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75th Anniversary of the Battle of the Java Sea

Thursday 9 February, 2017


Java Sea. Bomb spray follows the British cruiser HMS Exeter, as Exeter and the Australian cruiser, HMAS Hobart, manoeuver during a Japanese air attack. A Dutch destroyer is at right. Exeter survived this attack to be later sunk in the Java Sea on 1 March 1942 by a torpedo from the Japanese destroyer, Inazuma. HMS Encounter and USS Pope were with the Exeter, and all three ships sunk off the southern coast of Borneo. (AWM PO2497.037).

On the 27 February we commemorate the 75th Anniversary of the Battle of the Java Sea, a key naval battle of the Pacific campaign in World War II.

In February 1942, “Combined Striking Force” was established for the protection of the Java Sea.  This key operation for the defence of Australia from the advancing Japanese during World War II was situated between the Indonesian islands of Borneo, Java and Sumatra.

Under the command of Dutch Rear Admiral Karel Doorman, the force comprised of Dutch cruisers HMNLS Java and De Ruyter, US cruiser USS Houston, British cruiser HMS Exeter and the Australian cruiser HMAS Perth.

On 27 February, Doorman’s force attempted to intercept the Japanese “Eastern Invasion Force” comprising of 14 destroyers that were tasked to escort 41 transport vessels. At approximately 4pm the two forces met in a battle that lasted most of the night.

Doorman’s force was outgunned and unable to engage the invading fleet which escaped to the north while the escort vessels were pressing their attack. The Japanese heavy cruisers were much more powerful, each vessel armed with two 8-inch guns and torpedoes. By comparison, HMS Exeter and USS Houston had only 12 operable 8-inch guns between them.

The battle raged intermittently from mid-afternoon to midnight. The Allies attempted to reach and attack the troop transports of the Java invasion fleet, however they were repulsed by far superior firepower. While the Allies had local air superiority during the daylight hours, the weather hindered already difficult communications making the cooperation between the many Allied parties extremely difficult. The Japanese had jammed the radio frequencies with HMS Exeter the only ship in the battle equipped with radar, an emerging technology at the time.

Over a seven hour period, the battle consisted of a series of attempts by Doorman’s Combined Striking Force to reach and attack the invasion convoy; each attack was repulsed by the Japanese escort force.

Allied casualties were heavy. The battle claimed the life of Admiral Doorman, the loss of the Dutch cruisers and the majority of both crews. Two days later HMS Exeter was badly damaged and was sunk along with its escorting destroyer HMS Encounter. Despite the fierce fighting the Japanese invasion fleet was only delayed by one day landing on Java on 28 February.

The surviving cruisers of the “Combined Striking Force”, the USS Houston and HMAS Perth, were sunk on the evening of the same day, attempting to withdraw to Ceylon having encountered the “Western Invasion Force”, another Japanese fleet, in the Sunda Strait.

The victory gave Japan control of Java, one of the most important food producing regions.  By defeating the Dutch East Indies, Japan gained control over the sources of the fourth largest oil producer in the world in the 1940s.

The campaign was a disastrous defeat for the Allied navies at the hands of the Imperial Japanese.


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