Netherlands inexorably used heavy weapons in Indonesia (1945-1949), accepting civilian deaths

25-pounders of the Dutch artillery in Indonesia firing projectiles (1948). Photo25-pounders of the Dutch artillery in Indonesia firing projectiles (1948). Photo: Service Army Contacts / Netherlands Institute for Military History
That the Netherlands was guilty of using excessive force during the Indonesian War of Independence (1945-1949) is well known nowadays. But that Dutch forces used modern weaponry is a forgotten chapter, military historian Azarja Harmanny says. He researched the Dutch usage of artillery and air forces. The use of heavy weaponry proved to be deliberate and large-scale, and the fact that these weapons caused civilian deaths was accepted.

Artillery and air forces

After World War II, the Republic of Indonesia was proclaimed, but the Netherlands did not accept the declaration of independence. In the Indonesian War of Independence that followed, Indonesian guerrillas fought against the colonial army, as well as a large expeditionary force sent out from the Netherlands.

Azarja Harmanny points out that the war’s historiography and coverage has mostly focused on executions, torture, and other depredations of violence. "However, the Netherlands also used modern weapons. This use of artillery such as guns and air forces with bombers and fighters is quite a forgotten chapter."

Daily shelling and airstrikes

Dutch troops carried out at least 1480 artillery shellings and 942 air operations between 1946 and 1949, Harmanny’s research shows. "That’s an average of as much as one shelling and airstrike per day. In some cases, there were large numbers of casualties, and Dutch troops were not necessarily mindful of the local population."

One of the most disastrous events Harmanny mentions took place in Karanganyar in Central Java. "During a purge, shells fell on a busy market, killing possibly hundreds of civilians. This was on 19 October 1947, when a ceasefire was in force. So Dutch troops were not even allowed there at all."

Efficiency of modern weapons

The efficiency of heavy weaponry was very situation-dependent. Artillery was particularly successful as a deterrent. "Sometimes the mere presence of a cannon or warship was enough to restore calm," Harmanny says. Modern weapons also helped the Dutch hold their own against a numerically strong opponent and reduce the risks to their own men. "By bringing out the big guns, the ’enemy’ could be kept at bay."

During a purge, shells fell on a busy market, killing possibly hundreds of civilians.

Azarja Harmanny

Yet heavy weaponry was certainly not always effective - large-scale actions in particular were often a shot in the dark and thus ineffective. "The noise of approaching war machines often allowed Indonesians to flee in time," Harmanny explains. Moreover, by waging guerrilla warfare, they could undo the effects of heavy weapons. "The guerrillas were quicker and could make better use of the difficult terrain."

The efficacy of heavy weapons declined as the war progressed. "Dutch soldiers became more and more frustrated by the elusive and invisible adversary. Out of revenge, they increasingly shelled kampongs if they thought Indonesian fighters might be hiding there. And not infrequently the population was the victim."

Dutch war mentality

The Netherlands had little regard for the fate of civilians, Harmanny says. "As a legacy of the war mentality of previous years, military operations always took precedence. In the colonial era before 1940, uprisings against Dutch rule were invariably crushed with brute force, and during World War II, heavy weapons had played a major role. In Indonesia, the Dutch military continued on this course."

Punishment for unjustified use of heavy weaponry was virtually non-existent, even after the end of the conflict. The Dutch army leadership did, however, sometimes oppose the prevailing war mentality. After all, the talk was not of a war against Indonesia, but of ’police actions’. "At the very beginning, army commander General Spoor, for example, apologised for the shooting of trains and passenger cars. It would not happen again, he said then, but these things kept occurring until the end of the war."

The Dutch cabinet’s response

Last year, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte apologised for the structural acts of extreme violence the Dutch used during the Indonesian War of Independence. A step in the right direction, Harmanny believes, but there is still much to be done. "In a response to our study, the cabinet indicated that more is needed than just apologies. For instance, it should be possible to re-examine the cases of conscientious objectors and soldiers who refused orders if they were linked to extreme violence. They often faced hefty penalties."

Cooperation and partnership are also crucial, Harmanny stresses. In his research project, he explicitly sought cooperation with Indonesians. "And it is also up to society to keep this important history firmly embedded in the collective memory, preferably together with Indonesia and Indonesians. To listen to their stories."

PhD research Azarja Harmanny

Azarja Harmanny will defend his thesis ’Iron Fist. Artillery and Air Forces in the Indonesian National Revolution, 1945-1949’ on 12 April. The study is part of the  NIMH ,  NIOD , and  KITLV   research programme Independence, Decolonisation, Violence, and War in Indonesia, 1945-1949 .

Read more about Azarja Harmanny’s PhD defence on 12 April

Read more about Azarja Harmanny’s research in his book ’Iron Fist’ (an English translation is coming soon)