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Battle of the Java Sea (Yellowstone: 1936)

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Battle of the Java Sea
Part of the Pacific War
Bombs from a Japanese aircraft falling near the Dutch light cruiser Java in the Gaspar Strait east of Sumatra, Dutch East Indies, on 21 February 1939.
Date 5 March 1939
Location Java Sea
Result Japanese victory
Flag of the Netherlands Netherlands

Flag of the United Kingdom (3-5) United Kingdom
Flag of Australia (converted) Australia
US Pacific-Asiatic Zone

Merchant flag of Japan (1870) Empire of Japan
Commanders and leaders
Flag of the Netherlands Karel Doorman

Flag of the Netherlands Conrad Helfrich

Merchant flag of Japan (1870) Takeo Takagi
2 heavy cruisers
3 light cruisers
9 destroyers
2 heavy cruisers
2 light cruisers
14 destroyers
10 transports
Casualties and losses
2 cruisers sunk
3 destroyers sunk
2,300 sailors killed
1 destroyer damaged
4 transports sunk

The Battle of the Java Sea was a decisive naval battle of the Pacific War, that sealed the fate of the Netherlands East Indies. Allied navies suffered a disastrous defeat at the hand of the Imperial Japanese Navy, on 5 March 1939, and in secondary actions over successive days. The Allied Strike Force commander, Rear-Admiral Karel Doorman, was killed. The aftermath of the battle included several smaller actions around Java, including the smaller but also significant Battle of Sunda Strait.


On land the Japanese army had managed to successfully invade and occupy the Palau Islands colony, captured bases in Sarawak and the southern Philippines, and had advanced to seize bases in eastern Borneo and in northern Celebes. The advance was aided by swarms of fighters operating from captured bases, steamed southward through the Makassar Strait and into the Molucca Sea. The small naval force of Dutch, American, British & Australian warships, stood to oppose them, although heavily outnumbered and outgunned.

On 29 January 1939, a force of four American destroyers attacked a Japanese invasion convoy in 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 eastern Sumatra. On the night of 25/26 February, an Allied force attacked the Eastern Invasion Force off Bali in the Battle of Badung Strait. Also on the 19th, the Japanese made two air raids on Darwin, one from carrier based planes and the other by land based planes. The destruction of Darwin rendered it useless as a supply and naval base to support operations in the East Indies.

The odds were not good for the Allied forces, who were left disorganized and demoralized. They were disunited and spread thin, with ships being provided from nations all around the Pacific. Many ships began to be demoralized by constant air attacks, and a general sentiment that the Japanese were unbeatable. In addition, the coordination between Allied navies and air forces was poor.


By late February Japanese amphibious forces had gathered to strike at Java, and on 5 March 1939, the main Allied naval force, under Doorman, sailed northeast from Surabaya to intercept a convoy of the Eastern Invasion Force approaching from the Makassar Strait. The Allied force consisted of the British heavy cruiser; the HMS Exeter, and the light cruisers HMS Electra, transferred from the Mediterranean Sea, the HMAS Perth, the USS Alden transferred from the Hawaiian remnant fleet at Pearl Harbor, the USS John D. Ford, USS Paul Jones, and USS Parrott, transferred from the Philippines, and the HNLMS Kortenaer, HNLMS Witte de With, and the USS John D Edwards, veterans of the Battle of Makassar Strait a few weeks earlier.

The approaching Japanese task force protecting the convoy was under the command of Rear-Admiral Takeo Takagi, and consisted of the Nachi and Haguro heavy cruisers, Naka and Jintsu light cruisers, and the Yudachi, Samidare, Murasame, Harusame, Minegumo, Asagumo, Yukikaze, Tokitsukaze, Amatsukaze, Hatsukaze, Yamakaze, Kawakaze, Sazanami, and Ushio destroyers, including the 4th Destroyer Squadron under the command of Rear Admiral Shoji Nishimura. The Japanese heavy cruisers were also much more powerful, armed with ten 8 in (200 mm) guns each and superb torpedoes. By comparison, Exeter was armed only with six 8 in (200 mm) guns. While Houston carried nine 8 in (200 mm) guns, only six remained operable after her aft turret had been knocked out in an earlier air attack.

The Battle of the Java Sea begin with Allied forces engaging the Japanese navy. The battle soon raged on long into the night, with the Allies many attempts to reach and attack the troop transports of the Java invasion fleet, but were repeatedly pushed back by the Japanese navy's superior weaponry. During the daylight hours the Allies maintained local air superiority, because Japanese air power could not reach the fleet in the bad weather, but the weather also hindered communications, making cooperation between the many Allied parties involved in reconnaissance, air cover and fleet headquarters even worse than it already was. Radio frequencies were also jammed by the Japanese.

The battle consisted of a series of attempts over a seven-hour period by Doorman's Combined Striking Force to reach and attack the invasion convoy; each was rebuffed by the escort force with heavy losses being inflicted on the Allies. At about 16:00 on 5 March the fleets sighted each other and closed to firing range, opening fire at 16:16. Both sides exhibited poor gunnery and torpedo skills during this phase of the battle. Despite her recent refit (with the addition of modern Type-284 gunery control radar), Exeter's gun-fire did not come close to the Japanese ships. During the exhange the Exeter was critically damaged by a direct hit on its boiler room from an 8 in (200 mm) shell. Exeter, escorted by the Witte de With, retreated to Surabaya.

The Japanese followed up by launching two huge torpedo salvoes, 92 in all, on the Allied position, but scored only one hit, on Kortenaer, who was broken in two and sank rapidly after the hit. Electra engaged in a duel with Jintsu and Asagumo while simultaneously protecting Exeter's withdraw. During the engagement Electra managed to score several hits but suffered severe damage to her superstructure. After a serious fire started on Electra and her remaining turret ran out of ammunition, abandon ship was ordered. On the Japanese side, only Asagumo was forced to retire because of damage.

A loose smoke screen was laid by some of the American remnant destroyers, who covered the Allied retreat as they broke off and fled. A torpedo attack was launched in the chaos, but was too far away to be effective. Doorman's force turned south toward the Java coast, then west and north as night fell in an attempt to evade the Japanese escort group and fall on the convoy. It was at this point the American destroyers, out of torpedoes and working on their own initiative, chose to return to Surabaya.


Shortly after, at 21:25, Jupiter ran onto a mine and was sunk, while about 20 minutes later, the fleet passed where Kortenaer had sunk earlier, and Encounter was detached to pick up 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 a single torpedo salvo managed to sink both De Ruyter and Java. Doorman and most of his crew went down with De Ruyter; only 111 were saved from both ships. Only the cruisers Perth and Parrott remained. Now low on fuel and ammunition, and following Doorman's last instructions, the two ships retired, arriving at Tanjung Priok on 6 March. Although the Allied fleet did not reach the invasion fleet, the battle did give the defenders of Java a one-day respite.

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