The only thing Dutch about Raymond Paul Pierre Westerling was his blood. Born on Aug. 31, 1919, in the ancient city of Istanbul, where several generations of Westerling men had made their living as antique dealers, young Raymond showed signs of the adventurer he would become in adulthood. In his 1952 autobiography, Challenge to Terror, Westerling noted having spent his boyhood capturing snakes and lizards, gamboling with playmates through the merchant souks, experimenting with firearms and gunpowder, and reading everything from “stories of pirates, historical romances and Wild West adventures” to detective tales.
A precocious child who breezed through formal schooling, Westerling grew up in a cosmopolitan milieu—his father spoke English, French, German, Italian and Turkish, while his mother spoke French alongside her native Greek. By age 18 the young man was proficient in all of these languages. Ironically, the only tongue he couldn’t speak was Dutch, though he and his family were citizens of the Netherlands.
Westerling’s life turned far more adventurous in early 1941. Itching to see the world and experience life outside Istanbul, he visited the Dutch Consulate and enlisted in the Free Dutch Forces in exile, as the Netherlands was already under German occupation. His father doubted his headstrong son would accept military discipline. Embracing the challenge, Westerling (dubbed “The Turk,” due to his upbringing) resolved to get into the fight as soon as possible.
Over the course of the war he would pass through some of the British army’s toughest schools, including the Commando Basic Training Center in Achnacarry, Scotland, and serve with such legendary fighting units as No. 2 (Dutch) Troop of No. 10 Commando and the Princess Irene Brigade.
Despite his eagerness to fight, the Turk did not come to grips with the enemy until spring 1945 when, as a commando embedded with the Dutch resistance, he led his men on hit-and-run missions against German positions. War’s end did not dash his hopes of seeing combat, however.
In August 1945 Westerling, who had learned his mother tongue while serving with Dutchmen in the British army, received orders to ship out to the Dutch East Indies (present-day Indonesia). Still in the uniform of a British junior officer, he took command of a small Anglo-Dutch force tasked with establishing order following the surrender of Japanese occupation forces. There in the steamy Southeast Asian jungles Westerling made his name as one of the most successful (and infamous) counterinsurgents in modern history.
At the turn of the 17th century Dutch traders established a mercantilist monopoly on several Indonesian islands, including resource-rich Java and Sumatra. With these islands in their orbit, representatives of the Dutch East India Co. sold to Europe nutmeg and other spices, coffee, sugar and other items in high demand. An intra-Asian trade proved most lucrative, with Dutch ships controlling most major sea routes in the South China Sea. The capital of this new commercial empire was Batavia (present-day Jakarta), on Java. Atop the ruins of a small Muslim garrison company men built a fortified city crisscrossed with canals and steeped in a unique Dutch-Malay culture. Chinese culture was present as well, thanks to thousands of immigrants from the southeastern province of Fujian.
Batavia’s founder, Jan Pieterszoon Coen, once hailed as a Dutch national hero, is reviled in Indonesia as the “Butcher of the Banda Islands.” In February 1621, seeking to avenge several failed expeditions against the archipelago, Coen stormed ashore at Fort Nassau on Banda Neira with a punitive force comprising 19 ships, nearly 1,700 Dutch soldiers and some 300 Japanese mercenaries. Linking up with the 250 soldiers from the port’s garrison, Coen’s invasion force mercilessly sacked the island.
Despite the actions of Coen and others, for centuries Dutch power in the East Indies did not extend much beyond Java and parts of Sumatra. Indeed, their control over all of the Indonesian islands would not be finalized until the 19th century. By that point, long after the collapse of the Dutch East India Co., the East Indies were the centerpiece of Amsterdam’s small but wealthy empire. In 1905 the Dutch government demonstrated its attachment to the East Indies by sending 40 million guilders for the development of Java and Madura. The Dutch built thousands of schools between 1900 and 1930. The archipelago also saw the expansion of roads and hospitals.
Inspired in part by expediency, but also by a brewing nationalist movement, colonial administrators established an advisory People’s Council (Volksraad) in 1918 in order to give political voice to the three largest demographic groups—Indonesians, Chinese, and the Dutch and Eurasians (mixed Dutch and Asian). Despite growing autonomy, however, all was not well. Newer Dutch arrivals, particularly those fleeing economic hardship back in Europe, tended to view the East Indies as a pleasure palace to be exploited for maximum profit. Many refused to interact with the Eurasian population, which had long been accepted as part of the social hierarchy. Homegrown nationalist groups further destabilized Amsterdam’s colonial rule.
In the 1920s several Dutch-educated Indonesians returned to the East Indies armed with revolutionary ideals. The Royal Netherlands East Indies Army (Koninklijk Nederlands Indisch Leger, or KNIL) and police readily suppressed a 1926 revolt in West Java by the small Communist Party of Indonesia, but other parties, such as the Indonesian National Party (Persatuan Nasional Indonesia, or PNI) and the student-run Indonesian Association (Perhimpunan Indonesia, or PI), proved harder to eliminate. Such groups espoused a left-wing brand of nationalism, envisioning a centralized and secular state. From the ranks of the PNI rose Kusno Sosrodihardjo, aka Sukarno, future president of the Republic of Indonesia.
Dutch control in the East Indies effectively ended in late winter 1942. Between February 28 and March 1 a 34,000-strong Japanese invasion force bested a defending force of 25,000 KNIL soldiers and limited Allied support units following three amphibious landings on Java. The Japanese had better armor and air support, while the KNIL suffered from poor morale and worse logistics. Intended primarily for internal security, the KNIL had an ethnically mixed body of soldiers which had never numbered more than 50,000. Some units fought well (notably the 38th Division), but much of the KNIL either surrendered, evacuated to Australia or ditched their uniforms and melted in with the Indonesian population.
Three years of Japanese occupation saw the Europeans, Eurasians and Chinese civilians and Dutch and Allied POWs herded into filthy concentration camps, where tens of thousands died from starvation and tropical diseases. As harsh as Japanese rule was, a beaten Tokyo’s decision to let anarchy reign in Indonesia before the first Allied liberation troops could enter made things even worse. “The Japanese,” Westerling recalled, “did not attempt to check the marauding bands which formed spontaneously in the confusion of the end of the war.”
Many Japanese soldiers sold their weapons to the bandits and let them pick army arsenals clean. Some joined the ranks of nationalist insurgent forces as military advisers. As for the men, women and children held in concentration camps since 1942, the Japanese either kept them locked away or allowed the roving bandits to brutalize, rape and execute them in cold blood. The situation was untenable. It was obvious someone needed to establish stability in the East Indies. The first nation tasked with the assignment, Britain, did not have the stomach for it.
After landing on several Indonesian islands in October 1945, the British tried to enforce a cease-fire, demanding local militias surrender their arms. The Indonesians refused, and before long they were targeting British officers for assassination. The standoff came to a head in November amid the Battle of Surabaya. For three weeks British soldiers battled nationalist militias, the British losing nearly 300 men, the Indonesians upward of 6,000.
Despite its military victory, London decided Indonesia was not worth the cost. Yet Britain, Australia and the United States collectively resisted the idea of handing back Indonesia to their erstwhile Dutch allies. Only the French, then trying to reassert colonial rule in Indochina, backed Amsterdam’s claims. Foreign bickering mattered little to the average Indonesian or European islander, who were more concerned about survival. Given the British did little more than man their scattered garrisons, those seeking to quell the chaos sought other means. By early 1946 Dutch soldiers, many of whom were veterans of the resistance, joined remnants of the KNIL in a last-ditch effort to establish order and prevent suspected communists from wresting control of the East Indies.
Such was the situation at war’s end when Westerling arrived in-country. The Turk’s first assignment called for his special operations talents, when superiors tasked him and a force of European, Eurasian and Indonesian soldiers with rescuing remaining prisoners from the Japanese camps and stopping the rampant banditry.
Westerling’s way of dealing with the “terrorists” (his term) was as effective as it was harsh. For example, during one operation he and his men snuck into a village and captured a suspected rebel leader. After interrogating the man, Westerling had him decapitated. His men then returned to the village with the rebel’s head, which they impaled atop a stake as a warning.
“In the East it is not the execution itself which impresses and deters other would-be murderers,” Westerling reflected. “It is the method of execution.”
A more infamous incident occurred at a social club in the city of Makassar, present-day capital of the province of South Sulawesi. Having warned a known Indonesian spy to refrain from visiting the club, Westerling confronted the man a second time at his regular table. “Do you remember what I told you?” the Turk asked. When the spy nodded nervously in the affirmative, Westerling pulled a revolver and shot him in the face. The man collapsed to the floor, dead.
Even amid the darkest days of the insurgency, Indonesian and Dutch residents of the East Indies branded Westerling a murderer for his aggressive approach to counterterrorism. Sukarno’s republican government decried him before the United Nations, laying the murders of thousands of Indonesian civilians at the Turk’s feet. In Challenge to Terror Westerling dismissed such talk as “hullaballoo.” Contrasting his method of executing insurgent leaders with the traditional military response of shelling or bombing enemy villages, he raised the rhetorical question of which method kills more innocents.
Whatever his justifications, Westerling’s small-unit tactics proved effective. Thanks to the “Westerling method”—a mix of violent displays, targeted assassinations and night raids—by September 1946 the Turk’s commando unit controlled the large and lucrative island of North Sumatra. His 500-man DST (Depot Speciale Troepen), composed of KNIL soldiers and village-based militiamen trained by Westerling, became experts at police-style operations requiring minimal use of artillery, armor and air cover. Exhibiting a strong esprit de corps, Westerling’s men marched into the jungles unsupported. Although always outnumbered, they regularly won the day.
From the start, however, politics hamstrung such “police actions.” Even as the DST and similar forces successfully pursued various counterinsurgency measures, the weak Dutch administration faced mounting British, American and Soviet pressure to cede its authority over the East Indies. On March 25, 1947, the Linggadjati Agreement granted de facto independence to Java, Madura and Sumatra. Sukarno’s republicans did not abide by the agreement, though, and by summer the ground war heated up as insurgent attacks netted heavier responses from the KNIL and the Dutch military.
Launched on July 21, Operation Product was the first large-scale offensive of the war. As part of the broader operation Dutch administrators sent Westerling’s beefed-up force, redesignated the KST (Korps Speciale Troepen), to South Sulawesi, where Javanese radicals had established cells designed to take down the island’s pro-federalist government.
Westerling’s subjugation of South Sulawesi proved much harder than his earlier fight in North Sumatra, due partly to geography and partly to the fact that, as Dutch historian Jaap A. de Moor wrote, “Dutch authority on South Sulawesi was on the verge of absolute breakdown.”
From the December outset of his campaign the Turk implemented his policy of summary prosecution and execution. The KST would encircle a village before dawn, gather its men in the village square and employ various interrogation methods to identify suspected terrorists. Those singled out Westerling had shot on sight. Unquestionably brutal, his methods again proved effective, and by March 1947 the KST had subdued South Sulawesi. An estimated 3,000 to 5,000 islanders died in the fighting, while some 400 were executed. In Challenge to Terror Westerling admitted to having personally killed more than 100 men.
Though combined KNIL-Dutch operations on Sumatra and East and West Java also proved successful, the U.N. condemned the Dutch administration for its own failure to abide by the Linggadjati Agreement. Ratified on Jan. 17, 1948, the Renville Agreement mandated the Dutch would continue to occupy Sumatra and East and West Java until national elections could be held. In the meantime, the insurgency continued.
The endgame for Dutch military power in the East Indies came in December 1948, when General Simon Hendrik Spoor launched Operation Kraai, managing to capture the republican capital of Yogyakarta and capturing President Sukarno. The operational goal was to force the intransigent republicans to abide by earlier agreements, and by January 1949 the success of that mission seemed assured. But overseas politicians promptly negated Spoor’s victory. Much like the later French and American experience in Indochina, Dutch soldiers and their Indonesian allies had won the battles but still managed to lose the war.
Alarmed at the prospect of Javanese hegemony, Westerling armed and trained village militias to repulse republican soldiers and bandits alike. These self-defense units, along with former KNIL paratroopers, pledged allegiance to the Turk. His private army became known as the Angkatan Perang Ratu Adil (APRA), or Prince Justice Legion. The name stems from an Indonesian prophecy about a Javan savior of Turkish descent. Westerling’s men perceived the Turkish-born Dutchman as Prince Justice—a belief Westerling wholeheartedly encouraged.
On Jan. 23, 1950, the APRA launched a coup against Sukarno’s government. Due to a loose-lipped Dutch officer, the Indonesian National Armed Forces (Tentara Nasional Indonesia, or TNI) anticipated the operation. Despite having lost the element of surprise, the outnumbered and outgunned APRA did win an engagement in the city of Bandung, capturing the barracks of the TNI’s elite Siliwangi Division without losing a single man. The republicans may have lost as many as 100 dead. Unfortunately for Westerling, the planned key uprising in Jakarta folded, as those tasked with smuggling firearms into the city were thwarted. In the aftermath of the failed coup, the APRA withdrew from Bandung, and Westerling fled to Singapore, then a British Crown colony. Indonesian authorities pressed for his extradition in vain.
After spending months in a Singaporean prison, Westerling relocated his family to the Netherlands. After penning A Challenge to Terror, which ends with a warning that the Soviet Union and Red China had intelligence agents and terrorists in Indonesia, Westerling unexpectedly became an opera singer, though his single public recital in 1958 reportedly flopped. His marriage failed, though he later remarried. Ending his days as a purveyor of antique books in Amsterdam, Westerling died of heart failure at age 68 on Nov. 26, 1987.
To Dutch leftists and Indonesian nationalists Westerling was the embodiment of brutal colonialism. Though tactically effective, he employed his method in the service of a doomed effort. For despite his tactical brilliance, Sukarno’s Republic of Indonesia won the day largely due to international pressure. Sukarno himself served as authoritarian president until 1967, when one of his generals, Suharto, staged a successful coup and nationwide purge of Sukarno-aligned communists. Indonesia’s troubled experiment with independence remains a work in progress. MH
Benjamin Welton is a freelance writer based in New England. For further reading he suggests Challenge to Terror, by Raymond Westerling; A Lifetime of News, by Robert L. Kroon; and Gangsters and Revolutionaries, by Robert Cribb.
This article appeared in the January 2021 issue of Military History magazine. For more stories, subscribe here and visit us on Facebook: