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An Abandoned Army
The KNIL and The Japanese Invasion of Northern Dutch Sumatra

By Tom Womack

By March 1942 Japan had torn a huge swath of destruction and conquest through the Pacific. Opposing Allied forces looked formidable on paper but when faced with battle-tested Japanese troops they melted away with few exceptions. Everything the invaders touched fell in conquest with surprising ease. Malaya and the British stronghold at Singapore fell in only nine weeks, while American forces in the Philippines were driven onto the Bataan Peninsula in three weeks. And last, the Netherlands East Indies empire, possessed by the Dutch for 300 years, was hammered into submission in a mere 91 days.

  The map of the Dutch East Indies 1941-1942
The map is courtesy of Graham Donaldson

Official Dutch resistance in the Netherlands East Indies ended March 9, 1942 on the main island of Java when General Hein ter Poorten, the Dutch Army Commander, unconditionally surrendered all Dutch and Allied troops in the East Indies. It was a crushing blow, for although Java held few natural resources it was the capital and cultural centre of the empire and effectively signaled the end of formal Dutch resistance.

But despite the Japanese taking all points of strategic and mineral importance, they were forced to by-pass less important areas during their initial drive in the interest of speed. It was not until the surrender of Java, that the Lesser Soenda Islands and Dutch New Guinea were occupied in April 1942. But by far, the largest pocket of Dutch resistance still remaining after the fall of Java was on the huge island of Sumatra. Here, over 9,000 troops remained armed and organized in the middle and northern provinces.

Although combined parachute and naval landings had previously secured the oil centers of Palembang and Pladjoe in the south in mid-February, the Japanese had to eliminate these forces if they were to effectively control Sumatra. And it had to be done by arms, as the Dutch military commanders in those provinces had chosen to disregard General ter Poorten's orders to surrender on March 9th. The legality of their continued resistance was based upon three main points.

The first was based on orders from General ter Poorten himself. Immediately prior to the outbreak of the Pacific War, he had issued a standing order for any and all KNIL units to continue resisting on all fronts for as long as possible following any surrender. They were to ignore any orders to the contrary, as those regarding surrender would obviously be made under duress.

The second point is somewhat questionable and the Japanese would use it as an excuse to execute numerous KNIL soldiers in the upcoming weeks. When General ter Poorten broadcast his surrender message in March 1942, he dissolved the headquarters, framework and entire existence of the KNIL (Royal Netherlands East Indian Army). He reasoned that if it no longer existed, it could not issue surrender orders to remaining KNIL forces. By doing so, he tried to leave an avenue of escape open for any field commanders who continued to resist after the official surrender on Java.

The remaining reasons for continued Dutch resistance on Northern Sumatra are instilled in any army. At the time, the KNIL units were intact, armed, supplied and organized. And more important, when Java surrendered, they still had not been engaged by the Japanese. Under these circumstances it is unacceptable for the commander of any army to surrender his forces in the field without a fight.

Even so, the Dutch still had serious problems, starting with the fact that none of their troops were KNIL regulars. Approximately 1,200 belonged to the Marechaussee, a para-military state police force. Although militarized in November 1941, they were still trained and organized only to maintain internal order. Weapons were carbines, short swords and a few light machine guns. They could effectively deal with poorly armed Muslim rebels, but remained completely out-classed by the Japanese.

The remaining units in Middle and Northern Sumatra were a mixture of Militia, Home Guard, Conscript or Civilian volunteer formations. All were poorly equipped reserves without the training or equipment to stop the battle-hardened Japanese. A battalion of regulars was deployed in the vicinity of Palembang in Southern Sumatra. However, it was quickly driven back to Java when the Japanese landed at Palembang.

Following the Japanese occupation of Palembang on February 15th, the remaining Allied forces quickly retired across the Soenda Strait to Java. At the same time, a number of KNIL units retired north with the intention of joining those in the island’s middle provinces. But despite their success in the south, Japan’s hold on Sumatra was tenuous and vulnerable to attack from the north. Indeed, ambitious Dutch plans called for a series of KNIL counterattacks to recapture Palembang and Pladjoe and clear the Japanese out of southern Sumatra. However, they first needed time to consolidate and combine the forces withdrawing from Palembang with those in the middle and northern provinces.

Unfortunately, the offensive-minded Japanese weren’t about to let the KNIL carry out its plans and aggressively pursued from Palembang with a highly motorized reconnaissance regiment numbering approximately 750 men. The outnumbered and retreating forces under Major C.F. Hazenberg numbered only about 350 KNIL regulars in two companies. They were also badly dispersed and could only fight delaying actions, which allowed the better trained and equipped Japanese to rapidly advance.

After three weeks, the Japanese were finally contained at Moearatebo on March 2nd. Dutch reinforcements from Padangpandjang were able to move up when heavy rains made the rivers all but impassible by running 27 feet over their flood gauges. This delay gave local KNIL commanders time to deploy additional units from the middle provinces, thus preventing the retreating units’ flank from being turned.

March 3-7 saw vicious firefights as Japanese units tried to cross the river. As the offensive ground to a halt, Dutch spies returned with reports of many dead and wounded. They also reported that the regiment now numbered only about 200 men. Buoyed by the reports, Major Hazenberg decided to counterattack on the night of March 8-9. On the 7-8th, several native boats were assembled out of sight and loaded with supplies and ammunition while assault groups formed.

However, at midday on the 8th word came of General ter Poorten’s surrender on Java. As a result, Major Hazenberg quickly received orders from his superiors that all offensive action was suspended indefinitely. The planned counter-attack was called off and all units on Sumatra were now on the defensive.

Sumatra's long-term fate had always hinged on reinforcements from Java. With its fall, the local Dutch commanders determined their best course of action was to go on the defensive and conserve their strength. As they didn't have the resources to defend the entire island, it was decided to defend only the northern and southern entrances of the Alice Valley. Their only realistic hope was to delay the Japanese for as long as possible. Even this would be difficult, as all KNIL regular troops had been immediately withdrawn to Java when the Japanese landed on that island on March 1.

The Dutch also hoped that KNIL forces in Middle and Northern Sumatra could hold out long enough for a seaborne evacuation, similar to those undertaken at Dunkirk and Crete, could be organized. Unfortunately, in the chaos following the fall of Java, the shipping and resources needed to execute such a plan were unavailable. And in any event, the Japanese were moving too fast for the Allies to react.

By early March, Major-General Roelof T. Overakker (Territorial Commander of Middle Sumatra) suspected from radio reports that the fight on Java was not going well. His suspicions were bolstered on the 7th when he could no longer raise KNIL headquarters in Bandoeng. After repeated attempts, he put contingency plans for the fall of Java into effect later that afternoon. Only two days later, did a European government official inform him of specific details in General ter Poorten’s surrender message. It is possible that ter Poorten did not attempt to inform his field commanders through military channels, instead telling the Japanese that he had no way of contacting Dutch forces off Java.

By March 8th the contingency plans were in full swing as Major Hazenberg's force withdrew from Moearatebo to the Alice Valley. All airfields and harbour installations were destroyed as the troops withdrew to fortified positions at the southern entrance of the Alice Valley. Here, they would fight delaying actions for as long as possible. When these positions became untenable, the units would break apart and retire into the interior to begin organized guerilla warfare.

The KNIL’s primary defences consisted of four hardened positions 20-60 miles (30-100 kilometres) south of the valley. All had been constructed before and after the start of the war. Two of the positions (Tiga Binanga and Kandibata (were situated six miles (10 kilometres) apart on the Balangdoea-Kabandjahe highway. A third position, Koeta Boeloebenteng, lay south of Balangdoea, while the Lian position lay 20 miles (30 kilometres) south of the valley entrance at Blangkedjeren.

The northern entrance would be anchored by KNIL and Marechaussee troops under the command of Colonel G .F .V. Gosenson, Territorial Commander of Atjeh. His primary objective was to ensure the safe evacuation of some 3,000 European and Christian civilians from coastal areas to refugee camps in the interior. However, a violent Muslim uprising sparked by the Japanese landings severely hampered this operation. At the same time, guerilla warfare proved impossible, as the local population kept the Japanese informed as to Dutch movements, positions and troop strength at every step.


The Japanese Invade Northern Sumatra

The Japanese did not wait long before moving to end resistance on North Sumatra. For the job, they committed the elite Imperial Guards, a reinforced division with combat experience in China and Malaya. With supporting units and attached independent formations their strength numbered more than 22,000. And although allied air power on Sumatra was non-existent after the fall of Palembang, the Guards received lavish air cover.

Codenamed Operation T, the invasion got under way on February 28 with landings scheduled for March 12. The operation proceeded smoothly as 27 transports left Singapore in four convoys, escorted by three cruisers, 10 destroyers, patrol boats and anti-submarine vessels. Allied air and naval power had been decimated in the defence of Java, and what few forces remained, had been withdrawn to Australian or Ceylon. As a result, the invasion force encountered no resistance at sea or in the air.

The Japanese initiated the invasion with landings at Baloeng Bay on the southeast tip of Sabang Island. One infantry battalion of the Kobayashi Detachment landed here unopposed and quickly secured the island. The few Dutch troops there had already been withdrawn and the local Home Guard disbanded.

The detachment’s two remaining battalions, supported by a field artillery battalion, went ashore at Cape Pedro northeast of Kotaradja. Their primary objective was to capture the airfield there and then advance towards Idi to link up with Yoshida Detachment. Yoshida Detachment had landed south of Idi with a single infantry battalion with orders to seize the Lantja and Pangkalang Brandan oilfields. It would then drive south towards Medan and apply pressure on Dutch positions there.

The main force landed about four miles northwest of Tandjoengtiram in two columns. Kokushi Detachment (consisting of two infantry battalions, an independent engineer battalion and an independent mortar battalion) was to drive along the Pematang Siantar-Balige-Taroetoeng Highway and cut off any KNIL forces attempting to withdrawal from Medan. From Taroetoeng, the detachment would drive south to the ports of Sibolga and Padang, severing Sumatra's remaining links to the outside world.

The remainder of the main body quickly followed with three infantry battalions, one tank company, two field artillery companies, one independent mortar company and air force liaison units. They had orders to drive north to Medan and seize the airfield there. Yoshida Detachment would assist by attacking from the north.

Following the combat units ashore at Tandjoengtiram were support units of the Imperial Guards. They included the division headquarters, a tank regiment and an armoured railroad unit. To prepare the captured airfields for immediate operations, the 84th Airfield Battalion, 83rd Independent Air Unit and 3rd Air Corps also went ashore.

The KNIL offered no resistance to the landings, as their withdrawal to prepared positions had already begun. Three reserve militia companies and several coastwatch detachments were at Medan under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel A.W.M. Jordans. However, they had orders to offer only light resistance in the coastal lowlands before retiring to Kabandjahe along the Medan-Loeboekpakam-Goenoengmariah highway.

Dutch troops headquartered in the village of Pematang Sinter were under the command of Captain J.J.A. van de Lande. Although he had three companies, they were deployed for holding actions and were spread thinly throughout the villages of Pematang Sinter, Parapet, Pores and Balige. A reinforced militia company at Pematang Siantar had orders to hold the bridge over the Simpang Raja River until the coastwatch units at Tandjoengtiram crossed. It would then destroy the bridge and delay the Japanese for as long as possible.

On the night of March 13-14, lead elements of the Japanese main body made contact with the militia company on the Simpang Raja. A heavy firefight erupted and the Dutch position quickly became tenuous as Japanese patrols probed their line and reinforcements tried to cross the river. The Dutch held until dawn, when a prolonged assault succeeded in crossing the river and turned the company's left flank.

Captain van de Lande was in danger of being cut off and ordered a withdrawal to Tiga Roenggoe under cover of a rearguard. However, morale among the Indonesian reserves, which was already faltering after the fall of Java, now disintegrated. There were so many desertions among the rearguard that van de Lande was forced to personally assume command just to maintain control of the situation.

The rearguard held out until 1430, when Van de Lande received word of the main force reaching Tiga Roenggoe. Unfortunately, the Japanese got there first and the KNIL troops were dispersed by a hailstorm of fire. Several small groups tried to reach Kabandjahe through rough terrain, but all were captured. The Japanese later executed 25 European officers and troops on the 15th. Captain Van de Lande's rearguard also tried to reach Kabandjahe, but the rugged terrain and heavy Japanese patrols hindered their movement. On March 22 his exhausted group surrendered to the Japanese.

The remaining troops at Prapat, Porsea and Balige now came under the command of Major P.A.H.J. van Aarsen. They were to fight delaying actions as they withdrew to Sidikalang along the Prapat-Balige-Siborongborong highway. If cut off, they had orders to fight their way through Japanese lines to the Koeta Boeloebenteng position.

Major Van Aarsen positioned his force 12 miles (20 kilometres) north of Prapat under the command of Lieutenant K. Van de Ploeg and set up his headquarters at Siborongborong. But at 1300 on the 13th, after completing preliminary demolitions, Lieutenant Van de Ploeg was ordered back to Balige after reports of a heavy Japanese presence on the Pematang Siantar-Prapat highway.

They were barely in position on Lake Toba when Japanese advance units began probing their line at 1500. The Dutch beat off the first assault, killing an officer and a number of men. However, a motorboat pulling several native boats filled with Japanese troops soon appeared on the lake. The Dutch were being flanked again.

Van de Ploeg ordered a withdrawal to Balige while he remained with a small rearguard. They contained a second attack that allowed the main body to retire before falling back under pressure from groups of infiltrators. Kokushi Detachment aggressively pursued them towards Balige. The Japanese blew through Porsea and easily dispersed the platoon holding it. At 2300 Captain ten Velde received word from the company commander at Balige; he was under attack and his remaining platoon was surrounded and cut off.

Lieutenant Van de Ploeg immediately requested permission to launch a counterattack supported by two armoured cars to break through to the isolated platoon. Captain ten Velde considered it too dangerous and the unit was all but written off. However, the lieutenant was both persistent and persuasive; at 0400, ten Velde finally relented and gave him orders to go in and relieve the troops at Porsea.

The counterattack initially made good progress and reached the centre of the village, although it remained under heavy fire. Van de Ploeg called over a megaphone for the trapped defenders to evacuate, but no Dutch troops were seen. After 10 minutes, enemy mortar fire began falling and the KNIL had to retire. They later learned from survivors that the section had been overrun and wiped out.

As van de Ploeg fell back, the Japanese followed hard on his heels. However, his men temporarily stopped their over-aggressive pursuit with a sharp ambush at 1100 on the 14th. An armoured car was burned and a number of Japanese troops killed. It wasn’t much, but the brief pause in the action let van de Ploeg safely reach Balige at 1400. There, he was dismayed to find the village all but deserted.

The lieutenant quickly learned from a local government official that Captain ten Velde had withdrawn to Siborongborong after receiving false reports that his force had been captured. When van de Ploeg tried to rejoin them, he discovered all the bridges near Siborongborong had been burned. So at 1700, the column was forced to burn its armoured cars and transport just miles from the Dutch positions.

At 1815, Kokushi Detachment made contact again as Captain ten Velde personally led his men from the forward positions. At 2300 he ordered a withdrawal to Sidikalang covered by a rearguard. The first troops arrived at 0630 on the 15th and were ordered into the Koeta Boeloebenteng position. As they entered, they found it partially occupied by British troops who had been cut off by the Japanese in Malaya.

They then crossed the Malacca Strait and were now operating under Dutch control. The exhausted rearguard arrived at 1800 the following day. As his men rested, Lieutenant Van de Ploeg made his report to General Overakker, who promoted him to captain on the spot.

Koeta Boeloebenteng was also to have been further reinforced by Major Hazenberg's KNIL regulars moving north from Moearatebo. They were to join Captain ten Velde at Siborongborong, but had been slowed by the poor condition of their transport. This allowed the more mobile Kokushi Detachment to cut them off at Padangsidempoean, where Hazeberg surrendered on the 15th after a short fight.

In the meantime, those troops at Medan under Lieutenant-Colonel Jordans withdrew to positions west of Kabandjahe. Although his force numbered between four to five companies, all were poorly armed and trained conscripts, home guard units or local town militia. Unable to stop the Japanese advance, intense pressure soon forced Jordans to evacuate his initial line and retire into the Kandibata position.

There they joined two Home Guard and Militia companies and several reserve units. Still, Lieutenant-Colonel Jordans did not have enough manpower to form a continuous fire front along the position’s six-mile (10 kilometre) front, so defences were mostly limited to holding roads and paths. His forces also had little communications equipment and the rough terrain all but eliminated visual communications. In addition, morale remained low despite the high quality of leadership many officers and NCOs had shown. Desertions among the Sumatran units were a daily occurrence and quickly reduced the garrison’s numbers.

But most disturbing was the apparent lack of motivation among many Europeans and older Indonesians to continue fighting. Likewise, many of the Indonesian soldiers, Christian and Muslim alike, were adversely affected by the widespread rebellion that immediately flared up following the Japanese invasion. At the same time, the fall of Java and General ter Poorten’s formal surrender of the East Indies quickly forced the realization that no more reinforcements would arrive. The troops also realized evacuation by sea was extremely unlikely and that Sumatra had been abandoned to its fate.

Morale was so bad by March 15, that when the Japanese supported a weak patrol with a small mortar barrage, most of the line routed. Jordans reached the front to find panic-stricken troops either fleeing or crammed into a flood of vehicles. Fortunately, the narrow road kept most of the vehicles from turning around, so officers were able to get most of the men back into the line. Those soldiers not stopped were rerouted into the Tiga Binanga position, six miles (10 kilometres) back.

Immediate steps were taken to shore up the situation. Officer patrols were organized to prevent more routs, while strong offensive reconnaissance patrols were sent out to raise troop morale. As a result, the situation was deceptively stable by the 10th. Four companies reinforced with armoured cars manned the Kandibata position, while most of Tiga Binanga was manned. Although part of Yoshida Detachment faced them, Dutch intelligence put its strength at only 500 men. But although Japanese action was weak, strong officer patrols were still required at both positions to keep desertions to a minimum.

On the 21st, a Japanese patrol passed unseen through Kandibata and flanked Tiga Binanga. Although an immediate counterattack cleared the area and killed 10 Japanese, it showed how exposed to attack the line was. No matter how stable the situation appeared, all the Japanese had to do was probe to find weak spots.

Several more Japanese patrols then penetrated the line unseen and set up roadblocks. An officer patrol found one and caused some casualties with hand grenades before pulling back. After several Japanese attacks were repulsed, the Dutch commander ordered a counterattack on the 14th. The Japanese had dug in, but had not been reinforced, so he thought his forces could clear them out. But just as the jump-off time neared, the column was ordered to fall back on Liang. Koeta Boeloebenteng was under heavy attack and in grave danger of being overrun. If it were captured before Kandibata and Tiga Binanga were evacuated, their garrisons would be surrounded and cut off.

The withdrawal began at 1300 under cover of a rearguard supported by armoured cars. Forward elements reached Liang at 1900 and joined six companies already there. At 1600, the Marechaussee rearguard began to disengage and fall back. They kept the Japanese in check with an ambush at Balangdoea that night. Two Japanese armoured cars escaped under heavy fire, but hand grenades sent a third rolling into a ravine.

In the meantime, the fight quickly soured for the Dutch forces at Koeta Koeloebenteng after Japanese reconnaissance probes found weak spots in the line. A battalion from Sidikalang immediately began a series of heavy attacks on the position and its four depleted companies. With the situation critical, Captain J. van Dormolen’s company received orders to counterattack after dark and relieve Major van Aarsen's forces.

The Japanese launched an attack as night fell, but it was repulsed. As the Japanese fell back, Captain van Dormolen jumped off, but had no effect on the battle. In the process, his unit slipped through the Japanese lines and began guerrillas operations in the Japanese rear. Their raids lasted until after the final surrender on North Sumatra.

By daylight on the 24th intense fighting raged on the front lines. The fighting grew more intense when heavy mortar fire began falling inside the Dutch perimeter. Between 0830-1030, General Overakker visited Major van Aarsen’s HQ and learned that his lines were slowly being pushed back. Upon leaving, he made a reserve company available to reinforce the major’s position. Major van Aarsen put it on the main road north of Balandoea with orders to halt any retreating Dutch troops.

At 1300, Major van Aarsen and his staff met to discuss the situation. His chief-of-staff argued that the position had to hold until the next day in order to let supporting formations retire. But desertions were increasing while the enemy was getting stronger by the hour. As heavy mortar fire began to fall near the CP, General Overakker settled the matter by signaling Major van Aarsen to retire to Liang as soon as possible. So after nightfall on the 24th the evacuation of Koeta Boeloebenteng began with the Japanese in hot pursuit. The Dutch were weakening and the Japanese smelled the scent of victory.

By March 25, the situation was critical and could not continue. Within hours, the Japanese occupied Kotatjane and pressed on against minimal resistance. Although the positions at Goenoeng Setan were not under attack, morale had broken down and several militia units had already put out white flags. Even personal visits by General Overakker had no effect (his exhausted troops were ready to quit).


Northern Sumatra

With the surrender of the East Indies government, internal order in Northern Sumatra began to break down. Atjeh in far north Sumatra had been one of the last territories captured by the Dutch and had never been fully pacified. Because of this, anti-Dutch feelings ran strong and many troops in the region had been assigned to police duties in order to maintain public order. Of the 400 troops at Blangkedjeren, half had been shifted to Kotaradja to help the state police maintain order by the time the Japanese landed.

At Kotaradja, Captain L.H.A. Kloprogge's 2nd Marechaussee Division had orders to evacuate the European civilians and Christian Indonesian family members of KNIL troops stationed in Atjeh. The Dutch correctly feared a massacre by Muslim nationalists if they were left unprotected. After delivering the civilians to refugee camps, his state police were to wage guerilla warfare as they retired to the Alice Valley.

Lieutenant H.R. van Ham was to oversee and coordinate the evacuation. He had orders to await the return of Captain Kloprogge, who had taken two brigades to the coast on March 12 to confirm the Japanese landings. But when Kloprogge failed to return by the 14th, van Ham initiated the evacuation anyway. Mounting Nationalist rebel activity and the increased presence of Japanese patrols convinced him to start transferring the civilians to the town of Meulaboh, where the first groups began arriving at 1600.

Lieutenant van Ham arrived in Tjalang at 2000 and found the garrison, particularly the local Sumatran militiamen, in a state of virtual mutiny. They defiantly refused direct orders and threatened to desert. As the situation deteriorated, van Ham was forced to shoot one of the Indonesian soldiers to restore order. This apparently convinced the remaining troops that he meant business and they sullenly fell back into line.

The evacuation was scheduled to begin at 0600 on March 15. But due to the tense situation, it was moved up to 2300 on the 14th. Working quickly, the soldiers got the last bus away at 0400 on the morning of the 15th. As it pulled away, Captain Kloprogge returned. His force had been in action with the Japanese near Lho'Nga airfield before being forced back. They attempted a number of delaying actions, but the local Muslim villagers betrayed them at every turn and made any kind of ambush impossible.

As the 2nd Marechausee Division retired from Meulaboh, it split into three columns. The first consisted of three brigades that were deployed to protect the refugee camp at Blang Pidie. The second column was under the command of Captain F. Steinhorst, who had orders to delay the Japanese advance by burning all bridges and ferries in the area. His force was later reinforced by several Marechausee brigades.

The third column with 40 Marechaussee under the command of Lieutenant A. Zijlmans was sent to the area between Blang Pidie and the village of Tapatoean. A large rebel force had carried out several acts of sabotage and the entire province was beginning to openly rebel as the Sumatrans sensed Dutch authority beginning to slip away.

At first, the troops saw many women and children, but the road soon became quiet and deserted. Shortly afterwards, they encountered a number of unmanned roadblocks, but still saw nothing. Suddenly, an alert soldier spotted a rebel lookout lying in the brush. The brigade barely had time to dismount before 50 Nationalists rebels armed with swords swarmed out of the brush. Using carbines the policemen quickly killed 15 rebels and dispersed the remainder. In return, they suffered no dead and only a few minor wounds.

Night fell at 1830, but the Marechaussee continued to pursue the rebels using electric lanterns attached to their carbines. They soon encountered another roadblock and killed seven more rebels without loss. The brigade reached the refugee camp at Blang Pidie at 2200, where it linked up with the first brigade and both units bivouacked for the night.

Lieutenant Zijlmans and his column left for Tapatoean at 0900 the next morning. The trip from Blang Pidie was normally two hours by highway, but this time it took the column 15 hours. They were delayed countless times by destroyed bridges and roadblocks. Although the Dutch police had orders to shoot only when attacked, they still claimed to have killed between 200-300 rebels. Included among them were the Indonesian district head and two assistants, who appear to have been executed by the Dutch force after being surprised on bicycles wearing Japanese uniforms as the Dutch entered Tapatoean.

At 2330 that night Zijlmans dispersed a force of about 300 rebels as they gathered near a temple outside the village. The rebels apparently mistook them for Japanese until the Dutch column opened fire. Taken completely by surprise, the Nationalists scattered, leaving a number of dead and most of their weapons behind. With this success, the column returned to Tapatoean around midnight.

Despite this victory, Captain Steinhorst was having little success stopping the Japanese. Not only did local Muslim villagers reveal his positions to the Japanese at every opportunity, but they also destroyed phone lines, making it difficult to maintain communications. As a result, the Japanese moved so fast that few civilians could be evacuated from Atjeh. Some Europeans escaped in personal vehicles, but the families of native troops did not have this luxury and many were captured. Morale plummeted even further when the troops were ordered to retire and leave the remaining civilians behind. Volunteers remained behind to guard the refugee camps until the Japanese arrived.

Captain Kloprogge reached the town of Lae Boetar on the 28th. There, he learned that he only had 140 men left. Although there had been little hard fighting, his Indonesian soldiers were deserting daily after being forced to abandon their families. In addition, the local population was becoming openly hostile and the Japanese were being reinforced. However, his greatest concern was the fate of the civilians who had been left behind. After realistically weighing the chances of his future success in the field against their safety, Captain Kloprogge decided that his only avenue was to surrender, which he did on March 29.

The second group of troops in Northern Sumatra was under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel C.J. Bekkers at Kotaradja. He got word of the landings at 0100 on the morning of the March 12 from Lho Nga airfield. It was under attack and he was only on the phone five minutes before the line went dead. Presuming the worst, Bekkers enacted evacuation plans for civilians in the area. When the evacuation was complete, his men were to retire along the Kotaradja-Seulimieum-Sigli-Lam Meulo-Tangse highway.

Although the evacuation had been planned in advance, there was still a great deal of confusion. Not only did the remaining civilians have to be put aboard trains to Medan, but the medical staff withdrew prematurely, making it difficult to move their supplies. But despite the confusion, the last troops pulled out at 0700 with the Japanese close behind. Unfortunately, about 50 European and Indonesian soldiers never got the final order to retire and were captured at Kotaradja. They were later put on a merchant ship in the harbour whose crew was allowed to massacre the defenceless men.

As they passed through Sigli and Lam Meulo on March 12, the 12 brigades of the 4th Marechaussee Division received orders to dig in and contain the Japanese for as long as possible. At the same time, Captain C.A. van Deutekom and the 2nd Garrison Battalion was ordered to Geumpang and Tangse. The remaining Marechaussee under Major Palmer van den Broek proceeded on to Takengon where they were to begin guerilla warfare.

The fight at Sigli was short. The 240 poorly equipped state police were no match for the 4,000 veterans of Kobayashi Detachment. By 1300 on the 13th the Dutch were in hard retreat toward the village of Lam Meulo. However, Lieutenant-Colonel Bekkers realized a fight there was also hopeless and gave orders for the Marechaussee to join the 2nd Garrison Battalion in prepared positions between Lam Meulo and Tangse.

When Lieutenant-Colonel Bekkers arrived at 1430 bad news was waiting. Rebels had set off fireworks near the Dutch bivouacs at Lam Meulo. Panic quickly spread amongst the jittery troops and most quickly routed, losing most of their weapons and equipment in the process. Although a number of remaining troops eventually straggled into the position, their discipline and morale had disintegrated. Their commanding officer could not control them and Bekkers had to replace him to reassert command. The affair badly shook the remaining troops’ morale and desertions shot up throughout all the ranks.

Morale sank even lower on the 17th when the Japanese flanked the position and pushed the Dutch troops back again. As their advance continued, local guides constantly helped the Japanese by providing them with information and sketches detailing the defences at every KNIL position. Although Captain Deutekom wanted to continue, morale finally broke down completely and his troops refused to continue the fight.

That evening Captain Deutekom discussed the situation by telephone with Lieutenant-Colonel Bekkers. Morale was bad and desertions were skyrocketing. Not only were the Dutch heavily outnumbered, but the locals were now fully hostile and would no doubt hamper further resistance. So with his back against the wall, Lieutenant-Colonel Bekkers surrendered on the 18th. There was nothing else he could do.

This left only the troops on the east coast under Major Palmer van den Broek. They first learned of the landings on the night of the 11-12th when the coastwatch position at Idi reported hundreds of small lights offshore. The commander at Panton Laboe, Lieutenant J.F.C. Westerweel, immediately sent a brigade to the scene to investigate. At dawn, its commander reported nine large transports landing many troops. Lieutenant Westerweel ordered him to immediately rejoin the main body at Takengon. On the return trip, the brigade drove into the middle of a Japanese patrol moving inland. However, the Japanese were so surprised, that the Dutch managed to drive on without loss.

To give them and other troops time to reach Takengon, Major van den Broek ordered the 3rd and 5th Marechaussee Divisions to fight holding actions along the Birt highway. They deployed in three prepared positions, which van den Broek hoped would be enough to stop the Japanese. The first position was under the command of Lieutenant W. van Pesch, who had three brigades from the 3rd Division supported by two Böhler 47mm AT guns with 90 rounds and four light machine guns. He had orders to hold out for as long as possible before retreating into the interior to wage guerilla warfare.

On the 13-14th, reconnaissance patrols reported a Japanese force of about 1,200 men rapidly approaching. As they approached, several Indonesian soldiers attempted to desert at nightfall. The rest would have followed if not for a European sergeant, who stood in the middle of the road with his carbine, threatening to shoot anyone who did not immediately return to his position. With that, order was restored and a rout avoided. Lieutenant van Pesch breathed a sigh of relief until he sighted a civilian spy sketching the position the following morning. He knew the Japanese would not be far behind and immediately destroyed the bridge. Then at 1700, his lookouts sighted two trucks approaching at high speed.

The Dutch let the Japanese approach within 300 yards of the river before opening fire. The AT guns destroyed both trucks, while machine gun bursts and carbine fire killed some 40 troops as they dismounted. But the Imperial Guards quickly brought up reinforcements and a brisk firefight soon raged. Dutch morale was initially high and gun crews repeatedly exposed themselves to enemy fire as they poured water over the hot barrels of their weapons. However, their ammunition supply was so low that it was nearly gone in just 15 minutes. As Dutch fire weakened, the Japanese began to push forward.

By 1800 the battle had shifted. As the Japanese advance picked up steam, van Pesch’s Indonesian troops again began to desert. When he went to see why he could not contact his telephone post, he found the men had deserted along with the crews of the AT guns. At 1900, van Pesch retired under cover of darkness to join Major van den Broek at Takengon. But van den Broek surrendered before the lieutenant arrived, leaving him on his own. Van Pesch then split his column into 2-3 man groups with orders to meet at a secret supply depot. With those few troops who rendezvoused he began a brief guerilla war.

However, the troops were no longer committed. By April 1 the last few had deserted, leaving only Lieutenant van Pesch and a European sergeant. They discussed continuing, but the population now actively sought them and Major van den Broek issued direct orders for their surrender. The Japanese also declared that any KNIL troops captured in uniform would be executed. Realizing the hopelessness of their position, the two men surrendered on the 4th with an Ambonese Marechaussee who had joined them.

Fifteen miles (25 kilometres) behind the first, the second position was manned by five brigades of the 3rd Marechaussee Division under the command of Captain F. Wetzels. As with Lieutenant van Pesch, he was to initiate guerrilla warfare if the position became untenable. The position fell after a brief fight, but local Muslims again prevented them from continuing. So when Major van den Broek surrendered at Takengon on the 19th, they also quit.

The third position was six miles (10 kilometres) behind the second and was manned by four brigades of the 5th Marechaussee Division under the command of Captain L.A. Boucherie. One brigade, led by Lieutenant J.C. Meulders, was lost almost immediately when it attacked a Japanese patrol northwest of the position. In heavy hand-to-hand combat, the Dutch killed 10 Japanese and drove them off. However, the Japanese counterattacked and captured most of the brigade, including Lieutenant Meulders. They immediately released the Indonesian troops, but murdered Meulders and his European sergeant.

Captain Boucherie deployed his remaining three brigades in prepared positions along the highway. At midday on the 17th, intense mortar and machine gun fire caused heavy Dutch casualties. Soon afterward, the Japanese quickly broke through the KNIL line with the help of local Indonesian guides. At that point, Boucherie gave orders to begin guerilla warfare and then managed to escape with four men. His group continued with little success until the 19th, when they gave up when Major van den Broek surrendered.

By March 22-23, most remaining KNIL troops still fighting in Northern Sumatra were falling back along the Takengon-Blangkedjeren highway. That night, two additional companies were ambushed as they bivouacked at Takengon. Although many of the troops were captured, others escaped into the night and reached Colonel Gosenson at Blangkedjeren. But without uniforms or weapons, the demoralized men were of little use.

Even with these survivors, the colonel still only had about 500 men left to defend the northern entrance of the Alice Valley on March 26. He deployed them along a small river nine miles (15 kilometres) north of Blangkedjeren under Captain F.J. van Nues. They were supported by two sections of mortars and machine guns.

Later that day, General Overakker met Colonel Gosenson at Blangkedjeren to discuss the situation. Although the Goeneong Setan and Lian positions remained in Dutch hands, troop morale had disintegrated and desertions were growing by the hour. In addition, the front north of Blangkedjeren was virtually undefended, while earlier Japanese successes ensured there would be no more reinforcements from Atjeh.

On March 27, Kobayashi Detachment strongly attacked with a battalion supported by mortars and machine guns. Machine gun and mortar fire contained the initial Japanese assault and killed approximately 30 troops. But despite this success, KNIL officers still found many men had deserted under fire; they would continue to do so throughout the day and night. By the time the Japanese launched their next attack on the 28th, only 25 Dutch troops remained and these had been pushed back to the outskirts of Blangkedjeren.

At this point, General Overakker and Colonel Gosenson surrendered unconditionally at Blangkedjeren on the 28th. Their troops were disarmed and moved to prison camps at Medan, where the Indonesians were released on April 29. However, the Christian Ambonese and Menadoese troops and all Indonesian officers and NCOs remained prisoners, as the Japanese considered them too loyal to the Dutch. All European civilians and soldiers were interned, except those needed to repair and operate the captured oilfields.

With the surrender at Blangkedjeren organized resistance on Sumatra ended. A number of small guerilla groups continued to fight on, but hostile natives made it impossible for them to continue for long. One by one, they either surrendered or were tracked down and killed by the Japanese. The last group finally surrendered in March 1943, a year after the Japanese landed. The KNIL’s fight for Sumatra was over.


Bibliography/Suggested Reading

  • Headquarters, Far East Command, Military Intelligence Section, General Staff. Monograph 69: Java-Sumatra Air Operations Record, December 1941-March 1942. Tokyo. 1946.
  • Hoogenband, C. van den and L. Schotborgh. Nederlands-Indie Contra Japan, Deel VI: De Strijd Op Ambon, Timor En Sumatra. Department Van Defensie, Hoofkwartier Van De Generale Staf, Krijgsgeschiedkundige Afdeling. Gravenhage. 1959.
  • U.S. War Department. Handbook On Japanese Military Forces. California: Presidio. 1991.
  • Wigmore, Lionel. The Japanese Thrust. Australia In The War Of 1939-1945, Volume IV. Canberra: Australian War Memorial. 1957.
  • Wilmott, H.P. Empires In The Balance: Japanese and Allied Pacific Strategies to April 1942. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press. 1982.

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    Copyright © Tom Womack 1999-2000
    Forgotten Campaign: The Dutch East Indies Campaign 1941-1942

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