Prelude to invasion: covert operations before the re-occupation of Northwest Borneo, 1944-45

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Author: Ooi Keat Gin
Date: Oct. 2002
Publisher: Australian War Memorial
Document Type: Article
Length: 11,502 words

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{1} In 1945 the task of retaking from the Japanese the former British Borneo territories of Sarawak, Brunei, and North Borneo (Sabah) was entrusted to the Australian Imperial Force (AIF). The 20th and 24th Brigades of the 9th Division launched an amphibious offensive, codenamed OBOE 6, with landings in the Brunei Bay area and Labuan Island in June. The groundwork for OBOE 6 began several months prior to its execution. In March 1945, members of the Australian Services Reconnaissance Department (SRD) were dropped behind enemy lines in the Upper Baram and Trusan valleys in Sarawak, and at Labuk Bay in North Borneo. The objective of the SRD was to gather intelligence, survey the terrain, and organize local resistance--in anticipation of the imminent AIF invasion. This paper examines the activities of the SRD in preparing the stage for the launch of OBOE 6, and evaluates the contribution of SRD covert operations to the effective implementation of the invasion plans.

The war against Japan and the Borneo campaigns

{2} The island of Borneo, with its oilfields and strategic location for the offensive against British Malaya and Dutch Java, was one of the prime targets of Japan's military offensive of 1941-42. The Japanese systematically and swiftly secured their objectives in Borneo during the early months of their 'push' into the resource-rich Southern Area (South-East Asia) following Pearl Harbor. The Miri and Seria oilfields in Sarawak and Brunei respectively were captured without much fuss in less than a fortnight of their initial landings off the north-west coast of Borneo in mid-December 1941. Before the close of January 1942, the Dutch oilfields at Tarakan and Balikpapan were under Japanese control. By 1943 Bornean oil was contributing to the Japanese war machine.

{3} The later part of 1944, however, witnessed the increasing effectiveness of the American navy in cutting off Japanese shipping lines between the home islands and the Southern Area. Moreover, Allied bombing raids were continuously carried out on oilfields and other strategic areas of Borneo from Australia. As the American offensive gained ground in the Philippines, the Japanese home islands increasingly lost their links with sources of oil supply in Borneo.

{4} The island of Borneo came within the scope of operations of the South-West Pacific Area (SWPA) under the command of the American general, Douglas MacArthur. (1) Despite its oilfields, Borneo did not feature high on MacArthur's list of priorities. He was obsessively determined to re-take the Philippines at all costs, arguing that an American occupation would hastened the defeat of Japan through cutting off the Japanese supply line from its Southern Area. More importantly, MacArthur saw his return to the Philippines--which he left hurriedly in early 1942 for Australia--as a means of restoring American prestige and honour. It was an apparent case of political expediency overriding military strategy.

{5} In order to facilitate his reconquest of the Philippines, MacArthur struck a deal with the Dutch that he be given "complete authority in the East Indies during any military operations". In return, he promised to restore Dutch authority...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A120109460