True: A Stranded Dutch Warship In WWII Disguising Itself As An Island To Evade Japanese Bombers

The Netherlands officially surrendered on May 15th, 1940. However, its Navy continued the fight. Part of the navy was deployed in the Dutch East Indies during the attack on the homeland and a part managed to escape to England. The Dutch Navy established a headquarters in London while its troops operated in all theaters of war. Some Dutch ships participated in Operation Dynamo, better known as the evacuation of Dunkirk and in transport missions during the invasion of Normandy.

HNMS Abraham Crijnssen was one of the ships anchored at Surabaya in the Dutch East Indies. It was the third of eight Jan van Amstel-class minesweepers built in the 1930’s. The ship was commissioned into the Royal Netherlands Navy on 26th of May, 1937. The name comes from a celebrated 17th-century naval commander, Abraham Crijnssen.

Following the Japanese invasion in 1941 and the initial Allied defeats at the Battles of the Java Sea and the Sunda Strait in February 1942, all Dutch ships were ordered to retreat to Australian ports.  These two disastrous defeats left the joint American, British, Dutch and Australian fleet decimated and the commander of the joint forces, Karel Doorman, who was Dutch, died during the battle. At the time, the battle represented the largest surface engagement of ships since the Battle of Jutland in 1916.

HNMS Abraham Crijnssen was meant to leave Surabaya with an escort of three other ships, but it ended up alone. Severely outnumbered and heavily outgunned, the personnel of the ship had to figure out how to retreat without being sunk by the Japanese Imperial Navy, which lurked in the waters around the archipelago.

The bombardment of a Netherlands cruiser during the Battle of the Java Sea. By This image is available from the Collection Database of the Australian War Memorial under the ID Number: 305183
The bombardment of a Netherlands cruiser during the Battle of the Java Sea.

The captain of the HNMS Abraham Crijnssen devised a plan that sounded so crazy that it might actually work ― he decided that the ship should be camouflaged as a floating island. Don’t forget, this ship was 184 feet (56m) long, with a beam of 25 feet (7.6m) and a draft of 7 feet (2.1m). She weighed 525 tons.

The personnel gathered large branches from a nearby island and arranged them so they could look as realistic as it was possible. They also painted the hull of the ship in shades that resembled rocks and cliffs. The ship was to remain close to shore at all time and traveled only by night.

HNMS Abraham Crijnssen covered with branches. By Netherlands Indies Government Information Service - Australian War Memorial Negative Number 012193,
HNMS Abraham Crijnssen covered with branches.

The minesweeper ship was relatively slow ― it could reach a maximum speed of only 15 knots. Also, it was poorly armed, carrying only a single 3-inch gun and two Oerlikon 20mm cannons. It was an easy prey for the Japanese bombers that circled the archipelago. So, the ship decided to find cover somewhere among the 18,000 islands in Indonesia. Since they moved only by night, they proved to be undetectable.

HNMS Crijnssen and its crew of 45 managed to avoid a Japanese destroyer that had sunk several Dutch ships in the Battle of Java Sea and the Sunda Strait, which was patrolling the waters in search of the remaining Dutch ships. The voyage lasted for eight days, and the HNMS Abraham Crijnssen was the last ship that managed to escape the Japanese from the Dutch East Indies.

By Netherlands Indies Government Information Service - Australian War Museum.
By Netherlands Indies Government Information Service – Australian War Museum.

Once it found refuge in the Australian waters, the ship underwent a refit, which included the installation of new ASDIC equipment for submarine hunting. HNMS Abraham Crijnssen was recommissioned on the 28th of September 1942, as part of the Royal Australian Navy. The minesweeper was reclassified as an anti-submarine convoy escort vessel since the Allies were in the dying need for counter-measures against the Japanese submarines that were swarming in the Pacific.

HNMS Abraham Crijnssen was also used as a submarine tender for the Dutch submarines that managed to escape the Japanese invasion. The crew was replaced by the survivors from the British destroyer HMS Jupiter, which had been sunk during the Battle of Java Sea. In addition to the HMS Jupiter sailors, the HNMS Abraham Crijnssen was manned by Australian personnel all under the command of an Australian lieutenant. The Dutch Navy nurtured the tradition of hanging a portrait of the reigning monarch in the officers’ mess hall.

This led to a minor feud between the British and the Dutch when it was proposed that the picture of Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands be replaced by a portrait of King George VI of the United Kingdom. After the Dutch insisted not to remove the portrait of their queen, it was decided that it should stay, even though the crew was British/Australian.

During its operational service under the Australian Navy flag, Abraham Crijnssen detected a submarine, while escorting a convoy to Sydney through the Bass Strait, on 26th of January 1943. Together with the Australian HMAS Bundaberg, they depth charged the submarine. No wreckage of the submarine was found, nor was the kill confirmed, but the ex-minesweeper suffered some damage due to hastily released depth charges; several fittings and pipes were damaged, and all of her centreline had to be replaced during a week-long-dry docking.

After this incident, the ship was finally returned to Royal Netherlands Navy service on 5th of May 1943, even though it spent the rest of the war in Australian waters. It hadn’t been in use until 1945, when the ship left Sydney and headed for Darwin, towing an oil lighter and a Dutch K9 submarine that was out of action. In an unfortunate event, the tow cable snapped, and the submarine washed ashore at Seal Rocks, New South Wales.

Abraham Crijnssen ended its WWII career just like the ship started it ― as a minesweeper that was responsible for clearing mines in Kupang Harbor before the arrival of an RAN force to accept the Japanese surrender of Timor.

Nikola Budanovic

Nikola Budanovic is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE