Escape from Soerabaja

One of the truly remarkable stories of naval daring during the opening stages of the Pacific War, when the naval forces of Japan seemed unstoppable, concerns the little Dutch ship Hr. Ms. Abraham Crijnssen. This small minesweeper with hardly any armament, a maximum speed of 15 knots, and bunkerage for only 110 tons of fuel made a lengthy solo journey through waters controlled by the Japanese Imperial Navy to reach Australia and continue the war. Mark C. Jones examines this ship's 'Escape from Soerabaja'.

Of the many amazing escapes of naval ships and aircraft from superior forces during World War II, one of the best known is that of the Polish submarine O.R.P. Orzel [1]. After several days of patrolling the southern Baltic under heavy pressure from German ships, Orzel moved farther north. After landing the commanding officer at Reval (now Tallinn) due to illness on September 14, Orzel was interned the next day by Estonian naval authorities. The boat was then demilitarised with all but five torpedoes, shells for the deck gun, and all charts taken from the boat.

Orzel's crew, under the leadership of the executive officer, Lieutenant Commander Jan Grudzinski, overpowered the Estonian guards and put to sea on September 18 under small arms and artillery fire. Drawing on the collective knowledge of the officers, a crude map of the Baltic was drawn to aid in the escape to Great Britain. Orzel remained on patrol for two more weeks before attempting an escape. After two weeks of careful navigation through waters controlled by Germany, Orzel arrived at Rosyth on October 14, 1939 and began operations with the Royal Navy's 2nd Submarine Flotilla in December. Orzel made several patrols in the North Sea, including sinking the German troop transport Rio de Janeiro off Norway on April 8, until the boat failed to return from a patrol in June 1940 [2]. While the story of Orzel is certainly a tribute to the skill and courage of officers and men of the Polish Navy, there is another less well-known escape that demonstrated equal bravery and great cleverness.

The Strategic Situation

December 1941 found the Royal Netherlands Navy (RNeN) preparing for the Japanese invasion of Southeast Asia, including the Dutch territory of the Netherlands East Indies (NEI). Prior to the outbreak of hostilities, Dutch naval authorities had coordinated defence planning with their British and American counterparts as the RNeN was not strong enough to defend the islands without assistance. With the severe losses suffered by the USN at Pearl Harbor and heavy demands on the RN for units in the Mediterranean, Allied forces were stretched thin. In January 1942 land, air, and naval units of the American, British, Dutch and Australian (ABDA) forces were assembled under the overall command of British General Sir Archibald Wavell. Command of Allied naval forces was held by first Admiral Thomas C. Hart, USN and later Vice Admiral Conrad E.L. Helfrich, RNeN [3]. Land-based aircraft scouted for Japanese ships, leaving the Dutch submarine force with assistance from a few British and more numerous American subs to intercept the Japanese invasion forces. The larger surface ships of ABDA, limited to cruisers and destroyers after the loss on December 10, 1941 of the battleship HMS Prince of Wales and battlecruiser HMS Repulse to Japanese air attack, were divided between convoy escort and assignment to a multi-national striking force under command of Rear Admiral Karel F.W.M. Doorman, RNeN.

Steady Japanese pressure resulted in a whittling away of the air cover and submarine screens that were the primary defence of the NEI. By February 1942, the situation had become critical as the main island of Java was under frequent air attack and the larger surface ships were in need of repair and re-supply. The climax came on the night of the 26-27th of February when the main allied striking force under Rear Admiral Doorman was shattered in the Battle of the Java Sea [4]. The Dutch light cruisers De Ruyter (flag) and Java were lost, as were several destroyers. The heavy cruisers HMS Exeter, USS Houston and the light cruiser HMAS Perth were damaged and finished off over the next few days by Japanese ships as they attempted to escape the archipelago [5]. Assorted destroyers and small warships of several nationalities were also caught by various Japanese task forces. At this point allied naval power in the NEI was limited to the remaining Dutch submarines and the various auxiliary and service vessels of the major Dutch naval base of Soerabaja (now Surabaya).

One of the Little Ships

One of the small vessels stationed at Soerabaja was the minesweeper Hr. Ms. Abraham Crijnssen. Built in 1936, this 460 ton (standard, 585 ton full load) steel hulled minesweeper of the Jan van Amstel class was armed with a 3-inch gun plus four small anti-aircraft machine-guns with a crew of 46 [6]. Like her sisters, Crijnssen was named for a famous naval ship captain of the Dutch 'Golden Age' during the late 17th century. Crijnssen and three sister ships arrived in the NEI in November 1937 for service at Soerabaja. Once the war began Crijnssen was employed in minelaying, minesweeping, and convoy escort duties to major ports in the NEI.

On October 3, 1941 Luitenant ter zee der 2e klasse (Lieutenant) Anthonie van Miert, RNeN assumed command of the ship. Van Miert was a 1929 graduate of the naval academy at Willemsoord near Den Helder. His early postings consisted of several tours in the NEI including service on the new light cruiser De Ruyter. As a Lieutenant, van Miert was detailed in August 1939 as the executive officer of the newly commissioned minelayer Willem van der Zaan and temporarily served as Captain from January to April 1941. In October 1941 Lieutenant van Miert left Willem van der Zaan and assumed command of Abraham Crijnssen. Promotion to Lieutenant Commander (Luitenant ter zee der 1e klasse) came the following month. [7]

As the strategic situation deteriorated, the minesweeper division that Crijnssen belonged to received orders on February 17 from the commander of the Soerabaja naval base, Acting Rear Admiral Pieter Koenraad, to be ready to leave for Australia upon receipt of a coded signal [8]. By early March no clear instructions on how to escape had been received despite naval personnel already demolishing the base and making preparations to scuttle ships to block the harbour. At this point Japanese forces effectively controlled both the sea and the air around Java and escape seemed so improbable that it was perceived by many as suicidal even to try. On the afternoon of March 3rd, an attempt to escape was made by three 80 ton Merbaboe class coastal minesweepers of the 4th Minesweeper Division, Merbaboe, Rindjani and Smeroe under Lieutenant J.J.C. Korthals Altes. RNeN. Ultimately, this group reached Broome, Australia on March 10 [9]. However great the odds seemed, Lieutenant Commander van Miert began making preparations to escape by covering Crijnssen with nets for camouflage. The commander of the 2nd Minesweeper Division, Lieutenant Commander J.R.L. Lebeau, convened a meeting of the commanders and executive officers of the ships in his division. He told them they could make their own decision about trying to escape [10]. Lieutenant Commander van Miert, with the assistance of his executive officer Lieutenant A.D.H. Heringa, went around to the other minesweepers in the division as well as to the minelayer Gouden Leeuw seeking volunteers to join Crijnssen. Lieutenant Commander van Miert then held an "All Hands" on his own ship where he announced his intention to attempt an escape, and permitted any crew who did not want to remain on board to leave the ship. A good portion of the enlisted personnel, including the Indonesian sailors, subsequently left the ship.

When the 2nd Minesweeper Division received the coded order from Rear Adrniral Koenraad to escape on March 6, only three of the four ships left harbour. Lieutenant Commander J.P.A. Dekker of Pieter de Bitter refused to leave harbour and scuttled his ship alongside a pier, an action for which he was court martialled after the war. Hr. Ms. Jan van Amstel (Lieutenant C. de Greeuw, RNeNR) and Eland Dubois (Lieutenant H. de Jong, RNeNR) left Soerabaja before Crijnssen and together sailed to the Gili Islands. Crijnssen left Soerabaja at 2130 hours on March 6 without navigation lights and with all portholes covered, also headed for the Gili Islands [11]. The ship encountered the other two minesweepers lying at anchor off Gili Radja on March 7 without any camouflage and therefore departed for another anchorage. Gili Genteng, after taking aboard some fuel from Dubois. This was a fortunate decision as Dubois and Amstel were later spotted by a Japanese aircraft. Since Dubois was missing many of its crew and had a problem with its boilers, the decision was made to scuttle and transfer its crew to Amstel. Amstel was then camouflaged with foliage from shore. Shortly after sailing Amstel was discovered in the Madura Strait at 2330 hours by the Japanese destroyer Arashio and sunk by gunfire with the loss of 21 of the more than 80 men on board. Amstel survivors were later picked up by another Japanese destroyer.

The Voyage

Crijnssen eluded the Arashio and began a schedule of remaining at anchor under camouflage by day and sailing by night. Each day the foliage used to camouflage the ship was refreshed with new tree limbs cut from shore. The intent was to make the ship look like an island when seen from the air or sea. On the evening of the 7th, Crijnssen weighed anchor at 1830 hours and steamed at 12 knots to the south of Sapoedi, between Goa-Goa and Karang Takat reef, and then to the north of Kangean Island and on to the Aloean Islands. On Sunday, March 8 Crijnssen departed at 1845 and sailed at 12 knots to the southeast between Pageroean and Sekala headed for Soembawa Island. Between 2300 and 2330 hours an unidentified silhouette was spotted and course was changed. Crijnssen used its motorboat to reconnoitre Poto-Paddoe Bay on the morning of Monday, March 9. Contact was made with representatives of the local sultan and the local shipping agent to obtain information about enemy air or surface activity in the Alas Strait. There were no Japanese on Soembawa Island and no aircraft had been seen for the last four days.

Crijnssen sailed again at 1730 hours, arrived at the entrance of the Alas Strait at 2215 hours and transited the strait at 13.5 knots. Through the strait on Thursday, March 10, the Captain reduced speed to 10 knots to conserve fuel. By Wednesday, March 11 the ship had reached the position 15.21 S/ 15.13E at mid-day. Finally, at 0800 hours on Friday 13, the Northwest Cape of Australia was sighted. The fuel situation had become critical but the Crijnssen was able to sail southward along the coast until it finally reached Geraldton at 1200 hours on Sunday, March 15.

The impossible had been done. A small ship with hardly any armament, a maximum speed of 15 knots, and bunkerage for only 110 tons of fuel had made a lengthy solo joumey through waters controlled by the enemy. Determination, advance preparation, a clever camouflage scheme, and sailing only by night allowed Crijnssen and her crew to join the submarines K-VIII, K-IX, K-XII, and the light cruiser Tromp in Australian waters to continue the war effort [12]. For his courage and ingenuity, Commander van Miert received the Cross of Merit in September 1942. Nine other crew members received the same honour in November 1943 [13].

Once in Australia Crijnssen was used in April and May to escort the Dutch submarines K-IX and K-XII from Fremantle to Sydney. A period of refit followed to install sonar. At the end of August 1942 the ship was transferred to the RAN and Lieutenant Commander van Miert left the ship to become executive officer of the gunboat Soemba in the Mediterranean Sea. He briefly assumed command of Soemba in August 1943 when the Captain was killed by enemy fire. November 1944 saw van Miert take command of Soemba's sister ship Flores and then the minelayer Willem van der Zaan in January 1945. As for Abraham Crijnssen, the RAN used the ship as a convoy escort between Melbourne and Brisbane until May 1943 when the ship was returned to the Royal Netherlands Navy. Crijnssen continued as a convoy Melbourne and Sydney until the end of the war [14]. After the war Crijnssen was used to clear mines in the Netherlands East Indies. In August 1951 Crijnssen left the Indies to return to the Netherlands. In March 1956 she was converted to a netlayer. The ship was finally decommissioned in mid-1961 and was then donated to the Sea Cadet Corps in 1962. Crijnssen was stationed at The Hague from 1962-1972 and then moved to Rotterdam. In 1995 Crijnssen was donated to the naval museum at Den Helder and refitted to her wartime configuration.

The successful journey of the minesweeper Abraham Crijnssen from Soerabaja to Australia should be added to the list of amazing escapes of World War II and remembered as another example of the fighting spirit shown by the Royal Netherlands Navy during World War II. Crijnssen still exists as a museum ship at the naval museum in Den Helder, the Netherlands.

At time of publication, the ship's web page (pictures, technical data) can be found at
[1]:  Michael A. Peszke "Poland's Navy 1918-1945" (New York: Hippocrene, 1999), pp. 43-49. O.R.P. stands for Okrety Rzeczpospolitej Polskiej or in English, Ship of the Polish Republic

[2]Naval Staff History - Submarines, Vol.1. Operations in Home, Northern and Atlantic Waters, including the operations of Allied submarines (London; Admiralty Historical Section, 1953), p.48

[3]: F.C. van Oosten, Battle of the Java Sea (Annapolis: U.S. Naval Institute Press, 1976), p.15

[4]: David A. Thomas The Battle of the Java Sea (New York: Stein & Day, 1969), chapters 13-16

[5]: J. Rohwer and G. Hümmelchen, Chronology of the War at Sea 1939-1945, 2nd ed. (Annapolis: U.S. Naval Institute Press, 1992), pp. 125-127.

[6]:  H.T. Lenton, Royal Netherlands Navy in Navies of the Second World War series (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1968), p.84

[7]: P.S. van 't Haaff and M.J.C. Klaassen, Gedenkboek honderd jarig bestaan der adelborsten-opleiding te Willemsoord, 1854-1954 (Bussum: C.A.J. van Dishoeck), p.305; service record of Anthonie van Miert, document from Institute for Maritime History (IMH), Netherlands Ministry of Defense (NMD).

[8]: K.W.L. Bezemer, Zij vochten op de zeven zeeën: verrichtingen en avonturen der Koninklijke Marine in de Tweede Wereldoorlog (Houten: De Boer Maritiem, 1987), pp. 360-361.

[9]: Ph. M. Bosscher, De Koninklijke Marine in de Tweede Wereldoorlog, vol. II (Franeker: Wever, 1986), pp. 330-331.

[10]: Lieutenant A.D.H. Heringa, "Verklaring oudste-off. Hr.Ms. Abraham Crijnssen over evacuatie Crijnssen uit Soerabaja", 1947. IMH, NMD Collectie WOII DC-1/46

[11]: The details of Crijnssen's journey are taken from a document titled "Verrichtingen Hr. Ms. Abraham Crijnssen tijdens wereldoorlog", written by Lieutenant Commander Van Miert and dated April 8, 1948. IMH, NMD Collectie WOII DC-14/1

[12]: Other Dutch ships, including the submairnes K-XI, K-XIV, K-XV, O-19, supply ship Zuiderkruis, gunboat Soemba, and minelayer Willem van der Zaan escaped to British bases in Ceylon.

[13]: Untitled document giving citations for these medals. IMH, NMD Collectie WOII DC-14/4.

[14]: P.S. van 't Haaff and M.J.C. Klaassen, op. cit, p. 511-512.

This article was published by the Australian magazine "The Navy" (October-December 2001 issue). The editor, Mr. Mark Schweikert, and the author, Mr. Mark C. Jones, kindly gave the webmaster permission to publish the article on this site. The original article did not have these footnotes, and had a map showing the escape route plus a picture of the Crijnssen camouflaged as an island.













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