In the desperate days of early December 1941. with the U.S. battle fleet crippled at Pearl Harbor and Japanese armies pouring into Southeast Asia. five Dutch submarines were ordered into action against convoys of troopships that had been sighted entering the Gulf of Siam.’ The real Japanese objective was the oil resources of the Dutch East Indies, but first the British and Australian forces had to be cleared out of Malaya and Singapore. With the invaders starting to come ashore all along the east coast of the Malay peninsula from Singora (now Songkhla) in Thailand to Kota Bharu in northern Malaya, the British Commander-in-Chief Eastern Fleet, Admiral Sir Tom Phillips, ordered the Dutch boats to form a line across the mouth of the gulf and stay out of the way of his powerful Force Z until the big guns of the battlecruiser REPULSE and battleship PRINCE OF WALES had blasted the Japanese transports out of the water. Then starting at dawn on 11 December the submarines were to move in and mop up the remains of the invasion fleet. (See Chart 1.)
When the shocking news came on 10 December that Phillips and the core of Force Z had been wiped out by Japanese bombers and torpedo planes, the new British commander, Vice Admiral Sir Geoffrey Layton, ordered the submarines to attack immediately, even though all were not yet in their prescribed positions. The Dutch boats were organized in two divisions under the overall command of Ltz 1 (Lieutenant Commander) A.J. Bussemaker in 0-16. Division I consisted of the flagship and K-XVII, relatively modem types completed between 1933 and 1936. (A third boat, K-XVIIl, was undergoing overhaul.) Division 11, which had been put under British operational control immediately after the Japanese attack, was made up of 1924/25 vintage K-XI, K-XII, and K-XIII. On 13 December two of the Dutch submarines drew blood.
At the northern end of the line, Bussemaker daringly took 0-16 into the shallow anchorage off Patani/Singora shortly after midnight and loosed six torpedoes at the unsuspecting Japanese transports, claiming four sinkings.1 Ltz 1 H.C.J. Coumou, in K-XII at the opposite end of line off Kota Bharu, reported hitting two more.’ Great was the jubilation among the Allies at this evidence
of retribution against the hitherto invulnerable Japanese. However, their rejoicing was premature. More enemy transports were reported landing troops ever farther south, and on 13 December Admiral Layton ordered four of the boats to new positions off Kuantan. 0-16, with only one torpedo remaining, was told to return to Singapore and enter port during daylight on 16 or 17 December. Two days later K-XII and K-XIII were similarly recalled, leaving K-XI and K-XVII on guard off Kuantan and the mouth of the Pahang River. These last two boats were ordered back on the 19111, to arrive at Singapore on 21 December. By then 0-16 was already missing and gloom in the Dutch submarine force was only deepened when K-XVll also failed to report in.
Then on 22 December a bedraggled Dutch sailor was found by an Australian patrol, trudging toward Singapore in the hapless procession of native refugees fleeing the advancing Japanese. Brought to naval headquarters, Comelis de Wolf had an incredible story to tell. A quartermaster on 0-16, he had been on watch on the rainy night of 14-15 December when at about 0230 a huge explosion rent the deck forward and sent a wave of water and diesel oil over the men on the bridge. In less than a minute the boat was gone and he was gasping for breath in the lukewarm water of the South China Sea. Nearby a few other survivors called to each other and in the distance the voice of their commander was heard in reply. The swimmers clustered together, but Bussemaker failed to appear and was heard no more. De Wolf asked the only officer present, Ltz 2 C.A. Jeekel, what had happened and was told that they must have hit a mine. Knowing that Tioman Island was a few miles west of them, the men-Jeekel, de Wolf, seaman first class F.X. van Toi, seaman second class F. Kruijdenhof, and machinist A.F. Bos-decided to strike out for its shore, but van Toi and Jeekel soon succumbed to exhaustion and drowned. In the morning a Dutch aircraft passed overhead but failed to spot the swimmers, and Kruijdenhof disappeared soon afterwards. Toward evening, after 17 hours of struggling against the current that kept sweeping the men southward away from the island, Bos could go on no longer. Asking de Wolf, if he survived, to remember him to his wife and two children, he gave up and sank from sight.
Alone in the tepid sea, the sturdy quartermaster pressed on until at about noon on the 17°’ he was washed up on the rocky shore of uninhabited Dayang Island. Exhausted and bleeding, he fell asleep Waking after a few hours, he was found by a lone native in a small prau and taken to a larger island [presumably Aur] where impoverished but hospitable natives nursed him as best they could. After three days, de Wolf, clad only in shorts, rigged up a sailing prau and crossed over to the mainland, then walked for nine hours on raw feet before encountering the Australian patrol.
In the confusion as the Japanese closed in on Singapore and the British and Dutch naval units withdrew to Java and ultimately to Australia, little attention could be given to de Wolf’s report. His interrogators concluded that 0-16’s navigators had been unable to fix the submarine’s position accurately because of the rain on 14 December. Pushed off course by the unexpectedly strong current, the boat must have run afoul of one of the British minefields that the submarines had been warned were in a restricted area south of Tioman Island.
As for K-XVII, all that could be learned was that her skipper, Ltz 1 H.C. Besancon, had exchanged messages with K-XII during a brief encounter on 14 December. Thereafter there was only silence. Although Ltz t Coumou had later noted an oil slick and some floating pieces of teak decking, these could have come from the British warships sunk a few days earlier. Possibly K-XVII too had blundered into the same mined area that had claimed 0-16, but for lack of evidence her loss was put down to an unknown cause. An official Dutch reassessment shortly after the war reaffirmed the original conclusions. There the matter stood, cases considered closed.
Cornelis de Wolf, after serving his country’s submarine force for the rest of the war, retired from the navy and died in 1983, unaware that the scenario based on his remarkable escape from death at sea was flawed. Given the duration of his swim, his sightings of distant island peaks, the strength of the ocean current, and the known place where he landed, 0-16 could not possibly have been far enough south to have run into the British minefield.
Later, new information surfaced from the shambles of Japanese naval records and suggested a somewhat different conclusion. By 1956 the British had found and published the information that on the night of 6-7 December the Japanese had planted a previously unknown mine line east of Tioman Island! Of two auxiliary minelayers (requisitioned merchant ships) sent to do the stealthy job, one had turned back immediately after being discovered by enemy reconnaissance planes, but T ATSUMIY A MARU had laid a string of 456 lethal eggs across the route later taken by the Dutch submarines.5 Although the Dutch naval authorities, having other problems on their minds, did not reopen the official case, the British and many students of World War II submarine operations now felt that the Dutch skippers were exonerated from the charge of having blundered into a friendly minefield. Years later, however, historians were still repeating the old assessment.
Unexpectedly, the case of K-XVll was reopened in 1980 as the result of a sensational Dutch television program, on which a man with his face masked claimed to have engineered the sinking of a Dutch submarine in the Pacific Ocean on orders from Winston Churchill. The boat, he said, had discovered the Japanese fleet on its way to Hawaii, but Churchill had suppressed the information to ensure that a successful Japanese attack would force America’s entry into the war. To hush up this traitorous act, the submarine and its crew had to be eliminated. This bizarre rehash of a discredited conspiracy theory was apparently perpetrated by a man calling himself Christopher Creighton, whose fantastic claims were used as the basis for a novel by Brian Garfield and later enlarged in a book by Creighton himself.’ In the course of the TV program, the interrogator asked whether the submarine in question might have been the missing K-XVll, although the sabotage was alleged to have taken place near the Fiji Islands. This ridiculous speculation and ensuing publicity provoked Hans C. Besaniron, Jr., the son of the lost boat’s commander and himself a retired officer of the Royal Netherlands Navy, to undertake a crusade to find his father’s resting place and disprove the grotesque fabrications of his detractors.
Although the naval authorities declined to provide financial backing for Besani; on, they were able to offer some useful information. In 1981 a treasure diver from Singapore, Michael Hatcher, reported having located a sunken Dutch submarine in the South China Sea. Wrecks in the area had become well known to local fishermen who were attracted by the abundant marine life around the sunken ships, only to have their nets snagged on underwater obstructions. Pursuing this lead, Besaniron contacted Hatcher and in May 1982 they moored over the wreck and sent divers down. The divers reported that the submarine had sunk deeply into the mud bottom, but they were able to recover the steering wheel from the exposed bridge. When its serial number was checked against naval records, the boat was positively identified as K-XVll.
Yet there was still a mystery: the wreck Jay well north of the reported location of the Japanese mine line. The missing pieces of the puzzle were provided nine years later by researchers in the Netherlands and Japan. Records disclosed that a Dutch flying boat had sighted TATSUMIYA MARU on 6 December and caused her to turn back prematurely. Before reversing course, however, she had laid her mines about 18 miles north of the assigned position. The remains of K-XVII lay exactly within the relocated minefield. (See Chart 2.)
Besancon’s quest and its findings had attracted considerable public attention, so when a Swedish diver, Sten Sjostrand, reported finding another sunken submarine in 1995 that he suspected to be Dutch, the naval authorities were interested. Initiating a search for family members of the men lost on 0-16, they organized an expedition to examine the wreck. This time Besancon was joined by his fellow retired naval officers, H.O. and A.P. Bussemaker, sons of the boat’s lost commander. The Dutch group also included an official naval observer, Ltz 1 J.M. van Zee, and two journalists. The Navy also contributed funds, photographic and video equipment, charts of the area, and blueprints and identification photos of the submarine. The hulk was quickly located at a depth of 53 meters (about 175 feet) some nine miles east of K-XVII in the same Japanese mine line, draped in fish nets and with a gaping hole forward of the bridge. Details of the boat’s layout confirmed it to be 0-16, and the divers removed the steering wheel and some other fittings for retention as official evidence and historical mementos. The brothers Bussemaker then dropped a memorial wreath on the wreck and van Zee offered a brief prayer on behalf of the Royal Netherlands Navy. The case of the two lost submarines was finally closed.
1. This article is based largely on a book by Dr. P.C. van Royen et al of the Instituut voor Maritieme Historie, ‘s-Gravenhage: Hr. Ms. K XVII en Hr. Ms. 0 16: De ondergang van twee Nederlandse ondeczeeboten io de Zuid-Chinese Zee (1941).
Amsterdam, Van Soeren & Co., 1997. I am indebted to Dr. Christina Bertrand for translating relevant sections from the Dutch.
2. Japanese records confirm that 0-16 sank three ships in shallow water at Patani: TOSAN MARU (8,6661′), KINKA [or KIN-KASAN] MARU (9,3061′), and ASOSAN MARU (8,811T). All were salvaged and sunk again later in the war. Dutch sources have also claimed SAKURA MARU (7, 170T) and AYATA [or AYATOSAN] MARU (9,788T) for 0-16, but Japanese sources say these ships were only damaged by aircraft at Kota Bharu. Japanese and Allied records for that period are extremely sketchy and often inconsistent, leaving some doubt as to the actual events.
3. K-XII is credited with sinking TORO MARU (1,939T) although some sources assign that ship to 0-16. The British claim that TAISAN [orTAISAN] MARU (3,5251′) was also sunk at Kota Bharu by K-XII (one writer credits K-XIII), but Japanese records fail to confirm any damage there.
4. Naval Staff History Second World War Submarines, Vol. 3, Qperatjons in Far Eastern Waters. London: Historical Section, Admiralty, 1956.
5. Van Royen identifies the second minelayer as the CHOSE MARU, but that ship is not listed in Warships of the Imperial Japanese Navy. 1869-1945 by Jentschura, Jung, & Mickel, a standard reference.
6. Dull, Paul S. A Battle History of the Imperial Japanese Navy (1941-1945). Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1978 (third printing 1982).
7. Garfield, Brian in co11aboration with “Christopher Creighton.” The Paladin: A novel based on fact. New York: Simon & Schuster, ca 1980. Van Royen identifies the other book as: Creighton, Christopher. Operatie JB· Het laaste grote geheim yan WOII. London/Amsterdam, 1996.