Battle of Java Sea and Sunda Strait - February 1942

The NEI Naval and Air support in the Battle for Australia

Researched and Written by Doug Hurst MBE

The Royal Netherlands and East Indies Forces operated from Australia as part of the allied opposition to Japan during World War Two.
The Netherlands and the USA were the only non-Commonwealth allies to establish bases in Australia during the war. When the Netherlands East Indies (now Indonesia) fell to the Japanese, remnants of naval, army, air and merchant marine forces relocated to Australia. They were joined here by Dutch people from Europe and other areas to form fighting and support units. Operating from Australian bases for the rest of the war, these Dutch forces made an important contribution to the defence of Australia and eventual allied victory. Queen Wilhelmina of The Netherlands announced her government declared war on Japan in 1941, making the Dutch and Australian peoples allies in the forthcoming struggle.
A Brief History
The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941, and in the next three months overwhelmed much of South East Asia and the islands to Australia's north. The Philippines fell quickly, along with the Malay Peninsula and the vital British base of Singapore. Such was the speed of the Japanese advance that only ten weeks after Pearl Harbour, they attacked Darwin. Eager to secure vital war-fighting resources, particularly oil and rubber, they rapidly moved towards the Netherlands East Indies (Indonesia).
The Netherlands had built up land and sea forces, each with air support, within the Netherlands East Indies (N.E.I.). These NEI forces became part of a hastily formed American, British, Dutch and Australian (ABDA) alliance to oppose the Japanese. Unfortunately, ABDA did not have time to become a cohesive force and although many elements fought bravely, it was no match for the highly trained, well equipped and well led Japanese.
When the Japanese Imperial navy destroyed the Dutch-battle cruisers De Ruyter and Java, the HMAS Perth and the USS Houston to win the Battle of the Java Sea on 26 February 1942, all chance of saving the NEI was gone. Selected elements of the NEI forces were relocated to allied countries, including Australia.
In some ways Australia was an "any port in a storm" choice, for it too was threatened. The Japanese had moved into northern New Guinea, hoping to take over the whole island. This would complete their dominance of Australia's northern approaches, greatly reducing Australia's usefulness as a base for allied counter attacks. Their ability to invade Australia would also be much enhanced. Denying the Japanese control of New Guinea and the nearby approaches to Australia thus became a key allied strategy.
The Battle of the Coral Sea prevented Japanese naval forces from helping to take over the southern areas of New Guinea. Everything now depended on the land and air battles. It was here that the relocated NEI forces played a vital and decisive role.
Relocated NEI forces included six warships, nine submarines, over 1,000 troops and a number of aircraft, mostly transports. These resources were warmly welcomed and quickly integrated with Allied forces. But even more important in those dark days were the KPM company's merchant ships now located in Sydney.
Australia then had virtually no merchant navy.
The 28 KPM ships now based in Sydney became the major Allied supply line during the most critical, early stages of the New Guinea campaign. Indeed, they became a life line to Australian and U.S forces in New Guinea, delivering some 1 000 000 tons of supplies and 100 000 troops to the allied forces. Their contribution is hard to overstate. 19 of the 21 merchant ships allocated , to General MacArthur's command were Dutch. In all probability, without the KPM merchant fleet, the Allies could not have beaten the Japanese in New Guinea in 1942-43.
Australia may have been invaded and the Allies would certainly have had a much harder and longer task to win the war.
The urgent need saw unarmed KPM ships pressed into service almost immediately they arrived in Sydney. On 6 April 1942, only six weeks after leaving the NEI, the Cremer, van Heutz, Tasman and Maetsuycker ferried American troops, who had just arrived on the Queen Elizabeth, from Sydney to New Guinea.
With time KPM ships were armed, albeit rudimentarily. By December 1942 the "Lilliput" convoy system was devised to support allied forces. Dutch involvement in Lilliput convoys was high throughout, resulting in the worst losses of any allied force.
Experienced seamen were always in short supply. Ships' crews were often undermanned and routinely included Australian merchant and naval personnel and men from other allied countries - in one case the crew was almost entirely Filipino.

The Janssens.
The best known of the 28 Dutch Merchant ships that carried over 1,000,000 tons of supplies and 100,000 troops to New Guinea. The Janssens was a civilian supply and accommodation ship for Dutch submarines, winning fame for its daring operations.

Many ships became well known to allied fighting men. The Balikpapan served throughout the war, ferrying troops. Even better known was the Janssens, commanded throughout by the tall, thin, unflappable Captain G.N. Prass. She sailed under charter to the Dutch Navy as an accommodation and supply ship for Dutch submarines, but always with a civilian crew. Prass once took his ship, with a scratch crew and without a pilot, through a mine field in pitch darkness and heavy rain, only to be attacked by Japanese zeros next day, taking many casualties and sustaining considerable damage, but still making it to a safe port. For most of the war, the Janssens' only armament was two twin machine guns scrounged from a wrecked Catalina flying boat.
The naval ships and submarines based in the NEl joined with other ships of the Royal Netherlands Navy (RNN now RNLN) to operate in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. RNN submarines from Ceylon sank Japanese ships in the Indian Ocean, so helping defend Australia.. In early 1943 Dutch ships based in Fremantle helped escort the Australian 9th Division back from the Middle East. A Dutch submarine rescued thirteen crew from HMAS Yarra when she was sunk in March 1943. An early version of what became the US 7th Fleet was a multinational force of US, Australian and Dutch ships. Two thirds of the fleet's cruisers were Dutch, as were two destroyers, two submarines and a minesweeper.
Ships are essentially self-contained units, and surviving elements of the RNN sailed readily to Australia and quickly became an effective part of the Allied force. The NEI Army, the KNIL, lacked this mobility. A force of 90,000 - 40,000 regulars and 50,000 Reserves - it had no evacuation plan, and most KNIL members who survived the fighting were taken prisoner.
During 1942, 1074 KNIL members reached Australia from Java, New Guinea and other islands. By mid-1942 they had a Headquarters in Melbourne and a 745 strong force garrisoning those parts of the NEI not occupied by the Japanese. Despite some heroism, they were outnumbered everywhere and withdrawn. From then on, KNIL forces operated mainly with the Australian Army.
In December 1941 Australian troops were sent to Timor, considered a stepping stone to Java. The island was half Dutch and half Portuguese. Portugal was neutral, but few expected the Japanese to respect that fact. Local forces were small - 500 Dutch and 500 Portuguese. On 26 January 1942 Japanese aircraft attacked Dili in Portuguese Timor and by late February Japanese troops had landed in force. Australian and Dutch troops fought a Guerrilla style war, assisted by some Timorese. Reinforcements were sent from Australia, but the Japanese strength continued to build.
In early December 1942, 59 KNIL reinforcements died when their ship was sunk near East Timor. Soon after, the decision was made to withdraw. When this occurred in late December 1942, East Timor guerrillas numbered some 400; including 192 Dutch, 64 Australians and 87 Portuguese.
KNIL companies fought with the 7th Division and the 26th Australian Brigade. In June 1944, the 1st Battalion - with a strength of509,was set up with people drawn from as far afield as Surinam and the Dutch Antilles. It included infantry, technical rehabilitation experts and a company of guides and interpreters who accompanied allied troops re-taking Dutch territories. . From May to July 1945, KNIL troops fought alongside Australians in Tarakan and Balikpapan.
The Netherlands Forces Intelligence Service collected information and conducted special operations (sabotage, setting up undergrounds etc.) in former Dutch territories, including the NEI. 250 people did 36 operations. About half were successful, but they paid a high price, with many captured and 42 killed by their captors.
By war's end the KNIL numbered some 5 000, including a Women's Corps of 120, and a Papua Battalion formed and based in New Guinea.
Those NEI air units who flew to Australia did so mostly in flying boats and transports, as these aircraft had the necessary range and could carry passengers. A flight of flying boats made it to Broome, but were attacked on the ground, destroying the aircraft and killing some seventy refugees. A variety of transport aircraft made it to Australia. NEI air personnel were mostly aircrew. Lacking groundcrews, they could not quickly become operational and most of the refugee transport aircraft were soon transferred to the US forces to fill urgent needs.
Netherlands East Indies B25 Mitchell bombers in Canberra 1942.
The NEI had ordered and paid for aircraft from the US and three squadrons were formed in Australia. No.18 Squadron formed in Canberra on 7 APril 1942 flew its B25 Mitchell bombers. The majority of the aircrew were Dutch, mostly from the NEI. Others came from Dutch training courses run in the USA and the rest were Australians. Most groundcrew were Australians from the RAAF. The B25s formed a composite squadron within the RAAF that flew over 900 operational sorties during WW2.
Australian War Memorial Photo PO 1818.010.

In June 1942 the squadron consisted of 242 Dutch and 206 Australians. The Squadron was commanded by Dutch officers but was under the operational command of the RAAF, being part of 79 Wing.
An early success was the sinking, on 5 June 1942, of a Japanese midget submarine 115 km east of Sydney by Captain Gus Winckel in a B25. Apparently the midget submarine, having just attacked Sydney, was lost and so unable to rendezvous with the mother ship when sighted on the surface.
Later in the war, No.18 Squadron moved to Bachelor in the Northern Territory, and flew missions to the north of Australia and back over the NEI.
From there they moved into the South West Pacific, operating from a number of fields, and eventually flying over 900 operational sorties.
No 19 Squadron flew the famous C47 Dakota throughout Australia and to points north.
A memorial erected in Cairns in 1989, following the recovery of remains of a crashed Dutch C47 in North Queensland, provides a permanent reminder of their contribution and sacrifice.
The other squadron was No 120, flying Kittyhawks in New Guinea. They operated from the Dutch base at Merauke (in the south of what today is called West Irian) providing air defence for Merauke and contributing generally to the allied effort in the region.
Throughout, they worked closely with the RAAF Kittyhawk squadrons, training with them and at times sharing maintenance and other support.
Several thousand Dutch refugees had escaped to Australia in 1942 and the Netherlands East Indies Government-in-Exile was based in Brisbane during 1944-45, the only foreign government established in Australia during the war.
Along with the Dutch Armed Service personnel, this brought the number of Dutch people in Australia during the war to well over 10 000. Some settled in Australia, helping to keep alive the memories of the substantial contribution their fellow countrymen made to the defence of their adopted country in its darkest hours.
The Netherlands Australia Memorial in Canberra consists of four panels commemorating the naval, army, air and merchant marine components, together with a large panel displaying the bronze lion from The Netherlands coat of arms. The Memorial was officially dedicated by His Excellency, the Governor General Mr. Bill Hayden on 7 December 1991.
The re-development of the Defence Complex at Russell required that the Netherlands Australia Memorial be removed in 1997. Because important elements of the Memorial could not be saved it was decided to design and construct a new Memorial.
The new Netherlands Australia Memorial was re-dedicated on 7 December 1999.











































































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