The Tragedy at Ballale Island – The Indian Connection

Factoids General History World War II

1st Indian Heavy AA Regiment was part of the Malaya Command and had a short but eventful history as it was ‘lost’ in Singapore after just over a year of raising, never to be raised again. However tragic its history may be, it is incomplete without the chapter about 46 of its members who met their end in a remote corner of the Pacific. It is about the tragedy that unfolded at Ballale Island in 1943.

Of the many stories of horror to come out of the Second World War, the execution of 517 British prisoners of war at Ballale Island were no less than tragic than others. For decades the real story was never known as the Japanese hid the full details behind a veil on lies and half-truths.  

On 15 February 1942, over 90,000 troops of the garrison of Singapore surrendered to the Japanese on the 15th. It was the largest surrender of British-led forces ever recorded in history. Two days later, 50,000 allied prisoners were ordered to march to Changi on the eastern end of Singapore island. It was a civilian prison on the Changi Peninsula that included some military barracks. The allied troops were imprisoned her, mainly in the former Selarang Barracks. Most of the prisoners were sent to work as forced labour in the Japanese occupied territories including on the infamous Burma-Thai railways. 

In October 1942, 600 British Gunner prisoners of war in Singapore, under Lieutenant Colonel John Bassett of 35thLAA Regiment, RA, were loaded on to a ship, one of the many ‘hell ships’ used to transport prisoners, which they were told would transport them to a prison camp in Japan. These prisoners  included a few British gunners of Indian Artillery also, mainly on 1st Indian Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment. 

The ship, mostly likely the Masta Maru, instead of going to Japan headed south of the equator, stopping in Surabaya in Indonesia and continuing to Rabaul on the island of New Britain in Papua New Guinea. The prisoners were put to work as slave labour and subjected to vicious beatings by the Japanese at Raboul.

Junto Maru – one of the many Hell Ships used by the Japanese in the Far East. This was sunk by the Allies on 18 September 1944 resulting in one of the deadliest marine disasters.

In November the 517 fittest men were selected to be shipped out of Rabaul and taken to Ballale Island where they arrived after a two-day trip. They were set to work  with Chinese prisoners and natives recruited from nearby islands to construct an airstrip. The Japanese ‘officially’ reported that the ship carrying the 517 British prisoners was ‘missing at sea – presumed lost’. It was apparently a cover up by the Japanese.

Ballale Island is pear-shaped and approximately 2000 yards east-west and 1900 yards north-south. , sufficient for a single wide strip and taxiways on either side. A fringing reef surrounds the island. The Japanese had arrived in Ballale Island in early 1942 without resistance and had plans to develop it into a forward airbase.  Four Japanese Naval units and an Army unit initially occupied the island. Engineer Lieutenant Commander Ozaki and 18 Naval Construction Unit arrived on the island 26/27 November just prior to the prisoners’ arrival.

The prisoners were housed in tents between an Army unit and the shore on the western tip of the island and were set to work on the crushed coral airstrip. When the men arrived, they were already in poor shape and it was not long before they began to physically deteriorate due to the lack of medical supplies, malnutrition and the effects of exhaustion. The airstrip was finished towards the end of March 1943 and quickly became operational. This added to the misery of the prisoners as the air base soon became a target for the Allied Air Forces and was subjected to frequent air raids. 

The hard work, exhaustion and tropical diseases had killed a large number of prisoners but a great number were killed by allied air raids of which the worst was a B24 raid on the night of 12-13 March 1943 that may have killed as many as 300 of the prisoners of war when three bombs landed on their encampment. Initially, the Japanese cremated their dead and the prisoners who died of disease were tied in sacks that were taken out to sea and thrown overboard. As air raids increased, all bodies were buried instead.

The vast majority of the British POWs were killed in Allied air raids and strafing attacks which began in mid-January 1943 and continued consistently over the next 12 months. Although a number of air raid shelters were built throughout the island, it seems the POWs were not even allowed to dig their own slit trenches let alone use available shelters. Worse, they were forced to continue working during air raids.

In late June 1945 another heavy air raid followed by shelling from US navy ships convinced the Japanese that the island was about to be invaded and they decided to execute all the surviving prisoners. On 30 June 1943 the survivors, perhaps 70 to 100 men, were all bayoneted or beheaded.

There are no accurate figures but the figure of  70 to 100 POWs is generally belived to be the number of priosners execuited in cold blood as they were lined up and killed by bayonets or swords [the original plan had been to use hand grenades] and the bodies buried in a large pit.

Lieutenant Commander Ozaki wrote:

Every regiment was making arrangements for the eventual enemies surprise landing and attack and were working hard all night, but the enemy did not attack our island. After all, because of vigorous changes and disadvantages in the war situation, everybodys morale was strained by extreme excitement.

Under this pressure the provisions of the defence plan, including the execution of the prisoners was carried out automatically. It can also be said that faced with a crisis, this action was unavoidable.’

According to a different source, the air strip was damaged by American bombardment in June 1943 before it was finished and as it could not be used by the Japanese, the prisoners who were still alive at this point were executed. 

The mass grave was unmarked and no details were kept of the men who had died in air raids, of sickness or had been executed. 

The tragedy was compounded by the fact that the island was bypassed and left to ‘wither on a vine’ by the Allies as they rolled up the Japanese empire in the Pacific. It was only much later that the details started emerging of the tragedy that had unfolded at Ballale Island.

The mass grave was found on Ballale with the help of Chinese labourers, and the artefacts  found at the site confirmed that it was of  the Gunners Party but the bodies recovered had no service tags and could not be identified. The remains were moved to a temporary War Cemetery at Torokina, Bouganville and then  to Bomana War Cemetery, Port Moresby December 1945. 

The tragedy has an Indian Connection as well. Amongst the ‘600’, were a number of British Gunners of Indian Artillery as well. From the available details, they were:

ARMITAGE W S Gunner  

BROTTON J G Gunner 

CHELLINGSWORTH J Sergeant 

COLLINGS C Bdr 

CONROY C Gunner 

CREGEEN W Bdr 

DARLEY F Gunner 

DAVIDSON J D Lieut 

DIXON J N Lieut 

DOYLE W J Gunner 

FINCH P T T Lieut 

FLORY B Gunner 

GARDNER A E Gunner 

GEMMELL R F Lieut 

GRIFFITH H S L Lieut 

HEWITT D E Lieut 

HINTON D Bdr 

HORNE J Bdr 

HOULTON J C F Lieut 

HUTCHINSON W Bdr 

JENKINS S M Lieut 

JERMYN P Lieut 

JOHNSON C G Bdr 

JOHNSON G H Lieut 

JONES J C Lieut 

LEHMAN H Gunner

LESLIE J A Gunner 

LUCAS H A Lieut 

MacBEAN A Lieut 

McNAB J Gunner 

MILLER D F Bdr 

MOON V H Gunner 

NEILL E Lieut 

NORRIS B R H Lieut 

POTTS G M Lieut 

REAH T A Bdr 

RICHARDS C C Lieut 

ROBERTS H Bdr 

RUSHMER G Sergeant 

SALMON P J Lieut 

SAMPSON J A Gunner 

SANDIFORD J A Bdr 

STURT J E Lieut 

TAYLOR H J Gunner 

WILSON W R Gunner 

WIMPENNY V H Gunner

These gunners, officers and enlisted men alike, may have been Britishers but were part of Indian Anti-Aircraft Artillery and it is important that this important part of the history of Indian Army Air Defence is not forgotten and their memory is always kept alive.