The Fall of Singapore and the simultaneous capture of the intact oil facilities at Palembang on Sumatra by Japanese airborne forces were the death knells for the ABDACOM (American-British-Dutch-Australian Command) in the southwest Pacific. A series of lightning strikes seized Borneo, Celebes, and Sarawak islands, and left Field Marshal Wavell with a weak and battered force on an indefensible and exposed line from Java to Timor. Adm Nagumo’s Kido Butai ranged the seas around the islands and shot down any Allied plane in the air, and bombed any ship it could find. Allied air cover was nonexistent outside of East Java, and air reconnaissance was impossible. The Allied ships were blind and flailing about looking for the Japanese, and the ships’ crews were nearing exhaustion from being on near constant battle stations. Wavell refused further reinforcement lest they arrive just in time to surrender, as the 18th Division had on Singapore, and directed all further men and material be rerouted to the fight in Burma which itself was going badly. Finally, he requested and received permission from Churchill to disband the ABDACOM HQ. America’s first attempt at an Expeditionary Joint Multi National headquarters ended ignobly.
Despite ABDACOM’s departure, the Dutch decided to stay and fight on. Hitler’s armies occupied the Netherlands, and the Dutch government-in-exile was not willing to give up the East Indies. The Dutch settled the area a century before the US was a glimmer in George Washington’s eye, and many Dutch families had lived there for eight generations. Java and East Timor were no different in Dutch eyes than Holland and Zeeland. Adm Karel Doorman, the former ABDACOM Naval Commander and highest ranking Dutch officer in the Pacific, requested that the forces still in theatre, whether they be American, British, or Australian, remain. Wavell agreed in order to gain time, do as much damage and tie up as many Japanese resources as possible. The old WW1 vintage British, Australian, and US Asiatic Fleet ships fell under Dutch command.
Doorman received his first challenge almost immediately. On 18 February 1942, a Japanese task force landed on the island of Bali and captured the airfield. It had to be retaken: if the Japanese managed to get land based fighters on Bali, they would be able to threaten the main Dutch base at Surabuya on Eastern Java. Surabaya was the last base in the East Indies with the facilities to refuel, repair, and rearm the remaining Allied ships. Doorman ordered every ship and plane he could get in contact with to concentrate on the Badung Strait.
On the morning of the 19th, the last B-17s and A-24s of the USAAF in the South West Pacific attacked the convoy in the restricted waters around Bali. They scored exactly one hit on a transport. But from the Japanese point of view the Bali operation was risky as the Kido Butai was enroute to raid Australia and unavailable to support this first operation against the Java to Timor line of resistance. Not wanting to risk his exposed task force further, the Japanese commander unloaded his ships and withdrew north. The majority of the task force got away before Doorman’s ships arrived, but two destroyers, the Asashio and Oshio, were left to escort the wounded merchantman and one other transport that was the last to unload.
Doorman’s ships and submarines tasked with destroying the Japanese in the Badung Strait were scattered about the area, and did not have time to concentrate. They would attack the four small Japanese ships in four waves throughout the evening and night of 19/20 February. The first wave were two submarines, one and American and one British. The American submarine got lost and ran aground, and the British submarine was driven away by depth charges from the destroyers. The next wave was led by Adm Doorman with the pride of the Dutch navy, the light cruisers HNLMS’s DeRuyter and Java, along with a Dutch destroyer, and two American destroyers. They alone constituted six times the fire power as the Japanese. But Doorman’s ships had trouble identifying them. The Asashio and Oshio immediately attacked and crossed Doorman’s “T” inflicting significant damage on the Java, and forced the two leading cruisers northward, from where they would lose contact. The Allied destroyers made torpedo runs on the transports, but were duds or failed to hit. In the process they were ambushed by the Japanese, one of whose torpedoes sunk the Dutch destroyer. The two battered and confused American destroyers fled south.
Three hours later the next Allied wave attacked the two aggressive Japanese destroyers, and again superior Japanese night gunnery skills won the round. This time four American destroyers and one Dutch cruiser, the HNLMS Tromp, sailed into the strait. But the Americans and Dutch had trouble identifying the Japanese in the smoke and darkness, and the language barrier between the Dutch commodore and the American destroyer captains prevented any coordination. In the confused melee that followed, the Asashio and Oshio deftly maneuvered through the torpedo spreads and fog of war, and savaged the larger Allied force. By this time two more Japanese destroyers arrived to assist them but they weren’t needed. They even got in the way of the two lone samurai ships and one was crippled. Unable to come to grips with the slashing and evading Asashio and Oshio, the damaged and humiliated Allies fled. The fourth wave of seven Dutch torpedo boats arrived at dawn, but they found nothing.
The outmatched and out gunned Japanese defeated and scattered a superior Allied force strictly through aggressiveness, and superior training, discipline, and seamanship. The conduct, state, and training levels of the American crews were especially appalling. The US Asiatic Fleet got its first hard lesson: More attention needed to be given to surface warfare than to Filipino hookers, Indonesian hooch, and tall tales in seedy bars by tattooed old salts. It was too late for them though.