In January 1942, ‘B’ Squadron Leader was called to the C.O.’s office and told that one squadron of 3rd Hussars of full strength was to be dispatched to Cairo immediately – future destination unknown. Since there were insufficient tanks to mount fully even two squadrons, ‘B’ Squadron was then unmounted and it seemed logical that ‘B’ should go, although, as the Squadron Leader pointed out, the Squadron had been separated from the Regiment almost all the time it had been in Egypt, and now it seemed to be the turn of one of the others!

Nevertheless, the squadron sailed from Famagusta to Port Said a few days later with the hollow hope that it was to be the pilot squadron to be equipped with the new American tanks which had recently arrived in the Middle East.

After a very few hectic days spent collecting Mark VI Light tanks, full establishment of vehicles, plus extras, and many refinements like Tommy guns, Mills bombs, wireless sets for the troops’ entertainment, etc., we sailed from Suez better equipped than we had ever been during the war. To make the Squadron a self-complete, independent force, a section of the Royal Army Ordnance Corps was attached.

We took with us three reserve tanks ammunition and supplies down to third-line reserves. We also had our own M.D. for the voyage. The destination was unknown but since we headed east, guessing was not difficult.

The Norwegian merchant vessel Hermion was put at our disposal. The men were quartered in the main hold and slept in hammocks. All the vehicles, equipment, ammunition and supplies were loaded into the remaining holds. Our cooks were responsible for the meals, and we had our galley. There were no other troops on board. Most of us thought that the accommodation and food were a long way ahead of the usual standard of a troopship, and we all enjoyed the trip. During the voyage, LCpl Morton, ably directed by Lt Williamson, ran a good wet and dry canteen, and S.S.M. Ellis ran the usual high-class concert. Gunnery classes. W/O classes, etc., were held throughout the voyage. Before the end, under the direction of Capt Bentley-Taylor, everyone had passed his gunnery test on the Vickers gun – and a steaming hot business it was on tanks loaded in the upper holds.

After a short stay at Colombo, where everyone went ashore for a short while, many enjoyed a charabanc trip through the island, we arrived at Oostbaven, in Sumatra at 0700 hrs on 14th February. Colonel Stevens (Movement Control) came on board and told the Squadron Leader that he had orders for us to disembark immediately and to be ready to leave by train for Pelambang that day and to be prepared to fight immediately on arrival there! At 0930 hrs we heard that the Japanese had landed on the aerodrome a few miles north of Pelambang the same morning.

At 1100 hrs, we came alongside and found that all the native coolies had disappeared from the docks. With the Squadron working magnificently, by midnight the last of the ammunition and stores were on the quay, while the tanks had been unloaded straight onto railway flats. Battery charging, degreasing the guns, procuring petrol and filling tanks, loading belts. etc., went on apace and by the afternoon of the following day the Squadron was ready for battle.

Ooslhaven is a notorious area for malarial mosquitoes and the Squadron had to work unprotected save for mosquito cream all through the first night, and many of us the next night also. The bouts of malaria afterwards suffered by some of the men were probably due to these first two nights in the open. We also had our first experience of a tropical downpour. It was an astonishing contrast after Egypt.

By the evening of the 15th, it had become obvious that Pelambang must fall to the Japanese, and that ‘B’ Squadron was unlikely to perform a useful task by going there. Capt Lancaster went by train and motorcycle with much determination to meet a staff officer from General Warden’s H.Q. at P.2, an aerodrome south of Pelambang, to discuss the situation with him. The staff officer never arrived, and Capt Lancaster returned as black as any native of Sumatra, having had to complete the return journey on the engine.

Brigadier Steel (Australia) took over command of the troops around Oostbaven, which consisted of two battalions of Australians, machine gunners and Pioneers in the process of disembarking from the Middle East and Syria, the 3rd Hussars, one battery of light A.A. (35th Regiment), two batteries of heavy A.A. (6th Regiment), returning from Pelambang, and the Movement Control staff.

One troop (Lt J. Chadwick) spent the night of 15th of February picketing a road junction twenty-five miles north of Oosthaven and had their first experience of Sumatra snakes and rain.

Owing to the rapid worsening of the situation, orders now came that we were to re-embark, but, alas! the Hermion had departed and there was no suitable ship to carry us. The Silver Larch was eventually put at our disposal. This ship had insufficient water to fill the boilers and various other troubles and deficiencies which she had been unable to have replaced owing to the pressure of work in the port. The captain was first class. Disregarding all difficulties and disabilities, he filled his boilers with salt water and brought his large ship alongside without any aid from the quay at all. His officers and men worked like furies, helping to load our tanks and vehicles. Unfortunately, the derricks were not strong enough to lift the heavy ordnance vehicles and much of the heavy gear and some of the stores had to be left behind. At 0400 hrs on the 17th the Silver Larch, hardly visible for vehicles and men from all the units present was the last large ship to leave Oosthaven.

Meanwhile, Lt Williamson, to relieve the pressure on the Silver Larch, had started on a famous voyage to Batavia on a small harbour tug pulling a large, flat lighter laden with tanks, and such things as the ordnance recovery vehicle. All arrived safely.

The Silver Larch put in at Merak, Java, since the captain wished to be at sea as short a time as possible with such a swarm of men on board. Capt Lancaster with forty men remained on board as the tank party and sailed round to Batavia. The remainder transferred to another ship because transport could not be arranged immediately to Batavia. and that day was spent on board a small K.P.M. steamer because the Silver Larrch was too large to draw alongside the small quay.

On the 18th the main part of the Squadron moved by train to Batavia, having been refreshed en route at Serang with luscious Javanese fruit and other more substantial viands given to us by kind Dutch ladies. At Batavia, after a certain amount of coming and going, we settled down for the night in the Bicycle Barracks, which were the barracks of a Dutch cycle regiment (these barracks afterwards became one of the better prisoner-of-war camps). We came under the command of General Schilling, the Dutch commander in the Batavia area. We were to make a third squadron in a Dutch armoured regiment commanded by Major Wessel. One squadron was mounted in jeeps, one in armoured cars, and we were the heavy armour!

The next day we moved to the outskirts of Batavia to Villa Nuova, where some barracks made of bamboo and roofed with bamboo leaves had recently been erected for a native regiment. The villa itself was the farmhouse of a dairy farm, so milk was plentiful for those who were tired of beer. Never had we been fed better. The rations were arranged under the Dutch system. We were allowed 70 cents per man per day, and Capt Bentley-Taylor, S.Q.M.S. Feakes and their aide, a Dutch officer, Lt de Jonge, went off each day to do the shopping. They did it very well.

As soon as the tank party arrived at the docks, working all out, despite orders and counter-orders that no more was to be unloaded, the Squadron soon had the tanks ashore. By the 20th we were hard at work experimenting in the new conditions, which were rather like a nightmare until we became accustomed to them. Nothing seemed to work normally, it rained, and the heat was wet and tropical. The conditions for wireless were very bad. The speech was never certain above one mile. 11 had something to do with the humidity and the trees. The vehicles could only travel on the roads or the narrow tracks between the rice paddies, and once they were stuck-they stuck.

The heavy ordnance vehicles found conditions very difficult. Driving through the jungle seemed almost an impossible enterprise, but oddly enough it was not, for most jungle trees gave way surprisingly easily. Nevertheless, visibility was only about ten yards. Driving over flooded paddy fields, after our experiences in mud in Yorkshire, we hardly attempted. Driving straight through was all right, but the banks at the side would have been impossible to climb with spinning tracks.

Nevertheless, we stuck to it, and until the 27th we trained hard. Officers and N.C.Os. went on long reconnaissances. We did troop wireless schemes and two squadron schemes. The Squadron Leader paid a visit to Bandoeng and was given an interview by General Wavell. He also went on a long reconnaissance with General Schilling and Brigadier Blackburn. It is amazing how quickly one adjusts oneself to new conditions.

On the 28th we came under the command of Brigadier Blackburn, V.C. and now formed part of Blackforce, which was composed of one battalion of Australian pioneers, one battalion of Australian machine gunners, one other Australian company, the 3rd Hussars, and, later, a battery of American artillery (Texans). The machine guns had not landed in Java, so both battalions were carrying out a military role to which they were unused. They were armed with Bren guns and rifles. Blackforce moved to an area west of BuilenZorg, and the 3rd Hussars leaguered for the night of the 28th in a rubber plantation at Dramaga. Soon we knew that we would be meeting the Japs, who were reported to be about fifty miles west at Rangkasbitoeng.

The sharpest memory that most of us have of the next few days is probably of rain: we were wet all night and most afternoons. Capt Bentley-Taylor, with ‘B’ Echelon.” moved back east of Builenzorg on the road.

After some uncertainty as to what the final plan would be, on 3rd March the Australians met and held the Japanese at Leuwiliang Bridge, which had been unexpectedly blown up as the Dutch forward troops withdrew through the Australians. The terrain was most unsuitable for tanks. Rice paddies or thick jungle flanked the road. There was little the 3rd Hussars could do. On 4th March the Squadron moved over to the Buitenzorg-Semplak road. north of the river running west from Buitenzorg. Here we picketed the Semplak forked roads and sent a patrol forward twelve miles to Poetatnoetoeg. Lt Dallas’s troop went up to Leuwiliang to give protection to the Australian left flank around which the Japs were making their usual move.

He found the going very difficult on the muddy trucks: nevertheless, some satisfactory execution was done. Meanwhile, the Australians had been doing all they gallantly could. Two Japanese tanks were knocked out on the bridge. The American gunners came up in support, and the Japanese were held frontally. Nevertheless, our troops could not be everywhere and the outflanking movements continued.

On the afternoon of the 4th orders came that all the Dutch forces were withdrawing to the Bandoeng area: that Blackforce was to disengage and withdraw at 0600 hrs; that ‘B’ Squadron, 3rd Hussars, with one company of Australians attached, was to hold a position slightly west of Buitenzorg until 1200 hrs on the 5th to allow all Dutch troops to move away down the Batavia- Buitenzorg-Soekaboemi road.

That night we took up our new position. A patrol moved down the road at dawn. No contact with the Japanese was made. Lt Frow’s troop, with Sgt Casey as second-in-command, took up a position on the road about two miles in front of the main position, which was held by the Australians supported by tanks.

At about 10 o’clock Lt Frow reported that the Japanese were advancing on bicycles down the road. The troop engaged them, scattering the cyclists and leaving some dead. Then for two hours, the Japanese muddled around the tanks firing at them with light machine guns and eventually mortars, but no impression was made on the troop standing its ground out on the road. it was difficult to spot the source of the enemy fire, which came from all directions, from the tall grass, from plantations and green rice paddy; nevertheless, well-directed bursts silenced two light machine guns and we think we killed about a dozen of the enemy.

We were asked by General Schilling to stay until 1300 hrs and at 1330 hrs we withdrew, leaving the Japanese advance troops not nearer than three miles to the main position, which was now taken over by a Dutch regiment. Lt Frow’s troop had held its ground undisturbed and taken all the enemy fire. We now withdrew through Buitenzorg and were rejoined by Lt Chadwick’s troop. which had been on patrol on the Scmplak road.

We marched all night and after a short halt at Soekaboemi we reached Bandoeng to leaguer in a rubber plantation east of the town. On 8th March the British force moved south and the news of the capitulation reached us. It was not certain if British and Australian troops were to continue to fight, but towards evening an order from General Sitwell came that the 3rd Hussars were to destroy their tanks.

This was later confirmed in writing, and news came that we were to lay down our arms. So on the evening of 8th March, the tanks were destroyed. Most of them, after the guns had been dismantled and vital parts extracted, were toppled over a deep ravine into a torrent below.

That evening the Squadron collected at “The Grand Hotel,” Tijoeropan-a lovely holiday resort with a fine swimming pool. Most of us relieved our feelings by jumping in much to the dismay of Dutch lady visitors who were used to bathing dresses. That night the Squadron Leader explained the situation and spoke of the improbability of being able to escape from the island. This none of us wished to believe. Later, after a conference with General Sitwell, he again stressed the difficulties of escape, of unreliable natives, of tropical disease, etc ., but none of us wanted to believe the obvious. So during the night many parties organized themselves and disappeared. As far as possible, these parties were organized by troop leaders, who each took a party with them.

Some, wiser, stayed where they were to await events.

Of course, conditions were hopeless. There were no seaboats on the ocean-beaten south coast. All had been destroyed by the Dutch. We had very little money and no local experience or understanding of the language. So after varying experiences and adventures most of the Squadron had collected together again by 28th March sadder but wiser men minus much invaluable kit. Nevertheless, one must admire the spirit which was determined not to become a prisoner without a struggle to escape.

One incident is worth mentioning. A one-toothed private spent all his cash on a native canoe and a food store of coconuts. With this equipment, he set out to sea intending to sail east to a game preserve which he had heard of in the west of the island. He capsized out at sea and swam to the shore, which he reached without a possession in the world-completely naked. He spent a few nights in the jungle and then, with the fortune which should always follow such strange and gallant spirits, he was found by two other 3rd Hussars walking the island.

Related topics

  1. A Short History of The 3rd Hussars
  2. Timeline: Middle East (Egypt and Libya)
  3. Timeline: Dutch East Indies – January 1942
  4. Article: ‘B’ Squadron, 3rd Hussars – The ‘Java’ Squadron
  5. Article: Arrival in Java – An account of ‘B’ Squadron, 3rd Hussars
  6. Article: In the hands of the Japanese – An account of ‘B’ Squadron, 3rd Hussars
  7. Article: Prisoners of War of the Japanese, 1942-45