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The Mystery of Christmas Island, March 1942

The Christmas Island (135 sq km) is a lonely mountainous island in the Indian Ocean, south of Java Island (Indonesia) and it was incorporated into the Strait Settlements in 1900. It was important due to large deposits of phosphate of lime, which is worked by a British firm whose employees form the entire population on the island of 1,000 (circa 1935). Today is the territory of Australia and it has approximately 2000 inhabitants, most of them being of Chinese origin.

Despite its size, was considered strategically important because its geographical position made it, a key point for observation of sea traffic between India and Australia. And with plans already prepared by the Imperial Japanese Navy for operations in the Indian Ocean, its occupation attained even greater significance.

At the beginning of March, 1942, the Hong Kong and Singapore Royal Artillery Detachment on Christmas Island consisted of 1 British Officer (Captain Leonard W.T. Williams), 4 British N.C.O's (Sergeants Cross and Giles, Gunners Tait and Thurgood) and 27 Indian soldiers. Captain Williams was in command and, in view of the military situation at that time, was also in administrative charge of the island with Mr. T.P. Cromwell, the District Officer, as adviser. There was in addition Sikh policemen and some European civilians on the island at the time.

When a passing Japanese naval force shelled the island on 7th March, 1942, it was decided that any attempt at serious resistance was purposeless and the white flag was raised. The Japanese, however, did not land on this occasion, but nevertheless, on Captain William's orders the 6-inch gun manned by the detachment was dismantled and all small arms were withdrawn and locked up in the guardroom of the fort together with other weapons collected from the Sikh policemen and civilian residents. The keys of the guardroom were entrusted to the No.1 of the Watch, a duty performed alternately by the two most senior Indian N.C.O's, Hav. Meher Ali and Nk. Ghulam Qadir.

On 9th March, 1942, Captain Williams ordered the Union Jack to be re-hoisted in place of the white flag and the 6-inch gun was reassembled at the same time; the small arms and ammunition remained locked up in the guardroom.

On the night of 10th March, 1942, Captain Leonard Williams and the four British N.C.O's held a party to which several European residents were invited. The party ended at about 23.30 hours. In the early hours of the following morning Captain Williams and the four British N.C.O's were attacked without warning as they lay asleep in their quarters. All five were killed there and then, their bodies were thrown down a passage, used for the disposal of rubbish, into the sea. Afterwards all Europeans on the island, including the district officer, who governed it, were lined up by the Indians and told they were going to be shot. But after a long discussion between the district officer and the leaders of the mutineers the executions were postponed and the Europeans were confined under armed guard in the district officer's house.

Upon completion of the occupation of Java, Imperial General Headquarters, issued orders on 14 March directing Commander-in-Chief, Combined Fleet, to occupy the island. In turn, the 2nd Southern Expeditionary Fleet organized an occupation force under command of Rear-Admiral Shoji Nishimura, Commander of the 4th Destroyer Squadron, consisting of light cruisers Natori and Naka, the 9th Destroyer Division (destroyers Asagumo, Natsugumo, Minegumo, Yamagumo), a detachment of 20 men from 21st Special Base Force, who were to serve as an occupation force, and two transport ships for carrying of phosphate. This force departed Bantam Bay, Java Island, at 1900 on 29 March 1942. Two days later, on the 31st March 1942 at 0945, landed on the island about 850 Japanese officers and enlisted men of the 21st and 24th Special Base Forces and 102nd Construction Unit and occupied the island. The landing was unopposed as the British-Indian garrison indicated its intention of surrendering by hoisting a white flag at the first sight of the invasion force.

The island was rich with phospahates, but it was too small and rocky to built a port or an airstrip on it. Early in April 1942 a Japanese light cruiser Natori returned to Christmas Island to gather up the troops and the remaining ships. All elements, with the exception of the twenty-men garrison detachment had returned to Bantam Bay by 3 April 1942. All that the Japanese had gained was was the phosphate rock which was loaded on the transport ships.

After the war 7 mutineers were traced and prosecuted by the Military Court in Singapore, and in 1947 five were sentenced to death. However, when the governments of India and Pakistan made representations against the sentences, the men were given penal servitude for life.

Order of battle for Japanese Army
Christmas Island ("X" Operation)

Guard Force
Transport Group consisted of two transport ships Kimishima Maru (5,193t) and Kumagawa Maru (6,774t), carrying 850 officers and enlisted men of the 21st and 24th Special Base Forces and 102nd Construction Unit.
They were escorted by:
• Destroyer Squadron 4
light cruiser Naka
• 16th Cruiser Division
cruisers- Nagara, Natori
• 9th Destroyer Division, first section
destroyers- Natsugumo, Minegumo
• 22nd Destroyer Division
destroyers- Satsuki, Minazuki, Fumitsuki, Nagatsuki (escort for cruiser Naka)
• Patrol Boat Squadron 1
patrol boats- P-34, P-36
Main Unit
• 16th Destroyer Division, second section
destroyers- Amatsukaze, Hatsukaze
• Fuel Group
tanker Akebono Maru (10,182t)

Click here for short biography of Captain Leonard W.T. Williams:

Note Amatsukaze was originally intended to be unattached unit, but added to Hatsukaze when it became clear she would be sitting at Tandjong Priok (port of Batavia).

Note The information is taken from official British Records taken at the trial of seven of the mutineers in Singapore after the war.

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