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Nations at war
Womack, Tom. The Dutch Naval Air Force against Japan: The Defense of the Netherlands East Indies, 1941-1942. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc, 2006
x + 207 pages
Acknowledgments; Abbreviations; Preface; photos; maps; tables; charts; Notes; Bibliography; Index
Appendices: MLD Squadrons in the NEI; MLD Dornier Flying Boats in the NEI; MLD PBY Flying Boats in the NEI; MLD Reserve Seaplanes in the NEI; Specifications for MLD Planes; Specifications for Japanese Planes; Marine Seaplane Tenders; MLD Bases in the Netherlands East Indies; MLD Losses by Month; Do 24 and PBY Losses by Month; MLD Losses by Count
Tom Womack might not win any gold stars for wordsmithing of the highest quality, but his prose proves entirely adequate for this excellent account of a previously unexplored slice of a seldom-studied campaign.
Operations in the Netherlands East Indies during 1941-1942 comprised one of the most fascinating undertakings of the war, unfolding in a dramatically choreographed series of air, land, and sea movements. No one has yet done justice to the complete story of the NEI battles in the English language, and apparently no one has previously attempted a full accounting in English of the Dutch Naval Air Force (Marine Luchtvaart Dienst, or MLD) in the campaign. In this case, not only has Tom Womack chosen an obscure topic for his book, it's also a very interesting subject, andmuch to our satisfactionhe's done a commendable job of putting together a complete history of the MLD in the NEI. Furthermore, while the author focuses on the MLD, those naval air operations were closely integrated with many of the important events in the defense of the Indies, so the book ends up covering a great deal of the campaign.
The author devotes his opening chapter to introducing the Marine Luchtvaart Dienst and describing its equipment and doctrine. It quickly becomes apparent that, while this was a small, relatively unknown force, the MLD was a highly trained, high professional, highly competent organization ready, willing, and able to play its part in the war against Japan whenever that time should arrive.
The second chapter chronicles the path to war from the fall of the Netherlands in 1940. Although the fact is sometimes overlooked, the rich resources of the NEI were the primary target of Japanese diplomatic and military calculations, and the months leading up to December 1941 saw an increasing amount of Japanese pressure in the Indies and a number of aggressive incidents. When Japan finally went to war, many of the initial thrusts, including the raid on Pearl Harbor, were little more than secondary operations designed to clear the flanks of the advance into the Netherlands East Indies.
Despite being without the resources of the defeated homeland and nearly isolated from the exile government in London, the Netherlands East Indies had done everything possible to prepare to defend themselves. In particular, although hampered by shortages of spares and trained manpower, by December 1941 the Dutch Naval Air Force remained a potent weapon. In fact, with the advent of war, rather than having their larger and stronger allies come to their assistance, one of the first acts of joint defense was the dispatch of MLD aircraft to fly naval recon missions in support of British forces in Malay and Singapore. Similarly, when USAAF and USN aircraft were largely destroyed and the remnants mostly withdrawn from the Philippines, the MLD was called upon to fly bombing missions against enemy warships, shipping, and captured facilities at Davao and elsewhere.
The author relates these operations with a mixture of strategic overview, tactical action, and a few personal stories.
For example, here's how he integrates MLD activities with the Japanese invasion of Tarakan:
Although on the outskirts of the Dutch East Indies Empire and only 25 square miles
in diameter, Tarakan was of critical importance to the Japanese. Their primary target
was the island's 700 oil wells, refineries and airstrip. The wells could pump 5,000 barrels
of crude oil a day, the quality of which, it was said, was so pure that it could be pumped
directly into ships without refining. Although the swampy runway hardly warranted the
name and was often closed by bad weather and poor runoff facilities, the Japanese needed
it to provide air cover for their planned invasion of Balikpapan, some 200 miles to the
Under the command of Rear-Admiral Sueto Hirose, the Tarakan invasion convoy
left Davao on the night of January 7-8 carrying the 56th Infantry Regiment and 2nd
Kure Special Naval Landing Force aboard 16 transports. Ships of the 2nd Base Force, 11th
and 30th Minesweeper Divisions, 31st Submarine Chaser Division and the patrol boats
P-36, P-37, P-38 and P-39 escorted them. The 4th Destroyer Flotilla provided additional
close escort with the light cruiser Naka and the 2nd, 9th and 24th Destroyer Divisions.
The 23rd Air Flotilla at Jolo and seaplanes from the seaplane tenders Sanyo Maru and
Sanuki Maru provided air cover and A/S protection.
As Admiral Hirose neared Tarakan on January 10, the Japanese formally declared
war on the Netherlands. Despite the Dutch declaration of war against Japan on December 7 and the open hostilities that the two nations had engaged in for the past month,
Japan had failed to declare war on the Netherlands or any of its territories. It is also interesting to note that their formal declaration of war coincided with their first attempt to
capture a major piece of Dutch territory.
The Tarakan force reached the island early on the morning of January 10. At 0730,
the island's lightship reported that it was under air attack, and Japanese aircraft bombed
and strafed the vessel until it sank at 0900; the lightship's three-man crew of naval
reservists then abandoned ship and was later pulled out of the water by approaching
Japanese ships. The commander of GVT.4 now received orders from KM HQ on Java to
find the convoy and report on its size and course.
X-14 and X-21 were ordered into the air at 1130 and succeeded in making contact
with the convoy some 90 minutes later. To remain undetected and avoid the convoy's
Combat Air Patrol, the squadron commander aboard X-21 initially flew north at wave-top level along the swampy Borneo shoreline until sighting the masts of the Japanese
ships in the distance. He then popped up just high enough to see the convoy before ducking back down after 3 to 5 seconds. Repeating this tactic, X-21 began transmitting reconnaissance reports on the convoy around 1400.
However within 10 minutes of the first transmission, several Japanese fighters
appeared over the convoy. To avoid detection, the X-21 dove low and flew a straight line
at full speed away from the convoy for several minutes. The tactic worked, and the Dornier
was not sighted. The pilot then returned a short time later and continued his low-level
reconnaissance without being seen. Based on his reports, the KNIL dispatched a number
of Martin bombers from Samarinda II, a secret airfield in the interior of Borneo. Attacking in the face of heavy AA fire, the KNIL pilots claimed two unconfirmed hits and three
Japanese fighters shot down but could not stop the convoy.
Meanwhile, X-13 had been ordered at 1300 to fly south down the Borneo coast in
the Makassar Strait to locate and warn off the motorship van Masdijn. En route from
Samarinda, Borneo, she carried 50 KNIL soldiers who were to reinforce Tarakan's garrison. However, with no radio her captain had no idea that the Japanese were about to
blockade the island.
But before the Japanese could seal the blockade, the Dutch submarine K-X slipped
away, despite having to fight off bomb and strafing attacks from two of Sanyo Maru's
"Petes" while traversing the island's minefield on the surface. The KM patrol boat P-l
and the civilian motor launch Aida joined her. However, the minelayer Prins van Oranje
was less fortunate; she was sunk by the destroyer Yamakaze and the patrol boat P-38
northeast of the island. Her loss effectively completed the blockade, and any attempt to
land reinforcements on Tarakan had become hopeless.
The flying boat sighted van Masdijn near Bilang-Bajor Island around 1500 and landed
alongside to pass along her orders. However, a Japanese flying boat appeared overhead
almost immediately, forcing X-13 to take off; as the X-boat clawed for altitude, the Japanese plane attacked and scored a direct bomb hit on the van Masdijn, killing 10 men, including her captain. A crewman took control of the badly damaged ship and ran her aground
on a nearby reef. X-13 gave what help it could in the air and then landed to pick up survivors. Unable to evacuate all the survivors in a single trip, the seaplane picked up only the
seriously wounded and those men who could not swim and flew them to Balikpapan.
X-14 and X-21 were still over the convoy when they received the following signal
from the naval commander on Tarakan: "In the Event AA Fire Is So Strong That It Precludes a Successful Attack GVT.4 Is to Continue on to Balikpapan." Based on this message, the Dorniers withdrew without attacking at 1730. Shortly after landing, they were
ordered to rescue the remaining survivors from the Masdijn. Splashing down in the
Makassar Strait just after midnight on the 11th, they rescued 45 survivors off the wreck
and transported them to Balikpapan.
By January 13 the Japanese had forced KNIL Lieutenant-Colonel S. de Waal and the
battered remnants of his 7th Infantry Battalion to surrender. But before doing so, the
KNIL demolished the island's oil wells and refineries and caused significant damage to
the airfield. At the same time, KM ground personnel also destroyed the naval air station's
buildings and workshops.
And here's an example of how Womack writes about air-to-air combat:
Action remained brisk off western Borneo.... On the
17th, while on patrol out of Seletar at Singapore, X-20 sighted a Japanese motor schooner
off the Badas Islands and attacked it with bombs and heavy strafing. When the Dornier
finally turned for home, the schooner was heavily afire and sinking. This boat apparently
belonged to a fleet of fishing vessels that was intercepted and their crews interned by the
Dutch minelayer Willem van der Zaan in the Riouw Strait several days later.
That same day, a four-engine Kawanishi "Mavis" flying boat again attacked Ternate,
which had already been abandoned as a primary base following the Japanese raids on
December 16. The "Mavis" dropped two bombs on the GM patrol vessel Poolster, both
of which missed. X-30 of GVT.5 then appeared just as the Japanese plane retired. After
a 25-minute pursuit at full throttle, the MLD plane caught up to the Japanese plane and
a brief firefight ensued in what might very well have been the first dogfight in history
between flying boats.
Unable to seriously damage the other with their machine guns, the two flying boats
traded fire with their single 20mm cannons. X-30's tail gunner then got lucky and hit the
Mavis's starboard, inboard motor and shredded an aileron with his 7.7mm machine gun.
However, the fight abruptly ended when the Japanese plane's 20mm cannon shot out X-30's middle engine and electrical system. Unable to continue, X-30 broke off and returned
to Ternate. After temporary repairs, she flew to MVK Ambon on two engines for advanced
On December 18 X-35 of GVT.l engaged nine "Nells" from the Mihoro Air Wing in
the Api Passage near Natoena Island. In a fight off the Borneo coast, X-35 took several
hits to her center engine before breaking off the action. Afterwards, the Japanese reported
engaging a British flying boat that eventually broke off the action and dove into a cloud
with white smoke trailing from one of its engines.
In support of their western Borneo operations, the Japanese maintained a series of
strong air raids against British and Dutch installations along the island's northwest coast.
On the 19th, six "Nells" from the Genzan Air Wing in southern Indochina and one Kawanishi H6K "Mavis" flying boat heavily bombed the port city of Kuching. Although there
was no major military damage, some 100 civilians were killed, and the local airfield's
entire fuel supply was destroyed.
At the same time, nine "Nells" from the Mihoro Air Wing raided Pontianak. They
caught GVT.l on the water, including X-36, which lay in drydock undergoing repairs.
The seaplane had been towed to the base after engine trouble forced the pilot to make
an emergency landing in the South China Sea south of Natoena Island several days earlier. A series of strafing attacks by the bombers further damaged the Dornier's middle
engine. In exchange, a trio of Dutch Buffalos intercepted the formation and shot up one
of the "Nells" so badly that it was forced to ditch in the sea 20 miles south of its base at
Hanoi on the return flight.
Finally, the author also sprinkles in a few accounts of individuals at war:
By daybreak, Y-63 was over the southern entrance of the Banka Strait. The pilot, 1st
Lieutenant W.P.A. Ditmar, had two choices—1) return to base without orders to avoid
Japanese fighters or 2) stay in the area and undoubtedly meet the enemy. He chose the
latter and decided to remain in the area until 0630. Seeing nothing, the plane remained
on its patrol route until 0640, when the PBY turned south for Tandjoeng Priok.
Ditmar tried to avoid enemy fighters by flying under the clouds at 1,300 feet. However, a patrol of six "Nates" from the JAAF's 12th Flying Battalion suddenly appeared out
of the clouds in two tight formations of three planes each and bounced the PBY. Raking
the seaplane, the fighters roared past. As they came around for a second pass, the radio
operator gunner recovered and put a long burst into one of the "Nates," which immediately trailed black smoke and dove into the sea. Both waist gunners and the plane's NCO
pilot claimed to have seen the plane crash.
At the same time, the starboard waist gunner hit a second fighter several times. It
disappeared into a rain cloud and was not seen again. However, the four remaining
"Nates" now attacked with a vengeance. Y-63 tried to hide in a nearby rain cloud, but it
was too small and did not last long. The Japanese soon found the PBY, which was flying
low to the water in a desperate bid to escape.
Attacking from behind, the fighters then proceeded to saw the flying boat out of the
air. The copilot was hit in the head and fell onto the controls, sending the plane diving
toward the water. Ditmar managed with difficulty to regain control, only to find the
starboard aileron completely gone and the fuel tanks shredded, forcing a crash-landing
on the water in Force 3 conditions without power. Touching down, the PBY bounced
high into the air before slamming into the water.
Y-63 sank in about seven minutes, giving the crew barely enough time to pile into
a badly holed rubber raft with the wounded pilot. Luckily, the Japanese were not in a
vindictive mood and did not strafe the men in the water as they circled the sinking PBY.
After 22 hours in the punctured dinghy (which the wounded pilot plugged with his fingers
to keep it inflated), the crewmen landed on North Gebroeders Island, where the exhausted
men slept on the beach.
The next morning a Japanese reconnaissance plane flew over but failed to see them.
The men now attempted to find food and plug the raft, but both efforts failed. They then
tried to shoot a large gorilla but missed. They finally resorted to eating snails. Meanwhile,
others searching the island found an abandoned motorboat with some water aboard.
Although the propeller was damaged, they got it into the water at high tide and sailed
for Sumatra on the 1st.
That night, a heavy rainstorm blew in, soaking the exhausted men, who still had no
food or water. With the current against them and only paddles from the rubber raft to
move them along, the launch made little progress. They finally reached the coast of Sumatra on the 3rd, where they met two praus that towed them ashore. For 100 guilders they
rented a prau to replace the launch that was close to sinking.
On March 3 they reached Ketapang on the southwest coast of Sumatra. Here, they
rented another prau to take them down the coast to Soekoer for 50 guilders. From here
they would cross the Soenda Strait to Java. The men received a warm welcome from the
villagers and were able to rent a prau paddled by four Javanese for 50 guilders.
During a stop at a small island in the Soenda Strait, the Javanese paddlers tried to
steal the prau. However, after a short scuffle with the MLD crewmen, the Indonesians
disappeared into the jungle. The group then crossed the strait and landed at Anjer, Java,
on March 6. There, to their dismay, a local official informed them that the Japanese had
landed a week earlier and now controlled most of Java, including the entire western half.
Still hoping to escape, the men left the wounded pilot with the official for medical
attention and continued to Batavia. The remaining six crewmen split into two three-man
groups and headed for Tjilatjap by separate routes. The first group was surrounded by
Indonesians shortly after leaving Anjer and murdered. A short time later, the second
group was robbed by local villagers and betrayed to the Japanese, who took them into
custody. Sergeant-Pilot van Dijk was cared for in the hospital until being sent to Serang
Prison. He would later be killed in 1944 when the transport he was aboard was torpedoed and sunk by an American submarine.
Interesting as that story might be, the bulk of the book, and definitely Womack's primary focus, involves the operational history of each MLD squadron in the NEI. Throughout every chapter, the author tracks each squadron's location, missions flown, aircraft lost, etc. Indeed, nearly every airplane in the MLD's inventory is fully accounted for, so much so that one of the main appendices gives a complete history of each machine.
Other appendices hold a great deal of additional information such as thumbnail histories of each MLD squadron and data for MLD bases in the Indies. This is also a book where the footnotes contain a wealth of further material, and readers are advised to flip to the back and follow the notes along with the main text as they read.
The chapters of the book, however, depict the campaign in straight chronological order from the earliest incidents through the final jumbled evacuation flights to Ceylon and Australia, including the surprise Japanese raid against Broome which destroyed many of the remnants of the MLD that had managed to get away safely from Java. Womack follows up with a chapter about MLD activities during the remainder of the war, including training stations in the US and action as 321 Squadron (Dutch) with the RAF over the Indian Ocean.
The author also tackles the difficult question of relations between the Dutch and their British, Australian, and Yank allies during the fall of the NEI. Here he notes that while at command levels the relationships generally remained cordial, the Dutch leaders felt a certain measure of unhappiness because of the way they were mostly excluded from top positions and because defense of the Indies usually seemed to be of decidedly lesser importance in the wider context of a global war. In addition (and here Womack often quotes Dwight Messimer's In the Hands of Fate), crews and individual airmen of the allies often did not get along well with their Dutch counterparts.
Speaking of individual relationships, if there's one area where Womack provides little internal cohesion and no overall sense of resolution, it's in the activities, personalities, and fates of the MLD pilots and crewmen. Although some of them are mentioned in more than one place in the book, the author seldom makes any effort to bring individuals into the foreground, track them through the campaign, and explain what became of them. In most cases, the flyers are just identified as "the pilot" or "the radio operator." Instead, the main thrust of the book is always operations, squadrons, and aircraft, and in that arena the author does an excellent job.
We know better than to criticize a book simply because it isn't intended to cover a topic we want to read about, but in this case it's worth reiterating that, despite considerable information concerning the broader campaign, Womack always emphasizes the Dutch Naval Air Force. That means the Dutch Navy, Dutch Army, and Dutch Army Air Force are not covered in nearly so much detail, while British, Australian, American, and Japanese forces and operations are described only where they intersected with the MLD. We can unreservedly recommend The Dutch Naval Air Force against Japan, but we can also wish that someone would write a book with this level of detail extended to all the combatants and all the action in the NEI.
Furthermoreagain, this is no knock against the author or his bookwe're still puzzled why, in this era of globalization, on-demand publishing, and Web-based marketing, no one has translated the key Dutch sources found in Womack's bibliography and made those volumes available in English. Of course, the same could be said of Japanese sources on the NEI invasion, as well as a broad spectrum of other important books about all aspects of WWII which haven't been translated beyond their native tongue. It's our sincere hope that some enterprising folks will soon put together English editions of a wide range of international resources. In the meantime, we'll need to rely on top quality work based on original resources, such as this unexpected gem from Tom Womack.
Available from online booksellers, local bookshops, or directly from McFarland & Company, Inc.
Thanks to McFarland for providing this review copy.
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Reviewed 12 March 2006
Copyright © 2006 by Bill Stone
May not be reproduced in any form without written permission of Stone & Stone