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Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Battle of the Java Sea

Battle of the Java Sea

By March of 1941, the Dutch Commonwealth was facing defeat in the East Indies. The Japanese were already in control of the ports on Sumatra and Borneo, and sought to add Java to their Empire, along with the oil fields of the East Indies. The Japanese had spent the previous month pounding away at airfields on Java, and managed to destroy the dry dock facilities in Jakarta. The Commonwealth Navy in that part of the world was not as high as in the Atlantic, where the bulk of the Commonwealth Navy was massed in Brazil, participating in the Battle of the Atlantic. Limited Commonwealth Naval forces were divided between Ceylon and Jakarta, the forces on Formosa being destroyed in 1940.

The Commonwealth fleet, under the command of Admiral Karl Doorman, with his flag on the DCS William IV. Accompanying him, the battlecruiser Tanhausen, the carrier Delft, along with cruisers Java, Delphi, and Flores and five destroyers. Commonwealth carrier doctrine stress air cover over the fleet to allow the big guns to enter range of the enemy. As such, the Delft carried fighters and scout planes, and had no ability to project its power beyond the horizon. This tactic proved effective against Fuhrer Germany, but only because their navy was shriveled since the bulk of the German Imperial Navy supports the Kaiser.

The Japanese Navy, on the other hand, utilized air power in ways that European and American navies had not considered. The Japanese used carrier-based air craft in the Hawaiian Campaign, along with attacks on Formosa and British Luzon. The British Far East fleet was destroyed in Manilla Bay by the Japanese Navy. The Japanese fleet, under the command of Admiral Takeo Takagi, from his flagship the Hiryu. Hiryu was accompanied by the carrier Soryu, along with battleship Yamashiro, cruisers Tone and Takeo along with five destroyers. Behind this fleet was the invasion force of one carrier, four battleships, seven cruisers and a mess of destroyers, along with twelve thousand soldiers.

The Commonwealth fleet maneuvered along the north shore of Java, never moving one hundred kilometers away from the shore, and its additional air cover. The Japanese fleet moved down the Makassar Strait, into attack range on March 16, 1941. At 0500, both Japanese carriers launched a risky night-time attack against the Commonwealth fleet. The fighters and bombers would have returned long after sunrise. Accompanying the attack, two hundred Japanese medium bombers took off from bases on Borneo, and struck diversionary attacks at airbases surrounding Jakarta, cratering the runways. Additional air strikes severely damaged the port, making it virtually impossible, or at the very least impractical for the fleet to make call. It is not known precisely, but is believed that Doorman considered this the main attack of the day, and he ordered half of his fighters to intercept the Betty bombers.

At 0820, the first wave of 10 Japanese torpedo bombers struck at the Commonwealth fleet. Three were downed by anti-aircraft fire, and four more by the remaining air cover. However, the torpedo bombers drew the too few fighters down low, while Japanese dive bombers struck at the fleet. At 0826, the first of the Vals struck the Delft. Minutes later, bombs struck the DCS Tanhausen, knocking out its forward turret. A second attack from above hit the Delft at 0831. This strike knocked out the carrier’s elevators and destroyed the bridge superstructure. A second wave of torpedo bombers homed in on the carrier at 0837, destroying its rudder and rupturing its bow. The end of the Delft did not occur until 0903, after the first Japanese attack had departed, when fires raging through the carrier engulfed an armory, setting off numerous one hundred millimeter anti-aircraft artillery. At 0910, the surviving senior officer ordered abandon ship. A destroyer running along side the carrier during the battle also sunk, as result of taking two torpedoes intended for the Delft.

Doorman now had no choice but to retreat closer to Java, and hope that it had enough fighters to provide air cover. Two destroyers broke from his fleet to rescue survivors of the doomed carrier, while the rest of the fleet steamed towards the southwest. The few fighters that Java managed to get airborne, were outclassed by the Zeros when the second attack arrived at 1411. While the Commonwealth fighters were picked off by the zeros, Kate torpedo bomber homed in on the King William IV, while Vals attacked the battlecruiser. The damaged Tanhausen was hit by four more bombs, the last of which penetrated the aft deck and into the magazine. With one tremendous explosion, the Tanhausen broke two-thirds of the way to its stern at 1418. The rest of the ship sank within ten minutes, with most of the crew on board.

At 1422, torpedoes ripped open the starboard hull of the King William IV, causing the battleship to list severely. Java exploded in a giant fire ball at 1426, and Delphi was crippled by repeated attacks. The Japanese ended their attack at 1431, with two additional destroyers on fire, and the King William IV further damaged by addition bombs. Admiral Doorman was killed during the last bombing run, when the bridge was strafe, and then toppled by a bomb impact below it. The King William IV capsized at 1541. By night fall, when it was clear no further attack was on its way, Captain Hans Vermen of the DCS Flores took command of the fleet, and ordered the survivors of the disastrous battle to be retrieved by night fall. Following sunset, the remainder of the fleet limped eastwards towards Ceylon, since Jakarta’s port facilities were no longer able to take on the ships.

The Battle of the Java Sea was the first naval battle in history were the fleets never actually saw each other. The battle also shattered Commonwealth carrier doctrine, and propelled the Commonwealth to design and produce its own carrier-based bombers and attackers. The battle also allowed the Japanese to land on Java, and occupy Jakarta. Like the other major islands of the archipelago, the Japanese were easily able to control the cities and oil fields, but failed to pacify the rest of the island, though not from lack of effort. The Commonwealth Navy was out of the East Indies for the better part of a year, until the first of the Ernst van Bohr class carriers were launched. Commonwealth ground forces did not return to the islands until 1944.

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