direct to content


stepping stones of maritime history


History of the German internees

When the war broke out for the Netherlands on 10 May 1940 all Germans in the Dutch East Indies were imprisoned. Although most of the men lived for decades in the colony were artists, missionaries and even Jews who had fled Europe.

More than 2800 'Germans' were interned in a internement camp Lawesegalagala on Sumatra.

When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor (7-12-1941) the Dutch government wanted to move the Germans to British India. To prevent them from helping the Japanese invasion forces. Two transports to Bombay were successful but the third with the Van Imhoff met with disaster.

On January a Japanese plane attacked the vessel and a near hit of a bomb struck a hole in the hull. The Van Imhoff started to sink slowly. On board were 478 prisoners guarded by 62 KNIL soldiers and 48 crew members. The crew and soldiers manned 5 of the 6 the lifeboats and left the prisoners behind. The Germans managed to free themselves and got on deck only to discover that crew and guards had fled and only one lifeboat was left for 478 men. Chaos and panic broke out. Some killed themselves, some jumped overboar, while some start drinking to soften an certain death.

Eventually the lifeboat with 50 Germans, a small dingy and some bamboo rafts got into the sea. The next day a rescue ship Boelongan spotted the drowned men. They asked if there were Dutch soldiers or crew among them. When denied the Boelongan turned and went back to the harbor without helping the survivors clingin to boat and rafts. Only 67 of the 478 prisoners survived the disaster.

The survivors reached Nias island on 20th January but as soon as they landed they were imprisoned again. The Dutch crew and soldiers by then were already rescued save and sound. This war crime of deliberately leaving the 478 German detainees behind when escaping themselves from the sinking ship to drown on a sinking ship was never properly investigated. In Dutch media the subject was (and still is) almost non existent. The broadcasting of a television documentary made in 1965 was twice prohibited. And the film disappeared.

Ironically the name of the ship Van Imhoff comes from Van Imhoff (1705-1750) who was Governor general of The Dutch East indies. His father was a German freiherr.


Type : Dutch Passenger/Cargo ship
Built in 1914 Maatschappij Fijenoord N.V. - Fyenoord, Rotterdam, Holland. 
Owner KPM Koninklijke Pakketvaartmaatschappij Amsterdam
Length : 99 m.
Draft : 6,9.
width: 13.
Tonnage : 8000.
Complement: 48 crew,
478 German prisoners,
62 soldiers.

Van Imhoff in the bay of Gorontalo (Picture: Tropenmuseum).


War grave:

From the 478 German prisoners.

Casualties: 413 Germans


Down on 24 July

New in MaSS

Wrecks of Flevoland

Burgzand Noord

Dutch Presence in Cuba