The Netherlands East Indies Campaign 1941-42: Japan’s Quest for Oil

Reviewed by Jeff Schultz

Marc Lohnstein’s The Netherlands East Indies Campaign 1941-42: Japan’s Quest for Oil covers a typically unheeded early Pacific campaign, fought for the resource rich Dutch East Indies, which showcased a dysfunctional Allied coalition effort conducted under fraught circumstances exacerbated by prewar decisions but which fought desperately until overwhelmed.  

Lohnstein is a historian, assistant curator of the Royal Home for Retired Military Personnel and Bronbeek Museum in Arnhem, and a writer who focuses on Dutch colonial topics.This 96-page Osprey monograph is divided into several sections: “Origins of the Campaign,” “Chronology,” “Opposing Commanders,” “Opposing Forces,” “Opposing Plans,” “The Campaign,” and “Aftermath” along with a bibliography, and index; well-supported by many photos, detailed color maps, orders of battle, and a selection of color plates. 

Lohnstein argues the Imperial Japanese naturally looked for a replacement to fuel its truculent war machine once President Roosevelt ceased delivery of American oil. The Dutch East Indies arose as the clear answer, part of the grandly euphemistic “Southern Resource Area.” Risky, yet well-executed Japanese attacks followed, which the Allied nations failed to stop, making defeat inevitable as Imperial Japan reached the Australian periphery. 

Geography and colonialism played outsized roles in this particular campaign. The massive, scattered East Indies archipelago consisted of thousands of islands, which the Dutch already admitted they could not defend effectively in 1927. An enemy could choose where to strike and bypass troop concentrations in favor of easier pickings elsewhere. As such, even attempting to coherently defend the islands was dubious. Java, the central administrative and population nexus, was the key to the defense with both air and naval bases. Consider further that the manner in which the Royal Netherlands East Indies forces were raised was as a relatively small internal security force drawn from Europeans and friendly locals in charge of overseeing a much larger and potentially hostile population, similar to the German colonial Schutztruppe concept. External threats took second place to bureaucratic exigency in the Java defense scheme with predictably catastrophic results. The purpose of the Dutch colonial forces and often ad hoc nature of the other Allied forces sent to reinforce them speaks volumes as to the difficulties they faced against a well-trained, better supported, and aggressive foe.

Lohnstein also addresses Allied difficulties which are not widely understood, what on paper seemed like a clear chance to unify the available combat power under the temporary ABDACOM (American British Dutch Australian Command) could never realize the potential due to lacking command, language, doctrinal, equipment woes and pervasive hubris. Tokyo was badly underestimated and dismissed by Allied planners instead of treated as a real threat. The British put more importance on Malaya and supposedly impregnable Singapore, much as the Dutch wanted to protect their possessions while the Americans and Australians tried to support their allies with often ill-equipped, battered or inexperienced forces. The Japanese accurately expected the Dutch colonial forces to fold under pressure, and Allied troop quality remained a worrisome factor as evidenced by events in Malaya, Singapore and the Philippines as the myth of an unstoppable enemy grew. By March 1942 the Dutch fought on with whatever Allied forces could not escape from Java until defeated.

Lohnstein thankfully spends time discussing the equipment fielded by the belligerents, developing the key differences, such as Allied units often lacking support weapons, equipment, or spares. Sparse Allied armor was heavily outnumbered, not to mention Allied air units were outmatched, while the coordination between Japanese ground, air and naval units exceeded anything they faced. Leadership also favored the Japanese, who fielded aggressive commanders willing to improvise against Allied leaders who often struggled to control their units, maintain communications or otherwise react coherently to threats. The Japanese lack of sufficient naval vessels forced them to get creative and take chances, which worked in the early campaigns although remaining a challenge going forward, as Tokyo never had enough assets to meet the needs of a far-flung empire. The captured oil facilities never really produced as hoped due to a lack of tankers and predatory Allied submarines which denied the full benefit of their conquests. 

Lohnstein presents the Japanese forces as more varied than some might realize, with paratroopers playing an important role seizing critical facilities at Menado, Palembang and Timor. Additionally, the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy suffered from a bitter interservice rivalry throughout the war, regardless of their early successes. The Japanese doctrine of capturing airfields, then gaining air superiority over intended targets which led to successful amphibious landings is well profiled as a key to their early successes; not only due to their superior aircraft and pilots but the relative paucity the Allies could bring to bear with regard to lacking pilot skill level and air defenses plus obsolescent aircraft and ships. The Japanese also committed brutal atrocities during the campaign and later as the occupiers. The prevailing view of Europe as first priority, which led to the British assignment of the American-made Brewster B-339 fighters to the Far East, came to haunt London as the impressive warships of “Force Z”, HMS Repulse and Prince of Wales, were sunk in a stunning demonstration of modern airpower. Similarly, the outdated ABDA fleet collapsed under sustained aerial and surface attack, while nimble Mitsubishi A6M Zeroes bested the outclassed Allied fighters that rose to stop them. Among the ABDA naval assets were the remnants of the once proud U.S. Asiatic Fleet, which ceased to exist thereafter.

Marc Lohnstein’s The Netherlands East Indies Campaign 1941-42: Japan’s Quest for Oil provides much-needed depth for an interesting, yet ill-fated early Allied coalition attempt that failed miserably to stop Imperial Japan but paved the way for later more successful coalition efforts as a valuable case study. It will appeal to Pacific War enthusiasts, leaders, veterans and anyone seeking a cautionary tale about lack of preparations for the next war, overconfidence, and valiant efforts against an inexorable tide.


A past contributor, Schultz teaches history at a community college in Pennsylvania. 

The Netherlands East Indies Campaign 1941-42: Japan’s Quest for Oil. By Marc Lohnstein (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2021).

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