The short, unhappy ML-KNIL career of the Curtiss 75A ‘Hawk’
During the uneasy years of ‘peace’ before war broke out in Europe the Air Arm of the Royal Netherlands Indies Army (ML-KNIL) had committed itself to a defensive strategy completely based on bombers. In the belief that bomber formations could defeat any invasion fleet, the Dutch government had, over the period 1936 – 1939, procured large numbers of Glenn Martin 139’s, the export version of the USAAC twin engined B-10 bomber.
Based on their experience s with the Curtis P-6 ‘Hawk’, KNIL’s top-brass had convinced itself that fighters and dive-bombers were of little or no use because of their short range and small bombload. The idea of tactical ground support, strafing and bombing enemy troops, had not even entered into their thinking. As a result, by the end of 1937 the last P-6 ‘Hawks’ were put into storage and the ML-KNIL was a bomber-only air arm…
Disturbing information about the German use of fighters and dive bombers during the Spanish civil war was belittled by general staffs around the world (“an irrelevant internal conflict in a militarily backward country…”).
Then, in September 1939, the German Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe decimated the Polish defenses in a totally new concept of warfare called the ‘Blitzkrieg’. The results were spectacular (or disastrous, depending on your point of view). Fast moving armored units, backed up by dive-bombers and strafing fighters, simply smashed through conventional defenses. The once so despised fighters and dive bombers proved to be frighteningly effective weapons. And the level-flight bomber was mostly used as a terror instrument, bombing defenseless civilians…
To say that those same general staffs (except the Japanese) were caught on the wrong foot is a gross understatement. As usual, they had been preparing to fight the previous war, not the next one…
Gone was the complacent mood, replaced by something closely resembling panic. Even the Dutch were jolted out of their ‘… we’re neutral, let’s wait and see…’ stance and belatedly realized they were in mortal danger, both at home and in the East. The frantic search for weapons, equipment and, above all, airplanes started in earnest during the second half of 1939.
But by then, all European nations that felt themselves threatened by Germany (or Italy) were already jostling in the weapons marketplace and the American, Swedish and Swiss manufacturers’ order books had swollen out of proportion. In the face of this competition the Dutch could do little more than what is technically known as ‘scraping the bottom of the barrel’.
They managed to place an order for 24 Curtiss Hawk 75A fighters, the export version of the P-36. But before these fighters could be delivered to the Dutch Air Corps, the German Wehrmacht struck again. On May 10, 1940 they unleashed a massive offensive into the west. Five days later the Dutch army had to capitulate, after the center of Rotterdam had been razed to the ground by the Luftwaffe in one of its terror-bombardments.
The 24 Curtiss Hawks were now shipped to the Netherlands East Indies. They arrived at Andir (near Bandung) sometime during May 1940 where they were assembled and test flown. After acceptance the Hawks were transferred to Madiun (East Java) where they were supposed to defend the Surabaya naval base. An additional order for 24 Hawk 75’s by the then Dutch Government in exile in London was blocked by the US Government, apparently because no suitable engines were available.
The service life of the Hawks was neither long nor successful. They were plagued by engine problems and mechanical defects. By December 7, 1941, the date of the Japanese attack, twelve Hawks were operational with 1-VLG-IV (1st squadron, 4th aircraft group) based at Madiun.
A detachment of Hawks was deployed to Sumatra. According to some sources this detachment operated from Medan (Sumatra) where, in December 1941, two Hawks were lost in a mid-air collision while taking off to assist the threatened British forces in west-Malaya.
At the beginning of February 1942 all Dutch Hawks were withdrawn to Madiun, East-Java, with orders to defend the Surabaya naval establishment. On February 5 the remaining operational Hawks were scrambled to intercept a Japanese bomber force attacking Surabaya. They ran into a cloud of escorting Zero fighters and four of them were shot down while a fifth managed to make a forced landing.
It was the end of the operational life of the Hawks. The remaining aircraft were grounded due to unreliable engines and a lack of spare parts. They were destroyed by the Dutch after the Japanese invasion of Java…