The Blunder of Major General Hawthorn’s Ultimatum

Surabaya, October 27, 1945, at 11.00 a.m., a British plane flew in circles over Surabaya, showering menacing leaflets: “… all Surabaya people should surrender all their arms taken from the Japanese army. Those who keep such weapons will be shot on-site”. Major General HC Hawthorn, the British Commander in Java, Madura, Bali, and Lombok, posted in Batavia (now Jakarta), signed the leaflet.

Brigadier General AWS Mallaby, the operational commander of the British army in Surabaya, was astounded. The ultimatum was issued without his knowledge a) and breached the agreement that he had made with Surabaya leaders. These ill-advised leaflets unraveled the ceasefire negotiations, and with sudden, all the hell broke loose.

Certainly, Hawthorn must have been dreaming. He was unaware of the immensity of the quantity of the weapons he had asked Surabaya people to surrender. A total of 37,000 arms of various types including rifles, heavy machine guns, mortars, coastal batteries, trucks,18 anti-aircraft artillery, 23 light tanks, 34 Landing Craft Vehicle Personnel, one minesweeper, two submarine hunters and two tugboats were in the hand of Surabaya military, police, and volunteers. Besides, there were clubs, swords, daggers, and bamboo spears held in the mob’s hands.

Nobody in Surabaya was crazy enough to humiliate himself by surrendering his weapon, bringing a white flag with his both hands up before the British troops, as Hawthorn demanded. Their response was fast and fierce. Only within one day after Hawthorn ultimatum, all British soldiers who happened to be in the streets were wiped out, their jeeps, trucks, and tanks were no exception.

The whole Mallaby’s brigade dispersed in several parts of the city was encircled and attacked by 20,000 Indonesian police, soldiers, and volunteers supported by a mob of more than one hundred thousand people armed with non-conventional weapons.  No logistic supports from the British headquarter established in the harbor area could penetrate such encirclement and reached their desperate units.

After three days and nights of fierce battles, the fate of the British infantry brigade was determined, it was hopeless and going to be demolished. Had Soekarno and Hatta not come to Surabaya on October 29 asking the people of Surabaya to cease fire,  the Mallaby “Fighting Cock” Brigade would already become history. Hawthorn, who then met Soekarno and Hatta in Surabaya, agreed to consider his ultimatum as null and void b).

The incident began and preceded by the arrival of the British Army in Indonesia, on behalf of the Allied Forces c), to receive the Japanese surrender and evacuate the European prisoners. Arriving in Jakarta on September 16th, 1945, British Rear Admiral Patterson d), immediately announced that his troops were there to maintain law and order until the time that the lawful government of the Netherlands East Indies is once again functioning e).

The British army was deployed to several strategic points in Indonesia, among others Surabaya under the command of Brigadier General Mallaby, Semarang of Brigadier General Bethel, and Bandung of Brigadier General Mac Donald to execute the task.

Mallaby arrived in Surabaya with his 6,000 soldiers from the 49th Infantry Brigade (dubbed as Fighting Cock) consisting of Maharatta specialized in city battle and Rajputama armed with heavy machine guns as the destructive troops, together with 23rd Division and XV Corps.

The British troops landed in Surabaya without resistance and were surprised that not even a single Japanese soldier met them. They were unaware that the Surabaya people had attacked and put all Japanese soldiers in camps and seized all the weapons the Japanese possessed in Surabaya. The city had come back to life. Trams regularly run along the city streets. Hotels and restaurants reopened, the street lights shone well, and even the oil wells at Wonokromo, the Southern part of Surabaya city, functioned normally.

During the meeting between Mallaby and Soedirman, the Surabaya Regent, the Indonesian agreed to give the British a concession to occupy some essential buildings in the city. The primary purpose was allowing them to execute their main tasks on seizing the arms from the Japanese, evacuating them as well as the European prisoners to outside the city.

When the British place eventually showered the Hawthorn’s leaflets over Surabaya, Mallaby frankly explained to his Indonesian interlocutors that he was surprised and never consulted by his superior in Jakarta. But, then, he dramatically continued saying:” as a British officer, however, albeit the agreement I made with the Republican leaders in Surabaya,  I had no choice but to obey my commander.”

From then on, nobody in Surabaya believed that the British soldiers could be trusted on what they said and agreed.  Hawthorn certainly underestimated the situation and didn’t feel necessary to consult his subordinate before he showered the leaflets he signed over several big cities in Java at the end of October 1945. As a result, the battles broke out in many areas, of which Surabaya was the biggest.

The day after Soekarno and Hatta, together with Hawthorn, left Surabaya, General Mallaby, and several prominent Surabaya leaders, as members of the contact-bureau, campaigned the cease-fire across the city. Arriving in Jembatan Merah (Red Bridge), where hundreds of people surrounded a building (ex Internatio) occupied by the British soldiers,  the contact bureau members asked the people around to observe the cease-fire. Suddenly fires were opened from the inside of the building igniting cross-fire with armed people outside, which provoked the Mallaby’s death f).

On October 31st, Lieutenant General Philip Christison, the Commander of the Allied Forces Netherlands East Asia posted in Singapore, issued an ultimatum:

“Warning to Indonesia!

On October 28, a large number of armed Indonesia in Surabaya attacked without warning or provocation g) from British forces, which had landed there peacefully. Subsequently, these Indonesian broke the truce, which had been agreed in the presence of Dr. Soekarno and Mohammad Hatta and foully murdered Brigadier Mallaby, who had on a conversation with them. I intend to bring the whole weight of my sea, land, and air forces and all weapons of modern war against them until they are crushed….”

The British battleships’ canons did not fire a single projectile to bombardier Japanese’s positions during World War II. But the glorious British forces devastated Surabaya, the second biggest and populated city in Indonesia, which never declared war to Allied Forces, and killed with their modern war machines h)  10,000 of their enemy, civilian people, included, without mercy.

On November 23, considering that Surabaya people still fiercely defended their city two weeks i) after Christison ultimatum, the Allied forces held a meeting in the Jakarta palace. Here General Demsey, the commander in chief of the Allied army in South East Asia, proposed to evacuate the troops from Surabaya and concentrate their forces in West Java instead.

The Surabaya “punitive” action was not a forgotten war, as Christopher and Harper mentioned in their book entitled the same topic. Still, it was the war that most British wish everybody to forget. Howard P. Jones, the former US Ambassador to Indonesia, however, could not hide his repulsion feeling on the British overacting role in executing their mission in Indonesia and cynically wrote 2:” It was an ironic position. After their nearest base at Singapore had collapsed in one of the most inglorious defeats of World War II, they had nothing to do with Indonesia or the island operations of MacArthur, but concentrating on India and Burma”.


a. Mallaby was shocked and desperate, calling his commander’s action as reckless. Was he sincere about what he had said?  We can judge him from what he wrote to his wife at that very evening1:” the commander erases all my efforts by dropping leaflets from the plane directly taken off from Batavia without informing me the content. Those leaflets gave a blow to my face and humiliated me as a high officer”.

b. Several cities in Java followed suit 3:

  • On November 10, General Bethel, the Allied commander chief in Central Java, spoke on the radio in Semarang to avoid the battle spread into Central Java. Otherwise, he would not get additional forces from the headquarter informing: “As the clash in Surabaya is now in the move, we the Allied commander in chief in Central Java will not mingle with the conflict in Surabaya. Our standpoint is still the same as what we had agreed upon with Excellency Mr. Wongsonegoro, the Governor of Central J
  • As the Surabaya fight was getting fierce, in Bandung Brigadier General Mac Donald annulled, in turn, Hawthorn’s ultimatum to Bandung people on November 17th, 19
  • In Jakarta, the Indonesian government took the initiative ordering the People Security Army (TKR) to leave Jakarta, avoiding the devastating battle taking place in the capital city.

c. Franklin D. Roosevelt immediately agreed with Churchill’s proposal to transfer the areas to Mountbatten’s Southeast Asia Command from MacArthur’s Far Eastern Command, as he didn’t want to let the United States become involved in the wrong side of a colonial dispute.

d. Accompanied by Van der Plas, the Dutch representative on Mountbatten’s staff. He was undoubtedly the man behind the scene who proposed the Hawthorn’s messy ultimatum. The Javanese, who like to describe something with a parable, pointed him as the Judas Iscariot. While Roosevelt knew about the consequences of handing over Indonesia to British [and Dutch] forces described as Pontius Pilates who handed over Jesus to  Jewish people.

f. This statement exceeded the mandate given by the Allies, which limited the British presence only to receive the Japanese surrender and evacuate European prisoners, not to enforce the transfer of power from Japan to Netherlands authority.

g. The death of Mallaby was used by the British as a casus belli to enable them to deploy all their modern war machines to wipe out Surabaya. Facing the ultimatum, some  Surabaya leaders presumed that the 1931 Nakamura incident had been taken by the British as the precedence to justify their action, which was entirely dissimilar. Mallaby died during the disorder situation caused by the cross-fire initiated by the British soldiers. Surabaya leaders and their vehicles also became the target of the fires from within the building. It forced them to save away from the spot and abandon Mallaby and his staff on their own.

h. Naturally, he didn’t mention about the controversial Hawthorn’s airdrop ultimatum leaflets and the subsequent seizing of numerous Indonesian’s arms and vehicles.

i. The British deployed various battleships: two frigates (HMS Loch Gorm and Loch Glendu), one cruiser (HMS Sussex), three torpedo launchers (HMS Carron, Caesar, Cavalier), eight troops transporters (HMS Gleen Roy, Princess Beatrix, etc.), 4 Landing Ship Tank (LST) and 4 Landing Craft (LCT) supported by RAF squadrons Spitfire, Mosquito, and Thunderbolt ready to destroy Surabaya. A total of 28,000 soldiers from various Indian Infantry Brigades strengthen by heavy artillery units bringing in 23-pound cannons and howitzer 3-7 supported by 20 Sherman tanks, one squadron of light tanks and Bren-carriers 4.

j. The second Surabaya battle on November 10 (later on, it the Indonesians celebrated as a Hero day) began with the bombardment launched from battleships of the 5th cruiser squadron under the flagship of HMS Sussex directed toward the city center. Combined with the fires from the heavy artillery and airstrike from the thunderbolt, razed a lot number of buildings there onto the ground level. The fights were fierce and brutal, frequently on one-to-one man street fights. Many British tank crews were killed together with the intruding “Jibaku” man who killed himself by exploding the grenade he brought in to the tank cabin. After almost one month fight,  by the first week of December, having lost 10,000 brave souls, the Indonesian forces withdrew southward to the city outskirts and surrounding areas.


  1. Alwi, D.:” the Battle of Surabaya, November 1945,” BIP, Jakarta, 2011, p. 238 – 240.
  2. Jones, H.P.:” Indonesia: The Possible Dream,”  Ayumas, Singapore, 1977, p. 101-102
  3. Nasution, A.H.: “Memenuhi Panggilan Tugas,” Jilid I, Gunung Agung, Jakarta, 1984, p. 112-113.
  4. Alwi, D., ibid, p. 364-365.