Allies in adversity, Australia and the Dutch in the Pacific War
Dutch submarines in Australian waters
At the start of the war in the Pacific, the Royal Netherlands Navy (RNN) had a sizeable fleet of 15 submarines based at Surabaya. These were: O-16, O-19, O-20, K-VII, K-VIII, K-IX, K-X, K-XI, K-XII, K-XIII, K-XIV, K-XV, K-XVI, K-XVII, and K-XVIII. The “O” boats were the larger and more modern vessels, mostly dating from the late 1930s, while several of the smaller “K” (for “Koloniën”, or “Colonial”) boats dated from the First World War period. The later “K” boats (XIV–XVIII) were considered to be reliable and fairly modern seagoing craft.
The RNN submarine fleet fought bravely against the Japanese invasion, and in fact scored the first Dutch success of the war when K-XII sank the transport Toto Maru off Kota Baru on 12 December 1941. Several other vessels were also damaged or sunk during these early weeks, but the cost was high. O-16, O-20, K-XVI, and K-XVII were all lost before the end of the year. K-VII was later sunk in harbour by Japanese bombs, and K-X, K-XIII, and K-XVIII were scuttled at Surabaya to prevent their capture.
The remaining vessels of the fleet escaped to Colombo in Ceylon or to Australia, where they were based at the Western Australian port of Fremantle. The older boats, K-VIII and K-IX were not considered suitable for operational use, and were consigned to training duties. The larger “K” boats continued in operational service, their tasks including the dropping and (less frequently) the recovery of NEFIS reconnaissance parties in the occupied NEI.
After an extensive refit in Britain, O-19 returned to Australian waters and had some success against Japanese shipping in 1944-45. Unfortunately, in July 1945, she ran aground on Ladd Reef in the South China Sea, and could not be refloated. The crew were rescued by the US submarine Cod, and O-19 was disabled and abandoned.
The most successful Dutch submarine to operate out of Fremantle was the Zwaardvisch (Swordfish). Built for the Royal Navy as the “T” Class HMS Talent, it was transferred to the RNN in 1943, and began operations in Australian waters from September 1944. A large number of Japanese transports and several minelayers were attacked and sunk, but the highlight of Zwaardvisch’s operational career was undoubtedly the sinking of the German U-boat U-168. The German submarine was on her its to Surabaya to join the small German flotilla there when it was sighted in the early morning of 6 October 1944. Six torpedoes were fired by Zwaardvisch, and U-168 sank, with the loss of 23 lives.
Another “T” Class submarine, HMS Tarn, was lent to the RNN, becoming the Tijgerhaai (Tiger shark), but it did not arrive in Fremantle until August 1945, too late to see active service.