Book Review: The Allied Defense of the Malay Barrier 1941-1942


by Tom Womack

Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2015. Pp. viii, 358. Illus., maps, tables, notes, biblio., index. $49.95 paper. ISBN: 1476662932

The Allied Disaster in the Dutch East Indies

Womack, author of The Dutch Naval Air Force Against Japan, presents a more comprehensive overview of the often gallant, although ultimately futile Allied efforts to prevent the Japanese from overrunning the Netherlands East Indies during the early months of the Pacific War, an effort doomed to failure in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor and the sinking of Britain’s ‘Force Z’ off Malaya in the first days of the Pacific War.

Womack opens with four chapters on the political situation in southeastern Asia in the years before the war, some discussion of Dutch colonial rule and the nascent independent movement, diplomatic relations between the various powers, and Japan’s decision to go to war, bringing the reading down to the eve of hostilities. He then examines Dutch military preparations, including command arrangements and “pre-planning” with Britain and the United States, in which he covers naval and air forces in some detail, albeit rather neglecting land forces.

Womack devotes the balance of the book, some two dozen chapters, to a very detailed – often hour by hour – treatment of events from the Allied side, with particular attention to the actions of Dutch forces. Given the nature of the theatre, this is primarily an account of naval and air actions, which Womack covers very well. Most of these actions now long forgotten, though the several battles in the Java Sea from February 27 through March 1, 1942, which saw allied surface forces virtually annihilated at little loss to the Japanese were among the most desperate of the Second World War, and the many small actions that followed, as the Japanese pursued the fleeing remnants of the Allied navies and scores of merchant vessels included one of the worst maritime atrocities of the war, the blatant murder of thousands of civilian refugees south of Java.

Although Womack unfortunately spends virtually no time on ground operations, despite the fact that serious fighting occurred on several of the islands, in which some American and British troops took part, this is a useful read for the serious student of the war in the Pacific.

Note: The Allied Defense of the Malay Barrier is also available as an e-pub, ISBN 978-1-4766-2267-5.


Reviewer: A.A. Nofi, Review Editor   

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