Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

History Matters - complexities, but fighting for the same cause

Jim Belshaw continues the story of Camp Victory and the Casino Boys
WORKING TOGETHER. Australian Army Officer with Netherlands East Indies troops, Cairns, c 1940. While they had different aims their immediate goal was the same - to defeat the Japanese 
With the surrender of the Dutch to the Japanese on 8 March 1942, remnants of both the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army (KNIL) and Air Force (ML-KNIL) escaped to Australia, as did thousands of officials and civilians. This created complexities that would play out over the years of the war and its immediate aftermath, including the establishment of Indonesia.

Both the KNIL troops and civilians included Netherlands East Indies (NEI) nationals as well as Dutch citizens, adding to the many national groups brought to Australia by the war. The White Australia Policy was still in force, but the war situation forced its partial suspension.

The NEI nationals included people who were opposed to Dutch rule, some of whom had been interned by the Dutch prior to the outbreak of the war. While some were interned in Australia, another part of our story, for the present the war situation muted the tensions between nationalists and Dutch loyalists. However, these tensions would become significant later with the defeat of the Japanese and the declaration by Sukarno of Indonesian independence.

Two New England military camps would then became major flash points. The first was the Wallangarra Camp, home to the Australian Army’s 36th Australian Employment Company. The second, and more important, was Camp Victory at Casino, an NEI KNIL camp home to KNIL’s Technical Battalion. .

In 1942, further complexity was added by the existence in Australia of what were effectively two governments, the home Dutch Government in exile based in London along with a separate NEI administration. This reported to the Dutch Government, but was also a seen as (and organised as) a separate national administration with its own military forces.

The Dutch and Australian Governments had different objectives. To the Australians, the priority was to protect Australia by defeating Japan. To the Dutch and especially the NEI administration, the objective was to reassume control of the Netherlands East Indies by defeating Japan. For both, the immediate priority was defeat of the Japanese.

A number of NEI nationals were absorbed into the Australian Army’s Employment Companies. The work of these companies in providing the hard physical labour needed to maintain the war effort and support the fighting troops is poorly recognised.

By the war’s end, 39 companies had been formed totalling 15,000 men. Of the 39 companies, 11 were made of aliens, non British citizens. Two of the 11, the 23rd and the Wallangarra based 36th Co were made up in whole or part from NEI nationals.

In parallel, efforts proceeded to reorganise and restructure the NEI Armed Forces and Government administration, culminating in the formal formation of the Netherlands East Indies (NEI) Government-in-Exile, the only foreign government ever to be established on Australian soil.  

This was necessary for military and diplomatic reasons, but would create significant problems as tensions rose at the end of the War. 
 Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 8 February 2017. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because they are not on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited/History Matters columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013, here for 2014, here for 2015, here for 2016, here 2017.

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