of Java Sea and Sunda Strait - February 1942
NEI Naval and Air support in the Battle for Australia
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.
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 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
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
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.
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
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
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