The Christmas Island Revolt - 1942

And V.E. Mathew of Ka-su-ma-su

I am almost sure that many of you would not have heard this story, barring a few living in Britain and Australia, those who peruse newspapers and old WWII stories carefully. This happened at a remote locale in the Indian Ocean, some 250 miles south of Java, named Christmas Island, where a revolt or mutiny of sorts took place. The revolt was carried out by a handful of Indian soldiers serving in the British army, during the 2nd world war. The date being 10th March 1942 makes it an early revolt against the crown, yet it is hardly mentioned today, in India or Pakistan. So let’s proceed back in time, on a trip to the island and find out what happened during those balmy, but intrigue filled and tense days.

The Southeast Asian campaign of WWII started when the Japanese bombed Victoria Point in Burma during Dec 1941, cordoned off Burma and followed up with the capture of Singapore and a land attack into Burma. The Japanese intent was to get to the oilfields in Burma, a strategic conquest to ensure they had the resources before the grand entry westwards across India. Within a span of three months, the British in Burma were in a hasty retreat, and Burma was in Japanese hands. Subhas Chandra Bose was still in Germany and the Azad Hind had not yet been formed. Fujiwara, the Lawrence of the Indian Army was heading the F Kikan and pretty soon the first ISI/IIL was formed under the leadership of Mohan Singh. If you recall, we covered this ground with the story of the valiant Kumaran Nair.

As events galloped on at a fast clip, Kuala Lumpur fell in Jan 1942 and Singapore was surrendered in Feb 1942. The British bastions had been breached and the victorious Japanese were on the March northwards to Rangoon. By February 1942, from a total of about 40,000 Indian personnel in Singapore, about 30,000 joined the INA led by Mohan Singh.

South of all this hectic fighting was the lonely Xmas Island where newspapers used to come in now and then from Singapore updating the few Chinese, Sikh, Malay, British and Indian population in the island. The island got its name from the day of its christening in 1643 and we see it being annexed by the British in 1888 and administered out of Singapore through the Straits Settlements government. The CIP Company started its phosphate mining operations with Chinese and Malay labor. The beginnings were filled with stories of disease, extortion, bad living conditions, coolie riots, revolts, booms and busts. A few (5) Sikhs were brought over time to head a police department and manage the town of Kasma, they built their own Gurudwara as their fold increased to 14 (there were Sikh company guards too) and kept to themselves and their work. Initially they were all bachelors except their corporal who had his family (There was an interesting case of a Sikh policeman who fancied a Chinese headman’s wife and got murdered).

And they had a couple of brothels called the White House’s 1& 2 (with distinct spiral staircases), to service the hard working Chinese bachelors (They were called seamstresses or carpenter’s wives and were inspected weekly by the medical officer and strangely the island’s electrical engineer for disease!). The Malays kept to themselves and their families, and were mostly Muslim. The First World War happened, the feared raider ship Emden captained by Von Mueller passed by and was eventually scuttled in Cocos Islands some 600 miles away. The Europeans later got busy installing a telescope to view the 1922 solar eclipse and check out Einstein’s theory of relativity.  

The island community slept well though 1939-under the belief that the great guns of Singapore would keep the enemy out of reach, even after the many reverses in Europe during 1940 and the capitulation of France. As the war gathered force, a small volunteer force comprising the Chinese and Malays were formed in the island and a 1900 vintage 6” breech loader gun was installed at Smith Point. Captain Williams was sent out from Hong Kong, supported by four British NCO’s (Sgt W. Giles, Lance Sgt G.H. Cross, Gunner G.S. Thurgood and Gunner J. Tate), and 27 Punjabi Muslim soldiers to support them. But as you can imagine this was more of a charade, and would only help delay the inevitable, for the island which at that point of time was contended and calm, was simply not defensible. By 1942, the population comprised 30 Europeans, 1175 Chinese, 122 Malays, 88 Indians, 2 Eurasians all put a total of 1,417.

Everything changed in Dec 1941 with Pearl Harbor as Japan entered the war with a roar and well, to put it simply, the Eastern part of the allied world had been caught not just napping, but in deep slumber. The people of Xmas Island were by now a nervy lot, wondering about their future. The seas around the island boiled with all types of naval frigates, transports, aircraft carriers, allied subs and axis U boats.

Manning the Marconi DX radio under call sign ZC3AC and transmitting at 14,015 Khz, CW, was our own man from Kuriyannur (Pathanamthitta), one Vadakathu Easow (V E) Mathew, aged 28, who had arrived in 1939 as a wireless operator. Originally a teacher in Malaysia and needing to escape frequent dust allergy attacks there, he went on to requalify as a wireless operator after completing the course at Calcutta!  Accompanying him were some five more persons from Kerala, them being KG Alexander, TA John, AY Dethose (also a wireless operator), Thomas (cook), and Gopal (cook), whom MAthew had managed to recommend and obtain jobs for.

V E Mathew - Manning the Christmas Island Radio (Pic Courtesy Mary Mathew)

What Mathew and Dethos heard from other radio operators and Singapore was not reassuring. Capt Williams was now supervising defensive measures such as drills and building of pillboxes. Europeans sent their wives to Australia and London. Meanwhile, the ship which ferried between Singapore and Xmas Island, ‘the Islander’ suddenly found itself without a radioman, for he had absconded, and Dethose cried his way out not wanting to get killed in a Japanese bombing. Mathew thus took on the last run to Singapore for a tripled salary and a bonus. It was not a good choice, the ship ahead and the ship behind were bombed and Mathew and the ‘Islander’ escaped only due to providence. Reaching Singapore, they were again in the eye of the storm, for Singapore was being bombed and Mathew and his relatives there had to frequently flee to hide in the drains as air raid sirens blared.

The plan was to get the Islander fitted with an AA gun. But that also did not happen due to technical difficulties and the ship sailed back to Xmas Island. The Malayalee’s stuck together and stayed away from harms reach. But in Jan 1942, war reached the island when a Norwegian ship being loaded with Phosphate, was hit by a Japanese torpedo. In Feb, a corpse in a boiler suit washed ashore, to be later buried as the unknown sailor.

False alarms and Air raid sirens sent most islanders scurrying to the jungles. Mathew picked up more bad news of the capitulation of Singapore, after which he lost radio connection to the HQ. The remaining European and Sikh women with their children and a few men were sent away to Australia. Mathew sadly reported ‘I was unlucky because I was of ‘essential services’ and was not allowed to go’.

A Malay fisherman now reported that a Japanese submarine was moored off one of the island’s beaches and that some of its crewmen were seen bathing in rock pools of the island. The railway and factory machinery were quickly dismantled and hidden as the coolie’s stooped working and fled into the jungles. Meanwhile an US aircraft carrier USS Langley was hit and its captain Thomas Donovan was accidentally left behind on the island. He conveyed his whereabouts to the US forces over Mathew’s radio.

Mathew continued to be in the thick of things, and heard on the radio all kinds of rumors, of the British discussions about independence for India, of the formation of the INA, of the activities of Gandhi and the Congress, the Muslim league and so on. On 23rd Feb, Japan occupied the Andaman Islands and from 28th Feb to 3rd Mar, following the Battles of the Java Seas and the Sunda Straits, they eliminated Allied naval resistance. On March 1st the Japanese bombed the island (It is mentioned in the CQ magazine report that this was because the Japanese spotted a wooden mock aircraft built by the XI soldiers as a deterrent). Nine Japanese planes were in action, bombing and perhaps strafing the island. 3 Chinese were killed.

Mathew was on the radio, sending one last message. As the account goes - Upon hearing a whistling sound, of what proved to be a direct hit, he lunged out the door and dove into the adjacent swimming pool, narrowly escaping the subsequent explosion. His bicycle was bombed to smithereens. With that the island went silent and was shut off from the world.

With ZC3AC shut down, the island was left only with an emergency SW transmitter, but that was buried at Grants hill and hidden for the future. The Japanese commenced long distance shelling of the island’s pier from the sea and the Indian contingent abandoned the gun to take cover. Cromwell (District Officer) and Donovan decided (against the advice of Capt Williams) to hoist the white flag on 7th March and dismantle the naval gun, following which the Japanese left without landing on the island. Williams told his team that they should lay down arms, have them locked up, that there was no more war, and that the British flag should be replaced with white if they spotted Japanese, but also that the Union Jack should go up if allied ships or planes were spotted.

Some of the Indian soldiers murmured amongst themselves that hoisting the British flag was going to invite sure death. The island prepared for the arrival of the Japanese. Malays built underground shelters, young girls shaved their heads to pass off as boys and the ladies of the night attached themselves to the older men to appear married. White men split into two, those who wanted to surrender and those who wanted to fight. Williams pulled down the white bed sheet and replaced it with the Union Jack and reassembled the gun, which Cromwell told Williams, was not correct per international law.

This was the situation when the so called mutiny or revolt occurred. Some accounts of the mutiny mention that the soldiers had been listening (Subedar Muzaffar Khan later denied this at the trial) to Azad hind or Azad Muslim radio broadcasts coming out of Germany, Holland and Japan. The Indian soldiers were headed by a ‘graying and grizzled’ Bengali (East Bengal) Subedar Muzaffar Khan. The two havildars who reported to him were Punjabis, namely Mir Ali and Ghulam Qadir.

During later depositions, it was recalled that some of the instigators had refused to salute Capt Williams at parade, so they had indeed fallen out in a way, after the white flag act. It is also mentioned that the British were overbearing on the Indian troops, and on one occasion the Indians were asked to shut up when they started singing. John Michel mentions in his book that this was the reason for the mutiny (considering that Muzaffar Khan denied that any of them ever listened to Axis radio broadcasts, it is likely that British gave the soldiers repeated cause for a revolt to occur!).

The soldiers hatched a plot to revolt, waiting for an opportune moment which presented itself on the night of 10th March 1942 when Williams and team went for a birthday party. Mir Ali the ring leader and Ghulam Qadir unlocked the ammunition store and distributed the weapons. They were sent out in pairs to finish off the five British soldiers. From records we know that Ghulam Qadir, Mir Ali, Alla Ditta, Mohd. Ashraf, Abdul Aziz (a medical orderly), Nazir Hussein, Sher Muhammad, Muhammad Hussain and Sultan Muhammad, Niaz Ali etc. were involved in this action. Many of those who did not participate fled into the jungle when shots rang out. Subedar Muzaffar Khan woke up in alarm and reached for his revolver which had apparently been removed by somebody in the know, and he too fled into the jungle. The next action was to dispose of the dead bodies which were consigned into the sea through a blow hole and these bodies wrapped in bed sheets were seen by a few witnesses. Qadir then cleaned the blood from the floor. Some of the Sikh policemen joined the mutineers while others abstained. Muzaffar Khan was livid and appears to have berated the 60 Indians assembled. Mir Ali wanted to kill the remaining Englishmen, but agreed not to, after heeding to remonstrations from Muzaffar Khan. At long last, they stood down.

The Punjabi soldiers then went to Mathew and asked him to send a radio message to the Japanese that they could dock at the island safely. Mathew replied that the radio was gone, destroyed in the bombing. The Europeans were locked up in Cromwell’s bungalow. The above listed men, about 12 of them and a few Sikhs who took their side, now waited for the Japanese to turn up. The wait took close to 4 weeks. The incoming Japanese fleet led by the frigate Naka was being shadowed by an American Submarine SS197 Seawolf, and as they berthed in Christmas Island, the Seawolf fired her torpedoes, but strangely not one hit the Naka.

Japanese take over the CI 6" Gun
Commander Ando stepped ashore with some 850 men to take control of the island. When they saw the wrecked phosphate loading machinery, Ando was enraged, but he eventually accepted the explanation that it was due to Japanese bombing. The biggest damage was to the loading belt and this meant that loading would have to be manual. Mathew and the other Malayalee’s were accosted by the Japanese who assumed they were Indonesian. When Mathew mentioned Gandhi’s name, they were left alone.

The Seawolf shot another three torpedoes at the Naka while at XI, but they missed again. How Fred Warder commanding (SS197) Seawolf missed hitting a ship with all these torpedoes is a mystery, but the likely cause was malfunction of the armaments (a chronic problem in the early war years). Eventually the Seawolf got the Naka on its return voyage when one of the last two torpedoes finally hit the target.

The Japanese were allowed 3 days of plunder after which things settled to a routine at the island. Mir Ali approached the Japanese stating that he had his cohorts had finished off the British soldiers and that he wanted protection and a reward. But to his dismay, the Japanese set all of them to a labor routine, with the other island workers.  As the allies avoided the island, the Japanese remained in place for another two years. It was not a horrible occupation, but relatively mundane and Japanese efforts at shipping out large quantities of phosphate never took off. The Japs built a pretty Japanese temple, but the Muslim Malays were not happy being forced to pray there.

The Japanese did want the White houses opened up but the Chinese girls were not too keen to service them. As it turned out, the Japanese brought in some Indonesians, for their comfort. These Javanese girls were tricked into coming to Christmas Island after answering a "Teachers wanted" advertisement in the newspaper. The 21 Europeans were also put to tasks befitting their skills, and they were the only prisoners. Mathew is mentioned as one who helped these prisoners with food, rolling food sacks down the hill at night, to waiting hands.

In Nov 1942, a Japanese ship loading phosphate was torpedoed and in the following year (Dec 1943) as their food supplies dwindled, the Japanese plans changed. They evacuated the island and most of the people including the Indians and the mutineers were shipped to Java’s prisons. Mathew and some of his friends were sent to a prison camp in Surabaya. Some soldiers and a small population remained, and the remaining Japanese left by early 1945. Christmas Island was isolated, once again.

The first person to resurface after Japanese internment, in Sept 1945 was Cromwell, but he never managed to return to his island, passing away in Dublin in 1946. Seven Indians were next seen in Singapore as British prisoners. Based on depositions by Cromwell and Donovan, the British decided to bring them to justice. Mir Ali and a dozen others had vanished and were thought to have fought for the INA in Burma.

As the Indians could not be charged with murder three years after its occurrence, they were charged with mutiny, under the Army act Section 7 (3), and the ensuing trial in Singapore stretched over a period of many weeks, with the convoluted court martial covered in detail by Straits times. I will not get into technicalities, but war trials sometimes stretched the rule of law in the winner’s favor. In this case too, the witness testimony was inconclusive and the defense claim that Cromwell had already raised the white flag thereby making a mutiny charge incorrect, was not allowed to stand. There were many other inconsistencies in the depositions.

Inayat Khan and Ghulam Qadir were two of the main witnesses. Some tried to shift blame on Mir Ali and butter up to Muzaffar Khan, the Subedar who was on the prosecution side. Allah Bux was found innocent and Niaz Ali to be coerced by others. In March 1947, the court sentenced six of the accused guilty and to die by the gallows. Allah Bux was acquitted. 

On 13th August 1947 King George VI confirmed five of the death sentences on Ghulam Qadir, Sher Muhammad, Nazar Hussain, Muhammad Hussain and Allah Ditta. Niaz Ali was sentenced for two years imprisonment and a dishonorable discharge.  They were to die at 7AM in Singapore, on 18th Sept 1947.

On 14th August 1947, Pakistan became a free nation.

On 15th August 1947, India became independent. The five prisoners were now considered Pakistanis.

On 17th Sep, the day before the execution, the governments of India and Pakistan informed the commonwealth relation office that the executions be stayed until they have had an opportunity to study the case. In the meantime many INA prisoners had been freed by Nehru, in independent India. Citing that as a reason, Pakistan which was now in charge of the five prisoners insisted that they be re-sentenced to imprisonment and not death. The British agreed that Pakistan had a strong case, and the death sentences were commuted.

Gunner Sultan Muhammed who had been apprehended separately and tried in Nee Soon in 1948, was also sentenced to death. He too had his sentence commuted on the same grounds. All of them were now to serve imprisonment until 1956/57. Pakistan then requested that they be transferred to Pakistan jails. Eventually all of them were sent back to Pakistan in 1955. Nothing more is known of these internees. Mir Ali was never found. Perhaps he died in the INA battles at Imphal, but nobody knows. Strange, these Punjabi Muslim’s left a land oppressed, and returned to lands violently divided. They must have wondered about their acts and after escaping death, having spent 12 years of their lives in various prisons, only to return to more violence, hatred and chaos!!

Christmas Island - today
Following WWII, Britain resumed control of the island and from January 1, 1958 it was administered as a separate crown colony. Today Christmas Island is an Australian external territory and famous for its red crabs. Now let’s get back to our man Mathew.

Mathew’s initial days of internment at Surabaya were harrowing, but he met a Christian Japanese captain who took a liking to him. He was allowed to work in a workshop, heading a team of some 30 Indonesians. Some of the other Island Malayalee’s were also with Mathew. As the war ended, they narrowly escaped retaliation by the Indonesian prisoners. So close were they to death that they had written their last words to their families and buried them in a bottle underground for some future finder. But they were let go when the Indonesian’s found they were Indians. Eventually help arrived and they were guided to an Indian Red Cross ship by a friendly Indonesian watchman. They returned to India from Surabaya via Singapore and Mathew managed to reestablish contacts with his employers.

As it turned out, Mathew got married in 1948 and came back to Christmas Island continue work as a wireless operator, live in relative peace and father five children. Mathew’s name reappeared on the airwaves in 1958, as he was trying to reconstruct his radio. W4LYV sent a new crystal (14034 Khz) to ZC3AC while VS1JF was still handling some of the cards to him. In 1964, the Short wave magazine reported that Mathews, ex-ZC3AC, was still on the island but transmitting as VK9MV (1959), he continued with a 40 watts transmitter and his DXing passion is archived with his QSL cards.

He retired in 1971 and his friends honored him with 57 dinners during his last two months. Mathew departed saying ‘ I am leaving Christmas Island after seeing her in her young days, uncouth and wild, and now as a lady in her teens, with her mini flats and respectable highways!’ He went back to Kuriyannur, lived his last days peacefully, ever an honest man and passed away in 2000 at the ripe age of 88. His children are all well settled in Australia. I did get in touch, with Mathew’s youngest daughter Mary Mathew who in a charming and lengthy telephone conversation filled in a great many missing blanks.

The thrill of a HAM radio operator in contacting obscure persons around the world and/or listening to them and sharing notes is a fascinating experience. While the DX community still thrives, internet, skype, chats and emails have largely taken over the communication channels.  

The excitement and danger of war is another thing though, though I am not sure what Mathew thought. To narrowly survive three or four narrow brushes with death, to live as a prisoner in a camp and survive, to get married, raise a family and eventually retire in peace simply means he was a blessed person. And to be sure there are many more stories like this, of people who played a part in those wars.

Suffering Through Strength: The Men Who Made Christmas Island – John Hunt
Christmas Island - the early years – Jan Adams, Marg Neale
Straits Times reports (over a 100 of them) 1945-1947
Mr Michel’s war – John J A Michel
An Ordeal to forget – Thomas A Donovan Jr (Naval history Vol14, issue 3)
CQ Amateur radio magazine May 1977 issue
USS Seawolf at the Battle of Christmas Island - John Domagalski

This Christmas Island is not to be confused with the one known as Kiritimati in the Pacific, more popularly associated with the UK’s H Bomb tests. The Book by Adams and Neale has some interesting pictures e.g. the Sikh Policemen, the Japanese AA gun etc. My thanks to John Hunt’s painstaking research and a fine book, and Mary Mathew for a great interview.

You may wonder why I chose to call this a revolt or rebellion, not a mutiny. I tended to take the side of the prisoners based on some related facts (white flag, salutes, and singing) before the rebellion, and considering that the prosecution witness who testified against them was very emphatic in that they had not listened to the Axis radio. It was also clear from the trial that all the accused had been away from India for a long time 7-10 years, so they could not have been seriously indoctrinated with a rebellious cause before coming to Christmas island. Jan Adams in her book also concurs that their ‘motivation remained uncertain’. Perhaps a reason was self-preservation, knowing that the Japanese would kill everybody if they detected a threat in the island (Williams and his men must have proved to be a needless threat!). But this is just my conclusion.

Thomas Donovan the American who was spared in the revolt, survived the war and was awarded the Legion of Merit. He continued in the US Navy and retired as a Rear Admiral. Donovan was transferred early to Makassar (Celebs Island) and later to Java where he had an eventful internment. It appears that the Japanese told Donovan that if a single shot had been fired by the islanders, they were planning to kill everybody in the Island. So in hindsight, the revolt probably saved a large number of lives!

Ka su ma su – is how ‘Christmas’ was pronounced by the Chinese.

What is a QSL? Many DXers attempt to obtain written verifications of reception or contact, sometimes referred to as "QSLs" or "veries" The picture shows QSL’s provided by Mathew to other DX’s.


Bernard said…
Great story, as usual. My friend Avinash is an avid DXer. He says the SW stations are shying away from conventional broadcast. Anyway, the Malayali touch was great. Really enjoyed reading this.
Maddy said…
Thanks Bernard..

These kinds of stories are the most fun to research. It is usually very difficult to get complete information on these obscure topics and even lengthy spurts of browsing wont get google to cough up any leads. sometimes after weeks, the search engine in exasperation provides you a little tip. then i go hunting after that source be it a printed book or a person. it is a longish impatient wait till the library provides you the book from some obscure library, but thanks to our great trip saver system, i get it!

I sometimes write to all kinds of people asking questions and while some people answer, many don't. Finally a story surfaces from all this effort. I post it, and proceed contended, to the next effort.

I am happiest when somebody pens a comment, be it a clarification, a response or whatever. Most don't...