The recapturing of NEI

Tokyo Bay, Japan – Surrender of Japanese aboard USS Missouri. Lieutenant-Admiraal C.E.L. Helfrich, representing the Kingdom of the Netherlands, signs the instrument of surrender. He is being watched by a compatriot and by General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Allied Commander, at the microphone.

General MacArthur abandoned the liberation of NEI after he had liberated Dutch New Guinea. Instead he moved the battle to the Philippines,from where he two years earlier had to flee, this was a personal matter for him. So the NEI were never liberated. By the time the Japanese capitulated, there were no Allied Forces to take control of NEI.  Sukarno used that unique opportunity and – two days after the capitulation – proclaimed the Republik of Indonesia, using the Japanese military still on the islands to assist him. Without the Dutch being present in NEI he rapidly called for a National Revolution.

Fanatic ‘Indonesians’ spurred on by the announcement used this opportunity to attack Dutch and Indo-Europeans still imprisoned in the Japanese camps[1]. Ironically, Japanese soldiers now had to protect their prisoners against these Indonesians.

In the often-violent power struggle (Bersiap)[2] that occurred after the declaration of independence the different ideologies that were already apparent in the previous decades came to the fore.  Some 6,000 Dutch people  as well as Indonesians supporting the Dutch and Chines people were tortured, beheaded and brutally murdered by these mobs.

This was on top of all the suffering of the Dutch and Indonesians’under Japanese occupation. It is little known that over 4 million ‘Indonesians’ died during the occupation including 2.5 million who starved to death. This was the direct result of Sukarno’s collaboration with the Japanese. He was willing to support the Japanese, in exchange for a platform for himself to spread nationalist ideas to the mass population. The Japanese, on the other hand, needed Indonesia’s workforce and natural resources to help its war effort. The Japanese recruited millions of people, mainly from Java, to be forced labour called “romusha” in Japanese. They were forced to build railways, airfields, and other facilities for the Japanese within Indonesia and as far away as Burma. Additionally, the Japanese requisitioned rice and other food produced by Indonesian peasants to supply their troops, while forcing the peasantry to cultivate castor oil plants to be used as aviation fuel and lubricants

Most of NEI was not ‘liberated’ by force, during this vacuum the Japanese remained largely in charge. Because of the weakened position of the Dutch after their own Nazi invasion and occupation, much of the task of retaking the East Indies following the Japanese surrender was carried out by Australian and British forces.

The independence movement was very splintered, with different group fighting for different forms of independence throughout the archipelago. Only in Java and Sumatra was there some form of organisation among them. Throughout this very large country there was more opposition against Dutch Rule than there was a call for one independent country. This resulted in a range of ‘states’ being formed some under the control of the ‘Indonesians’ others under British and Australian control.

On the 9th March 1945 The NEI Government-in-Exile provided an inventory of the KNIL resources:

    • Two Companies in the Dutch New Guinea
    • Troops were being trained as guides and interpreters at Camp Casino, alongside recruits and unfit members of the 4th company.
    • Soldiers were attached to NICA (Netherlands Indies Civil Administration), NEFIS (Netherlands East-Indies Forces Intelligence Services), the Technical Battalion and guard detachments at Melbourne and Camp Columbia. This gave a total of 1350 personnel.

The NEI Government-in-Exile  clearly relied on Allied Forces to take control of NEI after the Japanese surrender. Australian forces succeeded in occupying – without any significant losses – the eastern islands. Here too the situation was conflicted as the Australian military were given orders to take a neutral position between the Dutch and the ‘Indonesians’. This assisted in re-establishing Dutch colonial rule over Celebes and Borneo, as the local population was told by the Australians that the Dutch had agreed to more self-rule for the local population. Based on this Dutch promise the Australians accepted that those ‘Indonesians’ opposing the return of the Dutch would be treated as extremists. All of this worked in favour of the Dutch. Later on it angered Australian authorities when it became clear to them that the Dutch would not honour their promise to these people.

A peacefully take-over of control by the Australians in their operations in NEI was supported by the blockade of the Dutch re-colonialisation fleet in Australia. Trade Unions who supported Indonesian independence had successfully called for this national boycott

This news had reached these outer regions and that was interpreted as Australian support for their cause. The Australians military was therefore welcomed by the local communities. ‘Indonesians ‘revolted against the Dutch and not against the Australians.

Slowly the Australians were able to relief the Japanese who had been asked by the allies to remain in charge in the areas they had occupied. It was here that the Australians faced some serious problems. Indonesian rebels had used the vacuum to attack Japanese camps obtain weapons. The allies had allowed the Japanese to keep their weapons as they were needed to keep the peace for as long as the allies had not been able to restore law and order throughout the islands.

British forces in Java and Sumatra were much more challenged as there were much better organised independent movements on these islands, some included military elements.  In October 1945 a nascent Indonesian Republic led by Sukarno and Hatta fought the Brits against a return of Dutch troops and as a result over 1,200 British soldiers sadly died here after the war had already officially ended.

The Brits fearing further violence therefor didn’t allow the Dutch to take over military control. Instead the they forced them to start negotiations with the Republic. The British sent Lord Archibald Clark Kerr and Miles Lampson to bring the Dutch and ‘Indonesians’ to the negotiating table. Once that reluctantly started to happen, military control was handed back to the NEI government in March 1946, by that time 150,000 Dutch military personnel had arrived in Indonesia[3].

The last Japanese troops were evacuated in July 1946.

As they had started their preparations for an independent Indonesia since 1942, by the time the Dutch returned the Indonesian revolutionary fighters were well into the process of forming their own military units and establishing their own administrative systems.

The Dutch stubbornly continued to fail to understand the seriousness of the Indonesian independence movement. They hadn’t calculated in that the vacuum situation would be used by the Indonesians to strengthen their position for independence and the rapidly evolving situation in NEI took the Dutch totally by surprise.

This unpreparedness was highlighted by Lockwood[4]. He mentions in his book that there was a rather laid-back attitude of the Dutch colonial officers in Australia in the running up towards the end of the war.  He mentions the comfortable life of these officers and the relative luxurious accommodation they enjoyed. Without a good understanding of the reality of the rapidly unfolding situation in NEI these officers were rather taken off guard and were not prepared to quickly move to NEI. All this added to the delay to get the Dutch ships loaded after the Japanese surrender. By the time they were finally ready to move the Australian maritime  blockade delayed the recolonisation even further.

Plane with NEI money crashed near Broome

On 28 October 1945, a NEI-AF B-25 Mitchell plane with NEI personnel, was forced to crash land  in the Glenelg River north of Broome. The crew of five survived with some bruises and slight injuries only.

The Western Australian on the 14th of December 1945 mentions: “The lugger Medlar acquired from the RAAF by Mr. R.S. Maxted, of Derby, has returned from a pearling and dry shelling expedition among the islands and reefs of the northern coastline, bringing with it a rare collection of salvage from the Royal Netherlands Air Force Mitchell plane which alighted and sank near the mouth of the Glenelg River about six weeks ago.

 The principal items of salvage were five small, sealed cases believed to contain currency and to be the property of the Netherlands Government. One case, which had been opened contained 20,000 Netherlands banknotes, and it is thought that the remaining four contained the equivalent in probably much higher denominations.”

 The Perth Daily in March 1946 added: “ A bomber believed to have been carrying Dutch currency worth £A250,000 to the Netherlands East Indies Government in Java crashed into the sea near Derby last October. Silver guilders worth £10,000 are still missing, although some of the coins are said to have been circulating in the North-West of this State and in the Eastern States. … Inquiries are still being made into the question of disposal of the guilder notes recovered and into the source of the guilder coins believed to be circulating.”

For the full story click here.

Political prisoners from Tanah Merah transported to Australia

[1] Many of the European prisoners had to stay in these camps under dreadful circumstances, some even until 1946.

[2] During the National Revolution (Bersiap) in 1948 the Sukarno Government of Indonesia launched a campaign against the PKI and thousands of people were killed. This was supported by the foreign governments of the Netherlands, Britain and the USA, who were already well and truly involved in the emerging Cold War. The PKI survived this attack however, when its popular support started to become a further threat to the government the party didn’t survive the massacre of 1965, well over 500,000 supporters of the PKI were murdered by the Sukarno regime – some estimates are even double of that. This large-scale bloodshed ended a very turbulent political period which lasted for nearly two decades, as mentioned before there was never full support for a national republic, most regions were looking at an end to Dutch rule which would lead to more local independence along ethnic and religious lines.

[3] ‘A Common Approach? The British and Dutch in the Netherlands East Indies, 1945-1946’ – Maikel Vrenken

[4] Rupert Lockwood – The Indonesian Exiles in Australia, 1942-47