World War Two: Imperial Japanese Navy: British Borneo 1941

The Japanese drive to occupy all of Malaya, and destroy all British military power there, was intended to establish a protective right flank for a major thrust into the South Seas. To the east lay Borneo, Celebes, and the rest of the Netherlands East Indies. The military forces available to protect either British or Dutch territory were so pitifully inadequate that Japan could choose the time and place of her next offensive–a tremendous advantage, given the vastness of the region to be defended.

Borneo, the third largest island in the world, with an area of just under 260,000 square miles, but with a population of only three million and only a dozen towns, was rich in iol and other vital raw materials. By it’s location, Borneo could threaten the sea route to Japanese-held Malaya, and form a barrier to an east-to-west Japanese offensive. The island was at that time a Dutch possession, except for a small northern portion owned by Great Britain.

With Malaya hard-pressed from the beginning, the British Command at Singapore could never spare the forces to defend British Borneo. The Japanese wasted little time exploiting this weakness, making the occupation of Borneo an integral part of the Malayain campaign. The rich oil fields at Miri in northern Sarawak and at Seria in Brunei were Japan’s first objectives. On 13 December a convoy carrying forces for the Occupation of Miri and Seria left Camranh Bay at 0530. The group was composed of the destroyers SHINONOME, SHIRAKUMO, and MURAKUMO as Close Escort, a small subchaser and teen transports. For further support, they joined the light cruiser YURA and the seaplane tender KMAIKAWA MARU, and at 0900 by the heavy cruisers KUMANO and SUZUYA, and the destroyers FUBUKI and SAGIRI. The landing were made on 16 December with minor opposition. The immediate prize, however, had already been destroyed by the evacuating British; on 8 December, the Lutong refinery had been blown up and the Miri and Seria oil fields sabotaged.

The convoy lay off Miri until 12 December and was subjected to occasional air attacks by the few planes the Dutch and British could get into the air, from Singkawang II, on the Sarawak border, and from Singapore. No transports were damaged, but on 18 December at 0650 the destroyer SHIMONOME, on patrol off Lutong, about nine miles to the north of Miri, was sunk by a mysterious explosion, with her entire crew of 228 men killed. The Dutch air force claimed responsibility for the sinking. The conquest of British Borneo on the ground was almost uncontested. An airfield, being hastily constructed by the British at Kuching in Sarawak, fell on 24 December. British forces then retreated into Dutch Borneo on Christmas Day.

Since 15 December, the Japanese forces had been subject to sporadic air an submarine attacks. Further losses were incurred when the destroyer SAGIRI, on 24 December, was torpedoed twice and sank, with 121 men killed, by the Dutch submarine K-XVI. At Kuching one transport was sunk by planes, and one by K-XVI. Three transports were also damaged by the K-XVI.

British Borneo formally surrendered to the Japanese Army on 19 January at Sandakan. The resource-rich islands of the Netherlands East Indies were next on the conqueror’s list. The government of the Netherlands had participated, staring in 1940, in preliminary talks with Great Britain and the United States about the defense of Southeast Asia, should Japan got to war with the three allies. Consequently, the Netherlands declared war on Japan on the same day that the United States and Great Britain did. (Japan declared war against the Netherlands on 11 January 1942) General Sir Archibald Wavell was in Batavia (Now called Djakarta) on 10 January at which time the American-British-Dutch-Australian (ABDA) organization was established, with General Sir Archibald Wavell as Supreme Commander.

ABDA began to function too late, with too few ships, troops or planes, and extremely poor organization. Wavell soon found that he had too much to cope with in Malaya alone, and delegated the administration of ABDA to Admiral Conrad Helfrich on the Netherlands. However he left operational command with the international officers of the naval, land and air forces encompassed by the organization. Because Helfrich was also commander-in-chief of the Royal Netherlands Navy, his headquarters was in Batavia, while Army, Navy, and Air ABDA headquarters were located first in Lemband and then Bandung. These three organizations were not organized to cooperate with each other, or with Helfrich; in fact, Helfrich’s only knowledge of ABDA’s operational plans was through a Dutch officer on the Air ABDA staff. The confusion was further compounded when the command of Dutch land-based planes was placed under the RAF, while all naval planes were under Navy ABDA. This meant that in naval battles, the Allied warships could not direct the ABDA air cover and were deprived of reconnaissance and combat air patrol protection.

The Dutch felt that, given the fact that almost all of the threaten area was under Dutch rule, they were underrepresented and almost ignored by ABDA Command. Who knew the vast region of the Netherlands East Indies better than the Dutch? Helfrich soon found, too, that his military and naval forces were being depleted, as Wavell desperately call them in for Singapore’s defense. Finally a strike cruiser force was established under Dutch Rear Admiral Karel Doorman on 3 February, but it was still without adequate cooperation from the ABDA headquarters ashore. Although the defense of the Netherlands East Indies was impossible, the Dutch were doggedly determined at least to save Java, and to meet the Japanese naval forces when and where they could.

SOURCE: Battle History of the Imperial Japanese Navy 1941-45; BY: Paul S. Dull

World War Two: Imperial Japanese Navy: Isolation of Java 1942

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