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The Japanese Invasion of Ambon Island, January 1942

With Rabual, Kendari, and Balikpapan under Japanese occupation the next enemy objective was Ambon, initially planned for the 6 February now advanced its place on the timetable. As a consequence on the outcome of talks between Australia and Netherlands East Indies staffs on 17 December 2/21 Battalion landed at Ambon joining part of No.13 Squadron RAAF, Hudson bombers, who had been there since the 7th of December. Brigadier E.F. Lind reported that the forces were inadequately armed for their tasks and that a military liaison officer should be appointed to the main Dutch headquarters at Bandung.

  The map of the Dutch East Indies 1941-1942
The map is courtesy of Graham Donaldson

On 5 December the Netherlands East Indies government asked Australia in accordance with the agreements, to send aircraft to Ambon and Timor. The Australian War Cabinet had agreed and at dawn on the 7 December two flights of Hudson bombers, No.13 Squadron RAAF, flew to Laha Airfield at Ambon and one flight, No.12 Squadron RAAF, to Koepang. That day Brigadier E.F. Lind recieved orders to deploy 2/21 Battalion (Gull Force) on Ambon and the 2/40 Battalion, including 2/2 Independent Company, (Sparrow Force) to Timor and the task forces became detached formations under direct command of Army Headquarters, Melbourne, Australia. The brigade HQ, 2/4 Pioneer Battalion, the 2/14 Field Regiment and other ancillary brigade assets remained in the Northern Territory reinforced by militia units from the south. The third flight of No.13 RAAF Squadron landed at Namlea airfield on Buru Island, near Ambon at the end of December, then went to Babo, Dutch New Guinea. Its place at Namlea was taken by a flight of No.2 Squadron RAAF coming from Timor.

Gull Force under Colonel L.N. Roach, 2/21 Battalion, plus a detachment of anti-tank artillery, engineers, Bren-gun carriers and other arms and services. Roach continually asked for more artillery – 25pdrs, mortars, ack-ack and anti-tank guns – "if available" plus more additional infantry companies and more automatic weapons. Laha airfield is situated on the south coast of the Hitu Peninsula, about half way along the north shore of the Bay of Ambon, and there was a newly constructed aircraft landing ground on the northern extremity of the island at Liang.

The island was one of the Portuguese settlements founded in 1521, taken over by the Dutch in 1605, alternating between British and Dutch administration due to war and peace, until in 1814 restored to the Dutch after the Napoleonic Wars and in those days of old it was important chiefly as the European commerce centre of the spice trade.

The Dutch garrison of the Molucco Archipelago had been reinforced from Java and by the end of December the KNIL force commanded by Dutch Lt-Col J.R.L. Kapitz, numbering 2,800 men, consisted of several small companies of Indonesian troops officered by Dutchmen. The companies were under strength, lacked the full complement of officers and NCO's. Dutch Lt-Col Kapitz became commander of all allied forces on Ambon and of the 1,170 Australian troops of Gull Force - including 'C Troop 18th Anti-Tank Battery, one section 2/11 Field Company, detachment 23rd Brigade Signal Section, unit of 2/12 Field Ambulance, 23rd Dental Unit, 104th LAD and other small formations plus one officer and sixteen ranks arrived 20 January.

The principal fortifications were at Paso, also adjacent to the town of Ambon on the Laitimor Peninsula at Bennet was a battery of guns operated by Dutch permanent artillerymen and was emplaced in concrete with accommodation, underground telephone system and covered the Bay of Ambon and Laha airfield. The aircraft based there were American and Netherlands Navy flying-boats, some Dutch bombers, two fighters and Hudson bombers of No.13 Squadron RAAF. By mid December the flying boats were stationed at Namlea. Mines had been laid to hamper enemy sea movement into the bay and off the east coast of Laitimor Peninsula towards Paso and other important positions and objectives. The only naval vessels were two motorboats requisitioned from the harbourmaster.

On the night 6 January seven Japanese flying boats dropped thirty-three bombs on three targets, two Hudson bombers, a Brewster Buffalo fighter and workshop facilities at Laha airfield were damaged with three native civilians killed.

Tantui Barracks, Ambon Island

Tantui Barracks on the shores of Ambon Bay, where the Australians were billeted with the Dutch and also where the Japanese kept them as POWs.

Roach's protests of inadequate forces for the defence of Ambon caused him to be replaced by Major Scott, a veteran of Gallipoli, an outstanding company commander in France and who was at one time a captain commanding a battalion. He served in the militia in the years between the wars and later was appointed as a staff officer in Melbourne in July 1940. On 10 January KNIL Lt-Col Kapitz offered the Australians a choice of sectors to defend, so the Laha airfield, where 'C Company was stationed since arrival, and the south of the town on Laitimor Peninsula in the vicinity of mount Nona in the southwest were accepted. An Australian rifle section with engineers and Bren-carriers was put as an outpost at Latuhalat near the south tip of the peninsula. Eri on the bay shore was to be defended by a steep and lengthy line by 'A Company, Major Westly, from 'B Company a platoon was at Cape Batuanjut, Battalion HQ and 'D Company, Captain Newnham, were to hold a line on the Nona Plateau to the beach at Amahusu between the towns of Eri and Ambon. Also 'C Company under Captain Watchorn and 'B Company less one platoon, Captain Perry, were defending Laha airfield, which was Australia's main responsibility. And at Laha were about 300 troops of the Dutch garrison with two Bofors anti-aircraft guns. The view of the Dutch command was that the a Japanese landing on the steep, jungle-covered south coast of Laitimor Peninsula was impracticable, and Laha was inaccessible by inland routes. An indentation in the Bay of Baguala was likely.

The Dutch positions and the Australian deployment on Laitimor were to prevent the Japanese from forming a bridgehead in the Ambon Bay and to defend the approaches to the town of Ambon and Paso. In the meantime, owing part to neglect of precautions, dysentery and malaria were taking their toll on the Australians. Also Roach had been recalled and the new commander of Gull Force, Scott, had arrived on the 16 January at a critical time in the Japanese thrust south. Fortunately Major Macrae, second-in-command, was a capable and tactful officer and held in high regards by the men and officers of the Australian force.

Before the Japanese landings on Menado and Tarakan an enemy air raid was launched against Ambon. Thereafter Japanese air attacks increased, both Dutch fighters were shot down on 15 January. On the 16 January in a daylight raid some of the Hudsons were destroyed plus ground casualties inflicted. The flying boat base had been made useless by bombing too, and the Dutch and American naval planes withdrew.

On the day of the Japanese landing at Kendari, 24 January, the carriers Soryu and Hiryu attacked Ambon with thirty-five aircraft. Two other carriers, Shokaku and Zuikaku, of the carrier Fleet were supporting the assault on Rabual.

The last few remaining serviceable Hudsons evacuated after 28 January, soon no air or naval support would remain for the defence of Ambon. An estimated five warships and seventeen transports, with five unidentified vessels, was reported by Australian airmen on the 29 January. On Dutch orders the Australian engineers destroyed naval oil reserves, bomb dumps, hangers and other equipment at Laha, and sought to make the airfield unusable. Ships were sighted before dusk off the coast of Laitimor Peninsula. During the night of 30 January two Japanese landings were launched, by marines at Hitu-Iama and by an army regiment on the southern coast of Laitimor. The defenders were at a disadvantage to contest the landings, only a few Dutch detachments were in the area. At Hitu-Iama on the north coast the defending infantry and machine-gun crews were quickly overwhelmed and bridges on the road leading to Paso were left intact allowing the Japanese to speedily advance south across the Hitu Peninsula.

Other landings occurred around Hutumori, here the Japanese split westward to the town, and northward to Paso using captured Ambonese compelled to act as guides. The Japanese passed through a gap in the south caused by the dispatch of a platoon to resist the attack on Batugong that fell on 31 January. Dutch Lt-Col Kapitz, and the commander of the Paso position, KNIL Major H.H.L. Tieland, lost communications by the efficiency of the Japanese cutting the lines, nor did the Dutch have radio communications, and the general view of the situation was total confusion. The Dutch HQ moved to near Halong and the Japanese pressure from the north was another unexpected eventuality.

KNIL artillery position, Dutch East Indies 1941-1942

The KNIL Army Bofors 75mm Model 1934 howitzer is ready for action in the Dutch East Indies during 1941. The Japanese Army overwhelmed this colony during early 1942 and took over many of these howitzers for their own local use until the end of the war.

The Australians had received from the Dutch HQ a report that Japanese troops had landed on the southeast coast of the Laitimor Peninsula. An Ambonese company under KNIL Captain E.P. Bouman was ordered from Eri to the threat from the east at Kudamati.

By the 2 February the defenders had been pushed down upon the coastline of the bay with Japanese naval ships and seaplanes machine-gunning the roads and it became apparent that officers and men were exhausted from continual fighting. Troops would fall asleep as soon as they stopped moving and one officer had only four hours sleep since Thursday, the 29 January, so talk of offensive aggressive actions were disregarded. Capitulation was discussed, Macrae opposed it, as negligible casualties had been inflicted on the Australians. Nor did they want to be tricked into surrendering as the Dutch were around Paso, and also the troops around Eri had not joined the battle yet.

On the morning of 3 February the Japanese flag could be seen over Laha and Scott concluded that if he stayed in this position he would be bombed and strafed, he therefore dispatched the battalion medical officer, Captain Aitken, to obtain terms of surrender with the enemy.

Kapitz had given a Dutch officer a note bearing the news that the Dutch had surrendered on 1 February but by the time this message reached Scott he had negotiated the capitulation of his own force. All weapons were destroyed, ammunition was buried, grenades made useless and defeat was more bitter by being photographed by a Japanese cinematographer as they came into captivity. The Japanese in the capture of Dutch Lt-Col Kapitz and his staff came into the possession of details of the positions occupied by the defending forces, the strength of the island's defenders and the situation of land and sea minefields, facilitating the entry of Japanese warships into the bay and the assaults on the southern defences by enemy land, sea and air forces.

The attack on Laha came late in the afternoon of 31 January by an advance party from the enemy landings at Hitu-Iama. The Japanese were repulsed by the outnumbered platoon of Australians on the north east of the airfield and the next day, as the Japanese were being reinforced by troops infiltrating past Paso, mortar and machine-gun fire was exchanged.

A combined concentrated enemy attack commenced on the 2 February by troops, dive-bombers, fighter planes, warships and artillery. The next day the Japanese had occupied the airfield. The fighting was over. In defence of Ambon on the Laitimor Peninsula - the main part of the Australian Gull Force had lost 15 killed. In addition 309 officers and men who were at Laha were killed in action or killed by the Japanese in mass executions which took place on 6 February and between 15 February to 20 February. Japanese witnesses said the executions were a reprisal for loss off life caused when a Japanese minesweeper W 9 struck a Dutch mine in the Bay of Ambon on the 2 February. On this same occasion two other minesweepers W 11 and W 12 were damaged.

The Japanese invasion force consisted mainly of 228th Infantry Regiment, 38th Infantry Division, which had taken part in the assault on Hong Kong against a British and Canadian garrison. Commanded by Major-General Takeo Ito, the task force spent nine days training at Davao City in the Philippines. The 1st Kure SNLF, about 820 strong, was added to Ito's formation plus an army unit for the landing at Hitu-Iama. From this north coast landing the Japanese reached Binnen Bay by midday 31 January and suffered heavy loses in the attack on Laha airfield on 2 February. The attack on Laha was "like fighting against the blast furnace"…. "literally going over the bodies of dead comrades, and hacking with blood and death in the midst of the enemy"…. "a battle during which took place heroism as to make the gods weep" as reported by one of the Japanese commanders to Admiral Yamamoto. A Japanese prisoner of war in 1945 later testified that when surrender came at Laha there remained 150 Australians, two or three Dutchmen and a few natives, their resistance was not despised. The main Japanese force, with horses and bicycles, landed unopposed at Hutumor according to Ito's plan. Then thrusting along narrow tracks quickly overcoming opposition until encountering the Australian defence positions south and southwest of the town. The speedy defeat of the Dutch was due in part to failure of communications.

Order of battle for Dutch, Australian and Japanese Army

Koninklijk Nederlands Indisch Leger (KNIL Army)

Local Command "Molukken", commander was KNIL Lieutenant Colonel J.R.L. Kapitz, with a headquarters in Halong.
The Dutch garrison on the island numbered approximately 2,800 men. The garrison had following units:
• KNIL Molukken Garrison Battalion with 4 armoured cars in Halong
• Molukken Militie Battalion (ca. 300 men under training)
• AA Machine-Gun Detachment in Nona
• RK Infantry Company
• RK Infantry Company
• Mobile Auxiliary First Aid Platoon
• Engineer Platoon
• Coastal Artillery Detachment (4 Ku. and Ld. Artillery)
• AA Battery (4 x 40mm guns) in Halong
• AA Machine-Gun Detachment in Halong
• Artillery Battery (4 x 75mm guns) in Laha
• Anti-Tank Battery (4 x 37mm guns) in Laha
• Anti-Aircraft Battery (4 x 75mm guns) in Laha
• Anti-Aircraft Battery (4 x 40mm guns) in Laha
• Anti-Aircraft Machine-Gun Platoon (AAMG) in Laha
• Anti-Aircraft Battery (AAMG) in Laha

Note The armoured cars are open-topped motor cars fitted with armoured plates ("Overvalwagens").

Imperial Australian Army
Australian troops on the island numbered approximately 1,170 men. Australian Commander was Colonel L.N. Roach, who was replaced by Major Scott.
Gull Force
• 2/21 AIF Battalion
• C Troop 18th Anti-Tank Battery
• one section of 2/11 Field Company
• detachment of 23rd Brigade Signal Section
• unit of 2/12 Field Ambulance
• 23rd Dental Unit
• 104th LAD (Light Aid Detachment)
• No.13 RAAF Squadron with 9 Lockheed Hudson II at Laha airfield
• flight of No.13 RAAF Squadron with 3 Lockheed Hudson II at Namlea airfield, Buru Island (later replaced by a flight of No.2 RAAF Squadron).

Militaire Luchtvaart, KNIL (Air Force)
IVe Vliegtuiggroep (IVth Group)
• 2-V1.G. IV (Fighter Detachment) with 4 B-339D fighter planes (one crashed), commanded by KNIL Air Force 1st Lieutenant F.E. Broers
The commander of all Dutch air force units on the island was KNIL Air Force Major C.J.J.M. Waltmann, whose headquarters was at Laha airfield.
On Ambon Island (Laha Air Base) was stationed a patrol of 4 Dutch Brewster Buffalo fighters. In reality the patrol at Ambon consisted only of 2 Brewster Buffalos, because during the flight from Java to Ambon one plane crashed, while the second crashed in a forced landing. On 13 January 1942 both Brewster Buffalos piloted by Lt. Broers and Sgt. Blans attacked a flight of 10 Japanese Navy Zeros. The Buffalo fighter of Lt. Broers was shot up almost immediately, but still he continued to fight with his burning plane. When the plane went uncontrollable, he managed to save himself by parachute. He was badly burned. Meanwhile Sgt. Blans was also shot down. He also managed to save himself by parachute. He also survived, but was badly wounded. On Laha Air Base was also stationed No.13 Squadron RAAF with a couple of Lockheed Hudson light bombers. On Christmas Eve ten American Navy PBY Catalinas of US Navy Patrol Wing 10 arrived at Halong and based with the USN seaplane tender Heron, coordinating operations with Area Combined HQ.

Zeemacht Nederlands-IndiŽ (Royal Dutch Navy)
On Ambon Island there was Commandement Maritieme Middelen Ambon which was under command of Navy (Reserve) Commander J.J. Jager. His headquarters on Amboina Island had also Navy Captain A.M. Hekking, the reconnaissance commander of the eastern part of the Dutch East Indies. On Ambon Island were stationed some Dutch navy vessels:
- minelayer Gouden Leeuw (1,291t and 150 mines) under command of Lt.Cdr. E.C.J. van der Horst. It left Ambon Island in January 1942, so when the Japanese attacked there were no Dutch navy vessels, except for:
- merchant coastal ship small tanker Jan Carstensz (164t)
- CKM coastal ship Kwandang (60t)
- CKM coastal ship Singkil (70t)

Nihon Rikugun (Imperial Japanese Army)
• 228th Infantry Regiment of the Japanese 38th Infantry Division

Imperial Japanese Special Naval Landing Force
• Kure 1st Special Naval Landing Force under command of Rear-Admiral Kouichiro Hatakeyama. The force consisted of three rifle companies and one machine-gun company. Total strength 820 men. The Kure 1st Special Naval Landing Force was concentrated at Davao, Phillipines and intended for the capture of Ambon Island.

Teikoku Kaigun (Imperial Japanese Navy)
The Eastern Force came under the command of Vice-Admiral Ibo Takahashi and was intended for the landings at Menado, Kendari, Ambon, Makassar, Timor and Bali.
The convoy for Ambon Island numbered 10 transport ships carrying the Kure 1st Special Naval Landing Force and the 228th Infantry Regiment. Convoy escort was under command of Rear-Admiral Raizo Tanaka in the light cruiser Jintsu (flagship) and the invasion convoy was escorted by:
2nd Destroyer Flotilla
• 8th Destroyer Division
destroyers- Asashio, Oshio, Arashio, Michishio
• 15th Destroyer Division
destroyers- Natsushio, Kuroshio, Oyashio, Hayashio
• 16th Destroyer Division
destroyers- Amatsukaze, Hatsukaze, Yukikaze, Tokitsukaze
•21st Minesweeper Division
minesweepers- W 7, W 8, W 9, W 11, W 12
• 1st Submarine-chaser Division
submarine-chasers- Ch 1, Ch 2, Ch 3

Air Group was under command of Rear-Admiral Ruitaro Fujita.
• 11th Seaplane Tender Division
seaplane tender Mizuho
seaplane tender Chitose
patrol boats- P 34, P 39

Covering Force was under command of Rear-Admiral Takeo Takagi.
• 5th Cruiser Squadron
heavy cruisers- Nachi (flagship), Haguro and destroyer Ikazuchi
• 7th Destroyer Division
destroyers- Ushio, Sazanami

Ambon Island of Mist: 2/21st Battalion AIF (Gull Force) Prisoners of War 1941-45 by Courtney T. Harrison
The Rising Sun in the Spice Islands : A History of Ambon during the Japanese Occupation by Richard Chauvel

Bibliography . Article List . Geographic Names
Forgotten Campaign: The Dutch East Indies Campaign 1941-1942
Copyright © Klemen. L. 1999-2000