hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

The Battle of the Java Sea

Alphen, Netherlands. 28 February. For understandable reasons the Allied narrative of the 1939-45 naval war tend to be dominated by the Royal Navy in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, and the United States Navy in the Pacific. However, seventy-five years ago this week, and some three months after the December 7th, 1941 attack of the Imperial Japanese Navy on the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, and the December 10th sinking of the British battleship HMS Prince of Wales and the battlecruiser HMS Repulse, the Battle of the Java Sea took place. This battle highlights the sacrifice of other Allies during World War Two, in this case the officers and men of the Royal Netherlands Navy.

The Australian-American-British-Dutch Strike Force (otherwise known as ABDACOM or the Eastern Strike Force), under the command of the Rear Admiral Karel Doorman, had sailed to intercept a Japanese invasion force en route to what was then the Netherlands East Indies.  The battle began on 27 February when a force of the Imperial Japanese Navy, supported by land-based air power, intercepted the Allied force.

At the time this was the greatest sea battle since the epic 1916 Battle of Jutland between the Royal Navy and the Imperial German Navy. The Allied force was routed. During the course of the three day action the Allied force lost two light cruisers (HMNLS de Ruyter (flagship) and HMNLS Java) and three destroyers.  Rear Admiral (Schout-bij-nacht) Doorman and some 2300 sailors were also lost.  The Japanese suffered damage to one destroyer with the loss of 38 sailors killed.

During the battle the British ‘8-inch’ heavy cruiser HMS Exeter was badly damaged by a shell that exploded in her boiler room. Three years earlier at the Battle of the River Plate in December 1939 HMS Exeter had inflicted serious damage on the German pocket-battleship and commerce raider Graf Spee. Then Commodore Harwood’s small force of HMS Exeter and two light cruisers (HMS Ajax and HMS Achilles (of the New Zealand Division) had forced Kapitain sur zee Hans Langsdorrf to seek sanctuary in neutral Montevideo, Faced by what he thought was an overwhelming Royal Navy force waiting for him to leave Langsdorrf chose to scuttle the Graf Spee rather than engage in what he thought would have been suicide. The British were bluffing.

After the Battle of Java Sea the badly damaged HMS Exeter had retreated to what was then called Ceylon, and today Sri Lanka. After emergency repairs Exeter tried to sail for Australia for repairs escorted by two destroyers, HMS Encounter and the USS Pope. On 1 March, in what became known as the Second Battle of the Java Sea, all three Allied ships were sunk with over 800 British sailors taken captive by the Japanese. That same day the heavy cruiser USS Houston and the Australian light cruiser HMAS Perth, together with the Dutch destroyer HMNLS Evertsen, all three of which had taken part in Battle of the Java Sea, were sunk by the Imperial Japanese Navy at the Battle of the Sunda Strait with over one thousand Allied sailors killed.     

The defeat enabled the Imperial Japanese Army to invade what is today Indonesia and marked the effective end of the Dutch far eastern empire. The battle also took place in what has become known as Yamamoto’s Year. The Fleet Commander of the Imperial Japanese Navy, Admiral Isokuru Yamamoto had told His Majesty Emperor Hirohito shortly before Pearl Harbor that his forces could play havoc with those of the Allies for about a year, but after that he could offer the Emperor no guarantees of success.

He was right. After the initial shock the United States rapidly organised its immense industrial potential into the greatest war machine the world had ever seen. The Battle of Java Sea took place right in the middle of Yamamoto’s Year when the Allies were only beginning to properly organise, and between Pearl Harbor and the decisive US naval victory at the Battle of Midway, 4-7 June, 1942.

Both in the Atlantic and the Pacific the officers and men of the Royal Netherlands Navy served with distinction even when the Netherlands was occupied by Nazi forces. The bonds forged between the Royal Navy, the US Navy and the Royal Netherlands Navy between 1939 and 1945 remain strong today within the framework of the Atlantic Alliance. It has been my honour in the past to spend time on the ships of the Royal Netherlands Navy, a force that does a country that I now call home proud.

There is a post-script to the Battle of the Java Sea. In November 2016 during the making of a television documentary about the battle it was discovered that between 2002 and 2016 six of the wrecks of the Allied ships had either been illegally scavenged or removed completely from the sea floor by scrap metal merchants, most likely from Indonesia. Somewhere in the Mediterranean the remains of my great uncle Walter lie interred in the shattered remains of a sunken British warship. The sanctity of his final resting place matters to me. War graves should be respected, but sadly too often they are not. The Australian, British, Dutch, and US governments have protested to Indonesia, but little more will be done to preserve such sites.  

In honour of the officers and men of the Royal Netherlands Navy who sacrificed their lives during the epic struggle of 1939-1945.

Julian Lindley-French  

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