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At the outbreak of World War II in the Pacific, the island of Borneo was divided into five territories: four in the north under the British - Sarawak, Brunei, Labuan (island), and British North Borneo (now Sabah); and the remainder and bulk of the island to the south under the jurisdiction of the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). Because of its oil resources, Borneo was a prime target for Japan, and a very poorly guarded one. Chronically short of natural resources, Japan needed an assured supply, particularly of oil, in order to achieve its long term goal of becoming the major power in the Pacific region. In 1941 the American's and British had placed an embargo on exports of raw materials to Japan because of its continuing aggression in China. Borneo was strategically important to Japan as it is located on the main

and sea routes between Java, Sumatra, Malaya and Celebes. Control of these routes were vital to securing the territory.


Major General Kiyotake Kawaguchi, commander of the invasion force

The Japanese invasion plan called for the British territories to be taken and held by the Imperial Japanese Army and the southern Dutch territory to be taken and held by the Imperial Japanese Navy.[1] The IJA unit that invaded northern Borneo was the 35th Infantry Brigade, known as the Kawaguchi Detachment. The Brigade was led by Major General Kiyotake Kawaguchi and consisted of units previously stationed at Canton, southern China.

On 13 December 1941, the Japanese invasion convoy left Cam Ranh Bay in French Indochina, with an escort of the cruiser Yura (Rear-Admiral Shintaro Hashimoto), the destroyers of the 12th Destroyer Division, Murakumo, Shinonome, Shirakumo and Usugumo, submarine-chaser Ch 7 and the aircraft depot ship Kamikawa Maru. Ten transport ships carried the Japanese 35th Infantry Brigade HQ under the command of Major-General Kiyotake Kawaguchi. The Support Force—commanded by Rear-Admiral Takeo Kurita—consisted of the cruisers Kumano and Suzuya and the destroyers Fubuki and Sagiri.

The Japanese forces intended to capture Miri and Seria, while the rest would capture Kuching and nearby airfields. The convoy proceeded without being detected and, at dawn on 16 December 1941, two landing units secured Miri and Seria with little resistance from British forces. A few hours later, Lutong was captured.

After securing the oilfields, on 22 December, the main Japanese forces moved westwards to Kuching. The Japanese airforce bombed Singkawang airfield to prevent a Dutch attack. After escorts drove off a lone Dutch submarine, the Japanese task force entered the mouth of the Santubong river on 23 December. The convoy arrived off Cape Sipang, and the troops in twenty transports, commanded by Colonel Akinosuke Oka, landed at 04:00 the next morning.

The Japanese landing off the west coast of British North Borneo, 1942

The 2nd Battalion of the 15th Punjab Regiment, which was stationed in Kuching, was the sole Allied infantry unit on the entire island. Although they resisted the Japanese attack on the airfield, they were soon outnumbered and retreated up the Santubong river. At about 16:40 on 25 December, Japanese troops successfully captured Kuching airfield. The Punjab Regiment retreated through the jungle to the Singkawang area.

After the Japanese secured Singkawang on 29 December, the rest of the British and Dutch troops retreated further into the jungle, moving to the south to try to reach Sampit and Pangkalanbun, where a Dutch airfield was located at Kotawaringin.

On 31 December 1941, a force under Lieutenant Colonel Watanabe moved northward to occupy the remainder of Brunei, and Jesselton (now called Kota Kinabalu). Jessleton was defended by the North Borneo Armed Constabulary, with only 650 men. They hardly provided any resistance to slow down the Japanese invasion, and Jesselton was taken on 9 January.

On 3 January 1942, the Japanese army invaded Labuan Island. On 18 January 1942, using small fishing boats, the Japanese landed at Sandakan, the seat of government of British North Borneo. On the morning of the 19 January, Governor Charles Robert Smith surrendered British North Borneo and was interned with other staff.[2] The occupation of British Borneo was thus completed.

Southern and central Borneo were taken by the Japanese Navy, following its attacks from east and west. After ten weeks in the jungle-covered mountains, Allied troops surrendered on 1 April 1942.

Occupation forces and commanders

Once Sarawak was secured, control of Sarawak, Brunei and North Borneo (collectively called Kita Boruneo) fell to the Kawaguchi Detachment under Major General Kiyotake Kawaguchi. Dutch Borneo (called Minami Borneo) was occupied by units of the Imperial Japanese Navy. In mid-March 1942, the navy detachment was redeployed to Cebu. The 4th Independent Mixed Regiment (also known as the Nakahata Unit) under Colonel Nakahata Joichi took over the task of mopping up operations, maintaining law and order, and establishing a military government.

On 6 April 1942 the unit came under Lieutenant General Marquess Toshinari Maeda's Borneo Defence Army, who in turn became responsible for the area. The headquarters was initially at Miri, but Maeda considered it unsuitable and moved headquarters to Kuching. In July the Nakahata Regiment was reorganised into two 500-man battalions, the 40th and 41st Independent Garrison Infantry Battalions. On 5 September 1942 at 11am, Maeda was killed along with Major Hataichi Usui and Pilot-Captain Katsutaro Ano in an air crash while flying to Labuan Island.[3] The Japanese renamed the island as Maida Island (Pulau Maida, 前田島 [Maeda-shima]) in his memory.

Maeda was replaced by Lieutenant General Yamawaki Masataka from 5 September 1942 to 22 September 1944. By 1943 the Battalions' combined strength had reduced to 500 men. The military government moved its headquarters again in April 1944 to Jesselton. Yamawaki was formerly Director of the Resources Mobilisation Bureau; his appointment in 1942 was interpreted by the Allies as part of a drive to establish Borneo as a significant location for storage of supplies and development of supporting industry.[4]

Lt Gen Baba Masao at the Japanese surrender on Labuan in 1945

With the Allied advance in the Pacific, the Japanese realised that Borneo was likely to be invaded. The Borneo Defence Army was strengthened with additional units and renamed the 37th Army. Command passed to Lieutenant General Baba Masao from 26 December 1944 until 11 September 1945, when the official Japanese surrender was signed on board HMAS Kapunda.[5]

Boruneo Kita administrative areas

Under the Japanese occupation, Sarawak and Brunei were divided into three administrative areas (shu): Kuching-shu, Miri-shu (which included Brunei) and Sibu-shu. North Borneo and Labuan were split into two areas: Sekai-shu (which included Labuan) and Tokai-shu. The five shus had a Japanese provincial governor (or resident). Otherwise the administration remained in the hands of the local people under Japanese oversight.[6]

Kuching-shu was divided into the prefectures of Kuching and Simanggang; Sibu-shu into Sibu and Bintulu; Miri-shu into Miri and Brunei Town; Sekai-shu into Jesselton, Bohoto (which included Labuan), Kota Belud, and Keningau; and Tokai-Shu into Tawau, Sandakan, Lahad Datu, and Beruran.

Policing of Kita Boruneo fell to the notorious Kempeitai. They were directly responsible to the Military Commander and the Japanese War Ministry. They had virtually umlimited power, and frequently used torture and brutality as their normal mode of operation. The Kempeitai headquarters were based in a two-storey bungalow in Jalan Jawa, Kuching.[7] From April 1944 the Kempeitai headquarters was located at the Sports Club Building in Jesselton.[8] Amongst the local population, the phrase 'Ukim jipun' (Japanese Justice) became synonymous with punishment out of all proportion to the offence. The Japanese revived the pre-war civil court system from November 1942, with local magistrates applying the Sarawak Penal Code.[9]

Military bases

Airfields were constructed by prisoners of war and conscripted labour at various locations, including Sandakan, Brunei, and Ranau. Kuching airfield was extant prior to the occupation, but upgraded by the Japanese.

Brunei harbour was used by the Japanese navy as a refuelling depot and as a staging post for the Battle of Leyette Gulf.

Prisoner of war camps

Batu Lintang POW Camp, Kuching

The Japanese had major prisoner of war camps at Kuching, Labuan, Ranau, and Sandakan, plus smaller ones at Dahan and other locations. Batu Lintang camp held both military and civilian prisoners. The camp was finally liberated on 11 September 1945 by the 9th Australian Army Division under the command of Brigadier T. C. Eastick.

Sandakan camp was closed by the Japanese prior to the Allied invasion; most of its occupants died as a result of death marches from Sandakan to Ranau. Six men survived by escaping from the marches. In all the Japanese are believed to have held an estimated 4,660 prisoners and internees at camps. By the end of the war, only 1,387 had survived.[10]


The Tokyo based Asahi Shimbun newspaper and Osaka based Mainichi Shimbun newspapers began publications in Malay in both Borneo and the Celebes. They carried news on behalf of the Japanese Government.[11]

Resistance and Allied activity

Resistance movement

There was some resistance from early in the occupation. Lieutenant-General Yamawaki was quoted as saying in early 1943 that he wished the New Year would see the collapse of enemy resistance in Borneo.[12]

Guerrilla groups resisted the occupation. The Kinabalu Guerrillas were led by Albert Kwok in the west and another group led by Tun Datu Mustapha bin Datu Harun in the north. The Kinabalu Guerrillas movement ended when the Japanese massacred Kwok and its members on 21 January 1944. (The Petagas War Memorial was later erected at this site. The exploits of the guerrillas are described in the book Kinabalu Guerrillas by Maxwell Hall.[13]

An example of heroism was Captain Lionel Matthews, who was held as a prisoner of war by the Japanese in Sandakan, Borneo between August 1942 and March 1944. During this period, he directed an underground intelligence organization, arranged to get sorely needed medical supplies, food and money into the camp, and set up a radio link with the outside world. Ultimately discovered by the Japanese, he continued to display courage under torture and did not reveal anything about the movement before he was executed. He was posthumously awarded the George Cross.

A few dozen Allied (predominantly Australian) special operatives trained a thousand Dayak from the Kapit Division to battle the Japanese with guerrilla warfare. This army of tribesmen killed or captured some 1,500 Japanese soldiers; they provided the Allies with intelligence vital in securing Japanese-held oil fields. The twin peaks of Batu Lawi served as an important landmark to pilots in the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), during Allied missions to help recapture northern Borneo from Japan. Tom Harrisson, a British anthropologist, journalist and co-founder of Mass Observation, was among those parachuted in to work with the resistance. He was then a second lieutenant in the British Army.

The pilot of the RAAF Consolidated Liberator that carried Harrisson and seven other Z Force operatives behind the Japanese lines could navigate by the pale sandstone peaks of Batu Lawi, which stood out from the rain forest. The commandos landed near the settlement of Bario, and the Kelabit people they sought. The jump was a success, but the plane was shot down on its return to the airbase at Morotai in the Philippines.

Allied bombing

Bomb damage at Jesselton.

During 1942–45, Japanese positions on Borneo were bombed by Allied air forces from the South West Pacific Area command, including devastating attacks on Brunei, Sandakan, Jesselton and Labuan.

The raids in 1943 by RAAF Liberators from Australia focused on the Balikpapan old fields in southern Borneo. With the recapture of Morotai in September 1944, Allied bombers could reach northern Borneo. On 16 September, Catalina flying boats began harassing shipping in the seas around north-eastern Borneo.[14] With the invasion of the Philippines, air bases were established closer to Borneo. The Allies began to attack Borneo's airfields from October 1944.[15][16] The naval base in Brunei Bay came under attack from late November by Liberators from Morotai.[17] These raids on military and industrial targets intensified through November and December.[18]

With the capture of Palawan, off the north-eastern tip of Borneo, in March 1945, the Allies had control of bases within 100 miles of northern Borneo.[19] Northern Borneo was subject to almost continuous raids up to the June invasion.

Effects of occupation and war on residents

Effects varied widely. The Japanese allowed most Malays to maintain their positions in the civil service and police, while supervising their activities. They abused ethnic Chinese, their longtime enemies; and were neutral toward most Dayak. Inland tribes were generally hostile to the Japanese.[20]


The Japanese occupied SMK St. Thomas from 25 December 1941 and housed forced labourers there. From March 1942, the Japanese operated a POW and civilian internee camp, Batu Lintang, three miles (5 km) outside Kuching. The camp was the former barracks of the Punjab Regiment.

The Kempeitei were based in a two-storey bungalow on Jalan Jawa. They had virtually unlimited power to eliminate anti-Japanese elements. A network of spies and informers were used by them for intelligence gathering. Local Iban used the term ukum jipun (Japanese justice) to refer to a punishment out of all proportion to the offence. In November 1942 the pre-war civil court system was revived by the Japanese with local magistrates applying the Sarawak penal code.


SMK St.Columba was used by the Japanese as a storeroom. The headmaster, Lee Kui Choi, was arrested and put in jail, but released three days later. After handing over his duties to Father Lim Siong Teck, Lee Kui Choi returned to Sibu. The Kempetai arrested and killed Father Lim Siong Teck, Chong En Fui and Joel Paul, a member of the Saint Columba's Church Council. By the end of the War, the Japanese Army had retreated from Miri. They first destroyed all the school buildings except the toilet and one of the stores.


Tua Pek Kong Temple, Sibu, along with the township was severely damaged by the Allied bombardment in 1945. Sibu Airport at Teku was used by the Japanese but heavily bombed by Allied Forces.


In 1941 Kapit had two rows of 37 shophouses. The town was completely destroyed by Allied bombing during the war.

Iban people

The Iban played a role in guerrilla warfare against the occupying forces, particularly in the Kapit Division. They revived headhunting towards the end of the war, using it against their enemies.

Dayak people

Lieutenant General Yamawaki created an indigenous army of about 1,300 Dayaks in 1944. They were stationed at Kuching and Miri in Sarawak, and Jesselton, Sandakan, and Sebau in North Borneo. They were tasked with maintaining peace and order, as well as collecting intelligence and recruiting.[21]

Generally the Japanese treated the indigenous people poorly - massacres of the Malay and Dayak peoples were common, especially among the Dayak of the Kapit Division. In response, the Kapit Dayak formed a special unit to assist the Allied forces.


On 10 June 1945 the Australian 9th Division began landings at Brunei and at Labuan, preludes to a campaign to retake North Borneo. The war in North Borneo ended with the official surrender of the Japanese 37th Army by Lieutenant General Baba Masao on Labuan on 10 September 1945.

War crimes trials

Maxwell Hall was the Chief Advocate at some of the war crime trials of Japanese officers. These were held in Labuan in December 1945.

War memorials and cemeteries

The names of the 183 prisoners of war who died or were killed at the Last Camp, Ranau, June–August 1945. (Last POW Camp Memorial)
Last POW Camp Memorial in Ranau, Sabah.

Three memorials were erected in remembrance of the marches of prisoners of war, during which many died. The Kundasang War Memorial built in 1962 is a memorial park dedicated to the Australian and British servicemen who died in Sandakan and on the marches, and also to the locals who assisted the POWa. The Ranau Memorial, also known as the Gunner Cleary Memorial, was constructed in 1985 in memory of Gunner Albert Neil Cleary, who died in the first Death March. The Last Camp Memorial was unveiled in 2009. It marks the site where the Death March ended.

See also


  1. The Japanese Occupation of Borneo 1941-1945, Ooi Keat Gin, page 36
  2. Klemen, L (1999-2000). "The Invasion of British Borneo in 1942". Dutch East Indies Campaign website. 
  3. "Japanese Dreams In Borneo", Ellesmere Guardian, Volume LXIV, Issue 51, 29 June 1943, p. 6
  4. Ellesmere Guardian
  5. Chapter 5 - "The partition of Borneo," Ooi Keat Gin, The Japanese Occupation of Borneo, 1941-45, Routledge Studies in the Modern History of Asia, Taylor & Francis, 2010, ISBN 0203850548, 9780203850541
  6. Chapter 9 - The Japanese occupation and the peoples of Sarawak, Ooi Keat Gin, Southeast Asian Minorities in the Wartime Japanese Empire, Paul H. Kratoska, Routledge, 2013, ISBN 1136125140, 9781136125140
  7. Ooi Keat Gin, The Japanese Occupation..., p. 50
  8. Ooi Keat Gin, The Japanese Occupation..., p. 51
  9. Ooi Keat Gin, The Japanese Occupation..., p. 52
  10. page 68
  11. Ellesmere Guardian
  12. Ellesmere Courier
  13. Hall, Maxwell (1965 (2nd edition, revised)). Kinabalu Guerrillas – An account of the Double Tenth 1943. Jesselton (now Kota Kinabalu), North Borneo (now Sabah): Borneo Literature Review. 
  14. "Enemy shipping," Evening Post, Volume CXXXVIII, Issue 79, 30 September 1944, Page 7
  15. "Extensive Gain," Evening Post, Wellington, Volume CXXXVIII, Issue 101, 26 October 1944, Page 7
  16. "Raids on enemy bases," Evening Post, Volume CXXXVIII, Issue 108, 3 November 1944, Page 5
  17. "Destruction at Tarakan," Evening Post, Volume CXXXVIII, Issue 124, 22 November 1944, Page 5
  18. "Sweeps by planes," Evening Post, Volume CXXXVIII, Issue 149, 21 December 1944, Page 5
  19. "Valuable capture," Evening Post, Volume CXXXIX, Issue 53, 3 March 1945, Page 7
  20. Ooi Keat Gin (2010), Chapter 5 - "The partition of Borneo," The Japanese Occupation, pp. 48-49, ISBN 0203850548, 9780203850541
  21. "Volunteer Armies," Joyce Lebra-Chapman, Japanese-trained Armies in Southeast Asia, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2010, pages 122-123, ISBN 9814279447, 9789814279444

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