Operation Battle of the Sunda Strait

The 'Battle of the Sunda Strait' was a naval battle between Allied and Japanese forces in the Sunda Strait between the islands of Java and Sumatra in the Netherlands East Indies (28 February/1 March 1942).

The '1st Battle of the Java Sea' did not interfere with the schedule for Japan’s 'J' (ii) invasion of western Java on the three beach-heads at Merak, Bantam Bay and Eretenwetan, where the landings began during the evening of 28 February.

In this battle the Australian light cruiser Perth and the US heavy cruiser Houston faced a large task force of the Imperial Japanese navy, and following a fierce battle lasting several hours, both Allied ships were sunk. Five Japanese ships were sunk, three of them by friendly fire.

Late in February 1942, Japanese amphibious forces were preparing to invade Java in the Netherlands East Indies in 'J' (ii). On 27 February, the main American-British-Dutch-Australian Command naval force, under Schout-bij-nacht Karel Doorman, steamed to the north-east from Soerabaja to intercept a Japanese navy invasion fleet. This part of the ABDACOM force comprised two heavy cruisers including Houston under the command of Captain Albert H. Rooks, three light cruisers including Perth under Captain H. M. L. Waller, and nine destroyers. Only six of Houston's nine 8-in (203.2-mm) main-armament guns were operational as her after gun turret had been knocked out in an earlier Japanese air raid. The ABDACOM force engaged the Japanese force in the Battle of the Java Sea, and all the Allied ships were sunk or dispersed. Houston and Perth both retreated to Tanjung Priok, the main port of Batavia on the island of Java in the Dutch East Indies, which they reached at 13.30 on 28 February.

Early in the evening on 28 February, Houston, Perth and the Dutch destroyer Evertsen received orders to depart Tanjung Priok and head through the Sunda Strait to Tjilatjap on Java’s southern coast. Waller, who had seniority, was the de facto commander of this force, and the only ships he expected to encounter were Australian corvettes on patrol in and around the strait itself. While Houston and Perth sailed at 19.00, Evertsen was not ready and followed the cruisers two hours later.

Just after 22.00, the 'J' (ii) invasion convoy bound for western Java, and including Lieutenant General Hitoshi Imamura’s 16th Army in 46 transport ships, was entering Bantam Bay near the north-western tip of Java. The Japanese troop transports were escorted by Rear Admiral Kenzaburo Hara’s 5th Destroyer Flotilla, and Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita’s 7th Cruiser Division. The light cruiser Natori, with Hara on board, together with the destroyers Harukaze, Hatakaze, Asakaze, Fubuki, Hatsuyuki, Shirayuki, Shirakumo and Murakumo were the ships closest to the convoy. Flanking the bay to the north were the heavy cruisers Mogami and Mikuma, accompanied by the destroyer Shikinami.

Slightly farther to the north, though not involved in the forthcoming action, was the light aircraft carrier Ryujo together with the heavy cruisers Suzuya and Kumano with Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita aboard, the seaplane carrier Chiyoda and the destroyers Isonami and Uranami.

The Japanese invasion force for western Java comprised the 3rd Fleet, Dutch Indies Force, Main Body, which was divided into the Direct Support Force (for both eastern and western Java invasions) with the heavy cruisers Ashigara and Myoko, and the destroyers Asashio, Oshio, Arashio and Kawakaze; the Western Java Invasion Force, Support Force with the heavy cruisers Mikuma, Mogami, Kumano and Suzuya, and the destroyers Amagiri, Asagiri and Yugiri; the 3rd Escort Force with the light cruisers Natori and Yura, the destroyers Asakaze, Harukaze, Hatakaze, Natsukaze, Fubuki, Shirayuki, Hatsuyuki, Satsuki, Minazuki, Fumizuki, Nagatsuki, Shirakumo, Murakumo, Hibiki, Akatsuki and Hatsuharu; the 1st Air Group with the light aircraft carrier Ryujo; and the Transport Force with 56 transport ships.

Houston and Perth had refuelled at Batavia, which was under constant air attack, and sortied at 19.00 on a heading for Tjilatjap by way of the Sunda Strait. Some 40 miles (65 km) to the west, Japanese troops were coming ashore at Bantam Bay. In the immediate vicinity of the beach-head were the heavy cruisers Mikuma and Mogam, the light cruiser Natori and the destroyers Shirakumo, Murakumo, Fubuki, Shirayuki, Hatsuyuki, Asakaze and Shikinami.

Houston and Perth, heading together to the south and then the south-west, had now spotted several columns of transport ships some 12.5 miles (20 km) directly ahead of them as they rounded Babi island at about 22.15 on 28 February. There were only two destroyers, Harukaze and Hatakaze, screening the transport vessels. At 23.06, when the the two ABDACOM cruisers were about midway across the mouth of Bantam Bay, Perth sighted a ship about 5 miles (8 km) ahead, near Saint Nicolaas Point. It was thought at first that the ship was an Australian corvette, but when challenged she made an unintelligible reply with a lamp of the wrong colour, fired her nine Type 93 'Long Lance' heavyweight torpedoes from a range of about 3,000 yards (2745 m) and then turned away and made smoke. The ship was soon identified as a Japanese destroyer, probably Harukaze. Waller reported the contact and ordered his forward turrets to open fire.

Houston and Perth had also been sighted, however, at the same time that they spotted the transports, by the destroyer Fubuki, which was alone far to the west on their starboard beam. A series of somewhat chaotic manoeuvres by the Japanese ships farther to the west followed. As Houston and Perth closed on the transport vessels with their guns blazing, Harukaze got under way at 22.31 on a course to the north-west making smoke to hide the vulnerable troop ships. Hatakaze, which was only a short distance behind the transports, took a more northerly course, disappearing in the smoke screen and heading for the main portion of the 3rd Escort Force. This left Fubuki as the only warship charging the two ABDACOM cruisers. To add to the confusion, the transport ships were attacked by some of the few ABDACOM warplanes left on Java’s airfields.

The main force of Japanese ships was widely dispersed to the west and north-west. Destroyer Division 12 was 16 miles (25.75 km) to the west, and the heavy cruisers Mikuma and Mogami and the destroyer Shikinami were 14 miles (22.5 km) to the north-west. Other units were somewhat nearer, but could provide no immediate relief to the transport ships, but all steamed at flank speed towards the unexpected intruders. The course of Houston and Perth was of course a straight line and directed straight at the transport group. Their only antagonist at that moment was Fubuki, which rounded the eastern corner of Babi island and then followed directly in the wake of the cruisers. It had taken her almost 20 minutes to get into a position in which she had a line of fire.

Houston and Perth were now doomed to defeat as three Japanese cruisers and nine destroyers converged on them. Fuhuki chased the two ABDACOM ships for 14 minutes, taking fire from Perth's after guns. At 22.44, Fubuki turned to starboard, launched a full salvo of 'Long Lance' torpedoes, and then disappeared to the north in her own smoke. The launch was a dangerous tactic, for if the torpedoes missed the ABDACOM cruisers, they would be on a direct course for the transport vessels.

To avoid Fubuki's torpedoes, the two ABDACOM cruisers made a tight full circle and then, heading to the west, continued on a course which paralleled that of the transport ships. But the Western Support Force and 3rd Escort Force were closing fast; and the destroyer Hatakaze began to fire at the cruisers at 22.52. It seemed as if all the Japanese ships arrived in the small area at once, with all the columns going in different directions, while firing rapidly and launching torpedoes. Under this attack, Houston and Perth turned to the south at 23.00, then to the north-east at 23.08. At about this time, Japanese torpedoes struck Houston and Perth, as well as some of the Japanese force’s own transport vessels. Hit by gunfire and two torpedoes, Perth circled to the north-east, and then sank at 23.42.

Houston turned back to the east but, having also been hit repeatedly by shells and three torpedoes, sank one hour later. In all, 87 torpedoes had been launched at Houston and Perth. Given the mle of Japanese ships, all firing, it seems extremely likely that friendly ships were hitting one another, and that torpedoes were missing their marks but finding other targets.

Meanwhile, explosions began to take place among the transport vessels. The minesweeper W-2, which was part of the transport vessels' screen,was hit by a torpedo from Fubuki and capsized. At about the same time, Sakura Maru was also struck by one of the Fubuki's torpedoes and sank. Three other transports, including Ryujo Maru, were hit and severely damaged. Imamura, commander of the 16th Army, was on board Ryujo Maru directing the second wave of landing craft, when an explosion threw him into the oil-covered water, and it took him about three hours to get to the shore, on which he arrived covered with oil and exhausted. The destroyers Shirakumo and Harukaze suffered some battle damage, and the latter had three men killed and five wounded.

Meanwhile, as Evertsen was attempting to join Houston and Perth, her crew spotted the tracers and intense shellfire of the main action. Her captain ordered a change of course to the north-west toward Pulau Mundu island, off Sumatra’s south-eastern coast, and then hugged the Sumatran coast as Evertsen turned to the south to head through Sunda Strait. However, Evertsen was spotted by Murakumo and Shirakumo as they searched for more escaping Allied ships. Both Japanese ships immediately illuminated Evertsen with their searchlights and opened fire on her. Evertsen attempted to evade by turning to the west, but after turning southward once again, the Dutch destroyer again encountered the Japanese destroyers. Evertsen was hit repeatedly, but temporarily disengaged under cover of a smokescreen. By then, however, Evertsen's stern was on fire. With his ship still taking Japanese fire, the captain decided to ground Evertsen on a coastal reef. Launching all her torpedoes, the remaining crew escaped ashore before the fire reached the after magazine, causing an explosion that blew off most of the stern.

The Allied personnel killed during the battle included 696 members of Houston's crew and 375 men of Perth's crew, including the captains of both vessels, Rooks and Waller. The survivors recovered by Japanese vessels and taken prisoner included 368 ans 307 men from Houston and Perth respectively. Most of Evertsen's crew was taken prisoner on 9/10 March.

The crew of the cruiser Mikuma suffered the loss of six men killed and 11 wounded as a result of damage caused by Houston. A direct shell hit to the bridge of the destroyer Shirayuki killed one man and wounded 11; Harukaze suffered hits to her bridge, engine room and rudder, losing three men killed and more than 15 wounded.

About four Japanese transport vessels and one minesweeper had been sunk by 'friendly' torpedoes which had missed their Allied targets; two of these transports were later refloated. One of the Japanese transports sunk was Ryujo Maru, carrying Imamura, who was thrown overboard and later rescued by the crew of a small boat and taken ashore.

The naval campaign for Java was over. The US destroyer Edsall and the oiler Pecos were picked off and sunk on 1 March while fleeing Java for Australia. The vastly inferior ABDACOM land forces could not escape the inevitable defeat, and the Netherlands East Indies formally surrendered to Japan on 8 March. Thus a primary support for their 'Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere', extending from the Netherlands East Indies through Malaya to Burma, had been secured by the Japanese, and 'Greater East Asia' had been extended from the middle of Sumatra to the Lesser Sunda islands by this short, efficiently conducted campaign. The reaches of the South Seas now belonged to Japan.

With the fall of Singapore, Bangka and Java, the sea road to Burma was open to the Japanese and protected. By overland march the Imperial Japanese army had captured Rangoon on 8 March in 'U' (iii), and in 'D' (ii), the Imperial Japanese navy took the Andaman islands group, which provided a good airfield, and the Nicobar islands group on 23 March. When the 'L' (i) seizure of Sumatra was completed on 28 March with 'T' (i), the 'Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere' had been firmly established, but would now require consolidation and protection.