An Abandoned Army
The KNIL and The Japanese Invasion of Northern Dutch Sumatra
By Tom Womack
By March 1942 Japan had torn a huge swath of
destruction and conquest through the Pacific. Opposing Allied forces
looked formidable on paper but when faced with battle-tested Japanese
troops they melted away with few exceptions. Everything the invaders
touched fell in conquest with surprising ease. Malaya and the British
stronghold at Singapore fell in only nine weeks, while American forces
in the Philippines were driven onto the Bataan Peninsula in three
weeks. And last, the Netherlands East Indies empire, possessed by the
Dutch for 300 years, was hammered into submission in a mere 91 days.
The map of the Dutch East Indies 1941-1942
The map is courtesy of Graham Donaldson
Official Dutch resistance in the Netherlands East
Indies ended March 9, 1942 on the main island of Java when
General Hein ter Poorten, the Dutch Army Commander, unconditionally surrendered all
Dutch and Allied troops in the East Indies. It was a crushing blow, for
although Java held few natural resources it was the capital and
cultural centre of the empire and effectively signaled the end of
formal Dutch resistance.
But despite the Japanese taking all points of
strategic and mineral importance, they were forced to by-pass less
important areas during their initial drive in the interest of speed. It
was not until the surrender of Java, that the Lesser Soenda Islands and
Dutch New Guinea were occupied in April 1942. But by far, the largest
pocket of Dutch resistance still remaining after the fall of Java was
on the huge island of Sumatra. Here, over 9,000 troops remained armed
and organized in the middle and northern provinces.
Although combined parachute and naval landings had
previously secured the oil centers of Palembang and Pladjoe in the
south in mid-February, the Japanese had to eliminate these forces if
they were to effectively control Sumatra. And it had to be done by
arms, as the Dutch military commanders in those provinces had chosen to
disregard General ter Poorten's orders to surrender on March 9th. The
legality of their continued resistance was based upon three main points.
The first was based on orders from General ter
Poorten himself. Immediately prior to the outbreak of the Pacific War,
he had issued a standing order for any and all KNIL units to continue
resisting on all fronts for as long as possible following any
surrender. They were to ignore any orders to the contrary, as those
regarding surrender would obviously be made under duress.
The second point is somewhat questionable and the
Japanese would use it as an excuse to execute numerous KNIL soldiers in
the upcoming weeks. When General ter Poorten broadcast his surrender
message in March 1942, he dissolved the headquarters, framework and
entire existence of the KNIL (Royal Netherlands East Indian Army). He
reasoned that if it no longer existed, it could not issue surrender
orders to remaining KNIL forces. By doing so, he tried to leave an
avenue of escape open for any field commanders who continued to resist
after the official surrender on Java.
The remaining reasons for continued Dutch
resistance on Northern Sumatra are instilled in any army. At the time,
the KNIL units were intact, armed, supplied and organized. And more
important, when Java surrendered, they still had not been engaged by
the Japanese. Under these circumstances it is unacceptable for the
commander of any army to surrender his forces in the field without a fight.
Even so, the Dutch still had serious problems,
starting with the fact that none of their troops were KNIL regulars.
Approximately 1,200 belonged to the Marechaussee, a para-military state
police force. Although militarized in November 1941, they were still
trained and organized only to maintain internal order. Weapons were
carbines, short swords and a few light machine guns. They could
effectively deal with poorly armed Muslim rebels, but remained
completely out-classed by the Japanese.
The remaining units in Middle and Northern Sumatra
were a mixture of Militia, Home Guard, Conscript or Civilian volunteer
formations. All were poorly equipped reserves without the training or
equipment to stop the battle-hardened Japanese. A battalion of regulars
was deployed in the vicinity of Palembang in Southern Sumatra. However,
it was quickly driven back to Java when the Japanese landed at
Following the Japanese occupation of Palembang on
February 15th, the remaining Allied forces quickly retired across the
Soenda Strait to Java. At the same time, a number of KNIL units retired
north with the intention of joining those in the island’s middle
provinces. But despite their success in the south, Japan’s hold on
Sumatra was tenuous and vulnerable to attack from the north. Indeed,
ambitious Dutch plans called for a series of KNIL counterattacks to
recapture Palembang and Pladjoe and clear the Japanese out of southern
Sumatra. However, they first needed time to consolidate and combine the
forces withdrawing from Palembang with those in the middle and northern
Unfortunately, the offensive-minded Japanese
weren’t about to let the KNIL carry out its plans and aggressively
pursued from Palembang with a highly motorized reconnaissance regiment
numbering approximately 750 men. The outnumbered and retreating forces
under Major C.F. Hazenberg numbered only about 350 KNIL regulars in two
companies. They were also badly dispersed and could only fight delaying
actions, which allowed the better trained and equipped Japanese to
After three weeks, the Japanese were finally
contained at Moearatebo on March 2nd. Dutch reinforcements from
Padangpandjang were able to move up when heavy rains made the rivers
all but impassible by running 27 feet over their flood gauges. This
delay gave local KNIL commanders time to deploy additional units from
the middle provinces, thus preventing the retreating units’ flank from
March 3-7 saw vicious firefights as Japanese units
tried to cross the river. As the offensive ground to a halt, Dutch
spies returned with reports of many dead and wounded. They also
reported that the regiment now numbered only about 200 men. Buoyed by
the reports, Major Hazenberg decided to counterattack on the night of
March 8-9. On the 7-8th, several native boats were assembled out of
sight and loaded with supplies and ammunition while assault groups
However, at midday on the 8th word came of General
ter Poorten’s surrender on Java. As a result, Major Hazenberg quickly
received orders from his superiors that all offensive action was
suspended indefinitely. The planned counter-attack was called off and
all units on Sumatra were now on the defensive.
Sumatra's long-term fate had always hinged on
reinforcements from Java. With its fall, the local Dutch commanders
determined their best course of action was to go on the defensive and
conserve their strength. As they didn't have the resources to defend the
entire island, it was decided to defend only the northern and southern
entrances of the Alice Valley. Their only realistic hope was to delay
the Japanese for as long as possible. Even this would be difficult, as
all KNIL regular troops had been immediately withdrawn to Java when the
Japanese landed on that island on March 1.
The Dutch also hoped that KNIL forces in Middle
and Northern Sumatra could hold out long enough for a seaborne
evacuation, similar to those undertaken at Dunkirk and Crete, could be
organized. Unfortunately, in the chaos following the fall of Java, the
shipping and resources needed to execute such a plan were unavailable.
And in any event, the Japanese were moving too fast for the Allies to
By early March, Major-General Roelof T. Overakker
(Territorial Commander of Middle Sumatra) suspected from radio reports
that the fight on Java was not going well. His suspicions were
bolstered on the 7th when he could no longer raise KNIL headquarters in
Bandoeng. After repeated attempts, he put contingency plans for the
fall of Java into effect later that afternoon. Only two days later, did
a European government official inform him of specific details in
General ter Poorten’s surrender message. It is possible that ter Poorten
did not attempt to inform his field commanders through military
channels, instead telling the Japanese that he had no way of contacting
Dutch forces off Java.
By March 8th the contingency plans were in full
swing as Major Hazenberg's force withdrew from Moearatebo to the Alice
Valley. All airfields and harbour installations were destroyed as the
troops withdrew to fortified positions at the southern entrance of the
Alice Valley. Here, they would fight delaying actions for as long as
possible. When these positions became untenable, the units would break
apart and retire into the interior to begin organized guerilla warfare.
The KNIL’s primary defences consisted of four
hardened positions 20-60 miles (30-100 kilometres) south of the valley.
All had been constructed before and after the start of the war. Two of
the positions (Tiga Binanga and Kandibata (were situated six miles (10
kilometres) apart on the Balangdoea-Kabandjahe highway. A third
position, Koeta Boeloebenteng, lay south of Balangdoea, while the Lian
position lay 20 miles (30 kilometres) south of the valley entrance at
The northern entrance would be anchored by KNIL
and Marechaussee troops under the command of Colonel G .F .V. Gosenson,
Territorial Commander of Atjeh. His primary objective was to ensure the
safe evacuation of some 3,000 European and Christian civilians from
coastal areas to refugee camps in the interior. However, a violent
Muslim uprising sparked by the Japanese landings severely hampered this
operation. At the same time, guerilla warfare proved impossible, as the
local population kept the Japanese informed as to Dutch movements,
positions and troop strength at every step.The Japanese Invade Northern Sumatra
The Japanese did not wait long before moving to
end resistance on North Sumatra. For the job, they committed the elite
Imperial Guards, a reinforced division with combat experience in China
and Malaya. With supporting units and attached independent formations
their strength numbered more than 22,000. And although allied air power
on Sumatra was non-existent after the fall of Palembang, the Guards
received lavish air cover.
Codenamed Operation T, the invasion got under way
on February 28 with landings scheduled for March 12. The operation
proceeded smoothly as 27 transports left Singapore in four convoys,
escorted by three cruisers, 10 destroyers, patrol boats and
anti-submarine vessels. Allied air and naval power had been decimated
in the defence of Java, and what few forces remained, had been
withdrawn to Australian or Ceylon. As a result, the invasion force
encountered no resistance at sea or in the air.
The Japanese initiated the invasion with landings
at Baloeng Bay on the southeast tip of Sabang Island. One infantry
battalion of the Kobayashi Detachment landed here unopposed and quickly
secured the island. The few Dutch troops there had already been
withdrawn and the local Home Guard disbanded.
The detachment’s two remaining battalions,
supported by a field artillery battalion, went ashore at Cape Pedro
northeast of Kotaradja. Their primary objective was to capture the
airfield there and then advance towards Idi to link up with Yoshida
Detachment. Yoshida Detachment had landed south of Idi with a single
infantry battalion with orders to seize the Lantja and Pangkalang
Brandan oilfields. It would then drive south towards Medan and apply
pressure on Dutch positions there.
The main force landed about four miles northwest
of Tandjoengtiram in two columns. Kokushi Detachment (consisting of
two infantry battalions, an independent engineer battalion and an
independent mortar battalion) was to drive along the Pematang
Siantar-Balige-Taroetoeng Highway and cut off any KNIL forces
attempting to withdrawal from Medan. From Taroetoeng, the detachment
would drive south to the ports of Sibolga and Padang, severing
Sumatra's remaining links to the outside world.
The remainder of the main body quickly followed
with three infantry battalions, one tank company, two field artillery
companies, one independent mortar company and air force liaison units.
They had orders to drive north to Medan and seize the airfield there.
Yoshida Detachment would assist by attacking from the north.
Following the combat units ashore at
Tandjoengtiram were support units of the Imperial Guards. They included
the division headquarters, a tank regiment and an armoured railroad
unit. To prepare the captured airfields for immediate operations, the
84th Airfield Battalion, 83rd Independent Air Unit and 3rd Air Corps
also went ashore.
The KNIL offered no resistance to the landings, as
their withdrawal to prepared positions had already begun. Three reserve
militia companies and several coastwatch detachments were at Medan
under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel A.W.M. Jordans. However, they
had orders to offer only light resistance in the coastal lowlands
before retiring to Kabandjahe along the
Dutch troops headquartered in the village of
Pematang Sinter were under the command of Captain J.J.A. van de Lande.
Although he had three companies, they were deployed for holding actions
and were spread thinly throughout the villages of Pematang Sinter,
Parapet, Pores and Balige. A reinforced militia company at Pematang
Siantar had orders to hold the bridge over the Simpang Raja River until
the coastwatch units at Tandjoengtiram crossed. It would then destroy
the bridge and delay the Japanese for as long as possible.
On the night of March 13-14, lead elements of the
Japanese main body made contact with the militia company on the Simpang
Raja. A heavy firefight erupted and the Dutch position quickly became
tenuous as Japanese patrols probed their line and reinforcements tried
to cross the river. The Dutch held until dawn, when a prolonged assault
succeeded in crossing the river and turned the company's left flank.
Captain van de Lande was in danger of being cut
off and ordered a withdrawal to Tiga Roenggoe under cover of a
rearguard. However, morale among the Indonesian reserves, which was
already faltering after the fall of Java, now disintegrated. There were
so many desertions among the rearguard that van de Lande was forced to
personally assume command just to maintain control of the situation.
The rearguard held out until 1430, when Van de
Lande received word of the main force reaching Tiga Roenggoe.
Unfortunately, the Japanese got there first and the KNIL troops were
dispersed by a hailstorm of fire. Several small groups tried to reach
Kabandjahe through rough terrain, but all were captured. The Japanese
later executed 25 European officers and troops on the 15th. Captain Van
de Lande's rearguard also tried to reach Kabandjahe, but the rugged
terrain and heavy Japanese patrols hindered their movement. On March
22 his exhausted group surrendered to the Japanese.
The remaining troops at Prapat, Porsea and Balige
now came under the command of Major P.A.H.J. van Aarsen. They were to
fight delaying actions as they withdrew to Sidikalang along the
Prapat-Balige-Siborongborong highway. If cut off, they had orders
to fight their way through Japanese lines to the Koeta Boeloebenteng
Major Van Aarsen positioned his force 12 miles (20
kilometres) north of Prapat under the command of Lieutenant K. Van de
Ploeg and set up his headquarters at Siborongborong. But at 1300 on the
13th, after completing preliminary demolitions, Lieutenant Van de Ploeg
was ordered back to Balige after reports of a heavy Japanese presence
on the Pematang Siantar-Prapat highway.
They were barely in position on Lake Toba when
Japanese advance units began probing their line at 1500. The Dutch beat
off the first assault, killing an officer and a number of men. However,
a motorboat pulling several native boats filled with Japanese troops
soon appeared on the lake. The Dutch were being flanked again.
Van de Ploeg ordered a withdrawal to Balige while
he remained with a small rearguard. They contained a second attack that
allowed the main body to retire before falling back under pressure from
groups of infiltrators. Kokushi Detachment aggressively pursued them
towards Balige. The Japanese blew through Porsea and easily dispersed
the platoon holding it. At 2300 Captain ten Velde received word from
the company commander at Balige; he was under attack and his remaining
platoon was surrounded and cut off.
Lieutenant Van de Ploeg immediately requested
permission to launch a counterattack supported by two armoured cars to
break through to the isolated platoon. Captain ten Velde considered it
too dangerous and the unit was all but written off. However, the
lieutenant was both persistent and persuasive; at 0400, ten Velde
finally relented and gave him orders to go in and relieve the troops at
The counterattack initially made good progress and
reached the centre of the village, although it remained under heavy
fire. Van de Ploeg called over a megaphone for the trapped defenders to
evacuate, but no Dutch troops were seen. After 10 minutes, enemy mortar
fire began falling and the KNIL had to retire. They later learned from
survivors that the section had been overrun and wiped out.
As van de Ploeg fell back, the Japanese followed
hard on his heels. However, his men temporarily stopped their
over-aggressive pursuit with a sharp ambush at 1100 on the 14th. An
armoured car was burned and a number of Japanese troops killed. It
wasn’t much, but the brief pause in the action let van de Ploeg safely
reach Balige at 1400. There, he was dismayed to find the village all
The lieutenant quickly learned from a local
government official that Captain ten Velde had withdrawn to
Siborongborong after receiving false reports that his force had been
captured. When van de Ploeg tried to rejoin them, he discovered all the
bridges near Siborongborong had been burned. So at 1700, the column was
forced to burn its armoured cars and transport just miles from the Dutch
At 1815, Kokushi Detachment made contact again as
Captain ten Velde personally led his men from the forward positions. At
2300 he ordered a withdrawal to Sidikalang covered by a rearguard. The
first troops arrived at 0630 on the 15th and were ordered into the
Koeta Boeloebenteng position. As they entered, they found it partially
occupied by British troops who had been cut off by the Japanese in
They then crossed the Malacca Strait and were now
operating under Dutch control. The exhausted rearguard arrived at 1800
the following day. As his men rested, Lieutenant Van de Ploeg made his
report to General Overakker, who promoted him to captain on the spot.
Koeta Boeloebenteng was also to have been further
reinforced by Major Hazenberg's KNIL regulars moving north from
Moearatebo. They were to join Captain ten Velde at Siborongborong, but
had been slowed by the poor condition of their transport. This allowed
the more mobile Kokushi Detachment to cut them off at Padangsidempoean,
where Hazeberg surrendered on the 15th after a short fight.
In the meantime, those troops at Medan under
Lieutenant-Colonel Jordans withdrew to positions west of Kabandjahe.
Although his force numbered between four to five companies, all were
poorly armed and trained conscripts, home guard units or local town
militia. Unable to stop the Japanese advance, intense pressure soon
forced Jordans to evacuate his initial line and retire into the
There they joined two Home Guard and Militia
companies and several reserve units. Still, Lieutenant-Colonel Jordans
did not have enough manpower to form a continuous fire front along the
position’s six-mile (10 kilometre) front, so defences were mostly
limited to holding roads and paths. His forces also had little
communications equipment and the rough terrain all but eliminated
visual communications. In addition, morale remained low despite the high
quality of leadership many officers and NCOs had shown. Desertions
among the Sumatran units were a daily occurrence and quickly reduced
the garrison’s numbers.
But most disturbing was the apparent lack of
motivation among many Europeans and older Indonesians to continue
fighting. Likewise, many of the Indonesian soldiers, Christian and
Muslim alike, were adversely affected by the widespread rebellion that
immediately flared up following the Japanese invasion. At the same
time, the fall of Java and General ter Poorten’s formal surrender of
the East Indies quickly forced the realization that no more
reinforcements would arrive. The troops also realized evacuation by sea
was extremely unlikely and that Sumatra had been abandoned to its fate.
Morale was so bad by March 15, that when the
Japanese supported a weak patrol with a small mortar barrage, most of
the line routed. Jordans reached the front to find panic-stricken
troops either fleeing or crammed into a flood of vehicles. Fortunately,
the narrow road kept most of the vehicles from turning around, so
officers were able to get most of the men back into the line. Those
soldiers not stopped were rerouted into the Tiga Binanga position, six
miles (10 kilometres) back.
Immediate steps were taken to shore up the
situation. Officer patrols were organized to prevent more routs, while
strong offensive reconnaissance patrols were sent out to raise troop
morale. As a result, the situation was deceptively stable by the 10th.
Four companies reinforced with armoured cars manned the Kandibata
position, while most of Tiga Binanga was manned. Although part of
Yoshida Detachment faced them, Dutch intelligence put its strength at
only 500 men. But although Japanese action was weak, strong officer
patrols were still required at both positions to keep desertions to a
On the 21st, a Japanese patrol passed unseen
through Kandibata and flanked Tiga Binanga. Although an immediate
counterattack cleared the area and killed 10 Japanese, it showed how
exposed to attack the line was. No matter how stable the situation
appeared, all the Japanese had to do was probe to find weak spots.
Several more Japanese patrols then penetrated the
line unseen and set up roadblocks. An officer patrol found one and
caused some casualties with hand grenades before pulling back. After
several Japanese attacks were repulsed, the Dutch commander ordered a
counterattack on the 14th. The Japanese had dug in, but had not been
reinforced, so he thought his forces could clear them out. But just as
the jump-off time neared, the column was ordered to fall back on Liang.
Koeta Boeloebenteng was under heavy attack and in grave danger of being
overrun. If it were captured before Kandibata and Tiga Binanga were
evacuated, their garrisons would be surrounded and cut off.
The withdrawal began at 1300 under cover of a
rearguard supported by armoured cars. Forward elements reached Liang at
1900 and joined six companies already there. At 1600, the Marechaussee
rearguard began to disengage and fall back. They kept the Japanese in
check with an ambush at Balangdoea that night. Two Japanese armoured
cars escaped under heavy fire, but hand grenades sent a third rolling
into a ravine.
In the meantime, the fight quickly soured for the
Dutch forces at Koeta Koeloebenteng after Japanese reconnaissance
probes found weak spots in the line. A battalion from Sidikalang
immediately began a series of heavy attacks on the position and its
four depleted companies. With the situation critical, Captain J. van
Dormolen’s company received orders to counterattack after dark and
relieve Major van Aarsen's forces.
The Japanese launched an attack as night fell, but
it was repulsed. As the Japanese fell back, Captain van Dormolen jumped
off, but had no effect on the battle. In the process, his unit slipped
through the Japanese lines and began guerrillas operations in the
Japanese rear. Their raids lasted until after the final surrender on
By daylight on the 24th intense fighting raged on
the front lines. The fighting grew more intense when heavy mortar fire
began falling inside the Dutch perimeter. Between 0830-1030, General
Overakker visited Major van Aarsen’s HQ and learned that his lines were
slowly being pushed back. Upon leaving, he made a reserve company
available to reinforce the major’s position. Major van Aarsen put it on
the main road north of Balandoea with orders to halt any retreating
At 1300, Major van Aarsen and his staff met to
discuss the situation. His chief-of-staff argued that the position had
to hold until the next day in order to let supporting formations
retire. But desertions were increasing while the enemy was getting
stronger by the hour. As heavy mortar fire began to fall near the CP,
General Overakker settled the matter by signaling Major van Aarsen to
retire to Liang as soon as possible. So after nightfall on the 24th the
evacuation of Koeta Boeloebenteng began with the Japanese in hot
pursuit. The Dutch were weakening and the Japanese smelled the scent of
By March 25, the situation was critical and could
not continue. Within hours, the Japanese occupied Kotatjane and pressed
on against minimal resistance. Although the positions at Goenoeng Setan
were not under attack, morale had broken down and several militia units
had already put out white flags. Even personal visits by General
Overakker had no effect (his exhausted troops were ready to quit).Northern Sumatra
With the surrender of the East Indies government,
internal order in Northern Sumatra began to break down. Atjeh in far
north Sumatra had been one of the last territories captured by the
Dutch and had never been fully pacified. Because of this, anti-Dutch
feelings ran strong and many troops in the region had been assigned to
police duties in order to maintain public order. Of the 400 troops at
Blangkedjeren, half had been shifted to Kotaradja to help the state
police maintain order by the time the Japanese landed.
At Kotaradja, Captain L.H.A. Kloprogge's 2nd
Marechaussee Division had orders to evacuate the European civilians and
Christian Indonesian family members of KNIL troops stationed in Atjeh.
The Dutch correctly feared a massacre by Muslim nationalists if they
were left unprotected. After delivering the civilians to refugee camps,
his state police were to wage guerilla warfare as they retired to the
Lieutenant H.R. van Ham was to oversee and
coordinate the evacuation. He had orders to await the return of Captain
Kloprogge, who had taken two brigades to the coast on March 12 to
confirm the Japanese landings. But when Kloprogge failed to return by
the 14th, van Ham initiated the evacuation anyway. Mounting Nationalist
rebel activity and the increased presence of Japanese patrols convinced
him to start transferring the civilians to the town of Meulaboh, where
the first groups began arriving at 1600.
Lieutenant van Ham arrived in Tjalang at 2000 and
found the garrison, particularly the local Sumatran militiamen, in a
state of virtual mutiny. They defiantly refused direct orders and
threatened to desert. As the situation deteriorated, van Ham was forced
to shoot one of the Indonesian soldiers to restore order. This
apparently convinced the remaining troops that he meant business and
they sullenly fell back into line.
The evacuation was scheduled to begin at 0600 on
March 15. But due to the tense situation, it was moved up to 2300 on
the 14th. Working quickly, the soldiers got the last bus away at 0400
on the morning of the 15th. As it pulled away, Captain Kloprogge
returned. His force had been in action with the Japanese near Lho'Nga
airfield before being forced back. They attempted a number of delaying
actions, but the local Muslim villagers betrayed them at every turn and
made any kind of ambush impossible.
As the 2nd Marechausee Division retired from
Meulaboh, it split into three columns. The first consisted of three
brigades that were deployed to protect the refugee camp at Blang Pidie.
The second column was under the command of Captain F. Steinhorst, who
had orders to delay the Japanese advance by burning all bridges and
ferries in the area. His force was later reinforced by several
The third column with 40 Marechaussee under the
command of Lieutenant A. Zijlmans was sent to the area between Blang
Pidie and the village of Tapatoean. A large rebel force had carried out
several acts of sabotage and the entire province was beginning to
openly rebel as the Sumatrans sensed Dutch authority beginning to slip
At first, the troops saw many women and children,
but the road soon became quiet and deserted. Shortly afterwards, they
encountered a number of unmanned roadblocks, but still saw nothing.
Suddenly, an alert soldier spotted a rebel lookout lying in the brush.
The brigade barely had time to dismount before 50 Nationalists rebels
armed with swords swarmed out of the brush. Using carbines the
policemen quickly killed 15 rebels and dispersed the remainder. In
return, they suffered no dead and only a few minor wounds.
Night fell at 1830, but the Marechaussee
continued to pursue the rebels using electric lanterns attached to
their carbines. They soon encountered another roadblock and killed
seven more rebels without loss. The brigade reached the refugee camp at
Blang Pidie at 2200, where it linked up with the first brigade and both
units bivouacked for the night.
Lieutenant Zijlmans and his column left for
Tapatoean at 0900 the next morning. The trip from Blang Pidie was
normally two hours by highway, but this time it took the column 15
hours. They were delayed countless times by destroyed bridges and
roadblocks. Although the Dutch police had orders to shoot only when
attacked, they still claimed to have killed between 200-300 rebels.
Included among them were the Indonesian district head and two
assistants, who appear to have been executed by the Dutch force after
being surprised on bicycles wearing Japanese uniforms as the Dutch
At 2330 that night Zijlmans dispersed a force of
about 300 rebels as they gathered near a temple outside the village.
The rebels apparently mistook them for Japanese until the Dutch column
opened fire. Taken completely by surprise, the Nationalists scattered,
leaving a number of dead and most of their weapons behind. With this
success, the column returned to Tapatoean around midnight.
Despite this victory, Captain Steinhorst was
having little success stopping the Japanese. Not only did local Muslim
villagers reveal his positions to the Japanese at every opportunity,
but they also destroyed phone lines, making it difficult to maintain
communications. As a result, the Japanese moved so fast that few
civilians could be evacuated from Atjeh. Some Europeans escaped in
personal vehicles, but the families of native troops did not have this
luxury and many were captured. Morale plummeted even further when the
troops were ordered to retire and leave the remaining civilians behind.
Volunteers remained behind to guard the refugee camps until the
Captain Kloprogge reached the town of Lae Boetar
on the 28th. There, he learned that he only had 140 men left. Although
there had been little hard fighting, his Indonesian soldiers were
deserting daily after being forced to abandon their families. In
addition, the local population was becoming openly hostile and the
Japanese were being reinforced. However, his greatest concern was the
fate of the civilians who had been left behind. After realistically
weighing the chances of his future success in the field against their
safety, Captain Kloprogge decided that his only avenue was to
surrender, which he did on March 29.
The second group of troops in Northern Sumatra
was under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel C.J. Bekkers at Kotaradja.
He got word of the landings at 0100 on the morning of the March 12 from
Lho Nga airfield. It was under attack and he was only on the phone five
minutes before the line went dead. Presuming the worst, Bekkers enacted
evacuation plans for civilians in the area. When the evacuation was
complete, his men were to retire along the
Kotaradja-Seulimieum-Sigli-Lam Meulo-Tangse highway.
Although the evacuation had been planned in
advance, there was still a great deal of confusion. Not only did the
remaining civilians have to be put aboard trains to Medan, but the
medical staff withdrew prematurely, making it difficult to move their
supplies. But despite the confusion, the last troops pulled out at 0700
with the Japanese close behind. Unfortunately, about 50 European and
Indonesian soldiers never got the final order to retire and were
captured at Kotaradja. They were later put on a merchant ship in the
harbour whose crew was allowed to massacre the defenceless men.
As they passed through Sigli and Lam Meulo on
March 12, the 12 brigades of the 4th Marechaussee Division received
orders to dig in and contain the Japanese for as long as possible. At
the same time, Captain C.A. van Deutekom and the 2nd Garrison Battalion
was ordered to Geumpang and Tangse. The remaining Marechaussee under
Major Palmer van den Broek proceeded on to Takengon where they were to
begin guerilla warfare.
The fight at Sigli was short. The 240 poorly
equipped state police were no match for the 4,000 veterans of Kobayashi
Detachment. By 1300 on the 13th the Dutch were in hard retreat toward
the village of Lam Meulo. However, Lieutenant-Colonel Bekkers realized
a fight there was also hopeless and gave orders for the Marechaussee to
join the 2nd Garrison Battalion in prepared positions between Lam Meulo
When Lieutenant-Colonel Bekkers arrived at 1430
bad news was waiting. Rebels had set off fireworks near the Dutch
bivouacs at Lam Meulo. Panic quickly spread amongst the jittery troops
and most quickly routed, losing most of their weapons and equipment in
the process. Although a number of remaining troops eventually straggled
into the position, their discipline and morale had disintegrated. Their
commanding officer could not control them and Bekkers had to replace
him to reassert command. The affair badly shook the remaining troops’
morale and desertions shot up throughout all the ranks.
Morale sank even lower on the 17th when the
Japanese flanked the position and pushed the Dutch troops back again.
As their advance continued, local guides constantly helped the Japanese
by providing them with information and sketches detailing the defences
at every KNIL position. Although Captain Deutekom wanted to continue,
morale finally broke down completely and his troops refused to continue
That evening Captain Deutekom discussed the
situation by telephone with Lieutenant-Colonel Bekkers. Morale was bad
and desertions were skyrocketing. Not only were the Dutch heavily
outnumbered, but the locals were now fully hostile and would no doubt
hamper further resistance. So with his back against the wall,
Lieutenant-Colonel Bekkers surrendered on the 18th. There was nothing
else he could do.
This left only the troops on the east coast under
Major Palmer van den Broek. They first learned of the landings on the
night of the 11-12th when the coastwatch position at Idi reported
hundreds of small lights offshore. The commander at Panton Laboe,
Lieutenant J.F.C. Westerweel, immediately sent a brigade to the scene
to investigate. At dawn, its commander reported nine large transports
landing many troops. Lieutenant Westerweel ordered him to
immediately rejoin the main body at Takengon. On the return trip, the
brigade drove into the middle of a Japanese patrol moving inland.
However, the Japanese were so surprised, that the Dutch managed to
drive on without loss.
To give them and other troops time to reach
Takengon, Major van den Broek ordered the 3rd and 5th Marechaussee
Divisions to fight holding actions along the Birt highway. They
deployed in three prepared positions, which van den Broek hoped would
be enough to stop the Japanese. The first position was under the
command of Lieutenant W. van Pesch, who had three brigades from the 3rd
Division supported by two Böhler 47mm AT guns with 90 rounds and four
light machine guns. He had orders to hold out for as long as possible
before retreating into the interior to wage guerilla warfare.
On the 13-14th, reconnaissance patrols reported a
Japanese force of about 1,200 men rapidly approaching. As they
approached, several Indonesian soldiers attempted to desert at
nightfall. The rest would have followed if not for a European sergeant,
who stood in the middle of the road with his carbine, threatening to
shoot anyone who did not immediately return to his position. With that,
order was restored and a rout avoided. Lieutenant van Pesch breathed a
sigh of relief until he sighted a civilian spy sketching the position
the following morning. He knew the Japanese would not be far behind and
immediately destroyed the bridge. Then at 1700, his lookouts sighted
two trucks approaching at high speed.
The Dutch let the Japanese approach within 300
yards of the river before opening fire. The AT guns destroyed both
trucks, while machine gun bursts and carbine fire killed some 40 troops
as they dismounted. But the Imperial Guards quickly brought up
reinforcements and a brisk firefight soon raged. Dutch morale was
initially high and gun crews repeatedly exposed themselves to enemy
fire as they poured water over the hot barrels of their weapons.
However, their ammunition supply was so low that it was nearly gone in
just 15 minutes. As Dutch fire weakened, the Japanese began to push
By 1800 the battle had shifted. As the Japanese
advance picked up steam, van Pesch’s Indonesian troops again began to
desert. When he went to see why he could not contact his telephone
post, he found the men had deserted along with the crews of the AT
guns. At 1900, van Pesch retired under cover of darkness to join Major
van den Broek at Takengon. But van den Broek surrendered before the
lieutenant arrived, leaving him on his own. Van Pesch then split his
column into 2-3 man groups with orders to meet at a secret supply
depot. With those few troops who rendezvoused he began a brief guerilla
However, the troops were no longer committed. By
April 1 the last few had deserted, leaving only Lieutenant van Pesch
and a European sergeant. They discussed continuing, but the population
now actively sought them and Major van den Broek issued direct orders
for their surrender. The Japanese also declared that any KNIL troops
captured in uniform would be executed. Realizing the hopelessness of
their position, the two men surrendered on the 4th with an Ambonese
Marechaussee who had joined them.
Fifteen miles (25 kilometres) behind the first,
the second position was manned by five brigades of the 3rd Marechaussee
Division under the command of Captain F. Wetzels. As with Lieutenant
van Pesch, he was to initiate guerrilla warfare if the position became
untenable. The position fell after a brief fight, but local Muslims
again prevented them from continuing. So when Major van den Broek
surrendered at Takengon on the 19th, they also quit.
The third position was six miles (10 kilometres)
behind the second and was manned by four brigades of the 5th
Marechaussee Division under the command of Captain L.A. Boucherie. One
brigade, led by Lieutenant J.C. Meulders, was lost almost immediately
when it attacked a Japanese patrol northwest of the position. In heavy
hand-to-hand combat, the Dutch killed 10 Japanese and drove them off.
However, the Japanese counterattacked and captured most of the brigade,
including Lieutenant Meulders. They immediately released the Indonesian
troops, but murdered Meulders and his European sergeant.
Captain Boucherie deployed his remaining three
brigades in prepared positions along the highway. At midday on the
17th, intense mortar and machine gun fire caused heavy Dutch
casualties. Soon afterward, the Japanese quickly broke through the KNIL
line with the help of local Indonesian guides. At that point, Boucherie
gave orders to begin guerilla warfare and then managed to escape with
four men. His group continued with little success until the 19th, when
they gave up when Major van den Broek surrendered.
By March 22-23, most remaining KNIL troops still
fighting in Northern Sumatra were falling back along the
Takengon-Blangkedjeren highway. That night, two additional companies
were ambushed as they bivouacked at Takengon. Although many of the
troops were captured, others escaped into the night and reached Colonel
Gosenson at Blangkedjeren. But without uniforms or weapons, the
demoralized men were of little use.
Even with these survivors, the colonel still only
had about 500 men left to defend the northern entrance of the Alice
Valley on March 26. He deployed them along a small river nine miles (15
kilometres) north of Blangkedjeren under Captain F.J. van Nues. They
were supported by two sections of mortars and machine guns.
Later that day, General Overakker met Colonel
Gosenson at Blangkedjeren to discuss the situation. Although the
Goeneong Setan and Lian positions remained in Dutch hands, troop morale
had disintegrated and desertions were growing by the hour. In addition,
the front north of Blangkedjeren was virtually undefended, while
earlier Japanese successes ensured there would be no more
reinforcements from Atjeh.
On March 27, Kobayashi Detachment strongly
attacked with a battalion supported by mortars and machine guns.
Machine gun and mortar fire contained the initial Japanese assault and
killed approximately 30 troops. But despite this success, KNIL officers
still found many men had deserted under fire; they would continue to do
so throughout the day and night. By the time the Japanese launched
their next attack on the 28th, only 25 Dutch troops remained and these
had been pushed back to the outskirts of Blangkedjeren.
At this point, General Overakker and Colonel
Gosenson surrendered unconditionally at Blangkedjeren on the 28th.
Their troops were disarmed and moved to prison camps at Medan, where
the Indonesians were released on April 29. However, the Christian
Ambonese and Menadoese troops and all Indonesian officers and NCOs
remained prisoners, as the Japanese considered them too loyal to the
Dutch. All European civilians and soldiers were interned, except those
needed to repair and operate the captured oilfields.
With the surrender at Blangkedjeren organized
resistance on Sumatra ended. A number of small guerilla groups
continued to fight on, but hostile natives made it impossible for them
to continue for long. One by one, they either surrendered or were
tracked down and killed by the Japanese. The last group finally
surrendered in March 1943, a year after the Japanese landed. The KNIL’s
fight for Sumatra was over.