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Dutch Perception Of Admiral Helfrich

May 31 2010 at 1:19 AM
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Tom Womack  (no login)

 
I'm doing some research on the Battle of the Java Sea and am currently reading through the after-action report written by Rear-Admiral C.E.L. Helfrich. While not outright negative, Helfrich certainly has some questionable comments on Doorman's leadership during the battle. At the same time I have noticed that Helfrich is a hell of a "Monday Morning Quarterback" (i.e. he has excellent hindsight when pointing out the errors of others after the fact). He also had the luxury of explaining (defending?) his actions while Doorman and certain other Allied commanders who died did not.

My question is how do the Dutch (both navy and/or historians) view Helfrich in the face of history? Doorman has had at least one capital ship (maybe more) named after him; and as best as I can tell, he is highly regarded in the KM as doing his best in a near hopeless situation. But after reading Helfrich's comments I am left to wonder how he himself is regarded. Obviously, he held a high post-war position in the KM so he was clearly held in esteem. But then again, so was Douglas MacArthur...

Not trying to be divisive, but would be interested to hear what our Dutch colleagues (and others) think of Admiral Helfrich some 68 years later. I get the distinct impression that Helfrich thought he could have done better in command during the Battle of the Java Sea. I also get the impression that he consistently "meddled" in the operational command of Admiral Doorman.

Your thoughts...comments...?

 
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Nelson
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Re: Dutch perception of Admiral Helfrich

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May 31 2010, 5:57 AM 

Tom,

I think yours is a very good question. I note that you use Gen. Douglas MacArthur as a figure of comparison, but I suggest that is not apt. Yes, Mac was viewed, likely correctly, as imperious, aloof, divisive, very difficult (when he wanted to be), self-centered, self-indulgent (and I could go on...and on), but NOT as an ineffective or incompetent general. Keeping his annoying vanity and personal flaws as distinctly separate entities, MacArthur's generalship was held in esteem. I don't think that's where you're starting with Admiral C.E.L. Helfrich, i.e., the very question you ask cannot assume a widespread esteem with his leadership abilities. Equally, it cannot assume a lack of such esteem. Whether he enjoyed general esteem on the part of the Dutch public is what you're endeavoring to answer.

Nelson

 
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Jim Broshot
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Re: Dutch perception of Admiral Helfrich

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May 31 2010, 7:42 AM 

"MacArthur's generalship was held in esteem."

Not necessarily by everybody. There's questions about his conduct of the defense of the Philippines in 1941 - 1942 as described in William Bartsch's "December 8, 1941: MacArthur's Pearl Harbor" and in Ronald Spector's "Eagle Against the Sun (The American War with Japan)" and elsewhere.

And there's the ditty my father taught me,

"They sent for the Army to come to Tulagi
"But Douglas MacArthur said no
"He said there's a reason
"It isn't the season
"And besides there is no USO"

Jim Broshot

 
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Nelson
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Re: Dutch perception of Admiral Helfrich

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May 31 2010, 3:42 PM 

> Not necessarily by everybody. There's questions about his conduct of the defense of the Philippines in 1941 - 1942 as described in William Bartsch's "December 8, 1941: MacArthur's Pearl Harbor" and in Ronald Spector's "Eagle Against the Sun (The American War with Japan)" and elsewhere. >

And Bartsch and Spector are entirely correct....but so am I. Instead of an immediate and determined response to a war everyone in uniform long knew was coming, Mac was guilty of initial dithering, indecisiveness, and doubtless fearful handwringing. With the kind of warning he had of the Pearl Harbor attack, he certainly should have had his bombing force on the way to Formosa tout de suite, no argument from me. H.P. Willmott (1982), EMPIRES IN THE BALANCE: JAPANESE AND ALLIED PACIFIC STRATEGIES TO APRIL 1942, reminds the reader that in some armies, a general guilty of behavior so dilatory that it caused a disaster of such proportions would have been stood against a wall and shot (many would exclaim rightly so). From his tunnel on Corregidor, he emerged only once, and but briefly, to visit his beleaguered boys on Bataan, and at least in its perception by those left behind, the unseemly manner in which Mac slunk out of the P.I. in the dark of night invited a new and second definition of "Dugout Doug". But...BIG BUT...it was the esteem in which he was otherwise held that ensured both his professional survival and the logistical support necessary for his SoWesPac campaign. Sure, he had his Buna, but Nimitz had his Tarawa and Pelelieu (the latter made even worse by whether it was necessary). The Aussies may have tired of his supercilious ways, but they were damned glad to see him in March 1942, given the reality that Oz had all but been cut loose by Mother England (whether this American patrician was much better is arguable). Mac performed superbly in Korea, with hubris, insubordination, and the fact that Truman didn't like him finally doing him in, with his subsequent presidential bid going nowhere. That, I argue, is NOT the question with Admiral Helfrich, who like MacArthur was snotty and difficult, but who seems to have been utterly ineffectual in garnering the confidence of Allied naval leaders to boot. I concede your implicit point, in that during this period of time, facing the relentless tide of a Japanese offense both aggressive and brilliant, neither man was at the top of his game. Just maybe Helfrich could have turned his fortunes around as well, who knows? Anyway, Tom's question invites serious discussion on Helfrich in this forum. [We've hashed over Mac more than once already.]

Nelson

 
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Melmoth the Waggish
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Re: Dutch perception of Admiral Helfrich

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May 31 2010, 7:28 PM 

Hello,

I cannot begin to speak for the Dutch, but will make the following observations from an American P.O.V.:

1.) While not everyone thinks MacArthur was THAT successful as a military leader, he did do a good job of sitting in his Dai Ichi Seimei palace in Tokyo as SCAP and watching over our defeated enemies as they tried to piece together their destroyed country. THAT form of generalship was his real forte, some might argue.

2.) Be that as it may, on a more concrete level, I spoke in January of this year with an Asiatic Fleet/ABDA officer who was imprisoned in Japan after his capture. He recalled to me that US personnel there in Japan--he said they were Army Air Force officers, IIRC--were still "hopping mad" (his exact words) at GEN MacArthur for his inept leadership during the Philippines campaign.

3.) I note this because he told me, gently but quite seriously, that he hoped someone would write a book about the Java Campaign, and that it would "do for Helfrich" what other works have done for MacArthur's reputation...Some food for thought there for our PacWar historians.

4.) I have Helfrich's Memoirs in a mediocre English translation, and they are worth reading. He makes an effort to clear up a number of points concerning his decisions. Others are left ambiguous, however. Like Geoff Layton of the RN, Helfrich is generous in his criticism of the USN's mishandling of their submarine forces...It's hard to argue with this, really, although one may take a somewhat different view after going through the Wartime Logbooks--which are available now online--of the American submarines that were active in the Philippines and Java campaigns.

5.) I recently found a British diplomatic communication (by the British Consul at Batavia) that includes a fascinating & detailed account of his escape from Java as the island fell. This report has details as well of his meeting with VADM Helfrich on Feb. 27th in Lembang (?) when the bad news of the battle in the Javazee was coming in, and sheds some light on Helfrich's state at that time.

The NEI campaign has always struck me as one of the Pacific War's great tragedies, yet I can't imagine anyone seeing VADM Helfrich as a tragic figure. That leaves the obvious question, of course.


FWIW,

MthW

 
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Arie Biemond
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Rear Admiral Helfrich

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June 1 2010, 12:26 AM 



Conrad Emile Lambrecht Helfrich was born in Semarang (Java) in 1886 as sun of a indo-european KNIL medical officer.

From his time in the the naval academy in Den Helder on he is described as energetic and intelligent. Rather soon he was sent to the Higher Naval Academy, first as pupil but later as a teacher during three years.

In 1931 he became chief-staff of the naval forces in the DEI and from 1935 to 1937
he was in command of the squadron there.
Almost two years he commanded the Higher Naval Academy as rear admiral before he finally was promoted to "Commandant Zeemacht" in the DEI as vice admiral in 1939.

In december 1941 he instructed all naval forces to fight to the end even when confronted with stronger enemy forces. This had to be continued until Japanese forces landed successfully on the island Java, than the remaining ships were ordered to depart to safe allied ports to continue the war with Japan.

Several naval officers stated that Helfrich failed to realise that the absolute Japanese air superiority would be a decisive factor in the coming battle in the Java sea.
His instructions to rear admiral Doorman on febr. 26th "to attack the enemy forces until they were destroyed" was almost romantically unrealistic.

He defended this instruction in a post war parlementary inquiry, but in private he confessed
his doubt about the correctness of it until he died in 1962.


From: Dr.L. de Jong: "Het Koninkrijk der Nederlanden in de Tweede Wereldoorlog" ,
Part 11a (1984).




 
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Kit
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Re: Dutch perception of Admiral Helfrich

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June 1 2010, 4:02 AM 

Melmoth,

You wrote:

"While not everyone thinks MacArthur was THAT successful as a military leader..."

For the mo' I'd like to keep my opinion of Douglas MacArthur Down Under, so to speak, but I do think that whether we're piling onto MacArthur or Conrad Helfrich, some standards or guidelines of success ought to be offered up for comparison. Please identify a military or naval officer of close to MacArthur's rank and position who was THAT successful and stipulate why, so we can readily grasp whether indeed MacArthur, or for that matter Helfrich, fails to make the grade and why not. Which is to say if those critics are correct and Mac wasn't all that hot in his job, IMO his performance needs to be held up to comparison with someone's that was rather more exemplary.

Arie,

Thanks for de Jong's thumbnail profile of Admiral Helfrich, but I think the question posed by Tom Womack inquires of the opinion of Helfrich by the Dutch people as a whole, or at least by those familiar with the history of WW2 and the NEI's role in it.

Best regards,

Kit

 
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Jan Visser
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Re: Dutch Perception Of Admiral Helfrich

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June 1 2010, 10:24 PM 

Hi Tom,

Interesting topic, one can argue both sides. Will respond this weekend.

Jan

 
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Tom Womack
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Admiral Helfrich

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June 2 2010, 2:58 AM 

Interesting comments by Arie. I had not seen/heard remarks about Helfrich not recognizing the influence of air power on the modern battlefield. Were they made by Dutch officers? This mindset was certainly not uncommon in Allied command circles in the Far East; clearly Admiral Phillips was of the same mindset when he led Prince of Wales and Repulse to disaster.

The same failure to fully appreciate the veracity of air power would also play into the NEI campaign in 1942. Helfrich continually pushed Doorman to maintain offensive action in the face of Japanese air action while failing to grasp, or ignoring altogether, the impact it could have on naval operations. That he remained unresponsive to Doorman's predicament even after the Flores Sea on February 4 and the Banka Strait on February 14 I think speaks volumes.

Arie's reference to Helfrich's message "you must continue attacks until the enemy is destroyed" must also be examined. In his after-action report dated July 21, 1942 Helfrich makes several comments that I honestly have to wonder about. Not only does Helfrich "nitpick" Doorman's tactical decision-making before and during the Battle of the Java Sea, but he also goes after Captain Waller aboard Perth as well.

The Combined Striking Force started the day with 14 ships. With the loss of De Ruyter and Java, Perth and Houston were literally all that remained on the proverbial battlefield. Yet, Helfrich takes Waller to task to retiring. While Helfrich doesn't openly condemn Waller, he dances around the topic by saying that it "TECHNICALLY" violated the order that he (Helfrich) gave to continue attacking until the enemy was destroyed. He does give a somewhat half-hearted acknowledgement that they could have been low on fuel, ammunition, etc.

He continues by stating his surprise that Captain Waller took Houston and Perth to Tg. Priok instead of back to Soerabaja. Despite Doorman's pre-battle orders to fall back on Tg. Priok, Helfrich apparently wanted to reform the surviving CSF ships (Houston, Perth, Exeter and screening destroyers) and make another sortie against the Japanese off East Java. But since Waller took the only two undamaged capital ships to Tg. Priok he (Helfrich) made the decision to disband the CSF on February 28 and allow the ships a chance to evacuate.

Helfrich also critiques Doorman's choice of actions. Despite having no clear intelligence and no consistently reliable air reconnaissance, Helfrich essentially attacks the latter's choice to remain close to shore rather than heading out to sea in an effort to surprise the Japanese fleet. Doorman had chosen to remain close to shore near those points where he knew the enemy would land, versus going out to sea and missing the convoy altogether and allowing the Japanese to land unimpeded.

Helfrich also makes several references along the lines of "if I had known what Doorman was doing at the time I probably would have intervened." He also critiqued Doorman's movements before and during the battle despite being wholly detached from the scene of the battle.

Right or wrong, Helfrich in many ways strikes me as a senior commander who felt the need to constantly meddle in Doorman's operational command. He exhibits signs of someone who doesn't fully trust his subordinate's skills or decision-making process.

Thoughts...comments?

Tom

 
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Tom Womack
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Helfrich Vs. MacArthur

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June 2 2010, 3:06 AM 

Hi Nelson...

I do want to try and keep this string narrowly focused on Admiral Helfrich. However, I did want to address your point about the comparison to MacArthur. I did so only in the context to make a point that although Big Mac did hold a number of very high level positions and was certainly an esteemed officer, he was not universally loved. As a result, there are any number of sources that are pro/con for the man.

With this in mind, I'm only trying to clarify that Helfrich could have been in a similar position. Just because the man held a number of senior-level positions in the Dutch navy and government doesn't mean he was necessarily loved and/or doesn't have his detractors.

Regards...
Tom

 
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Melmoth the W
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Re: Admiral Helfrich

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June 2 2010, 5:28 AM 

Tom,

Here are a few thoughts tonight.

I've spent some time looking through VADM Helfrich's memoirs over the past year or two, and found myself feeling somewhat the same...

It does seem to me that while VADM Helfrich usually pays lip-service to having given his commanders freedom of action, he simultaneously can only rarely refrain from criticizing their actions. Thus he nitpicks the route taken by the EXETER group out of Surabaja; he likewise cannot refrain from blaming the loss of HOUSTON and PERTH on the route they took in distinction to the one he ordered...And he does say very explicitly that they were to go to Tjilatjap, not Australia, and he had every intention of fighting his remaining ships from that port, "as long as the fuel supply allows it."

There are a number of incredible misapprehension in his memoirs as well: EDSALL & WHIPPLE took the survivors of LANGLEY into Tjilatjap where they arrived safe and sound; the British carrier INDOMITABLE was coming; he had been "promised" USS PHOENIX; the American submarines could have performed better had HE been allowed to place them differently earlier, etc.

I found it interesting, too, that he always seemed to have time to pardon any repairs for his own ships, but never for those of the other Allies. At one point VADM Helfrich condemns the American Asiatic Fleet ships for not fighting until the 47th day of the war (at Balikpapan), and rather ill-naturedly remarks that they could have had all kinds of yard-time themselves in that interval for upkeep..as if they had been doing nothing.

However, Helfrich (at least in his Memoirs) carps long & hard on the issue of air power, and at one point notes that the only serious disagreement experienced among his command after he took over was on this very subject. So, it may be a little unfair to say that he was oblivious to its necessity. (I realize his Memoirs weren't published until 1950, and that perhaps these may differ from his wartime reports.)

He also states unequivocally: "All Dutch Navy officers had faith in Doorman's tactical capabilities." He rationalizes the failure of the Combined Striking Force in the battle of the Javazee by arguing that had the CSF been put together sooner, and allowed to fight (successsfully) earlier, "then the Allie[s] would have had a better opportunity to notice which excellent tactical talents and qualities Doorman had at his disposal." And yet he recognizes the ad hoc nature of the Striking Force on Feb. 27th, along with its lack of coordination with the available air forces, etc.
His regret at not having included HOBART and EVERTSEN in the CSF on the 27th is understandable, although they could have added nothing of a substantial nature to the fight.
But, the decision to have GOUDEN LEEUW lay mines along the coast ("close to Rembang, within the 20 meter line") between the 26th & 28th might be worth re-examining.

FWIW,

MthW


 
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Tom Womack
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The Enigma Of Helfrich

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June 4 2010, 5:39 AM 

Hi Melmoth...

In many ways Admiral Helfrich is/was an enigma. He did tend to occasionally throw both Dutch and Allied naval counterparts "under the bus" so to speak, but he also had what I consider to be some valid points about the conduct of the war in 1941-42. I fully agree with his assessment that a Allied combined striking force should have been formed much earlier in the war.

I also agree to a large extent with his assessment of Tommy Hart. Hart was one of those peace-time USN commanders who never struck me as an particularly inspiring leader. The war in the NEI called for an aggressive leader with ingenuity and flexibility who could beat the Japanese at their own game. Hart certainly was not the man for the job.

There were many, many short-comings in the early months of the war that made victory impossible for the Allies. Those factors aside, in many ways, Helfrich had the qualities ABDA desperately needed. Namely he was aggressive (unlike Hart) and wanted to take the fight to the enemy (unlike the Brits who focused on using their remaining capital ships for convoy duty).

But then you have to temper those qualities with what we already know about the man. He (apparently) failed to gauge the impact of air power on modern naval operations, he appeared to disregard the input of his senior naval commander (Doorman) who was also an experienced naval aviator and finally, Helfrich demonstrated a near fanatical fixation to defending the NEI.

Which brings me back to my original point. Was Helfrich really all that sharp...or was he simply good at pointing out the obvious?

 
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Nelson
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General MacArthur; Admiral Helfrich

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June 4 2010, 9:35 PM 

Tom,

To respond to your earlier posting, I don't think it's a matter of whether a ranking officer is loved or liked, but rather how effective he is in instilling obedience in his subordinates. Whether done out of fondness for the Old Man or respect for the commanding officer's sternness, his orders must be fully carried out if he is to be an effective leader. I think that neither MacArthur nor Helfrich was widely adored, so that factor is not relevant to our discussion on the effectiveness of these flag officers. We must judge their worth by other standards.

Before we leave Mac, I must again ask those in this forum who think little of his generalship why that is so. If you think that his performance and behavior while commanding USAFFE in the Philippines put him beyond exoneration, such that no matter what he did thereafter was not sufficiently redeeming, fair enough. I acknowledge that the only high point in his P.I. campaign, the brilliantly concerted retrograde movement of both Luzon Forces into Bataan, was much diminished by dispersing throughout the island the necessary military stores originally cached there for the defense of the peninsula. Certainly there were soldiers (and sailors) close to the fire who either became prisoners of war for long duration or got run out of the P.I. with their tails between their legs, as well losing friends back on Luzon or Mindanao, who understandably were/are a lot less forgiving of him. But the President of the United States did believe that MacArthur should be kept on and given another chance, and retained confidence enough that Mac served to war's end, took the Japanese surrender in Tokyo Bay, and headed the Allied occupation forces there. Implicit in this decision, shared by the majority of the American public, is that Mac deserved redemption by his later WWII service. IF the naysayers can put aside the Philippine misadventure, however difficult and justified that may be, can you say that Mac's war performance is still lackluster? If so, please provide the names of commanders of approximately equivalent rank and position whose standards we can hold MacArthur to in comparison. If Chester Nimitz is an obvious choice, then we must put Buna against Guadalcanal, Tarawa, and Peleliu as long grinding combat or sharply acute affrays, heavy in blood and materiel expended. Otherwise put, if MacArthur didn't do that well, all things considered, then WHO DID and should be deserving of our admiration?

Moving on to the NEI and Singapore/Malaya, I throw this question out for general consideration. While every navy had its black shoe admirals, to be sure, could these men have achieved flag rank while being nearly oblivious to air power? Was it really that they did not appreciate what damage aircraft could inflict on capital ships, or was it simply, as in the case of Adm. Tom Phillips, that they knew full well but just didn't have friendly aircraft at their disposal, accepted that bitter pill, and sailed out regardless?

While I agree with you that Helfrich demonstrated a near fanatical fixation to defending the NEI, I would point out that that fanaticism did not prevent his evacuation from the islands toward the end of things. And I don't agree with your assessment of Helfrich vis-a-vis Hart. I think Hart was a realist, far more sanguine about what the combined Allied naval forces could do--very little in fact--against the might of the IJN, and was thus content to play a waiting game, replete with hit and run raids. Helfrich (and IMO Doorman, too) had little sophistication, engaging too often in unimaginative tactics. It puzzles me what Helfrich thought the two surviving Allied warships--heavy cruiser HOUSTON, with one third of her main armament out of action, and light cruiser PERTH--could have done against the many CAs of the IJN deployed against them. Continue to make frontal attacks reminiscent of the charge at Balaclava "until the enemy is destroyed"?

I've said it before in this forum, but again, Helfrich appears not to have appreciated that the NEI were just another line of defense in the Malay barrier, to be fought and defended until sufficient time had been bought and casualties suffered that it became necessary to drop back to the next line. Trouble is that sufficient Allied naval forces had to survive so as not to have been forced all the way back to Oz, and clearly they did not. And yes, the CSF should have been formed and trained together LONG before it was, simply to iron out the inevitable difficulties that would arise. Hart's fault or Helfrich's? Or both? Melmoth is right on in regard to the performance of the USN's submarine force, but the fault likely lay not with Hart, but with the prewar ultraconservatism in tactics practiced and the older officers in command of the American subs (not to mention their older NCOs). Read Clay Blair's SILENT VICTORY (Lippincott, 1975) to view all the dirty linen.

Nelson

 
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Jan Visser
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Re: Dutch Perception Of Admiral Helfrich

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June 6 2010, 8:33 PM 

Hi all,

I was all set and ready to throw myself into the discussion about Helrich, but a few questions keep coming to mind, which I believe I need answering before we can make come to any useful conclusions. The discussion as it has developed up to this point has struck me as incomplete, with a focus on Helfrich's personality and character traits and his (assumed) lack of knowledge or professionality.

An incomplete discussion and the use of rather subjective subjective adverbs such as "fanatical" gives me the impression that we are already branding Helfrich. I'm not against pointing out his errors after the fact (like the Monday Morning Quarterbacks that we are), but only on a fair basis.

What exactly are we trying to discover or prove in this discussion? Are we arguing the validity of Helfrich's decisions? Are we trying to gain insight into his personality? Or insight into his professionality (knowledge of importance of air power etc.)?

What do we want to know? Which question should we start with?

I welcome your views on this,

Jan Visser

 
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Tom Womack
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Let's Go THIS Direction!

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June 7 2010, 4:36 AM 

As always...Jan takes the logical route:)happy.gifhappy.gif But since I initiated this thread, I'll take the lead in setting a direction of conversation...at least in the immediate future.

My initial post was aimed primarily at getting a better idea of what the Dutch military (and later, historians) thought of Helfrich's leadership in the NEI campaign, 1941-42. As I pointed out earlier, he had a habit (to me anyway) of throwing both his Dutch and Allied naval counter-parts "under the bus" (i.e. back-stabbing is far too strong a description, so perhaps harshly critiquing) when they were not always able to defend themselves.

In both his Memoirs and after-action report dated July 1942, he seems to take an attitude of:

"I made THIS recommendation...and I made THAT recommendation...and my concerns were constantly overlooked and disregarded by the Americans and British...and I could have done MUCH better if I had been put in command of ABDA (FLOAT) so much earlier...etc"

Some of Helfrich's suggestions and concerns were certainly valid, while others simply strike me as being arrogant bluster. My earlier question was...was Admiral Helfrich that much smarter than everyone (as he seems to think he was)...or was he just pointing out the obvious that everyone knew as well? What do our Dutch friends in the KM and historian ranks think of his performance in the NEI campaign?

And finally...to clarify I used the term "near fanatical fixation" in my earlier post. Fanatical implies a different connotation (as compared to say, the Japan of the era) when I really meant merely to convey that Helfrich was strongly committed to the defense of the NEI. His commitment to the cause was certainly admirable, but perhaps a fight to the bitter end and complete annihilation was not the best option. Did Helfrich realize this (but blustered otherwise) or did he really expect total sacrifice?

Regards...
Tom

 
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Nelson
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perception of Admiral Helfrich

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June 7 2010, 7:23 AM 

Jan,

When you write

> An incomplete discussion and the use of rather subjective subjective adverbs such as "fanatical" gives me the impression that we are already branding Helfrich. I'm not against pointing out his errors after the fact (like the Monday Morning Quarterbacks that we are), but only on a fair basis. >

of course, you're quite correct. We ought to be able to discuss Admiral Helfrich openly and objectively, without resorting to name calling, character assassination, and above all, prejudging him. While I have long believed that Helfrich exhibited inflexibility and intransigence, I fully recognize that calling him "fanatical", particularly before the discussion is fully developed, is hardly objective and equitable. I withdraw my half of the imputation that in his inability to perceive Java and other parts of the NEI as another line of defense in the Malay Barrier, Helfrich was being fanatical. I would point out that in framing the original question, Tom Womack inquired as to Helfrich's professional ability and what level of esteem he enjoyed among the Dutch, and fair enough. Having retracted the use of that word, I assert it is eminently fair to ask how competently Conrad Helfrich filled his position, how really capable he was as a naval strategist, and how professionally he conducted his part of WWII. It is immaterial how well he was liked, IMO.

I would point out, though your criticism is on the mark, that General Douglas MacArthur has been called a deal worse in this forum, with "megalomaniac", "one of the poorest generals of the war", and "stealer" of the Canadian gear intended for the two infantry battalions sent to Hong Kong, depriving them of their motor transport and Bren carriers, and thus losing the entire place. That sort of nonsense forced me to be Mac's defender, a position I didn't particularly relish. I still have not read what standards and guidelines his detractors are using to call him incapable.

Start with what you know and go from there, is my advice. One hopes you don't come up against the views of the resident boys' club.

Nelson

 
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Melmoth theW
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VADM Helfrich & his discontents-- Part One

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June 8 2010, 5:12 AM 

Hello,

Re VADM Helfrich and his discontents...Americans have pretty limited means for getting an inside picture on his reputation, but we CAN examine the record as concerns the performance of submarines, both U.S. and non-U.S. In the case of U.s. subs, the wartime cruise books are now online & make for fascinating and illuminating reading.

It's also interesting to note that the Dutch had agreed in the April, 1941 A.D.B. Conversations with the U.S. and Great Britain, to place some of their boats under Royal Navy control...Although never signed off on by the U.S., in the event Dutch subs did operate under British control. And I believe did pretty well, or certainly better than their U.S. counterparts.

Here's the section from ADB:

"Submarine Operations.

50. Co-ordinated direction of the operations of allied submarines is of great importance since these working in conjunction with our air forces, constitute our most powerful weapon for attacking Japanese seaborne forces.

51. United States submarines, so long as they operate in defence of the Philippines, will operate under the orders of Commander in Chief, Asiatic Fleet. Upon being released by Commander in Chief, Asiatic Fleet, they will pass under the control of Commander in Chief, China, who will be responsible for co-ordinating their operations with those of the Dutch submarines.

52. The Dutch submarines will principally operate under the orders of Commander in Chief, Netherlands East Indies, for defence of the channels through the Netherlands East Indies to the Indian Ocean and to meet any enemy action in Netherlands East Indies waters, but as described in para. 49, two initially, and possibly others at a later stage, will be allotted to general tasks at the direction of the Commander in Chief, China. These Dutch submarines will operate in the South China Sea south of the line joining Cape Padran and Kudat, all United States submarines keeping north of this line until both forces operate under Commander in Chief, China."

[Note: The Asiatic Fleet striking force of HOUSTON, MARBLEHEAD, and DesRon 29 was to operate out of Singapore under British control as well, according to this scheme...something the USN was very much against.]

Offhand one would have expected the RNN subs to have possessed better familiarity with the waters of SE Asia, or at least those of the NEI.
Additionally American commanders in some--tho' not all--instances were hamstrung by the cautious, Depression-era navy mindset, as well as by very poor prewar combat training. These men were not bad leaders in peacetime, yet they were rather helpless once war broke out.

However, the two major things that leap out at me from the U.S. submarine force cruise books in the Philippines/NEI campaign are 1) the atrocious mechanical unreliability of our boats, and 2) the disruptive frequency of communication problems which made getting our subs into position to strike the enemy a parlous business at best. In numerous instances we find a boat that should have been well-placed to interdict this or that convoy or task group completely out of touch with ComSubFor in Surabaya (or later, Australia) and precious opportunites were lost.

Based upon Helfrich's memoirs, it does not appear that Comint breakthroughs at that time were the determining factor in placing submarines. [If this is an erroneous impression, I'd be glad to learn more about it.]
I know the Dutch had excellent Comint capabilities, but have not yet seen any evidence that they were able to direct their submarines according to the kind of codebreaking we did later in the war.
Helfrich complains long & loud about this in his memoirs, and although it is impossible to say with any certainty what results he might have achieved with these boats under his control, it's hard to imagine them doing much worse than they did. To that extent at least, one may grudgingly accept Helfrich's assessment of their performance.
By the same token I find it somewhat hard to fault Tommy Hart entirely for this either. Hart was a veteran submariner himself, and would have had enough experience & sense to know how his boats should have operated. (It is instructive, too, to see in the cruise books that U.S. sub commanders often disliked the newer fleet boats as opposed to the elderly little 'pigboats'...Something I would not have anticipated before reading the logs.)

In sum, one still must ask: 1) Is it possible to quantify British & Dutch success v. USN failure in the first four months of the war? and 2) What were the Dutch and the British doing better than the Americans in their submarine operations at this stage of the war?

Part Two: Helfrich's handling of surface forces in the second half of February, 1942.

FWIW,

MthW


 
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Jan Visser
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Re: Let's Go THIS Direction!

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June 13 2010, 10:05 PM 

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:

http://www.inghist.nl/Onderzoek/Projecten/BWN/lemmata/bwn2/helfrich

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.

Regards,
-- Jan --

 
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Don Kehn, Jr.
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Re: Let's Go THIS Direction!

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June 14 2010, 6:54 AM 

Hi Visje,

A very well-thought out, serious, and reasonable way to frame the issues. Good food for thought for those of us still very seriously engaged in trying to come to grips with the NEI naval campaign without resorting to the received views of others or rancorous sensationalism.
A good starting point.

Well-done.

Don

 
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Jan Visser
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Re: Let's Go THIS Direction!

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June 14 2010, 8:35 PM 

Hi Don,

Thanks, appreciate it happy.gif

Jan

 
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