Paul Budde's History Archives

Dutch ill prepared for war in NEI

Dutch forces in the NEI were severely weakened by the defeat and occupation of the Netherlands by Nazi Germany, in 1940. The KNIL was cut off from external Dutch assistance, except from Royal Netherlands Navy units. The KNIL, hastily and inadequately, attempted to transform itself into a modern military force trying to protect the Dutch East Indies from foreign invasion.

The KNIL air force, Militaire Luchtvaart KNIL (Royal Netherlands East Indies Airforce (ML-KNIL) numbered 389 planes of all types but was largely outclassed by superior Japanese planes. The Royal Netherlands Navy Air Service, or MLD, also had significant forces in the NEI.

During the Dutch East Indies campaign of 1941–42, most of the KNIL and other Allied forces were quickly defeated.

On 27 February 1942 Allied Navies suffered a disastrous defeat in the Java Sea at the hand of the Imperial Japanese Navy, and in secondary actions over successive days. The American-British-Dutch-Australian Command (ABDACOM) Strike Force commander— Dutch Rear-Admiral Karel Doorman—was killed. The aftermath of the battle saw several smaller actions around Java, including the smaller but also significant Battle of Sunda Strait. In all 2 light cruisers and 3 destroyers were sunk, one heavy cruiser was damaged, and 2,300 sailors killed. Losses on the Japanese side were minimal with only a few ships damaged but not lost and 36 casualties. The Dutch surface fleet was practically eradicated from the Asian waters. However, this battle did slow down the Japanese expansion.

From 15 February onwards, Japanese bombers attacked the capital Batavia (now Jakarta) and government operations were removed to Bandung. On Sunday, 8 March, Lt. Gen. Hitoshi Imamura met with the Governor-General of the NEI, Jonkheer (Lord) Alidius Tjarda van Starkenborgh Stachouwer and set a deadline for an unconditional surrender. Lord van Starkenborgh ordered the Dutch and Allied troops to cease fire in a broadcast the next day, and the Allied forces surrendered at 1:00 p.m.

Australian troops still in Java were only informed about the Dutch surrender three days after the event, by that time it was too late for them to escape back to Australia and many were captured by the Japanese.  Both Dutch and Australian soldiers and other prisoners from now occupied NEI ended up working on the infamous Burma Railway, where in all about 90,000 civilian labourers – mainly from South East Asia – and more than 12,000 Allied prisoners died.

Two important consequences of the defeat of the Allied Forces to Dutch-Australian relations were:

  • Both Government were thrown into the deep end of a totally new political environment.
  • The NEI Government fled to Australia where it received far reaching extraterritorial powers over the 20,000 subjects, they brought with them. From here it started to plan for the recolonialisation of NEI.
  • Australians had to make political decisions on the fly to react to the fact it now had a foreign government operating from its soil.

More on this in the following chapters.