Allies in adversity, Australia and the Dutch in the Pacific War


Japanese conquest

After the German invasion and occupation of the Dutch homeland in May 1940, the Netherlands East Indies (NEI) was alone and isolated. Although nominally at war with Germany, the NEI was in no position to engage in military operations of any kind, and beyond impounding enemy merchant vessels in its ports, no action was taken.

The colony continued to operate as an independent Dutch state, and was at pains to demonstrate its neutrality in any Pacific conflict. At the same time, it was obvious to all nations in the region that the oil- and resource-rich Indies would be a crucial objective for Japan if it was to wage a successful war against the United States. For this reason, contacts between military officials of the NEI and Australia had begun by 1940. Like nearly every aspect of the Allied commitment in the Pacific, these efforts were too little, and too late. In spite of secret agreements between the two, and the exchange of military liaison officers, the Japanese invasion of the NEI, which began in January 1942 with a landing at Tarakan, was swift and overwhelming. With the fall of Java in early March, organised resistance came to an end.

Royal Netherlands Navy (RNN)

At the outbreak of the Pacific war the RNN was a small, but well organised and reasonably well equipped, service which included three light cruisers, seven destroyers, 15 submarines, and a large number of minesweeping and minelaying craft. Many of these vessels, including two of the cruisers, all of the destroyers and eight of the submarines, were destroyed before the end of March 1942 – many of the surface vessels in the disastrous battles of the Java Sea and the Sunda Strait. The RNN provided vessels to a “Combined Striking Force” made up of ships from the joint American–British–Dutch–Australian (ABDA) alliance, under the overall command of the Dutch Rear Admiral Karel Doorman. This fleet was severely punished in the battle of the Java Sea in February1942. Admiral Doorman was killed and the Dutch cruisers Java and De Ruyter lost.

Royal Netherlands Indies Army (KNIL)

At the outbreak of hostilities with the Japanese, the KNIL was a small force, whose primary purpose was to maintain peace and order within the colony. The low numbers of permanent troops were augmented by militia and home guard units raised from local communities, but modern equipment, particularly in the form of artillery and infantry support weapons, was almost non-existent. The total number of men available for the defence of the NEI by 1942 is estimated to have been 121,000, the vast majority of whom were native Indonesians. Most of the KNIL was captured by the Japanese, with only a few men managing to escape to Australia.

Military Aviation Arm, Royal Netherlands Indies Army (ML-KNIL) & Royal Netherlands Naval Air Service (MLD)

In common with the other Allied air forces in the Pacific, the ML-KNIL, largely equipped with obsolete or obsolescent aircraft, proved no match for the numerically and technically superior Japanese forces it encountered. Dutch Martin M-139 bombers and Brewster Buffalo fighters were committed to the defence of Singapore, where they were quickly destroyed; as a result the defence of the NEI fell to US P-40 Kittyhawks and RAF Hawker Hurricanes.

The MLD was better equipped, with more modern aircraft such as the German Dornier Do 24 and US Consolidated PBY Catalina. Their comparatively long range meant that many of these flying boats were able to escape to Australia, although several who made it there were destroyed when the Japanese raided Broome in March 1942. Most of the survivors entered RAAF service.


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As war approached, the governments of Great Britain, Australia and the NEI began last-minute negotiations for mutual defence. F01884

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Film footage, taken before the outbreak of war in the Pacific, gives an Australian view of the NEI. F00520

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“Long coveted by Japan …” This film presents a more sombre view of military preparations by Australia’s northern neighbour. F01452