The Dutch East Indies campaign saw Japan try to capture the Dutch East Indies oilfields intact, i.e. before the local troops destroyed them:

After these main objectives in Borneo were completed, the Japanese forces planned a three-pronged assault southward using three forces named Eastern Force, Center Force and Western Force. The aim of this assault was to capture the oil resources in the East Indies. The Eastern Force was to advance from Jolo and Davao and move on to capture Celebes, Amboina and Timor, while protecting the Center Force's flank. The Center Force was to capture oil fields and airfields in Tarakan Island and Balikpapan. Both these forces would support the Western Force, which was to attack and capture the oil refineries and airfields in Palembang. ...

... However, the Dutch garrisons had destroyed the oil fields before they were captured by the Japanese in both cases.

In short, the Japanese failed. I understand how the oil itself was critical for the war effort as already outlined in this reply by Schwern to a related question. However, what the narrative doesn't explain is why Japan wanted to capture them intact. As I see it, there are three options:

  1. Japan did not have the know-how (at hand, if not in general);
  2. It would take a lot of time and hinder advancing;
  3. Both of the above.

Which of these above guesses is correct, if any? If it is the time-delay, then how long did it actually take for the Japanese to restart the oil fields? If it was the know-how was missing, then who did they have to bring in?

Another source, relating to Burma, writes:

The possibility of having to resort to a "scorched earth" policy had been envisaged when Japan first entered the war and Leslie Forster, a former engineer of Shell-Mex and an expert in demolitions, had been flown out to draw up the necessary plans. He was described by Dorman-Smith as “the greatest saboteur in history”, having previously destroyed the oil fields in the Dutch East Indies. ...

General Alexander reluctantly gave the signal “Red Elephant” at midnight on 7 March, which meant demolition would start at 2 pm. Dead on time a series of violent explosions rocked Rangoon like an earthquake. One of the first targets was the total destruction of the Burmah Oil Company's vast installation at Syriam.

Some time before, Forster and Scott had laid tons of explosives throughout the refinery and drained 150 million gallons of oil, petrol, kerosene and high octane aircraft fuel from the gigantic storage tanks to create a secondary blast. At 2 pm the electric circuit was fired. Tanks disintegrated and machinery and metal sheets were hurled high into the air. Within a short time a great pall of dense black smoke soared thousands of feet into the air. ...
—Draper, 'Dawns Like Thunder: The Retreat From Burma'

This indicates the destruction of the refinery (and not the 'oil fields'). This sounds like a more complex problem than the destruction of the oil mines themselves (I read the 'destruction of the oil field' as the 'destruction of the oil mine' as I don't think they had the skills or capacity to actually destroy the resource)—and would probably incur significant time delays if the Japanese had to rebuild a refinery (but, perhaps not, if the Japanese engines needed a different mixture of fuels or something else that the Dutch industrial process was not perhaps equipped to handle). In this case, the destruction of the refinery could actually have helped the Japanese.

In other words, does anyone have any more information on what the destruction of the oil fields meant in the Dutch East Indies and what the primary reason for Japan wanting to prevent this was?

  • 1
    Does "Where did Japan get their oil during WWII?" not answer your question? I think the situation was similar with rubber which I am more familiar with... Japan was absolutely desperate to get as much as it could, but did a fairly bad job of getting it.
    – Brian Z
    Commented Jun 29, 2020 at 13:32
  • 1
    @BrianZ: It doesn't really say why it took years to get to full production (and that statement isn't sourced). And, given the extraction technology might have been different, then "full production" might mean something else.
    – gktscrk
    Commented Jun 29, 2020 at 13:35
  • 1
    @gktscrk - google 'yamato unrefined crude' and see what strikes your fancy. Where I read it is buried some decades back in my head...
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Jun 29, 2020 at 13:42
  • 2
    combinedfleet.com/Japan_Oil.htm has some data on Japanese refining capacity. books.google.com/… indicates DEI produced ~8,000,000 tonnes of oil per year in the late 1930's, or about 60,000,000 barrels. Japanese capacity was nowhere near this level.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Jun 29, 2020 at 16:57
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    " However, demolition of the oil fields of the Netherlands East Indies was carried out rather poorly and production rebounded quickly. The real problem was getting the oil to Japan. The Japanese tanker fleet was never adequate, and insufficient priority was given to building more tankers. Hence much of the production from Southeast Asia never made it to Japan." pwencycl.kgbudge.com/O/i/Oil.htm
    – rs.29
    Commented Jun 30, 2020 at 20:41

3 Answers 3


In brief, the desire to capture them intact is because Japan needed the production and refining capacity immediately in order to conduct the war in the manner they wanted. They actually had reasonable success in doing so, and restoring what losses there were, but transport of oil products to Japan became the real bottleneck as the war went on.

So, lets look at various bits of information:

One measure of the Japanese capability to refine comes from this Bulletin of The Japan Petroleum Institute article by Shigeki Fukuba, Volume 10 (1968) p. 83-91. Quoting from the introduction:

Petroleum refining in Japan has a long history, but the production and refining of crude oil as an industry began in the middle of 19th century.

Since then, many refineries have been installed and expanded, and modern refining processes were introduced step by step to the refineries, and the crude unit refining capacity had reached to 80,000 barrels a day in 1944. However, 62 percent of refining capacity were lost by air-raids during World War II.

Later it is noted that, of that 80,000 b/day, 57,000 is private companies and 23,000 is from Army and Navy units. Note that 80,000 b/day over 365 days is around 30 million barrels per year.

Online at the Pacific War Online Encyclopedia entry on Oil, they go into some depth on the oil situation, including year-by-year breakdowns of the Japanese oil inventories from 1941-1945. First, though, they note that the Japanese, recognizing their dependence on imported oil, had begun stockpiling it shortly after World War One. By March 1941 the article reports the total stockpile was 42.7 million barrels. Production in the East Indies and Borneo is reported at 65 million barrels (by comparison, US production was 1.35 billion barrels a year). Starting inventories shrink year-over year from nearly 49 million barrels (including crude and refined products) to 38 million in 1942 to 25 million in 1943 to only 13 million in 1944. Consumption is listed as going from 37 million (1941, mostly peacetime) to 42 million, 44 million, then crashing to only 25 million barrels in 1944.

A website at Penn State University suggests that destruction of the oil fields was generally recovered pretty quickly, sufficient to prevent this steady fall in stockpiles:

Within a short period, Japan was able to restore the Balikpapan oilfields with astonishing results that far exceeded their goals. Oil production in the Southern zone in 1940 was 65.1 million barrels. In 1942, the Japanese managed to restore 25.9 million barrels, and in 1943, 49.6 million barrels (75% of the 1940 level).

On the refining side, a paper from TU Delft says that the Pladjoe refinery was captured mostly intact while Soengai Gerong was 80% destroyed, although production resumed within 6 months. By January 1945 these refineries reportedly were producing half the oil and three quarters of the aviation fuel used by Japan.

So it would seem that everything should be looking good - the production was restored, the refinery capacity pretty much restored, so what else went wrong? The answer is the US submarine campaign against shipping. As noted at American Foreign Relations,

The Japanese gained control of the Netherlands East Indies in 1942, but many of the oil facilities had been sabotaged and took time to restore to full production. More importantly, transporting oil from the East Indies to Japan proved increasingly difficult owing to the remarkable success of U.S. submarines in interdicting Japanese shipping. By late 1944, Japan faced serious oil shortages, with crippling military consequences.

This is also noted in the Pacific War Encyclopedia, where it is stated:

Hence much of the production from Southeast Asia never made it to Japan. Although production in Japanese-controlled areas peaked at almost four million barrels a month in 1943, imports to Japan never exceeded about 1.4 million barrels a month.


The last tanker from southeast Asia reached Japan in March 1945.

So, the plan was to capture the oilfields and refineries intact, use them to replace the oil no longer coming from the US, and prosecute a quick war in the Pacific to convince the US to back off and stay away. While the destruction of some of the oil production and refining did occur, these were restored in reasonable time to have not slowed fleet/air operations. By then, however, the transport capacity to Japan itself had been reduced and never recovered. This led to much of the Japanese battle fleet being stationed near the East Indies, fueled often by unrefined crude, keeping them far from the battles in the Pacific post-Midway. It would appear that much of the tanker traffic was primarily aviation fuel, including for the carrier groups (the carriers were kept near Japan).

It is unclear what, if any, additional operations the Japanese navy could have carried out between 7 December 1941 and Midway (4-7 June 1942). By 1943 most of the production and refining had been restored, with the rate of consumption highest for that year by Japan. After that, the losses to submarines meant that less and less of the oil production was reaching Japan - the capacity existed in the East Indies, it just could not get where it was needed. The operation generally succeeded, the war plan failed.


There are two main factors capacity, and time.

The destruction of the Dutch East Indies oil fields meant that they produced at only 60% of earlier capacity when Japan managed to restore them.

This restoration took place a year later. Capturing the oil fields intact would have meant 100% of capacity available in early 1942 instead of 60% in early 1943.

Also, the "know how" to fix the well was missing locally. Oil workers had to be imported from Japan for this purpose.

When the U.S. imposed an oil embargo on Japan in July, 1941, Japan had barely enough oil to last into early 1943. Its oil industry was in its last gasp when the Dutch East Indies production was restored.

  • 1
    Do you have references for those dates and figures? Commented Jun 29, 2020 at 21:10
  • @PieterGeerkens: I have two links, in the first paragraph, and in the last one. I may have confused you by separating the articles from the actual figures.
    – Tom Au
    Commented Jun 29, 2020 at 21:11

What was the main purpose in Japan trying to capture the Dutch East Indies oil fields intact?

In 1941, Japan relied on oil imports to run it's economy. Japan imported 90% of their oil from the United States, UK, and Dutch(East Indies). When Japan invaded IndoChina (Vietnam), Sept 1940, a blanket oil embargo was imposed on Japan by all of its primary oil sources, Aug 1941. Japan was left with about a year's supply of oil in their strategic reserve. The choices for Japan were to end the wars in China and Indochina and curb their expansionist policies, or double down and seek the oil elsewhere. This was a result which Japan had predicted months earlier as they had been training to attack Hawaii since 1940. The oil embargo and the seizure of the Dutch East indies were their response.

Why did Japan desire to take the East Indian oil fields in tact? Simple because Japan with vastly insufficient oil imports, months into a united oil embargo by all the primary producers, desperately needed the oil. Intact oil fields were the fastest path to producing oil the Japanese economy and war machine required. Japan already at war risked running out of oil on active battle fields and many months spent restoring capacity to the East Indies fields were month's Japan arguable did not have. It had been 4 months since the United States, UK and Dutch had cut Japan's oil, and Japan's war machine was nearly half way through their strategic reserves. Pearl Harbor and WWII in the Pacific with the attacks on the UK were all about preemptively dealing with the blow back for seizing the Dutch East Indies. Japan mistakenly thought if it hit the European and Americans hard enough they would sue for peace and Japan would get to keep the East Indies and all of its oil reserves. The allies likewise arguable underestimated Japan's resolve to pursue its expansionist policies.

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