Updated Dec 5, 2016
It is not generally known that the “Mobile Unit”, the single Dutch (KNIL) tank battalion went into action during the battle for the Tjiater Pass, the gateway to the Bandung plateau. This battle was fought between 5 and 7 March 1942 and may be seen as the single regular clash of armed forces in the Netherlands East Indies. It was also the final battle – after the Japanese broke through the Dutch defences the road to Bandung lay wide open. The “Mobile Unit” was deployed during the Allied counter attack to re-take Kalidjati airfield. The sudden appearance of light tanks came as a rude surprise to the Japanese troops of the Shoji Detachment. The only reason why this counter attack failed was the lack of Allied air support and coordination between the tanks and infantry… (I will add a more detailed description of this battle as a separate page).
Back to the tanks; in military thinking, the KNIL was years ahead of the Dutch homeland army. In a re-thinking of their defence strategy, they recognized the necessity of mechanized units. As the Netherlands did not produce tanks, the KNIL shopped around and bought two Vickers-Carden-Loyd light tanks as well as two Vickers-Carden-Loyd Amphibious tanks. This small order was delivered in 1937.
The two types were extensively tested and a further 73 Vickers light tanks were ordered in 1938, their turrets to be fitted with a single medium machine gun. Delivery was to be at a rate of 4 tanks per month, starting July 1939. By the time war broke out in Europe, 20 Vickers-Carden-Loyd tanks arrived in Java and were assigned to a tank training unit.
As a follow up, the KNIL ordered 45 tanks of a heavier model (the Vickers Command tank). This type was to be armed with a British 2 pounder gun. Though unproven (only one prototype was ever built), this tank would have been quite adequate as its 2 pounder gun could deal with most enemy tanks at the time. Both types of K.N.I.L. tanks were to be built at the Vickers subsidiary in Belgium and deliveries of the new model would start in April 1940 at a rate of two per week.
When war broke out in Europe, the 49 remaining tanks of the K.N.I.L. order were confiscated by the British authorities. Designated as Light Tank Mark III (and nicknamed “Dutchmen”) they were handed over the British Army. And when the Germans occupied Holland and Belgium during May 1940, it was obvious that none of the Vickers tanks still on order would ever be delivered.
Thoroughly alarmed by the developments in Europe and China the Dutch East Indies army turned to the U.S. They soon found out that the only company building tanks while not involved in the U.S. Forces re-armament process was Marmon-Herrington. After a brief evaluation, the Netherlands Purchasing Commission ordered no less than 200 Marmon-Herrington CTLS-4TA light tanks, a modified version of the CTL-6, equipped with a small machine-gun turret.
The order specified delivery before the end of 1941 but Marmon-Herrington, having no experience with production on such a scale, were not able to deliver in time. Approximately 20-24 CTLS-4TA light tanks arrived in the Dutch East Indies in February 1942, but only a few took part in the fighting in March 1942.
The “Mobile Unit”, K.N.I.L.’s only tank battalion was formed by integrating the 17 remaining Vickers tanks on Java with 7 Marmon-Herrington tanks. These tanks were involved in the running battles for Subang, Kalidjati and the Tjiiater Pass between March 1 and March 7, 1942.
Shortly after the Japanese landed on Java, the Mobile Column spearheaded a major counter-attack against Japanese units holding Subang village and Kalidjati airfield on Western Java. Although all three tank platoons successfully penetrated the Japanese lines and briefly operated at will, the mechanized infantry company was unable to advance at the same pace. As a result, the tanks were cut off in an urban environment without infantry support. The Japanese then brought up 47mm AT guns and were able to knock out a number of tanks and armored cars.
The Dutch attack stalled as night approached and the Column’s commander decided to withdrawal his forces and regroup. Although a few tanks had radios, most (including the newly arrived Marmon-Herringtons) did not, so he was forced to send motorcycles onto the battlefield carrying the orders to fall back. By the time the Dutch forces managed to extricated themselves, losses numbered 13 tanks, one armored car, five Overalwagens and one AT gun. In addition, the Column suffered 14 dead, 13 wounded and 36 missing
A further 149 CTLS-4TA’s were en route to Java, as well as 50 M3 “Stuarts” (under lend –lease) when the Dutch East Indies fell. These tanks were unloaded in Australia where they served as training tanks with the Australian Army. They were soon declared obsolete and scrapped.