The '1st Battle of the Java Sea' was fought between Japanese and Allied naval forces as a decisive element within the Japanese seizure of the Netherlands East Indies and, in particular, the Japanese 'J' (ii) operation to take the island of Java (27 February 1942).
The Allies suffered a disastrous defeat in this battle and in secondary actions over the following days. The American-British-Dutch-Australian Command (ABDACOM) strike force’s commander, the Dutch Schout-bij-Nacht Karel Doorman, was killed. The aftermath of the battle included several smaller actions around Java, including the smaller but also significant 'Battle of the Sunda Strait'. These defeats facilitated the Japanese occupation of the entire Netherlands East Indies.
The invasion of the Netherlands East Indies proceeded swiftly as the Japanese advanced from their base area in the Palau islands group and captured bases in Sarawak and the southern parts of the Philippine islands group. The Japanese also seized bases in eastern Borneo and in the northern part of Celebes island, while troop convoys, screened by cruisers and destroyers, under potent air umbrellas provided by swarms of fighters operating from captured bases, steamed to the south through the Makassar Strait between Borneo and Celebes and into the Molucca Sea. To oppose these marauding Japanese naval forces there was only a small force of Dutch, American, British and Australian warships, many of them of World War I vintage, initially under the command of a US officer, Admiral Thomas C. Hart, commander of the Asiatic Fleet.
On 23 January 1942, a force of four US destroyers attacked a Japanese invasion convoy in the Makassar Strait as it approached Balikpapan in Borneo. On 13 February, the Allies fought unsuccessfully, in the 'Battle of Palembang', to prevent the Japanese from capturing the major oil port in the eastern part of Sumatra. On the night of 19/20 February, an Allied force attacked the Eastern Invasion Force off Bali in the 'Battle of the Badung Strait'. Also on 19 February, the Japanese delivered two air raids on Darwin, on the northern coast of the Australian mainland, one by carrier-based warplanes and the other by land-based warplanes. The destruction in Darwin rendered it useless as a supply and naval base to support operations in the Netherlands East Indies.
The Japanese amphibious forces gathered to strike at Java, and on 27 February the main Allied naval force, under Doorman, sailed to the north-east from Soerabaja to intercept a convoy of the Eastern Invasion Force approaching from the Makassar Strait. The Eastern Strike Force, as it was known, consisted of two heavy cruisers (the British Exeter and US Houston), three light cruisers (Doorman’s flagship De Ruyter, the Dutch Java and the Australian Perth) and nine destroyers (the British Electra, Encounter and Jupiter, the Dutch Kortenaer and Witte de With and the US Alden, John D. Edwards, John D. Ford and Paul Jones).
The Japanese task force protecting the convoy, commanded by Rear Admiral Takeo Takagi, comprised two heavy cruisers (Nachi and Haguro), two light cruisers (Naka and Jintsu) and 14 destroyers (Yudachi, Samidare, Murasame, Harusame, Minegumo, Asagumo, Yukikaze, Tokitsukaze, Amatsukaze, Hatsukaze, Yamakaze, Kawakaze, Sazanami and Ushio) including the 4th Destroyer Squadron under the command of Rear Admiral Shoji Nishimura. The Japanese heavy cruisers were much more powerful than their Allied counterparts, for each was armed with 10 8-in (203-mm) main guns and superb Type 93 24-in (610-mm) torpedoes. By comparison, Exeter was armed with only six 8-in (203-mm) main guns and only six of Houston's nine 8-in (203-mm) main guns remained operable after her after turret had been knocked out in an earlier air attack.
The Allied force engaged the Japanese in the Java Sea, between Java and Borneo, and the battle was fought on an intermittent basis in the seven hours between the late afternoon and the middle of the night as the Allies tried to reach and attack the troop transports of the Java invasion fleet, but were repulsed by the Japanese ships' superior firepower. The Allies had local air superiority during the daylight hours as Japanese air power could not reach the area of the battle in the prevailing adverse weather. This latter also hindered communications, making co-operation between the many Allied parties involved, in terms of reconnaissance, air cover and fleet headquarters, even more difficult than it already was. The Japanese also jammed the radio frequencies. Exeter was the only ship involved in this battle equipped with radar, an emerging technology at the time.
The two fleets sighted each other at about 16.00 on 27 February and closed to firing range, opening fire at 16.16. Both sides exhibited poor gunnery and torpedo skills during this first phase of the battle. Despite her recent refit, which included the addition of modern Type 284 fire-control radar, Exeter's fire did not come close to the Japanese ships, while Houston managed only to achieve a straddle on one of the opposing cruisers. The only notable result of the initial gunnery exchange was Exeter being critically damaged by a hit in the boiler room from an 8-in (203-mm) shell. The ship then limped away to Soerabaja, escorted by Witte de With.
The Japanese launched two huge torpedo salvoes, totalling 92 torpedoes in all, but scored only one hit, on Kortenaer, which was hit by a 'Long Lance' weapon, broke in two and sank rapidly.
Electra, covering Exeter, engaged in a duel with Jintsu and Asagumo, scoring several hits but suffering severe damage to her superstructure. After a serious fire started and her remaining turret ran out of ammunition, it was decided to abandon Electra. On the Japanese side, only Asagumo was forced to retire as a result of the damage she had taken.
The Allied fleet broke off and turned away at about 18.00, covered by a smoke screen laid by the four destroyers of the US Destroyer Division 58, which also launched a torpedo attack but at a range too great to be effective. Doorman’s force turned to the south toward the northern coast of Java, then west and north as darkness fell, in an attempt to evade the Japanese escort group and fall on the convoy. It was at this point the ships of Destroyer Division 58, their torpedoes expended, left on their own initiative to return to Soerabaja.
Shortly after that, at 21.25, Jupiter hit a mine and sank, while about 20 minutes later, the fleet passed the point at which Kortenaer had earlier sunl, and Encounter was detached to rescue survivors.
Doorman’s command, now reduced to four 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 torpedo salvo. Doorman and most of his crew went down with De Ruyter; only 111 men were saved from both ships.
Only the cruisers Perth and Houston remained. Short of fuel and ammunition, and following Doorman’s last instructions, the two ships retired, arriving at Tanjung Priok on 28 February.
Although the Allied fleet did not reach the invasion fleet, the battle did give the defenders of Java a one-day respite.
Perth and Houston were at Tanjung Priok on 28 February when they received orders to sail through the Sunda Strait to Tjilatjap. Matériel of all types was running short in Java, and neither ship was able to rearm or refuel fully. Departing at 19.00 on 28 February for the Sunda Strait, the two ships chanced on the main Japanese invasion fleet for western Java in Bantam Bay. The Allied ships were engaged by at least three cruisers and several destroyers. In a ferocious night action that ended after 00.00 on 1 March, Perth and Houston were sunk. A Japanese minesweeper and a troop transport were sunk by friendly fire, while three other transports were damaged and had to be beached.
The Dutch destroyer Evertsen had been scheduled to depart Tanjung Priok with the cruisers but had been delayed, and she followed the two larger warships about two hours later. Her crew sighted the gunfire of the main action, and her captain then managed to evade the Japanese main force. However, Evertsen was then engaged by two Japanese destroyers in the Sunda Strait and, blazing and in a sinking condition, grounded herself on a reef near Sebuku island. The surviving crew abandoned the ship just as the after magazine exploded.
After emergency repairs, the badly damaged Exeter departed Soerabaja for Ceylon at dusk on 28 February and limped toward the Sunda Strait, escorted by two destroyers, the British Encounter and the US Pope. However, all three ships were intercepted by the Japanese heavy cruisers Nachi, Haguro, Myoko and Ashigara, together with their attendant destroyers, on the morning of 1 March. Exeter and Encounter were both sunk at about 12.00, while Pope escaped only to be sunk several hours later in an air attack.
The four US destroyers of Destroyer Division 58 (John D. Edwards, John D. Ford, Alden and Paul Jones) were also at Soerabaja, and departed for Australia through the harbour’s shallow eastern entrance at the fall of night on 28 February. After a brief encounter in the Bali Strait with Japanese destroyers, which they were able to evade, the US destroyers reached Fremantle safely on 4 March.
Another Dutch destroyer, Witte de With, and three US ships (the destroyers Pillsbury and Edsall as well as the gunboat Asheville) were either scuttled or sunk as they attempted to escape to Australia. The main ABDACOM naval force had thus been almost totally destroyed: 10 ships and approximately 2,173 men had been lost. The '1st Battle of the Java Sea' ended significant Allied naval operations in South-East Asia during 1942, and Japanese land forces invaded Java on 28 February. The Dutch surface fleet had been effectively eradicated from Asian waters and the Netherlands never succeeded in reclaiming full control of its colony. The Japanese now controlled Java, which was one of the most important food-producing regions, and by conquering the Netherlands East Indies, also controlled 1940’s fourth-largest oil-producing area in the world.
The US Army Air Forces and Royal Air Force retreated to Australia. Dutch troops, aided by British remnants, fought fiercely for a week. In the campaign the Japanese executed many Allied prisoners and sympathising Indonesians. Eventually, the Japanese won this decisive battle of attrition and the ABDACOM forces surrendered on 9 March.