Some historians call it the decisive battle in the early Pacific war. It surely sealed the fate of Java and the Dutch East Indies and decimated the Allied naval forces.
Though I have added a summary of this battle under ‘Military Background’ I cannot resist adding an excerpt from ‘The Java Gold’ in this post.
Remark: the dialogues in this fragment are not the authors imagination. They have been recorded by several historians…
Surabaya, Thursday February 26, 1942
… Rear Admiral Karel Doorman put down the telephone in disgust. The conversation with his Commander in Chief, Vice Admiral Helfrich had been unpleasant to say the least. They had discussed the Japanese threat and Helfrich had quoted a sighting report by a Dutch ‘Catalina’
‘…Japanese convoy consisting of 30 troopships, escorted by 2 cruisers and 4 destroyers sighted 200 miles north of Java in Makassar Strait, heading south at about 12 knots..’
Helfrich had urged him to go for it but he was very suspicious. Could they get confirmation? A large convoy like this should have a much stronger protective screen of surface ships and submarines. Where were they? And what air cover did they have? How many fighters and bombers were detailed to escort this convoy?
Or, to be more specific: what kind of trap was being laid for him?
Did his combined striking force have a chance to survive?
Or would they suffer the same fate as the ‘Repulse’ and ‘Prince of Wales’ some months earlier, to be overwhelmed by land-based bombers and sank within the hour?
But when he had suggested that it might be prudent to retreat to Ceylon and save the remaining strength of the fleet for another, less unequal fight, Helfrich had imperiously vetoed the whole idea.
There would be no retreating to Ceylon, he had said. Washington and London had ordered the utmost resistance and had decided long ago that it would be the duty of the Dutch navy to intercept and destroy any Japanese threat in the Java Sea. And his concluding remark had been that the few remaining Dutch ships were not needed in other areas. Disgusted by this attitude, Doorman had tried to argue his point once more but Helfrich had rudely terminated the telephone conversation with a final brutal order ‘You’ll stay and fight it out!’
Making his way back to his flagship, the ageing cruiser ‘De Ruyter’, his footsteps rang curiously loud on the cobblestones between the fire-scarred and bomb-damaged walls of the silent and deserted Surabaya naval dockyard. Just outside the dockyard gates he bumped into an old acquaintance and they chatted for a few moments.
When his friend wished him good luck while they shook hands, Doorman remarked ‘I guess I’ll be shark-shit before very long!’
He left without another word, his friend staring after him.
But his old cruiser was fully manned and ready to sail. Morale in the navy was still high and though the sailors knew their chances were grim, all ships sailed with their full complements. Even USS ‘Houston’ reported no desertions, though 50 of her sailors had been killed when she had been severely mauled by Japanese shells and bombs during a battle off Bali.
Nearly all native personnel had deserted the dockyard when the Japanese air raids had started in earnest and on this fateful day there were barely enough hands around to cast off the mooring ropes.
The cruisers and destroyers sailed in an eerie silence and slowly disappeared in the distant haze…