- Thomson, Max
- Ship histories and stories, WWII operations, History - WW2
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- September 1987 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
THEY WERE NOT WARSHIPS. They were not even Australian. Yet the contribution they made to Australia’s survival in the dark years of 1942 and 1943 when Japanese forces swept so close to our shores, deserves special recognition.
Bearing strange names, they were the ‘island traders’ – the ships that serviced the Netherlands East Indies, Indonesia as we know it today.
Their prewar service lay amid the tranquility of the 6000 islands that made up the Dutch East Indies, taking cargoes and passengers to so many exotic places in that vast myriad of outposts to the north-east of Australia. Amid dramatic circumstances, two dozen or so of these ships escaped the swift southward thrust of the Japanese forces. At a time when every vessel was so precious to help maintain essential supply lines, these ships went on to achieve an incredible record of service, especially in the early days of the New Guinea campaigns.
Many an Aussie and American serviceman travelled aboard them and later was thankful for the war supplies and provisions they transported to forward bases. Many an RAN warship had these Dutch vessels in convoys. Mostly of between 2500 and 5000 tonnes, they included such Netherlands-flag vessels as Karsik, Bantam, van Heemskerk, van Outhoorn, van Spilbergen, van Swoll, van den Bosch, van den Capellan, Swartenhondt, Bontekoe, Reijnst, Janssens, Japara, Cremer, Balikpapan, Both, Rasman, Thedens, Maatsuyker and probably the strangest-named of them all, the ‘s Jacob (repeat ‘s Jacob). Corvettes of the Royal Australian Navy came to know them well for they spent so much time convoying them from north Australian ports – plus others of our warships such as Arunta, Warrego, Stuart, Swan, which so frequently added to the covering screen in dangerous New Guinea waters.
Operating initially to the Allied base building up at Port Moresby, the Dutchmen went on to service Milne Bay then, as the war progressed, to Oro Bay. Conscious always of the Japanese bomber and fighter bases in New Guinea and the danger of negotiating the China Straits to Milne Bay then the treacherous reefs to Oro Bay, all so close to the key enemy base at Rabaul.
Between December 1942 and February 1943 Dutch ships transported more than 40,000 tonnes of essential war supplies to New Guinea, usually with RAN corvettes providing the escort screen for the 18 or so convoys involved. By June 1943 these ships had accomplished some 39 convoy runs to New Guinea.
Karsik initially got through twice to Oro Bay carrying tanks destined for use in the assault against the Japanese force at Buna, further up the New Guinea coastline. But the Netherlands ships took a hammering on occasions from Japanese air attacks while serving the New Guinea supply line.
Van Heemskerk initially was attacked by a floatplane but later, during a dive-bomber attack in Milne Bay the Dutch ship was set afire. The ship blew up after being beached. In the first month of 1943, van Heutsz was discharging cargo at Oro Bay when six enemy aircraft attacked, scoring a direct hit and two near-misses. In March, ‘s Jacob was attacked and set on fire, finally sinking with the loss of five crew members though 152 of the personnel being transported were rescued, two of whom died on the way to Milne Bay.
In that same month, Bantam was discharging cargo at Oro Bay and received three direct hits from dive-bombers. Badly damaged, she was beached. The following month, 40 bombers with fighter escort, attacked shipping in Milne Bay again – including the Dutch vessels van Outhoorn and Balikpapan. Van Outhoorn suffered near misses, losing eight men killed. Twenty others wounded.
In May, when Oro Bay was raided yet again, two more Dutch ‘island traders’ had a luckier story to tell, for Reinjst had just left port and Thedens was en route still to Oro Bay from Milne Bay.
An old diary unearthed recently recorded some graphic detail of what convoy life was like for these ships in that period before radar was carried. Carrying American troops, the Dutch ‘island trader’ ships Maatsuyker and Both were in convoy with a Greek Vessel, Aspasia Nomerisk, laden with war supplies and the ship Baralaba carrying a similar cargo and flying the Australian flag. This convoy set out from Brisbane, with corvettes of the RAN in escort. Because of Baralaba‘s slow speed, the convoy could make only about seven knots and even that slow speed of advance was reduced further when a severe tropical storm swept over the convoy.