These images are taken from Eric’s private collection, as well as from the Australian war Memorial, with thanks.
More than 3000 men boarded the Orcades from varying units. The men reached open waters on the 3rd of Feb and were issued tropical uniforms but because of varying temperatures throughout the journey, it caused an epidemic of flu and cold like symptoms aboard the over crowded ship. Feeding all the men aboard proved difficult as the kitchen was under supplied, but the staff cooks performed miracles almost daily to feed all the men on board.
During the 2 week voyage the men studied Jungle warfare, which gave some indication as to where the ship was heading, but the men were still unaware of their final destination. On Feb 7th Officers received pamphlets on “The Customs and Peoples of the Netherlands East Indies”, but even this didn’t discourage the popular and optimistic view that the men may be heading home to Australia.
On Feb 9th the ship passed through the Port at Colombo, which showed the visible signs of a unraveling World War, with hundreds of damaged ships throughout the harbour.
The next day the ship left, escorted by HMS Dorsetshire, and traveled in a zig zag pattern to avoid attack from submarines. Attack from enemy aircraft was also to be expected. On Feb 15th the ship reached the Island of Java and dropped anchor in the Harbor of Oosthaven.
Before being taken ashore the men where briefed that Japanese paratroopers had dropped in the area and had taken over oil and air fields a few hundred miles from Java. 2500 men of various units, including the Pioneers landed under the command of Lt-Col A.S. Blackburn. The unit was in no condition to fight and lacked supplies and even firearms. The men were issued American rifles that had not seen before, but the biggest problem was the lack of ammunition, with the men only issued 50 rounds each. The ship carrying all the men’s supplies was several days behind the Orcades, and in fact would never arrive in Java, after being diverted back to Australia.
The troops were unaware at the time, but the reason they were sent to Java in the first place was highly controversial. Initially, the Pioneers were recalled from The Middle East to protect Australia against Japanese aggression in the region. It seemed only a matter of time before the Japanese landed on Australia as they swiftly moved through the Pacific.
Instead, the British High command decided that the Orcades should land its troops on Java, whose airfields were important, but also as a token gesture to the Dutch, whose homeland was already under Nazi control. This was done against vigorous protest by Australian Prime Minister John Curtin, who wanted the men to return home to Australia.
The move seemed more political than strategic, as the men were extremely under prepared for facing a fully equipped Japanese force, that seemed almost unstoppable. The move would lead to over 3000 men becoming prisoners of war, and even nearly 50 years after the fact Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating, used a visit from Queen Elizabeth to Australia to remind Britons that their Government had “decided not to defend the Malaysian Peninsula, not to worry about Singapore, and not give us our troops back from Java to keep ourselves from Japanese domination.”
Nonetheless, 924 of the battalion were put ashore on Java, the Pioneers joined with the 2/3 Machinegun Battalion, under the command of Brigadier General A.S. Blackburn, and the resulting brigade, designated as Blackforce, was placed under Dutch command.
The Pioneers fought fiercely against the Japanese, despite being issued outdated weapons and, on some occasions, using Biblical, hand to hand combat methods. Almost as outdated as the weapons issued to the Pioneers was the intelligence they received about Japanese strength on the Island. On March 3rd the Dutch reported that there were no Japanese on Java, but the next day 5 Japanese tanks attacked a bridge the Pioneers were guarding, and a ferocious battle took place. The pioneers killed over 500 Japanese and were commended from their bravery from other American units that were also on Java. The battle also led the Japanese to believe there was a much larger force on Java then there actually was. This convinced the Japanese to send a much larger force to Java and helped considerably slow the Japanese march to Australia.
On March 8th the Dutch decided to capitulate, and the Australians, being under Dutch command, had no choice but to surrender as well. On March 9, the Battalion was ordered to withdraw, and to destroy or disable all weapons and vehicles. The men were now cut off from the outside world and were taken as prisoners by the Japanese.
Excerpts from this page were taken from the book “4000 bowls of Rice” by Linda Goetz Holmes.