The Use of Armoured Vehicles on Borneo, 1941-1942

Both Allied and Japanese forces used few armoured vehicles during the fighting on various places on the island of Borneo. Used piecemeal, they never had a great influence on the outcome of the fighting. They are also seldom mentioned in books, reports or diaries. Most of the information that follows comes from the deeply researched book De Japanse Aanval op Nederlands Indie Deel 2 [1], KNIL Cavalerie 1814-1950 [2] and from an article in the periodical Stabelan.

The allied forces on Borneo had the following AFVs:

  • 2/15 Punjab Regiment: Bren Carriers in the Mortar and MG platoon
  • KNIL at the Singkawang II airfield: 3 light tanks & 2 overvalwagens
  • KNIL Infantry Battalion Infantry No. VII on Tarakan Island: 7 overvalwagens
  • KNIL Infantry Battalion Infantry No. VI at Balikpapan: 3 overvalwagens
  • KNIL garrison at Samarinda: 2 overvalwagens
  • KNIL compagny Stadtswacht at Bandjermasin: 2 overvalwagens

    The Japanese forces used Armoured Vehicles only during the attack on Balikpapan: 8 Type 97 Tankettes of the 56th Infantry Group Tankette Unit.

    tankette Type 97
    Japanese tankette Type 97

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    The 2/16 Punjab was part of SARFOR, a British force whose task was the defence of Sarawak and especially the airfield at Kuching. Like all regular British and Indian infantry battalions, it had a Mortar and Machine Gun Platoon with a theoretical strength of 14 carriers. The vehicles were probably tracked Bren Carriers as stated in [1], but it is not impossible that Indian Wheeled Carriers may have been used as some were in Malaya. When the Japanese Forces landed near Kuching on 24th December 1941, the carriers were with A Company at Pending east of the town of Kuching on the Kuap river and at the airfield south of the town. In the evening, the town had been occupied and the group at Pending went back to the airfield. On the next day, the Punjabis retreated from the airfield and suffered severe losses in their B and C Companies. A group of Carriers were sent to Siniawan to escort the detachment of the Indian General Hospital. On the 26th, the remnants of the battalion were at Krokong, at about 10 miles from the border to Dutch West Borneo. All vehicles and heavy equipment had to be left there because of a narrow bridge. This was the end of the use of the carriers.

    The Singkawang II airfield in Dutch West Borneo was seen as a very important one as it enabled allied aircraft to strike at naval forces in the South Chinese Sea and to control the entrance to the Java Sea from the West. A squadron of Dutch Martin 139 bomber (2 Vl.G. I) and a third of a squadron of Brewster 339 fighters (1 Vl.G. V) were based there. On December 10th, 6 men from the the Mobiele Eenheid embarked with 3 Vickers Carden Loyd tanks in Tandjong Priok, the harbour of Batavia. The 3 tanks were still used for training until then and were not included in the Mobiele Eenheid on Java. They arrived 3 days later at Pontianiak on the West coast of Borneo. According to one of the tankmen, one of the tanks was an amphibious one and one of the other was armed with 2 machine guns. It is almost certain that the latter was one of the 2 original tanks delivered late in 1937 as only these had 2 MG. The amphibious tank was also delivered in 1937. The tanks were under the command of Brigadier-Vechtwagencommandant (corporal tank commander) B. Timmer. The other tankmen were : Fusiliers-Vechtwagenbestuurder (private tank driver) K. Been, W. Piek, J.A. Palit, J. Verkaik and Zeltman (or Seltman). Fusiliers-Vechtwagenbestuurder Van Noort and Zwart came later in replacement of Zeltman who was evacuated by plane to Java for medical reasons.

    KNIL Bandoeng 1941 Lichte tanks op veld.

    The tanks were at once sent to Singakawang II airfield where they were used for airfield defence. They used their MG against low flying Japanese planes. During one of the air raids, the amphibious tank seems to have been damaged beyond repair. Apart from the tanks, there were also 2 overvalwagens at the airfield. They were either used by one of the 13 brigades of the Garnizoensbataljon of the Westerafdeling van Borneo (garrison battalion of the western district of Borneo) or by the Stadswacht detachment of 50 men. All these units were assigned to the defence of the airfield. Each brigade had 19 to 20 men.

    The only recorded tank action took place on 27th January 1942 with the tank with 2 MG on a crossroad on the road between Ledo and Sanggau, south of the Sanggau-stelling (Sanggau defence position) together with one overvalwagen. The crew was Palit as driver and Verkaik as gunner. During the fight, the tank nearly collided with the overvalwagen and the left hand MG was damaged and could not be used any more. The overvalwagen retreated to Ledo with pierced tyres. At one time the tank left the road and drove into bushes where Japanese infantrymen were hiding. It then covered the retreat of a group of Punjabis toward Ledo. Brigadier Timmer came up with petrol and took the place of the driver while Palit went into the turret. The tank then fell into a gully, possibly because the road collapsed under its weight and overturned. The 2 crewmen were unhurt and abandoned the vehicle and went to Ledo with a group of Punjabis. The Japanese troops were from the 124th Infantry Regiment under command of Colonel Akinosuke Oka (according to the Japanese Monograph No.26: Borneo Operations 1941-1945). Palit became a POW in April 1942 at Pontianak and he has described the action in detail in an article in STABELAN. Timmer escaped from the POW camp soon after his capture but was recaptured by the Japanese with his 2 fellow escapers. After being severely beaten, all 3 were decapitated in June 1942.

    It is not known what happened to the 2nd light tank: in [1], it is stated that it may also have been lost during an air raid prior to the January action. One source [2] states that 2 tanks were involved in the fighting on the 27th January, that one fell into a gully and that the other one was rendered unusable. There are no further mention of the overvalwagens.

    The 7 overvalwagens on Tarakan were part of Inf VII, one of the 2 infantry battalions of the KNIL used in the defence of Borneo. Unlike garrison battalions, it had an organisation more similar to those on Java with 3 fusilier companies and a MG company. It also had a group of 80 men under Eerste Luitenant D.P. de Vos tot nederveen Cappel as crew for the overvalwagens. The group was deployed on the Oostfront near the Pamoesian oilfield. In the early morning of 11th January 1942, 3 cars made a reconnaissance, probably in front of the position and made contact with the Japanese Right Flank Unit of the Sakaguchi Detachment. The overvalwagens were then used to fill the gap between the Ambonese company of Kapitein F. Treffers and the MG company of Kapitein W. Everaars. A captured Japanese document of unknown origin states that 15 armoured cars were captured. They were probably overvalwagens among them plus some pickups which had been modified for AA use with a MG on the rear platform. Taki found out that the 56th Infantry Group Tankette Unit was part of the Sakaguchi Detachment, but it didn't land. He also found an interesting picture of an overvalwagen in a ditch on Tarakan in the photobank of the Japanese Mainichi newspaper.

    The 3 overvalwagens at Balikpapan were part of the 1st Company of Inf VI commanded by Kapitein J.H.C. Biekart. They were manned by about 30 men gathered from detachments from South Borneo which had been dissolved. In the early morning of 24th January 1942, the 3 cars were sent on a reconnaissance mission on the coastal road after a sighting of prauws (native boats) from the Klandasan Battery. They came back without having seen anything. Later they were tasked with patrolling the road between Balikpapan and Batoechampar, north of the town. At about 0930 hours in the morning, the overvalwagens came in contact with Japanese troops from the Surprise Attack Unit while patrolling near Batoechampar. Then they gave supporting fire to a column of about 80 vehicles which retreated from the provisory hospital on the northern edge of Balikpapan to Batoechampar. Another source states that only one overvalwagen was left at that time and that it took the lead of the column. Arriving there, the vehicles were burnt as the road ended. The column with numerous civilians went by foot to Soengai Wain oil station and then to Samarinda II airfield.

    The 8 Type 97 Tankettes of the 56th Infantry Group Tankette Unit were part of the main Assault Unit under Colonel Kyohei Yamamoto. It landed east of the town near the Manggar airfield. It arrived at Balikpapan on the 25th January without having encountered any resistance. The town was already occupied by the Surprise Attack Unit. There has been no mention of the use of the tanks.

    A small mobiele eenheid with 2 overvalwagens and about 25 men under the command of Sergeant-Major A.E. Hillebrandt was part of the garrison of the town of Samarinda on the Mahakam river. After having taken Balikpapan, Japanese troops moved north and occupied Samarinda on 7th February 1942. The town had been evacuated. As the road inland went only to Tenggarong which was occupied on the 12th, it is doubtful that the overvalwagens were used against the Japanese. There has been no mention of them.

    The last place which had AFVs was Bandjermasin on the south coast of Borneo. The local company of Stadswacht had 2 cars. The local commander was Kapitein J.H. van Epen. The town was occupied by Japanese troops on 10th February and there is again no mention of the use or of the fate of the overvalwagens.

    - [1] DE JAPANSE AANVAL OP NEDERLANDS-INDIE DEEL 2 by J.J. Nortier, Ad. Donker, Rotterdam 1992
    - [2] KNIL CAVALERIE 1814-1950 by C.A. Heshusius, Sectie Krijsgeschiedenis KL
    - HET KONINKLIJK NEDERLANDSCH-INDISCHE LEGER IN DEN STRIJD TEGEN JAPAN by Sectie XV M.G. Overzeesche Gebiedsdelen, N.V. Leiter-Nypels, Maastricht
    - NEDERLANDS-INDIE CONTRA JAPAN VOLUME V by C. van den Hoogenband and L. Schotborgh, Staatsdrukkerij-en Uitgeverijbedrijf, 'S-Gravenhage 1957
    - THE WAR AGAINST JAPAN VOLUME I, THE LOSS OF SINGAPORE by S. Woodburn Kirby and others, HMSO, 1957
    - STABELAN volume 10 number 4, 2nd March 1984
    - Information kindly provided by Akira "Taki" Takizawa (Japan)

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