out nearby. The terrified ferrymen ran away after only a few crossings, leaving the ferry on the far bank, and attempts to put the ferry back into use failed.  Mortars and machine guns were then dumped in the river whilst a few dugout canoes were used to move the sepoys across, each man carrying a large ammunition load.  A new rear-guard was formed of two platoons of Jats under Captain P.J.W.  Crosland from ‘D’ Company, accompanied by the two remaining 18-pounder guns and Captain M.W. Chapman’s Carrier Platoon. Chapman was in overall command of this rear-guard which faced the enemy from the Kuching bank of the river until just before dawn. Chapman then disabled and abandoned the guns and the carriers and forcefully persuaded local boatmen to take his men across the river.  Five days later and after a 100-kilometre march the rear-guard joined the 2/15th Punjabis at Sanggau in Dutch Borneo. Colonel Lane, who next morning found that his black hair had turned white overnight, kept his weary men moving on foot to the Dutch border near Krokong.  Here the local Sarawak units were disbanded as their military commitment did not extend beyond the state borders.  However several Volunteer and Ranger officers and senior ranks chose to fight on with the Battalion, as did two Rangers, a Sea Dyak named Lancelot and a Malay named Suhail Ali.  All these men from Sarawak who stayed and fought with the Punjabis were extremely useful because of their intimate knowledge of Borneo; sadly fate was not destined to be kind to many of them.  The wounded, sick and women and children were sent on to Sanggau near the Dutch airbase Singkawan II, escorted by those Volunteers who chose to fight.  The strength of Sarfor was now seventeen British officers, fourteen Indian officers and 790 men.  These numbers included the Royal Engineers, Indian Medical Service and RAF personnel who had been attached to the Battalion in Kuching, plus the remaining local state personnel.

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[1] Lieutenant - General Arthur Ernest Percival CB DSO OBE MC OStJ DL
[2] The Dutch (now Indonesian) part of Borneo is known as Kalimantan.
[3]Modern Malaysia consists of thirteen states and three ‘federal territories.’ Labuan is one of the latter. .
[4] After World War II Britain took over the administration of North Borneo and Sarawak, and they are now states of Malaysia. Together with Labuan, they are known collectively as ‘East Malaysia’ as opposed to the eleven states and two federal territories of ‘Mainland Malaysia.’
[5] Captain James was later taken prisoner in Malaya.
[6] Basil Cahusac was last seen by Punjabi personnel when the Kempetai (Japanese Security Police) removed him from a prison cell in Balikpapan Jail, Borneo.  He is buried in Jakarta War Cemetery.
[7] Prior to WW2, Lieut. Burhan-ud-Din, son of the Mehtar or ruler of Chitral, was serving with the 5/10 Baluch Regiment. At the commencement of hostilities he was one of a number pf Indian officers sent for flying training. He served for a short time as a pilot with No.1 Sqn RIAF in the NWF Province. His aptitudes proved to be unsuited to flying and he was returned to the Baluch Regt with whom he was captured in Singapore. He opted to join the INA and became a leading figure before surrendering in Rangoon to elements of the advancing 14th Army.
[8] Major Davis was detained in Singapore and went into captivity.
[9] Now Vietnam.
[10] ‘A’ Company had been tasked with delaying the invasion along the coast whilst the remainder of the Punjabis concentrated to hold the airfield.