Battle of the Java Sea

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The Battle of the Java Sea was a naval battle between Japanese and Allied forces during the Japanese invasion of the Dutch East Indies (modern Indonesia) in the opening months of World War II. The Allies attempted to intercept a Japanese invasion fleet headed for the island of Java, but failed, and lost several ships.

Background

In the weeks following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese military achieved victory after victory. With its oil resources, the Dutch East Indies were the main strategic objective of the Japanese offensive. By the middle of February 1942, Hong Kong, Singapore, Celebes, Borneo, and most of the Philippines had fallen, and Japanese forces had landed on Sumatra and Bali. In January, an Allied combat group, of Dutch, British, Australian, and American ships had been formed under Dutch Rear Admiral Doorman. In early February, ships from this force had attempted to counter Japanese forces headed for southern Borneo, but were stopped by air attacks. On the evening of February 26, the fleet was sent from the port of Surabaya to intercept a Japanese invasion force bound for Java (island).

Order of Battle

The Japanese force, under Admiral Takagi, consisted of forty-one loaded troop transports, escorted by two heavy cruisers (Nachi and Haguro), two light cruisers (Jintsu and Naka), and fourteen destroyers. The Japanese had achieved air superiority by this time, and the cruisers carried float planes for reconnaissance.

The Allied force, under Admiral Doorman, included the American heavy cruiser Houston, the British heavy cruiser Exeter (a veteran of the Battle of the River Platte), the Dutch light cruisers Java and DeRuyter (Doorman’s flagship), the Australian light cruiser Perth, and nine destroyers. The Houston had suffered damage in the attack off Borneo and was operating without her #3 turret. Worse, the Allies had no spotter planes, so they had no aerial reconnaissance. In addition, the Allies used different languages and different signaling systems, so communication between ships was difficult.

The Battle

The Allied fleet found the Japanese on the afternoon of the 27th. Takagi sent his transports to the west, away from the fighting. The battle started as a gunnery duel, then the Japanese destroyers moved up to launch their torpedoes. Doorman was able to bring his light cruisers into effective range, and they damaged one of the enemy destroyers. An hour into the battle, the Exeter was hit by a shell from the Haguro, which knocked out most of her boilers and forced her out of the battle line. Admiral Doorman re-organized his ships to cover her retreat. At the same time, the Dutch destroyer Kortenaer was hit by a torpedo and sunk.

The Japanese pressed their attack, and the British destroyer Electra was battered and sunk by multiple Japanese salvos. The cruisers managed to hit another Japanese destroyer and force its retreat. The Allies were now down to four cruisers and six destroyers, since the Dutch destroyer Witte de With had been ordered to escort the Exeter away from danger. In addition, the remaining Allied heavy cruiser, the Houston, was running low on ammunition.

The battle continued into the night. Doorman attempted repeatedly to out-flank the enemy and attack the transports with his remaining ships. The attempts were in vain, although another Japanese destroyer was hit and damaged. During one of these maneuvers, the British destroyer Jupiter hit a mine, sinking some hours later. Around one o’clock in the morning, the Japanese fleet intercepted the Allied ships and sank the DeRuyter and Java with torpedoes. Admiral Doorman went down with his ship, and the remained Allied forces withdrew from the battle.

Aftermath

Japanese troops landed on Java on February 28. The Houston and Perth managed to attack the transports during the landing and sank a transport and a minesweeper and damaged several other ships before they were both sunk by the Japanese cruisers and destroyers. The Exeter headed west toward Ceylon and safety, but was intercepted and sunk by Japanese cruisers, along with one British and one American destroyer that were escorting her, most of the crews surviving to become POWs. The Witt de With had been left behind, and was sunk a few days later. These sinkings eliminated Allied naval power in the Dutch East Indies. Allied forces on Java surrendered on March 9.

Sources

  • A History of War at Sea, by Helmut Pemsel, Naval Institute Press, 1975
  • Oxford Guide to World War II, ed. by I.C.B. Dear, Oxford University Press, 1995
  • The Lonely Ships, by Edwin P. Hoyt, Jove Books, 1976

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