War Stories

Beyond our textbooks lie many untold stories of inspiring individuals who persevered through the Japanese Occupation. This segment is dedicated to their stories ranging from secret missions, heroic deeds and compelling accounts of life under the Japanese.


The Palembang Nine
Thursday, March 1, 2007

Numerous sabotage missions were launched during the Second World War by Allied forces against the Japanese. Many of these include Operation Krait, Operation Rimau and that on the Japanese cruiser Takao. The British Pacific Fleet, based in Ceylon, had also launched raids over the Nicobars, China Bay Base and parts of Sumatra.

The 'Palembang Nine' was a group of nine men from the Royal Navy British Pacific Fleet. The men were either pilots or crew members of the HMS Victorious, the HMS Illustrious or the HMS Indomitable. The 'Palembang Nine' consisted of the following men:

Lt. John Haberfield (below)- Pilot from 1839 Fighter Squadron (HMS Indomitable)
Lt. Evan John Baxter - Pilot from 1833 Fighter Squadron (HMS Illustrious)
S/Lt. Reginald James Shaw - Pilot from 1833 Fighter Squadron (HMS Illustrious)
Lt. Kenneth Morgan Burrenston - Crew from 849 TBR Squadron (HMS Victorious)
S/Lt. John Robert Burns - Crew from 849 TBR Squadron (HMS Victorious)
S/Lt. Donald V Roebuck - Crew from 849 TBR Squadron (HMS Victorious)
S/Lt. William Edwin Lintern - Crew from 849 TBR Squadron (HMS Victorious)
Petty Officer Ivor Barker - Crew from 849 TBR Squadron (HMS Victorious)
Petty Officer J S McRae - Crew from 849 TBR Squadron (HMS Victorious)

Information above is based on the Royal Navy British Pacific Fleet Plaque (below), donated to the Changi Museum.

Lieutenant John Haberfield of the HMS Indomitable & The Royal Navy British Pacific Fleet Plaque

Haberfield, a New Zealander, had enlisted with the Fleet-Air-Arm in August 1941 at the age of 21. He left his home town for service overseas, where he piloted a range of planes, largely orchestrated for carrier-based raids. The last squadron he served was with the 1839 Squadron and the Pacific Fleet, where he piloted Hellcats from the HMS Indomitable.

Haberfield had gone missing during his last raid on Palembang, Sumatra on 24th January 1945. The following letter from the Commanding Officer of the 1839 Squadron, addressed to Haberfield's mother, accounts the incidents that led up to his disappearance:

"We made an attack against the oil refineries at Palembang in Sumatra: our squadron was escorting some of the bombers & Jack (Haberfield's nickname) was leading a section. Over the target we were attacked by Japanese fighters and a fierce fight developed, during which it was on possible to see what was happening in a small part of the sky & there were aeroplanes everywhere. Jack's wingman saw him attack an enemy fighter and followed it down in a steep, fast dive, then lost sight of him. He was not seen again after that. Several pilots reported having seen aircraft crash into the ground, but none could say with certainty whether they were our own or the enemy's."

Commanding Officer Shotton
1839 Squadron

The oil refineries in Palembang was a critical source of oil for the Japanese, which became the reason why the Fleet had targeted Palembang. Unfortunately the raid was at the expense of the nine men who, like Haberfield, had gone missing.

The whereabouts of the nine men had remained unknown throughout the war. It was only after the war ended, that British authorities began to investigate the disappearance of the men in 1946.

Investigations began in Palembang; where the men were last seen. It was discovered that the men were kept prisoners in Palembang Prison until February 1945, when they were transferred to Singapore and housed in Outram Gaol.

In Singapore, Japanese Major Kataoka Toshio informed British investigating officials that the men had been shipped to Japan for interrogations but never made it as the ships were attacked and sunk by Allied bombings in March 1945. The investigating officer believed that he was telling the truth but it was revealed later by General Atauka, Chief of the Juridical Department for the 7th Army, that the nine men were illegally executed after the war on 15th August 1945.

Upon discovering this, investigating officials were prepared to arrest Major Toshio and Captain Okeda (the officials responsible for the men's execution). However before that could have been done, both men committed suicide. The following was written by Major Toshio before he committed suicide:

The museum has been in touch with John Haberfield's sister, Koa Murdoch since June 2002. Murdoch had been generous enough to donate a memorial plaque of her brother to the museum along with several other vital documents, documenting the events leading up to her brother's death.

Koa Murdoch with her late husband in 2002

The identities of the other eight men was never properly investigated.

Recent information suggests that some of the mentioned eight men were not even shipped to Singapore. One of the men was reported to have been seen in Tokyo in April 1945, while some of the other men were reportedly executed shortly after the raids and not executed in Singapore. Hence they were not part of the Palembang Nine.
Also, strong evidence suggests that over 30 Fleet Air-Arm aircrew were executed during captivity, than just the 'Palembang Nine'.

To the museum's knowledge, sufficient documentation is able to conclude that Haberfield was one of the 'Palembang Nine'. However, the identities of the other eight men who were shipped to Singapore with Haberfield, cannot be confirmed due to insufficient and conflicting information.

The Changi Museum extends their thanks to Koa Murdoch for sharing various documents, materials and photographs of her late brother and assisting in preserving the memory of him.



Blogger indomatible said...

the raid on palembang was a decoy so 12 paras could be dropped in to rescue a chinese general from a pow camp at the reqest of the russians

January 21, 2010 at 3:29 AM  
Blogger 2anthill said...

My name is Anthony Hill, an Australian author who is finishing a book about Outram Road Prison. John Haberfield is part of my story - and in fact my subject saw him and the other Palembang Nine being led out to execution three days after the war ended. I would very much like to contact Koa Murdoch to discuss my book and seek permission to publish Habbie's photograph.
Many thanks
Anthony Hill

March 1, 2011 at 8:55 PM  
Blogger tina said...

2anthill give me a call or email me at tina@cqr.co.nz. I may be able to help - i wrote a story on Boy a few years back which i refered to in my blog here

March 3, 2011 at 9:51 AM  
Blogger Will Roebuck said...

Very Sad. Donald Roebuck was my father's cousin

January 22, 2012 at 12:40 PM  
Blogger Will Roebuck said...

Very Sad. Donald Roebuck was my father's cousin

January 22, 2012 at 12:40 PM  
Blogger Kiwi_in_Oz said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

February 3, 2012 at 8:44 PM  
Blogger Kiwi_in_Oz said...

2anthill: not sure if anyone has got in touch with you but just in case you see this again...John was my g grandfather's half brother. Aunty Koa died recently but if you contact me at epiphany _ survey @ hotmail . com (no spaces between any of those & note there is an underscore in the name) I can put you in touch with the relevant family members. I'd also be very interested to read your book when it's finished. Hope this helps!

February 3, 2012 at 8:46 PM  
Blogger Sandra nee Barker said...

Ivor Barker was my uncle who was missing believed to be killed in action but the truth was never known by his parents and siblings. My research a few years ago revealed that he was one of the Palembang Nine and I am keen to find out more. I have photographs available of Ivor and his flying crew. I am also interested in your book Anthony.

March 5, 2012 at 6:31 AM  
Blogger Jon Baxter said...

My name is Jon Evan Baxter and Evan Baxter was my uncle - my father Neil Baxter and his brother is still alive and may be able to help with further information. I am very interested in any material you may have.

Cheers Jon

April 24, 2012 at 7:18 PM  
Blogger Sandra nee Barker said...

Hi Jon Please contact me on sandajef@tesco.net to discuss things further. Cheers Sandra

May 3, 2012 at 12:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wonder if Anthony Hill has been able to account for the motivation behind the executions, post-war. My interest comes from my past military service in the Canadian Air Force and my friendship with Len Birchall, who was the ranking Canadian Officer in Japanese prisoner of war camps. This followed his sighting of the Japanese invasion fleet some 200 miles from Ceylon and his subsequent capture after being shot down...Churchill gave him the sobriquet of "The Saviour of Ceylon".

Len shared with me before his passing, a number of stories about his incarceration and his lasting hatred for his captors because of their brutality...a seemingly common theme of the Japanese in WW2.

I'm interested in the psyche of the Japanese military members which led to such behaviour. Anyone who would like to add to my knowledge on this subject, please do so at prichardsonmd@hotmail.com
Phil Richardson

July 10, 2013 at 5:42 PM  
Blogger Jason Martin said...

I've listened about that, but not in a much detailed way.
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November 22, 2017 at 10:09 PM  

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