The burnt-out car of Brigadier Mallaby where he was killed on 30 October 1945. (Imperial War Museums/File)
The death of British Army officer Brig. Gen. AWS Mallaby on the evening of Oct. 30, 1945, heightened the tension in Surabaya and led to the Battle of Surabaya on Nov. 10 that year. The incident even today excites worldwide interest. Some investigative analyses cannot come to a single conclusion.
There are four scenarios about who was responsible for the general’s death, blaming the Indonesians, Dutch, Japanese and British, respectively.
What conditions led to the killing of Mallaby? I have examined Mallaby’s last five days in Surabaya from various sources and have reached at least two preliminary conclusions.
First, Mallaby was killed as a result of the ignorance of his superiors: Vice Adm. Lord Louis Mountbatten (Supreme Allied Commander Southeast Asia), Lt. Gen. Philip Christison (Commander-in-Chief for the Netherlands East Indies) and Maj. Gen. Douglas Hawthron (23rd Indian Division commander).
They lacked advance intelligence briefings on conditions in Surabaya, could not see the real facts on the ground, were influenced by Dutch propaganda that said Indonesian nationalists were very weak and therefore failed to draft a strong and clear-cut policy.
Second, Mallaby was killed as a result of his own character. He was not a general who relied only on force, but a more “relaxed” general who relied more on dialogue with Indonesian leaders in Surabaya.
Such an approach suited his basic task but because of that, he was perceived by his superiors in Jakarta as weak and was compelled to use force instead.
His more relaxed attitude left him unaware of the potential danger of crowds, so he walked out unarmed and was accompanied only by two officers.
The British policy was not clear in dealing with Surabaya. McMillan ( 2005 ) writes that the “overall picture that emerges is one of confusion rather than the execution of a clear-cut plan”.
Mountbatten’s plan was that British forces should not be involved in the Netherlands East Indies’ internal politics. It was only to secure key areas such as Batavia and Surabaya, control local Japanese headquarters, undertake the disarming of the Japanese and recover POWs. On Sept. 28, Mountbatten urged the Dutch to confer with Indonesian leaders.
The plan shared by Christison and Hawthorn was different from Mountbatten’s. Christison and Hawthorn’s plan was to “show the flag” and get involved in the internal politics by restoring law and order before the return of the Dutch.
Mallaby was sure that it was not of his mission to hold Surabaya for the Dutch.
Leaving for Surabaya, he explained his priorities: First, enter Surabaya and negotiate with the locals on the evacuation of all Dutch civilians and get them on board ship to take them back to Holland, second, evacuate all Allied POWs held by the Japanese and finally take the Japanese army prisoner and wait for ships to repatriate them.
His arrival in Surabaya was welcomed by agitating graffiti in Indonesian “Merdeka atau Mati,” in Urdu “Ayadi ya Kunrezi,” and in English “Freedom or Death.”
Realizing that one brigade was not enough to face the strong Indonesians in Surabaya, Mallaby took a peaceful approach: parley with Indonesian leaders.
Thus, in his first three days in Surabaya, Mallaby held many discussions with Indonesian leaders, outlining his tasks and making agreements on burden sharing to execute his basic tasks.
His approach was successful because the mood of the Indonesian leaders was cooperative although suspicious and very insistent that no Dutch came in as they, not British, were their enemy.
But Mallaby’s approach was over-ridden by Christison and Hawthron, because it did not match with their plan. In the afternoon of Oct. 26, Hawthorn sent a telegram: “Do not parley occupy town.” Then Hawthorn dropped leaflets over West and Central Java, demanding that all Indonesians surrender their arms within 48 hours or be shot. Ignoring a signal asking for the leaflets not to be dropped over Surabaya, on Oct. 27 the leaflets were dropped over the city.
Mallaby was speechless for about three minutes after reading the leaflet. When asked “What are you going to do, sir?” Mallaby replied: “Obey orders.” Mallaby was in a dilemma. He was certain that he was not assigned to disarm Indonesian people, but Hawthorn was his superior and should be obeyed.
The leaflets angered Surabaya people who then canceled the talks. Indonesians fought for three days (Oct. 27-29) and encircled the 49th Brigade in many places.
The brigade was saved by Indonesian president Sukarno, vice president Mohammad Hatta and prime minister Amir Sjarifuddin who came to Surabaya on Oct. 29 asking for a cease-fire.
Hawthorn had also to go to Surabaya to negotiate with Indonesian leaders, unashamedly disavowing his own words and orders.