SURABAYA – City of Heroes

The city that helped shape Indonesia’s modern destiny

To the Indonesian people Surabaya is Kota Palahwan – ‘The City of Heroes’ – for the sacrifices of its citizens and their inspirational role in the national struggle for independence.

At the close of the second World War, Surabaya resistance helped galvanize and unify the Indonesian population through four years of fierce and sometimes bloody conflict against Dutch efforts to reimpose colonial rule.

It put the Indonesia in the vanguard of Asian nations leading the wave of post-war de-colonization that changed the face of Asia and laid the groundwork for the emergence of what analysts are today describing as the Asian Century.

It’s a fascinating story.

Founding President Soekarno and Deputy Hatta watch the raising the home-sewn flag of the independence movement - on 17 August 1945

Tumultuous events that brought the birth of a new Indonesian nation

On August 6 of 1945 the American Air Force dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima and three days later a second on Nagasaki.

Six days later, on August 15, Emperor Hirohito announced the Japanese surrender to the Allies in a recorded radio broadcast to the people of Japan and its empire.

After two more days, on the 17th, at 10am, Indonesia’s founding President Soerkarno, flanked by his deputy Mohammed Hatta, stood before a small gathering in front of a suburban Jakarta home and proclaimed Indonesian independence.

Supporters raised a flag newly sewn by Soerkano’s wife Fatmawati the previous evening – the Merah Putih (red and white).

The colors had previously been adopted by independence supporters from the banners of the old Majahapit Nusantara empire. It became the national flag of the new republic.

Soekarno proclaims Indonesian Independence before a small gathering in front of his suburban Jakarta home

The gathering then sang Indonesia Raya (Great Indonesia) – the nationalistic song that had been banned by the Dutch. It became the Indonesian national anthem.

Independence supporters at Radio Jakarta briefly took control of the station and broadcast news of the declaration to the country and, in due course, the world.

The cascading actions that turned a city into a warzone and killed and injured thousands

Surabaya’s pivotal role began when Indonesian nationalist militias took control of the city soon after Soekarno’s Jakarta declaration.

This launched a sequence of events leading to a brutal battle that killed thousands.

In the immediate aftermath of the World War the Dutch had believed they would restore the prewar status-quo and be welcomed back as “parents” by the local population to resume their rule over what was their largest, wealthiest and most profitable colony.

But by the end of the war in Europe they had neither the forces nor the resources to fill the void left by the sudden surrender of the Japanese regime in Indonesia.

The Allies sent a British contingent of Indian troops under British officers who arrived on 25 October on what they believed to be a humanitarian mission to locate and repatriate prisoners of war and civilians interned by the Japanese, and to supervise the disarmament and repatriation of Japanese forces.

British armour and troops of the disarmament and repatriation force on the advance in Surabaya
Indonesian republic regulars (ABOVE) and volunteer fighters armed with bamboo spears (LEFT) rallying during the conflict in 1946

An unspoken intention was most certainly to also restore Dutch colonial rule and fears of this prompted skirmishes between Indonesian forces and Militias and the arriving British troops.

Fighting erupted after a British commander supervising the transition from Japanese occupation in Jakarta ordered an air drop of leaflets on 27 October, demanding Surabaya’s Indonesian militias and regulars surrender their weapons and threatening bombardment of the city should they refuse.

This ultimatum was contrary to an earlier agreement between the Indonesian leaders and the British command in Surabaya.

The brutal and little-known battle that changed South-east Asia forever

The Surabaya militias and regular forces, simmering with anger and independence fervor, promptly rejected the order.

A day later, supported by thousands of ordinary citizens, they began attacking British posts. Republican radio broadcasts called for a national uprising.

The British Commander, Brigadier General Aubertin Mallaby, arranged for Soekarno and other nationalist leaders to fly in from Jakarta and succeeded in hammering out an agreement for a cease-fire with the arms surrender order from Jakarta partially revoked.

But the conflict escalated further after Mallaby, was shot dead or killed in a grenade explosion during a confused street skirmish on 30 October while attempting to inform his troops of the cease-fire.

On 10 November reinforced British troops retaliated, beginning days of advancing through Surabaya with the support of aerial and naval bombardments.

The Indonesian militias and regulars fought back ferociously. As one fighter dropped another took his place.

Meanwhile, returning Dutch  colonists, newly liberated from Japanese prisons, raised the Dutch flag over the Hotel Majahapit, then known as the Hotel Oranje.

A young independence revolutionary climbed the flagpole and ripped the bottom portion from the Dutch red white and blue tricolor to create a Merah Putih – the banned flag of the independence movement.

Bung Tomo, inspirational leader of Surabaya militas
Burnt out remains of General Mallaby’s car

The Majapahit hotel thus secured an indelible place in modern Indonesian history.

A 2018 re-enactment of the famous flag tearing incident at the Majapahit Hotel, an event of great symbolic significance for Indonesians

Young men and women calling themselves Arek-Arek Suroboyo (Children of Surabaya) raided Japanese armories for weapons and joined pro-independence regular Indonesian forces in pitched battles against the British Gurkha forces, Dutch colonists and Japanese soldiers co-opted and re-armed by the British to try to restore order.

Young Indonesian irregular volunteers who had no guns mounted attacks against machine guns with machetes, knives and bamboo spears.

The British called in 10,000 infantry reinforcements, tanks, naval bombardments and aerial bombing and over a period of three weeks gradually assumed full control.

Over those days somewhere between 6,000 to 15,000 Indonesian and as many as 1,500 British and Dutch soldiers and civilians died. There are no authoritative numbers, but no one disputes it was slaughter, particularly on the Indonesian side.

The death toll included a second British general, killed in a plane crash, while an estimated 200,000 refugees fled Surabaya.

Monumen Bambu Runcing – the Bamboo Spear Monument is Surabaya’s tribute to the heroic resistance of volunteer independence fighters

The rest of the world was too busy or too tired to know or care

As a “battle” it proved a massive defeat for the Indonesian nationalists. But the conflict galvanized Indonesian and international support and proved a decisive strategic moment for the independence movement.

The cries of Merdeka (freedom) of the young Surabaya fighters echoed throughout the country.

Within a year all British forces had left Indonesia and the Dutch found themselves caught up in on-going armed and political and diplomatic conflict.

They were never again to regain the control they enjoyed over the years prior to the Japanese occupation, finally opting to recognize Indonesian independence and depart for good in December 1949.

So much was happening in the aftermath of the war in Europe and the Pacific that few Westerners knew (or cared) about the bloody events in Surabaya and for those who did it is now a distant memory.

But every Indonesian knows the stories of what happened and most feel the same emotions of glory, triumph, pride, loss and reverence that many Australians and New Zealanders feel about the ill-fated ANZAC campaign at Gallipoli or Americans about the Battle of the Alamo.

Indonesians now celebrate 10 November as National Heroes Day.

The rest of the world was too busy or too tired to know or care

This Heroes Museum sculpture captures the carnage and anguish that makes the Battle of Surabaya so symbolic to Indonesians

Our tour visits the Tugu Pahlawan (Heroes Monument) and its museum where the people of Surabaya and visitors from throughout Indonesia remember and honor the events and the sacrifices of the Battle of Surabaya in 1945.

It allows us to gain some understanding of how Indonesians view and feel deeply about these events of their modern history.

Perhaps a moment to ponder what might have been for this now rising nation had the young men and women of Surabaya not rallied against the odds and vastly superior firepower for the cause of freedom.

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Douglas Cole

Doug is a former journalist and broadcaster who lived and travelled in Indonesia and Southeast Asia from 2002 to 2018. He returned to Indonesia in mid-2022 after being stranded in Australia by COVID border closures. He is completing a book under the working title ‘INDONESIA – Safely, Easily, and in Comfort.’

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