Java, March 1942: Blackforce and the loss of HMAS Perth - Daniel Minchin

Java, March 1942- 'Blackforce' and the loss of the HMAS Perth

March is the anniversary of the end of the campaign to defend Java, in the Netherlands East Indies (NEI), against the Japanese in World War Two. 

Java was the last of a series of campaigns, beginning with Malaya, during the first three months of the Pacific War in which Australian and Allied forces opposed the Japanese advance.  By late February 1942, Malaya, New Britain, Ambon, Singapore and Timor had fallen to the Japanese and Australian service personnel, including the soldiers of the 8th Division, had fought in all of those campaigns.  Much of the NEI had been occupied by the Japanese, including Bali and parts of Sumatra.  Adjacent Java was then under threat.

Australian troops disembark from HMT Orcades, Batavia, Java 19-05-1942. Australian War Memorial 011779/29.

On 19 February 1942, four days after the fall of Singapore, and on the day Darwin was bombed by a Naval aviation fleet (the same one that had attacked Pearl Harbour), Australian troops disembarked in Java from the troopship Orcades, having been diverted on their return journey to Australia from the Middle East.  Most of them had seen action in he Middle East, including members of the 2/3rd Machine Gun Battalion and 2/2nd Pioneer Battalion that had fought in Syria, and the 2/2nd Casualty Clearing Station (CCS), which had served in the siege of Tobruk.  2/2nd CCS included amongst its officers the surgeon Edward “Weary” Dunlop.

Troops retained to defend the Dutch airfields on Java, Batavia, Java, 19-02-1942. Australian War Memorial 011779/38.

The Australian War Memorial website states, in its summary of the 2/3rd Machine Gun Battalion’s history, that “in what was more a political decision than strategic one, it was decided these divisional support units [the troops from the Orcades] would make a stand on Java. It was a futile gesture.”[1] 

Members of the 2/3 Machine Gun Battalion at Arinem Plantation, Java, 1942. Australian War Memorial 043856.

The commanding officer of the 2/3rd Machine Gun Battalion was Lieutenant-Colonel Arthur Blackburn, who had been awarded the Victoria Cross in World War One. Blackburn was promoted to brigadier and was given command of the Australian troops on Java, numbering approximately 3000, with the force being named “Blackforce”.  Blackforce was also allocated part of an American field artillery battalion and a British tank squadron. 

A number of other Australian troops were also on Java, being reinforcements intended for Malaya or personnel from Singapore.  NEI, British and Indian troops were also on the island, and the Australian troops on Java ultimately came under British and Dutch command. 

Large numbers of Allied air force personnel were on Java, many of whom had been evacuated from Sumatra after the Japanese had landed on that island.  One such unit was No. 1 Squadron of the RAAF, flying Hudson bombers, which had first seen action in Malaya from Day One, when it attacked the Japanese task force off Kota Bahru, and had subsequently flown on operations from a base on Sumatra.   From its new base on Java, the squadron began attacking shipping and oilfields[2]. 

Two Japanese forces were allocated to the capture of Java. 

An allied naval force, which included the Royal Australian Navy’s cruiser HMAS Perth and the US Navy cruiser Houston, fought the Japanese escorting squadron for the Japanese Eastern invasion force in the Battle of the Java Sea, on 27 February 1942, with the loss of 5 allied ships.  The Perth and the Houston survived that battle, but were subsequently unable to fully refuel and re-arm.

Battle of Sunda StraitAWM ART 27557 HMAS Perth in the Battle of the Sunda Strait - Dennis Adams

On the night of 28 February – 1 March 1942, the Japanese began landing on Java.  On that same night, the Perth and the Houston came into contact with the Japanese western invasion force.  During the ensuing Battle of the Sunda Strait, the Perth and Houston were sunk, after sinking four Japanese transport vessels. About 350 of the nearly 700 men on the Perth were lost and the survivors became prisoners of war.

Further Australian sailors were lost in connection with the Java campaign when the sloop HMAS Yarra was sunk in action on 4 March, approximately 500 kilometres south of central Java, while escorting a convoy of three ships away from Java.  Only 13 of the Yarra’s crew of 151 survived.  Another 26 RAN men were lost on the Anking, one of the vessels being escorted by the Yarra, all three of which were sunk in the action.

Last stand of HMAS Yarra

The gallant last stand of HMAS Yarra(II) - Painting courtesy of artist David Marshall. Oil on canvas, 2012. Original on display in HMAS Creswell's Gunroom.

Blackforce troops and RAAF personnel on Java were subjected to Japanese air raids. After Japanese forces landed on the island, Blackforce was in action, particularly at Leuwiliang, suffering approximately 100 killed and wounded in a brief campaign.  C Company of the 2/3 Machine Gun Battalion was at the forefront of the action, losing 7 men killed and 28 wounded, but John Bellair’s history of the Battalion states “[it] was afterwards found that they had killed no less than 200 Japanese”[3].  The 2/2nd Pioneer Battalion killed about 300 of the enemy[4].

The Dutch surrendered on 8 March.  Brigadier Blackburn considered continuing resistance but lack of medical supplies and lack of shelter during the rainy season led to him deciding to capitulate.”[5] The formal surrender of Australian, British and American forces on Java took place on 12 March 1942, and the men of Blackforce went into captivity.

The Australian losses from the Java campaign included over 200 RAAF personnel who became prisoners.  160 were from No.1 Squadron, their planned evacuation by flying-boat failing to eventuate.

Members of Blackforce units were transported to a wide range of locations during captivity.  Places men from the 2/3rd MG Battalion spent time in included Sumatra, Thailand, Japan, Singapore and Manchuria.  258 men from the 2/2nd Pioneer Battalion, and 139 from the 2/3rd MG Battalion died as prisoners, as did over 100 of the Perth survivors. 

Brigadier Arthur Seaforth Blackburn VC, who commanded Australian troops in Java, with General Sir Thomas Blamey, Commander-In-Chief, Allied Land Forces, South West Pacific Area, Melbourne, Vic 18-09-1945. Australian War Memorial 115465.

Arthur Blackburn remained on Java until the end of 1942.  After that, apart from a short period in Singapore, he spent the rest of the war in Taiwan and then Mukden in Manchuria, and survived to return home.

“Weary” Dunlop left Java in January 1943, in charge of a large force of POWs. After a short period in Singapore, he served in POW camps on the Burma Thailand railway and was in Thailand when the war ended.  After the war, Dunlop said of the prisoners in his care “the lads from Java showed fortitude beyond anything I could have believed possible”. [6]

We remember those Australians who died or were taken prisoner during the Java campaign, including those who subsequently died in captivity.

© 2017 Daniel Minchin

[3] John Bellair, From Snow to Jungle: A history of the 2/3rd Australian Machine Gun Battalion, Allen & Unwin Australian Pty Ltd North Sydney, 1987, p.101
[4] Bellair, From Snow to Jungle, p.101 and Andrew Faulkner, Arthur Blackburn, VC: an Australian hero, his men and their two world wars, Wakefield Press Kent Town SA, 2008, p. 326.
[5] Faulkner, Arthur Blackburn, VC, pp.334-5
[6] Quoted in Faulkner, Arthur Blackburn, VC, p.382