Journal of the Australian War Memorial - Issue 29 

Australian-Dutch defence cooperation, 1940-1941

Author:  Herman Bussemaker

1. Introduction

{1} Despite the growing menace of Japanese military expansion during the 1930s, the Commonwealth of Australia and the Kingdom of the Netherlands, with an extensive colony in the Far East, had come to neither formal nor informal agreement on a common defence policy. For the Australian Government, it was of vital interest that the Netherlands East Indies should not fall into Japanese hands, but they hoped to prevent such a fate by adhering to Imperial Defence, that is, to the British promise that the Royal Navy would defend Australia and British interests in the Far East. That policy was seen to be the best guarantee that there would be no Japanese incursions into the Dutch territories in south-east Asia.

{2} On the other hand, the Dutch Government maintained a strict policy of neutrality in the hope that, as in the First World War, Holland itself would be spared invasion. The small size of The Netherlands and its limited industrial base, however, precluded a credible defence of the colony, which was an archipelago of more than 13,000 islands covering a surface equal to that of Europe from Scotland to the Caucasus and from the North Cape to Sicily. The Dutch Government, however, reasoned that none of the three Powers (Japan, Great Britain and the USA) interested in any possible invasion of the Netherlands East Indies (NEI) would ever allow either of the others to do so. Consequently, these powers would adhere to the status quo. Should the Japanese strike, it was implicitly assumed that Britain would certainly intervene and that the USA might [1].

{3} Both the war in Western Europe, resulting in the occupation of The Netherlands in May 1940, and the constitutional impossibility of the US Government’s adopting a strong foreign policy aimed at restricting the totalitarian rgimes in East and West, transformed everything. This article deals with the change in attitude at government level both in Australia and within the Dutch government in exile, resulting in defence agreements being drawn up whereby Australia not only took over the defence of the eastern part of the NEI but also developed a strong system of defence co-operation against Japan in the latter part of 1941. For the Dutch, this meant not only total reversal of its diplomatic tradition of neutrality that had existed for 125 years but also radical abandonment of that neutrality. The principal reasons for these changes were the loss of the mother country and the growing realisation by both the Dutch and Australian governments that they had common interests. The article makes use of sources in Dutch archives, not easily accessible to Australian researchers without the help of translators.

2. Early Australian-Dutch relationships

{4} Although they had previously discovered the western and southern parts of Australia, Dutch interest in Australia was almost non-existent until the 1850s and the goldrush in Victoria. That event created trading opportunities, resulting in the appointment of commercial agents and consuls in Melbourne and Sydney [2]. Despite the strong anti-British sentiment in The Netherlands due to the Boer War, the East Indies Government convinced the Dutch Government to send a warship to attend the festivities celebrating Federation in 1901. The armoured cruiser HNMS Noord-Brabant of the East Indies fleet arrived at Melbourne on May 1, 1901 to take part in the International Fleet Review, gaining much acclaim by the Australian press and other authorities [3]. Trade relationships thereafter remained excellent, and even increased in importance. This is illustrated by the fact that the Australian Government appointed a Trade Commissioner to the British consulate in Batavia in 1916 even before the appointment of such commissioners in Paris (1917) and New York (1918) [4].

{5} Although East Indian imports and exports declined overall in the early 1930s, trade with Australia increased. Many products, such as flour, dairy produce, coal and horses for the Royal Netherlands East Indian Army (KNIL [5]) were imported from Australia. Sugar, kapok, rice, crude oil and oil products were exported to Australia. The Dutch entry in the London to Melbourne air race of 1934 resulted in much positive publicity, and a regular air service between Batavia and Sydney via Darwin was established in 1938.

{6} The Australian Goodwill Mission to the Far East under J.G. Latham started their tour to Asia with a ten-day visit to Java, where the mission was extensively entertained by both military and civil colonial officials, from 1 to 11 April 1934 [6]. In his secret report on the Mission, Latham recommended closer co-operation between the Australian and Dutch navies. At the very least he proposed that a number of Australian naval officers should familiarise themselves with the Dutch language [7]. Apparently, the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) took this recommendation to heart, for a number of naval officers consequently mastered the Dutch language.

{7} The increasing threat of Japan, and especially the interest of the Japanese in gaining a concession for oil exploration in Portuguese Timor, caused considerable consternation both in The Hague and in Canberra. During the Disarmament Conference in Brussels in November 1937, the Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs, A.C.D. de Graeff, talked at length with the Australian High Commissioner in London, S.M. Bruce. The matter of defence, however, was not discussed. Following that meeting, the Australian Government sent Vice-Consul Edward Lambert from Batavia to Dili to talk with the Portuguese authorities. He reported that no concession as yet had been granted to the Japanese, but he also concluded that Portuguese authorities harboured strong anti-Dutch feelings because of the misuse the Dutch had made of the monopoly of their inter-insular shipping line, the Royal Packetboat Company [8].

{8} In these circumstances, the Australian government considered it wise to sound out the Dutch concerning closer political co-operation between the two governments. R.G. Menzies suggested in a letter to the Prime Minister, J.A. Lyons, on 23 December 1937, that the Governor-General, Lord Gowrie, should pay a goodwill visit to Batavia on his way to London in April 1938. Lyons accordingly requested that an official invitation from the Dutch to Lord Gowrie be secured through official diplomatic channels [9].

{9} This request caused real consternation within the Dutch Government. Very upset indeed was the Dutch Governor-General in the East Indies, A.W.L. Tjarda Van Starkenborgh Stachouwer, because of the precedent it would have given to other, less welcome, visitors, like the Governor-General of Japanese Taiwan, or - worse still - the new President of the Philippines, Manuel Quezon. A visit by the latter could have been seen as a most unwelcome encouragement to Indonesian nationalists. The Governor-General therefore said that no official invitation should be sent, but the following face-saving procedure was put forward: the Dutch Government, learning of the planned holiday visit by the Australian Governor-General to the NEI on his way to Britain, would invite him to visit the Dutch Governor-General in Batavia. This plan of action was accepted by the Australians. From the correspondence between the Dutch Governor-General and the Cabinet in The Hague it is, however, abundantly clear that the Dutch were not at all happy about the Australian initiative [10].

{10} Nevertheless, the visit itself was a complete success. Lord and Lady Gowrie arrived at Bali on April 2, 1938. They were escorted by Lt. Col. F. Milius of the KNIL and Dr. K.F.J. Verboeket of the Cabinet of the Governor-General. On April 5, 1938 they were entertained by the KNIL at their headquarters in Bandoeng for an entire day. The next day they witnessed an air show by the KNIL Air Force, which displayed their newly acquired Glenn Martin bombers. On 7 April they paid a formal state visit to the Governor-General in Batavia, and a day later visited him informally at his palace at Buitenzorg, south of Batavia. Lord and Lady Gowrie left for Singapore on April 9.

{11} Considering the program of the visit and the Australian Governor-General's military background, it is inconceivable that military matters were not discussed between them. The official reports by both Australian and Dutch participants, however, make no mention of defence [11], a silence most likely explained by the strong neutral attitude of the Dutch government at the time. The articles which appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald on 6 and 7 April regarding Anglo-Dutch defence co-operation thus caused acute embarrassment. The Dutch Consul-General, T. Elink Schuurman, formally requested some kind of official statement by the Australian government that no defence issues had been discussed [12]. Lyons obliged, and made a statement in the House of Representatives on 27 April 1938, in which he referred to Lord Gowrie's visit and emphasized that, contrary to press speculation, the visit had "had no political or military significance whatsoever" [13]. It may easily be deduced, however, that informal discussions on defence matters had definitely taken place because a letter sent by the Colonial Office in London to the Foreign Office stated that if the Committee on Imperial Defence objected to proposals for closer collaboration with the Dutch, Lord Gowrie should be informed without delay [14].

{12} Another indication that defence cooperation had indeed been discussed informally may be found in the report on a meeting between Lord Gowrie and the Dutch Minister in London on 11 May 1938. Lord Gowrie talked freely about Australian re-armament plans and about the defence of Singapore, which he had inspected after his visit to Java [15].

3. Tentative Australian-Dutch defence discussions before May 1940

{13} The genesis of military co-operation between the Dominions and the Netherlands originated not in Australia, but in New Zealand. The Dutch Consul in Wellington, M.F. Vigeveno, reported on March 23, 1939 on the frank discussions he had had with Commodore Horan, the Chief of Staff of the Royal New-Zealand Navy (RNZN). Horan strongly emphasized the need for Dutch co-operation in the defence of the Pacific and therefore stressed the importance of Dutch naval representation at the ensuing Pacific Defence Conference, which was planned to take place in Wellington from 14 to 16 April 1939 [16].

{14} On account of their neutrality the Dutch did not participate in that conference. Those nations present at the Conference (Britain, Australia and New Zealand) concluded unanimously that The Netherlands government should be approached [17]. It was decided that the Australian Naval Chief of Staff, Admiral Sir Ragnar Colvin, should contact the Dutch Consul-General in Sydney about the possibility of a visit to the NEI to discuss mutual naval matters [18]. The request was politely yet firmly turned down by the NEI authorities.

{15} After the outbreak of the war in Europe, Australian anxiety about a change in the status quo of the East Indies increased, as it was feared that Holland might soon be occupied by Germany. On 10 November 1939 the Australian Government inquired in London whether the British Government had any contingency policy should that occur [19]. The British view was that, if Germany attacked The Netherlands, the Dutch would resist, and that in the East Indies the Dutch would actively co-operate with the British in catching German ships leaving East Indian ports. This expectation was based on a report by the British Commander-in-Chief, China Station, Vice-Admiral Sir Percy Noble, who had visited Batavia harbour on board his flagship, HMS KENT, in April 1939. There he had met the Dutch Naval and Military Commanders-in-Chief, who had given him confidential information on Dutch policy on Japanese aggression. His report [20], a copy of which was sent to the Australian Naval Board, stated unequivocally that "the use or occupation of any part of the Netherlands East Indian Territory by the Japanese will at once be countered by bombing, and the Dutch will immediately declare war themselves in the event of Japanese aggression". Before this report was issued, there was uncertainty in British and Australian defence circles about the willingness of the Dutch to defend themselves in the face of a Japanese attack. The report even mentioned an informal Dutch proposal to the effect that the British Fleet and Air Arm would operate in the Singapore-Sumatra-Borneo theatre, with Dutch forces operating east of it based on Surabaya and Ambon. The report, for which no equivalent has yet been found in Dutch archives, is the first documentary evidence of informal discussions at the highest military level between Dutch and British commanders. It contains highly secret information, for example, about the existence of concealed Dutch airfields in the jungle of Borneo.

{16} In October 1939 secret talks were held between the trade representative of the Dutch Consulate-General, Mr. J. van Horst Pellekaan, and the Australian Controller-General of Munitions Supply, N.K.S. Brodribb, on the possibility of obtaining defence supplies for the Netherlands East Indies. Brodribb then went to London with R.G. Casey, Minister for Supply and Development. At the same time the Australian Counsellor at the British Embassy in Washington was approached by the Dutch Minister, Dr A. Loudon, asking whether a meeting between Australian and Dutch officials would be feasible in order to discuss the possible supply of war materials to the NEI from Australia [21]. Concurrently, the Dutch Consul-General in Sydney enquired whether Casey and Brodribb could talk with Dutch army officials on their return to Australia from London [22]. This was indeed arranged, both men speaking to Dutch army officers on the day of their arrival by Qantas flying boat at Surabaya on December 14, 1939. The subject of the secret talks was the supply of ammunition to the Dutch [23]. From all these secret talks it is clear that, although the formal Dutch policy of neutrality was strictly sustained, the likelihood of German occupation of The Netherlands was considered highly probable, an event which would cut off their source of ammunition supplies. The NEI Government wanted a safe supply of weapons and ammunition, but was not yet interested in any closer defence co-operation.

{17} The secret meeting at Surabaya resulted in a formal request from the Dutch to the Australian Government to explore the possibility of Australia supplying munitions to the NEI. Bruce informed Prime Minister Menzies about this matter on January 25, 1940 [24]. He stressed that the Dutch Government was interested in long range policy rather than fulfilling immediate supply needs. Menzies answered positively, stressing that Commonwealth officers were aware of the Dutch needs (as outlined at Surabaya), but that the Dutch Consul in Sydney had agreed that the Australians needed more time in order to examine their capacity to fulfil them [25]. It can be inferred that the discussions at Surabaya had already been very detailed with respect to the Dutch requirements. It can also be concluded that the KNIL had not until then really been in a hurry to improve their armaments position. Holland was still a free country, and when the Australians asked for more time, the Dutch did not object. As far as we know, no further contact, either formal or informal, was made between Dutch and Australian armed forces representatives until October 1940.

4. The period of secret talks, June-December 1940

{18} This laissez-faire attitude gave way when Dutch policy makers realised the full consequence of the loss of the motherland in May 1940. In June 1940 the Dutch trade commissioner in Sydney, van Holst Pellekaan, contacted the Secretary of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs, Colonel Hodgson. The Dutch wanted to send a military mission to discuss the delivery of Australian arms and munitions. As no formal reply was received, the Consul-General, Elink Schuurman, urged by his Government, sent a second request in stronger terms on August 26, 1940 [26]. On August 15 the Dutch Minister in London also approached Bruce on the same issue [27]. On 16 September the Australian Government decided that a small KNIL-Commission would be allowed to visit Australia. At the specific request of the Dutch, the visit was to be as low-key as possible, and the Commission was to be referred to in public as an Industrial Research Commission [28].

{19} The Commission consisted of three KNIL Officers: Colonel P.H.T van der Steen (Artillery Commander, Coast Artillery Surabaya), Air Force Major Dr. G. Otten, and Artillery Captain F.B. Kroese. They arrived on October 23, 1940 as civilians on a regular KNILM flight. With the exception of Van der Steen, who stayed for about a week, the members of the Commission were taken on a very extensive tour of the complete Australian Defence establishment, leaving the country early in December 1940 [29]. The Commission visited 65 factories producing weapons and munitions, and a number of military installations and testing grounds. The members of the commission were very appreciative of the openness and high degree of co-operation displayed by Australian officials at all levels. In their official report, however, they expressed amazement at the lack of urgency shown by the Australian workers, who, they wrote, even organized strikes while their country was at war.

{20} The semi-official Dutch history of The Netherlands in the Second World War makes no mention of the attempts by the KNIL to secure weapons and munitions from Australia. Only one passing remark has been found about some Australian assistance to Dutch weapon factories in Java, which is also off the cuff [30]. This is all the more surprising because the list of Dutch requirements was quite extensive. They were divided into two categories, one immediate, and the other prospective (three to six months). The immediate requirements were for 5 million rounds of .303 inch small arms ammunition, and 500,000 pieces of links to feed these bullets into machine-guns. Furthermore, 500 trench mortars, over 3 million mortar grenades, and 380 tons of TNT were needed. The equipment ordered consisted of anti-tank guns and ammunition, tanks, searchlights, armour piercing shell and aircraft bombs. The commission stated that the total long range requirement for small arms ammunition was about 100 million rounds per annum and therefore that it was necessary to establish a new small-arms munitions factory in Java. Both plant and equipment were to be obtained from Australia [31]. The commission’s report implied that there was a debate within the Dutch defence establishment on exchanging the existing .265 inch rifle barrel for the (British) .303 inch type of rifle and machine-gun. Should this exchange become definite, an additional 100,000 rifle barrels and 5,000 machine-gun barrels would be needed.

{21} The Australians responded to the Dutch requests on 25 November 1940. It was agreed to supply the 5 million rounds of small arms ammunition asked for, but because of the tight supply situation it was impossible to fulfil the other immediate Dutch requirements. It was, however, agreed to give the Dutch the specifications of the fuse of the Australian 3-inch mortar grenades and of the 250-pound aircraft bomb, and full specifications of the characteristics of TNT manufactured in Australia. As their part of the agreement, the Commission had handed to the Australians full information on the (Swedish) anti-aircraft fire control instruments being used by the KNIL, and drawings and specifications of the air bombs used in the NEI [32].

{22} It can therefore be concluded that, although official Dutch policy in the NEI was still neutral, by the end of 1940 a number of secret and informal contacts at higher political and defence levels in both administrations had been established. This virtually drew the Australians into the defence of the NEI against the likely common enemy, Japan. And as long as the Australian involvement was kept secret, it was welcomed by the Dutch. The next step would be the formalisation of the contacts which had been established. Although the original Dutch request regarding munitions and weapons supplies was only partly met by the Australian Government, both parties had worked together in remarkable unity and at great speed to produce in a mutually satisfactory conclusion. The Dutch military command then even decided to equip all KNIL/ML Air Force personnel with .303 inch rifles, as almost all the planes in service also had .303 inch Vickers and Colt/Browning machine-guns. This would also mean that if the KNIL/ML Air Force ever had to carry out duties in conjunction with the RAF and RAAF, no supply difficulties would arise from the use of different types of weaponry [33].

{23} On 1 October 1940 the Australian Minister in Washington reported that the British Ambassador, Lord Lothian, had been approached by the US Secretary of State, Cordell Hull. He had asked for immediate private staff meetings to be held between the USA, Britain, Australia and The Netherlands to discuss technical problems should these countries be involved in united defence action, although Hull stipulated that these talks were to be technical, and would have nothing to do with political policy [34]. It was the start of a chain of events which lead eventually to staff talks between all four powers, two of which were officially neutral.

{24} In a military appraisal in early August 1940, the British Chiefs of Staff had already expressed their view that "One aim of our policy should be ultimately to secure full military co-operation with the Dutch"[35]. It is therefore not surprising that both the Australian and British Governments welcomed the American initiative and made immediate plans for these talks. After some haggling about the place (both London and Washington were suggested), agreement was reached for the talks to take place in Singapore, and the British Government approached the Dutch about being present [36]. The Dutch Government, however, supported Governor-General Tjarda's opinion that even secret staff talks formed a breach of Dutch neutrality, and could represent a pretext for the Japanese to intervene if they got to hear of them. Due to their excellent intelligence, this would only have been a matter of time. The fact that the Americans did not show up worsened matters. Roosevelt faced an election challenge on November 5, 1940 and did not want to do anything which might endanger his re-election. Their involvement in staff talks was postponed for the time being [37]. Accordingly, on 22 October 1940 the Defence Conference at Singapore was attended only by Britain, Australia and New Zealand. The report of the conference, however, had two appendices which listed points for discussion with Dutch and American authorities as soon as that became politically possible [38]. The report also revealed such an alarming weakness in the defences of Singapore that the Australian Cabinet decided that Menzies should travel to London to discuss this and other matters directly with Churchill and the Chiefs of Staff [39].

{25} With Roosevelt safely re-elected, new invitations went out for staff talks in Singapore. The Americans attended as observers, and the Dutch Government in exile had put pressure on Tjarda to comply with any agreements made. On 26-28 November 1940 these talks between all four powers took place. The British Government had spelt out the objectives of these talks and had sent copies to the other governments involved [40].

{26} The results of this conference were considerable. It was agreed that liaison officers would be appointed with utmost urgency. Commander G.B. Salm was appointed Dutch naval liaison officer with the Australians. The Australian Government appointed Commander V.E. Kennedy RAN as liaison officer in Batavia. The Dutch also agreed to provide fuel, spares and ammunition for the RAF and the RAAF at their military airfields in Sumatra, Borneo and the Eastern NEI The Dutch indicated that they lacked adequate stocks of small-arms ammunition and asked for assistance in replenishing them.

{27} About a month later, on 29 December 1940, Elink Schuurman had a long and frank talk with Menzies, who strongly expressed his misgivings about the Dutch policy of being allied with Britain in Europe, while remaining shy of co-operation with Britain and Australia in the Far East. He strongly urged that secret staff talks be held directly between Australia and the NEI, and emphasized Australia’s vital interest in their integrity. For reasons of British foreign policy, not wanting to give the Dutch a unilateral guarantee without the backing of the US, it was impossible for Australia to give the Dutch a similar guarantee; but the former would, out of self-interest, do their best to provide weapons and munitions to the NEI [41].

5. Staff talks, January-May 1941

{28} On 12 January 1941 the Australian Minister for the Army, P.C. Spender, visited the Dutch Governor-General at Batavia and obtained his agreement to hold staff talks between the Australians and the Dutch directly. The Australian Government reacted very quickly. On 22 January 1941 Menzies accepted the Dutch invitation dated January 18 to send a military delegation to Batavia. This delegation consisted of Wing Cdr W.L. Hely and Squadron Leader H.W. Berry of the RAAF, Cdr V.E. Kennedy of the RAN, and R.H. Doyle, Controller of Production, Munitions Department. On 11 and 12 February 1941 they met officers from both the Dutch Royal Navy (KM) and the KNIL in Batavia to discuss a number of issues concerning defence co-operation. Kennedy reported to the Australian Naval Board on February 14, describing the meetings as open and pleasant. Agreements were reached on informing each other of the positions of ships bound for or leaving the Dutch East Indies and the Australia Station. To his amazement, Kennedy found out that the Commander-in-Chief of the British China Station, Vice-Admiral Geoffrey Layton, was already reporting the position of Australian warships to the NEI authorities [42]. This showed that far more informal but effective Anglo-Dutch naval co-operation at operational level had been taking place than had been approved by the respective governments. A very good personal friendship between Layton and his Dutch counterpart, Vice-Admiral C.E.L. Helfrich, helped considerably. The Dutch also gave them information about the positions of minefields, and advised the Australians that they would re-route all their shipping to and from the US West Coast through the Torres Straits to minimise Japanese interference. It was also agreed that Tjilatjap harbour on the south coast of Java would be expanded to handle more freight.

{29} It was intended that the Dutch Army Chief of Staff, Major-General H. ter Poorten, would attend the meeting between the British Commander-in-Chief, Malaya Command, Sir Robert Brooke-Popham, and the Australian War Cabinet scheduled for February 10-17. At the last moment, however, this visit was cancelled by the Governor-General himself because of threatening Japanese moves, to the considerable embarrassment of Schuurman, because some of the Australian generals and politicians had interpreted it as a signal of appeasement by the Dutch towards the Japanese [43]. But Brooke-Popham did have the opportunity to talk to the Governor-General and afterwards to Ter Poorten as well during a short stop in Batavia on his way to Melbourne. Ter Poorten attended the second Four-Power Staff Conference at Singapore at the end of the month in person. He also visited Australian Army headquarters at Melbourne between 15 and 28 March 1941. The result of these extended talks was that an agreement was reached, not only to detach six officers from the tank corps at the Australian Tank Corps School at Seymour, but also to extend an invitation to the commander of the Australian Coast Artillery to visit the coastal defences of Surabaya. This invitation was accepted and the visit subsequently took place [44].

{30} The fact that the Qantas airline service from Sydney to London used the Batavia airport for refuelling made it possible for Australian officials to have more frequent contact with their Dutch counterparts on their way to and from London than would otherwise have been the case. These facilities meant that it was easy to arrange a meeting on January 28, 1941 between Menzies and the Dutch Governor-General. Tjarda's report sent to the Minister of Colonies on that meeting stated that Menzies was willing to go to war against Japan should Dutch territory be taken. It also mentioned the willingness of the Australian Government to discuss the possibility of garrisoning an Australian Army Division on Java [45]. Based on the information he got from Tjarda, Menzies started his first meeting at the Foreign Office in London on 26 February 1941 by asking "whether we regarded the Netherlands East Indies as vital" (meaning that the invasion of that territory would be a casus belli) [46]. The Foreign Office left the question unanswered for the time being. The Naval Staff were less diplomatic, for during talks between Menzies and the Vice Chief of Naval Staff on 8 March 1941, Vice-Admiral T.S.V. Phillips stated that "we should not go to war with Japan over their occupation of any part of the Netherlands East Indies; this would only add to the number of our enemies, and if Germany could first be defeated we could turn to Japan later and deal with her" [47]. It was a straight answer, but not the one Menzies was expecting.

{31} After their meeting with Dutch senior officers, the Australian military delegation went straight from Batavia to the second Four-Power Staff Conference at Singapore, which took place on 22 February 1941. The Dutch were present in force, as were the Americans, who again attended as "observers". At that conference, it was agreed that Australia would take over the defence of Ambon and Timor if war broke out in the Pacific. Australian forces at Ambon were to be under Dutch control at the outset. The Allied Forces in Dutch Timor, however, would come under Australian control on the arrival of their army units. The Australians would contribute to the defence of the Ambon-Timor-Darwin triangle with two Hudson Bomber squadrons and two army brigades. This was later reduced to a force of about 1,200 men each for Ambon and Timor. The RAAF units were not to be stationed permanently at Ambon and Koepang, but advance parties were to prepare the bases for their transfer. The Australian War Cabinet agreed with the recommendations issued after the Singapore Conference, but in collaboration with the Dutch authorities it was also decided that radio equipment, vehicle transport, bombs and ammunition, aviation fuel and general stores should be sent to Ambon and Koepang in advance. The equipment and stores would bear Dutch markings and would be charged to the KNIL [48].

{32} The Australian Government was less happy about the failure of the conference to draw up a co-ordinated naval defence plan for the Far East and it therefore urged that a third conference be held to formulate such a plan [49]. During the parallel US - British Staff Talks held in Washington from January to March 1941, the British secured the American commitment to attend the next Singapore conference as official participants. In that capacity they had already attended the Anglo-Dutch-Australian-American Combined Services Communications Conference which had taken place on 27 February 1941. At that conference the four parties disclosed to each other the frequencies and station calls of ships and shore installations and air bases. The Dutch representatives disclosed the existence and call signals of the top-secret Samarinda-II and Singkawang-II airfields in Dutch Borneo, and codes and ciphers were standardised and exchanged. The importance of this conference has been overlooked in most official military histories of the countries concerned.

{33} The third Four-Power Singapore Staff Conference took place on 21-27 April 1941, with the Americans now as full participants. It was an important conference which laid the foundation for the later ABDA-Allied Integrated Command, the first of its kind during the Second World War. During this conference the Dutch-Australian agreements with regard to the eastern part of the NEI were upheld against the wishes of the British delegates, who wanted to focus specifically on the defence of Singapore and its surroundings [50]. It was here that, for the first time, the Australians used the expression "Malay Barrier" to describe the importance of the NEI for the defence of Australia.

{34} The importance of this third and last Singapore Staff Conference was the feeling of all parties that, despite the political expediency of delaying declaration of a guarantee towards the NEI, the prospective allies were all in the same boat. The Dutch were officially still neutral, at least in south-east Asia, but at the operational level the frequency of contact had increased considerably since the last conference. It was the feeling of no longer being isolated that gave the Dutch the courage to join the American embargo against Japan a few months later, even though, politically, they had no obligation to do so and, militarily, it meant that a Japanese attack on the NEI oilfields would only be a matter of time.

6. The unofficial alliance, May-December 1941

{35} Based on the agreements of the second and third Four-Power Singapore Staff Conferences, the Australian Army produced a detailed plan on May 6, 1941 for the reinforcement of Timor and Ambon [51]. Two battalions of the 23rd Infantry Brigade AIF were to be employed. Meanwhile, 360 tons of military equipment were already on board two KPM freighters on the way to Ambon and Koepang. Six Dutch military planes arrived in Darwin on 17 May and went back to Koepang with a reconnaissance party on board, consisting of the Commander of the 23rd Brigade AIF, Brigadier E.F. Lind, and the battalion commanders of the two battalions in question, the Lt-Cols L.N. Roach and G.D. Youl [52]. As well, maintenance parties consisting of one officer and seven men were despatched to each of both areas to take charge of the military equipment. The results of the reconnaissance were the recommendations to have both the battalions and the maintenance parties strengthened and to set up a direct link with Dutch military headquarters in Bandoeng [53]. For military and political reasons, however, the Australian Government did not implement these recommendations.

{36} The Australian Government did, however, carry out the recommendation to reinforce the Australian maintenance parties. They neglected to contact the Dutch Government directly on this issue, however, but made do by sending a request to the British Government [54]. The Foreign Office knew that the Dutch would angle for a guarantee on the integrity of the NEI, a guarantee which the British were unwilling to give. It took almost a month before the negative reply was given on August 7. The Dutch position thus remained as stated by the Commanding Officer KNIL, Lt-Gen. Berenschot, in a cablegram to liaison-officer Salm, dated May 8, 1941: that no Australian maintenance parties were to be allowed above the two seven-man teams, and that Dutch maintenance personnel would be supplied, "who will be instructed by so called factory personnel in civilian clothes" (that is, the seven-man teams already mentioned).

{37} In the period July-September 1941 the Australians shipped a number of motorcycles, a few lorries and ten Bren-carriers to each of the two sites at Koepang and Ambon. Ammunition, explosives, and two 6-inch coastal guns to be assembled protect its Koepang harbour were also sent [55]. As their equipment would already have been in place at the outbreak of the war, the two battalions would only have needed to carry their personal equipment with them at the time of transport to Koepang and Ambon. The Dutch government meanwhile offered assistance in the servicing of the 6-inch gun battery at Koepang before the arrival of the Australian crew, and this offer was accepted by the Australians. Two KNIL non-commissioned officers and 18 artillery men arrived at Koepang on 6 August 1941 for this purpose [56].

{38} It was only after repeated urgings by the Australians that the British Government (in early October) finally contacted the Dutch Government in exile about the issue of larger advance parties in uniform. This was to ensure discipline, which could not be maintained among soldiers wearing civvies. The new Australian Prime Minister, John Curtin, tired of British foot-dragging, instructed Bruce to contact the Dutch Government in exile immediately on this matter. On 23 October 1941 he met the Dutch Minister to talk the subject over [57]. The Dutch government agreed to the Australian request concerning maintenance parties of 100 Army personnel and 52 Air Force personnel being based on Ambon, and 100 Army and 19 Air Force personnel being sent to Koepang in uniform. Nevertheless, the Dutch rejected the proposal to establish more troops at those sites before the outbreak of war because they feared "undesirable incidents with the population", especially at Ambon [58]. Their real fear, though, was loss of face in the eyes of the local population because of the obvious Dutch inability to defend their colony.

{39} This incapacity became especially clear in the dispute between Dutch and Australian authorities on the issue of the command structure on Ambon. At the Singapore conferences it had been agreed that the local Dutch commander, a lieutenant-colonel, would also command the Australian troops. After his reconnaissance trip, however, Brigadier Lind recommended that his headquarters should be at Ambon. A lieutenant-colonel could not be superior to a brigadier. The Dutch feared loss of respect by the very loyal local population if they realised that an Australian was in command at Ambon [59]. The Australian Chief of Staff therefore suggested that the brigadier should not to be sent to Ambon, and that the possibility of combined HQ at Ambon be negotiated with the Dutch authorities.

{40} Notwithstanding these problems, by October 1941 a solid foundation had been laid for close Dutch-Australian defence co-operation. The Australian liaison officers in Batavia and Bandoeng did not hide their presence any longer, and they were allowed to wear their uniforms. Warships and aeroplanes called at each other's harbours and airfields. It was a far cry from the situation which had existed just one and a half years before.

{41} On 5 December 1941, three days before Pearl Harbour, the NEI Government asked the Australian Government to send aircraft to Ambon and Timor [60]. The War Cabinet approved, and at dawn on 7 December, 1941 two flights of Hudson bombers from the 13th RAAF squadron flew to Laha Field in Ambon, and one flight of No 2 squadron flew to Koepang. That day, Brigadier Lind received orders at Darwin to move the 21st Battalion ("Gull Force") to Ambon, and the 40th Battalion ("Sparrow Force") to Timor. The troops were quickly shipped to their destinations, where their heavy equipment was waiting for them. As was planned, Australia took over the defence of a large part of the eastern part of the NEI at the moment that hostilities started. It was a momentous and unprecedented occasion, and it crowned the development of closer relationships between Australia and the Dutch East Indies in mutual defence.

7. Summary and conclusions

{42} During the last few years of peace, there was a growing realisation in both the NEI and Australia that both countries had common interests. For Australia, the integrity of the NEI was a vital security need, as the island chain was a barrier between the Australian heartland and Japan. For the Dutch, Australia represented a much-needed industrial hinterland. This need became even more pressing after the loss of contact with the mother country following the German occupation. But, as has been observed, there were powerful obstacles to the emergence of an open alliance between the two countries. Australia was snared within the doctrine of Imperial Defence, and for the British under the leadership of Winston Churchill, the Far East had low priority. A guarantee to the NEI was out of the question.

{43} Among the Dutch there was a 130-year-old legacy of neutrality and aloofness, combined with lingering suspicions about British design on "the richest colony of the world". In the first few months after the catastrophe in Western Europe, there was still doubt as to whether Britain would be able to stand up to the expected German onslaught. This called for a prudent policy by the Dutch Government in exile, even when it was hosted by the British and based in London. As this government was in disarray during its first few months in London, the Dutch Governor-General in Batavia had wide freedom of action to determine local policy. That resulted in strict neutrality and aloofness, even with respect to the British ally in the Far East. All this was to the amazement and growing irritation of the Australian Government, which used its trump card - the overriding need of the Dutch colonial army to re-arm - most skilfully. This resulted in promising links even before the German occupation of Holland. The success of the military mission to Australia at the end of 1940, coupled with both the British victory in the Battle of Britain and increasing Japanese aggression, resulted in a complete change of Dutch policy at the end of 1940. Secret staff talks between British, Australian and Dutch officers then became possible [61]. Following Australian pressure put on the Dutch Governor-General during Menzies' visit, the way was clear for Dutch participation in the second and third Singapore Conferences. As late as October 1941, however, the Dutch authorities were still unwilling to allow Australian forces to enter their assigned areas of operations in the Moluccas and Timor.

{44} There were many factors which prevented early and effective co-operation between the Dutch and Australian Governments. First, although they disagreed with the British because of the vital interest they had in their own defence, the Australians adhered strictly to the British policy of not giving any guarantee for the territorial integrity of the NEI. This resulted in a serious loss of time. Secondly, the Dutch adhered to their traditional policy of aloofness as upheld by the Governor-General. This resulted in a year’s delay in the establishment of closer defence co-operation. Thirdly, Australia failed to achieve all-out industrial mobilisation before Pearl Harbour, as is evident from the production loss due to labour strikes. Consequently, the Dutch became dependent on one supplier of weapons only: the USA, which also had other interests to consider with respect to their prospective allies. The fourth factor was the weakness and vacillation of the Dutch Government in exile during their first year in London. This gave the Governor-General the opportunity to determine his own foreign policy, leading to much doubt in Australian, British and American political and military circles about the willingness of the Dutch to defend themselves should the Japanese attack. There was always the possibility that the Dutch administration in the East Indies would adopt the "French Model" of Indo-China if the Japanese put more pressure on them. Consequently, there was great reluctance by the US Government to export weapons to the NEI, especially in 1940 and early 1941. Dutch political and military aloofness as executed by the Governor-General therefore proved self-defeating [62]. It must be said, however, that Menzies did not share these doubts; early on he instructed his government to assist the Dutch to obtain modern weapons wherever possible.

{45} Of all prospective Dutch allies, Australia took the most positive stand and assisted them most in the two difficult years following the German occupation of Holland. It was in Australia's own interest to maintain the Malay Barrier as a protective shield, but the Australian Government faced formidable problems with the British Government in trying to justify this difference in attitude. The Dutch, however, appreciated the Australian position. In May 1941, the then Chief-of-Staff of the KNIL noted that co-operation with the Australian counterpart was excellent, remarking that Ambon and Timor had seen more Australians in the previous few weeks than in the hundred years before [63]! This appreciation of the positive Australian attitude towards the NEI can also be found in a cablegram, sent by the Governor General to the Dutch Colonial Minister on 14 April 1941 [64]. It was therefore no coincidence that after the Japanese invasion the Netherlands East Indies Government in exile established itself in Australia with the remnants of their armed forces, in the vain hope that the colony would be recaptured from there. That attempt was described in depth by Jack Ford [65] in his monumental study of Australian-Dutch relationships during the Second World War, and falls beyond the scope of this article.


[1] The Government Defence Assumptions of 1927 explicitly stated that if the Netherlands East Indies became involved in a military conflict, the Dutch Army and Navy would fight the invader: "in expectation of (international) support, which might be given to us". See the Official KNIL Staff publication by A.J.Th. Boester, ed., Nederlands-Indi contra Japan, Bandoeng 1949, Vol I, p 42.

[2] Antoinette de Cock Buning ed, The Netherlands and Australia: Two hundred years of Friendship, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, The Hague 1988, p 35.

[3] De Cock Buning, p 47.

[4] M. Ruth Megaw, "White Diplomacy and Yellow Gold", Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, Vol. 62, June 1976, p 59.

[5] The KNIL Cavalry used Australian horses exclusively.

[6] A commentary on this visit is to be found in the English-language Java Gazette, Vol 2, No 11, May 1934, p 419. The report also gives the names of all Commission members and the list of Dutch officials they met during their stay in Java.

[7] Secret Report of the Australian Far Eastern Mission, Canberra, 3 July 1934, p 7, Page Papers, MS 1633/288, National Library of Australia, Canberra.

[8] R.G. Neale, P.G. Edwards & H. Kenway eds, Documents on Australian Foreign Policy, Vol I, 1937-1938, Canberra 1975, document 119, p 246. This source publication will be referred to as DAFP.

[9] Letter from Lyons to McDonald, UK Secretary for Dominion Affairs, DAFP, Vol I, document 117, pp 243-4.

[10] Algemeen Rijks-Archief ARA (Dutch National Archives), Archives Colonial Department, file 10/1/1938 A-1, box 509.

[11] The Dutch Report is at ARA, Colonial Department, box 516 (1938), document N-9. The Report by British Consul General Batavia, H. Fitzmaurice, to Secretary Foreign Office, despatch no 94 dated April 9, 1938, is in the Australian Archives, Canberra, CRS A816/1, file 19/305/58, and in PRO London FO 371, item 486/401/370.

[12] Letter from T. Elink Schuurman to W.R. Hodgson, Secretary, Department of External Affairs, DAFP, Volume I, document 192, pp 337-8.

[13] Ibid. note 3.

[14] Letter from Sir Henry Batterbee, Colonial Office, to Sir A. Cadogan, Foreign Office, 8 January 1938, FO 371/22172[F487/487/61].

[15] Report by Minister Count Van Limburg Stirum to Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 11 May 1938, no 1370/528, MinBuZa Archives, London Legation, GA/DZ inv. nr. 1162, Bb. 40.

[16] ARA, Archives Dept of Foreign Affairs, Consulate-General Sydney, inv. 800, letter of March 23, 1939 no 626/CG 66, p 7. This important source will be referred to as Sydney Archives.

[17] Ibid., letter Vigeveno of 29 May 1939, no 956/CG 112, p 2.

[18] Letter from Consul-General Elink Schuurman to Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs, 14 June 1939, no T 20/2541, ARA Sydney Archives inv. nr. 800.

[19] Cablegram from W.R. Hodgson to A.T. Stirling, Office of Foreign Affairs, London, 10 November 1939, DAFP, Vol II, Document 343, p 390.

[20] Vice-Admiral Sir Percy Noble, Intelligence Report, Dutch East Indies, 17 April 1939, HMS KENT at Sandakan, Australian Archives Victoria, MP1185/8, file 2021/8/202.

[21] F.K. Officer in Washington to Dept. of External Affairs, Canberra, 16 November 1939, DAFP, Vol II, document 365, p 411.

[22] Cablegram from Prime Minister to R.G. Casey in London, 17 November 1939, DAFP, Vol II, document 369, p 414.

[23] Letter from T. Elink Schuurman to Minister Foreign Affairs, May 2, 1940, ARA, Archives, Colonial Department, accession number 2.10.45, inv. nr. 772.

[24] Cablegram from S.M. Bruce to R.G. Menzies, 25 January 1940, DAFP, Vol III, document 30, p 68.

[25] Letter from Prime Minister to S.M. Bruce, 7 February 1940, ibid, document 48, p 68.

[26] Letter from T. Elink Schuurman to Australian Minister for External Affairs, 26 August 1940, AA Victoria, MP729/6, file 4/401/57.

[27] A report on this discussion is to be found in the Archives of the Dutch Colonial Department, ARA, accession number 2.10.45, inv. nr. 772, letter from Michiels van Verduynen to van Kleffens, 15 August 1940, no 2530/699.

[28] War Cabinet Minute no 512, Melbourne, 16 september 1940, AA Victoria, MP729/6, file 4/401/57.

[29] AA Canberra, CRS A981, NEI 15 ii, and CRS A1608, F27/2/3. The Report by the KNIL Commission to its superiors is at ARA, London Archives of the Colonial Department, accession number 2.10.45, inv. nr. 772.

[30] Dr. L. de Jong, Het Koninkrijk der Nederlanden in de Tweede Wereldoorlog, Deel 11-a, Nederlands-Indi I, tweede helft, Mart.Nijhoff, Leiden, 1984. This very extensive study, History of the Kingdom of The Netherlands during the Second World War, consisting of 14 volumes, will be referred to in subsequent notes as De Jong, 11a.

[31] War Cabinet Agenda no 205, Supplement no 1, 25 November 1940, AA Victoria, MP729/6, file 4/401/57.

[32] Minute of Defence Committee Meeting of 25 November 1940, ibid, no 107/1940.

[33] Letter from T.Elink Schuurman to Secretary, Ministry of Munitions, 16 December 1940, ibid, no L17/5757.

[34] Letter from R.G. Casey to R.G. Menzies, 1 October 1940, DAFP, Vol IV, document 151, p 195.

[35] Letter from Lord Caldecote to Sir Geoffrey Whiskard, 11 August 1940, DAFP, Vol IV, document 66, p 91.

[36] See also DAFP, Vol IV, document 165.

[37] Letter from R.G. Casey to R.G. Menzies, 14 October 1940, DAFP, Vol IV, document 173, p 221. Casey however reported the willingness of Roosevelt, after his re-election was secured, to send a small cruiser force to the south-west Pacific, including the Netherlands East Indies and Singapore.

[38] Conference Report dated 31 October 1940, PRO ADM 1/1183.

[39] Minute 39 of Advisory War Council Meeting of 25 November 1940, DAFP, Vol IV, document 208, p 282.

[40] Letter from Lord Cranborne to G. Whiskard, 19 October 1940, DAFP, Vol IV, document 178, pp 228-30.

[41] Cablegram from Elink Schuurman to Governor-General Tjarda van Starkenborgh Stachouwer, 31 December 1940, no T2/6078, ARA Sydney Archives.

[42] Report by Cdr V.E. Kennedy to Secretary, Australian Naval Board on discussions with NEI Defence Authorities, 14 February 1941, p 2, AA Victoria, MP1185/8, file 2021/5/570.

[43] Cablegram from Elink Schuurman to G-G, telegram T3/984, 11 February 1941, ARA Sydney Archives.

[44] The officers were Col. J.S. Whitelaw and Lt.Col. F.N. Nurse, who visited Surabaya from 1 to 4 April 1941: cablegram from Australian Army HQ to Elink Schuurman, 24 March 1941, ARA Sydney Archives.

[45] Cablegram from G-G to Minister of Colonies, 29 January 1941, no 37/U, ARA Sydney Archives inv. nr. 78.

[46] Record of meeting at British Foreign Office, 26 February 1941, DAFP, Vol IV, Document 324, p 457.

[47] Notes from talks at British Admiralty, 8 March 1941, DAFP, Vol IV, document 343, p 483.

[48] Douglas Gillison, Royal Australian Air Force, 1939-1942, AWM, Canberra 1962, p 154.

[49] Letter from Australian Government to Lord Cranborne, 27 March 1941, DAFP, Vol IV, doc 366 p 517. For the list of suggested point to be discussed on the follow-on conference, see ibid., document 378, pp 537-8.

[50] Ph. M. Bossche, De Koninklijke Marine in de Tweede Wereldoorlog, Dl. II, Franeker 1986, pp 82-3. This official history of the Dutch Royal Navy (Koninklijke Marine) will be subsequently referred to as Bosscher, Volume 2.

[51] AHQ Operation Instruction no 15, May 6, 1941, AA Victoria, MP729/7, file 37/421/373.

[52] Cablegram from Col. W.M. Anderson SD/AM 12 May 1941, ibid. The Australian reconnaissance party was instructed to wear mufti and observe utmost secrecy.

[53] Lionel Wigmore, The Japanese Thrust, AWM, Canberra 1957, p 418.

[54] Letter from R.G. Menzies to Lord Cranborne, 10 July 1941, DAFP, Vol V, document 3, p 7.

[55] Letter from Quarter-Master General, 29 May 1941, giving a summary of equipment and shipping schedules: AA Victoria, MP1185/8, file 2026/12/193.

[56] Letter from Col. D.C. Buurman van Vreeden, KNIL, to Cdr V.E. Kennedy, 29 July 1941, ibid.

[57] DBPN, Vol III, document 365.

[58] DBPN, Volume III, document 395, letter from Minister of Colonies Welter to Governor-General, 5 November 1941. See also cablegram from Lord Cranborne to J. Curtin, 27 November 1941, DAFP, Vol V, document 130, pp 231-2.

[59] War Cabinet Minute, Sydney 28 April 1941, Minute no 986, Command at Ambon, AA Victoria, MP1185/8, file 2026/12/193.

[60] L. de Jong, Volume 11-1, p 642.

[61] A.E. Kersten, "Londen, Washington, Batavia" in G. Teitler, ed, De Val van Nederlands-Indi, Dieren, 1982, pp 89-90.

[62] In the ARA Sydney Archives there is an interesting letter from Elink Schuurman to the Dutch consul in Wellington, Vigeveno. The letter is dated 4 February 1941, no T3/712. Schuurman gives an account of his meeting with the Dutch Governor-General on January 10, 1941, in which he quotes the G-G as being very unhappy with the weakness of the government in London, with its disastrous consequences for Dutch trustworthiness in allied eyes. See Sydney Archives, inv. nr. 78.

[63] Handwritten postcard from Maj-Gen. H. Ter Poorten, KNIL, to T. Elink Schuurman, 28 May 1941, ARA Sydney Archives, inv. nr. 78.

[64] Ph. Bosscher, Volume II, note 219, p 464.

[65] J.M. Ford, "Allies in a bind: Australia and the Netherlands East Indies relations during the Second World War", Ph D thesis, University of Queensland, 1994.

© Herman Bussemaker

About the author

Herman Bussemaker is currently working on a thesis on defence cooperation between western powers in the Far East at the University of Amsterdam and the Royal Netherlands Naval Academy.