In this series, we will be covering the history of countries that —though many had at one point possessed some of the most feared navies on the planet— they could not keep up with the few industrial and economic powerhouses that ruled the waves in the war-torn world of the early 20th century.
This doesn’t mean, however, that these navies had disappeared. On the contrary, some of them, such as the Dutch Navy, still managed to play a significant role.
The Netherlands is a relatively small country that has managed to survive for many centuries amid the rise and fall of European empires. This waterlogged coastal nation first came to prominence precisely at the expense of a falling empire, when in the 17th century, the Dutch Revolt toppled Spanish control of the low provinces. The only way the small new country could viably expand was by sea, and what followed were hundreds of years of global colonial dominance, enforced by a powerful navy that could directly challenge the might of the British, Spanish, and French fleets.
Battle of Scheveningen. 1653
The Royal Netherlands Navy (Koninklijke Marine) would begin to decline in the 1700s and by the late 19th century could not effectively compete with the few superpowers that slowly monopolized naval supremacy. By the time the First World War broke out, the neutral Netherlands had only a small, mostly obsolete coastal defence force in Europe, with the bulk of their navy stationed in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). This was the jewel of the empire and a massive source of income.
The Dutch had good foresight in shoring up the naval defences in their Asian colonies, having closely observed the steady growth of the Japanese sphere of influence in the region. However, the start of World War II in the Pacific would prove that this wasn’t enough.
World War II
In mid-1940, Dutch metropolitan territory was swiftly occupied by the German army, forcing the local naval contingent of light ships and submarines into exile in Britain. The East Indies squadron —consisting of four cruisers, half a dozen destroyers, and a small submarine force— was situated far from the action as Japan had not entered the war at this point. Nevertheless, Japan, thirsty for oil and resources after facing devastating embargos, moved to occupy the Dutch colonies shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Invasion of the Dutch East Indies. 1942
In anticipation of a full-scale Japanese invasion in the region, the combined Allied forces with footholds in the area pooled their military resources to organize a defensive strategy in the face of vastly superior enemy naval and aerial power. This force was called the American-British-Dutch-Australian Command (ABDA for short). The ABDA forces would spend the first half of 1942 responding to enemy amphibious assaults on land and at sea throughout present-day Indonesia.
It was precisely when moving to intercept the invasion fleet headed for Java in February 1942, that the bulk of the ABDA fleet, under the command of Dutch Rear Admiral Karel Doorman, would meet a grim fate at the Battle of the Java Sea.
The Battle of the Java Sea
With slightly reduced manpower, the task force moved to attack the invasion convoy and encountered a Japanese escort force with superior numbers.
The order of battle was as follows:
John D. Edwards,
Electra (x), Jupiter (x),
Evertsen, Witte De With (/),
Minegumo (/), Asagumo (/),
Java (x), De Ruyter (x),
| Nachi, Haguro,|
Naka, Jintsu (/)
x = Destroyed
/ = Damaged
The Japanese force commanded by Admiral Takagi had Heavy Cruisers that sported far superior strength and number of guns than the Allied counterparts, in addition to the infamously effective long-lance torpedoes. On top of that, in the days leading up to the engagement, Dutch Cruiser De Zeven Provinciën had been sunk in port by a Japanese air raid, and cruiser Tromp was taken out of action when hit by several shells from destroyer Asashio in a skirmish, giving Takagi the advantage in numbers. Despite the relative disparity, Doorman gave the order to attack in the early afternoon of February 27, in a desperate attempt to disable the transport ships delivering troops to occupy what was left of free Dutch territory.
“Ik val aan, volg mij”–Karel Doorman
Regardless of their resolve, the ABDA ships continuously ran into the wall that was Takagi’s escort fleet, sustaining heavy damage and loss of life. Early in the battle, as both sides exchanged artillery fire, Exeter (the only ship in the fleet equipped with radar) received a critical hit from a 20 cm shell and was forced to retreat. The Japanese navy complemented their mostly inaccurate shellfire with waves of hundreds of torpedoes that proved to be devastating, sinking destroyer Kortenaer with a single fish in the early evening. Later that night, cruisers De Ruyter and Java would be struck by torpedoes from Myoko-class cruisers Haguro and Nachi, respectively.
The loss of life on the Dutch cruisers was significant, with 857 people going down with the ships, including Admiral Karel Doorman himself. As the ABDA flagship settled at the bottom of the Java Sea, the rest of the force turned to retreat to safe harbours. In the following days, the only heavy cruisers left from the Allied fleet —the Exeter and the Houston— as well as Australian light cruiser Perth, were lost to the pursuing Japanese ships and naval aviation.
The battle of Java Sea was the largest naval battle of the Second World War at the time it occurred, and in fact, to that point, was the largest naval battle since Jutland in 1916. The result dealt a devastating blow to the ABDA initiative; one from which it would never recover. The surviving ships fled to Australia and the Dutch East Indies would soon fall to the seemingly unstoppable Japanese war machine. What was left of the Royal Netherlands Navy in Asia (mostly submarines) would submit to British command and carry out many successful raids on Japanese shipping throughout the remainder of the war.