"Abandon Ship !"
The Sunda Strait Battle, February-March 1942


This battle was not at all like the battles that had been fought in the previous month, when there were organized squadrons with a general directive facing the enemy. This battle consisted of several of the bigger warships that had survived the Dutch East Indies Campaign and now tried to escape out of the trap before it closed. Unfortunately, none of these ships would succeed and all went down, usually with heavy loss of life.  


HMAS Perth and USS Houston in Tandjong Priok


These ships were there as a result of Admiral Doorman's final order in the Battle of the Java Sea. They arrived in the morning of February 28th, and immediately tried to obtain oil and ammunition. They could get the first, although not without effort, but ammunition, that they so badly needed, was not available. At this time, the Perth only had about 20 rounds per gun left, the Houston only 50 rounds. If they got into a fight, it was sure they wouldn't last long. They were battle-ready that night and left the harbour at about 1900 hours, and Captain Waller, the highest in rank, decided to sail directly to Sunda Strait, without making a curve around the invasion forces as Admiral Helfrich had ordered. This was the shortest way, but also the most dangerous. The Japanese had landed in Bantam Bay on the north coast of Java, at Merak in Sunda Strait and at Eretan Ewan, east of Tandjong Priok. The two allied cruisers had to deal with the escorting squadron, which was devided into three groups: One was of the invasion force for Merak and consisted of the light cruiser Yura and four destroyers, the second was the invasion force at Bantam Bay and consisted of 1 cruiser and 11 destroyers and finally, the support group in the Java Sea, with the light carrier Ryujo, the heavy cruisers Mogami, Mikuma, Kumano and Suzuya. Mikuma and Mogami were cruising very close to the landing site in Bantam Bay. There was also an invasion force at Eretan Ewan, but that one took no part in the final destruction of the Allied ships. The Perth and Houston, as said, sailed at top speed directly to Sunda Strait and encountered at about 22.30 the Japanese destroyer Fubuki, which guarded the Eastern approaches. She fired her 9 Long Lance torpedos at about 3000 yards and retreated. The cruisers now saw the invasion force in the Bantam Bay and fired on the several dozen transports there. At that time, there were two destroyers in the bay and those immediately tried to make smoke screens to protect the transports. Nevertheless, the Allied cruisers scored hits on the transports, but no ship was sunk. At this time, stronger Japanese forces were closing in on the small squadron, but the only result was hits on Japanese warships and none on the Allied. This was soon to change. Japanese destroyers fired about 28 torpedoes, of which luckily none was a hit. The Perth and Houston replied with rapid gunfire and in the case of Perth, also torpedoes, and managed to score several hits on the destroyers, but were themselves also slightly damaged by gunfire. But the heavy cruisers Mogami and Mikuma arrived at the battle. Their 8 inch shells stradled the Perth and Houston and they also fired torpedoes. At about 23.20, the allied cruisers were out of ammo and now could only hope to reach safer waters by high speed. Japanese torpedoes were flying all over the place, and scored one hit on Perth, later followed by another two. This resulted in heavy loss of life, especially in engineering. Waller ordered 'abandon ship', but the Perth received her fourth hit, which was too much for her. She sank and took half the crew with her. By this time, the Houston had also received several hits, including vital hits. A whole gun salvo hit the aft engine room where the high pressure steam killed almost everyone. The central fire control system was down along with one of the forward 8 inch-turrets. At about 00.20, the last operational turret was hit and Captain Rooks ordered the forward magazines flooded. Without the heavy guns, she now fought a useless battle. But she still had her 5-inch guns and her machineguns and continued the fight. At about 00.30 three torpedoes hit the Houston on her starboard side. The water entered the ship from all sides and Rooks ordered 'abandon ship'. Captain Rooks died when he was hit by a part of a machinegun foundation. He died in the arms of his officers. Commander Roberts noticed that the Houston still had a lot of speed and decided to delay abandoning the ship. The guns were still firing at this time, but the ship was lying dead in the water and the Japanese destroyers took the decks under fire with their machineguns. The Houston sank and took two thirds of its crew with her. Only about 368 of a crew of over a 1000 were taken prisoner.


Australian light cruiser Perth

Australian light cruiser (HMAS) Perth


US heavy cruiser Houston (CA-30)

"The Galloping Ghost of The Java Coast"
USS heavy cruiser Houston (CA-30)



The Evertsen is sunk by own crew


The Evertsen had joined the Western Striking force in her sweep in the direction of Banka Strait, but had lost sight of it on the way back. She returned to Tandjong Priok and awaited orders. She saw the Perth and Houston leave Tandjong Priok and received from the Perth the order "Take station one mile ahead of me". At that time, Evertsen didn't have engine power and couldn't follow the order, and had to leave an hour after the Perth and Houston did. She officially received orders from Helfrich to escort Perth and Houston, but both of the cruisers were nowhere to be seen. She set course for Sunda strait, trying to catch up with them. After several hours, she saw star shells light up and tracers flying all over the place. The captain decided not to get involved in this and to try to get around the fighting ships and pass Sunda Strait. All went well until the island Dwars in de Weg. She encountered two ships at high speed and thought it to be the Perth and Houston, but one of them turned on a search light and opened fire. Evertsen altered course away from the ships and managed to lose them. The captain decided to try again, but now on a more easterly course. After re-entering Sunda Strait, she again encountered the two ships. These ships, the destroyers Murakumo and Shirakumo, who were on patrol to protect to southern flank of the Bantam Bay landing site, immediately opened fire which was very well aimed from the beginning. The Evertsen only had two of her three boilers working, since the captain found it to be too dangerous to also use the third one, because of the smoke it would cause. The Evertsen laid a smokescreen and altered course away from the Japanese. The firing stopped when she was no longer in sight, but she had received no less than 7 hits in a very small amount of time. One of them had caused a fire on the stern which the fire brigade couldn't extinguish and one hit the forward boiler room, so speed was reduced. The Evertsen tried to escape by taking a course very close to Sumatra, but the Japanese destroyers closed in again and opened fire again. The fire control system was down, the fire was reaching one of the magazines, which couldn't be flooded and the crew was untrained. All of this led to the decision to beach the ship on a coastal reef near Seboekoe Besar. The torpedoes were fired and the secret codes thrown overboard. From there the crew escaped to land and when the fire reached the aft magazine, it exploded and blew off most of the stern. Most of her crew were taken prisoner on March 9 or 10 1942. Some small groups left the island to go to Sumatra, but most of them disappeared without a trace or were massacred. The captain died as a POW in April.


Aftermath


The battle of Sunda Strait was an unknown one for most of the war. The crews of the ships were taken prisoner and initially, the allies had no idea what happened to them. Only of the Evertsen was known she was beached, as she signalled it to Helfrich, but of the Perth and Houston, no such signal went out. Only the fact that several years later a Japanese transport with Australian survivors of the Perth was torpedoed, and the Australians rescued, shed some light over what happened to the Perth. There was no account of what happened to Houston at that time.


USS destroyer Pope, Sunda Strait, March 1942

USS destroyer Pope, being sunk by gunfire from Japanese heavy cruisers, 1 March 1942.


The battle of Sunda Strait is one that symbolizes the whole Netherlands East Indies campaign. It was a battle of struggle against a superior enemy and with the same outcome: the destruction of the allies. The Japanese didn't suffer much damage: no ships were sunk except those by their own hands: a minesweeper was hit by a torpedo from heavy cruiser Mogami and was blown to pieces, along with a transport ship, the Sakura Maru. Three other transports were damaged by their own side's torpedoes. Again, the Imperial Japanese Navy triumphed over the Allied navies in a battle, but it would be one of her last.


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Copyright Jan Visser 1999-2000
Forgotten Campaign: The Dutch East Indies Campaign 1941-1942

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