The Royal Dutch Indies Air Arm (ML-KNIL)
was also in a sad state. The Dutch government had belatedly ordered (and paid for) hundreds of planes. And though the US companies worked hard they simply could not be delivered fast enough. When the Japanese attacked the ML-KNIL had 75 Brewster B339 (F2A3) ‘Buffalo’ carrier fighters available. The type had been rejected by the US Navy as unsuitable. In addition the ML-KNIL possessed 24 venerable, radial engined Curtiss H75A (P36) ‘Hawks’. Desperately searching the market for fighters, the ML-KNIL had recently purchased 22 Curtiss Wright CW 21’Interceptor’ fighters. Although these were classed as ‘export fighters ‘, they were too flimsily constructed to combat anything more lethal than an unarmed reconnaissance plane. The bomber force, finally, consisted of several squadrons of antiquated Glenn Martin 139 WH bombers ( the equivalent of the B10).
On the whole, the air force was grossly unprepared for the coming war. The aircraft lacked self-sealing fuel tanks and any kind of armour plating. The bombs dropped were too light to cause serious damage. There was no tracer ammunition available and the machine guns jammed at higher altitudes because low-viscosity lubricating oil had not been supplied…
The Fifth Air Force (USAAF) had a sizeable presence in Java for a few weeks. Between Dec. 30, 1941 and January 12, 1942 B17’s of the 9th, 11th, 14th, 22nd, 28th and 30th Bomber squadrons deployed from Darwin, Australia to Singosari, Malang, Madiun and Jogjakarta in Java.
January 25 saw the belated arrival of 13 Curtiss P40’s of the 17th Pursuit Squadron (provisional) commanded by Major Charles A. Sprague. On February 5, 1942 some Douglas A-24’s of the 91st Bombardement Squadron arrived at Malang from Brisbane, Australia. It was to be the last reinforcement.
The air war was going badly by that time. During the month of January the American squadrons carried out attacks against Japanese naval and amphibious targets at sea and at various locations in Malaysia, Borneo and Bali. They suffered significant losses because of Japanese air superiority and the lack of protection by Allied fighter planes
On January 20 Major General George H, Brett (commanding General US Army Forces in Australia and deputy commander ABDACOM) stopped the ferrying of USAAF aircraft from India to the Dutch East Indies. Japanese forces now controlled airfields sufficiently close to the last ‘leg’ of the route to inflict prohibitive losses on the ferry flights.
The next day, February 21, 1942, he announced his decision to evacuate all remaining elements of the Fifth Air Force from the Dutch East Indies. The evacuation started on February 24. On March 1, 1942, the last USAAF heavy bomber mission was flown. And on March 2 the last 5 B17’s and 3 LB-30’s took off in the dark (close to midnight) from Jogjakarta Airfield, with 260 persons somehow crammed into the eight planes…
Opposing them was an enemy both numerically and technologically superior. The Japanese Army could throw over 700 fighters, bombers and dive-bombers into the fight. The Japanese Navy had 640 airplanes available for the assault on the Dutch East Indies. Many of these were the formidable Mitsubishi A6M ‘Zero’s, supplemented by its lesser known Army counterpart, the Nakajima Ki43 ‘Hayabusa’.