Of the early battles in the Pacific War, the struggle for the Dutch East Indies is perhaps the least well known. The disastrous attempts to defend the Philippines, Malaya and Singapore are well documented, but for the Japanese they were all preliminaries to their main offensive, the seizure of the massive Dutch Empire and its essential resources, especially oil. This was originally to have been the last of the major Japanese conquests, after which they were to go onto the defensive, and await the Allied counterattack.
The Allies responded to the Japanese threat by forming a combined ABDA command, which in theory brought together American, British, Dutch and Australian forces under a single command. It would be the ABDA command that attempted to defend the scattered islands of the Dutch East Indies in a campaign that would end with a series of naval disasters, the loss of almost every Allied warship involved in the campaign, and the easy Japanese conquest of Java.
This book focuses on the naval aspects of that campaign, and in particular as seen from the Allied side. The equally disastrous aerial campaign is also examined, although the rapid loss of most Allied aircraft means that there is inevitably less material on this subject, and to a certain extend the focus is on how airpower interacted (or failed to interact) with the naval campaign.
During this campaign the Allied naval forces were outnumbered, both on sea and most crucially in the air. They were unlucky, poorly equipped, and suffered from split leadership and a lack of good communications. The US Navy in particular suffered from pre-war parsimony - a new torpedo that could have made a real difference if it had worked hadn't been properly tested, at least in part because the Navy wasn't willing to spend the money needed for live firing tests. The Mk 14 Torpedo, when first issued, ran too deep, either detonated early or not at all, and sometimes turned back on its own launch vessel (one of the few flaws with the text is the failure to follow this story to its end - I would have liked a section discussing what the problems were and how they were eventually solved). The text is littered with occasions where US submarines got into position for damaging attacks but recorded no hits. A similar problem affected the essential 5in anti-aircraft ammo, much of which proved to be too old and defective, once again due to a low budget.
The author of this book is very fair-minded, especially when looking at the key Dutch admirals who often get a bad press. Here their performance is judged rather more fairly. Given the disparity of resources available to the two sides, there really wasn't much they could have done - the Japanese committed large parts of their fleet, including four of their best carriers and number of battleships, to the operation, along with sizable air groups. In contrast the Allies were fighting with a limited number of often outdated warships and a tiny handful of aircraft. The author recognises that, and as a result doesn’t indulge in the normal attempts to assign blame.
This is a quite brilliant account of this desperate doomed campaign, well researched, well written and well balanced.
1 - On the Day Before
2 - Just a Little More Time
3 - Breakdown
4 - Finding Trouble
5 - Shooting at Venus
6 - Slapped Together
7 - Luck - the Battle of Balikpapan
8 - Bloody Shambles
9 - Can't Catch a Break - the Battle of the Flores Sea
10 - A Thousand Cuts
11 - Too Clever by Half - The Battle of Badoeng Strait
12 - No Breath to Catch - Preliminaries to the Battle of the Java Sea
13 - Nerk Nerk Nerk - The Sinking of the Langley
14 - One Shell - Day Action of the Battle of the Java Sea
15 - A Turn Too Far - The Second Part of the Battle of the Java Sea
16 - A Hopeless Plan - The Escape from Java
17 - Dancing in the Dark - The Battle of Soenda Strait
18 - Nowhere to Run - The Second Battle of the Java Sea
19 - To the Winds - Escape Attempts from Java
20 - Aftermath - Not Quite Vanquished
Author: Jeffrey R. Cox