Fall of Singapore, bombing of Darwin and murders and rescues in the retreat from Java

Remembering the linked anniversaries of the fall of Singapore, the massacre of Australian nurses and murder of Commissioner Viv Bowden, the massive bombings of Darwin and the loss of Qantas crew and passengers, the fortunate rescue of future Prime Minister John Gorton and the lucky escape of Trade Commissioner Herb Peterson, the subsequent imprisonment of Australia's finest on the death railway ... Geoffrey Gold


                                                                               Photo: (1) Australian troops disembark from HMT Orcades in Batavia, Java 19 Feb 1942.

EVERY YEAR on 15 February, air-raid sirens sound across the Republic of Singapore, commemorating the anniversary of the British surrender of Singapore to the Japanese imperial army on that day in 1942 and the gross massacres of civilians that followed. 

Four days later Australia’s Northern Territory similarly recalls the Japanese air raids on Darwin city on 19 February 1942; the largest single attack ever mounted by a foreign power against Australia.

Both events mark the end of an era when Australia relied on British military power for protection and British embassies and missions for diplomatic representation.

Australia’s first two embassies opened in Tokyo and Washington as late as 1940. Prior to then, the country's independent sources of economic and military intelligence in the neighbouring region were primarily private business executives and the thin network of federal and state trade commissioners.

One of the latter was Vivian G Bowden, a Sydney born, Asian-trade veteran who’d worked for a family silk business in Japan before enlisting in the British Army in the Great War and then managed a business in China. Described as "cultured, practical," he had published two novels (as 'Vivian Gordon'), The Skipper and Rumfy (London, 1929, 1930), which were serialized in Blackwood's Magazine.

He was recruited to establish an Australian trade (Austrade) office in Shanghai in 1935, just 18 months before Japan’s declaration of war on China. Japan’s subsequent invasion caused the closure of the office in 1940 and Bowden was relocated to Singapore as Australian Commissioner. From there he warned the Australian government of the worsening military situation and the inadequacy of Singapore’s defences.

On 9 February 1942, the day before the Japanese forces landed on Singapore, he reported to Canberra that he could leave immediately on a cargo ship; however he was instructed to stay longer at his post as Australia’s senior civilian official otherwise the Australian Government “would be deprived of independent information and effect on morale would be bad”.

On 13 February Bowden cabled to his Prime Minister in Australia: "Except as a fortress and battle field Singapore has ceased to exist."

The next day, just before the British surrender, he and two Austrade colleagues escaped on a small boat to Sumatra where they were intercepted by Japanese patrols and forced to land on Bangka island in the Netherlands East Indies (NEI), now Indonesia.

On 16 February,  22 Australian nurses and a number of soldiers in their care who had survived the bombing of their boat fleeing Singapore, were rounded up by Japanese soldiers on Bangka Island and most murdered in cold blood. 

On 17 February, at Muntock, Commissioner Bowden tried to explain his diplomatic status but was beaten by Japanese guards and taken outside. According to later reports, he was shot after being forced to dig his own grave. Bowden was survived by his wife Dorothy, two daughters and son Ivor who later joined the Australian foreign service and served as ambassador to Iran and Pakistan.

                 (2)  Australian Commissioner to Singapore, Vivian G Bowden; (3) Australian Trade Commissioner to Batavia, Herbert Peterson and his wife. (4) HMAS Ballarat

Far to the east, Japanese forces had overrun Borneo, the Celebes (Sulawesi) and Ambon and were preparing to invade Timor. 

To counter the Allied military build-up in Australia's north, the Japanese conducted a massive air attack on Darwin in the morning of 19 February using four aircraft carriers which had participated in their December 1941 surprise attack on the USA's fleet in Pearl Habour - Akagi, Kaga, Hiryū, and Sōryū - and from land bases in Ambon and Kendari. 

The number of bombs dropped on Darwin that day reportedly exceeded those dropped on Pearl Harbor.

Meanwhile, on Java island, Australia’s then Trade Commissioner to NEI, Herbert Peterson, had moved his Austrade office from Batavia (now Jakarta) to the inland city of Bandung. His wife was safely back in Australia but he had already lost one son, killed while serving in Australian military airborne operations, and another was a POW in Italy.

Peterson had been appointed Australia’s second trade commissioner to Batavia in 1937 after earlier federal government positions in military and intelligence service and foreign affairs. His CV also included time as translator to the Australian delegation to the League of Nations and appointments as private secretary to both the Governor-General and Prime Minister.

As the Japanese victories on land and sea mounted, Peterson visited Australian women and children in Bandung. He had authority to pay expenses for evacuation but found that all "had sufficient funds."  He later reported that the only Australian women and children left in Java "were those who refused to leave their British or Dutch husbands and fathers."

Austrade’s local staff destroyed sensitive Trade Commission documents and hid the rest, closed the Bandung office and disbursed before the coming Japanese occupation.

On 28 February, some 25,000 local soldiers of the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army (KNIL), supported by about 5,500 British, 3,000 Australians (the lightly equipped Blackforce infantry brigade), and 750 Americans (a Texas National Guard unit attached to Blackforce), met the Japanese invasion of Java at Bantam Bay/Merak and Eretan Wetan (West Java) and at Kragan (East Java).

That day the last two civilian Qantas flying boats moored at Cilacap port on the south coast of Central Java made their final flight, full of civilian refugees, to Broome in Western Australia. Unfortunately the second aircraft, the Circe, did not arrive and was lost at sea, presumed shot down by Japanese aircraft. Its four Qantas staff, Captain William Purton, First Officer Mervyn Bateman, Radio Operator Herbert Oates, and Purser James Hogan, were accompanied by 16 Dutch nationals.

Peterson was "fortunate enough" to meet up with Captain Henry Steel, a British officer - and most recently acting director of military public relations in fallen Singapore - who had "commandeered a USA motor car" somewhere in West Java.

On 3 March, the two drove all night from Bandung to Cilacap where they boarded a small, 1,200 ton Dutch freighter with other diplomats (including the British Consul-General, staff and families) and 2,000 others. The ships engine-room and stokehold crew "were insufficient and it was necessary for all the passengers to assist in stoking and trimming." On the voyage south to Fremantle the ship was twice attacked but the "torpedoes missed."

Their naval escort, HMAS Ballarat was the very last allied vessel to leave Cilacap. Only three weeks prior, on 14 February she had rescued 213 survivors from the British vessel Derrymore, torpedoed the day before north-west of Batavia. Among those rescued was Flying Officer John Grey Gorton RAAF, who was later to become Prime Minister of Australia.

At 9 am, on 8 March 1942, the Commander-in-Chief of Allied forces, Lieutenant General Ter Poorten, announced the surrender of his KNIL colonial forces in Java to Imperial Japan.

On 12 March, the senior British, Australian and American commanders were summoned to Bandung where their formal instrument of surrender was signed in the presence of the Japanese commander, Lieutenant-General Masao Maruyama, who promised them the rights of the Geneva Convention for the protection of prisoners of war.

The Australian troops were imprisoned in several camps in Java, particularly Bandung camp, under Lieutenant Colonel E E “Weary” Dunlop. In October 1942 this group and others were moved to Makasura, near Batavia. In January 1943, as part of the 900-strong Dunlop Force, the prisoners were transported from Java to Konyu, Thailand. 

Other Australians captured on Timor (from 2/40th Infantry Battalion, a component of Sparrow Force) were transferred to POW camps in Java and Singapore, and then to Thailand, Japan and elsewhere.

Of the 22,376 Australians who became prisoners of war of the Japanese in south-east Asia during WW2 - the biggest group being the 15,000 Australian military surrendered to the Japanese in Singapore - 8,031 died in captivity. 

Of the 9,500 Australian POWs transported to the Burma-Thailand border, some 2,646 died labouring  on the construction of the infamous death railway line.