Dutch Perception Of Admiral Helfrich

Dutch Perception Of Admiral Helfrich

Tom Womack
Tom Womack

May 30th, 2010, 11:19 pm #1

I'm doing some research on the Battle of the Java Sea and am currently reading through the after-action report written by Rear-Admiral C.E.L. Helfrich. While not outright negative, Helfrich certainly has some questionable comments on Doorman's leadership during the battle. At the same time I have noticed that Helfrich is a hell of a "Monday Morning Quarterback" (i.e. he has excellent hindsight when pointing out the errors of others after the fact). He also had the luxury of explaining (defending?) his actions while Doorman and certain other Allied commanders who died did not.

My question is how do the Dutch (both navy and/or historians) view Helfrich in the face of history? Doorman has had at least one capital ship (maybe more) named after him; and as best as I can tell, he is highly regarded in the KM as doing his best in a near hopeless situation. But after reading Helfrich's comments I am left to wonder how he himself is regarded. Obviously, he held a high post-war position in the KM so he was clearly held in esteem. But then again, so was Douglas MacArthur...

Not trying to be divisive, but would be interested to hear what our Dutch colleagues (and others) think of Admiral Helfrich some 68 years later. I get the distinct impression that Helfrich thought he could have done better in command during the Battle of the Java Sea. I also get the impression that he consistently "meddled" in the operational command of Admiral Doorman.

Your thoughts...comments...?
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Nelson
Nelson

May 31st, 2010, 3:57 am #2

Tom,

I think yours is a very good question. I note that you use Gen. Douglas MacArthur as a figure of comparison, but I suggest that is not apt. Yes, Mac was viewed, likely correctly, as imperious, aloof, divisive, very difficult (when he wanted to be), self-centered, self-indulgent (and I could go on...and on), but NOT as an ineffective or incompetent general. Keeping his annoying vanity and personal flaws as distinctly separate entities, MacArthur's generalship was held in esteem. I don't think that's where you're starting with Admiral C.E.L. Helfrich, i.e., the very question you ask cannot assume a widespread esteem with his leadership abilities. Equally, it cannot assume a lack of such esteem. Whether he enjoyed general esteem on the part of the Dutch public is what you're endeavoring to answer.

Nelson
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Joined: December 27th, 2007, 10:57 pm

May 31st, 2010, 5:42 am #3

"MacArthur's generalship was held in esteem."

Not necessarily by everybody. There's questions about his conduct of the defense of the Philippines in 1941 - 1942 as described in William Bartsch's "December 8, 1941: MacArthur's Pearl Harbor" and in Ronald Spector's "Eagle Against the Sun (The American War with Japan)" and elsewhere.

And there's the ditty my father taught me,

"They sent for the Army to come to Tulagi
"But Douglas MacArthur said no
"He said there's a reason
"It isn't the season
"And besides there is no USO"

Jim Broshot
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Nelson
Nelson

May 31st, 2010, 1:42 pm #4

> Not necessarily by everybody. There's questions about his conduct of the defense of the Philippines in 1941 - 1942 as described in William Bartsch's "December 8, 1941: MacArthur's Pearl Harbor" and in Ronald Spector's "Eagle Against the Sun (The American War with Japan)" and elsewhere. >

And Bartsch and Spector are entirely correct....but so am I. Instead of an immediate and determined response to a war everyone in uniform long knew was coming, Mac was guilty of initial dithering, indecisiveness, and doubtless fearful handwringing. With the kind of warning he had of the Pearl Harbor attack, he certainly should have had his bombing force on the way to Formosa tout de suite, no argument from me. H.P. Willmott (1982), EMPIRES IN THE BALANCE: JAPANESE AND ALLIED PACIFIC STRATEGIES TO APRIL 1942, reminds the reader that in some armies, a general guilty of behavior so dilatory that it caused a disaster of such proportions would have been stood against a wall and shot (many would exclaim rightly so). From his tunnel on Corregidor, he emerged only once, and but briefly, to visit his beleaguered boys on Bataan, and at least in its perception by those left behind, the unseemly manner in which Mac slunk out of the P.I. in the dark of night invited a new and second definition of "Dugout Doug". But...BIG BUT...it was the esteem in which he was otherwise held that ensured both his professional survival and the logistical support necessary for his SoWesPac campaign. Sure, he had his Buna, but Nimitz had his Tarawa and Pelelieu (the latter made even worse by whether it was necessary). The Aussies may have tired of his supercilious ways, but they were damned glad to see him in March 1942, given the reality that Oz had all but been cut loose by Mother England (whether this American patrician was much better is arguable). Mac performed superbly in Korea, with hubris, insubordination, and the fact that Truman didn't like him finally doing him in, with his subsequent presidential bid going nowhere. That, I argue, is NOT the question with Admiral Helfrich, who like MacArthur was snotty and difficult, but who seems to have been utterly ineffectual in garnering the confidence of Allied naval leaders to boot. I concede your implicit point, in that during this period of time, facing the relentless tide of a Japanese offense both aggressive and brilliant, neither man was at the top of his game. Just maybe Helfrich could have turned his fortunes around as well, who knows? Anyway, Tom's question invites serious discussion on Helfrich in this forum. [We've hashed over Mac more than once already.]

Nelson
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Melmoth the Waggish
Melmoth the Waggish

May 31st, 2010, 5:28 pm #5

Hello,

I cannot begin to speak for the Dutch, but will make the following observations from an American P.O.V.:

1.) While not everyone thinks MacArthur was THAT successful as a military leader, he did do a good job of sitting in his Dai Ichi Seimei palace in Tokyo as SCAP and watching over our defeated enemies as they tried to piece together their destroyed country. THAT form of generalship was his real forte, some might argue.

2.) Be that as it may, on a more concrete level, I spoke in January of this year with an Asiatic Fleet/ABDA officer who was imprisoned in Japan after his capture. He recalled to me that US personnel there in Japan--he said they were Army Air Force officers, IIRC--were still "hopping mad" (his exact words) at GEN MacArthur for his inept leadership during the Philippines campaign.

3.) I note this because he told me, gently but quite seriously, that he hoped someone would write a book about the Java Campaign, and that it would "do for Helfrich" what other works have done for MacArthur's reputation...Some food for thought there for our PacWar historians.

4.) I have Helfrich's Memoirs in a mediocre English translation, and they are worth reading. He makes an effort to clear up a number of points concerning his decisions. Others are left ambiguous, however. Like Geoff Layton of the RN, Helfrich is generous in his criticism of the USN's mishandling of their submarine forces...It's hard to argue with this, really, although one may take a somewhat different view after going through the Wartime Logbooks--which are available now online--of the American submarines that were active in the Philippines and Java campaigns.

5.) I recently found a British diplomatic communication (by the British Consul at Batavia) that includes a fascinating & detailed account of his escape from Java as the island fell. This report has details as well of his meeting with VADM Helfrich on Feb. 27th in Lembang (?) when the bad news of the battle in the Javazee was coming in, and sheds some light on Helfrich's state at that time.

The NEI campaign has always struck me as one of the Pacific War's great tragedies, yet I can't imagine anyone seeing VADM Helfrich as a tragic figure. That leaves the obvious question, of course.


FWIW,

MthW
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Joined: December 29th, 2007, 8:30 pm

May 31st, 2010, 10:26 pm #6



Conrad Emile Lambrecht Helfrich was born in Semarang (Java) in 1886 as sun of a indo-european KNIL medical officer.

From his time in the the naval academy in Den Helder on he is described as energetic and intelligent. Rather soon he was sent to the Higher Naval Academy, first as pupil but later as a teacher during three years.

In 1931 he became chief-staff of the naval forces in the DEI and from 1935 to 1937
he was in command of the squadron there.
Almost two years he commanded the Higher Naval Academy as rear admiral before he finally was promoted to "Commandant Zeemacht" in the DEI as vice admiral in 1939.

In december 1941 he instructed all naval forces to fight to the end even when confronted with stronger enemy forces. This had to be continued until Japanese forces landed successfully on the island Java, than the remaining ships were ordered to depart to safe allied ports to continue the war with Japan.

Several naval officers stated that Helfrich failed to realise that the absolute Japanese air superiority would be a decisive factor in the coming battle in the Java sea.
His instructions to rear admiral Doorman on febr. 26th "to attack the enemy forces until they were destroyed" was almost romantically unrealistic.

He defended this instruction in a post war parlementary inquiry, but in private he confessed
his doubt about the correctness of it until he died in 1962.


From: Dr.L. de Jong: "Het Koninkrijk der Nederlanden in de Tweede Wereldoorlog" ,
Part 11a (1984).



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Kit
Kit

June 1st, 2010, 2:02 am #7

Melmoth,

You wrote:

"While not everyone thinks MacArthur was THAT successful as a military leader..."

For the mo' I'd like to keep my opinion of Douglas MacArthur Down Under, so to speak, but I do think that whether we're piling onto MacArthur or Conrad Helfrich, some standards or guidelines of success ought to be offered up for comparison. Please identify a military or naval officer of close to MacArthur's rank and position who was THAT successful and stipulate why, so we can readily grasp whether indeed MacArthur, or for that matter Helfrich, fails to make the grade and why not. Which is to say if those critics are correct and Mac wasn't all that hot in his job, IMO his performance needs to be held up to comparison with someone's that was rather more exemplary.

Arie,

Thanks for de Jong's thumbnail profile of Admiral Helfrich, but I think the question posed by Tom Womack inquires of the opinion of Helfrich by the Dutch people as a whole, or at least by those familiar with the history of WW2 and the NEI's role in it.

Best regards,

Kit
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Joined: December 23rd, 2007, 11:46 am

June 1st, 2010, 8:24 pm #8

I'm doing some research on the Battle of the Java Sea and am currently reading through the after-action report written by Rear-Admiral C.E.L. Helfrich. While not outright negative, Helfrich certainly has some questionable comments on Doorman's leadership during the battle. At the same time I have noticed that Helfrich is a hell of a "Monday Morning Quarterback" (i.e. he has excellent hindsight when pointing out the errors of others after the fact). He also had the luxury of explaining (defending?) his actions while Doorman and certain other Allied commanders who died did not.

My question is how do the Dutch (both navy and/or historians) view Helfrich in the face of history? Doorman has had at least one capital ship (maybe more) named after him; and as best as I can tell, he is highly regarded in the KM as doing his best in a near hopeless situation. But after reading Helfrich's comments I am left to wonder how he himself is regarded. Obviously, he held a high post-war position in the KM so he was clearly held in esteem. But then again, so was Douglas MacArthur...

Not trying to be divisive, but would be interested to hear what our Dutch colleagues (and others) think of Admiral Helfrich some 68 years later. I get the distinct impression that Helfrich thought he could have done better in command during the Battle of the Java Sea. I also get the impression that he consistently "meddled" in the operational command of Admiral Doorman.

Your thoughts...comments...?
Hi Tom,

Interesting topic, one can argue both sides. Will respond this weekend.

Jan
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Tom Womack
Tom Womack

June 2nd, 2010, 12:58 am #9

Interesting comments by Arie. I had not seen/heard remarks about Helfrich not recognizing the influence of air power on the modern battlefield. Were they made by Dutch officers? This mindset was certainly not uncommon in Allied command circles in the Far East; clearly Admiral Phillips was of the same mindset when he led Prince of Wales and Repulse to disaster.

The same failure to fully appreciate the veracity of air power would also play into the NEI campaign in 1942. Helfrich continually pushed Doorman to maintain offensive action in the face of Japanese air action while failing to grasp, or ignoring altogether, the impact it could have on naval operations. That he remained unresponsive to Doorman's predicament even after the Flores Sea on February 4 and the Banka Strait on February 14 I think speaks volumes.

Arie's reference to Helfrich's message "you must continue attacks until the enemy is destroyed" must also be examined. In his after-action report dated July 21, 1942 Helfrich makes several comments that I honestly have to wonder about. Not only does Helfrich "nitpick" Doorman's tactical decision-making before and during the Battle of the Java Sea, but he also goes after Captain Waller aboard Perth as well.

The Combined Striking Force started the day with 14 ships. With the loss of De Ruyter and Java, Perth and Houston were literally all that remained on the proverbial battlefield. Yet, Helfrich takes Waller to task to retiring. While Helfrich doesn't openly condemn Waller, he dances around the topic by saying that it "TECHNICALLY" violated the order that he (Helfrich) gave to continue attacking until the enemy was destroyed. He does give a somewhat half-hearted acknowledgement that they could have been low on fuel, ammunition, etc.

He continues by stating his surprise that Captain Waller took Houston and Perth to Tg. Priok instead of back to Soerabaja. Despite Doorman's pre-battle orders to fall back on Tg. Priok, Helfrich apparently wanted to reform the surviving CSF ships (Houston, Perth, Exeter and screening destroyers) and make another sortie against the Japanese off East Java. But since Waller took the only two undamaged capital ships to Tg. Priok he (Helfrich) made the decision to disband the CSF on February 28 and allow the ships a chance to evacuate.

Helfrich also critiques Doorman's choice of actions. Despite having no clear intelligence and no consistently reliable air reconnaissance, Helfrich essentially attacks the latter's choice to remain close to shore rather than heading out to sea in an effort to surprise the Japanese fleet. Doorman had chosen to remain close to shore near those points where he knew the enemy would land, versus going out to sea and missing the convoy altogether and allowing the Japanese to land unimpeded.

Helfrich also makes several references along the lines of "if I had known what Doorman was doing at the time I probably would have intervened." He also critiqued Doorman's movements before and during the battle despite being wholly detached from the scene of the battle.

Right or wrong, Helfrich in many ways strikes me as a senior commander who felt the need to constantly meddle in Doorman's operational command. He exhibits signs of someone who doesn't fully trust his subordinate's skills or decision-making process.

Thoughts...comments?

Tom
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Tom Womack
Tom Womack

June 2nd, 2010, 1:06 am #10

Tom,

I think yours is a very good question. I note that you use Gen. Douglas MacArthur as a figure of comparison, but I suggest that is not apt. Yes, Mac was viewed, likely correctly, as imperious, aloof, divisive, very difficult (when he wanted to be), self-centered, self-indulgent (and I could go on...and on), but NOT as an ineffective or incompetent general. Keeping his annoying vanity and personal flaws as distinctly separate entities, MacArthur's generalship was held in esteem. I don't think that's where you're starting with Admiral C.E.L. Helfrich, i.e., the very question you ask cannot assume a widespread esteem with his leadership abilities. Equally, it cannot assume a lack of such esteem. Whether he enjoyed general esteem on the part of the Dutch public is what you're endeavoring to answer.

Nelson
Hi Nelson...

I do want to try and keep this string narrowly focused on Admiral Helfrich. However, I did want to address your point about the comparison to MacArthur. I did so only in the context to make a point that although Big Mac did hold a number of very high level positions and was certainly an esteemed officer, he was not universally loved. As a result, there are any number of sources that are pro/con for the man.

With this in mind, I'm only trying to clarify that Helfrich could have been in a similar position. Just because the man held a number of senior-level positions in the Dutch navy and government doesn't mean he was necessarily loved and/or doesn't have his detractors.

Regards...
Tom
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