October - December 2001: CONTENTS:


One of the truly remarkable stories of naval daring during the opening stages of the Pacific War, when the naval forces of Japan seemed unstoppable, concerns the little Dutch ship HR. MS. ABRAHAM CRIJNSSEN. This small minesweeper with hardly any armament, a maximum speed of 15 knots, and bunkerage for only 110 tons of fuel made a lengthy solo journey through waters controlled by the Japanese Imperial Navy to reach Australia and continue the war. Mark C. Jones examines this ship's 'Escape from Soerabaja'.

Of the many amazing escapes of naval ships and aircraft from superior forces during World War II, one of the best known is that of the Polish submarine O.R.P. ORZEL. After several days of patrolling the southern Baltic under heavy pressure from German ships, the ORZEL moved farther north. After landing the commanding officer at Reval (now Tallinn) due to illness on September 14, the ORZEL was interned the next day by Estonian naval authorities. The boat was then demilitarised with all but five torpedoes, shells for the deck gun, and all charts taken from the boat.
The ORZEL's crew, under the leadership of the executive officer, Lieutenant Commander Jan Grudzinski, overpowered the Estonian guards and put to sea on September 18th under small arms and artillery fire. Drawing on the collective knowledge of the officers, a crude map of the Baltic was drawn to aid in the escape to Great Britain. ORZEL remained on patrol for two more weeks before attempting an escape. After two weeks of careful navigation through waters controlled by Germany, the ORZEL arrived at Rosyth on October 14, 1939 and began operations with the Royal Navy's 2nd Submarine Flotilla in December. The ORZEL made several patrols in the North Sea, including sinking the German troop transport Rio de Janeiro off Norway on April 8, until the boat failed to return from a patrol in June 1940. While the story of the ORZEL is certainly a tribute to the skill and courage of officers and men of the Polish Navy, there is another less well-known escape that demonstrated equal bravery and great cleverness.
The Strategic Situation
December 1941 found the Royal Netherlands Navy (RNeN) preparing for the Japanese invasion of Southeast Asia, including the Dutch territory of the Netherlands East Indies (NEI). Prior to the outbreak of hostilities, Dutch naval authorities had coordinated defence planning with their British and American counterparts as the RNeN was not strong enough to defend the islands without assistance. With the severe losses suffered by the USN at Pearl Harbor and heavy demands on the RN for units in the Mediterranean, Allied forces were stretched thin. In January 1942 land, air, and naval units of the American, British, Dutch, and Australian (ABDA) forces were assembled under the overall command of British General Sir Archibald Wavell. Command of Allied naval forces was held by first Admiral Thomas C. Hart, USN and later Vice Admiral Conrad E.L. Helfrich, RNeN. Land-based aircraft scouted for Japanese ships, leaving the Dutch submarine force with assistance from a few British and more numerous American subs to intercept the Japanese invasion forces. The larger surface ships of ABDA, limited to cruisers and destroyers after the loss on December 10, 1941 of the battleship HMS PRINCE OF WALES and battlecruiser HMS REPULSE to Japanese air attack, were divided between convoy escort and assignment to a multi-national striking force under command of Rear Admiral Karel F.W.M. Doorman, RNeN.
Steady Japanese pressure resulted in a whittling away of the air cover and submarine screens that were the primary defence of the NEI. By February 1942 the situation had become critical as the main island of Java was under frequent air attack and the larger surface ships were in need of repair and re-supply. The climax came on the night of the 26-27th of February when the main allied striking force under Rear Admiral Doorman was shattered in the Battle of the Java Sea. The Dutch light cruisers DE RUYTER (flag) and JAVA were lost, as were several destroyers. The heavy cruisers HMS EXETER, USS HOUSTON and the light cruiser HMAS PERTH were damaged and finished off over the next few days by Japanese ships as they attempted to escape the archipelago. Assorted destroyers and small warships of several nationalities were also caught by various Japanese task forces. At this point allied naval power in the NEI was limited to the remaining Dutch submarines and the various auxiliary and service vessels of the major Dutch naval base of Soerabaja (now Surabaya).

One of the Little Ships

The little Dutch minesweeper Hr.Ms.ABRAHAM CRIJNSSEN still exists as a museum ship at the naval museum in Den Helder, the Netherlands. She escaped the Japanese advance to continue the fight from Australia (Den Helder Museum)

One of the small vessels stationed at Soerabaja was the minesweeper HR. MS. ABRAHAM CRIJNSSEN. Built in 1936, this 460 ton (standard, 585 ton full load) steel hulled minesweeper of the Jan van Amstel class was armed with a 3-inch gun plus four small anti-aircraft machine-guns with a crew of 46. Like her sisters, the CRIJNSSEN was named for a famous naval ship captain of the Dutch 'Golden Age' during the late 17th century. CRIJNSSEN and three sister ships arrived in the NEI in November 1937 for service at Soerabaja. Once the war began the CRIJNSSEN was employed in minelaying, minesweeping, and convoy escort duties to major ports in the NEI.
On October 3, 1941 Luitenant ter zee der 2e klasse (Lieutenant) Anthonie van Miert, RNeN assumed command of the ship. Van Miert was a 1929 graduate of the naval academy at Willemsoord near Den Helder. His early postings consisted of several tours in the NEI including service on the new light cruiser DE RUYTER. As a Lieutenant, van Miert was detailed in August 1939 as the executive officer of the newly commissioned minelayer WILLEM VAN DER ZAAN and temporarily served as Captain from January to April 1941. In October 1941 Lieutenant van Miert left the WILLEM VAN DER ZAAN and assumed command of the ABRAHAM CRIJNSSEN. Promotion to Lieutenant Commander (Luitenant ter zee der 1e klasse) came the following month.
As the strategic situation deteriorated, the minesweeper division that CRIJNSSEN belonged to received orders on February 17 from the commander of the Soerabaja naval base, Acting Rear Admiral Pieter Koenraad, to be ready to leave for Australia upon receipt of a coded signal. By early March no clear instructions on how to escape had been received despite naval personnel already demolishing the base and making preparations to scuttle ships to block the harbour. At this point Japanese forces effectively controlled both the sea and the air around Java and escape seemed so improbable that it was perceived by many as suicidal even to try. On the afternoon of March 3rd, an attempt to escape was made by three 80 ton Merbaboe class coastal minesweepers of the 4th Minesweeper Division, the MERBABOE, RINDJANI, and SMEROE under Lieutenant J.J.C. Korthals Altes, RNeN. Ultimately, this group reached Broome, Australia on March 10th. However great the odds seemed, Lieutenant Commander van Miert began making preparations to escape by covering the CRIJNSSEN with nets for camouflage. The commander of the 2nd Minesweeper Division, Lieutenant Commander J.R.L. Lebeau, convened a meeting of the commanders and executive officers of the ships in his division. He told them they could make their own decision about trying to escape. Lieutenant Commander van Miert, with the assistance of his executive officer Lieutenant A.D.H. Heringa, went around to the other minesweepers in the division as well as to the minelayer GOUDEN LEEUW seeking volunteers to join the CRIJNSSEN. Lieutenant Commander van Miert then held an "All Hands" on his own ship where he announced his intention to attempt an escape, and permitted any crew who did not want to remain on board to leave the ship. A good portion of the enlisted personnel, including the Indonesian sailors, subsequently left the ship.
When the 2nd Minesweeper Division received the coded order from Rear Admiral Koenraad to escape on March 6th, only three of the four ships left harbour. Lieutenant Commander J.P.A. Dekker of the PIETER DE BITTER refused to leave harbour and scuttled his ship alongside a pier, an action for which he was court martialled after the war. HR. MS. JAN VAN AMSTEL (Lieutenant C. de Greeuw, RNeNR) and ELAND DUBOIS (Lieutenant H. de Jong, RNeNR) left Soerabaja before the CRIJNSSEN and together sailed to the Gili Islands. The CRIJNSSEN left Soerabaja at 2130 hours on March 6th without navigation lights and with all portholes covered, also headed for the Gili Islands. The ship encountered the other two minesweepers lying at anchor off Gili Radja on March 7th without any camouflage and therefore departed for another anchorage, Gili Genteng, after taking aboard some fuel from DUBOIS. This was a fortunate decision as the DUBOIS and AMSTEL were later spotted by a Japanese aircraft. Since the DUBOIS was missing many of its crew and had a problem with its boilers, the decision was made to scuttle the DUBOIS and transfer its crew to the AMSTEL. The AMSTEL was then camouflaged with foliage from shore. Shortly after sailing, the AMSTEL was discovered in the Madura Strait at 2330 hours by the Japanese destroyer ARASHIO and sunk by gunfire with the loss of 21 of the more than 80 men on board. The AMSTEL survivors were later picked up by another Japanese destroyer.
The Voyage
The CRIJNSSEN eluded the ARASHIO and began a schedule of remaining at anchor under camouflage by day and sailing by night. Each day the foliage used to camouflage the ship was refreshed with new tree limbs cut from shore. The intent was to make the ship look like an island when seen from the air or sea. On the evening of the 7th, the CRIJNSSEN weighed anchor at 1830 hours and steamed at 12 knots to the south of Sapoedi, between Goa-Goa and Karang Takat reef, and then to the north of Kangean Island and on to the Aloean Islands. On Sunday, March 8th the CRIJNSSEN departed at 1845 and sailed at 12 knots to the southeast between Pageroean and Sekala headed for Soembawa Island. Between 2300 and 2330 hours an unidentified silhouette was spotted and course was changed. The CRIJNSSEN used its motorboat to reconnoitre Poto-Paddoe Bay on the morning of Monday, March 9th. Contact was made with representatives of the local sultan and the local shipping agent to obtain information about enemy air or surface activity in the Alas Strait. There were no Japanese on Soembawa Island and no aircraft had been seen for the last four days.
CRIJNSSEN sailed again at 1730 hours, arrived at the entrance of the Alas Strait at 2215 hours and transited the strait at 13.5 knots. Through the strait on Thursday, March 10th, the Captain reduced speed to 10 knots to conserve fuel. By Wednesday, March 11th the ship had reached the position -15.21S/115.13E at mid-day. Finally, at 0800 hours on Friday the 13th, the Northwest Cape of Australia was sighted. The fuel situation had become critical but the CRIJNSSEN was able to sail southward along the coast until it finally reached Geraldton at 1200 hours on Sunday, March 15th.
The impossible had been done. A small ship with hardly any armament, a maximum speed of 15 knots, and bunkerage for only 110 tons of fuel had made a lengthy solo journey through waters controlled by the enemy. Determination, advance preparation, a clever camouflage scheme, and sailing only by night allowed the CRIJNSSEN and her crew to join the submarines K-VIII, K-IX, K-XII, and the light cruiser TROMP in Australian waters to continue the war effort. For his courage and ingenuity, Commander van Miert received the Cross of Merit in September 1942. Nine other crew members received the same honour in November 1943.
Once in Australia the CRIJNSSEN was used in April and May to escort the Dutch submarines K-IX and K-XII from Fremantle to Sydney. A period of refit followed to install sonar. At the end of August 1942 the ship was transferred to the RAN and Lieutenant Commander van Miert left the ship to become executive officer of the gunboat SOEMBA in the Mediterranean Sea. He briefly assumed command of SOEMBA in August 1943 when the Captain was killed during a German air attack. November 1944 saw van Miert take command of SOEMBA's sister ship FLORES and then the minelayer WILLEM VAN DER ZAAN in January 1945. As for the ABRAHAM CRIJNSSEN, the RAN used the ship as a convoy escort between Melbourne and Brisbane until May 1943 when the ship was returned to the Royal Netherlands Navy. The CRIJNSSEN continued as a convoy escort with occasional minesweeping duties based at Melbourne and Sydney until the end of the war.
After the war the CRIJNSSEN was used to clear mines in the Netherlands East Indies. In August 1951 the CRIJNSSEN left the Indies to return to the Netherlands. In March 1956 she was converted to a netlayer. The ship was finally decommissioned in mid-1961 and was then donated to the Sea Cadet Corps in 1962. The CRIJNSSEN was stationed at The Hague from 1962-1972 and then moved to Rotterdam. In 1995 the CRIJNSSEN was donated to the naval museum at Den Helder and refitted to her wartime configuration.
The successful journey of the minesweeper ABRAHAM CRIJNSSEN from Soerabaja to Australia should be added to the list of amazing escapes of World War II and remembered as another example of the fighting spirit shown by the Royal Netherlands Navy during World War II. The CRIJNSSEN still exists as a museum ship at the naval museum in Den Helder, the Netherlands.
The ship's web page (pictures, technical data) could be found at: http://www.marinemuseum.nl/uk/Abraham_Crijnssen.htm

General Data H.NL.M.S. ABRAHAM Crijnssen (van Amstel-class)

Shipyard Gusto, Schiedam
Laid down 21-03-1936
Launched 22-09-1936
Commissioned 26-05-1937
Decommissioned 29-05-1961
Pennant numbers
C (1937-'38)
CR (1938-1945)
MV 1 (from July 1946)
P 1 (from January 1947)
MV 1 (from july 1949)
M 801 (from October 1950)
A 925 (from January 1952)
Displacement 460 tons.
Dimensions 55,8 x 7,8 x 2,2 m.
Machinery engine triple-expansive machines, 2 (stork), 2 Yarrow boilers, 2 shafts 1600 S.H.P./15 kts
Capacity 1600 Pk
Sweeping equipment mechanical (paravanes)
Original gun 1 x 7,5 cm semi-automatic
"Krupp"2 x 2 machine-gun "Vickers"
40 mines
During WW II
all sorts of machine-guns and depth charges
After WW II
1 x 40 mm "Bofors"
3 x 20 mm machine-gun "Oerlikon"
2 x 20 mm machine-gun "Oerlikon"
Complement 45

Objectives & Membership Advisory Council President's Page Officers & Directors Naval & Maritime Links Resolutions & Statements Navy League Awards mail us at : navyleag@netspace.net.au Sitemap Back to Main Menu