Warship Wednesday, March 2, 2022: Burnt Java
Here at LSOZI, we take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1954 period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places. – Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday, March 2, 2022: Burnt Java
Here we see the Koninklijke Marine naval docks at Soerabaja (Surabaya), on the island of Java in the Dutch East Indies. The photo was taken 80 years ago today, 2 March 1942, from the coal jetty towards the West. With the Japanese fast approaching, the Dutch started the destruction of the yard at 11:30 am and you can make out the 1,500-ton dry dock sunk along with the patrol boats P19 and P20. The new 2,500-ton drydock is listing to the right with a cloud of smoke from the Perak oil tanks in the background.
While the scuttling of the Vichy French fleet at Toulon in 1942, and the self-destruction of the Royal Danish Navy at its docks in Copenhagen in 1943 to keep them out of German hands are well-remembered and often spoken about in maritime lore, the Dutch wrecking crew on Java at Soerabaja and Tjilatjap gets little more than a footnote.
Dominated by the Dutch for some 125 years before the Japanese effort to uproot them, Java was one of the centerpieces of the Indonesian archipelago in 1942 and a principal base for the colonial forces. While Borneo, Sumatra, and other islands may have had more resources– including natural rubber and pumping 20 million barrels a year of oil– Java was the strategic lynchpin. Defended by the (nominally) 85,000-man Royal Netherlands East Indies Army (KNIL) along with their own air force, the ML-KNIL, it was the Dutch Navy and its shore-based long-range patrol craft of the MLD naval air service that was the colony’s first line of defense.
However, with the ML-KNIL/MLD’s aircraft swatted from the sky, and the Dutch navy’s largest units– the cruisers Hr.Ms. De Ruyter and Java— sunk at the Battle of the Java Sea on the night of 28 February along with following on Battle of Sunda Strait on 1 March that saw two Allied cruisers sent to the bottom, Java was wide open and future war criminal Gen. Hitoshi Imamura’s 16th Army started landing on the island at three points directly after.
While Dutch Lt. Gen. Hein Ter Poorten’s force of three KNIL divisions and a mixed brigade worth of British/Australian/American reinforcements would seem on paper to be an even match for Imamura’s troops, the Japanese had the momentum from the start and by 8 March, the Dutch radio station at Ciumbuluit signed off with “Wij sluiten nu. Vaarwel tot betere tijden. Leve de Koningin!” (We are closing now. Farewell till better times. Long live the Queen!)
This effectively ended the short-lived ABDACOM command, severed the Malay-Timor barrier protecting Australia, and was the near-height of the Japanese success in the South Pacific. In March 1942, the Japanese would mount no less than 17 air raids on Western and Northern Australia.
The noose around Java was tight and several vessels that tried to break out failed.
The Japanese cruisers Takao and Atago found the old destroyer USS Pillsbury (DD-227) near nightfall on 2 March and sent her to the bottom with all hands.
At roughly the same time, the Japanese heavy cruiser Maya, accompanied by destroyers Arashi and Nowaki, found the British destroyer HMS Stronghold (H50) trying to escape from Tjilatjap to Australia and sank her, recovering 50 survivors.
The Australian Grimsby-class sloop HMAS Yarra (U77) was escorting a convoy of three British ships (the depot ship HMS Anking, the British tanker Francol, and the motor minesweeper HMS MMS 51) and survivors from the Dutch ship Parigi, from the fighting in Java to Fremantle when they were attacked on 4 March by three Japanese heavy cruisers– Atago, Takao and Maya, each armed with ten 8-inch guns– and two destroyers. The 1,080-ton sloop gave her last full measure but was unable to stop the massacre of the convoy and the Japanese were especially brutal, with reports of close-range shelling by the two Japanese destroyers, was witnessed by 34 survivors on two rafts. The blockade-running Dutch freighter Tawali, rescued 57 officers and men from Anking that night, while the escaping Dutch steamer Tjimanjoek found 14 further survivors of the convoy on 7 March, and two days later 13 of the sloop’s ratings were picked up by the Dutch submarine K XI (a vessel that would go on to serve with the British in the Indian Ocean through 1945).
To be sure, the last large Dutch surface ship in the Pacific, the cruiser Hr.Ms. Tromp had escaped destruction and would serve alongside the Allies for the rest of the war, while her sister Jacob van Heemskerck, arriving too late to be sunk in the Java Sea, would duplicate her efforts.
Likewise, several Dutch submarines had managed to evade the Japanese dragnet and make for Australia, where they would continue their war.
Others, under an order of the Dutch navy commander on Java, RADM (acting) Pieter Koenraad, were ordered to attempt to escape after receiving the code KPX. (Koenraad and his staff embarked on the submarine Hr.Ms. K-XII, which made it to Australia safely, and from there he left for England, returning to Java in 1945 with the Free Dutch forces)
The 500-ton net-tender/minesweeper Hr.Ms. Abraham Crijnssen, capable of just 15 knots and laughably armed, famously decided to try for Australia camouflaged as a small island, leaving Java on 6 March with a volunteer crew and made it to safety on 20 March.
The scuttling itself
This left all the vessels too broken, under-armed, or small to break through the Japanese blockade and make it 1,200 miles across dangerous waters to Australia. Not wanting them to fall into the hands of the Japanese, the Dutch and their Allies took the wrecking ball to over 120 vessels on Java at Soerabaja, Tanjon Priok, at Tjilatjap on 2 March.
The largest of these under Dutch naval control, Hr.Ms. Koning der Nederlanden, was a 70-year-old 5,300-ton ramtorenschip ironclad that had been disarmed and turned into a barracks ship in 1920. She hadn’t left the harbor in generations under her own steam, so this was a no-brainer.
Other large ships sent to the bottom were a group of Allied merchantmen trapped in the harbors to include three 7,000-9,000-ton Dutch Java-China-Japan Lijn line cargo ships– Tjikandi, Tjikarang, and Toendjoek— scuttled as blockships. In all, 39 merchantmen were torched, mostly small Dutch coasters and empty tankers, but including three British Malay vessels (SS Giang Seng, Sisunthon Nawa, and Taiyuan) that had escaped Singapore, the 1,600-ton Canadian freighter Shinyu, and the small Norwegian tramps, Proteus and Tunni.
The two most potent Dutch combat vessels left in Java, the Admiralen-class destroyers (torpedobootjagers) Hr.Ms. Banckert and Witte de With, did not survive the day. These 1,650-ton Yarrow-designed boats were built in the late 1920s and, capable of 36 knots, carried four 4.7-inch guns and a half-dozen torpedo tubes. Both had been severely mauled in surface actions with the Japanese and were unable to evacuate to Australia. The Dutch built eight of these destroyers and lost all eight in combat with the Germans and Japanese within 22 months of Holland entering the war.
Speaking of destroyers, the old four-piper Clemson-class destroyer USS Stewart (DD-224) had been severely damaged at Badung Strait, only making it to Soerabaja with her engine room still operating while submerged. Written off, her crew was evacuated to Australia on 22 February and the ship, stricken from the Navy List, was left to the Dutch to scuttle.
The Dutch, who had a huge submarine fleet in the region, had three small “K” (for Koloniën or Colonial) subs scuttled at Soerabaja, the 583-ton circa 1923 KVII-class Hr.Ms. K X, the 828-ton circa 1926 K XI-class Hr.Ms. K XIII, and the 1,045-ton circa 1934 K XIV-class Hr.Ms. K VIII.
The Hr.Ms. Rigel, a 1,600-ton unarmed local government-owned (gouvernementsvaartuig) yacht used by the Dutch governor-general that had been converted to a minelayer, was too fine to let the Japanese have but too slow to make run the blockade. She ended her career on 2 March as a blockship at Tanjong Priok.
When referencing mine craft, the ten Djember (DEFG)-class auxiliary mijnenvegers (minesweepers), small 100-foot vessels of just 175-tons constructed specifically for work in the islands, were all either scuttled or left wrecked on the builders’ ways in Java. Similarly, the five even smaller 74-ton Ardjoeno-class auxiliary minesweepers, the twin 150-ton Alor and Aroe, and the twin 145-ton Ceram and Cheribon, were in the same lot, with the Dutch sinking these as well.
One great unrealized hope that could have spoiled the Japanese landings was the 17 TM-4 class of motor torpedo boats. Begun at Navy Yard Soerabaja in 1940, they were small and quick vessels, just 63-feet long with a 5-foot draft, they could make 36 knots.
As the islands were cut off from Europe due to German occupation of their homeland, much use of surplus parts was made. This included Lorraine Dietrich gasoline engines from condemned 1920s Dornier Wal and Fokker T-4 aircraft as well as Great War-vintage 17.7-inch torpedo tubes from scrapped Roofdier-class destroyers and Z-class torpedo boats.
Just 12 TM-4s were completed by March 1942, and they were all scuttled, while the other half-dozen were left unfinished onshore.
In the same vein as the TM-4s, the Dutch had planned to build at least 16 130-ton B-1-class subchasers at three different yards around the colony. These 150-foot motor launches, armed with a 3-inch popgun, some AAA pieces, and 20 depth charges, would have gone a long way towards providing the Dutch some decent coastal ASW. However, none were complete in March 1942 and the work done by the time of the fall of Java was disrupted as much as possible.
As a stopgap before the B-1s were complete, the Dutch had ordered eight small wooden-hulled mosquito boats from Higgins in New Orleans.
The Dutch Higgins boats substituted 16 depth charges for the more familiar torpedo tubes used on these vessels’ follow-on brothers as the Navy’s PT boats. They also had a 20mm gun and four .50 cals, in twin mounts with plexiglass hoods. Classed as OJR (Onderzeebootjager= Submarine hunter), the first six arrived as deck cargo in December 1941 and February 1942 but saw little service.
Two had been lost in gasoline explosions and the Dutch scuttled the remaining four in Java (OJR-1, OJR-4, OJR-5, and OJR-6) on 2 March.
Incidentally, the two undelivered Higgins boats (H-7 and H-8) were delivered after the fall of the Dutch East Indies to the Dutch West Indies where they patrolled around Curacao.
The local Dutch government had several small patrouillevaartuigen gunboats at their disposal outside of naval control, dubbed literally the Gouvernementsmarine or Government’s Navy. Dubbed opiumjager (opium hunters), they engaged in counter-smuggling and interdiction efforts around the archipelago as well as tending aids to navigation, coastal survey, and search and rescue work. Once the war began, they were up-armed and taken under navy control and switched from being gouvernementsvaartuig vessels. Small patrol boats scuttled in Java on 2 March 1942 included the Hr.Ms. Albatros (807 tons), Aldebaran (892 tons), Biaro (700 tons), Eridanus (996 tons), Farmalhout (1,000 tons), Fomalhaut (1,000 tons), Gemma (845 tons), Pollux (1,012 tons), and Valk (850 tons).
In all, of the more than 120 ships destroyed by the Dutch on Java, almost 90 were small vessels under 1,000-tons such as the Djembers, the TM torpedo boats, and the assorted coastal patrol, subchasers, and minelayers. Many of their crews were marched into Japanese POW camps to spend the next four years in hell, while a small trickle was able to escape on their own either into the interior– keep in mind that about half of the rank and file in the Dutch Far East fleet were local Indonesians– or manage somehow to make for Allied-controlled areas.
The Japanese were able, as the war dragged, to raise and salvage many of the scuttled vessels and return them to service in the IJN. Likewise, several of the TMs and B-1s that were left unfinished were eventually launched under the Rising Sun flag.
Of the larger ships, the destroyer Hr.Ms. Banckert was raised by the escort-poor Japanese in 1944, partially repaired, and put in service as the patrol craft PB-106. On 23 October 1945, VADM Shibata Yaichiro, CINC, Second Southern Expeditionary Fleet, surrendered Java to Free Dutch Forces, and Banckert/PB-106 was returned to the Dutch, who promptly sank her in gunnery exercises.
The stricken Asiatic Fleet destroyer, ex-USS Stewart, whose hull had been broken and her crew had left her scuttling to the Dutch, was also salvaged by the Imperial Japanese Navy, and entered service as Patrol Boat No. 102 in 1943, rearmed with a variety of Dutch and Japanese weapons and her funnels retrunked into a more Japanese fashion. Found at Kure after the war, she was taken over by a U.S. Navy prize crew in October 1945 and steamed under her own power (making 20 knots no less!) across the Pacific to Oakland.
Her old hull number repainted and a Japanese meatball placed on her superstructure, she was sunk by the Navy in deep water in May 1946.
When the Dutch returned to Java in 1945, besides resuming control of the few vessels still around that had been refloated by the Japanese– craft which were soon discarded– they embarked on a campaign to salvage many of the rest, with hulks shipped off to Australia where they were broken into the 1950s.
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