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"All ships -- follow me."
The Java Sea Battle, February 1942

See also The battles in the Java Sea

During January 1942 the RAN strengthened the allied naval forces in the Java Sea area with the arrival of HMAS Hobart, the little sloop HMAS Yarra, both veterans against the Italian forces in the Red Sea and Mediterranean theatre of war, and three AMS vessels- Ballarat, Toowoomba, and Wollongong. These Australian Merchant Ships, armed to the teeth and seeing action nearly every day, were employed on a variety of tasks ranging from rescuing shipwrecked crews adrift in the notorious Banka Strait, rescuing survivors of enemy action, downed aircraft occupants and maintaining a patrol for the protection of merchant and refugee shipping escaping towards Tandjong Priok. A hopelessly congested port across the Java Sea on the north coast of the Dutch East Indies island of Java, and serving Batavia, the capital. The month of February witnessed a shipping exodus of all types and sizes of vessels fleeing the impending fall of Singapore.

The Japanese invasion fleet on its way to Java Island

The Japanese invasion fleet on its way to Java Island, 1942.

The assembly of the Imperial Japanese army, air and navy forces in southern Borneo, Celebes and the Molucca Islands for the final assault to take Java occupied the greater part of February 1942, during which time air raids were launched at Batavia, the capital, and Surabaya, the main naval base. The Japanese Eastern Force, 48th Division, was concentrated at Jolo Island in the Sulu Archipelago and the 56th Regimental Group at Balikpapan. An Imperial Japanese Navy squadron, under Rear-Admiral Takeo Takagi, of two heavy cruisers and two destroyer Flotillas covered the 41 transports. The Japanese Western Force, sailing from Cam Ranh Bay, and its 56 transports were escorted by four heavy cruisers and two flotillas of destroyers. A striking force of four battleships and four carriers under Vice-Admiral Nobutake Kondo, having refuelled at Kendari, headed for the waters around Java.

Admiral Conrad Helfrich had two naval components to his combined fleet, the Eastern Strike Force at Surabaya and the Western Strike Force engaged in escort duties across the sea-lanes of the Java Sea. On Thursday 26 February a large Japanese expedition of transports protected by warships was reported approaching Java from the north, and it appears to have been in at least three separate task groups. All available Allied ships-of-war were put to sea with the intention of locating and sinking the transports before the enemy landing could be effected. The Eastern Strike Force was under the command of Dutch Rear-Admiral Karel Doorman, flying his flag in the Dutch cruiser De Ruyter, had in his combined surface squadron the other Dutch cruiser Java and destroyers Witte de With and Kortenaer, reinforced by the Royal Navy cruiser Exeter of the River Plate fame, the heavy cruiser USS Houston the Flagship of Task Force Five of the US Asiatic Fleet plus the Australian Leander Class light cruiser HMAS Perth under Captain H.M.L.Waller DSO and Bar, and the British destroyers Jupiter, Electra and Encounter. Doorman, informed of the Japanese sortie, set out at 6.30pm joined by the British China Force that arrived that morning, under orders to attack the enemy convoy. The next day Japanese aircraft shadowed Doorman's squadron and he received confusing reports, unable to locate the enemy vessels he returned to Surabaya on the afternoon of Friday 27 February. Entering the harbour he received the location of 30 Japanese transports, 20 miles west of Bawean Island, and set out immediately to intercept.

Allied Cruisers Houston and De Ruyter bombed by the Japanese planes, 1942

A picture taken during the bombing of Striking Force off Kangean on 4 February 1942.
On the right the Dutch light cruiser De Ruyter, on the left USS heavy cruiser Houston.

Rear-Admiral Doorman made contact with the enemy surface vessels at about 4.12pm that afternoon, 50 miles north of Surabaya, sighting a Japanese squadron consisting of at least two heavy cruisers of the Nati class, plus a number of other enemy cruisers and thirteen destroyers organised in two flotillas. The Japanese naval force commander, informed of the allied approach by aircraft shadowing Doorman's squadron, had interposed the covering force between them and his transport convoy. At 4.16pm Doorman's striking force began to engage the Japanese escorts. The first round of the major naval battle of the Java Sea was joined at once with gun-fire being opened at extreme range against the opposing cruisers.

The enemy destroyer flotilla attempted a torpedo attack, but was driven off by allied gun-fire, and at least with one Japanese destroyer being hit. Shortly after the other destroyer flotilla came on, and succeeded in reaching effective range and launched their torpedos. The allied cruisers weer unable to deter this attack, being at this time fully engaged in an exchange of gun-fire with the opposing Japanese cruisers. One torpedo hit the Kortenaer, which sank. The other allied warships were able to avoid the long-lance torpedoes without breaking off the action against the heavy enemy naval units. At this time the Exeter was hit during the clash of steel from the intense and accurate return fire from the 8 inch cruisers Nachi and Haguro, putting out of action one of the boiler rooms. Exeter, losing speed and being unable to keep up the pace was compelled to drop out of the battle line. The Perth followed her then she was surrounded in a smoke screen by the destroyers.

Heavy Cruiser Haguro

Japanese heavy cruiser Haguro.

The surviving allied destroyers were ordered to make a counterattack on the retiring Japanese destroyer flotilla going into a cover of smoke. The Jupiter sighted two of the enemy warships engaging them with gun-fire for the short time they were observed. The Electra penetrated through the smoke screen, found nearby three of the larger Japanese destroyers and at once hit the leading vessel with several salvoes of gun-fire. Yet in the best traditions of the Royal Navy it didn't matter that the odds were against the British destroyer, disabled by a hit in the boiler room, the main guns silenced one by one, finally began to be engulfed in flames and sunk. Fifty-four of the Electra crew, all that had survived till the next day, were picked up by an American submarine and later transferred to a Dutch minesweeper eventually reaching an Australian port. The allied cruisers passed through the smoke and again engaged the enemy cruisers, this time at short range. Then as it seemed that one Japanese cruiser was set on fire, perhaps by the Perth scoring hits, the enemy drew off and was lost from sight at 6.30pm to the north east in the failing daylight.

Light Cruiser Java

Dutch light cruiser Java.
Royal Netherlands Navy
by H. T Lenton
Doubleday (1968)

Doorman continued the chase, after nightfall Doorman had to contend with Japanese reconnaissance aircraft dropping flares illuminating his ships and for a short while engaged another Japanese surface force of cruisers, which could not be identified. He believed the enemies transport convoy to be on the other side of these warships and endeavoured to work around them. Unable to do so due to the enemy's superior speed, he therefore turned south to close with the coast of Java and intercept the landing forces before it should be able to amphibiously assault the shoreline. When he came upon the north coast of Java he turned west to sweep along it, and half an hour later the destroyer HMS Jupiter was hit by either an undetected mine or a well placed torpedo, erupted with an explosion, became disabled and sunk at 9.25pm. By 10.30pm the Perth and Houston were again exchanging gun-fire with Nachi and Haguro, also fending off Japanese destroyers on a torpedo run at them. Doorman's depleted surface squadron, now about 12miles north of Rembang at 11.30pm, sighted two Japanese cruisers between themselves and the shore, engaging them with gun-fire. Hits were made by both sides in the salvo of high explosive projectile exchange, but as the allied squadron was in the act of altering course for another round of battle, the two Dutch cruisers both blew up simultaneously in a massive cavalcade of seawater and steel armour plate with a huge loss of life. De Ruyter and Java hit by high explosive warhead long-lance torpedoes sank immediately and Doorman went down with his Flagship. The Perth following was barely able to avoid a collision and with the Houston broke off the naval action. Although results were not easy to observe, it was believed that one Japanese 8 inch-gun cruiser and one enemy destroyer was sunk with a second large cruiser damaged plus a cruiser of the Mogami class set on fire. Three more enemy destroyers were certainly damaged in the late night sea battle. High hopes indeed, what the Japanese really had lost was a damaged destroyer. At thirty minutes past midnight on Sunday 1 March 40 transports dropped anchor off Kragon, the north coast of Java and 100 miles west of Surabaya.

Light Cruiser De Ruyter

Dutch light cruiser De Ruyter, the command ship of Rear-Admiral Karel Doorman, sank on 27 February 1942.
"Moments after the torpedo hit her, the fire ignited all the antiaircraft ammunition. Seconds later it simply disappeard".
From the original crew of 367 men, 437 lost their lifes.
The losses aboard the light cruiser Java were horrible: from the crew of 528 men, 512 were killed in the battle.
Warship Profile 40:
Her Netherlands Majesty's Ship
De Ruyter
by F. C. van Oosten

After this night naval action the Perth and Houston arrived at Tandjong-Priok early the next day, while the Exeter accompanied by the destroyer HMS Encounter, had arrived during the night at Surabaya. During the next night, Saturday 28 February, all these allied warships left harbour at different times with the intention of trying to reach an Australia port. The American destroyer USS Stewart, in dock at Surabaya after receiving damaging enemy gun-fire at Bandung Strait sea battle, could not be made seaworthy in time to leave and was demolished by explosive charges. The Perth, with only half the normal oil supply and the Houston made for Sunda Strait being ordered to Tjilatjap but were to discover a second enemy amphibious landing taking place in Bantam Bay, off St. Nicholas Point at about 11.30pm. And engaged the Japanese transports escorted by destroyers of the 5th and 11th flotillas at once. As the two battle scarred warships wreaked havoc amongst the enemy vessels, causing the Japanese to sink their own transports, they were intercepted by a strong Japanese surface force. The Mogami and Mikami arrived after receiving an urgent call to assist the destroyers. And both allied cruisers running short of ammunition, overwhelmed by some 90 Long-lance torpedoes launched at them, were eventually pinned and sunk firing till the last. Captain A.H. Rooks of the Houston received the Congressional Medal of Honour, posthumously; "they sacrificed their lives to gain time for future victories".

The Exeter, steaming at no more than half speed, again accompanied by the destroyer Encounter and American destroyer USS Pope, steered east but next morning confronted three heavy Japanese cruisers and were sunk meeting their end going down fighting. Thus the Japanese had again succeeded in wiping out another obstacle in their thrust south and were free to search the waters surrounding Java for any minor enemy vessels that might appear.

Another incident was HMAS cruiser Hobart joining up with two old British light cruisers, Dragon and Danae, unable to join in the main naval battles of Java Sea, the former because of enemy disruption to refuelling and the latter two due to escort duties elsewhere, began steaming out of the region together. Later as a Japanese task force approached them at speed, they were identified by Japanese ariel recon flight and perhaps wrongly mistaken as a battleship and two heavy cruisers, the supposedly superior enemy battle line sent to engage and sink them withdrew under air cover with an engagement elsewhere. The three steel hulled Royal naval sister ships, making their way through the Sunda Strait bottleneck at around 6.10am 28 February, were sighted by another enemy aircraft and perhaps this time falsely recognised as friendly, or of no hostile threat, and steamed on unmolested. By 9.00am Hobart was heading west south of Sumatra, so facilitating the escape of the last big warships of the combined Far Eastern Fleet from the battle drenched waters around Java.

Meanwhile one allied convoy consisting of the merchant vessels Anking, Francol and a small minesweeper MMS51, departed the coast of Java escorted by the Australian built sloop HMAS Yarra, was located by a superior Japanese squadron of three cruisers and two destroyers in the Sunda Straits of the Java Sea. At 6.30am, 2 March, the Yarra's alarm sound rang out as the lookouts sighted the enemy line of battle on a heading of North-North East. Lieutenant-Commander R.W. Rankin swung the Yarra to face the enemy warships and laid down a protective smoke screen while the other allied vessels scattered and steamed on relentlessly. The out-gunned RAN sloop had three 4 inch guns opposed to the multiple barrels of 8 inch Japanese firepower. The Japanese ships stood hull up above the horizon at 11miles range and let the RAN sloop have it.

The Yarra guns had a range of 6miles and was being targeted with thirty 8 inch projectiles per minute. Australian sailors lay dead at their action stations, yet one gunner, Leading Seaman Ronald (Buck) Taylor, continued to operate the gun at his post as the Japanese salvos of steel kept hurtling in. One after the other the two merchant vessels armed with 4 inch and Bofor guns were smashed and the machine-gun armed minesweeper sunk by the Japanese advantage of range, speed, armament, and thicker armour plating plus the ariel bombing and observations by the two enemy aircraft from the Japanese cruisers. And there was eighteen year old Buck, named after his comic book hero Buck Rogers, on his own still loading, laying, training and firing those Australian-made 4 inch shells back at them as Lt-Com Rankin closed the sloop Yarra with the enemy guns to point blank range. In half an hour it was over, the many calibre shells of seven enemy warships splintered the decks of the Yarra. The gunnery control tower was hit, and blown to pieces, next was the Bridge as the call to abandon ship was broadcast by the bosun's mate blowing a whistle. Then the Yarra, the last to go down, seemed to crack in half, slid under the sea and taking the lone dogged gunner too. The Yarra compliment of 151 officers and crew gallantly defended the tiny convoy till the end and of the 34 survivors who scrambled off the shell struck sunken warship, only 13 ratings were alive five days later when the Dutch submarine K-XI, escaping from Surabaya the week before, spotted the drifting rafts and picked up the lucky and desperate men. The approaching submarine could have been Japanese and one Aussie sailor croaking his voice remarked - "let's sing Roll out the Barrel".

Here's a simple Japanese report of the naval action which the RAN sloop HMAS Yarra was sunk:
"In the early morning of March 4, 1942, the following ships of No.2 Fleet cruising in the area Latitude South 12 degrees 15 minutes, Longitude East 110 degrees 10 minutes, 'A Class cruisers Atago, Takao and Maya and No.4 Destroyer Squadron Arashi, Nowaki. They sighted the enemy transport vessels under escort of two light naval vessels, which were attacked by gun-fire and sunk. None of the Japanese ships suffered any damage".

The old British destroyer HMS Stronghold was also lost escorting escaping ships endeavouring to get away from war-torn Java and the hostile Japanese. The USS Seaplane Tender Langley was sunk 75 miles south of Tjilatjap, so too were other small American and allied vessels and as far away as Christmas Island. A small convoy that detached from the ill-fated Yarra expedition escorted by AMS Wollongong, proceeding south to Australia, and was undetected by the Japanese forces after the fall of Java. The Dutch destroyer Evertsen fell victim to two Japanese cruisers being badly damaged and beached in Sunda Strait, and now at this time the sea-lane from Java Sea into the open Indian Ocean was nicknamed "Suicide Lane".

Note The crew of the Dutch destroyer Kortenaer numbered 145 men; 35 Dutch sailors lost their lifes in the Java Sea Battle.

Note The crew of the Dutch light cruiser Java numbered 528 men. After the battle they managed to find only 16 survivors.

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Copyright Graham Donaldson 1999-2000
Forgotten Campaign: The Dutch East Indies Campaign 1941-1942