East Indies Cruiser Squadron
Dutch warships first took up permanent station
in the huge island chain now known as Indonesia
in the early 1600s. By the time of World War
Two, Dutch practice was to patrol the archipelago
with a force of cruisers and destroyers, to
enforce Dutch neutrality in time of war and
provide at least some deterrent to potential
enemies. The navy liked to keep three cruisers
available, so two could be on patrol and the
third under refit.
The East Indies Squadron is at the center
of our Second
World War at Sea: Java Sea game.
The Dutch ships appear in most of the scenarios. They only sometimes survive them.
The two oldest cruisers on station in 1941
were Java and Sumatra, laid
down in 1916 in Dutch yards with some German
assistance. When originally ordered these
were powerful cruisers by current standards:
6,600 tons and ten 5.9-inch guns, compared
to 4,100 tons and five 6-inch guns in the
contemporary British “C” class,
and 5,600 tons and eight 5.9-inch in the German Cöln class of 1916.
The cruiser Java.
Wartime material shortages and post-war economic
problems caused work to grind to a halt for
years, and the cruisers, contracted for delivery
in 1918, only joined the fleet in 1925 and
1926. By that time, the new heavy and light
cruisers produced to the Washington Naval
Treaty’s standards by other navies (in
particular, the Japanese) left them hopelessly
A third sister, to be named Celebes,
was laid down in 1917 and finally cancelled
in 1919 after attempts to re-cast her design
Java fought in the battles around
her namesake island in 1942, and was sunk
on 28 February 1942 by torpedoes from the
Japanese heavy cruiser Nachi. Sumatra was under refit at home in May 1940 when the
Germans attacked the Netherlands, but she
escaped. In December 1941 she was under refit
again, this time at Soerabaya in the East
Indies, and once again she escaped with a
skeleton crew. She saw little active service
before being scuttled in June 1944, as part
of the breakwaters that formed artificial
ports off the Normandy beaches.
After several false starts, the Dutch States-General
authorized a replacement for Celebes in 1930. Originally intended as a heavy cruiser
and a suitable flagship, financial structures
caused the design to shrink several times
and she emerged from the drawing table as
a 6,400-ton light cruiser with six 5.9-inch
guns. After some changes to hull form and
use of lightweight materials, a seventh 5.9-inch
gun was added but the new cruiser, named De
Ruyter, did not satisfy the navy’s
needs. She did boast the sophisticated new
Hazemeyer fire-control systems for both her
main battery and her anti-aircraft guns.
Nevertheless, she served as the Allied flagship
in the operations around Java and was lost
along with Java at the Battle of
the Java Sea after multiple shells hits and
one from a Long Lance torpedo fired by the
Japanese heavy cruiser Haguro.
Another pair of cruisers was authorized
in 1935, this time much smaller ships intended
to lead destroyer squadrons. As if to thumb
their noses at the Fijenoord yard that built De Ruyter, Tromp and her
sister Jacob van Heemskerck, built at the
rival Nederlandse dockyard in Amsterdam, carried
six 5.9-inch guns, only one less than De
Ruyter, and six torpedo tubes (De
Ruyter had none) on only 3,350 tons displacement.
However, Nederlandse only had one suitable
slipway, and Jacob van Heemskerck could not
be laid down until Tromp had been
launched. Tromp was commissioned
in August 1938, but her sister was still fitting
out when the Germans invaded the Netherlands
in May 1940. Her crew took the incomplete
ship across the North Sea, and she was completed
at Portsmouth dockyard as an anti-aircraft
cruiser The British yard could not come up
with a fire control system for the Dutch cruiser’s
main battery that matched the Hazemeyer’s
Tromp at dockside, pre-war.
Tromp set out for the East Indies
in August 1939, and patrolled the islands
for the next two years. She fought in the
engagements around Java, and was hit 11 times
in the night action in Bandung Strait on 20
February 1942 when a crewman snapped on her
searchlight and attracted a rain of Japanese
fire. After hasty repairs, she was sent to
Australia and missed the destruction of the
Allied force a week later. She spent a year
in Australian waters after her repairs, and
then served with the British Eastern Fleet
in the Indian Ocean for the rest of the war.
Jacob van Heemskerck spent her first year aiding the Royal
Navy in European waters, but when the Japanese
attacked the East Indies she set out to join
the defense. She arrived in Ceylon in late
February, took on extra ammunition, and headed
for Java. While en route, radio intercepts
told of the Dutch defeat at the Battle of
the Java Sea. Ordered to turn back, she fended
off air attacks and joined the British Eastern
Fleet. She remained in the Indian Ocean until
January 1944, when she was sent back to England
for overhaul, but along the way was added
to a troop convoy in the Mediterranean as
an emergency anti-aircraft escort and remained
on that duty for six months. Badly overused,
the ship finally entered drydock in June 1944
and did not emerge until the war was over.
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published countless books, games and articles on historical subjects; some of them are actually good.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.
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