Peter Stanley

Borneo, 1945


Borneo is the largest island in Asia and the world’s third-largest. It is located at the geographic centre of Southeast Asia Maritime which is in relation to the existing major islands in Indonesia. 

While many countries of the world have their islands to themselves, Borneo Island has the misfortune of being divided along political lines. This island is known to be owned in parts of Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia. The first two former countries to the North and Indonesia’s ownership tended to the south. Indonesia owns 73% of the entire island anyway. 

The island is majorly known to be the base of one of the oldest rainforests that there are in the world. It is estimably 140 million years old. Many endemic plants and animals’ species are believed to have sprouted from there. And it is home to the few remaining and endangered orang-utans. 

All these, however, could not bring this island into the most overwhelming limelight. Although, it could have – through help from scientific historians. What brought Borneo to international history was yet the Second World War, when the Japanese Military seized and occupied most areas in Borneo from the early beginning of the war to the eventual year of its end – 1941 to 1945. To escape the Japanese, many people fled for the interior of the island in search of food while escaping from the Japanese. 

After Singapore had fallen, thousands of Australian and British war prisoners were sent to the Japanese camps in Borneo. From Sandakan camp alone, only six of the 2,500 prisoners made it out alive. This was after they were made to participate in a deadly event duly called Sandakan Death March. 

In 1945, the Australian 24th Brigade was sent on an operation to take the small island of Borneo of Tarakan from the settlers – Japanese. The irony intertwined with tragedy of that time is that, by the time their success came, they should not have begun. In the process of it, over 240 Australians lost their lives. 

The Battle has been well explored by Peter Stanley. He considered what the battle was like, what the battle means to Australians even fifty years after it happened. He also established how the operations were inextricably linked together. 

Following the landing of Australian 24th Battalion in Labaun, they had to fight to secure the airfields and intermittently keep up with the trouble left of their lodgement, deep in a place tagged “the pocket”. With tank support, this resistance was overcome. But not without cost. And on into Borneo, the cost of war increased. 

Peter Stanley’s book is a critical appraisal of the fact that it was so unnecessary – the  Borneo Campaign. His opinion tended towards that, the operation was one destined to be doomed due to the politics played by other allied countries in coalition warfare and how badly planned the operation was. 

The book is an Australian tragedy that echoes the voices of the men in Tarakan – anger-filled, bitter, some humorous, few scared and some others proud. It basically makes readers hear the voices of another vanished Australia.