World War II and the Battle of the Java Sea

Black and white photograph of the HMS Exeter on the water.

U.S. Navy / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

The Battle of the Java Sea occurred on February 27, 1942, and was an early naval engagement of World War II (1939-1945) in the Pacific. With the beginning of fighting in the Dutch East Indies, Allied forces attempted to unite to slow the Japanese advance south towards Australia. This saw a combined American, British, Dutch, and Australian fleet formed to protect Java. In late February, this fleet's Eastern Strike Force, led by Rear Admiral Karel Doorman, engaged the approaching Japanese in the Java Sea.

In the resulting engagement, Doorman doggedly attacked the Japanese but proved unable to halt their advance. The battle concluded with the loss of the light cruisers HNLMS De Ruyter and Java, as well as Doorman's death. In the wake of the fighting, the remaining Allied ships fled. Most were destroyed in separate actions a short time later.


In early 1942, with the Japanese rapidly advancing south through the Dutch East Indies, the Allies attempted to mount a defense of Java in an effort to hold the Malay Barrier. Concentrating under the unified command known as American-British-Dutch-Australian (ABDA) Command, Allied naval units were divided between bases at Tandjong Priok (Batavia) in the west and Surabaya in the east. Overseen by Dutch Vice Admiral Conrad Helfrich, ABDA forces were badly outnumbered and in poor condition for the approaching fight. To take the island, the Japanese formed two major invasion fleets.

Map showing Japanese attacks during the Battle of the Java Sea.
U.S. Army Center of Military History / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Japanese Sighted

Sailing from Jolo in the Philippines, the Japanese Eastern Invasion Fleet was spotted by ABDA aircraft on February 25. This led Helfrich to reinforce Rear Admiral Karel Doorman's Eastern Strike Force at Surabaya the next day with several ships from the Royal Navy. Upon their arrival, Doorman held a meeting with his captains to discuss the upcoming campaign. Departing that evening, Doorman's force consisted of two heavy cruisers (USS Houston and HMS Exeter), three light cruisers (HNLMS De Ruyter, HNLMS Java, and HMAS Perth), as well as three British, two Dutch, and four American Destroyer Division 58 destroyers.

Sweeping the north coast of Java and Madura, Doorman's ships failed to locate the Japanese and turned for Surabaya. A short distance to the north, the Japanese invasion force, protected by two heavy cruisers (Nachi and Haguro), two light cruisers (Naka and Jintsu), and 14 destroyers slowly moved towards Surabaya under Rear Admiral Takeo Takagi. At 1:57 p.m. on February 27, a Dutch scout plane located the Japanese approximately 50 miles north of the port. Receiving this report, the Dutch admiral, whose ships were beginning to enter the harbor, reversed course to seek battle.

ABDA Commander

  • Rear Admiral Karel Doorman
  • Two heavy cruisers
  • Three light cruisers
  • Nine destroyers

Japanese Commanders

  • Rear Admiral Takeo Takagi
  • Rear Admiral Shoji Nishimura
  • Two heavy cruisers
  • Two light cruisers
  • 14 Destroyers

The Battle Begins

Sailing north, Doorman's exhausted crews prepared to meet the Japanese. Flying his flag from De Ruyter, Doorman deployed his ships in three columns with his destroyers flanking the cruisers. At 3:30 p.m., a Japanese air raid forced the ABDA fleet to disperse. Around 4 p.m., Jintsu spotted the re-formed ABDA ships to the south. Turning with four destroyers to engage, Jintsu's column opened the battle at 4:16 p.m. as the Japanese heavy cruisers and additional destroyers came up in support. As both sides exchanged fire, Rear Admiral Shoji Nishimura's Destroyer Division 4 closed and launched a torpedo attack.

Exeter Disabled

Around 5 p.m., Allied aircraft struck the Japanese transports but scored no hits. At the same time, Takagi, feeling the battle was drifting too close to the transports, ordered his ships to close with the enemy. Doorman issued a similar order and the range between the fleets narrowed. As the fighting intensified, Nachi struck Exeter with an eight-inch shell that disabled most of the ship's boilers and created confusion in the ABDA line. Badly damaged, Doorman ordered Exeter to return to Surabaya with the destroyer HNLMS Witte de With as an escort.

The Sides Close

Shortly thereafter, the destroyer HNLMS Kortenaer was sunk by a Japanese Type 93 "Long Lance" torpedo. His fleet in disarray, Doorman broke off the battle to reorganize. Takagi, believing the battle was won, ordered his transports to turn south towards Surabaya. Around 5:45 p.m., the action was renewed as Doorman's fleet turned back towards the Japanese. Finding that Takagi was crossing his T, Doorman ordered his destroyers forward to attack the approaching Japanese light cruisers and destroyers. In the resulting action, the destroyer Asagumo was crippled and HMS Electra sank.

Repeated Attacks

At 5:50, Doorman swung his column around to a southeast heading and ordered the American destroyers to cover his withdrawal. In response to this attack and concerned about mines, Takagi turned his force north shortly before sunset. Unwilling to give in, Doorman steamed away into the darkness before planning another strike on the Japanese. Turning northeast and then northwest, Doorman hoped to swing around Takagi's ships to reach the transports. Anticipating this, and confirmed by sightings from spotter planes, the Japanese were in position to meet the ABDA ships when they reappeared at 7:20 p.m.

After a brief exchange of fire and torpedoes, the two fleets separated again, with Doorman taking his ships inshore along the Java coast in another attempt to circle around the Japanese. At approximately 9 p.m., the four American destroyers, out of torpedoes and low on fuel, detached and returned to Surabaya. Over the next hour, Doorman lost his last two destroyers when HMS Jupiter was sunk by a Dutch mine and HMS Encounter was detached to pick up survivors from Kortenaer.

A Final Clash

Sailing on with his four remaining cruisers, Doorman moved north and was spotted by lookouts aboard Nachi at 11:02 p.m. As the ships began to exchange fire, Nachi and Haguro fired spreads of torpedoes. One from Haguro fatally struck De Ruyter at 11:32 p.m., exploding one of its magazines and killing Doorman. Java was hit by one of Nachi's torpedoes two minutes later and sank. Obeying Doorman's final orders, Houston and Perth fled the scene without stopping to pick up survivors.


The Battle of the Java Sea was a resounding victory for the Japanese and effectively ended meaningful naval resistance by ABDA forces. On February 28, Takagi's invasion force began landing troops 40 miles to the west of Surabaya at Kragan. In the fighting, Doorman lost two light cruisers and three destroyers. One heavy cruiser was badly damaged and around 2,300 people were killed. Japanese losses numbered one destroyer badly damaged and another with moderate damage.

Black and white photo of the HMS Exeter sinking.
Imperial Japanese Navy; this photo was captured by U.S. Forces on Attu Island, Alaska in 1943 and became U.S. Navy photo NH 91772 from the U.S. Navy Naval History and Heritage Command / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Though he was soundly defeated, that the Battle of the Java Sea lasted seven hours is a testament to Doorman's determination to defend the island at all costs. Many of the remaining units of his fleet were subsequently destroyed at the Battle of the Sunda Strait (February 28/March 1) and the Second Battle of the Java Sea (March 1). Many of the wrecks of those ships lost at the Battle of the Java Sea and the subsequent actions have been destroyed by illegal salvage operations.

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Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II and the Battle of the Java Sea." ThoughtCo, Aug. 29, 2020, Hickman, Kennedy. (2020, August 29). World War II and the Battle of the Java Sea. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II and the Battle of the Java Sea." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 2, 2023).