World War II Pacific Island Territories: Borneo


Figure 1.-- The Japanese seized Borneo in the beginning phase of the Pacific War (December 1941). Thix showed just how important the oil was to them. The War then swirled around the Island and the attrocities that the Japanese were commiting on the Island. The fighting in Burma to the west raged away, but the British held on in India. And the Nationalits held on in China. The Americans and Australias frove up the coast of New Guinea to the east. To the north, the Americans surged ahead in the Central Pacigic, liberating the Philippines. Finally the Australians with New Guinea secured, began to move gainst Japanese held areas to their north. An Australian force landed on Tarakan launching the Borneo campaign (May 1945). The press caption here read, "Unexpected visitors: Fear and concern etched in her face, a native woman carrying her child looks into the face of the Traakan, Borneo invaders , on P-Day, May 1, 1945. The baby appears unperturned. Australian infantrymen, were put ashore by U.S, Navy amphibious units. Source: U.S, Navy photo.

Borneo is the third largest island in the world. At the time of World War II, this huge island was divivided between the British and Dutch. This complicates our Pacific war discussion which is generally structured around countries.So this page is helpful to focus on what happened on the island. The Dutch controlled most of the island, the British the northeast coast. The island is located at the center of maritime Southeast Asia and the Dutch portion of the island is today the central portion of Indonesia. Soon after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese invaded Borneo. This largely primitive island was actually a primary objective of the Japanese war effort because of the oil resources that both the British and Dutch were developing. The Japanese landed first on the west coast near Miri in Sarawak (mid-December 1941). The Japanese completed the conquest when they seized Balikpapan in the Dutch portion of Borneo along the eastern coast (January 23, 1942). The Japanese did not penetrate into the jungle interior, but occupied the coastal area and the oil fields. One of the first actions they took was to intern the European officials. The missionaries working with the local people were targeted. The Japanesein many cases simplly killed them rather than kinterning them--meaning whole families, including the women and children. This horified the indegenous people like the Dyaks who had come to love the missionaries. The Dyaks and other tribal people were also outraged by the Japanese stealing their food and forcing themselves on their women. The Japanese decimated many local populations as well as Malay intellectuals. They eliminated the Malay Sultanate of Sambas in Kalimantan. The Japanese directly or indicrectly killed an estimated 0.1 million local people during the ocupation. The British eventually inserted a small Z Force unit to organize the tribal people so they could resist the Japanese (January 1945). Borneo had become a major source of oil for the Japanese who had virtually no domestic oil resources. After the Allied offensive reversed the Japnese onslaught, the oil instalations became a target for American bombers. The American submarine campaign also became increasingly effective (1943). Eventually it became almost impossible for the Japanese to get the oil to Japan, although oil tankers were able to make runs to Singapore. This is why by 1943 much of the Imperial Fleet was based in Singapore and not the Home Islands. An Australian force landed along the northeast coast at Tarakan (May 1945).

The Island

Borneo is the third largest island in the world, some 287,000 square miles. The island off the Malay coast was once part of Asia before sea levels fell. It has a mountaneous center. The highest point is Mount Kinabalu in Sabah, an elevation reaching 4,095 meters. At the time of World War II, there were no roads into the interior. Communication and commerce was by riverine transport. This huge island had been divivided between the British and Dutch whih were expanding their colonial presence in the area. The Dutch controlled most of the island, the British the northeast coast. The island is located at the center of maritime Southeast Asia and the Dutch portion of the island is today the central portion of Indonesia. At the time of World War II, the Brtish area to the west was divided into three colonial depedencies. Sabah and Sarawak are now part of Malaysia. A third small region was the sultanate of Brunei, now an oil-rich independent country. The rest of Borneo, including most of the interior was part of the Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia. The Dutch began to establish control over the East Indies (16th centuty). This included Borneo, but it was a a huge island of only limited interest. They had only a few coastal trading posts at the time that the British began to tke an interest in the island. A major concern was the Malay and Sea Dayak pirates who had bases in Borneo. They were preying on maritime shipping in the waters between Singapore and China. British colonial involvement began when the British and Dutch governments negotiated the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824 to regularize trading ports and estanlish spheres of influence. This British and Dutch-influenced areas developed on the island. British influence increase when the Sultanate of Brunei granted a large area in Sarawak to the English adventurer James Brooke (1842). It was a reward for assistance in quelling a rebellion. Brooke proceeded to establish the Kingdom of Sarawak set himself up as rajah after after paying a tribute to the Sultan. He thus created a monarchyand ruling dynasty. He, his nephew, and great-nephew ruled Sarawak for 100 years, becoming known as the White Rajahs. The British North Borneo Company acquired much of North Borneo which came to be called Sabah (1882).

Japanese Invasion (January-February 1942)

The political division of the island complicates our Pacific war discussion which is generally structured around countries.So this page is helpful to focus on what happened on the island. Soon after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese invaded Borneo. This largely primitive island was actually a primary objective of the Japanese war effort because of the oil resources that both the British and Dutch were developing. The Japanese landed first on the west coast near Miri in Sarawak (mid-December 1941). The Japanese completed the conquest when they seized Balikpapan in the Dutch portion of Borneo along the eastern coast (January 23, 1942).

Occupation (1942-45)

The Japanese did not penetrate into the jungle interior, but occupied the coastal area and the oil fields. One of the first actions they took was to intern the European officials. The missionaries working with the local people were targeted. The Japanesein many cases simplly killed them rather than kinterning them--meaning whole families, including the women and children. This horified the indegenous people like the Dyaks who had come to love the missionaries. The Dyaks and other tribal people were also outraged by the Japanese stealing their food and forcing themselves on their women. The Japanese decimated many local populations as well as Malay intellectuals. They eliminated the Malay Sultanate of Sambas in Kalimantan. The Japanese directly or indicrectly killed an estimated 0.1 million local people during the ocupation.

Resistance

The British eventually inserted a small Z Force unit to organize the tribal people so they could resist the Japanese (January 1945).

Oil

Coal had been the primary fuel of the 19th century. At the end of the centurty, forward thinkiners in Britain and Germany began to see the advantages that oil offered, thinking primarily about naval warfare. Neither country had domestic sources of oil. The British did have colonies and relationships with foreign principalities in oil rich areas. The Germans hoped to obrain oil through its relations with the Ottoman Empire and a Berlin to Baghdad Railway. This never panned out, but the British were able to obtain oil in America and Persia (Iran). And they began drilling in many other areas. One of those areas was northern Borneo. The Dutch began drilling as well just before World War I. This continued after the War and during the 1930s production began in both the British and Dutch areas of Borneo. The Japanese seizure of southern French Indochina provided as one look at a map would tell provided air and naval bases pointed at both Malaya and Borneo as well as the Philippines. And American Magic code breakers left no doubt about Japanese intentions. The result was the American oil embargo (July 1941). Japan had virtually no domestic oil resources and thus set militrty's clock ticking. Without American oil, Japan would literally run out of oil in about 18 months. Borneo was part of the Japanese offensive that followed their successful carrier attack on Pearl Harbor (December 1941). The Japanese seizure of Borneo gave them control over important oil fields for the first time. Seizing these oil resources had been a major reason that Japan launched the Pacific War and a key component of their coveted Southern Resource Zone. Seizing the oil fields and getting the oil back to the war industries of the Home Islands were two very different matters. The British and Dutch destroyed key infrastructire. After the U.S. Navy and Marines stopped the Japanese onslaught, the oil instalations became a target for American bombers. The American submarine campaign also became increasingly effective (1943). The Japanese Maru fleet was largely destroyed by the submarines and other Pacific fleet activity. Eventually it became almost impossible for the Japanese to get the oil back to the Home Islands, although oil tankers were able to make runs to Singapore. This is why by 1943 much of the Imperial Fleet was based in Singapore and not the Home Islands.

Liberation (May-July 1945)

Finally the Allies with New Guinea secured and the major Philippines islands liberated, began to move gainst Japanese held areas in the southwestern Pacific. The Allies decided to move first against lightly-populated Borneo rather than the heavily populated islands at the heart of the Dutch East Indies. The initial plan was for the conquest of the entire Dutch East Indies (DEI), but the Japanese surrendered before the final stages of the campaign needed to be launched. Operation Montclair was the overall Allied plan desugned to destroy Japanese forces in the southwest Pacific and reoccupy the the southern Philippines, the Netherlands East Indies, and British North Borneo (including the Kingdoms of Sarawak and Brunei). The Philippines operations were conducted by American and Filipino forces. The actions to the southwest in British and Dutch colonial areas were named Operation Oboe with landing forces composed primarily of Australian infantry. While Oboe. Borneo became the primary focus of the campaign primarily because of the oil resources--the primary reason the Japanese had invaded in 1942. By 1945 because of the Allied submarine campaign and subsequent naval operations, no oil was getting through to the Home Islands. The Allies saw, hoever, the oil as important to help fuel their operations. It should be rembered that it was believed that the War would extend into 1946. Very few people (including Vice Presudent Trumab knew about th Manhttan Project and this include all but a small number of military planners. The Oboe Borneo campaign was largely conductd by Australian infantry, but the United States provided vital air and naval support. It would prove to be the final important Allied campaign in the Southwest Pacific Area. The campaign was essentially a series of amphibious landings (May 1 - July 21, 1945). The Oboe landing force was the Australian I Corps commanded by Lieutenant General Leslie Morshead. Allied naval and air forces supported the landings. The primary naval force was the U.S. 7th Fleet commanded by Admiral Thomas Kinkaid. Air support was provided by the Australian First Tactical Air Force and the U.S. Thirteenth Air Force. There were opposed by two Japanese forces. The Imperial Japanese Navy and Army forces in southern and eastern Borneo were commanded by Vice-Admiral Michiaki Kamada. The Thirty-Seventh Army led by Lieutenant-General Baba Masao resisted in the north. Borneo is a huge island with only priitive transport and communications infrastructure. And the Japanese had only limited logistical capability even before the Allies invasion. Thus the Japanese resistance was not coordinated. Oboe 1 was the first action of the Borneo campaign. It was an assault on the small island of Tarakan off the northeast coast of Borneo (May 1). The goal here was to secure an air strip for the subsequent Oboe operations. The Australians heavily outnumbered the Japanese garrison. It was not, howevr, an easy fight. The Australians suffered narly a thousand casualties. Most of the 2,200 garrison Japanese fought to the death, but some 250 did surrender--more than was the case in most campaigns. The photograph here was taken on Tarakan (fugure 1). An Oboe 6 party was inserted into Kimanis Bay, British North Borneo (May 29). This was followed with simultaneous assaults on the island of Labuan and the coast of Brunei, in the north west of Borneo (June 10). This was followed by assaults on Japanese positions around Weston on the north-eastern part of Brunei Bay (June 17). Oboe 3 was the effort to retakle Brunei and Sabah in northern Borneo. The Australians landed at Brunei Bay (June 10) which was followed up by subseunt labdings in he area. This was the most important oil producing area of Borneo and was the area most heavily defended by the Japanese. The towns were in Autralian hands after some heavy engagements (July), but there were sporadic incidentsin rural reas until the Japanese surrender. Oboe 3 is commpnly called the Battle of North Borneo and led to retaking both Brunei anf Sabah. The Japanese retreated into the jungle and the Australians did not agressively persue them to limit casualties. Sporadic fighting continued until theJpanese surrender (August 15). Oboe 2 to seize Balikpapan in southeastern Borneo was launched (July 1). It would prove to be the last major Allied amphibious assault of World War II occurred at Balikpapan (July 1). Tt was also the the last campaigns launched by Australian forces. Oboe 4 and 5 were never acarried out. Oboe 4 was to had targeted Surabaya or Batavia (Jakarta). Oboe 5 targeted the eastern DEI. The Borneo Oboe campaign was not popular in Australia. Most of the fighting was conducted by Australian infantry and the casualties suffered by them. And the criticism continued after the War. It was described as 'pointless'. Some historians agree. One respected historian writes, "Any rational strategic judgment would have left them to their own devices screened by token allied forces until their nation's defeat enforced their surrender." [Hastings, p. 368.] Of course at the time, no one knew that the Americans with the atomic bomb were about to force a Japanese surrender. Other authors point out that there were some tangiblebl benefits. Seizing Borneo increased the isolation of the substantial Japanese forces on the main DEI islands. Important oil producing areas were secured. And Allied POWs being held in terrible conditions and in danger of execution were saved.

Sources

Hastings, M. Nemesis: The Battle for Japan, 1944-45 (Harper Press: London, 2007).






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Created: 1:03 AM 11/13/2015
Last updated: 2:43 PM 8/9/2017