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Re: Let's Go THIS Direction!

June 13 2010 at 10:05 PM
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Jan Visser  (no login)

Response to Let's Go THIS Direction!

Hi Tom,

Interesting questions. I'm not aware of any official evaluations of Helfrich's conduct during the NEI campaign 1941-1942, and from mid-February onwards, his strategic decisions. If such an evaluation was made, it was most likely made at the Hogere Marine Krijgsschool (Higher Naval War College). Perhaps Bosscher's book might have a few words on this as well, I would have to check.

The closest thing I found is Helfrich's entry in "Biografisch Woordenboek van Nederland" (Biographical Dictionary of the Netherlands). The entry was written by the well-known Dutch naval author Ph.M. Bosscher, who is well-respected and wrote the most comprehensive history of the Dutch Navy during World War II. I welcome you all to read it, it gives the best description of Helfrich and his character. It puts his decisions in perspective (not from a military/strategic point of view, but from his character). You can find it at:

In my opinion: Helfrich was entitled to giving recommendations. Let's not forget that the Netherlands Navy had been studying the specific problems of the defence of the Netherlands East Indies for decades when war finally broke out with Japan. In fact, I remember reading about a map exercise conducted in 1938 at the Hogere Marine Krijgsschool which predicted how Japan would go about conquering the Netherlands East Indies in phases. Helfrich was director of that institution at that time, and must have have gained an intimate understanding of the strategic problems and dilemmas he would be confronted with. I don't have the specifics of this exercise, but it would be an interesting comparison to see how accurate this map exercise was, what strategic lessons were learned from it, and which of these strategic lessons were actually implemented and adhered to during the various phases of the NEI campaign.

Between the wars, Dutch military policy in the NEI was based on holding out as long as possible until help would come from Britain and American forces. Helfrich implemented this in his strategy. Helfrich's strategy was to attack Japanese invasion convoys and beach heads with maximum effort, to prevent them from using their newly conquered territores as an advance base. The attacks on Davao, Miri and Kuching were examples of these, but that was also the case with the Battle of the Java Sea. Dutch military policy, as far as I know, was primarily focused on preservering the Netherlands East Indies for the Netherlands, and did not look beyond this objective. By 1942, Helfrich himself didn't really need to either. The Joint Chiefs of Staff were responsible for outlining global military policy. If I recall correctly from memory, they had given Helfrich specific orders to defend the Netherlands East Indies to the utmost with the forces available to him. What were the orders given to Helfrich? What objectives did the Joint Chiefs have in mind? What losses were they expecting to incur?

Also, what were the viewpoints of the Dutch government in exile and Tjarda van Starkenborgh Stachouwer, and what guidelines were received from them? The strategic objectives and political guidelines form the framework in which Helfrich was working. To assess the correctness of Helfrich's decisions, one would have to carefully build this strategic framework.

Also, one would have to name Helfrich's decisions one by one, and judge the validity of Helfrich's decision in the light of the strategic framework and the information available to Helfrich.

I'll name a few questions about Helfrich's decisions which I think are interesting, and I'll try to give a few impressions as well (without the presumption of giving a definite or complete answer).

Was there a reasonable expectation of success in the Java Sea?
Helfrich himself believed that the forces in the Netherlands East Indies (especially the Dutch Naval Forces) could do more good in the NEI than in Australia or Ceylon, and he made his decisions accordingly. The Battle of the Java sea was the disastrous result of his decision. Had he reason to believe that an attack by an Allied surface fleet could be successful? Perhaps there was some justification: the Battle off Balikpapan by US fourstackers was a tactical success, and the Allied believed at the time believed that the Battle of Badung Strait had been very sucessful as well. Several sorties by Allied fleets under Doorman's command had resulted in damage to several ships, but none were lost. Helfrich himself didn't know that Doorman was sailing without reconnaissance (Helfrich for example didn't know that Doorman's force had landed their floatplanes). Flying boats reported cruiser and destroyer forces, but no enemy battleships. What discussion would we have had if the Battle of the Java Sea had been a tactical success and had bought the Allies the time needed to build up forces in Australia?

Could Helfrich have overseen the extent of Allied losses to come, or or was there a reasonable expectation that there was still time to evacuate in an orderly manner after a stand in the Java Sea?
At the time of the Battle of the Java Sea, Helfrich probably didn't suspect that the entrances to the Indian Ocean would be closed off so fast and that a massive Japanese surface fleet was cruising in the Indian Ocean (although that was to be expected from a stratic point of view). Flying boats reported to Helfrich that only cruiser and destroyers were escorting the invasion convoys, so Doorman wasn't pitted against an overwhelming force.

What other factors were relevant in Helfrich's decision making process?
From a psychological point of view: the collective intellect of the Royal Netherlands Navy (and the KNIL and ML-KNIL as well) had studied the defence problems of the Netherlands East Indies for decades, and had prepared for a war with Japan in which losses were to be expected. To which degree total annihalation was collectively anticipated and accepted, I can't say, but the Royal Netherlands Navy was perhaps also burdened by centuries of tradition and history in which admirals gambled and either won or lost.

In addition, to many the NEI was as much part of the Dutch empire as the European homeland. The Dutch had already lost the Netherlands to Germany. To Helfrich especially the bond with the NEI must have been strong (he was born there). How far would an American go in defence of the United States, or a Brit in defence of the United Kingdom?

Please note that I'm not saying that Helfrich was right or wrong. I don't presume to be able to make that kind of judgement. What I'm saying is that it takes more than just the end result to condemn or praise a decision: the right decision can be made but end in disaster. The wrong decision can be made and end in success.

I think it starts with asking the right questions.

-- Jan --

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