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The Royal Dutch Navy


In our day by day journals we have addressed the events that involved the Royal Dutch Navy only in a very modest way. In this section we briefly address some of the probably most interesting details.

No sea battles were fought during the period 10-18 May in Dutch waters. The only involvement of the Dutch navy was found in bombardments of German land forces and the inevitable confrontations with the Luftwaffe. Both matters that navy personnel prefer to avoid. Most of the events have been incorporated in the journals; there where they truly mattered and there where they contributed to the events described. Some have not been addressed.

The Royal Dutch Navy

The Royal Dutch Navy comprised merely five branches: the ships and their crews, the Marines, the Marine Flying Corps, the port- and land-based facilities and a small branch of navy artillery for port defence purposes.

The Dutch Navy was a small navy, notwithstanding the fact that a large portion of the world sees had to be controlled. In was the seventh biggest navy in the world (1). But the step between the 7th and 8th navy was more like a leap. Battle-ships and battle-cruisers or carriers were not in service. Three battlecruisers (28,000 tonnes, 9 x 28 cm main guns) had been ordered, but were still in their final design phase.

(1) 1. UK, 2. US, 3. Jap, 4. Fr, 5. It, 6. Ge, 7. SU and 8. NL

The Dutch Empire comprised - apart from the Dutch coastal waters in the homeland - almost the entire Archipelago of the Dutch East-Indies [nowadays: Republic Indonesia] and the West-Indies [Dutch Antilles, Surinam]. A very ambitious plan to expand the navy had partially been approved by the House, and as such a lot of new ships were under construction or in process of getting there. Amongst these a 3 light cruisers annex convoyeurs, 4 modern destroyers, 6 fregates, 1 large tanker, 7 modern submarines, 3 gun-boats, 30 MTB's and the 3 aforementioned battle-cruisers as cherries on the cake. That expansion - would it have materialised - would have lifted the striking capacity of the Dutch navy to a much higher level.

Also the Maritime Air Fleet was much expanded with Catalina and Dornier Do-24X Flying Boats for th colonial navy as well as Fokkers T-VIIIw for the domestic fleet, of which a substantial portion had been delivered already.

At the eve of battle the navy's bigger surface units were formed by 4 light cruisers [main guns of 15 cm], 9 destroyers, 3 flotilla leaders [heavy destroyer class] and 8 sub-marine hunters. In total 23 sub-marines were available, of which 18 could be regarded as rather to very modern. Furthermore 3 armoured gunboats, 4 coastal defence boats, 5 river gunboats, 12 mine-laying vessels and 16 mine-sweepers [of which 8 large and modern] were available. The smaller, auxiliary or obsolete units were represented by 1 larger supply vessel, 5 MTB's, 2 mine auxiliary ships, and dozens of auxiliary ships [armed tug and pilot-boots, patrol boats].

May 1940

In May 1940 the best part of the Dutch Royal Navy, and especially of the bigger surface units [only 1 cruiser was stationed in The Netherlands], had been stationed in the East or was elsewhere at sea.

We will not reproduce all the events that the individual units went through. We shall suffice to state the fate of the units in Dutch waters [source: Royal Dutch Navy in WWII, Standard Work, Ph.M. Bosscher]:

Destroyed by German strikes:
- Destroyer Van Galen [Rotterdam, by a Stuka attack]
- Destroyer escort Christiaan Cornelis
- Gunboats Johan Maurits and Friso [by Luftwaffe attacks]
- Mine laying vessels Hydra and Bulgia
- Mine sweeper M III

Destroyed by own personnel:
- Submarine O 12
- Destroyer escorts Z3 and G16 [both obsolete]
- Gunboats Brinio, Braga, Helfring and Freyr [all obsolete river and shallow water gunboats]
- Mine-sweepers Abraham van Hulst [after sustaining heavy damage from Luftwaffe attack], Pieter Floriszoon [modern], MI, MII, MIV [last three were recovered and taken into service by Kriegsmarine]
- Battery ship IJmuiden [obsolete vessel, equipped with guns to support fortress Ymuiden]

Escaped to England:
- Light-cruiser Sumatra
- Destroyer escorts [obsolete] Z5, Z6, Z7, Z8, G13, G15
- Modern gunboats Flores and Gruno
- Mine laying vessels Willem van der Zaan, Medusa, Van Maerlant, Douwe Aukes, Nautiles, Jan van Brakel
- Mine Sweeper [modern] Jan van Gelder
- MTB [modern] TM51
- Submarines O9, O10 and O13
- Many auxiliary ships

Escaped to England [under construction but affloat]:
- Light-cruiser Jacob van Heemskerck
- Heavy destroyer Isaac Sweers
- Submarines O21, O22, O23 and O24

Captured by the Germans:
- Obsolete gunboats Tyr and Balder
- Obsolete gunboats [unarmed] Hadda and Thor
- Mine laying vessel Vidar
- Torpedo workship Vidar
- Obsolete submarines O8 and O11
- Obsolete coastal gunboats Gelderland and Hertog Hendrik

Captured by the Germans [under construction]:
- Cruiser De Zeven Provincien [casco not used by Kriegsmarine]
- Cruiser Eendracht [casco not used by Kriegsmarine]
- Heavy destroyer Tjerk Hiddes, Gerard Callenburgh and Philips van Almonde [all damaged but repaired and in commission with Kriegsmarine]
- Submarines O25, O26 and O27 [all in commission with Kriegsmarine]
- 6 Mine-sweepers [all in commission with Kriegsmarine]
- Tanker [in commission with Kriegsmarine]
- 10 MTB's in different phases of construction [all finished and commissioned in the Kriegsmarine as E-Boote, serving in the Mediterranean]

Also the German navy confiscated 15 Do-24 flying boats and about 20 Fokker T-8W flying boats. These were all put into operation by the German Luftwaffe.

The vessels not mentioned hereabove were all at sea or in Dutch [colonial] or Allied ports. A considerable number of vessels later served jointly with the British Royal Navy. Also quite a number of new ships and MTB's / MGB's were purchased by the Dutch Government in exile [London] for the Dutch Royal Navy during the war.

The Marines and navy miliciens

The Dutch Marines Corps - about 1,500 men strong in May 1940 - was the only professional fighting outfit in the entire Dutch army. All ranks were professional soldiers and recruits received thorough training before they were even fully admitted to the Corps. The Corps had a history that went back to 1665. Marines had been involved in many of the historical navy battles over the centuries.

Originally the Corps had been founded to facilitate the larger navy ships with professional deck soldiers, which were of paramount importance during close combat situations in ancient navy battles. Gradually the Corps had grown into a more true soldiering task, when the Corps got more involved in policing duties in the Dutch Colonies. Especially the Netherlands East Indies required much assistance from the army (during the 19th century the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army - or KNIL - was founded) and navy. The Marines, being the most professional outfit in the Dutch army, were often required to handle the hottest patatoes in the colonies.

During the interbellum the Corps had been decreased in strength, but still at 10 May 1940 about 1,500 of them were still around. About half that strength was in the homeland when the Germans invaded. Their principale base was Rotterdam, with a small garisson in Hook of Holland too. Altogether about 500 Marines occupied the barracks in both Rotterdam (about 450) and the Hook (about 60). Smaller garissons were present in the navy ports of Amsterdam, Den Helder and Flushing.

The Marines contributed considerably during the battle in the Netherlands. In Rotterdam they were in the core of the events, battling around the Meuze bridges in the city heart. There they would gain themselves a true name, amongst their regular army comrades but also among the opponents. In Hook of Holland they got involved in fights with concentrations of mis-dropped airlanding troops. At Flushing they would get little involved and in Den Helder and Amsterdam not at all, for no enemy would appear at those locations. In total 18 Marines would get killed, all in Rotterdam.

Quite a number of Marines escaped the capitulation, mainly due to ship assignments or stationing in the West or East (colonies). Members of these surviving units would see battle in the Pacafic in particular. Quite a number perished during the battle in the Javasea, on board the Dutch cruisers. Among them the 1st Lieutenant and son of the Corps commander, Colonel von Frytag Drabbe.

The Dutch also drafted amongst the Marines when air-gunners were much needed in the Dutch 320 RAF squadron (that mainly flew Hudson and Mitchell bombers). A few dozen would serve the RAF from that moment on and quite a few of them pay the highest price during the many missions 320 Dutch squadron flew.

The navy also had quite a contingent of sea miliciens. Those were navy soldiers were general fighting or fighting support functions on board ships and in port defences. These were conscripts like the regular army. They were also represented in the four aforementioned navy ports: Rotterdam, Amsterdam, Den Helder and Flushing.

One of the milicien schools was situated in Rotterdam. It got heavily involved in the fighting around the river. The company lost 6 men KIA during those fights. Elements of the school company would distinguish themselves during some of the fiercest fights around the bridges in the morning of the 10th.

Last but not least elements of the navy coastal artillery - e.g. the navy port artillery - manned quite a number of navy batteries. These batteries were usually the minor calibre guns of 3,7 cm, 4,7 cm and 7,5 cm that were positioned around the entrances of navy ports. But also the fortresses at both sides of the Enclosure Dike (Afsluitdijk) were fitted with some navy guns. At Hook of Holland these batteries really came into actions against some German intruders. Elsewhere - with exception of one battery crew at Kornwerderzand - these coastal and port defences saw no action.  

The battle in the Java Sea

The Dutch Royal Navy was a very professional branch. The Dutch had a great navy history - very much like the British - and were proud of that. Many internationally well known Admirals are still today celebrated national heroes. Men like Admiral Michiel Adriaanszoon de Ruyter, Maarten Harpertszoon Tromp, Piet Hein and Van Speyk. Also the British Royal Navy respected the Dutch navy tradition and standards very much, and vice versa. Dutch surface units that reached Engeland were - very unlike other navies - incorporated in the British Navy without any hesitation. Within only a few weeks after May 1940 the Royal Dutch Navy operated from British harbours against the Germans.

The major test that still lay ahead of the Dutch Navy when it had left Dutch waters on or before 14 May 1940, was the defence of the vast territory of the Dutch East-Indies. When Japan attacked Pearl Harbour at 7 December 1941, the members of ABDA command [American, British, Dutch and Australian alliance] declared war on Japan. Soon the Japanese invasion of Malaya, Singapore and the Dutch East Indies followed.

The Japanese Navy was at the peak of its power. The Allied navies were completely outmatched in the East, especially after the two RN battleships HMS Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales had been sunk outside Singapore just a few days after Pearl.

The Dutch navy received a major blow when the remaining units in the Allied fleet ["the Striking Force"] under the Dutch Rear-Admiral Doorman - comprising of Dutch [cruisers HMS Java, HMS Tromp and flagship De Ruyter, hunter-destroyers HMS Kortenaer, HMS Witte de With and HMS Piet Hein], Australian [cruisers HMAS Perth, HMAS Hobart - only the first took part in the battle in the Java Sea], American [heavy cruiser USS Houston, destroyers "four stackers" USS John D. Edwards, USS Ford, USS Alden, USS Paul Jones, USS Stewart, USS Pillsbury, USS Pope and USS Parrot - only the first four would be involved in the battle of the Java Sea] and British units [heavy cruiser HMS Exeter, Hunter-destroyers HMS Electra, HMS Jupiter, HMS Encounter] - was ordered to prevent the Japanese landings at Java end of February 1942.

Quite a number of serious incidents during the prelude to the Java sea battle costed the fleet many important units, such as two American cruisers, a Dutch cruiser [HMS Tromp] and a number of destroyers [all returned to ports with heavy damage, except the HMS Piet Hein that was sunk]. In the end only five cruisers [two Dutch, one British, one Australian and one American] and nine destroyers were left in the most forward group. Three cruisers were left in reserve at a great distance.

The strike force would meet the forward Japanese fleet [the 5th Cruiser-Fleet under Rear-Admiral Tagaki Takeo] of two heavy cruisers [Nachi and Haguro], one light cruiser [Jintsu] and sixteen destroyers [amongst them the Hatsukaze, Yukikaze, Amatsukaze, Tokitsukaze, Ushio, Sazanami, Yamikaze and Kawakaze] - under general command of Admiral Shoji Nishimura. The Japanese heavy cruisers outmatched the Allied fleet in gun and torpedo range.

At the 27th of February 1942 contact was made with the Japanese. Just before dark [1612 hours] the Japanese opened fire, soon [1630 hours] followed by replying fire of the Exeter and Houston, the only Allied ships able to respond at that distance. The enemy was the first to be able to open fire due to their excellent range and soon [1708 hours] the heavy cruiser HMS Exeter [who was famous for her part in the battle with the German battle-cruiser Admiral Graf Spee in September 1939] was hit in the engine-room. Six of her eight boilers were destroyed instantly. As a result the heaviest Allied unit had to leave the battle and she took one Dutch destroyer [Witte de With] with her [two days later HMS Exeter would be sunk by Japanese torpedoes] when she returned to Surabaya. Another of the Dutch destroyers was hit [by a long lance torpedo] and sunk immediately [Kortenaer] after it had been broken in two. The cruiser HMS De Ruyter received a 20 cm round in the engine room, which caused heavy damage.

Next Doorman - who was under strict orders to engage the enemy and sustain them maximum damage - gave his famous order "all ships follow me". Quickly after another destroyer was hit and sunk soon after. By that time all Allied units were finally able to open fire and many Japanese ships received hits [fires on the heavy cruiser Hagura and destroyer Asagumo were noticed], but none of them was lethally hit. The heavy cruisers of the Japanese navy were virtually illusive for the mainly light and medium calibre navy guns of the Strike Force. Four of the American destroyers were sent back [2130 hours] during the battle due to lack of fuel, torpedoes and ammunition [they would be the only survivors in the end!], and a second British destroyer [HMS Electra] received a lethal blow from a Japanese cruiser volley. At this stage the four Allied cruisers were virtually alone after all the accompanying destroyers had either been sunk or returned to port. But yet the cruisers were steaming full power in the direction of the enemy.

In the meantime it had grown dark and the Allied fleet lacked airplanes and an adequate supply of flares to light the enemy fleet; devices of which the enemy possessed plenty. The Allied fleet was lit by flares and plane dropped calcium parachute torches. The hour of disaster had struck [2300 hours]. First the Dutch cruiser De Ruyter and the American cruiser Houston received hits form the Japanese cruiser guns. Then the Java was hit by two long lance torpedoes and she quickly sank. Minutes later the fleets flag-ship - the cruiser De Ruyter - was hit by a long lance torpedo. It would still remain at the surface for quite some time, but eventually she went into the deep. Taking with here many on board, amongst them Rear-Admiral Doorman, who decided that his fate was intwined with the ship.

No less than 850 men drowned with the two Dutch cruisers. The Australian and American cruiser [with destroyed aft gun towers] then broke off the fight. They would however not escape the sad fate that the majority of the Striking Force had already suffered. One day after the battle in the Javasea they were sunk too. All five the cruisers that had sailed under Rear-Admiral Doorman had been sunk within one week time. The Island of Java laid open for the Japanese invasion force.

The Dutch navy history - so full of majestic and famous sea battles that had been won in the glorious four centuries of the Dutch Royal Navy - received its last heroic amendment with the dramatically lost sea-battle at the Java-sea.