Dutch Army volunteers serving in the Netherlands East Indies

Home     van Oort Book: Tjideng Reunion

Dutch Army volunteers serving in the Netherlands East Indies.
Boudewyn van Oort, January 2010

When the Netherlands became embroiled in the second world war with the invasion by German troops on the 10th of May 1940, the considerable Dutch diaspora living abroad was shocked.

The economic hardships in the Netherlands during the late 1920's and early thirties had prompted a large number of young men, unable to find work in Holland, to seek their fortunes in the United States, in British Commonwealth countries such as Australia, Canada, South Africa and New Zealand as well as the Netherlands East Indies. This generation had grown up with the firm conviction that entanglement in wars could be avoided by a policy of strict neutrality. The news of 10 May 1940 that the German army had trampled Dutch neutrality underfoot, was greeted with surprise and consternation. Among many young men this prompted a patriotic response directed at Dutch embassies: they would return "home" to join the Netherlands army in order to evict the invaders. With the Dutch capitulation a week later, the situation had suddenly become more complex.

The Dutch government, that is to say, Queen Wilhelmina and her cabinet, now living in exile, sought to marshal whatever resources were available to secure the early liberation of Holland. A key element was the Netherlands overseas empire, fabulously well endowed with abundant strategic raw resources such as oil, tin, bauxite, rubber quinine, cotton, rice and sugar. In addition it had a huge manpower supply, albeit mainly Asian, and the not inconsiderable Dutch Navy stationed in Java. In addition its colonial, army (the KNIL) was still in tact.

A second potential resource was the considerable Dutch immigrant population that had demonstrated such unwonted enthusiasm for military service in order to liberate the fatherland. This however involved a logistical challenge. These overseas citizens were now encouraged to form volunteer military brigades in England and in Canada, two countries that had become de facto Dutch allies and cautiously offered help. A third obvious destination for concentrating military recruits was the Netherlands East Indies (or NEI), more accessible to residents of Australia and New Zealand than either England or Canada. In the Indies training facilities were moreover available. In South Africa the Dutch citizens were offered a choice: service in the NEI or England.

As the month of May, 1940 wore on the wave of enthusiasm for voluntary military service dwindled, in proportion to the changes now sweeping over Europe.

The Dutch Government-in-exile now brought more pressure to bear on its citizens. The idea of conscription was floated, but was turned down by the Canadian and American governments. The former had bitter memories of its own conscription crisis during the first World War while the United States was nominally neutral. In South Africa the Dutch Government's policy however found fertile ground, because in this country a simmering domestic political dispute had found congruence with the emerging disaster facing Britain. To exhortations of patriotism, flattery, and assurances of the Crown's future deep gratitude, was added a not-so-subtle reminder that the South African Government had declared its willingness to use its judicial powers to implement conscription for Dutch citizens should the response fail to meet expectations. That the South African Government would not and could not consider a conscription policy for its own citizens was left unchallenged.

Unfortunately the NEI, as Indonesia was then called, was now under increased threat from a Japan, rapidly emerging from being a feudal, closed society to becoming an industrialized military power. This threat was not taken seriously, but the idea of strengthening the defences by drawing on the wave of enthusiasm that had suddenly been displayed by overseas Dutch nationals, seemed like a good idea: it would help safeguard security of the NEI, where a nationalist movement had long been in existence and was now in danger of being inflamed by Japanese propaganda. The KNIL could do with more (white) manpower.

All told a little under two hundred "volunteers" embarked during the last week of May and the first two weeks of June, 1940 for the two week sea journey to Batavia, the colonial Capital of the NEI (4-6% of the available potential). This movement of military personnel did not go unnoticed by Japan, and stirred up diplomatic controversy while at the same time straining relations between the Colonial administration and the Netherlands Government-in-exile. By July, 1940 this recruitment campaign was all but forgotten (except for those lingering in South African prisons).
For more information and source material read : Tjideng Reunion.