The HNLMS Abraham Crijnssen, commissioned in 1936, was a Dutch minesweeper renowned for its audacious escape from Japanese forces during World War II.

Utilizing an ingenious camouflage strategy, the ship’s crew disguised it as a tropical island by day and navigated by night, evading enemy detection over eight tense days until reaching the safety of Australian waters.

Contents

Background

The HNLMS Abraham Crijnssen was part of the Jan van Amstel-class minesweepers, a series of vessels built specifically for the Royal Netherlands Navy in the 1930s.

This class of ships, while not the largest or most heavily armed in the naval fleet, played a crucial role in maritime operations. Their primary function was to clear the seas of naval mines, devices that posed significant threats to both military and civilian vessels. These mines could be moored to the sea bed or float just below the surface, ready to detonate upon contact, making them an unseen and deadly adversary.

Read More That Time Julius Caesar Was Kidnapped By Pirates

Named after Abraham Crijnssen, a 17th-century Dutch naval officer, the ship was a testament to the engineering and naval design principles of its era.

Aerial port view of the Crijnssen in 1943.

Boasting a steel hull and measuring roughly 56 meters in length, the HNLMS Abraham Crijnssen was equipped with an array of sweeping gear, depth charges, and a modest set of weapons for defensive purposes. She had a crew complement of around 45 men.

The 1930s, when the ship was commissioned, was a time of escalating tensions globally. The specter of war loomed large, especially in Europe and Asia. Recognizing the importance of maintaining clear naval routes for the movement of troops, supplies, and commerce, the Dutch, like many naval powers of the time, invested in minesweepers such as the Abraham Crijnssen. This preparation proved to be prescient, as these ships would soon find themselves in the thick of World War II’s vast and intricate theater of operations.

Read More Fort Drum – The Concrete Battleship

While the HNLMS Abraham Crijnssen’s primary duty was to deal with naval mines, her fate during the early stages of World War II would thrust her into an unexpected limelight, exemplifying resilience and creativity in the face of overwhelming adversity.

The Pacific Theatre And The Fall Of Java

The Pacific Theatre during World War II is remembered as a vast expanse of water, punctuated by fierce naval battles, island hopping campaigns, and intense aerial warfare.

By 1942, this theatre had become one of the central stages of the war, witnessing the direct confrontation between the Allies and the Japanese Empire. The scale and complexity of warfare in the Pacific were unprecedented, with distances between islands being vast and the logistics of war demanding.

Read More U-118 – An Unexpected Visitor to the Shores of Hastings

Java, as part of the Dutch East Indies, held significant strategic value. Rich in natural resources, particularly oil, rubber, and tin, it was a prize coveted by the Japanese to fuel their war machine and expansionist dreams. Its location also acted as a barrier, preventing the Japanese from advancing southwards towards Australia and the broader Pacific.

The Crijnssen disguised as an island.

In early 1942, the situation for the Allies in Southeast Asia was deteriorating rapidly. The Japanese had launched a series of successful campaigns, including their rapid conquest of the Philippines, British Malaya, and Singapore. This swift advance meant that Java was under imminent threat.

The Battle of the Java Sea, which took place in late February 1942, was a desperate attempt by a combined Allied fleet (consisting of American, British, Dutch, and Australian ships) to halt the Japanese advance.

Despite their brave resistance, the Allies were outmaneuvered and outgunned, leading to significant losses. The result was a crippling blow to the Allied naval presence in the region. Java was left vulnerable, and shortly after the naval defeat, Japanese forces launched an amphibious invasion of the island.

Read More SS Richard Montgomery – The Time Bomb In The Thames

The fall of Java to Japanese forces in early March 1942 marked the end of Allied resistance in the Dutch East Indies. With its capture, the Japanese secured not only the valuable resources of the region but also a strategic stronghold in the heart of Southeast Asia.

The few Allied ships that remained, including the HNLMS Abraham Crijnssen, now faced a grim choice: attempt to flee to friendly territories or risk being destroyed or captured by the dominant Japanese forces.

The Daring Escape Of The Abraham Crijnssen

In the shadow of the overpowering Japanese advance and with the backdrop of the recently lost Battle of the Java Sea, the situation for the remaining Allied vessels in the region, including the HNLMS Abraham Crijnssen, had become incredibly dire.

Read More The Battle Of The River Plate – Hunting The Graf Spee

The seas surrounding Java were now teeming with Japanese warships, submarines, and aircraft, which actively sought to neutralize any remaining Allied naval presence.

The Crijnssen in her disguise.

Given her design and capabilities, the HNLMS Abraham Crijnssen wasn’t built for direct confrontations with larger, more powerful enemy vessels. Her slow speed, when compared to many of the Japanese ships, meant that an open dash to safer waters was not only risky but almost certainly suicidal. Faced with these odds, the crew of the Crijnssen had to think outside the box, leading to one of the most creative escape tactics in naval history.

Using the natural landscape to their advantage, the crew came up with a plan to disguise the minesweeper. By day, they anchored close to the shorelines of islands and covered the ship with local vegetation, such as tree branches and bushes.

The Crijnssen covered in branches.

The goal was to make the Crijnssen resemble a small, inconspicuous island from a distance. To enemy aircraft flying overhead or distant ships scanning the horizon, the disguised Crijnssen would, in theory, blend seamlessly with the many other islands and islets dotting the region.

Once night fell, under the protective cover of darkness, the minesweeper would set sail, moving closer to her destination. This nocturnal movement allowed the Crijnssen to avoid detection, as the Japanese were less likely to spot her without the assistance of daylight.

Read More Operation Cerberus – The Channel Dash

For eight tension-filled days and nights, this delicate dance of camouflage by day and cautious navigation by night continued. Every sunrise brought a new challenge of finding an ideal spot for concealment, and every sunset heralded another journey through dangerous waters. The crew’s meticulous efforts, combined with a bit of luck, meant that the Crijnssen successfully evaded Japanese detection throughout her journey.

The Crijnssen arrived in Fremantle, Western Australia on March 20, 1942, the last vessel to escape Java and the only ship of her class in the region to survive.

What was the last ship out of Java?

The last allied ship to come out of the Battles of Java Sea was the Abraham Crijnssen. As Japanese forces gained the superiority in the battle, an evacuation order was issued. In fact, the Abraham Crijnssen escaped by sailing close to the shore at night and hiding in the foliage to pretend it is an island during the day.