Featured Book
Reviewed by Bob Hackett

"The Allied Defense of the Malay Barrier, 1941-1942"

by Tom Womack

Softcover, 368 pages
Published in December 2015 by McFarland.
Order line (800)-233-2187 (www.mcfarlandpub.com)
Print ISBN: 978-1-4766-6293-0
Ebook ISBN: 978-1-4766-2267-5
Dimensions: 10.9 x 8.4 x 0.8 inches

Historian and author Tom Womack's new "The Allied Defense of the Malay Barrier, 1941-1942" immediately raises the question for many "what and where is the Malay Barrier?" Womack explains that prior to 1940-41, the term could not be found on any map as a physical location. It generally referred to the long string of islands that formed the southern edge of Western colonial territories in the Southwest Pacific. Initially, it included the British Malay Peninsula, the Netherlands East Indies(NEI)(now Indonesia), Sumatra, Java and the Lesser Sunda Islands, but could include territories such as Borneo, Celebes, and Netherland New Guinea. The Dutch, of course, considered the NEI the crown jewel of their Empire, which in the 1930s was the third largest in the world, behind only those of Britain and France.

The well-written introductory chapters concisely trace Dutch influence in the East Indies back to the age of wooden ships and sail. In 1596, spice traders from Holland moved into the region, and over the next 300 years, the Dutch colonized the vast island chain. The Industrial Revolution of the 1800s saw transition of the world’s shipping move to steel hulls and steam propulsion. Holland’s relatively small industrial base could not effectively compete with other world powers, and the Netherlands was soon eclipsed at sea, both commercially and militarily.

Elsewhere in Asia in the early 1900s, Japan began to quickly modernize its military forces along Western lines and began its own brand of colonization of its neighbors. Japan, with no natural resources of her own, had long coveted the vast East Indies oil fields. Beginning in the 1930s, the Japanese Empire became mired in a protracted, undeclared war with China. By the early 1940s, after the Western Powers imposed trade embargoes on exports to Japan of military commodities including oil in an attempt to curb Japanese aggression, its militarists knew they faced ultimate defeat without Dutch oil and British raw materials.

After Hitler's Germany overran Holland in May 1940, the Dutch East Indies colony feared invasion, but the author notes that “despite a fair amount of unease, the period following the occupation of Holland was rather prosperous for the East Indies. Life there was an idyllic tropical paradise for the typical Dutch expatriate. Not unlike other colonies of the era, they lived comfortably... Those in authority lived in well-furnished homes with chauffeured cars. They often employed large staffs of maids, cooks and yard help.”

Despite the threat, the East Indies government initially maintained a strict policy of neutrality while working to build up its neglected military. But as Japan pushed the region toward war, the Dutch reluctantly embraced closer ties with America and Britain; however, British interest in the Malay Barrier extended only as far as the defense of Singapore, Malaya. After Pearl Harbor, Womack says the United States saw the East Indies as a base from which to support their vulnerable territory of the Philippines. Only the Australians saw it as a barrier against a Japanese invasion of their homeland.

Womack tells how as far back as 1934, Japan broke pre-war American and British diplomatic codes. Decoded messages confirmed that neither the British or the Americans would intervene militarily in French Indochina and also indicated the United States’s reluctance to confront Japan by force of arms. This emboldened the Japanese in July 1941 to seize Vichy French Indochina. Six months later, Indochina served as the springboard for their invasions of Malaysia, the East Indies and the Philippines. Attacks on American bases at Pearl Harbor, Guam, Wake Island and the Philippines were little more than diversionary operations to safeguard Japanese invasions of Dutch and British colonies.

An early chapter deals with the deployment of British Force "Z" composed around new battleship HMS Prince of Wales and old battle-cruiser HMS Repulse belatedly sent by the Royal Navy to bolster the defense of Singapore, but in the afternoon of 10 December 1941, Force Z was overwhelmed by Japanese torpedo-bombers from Indochina and both British capital ships were sunk. Another chapter covers the destruction of Port Darwin, on the northern coast of Australia. The author analyzes the strategy, planning and execution of the capture of the Dutch/Portugese island of Timor which the Japanese considered an essential step before their invasion of Java. The elimination of Timor would render the Allies incapable of flying in fighter plane reinforcements from Australia and give the Japanese a base of operations in the eastern part of the Indies, but Darwin represented a threat which first must be neutralized.

Womack details the crushing defeat suffered by ABDA (American, British, Dutch and Australian) forces during Japan’s invasion of the NEI following their surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. Using more than 200 Dutch, English and Japanese language sources the new book provide an in-depth, critical analysis of this largely ignored campaign. For the first time in English, the book details Dutch diplomatic and military pre-war strategy. This includes Dutch efforts to counter two decades of covert Japanese espionage, navigate an increasingly hostile Cold War with Japan and their sizable, largely forgotten, military contribution in the savage, early months of the Pacific War.

The new book details many aspects of the East Indies campaign never before written about in English. It also includes the first in-depth rewrite in 40 years of the Battle of the Java Sea, the first major surface battle of the Pacific War. It lasted seven hours and pitted a combined ABDA fleet against a Japanese invasion convoy off the island of Java. Womack devotes three highly detailed chapters covering five phases of the epic 27 February 1942 battle in which the Allies were effectively annihilated with the Japanese suffering no losses. Womack also covers the disastrous attempt by the RNN to evacuate Java immediately prior to the surrender of the East Indies. This ill-planned and poorly executed operation saw the loss or capture in less than a week of more than 20 Allied merchants and warships. Moreover, more than 100 ships were scuttled to prevent capture. Worse, nearly 10,000 Allied personnel were killed or captured.

The book is replete with wonderful detail-laden charts and photos that supplement the author's chapters such as the one on the makeup of the East Indies (Naval) Squadron's cruisers, destroyers, submarines, gunboats and other warships. Similar charts accompany his chapter on the Dutch Naval Air Force and its aircraft, and other important chapters. In his chapters about important battles and invasions during January ~ March 1942, he puts up a chart covering the operations of 25 Japanese submarines and further maps and charts detail important battles and invasions during that period.

Some of the book's many charts contain many little-known facts, such as details on each on the 24 ships that attempted to escape from Tilatjap (now Cilacap), Java to reach safer ports mostly in Australia; details on civilian merchant ships, military and Gouvernmentsmarine ships scuttled at Surabaya, as well as charts on civilian merchant ships and RNN warships scuttled at Tanjung Priok (port of Batavia). Womack describes their fates and even if they were later salvaged by the Japanese. The author also provides the day-to-day actions of nearly 30 American, British and Dutch submarines.

Womack is the author of the well-respected The Dutch Naval Air Force Against Japan: The Defense of the Netherlands East Indies, 1941-1942", his first book, published in 2006 by McFarland.

The work contains acknowledgements, an introduction, a helpful list of abbreviations and acronyms, explanatory notes, 32 chapters with notes, 23 maps, 31 charts, 76 photos (many from Dutch sources), bibliography and a general index. My sole criticism is the lack of an index to his great charts and maps.

The author's many years of resesearch have produced an exceptional and comprehensive book. It supplements other works on the Allied Defense of the Malay Barrier such as H. P. Willmott's fine “Empires in the Balance: Japanese and Allied Pacific Strategies to April 1942", Jeffrey Cox's "Rising Sun, Falling Skies: The disastrous Java Sea Campaign of World War II" and David Thomas' older, but still great "Battle of the Java Sea".

Womack's new book makes an important contribution to English language literature on the Dutch East Indies in the 20th century. It certainly will become an essential part of the libraries of marine and war historians as well as any persons interested in the Imperial Japanese and Royal Netherlands Navies in World War II. I truly enjoyed reading the book and highly recommend it.

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