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World War II: Battle of the Java Sea

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World War II: Battle of the Java Sea

USS Houston (CA-30) fought at the Battle of the Java Sea

Photograph Courtesy of the US Naval Historical Center

Conflict and Date:

The Battle of the Java Sea occurred on February 27, 1942, and was an early naval engagement of World War II in the Pacific.

Fleets & Commanders:

ABDA

  • Rear Admiral Karl Doorman
  • 2 heavy cruisers, 3 light cruisers, nine destroyers

Japanese

  • Rear Admiral Takeo Takagi
  • Rear Admiral Shoji Nishimura
  • 2 heavy cruisers, 2 light cruisers, fourteen destroyers

Battle of the Java Sea Overview:

In early 1942, with the Japanese rapidly advancing south through the Dutch East Indies, the Allies attempted to mount a defense of Java in an effort to hold the Malay Barrier. Concentrating under the a unified command known as American-British-Dutch-Australian (ABDA) Command, Allied naval units were divided between bases at Tandjong Priok (Batavia) in the west and Surabaya in the east. Overseen by Dutch Vice Admiral Conrad Helfrich, ABDA forces were badly outnumbered and in poor condition for the approaching fight. To take the island, the Japanese formed two major invasion fleets.

Sailing from Jolo in the Philippines, the Japanese Eastern Invasion Fleet was spotted by ABDA aircraft on February 25. This led Helfrich to reinforce Rear Admiral Karl Doorman's Eastern Strike Force at Surabaya the next day with several ships from the Royal Navy. Upon their arrival, Doorman held a meeting with his captains to discuss the upcoming campaign. Departing that evening, Doorman's force consisted of two heavy cruisers (USS Houston & HMS Exeter), three light cruisers (HNLMS De Ruyter, HNLMS Java, & HMAS Perth), as well as three British, two Dutch, and four American (Destroyer Division 58) destroyers.

Sweeping the north coast of Java and Madura, Doorman's ships failed to locate the Japanese and turned for Surabaya. A short distance to the north, the Japanese invasion force, protected by two heavy cruisers (Nachi & Haguro), two light cruisers (Naka & Jintsu), and fourteen destroyers, under Rear Admiral Takeo Takagi, slowly moved towards Surabaya. At 1:57 PM on February 27, a Dutch scout plane located the Japanese approximately 50 miles north of the port. Receiving this report, the Dutch admiral, whose ships were beginning to enter the harbor, reversed course to seek battle.

Sailing north, Doorman's exhausted crews prepared to meet the Japanese. Flying his flag from De Ruyter, Doorman deployed his ships in three columns with his destroyers flanking the cruisers. At 3:30 PM, a Japanese air raid forced the ABDA fleet to disperse. Around 4:00 PM, Jintsu spotted the re-formed ADBA ships to the south. Turning with four destroyers to engage, Jintsu's column opened the battle at 4:16 PM as the Japanese heavy cruisers and additional destroyers came up in support. As both sides exchanged fire, Rear Admiral Shoji Nishimura's Destroyer Division 4 closed and launched a torpedo attack.

Around 5:00 PM, Allied aircraft struck the Japanese transports but scored no hits. At the same time, Takagi, feeling the battle was drifting too close to the transports, ordered his ships to close with the enemy. Doorman issued a similar order and the range between the fleets narrowed. As the fighting intensified, Nachi struck Exeter with an 8" shell that disabled most of the ship's boilers and created confusion in the ABDA line. Badly damaged, Doorman ordered Exeter to return to Surabaya with the destroyer HNLMS Witte de With as an escort.

Shortly thereafter, the destroyer HNLMS Kortenaer was sunk by a Japanese Type 93 "Long Lance" torpedo. His fleet in disarray, Doorman broke off the battle to reorganize. Takagi, believing the battle was won, ordered his transports to turn south towards Surabaya. Around 5:45 PM, the action was renewed as Doorman's fleet turned back towards the Japanese. Finding that Takagi was crossing his T, Doorman ordered his destroyers forward to attack the approaching Japanese light cruisers and destroyers. In the resulting action, the destroyer Asagumo was crippled and HMS Electra sunk.

At 5:50, Doorman swung his column around to a southeast heading and ordered the American destroyers to cover his withdrawal. In response to this attack and concerns about mines, Takagi turned his force north shortly before sunset. Unwilling to give in, Doorman steamed away into the darkness before planning another strike on the Japanese. Turning northeast then northwest, Doorman hoped to swing around Takagi's ships to reach the transports. Anticipating this, and confirmed by sightings from spotter planes, the Japanese were in position to meet the ABDA ships when they reappeared at 7:20 PM.

After a brief exchange of fire and torpedoes, the two fleets separated again, with Doorman taking his ships inshore along the Java coast in another attempt to circle around the Japanese. At approximately 9:00 PM, the four American destroyers, out of torpedoes and low on fuel, detached and returned to Surabaya. Over the next hour, Doorman lost his last two destroyers when HMS Jupiter was sunk by a Dutch mine and HMS Encounter was detached to pick up survivors from Kortenaer.

Sailing on with his four remaining cruisers, Doorman moved north and was spotted by lookouts aboard Nachi at 11:02 PM. As the ships began to exchange fire, Nachi and Haguro fired spreads of torpedoes. One from Haguro fatally struck De Ruyter at 11:32 PM exploding one of its magazines and killing Doorman. Java was hit by one of Nachi's torpedoes two minutes later and sank. Obeying Doorman's final orders, Houston and Perth fled the scene without stopping to pick up survivors.

Aftermath

The Battle of the Java Sea was a resounding victory for the Japanese and effectively ended meaningful naval resistance by ABDA forces. On February 28, Takagi's invasion force began landing troops forty miles to the west of Surabaya at Kragan. In the fighting, Doorman lost two light cruisers and three destroyers, as well as one heavy cruiser badly damaged and around 2,300 killed. Japanese losses numbered one destroyer badly damaged and another with moderate damage. Though soundly defeated, that the Battle of the Java Sea lasted seven hours is a testament to Doorman's determination to defend the island at all costs. Many of the remaining units of his fleet were subsequently destroyed at the Battle of the Sunda Strait (February 28/March 1) and the Second Battle of the Java Sea (March 1).

Selected Sources

  1. About.com
  2. Education
  3. Military History
  4. Naval Warfare
  5. Naval Battles: 1900-Today
  6. World War II
  7. World War II at Sea - Pacific
  8. Battle of the Java Sea - World War II Battle of the Java Sea

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