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I've been trying to understand what went in prior to the Japanese invasion of Java. From my understanding thus far, Vice-Admiraal (Vice Admiral) Conrad Helfrich took command of the ABDA naval forces after 12th February 1942, and gave orders to go on the offensive. This was particularly relevant because the Japanese were close to invading Bali and Java. Schout-bij-nacht (Rear Admiral) Karel Doorman led the ABDA 'Striking Force' first in the Battle of Badung Strait, which was a relative success (one sunk and two damaged ABDA vessels) when compared to the Battle of the Java Sea (ABDA naval forces wiped out with the exception of HMAS Perth and USS Houston that survived for another day until sunk at the Sunda Strait).

This offensive naval strike seems to have been entirely drawn up by Helfrich by these articles, and would have directly contributed to the near-immediate defeat of the KNIL forces on Java. What were the specific orders Helfrich had given to Doorman? Did Helfrich later comment on this in any way (writings, memoirs, etc...)?

Perhaps a touch superfluous, but it would also be very interesting to see if Doorman left any writings before embarking on the mission which might clarify his opinion of what went on?


Doorman's Wikipedia article says:

Based on instructions issued by High Command, Doorman gave the order to attack at the approach of the Japanese fleet. The tactical command was "I am attacking, follow me"; he did not signal at the beginning of the battle in the Java Sea. It is a loose translation of the signal sent by him, "All ships – follow me" to remedy the confusion.

The "instructions issued by High Command" are not specified or sourced (and, indeed, the entire Wikipedia section with regards to this is quoted as "needing sources for verification". Meanwhile, Helfrich's Wikipedia article notes:

When a combined command (ABDA) was finally created in January 1942, he was bypassed for the post of commander of the navy, in favour of Admiral Thomas C. Hart of the United States Navy. Helfrich's mission to defend Java at all costs clashed with Hart's desire to conserve as many naval units as possible. On 12 February 1942, Helfrich succeeded Hart as commander of the American–British–Dutch–Australian naval forces in the Pacific and immediately went on the offensive.

Meanwhile, the ABDA Wikipedia article says:

ABDA was charged with holding the Malay Barrier for as long as possible in order to retain Allied control of the Indian Ocean and the western sea approaches to Australia. This was a nearly hopeless task, given the Japanese supremacy in naval forces in the western Pacific. The task was further complicated by the addition of Burma to the command; the difficulties of coordinating action between forces of four nationalities that used different equipment and had not trained together; and the different priorities of the national governments. British leaders were primarily interested in retaining control of Singapore; the military capacity of the Dutch East Indies had suffered as a result of the defeat of the Netherlands in 1940, and the Dutch administration was focused on defending the island of Java; the Australian government was heavily committed to the war in North Africa and Europe, and had few readily accessible military resources, and; the United States was preoccupied with the Philippines...

This leaves it possible that the move by Helfrich was with respect to a Dutch goal and that Helfrich rushed it through before Australian/British/American opposition could materialize.

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The following is sourced from a short magazine article 'Fall of the Dutch East Indies', by Lt.-Commander F.C. van Oosten, and doesn't fully address all aspects of the question, but is intended to provide a little more information on the events preceding the Battle of the Java Sea, in the hope of shedding some further light on decision making.

On February 3 a Combined Striking Force, under the command of Rear-Admiral K.W.F.M Doorman, flying his flag on the De Ruyter, was formed with the object of attacking Japanese shipping in the Makassar Strait. This was part of the general design of harassing Japanese shipping at every opportunity with anti-submarine patrols, bombing attacks on ships and bases, and submarine sorties, whenever the prime task of escorting convoys into Singapore would allow.

The above quote indicates that the Combined Striking Force under Rear-Admiral Doorman was created during the tenure of Admiral Hart as commander of ABDA-float, so the "offensive mission" against Japanese shipping was not in fact a last minute change by Admiral Helfrich, but a continuation of the previously existing policy of Admiral Hart.

Throughout the East Indies the situation for the Allies was rapidly deteriorating. On February 15 - 'Black Sunday' - Singapore had capitulated, and General Wavell had to report to the Combined Chiefs of Staff that the Malay Barrier could no longer be held without substantial reinforcements, which were clearly impossible as priority was still being given to the European theatre of war. On February 22 the order was received to dissolve the ABDA command and three days later a new organization came into being. The defence of the Netherlands East Indies against the Japanese seemed an immense, almost hopeless task, but it was decided, mainly on internal political grounds, to carry on to the bitter end.

This quote indicates that the ABDA command had in fact been dissolved days before the Battle of the Java Sea, and that there was a subsequent political decision to continue to defend to the "bitter end" with the forces in theatre.

With two main Japanese invasion task forces heading for Java - the Eastern Invasion Force sailed from Cam Ranh Bay on February 18 and the Western Invasion Force set out from Jolo on February 19 - the scene was set for Helfrich's response.

On February 21 Admiral Helfrich, who a week earlier in accordance with a decision of the Combined Chiefs of Staff in Washington had taken over command of ABDA-float from Admiral Hart, split the Combined Striking Force into two groups - Western Striking Force under Commodore J.A. Collins, RAN, based at Tandjong Priok, and Eastern Striking Force under Rear-Admiral Doorman, based at Surabaya - to tackle the respective Japanese moves against Java. On February 25 he also stationed submarines at all possible approach routes of the Japanese forces.

On that day, a Dutch Catalina sighted the Eastern Invasion Force. Helferich, in the belief that this expeditionary force would land before the Western Force arrived, decided to concentrate his ships in the eastern area, and the cruisers Exeter and Perth, and the destroyers Electra, Encounter, and Jupiter steamed from Tandjong Priok to Surabaya. Further reinforcements were also anticipated from the light aircraft carrier Langley, heading for Tjilatjap with 32 Curtis P-40 fighters on board, but on February 27 Langley was sunk by Japanese aircraft 50 miles south of Tjilatjap, and the Allies were left once more naked of air support. Doorman had already spent several nights cruising with his Eastern Force off the north coast of Java and Madura, and after a conference on February 26 with officers of his newly arrived reinforcements, he decided to sail again into the coming night. But a sweep along the north coast of Madura brought no news, and in the morning the force returned to Surabaya to refuel. The remaining ships of Western Striking Force also made a patrol that night in the direction of Banka Strait, in response to a report from an RAF aircraft of an invasion fleet 100 miles to the north, but nothing was sighted and after reporting back at Tandjong Priok the ships were ordered on to Ceylon.

Then, at 1427 hours that afternoon, Doorman received the news he had been waiting for. The invasion fleet had been sighted. Without hesitation, he headed his force for the Japanese ships. Doorman's reported target proved to be the Eastern Invasion Force consisting of 41 transports with a formidable escort of two heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, and fourteen destroyers. Numerically the Japanese had only a bare majority, but in all other respects their superiority was beyond question: Doorman's communications were weak; he had no reconnaissance aircraft; his crews were tired; and his ships had never worked together before. The Japanese, moreover, had a weapon of which the Allies knew nothing - the 60.9cm Type '93' torpedo which, poered by a liquid oxygen propellant, had the exceptionally long running distance of 44,000 yards at 36 knots.

There are a couple of points raised by the above quote:

Firstly, Doorman was already patrolling quite aggressively and had been for days before the Japanese invasion force was sighted.

Secondly, the narrative seems to quite clearly state that Doorman himself (in conference with his fellow officers on the scene) made the specific decisions to step up the patrolling, and "without hesitation" to "head for" the Japanese invasion fleet, once it was sighted.

There doesn't seem to be any suggestion that Helfrich was interfering or redirecting Doorman's moves beyond what had been going on for days as part of the general mission to intercept the invasion forces.

I have seen it stated elsewhere (again unsourced) that Doorman received specific orders at 1500 to intercept the convoy, which doesn't necessarily conflict with the above, and doesn't really change the general thrust of the existing mission as it had been earlier established by Helfrich and was already being executed by Doorman.

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  • Very interesting points! It's interesting that despite the ABDA being dissolved, the non-Dutch troops carried on fighting (as part of this "new" command). Also, Langley's sinking explains quite a lot with regards to how the Allies ended up so overpowered. – gktscrk Jun 22 at 16:16
  • @gktscrk Yes, I was wondering just how aware Helfrich and Doorman were at the time of the extent to which their Force was overpowered. It certainly makes a difference in terms of the degree of recklessness (or bravery) involved in their decision making. – Agent Orange Jun 23 at 8:07
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    @gktscrk It's interesting that the Western Strike Force (WSF) was recalled to Ceylon in the middle of the battle. They certainly weren't keen to hang around til the "bitter end". When the CSF was divided it appears to have been done along national lines to some extent, and I wonder if the suspicions you express about Helfrich being a bit sneaky in the question might apply to his dispatching some of the British elements from WSF and sending them to join Doorman's command if he thought the British commitment to the fight was a bit shaky. – Agent Orange Jun 23 at 8:18
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    @gktscrk Some interesting information about the order to fight to the "bitter end" in this short bio. Gives the name of Helfrich's memoirs too -- a two volume effort creatively called "Memoires" (1950) -- netherlandsnavy.nl/Men_helfrich.htm – Agent Orange Jun 23 at 9:46
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My intention is to accept this linked answer, but to have supporting evidence and further information provided in this one based on research and investigations done after I was pointed in the right direction.


Overview

My narrative is based on 'Defeat in ABDA' except where otherwise noted.

Doorman and Helfrich met, or at least talked, several times in the lead-up to the Battle of the Java Sea. One of the earlier cruises where Doorman had sighted the enemy had ended in failure due to Helfrich's suggestion of 'attacking in waves', and it is possible that Doorman wanted to attack 'properly' this time round and to get at the convoy. It is noteworthy that Helfrich was upset at the ships which came out of Java Sea without being sunk, it having been his expectation that any engagement would be to the death (even for no greater purpose).

Meanwhile, questions about Allied integrity should be put to rest. While Churchill and Wavell conspired to redirect troops from Java to Sri Lanka and Burma in mid-February, the opposition of Curtin to this stopped such proceedings. Further, British ships were left under Dutch command when the Allies decided to fight for Java as long as possible.

Perhaps another thing to consider is that Helfrich's reputation in post-war Indonesia was quite poor as evidenced by the British officer, Laurens van der Post, who considered the Admiral:

"a presumptuous boaster and a natural bully," whose actual battle experiences consisted of nothing but verbal ones.


Narrative

Around the 13th and 14th February, Doorman and Helfrich spoke and reached a decision:

...to go northwards through Gaspar Strait, round Banka, and back through Banka Strait, "destroying any enemy forces seen".

This excursion failed due to Allied air support being non-existent, and Doorman returned to Batavia. Japanese shadowed the navy and kept it under constant air attacks for six hours. When Doorman returned, he had to split his fleet because there were too many ships in port:

Because of the congestion at Tanjong Priok (where on 16th February every berth was crowded and at least thirty ships were anchored in the roads) the striking force was split up between Java and Sumatra on its return. "Hobart, Exeter, Tromp, Barker and Bulmer followed De Ruyter in to Tanjong Priok and anchored at 9.52 a.m. on the 16th," recorded Hobart. That morning too, the rest of the American destroyers arrived at Ratai Bay to fuel.

Nevertheless, that sally by Doorman had delayed the arrival of the Japanese convoy by a day. The decision to withdraw was justified as due to Japanese air superiority that would have determined any naval engagements. The next move Doorman undertook was to head east to protect Bali and Timor. On the 17th Feb, Doorman and Helfrich met again:

Admiral Helfrich and Rear-Admiral Doorman talked together at Helfrich's headquarters. It was decided to concentrate in the east at once to contest the assault on Bali. De Ruyter, Java, Piet Hein, Kortenaer, and the American destroyers Ford and Pope, would go via the Indian Ocean and Tjilatjap; and Tromp, with the four American destroyers from Ratai Bay—Stewart, Parrott, Edwards and Pillsbury—via the Java Sea and Surabaya. Helfrich, knowing that time was the vital factor and that the hours consumed in taking the Striking Force from western to eastern Java would possibly make its arrival at the scene of action again too late, told Doorman not to wait until he had concentrated completely, but to make a series of raids in successive "waves" (if that were necessary) through Lombok Strait. In addition, a suggestion by the Dutch naval commander at Surabaya was accepted, that motor torpedo boats from that port should follow up the attacks by the main force, and exploit the enemy confusion.

Doorman sailed at 10pm on the 18th, and moved along the south coast of Java to Bali. Kortenaer had been left behind as it ran aground. His force made it to Bali by the evening of the 19th, engaged in combat in which Piet Hein was lost, and then disengaged. Dutch cruisers headed to Surabaya; American destroyers to Tjilatjap. Another 'wave' engaged for a hit-and-run attack but disengaged similarly quickly.

Doorman tasted increasingly the bitter fruits of lack of tactical exercises and of adequate communication facilities in his heterogeneous force, and of misleading intelligence. It would seem that, based on the original reconnaissance reports, and on those of the bomber pilots who attacked the Japanese ships during the 19th, it was believed that numerically superior and more powerful Japanese forces would be met. This belief persisted after the action, and there would seem to be little doubt conditioned Doorman's mind and those of his commanding officers to an extent which gave the "tip-and-run" aspect of the attack undue prominence.

The Allied waves had outnumbered the enemy, but failed to make their numbers count. Tromp, in the rear of the second wave, had to be sent to Australia for repairs. The Japanese conquered Timor, launched a bombing raid against Darwin, and were in the final stage of preparing to attack Java.

On the 20th February, the day after the first Darwin air raids, the Combined Chiefs of Staff in Washington told General Wavell that Java should be defended with the utmost resolution by all available combatant troops. "Every day gained is of importance. There should be no withdrawal of troops or air forces of any nationality, and no surrender." He was told to augment the defence of Java with available naval forces, and with U.S. aircraft at his disposal assembling in Australia, but that Burma had been removed from his command and once again placed under the control of India, and that land reinforcements on the way from the west would not go to Java but were being diverted to augment the defence of Burma, Ceylon, and Australia, points vital to the continuance of the war against Japan.

Meanwhile,

Admiral Helfrich stressed to General Wavell the impossibility of defending Java with his existing (and diminishing) naval forces. He asked that, if reinforcements could not be sent, the Anzac Force from the east and the Eastern Fleet from the west should carry out diversionary raids or demonstrations into or towards the Java Sea and China Sea to ease the situation. General Wavell was unable to grant this request because of the enemy's massive air superiority, which it was beyond Allied power to counter.

Now, because Helfrich was unsure where on Java the Japanese would invade, he divided his naval forces into Eastern and Western Striking Groups. He also issued a specific message to all ships under his command:

I inform all officers and ships' companies that the situation is critical. I wish to impress upon all of you the necessity for every effort against the enemy to prevent his landing on Java. Every opportunity for offensive action must be seized and all sacrifices must be made to this end.

That same day, General Wavell cabled Churchill:

I am afraid that the defence of ABDA Area has broken down and the defence of Java cannot now last long. It always hinged on the air battle. ... Anything put into Java now can do little to prolong struggle. ... I see little further usefulness for this H.Q.

Churchill had on the previous day (20th Feb) already taken a decision to divert some Australian troops heading to Java to Burma instead. Wavell and Churchill had previously discussed the futility of defending Java, and this move should be taken in that context. Roosevelt also supported diverting the Australians into Burma, but Curtin refused this high-handed move. On the 23rd, Churchill again set the Australian convoy to proceed homewards (by no longer to Java).

On the 25nd Feb, the ABDA command was dissolved with the intention of preserving morale:

On 22nd February Wavell discussed the withdrawal of his headquarters from Java with the Governor-General of the Netherlands East Indies, Jonkheer Dr van Starkenborgh Stachouwer, who thought that withdrawal after invasion would damage public morale, and that, as an alternative command organisation was already in existence, it would be better that the ABDA Command should be dissolved, and not withdrawn. Wavell agreed, and in a message to the Chiefs of Staff advanced this view, pointing out that since the control of Burma had reverted to India, ABDA held little to command, and that the local defence of Java could be better exercised under the original Dutch organisation. ... In Java, the British forces now came under the orders of the Dutch Commanders-in-Chief: Vice-Admiral Helfrich, who ceased to be "Abdafloat", and resumed his former Dutch title of Commandant der Zeemacht ("C.Z.M.")...

The same day, a definite threat materialized in the Macassar Strait and Helfrich ordered all cruisers and destroyers to reinforce Doorman at Surabaya. At this stage, all Allied commanders seem to have been on the same page about a 'fight to the death' for Java alongside the Dutch. The British hoped to use that time in order to strengthen defenses of Burma, India, and Sri Lanka.

Doorman engaged in cruising during the 25th and 26th. On the 27th, Doorman messaged Helfrich at about noon:

This day the personnel reached the limit of endurance; tomorrow, the limit will be exceeded.

The Western Striking Force had meanwhile been at sea as well. Helfrich didn't expect a battle near Surabaya, and didn't order the Western Striking Force to join Doorman in the early part of the 27th (leading to their exclusion from the Battle of the Java Sea). Meanwhile, that same morning the USS Langley, an aircraft tender, had been destroyed by Japanese aircraft on an approach to Java from the south after having detached from convoy MS.5.

As Doorman entered Surabaya after 2pm on the 27th, he received a note from Helfrich which related sightings of the Japanese to the south-east. Doorman turned and proceeded to sea. The Japanese were observing Allied movements, and three destroyer flotillas gathered while the Japanese convoy reversed course.

These engagements led to the Battle of the Java Sea. That entire battle, Doorman tried to search for the Japanese convoy and to cause damage to it. This was a blind search while the Allied fleet was fully scouted by Japanese aircraft. De Ruyter, Doorman's flagship, was sunk at about 11pm. The standing verbal instructions were that "any ship disabled must be "left to the mercy of the enemy"."

Therefore, Waller, in command of Houston and the remaining senior officer, turned to disengage and to steam to Batavia. Waller reported the destruction of De Ruyter and Java on 00:50 28th Feb. He justified the disengagement by the loss of two cruisers while enemy forces were near-intact and had air superiority. Helfrich later criticized this move in the Dutch Official Report of the Battle of the Java Sea:

Strictly speaking the return of Perth and Houston was against my order 2055/26—"You must continue attacks till enemy is destroyed." This signal was intended to make it quite clear that I wanted the Combined Striking Force to continue action whatever the cost, and till the bitter end. Perth did receive this signal. Both cruisers were undamaged [Houston's after triple turret was out of action] and it was not right to say in anticipation "It is no use to continue action", considering the damage inflicted upon the enemy cruisers, which in my opinion must have been severe . [Actually the enemy cruisers were all in battle trim.] However, it is possible that other facts had to be considered, such as shortage of fuel or ammunition. [Houston, as stated above, had very little ammunition remaining.] The decision of the captain of Perth is even more regrettable as, after all, both cruisers did meet their end. Probably on the night of 27th-28th February they would have sold their lives at greater cost to the enemy.

The overall delay of the invasion of Java was one day while the cost to the Allies were nearly all of their surface fleet, including their experienced crews.

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According to sources such as this one, Netherlands' Admiral Helfrich ordered Admiral Doorman to fight for Java. He was following the letter, but not the spirit of the orders of his predecessor, America's Admiral Thomas Hart to "attack." But the Dutch Admirals completely misunderstood the strategic situation at the time.

The first was that the Japanese were attacking all over the Southwest Pacific, America's Philippines, British possessions in Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, and Burma, and the approaches to Australia, in New Guinea and New Britain. Dutch possessions in Java and Borneo in the modern Indonesia were also attacked, but they actually received the lowest allocation of Japanese naval forces. If there was a place where the meager Allied naval forces might have a chance against the Japanese, it was off Java. And of these four general areas, the one that a Dutch commander would have the most interest in defending were the Netherlands' possessions.

On paper, Doorman commanded a combined Allied force of two heavy cruisers, three light cruisers, and nine destroyers, which seemed comparable to the Japanese force of two heavy cruisers, three light cruisers, and fourteen destroyers. But he failed to realize that the two British and American heavy cruisers had only 60% of the firepower of their two Japanese counterparts, and the nine destroyers numbered only 60% of the 14 Japanese equivalents; only in light cruisers did the Allies have anything approaching parity. And despite Japanese victories at Singapore (the sinking of the Prince of Wales and Repulse), Pearl Harbor, and Tsushima Straits (against Russia in 1905), few, if anyone thought that an Allied fleet would be unable to defeat a Japanese fleet of equivalent nominal strength. As a result, Doorman fought the Battle of Java Sea, in which half the Allied fleet was sunk, and then the Japanese "mopped up" the remainder, except for four American destroyers, in the following day, essentially "wiping out" the Allied fleet (five cruisers, five destroyers) with only one light cruiser and three destroyers damaged.

The danger there was that despite impending Allied superiority, if the Japanese "wiped out" (rather than merely defeated) whole Allied fleets with little loss to themselves, they could win the Pacific war. In 1905, for instance, the Japanese fleet was about half the size of the total Russian navy. But they wiped out two Russian fleets, separately, one in Port Arthur, and the second one in the Tsushima Straits (arriving at from the Baltic, with little loss to itself.

Admiral Hart's blessing to "attack" should be interpreted in terms of his background. The bulk of his fleet was submarines, and this arm of the Navy was highly predatory in World War II, sinking about 5 million out of nearly 11 million tons of Japanese shipping. The Allies did well in single and few ship combat (e.g. submarines vs. merchant ships), because individual Allied ships were (mostly) technologically superior to the Japanese, in e.g. radar, but did poorly in fleet actions, as late as Savo Island (August, 1942), and Tassafaronga (December, 1942), because the Japanese were better at maneuvering groups of ships. American were based on "duels" of a handful of ships (Lexington and Yorktown versus Shokaku and Zuikaku), battleship Washington versus Kirishima at Cape Esperance, (with the major exception being Midway, where the Japanese divided their fleet while the Americans concentrated). This goes back to the war of 1812, and possibly to the American Revolution (with e.g. John Paul Jones' Bonhomme Richard vs. the Seraphis).

The American commanders, including Hart were willing to fight the Japanese but only through a war of attrition (Nimitiz' orders at Midway were ["to inflict maximum damage on the enemy by strong attrition tactics."][4] This was because if such tactics were successful, the American "new build" rate would eventually overwhelm the Japanes. Doorman misunderstood and thought that he had a mandate to fight a battle of decision. And the Battle of Java Sea was highly "decisive," just in the wrong direction, the Allied nightmare scenario.

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