The Netherlands East Indies Campaign 1941-42 – Japan’s Quest for Oil, Marc Lohnstein

The Netherlands East Indies Campaign 1941-42 – Japan’s Quest for Oil, Marc Lohnstein

The conquest of the Netherlands East Indies was one of the last parts of the original Japanese plan of conquest in 1941-42, and saw a relatively small Japanese force rapidly overrun the massive island group, giving Japan access to much needed oil and threatening Australia. 

Any examination of this campaign soon makes it clear just how difficult a task the defenders had. The Netherlands East Indies covered a vast area, from Sumatra in the west to part of New Guinea in the east. The area roughly falls into two lines of islands – Borneo, Celebes and New Guinea in the north, and Sumatra, Java, Bali and Timor in the south, but with hundreds of other islands, some of them quite sizable. Even a well organised, sizable and well equipped defender would have struggled to defend such a large area against an enemy who could chose where and when to attack.

Although the Japanese won this battle pretty quickly, they didn’t have an especially large force, and only briefly had the support of the main carrier force. The Army and Navy had different plans and attacked on different flanks, but each of those forces was well organised.

On the Allied side the forces were a mix, provided by four powers, with the bulk coming from the Netherlands East Indies itself. Australia sent reinforcements first, starting just before the Japanese declaration of war. Britain and the United States also contributed, but mainly with forces that had already suffered defeats in Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines.

Interestingly the Dutch had been planning for a defence of the area for several decades, while the Japanese only began to plan for an attack in the late 1930s. However the Dutch plans changed on several occasions, and all of the plans relied on strong support from allies. In addition they were all disrupted by the German invasion of the Netherlands, which ended any hope of support from home. 

Once the battle begins a familiar pattern soon emerges. The Japanese weren’t present in overwhelming strength, but on island after island they were able to take advantage of sluggish Allied responses, poorly positioned troops etc to gain quick (although not always cost free) victories. By the time the Japanese attacked Java, the Allies had already largely given up any hope of actually holding the island, so even this battle only lasted for nine days.

This is a good account of this campaign, which is often skipped over or dealt with from the point of view of the British or Australian forces involved. We get a clear view of the fairly simply Japanese plan, for a pincer attack on Java, which is often made look much more complex by maps showing all of the campaign in one go.

Just about the only Allied success during this campaign was the destruction of most of the oil wells. The Japanese were soon able to repair most of them, but they failed to solve one of their biggest problems – most of their oil had been imported in foreign ships, which were no longer available to them, so they didn’t have the shipping to move this newly captured oil around their newly won Empire.

Origins of the Campaign
Opposing Commanders
Opposing Forces
Opposing Plans
The Campaign

Edition: Paperback
Pages: 96
Publisher: Osprey
Year: 2021

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