It’s March 1942, and a Dutch ship, the Abraham Crijnssen, is sailing in the Java Sea. She’d been on a mission to defend what were the Dutch East Indies and is Indonesia today. But days earlier the Japanese Navy had crushed the Allied fleet that the Abraham Crijnssen was part of. Now the only option for the Dutch vessel is to escape to the safety of Australia. But she’s a slow-going, poorly armed ship, so her future looks bleak to say the least.
We’ll reveal the fate of the Abraham Crijnssen and her 45-man crew soon. But first let’s find out what was going on in the Java Sea around the islands of the Dutch East Indies back in 1941. The events that unfolded around those islands formed part of what became known as the Pacific War.
Imperial Japan had opened hostilities in this Second World War Theater, on a Sunday morning early in December 1941. That was the day the Japanese made their surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, dragging the U.S. into the Second World War. It was a day that President Roosevelt famously described as “a date which will live in infamy.”
After Pearl Harbor, the Japanese launched a variety of offensives across the Pacific. One of those was an attack on the Dutch East Indies. The Japanese regarded these islands as a prime target because of their wealth of natural resources, including oil and rubber. Both of those were essential to the Japanese war effort.
The Netherlands had already been effectively annexed by Nazi Germany in 1940 after the country’s surrender on May 7. But the Dutch government-in-exile, based in London, still laid claim to its Pacific colony. In November 1941 the Dutch sent a Royal Netherlands Navy force to defend their possession. The day after Pearl Harbor, the Netherlands government declared war on the Japanese Empire.
Surprisingly, in the face of the Dutch declaration, the Japanese bided their time, only formally going to war with the Netherlands weeks later on January 11, 1942. But by then the Japanese were already moving on the Dutch East Indies territory of Borneo. They were opposed by an alliance of Dutch, British, American and Australian forces.
As well as the Dutch naval contingent, the Allied navy consisted of a few British and Australian ships and vessels ships from the U.S. Asiatic Fleet. The allied force was known as the ABDA fleet. The American fleet had just been involved in the unsuccessful defense of the Philippines, failing then to stem the seemingly unstoppable Japanese onslaught in the Pacific. And the Japanese would overwhelm the ABDA force.
As the conflict went on, the Japanese systematically captured island after island. Their tactic amounted to advancing only as far as their air cover would allow. The historian Samuel Morison described the Japanese advance across the islands of the Dutch East Indies in his 1948 book, The Rising Sun in the Pacific; 1931 – April 1942.
“The manner of the Japanese advance resembled the insidious yet irresistible clutching of multiple tentacles,” Morison wrote. “Like some vast octopus it relied on strangling many small points rather than concentration on a vital organ. No one arm attempted to meet the entire strength of the ABDA fleet. Each fastened on a small portion of the enemy and, by crippling him locally, finished by killing the entire animal.”
And the ABDA fleet was routed in a series of sea battles. The first and most devastating for the Allies was the Battle of the Java Sea on February 7, 1942. The Dutch commander of the ABDA fleet, Rear-Admiral Karel Doorman, was killed in this decisive victory for the Japanese Navy. And in the following days, the Japanese pushed home their advantage in smaller naval battles.
The Battle of Sunda Strait started on the day after the Japanese Java Sea victory. Then there was the Second Battle of the Java Sea a couple of days after the first crushing defeat of the Allied naval force. The upshot was that the ABDA fleet was now reduced to just one full-scale warship, the antiquated U.S.S. Marblehead.
The Japanese conquest of the Dutch East Indies territories was now completed in short order. The ABDA fleet had effectively ceased to exist, but the old Marblehead was not the only ship to have somehow escaped the carnage. Another survivor was the Abraham Crijnssen, the Dutch ship we met earlier.
Before we find out the fate of the Abraham Crijnssen after that disastrous defeat of the ABDA fleet, let’s learn a little more about the ship. The full title of this Royal Netherlands Navy ship was the H.N.M.L.S. Abraham Crijnssen, with that acronym when translated from Dutch to English reading “Her Netherlands Majesty’s Ship.” The majesty in question was the Dutch Queen Wilhelmina, who was living in exile in Britain at the time of the Battle of the Java Sea.
The Abraham Crijnssen was built at the Werf Gusto shipyard in the Netherlands city of Schiedam, effectively a suburb of the major port of Rotterdam. She was one of eight minesweepers of the Jan van Amstel class built for the Dutch Navy during the 1930s. The ship was launched in September 1936 from the Schiedam yard and commissioned as a navy vessel eight months later.
The ship got her name from a swashbuckling Netherlands naval hero from the 17th century. Abraham Crijnssen fought in various sea battles in European waters but is best remembered for his exploits in capturing Suriname for the Dutch. He did this by defeating the British in 1667 in a battle that was part of the Second Anglo-Dutch War. Suriname remained in Dutch hands until 1975.
The 525-ton Abraham Crijnssen was 184 feet from stern to prow and 25 feet across at her widest point. Two engines powered a pair of propellers giving her a maximum speed of 15 knots, which is about 17 mph. Her armament consisted of one three-inch cannon and two smaller 20 mm guns. She also put to sea with an array of anti-submarine depth charges.
When the Japanese began their attack on the Dutch East Indies in 1941, the Abraham Crijnssen was stationed at Surabaya, the principal city of east Java. The city includes the important port of Tanjung Perak. After the comprehensive defeat of the Allied naval force, all surviving ships were ordered to make for Australia, a good 2,000 miles away from Surabaya.
The Abraham Crijnssen was supposed to make the journey in a small flotilla with three other ships, but in the event she set off on her own. This was an extremely perilous undertaking. With her maximum speed of 15 knots and her defenses consisting of just three guns, the ship was highly vulnerable.
If any Japanese plane spotted the Abraham Crijnssen, or she encountered any enemy ships on the open sea, her chances of survival were slim indeed. The only way that she could conceivably succeed in reaching the safety of Australia was if she could do so unseen by Japanese eyes. But how could a 184-foot-long vessel keep itself hidden during a sea journey of some 2,000 miles?
There was no doubt that the danger faced by the Abraham Crijnssen was all too real. Three of her sister minesweeper ships had already been lost during the Japanese onslaught on the East Indies. One had been deliberately scuttled on March 2 at Surabaya to avoid her capture, and a second had suffered the same fate on March 8.
Also on March 8, 1942, as she tried to escape to Australia, the Jan Van Amstel minesweeper encountered a Japanese destroyer, the Arashio. The destroyer sank her. So it was imperative that the captain and crew of the Abraham Crijnssen should come up with a plan that would maximize their chance of reaching Australia.
And the answer they came up with was camouflage. In fact, the camouflaging of naval ships was a knotty problem that experts had wrestled with at least as far back as the First World War. Back then, one apparently counterintuitive answer had been to make naval vessels more rather than less conspicuous.
This strange WWI strategy was known as dazzle camouflage. It had been dreamed up by a Briton called Norman Wilkinson, a navy man who was also an artist. British shipping had been suffering badly at the hands of the German U-boats during WWI, and the Royal Navy was desperate to minimize the losses to both merchant and naval shipping.
In practice, Wilkinson’s theory involved painting ships in bright colors with jagged, geometric shapes, reminiscent in some ways of Cubist art. These irregular shapes, he believed, would confuse U-boat captains enough that they would not be able to fire their torpedoes with any accuracy. The commanders at the British Admiralty decided it was worth a try.
Many British ships were painted with these outlandish patterns and the idea spread to The U.S., where more than 1,200 vessels were given the dazzle treatment during WWI. Whether this peculiar camouflage strategy was effective or not remained an open question. Analyzing sometimes contradictory data, experts were unable to give a conclusive answer.
In any case, the crew of the Abraham Crijnssen had neither the time, nor presumably the paint, to start redecorating their ship with a camouflage technique that may or may not have been effective. But they were desperate, and what they did come up with was arguably just as unlikely as the dazzle technique.
So what did they decide to do? They formulated a cunning plan to make their ship look to all intents and purposes exactly like a small Pacific island. The Abraham Crijnssen now lowered its anchors at the first likely island it came across. And once they had moored, the 45 crew members set to work with a will.
Using whatever tools that came to hand, the crew, toiling in the intense tropical heat, hacked down all the vegetation they could. They then lugged the greenery to the ship and attached it all across its superstructure. Those parts of the ship uncovered by foliage were painted gray to give the impression of rocky outcrops amid the lush jungle growth.
Once the crew had finished their work, the Abraham Crijnssen looked just about as much like a tropical island as any minesweeper could. In fact, the idea was not as hare-brained as it might seem on first impression. There are after all some 18,000 islands dotted around the waters of the Java Sea, many of them covered in thick jungle foliage.
And those islands come in all sizes and shapes. Why would it not be the case that some of them might be just about the size and shape of a Dutch WWII minesweeper? Of course their strategy was a little more sophisticated than just disguising the ship as a tropical island. The Abraham Crijnssen would take care not to sail on the open sea during the hours of daylight.
When the sun was up, the ship would remain securely moored tight in at the edge of one of the real tropical islands. As photographs show, this tactic of blending into the background of a genuine tropical island was surprisingly effective. Only the closest of inspection would reveal the Abraham Crinjssen’s island hiding places.
So after what must have been at time a hair-raising voyage of eight days, the Abraham Crijnssen finally reached the safety of the Western Australian port of Fremantle, set at the mouth of the Swan River. She arrived on March 20, 1942, and was the last ship to escape the Japanese forces in the Dutch East Indies.
But reaching Australia was by no means the end of the war for the Abraham Crijnssen for now she was pressed into service with the Roayl Australian Navy. She dropped the H.M.N.L.S. and substitued it with H.M.A.S., His Majesty’s Australian Ship. H.M.A.S. formally joined the Royal Australian Navy in September 1942.
Lieutenant Arthur Irwin Chapman took command of what was now to be an anti-submarine escort ship. Some three decades later, he was to recall the day he took up his command, and the Australian Navy website published his words. Chapman remembered arriving at his new ship with two framed photographs, one of the British King George VI, the other of Rita Hayworth “in a very fetching black negligee.”
“In the interest of international goodwill it was agreed that HM Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands would remain in the Crijnssen’s wardroom and so King George was installed in my cabin,” Chapman wrote. “It was agreed however that Miss Hayworth was worthy of wardroom status, and she was installed on the bulkhead opposite Queen Wilhelmina.”
But it wasn’t all lighthearted moments for the Abraham Crijnssen and her crew, a mixture of Dutch and Australian sailors. On escort duty on January 26 in the Bass Strait of the south coast of Australia, Abraham Crijnssen’s sonar equipment gave a reading which looked very much like an enemy submarine just 700 yards away. Action stations were called, and the Abraham Crijnssen’s engine room was given the order “full speed ahead.”
The Abraham Crijnssen now dropped two of her depth charges, calibrated to explode just 50 feet below the sea’s surface. These were followed by more depth charges, which exploded at 100 feet. The explosives detonated and the minesweeper was violently rocked by the blasts. Lookouts saw some oil and scum on the surface, but no one observed definitive evidence of a damaged sub.
Unfortunately, the Abraham Crijnssen had sustained some damage to her stern. However, she was able to sail back to her base in Sydney where the damage was repaired. Lieutenant Chapman explained what had happened, “The Crijnssen had not picked up sufficient speed from her patrol speed and two depth charges set at 50 feet severely shook up the after section, smashing every bit of crockery, tearing off light switches and fittings and fracturing several minor pipe lines.”
What’s more, as Chapman recounted, “Queen Wilhelmina crashed to the deck, King George was hanging crazily on one screw, but Miss Hayworth was completely secure.” Luckily there did not seem to be any lasting damage and the ship returned to the Dutch navy in May 1943. She continued her escort duties for the rest of the war.
After the war, the Abraham Crijnssen was involved in ultimately unsuccessful Dutch attempts to deny independence to the Dutch East Indies. The new nation of Indonesia won its independence in 1949. The Abraham Crijnssen remained with the Dutch Navy until 1960 when she became a training vessel. Later she moved to her current home at the Dutch Navy Museum. She retains the distinction of being almost certainly the only ship that survived WWII by pretending to be an island.