South African Military History 

P.O. BOX 12926


Our speaker on 9 September 2010 was Professor Herman de Groot, well-known in Cape Town medical circles, whose topic was his life as a prisoner of the Japanese during World War 2 in the Dutch East Indies. He introduced his talk by explaining that his family had lived in Java for four generations. His father ran a sugar estate.

The Dutch East Indies consisted of some two thousand islands stretching from west to east over a distance of more than 4,800 km (three thousand miles). Known as the Spice Islands, they in 1940 produced about 80% of the world's pepper, 90% of its quinine, 49% of its rubber, close to 25% of its tin and 10% of its petroleum. Other crops produced included palm oil, tea, coffee, cane sugar and copra - a huge variety of essential products.

Japan at that time was overpopulated with some 73 million people (now 100 million!) and had few natural resources. It looked with avaricious eyes at the Dutch Spice Islands and their cornucopia of natural resources all very necessary in the war being planned. Our speaker explained that the current Indonesia has a population of 238 million and is the largest Muslim country in the world. With all the natural resources at its disposal, it is a poor country due to the population's lack of diligence.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941 prompted the Lieutenant Governor of the Dutch East Indies, Dr van Mook, to contact the Australian Prime Minister, Mr Curtin, on 8 January 1942 with a request for assistance if attacked. This was promised by the Australians. Malaya had been invaded and four days later the Japanese landed in Sumatra. On 20 February 1942 Java's airfields were bombed. On 9 March, Queen Wilhelmina, in exile in Canada, declared war on Japan.

Prof de Groot explained that his father had been a sergeant in the Home Guard but was initially permitted to carry on with his duties running the sugar estate. He recalled his first meeting with Japanese officers in a tea room. They asked him in English where he came from and he replied" from far away"!

He then described his time as a prisoner of war during his childhood in what he described as the "defining period of his life". He recalled his father's narrow escape from death. He had injured an arm and was due to have been transported by ship from West Java to Jakarta and thence to Japan. Most fortunately, his request to stay behind as he was not seriously injured was accepted by the occupation authorities. The hospital ship was subsequently torpedoed and sunk with no survivors.

Younger boys were interned with their mothers and our speaker recalled that his mother had brought eight jars of peanut butter into the camp and gave each of her three sons a spoonful each day until there was none left. He explained that in terms of the Japanese warrior code of honour (Bushido) all POWs were regarded as subhuman because they had not fought to the death. The colonists, mainly of Dutch origin, were viewed as colonialist oppressors by the Japanese and any form of dissent, arrogance or resistance were penalised very harshly. The women internees, especially those who wore dark glasses and or tended to be overweight, at least in their camp, were not liked and were forced to get rid of their dark glasses. Boys were tolerated as long as they behaved themselves.

The Professor recalled staying up all night during a train journey to the camp at Serambang when his mother initially refused to make kepis because she thought this to [be] in contravention of the Geneva Convention. The other women reminded her that she had small boys to bring up. The guards had not seen this episode which was fortunate - other women who had refused to work for the Japanese occupation troops had been beaten up and in some cases killed. They quickly learned that never to argue with the Japanese camp guards and to act subservient made life much more bearable and helped them to survive the harsh conditions in the camps.

On 12 September 1944, Prof de Groot was moved to a camp for older boys. Although he knew where his mother was, she did not know where he was. The building in which the boys were housed was a former convent and the boys were housed in tiny prayer cells into which they only just fitted. Their discomfort was greatly increased if the boy who was furthest from the door was suffering from diarrhea, with inevitable consequences! Young Herman was ordered to help the Head of the Block (an overseer appointed by the Japanese from amongst the prisoners to help maintain law and order amongst his/her fellow prisoners), a man with an injured arm. His duties included cleaning his room, washing his clothes and fetching his food. Young Herman quickly found out how to puff up the overseer's daily portion of steamed rice which he had to fetch, that it appeared more voluminous than it really was, so that he could appropriate some for himself! This helped our speaker - a growing boy - to survive and remain reasonably healthy under the trying conditions.

Prof de Groot described the lice and malaria which afflicted the whole camp and the resultant rigours - spotted fever (typhus) at worst or malaria, which was more common, characterised by a sudden chill with shivering. Our speaker also described the inadequacy of the Japanese medical arrangements to combat outbreaks of disease amongst the under-nourished civilian internees. He recalled three Dutch boys who were driven by hunger to escape from the camp. They made their way to the local market, where they were spotted and recaptured. Their punishment lasted for weeks and the Head of their Block was very nearly killed for allowing them to escape. He described the night patrols which he and a friend had to perform. They soon learnt how to say: "We are on guard. Nothing wrong", in Japanese. The patrols lasted for two hours and were made easier by the noisy way in which the Japanese moved around.

One day an aircraft with red, white and blue markings flew over the camp and they realised that it was Dutch and not Japanese. The Camp Commandant later announced that the war was over and that they were all free but asked the internees to bow before him one last time! (A Japanese tradition where a person of inferior status has to show respect to a superior by bowing before that person(s). This was brutally enforced by the camp authorities and the prisoners quickly learned that acquiescence spared them a great many painful beatings or even worse unpleasantries!)

Young Herman and his brother hitched a ride in an ox cart to their mother's camp, where they found that their father had also arrived. After recovering from the results of hunger and malnutrition the family were allowed to return to their sugar estate, where 17 people were crowded into one room and 117 into the house. Indonesian guards had replaced the Japanese guards and Herman again took on the responsibility of collecting the family's rice ration. His father was very weak and the extra ration of rice that Herman managed to steal saved his father's life. In these desperate circumstances, there was much trading and in one bartering deal the recipient of a night dress which had seen better days was not pleased when he examined the garment properly!

After their terrible ordeal, the de Groot family was happy to return to Holland. On 5 August 1945, right at the end of the war in the Pacific, General Terauchi, Japanese Commander-in-Chief in the Southern Area (under Japanese military occupation and administration, which mainly comprised Southeast Asia) granted independence to the Indonesian nationalist leaders Sukarno and Hatta, in the name of the Japanese emperor. They, in turn, proclaimed the independence of the Indonesian Republic on 17 August 1945. Armed with weapons seized from the Japanese, they resisted the Anglo-Indian forces that re-occupied the islands with the task of taking over from the Japanese, imprison them and to re-establish a civil administration in the name of the Dutch government. The Dutch forces only arrived later and in the process to re-establish Dutch rule, the nationalist militant elements amongst the Indonesian population - now armed - resisted violently against the re-introduction of colonial rule. A bloody and protracted civil war followed which finally led to the Dutch East Indies being granted self-administration and full independence as the state of Indonesia.

On their way back from the East Indies, the de Groot family members were invited to stay over with a cousin in Plumstead, Cape Town, for six months. This "holiday" has lasted for sixty years!

Prof de Groot concluded his talk by noting what he had learned from his traumatic experiences, namely:

1. Never to argue with a man armed with a gun.
2. Never to throw food away.
3. When the chips are down, family is number one.

Surprisingly, Prof de Groot says he feels no remorse or hatred. He is of the opinion that the dropping of the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (6 and 9 August 1945) effectively ended the war and saved millions of lives. There was a genuine fear that the thousands of POWs and civilian internees, spread throughout the Japanese-occupied territories, would be slaughtered. He is still of the opinion that Dutch rule in the Dutch East Indies was fair - they were neither saints nor devils. The Dutch were not permitted to own the land they cultivated and the Indonesian people were reasonably well off, probably better off than they are now.

Major Gordon thanked Prof de Groot for a fascinating talk and presented him with the customary gift.



Thank you to all members who have paid their subscriptions. If you have not yet paid please do so as soon as possible.




The Official History of the South African Naval Forces during the Second World War 1939 to 1945 is now available from the Naval Heritage Trust, P O Box 521 Simon's Town 7995, at a cost of R250 plus R30 postage. Please deposit the correct amount into the Naval Heritage Trust account at Standard Bank, Fish Hoek, Branch Code 036009, account 072102276. Send a copy of your deposit slip and address to the above address or Email to

Fellow committee member, Cdr Mac Bisset, has published a book South African Recipients of the Pacific Star or Clasp, a record of the South Africans who served in the Pacific during World War 2. It may be purchased from City Coins at a cost of R170 including postage. Contact auctions@city

There are still a few copies left of the two titles that well-known author and one-time member of this branch, Mr Ian Uys, has offered at a special rate to members of the branch. The two books, dealing with maritime disasters/shipwrecks around South Africa's coastline, as well as incidents of South African historical interest, are:

- SURVIVORS OF AFRICA'S OCEANS (1993), 184 pp., Paperback. The book deals with shipping disasters and incidents dating back to Portuguese and Dutch seafarers, the Waratah incident, WWI (Mendi), WWII (Laconia, Nova Scotia & Llanduff Castle), postwar (Klipfontein) and more recently, the Oceanos incident. Normal retail price: R220,00. Price for branch members: R190,00
- OCEANOS: SURVIVOR'S STORIES (2010), 184 pp., Paperback. The book recounts the reminiscences and personal experiences of the survivors and the story of the amazing sea rescue performed by the brave crews of the South African Air Force. Normal retail price: R195,00. Price for branch members: R165,00

(As we had only ten copies of each, members wanting a copy are urged to act before all are sold).

DVD: ANGOLA: Van Konflik tot Hoop ('n Besoek aan die Bosoorlog slagvelde van die jare 1975 tot 1988 - en die Angola van vandag). Produced and marketed by Mr Cloete Breytenbach. The DVD is a copy of the original marketed at R200,00 per copy, but now available in a budget packaging for only R85,00. Copies of the DVD will be on sale at the next meeting.

Sales of the above-mentioned two books and the DVD are handled by the branch chairman, Mr Johan van den Berg, on behalf of Fortress Publishers and Mr Cloete Breytenbach. If you are interested in obtaining copies of either of the books, or the DVD, please contact him at Tel: 021-939-7923 - Cell: 082-579-0386 - Email:


THURSDAY, 14 OCTOBER 2010: H.M.S. DORSETSHIRE: Flagship, Africa Station: 1933 -1935' by John Parkinson
Our speaker, well-known in naval circles for his excellent illustrated talks on naval subjects, will be on a visit to Cape Town in October and has kindly agreed to present a talk - on the subject of the H.M.S. Dorsetshire - to the Cape Town Branch. The topic covers the commissioning of the ship and service with the Africa Station from 1933 to 1936, when Vice-Admiral "Teddy" Evans (member of Scott's ill-fated expedition to Antarctica, 1910-13) was C.-in-C. of the Africa Station. The talk will also deal with the ship's pre-war visits to S.A. ports (Simon's Town, PE, Durban, etc.), as well as the Royal Visit by Prince George in 1934, the cruises to Mocambique, Madagascar, West Africa, etc. Lastly an overview of her WWII career, which included participating in the sinking of the Bismarck, will conclude the talk.

THURSDAY, 11 NOVEMBER 2010: SUBJECT: Still to be determined. SPEAKER: Simon Norton
Details of the last lecture for the year will follow as soon as confirmed.

BOB BUSER: Treasurer/Scribe
Phone: Home: (evenings) 021-689-1639
Office: (mornings) 021-689-9771

Phone: 021-592-1279 (office hours)

South African Military History Society /