On February 27, 1942 – now exactly 74 years ago – the decisive battle of the opening of the Pacific war was fought between Rear-Admiral Karel Doorman’s “Combined Striking Force” and a Japanese task force commanded by Rear-Admiral Takeo Takagi.
Here is an excerpt from “Java Gold – The Odyssey” describing the battle.
… the atmosphere was grim on the bridge of the ’De Ruyter.’ Rear admiral Doorman had received another obnoxious message from his boss Helfrich, commanding him to ‘….continue to attack until the enemy has been annihilated…’ The news of the message had spread like lightning through the ship’s grapevine and the exhausted crew wished the bastard himself would have to work in the scalding heat of the old cruisers boiler room.
Doorman’s combined striking force consisted of the elderly Dutch cruisers ‘De Ruyter’ and ‘Java’, the British cruiser ‘Exeter’, the Australian cruiser ‘Perth’ and the US heavy cruiser ‘Houston’, escorted by three British, two Dutch and four US destroyers. The force had been steaming all night without sighting the enemy. But Japanese planes spotted the ships in the early hours of the morning of the 27th and the situation changed rapidly. Japanese bombers came soon afterwards and the ships were harassed by continuous air raids.
After a day of dodging bomb patterns and with his ships preparing to enter Surabaya harbour, Doorman received a sighting report. A Dutch Catalina had observed 25+ troopships, escorted by a cruiser and six destroyers, on a course for the Eastern Java shore.
It was already late in the afternoon but Doorman turned around and ordered his ships to follow him. He set off at flank speed on an interception course. Only to run his ships straight into an unreported Japanese escort fleet of two heavy cruisers, two light cruisers and fourteen destroyers.
A ferocious gunnery battle developed, aggravated by air raids and torpedo attacks. It dragged on late into the evening. Sinking or crippling several ships with their “long lance” torpedoes, the Japanese managed to separate the undamaged destroyers from the cruisers. This allowed their heavy units to concentrate on the larger ships. ‘Exeter’ was the first casualty, receiving a direct hit in her boiler room. Doorman ordered the surviving destroyers to escort the crippled cruiser back to Surabaya. By now his ‘Eastern Combined Striking Force’ was reduced to four cruisers, unprotected by any destroyers and without air cover. Although desperately outnumbered he continued the fight until the battle culminated at 11 pm that night.
‘Java’ and ‘De Ruyter’ were hit almost simultaneously by torpedoes launched from Japanese destroyers. The stricken cruisers lay dead in the water, under a rain of Japanese shells and engulfed by uncontrollable fires. Soon the few survivors were forced to abandon ship and just before midnight February 27, the two mortally wounded cruisers slipped beneath the waves, taking Rear Admiral Doorman and over 700 of his crew down to a seaman’s grave in the shallow Java Sea.
‘Perth’ and ‘Houston’ broke off the engagement and managed to slip away to the west under cover of darkness and a smoke screen . When he reached Tandjong Priok, Captain Al Rooks of USS ‘Houston’ would tell a tale of despair and horror, slaughter and destruction. Of a sky filled with screaming shells and deafening explosions. Of a sea lighted by fiercely burning ships and littered with wreckage, wounded and floating corpses.
The Battle for the Java Sea had been lost, Allied sea power in the Malayan barrier had been annihilated … And Java could be invaded…