Battle of the Java Sea

The Battle of the Java Sea was a naval disaster for the Allied Powers in World War II. Most of the vessels of the combined U.S., British, Dutch, and Australian fleet were destroyed, ending major resistance to the Japanese occupation of the islands of the Malay barrier.

Summary of Event

When the Japanese attacked Hawaii, the Philippines, Hong Kong, and the Malay States on December 8, 1941 (December 7 on the eastern side of the International Date Line), their ultimate goal was to dominate all of eastern Asia in what they called the Greater East Asia Coprosperity Sphere. They would drive out foreigners so that peace could reign—a Japanese version of peace through military rule. The Japanese home islands were rocky, overpopulated, and lacking in natural resources such as tin, rubber, and oil. The ultimate goal of this huge onslaught was the Netherlands Indies, where such resources were available, and the greatest prize was the island of Java. Java Sea, Battle of the (1942)
World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];Pacific theater
World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];naval battles
[kw]Battle of the Java Sea (Feb. 27-Mar. 1, 1942)
[kw]Java Sea, Battle of the (Feb. 27-Mar. 1, 1942)
Java Sea, Battle of the (1942)
World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];Pacific theater
World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];naval battles
[g]Southeast Asia;Feb. 27-Mar. 1, 1942: Battle of the Java Sea[00480]
[g]Indonesia;Feb. 27-Mar. 1, 1942: Battle of the Java Sea[00480]
[c]World War II;Feb. 27-Mar. 1, 1942: Battle of the Java Sea[00480]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Feb. 27-Mar. 1, 1942: Battle of the Java Sea[00480]
Doorman, Karel
Takagi, Takeo
Helfrich, Conrad E. L.

The Allied, or ADBA (American, Dutch, British, and Australian), forces had been defeated at Pearl Harbor, had mostly withdrawn from the Philippines, where American forces were fighting a defensive action, and had lost Hong Kong, Singapore, Borneo, and Malaysia. Warships had withdrawn to Java; on February 27, 1942, Japanese invasion transports escorted by warships were headed for both the western and eastern ends of that island. An ADBA fleet sortied from Surabaya on the northern coast to engage the enemy ships and thwart the invasion.

Because Dutch territory was being defended, Dutch vice admiral Conrad E. L. Helfrich commanded all Allied warships in the area, and Karel Doorman, a Dutch rear admiral, commanded the ADBA force in the battle. His fleet consisted of the Dutch light cruisers De Ruyter
De Ruyter (ship)[Deruyter (ship)] (Doorman’s flagship) and Java and destroyers Kortenaer
Kortenaer (ship) and Witte de With
Witte de With (ship) ; American heavy cruiser Houston
Houston (ship) and World War I vintage destroyers John D. Ford, John D. Edwards, Alden, and Paul Jones; British heavy cruiser Exeter
Exeter (ship) and destroyers Electra
Electra (ship) , Jupiter, Jupiter (ship) and Encounter; Encounter (ship) and Australian light cruiser Perth. Perth (ship)
Exeter was famous for its role in defeating the German Graf Spee in 1939, and Houston was one of the most beloved American ships, serving four times as President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s personal vessel.

The ABDA fleet was plagued by problems. The Allies had had only one hour-long conference before the battle, so both strategy and tactics were unclear. Only Exeter had radar. Orders had to be translated from Dutch to English for the non-Netherlands ships. Also, the Japanese had developed a “long lance” torpedo, which had a much greater range than its Allied counterparts, was powered by oxygen, and did not leave a telltale wake as it moved toward its target. American torpedoes were so ineffective that they often failed to detonate when they struck a ship.

Doorman cruised the northwest coast of Java but could not find the Japanese, so he returned to Surabaya. At 3:57 p.m., just as the fleet was about to enter the harbor, a scout plane spotted a Japanese invasion fleet bearing down from the northeast. Doorman turned back to sea. He sent a message stating that he was headed for the enemy and ordering all ships to follow him.

The Japanese force, consisting of the heavy cruisers Haguro
Haguro (ship) and Nachi
Nachi (ship) , light cruisers Jintsu
Jintsu (ship) and Naka, and sixteen destroyers (two of which remained to protect the troop transports and did not participate in the battle), was commanded by Rear Admiral Takeo Takagi, whose flagship was Nachi. When he found that Doorman’s fleet was heading to intercept him, he turned south to engage it.

At 4:16, with the two fleets in sight of each other, Jintsu and Nachi began the battle with gunfire, then ABDA ships began to fire. The ships of the Dutch navy usually operated independently, so fleet tactics were not well known to their commanders. Most of Doorman’s destroyers, which should have been leading the column of ships, were first behind and then on the wrong side of the cruisers. Doorman turned his ships to the west to prevent the Japanese fleet from “crossing his t” (that is, moving in front of a column of ships so that broadside batteries can be fired by the attackers while the defenders can fire only forward batteries one ship at a time). Doorman’s attempt to outrun the Japanese was hindered by damage to Kortenaer’s boiler, which limited its speed (and therefore the speed of the rest of the fleet) to twenty-four knots.

The ensuing action was so confused that many years later and after postwar interviews with Japanese officers, it is still difficult to determine what happened and when. The turning point was certainly the crippling of Exeter at 5:08 by a shell from Nachi. Doorman had to divert some of his destroyers to shield Exeter, and Kortenaer was hit by a torpedo from the Haguro; it jackknifed and sank immediately. Exeter turned out of line, and, because of poor communications, the captains of the cruisers behind her thought she was acting according to orders and also turned, leaving De Ruyter steaming alone toward the enemy.

After twenty minutes, Doorman formed his force again, heading in a southeasterly direction that put his force between Exeter and the Japanese. Destroyer Asagumo
Asagumo (ship) hit the Electra, which sank at 6:16. Doorman ordered an attack by the American destroyers, but all their torpedoes missed or failed to explode. Takagi, seeing the Allied ships head south, turned north to resume shielding the transports, but Doorman was not ready to quit fighting. He sent Exeter, escorted by Witte de With, to Surabaya, while he turned back west to circle around the Japanese warships and hit the transports.

His fleet, now without the four American destroyers, which were low on fuel and out of torpedoes, headed west along the Java coast in the darkness. At 9:25, Jupiter struck a friendly mine and sank four hours later. The fleet found Kortenaer’s survivors, and Doorman ordered Encounter to pick them up. The cruisers continued north, but the Japanese heavy cruisers detected them and launched torpedoes. One struck De Ruyter at 11:32 and exploded her ammunition, killing Doorman and sinking the ship. Another torpedo hit Java, which sank ninety minutes later. Doorman’s last order was for Houston and Perth to retire to the nearby port of Batavia.

On February 28, part of Takagi’s force attacked Exeter, Encounter, and U.S. destroyer Pope, which were trying to escape, and sank them. That night, Houston and Perth tried to sneak through the Sunda Strait west of Java, but instead encountered the huge Japanese western invasion force, which they attacked. Both ships were sunk in the early hours of March 1. Only the four American destroyers made it past the eastern end of Java to Australia.

The Houston and Perth survivors were horrified to see the Japanese machine-gunning men in the water. Those who made it to shore discovered that the native Javanese resented outsiders and turned them over to the Japanese, who regarded surrender as disgraceful and therefore treated prisoners of war harshly. Most of the survivors were sent to Malaya to work on the Thai-Burma Railway. Many died in captivity.


The Battle of the Java Sea was the first full-scale naval battle since the Battle of Jutland in World War I and one of the largest and longest in World War II. The length of the primary battle—more than seven hours—surprised naval theorists, who had thought that because of improvements in weaponry, such conflicts would last only a few minutes. The battle was also one of the last fought primarily by surface vessels; carrier aircraft were the striking force in most Pacific conflicts. The battle was the last stand for the Allies in the Malay barrier; the Dutch surrendered to the invading Japanese a few days later. Allied forces stopped the Japanese advance at the Battles of Coral Sea and Midway and went on the offensive at Guadalcanal in August, 1942.

Admiral Doorman was criticized at the time for making bad decisions, but later historians have been kinder, judging that he did the best he could under difficult circumstances and regarding his insistence on taking the attack to the Japanese as brave and gallant. In the Netherlands, he is a national hero. Java Sea, Battle of the (1942)
World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];Pacific theater
World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];naval battles

Further Reading

  • Brown, David. Warship Losses of World War II. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1995. Gives details about each ship lost.
  • Morison, Samuel Eliot. The Rising Sun in the Pacific, 1931-1942. Vol. 3 in History of United States Naval Operations in World War II. Boston: Little, Brown, 1988. The standard history of the U.S. Navy in World War II. Places the battle in both local and historical contexts.
  • Prados, John. Combined Fleet Decoded. New York: Random House, 1995. Gives a view of the battle that corrects some earlier inaccuracies.
  • Roscoe, Theodore. United States Destroyer Operations in World War II. Annapolis, Md.: United States Naval Institute, 1953. Has the most detailed maps of the battle.
  • Toland, John. But Not in Shame. New York: Random House, 1961. History of the first six months of the Pacific War with a lengthy account of the battle.
  • Winslow, Walter G. The Fleet the Gods Forgot. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1982. Houston crewman Winslow describes the larger actions in the Asiatic theater. Interviews with other survivors.
  • _______. The Ghost That Died at Sunda Strait. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1984. An account of the last days of Houston by one of her crew.

Bombing of Pearl Harbor

Japan Begins Attacks on Southeast Asia

Japan Invades the Philippines

Battle of the Coral Sea

Battle of Midway

Battle of Guadalcanal

Thai-Burma Railway Is Completed with Forced Labor