The Battles of the Java Sea: Allied Naval Defeat, December 1941-March 1942

In relating and explaining our naval history to Australians, one is faced with several problems. The first is that the average person knows next to nothing about it. Despite the language spoken by most of us, our forms of government our legal system and even the side of the road we drive on being directly related to the fact that it was British naval power which sustained and won the race to discover and settle the Great South Land, most Australians don’t link this to naval history. ‘Something to do with convicts’ is probably as close as many can come to the origins of European settlement in this continent, unaware that settlement was part of a strategic plan to support British expansion into the Pacific.
A second problem, and perhaps more difficult nut to crack, is that of ‘popular history’: what people perceive as the historical events which have shaped the nation. Popular history is what ‘everybody knows’. Thus ‘Everybody knows that   the first Australian battle of World War 1 was at Gallipoli’. Well, no it wasn’t: the first battle was at Bita Paka near Rabaul on 11 September 1914. It was a land battle but was fought and won by men from the Australian Fleet and the Naval Brigade. ‘OK then: everybody knows that the landing at Gallipoli was the first joint Australian and New Zealand military action’. Not so: that happened on 30 August 1914 at the capture of German Samoa, with the landing force covered by the Australian Fleet.
The third problem is the dominance in the national psyche of our military – that is army – history.  This can be seen in the Australian Government’s choice of the title ‘ANZAC Centenary’ for its project to recall and commemorate the events of World War 1. The Anzacs didn’t swim to Turkey, nor did they pop down to the local supermarket to stock up on supplies. Getting them there and sustaining them – and withdrawing them when the campaign was abandoned – was a task for the navy. In fact the only reason for the land campaign on that fateful peninsula was because a naval campaign to force a passage of the Dardanelles and thus cow the Turkish Government into neutrality had been utterly defeated by Turkish sea defences, particularly mines.
My reason for drawing attention to these issues is to apply them to another campaign, much closer to home and much nearer in time to our day, and to draw out the point that the unfolding of naval history has had a more profound effect on this country than people realise.
‘Everybody knows’ – wrongly – that the Allies in Southeast Asia were surprised by the Japanese assault commencing on 8 December 1941. In fact, the protracted development of the Singapore base to deter Japanese adventurism began in 1923. A series of ‘Singapore Conferences’ in the late 1930s involving the British, Australians and Dutch, with American observers, developed a strategy to deal with Japanese attacks in the region from the Philippines to Burma and south to Java. This envisaged the pooling of resources of ships and aircraft to forestall Japanese amphibious assaults on Allied territory.  The British even had a contingency plan to invade neutral Thailand so as to forestall the use of the port of Singora to the Japanese as a base for a land assault on Malaya. The probable course of a Japanese thrust was well understood.
Command of the sea was clearly critical to the Allies. The Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) couldn’t swim to Malaya, the Philippines or the Netherlands East Indies (NEI) either: any assault and land campaign would depend on ships. Similarly, the Allies couldn’t sustain their own bases and attack the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) except by using the sea. If the IJN and IJA could use their sea and air power to frustrate and destroy the air and naval power of the Allies, then the Japanese would succeed – whatever happened on land. The Allies called this campaign ‘Defence of the Malay Barrier’: to the Japanese it was ‘Stage One’. More recently, we commemorate the battles that took place to contest command of the sea as the ‘Battles of the Java Sea’, which were to take the lives of nearly 4,000 Allied sailors, including 500 Australians. So, while Australian popular history is fixated on the fate of the men of the 8th Division, taken prisoner when the British surrendered Singapore, there is little recognition or acknowledgment of the hard fighting done by both the RAN and the RAAF in this crucial sea campaign, and its costs in material and blood. 
The Allied plan had two major drawbacks. First, the combined air and naval forces of the four nations were inadequate for the task. Why that should have been is another story. Second, only Australia and the NEI responded as required when the plan was activated. The Americans decided to run the defence of the Philippines from Washington. The puny US Asiatic Fleet was heavily interdicted from the air, forcing it to withdraw southwards. The British decided that saving Malaya was their priority. British ships, with the RAN, were directed to support the flow of men and material into Singapore, a task increasingly difficult and costly as the Japanese advanced southward in Malaya, bringing their air superiority into effective play art sea. Thus each navy was assigned the task of defending its own territory, rather than combining with the others to challenge the IJN at sea.
The opening round in the naval defence saw the ‘Main Fleet to Singapore’ strategy, which had been the basis of British and Australian defence planning for more than 15 years, annihilated when Japanese aircraft sank HM Ships Prince of Wales and Repulse east of Malaya. The RAN was there: the first Australian navy man killed in action with the Japanese was lost and the destroyer HMAS Vampire helped to recover the survivors.[1] This was the first of only two attempts by British naval forces to interdict Japanese convoys. The second, in January 1942 also involved Vampire in command of the operation.[2] The cruiser Hobart, seven corvettes and the sloop Yarra were also committed to the defence, while the destroyer Vendetta, in refit in the naval base, was towed home to safety by HMAS Ping Wo, which also transported a fortune in gold bullion from Singapore’s vaults.
The Allied response was to set up an experiment in combined operations – ABDA- with command shifted to Java in January.  This did introduce an element of cooperation, but trialling new concepts of command and control is best not done in the middle of a shooting war.  Well-planned Japanese attacks rolled-up Allied forces from outlying parts of the NEI, largely unopposed by Allied naval forces. The first naval combined force attempted to stop an invasion force attacking Sumatra but was repulsed from the air. Losses from this war of attrition mounted, and then Singapore fell and the naval task changed to getting survivors away to Australia while attempting to delay the inevitable. The less capable warships were also got clear of the theatre as the situation deteriorated. Hobart escorted the last of them to Colombo on 28 February, narrowly missing being ambushed by the IJN.
The last significant naval battle was fought on 27-28 February 1942 where a combined Allied force of cruisers and destroyers, led by a Dutch admiral, attempted to attack a 40-ship troop convoy scheduled to make a landing in eastern Java. This was the first engagement fought by the cruiser HMAS Perth against the Japanese after she was rushed in to bolster the strength of the naval forces and she acquitted herself well. However, through a combination of factors that could not be resolved in the increasingly dysfunctional command structure, the Japanese escort force prevailed, with one British cruiser damaged and two Dutch cruisers sunk, taking the force commander with them. Allied naval strength had been reduced to three large ships, a handful of destroyers and a number of smaller vessels. Captain ‘Hec’ Waller RAN from Benalla in Perth took command of the remnants and retired to Jakarta to refuel and rearm, with only limited success. Ammunition for the Allied ships was in short supply and the fuel was being reserved for Dutch ships – which never came. In company with the damaged heavy cruiser USS Houston she was ordered to Cilicap on the south coast of Java where the Allies were attempting to regroup, but both ships were lost when they encountered another Japanese invasion force in Sunda Strait that night. Over 1,000 USN and Australian sailors, including both Captains, died that night, fighting against overwhelming odds.[3] The damaged British HMS Exeter was destroyed the following day. Effective naval resistance to the Japanese was over.  The Dutch surrendered their own forces to the Japanese on 4 March, and British and Australian army and air force units in Java were also forced to capitulate.
Japanese cruisers patrolling south of Java destroyed several of the Allied convoys escaping to Australia and their escorts, including Yarra. One can only imagine the mounting horror as her lookouts reported the masts of three Japanese heavy cruisers rising above the horizon and must admire and respect the determination and discipline with which the entire ship’s company stood to at Action Stations as she scattered her convoy and turned towards the enemy to enhance their chances of escape at the cost of her own. Only 14 RAN people survived the ensuing unequal contest. This was heroism and sacrifice of the highest order – the stuff of legends.
In these desperate sea battles Japanese losses were minimal, with no ships sunk. However they claimed around 50 Allied warships and the survivors shared the fate of the Australian 8th Division in Japanese captivity.  In current terminology, both Perth and Yarra ‘died hard’, fighting until they could do so no more against overwhelming odds. The citizens and city of Perth remember their namesake ship with a number of memorials around the city, most notably at City Hall. Melburnians are a little more modest in their recollection. The memorial to the ship and the men of Yarra is at City at the northern end of The Strand in Newport at the mouth of the river whose name she bore, and their sacrifice is commemorated on the Sunday nearest 4 March each year.
So, as a naval historian I have to ask two questions:  given the dramatic circumstances of the service and loss of our ships and men in the battles of the Java Sea, why then does our popular history remember only the soldiers captured in Singapore and not the sailors, who fought so gallantly and so long in a losing cause? Why are there no naval legends (which happen to be true, to boot) to match those constructed about Gallipoli, Tobruk, Changi and the Burma-Thailand Railway?
Ian Pfennigwerth
03 April 2012

[1] Midshipman Robert Ian Davies RAN was awarded a posthumous Mention-in-Despatches for his gallantry in continuing to fire his Oerlikon gun at attacking Japanese aircraft as HMS Repulse sank.
[2] The story of the Battle of Endau, which cost several RAAF personnel their lives as well, has been told in two articles appearing in the September 2011 and March 2012 editions of the Journal of Australian Naval History.
[3] I have told the story of Perth including this last battle, in my book The Australian Cruiser Perth. The experiences of one of her survivors, Surgeon Lieutenant Commander Sam Stening DSC RANR, are told in my recent release In Good Hands.

Contact Ian Pfennigwerth about this article.

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