At the end of June 1941, Mr. Churchill considered that the time had come for ‘a new eye and a new hand’ in the Middle East, and he appointed General Sir Claude Auchinleck to succeed General Sir Archibald Wavell. The Prime Minister later regretted many of the new Commander-in-Chief’s decisions, notably to delay the offensive against Rommel’s Afrika Korps until November, which he condemned as ‘a mistake and a misfortune’. Hitler’s invasion of Russia, on June 21, had accentuated both the military and the political expediency of a quick British victory in North Africa, while Germany was preoccupied in Eastern Europe. But Auchinleck’s grave shortage of armour, and the decision of the Australian government to withdraw their troops from Tobruk, made him cautious of fighting Rommel until he had an even chance of success.
General Auchinleck’s appointment coincided with yet another change in the fortunes of the 3rd Hussars. Regimental headquarters were evacuated to Alexandria, and then to Cairo; and early in August Lieut.-Colonel W. G. Petherick handed over to Major W. A. J. Lockhart and went to command the R.A.C. Base Depot at Abbasia. Later in the month, while ‘B’ Squadron were also preparing to leave Tobruk, the rest of the regiment sailed for Cyprus. On September 19, the new commanding officer, Lieut.-Colonel Owen Tudor, arrived from England with reinforcements; and on October 1, ‘B’ Squadron joined them from Egypt. Except during the brief reunion after the battle of Beda Fomm, this was the first time that the regiment had been together since they left England, more than a year before.
An attack on Cyprus had been feared as a logical sequence to the German invasion of Crete, and the regiment became part of the mobile reserve to defend the beautiful island. But they were left in peace, to train quietly, with the thirty-six dilapidated light tanks provided for them, and to enjoy the adventure of escaping to the beaches of Kyrenia and the night-life of Nicosia. They were still there when Auchinleck launched the newly-named Eighth Army against Rommel, on November 18 - the long-awaited advance which, after many repulses in the first weeks, closely followed the pattern of Wavell’s successful campaign the previous year, except that most of the Afrika Korps escaped into Tripolitania.
This second desert victory was overshadowed by the surprise Japanese air attacks on Pearl Harbour and other American bases in Hawaii, on December 7, and the sudden spreading of the conflict into a world-wide war. Siam was the first country to succumb to the new enemy; and on Christmas Day, while the 3rd Hussars were enjoying their turkeys and plum puddings in Cyprus, news came of the surrender of Hong Kong. A few days later, the regiment received orders to provide one squadron at full strength for ‘service overseas’. ‘B’ Squadron was chosen, and Major William-Powlett was allowed to pick the men to go with him. The seven officers and 138 NCOs and men left for Egypt on January 7, 1942, and at the end of the month they sailed through the Suez Canal, towards the Dutch East Indies.
While the 3rd Hussars were enjoying Christmas near Cairo, they received definite news of the fate of Major William-Powlett’s squadron, which had sailed from Egypt eleven months before, in January 1942.
Their goal was Singapore, but they were too late to reach it. The astonishing pace and magnitude of Japanese conquest, aided by their naval supremacy in the Pacific and the South China Sea, was comparable to Hitler’s rape of Europe. Like some vicious octopus, which had been trying to crush China for the past ten years, Japan had suddenly eased her grip on her ancient enemy and spread her tentacles over all the Far East. Within one month of the destruction of the American fleet at Pearl Harbour and the sinking of the Repulse and the Prince of Wales off the Malayan coast, Japanese armies had invaded Siam, Hong Kong, Malaya, North Borneo, the Philippines, Burma, New Guinea and the Dutch East Indies. Australia and New Zealand were threatened; India was in danger. The only considerable bastion against Japanese seaborne expansion westwards was the naval base of Singapore, with its garrison of about 81,000 British and Imperial troops. On February 15, 1942 - two days after the 3rd Hussars squadron reached the island of Sumatra-Singapore surrendered.
Captain Pat Lancaster has written of the ‘unlucky Friday the 13th’ when the hussars reached Oosthaven, on the south-eastern tip of the island.
A staff officer came on board with orders that we were to go immediately to the Palembang area, 170 miles to the north, and occupy two airfields - P.1. to the north of the river, and P.2. to the south. It was pointed out that after several weeks at sea we should need time to charge the batteries; also that we had no petrol. Meanwhile news arrived that the Japs had made a parachute landing in the Palembang area. This seemed to make any move to disembark an absurdity, and I said so....
The staff officer decided to signal G.H.Q. for instructions, and asked them to send someone to meet me at P.2., so that I could give him the situation at Oosthaven. I set off by train next morning but got stuck 20 miles from my destination as the driver refused to go any further. The small station was crowded with refugees. . .it appeared that the Japs had already occupied Palembang and P.1. No one was sure about P.2. I managed to borrow a motor-cycle and get to P.2., but as there was no liaison officer to meet me, and as the R.A.F. officer in command said the last aircraft was about to take off for Java and that he was going with it, I returned to Oosthaven.
Meanwhile, Major William-Powlett was ordered by G.H.Q. to obey his ‘original instructions’, and early on the 14th the squadron began to disembark at Oosthaven. The coolies had fled the docks and the hussars worked until midnight unloading their light tanks, trucks and stores; and then through to the next morning, charging the batteries, de-greasing the guns and loading belts of ammunition. The first enemies they encountered were tropical rain, poisonous snakes, and vicious malarial mosquitoes - which later caused much sickness when the men were in captivity.
Because of the shortage of petrol the tanks were loaded on to railway ‘flats’, to take them to Palembang. But later on the 15th, after powerful Japanese seaborne reinforcements had landed on the north of the island, Major William-Powlett was ordered to re-embark his squadron on the Hermion, the freighter that had brought them to Sumatra, as all troops on the island were to be evacuated to Java. But the Hermion had ‘buzzed off’, and next day they had to load what vehicles they could on to the steamship Silver Latch and a Dutch lighter. On the afternoon of the 16th, with eight tanks and two trucks on the lighter, towed by a tug, Lieutenant Williamson began his perilous voyage of almost 200 miles to Batavia (Jakarta); and early on the 17th the remainder of the squadron sailed across the Sunda Straits to Merak. Most of the hussars and the other troops then moved on by train, but Captain Lancaster and Lieutenant Jack Chadwick - the brother of Tom and Hector - and some thirty other ranks stayed on board and took the rest of the transport by sea to Batavia.
Java was the last Allied stronghold in South-East Asia. For the past five weeks, General Wavell, the supreme commander, had made his headquarters there, at Bandoeng. For him, it was the pattern of Greece, Crete and Cyrenaica all over again - repel an enemy on several fronts at the same time, with insufficient troops and practically no air support. When Singapore fell, Wavell had cabled Churchill that ‘efforts should not ... be made to reinforce Java’ at the expense of defending Burma and Australia; and five days later he reluctantly accepted the Prime Minister’s decision that he should resume his former appointment as Commander-in-Chief in India, and leave the ‘existing forces’ in Java to hold out as long as they could.
The ‘existing forces’ in Java were 25,000 troops of the Dutch garrison, a few Dutch, American and British air squadrons, three Australian battalions, a battery of American gunners, and the squadron of the 3rd. For a few days the island was peaceful enough: the hussars lived in a bamboo barracks on the outskirts of Batavia, buying their rations in the town, and training hard to accustom themselves and their tanks to the strange conditions of the jungle and the flooded paddy fields. On February 25, Major William-Powlett talked with Wavell at Bandoeng - just before the General flew back to India - but he recalled that he was ‘told nothing of the main plan’ though he ‘gathered’ that his squadron was ‘to be left behind’. Next day, when Japanese convoys were reported to be approaching, the small Allied fleet put to sea; and on the 28th - after most of the Allied ships had been sunk in the Battle of the Java Sea, and Japanese troops had already landed on the west of the island - the 3rd Hussars were ordered south to Buitenzorg, covering Bandoeng, to await the enemy.
At Buitenzorg, the 3rd Hussars and the American gunners were under command of ‘Blackforce’ - three lightly armed Australian battalions led by Brigadier A. S. Blackburn, V.C. The Australians met and held the Japanese on March 3, at Leuwiliang Bridge, a few miles to the west of Buitenzorg; and early next day the Americans and Lieutenant Dallas’s troop were sent forward and achieved ‘some satisfactory execution’. But the Japanese had put four or five divisions on to the island, and by the afternoon of the 4th it was clear that ‘Blackforce’ would have to join in the general withdrawal of the Dutch forces on Bandoeng. The 3rd Hussars and one company of Australians were ordered to remain behind and hold up the enemy for twenty-four hours, and next morning Lieutenant Frow’s troop fought off and killed about a dozen of a strong Japanese patrol that had cycled down the Semplak-Buitenzorg road. Then the squadron also withdrew: leaving Buitenzorg about 1.30 p.m. on the 5th and marching through the night, they reached Bandoeng at midday on the 6th. There, Major William-Powlett learned that the Dutch were about to capitulate, and plans were made for the British and Australian troops to move south over the mountains to an area chosen by the senior British commander, General Sitwell. When rumours of the Dutch surrender were confirmed on the evening of the 8th, Major William-Powlett knew that there was no hope of further action against the enemy, and he had to obey a written order from General Sitwell to destroy his tanks. Nineteen years later, he still recalls the ‘sorry and emotional sight’ as they went ‘tumbling down a steep ravine into the torrent below’.
Later that evening, when they had reached the coast, the hussars enjoyed their last fling of freedom, naked in the swimming-pool of the elegant Grand Hotel at Tjidoelang. Then Major William-Powlett paraded the squadron to describe the situation and warn them of the difficulties of escape. After another conference with General Sitwell, he repeated his warning; but some of the men had already set off into the darkness, and most of the others said that they also wished to make a dash for freedom. The last entry in Major William-Powlett’s account of the brief campaign is dated March 10 - ‘During the night 60 per cent of the squadron started to walk home. At 0500 hrs. I also started with Captain Lancaster’.
None of the squadron escaped from Java. The seaworthy boats on the wild south coast had been destroyed by the Dutch, and all the hussars could do was to submit, as prisoners, to the Japanese. By March 28, most of them were together again - in the Prison compound near Bandoeng. Then began three and a half years of captivity, during which nearly half of them died of starvation, sickness and brutality; or were drowned when the Japanese transports in which they were being moved were sunk, unhappily, by ships of the Royal Navy.
With the passing of almost twenty years it is not easy for the younger generation to believe the stories told by the survivors who were ultimately freed from the Japanese prison camps. Major William-Powlett’s written account of his transportation to Japan, in September 1942 - when 1,100 officers and men were herded into the holds of a small Japanese freighter - makes the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century tales of slave-ships seem tame by comparison; and the narrative of Captain J. M. Bentley-Taylor, who afterwards assumed command of the captive squadron - most of whom were later sent to the island of Ambon (Amboina) to construct airfields - reads like the script for a horror film. Yet it was all true. What is so remarkable is that despite the daily beatings and humiliations, the enforced starvation and the callous disregard of sickness, most of the prisoners kept their humour, their humanity towards their comrades, and their belief in the triumph of honour over evil. Among those who described their experiences was S.S.M. (now Major) Norman Ellis, who said: " Of course, there are horrible things to remember - so many of our comrades dying, and the beating with chains. . ."
See p. 276. Churchill, vol. IV, pp. 111-13.
Appendix: The British Tank Unit in the East Indies
During the last days of December 1941, the British Command decided to send more reinforcements to Malaya and Singapore where the fighting was going very badly for the Allies. Among the reinforcements was an armoured unit : B Squadron, 3rd the King's Own Hussars. The regiment was in Egypt at that time and it had only enough tanks to equip one squadron. According to records from the PRO, the squadron had 25 Vickers Light Tanks Mark VIB and VIC (including nine in reserve). The regimental records place the number at 18 tanks including three reserve vehicles. In mid January, the squadron sailed from Suez and arrived to Sumatra on February 14th, after a three day stop at Colombo. The original destination of Singapore was at that time under heavy Japanese attacks and on the verge of surrender. The squadron went ashore on Sumatra, only to be recalled and shipped to Java on the 17th. It went there near Batavia and joined "Blackforce", the combined British-Australian-American force on February 26th. The force opposed the Japanese forces which landed on the West coast on March 1st. Between the 4th and 6th, "Blackforce" was involved in several fights while covering the retreat toward Bandoeng and Central Java. The Hussars squadron did not encounter Japanese armour, but acted as a rearguard and effectively covered the withdrawal without losing any tanks. After learning of the Dutch surrender on March 8th, the tanks were rendered unserviceable by removing vital parts of the engines and the guns and then rolled over a steep embankment. The eight officers and 140 NCOs and ORs then endured a long and hard four years as POWs.
It seems however that the Japanese were able to put some tanks back in use. At least one was still in use by Japanese forces in Batavia after the end of the war. Its subsequent fate is not known. Because of the 5 years of struggle and disorder that followed the end of the war on Java, it is quite unlikely that any light tank, either of the KNIL or of the Hussars, survived. It cannot however be excluded that some of these vehicles and of the Dutch Light Tanks had been used after the independence of Indonesia. The only known surviving example of the latter is preserved at the Tank Museum.
Note: No information has been found about the registrations of the Mark VI Light Tanks of B Squadron, 3rd the King's Own Hussars.
Carden Loyd Mk. VI (Armour in profile) by Robert Joseph Icks
British and Commonwealth A.F. Vs, 1940-46; (Armoured fighting vehicles of the world) by Duncan Crow