Do the laws of armed conflict apply in guerrilla war?

Dec 11, 2020

Australia’s first special forces, fighting in the jungles of Borneo in WWII, fought in a war where neither side adhered to the international rules of armed conflict.

The Brereton report investigating allegations of serious misconduct by Australia’s Special Forces in Afghanistan contains a brief chapter on war crimes in Australian history going back as far as the Boer War and the Boxer Rebellion and examining incidents in the context of the laws of armed conflict of the day.

But it does not examine Australian World War II special operations which were the forerunner of the current commandoes and SAS and involved incidents that could be considered war crimes.

On 7 April 1942 British Major G. E. Mott, who had been head of Special Operations Executive (SOE) in Java, conferred with the Commander in Chief General Thomas Blamey, who agreed that a special operations organisation was imperative. Blamey wanted the organisation to be under his command and said that only the highest staff officers should have direct knowledge of it.

General Douglas MacArthur approved the proposal on 17 April 1942.

Documents held by the National Archives of Australia (NAA) show that from the very start the troubles that special operations would encounter were recognised. The planned special operations were in themselves a breach of the Laws and Usages of War.

This realisation was to be hidden from the public.

Copy number one of The Official History of the Operations and Administration of ‘Special Operations Australia’ conducted under the cover name ‘Services Reconnaissance Department’ (Vol 1 1946 NAA 3269 Barcode 235324) notes that the Germans and Japanese had built up secret organisations to carry out espionage and anti-British propaganda. To offset this type of warfare, early in 1939 the British established a secret organisation later known as the Special Operations Executive. Its role was to hinder the enemy’s regimentation of conquered people and promote disaffection, passive resistance and revolt, sabotage and guerrilla warfare among the people of the occupied countries.

“It will be appreciated that this form of warfare was hitherto little known to the British. Moreover, it was a form of warfare regarded with the utmost distaste by the average Britain,” Copy 1 of the official history goes on to say that the SOE was considered by the British War Cabinet as a separate service, a service able to carry out tasks “which could not be undertaken by other services” because “the employment of civilians, foreign nationals and native people for subversive activities is a breach of the Laws and Usages of War imposed on the regular services by Regulation.”

The quotes are in Copy 1 of the official history but they were excised from the later copies intended for public release. The public was not to be told that Australians would engage in questionable operations.

And nowhere were operations more questionable than in northern Borneo, where a number of code-named operations such as Python, Squirrel, Agas (sandfly) and Semut (ant), were carried out. The most successful, and perhaps most controversial, judged from standards of today, was Operation Semut 1.

In March 1945 a band of 42 Australian and New Zealand guerrillas, led by British Major Tom Harrisson parachuted into the highland of Borneo in an operation designed to assist the AIF’s major amphibious operation to re-take the island from the Japanese.

Harrisson wasted no time in deploying his men. They were sent down river to recruit and train local tribesmen who would provide intelligence, ambush Japanese patrols and take Japanese outposts. The guerrillas had little difficult finding tribal allies who hated the Japanese.

And as the warriors saw it, there was an added side-benefit, they could again take heads.

Head-hunting had been banned by the White Rajas who ruled Sarawak up until the Japanese occupation. There was no official endorsement to return to re-establish the practice but none of the guerrillas was going to do anything to stop it and in almost every jungle engagement heads were taken.

Corporal Roland Griffiths-Marsh understood that headhunting was a cultural practice of his tribal warriors and accepted that when Japanese soldiers were killed, the warriors would take their heads. But after the war he said he was haunted by a clash in the jungle where seven Japanese were beheaded before being shot.

Warrant Officer Jack Tredrea said he personally did not object to the taking of heads because “We didn’t like the Japanese, the Japanese didn’t like us, and we knew if they caught us, we wouldn’t only be killed, we’d be tortured pretty fiercely beforehand.”

Sergeant Fred Sanderson said the beheadings should not be regarded as any more savage than other war actions. “Do not think too harshly of the Ibans; the usual order to fighters is kill or be killed and these people were only defending what was theirs, with the weapon they knew best – the parang. (bush-knife)”

American airman Dan Illerich, who was shot-down and later rescued by the Semut guerrillas, said that as he watched Kelabit smoking heads he thought: “That’s their way of life. I was a guest in their house. I wasn’t gonna criticize what they were doing. That was my feeling. Maybe I should have felt bad about it, but I didn’t.”

But the regular army took a different view to the guerrillas.

Driver Phil Henry was only 22 years-old, leading a band of Iban warriors on the Limbang River on 10 July 1945, when a platoon of AIF arrived at the outpost of Ukong he and his warriors had captured.

Lolling at ease in shorts, slouch hat and bead necklace Henry apparently did not show the senior AIF officer and his NCO, the respect they expected. And when the officer ordered him about, Henry’s Iban troops took umbrage.

Henry and his band held two alleged collaborators captive. The guerrillas’ policy was to treat ‘ordinary’ collaborators’actions as excusable, to be overlooked and forgotten.Only where one had gone beyond the bounds and exploited his position was he to be regarded as a true ‘collaborator.’ One of the prisoners was in this category.

While Henry was pressing rice wine on the lower ranks, the officers went on an inspection tour of the town. As they did, the Iban turned their attention to the committed collaborator. Hearing a commotion, the officers raced back to be confronted by a headless man writhing on the ground. The Iban had shot and beheaded the collaborator.

Apparently anticipating what was to happen, at 10 p.m. that night Henry dashed out a signal to his leader Tom Harrisson in his mountain HQ. He saidthe execution of Lakopwas “beyond the bounds of your orders” but necessary under the circumstances. Lakop was a definite threat to the security in the area. Most of his men were out on patrol and he did not have the men to guard him overnight and there was every possibility of him escaping. The Japanese were still in the belief that Ukong was in Japanese hands and Henry said he couldn’t risk having one person on the river who would tell them the real state of affairs. He said he felt the action was justified.

The note did not save Henry. He was arrested and taken to Labuan and charged with the “murder of a British subject.”

At the Court Martial ordered by the 9th Division General George Wootten, 25-year-old Lieutenant Alan John Bradshaw testifiedthat he had met Henry at Bun Bun, where Henry was interrogating an alleged Malay collaborator. Later, Henry had picked up another alleged collaborator. After arriving at Ukong and settling his patrol in billets, Bradshaw said he had a conversation with Henry.

“I told Dvr Henry that it was my job simply to contact him to obtain information of Jap movements and investigation of native reports and topographic information. I told him that he was not in any way under my command and he could please himself what he did with the collaborators. It was immaterial to me whether I took the collaborator back or not.” Bradshaw said that he left Henry and headed down to the barge and on his way back heard a shot. “I looked around and came back up the track a little and saw a headless Malay lying on the ground. Dvr Henry was not there. I did not see the shot fired. The Dyaks had the head.”

Bradshaw confronted Henry and told him that ‘we’, the AIF, discouraged the practice of Dyaks removing heads from bodies. Henry said he considered it reasonable for the maintenance of prestige among the 500 Dyaks he had under his command.

Witness statements were taken from two AIF sergeants and six AIF privates. Some said they heard a shot, all claimed to have been some distance from the incident and all said they had not seen the killing..

Harrisson told the court that he considered Henry’s action “fully justified.” It would have been quite impracticable for Henry to have sent this “dangerous and notorious character” back to his HQ under native escorts.

But, suspecting that this might not be enough to save his man, he also went above Wootten’s head and made direct representations to the highest possible authority—the Commander-in-Chief General Blamey. His representations did not go unrewarded.

Blamey sent an envoy, Brigadier K. A. Wills to look into the matter and told Wootten not to take any action against Henry until Blamey himself had seen the evidence against him.

Wills sent Blamey a copy of the Court Martial evidence with a cover note that “respectfully suggested” that Henry be moved to the special forces headquarters at Morotai.An initialled handwritten directive on Wills’ note, dated 8 September (probably in Blamey’s hand) says: “Dvr Henry to be moved to Morotai as requested by Brig Wills.”

Henry was subsequently flown to Morotai and quietly returned to Australia, where the matter vanished into thin air.

After the war Semut 3 guerrilla leader Major Bill Sochon commented that in Borneo they were hardly in a position to observe the Geneva Convention by taking prisoners. He noted that this was a courtesy which the Japanese “themselves overlooked with unpleasant regularity.”

Paul Malone’s book Kill the Major, published by For Pity Sake Publishing tells the story of the Semut 1 guerrillas in Borneo in World War II.

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