Chapter CXVII: An Ethical Fleet.
While the latest news from Japan was keenly followed by all nations with an interest in the Pacific, the most interesting reactions to the Kanchazu Island incident was to be found in the Netherlands. This is perhaps not surprising as Amsterdam’s attitude to the Dutch East Indies (DEI) was somewhat unusual, particularly in terms of its priorities, and certainly very different from its fellow colonial powers view of their colonies. It was however also a matter of timing, the news from the East arriving at a very febrile time in Dutch politics.
The details of the Dutch ‘ethical’ colonial policy and its success (or lack of it) need not detain us, what is of interest is the contrast between Amsterdam’s view that it was responsible for the “material welfare” of its colonial subjects and the ongoing neglect of the colonies defences. In any other colony this could be put down to the usual gap between the ideals of colonial policy and the usually harsher reality, high minded ideals in the capital tended to produce underfunded and patchily implemented schemes on the ground. However in the case of the DEI it was the 4th largest oil exporter in the world at that time and home to almost half a million Dutch settlers, to say nothing of the rubber, tin and sundry other valuable exports, and so was of considerable economic importance to the Netherlands. The neglect of defence was also not due to ignorance, the threat to the DEI from potential Japanese aggression had been identified as far back as 1912 and the recent rumblings from Tokyo had not gone unnoticed. Finally it was not a matter of misplaced faith in the army or air force, it was recognised that no matter how well the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army, and it’s associated air wing, fought, losing control of the seas around the DEI meant losing the supply lines to the Netherlands and so dooming any defence.
So despite recognising the importance of the islands, the potential threats that existed and the need for a strong naval force to make any defence credible, at the time of the Kanchazu Island incident the DEI was defended by a mere three light cruisers; the two ancient Java
s and the newer, if far smaller, De Ruyter
. It was in fact mere luck that all three were available, given the tropical conditions and the age of the vessels the Royal Netherlands Navy (RNN) only expected to have two of them available at any one time with the third in dock. In total the RNN hoped to muster a pair of light cruisers supported by a single flotilla of destroyers and a dozen or so ‘K’-class patrol submarines, a force not even large enough to effectively cover the two million square miles of the DEI territory, let alone defend against any likely opponent.
The lack of ships was not a new problem, as mentioned above the idea of reinforcing the DEI to protect against potential Japanese aggression had first been discussed before the Great War. While this scheme had progressed as far as a series of designs for an 8 x 350mm (13.8 inch) gunned, 22knot ~25,000 tonne class of battleships, the project was cancelled due to the outbreak of war in Europe. An attempt to revive the programme in the 1920s was watered down to merely a few extra cruisers, however even this weak scheme failed to pass parliament and was rejected. In the intervening years the bare minimum had been spent on the RNN, when the ancient De Zeven Provinciën
was retired to the training role she was replaced in the DEI by a very light cruiser, the De Ruyter
. For all the faults of the De Zeven Provinciën
(she was slow, old and, after a very bloody mutiny, had an unsavoury reputation in the fleet) she was relatively well armoured and mounted heavy 280mm (11.1 inch) guns, without her the heaviest gun in the DEI was the 150mm guns on the light cruisers. As always the harsh mathematics of gunnery made that difference even worse in terms of shell weight, the 280mm guns had fired 300kg shells, the 150mm guns merely 45kg. This would be bad enough were the RNN facing ‘normal’ 8 inch heavy cruisers, as it was they were facing the IJN’s cruisers which were only notionally treaty-compliant, making them far more dangerous opponents.
The Royal Netherlands Navy latest vessel, the ‘light cruiser’ HNLMS Tromp, under construction on the slipway of the Netherlands Shipbuilding Company in Amsterdam. The Tromp was not launched until May of 1937 and she would not be commissioned until the summer of 1938, when she was slated for deployment to the DEI. While any reinforcement was welcome the Tromp represented the peak (or perhaps nadir) of an unfortunate trend in Dutch shipbuilding; the shrinking light cruiser. Where the pre-Great War Javas were 8,000 tonne ships mounting 10 x 150mm (6 inch) guns, the newer De Ruyter had a mere 7 x 150mm guns on her 6,500 tonnes. The Tromps took this trend still further, managing to cram 6 x 150mm guns onto a mere 3,500 tonnes. A case can be made that the official designation of the Tromps as ‘Flotilla Leaders’ was not a political trick by the RNN to get the ships past parliament, but an accurate statement of their capability. That said at least the Tromps mounted torpedoes and a secondary armament, both things the De Ruyter lacked despite it’s larger tonnage.
With such a history one would not expect further sabre rattling from Japan to prompt a reaction in Amsterdam. Yet in the aftermath of Kanchazu Island, with Japanese admirals loudly making calls from Japan to ‘look south’, the Dutch government began seriously looking at major naval expansion. The difference was politics and economics, the situation in the Netherlands in 1937 was far different from that found in previous Japanese scares such as the declaration of Manchuria. The two factors were intertwined but can be boiled down to the fact that the Netherlands had experienced a very bad Great Depression, as discussed in Chapter LIV earlier. Low trade tariffs in a world of high tariffs, keeping to the gold standard and a mania for balanced budgets had done terrible damage to the country and it was apparent at least one, if not more, of those sacred cows was going to have to be killed. The Colijn government had pinned it’s hopes on the ‘Gold Bloc’ conference in late 1936, arranged by France it had gathered those countries still on the gold standard (essentially just the USA, France and her neighbours and allies) to discuss trade and economic links. While it had mainly consisted of the various finance and foreign ministers agreeing that the gold standard was an excellent idea and that those weak nation that had left it would soon regret it, there was an agreement to drop some tariffs for inter-Bloc trade. While helpful to the Dutch economy this was not enough and as the May 1937 election approached the government parties were expected to suffer badly while extremist made gains.
In the event the election was somewhat more complex. On the far right the Nationaal-Socialistische Beweging in Nederland (National Socialist Movement in the Netherlands, NSB) singularly failed to take advantage. Having proudly associated itself with Italian fascism and German Nazism, the NSB’s fortunes had declined after the Abyssinian War and the Rhineland Crisis left those two countries far less attractive examples to emulate. A massive row over whether to publically break the link with Nazism or keep the association completed the NSB’s woes and saw their vote collapse leaving them with no seats in parliament, a fate which prompted yet further recriminations and infighting. On the far left the communist and ‘revolutionary socialists’ were indulging in their favourite hobby of arguing over obscure points of ideology, splitting and expelling people, so were far too busy to actually put much effort in the election and duly failed to make any gains. When consider the main parties, those governing in Colijn’s coalition and the main opposition socialist worker’s party, their fate was determined by the ‘pillarised’ Dutch system. Put simply large sections of society would never vote outside ‘their’ religious or social pillar almost regardless of how well that pillar’s party had performed. This served to put limits on how widely a party could appeal, but also limited how badly a party could suffer, so the two blocks swapped a couple of seats but the balance of power was broadly unchanged. It was therefore the conservative nationalist Verbond voor Nationaal Herstel (Alliance for National Reconstruction, VNH) who made the most impressive gains, the VNH benefiting from the implosion of the NSB who had been threatening to completely over-shadow them. It’s also worth nothing that the Liberale Staatspartij "de Vrijheidsbond" (Liberal State Party, LSP) managed to break out of their death-spiral and actually increase their vote and seat count for the first time since they had formed in the 1920s.
Therefore we see that, despite Colijn returning as Prime Minister, the government that had to react to the Kanchazu Island incident in June was very different from the one that had decided to replace a coastal defence ship with a crippled ‘flotilla leader’. Forced to rely on the VNH to bolster the government majority the hawks in the cabinet, such as the recently re-instated Defence Minister Deckers, were in a much stronger position that before the election. Moreover Colijn was aware that keeping the gold standard and a balanced budget wasn’t working and one of them would have to be sacrificed, after the recent Gold Bloc conference the Dutch establishment was even more convinced of the wisdom of the gold standard so that left only the budget to take the strain. Therefore it should not be a surprise that a proposal to exempt re-armament spending from the balanced budget as it was ‘exceptional’ found more favour than it’s actual merits deserved. While a great many groups, not least the resurgent LSP, were quick to attack what was, in reality, a face saving gesture to cover a massive u-turn, the Colijn government pushed on, banking on the success of the policy covering up any problems.
After all this the decision of what to build was surprisingly straightforward, the RNN had been working on plans and schemes to defend the DEI for over two decades and had a very good idea of what was required. In an admiral display of honesty the RNN began with the assumption that the Netherlands could not single handily defend the DEI. The country simply could not afford to match the IJN’s main fleet or even maintain a force that could credibly threaten it, thus any defence plan had to assume that the Netherlands were not fighting alone. This did lead to the possibility of a ‘parasitic’ defence, relying entirely on the RN and/or USN to defend the DEI which had been the country’s unspoken policy for years. Aside from it being somewhat distasteful, this scheme relied on the entire IJN being tied up for the entire war, in the event even a single IJN heavy cruiser squadron threatened the DEI the plan fell apart. Thus evolved the deterrent plan, basing a strong enough force in the DEI that it would be a risky proposition for anything less than the IJN main fleet, which it was hoped would always be tied up facing the main force of the USN or RN. This left the RNN looking at a force strong enough to take on and easily beat the IJN’s heavy cruisers, fast enough to cover a large area and evade superior forces but without the crippling expense of a full blown fast battleship. There was a name for such a ship; a battlecruiser. While the Netherlands had built large ships and warships it had never constructed large warships before and so the need for foreign technical assistance was soon recognised. As the government and RNN would soon discover, the choice of foreign partner would be a far more difficult decision that merely deciding what to build.
Hmmm, 2,000 words of Dutch politico-economic-naval goodness. Just be thankful I didn't go of on yet another tangent about the Dutch 'Ethical Policy' in the East Indies; absolutely fascinating, particularly in comparison to the French 'Civilising Mission' and the British 'Indirect Rule', but off almost no relevance at all to anything in the actual story.
There was an election in May 1937, in OTL Holland had dropped the gold standard by then and had started to (slowly) recover, so the governing coalition swapped a few seats but stayed in power, the fascist NSB picked up four seats and the Liberal parties got squeezed. TTL as the US is still on gold and France hasn't been forced off the Dutch are sticking with it, as far as I can tell all the parties were really, really hyper keen on the idea. So the economy is grim but, as Germany has not had a good time of it, the FSB is no position to do anything and the hard left are fighting themselves (which is both OTL and seemingly compulsory for all such parties in democratic countries). The centre left opposition pick up a few seats, more than OTL, but not enough to form a government, so Colijn gets in again but has to rely on the VNH who are really keen on defence spending and keeping the DEI (OTL the FSB stole their support, TTL they are the best non-German right wing and/or strong defence option). As more than a few of the OTL Colijn government agreed, I can see this being an acceptable argument, particularly if the alternative is killing the gold standard.
All ships OTL (sadly for the RNN) as was the thinking behind the battlecruiser, may or may not have been a good plan but of course was only started far too late in OTL. This time round the entire process has been dragged forward 18months and will go at a higher priority than OTL, so as has been revealed previously the Dutch are getting some battlecruisers in the water. The Dutch have more options than OTL and different priorities, so will not be going straight to Germany to ask for some Scharnhorst plans. Who they ask, and what plans they get, will be the next update.