This month it is 80 year ago that the very strategic territory of Singapore was lost to the Japanese invaders.

The American-British-Dutch-Australian (ABDA) Command, or ABDACOM, was a short-lived, supreme command for all Allied forces in Southeast Asia, the area also included the supply port of Darwin, in the Northern Territory, Australia. 

ABDA had been established  at Bandoeng, Java on 10 January 1942 and became operational following the declaration of war by Japan on 12 January 1942.

The main objective of the command, led by British General Sir Archibald Wavell, was to maintain control of the “Malay Barrier”, a notional line running down the Malayan Peninsula, through Singapore and the southernmost islands of Dutch East Indies. Although ABDACOM was only in existence for a few weeks and presided over one defeat after another, it did provide some useful lessons for combined Allied commands later in the war.

Its theatre of operation was huge, but its force was thinly spread , covering an area from Burma in the west, to Dutch New Guinea (DNG) and the Philippines in the east. The western half of northern Australia was added to the ABDA area. 

The reason why the Dutch participated in ABDA and therefore relinquish direct control over its own forces was based on two promises. 

  • The Brits were certain that they could defend Singapore and that this would stop the Japaneses moving on to NEI.
  • ABDA promised that substantial reinforcement would become available if needed for the deference of NEI.

ABDA was launched on shaky grounds. There were no previous arrangements between the four nationalities, they used different equipment and had not trained together. The countries also had different priorities of the national governments.

  • British leaders were primarily interested in retaining control of Singapore.
  • The military capacity of the Dutch East Indies had suffered as a result of the defeat of the Netherlands in 1940, and the Dutch administration was focused on defending the island of Java.
  • The Australian government was heavily committed to the war in North Africa and Europe, and had few readily accessible military resources.
  • The US was preoccupied with the Philippines, which at the time was a U.S. Commonwealth territory, also General Douglas MacArthur took little notice of ABDA and operated on his own.

While the coalition went from loss to loss there were a few successes.

The ABDA attack led by the U.S. Navy at Balikpapan, Borneo on January 24, costed the Japanese six transport ships, however it had little effect on them capturing the prized oil wells of Borneo. However, the defence force was able to destruct the refinery and it was not until later in 1944 before the Japanese were able to bring production back to pre-war levels.

Perhaps the most notable success for ABDA forces was the guerrilla campaign in Timor, waged by Australian and Dutch infantry for almost 12 months after Japanese landings there on February 19.

An other unit was able to defend the airfield of Babo (DNG) long enough to destroy it before the Japanese reached it. Sadly the non-white workers were not allowed to join the evacuation of the force because of Australia’s White Policy.

After the fall of Singapore on 15 February, British interest and its capabilities in ABDA started to waver. While the Dutch had thrown in their equipment (and lost most of it) for the defence of Singapore, they got little in return now NEI became the Japanese next target.

From 15 February onward, Japanese bombers attacked the capital Batavia (now Jakarta) and government operations were removed to Bandung. The promised reinforcement from the other Allies never eventuated. This also had a major effect on the Battle of the Java Sea. 

Following the destruction of the ABDA naval strike force under Rear-Admiral Karel Doorman, at the Battle of the Java Sea, on 27 February 1942, ABDA effectively ceased to exist.

The NEI Government fled to Australia. In all some 20,000 Dutch people stranded or fled to Australia after the Japanese invasion. In 1944 the NEI Government-in-Exile was established in Brisbane.

Paul Budde

For more information see: Dutch-Australian history -Netherlands East Indies/Indonesia

Key source: Allies in bind: Australia and the Netherlands East Indies relations during World War Two, by Dr Jack Ford.