The attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, signaled the beginning of a massive Japanese thrust into Southeast Asia, with the capture of the vast oil fields and refineries of the Netherlands East Indies (now Indonesia) as its primary goal. This oil was vital to Japan to enable it to continue its war of conquest in China, which had been dragging on since 1931.
The primary Allied powers in the region formed a joint command to coordinate the defense of their respective territories and empires. The command, called ‘ABDA’ (for American, British, Dutch and Australian), was disjointed and poorly organized, as were the Allied defenses it was formed to coordinate.
In the weeks following Pearl Harbor, the Japanese roamed the Western Pacific unchecked. They attacked American forces in the Philippines and drove them onto the defensive; forced the surrender of the ‘impregnable’ British fortress at Singapore; annihilated the main ABDA supply base at Darwin, Australia, in a carrier raid more destructive than Pearl Harbor; and drove the Dutch south to the shores of Java, the heart of their East Indies empire.
The defense of Java ultimately depended on the timely arrival of air reinforcements from Australia. Without them, the island lay at the mercy of Japanese bombers. The air route from Australia to Java was a string of primitive airstrips stretching from Darwin through the islands of Timor and Bali to Java itself. But the Japanese also knew ABDA needed air reinforcements, and sought to cut off the flow by attacking Darwin and invading Timor.
The Japanese were not originally concerned with Bali, since they had already captured the airfield at Kendari on Celebes Island. Kendari II, which had been completed in 1940, was a modern, well-equipped facility with large, paved runways that made it one of the best airfields in Southeast Asia. Its capture placed the primary ABDA naval base at Soerabaja, on Java’s north coast, well within range of the Japanese bomber fleet.
Despite that fine all-weather field, the Japanese quickly discovered that fickle weather patterns over Kendari often kept actual flying time to a minimum. It was this inability to bomb Soerabaja on a regular basis that prompted the Japanese to move on Bali. The capture of Den Passar airfield on Bali’s southern end would give them a forward air base just two miles off the eastern shore of Java.
Capturing Bali would also ensure that the ABDA air link was severed and would allow the Japanese to strike Soerabaja and eastern Java’s multiple airfields at will. Japanese planners were confident they could then deal ABDA air power a sledgehammer blow. At the same time, they could hamper any ABDA sea movement sent out to contest the planned invasion of Java.
The Japanese considered the Bali operation extremely vulnerable to air and sea attack. They wanted to land ground troops and clear their ships out of the area as soon as possible before ABDA could retaliate. Despite the risks involved, a Japanese invasion force left Makassar, on Celebes Island, for Bali on the night of February 17, 1942. The convoy consisted of the transports Sasago Maru and Sagami Maru, with the destroyers Asashio, Oshio, Arashio and Michishio in close escort. The light cruiser Nagara, flagship of Rear Adm. Kuji Kubo, and the destroyers Hatsushimo, Nenohi and Wakaba followed behind and provided a distant covering force from a position in the Banda Sea.
The landing force consisted of a battalion minus one company, one mountain-gun platoon, radio and field units, an engineer platoon and part of the 1st Formosa Infantry Regiment of the 48th Infantry Division. All had been withdrawn from the Philippines when other units on Borneo could not find adequate sea transport in time to meet the departure date.
ABDA discovered the convoy through air reconnaissance, but initially could do little to respond. From Kubo’s course, the Allies could not positively identify his destination, although most thought it to be Timor. Also, Allied naval units were scattered and could not easily be concentrated, following an earlier operation in the Bangka Strait off western Java, where ABDA had failed to prevent the invasion of southern Sumatra.
The Dutch light cruisers De Ruyter and Java were with the Dutch and American destroyers Piet Hein, Kortenaer, Pope and John D. Ford at the port of Tjilitjap, on the south coast of Java. The American destroyers Barker and Bulmer also lay in Tjilitjap, but due to substantial damage from bomb near-misses in the Bangka Strait, neither was capable of offensive action, and the decision had been made to send them to Australia for repairs and refitting. The Dutch light cruiser Tromp was at Soerabaja, while the American destroyers Stewart, John D. Edwards, Parrott and Pillsbury had refueled at Ratai Bay on southern Sumatra before the facilities there were demolished to prevent their capture once the Allied evacuation of Sumatra was complete.
At Soerabaja, the Dutch destroyers Witte de With and Banckert were also detailed to take part in an action against Admiral Kubo’s force, but were unable to do so. Witte de With lay in overhaul and could not be readied in time. Banckert was operational, but had been badly damaged in an air raid on the morning of February 18 and was also forced to enter dry dock. The Dutch destroyer Evertsen was also available, but was on convoy duty between the Indian Ocean and Singapore.
With his forces so badly scattered, Dutch Rear Adm. Karel W. Doorman could do little when he received word that the Japanese were on the move. Still, once air reconnaissance confirmed that the convoy’s destination was Bali, Doorman ordered his ships to raise steam and make for Badoeng Strait while he formulated a battle plan. Unavoidably, it was a bad plan, dictated by grim necessity. Because time was critical, Doorman could not group his widely scattered ships into a single force. As a result, his attack would have to consist of three elements beginning from three different points around Java and southern Sumatra. The ensuing clash has been called both the Battle of Badoeng Strait and the Battle of Lombok Strait.
The first wave, consisting of De Ruyter and Java with their destroyers, left Tjilitjap on the evening of February 18. Bad luck struck immediately when Kortenaer temporarily lost rudder control and ran aground in Tjilitjap’s treacherous, narrow harbor channel. The destroyer could not be pulled off until the morning tide came in, and then was forced to sail to Soerabaja for repairs. Unable to wait, Doorman continued on with only Piet Hein, Pope and John D. Ford to screen his cruisers.
The second wave consisted of the American 58th Destroyer Division, under the command of Commander T.H. Binford, and the Dutch light cruiser Tromp. Stewart, Parrott, John D. Edwards and Pillsbury had orders to leave Ratai Bay at full speed and join Tromp at Soerabaja. They joined the light cruiser on the 18th, and the force sortied that afternoon.
The third wave consisted of seven Dutch motor torpedo boats (MTBs). Eight were originally detailed to participate in the attack, but while leaving Soerabaja, MTB-6 hit a buoy, forcing her into dry dock. That left torpedo boats MTB-4, -5, -7, -9, -10, -11 and -12 to carry on. They departed Soerabaja on the morning of February 19, headed for Pangpang Bay on Java’s east coast. There, they refueled from the Dutch minelayer Krakatau and then covered the short distance from Java to Bali.
Doorman’s battle plan called for each of his three waves to attack independently. The first wave was to approach through the south entrance of the Badoeng Strait, a 15-mile-wide channel separating Bali from Nusa Besar Island, shortly after midnight on the 19th.
But by that time, Admiral Kubo had already landed his troops on a small beach near Den Passar and was ready to depart at full speed. He had chosen not to risk his entire force in the restricted strait. Nagara and her destroyer screen remained in the Banda Sea, leaving Oshio, flagship of Captain Toshio Abe’s Destroyer Division 8, along with Asashio, Arashio and Michishio, to cover the two transports.
The only ABDA sea forces in the vicinity of Bali were the American submarine Seawolf and the British submarine Truant. Seawolf, under Lt. Cmdr. Fred B. Warder, had been positioned in Badoeng Strait in anticipation of an invasion. She made contact with the enemy at 2 a.m. on the 18th.
Warder took his boat through the destroyer screen on the surface before being forced to submerge. With poor charts and tricky currents, Seawolf had great difficulty navigating the strait. By morning, Warder was so lost that he was unable to fix his position through the periscope. However, he could see the masts of several ships in the distance. As Seawolf moved in, she ran aground on a sandbar. Warder was able to back off with little difficulty and proceeded until Seawolf suddenly ran aground again. This time, the situation was more serious. Warder made several unsuccessful attempts to free Seawolf while remaining submerged. Finally, he gave orders to blow the main ballast tanks and surface despite being within visual range of the convoy.
The submarine got lucky. As Seawolf surfaced, a rain squall blew over her, and Warder was able to approach the convoy on the surface for another 30 minutes until the rain stopped. Then he was forced to dive once more. Running silent, Warder crept into torpedo range, swung around and fired his two stern tubes as he withdrew. Warder heard two explosions in the distance just before the Japanese destroyers found his submarine.
Seawolf received a terrible battering, but, despite the closeness of the depth charges in the shallow strait, she managed to escape without serious damage. Nor had Seawolf damaged any Japanese ships. Her torpedoes had either exploded prematurely, a common problem for American torpedoes well into 1943, or had hit the Bali shore.
At about the same time Seawolf was in the strait, Truant arrived on the scene, ordered into action from Soerabaja without any kind of briefing, including notification of the presence of Seawolf. Warder was also unaware of Truant‘s presence.
Truant encountered the covering force in the Banda Sea en route to Bali, easily penetrated the destroyer screen and set up an attack on Nagara. The submarine fired six torpedoes and went deep. All six missed, and the destroyers then drove off Truant, which withdrew to Soerabaja.
American planes from Java arrived over the strait at dawn. First word of the landings had reached Java at 2 a.m., and the order was given to prepare 13 heavy bombers and seven Douglas A-24 dive bombers for action. The first planes arrived over Bali at 7 a.m., and their persistent attacks numbered 18 by dusk. Unfortunately, their claims of four direct hits and 12 near-misses, with many ships sunk and damaged, were way out of line. Only the transport Sagami Maru received heavy damage from a bomb hit in her engine room.
Ashore, the poorly motivated garrison of 600 native militia deserted almost immediately following the Japanese landing. Their Dutch commander was further disgusted to learn that Den Passar airfield had not been blown up. His order not to delay its demolition was misread by the engineers, who thought he wanted the operation delayed. That confusion allowed the Japanese to take the airfield intact.
With his mission completed, Kubo wanted to leave Bali’s exposed shores as soon as possible and set course for Makassar. By 11 p.m., his covering force was well north of Badoeng Strait. He left Arashio, Michishio, Asashio and Oshio to escort the two transports to Makassar. Arashio and Michishio were detailed to look after the crippled Sagami Maru, which had finally managed to get underway at 10 p.m. after making emergency repairs to her engine room. When the first ABDA naval forces arrived in the area, the three Japanese ships were near the north entrance of Badoeng Strait.
That left only Oshio, under Captain Abe and her own skipper, Commander Kiyoshi Yoshikawa, and Asashio, under Commander Goro Yoshii, to escort the remaining transport, Sasago Maru, out of the strait. They were just weighing anchor when approaching ships were sighted at 10 p.m. The first Allied wave had arrived off the southern tip of Bali at 9:30 p.m. on February 19 in column formation. De Ruyter and Java led, with the destroyers 5,500 yards behind. Piet Hein led the two American destroyers, who trailed her at the same distance. It was a dark night with little wind and a calm sea. Allied battle speed was 27 knots.
At 10:30 p.m., De Ruyter sighted a ship to starboard, but it quickly disappeared behind Nusa Besar Island. No Japanese ships were in that part of the strait, so the vessel was either a phantom or a native prauw. Thirty minutes later, Java sighted three vague silhouettes to port against the dark Bali shore, which the lookout reported as a destroyer, a transport and a landing craft. Java opened searchlights and fired starshells. Her first salvo followed seconds later at a range of 2,200 yards.
Java‘s target was Asashio; De Ruyter engaged Oshio, mistaken for a landing craft. The Japanese destroyers immediately left Sasago Maru and charged the Dutch cruisers on an eastern course. That enabled them to cap Admiral Doorman’s ‘T’ almost immediately, and there was heavy firing on both sides. Java fired nine salvoes and De Ruyter about the same number as they continued up the strait.
Java claimed multiple hits on Asashio, as did De Ruyter on Oshio. In reality, though, there was no damage to either of the destroyers, which continued their course across the cruisers’ ‘T.’ Asashio, however, put a 5-inch round into Java‘s port midsection. The shell caused no loss of speed, and thanks to efficient damage control, there was no fire.
The cruisers then lost contact. Believing they had inflicted major damage, De Ruyter and Java retired northeast and then north at full speed through Lombok Strait. Their part in the battle lasted less than 10 minutes. Their screening destroyers were still some three miles behind and now encountered Asashio and Oshio.
Asashio continued east for several minutes after the withdrawal of De Ruyter and Java, then turned southeast. Oshio followed a parallel course but went farther east before turning. That course change brought Asashio into a head-on confrontation with Piet Hein, which, alone, was on a course due north.
At 11:05 p.m., Pope and John D. Ford saw Piet Hein zigzag left to right and make a hard turn to starboard behind a smoke screen. Despite the smoke, the Japanese were able to concentrate their fire on Piet Hein. Pope and John D. Ford increased speed to 28 knots and turned east in an attempt to close on Piet Hein. At 11:10 p.m., Piet Hein again turned–this time south–and fired five torpedoes as she unlimbered her deck guns. Asashio returned fire and quickly scored direct hits, demolishing the Dutch destroyer’s searchlight platform and cutting the main steam line in her aft engine room.
Piet Hein went dead in the water, burning brightly in the night. Oshio then joined Asashio, and together they launched nine torpedoes at the drifting destroyer, which sank instantly with heavy loss of life at 11:16 p.m.
Piet Hein‘s captain, Lt. Cmdr. J.M.L.I. Chömpf, and another officer received posthumous medals for gallantry in action and subsequent bravery when abandoning ship. Three more officers and several crewmen were lost when the Japanese ships sprayed the Dutch destroyer with machine-gun fire as they passed.
After the loss of Piet Hein, Pope and John D. Ford were immediately put on the defensive. The Americans had been ordered to continue north up Badoeng Strait, engaging whatever targets presented themselves. But when the Dutch destroyer went down, they veered away from the battle as John D. Ford engaged Asashio. Oshio was still hidden from the American destroyers by Piet Hein‘s smoke.
Pope and John D. Ford continued circling south as they tried to get back on a northern course in accordance with Admiral Doorman’s orders, laying smoke and trading gunfire with Asashio and Oshio. Pressure from the Japanese ships was so strong that the American destroyers never completed their loop to the north. The four ships paralleled each other, trading torpedoes and gunfire as Pope and John D. Ford continued their effort to the north. When the Japanese thwarted this latest maneuver, the American destroyers attempted to mask themselves against the shores of Nusa Besar Island.
That maneuver involved a turn to port, taking Pope and John D. Ford across the bows of Asashio and Oshio and leading to another heated action. But by now, the Americans had had enough. Pope launched five torpedoes to starboard as John D. Ford laid smoke to cover her stern. That held off the Japanese destroyers long enough for the Americans to break off and retire south at full speed.
As Oshio swept north, she sighted a darkened ship, which she assumed to be hostile, and opened fire. But it was Asashio, which returned fire on her also misidentified colleague. The exchange lasted several minutes, to the amazement of the American destroyers as they retired to Tjilitjap. Despite the heavy firing, the Japanese realized their error before either ship was damaged. The destroyers then fell into line and returned to Sasago Maru. It is interesting to note that the logbooks of both ships carefully omitted the identity error.
At the first report of ABDA ships in the strait, Admiral Kubo ordered Arashio and Michishio to leave Sagami Maru and return down the strait. They had just cleared the strait when they received the order, and the distance they had to backtrack caused them to miss the entire first phase of the battle and most of the second. At the same time, Kubo turned his covering force back toward Bali at full speed.
The second wave of ABDA ships rounded the southern tip of Bali at 1:09 a.m. on the 20th after passing through Bali Strait. Observing flares and explosions, Commander Binford tried unsuccessfully to make radio contact with Pope and John D. Ford during his approach. After midnight, Tromp dropped back. Her role was to follow behind and use her 5.9-inch guns to finish off any cripples from the destroyers’ torpedoes. In fact, she ended up playing rear guard against a pair of very aggressive Japanese destroyers.
As the ABDA ships plowed up the strait at 20 knots, with Captain J.B. de Meester aboard Tromp in command, they were challenged by a flurry of unreadable green lights. Were they Allied or Japanese? This was one of the hazards facing a multinational strike force that had little prior operational experience. De Meester hesitated.
Binford, however, knew surprise was crucial and ordered his destroyers to launch torpedoes at targets to port. Stewart and Parrott each fired six torpedoes and Pillsbury three more at Asashio and Oshio, which were circling their transport in Sanur Roads. Spotting the luminous torpedo wakes in the calm water, the Japanese easily evaded them.
Binford then lost contact with the blacked-out Japanese ships against the dark Bali shore. A deadly waiting game followed, as both sides stalked each other in the warm night. Stewart then sighted Asashio and Oshio off her port beam. She fired starshells and torpedoes at 1:36 a.m. and opened fire seven minutes later. John D. Edwards attempted a four-torpedo spread at the same time, but only two fired. The others hung in their tubes. Once more the Japanese evaded the torpedoes. They then proceeded to give the new arrivals a dose of what the first American wave had received. Their initial salvo straddled Stewart, and at 1:46 a.m. a ricocheting shell killed one seaman and wounded her executive officer. A direct hit then flooded her steering engine room, effectively putting Stewart out of control.
The result was pandemonium. Parrott nearly plowed into Stewart, which was leading, while John D. Edwards avoided Parrott only by making a hard turn to starboard. Pillsbury veered off to starboard, causing her to lose formation for the remainder of the battle. By switching to auxiliary control, Stewart regained the lead, with John D. Edwards following; Parrott took up a course on their port side. Pillsbury ended up on the other side of the strait and eventually teamed up with Tromp. Again, Asashio and Oshio had thwarted the main ABDA strategy: to have the destroyers charge into the transport anchorage, sinking as many ships as possible. Instead, they were forced away and headed for the north entrance of the strait.
The Japanese held a southeastern course, allowing them to cross behind Stewart, John D. Edwards and Parrott to isolate Pillsbury. Asashio and Oshio came into direct contact with Tromp, which still trailed the 58th Destroyer Division. The cruiser snapped on a large blue searchlight, making her an excellent target for the two Japanese destroyers’ fire. The three ships paralleled each other for nine minutes. Tromp experienced an illuminating display of Japanese gunnery, beginning at 2:07 a.m. with a rain of shells from Asashio. The first struck her navigation bridge near the torpedo tubes, damaging the fire controls. The second shell smashed the bridge and destroyed the main fire-control director. That forced the cruiser’s 5.9-inch and 40mm anti-aircraft guns to go on local control for the rest of the battle. Nine more shells fell mostly about the bridge area, causing serious damage. Tromp also took a critical hit below the waterline. Simultaneously, Tromp‘s captain avoided a torpedo spread from Oshio. The barrage killed Lt. 1st Class S.C. Ritsema van Eck, Sub-Lt. A.C.V. Kriesfeld and eight ratings. Thirty others were wounded.
With the loss of her fire-control director, Tromp had difficulty ranging and did not return fire until 2:10 a.m. But from 2:10 to 2:16 her gunners fired 71 5.9-inch shells and several hundred rounds of 40mm ammunition. Amid that flurry of fire, Oshio took just one hit forward of her bridge that killed seven men. All three ships then broke contact. Asashio and Oshio circled back around to Sasago Maru, which remained untouched, while Tromp continued north and joined Pillsbury.
The Allies proceeded north with the intention of withdrawing from the strait. Tromp‘s captain figured his role in the battle was over and wanted to get his heavily damaged ship home as soon as possible. But he now contacted Arashio and Michishio, which had left Sagami Maru an hour earlier. Their arrival was a complete surprise to the ABDA ships, which were still badly scattered. However, this confusion actually helped the Allies.
In the ensuing maneuvers, Parrott ran aground off Bali but was able to back off with minor damage. She continued north and did not return to the battle. At 2:41 a.m., John D. Edwards and Stewart maintained column formation as they steamed northeast. Tromp maintained an eastern course 8,000 yards off their starboard quarter. Pillsbury followed a northeastern course 3,000 yards off the cruiser’s starboard beam as she attempted to join Tromp.
Heading west-southwest, Arashio and Michishio plowed into the middle of this haphazard formation and immediately found themselves in a tight spot. John D. Edwards and Stewart were to starboard, with Tromp and Pillsbury to port. At 2:47 a.m., Stewart opened her searchlights and launched torpedoes, followed by gunfire. Taking fire on both port and starboard, Michishio veered hard to starboard to escape Stewart‘s searchlight. Attempting to turn north, Michishio ran into a rain of shells from John D. Edwards, which crippled her. With her engine room wrecked, Michishio went dead in the water with 96 killed and wounded. She was raked several more times as the remaining ABDA ships passed by.
After that brief engagement, both sides continued on their respective courses at high speed. The Allies were through and showed no inclination to finish off the crippled Michishio as they withdrew. The Japanese continued searching to the south for more enemy ships. Approximately three hours later, the seven Dutch MTBs came up the strait. They split into a group of three boats, which came in close to shore, and a second group of four, which came in about four miles out. Despite seeing signs of a heated battle during their approach, the MTBs encountered no ships in the strait.
One of the boats reported a ship to the south, but was unable to close as it retired at high speed. Because the low profile of the MTBs resulted in a poor field of vision, they were able to see little else. They then returned to Pangpang Bay and refueled from Krakatau before heading home to Soerabaja.
By dawn on the 20th, Tromp and her destroyers were well north of the strait. However, daylight brought renewed Japanese attention in the form of nine bombers from Makassar. But with luck and skillful maneuvering, all the Japanese bombs were avoided. Despite repeated calls for help, no air cover appeared. There were no planes left on Java to send.
Upon arrival at Soerabaja that evening, Stewart immediately entered dry dock. But dock workers failed to brace her properly, and the destroyer rolled over as the dock was drained. The additional damage was so severe that Stewart could not be repaired before Java fell, and she had to be blown up inside the dock. The Japanese later repaired her, modified her into an anti-submarine vessel. Recommissioned her as Patrol Boat No. 102. She survived the war and was later returned to the U.S. Navy.
Tromp was severely damaged and required repairs too extensive to be carried out locally, so she was sent to Australia for repairs. It was hoped that she could return immediately and continue the fight. However, the Japanese invasion of Java prevented that, and she did not return to the Netherlands East Indies until the final months of the Pacific War.
The Battle of Badoeng Strait was a disaster for the ABDA command. Despite heavy air attacks and the efforts of two submarines, three light cruisers, seven destroyers and seven MTBs, the Japanese suffered severe damage only to an empty transport and one destroyer, with light damage to a second destroyer. Even more depressing, the mass of Allied firepower never faced more than two destroyers at one time. Either of the first two waves should have been more than enough to defeat the Japanese. Instead, ABDA had lost one destroyer sunk, with a second destroyer and a light cruiser damaged. The remaining American destroyers had few torpedoes left and were of little value in battle without them.
There was little doubt in the ABDA camp that Bali’s loss dealt a deathblow to the defense of Java. Japanese seizure of Den Passar airfield, on the southern coast of Bali, severed the air route between Australia and Java, ensuring that ABDA would receive no more air reinforcements. Japanese planes now dominated Java; combined with airpower on southern Sumatra, they now controlled, or would soon control, all airspace over Java.
The boldness of their plan paid great dividends for the Japanese. They quickly intensified airsweeps over Java and soon eliminated most of the remaining ABDA air power. As Japanese invasion convoys neared Java, they faced virtually no opposition in the air. When another ABDA sea force attempted to stop the convoys in the Java Sea a week later, it desperately lacked air cover of any kind.
Admiral Doorman’s battle plan at Badoeng Strait had been weak and perhaps even fatally flawed. He showed poor tactical judgment by placing too much reliance on surface gunfire. De Ruyter and Java had come through the strait firing rapidly, ruining any chance of surprise. Their high speed, inexperienced gunners and the dark night all conspired to produce poor results. Torpedoes probably would have yielded better results.
And while the U.S. Navy rarely had trained for night action, the Dutch had done so frequently and considered themselves adept at it. In fact, they heavily counted on night actions to offset their small numbers. Still, the Japanese greatly outclassed both the Americans and Dutch.
Possessing extraordinary gunnery skills and their deadly Type 93 Long Lance torpedo, the Imperial Japanese Navy was by far the best in the world when it came to night surface actions. The Badoeng Strait battle proved that the Japanese navy’s costly peacetime years of intensive night training had been well worth the effort. It also bred confidence in their tactics, weapons and leadership, while exposing glaring deficiencies in the Allied navies.
The Battle of Badoeng Strait was the first in a series of bloody noses the Allies received from the Japanese. Only with hard-earned battle experience and sophisticated radar did they overcome the enemy’s night-fighting skills. Until that time, the Japanese remained masters of the night. *
This article was written by Tom Womack and originally appeared in the February 1996 issue of World War II magazine. For more great articles subscribe to World War II magazine today!