On the morning of 26 February 1942, the forlorn sailors on ships of four nations, America, Britain, Australia, and the Netherlands, dejectedly listened to the words of the Adm Ernest King, the American Chief of Naval Operations, tell the world that the United States would concentrate on Germany first, then Japan. About that time, the last B-17, packed with US Army Air Corps ground crew, departed Surabaya on Java for Australia, never to return. The sailors were being sacrificed, and they knew it.
Later that morning, Adm Karel Doorman, the Dutch commander of the remaining Allied ships, received a report that the long awaited Japanese invasion fleet destined for Java had set sail from Borneo. One hundred Japanese transports were escorted by a light aircraft carrier, six heavy and five light cruisers, and over forty destroyers. Doorman had a motley crew of three British, four American, and two Dutch destroyers; one Australian light cruiser, the HMAS Perth, and two Dutch, the HMNLSs Java and DeRuyter; and two heavy cruisers, HMS Exeter (of Graf Spee and River Platte fame) and USS Houston (“FDR’s Fishing Yacht”, whose polished teak wood decks carried the Commander in Chief on many an overseas voyage).
Doorman’s task force was ragged. They had just returned from another fruitless sweep of the Java Sea, sighting only Japanese planes, and no ships. All of his ships were in various states of repair. One of the Houston’s turrets was destroyed by an air attack, which reduced the firepower of her big 8” guns by a third. The crews were exhausted, and at sea they had to man double watches in order to have any warning at all of air attack. Communications in battle were especially hard, as the majority of his force spoke English which he did not. Any orders he gave had to be translated, which took time. Moreover, he had to work with three sets of code, so most transmissions were in the clear. Furthermore, his flagship, the DeRuyter, could only communicate via radio with the Houston; its sets incompatible with the rest of the non-Dutch fleet. So in order to do a simple maneuver, Doorman gave an order, have it translated, sent to the Houston, who then transmitted it to the other ships. During battle, this was not a satisfactory state of affairs.
Doorman set sail to find the Japanese and stop the invasion of Java. All day and into the evening of 26/27 February he searched but could not locate them. Meanwhile the sailors on the heavy swells caught the occasional glimpse of Japanese reconnaissance planes through the low overcast skies in the worsening weather. That night, Doorman decided to turn back and refuel, and try again the next day.
They were only in port that morning for a few hours, before a frantic report was received which sighted the Japanese fleet only 90 miles northwest. Doorman ordered all the ships back to sea, no matter the state of refueling.
Adm Takeo Takagi was driving for them. He sent his transports to the north, on first sighting, and closed with the Allies as fast as he could. They were the last obstacle between Japan’s conquest of Java, and Japan was down to two months’ worth of oil reserves. Days mattered.
The two fleets spotted each other on the afternoon of 27 February 1942 at 30000 yards. At 28000 yards the Japanese cruisers opened fire; they missed but the rounds straddling the Allied ships astonished their crews. The Japanese were still well outside the range of even the big guns on the Exeter and Houston. Doorman closed but ordered a turn so as to not get the Allied “T” crossed, which unfortunately kept the Japanese out of range of the light cruisers quick firing 6” guns, his most numerous and dangerous weapons. Then a round penetrated the Exeter, the second cruiser in line behind Doorman, which didn’t explode but cut a steam line and blew out a boiler. Her speed was cut in half. She turned to starboard so as to not get hit by the Houston speeding at her from behind, but the Houston just slowed down and followed to maintain formation. She in turn was followed by the rest of the light cruisers and rearward destroyers, while Doorman and the forward destroyers sailed on ahead. The mistake was only corrected as the Exeter, unable to make more than 13 knots, turned about with the nearest two destroyers for escort, to head for Surabaya, but the formation was by this point broken. About this time a dud shell knocked out the Houston’s TBS radio, the ship-to-ship set that passed the communications from Doorman on the DeRuyter. For the rest of the battle, orders had to be relayed by blinker light, in high seas, from great distances, and across patches of oily smoke from fires or laid by screening destroyers. The Japanese had no such problems.
Takagi had clear communications with his ships, longer ranged guns on his cruisers, and spotting planes which greatly increased his fire control. Furthermore, his Long Lance torpedoes had twice the explosive power and twice the range of the Allied equivalents, and he had more of them. In the chaos caused by the Exeter’s damage and the breakdown of Allied command and control, the Japanese closed in for the kill.
However they only managed to sink one Dutch destroyer, the Kortenaeur, which was hit by a torpedo, “went up in a great flash of light, and a thunderclap”, then “broke in two, jack knifed, and sank” in less than fifteen seconds, and a British destroyer, the HMS Electra (the ship that rescued the only three survivors from the destruction of the HMS Hood nine months before), who went dead in the water and took her punishment for a much longer time. The chaos actually worked in the Allies’ favor. The four American destroyers of DESRON 58, out of contact with everyone but themselves, on their own initiative made a torpedo run (that didn’t hit anything), laid smoke, and then, nearly out of fuel, turned back for Surabuya. The smoke gave Doorman just enough time to turn back around and miraculously gather up the other cruisers before nightfall, but he would never again see the four American destroyers.
Later that night, Doorman attempted several times to sneak around Takagi and engage his true objective: the transports. But without air reconnaissance he would need a miracle, and Japanese night fighting superiority did not allow for Allied miracles. Japanese ships fired star shells and planes dropped flares. They routinely spotted his ships, now down to only four cruisers, after his last remaining destroyer was sunk in an unmarked Dutch minefield. Takagi closed in time and again, and each time Doorman withdrew into the darkness for another attempt to get around him. But Takagi eventually cornered the Allies, and to much better effect than the afternoon before. He sank both the Java and DeRuyter just before sunrise on the 28th. Doorman, ever the courageous and duty bound romantic, went down with his ship. His last order was for the Houston and Perth not to stop to pick up survivors, and make a run for Australia.
The Japanese through superiority in almost all areas, sunk or scattered the last remaining obstacle before their successful conclusion of the East Indies campaign. They only needed to prevent the remaining Allied ships from escaping. The Japanese were now free to go east to New Guinea and America’s possessions in the Pacific, south to Australia, or west to India and Ceylon (modern Sri Lanka)…
Or as they have so ably demonstrated over the last three months – all three directions at once.