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, Jan. 12, 2022: Royal Dutch Shelling
Here we see a sentry of the Koninklijk Nederlands Indisch Leger (KNIL), the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army, overlooking the lengthy coastline of what is today Indonesia, in January 1941. While this is a warship blog, and we’ll cover an ill-fated class of minesweepers of the Imperial Japanese Navy in it, the KNIL holds a special place in this week’s post, now 80 years after the fact.
But we’ll get to the Dutch colonial forces in a minute.
First, let’s talk about the Japanese No.13 class minesweepers.
Built at three domestic yards– Fujinagata, Mitsui Bussan, and Hitachi– the four original Project number I3A/No. 13s were small vessels, hitting the 533-ton mark on a 242-foot long hull. Capable of 20 knots on a pair of coal-fired Kampon boilers and triple expansion reciprocating engines, they could either sweep mines via traditional mechanical minesweeping gear (i.e., paravanes) or lay mines, capable of carrying 40 of the latter.
Outfitted as light escorts and sub chasers, they mounted a pair of 4.7″/45 3-Shiki light guns, a pair of heavy machine guns, and three dozen depth charges between racks and throwers.
Completed in 1933 and 1934, all four gave quiet peacetime service in Japanese home waters. By June 1941, the quartet was collectively assigned to MineSweepDiv 11 in RADM (later VADM) Hirose Sueto’s 2nd Base Force in VADM Takahashi Ibo’s Third Fleet.
Sent to the Pescadores Islands in early December 1941, they were part of Operation “M,” the Japanese attack on the Philippines where they swept mines, escorted troopships and supported the landings around Luzon and the Lingayen Gulf.
After the New Year, with another invasion convoy loading up for operations further South, the four No. 13s made ready for a rendezvous with history.
The island port city of Tarakan, on the Northeast corner of Borneo, today is home to more than a quarter-million inhabitants in Indonesia. Dating back over a thousand years to the old Tidong kingdom, the Dutch moved in in the 1860s and, noticing oil, by 1905 had formed Koninklijke Nederlandsche Petroleum Maatschappij— later dubbed Royal Dutch Shell– making Tarakan one of its primary fields.
By the 1920s, Tarakan was producing something like five million barrels of light sour crude oil a year. Something like 13 percent of Japan’s pre-WWII oil imports came from the port alone.
Protecting all this was the KNIL.
Formed in 1814, by 1929, the KNIL– a separate organization from the European-based Dutch military– numbered some 38,568 men, with Europeans accounting for about a fifth of that while native troops, heavily recruited from Christian Manadonese and Ambonese minorities, made up the balance.
As noted by Marc Lohnstein in his Royal Netherlands East Indies Army 1936-1942, besides oil, “The Dutch colony was a global exporter of strategic materials, providing 29 percent of the world’s rubber, 20 percent of its tin, and 97 percent of the anti-malarial drug quinine.”
With Japanese eyes on the colony, it was decided to ramp up the KNIL both in terms of men and equipment. By early 1942, after the fall of European Holland to the Germans, the force stood at some 122,600 men, evenly split between Europeans and Indonesians, with about a third of those being regulars and the remainder more recently joining the colors.
Getting equipment was another challenge.
As the regular Dutch Army was howitzer-poor, the Navy saved the day and provided new (to them) coastal guns for the KNIL. With the disarmament/disposal of a half-dozen assorted “pantserdekschepen” protected cruisers built around the turn of the century, the Dutch Navy gifted the KNIL a stockpile of Krupp-made 5.9″/37cal, 4.7″/37cal, and 3″/40cal guns for use in shore-based coastal artillery (kustartillerie) emplacements. Low angled and slow to reload, they were simple to use, and shells were readily available. Further, as we shall see, they could still be effective.
Now, with the stage set, let us talk about the…
Battle of Tarakan island
Japan declared war on the Netherlands East Indies on 10 January 1942; and the Japanese invasion force was on the horizon, planning to hit the beaches at numerous places, assisted by parachute landings at strategic points.
At Tarakan, KNIL Lt. Col. Simon de Waal had the 7th Battalion augmented by four coastal artillery batteries– two of ex-naval 3″/40s and two of 4.7″/37s. His only air power was a quartet of recently arrived Brewster Buffalos. The Dutch Navy was also on hand with a minelayer, the 1,300-ton Hr.Ms. Prins van Oranje and a few lumbering Dornier Do 24 flying boats. All told, the Dutch had about 1,200 men at Tarakan, not counting the sailors.
Heading their way was Maj. Gen. Shizuo Sakaguchi’s reinforced brigade that had previously taken Mindanao in the Philippines, standing about 6,000-strong– including a battalion of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s Special Naval Landing Forces. Escorting the Sakaguchi force (loaded in 14 transports) was RADM Shoji Nishimura’s covering force including the Sendai-class light cruiser Naka, 10 destroyers, a dozen patrol craft/minesweepers (including all four No. 13s), and two large seaplane tenders. The operation was under the overall command of RADM Sueto Hirose, fresh off the success of the invasion of Batan and the Camiguin Islands in the Philippines.
Just after the Japanese declaration of war, a Dutch flying boat spotted the incoming task force over the horizon and De Waal ordered his engineers to set the oil fields alight. This, naturally, put Hirose, Nishimura, and Sakaguchi in a foul mood even before they started sending troops ashore in the predawn hours on 11 January under the illumination of thousands of tons of oil flickering in the red-black sky.
The ground combat was never in real doubt, with the inexperienced Dutch outnumbered 5:1 by better-equipped, combat-tested foot soldiers of the Empire. By noon on 12 January, De Waal had ordered his troops to lay down their arms after 36 hours of maneuvering and artillery duels across beaches, oil fields, and jungles. Sakaguchi only lost seven soldiers. Meanwhile, Prins van Oranje, attempting to withdraw during the night of the 11th, was caught by a patrolling Japanese destroyer and gunboat and sent to the bottom, with heavy casualties.
CDR Yamazumi Wakito’s MineSweepDiv 11’s W-13, W-14, W-15, W-16, along with CDR Kanaoka Kunizo’s MineSweepDiv 30’s W-17 and W-18 (near sisters of the No. 13s) were sent to clear the Mengacu Channel between the island of Tarakan and the coast of Borneo.
What Wakito and Kunizo did not know was that there were still batteries of 3- and 4.7-inch guns on the tip of the island that hadn’t gotten the word that the fight was over, due to cut telegraph lines.
Three of De Waal’s four coastal artillery batteries were located at Peningki and Karoengan on the South West coast of Tarakan Island with Peningki mounting two three-gun 3-inch batteries under CAPT J.W. Storm van Leeuwen while Karoengan had four 4.7-inch guns. It was the latter, under reserve LT Josephus Petrus Aloysius– a South African Boer from Adrichem who volunteered for military service at the Dutch counsel in Pretoria in 1940– who caused the most havoc.
As detailed on Combined Fleets:
Rear Admiral Hirose’s forces are warned that the Dutch coastal artillery battery at the south end of the island may not be aware of the Dutch offer to surrender. Hirose’s force is cautioned that “it would be dangerous to proceed to the Tarakan pier”, but the warning is ignored. Six minesweepers enter the bay and are fired on by the Dutch battery. LT Miyake Tadayoshi’s W-13 and LT Yoshimoto Yoshikuni’s W-14 are hit by 4.7 inch shells and sink with most of their crews.
Besides the two minesweepers sunk, at least one landing craft was also hit by a Dutch shell, killing a total of 156 Japanese sailors in the action– by far the bulk of the losses in the battle for Tarakan.
In reprisal for the engagement between the Japanese mine craft and the ancient Dutch batteries, after the final surrender the next day, the deadly accurate crews were executed on 19 January. The body count and story of the condemned men varies widely.
As detailed by one source:
The Japanese naval commander promised amnesty for the gun crews and based on this promise the Dutch Island Commander managed to persuade the gun crews to surrender. The Japanese Army Commander on the other hand was too brutal to have the prisoners turned over to him. So, he ordered to tie the men into small groups of three. Sometime later they were thrown into the water where all 219 Dutch soldiers drowned.
Another report is more graphic but has a lower body count, closely akin to the number of Japanese killed on the minesweepers:
Not long hereafter a Japanese interpreter and lieutenant Colonel Simon de Waal announced to the troops assembled at the Kampong Baru barracks, that the Japanese Army needed approximately 150 men of the POW’s to be transported to the Island of Java where they would be deployed in navigation operations and assisting in the transport of military arms and equipment. Every single POW assembled at the barrack had clearly heard this announcement. Alas, the truth turned out differently which came to light two days later.
After the Dutch officer and the interpreter had finished their announcement, about 150 men of the POW’s (which officially was determined as 168 men later) were horded into Japanese Army trucks, without any registration or identification, and taken to the harbor area. Here they were ordered onto a Japanese naval vessel. This vessel was then directed to the first light buoy, where on the same morning the two Japanese Destroyers [minesweepers] were sunk by the Dutch artillery.
The Japanese then stopped the engine and ordered the POWs to line up at the railing of the vessel. They were then all blindfolded and had both hands tied behind their backs. Subsequently every POW was killed by bayonet and thrust into the sea….
Donald Kehn, in his work, In the Highest Degree Tragic: The Sacrifice of the U.S. Asiatic Fleet in the East Indies during World War II, covers Tarakan in detail and holds that the men of the KNIL selected for reprisal were cast from the deck of the cruiser Naka, Nishimura’s flagship.
Naka went on to be sunk west of Truk by three waves of SB2C Helldivers and TBF Avengers from the carrier USS Bunker Hill and TBFs of VT-25 of the carrier Cowpens, 18 February 1944.
While the local Indonesian troops were eventually paroled in an olive branch towards Tokyo’s imperialist Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere which would replace European colonies with those controlled by Japan, the Europeans captured in the Dutch East Indies would spend the rest of the war in a series of internments and mass executions.
Of the 42,000 European POWs taken by the Japanese in the Dutch East Indies in 1942, almost one in five (8,200) would die before liberation. The locals weren’t much better off under their new Emperor with an estimated 2.5 million Indonesians perishing during the war from famine while 200,000 romusha forced laborers were exported out of the colony, with many of those simply disappearing in the process.
Meanwhile, the sinking of W-13 and W-14 was a big boost to the Allies back home, with the New York Times on 14 January running on the center of the front page:
Tarakan, off Northeastern Borneo, has fallen to a Japanese assault of overwhelming power, but the one prize for which the invader has paid so heavily in ships, planes, and men — the island’s oil -is still many a month out of his grasp, it was announced tonight.
Besides the 4 million barrels of fuel oil and aviation gasoline found in abandoned Allied storage tanks scattered throughout the region, Dutch East Indies crude oil became crucial to the Japanese war effort. According to Robert Goralski and Russell W. Freeburg in their excellent work, Oil & War: How the Deadly Struggle for Fuel in WWII meant Victory or Defeat, “In all, the captured fields could produce 116,000 barrels a day, enough to make Japan self-sufficient in oil.”
In addition to shipping oil to Singapore for use locally by the IJN throughout the Coral Sea and Guadalcanal campaigns, much was sent back to Japan directly, keeping the country in the war. Even as late as the summer of 1943, with the fields under constant air attack from B-24s, mines being sown off the terminals by RAAF PBY Catalina flying boats out of Darwin, and the tankers being sent to the bottom by Allied submarines at an unsustainable rate, Goralski notes that “Despite the shipping difficulties, about 90 percent of the oil consumed in Japan itself, by then 74,000 barrels a day, was coming from Borneo’s fields and refineries.”
Finally, once the vice had constricted this flow to a trickle, Goralski observed that “The crucial campaigns of 1944 were lost by the Japanese primarily because of no fuel.”
Even though the oil was no longer getting out, the Dutch East Indies were still under Japanese occupation. The Borneo Campaign in 1945 led to the eventual liberation of Tarakan. Operation Oboe One saw the Australian 9th Division’s 26th Brigade group– along with the “Free Dutch” the Ambonese 3e Compagnie, Technisch Bataljon, KNIL– totaling a combined 12,000 men, hit the beaches at Tarakan on 1 May 1945.
The opposing Japanese force, just 2,200-strong, was outnumbered over 5:1, a familiar ratio to 1942, only reversed. Within three weeks, the principal fighting was over and only 250 Japanese were captured, the rest killed, missing, or gone underground.
The NIMH holdings have some 300+ images relating to “Tarakan” in their files, with most coming from the liberation and its immediate aftermath.
This one is my favorite:
Meanwhile, the old batteries were captured relatively intact by Australian commandos, still with pre-1940 shells in the ready mag.
The Japanese also found a use for some of the old 5.9-inch shells.
Of the two remaining No. 13s, W-16 was blown apart by a mine at Celebes in 1943 while the last of the class, W-15, caught a torpedo at Kyushu in 1945 from the Balao-class submarine USS Tilefish (SS-307) and never sailed again.
Of the three Japanese officers in primary command at Tarakan, RADM Sueto Hirose ended the war as a vice admiral in charge of the base force at Sabang, surrendered his sword to the British at Malaya, and died in 1968, having escaped war crimes scrutiny. Likewise, the Army commander, Sakaguchi, survived the war as well, and “It is unclear whether Sakaguchi was ever brought to account for this atrocity. The third senior commander at Tarakan in 1942, RADM Nishimura, head of the covering force, was killed in the Surigao Strait in October 1944 when his flagship, the battleship Yamashiro, was sunk after being hit multiple times from the U.S. battleships.
Meanwhile, De Waal emerged from a Japanese POW camp to become known as “The Hero of Tarakan” and became a key figure in the war between the Netherlands and Indonesia that lasted between 1945 and 1949, rising to the rank of major general. When the KNIL was disbanded in 1950, he retired. De Waal was knighted and received the Militaire Willemsorde, the highest Dutch award for valor, for Tarakan. He died in 1970 at the age of 74.
The Loenen Memorial Cemetery in the Netherlands, formed in 1949, has a monument to 215 men of the KNIL thrown from the Japanese cruiser Naka. The names of the known are listed while 125 unknowns, mostly Indonesians, are lost to history.
In 2019, the Dutch Defense Ministry presented posthumous Mobilization War Crosses to the families of seven who had been identified in recent years.
Finally, while it is very likely the Japanese wrecks were long ago stolen by scrap iron pirates notorious in the region, the Dutch guns of the Tarakan battery, marked “1902 Fried. Krupp” on the breech, are still standing guard, 80 years later.
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