The ABDA Fleet in WWII

The American-British-Dutch-Australian Fleet

The military success of Japan in December 1941 and early 1942 shocked the Allies…. the bombing of Singapore, the attack on Pearl Harbour, the invasion of Malaya and the Philippines, the take-over of Hong Kong and the sinking of HMS Repulse and Prince of Wales, the capture of the American base at Wake Island, the closure of the Burma Road through to China… the losses  kept mounting up. The Japanese Army and Navy  were supported by long-range aircraft which were fast and manouverable. Their ships were armed with the most lethal torpedoes  in the world, the ‘long lance’ which was more accurate and twice as fast as the American equivalent. The Japanese fighter plane, the ‘Zero’ was fast with good range and a dog-fighter to match the Allies fabled ‘Spitfire’.

However the  Japanese also had some serious strategic deficiencies to overcome… they had to import nearly all their raw materials. But now they now had access to coal and lumbar, they also needed rubber and oil which they could obtain from the ‘Dutch East Indies’ such as Burma, Java, Sumatra, and today’s Indonesia.

The Allies scrambled to put together their  few forces left in the area. The Dutch of course were occupied by the Nazis, England was primarily looking to the war against Germany, Australia had many of its troops fighting in the Far East or soon-to-be POWs of the Japanese and the American ground troops were trapped in Bataan. But the four countries were determined to resist the Japanese and, on 10 January 1942,  put together the American-British-Dutch-Australian Command…. this was the first attempt at combined Allied headquarters encompassing land, sea and air forces.

The territory they were to cover was huge, from the Indian-Burmese border in the west, east to New Guinea, north to Formosa and some Japanese islands and south to Australia. It included places already lost like Hong-Kong and Indo-China and there were current battlefields such as the Philippines, Burma, Thailand, Malaya and Singapore.

Basically all that ABDA command had to send in to battle were a few ships.

The Dutch Rear Admiral Karel Doorman  was the overall commander of the fleet.  Each Navy had a different language, different flags and signals, different training methods so coordination would be a challenge.

Their biggest challenge however was the Japanese fleet, fast aircraft carriers with scout planes and Zeros. On 19 February the Japanese were seen near Bali and the same day they launched their attack against Darwin killing close to 250 people.

By 27 February the ABDA force spotted part of the Japanese fleet which was bigger and had better armaments, but the Allied ships  still sailed to attack. HMS Exeter was damaged and had to withdraw, Kortenaur was hit by a torpedo and sunk,  as was  Electra. HMAS Jupiter blew up in a minefield, the Dutch cruisers were sunk and with them Admiral Doorman.  Exeter and her two destroyer escorts were attacked from the air and all were sunk, USS Houston and HMAS Perth tried to escape to Australia but met up with the Japanese Western Force landing fleet. Rather than try to quietly slip past the two Allied ships charged into the landing zone and attacked, causing serious damage to the Japanese fleet before they too were sunk.

Very few sailors survived the ABDA attacks, only 4 old American destroyers managed to limp to port in Australia to report the losses.

References:

Douglas Niles, “The valiant and violent story of the ABDA Fleet, Pacific, February 1942” in “How to lose a war at sea”  Bill Fawcett (editor),  New York, Harper Collins / William Morrow, 2013, pp 148-157.

Colin Smith, “Singapore Burning”, London, Penguin, 2005, pp 288-90.

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