HNMS Tjerk Hiddes - Timor Ferry
By Rear Admiral C. V. GORDON, USN (Ret.)From: US Naval Institute Proceedings, volume 86, issue #2, 1960.
In the night of 4 December 1942 the Dutch destroyer Tjerk Hiddes lay moored alongside the pier in Fremantle. A veteran of the war in two oceans, she had seen combat off Norway and long duty as convoy escort in the Indian Ocean. Now, in this temporary respite, most of her crew were on liberty ashore in Perth. Her skipper, Lieutenant Commander W. J. Kruys, Royal Netherlands Navy, had stayed on board. He was there at midnight when the Top Secret orders were rushed down from Naval Headquarters. He scanned them quickly and gave his own orders: "Get the crew back to the ship. Be ready to sail at 0500."
Tjerk Hiddes (with only one man missing) cleared Fremantle shortly before daylight and headed for Darwin at best sustained speed. Her crew could guess that they were embarked on an important mission. In December 1942, with Japanese air bases crowding Australia from the north, a lone destroyer did not make the dangerous transit east to Darwin except for cause. Dangerous transit it was. A day out of Darwin, the destroyer came under attack by a squadron of high altitude bombers from bases on Timor. Kruys maneuvered successfully to avoid the bombs, but prudently jettisoned his depth charges during the attack, lest some random bomb accidently hit his stern and blow it back into the Indian Ocean. This decision deprived Tjerk Hiddes of her only anti-submarine weapons. Even though Japanese subs were known to be patrolling in the area, the resulting reduction in topside weight would later prove to be an asset.
After picking her way through the wrecks in the harbor, Tjerk Hiddes stayed only three days in Darwin: just long enough for her crew to become familiar with the six collapsible, twenty-man boats loaded aboard. Here the skipper's professional curiosity paid dividends. He had witnessed the training of commandos in just such boats at Loch Lomond, in Scotland, more than a year before. When he sailed from Darwin, his people still didn't know where they were going or what they would do, but they knew how to launch, man, and operate these boats in a fashion which would have brought credit to any commando detachment.
Once clear of Darwin, Kruys was able for the first time to reveal to his men their mission. Tjerk Hiddes would proceed to Timor, make contact with Allied fighting men and refugees there, and bring them back to Darwin. The time and place of the first rendezvous were fixed; the manner of getting to it and from it without becoming a sitting duck for Japanese submarines and aircraft was left to his judgment. He had no reason to discount the difficulties. A few days before he had been under air attack from Timor. In that same week Japanese torpedo planes had sunk the Australian corvette Armidale in these waters. In September the Australian destroyer Voyager, bringing reinforcements to Timor, had run aground and been lost.
He counted on three advantages to offset these hazards. In Darwin he had obtained a patrol schedule, just recovered from a downed aircraft, which showed every detail of Japanese air reconnaissance in the area. The RAAF was sure that they would change the schedule at once. Kruys, an old Far East hand. said, "When they get a good plan, they stick to it. I'll work on this one because the Japs won't alter it to quickly." His second asset was nothing more than a name on a chart. In his own words, "I could rely on the charts because I knew the Dutch hydrographer who made the surveys in about 1932." Finally, and most important, he had complete confidence in his ship and her veteran crew. In the minds and hearts of her skipper and his men, Tjerk Hiddes, when she headed north from Darwin, was the best destroyer in the best navy in the world.
What Kruys didn't know was that the men on Timor had fought one of the great guerrilla campaigns of this or any other war. Even now, when American Marines were still fighting on Guadalcanal to the east, 20,000 battle-experienced Japanese troops were tied down in Portuguese Timor by fewer than 800 Australians and Dutch. Yet Timor, all the world knew, had fallen to the Japanese ten months before!
Because of its air bases less than 500 miles from Darwin, Timor had been an early target in the southerly surge of Japanese conquest. Nine weeks after Pearl Harbor, 14,000 troops poured into the Dutch area to overwhelm the single Australian battalion and the handful of Dutch there. At the same time 6,000 Japanese had invaded "neutral" Portuguese Timor. Here they were opposed by a single Australian Commando Company (the 2/2 Independent Company), augmented by remnants of forces escaped from Dutch Timor. When the radio link with Australia was broken in the early days of the fighting, the little band was given up as surrendered or dead.
Two months later, with a radio transmitter contrived from bits of a broadcast receiver and old auto parts, the 2/2 Independent Company reported to Australia that it had not surrendered. Instead, it was fighting a relentless guerrilla war from the hills south of the Japanese landing area. Its 327 men, split into small outpost sections, literally encircled 6,000 Japanese. In nine months they killed more than 1,000 of the enemy for a loss of 26, while denying most of the southern part of Portuguese Timor to the enemy. These operations were co-ordinated with those of 192 East Indian Troops under Dutch officers, who had moved into Portuguese Timor when Dutch Timor fell. Many of these were sick or wounded and, to complicate the problem, some of the soldiers had their families with them.
Time had run out for both groups. The decision had been made long since to relieve the Dutch East Indians with fresh troops. The Australian 2/4 Independent Company, landed in September, would take over from the gallant 2/2 Independent Company, worn by ten months of continuous fighting, malaria, and malnutrition. Lieutenant Colonel Callinan, with the 2/2 Independent Company from the start, would direct its evacuation and then remain behind to command the fresh Australian and Dutch troops. Two days before the evacuation, he learned that there would be no Dutch replacements. These, to the man, had gone down in Armidale.
For Callinan, as for Kruys, the evacuation posed grave problems. He must move his people to the rendezvous at the last moment, meanwhile maintaining contact with strong Japanese forces pushing down toward him. At the eleventh hour he was obliged to regroup his forces to fill the gap created by the loss of the Dutch replacements. Above all, he must divert the Japanese from any move toward the rendezvous, for their arrival there in force at the moment of evacuation would mean disaster.
Kruys, in the meantime, had evolved his plan. He would steam northward out of Darwin on a course to avoid Japanese air patrols while enjoying friendly air cover as long as possible. At dusk he would change course sharply westward, bend on thirty knots, and head straight for the rendezvous. He must arrive there by midnight. He had to allow time for the embarkation and five hours more to get clear of the area before the enemy air patrol at 0700. This was a simple plan and it worked. Callinan, in his book, Independent Company, says, "The Dutch destroyer Tjerk Hiddes came in at the correct time and, after the exchange of recognition signals, the embarkation commenced and proceeded smoothly."
This is not the whole story. Kruys (now Vice Admiral Kruys) gives his own account:
"...The point was that we had to make time. If we had laid a mile or two offshore, the boats would have been too long on the trip in and out. I came in at 30 knots and, when my echo soundings showed us to be four miles offshore. I went ahead dead slow and ran my anchor two or three shackles out. It was actually a sounding lead hanging down and if it hit the bottom I would know that we were in shallow water. Very safe. Suddenly we saw dead ahead, on the beach, the three fires agreed as the landing beacon. We dropped the collapsible boats, while still going ahead and towed them in with our two power boats. These power boats stayed just to seaward of the surf to tow the collapsible boats back out.
My first man ashore looked around with Tommy Gun ready, thinking "what shall I meet, Japs or whatsoever?" It seemed a long time to him before a lone figure approached in the darkness made the correct recognition signal with a feeble light, and asked. "Did you come to pick us up?"
"Yes. I came for that," my man replied. Then the stranger whistled and suddenly the whole beach was crowded with men. First they loaded the sick and wounded and about twenty women and children and sent them out to the ship. At a certain moment, two of the men on the beach, one from the ship and one from shore realized that even though they were talking English, they were both Dutchmen. It was hard for these people to believe that they were being rescued by a Dutch man-of-war. When they did accept the reality, they said that Tjerk Hiddes must have been sent by God!
We took off about 300 on this first trip, including the women and children. It took just forty minutes to get them all aboard, at a hundred per trip. We did put a few Australians ashore to join the Commandos there..."
Tjerk Hiddes made her 400-mile full-power run to Darwin, most of it in broad daylight, with her crew at action stations and a deckload of 300 passengers. She was never sighted by a Japanese plane, nor did anyone aboard ever see one. Kruys had been right in his gamble that the Japanese wouldn't change their patrol schedule. He learned years later that the patrol was finally changed in March 1943, right on schedule.
Four nights later, on 15 December, Tjerk Hiddes repeated her first performance. Again from Callinan: "The final phase of the evacuation was carried out and went off very smoothly. Before midnight Tjerk Hiddes was again on its way back to Australia." This time the entire 2/2 Independent Company was lifted out. Again, the dash to Darwin was uneventful, the only combat being a clash of wills between Kruys and his passengers. With the crew at action stations, his three cooks needed help to feed upwards of 600 men. The Aussies knew that they deserved something better than KP duty on their first day out of the jungle. They refused the chore. Kruys was adamant: they would peel spuds if they would eat. Conditioned though they were to victory against the heaviest odds, the Aussies accepted defeat. They peeled spuds and ate.
By this time the run to Timor had become some of a routine operation for Tjerk Hiddes. On the night of 18 December she made her last trip to bring out a load of Portuguese refugees, including women and children and, Kruys learned after they were clear of the beach, one very small brown baby.
"The next morning I looked aft from the bridge and saw these three big stokers. each with a fiery beard, playing with a little dark brown baby. When one of them had enough of playing with the baby he would hand it to the next one, who would stuff a banana into the baby's mouth. When the second one had enough of this game, he handed the baby to the third one, and he again started with the bananas.
"So I called for the doctor and said, 'Listen, Doc, there are three chaps not knowing what they are doing but they are certainly about to kill a little brown baby!"
"Doc went down and ended that game. Then the three stokers came to me and said that they wanted to adopt the baby. I said 'That is very nice indeed but it won't work because we can't keep the baby alive here and if that baby dies we're all in a very bad spot.'
"I've tried to find the baby's mother but she wasn't aboard. When we arrived in Darwin the first man on board was an Intelligence Officer. We told him that we had been unable to find the mother of the little dark brown baby, a problem which should be an easy one for Naval Intelligence. Then we handed the baby over to him. You should have seen his face when he walked off the gangway with the baby in his arms!"
Tjerk Hiddes, her mission completed, sailed from Darwin on 19 December and was back in Fremantle on Christmas Eve. In three weeks she had steamed almost 7,000 miles, and had lifted a thousand people from a hostile shore to safety in Darwin.
While only an incident in the prolonged and valiant campaign of Allied Forces in Timor, the performance of Tjerk Hiddes remains a flawless example of highly mobile naval power, applied in the right places at the right times, and moving between them with speed, precision, and daring. Vice Admiral Kruys today proudly wears the Legion of Merit for his exploits, the citation for which reads, in part, "By his fearless determination, excellent judgment, and outstanding professional ability throughout this period, he brought to a successful conclusion an extremely difficult and perilous mission.'
Reprinted from Proceedings with permission; Copyright © 1960 U.S. Naval Institute/www.navalinstitute.org."
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