The Dutch Naval Air Force Against Japan

Book Review

The Dutch Naval Air Force Against Japan
The Defense of the Netherlands East Indies, 1941-1942
by Tom Womack
McFarland & Company
207 pages, sbk
US$35.00, £22.50

In 1941 the Netherlands East Indies (NEI), now known as Indonesia, had been a Dutch colony for nearly 300 years. Comprising several hundred islands located between the Philippines and Australia, and stretching from the Indian Ocean to New Guinea, this vast territory occupied a key strategic position in South East Asia. Since the 1920s the Dutch Naval Air Service, or Marine Luchtvaart Dienst (MLD), had used seaplanes and flying boats to patrol the numerous waterways between the islands, keeping a watch on shipping and delivering supplies to isolated outposts.

From early 1940 onwards Japan and the NEI engaged in a increasingly frosty ‘cold war’, as the aggressive territorial ambitions of the Japanese became all too clear. This confrontation turned into open warfare on 7 December 1941 with the infamous Pearl Harbor attack. Air and naval attacks on Dutch territory and shipping dramatically escalated as the Japanese rapidly occupied French Indo-China, Malaya, Borneo and then the Philippines. Although supported by a limited contingent of US and British forces, Dutch military preparations in the NEI had been dealt a severe set-back by the German occupation of the Netherlands in May 1940 and were woefully under-prepared for the conflict. The Japanese began to use captured air bases to conduct seriously damaging attacks on NEI installations, and on 10 January 1942 commenced a step-by-step invasion of the NEI. This culminated in February 1942 in the progressive occupation of the key island of Java, forcing the NEI governor to surrender in early March.

This book deals in detail with the activities of the MLD during the Japanese invasion of the Netherlands East Indies. The contribution of Dutch forces to the Allied war effort during this period was quite significant, but is often overlooked in accounts of the Pacific War. With their 175 aircraft, the MLD in Southeast Asia outnumbered American and British naval air reconnaissance forces combined. However, three months of intense fighting cost the MLD over 80 per cent of its aircraft and resulted in the loss of thousands of naval personnel. Operations of the United States Navy and Royal Air Force flying boat units are included in order to provide a thorough history of the campaign.

The author begins with a description of the origins, equipment and doctrine of the MLD in 1941, sketching in the historical background and the state of preparedness of the NEI armed forces at the time. The most modern aircraft in service were the Dornier Do 24 and PBY Catalina, which operated from a number of purpose-built flying boat bases located throughout the islands. A large number of secondary refuelling bases were also available for use. Before the war started the MLD was busy conducting neutrality patrols, but soon added convoy escort and anti-submarine operations to its many tasks. Encounters with enemy fighters and flying boats became increasingly common as the MLD sought to provide advance warning of Japanese movements in the region – the first Do 24 being shot down on 17 December 1941. Unfortunately, attempts by the MLD to raid Japanese shipping and naval bases were often ineffective due to inaccurate bomb aiming.

The invasion of the NEI itself saw the MLD operating round the clock to keep higher command informed of the latest tactical situation. Losses mounted rapidly as the flying boats were often operating well beyond the meagre friendly fighter cover that was then available. The long flying hours took a large toll in aircrew fatigue, and the serviceability of aircraft also fell as the aircraft became worn out. In the early days, tired units could be quickly replaced by fresher crews, but within weeks aircraft losses and crew shortages made this almost impossible. The last few chapters cover the MLDs disastrously organised attempt at evacuation to Australia and Ceylon, and an overall review of the MLD’s performance.

In nearly all cases, specific incidents are based on official NEI records, cross-checked against Japanese records, and include the serial number of the aircraft involved and sometimes also details of the crew aboard. This allows the reader to trace the history and eventual fate of individual aircraft during the conflict.

There are eight appendices, listing such information as brief MLD squadron histories; Do 24, PBY-5 and reserve seaplane individual aircraft fates; specifications of MLD and Japanese aircraft; MLD seaplane tender details; MLD air bases in the NEI. The book concludes with 18 pages of author’s notes, a bibliography and an index. The work is illustrated with six maps identifying the main islands, the location of MLD bases and the progressive advance of Japanese forces. Thirty-four b+w photographs illustrate the aircraft, ships bases and personnel involved. There are no colour illustrations at all.

The book is printed entirely on lower-quality matt paper, more akin to that found in a paperback novel, which means that reproduction of the photos is not as good as it could be. Despite the acknowledgement remarking on the number of times the text has been proof-read, the mis-spelling of Sikorsky as ‘Sikorski’ occurs an annoying number of times, including in the index! (But not, curiously, when mentioned in the authors notes). Otherwise, the typography appears to be error-free.

The military air campaign in the NEI has received little coverage in the English language, and this comprehensive account admirably fills a gap in our understanding of the early weeks of the Pacific War, being both highly researched and very readable.


– John Hayles

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