|Battle of the Java Sea|
Bombs from Japanese aircraft falling near the Dutch light cruiser HNLMS Java, c. February 1942.
The Japanese invasion of the Dutch East Indies progressed at a rapid pace as they advanced from their Palau Islands colony and captured bases in Sarawak and the southern Philippines. They seized bases in eastern Borneo and in northern Celebes while troop convoys, screened by destroyers and cruisers with air support provided by swarms of fighters operating from captured bases, steamed southward through the Makassar Strait and into the Molucca Sea. To oppose these invading forces was a small force, consisting mostly of American and Dutch warships, many of them of World War I vintage, under the command of Admiral Thomas C. Hart.
On January 23, 1942, a force of four American destroyers attacked a Japanese invasion convoy in Makassar Strait as it approached Balikpapan in Borneo. On February 13, the Allies fought unsuccessfully, in the Battle of Palembang, to prevent the Japanese from capturing the major oil port in eastern Sumatra. On the night of February 19-February 20, an Allied force attacked the Eastern Invasion Force off Bali in the Battle of Badung Strait. Also on February 19, the Japanese First Air Fleet, under Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, attacked and wrecked the port at Darwin in northern Australia which rendered it useless as a supply and naval base to support operations in the East Indies.
Shortly before the battle commenced, the odds were not good for the Allied forces. They were disunited (ships came from four separate navies) and demoralized by constant air attacks, and a general sentiment that the Japanese were unbeatable. In addition, the coordination between Allied navies and air forces was poor.
The Japanese amphibious forces gathered to strike at Java, and on February 27, 1942, the main American-British-Dutch-Australian Command (ABDACOM) naval force, under Doorman, sailed northeast from Surabaya to intercept a convoy of the Eastern Invasion Force approaching from the Makassar Strait. The ABDA force consisted of two heavy cruisers (HMS Exeter, USS Houston) and three light cruisers (HNLMS De Ruyter (Doorman's flagship), HNLMS Java, HMAS Perth), and nine destroyers (HMS Electra, HMS Encounter, HMS Jupiter, HNLMS Kortenaer, HNLMS Witte de With, USS Alden, USS John D. Edwards, USS John D. Ford, and USS Paul Jones).
The Japanese convoy was escorted by two heavy (Nachi, Haguro) and two light cruisers (Naka, Jintsu) and fourteen destroyers (Yudachi, Samidare, Murasame, Harusame, Minegumo, Asagumo, Yukikaze, Tokitsukaze, Amatsukaze, Hatsukaze, Yamakaze, Kawakaze, Sazanami, and Ushio) under the command of Rear Admiral Shoji Nishimura. The Japanese heavy cruisers were much more powerful, armed with ten 8-inch (203 mm) guns each and superb torpedoes. By comparison, Exeter was armed only with six 8-inch guns. While Houston carried nine 8-inchers, only six remained operable after her aft turret had been knocked out in an earlier air attack.
The battle consisted of a series of attempts over a seven hour period by Doorman's Combined Striking Force to reach and attack the invasion convoy; each was rebuffed by the escort force with heavy losses being inflicted on the Allies.
Shortly after, at 21:25, Jupiter ran onto a mine and was sunk, while about 20 minutes later, the fleet passed where Kortenaer had sunk earlier, and Encounter was detached to pick up survivors. Doorman's command, now reduced to 4 cruisers, again encountered the Japanese escort group at 23:00; both columns exchanged fire in the darkness at long range, until De Ruyter and Java were sunk, by one devastating long lance salvo. Doorman and most of his crew went down with De Ruyter; only 111 were saved from both ships. Only the cruisers Perth and Houston remained; low on fuel and ammunition, and following Doorman's last instructions, the two ships retired, arriving at Tanjung Priok on February 28.
Although the Allied fleet did not reach the invasion fleet, the battle did give the defenders of Java a one-day respite.