The small, oil-rich state of Brunei (population c. 40,000 in 1940) is situated in north-west Borneo. The ‘Abode of Peace’ became a British protectorate in 1888 and a Residential System along Malayan lines came into operation at the beginning of 1906. For most of the Second World War the country was under Japanese Military Administration, a period of three and a half years beginning in December 1941. Allied, predominantly Australian, landings took place in early June 1945 (Fahey 1992: 325–8; Monks 1992: 7–53) and the sultanate was speedily cleared of enemy forces, though not before the latter had successfully executed a scorched-earth programme. Most crucially of all, the Seria oilfield (discovered in 1929 by the Shell company) was set alight, the flames shooting ‘like giant blow-lamps’ at least thirty feet into the air. The last well fire was not extinguished until 27 September 1945 (Harper 1975: 21–4). A report in the Straits Times of 20 July 1946 gives some impression of the problems faced by the returning Western engineers:
Most of the [Seria] wells were surrounded by blazing lakes, and the oil experts had to blast their way through. Because of the intense heat it was difficult to get near enough to ‘cap’ them and so seal the fires. In some cases aircraft were used, the fire-fighters advancing through the slipstream of the propellers which blew the flames and oil back. It then became possible to get near enough to thrust forward on long steel arms heavy charges of explosives.