A tale of a misunderstood British major's role in a guerrilla WWII campaign in Borneo


  • Books
  • Wednesday, 01 Jul 2020

Apart from the focus on British major Tom Harrisson, the book 'Kill The Major' by Paul Malone is an account of the Allied guerrilla hunt for the last Japanese forces in Borneo.

During Word War II, a small group of Australian, British and New Zealand special ops soldiers were parachuted into the jungles of north Borneo (Sarawak). Their mission, under what was known as Operation Semut 1, was to gather intelligence against the enemy Japanese forces.

Operation Semut was a series of reconnaissance missions carried out by Australia’s Z Special Unit in 1945, during the final stages of WWII.

It was mostly undertaken in Sarawak as part of the Borneo Campaign of 1945. Its mission was to also train indigenous people to launch guerrilla warfare against the Japanese. The operation lasted from March to around October 1945.

Operation Semut was divided into three parts, with Semut 1 led by British major Tom Harrisson. He was first based in Bario, and later moved to Belawit. By June 1945, Semut 1’s operations covered much of northern Sarawak, with outposts at Pensiangan and Tenom. Harrisson’s men fought Japanese forces in the region until the operation ended, around October that year.

In this part of Sarawak, these soldiers were joined by the local head-hunting tribesmen, who helped them attack Japanese outposts.

By the end of WWII, this unlikely group had taken control of 41,000sq km of Sarawak, killed over 1,000 enemies, and forced the surrender of over 400 Japanese soldiers.

All 42 of the guerrillas, led by Harrisson (1911-1976), survived. But instead of revering their commanding officer, they hated him. Some even planned to kill him.

This intriguing tale is documented in Kill The Major, a new book by Ireland-born Australian author/journalist/researcher Paul Malone.

It is published by Malaysian publisher Strategic Information and Research Development Centre.

Jungle maverick

Malone discovered the story about Harrisson and Operation Semut 1 after visiting an Iban longhouse outside the quiet town of Marudi, roughly 80km away from Miri, in 1974.

“An American traveller (in the group) asked what was in a basket hanging from the rafters. The Iban headman answered: ‘heads’.

“Then by way of reassurance, he leaned over, patted him on the leg and said ‘Japanese heads’. This confirmed what I had been told. During WWII, the Iban tribe had been told by Allied guerrillas that they could resume head-hunting against the Japanese, ” says Malone.

Malone later visited Sarawak again in 2007, while travelling up the Baram River to interview local Penan people for a news series on the nomadic tribe’s anti-logging campaign. He ended up visiting many places in the region, and later realised, coincidentally, he had visited all the key places of Operation Semut 1.

“Piece by piece, I heard about Harrisson, and picked up the books he had written and edited, and also books about him, ” says Malone.

Malone has previously worked for The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, The Australian Financial Review and The Canberra Times. He has over 30 years of experience in journalism. He also authored two books: Australian Department Heads Under Howard: Career Paths And Practice and The Peaceful People: The Penan And Their Fight For The Forest.

This latest book Kill the Major takes him back to the jungles of Sarawak. It is a engrossing read, faithfully chronicling the events of Operation Semut 1. While the book is full of details of battles and military tactics, it grounds itself by centring on Harrisson and the accompanying characters involved in this chapter of history.

Major Tom Harrisson at Semut 1 base.  Photo: Sarawak MuseumMajor Tom Harrisson at Semut 1 base. Photo: Sarawak Museum

Taking on the Japanese

The book offers information on the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) landings at Tarakan, Brunei Bay and Balikpapan, as well as accounts of their conflicts with the Japanese Fujino and Kamimura companies. One particularly interesting section regards how the indigenous practice of headhunting was eventually accepted by the men of Semut 1.

Malone gathered research from a variety of sources, including documents from the Australian War Memorial collection and the National Archives of Australia.

One memorable character is military driver Phil Henry, an Australian soldier, who at 22, led a band of devoted Iban warriors through the Limbang River area.

Malone also details how Henry gets in trouble after his senior officers don’t think he showed them the respect they deserved.

“I think driver Henry, with his low rank, stands out a little. When I read about the casual way he greeted the Australian officers he met, I had to admire his very ‘old Australian’ attitude to authority. You don’t just get my respect because you occupy a high position. You have to do something to earn and deserve respect, ” says Malone.

The main figure in the book is undoubtedly Harrisson. He was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, the son of an English brigadier general. He went back to England with his family when he was three and was educated at Harrow.

In mid-1942, he joined the King’s Royal Riflemen, and became a Second Lieutenant. He was selected by British authorities to be part of Operation Semut 1 and was parachuted into Sarawak in 1945. He received a Distinguished Service Order (DSO) for his service. In his life, he was an ornithologist, explorer, documentarian, and soldier, among many other things.

Single-minded direction

How did Harrisson, despite being a capable military man, earn the ire of the men fighting under him? In this book, Malone dissects this man’s personality and how he treated people around him.

“I think the main lesson is that people and their relationships are complex. Harrisson was egocentric and single-minded in his objectives. He used people. He was ruthless.

“People who knew him have strong opinions about Harrisson. I think his management of the Semut operation was brilliant. The guerrillas and the Orang Ulu warriors achieved much more than was expected. Could such success have been achieved with kinder management practices? I don’t know, ” says Malone.

Most of the stories found in Kill The Major are told through the perspectives of the Allied guerrillas involved in Operation Semut 1. In his acknowledgements, Malone regrets not being able to provide more accounts from local participants.

“The guerrillas could not have been successful without the support of the tribal warriors and the civilian villagers who supported them. They kept secret the presence of the guerrillas, they fed and sheltered them. They also provided (local) intelligence and of course, they faced the consequences for this support, ” elaborates Malone.

“In the whole scheme of things, as part of the defeat of the Japanese, this operation (Semut 1) was not of great importance.

“But to the people in the region, this is the war that came to their door. The people in the towns and the Orang Ulu, the Kenyah, Kayan, Iban and Kelabit and others suffered under the Japanese occupation. Not enough has been recorded here.

“Today, I fear that many young people do not know enough about the hardships their grandparents endured, ” concludes Malone.

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