Operation Battle of the Makassar Strait

The 'Battle of the Makassar Strait', which is also known as the 'Action of the Madura Strait', the 'Action North of the Lombok Strait' and the 'Battle of the Flores Sea', was a naval air/sea battle between Japanese aircraft and an Allied naval force in the Pacific theatre (4 February 1942).

A naval force of the American-British-Dutch-Australian (ABDA) Command, under the command of Schout-bij-Nacht Karel W. F. M. Doorman was on its way to intercept a Japanese invasion convoy reported as bound for Soerabaja on the southern coast of Java island in the Dutch East Indies (its destination was actually Makassar) when it was located and attacked by a force of 36 Mitsubishi G4M1 'Betty' and 24 Mitsubishi G3M2 'Nell' medium bombers, which forced the Allied force to retreat.

The battle took place in the Java Sea, closer to the Kangean islands than to the Makassar Strait. (The battle should not be confused with the naval 'Battle of Balikpapan', which occurred more than one week earlier, on 24 January 1942, and is also sometimes known as the Battle of the Makassar Strait.)

At the end of January 1942, Japanese forces had conquered the northern and western coasts of Borneo and large parts of Maluku (the Moluccas archipelago). On Borneo’s east coast, Japanese forces occupied the oil facilities and ports of Balikpapan and Tarakan in 'B' (ii), and on Celebes island the cities of Menado and Kendari had also fallen in 'H' (i). To gain full control of the Makassar Strait between Borneo and Celebes, the Japanese needed to capture the cities of Makassar and Banjarmasin on the southern tips of these two islands.

On 1 February, Allied commanders received word from a reconnaissance aeroplane that at Balikpapan a Japanese invasion force, comprising 20 troop transport ships, three cruisers and 10 destroyers, was preparing to sail. On 2 February, Admiral Thomas C. Hart of the US Navy, Vice-Admiraal Conrad E. L. Helfrich of the Royal Dutch navy, and Rear Admiral William A. Glassford and Commodore John Collins of the Royal Australian Navy met at Palembang on the island of Sumatra, and here Helfrich secured approval for his suggestion that a strike force be formed to intercept and destroy the Japanese convoy. This naval force was formed on the following day under the command of Doorman, and began taking on supplies at the Gili islands to the south of Madura.

The ABDA force consisted of four cruisers (the Dutch light cruisers De Ruyter, which was the flagship, and Tromp and the US heavy cruiser Houston and light cruiser Marblehead) escorted by seven destroyers (the Dutch Banckert, Piet Hein and Van Ghent, and the US Barker, Bulmer, John D. Edwards and Stewart).

On the morning of 3 February, the ABDA force was sighted by a squadron of about 30 Japanese bombers reported as heading toward Soerabaja. Seven of the bombers showed special interest in the Allied ships and started to circle above them. The ships initially dispersed to deeper water, but the aircraft departed without attacking, and the Allied force resumed taking on supplies.

At about 00.00, the ships sailed for Meinderts Droogte (Meinderts Reef) off the north-eastern tip of Java. The last ship arrived at about 05.00 on 4 February. At 09.30, the force received word that air patrols from Makassar had spotted the Japanese convoy apparently heading for Soerabaja, and the ABDA force headed set out for the Makassar Strait in search of the Japanese invasion force, which was reported to be passing through the strait and was now said to include three cruisers and 18 destroyers, escorting transports and other ships, under the command of Rear Admiral Takeo Takagi.

At 09.49, while Doorman’s force was to the south of the Kangean islands, Japanese bombers were sighted to the east. The Japanese aircraft were flying in four 'V' formations at an altitude of about 16,405 ft (5000 m). The aircraft attacked the Allied cruisers. The first to be targeted was Marblehead, and the bombs landed about 260 ft (80 m) ahead of the ship. During a second attack, Marblehead sustained two direct hits and a damaging near miss. The two direct hits penetrated the deck, killed 15 crew directly and destroyed the ship’s ability to manoeuvre, so the cruiser was now able only to steam in circles. The near miss also caused a hole measuring 9.8 by 3.3 ft (3 by 1 m) near the ship’s bottom. The following on Marblehead were less intense, however.

Houston initially evaded the bombs aimed at her, but suffered one severe hit in a final attack: the bomb struck the deck near the after gun turret. Some 48 men of the crew were killed, and the three aftermost 8-in (203-mm) guns were rendered useless.

After the hits on Houston and Marblehead, the Japanese bombers focused their attentions on De Ruyter, which evaded four attacks and sustained only minor damage to the fire-control arrangements for her 40-mm anti-aircraft guns.

At about 13.00, Doorman ordered his ships to turn west and signalled Hart that without fighter protection it would not be possible to advance to the Makassar Strait as a result of the threat posed by Japanese bombers. Houston and Tromp had already passed to the south through the Alas Strait, and were now were therefore to the south of the strait. Marblehead and the four US destroyers went to the south through the Lombok Strait. De Ruyter and the three Dutch destroyers remained with Marblehead until the Lombok Strait. Both US cruisers headed for Tjilatjap, on the south coast of Java, for repairs and medical attention for their wounded.

Japanese aircrews reported three cruisers sunk during the attack: one 'Augusta' class cruiser, one 'Tromp' class cruiser type and one 'Java' class cruiser. However, no ships of the last class were present during the attack, and only Marblehead and Houston had been damaged.

At Tjilatjap, Houston and Marblehead transferred their wounded to a hospital and buried their dead. Marblehead would not fit in the dry dock, but the hole in her hull was temporarily repaired and the ship sailed for the east coast of the USA way of Ceylon and South Africa for repairs. Houston was able to continue service with the ABDA naval force.

The retreat of the strike force resulted in the Japanese taking control of Makassar Strait and thereby tightening their grip on the western part of the Dutch East Indies.