1940-1949 | Burning towns and cities | Indonesia

Punitive expedition against Indonesian town burns down 1000 homes

Indonesians queue for water at a hydrant after Surabaya’s water supply is cut during the fighting. © IWM (SE 5976)

13 December 1945

On 13 December 1935, Indian troops led by British officers, acting under the orders of Major General Douglas Hawthorn, burned down the town of Bekassi on the Indonesian island of Java. As the Illustrated London News explained, ‘all the inhabitants had fled so the punitive expedition burnt the town’1 Approximately one thousand timber homes were destroyed, including those of sixty Chinese families who didn’t even support the ongoing anti-British insurgency.2 

This destruction required no apology, as, according to Victor Lewis, correspondent for the Daily Record,  the soldiers had merely ‘wiped an evil spot off the map… a foul village’ which was populated by ‘beasts’ and ‘barbaric elements untamed throughout all the years of Dutch rule’3 Lewis’ report also appeared in other newspapers such as the Newcastle Journal which carried it under a front page headline ‘Murder Village Raised,’ and highlighted in bold the claim that ‘under the bamboo thatch of its homes lived Indonesia’s last remnants of savagery and even cannibalism.’4

A surviving film shot by an RAF cameraman shows four disarmed Indonesians who had been found along with a number of evicted Chinese inhabitants. One soldier then throws two cans of petrol on a small fire inside a house and retreats grinning as the blaze spreads rapidly, while a corporal outside holds a Jerry can.  As the fire engulfs the town, an aircraft can be seen circling above.5 Lewis, writing for the Record, noted how ‘in a few minutes every Indonesian house was a torch in the procession of destruction.’6 This callous and calculated act of collective punishment followed the murder some three weeks earlier of 23 British and Indian military personnel on a Dakota transport plane which had crashed near the town. A massacre which had itself been provoked by an undiscriminating British military assault against the city of Surabaya the previous month which had killed some 15,000, the human cost of crushing Indonesian nationalist forces, who’s crime was their opposition to the restoration of repressive Dutch colonial rule.7

In the wake of such widespread slaughter, the British press appears to have considered the sacking of the small Indonesian town of Bekassi as an act of comparatively minor consequence and even those newspapers that didn’t praise the destruction, seldom raised questions about the ethics of it.  In contrast, at least one Indian newspaper was far more empathetic with the thousands left homeless, wondering ‘if this is not indiscriminate burning, what is it ?’8

FOOTNOTES

  1. ‘The Java Scene – People and Events,’ The Illustrated London News, 22 December 1945, p. 8.
  2. Figures differ according to the report possibly because the British at the time were not really interested in estimating the precise damage. A figure of ‘1000 timber houses’ was given as the number burned down in ‘Java Village Destroyed,’ the Yorkshire Post, 14 December 1945 p. 6 and ‘Indonesia “Murder” Village Razed,’ the Belfast News-letter, 14 December 1945 p. 5, but a figure of 600 was given in an A.P./Reuters report cited in ‘War on Extremists,’ the Liverpool Echo, 15 December 1945 p. 3.  Regarding the Chinese homes burned down see Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper, Forgotten Wars: The End of Britain’s Asian Empire, Allen Lane, 2007, p. 182.
  3. Victor Lewis, ‘”Evil Spot” is Wiped Off,’ The Daily Record, 14 December 1945, p. 1.
  4. Victor Lewis, ‘Murder Village Raised,’ The Newcastle Journal, 14 December 1945, p. 1.
  5. ‘Burning Down the town of Bekassi as a punitive measure by the Allies,’ Synopsis of Film held at the Imperial War Museum accessed online at http://www.colonialfilm.org.uk/node/2947
  6. Victor Lewis, ‘”Evil Spot” is Wiped Off,’ The Daily Record, 14 December 1945, p. 1.
  7. Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper, Forgotten Wars: The End of Britain’s Asian Empire, Allen Lane, 2007, pp. 180-182.
  8. Amrita Pazar Patrika cited in ‘Indians Condemn Burning of Java Village’, The Dundee Evening Telegraph, 15 December 1945 p. 1.

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