Monthly Archives: March 2013

THE PACIFIC WAR: Battle of Java Sea

This is the story of the doomed resistance by Allied naval forces to the Japanese invasion of Southeast Asia during World War Two.               

In late 1941 and early 1942, Japanese land, air and sea forces swept down through the Malay peninsula, Sumatra, the Philippines and Borneo in their efforts to expand the Nippon Empire. A number of desperate defence efforts were made by Allied

The Japanese landed where the brown of Thailand meets the green of Malaya.

Java is the yellow ‘sausage’, bottom centre. Surabaya is below the “I” of Indonesia.

forces, without stopping the well- prepared Nippon advance. By February 1942, the Japanese were in possession of the islands of Timor and Ambon, and able to launch bombing raids on Australia’s northern shores. At the time, the ABDA (American, British, Dutch, Australian) naval forces were not in the best of form: they were hastily put together,  disunited, demoralised,  deficient in joint training, lacking modern warships, and suffering insufficient air support.

By February 27, a Japanese convoy of 18 craft was approaching the east end of Java. Dutch Admiral Helfrich, Commander-in-Chief of ABDA naval forces in the East Indies, ordered that all available Allied warships fight for the survival of Java. Admiral Karel Doorman commanded the 14 craft on hand and sailed from the East Java port of Surabaya to confront the invaders. Contact was made mid-afternoon, beginning a battle consisting of intermittent engagements in which the ABDA fleet was repeatedly repulsed by the Japanese, with heavy losses to the Allies.

The Exeter under fire.

HMS Exeter under fire. It was destroyed by gunfire, torpedos and scuttling charges.

In the first encounters, the British heavy cruiser Exeter was critically damaged and had to slink back to Surabaya, escorted by a Dutch destroyer. Then the Japanese sank the Dutch destroyer Kortenaer and British destroyer Electra, while one Nippon ship had to retire because of damage.

Early in the evening, the ABDA fleet broke away from the engagement and four American destroyers returned to Surabaya to refuel. The remains of the ABDA force tried in vain to sink Japanese transports. Later in the night, British destroyer Jupiter hit a mine and sank. At 11pm, the rump of the ABDA fleet ran into the Japanese escort group, resulting in the sinking of the Dutch flagship cruiser De Ruyter and destroyer Java. Doorman went down with his ship.

Admiral Doorman

Admiral Doorman

Obeying orders the remaining Allied ships, HMAS Perth and USS Houston, fled to Batavia (Jakarta) at the western end of Java; their sad end will be related in a separate article. Next morning, the Exeter and two destroyers tried to flee Surabaya northwards but patrolling Japanese warships dispatched them all, while the four American destroyers escaped southwards to Australia.

The ABDA forces were thus wiped out as a naval threat to the Japanese, whose invasion of western Java was delayed by a merely a day, at terrible cost of well over 2,000 Allied lives. The Japanese hadn’t lost a single ship, and their complete takeover of the East Indies was now guaranteed.

Postscript: In the 75th anniversary year of this battle, it is saddening to learn that many of the sunken craft (Dutch, British, Australian and American) have been illegally plundered for scrap, often to the pint of disappearance. They are not officially classed as war graves.

SOURCES                                                                                                                   Carlton, Mike 2011 Cruiser, Heinemann, Australia         ‪                                    Willmott H, 1982, Empires in the Balance: Japanese and Allied‬ Pacific   Strategies to April 1942, Orbis, London.                   

See also Youtube “Battle of the Java sea Feb/March 1942” plus related vids.

cover.edEast Java in the late 1940s forms the setting for a major strand of my novel, Shadow Chase. Check it out at, where you can also find other material related to Indonesia.