Dutch Army volunteers serving in the Netherlands East
Boudewyn van Oort, January 2010
When the Netherlands became embroiled in the second world war
with the invasion by German troops on the 10th of May 1940, the
considerable Dutch diaspora living abroad was shocked.
The economic hardships in the Netherlands during the late 1920's
and early thirties had prompted a large number of young men,
unable to find work in Holland, to seek their fortunes in the
United States, in British Commonwealth countries such as Australia,
Canada, South Africa and New Zealand as well as the Netherlands
East Indies. This generation had grown up with the firm conviction
that entanglement in wars could be avoided by a policy of strict
neutrality. The news of 10 May 1940 that the German army had
trampled Dutch neutrality underfoot, was greeted with surprise
and consternation. Among many young men this prompted a patriotic
response directed at Dutch embassies: they would return "home"
to join the Netherlands army in order to evict the invaders.
With the Dutch capitulation a week later, the situation had suddenly
become more complex.
The Dutch government, that is to say, Queen Wilhelmina and her
cabinet, now living in exile, sought to marshal whatever resources
were available to secure the early liberation of Holland. A key
element was the Netherlands overseas empire, fabulously well
endowed with abundant strategic raw resources such as oil, tin,
bauxite, rubber quinine, cotton, rice and sugar. In addition
it had a huge manpower supply, albeit mainly Asian, and the not
inconsiderable Dutch Navy stationed in Java. In addition its
colonial, army (the KNIL) was still in tact.
A second potential resource was the considerable Dutch immigrant
population that had demonstrated such unwonted enthusiasm for
military service in order to liberate the fatherland. This however
involved a logistical challenge. These overseas citizens were
now encouraged to form volunteer military brigades in England
and in Canada, two countries that had become de facto Dutch allies
and cautiously offered help. A third obvious destination for
concentrating military recruits was the Netherlands East Indies
(or NEI), more accessible to residents of Australia and New Zealand
than either England or Canada. In the Indies training facilities
were moreover available. In South Africa the Dutch citizens were
offered a choice: service in the NEI or England.
As the month of May, 1940 wore on the wave of enthusiasm for
voluntary military service dwindled, in proportion to the changes
now sweeping over Europe.
The Dutch Government-in-exile now brought more pressure to bear
on its citizens. The idea of conscription was floated, but was
turned down by the Canadian and American governments. The former
had bitter memories of its own conscription crisis during the
first World War while the United States was nominally neutral.
In South Africa the Dutch Government's policy however found fertile
ground, because in this country a simmering domestic political
dispute had found congruence with the emerging disaster facing
Britain. To exhortations of patriotism, flattery, and assurances
of the Crown's future deep gratitude, was added a not-so-subtle
reminder that the South African Government had declared its willingness
to use its judicial powers to implement conscription for Dutch
citizens should the response fail to meet expectations. That
the South African Government would not and could not consider
a conscription policy for its own citizens was left unchallenged.
Unfortunately the NEI, as Indonesia was then called, was now
under increased threat from a Japan, rapidly emerging from being
a feudal, closed society to becoming an industrialized military
power. This threat was not taken seriously, but the idea of strengthening
the defences by drawing on the wave of enthusiasm that had suddenly
been displayed by overseas Dutch nationals, seemed like a good
idea: it would help safeguard security of the NEI, where a nationalist
movement had long been in existence and was now in danger of
being inflamed by Japanese propaganda. The KNIL could do with
more (white) manpower.
All told a little under two hundred "volunteers" embarked
during the last week of May and the first two weeks of June,
1940 for the two week sea journey to Batavia, the colonial Capital
of the NEI (4-6% of the available potential). This movement of
military personnel did not go unnoticed by Japan, and stirred
up diplomatic controversy while at the same time straining relations
between the Colonial administration and the Netherlands Government-in-exile.
By July, 1940 this recruitment campaign was all but forgotten
(except for those lingering in South African prisons).
For more information and source material read : Tjideng