The story of Dutch sloop Soemba

The sloop Soemba was completed on April 26, 1925 and armed with 3 x 5.9 inch/50 Mark 6 guns. The Soemba was originally meant as a patrol ship for the Netherlands East Indies, and that's also where she was when the war broke out in May 1940. She patrolled the water of the Archipelago until Japan attacked in December 1941. At the outbreak of war, she was stationed in Soerabaja as guard ship of the western entrance of the harbour, and covered the minelayers Krakatau and Gouden Leeuw when these ships laid minefields in Madoera Strait on the 15th of December. She was stationed in the Riouw Archipelago from January 1 to 14, and during this period she was attacked once, by 3 aircraft on the 13th, but didn't sustain any damage. She was redirected to Lampong Bay where she arrived on the 19th. She escorted convoys from mid January to the end of February through Sunda Strait, usually without much trouble. She was also part of the evacuation operations from Oosthaven where her captain was in charge of the evacuation, from 16 to late February, and shelled the harbour with her main battery in the night of 24 to 25 February. Her captain, Commander Huyer, was nearly caught by Japanese troops as he went ashore to contact some local government representatives. She was attacked by aircraft on the 27 when she was at anchor near Merak, and received order to steam to the Veeckensbaai (a bay on the southern tip of South Pagai; the Pagai archipelago is a group of islands off the southern Sumatra coast). The tanker Tan 8 (the militarized Dutch tanker Petronella) was there to resupply the evacuation ships which were to be expected in the near future and the Soemba protected her and refueled until the night of March 6 and 7, when the captain was ordered to rendezvous with the Dutch ship Siberg (which was rerouted to Java to take on troops for evacuation, but, although undamaged, she was abandoned after an air attack). The Soemba tried to make contact with Siberg until March 10 (but of course couldn't find her).

On March 8, all remaining vessels were ordered to safer waters and the Soemba set sail for Ceylon, where she arrived in Colombo on March 23. The ship was still in Colombo when Japanese carrier aircraft attacked in April 1942, but she was already rerouted before the Japanese attacked. She escorted convoys in the vicinity of Ceylon and India until early 1943, when she was sent to the Mediterranean, where the upcoming invasion of Italy could surely use her fire support. She served with her sistership Flores (which was stationed in the United Kingdom from 1940 until 1943) and supported the landings at Sicily (July 1943), Salerno (September 1943), Anzio (January 1944), Garigliano (January 1944), Gaeta (early 1944) and Normandy (June 1944) together with her sistership Flores. They were known in this period as the "Terrible Twins" for their excellent shooting. Their pre-war excercises in shore bombardment, which is done with a certain pattern of course which the artillery officer knows and can calculcate with, came in very handy. Usually these operations went smoothly, inflicting damage to enemy positions and artillery, but she was attacked by German aircraft over 100 times, shooting down one Bf-109 fighter-bomber. Unfortunately, she had her share of casualties too.

On August 5 1943, still off Catania (Sicily), the Soemba took a course near shore where she was ordered to take any target of value under fire. Unfortunately, she was sighted by a German coastal battery which took her under fire and one shell hit the bridge, where the captain, Commander Sterkenburg was. He had left his armoured position to have a better view of the whole operation. He and another officer (possibly others) were hit by shrapnel from the shells, but although his injuries were the most serious of all, he refused to be treated first and insisted on the others being treated first. He died shortly after. His demise was a great blow to the crews of the Soemba and Flores. She also suffered a barrel explosion of one of her 5.9 inch guns. These guns were worn out totally, and by the time of the explosion, they had fired 200 rounds past their maximum barrel life. Flores was in a similar condition. They received guns from the dismantled Dutch cruiser Sumatra, which carried the same type of guns and was laid up in England for use as a blockship off the Normandy beachhead. It would seem very logically, but the yards were up to their ears in work at that time, and the way the British found a dockyard where the Soemba could be repaired was very remarkable.

Captain (Royal Navy) Nicholl, the first to see the report, speeded things up when he started his paperwork with a limerick:
  "A report has come in from the Soemba
  that their salvoes go off like a Rhumba
  two guns, they sound fine
  but the third five point nine
  he am bust and refuse to go boomba."
The other authorities dealing with this problem also got the hang of it and the whole matter was dealt with in about a dozen limericks". An example was the one from the Emergency "Despair" (ironically for "repair") section sent the following limerick:
  "To find any yard for the Soemba
  we have searched from the Clyde to the Hoomba (Humber)
  but we haven't got room, for Van Tromp's ruddy broom*,
  much less for this useless old Loomba (Lumber)."
Even the First Sea Lord, Admiral Cunningham participated in a later stage, and Captain van Holthe, vice-chief of staff of the Dutch navy and liason with the British Admiralty closed the "Soemba Docket" with a limerick:
  "After so much backchat it is but right,
  that Soemba should join in this fight
  because she loves very much
  to be rude too, and in Dutch
  so no one can read it, serve you right".

The Soemba received her gun in time and the Dutch officers found the whole thing amazing. After serving at Normandy, her guns were worn out again, but she was determined not worthy of repair and (as far as I can tell) laid up until the end of the war. After the war, she was converted into an auxiliary training vessel for radar operators, and scrapped eventually".




* Note The "Ruddy Broom" was hoisted on the main mast by Tromp after a victory over the English fleet.

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Copyright Jan Visser 1999-2000
Forgotten Campaign: The Dutch East Indies Campaign 1941-1942

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