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Battle of the Java Sea - 76 Years on

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 Battle of the Java Sea



Fought on the 27th February 1942 between the Imperial Japanese Navy and the Naval Forces of ABDACOM, the Battle of the Java Sea saw the complete destruction of ABDACOM and the Japanese Occupation of the Dutch East Indies.



The ABDACOM Fleet, under the command of Dutch Rear-Admiral Karel Doorman, consisting of Heavy cruisers HMS Exeter and USS Houston, Light Cruisers HMAS Perth, HNLMS De Ruyter and HNLMS Java and 9 destroyers (British Destroyers Encounter, Jupiter and Electra, Dutch Destroyers Kortenaer and Witte De With and US Destroyers USS John D Ford, Alden, John D Edwards and Paul Jones) sailed from Surabaya to intercept a convoy of the Eastern Invasion Force approaching from the Makassar Strait.

Protecting the Japanese Convoy was a task force of 2 heavy cruisers (Nachi and Haguro), 2 light cruisers (Jintsu and Naka) and 14 destroyers (Hatsukaze, Yudachi, Samidare, Murasame, Harusame, Minegumo, Asagumo, Yukikaze, Tokitsukaze, Amatsukaze, Yamakaze, Kawakaze, Sazanami and Ushio). Armed with 10 8-inch guns and superb torpedoes, the Japanese Heavy cruisers were far superior. Exeter by comparison, was only armed with 6 8-inch guns and of Houston’s 9 8-inch guns, only 6 remained operable after her aft turret was knocked out in the Battle of the Makassar Strait on the 4th February.


Battle of the Java Sea

In a battle raging from mid-afternoon to midnight, the Allies tried to reach and attack the Japanese troop transports of the Java Invasion fleet, but they were repulsed by superior firepower. The allies had air superiority during the daytime hours as the Japanese air forces couldn’t reach the fleet during bad weather. The weather also hindered communications – in reconnaissance, air cover and fleet headquarters – even worse than it already was. The Japanese also jammed the radio frequencies, and Exeter was the only ship in the battle equipped with radar, an emerging technology at the time.

At about 16:00, the two fleets sighted each other and closed to firing range, opening fire at 16:16 on 27th February. During this phase of the battle, both side showed poor gunnery and torpedo skills. Exeter’s shells did not come close to the Japanese ships, despite her recent refit (which saw the addition of a modern Type 284 gunnery control radar) and Houston’s only managed to achieve a straddle on an opposing cruiser. This phase’s only notable result was Exeter being critically damaged when an 8-inch hit her in her boiler room. Exeter then limped away to Surabaya, escorted by Witte De With.

Two huge torpedo salvoes were fired by the Japanese, consisting of 92 torpedoes in total, but only one scored a hit, on Kortenaer, which broke in two and sank rapidly after being struck by a long lance.

Covering Exeter’s escape, Electra engaged in a gunnery duel with Jintsu and Asagumo, scoring several hits but taking severe damage to her superstructure. Electra was ordered abandoned after a serious fire started and her last remaining turret ran out of ammunition. On the Japanese side, only Asagumo was forced to retire due to battle damage.

At around 18:00, the Allied fleet broke off and turned away, covered by a smoke screen laid by the four US Destroyers of Division 58 (DesDiv58). They also launched a torpedo salvo which was at too long a range to be effective. Doorman’s force turned south toward the Java coast, then west and north as night fell in an attempt to evade the escort force and fall on the convoy. At this point the Destroyers of DesDiv58, their torpedoes expended, left on their own initiative to return to Surabaya.

At 21:25, Jupiter ran onto a mine and was sunk, and about 20 minutes later, the fleet passed where Kortenaer had sunk earlier, and Encounter was detached to pick up survivors.

Now reduced to four cruisers, Doorman’s commander again encountered the Japanese escort group at 23:00, after exchanging a few salvoes in the dark, De Ruyter and Java were sunk by one devastating torpedo salvo, only 111 were saved from both ships, Doorman went down with De Ruyter.

 Low on fuel and Ammunition, Perth and Houston followed Doorman’s last instructions and retired, arriving at Tanjung Priok on 28th February.


Battle of Sunda Strait

After sailing from Tanjung Priok on the 28th February, neither fully rearmed nor refuelled, Perth and Houston attempted to sail to Tjilatjap via the Sunda Strait. While in the strait they encountered the Western Java Japanese Invasion force, and in a fierce action that ended shortly after midnight, Perth was struck by four torpedoes and sank 9.5 miles North North-East of St Nicholas Point at 12:25am, Houston healed over to starboard and sank sometime between 12:36 and 12:45 am on March 1st 1942, after being hit by numerous torpedoes and shells.


Second Battle of the Java Sea

The badly damaged Exeter, which had had emergency repairs in Surabaya, departed at dusk for Ceylon, limping towards the Sunda Strait, escorted by Destroyers HMS Encounter and USS Pope.  However, on March 1st, all three ships were intercepted by Japanese heavy cruisers Nachi, Haguro, Myoko and Ashigara and their escorting destroyers. Exeter slowed to a halt after an 8” shell landed in her A Boiler room, it did irreparable damage to the jury rigged propulsion system, cut the main steam pipe and stopped the main engines as well as cutting all power to her main armament. As a result, Exeter’s seacocks, condenser inlet and sea valves for the magazines were opened, as she slowly capsized to port, 2 torpedoes from the Inazuma hit her on the starboard side, she righted herself, then capsized to starboard and sank at around 11:50pm. Unable to disengage from the Japanese cruisers, Encounter, with a broken suction pipe and her engines, guns and lubrication system disabled, was scuttled at 12:05pm. Pope managed to escape temporarily, but was caught by dive bombers from the carrier Ryujo, crippled by near misses, she was scuttled and sank by the stern at 2:20pm.


Wrecks and Illegal Salvage

As of 2002, the location of only one of the wrecks, that of HMS Jupiter, was known and plotted, however she had already been heavily salvaged as she is close to shore.

De Ruyter and Java were found in December 2002, Java was on her starboard side in 63.7m of water and De Ruyter was upright with a slight list to starboard in 62.2m. Both were in fairly good condition, except for Java’s stern, which was shattered when her aft magazine blew up. In August 2003, Electra was found on her port side in 49m of water, completely covered in fishing nets. The next discovery occurred in August 2004, when Kortenaer was located, her 2 pieces were about 30-40 metres apart, with her stern section on its starboard side and her bow upside down in about 52m of water. Perth was located on her port side in about 36m in November 2006. Empress finally found Exeter and Encounter in February 2007, they were about 1 nautical mile apart, with Exeter on her starboard side. Both were in 60-61m of water and in a relatively well preserved state. Then the last piece of the puzzle, USS Pope, was discovered in late 2008, however, she too had already been largely removed by salvagers. In August 2014, a wreck believed to be Houston was confirmed as her during US Navy dive operations in Sunda Strait.

Sadly, by 2016, all except Houston had been completely removed or heavily damaged by illegal salvagers. Of De Ruyter and Java, all that remained were 2 large trenches around 170 and 130m long respectively. Exeter had also been completely removed, with just an imprint left on the seabed, Encounter had also been completely removed. Electra and Kortenaer meanwhile, had been heavily damaged by illegal salvage operations, Kortenaer’s aft section remained embedded in the mud, but her machinery spaces and condensers had been removed among other things. Multiple tears were also seen on the remaining hull side with fresh corrosion indicating there was an attempt to take this section. It is unknown why the salvagers left the remaining parts of the ship. Electra had also suffered the same fate as Kortenaer, with her propellers being removed and much being salvaged, although a sizable portion remains. Perth and Houston, despite being within sight of land, had both also suffered illegal salvage, with an estimated 60% of Perth being salvaged by crane equipped barges who had stripped off most of the wrecks superstructure, forward turrets and forward decking, explosives had also been used to break up the ship for easier recovery. While Houston had had some rivets and a steel plate removed.


Sources: Wikipedia, Pacificwrecks.com, Rising sun, Falling skies: The disastrous Java sea campaign of WW2 by Jeffrey R. Cox. And The Official Report into the Illegal Salvage of Java, De Ruyter and Kortenaer.

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