Sumatra Print

The Japanese capture of Sumatra took place in two stages: South Sumatra was taken in mid-February 1942, North and Central Sumatra followed in March.

The POWs on Sumatra were largely concentrated in camps near Medan and Palembang. Many of them were sent overseas, but in 1943 and 1944 thousands of POWs were also taken from Java to Sumatra to be put to work there. In August 1945 there were POW camps along the Pakanbaru railway and in and around Palembang.

The civilian internees of North, Central, and South Sumatra stayed in their own regions for the duration of the occupation. In each region they were gathered in 1945 in large assembly camps in the interior. There were separate camps for men and for women and children, but they were close to each other.

Battle for Sumatra

The oil installations at Palembang in South Sumatra were an important target for the Japanese. On 14 February 1942 some 600 Japanese parachutists landed near one of the two airfields of Palembang and in and around the city’s two refinery complexes. A Javanese KNIL company drove the Japanese away from one of the refineries, but the other installation was only partially recovered. When it became clear that a large number of Japanese foot soldiers were arriving via the Musi river, the local KNIL commander was ordered to withdraw his troops and destroy the oil installations. The destruction was only partially successful. Most of the KNIL, British and Australian troops in South Sumatra escaped to Java, together with part of the European women and children.

As the Japanese marched steadily to the northwest, troops of the Japanese 25th Army on 11 and 12 March 1942 landed on four locations on the east coast of North and Central Sumatra: at Sabang, Kutaradje, at Idi and about 100 kilometres southeast of Medan. The 25th Army received a lot of support from the part of the natives, especially in Atjeh, where anti-Dutch sabotage operations were carried out even before the arrival of the Japanese. The KNIL detachments evacuated the coastal areas and withdrew in groups in the direction of North Sumatra’s interior, with the intent of starting a guerrilla in the mountains. Little to nothing came of this. Decimated by desertion, plagued by Atjeh rebels, or overtaken by the advancing Japanese, most units never even managed to make it to the mountains. On 28 March 1942 the remaining KNIL troops of North and Central Sumatra surrendered at Blangkedjeren.

Prisoners of war

In South Sumatra about 1,500 British and Australian soldiers, as well as a smaller number of KNIL and Royal Navy troops were taken prisoner. Most of the native KNIL soldiers were quickly released. The remaining prisoners were taken to Singapore, or concentrated and put to work in and around Palembang, among other places on an airfield, in the harbour, and in the construction of air-raid shelters. From June 1944 onwards these POWs were housed in the new Sungeigerung camp on the east side of Palembang.

Towards the end of 1943 about 2,000 POWs from Java also arrived in Palembang, to be put to work on the construction of two remote airfields in the Palembang area. Halfway through 1945 part of them were moved to Singapore, the others ended up in the Sungeigerung camp or in a camp near Talangbetutu airfield, about 15 kilometres north of Palembang. In August there were an estimated 1,000 to 1,500 prisoners of war in Palembang and the surrounding area.

In Atjeh a total of about 3,500 Dutch and native KNIL soldiers were taken prisoner. Here also most of the natives were quickly released, but some remained interned in camp Lawe Sigalagala at Kutatjane, together with about 110 Indo-European prisoners of war. The other POWs were concentrated outside Atjeh in April and May 1942, initially in the Uniekampong in Belawan near Medan. The prisoners who stayed behind in Lawesigalagala were pressured in May 1942 to become heihos, auxiliary soldiers in the Japanese army. Most native former KNIL soldiers eventually agreed, but 52 of the Indo-European prisoners refused. The four leaders of this group were executed; the majority of the rest of them died from starvation in the prison of Kualasimpang.

The large majority of the POWs who fell into Japanese hands in North and Central Sumatra were concentrated in the Uniekampong in Belawan harbour. As early as May 1942 a large group of about 2,000 POWs were put on transport to Burma, while the approximately 1,200 prisoners who stayed behind moved into a camp in Glugur near Medan in June 1942.

Atjeh Party and Pakanbaru railway

In March 1944 in camp Glugur a so-called Atjeh Party was put together consisting of more than 300 Dutch and almost 200 British and Australian prisoners of war. This group was forced to, together with thousands of native labourers, construct a road in the interior of Atjeh, almost 60 kilometres long, between the towns of Blangkedjeren and Takengon. There were eleven successive labour camps for these POWs, named after the distance in kilometres to Blangkedjeren. After the completion of the road the Atjeh Party returned to camp Sungeisengkol near Medan in October 1944. After a few weeks rest they were transported to the so-called Pakanbaru railway in Central Sumatra, where they were forced to work once again.

In the meantime the approximately 700 POWs who stayed behind in Glugur in June 1944 had boarded the Harukiku Maru, the former Van Waerwijck of the Koninklijke Paketvaart Maatschappij (KPM). That was to take them to Padang to work on the Pakanbaru railway. On the way the ship was torpedoed by a British submarine, killing almost 180 people.

On the Pakanbaru railway, about 220 kilometres long between Pakanbaru and Muara, many tens of thousands native labourers (so-called romushas) and more than 5,000 POWs were put to work from March 1943 to its completion on the day of the Japanese capitulation. In May, June, and July 1944 thousands of POWs arrived from Java in four groups.

The fifth group, consisting of about 4,200 romushas and 2,300 POWs boarded the Junyo Maru in Batavia in mid-September. On the way to Padang the ship was torpedoed by a British submarine and approximately 5,600 people, including about 1,600 POWs, died. The surviving romushas and POWs were still transported to Pakanbaru. Over the course of the year 1944 POWs were also brought in from Belawan and Singapore, among others the group on board the Van Waerwijck and the survivors of the Atjeh Party.

Along the line of the Pakanbaru railway the work details were divided among fourteen numbered camps, with Pakanbaru 1 in the town itself as the base camp and Pakanbaru 2, some kilometres to the south, as the hospital camp. A total of almost 700 POWs and probably many tens of thousands of native labourers died in the construction of the railway.

Civilian camps in South and Central Sumatra

The allied civilians of South Sumatra were interned in the first week of 1942, with the exception of the so-called Nippon workers who were of significance to the Japanese (mainly doctors, planters and oil company employees). In the principal town of every residency of South Sumatra separate internment camps were established for men and women, namely in Palembang, in Djambi, in Bengkulen, in Pangkalpinang on the island of Bangka, and in the ‘dual city’ Telukbetung/Tandjungkarang. Europeans from the smaller towns were taken by the Japanese to the principal towns.

In Palembang the interned men were initially locked up in the prison, the women and children in a neighbourhood camp on Prinses Irenestraat and Prins Bernhardlaan. The men were transferred in January 1943 to Poentjak Sekoening barracks camp, the accommodations they first had to build. In September 1943 the men were transported to Muntok on the island of Bangka, and their places in the barracks camp were taken by the considerably more numerous women and children from the neighbourhood camp. Between April 1942 and the start of 1943 about 150 employees of oil companies continued their work in the oil refinery at Pladjoe, to the east of Palembang. Afterwards they were placed in the men’s camp Poentjak Sekoening.

The women and children of the Benkulen residency were initially interned in a fort in the principal town of the same name, but from September 1943 to early October 1944 they lived in an old shed in the town of Kepahiang, some 40 kilometres inland. The residents of the women’s camp in Djambi were taken to Palembang in April 1944. Most of the Indo-Europeans among the internees in Telukbetung and Tandjungkarang were released in July 1942, but some of them later ended up in the nearby Indo-family agricultural camp Giesting. In May 1944 the women and children of Telukbetung were transported to Palembang.

In Central Sumatra (the residencies Sumatra’s West Coast and Riouw and dependencies) the enemy European civilians, after the first internment in or around their own towns, were concentrated in camps in Padang over the course of 1942. The men were eventually assembled in the ‘new’ prison or ‘de Boei’ on the Muara Gurun; the women and children were gathered in the Mission complex of Padang.

Civilian camps in North Sumatra

In Medan, main town of the residency of the East Coast of Sumatra, the European civilians were given house arrest as soon as the occupation started; they had to make sure they could not be seen from the street, so many fences were erected in front gardens. In mid-April 1942 the internment in camps started. Men and older boys from Medan and the surrounding area were taken to the Uniekampong in Belawan. In July 1943 they were transferred to Belawan estate, some 14 kilometres southwest of the principal town. Women and children were furthermore interned in the camps Glugur and Pulaubrajan that were located a few kilometres outside Medan.

Approximately 300 Nippon workers were placed in the complex of the St. Jozef school. The allocated accommodations for their wives and children were first the Serdang quarter, and from October 1942 the Tandjungmorawa company, located some 15 kilometres southeast of Medan. Also, from November 1942 to March 1943 a small family camp for Nippon workers was set up in Kampong Baroe, about 8 kilometres south of Medan. In April 1943 most of the men in the St Jozef school lost their jobs and they were interned in Sungeisengkol, a former coolie hospital 17 kilometres southwest of Medan, that now served as a an assembly camp for men and boys from Medan (mostly from the St. Jozef school), Brastagi, Pematangsiantar and Bindjei. The women and children of the fired Nippon workers were taken to Pulaubrajan.

Other civilian internment camps in the East Coast of Sumatra residency were established in Bindjei, Brastagi, Pematangsiantar, Tebingtinggi and Tandjungbalei, all with separate camps for men and women. The men and boys interned in these camps were taken to Belawan Uniekampong in the first half of 1943 or to Sungeisengkol. The women from Pematangsiantar went to Brastagi in December 1942, the women from Bindjei and Tebingtinggi went to Pulaubrajan in May and November respectively. Women’s camps were maintained in the Planter School Association in Brastagi and on the sports field Batu Satu in Tandjunbalei until 1945. From January 1943 to October 1944 approximately 100 British and American men from the all over residency were interned in the prison of Bindjei.

The civilian internees in the residency of Tapanoeli were taken to the camps in the East Coast of Sumatra residency over the course of 1942.

In Atjeh part of the local European civilian population and of the families of native soldiers had already been evacuated to Medan before the arrival of the Japanese because of the unsafe situation. In mid 1942 the interned European civilians who stayed behind were assembled in Kotaradja – the men in camp Kutah Alam, the women and children in camp Keudah – and subsequently taken to camp Lawesigalagala near Kutatajane in the interior in August and September 1942. In October 1944 they were transported again, this time to camp Belawan Estate near Medan.

Concentration of internees

From the end of 1943 all civilian internees from South, Central and North Sumatra were brought together in a few new internment locations in the interior. The ‘old’ internment camps were all evacuated.

The men and boys interned in Padang were first. In October 1943 they were transported to a camp near Bangkinan, about 70 kilometres west of Pakanbaru, where they were housed in an abandoned rubber factory. In December 1943 the women and children were also taken from Padang to Bangkinang, where they were put up in a camp about 3 kilometres west of the men’s camp. Afterwards a few smaller groups were taken to Bangkinan, for example from Pakanbaru and from the Kempeitai prison in Padang. At the end of 1944 both camps collectively held about 3,200 internees.

In South Sumatra the interned men, women and children at the end of 1943 and during 1944 were taken to two large assembly camps in and near Muntok on the island of Bangka. The men were interned in the prison, the women and children in a barracks camp outside the city. The men in particular had a very hard time on Bangka: between September 1943 and March 1945 almost one third of all internees in the prison died. In March and April 1945 the Muntok camps were evacuated to the remote rubber plantation Belalau near Lubuklinggau. During the journey nearly 30 internees died. In Belalau the women and children were housed in the yard of the rubber plantation on the Sungai Tjurup. The men’s camp was more than 2 kilometres further east. In August 1945 there were more than 1,100 internees in the Belalau camps.

The majority of the interned civilian men and boys from North Sumatra - about 2,000 persons - from October 1944 were assembled in the Si Rengorengo camp, located some 8 kilometres west of Rantauprapat. In April, May and June 1945 the approximately 5,000 women and children interned in North Sumatra were concentrated in three camps at the rubber company Aek Pamienke, 30 kilometres north of Rantauprapat. Approximately 160 Dutch ‘VIPs’, Brits and Americans, were placed in a separate men’s camp near Padanghalaban, about 12 kilometres southeast of Aek Pamienke.

Liberation and evacuation

On 24 August 1945 the Japanese announced the war was over in the camps Aek Pamienke and Si Rengorengo. The internees had to stay in the camps for the time being, but the men were allowed to regularly visit the women in Aek Pamienke. On August 31 allied airplanes appeared for the first time and dropped packages containing food and clothes. Early September a small allied reconnaissance unit under the command of the Dutch lieutenant C. Sisselaar arrived at the camps. This unit had already been dropped on July 28 and had been hiding in the jungle.

Early October 1945 the evacuation of the ex-internees from the camps at Rantauprapat to Medan started. With nocturnal train transports groups of several hundred persons were transported to the city; smaller numbers were transported by convoys of trucks. Because of the threat of the pemuda groups the convoys were protected by Japanese soldiers along the route. In Medan the former internees were first received in Club De Witte, and subsequently they were put up in houses in the ‘European’ quarter Polonia. The evacuation was completed in early November.

In the Bangkinang camps the Japanese surrender was announced on 22 August 1945. The next day the men were allowed to visit their wives and children. Large amounts of food, medicine, and other goods came into the camp. Early September about 1,300 men, women and children, among whom about 100 sick people, were taken to Padang in trucks in four transports. On September 10 a seven-man allied reconnaissance team was dropped over Bangkinang. Evacuation of the other ex-internees started on 27 September 1945. They were taken to Medan, Palembang, Padang or Singapore. The transports to Medan, Palembang and Singapore were by airplane from Pakanbaru airfield. The people were first taken to Pakanbaru in trucks. Transportation to Padang also took place in trucks. On 11 November 1945 the evacuation was completed.

The more than 4,300 surviving POWs on the Pakanbaru railway were told on 24 or 25 August 1945 that Japan had surrendered. On September 4 the first lasting contact was made with an allied reconnaissance unit under the command of South African major G.F. Jacobs. Evacuation of the POWs started mid-September. First the sick and injured POWs were flown to Singapore. The other Brits, Australians, and Americans followed in subsequent weeks. The transportation of the Dutch, among other places to Padang and Palembang, took much longer. Not until November 25 did the last of them leave camp 2 at Pakanbaru.

In the Belalau camps the Japanese capitulation was announced on 24 August 1945. A small allied reconnaissance unit appeared here on September 7. In the following days the seriously ill POWs were flown to Singapore. The other internees left, partly under their own steam, partly with evacuation transports by train to Palembang. On 8 October 1945 the evacuation was complete. In Palembang many former internees were given accommodations in the ‘European’ quarter Talang Semut.


The British military presence on Sumatra was limited to the cities of Medan, Padang and Palembang. On Sumatra no Dutch citizens were detained in Republican camps as far as we know: all former POWs and internees were already under the protection of allied soldiers when the Bersiap started. It is unclear whether there were many Dutch Indonesians outside the British-ruled key areas. After the Japanese surrender, however, hundreds of Ambonese women and children were detained in the former internment camp Lawesigalagala. They were evacuated to Medan in November 1946. In addition, hundreds of members of the old Atjeh administrative nobility (the ulebalang) were interned in camps in central Atjeh.

As the first British-Indian troops did not land in Belawan until 11 October 1945, the Polonia camp in Medan was initially guarded by Japanese soldiers. Large parts of the city were in Republican hands. The situation outside Medan was very unsafe, but murder, abduction and shootings were also regular occurrences within the city. There was no heavy fighting, there were mainly small-scale skirmishes. In the first weeks of 1946 the British managed to calm the situation down somewhat. Thousands of Dutch nationals left for the Netherlands in the first half of 1946. In November 1946 Dutch troops took over from the British. Many planters were to return to their former positions after the first 'Police Action' (July-August 1947), when the companies were partly recaptured.

Similar to elsewhere on Sumatra there were no large-scale conflicts in Padang during the Bersiap, but snipers, shooting at posts, throwing hand grenades, and arson made for a turbulent situation. On 10 October 1945 a battalion of British-Indian troop landed in the city. The allied organization RAPWI (Recovery of Allied Prisoners of War and Internees) initially housed about 5,500 persons in Padang. Because the three separate protected quarters were difficult to defend, thousands of them were evacuated to Medan and Batavia towards the end of 1945 and early 1946. This reduced the number of protected persons to approximately 1,200. As a result of the increasing unrest in March and April there was a large flood of refugees to the area that was protected by the British. The British military presence was strengthened in late July and increased– almost without fighting – across the largest part of the city in early August. On 28 November 1946 the British transferred government of the city to Dutch troops.

After the arrival of the first British troops on 24 October 1945 the protected allied enclave in Palembang consisted of the ‘European’ quarter Talang Semut and the KNIL encampment west of the Kraton (palace). Initially the ex-POWs and civilian internees who were gathered here could be transported quite quickly via Singapore, but during the Bersiap a total of about 3,000 Dutch nationals were trapped in the city. Although there was no large-scale fighting in Palembang either, the residents of Talang Semut were not allowed to leave the quarter because of the unsafe situation. The only serious confrontation between British troops and Indonesian fighters occurred on 30 March 1946, after that it generally remained calm in the city until December 1946. The replacement of the British troops with the Dutch troops in October-November 1946 went without incident. After the arrival of the Dutch a regular air link to Batavia was set up and the former POWs and civilian internees who had been left behind could then be evacuated.