Pacific War 9 – Japanese Conquest of Indonesia

Pacific War 9 – Japanese Conquest of Indonesia

After all the previous successes, it was clear that the Japanese will not stop and that Indonesia was next in line. It was also very clear that a piecemeal defense had absolutely no chance of success. This led to formation of ABDA Command: a unified force of US, British, Dutch and Australian ships. In doing so, the Allies had managed to put together a force of 2 heavy cruisers, 3 light cruisers and 9 destroyers. These forces were weak, and many ships were already obsolete. Cruisers’ spotter planes had also been shipped to land bases. Neither could a force hastily assembled from four different navies function well as one unit. Few aboard Dutch ships understood any English at all, and their Anglophone allies were even worse in reverse. In a last minute attempt to rectify the problem, a dozen English-speaking Dutch officers were divided amongst the fleet as interpreters. In order to ensure unity of command, the entire force was subordinated to Dutch admiral Doorman.

Karel Doorman
Karel Doorman as a Lieutenant Commander

The only chance for success the Allies had was an all-out attack while Japanese forces were in transit, before the Japanese themselves could conentrate and attack. Thus the Allied command sent out four old American destroyers with task of attacking transport ships. Destroyers sailed towards northeast, specifically the Makassar Strait, because it was expected that Japanese forces detailed for attack on Indonesia will move through this area between Borneo and Celebes.

As Japanese transport ships would be under heavy escort, any daylight attack would be doomed to failure. Destroyers thus timed their approach so that they arrived to straits during night. Sailing close to Borneo shore, American destroyers approached the important harbor of Balikpapan during the night of 23rd onto 24th January 1942. Sailing without lights, they noticed shadows of at least 12 Japanese transport ships anchored within the bay. These were screened by a squadron of admiral Nishimura, which consisted of a light cruiser and 9 destroyers, located nearby in open sea.

Japanese in the bay thus did not expect any danger. Seeing the situation, commander Talbot ordered an immediate attack. US destroyers charged into the bay, but nervousness caused several premature launches. Torpedoes randomly dropped from all sides, and Japanese only noticed the attack when a torpedo hit and sank a patrol ship. Exploiting the confusion, destroyers continued onwards, launching the remaining torpedoes. Crews were now calmer and targeting much more accurate; four transport ships were sunk in short order. Destroyers then opened up with their guns, damaging numerous ships but failing to sink any more.

Japanese did not take long to compose themselves, and soon the ships in the bay started to reply from their small deck guns. Fearing that the fighting will alert Japanese warships which had to be nearby, Talbot continued onwards, leading his destroyers out of the bay and into the safety of darkness beyond. Keeping close to shore, destroyers managed to return home unimpeded.

Encouraged by this success, the Allies sought to repeat this action with much stronger forces. Logic was that the stronger attack will also cause larger Japanese casualties, potentially even stopping the Japanese invasion in its tracks. To this effect, Admiral Doorman left Java on midnight of 4th February 1942., leading three cruisers, a small cruiser and four destroyers. This fleet left Surabaya and sailed eastwards towards the Banda Sea. Japanese had taken Rabaul and Bouganville in late January, and during first days of February Japanese air force had bombed Java. This led the Allies to conclude that invasion of Java is imminent and that transport ships must be on their way to Java. The task of Doorman’s fleet was to intercept Japanese transports and cause as much damage as possible. But his ships were old, with no radar and weak anti-aircraft artillery.

HNLMS De Ruyter
HNLMS De Ruyter shortly before her loss

Night passed without an incident, but in the morning the Allied squadron was detected by a Japanese reconnaissance aircraft. Few hours later, Japanese high-altitude bombers attacked the squadron from altitude of about 4 000 meters. Allied warships managed to shoot down several bombers, but this did not prevent the attack from being carried out. All cruisers received heavy hits: admiral ship De Ruyter had her main artillery fire control station disabled, US cruiser Houston lost its stern 203 mm gun turret, while cruiser Marblehead had its rudder destroyed, heavy damage caused to the hull, and several fires started on it. These fires caused major casualties: due to the tropical climate, many sailors were working shirtless in short trousers, which led to a large number of casualties from burns. As it turned out, even thin fabric provides significant protection from burns, which led to a mandatory requirement of long-sleeved shirts and long trousers even in the tropics.

These attacks forced the squadron to withdraw. Marblehead could not proceed with other ships: having lost her rudder she could only be steered by changing power on either left or right pair of her four propellers. She managed to reach the Allied base on south of Java where she received basic repairs, but full repairs and refit had to be carried out in the United States. As the direct path was too dangerous due to Japanese ships, Marblehead passed through Ceylon and around Africa to United States.

HMS Exeter under air attack

On 12th February 1942., scout aircraft reported seeing two large Japanese convoys sailing through the South China Sea towards Sumatra. Allied squadron immediately set sail. Total strength of the Allied force was three Dutch, one British and one Australian cruiser, four Dutch and six American destroyers. Leaving Tjilatjap (Cilacap), these ships sailed along the southern side of the island and passed through the Sunda Strait, aiming to intercept the Japanese before landings could be carried out. High speed of ships and dark night caused the loss of one destroyer which hit a reef, but remaining ships continued on and by dawn were in the Java sea, sailing along the coast of Sumatra.

On the same day, Japanese aircraft dropped 700 paratroopers over Palembang, the capital of Sumatra. These were supposed to open way for the nearby transport ships of admiral Ozawa. But the Dutch Army destroyed all the paratroopers, and Ozawa, receiving news of the Allied ships, turned transports back. Ozawa immediately sent aircraft from his carrier Ryujo, and they managed to find the Allied warships. But air attacks achieved little despite days of effort, as Allied warships – taught by their recent experiences – waited for the aircraft to drop their bombs before quickly changing course. Even so, expenditure of anti-aircraft ammunition and accumulative damage of numerous near-misses caused the ships to return to base, and Palembang fell the next day.

Allied squadron still had no luck. They went anywhere where Japanese ships could be found, even just potentially. Thus, receiving news of an attack on Bali, they went to attack the Japanese force. But Japanese had already taken the island with weak forces on 18th February. Allied squadron, reinforced with torpedo boats, arrived to the strait of Bandoeng between Bali and Java on the night between 19th and 20th of February. Hasty attack achieved no success, and two Dutch destroyers were lost when Japanese destroyers arrived; no losses were inflicted on the Japanese.

Japan conquers Indonesia

At the same time, two large Japanese convoys with around 100 transport ships were sailing towards Java. Landings were scheduled for 28th February. Convoys themselves had a very strong escort force: 4 battleships, 5 aircraft carriers, 14 cruisers and 49 destroyers. But this mass of ships moved at a geriatric pace, and scout aircraft soon descovered the fleet. First to be sighted was a small division of 30 transport ships, 2 cruisers and 4 destroyers, while rest of the fleet remained unnoticed.

This partial information led the Allied command to expect easy prey. Admiral Doorman led his squadron of 5 cruisers and 10 destroyers southwest at 25 knots. Advance guard consisted of two British destroyers, sailing around a mile ahead of the squadron. Cruisers themselves were in a line of battle, with de Ruyter leading, followed by Exeter, Houston, Perth and Java. Flank guard was provided by three Dutch and one American destroyer, while rear guard was formed from four American destroyers.

Java sea was calm and visibility was good. Despite that however, nothing had been noticed, and crews were on combat positions for 37 hours with no break. But then news had been received of another Japanese convoy, exiting the Makassar Strait. Squadron immediately turned towards the strait – and its doom.

Japanese reconnaissance aircraft were noticed in the afternoon of 27th February 1942. Allied squadron performed no reconnaissance of its own despite having several seaplanes available. They were thus unaware that strong Japanese forces were nearby. Neither did they know that just a day before Japanese aircraft had sunk American seaplane carrier Langley which had been transporting 32 aircraft to Java. Around 16:30, Allied squadron came across a Japanese fleet. Most powerful Japanese ships present were heavy cruisers Nachi and Haguro, each with ten 203 mm cannons. In the Allied squadron, cruisers Houston and Exeter had 203 mm guns. Houston had nine guns, but three had been disabled in Japanese air attack, while Exeter had six. Japanese fleet also had two light cruisers and 14 destroyers. Japanese heavy cruisers opened fire at the very edge of their range, around 23 500 meters.

Japanese cruiser Haguro

Hoping to allow his cruisers with 155 mm guns to join the fight, Admiral Doorman ordered a sharp turn towards the enemy. Heavy cruisers Houston and Exeter opened fire at distance of 18 000 meters, almost immediately straddling their targets. Hits also came soon, and combat continued. Around 17 hours, eight Japanese destroyers mounted a torpedo attack on Allied cruisers, laying down a smokescreen in the process. British destroyers Jupiter and Electra entered the smokescreen to screen the cruisers; Electra never came back.

Cruisers Perth and Java also turned their guns on the Japanese destroyers. While Japanese managed to launch 43 torpedoes, heavy defensive fire interfered and none hit their targets. But at 17:15, after about an hour of combat, heavy shell from a Japanese cruiser hit Exeter, penetrating into the machinery spaces and severing one of main steam pipes. Hit caused a turbine to die, leaving the cruiser to turn. This sealed the fate of the Allied squadron, as three cruisers behind Exeter followed her in turn, believing that she had turned on Admiral’s orders. Japanese destroyers closed in for the second attack.

Noticing the situation, Australian cruiser Perth circled around Exeter, laying down the smoke screen to conceal the wounded cruiser. Admiral Doorman also turned de Ruyter around and rejoined the fleet, while British and Dutch destroyers moved to protect the cruisers from Japanese torpedo attack. While majority of ships were capable of evading the attack, nearly immobilized Exeter could not do so. She was only saved because Dutch destroyer Kortenaer intercepted the torpedo with its own hull. But the destroyer paid dearly for this act, as it was broken into half by the torpedo.

HNLMS Kortenaer

Allied destroyers replied with their own torpedo salvo. Two Japanese destroyers fell victim to the counterattack. It was gun time now, and soon a British destroyer was hit in its machinery spaces. Disabled, it was a perfect target, and soon sunk. One of Japanese heavy cruisers was on fire, while a Dutch destroyer was damaged when its depth charges fell overboard and exploded close to the ship.

The night was slowly falling. Japanese destroyers sent another platoon of 24 torpedoes from 4 000 meters away, but missed. Four American destroyers also launched torpedoes on Japanese cruisers. They too missed, but the attack forced the cruisers to evade torpedoes, turning away at full speed. Twilight, smoke and distance caused a pause in combat, which admiral Doorman used to try and reorganize his forces. He managed it very quickly, and just in time as the Japanese had returned and started firing again. But this lasted for a short time, as the Allied ships used cover of darkness to slip away. In darkness however destroyer Jupiter hit a mine and was sunk.

Damaged Exeter was sent to Java under escort by two destroyers. Admiral Doorman meanwhile continued to search for the enemy transport ships. He hoped to find them unprotected as their escort ships would have been away. But he had no such luck: at 23:15, Allied ships ran across two Japanese cruisers. Allied ships fired slowly as crews were exhausted and ammunition in short supply, but the combat went on for half an hour. It ended when Java and de Ruyter were hit by torpedoes in darkness, and sank quickly, taking down admiral Doorman with his entire staff. Surviving ships retreated towards Java.

Next day was relatively peaceful, and the Allied ships reached Java without much difficulty. But they could not stay there, as squadrons of Japanese bombers mounted daily attacks against any targets they could find. Allied Command in Bandoeng decided to concentrate all the ships south of the island and organize a new battle group. Closest way was through the Bali Strait, but only US destroyers went that way. Damaged Exeter could not risk passage through a strait full of rocks, and instead went westwards alongside British destroyer Encounter and US destroyer Pope, aiming to force their way through Sunda Strait. Independently of this group, Sunda Strait was also chosen by the group formed of US cruiser Houston, Australian cruiser Perth and Dutch destroyer Evertsen.

HMS Exeter in 1939

Ships sailed out into unknown. It was obvious that the Japanese were preparing for an invasion, and the entire Java Sea was full of their warships. Defenders had only 10 fighter aircraft left, and so Japanese ruled the air. The only chance for success was using the cover of the night. But deep in night, Perth reported that she was in combat, and soon after destroyer Evertsen escorting her reported that there is heavy fighting in Sunda Strait. After that there was only silence, and only at dawn did a message come from destroyer Evertsen, stating that it is retreating through the Sunda Strait and that it is sinking. No news had been received about other ships, ever again.

Events can be roughly reconstructed. During the night from 28th February and 1st March, Houston, Perth and Evertsen sailed towards the Sunda strait, keeping close to the shore. But without warning they came upon a mass of Japanese ships in a bay – a transport convoy at an anchorage. They were quickly noticed by a Japanese destroyer, and only a quick turn saved them from Japanese torpedoes. One of destroyer’s torpedoes struck and sunk a transport ship, while Allied gunfire sank another one and forced three others to deliberately beach themselves. But they had been noticed, and Japanese cruisers and destroyers charged in from the seaward.

Combat was sharp, and Allied ships initially gave a good account of themselves. But this did not last long, as Perth was quickly hit with four torpedoes and sank in short order. US cruiser Houston continued to fight until expending munition, but the torpedo hits she had sustained also proved lethal and she eventually turned over and sank. Evertsen managed to disappear in the night. It managed to pass through the Sunda strait, but south of it was attacked by Japanese cruisers and forced to beach itself on a sandy shore.

HNLMS Evertsen

Second group did not have any more luck than the first one. It got noticed during the day by Japanese aircraft, and soon after the Allied warships found themselves confronted by four Japanese heavy cruisers. It was not long before Exeter and one of destroyers were sunk. Second destroyer managed to escape and shelter itself in a bay, but was hunted down and destroyed by a group of bombers. Only four old American destroyers managed to fight their way through the Bali Strait. Japanese warships meanwhile made their way south of Java, where they discovered and sunk further two destroyers, two gunboats and a tanker.

On the same night, Japanese invaded Java, which was conquered after a short fight. With this, Japan had achieved its set goals. Massive areas of Southeast Asia along with its natural resources were in the Japanese hands. These could then be used to fuel Japanese economy and war machine.

Japanese successes came basically on the cheap. In the entire three months of operations, they had lost 15 000 dead, 400 aircraft, 5 destroyers, 8 submarines, 1 old battlecruiser and 5 midget submarines, as well as 50 transport ships with around 200 000 GRT, but these were replaced with 300 000 GRT of Allied shipping captured in ports.

By contrast, Allies had lost their fleets in Pearl Harbor and Singapore – latter quite permanently, as well as their bases in Singapore, Hong Kong and Philippines. Also lost were 300 000 captured soldiers, over a thousand aircraft, and many merchant ships. China, India and Australia were all under severe threat.

Japanese forces had been stretched to their limits by multiple simultaneous operations, as shown by several near-disasters. They also failed to use submarines, or do anything at all, to intercept enemy merchant traffic: all focus was on warships, largely due to internal Japanese culture. But combat operations themselves were carried out nearly flawlessly. All details had been predicted, which was rather helped by the fact that the Allies mostly danced to Japanese tune anyway. Tasks were clearly set, as were responsibilities of commanders and services, so that everybody knew what to do and at what time. Constant scouting and numerous reconnaissance aircraft allowed the Japanese command to possess the clarity of picture that had completely evaded their opponents. Chauvinistic upbringing meant that orders were fulfilled immediately, without question, and with exceptional self-sacrifice.

Allies meanwhile were quite different. They were unprepared, untrained, and their command and control was sluggish and unresponsive. Misconceptions were a massive issue, such as belief that Pearl Harbor and Singapore were protected by distance and water, and in latter case, jungle. Aviation was underutilized, common command and control nonexistent, operational plans even more so, and fleet dispositions very unfortunate. US Navy had done its best to deny their own sailors any chance of a working torpedo, and intelligence services had failed completely. Lack of intelligence and reconnaissance meant that warships were sent out based more on hopes than on facts, and were sailing blind, while lack of aircraft left them completely unprotected.

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