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15 October 2014
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Timeline - 1939-1945

Fact File : Battle of Java Sea

27 February to 1 March 1942

Theatre: Pacific
Area: Java Sea (between Java and Borneo)
Players: Allies: ABDA Eastern Strike Force (five cruisers and nine destroyers) commanded by the Dutch Rear Admiral Karel Doorman. Japan: 2nd and 4th Destroyer Flotillas and 5th Cruiser Squadron.
Outcome: A Japanese naval victory that enabled the invasion of Java.

'I wish to impress upon all of you the need for every effort against the enemy to prevent his landing on Java.' - Rear Admiral Karel Doorman (Dutch), Fleet Order, 22 February 1942

On 26 February 1942 the Allies received reports of a large Japanese fleet approaching Java, the principal island of the Netherlands East Indies. A force including the American and British heavy cruisers USS Houston and HMS Exeter and the Australian and Dutch light cruisers HMAS Perth, HMNS De Ruyter and HMNS Java set out to destroy the transports before they could land.

Unable to locate the Japanese, they returned to base on 27 February but immediately received fresh intelligence and set out again to intercept. They made contact that afternoon and began to engage the Japanese escorts.

The Exeter was hit and, its engines damaged, immediately lost speed. The surviving Allied destroyers counter-attacked until the Japanese withdrew and were lost from sight.

Doorman continued the chase. By 10.30pm the Perth and Houston were again exchanging fire and fending off Japanese destroyers. The two Dutch cruisers De Ruyter and Java were hit by torpedoes and blew up simultaneously with a huge loss of life.

Defeated, on 28 February the Allied ships left for the safety of Australia. En route, the damaged Perth and Houston discovered a second Japanese landing and opened fire, inflicting great damage until they were intercepted and sunk.

The Exeter, accompanied by the destroyer HMS Encounter and American destroyer USS Pope, steered east, but on the morning of 1 March they confronted three heavy Japanese cruisers and were also sunk. The Japanese started their invasion of Java the same day.

Even though the Allied and Japanese forces were evenly matched in theory, the Japanese only lost one destroyer compared to the overwhelming losses on the part of the Allies. The Japanese success was largely due to their superior firepower, notably the Long Lance torpedoes, and the fact that communication between the Allied ships was poor or non-existent.

The fact files in this timeline were commissioned by the BBC in June 2003 and September 2005. Find out more about the authors who wrote them.

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