Nederlands / Dutch
War in the East Print

In the course of 1940 the threat of war in the Pacific increased. Nazi-Germany occupied France and the Netherlands, both countries with colonies in the East Indies, and had an alliance with Japan. The latter had already cast a greedy eye on the raw materials in the Dutch East Indies. Especially the East Indies oil could be essential to the Japanese war effort.

The Dutch colonial government quickly mobilized the Royal Netherlands-Indies Army (KNIL). It categorically refused to arm the Indonesian population, for fear they would turn against the Netherlands sooner or later. The weaponry of the KNIL was geared more towards preserving peace and order than towards defending the country against a foreign power. With its limited means, the Navy had to guard an area almost the size of Europe. In case of an armed conflict with Japan, the Dutch East Indies probably never stood a chance. That is why, should such a war break out anyway, the Dutch hoped for large-scale support from Great Britain and the United States.

On 7 December 1941, the war in the Pacific started with the Japanese surprise attack on the American naval base of Pearl Harbour (Hawaii). Immediately after receiving news of the Japanese attack, the Dutch government in exile in London declared war on Japan. The Dutch government in the Dutch East Indies immediately proclaimed a general mobilization. Most Indonesians, however, considered themselves spectators in a war that was not theirs.

Japan occupies the East Indies

In 11 January 1942 the first Japanese soldiers landed on East Indian territory. Celebes and Borneo were quickly occupied; Ambon, South Sumatra, Bali, and Timor soon followed. During these operations the KNIL was not always outnumbered by the Japanese, but it proved to sorely lack fighting power. The Dutch troops often restricted themselves to a ‘scorched earth policy’, destroying oil refineries, airfields, and harbours as much as possible to prevent them falling into Japanese hands.

On 27 February an allied fleet under the command of Dutch rear admiral Karel Doorman attempted to check the Japanese ships north of Java. Doorman and over 1.000 Allied sailors were killed in the Java Sea, the remainder of the fleet had to flee. In the night of 28 February Japanese troops mounted an attack on Java. Their length made it very difficult to defend the coasts of the main island of the East Indian archipelago. The Japanese, who dominated the skies, had the initiative almost constantly and the KNIL retreated almost every time. The retreats undermined morale and after only one week further resistance seemed pointless.

On 9 March 1942 the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army on Java surrendered. More than 42,000 European KNIL soldiers and navy personnel were taken prisoner, together with approximately 25,000 native KNIL soldiers. According to Japanese data 845 Japanese soldiers died in the Dutch East Indies. Losses on the other side were much more substantial: 1,653 navy personnel and 896 KNIL soldiers lost their lives.

After the relatively easy conquest of the Indonesian archipelago the Japanese divided the Dutch East Indies into three administrative districts. Sumatra came under the authority of the 25th army, Java under the 16th army, Borneo and East Indonesia – Celebes, the Moluccas, the Lesser Sunda Islands and New Guinea – were placed under the rule of the Japanese Navy. Each of the three main districts was further divided into a number of provinces ruled by a Japanese governor. Dutch and Indo-Europeans were removed from government service. Japanese civilian officials took over the vacant high government positions.

The Japanese occupation policy aimed to integrate the Dutch East Indies into the so-called ‘Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere’. This new Asian political and economic order under Japanese leadership could only be realized by banning all Western influences from Indonesian society. This meant the introduction of Japanese time and calendar and a ban on European media, but also the internment of Dutch and allied civilians – men, women and children – in camps.

Outside the camps

On Java most Dutch nationals of mixed Dutch-Indonesian descent were ultimately not interned. The Japanese viewed the Indo-Europeans as fellow-Asians and thought it would be possible to convince the Indos to participate in the advancement of the Asian ‘Prosperity sphere’.

Estimates of the number of Indo-Europeans who remained outside the camps range from 120,000 to 200,000. For many of them life outside the camps was not easy either. Registrations, requisitioning of homes, raids and house searches generated fear and uncertainty. The European schools were closed during the first days of the Japanese occupation and Indos were not allowed to attend Indonesian schools. Radios were sealed or had to be turned in, Dutch-language newspapers were no longer published.

People were very wary of the political intelligence service (PID), which had existed before the war, but was now placed under immediate Japanese command and charged with investigating whether there were persons who violated the bans issued by the Japanese. There was a constant threat of being reported to the Indonesian police or the PID. In the worst case one ended up at the feared Kempeitai, the Japanese military police that saw anti-Japanese conspiracies in the smallest of incidents.

The rapid Japanese advance and the speedy Dutch collapse had seriously injured the standing of the Dutch among the Indonesians. During the occupation Dutch prestige was further undermined by Japanese propaganda and by the removal of the Dutch from public life.

The Japanese occupation furthermore resulted in the total mobilization and disruption of Indonesian society. This cost hundreds of thousands of native lives, but it also put Indonesian groups and persons in completely new situations, with new chances and opportunities. The Japanese occupier successfully demolished the old order. They were less successful at building a new order.

Read more: About the camps.

Do you want to read more about the history of the Dutch East Indies first? Then go to: Liberation and evacuation.