Java Sea AAR
VAdm Helfrich (RNN) was on the bridge of his Mackensen class battle cruiser HrMs De Seven Provincien heading due north at 20 knots. The other two ships of the class, HrMs Amsterdam and HrMs Rotterdam were in line astern of his flagship. RAdm Staveren’s (RNN) cruiser squadron was in column following the battle squadron with the cruisers; HrMs De Ruyter (flag), HrMs Java, HrMs Sumatra and HrMs Tromp. RAdm Doorman in HrMs Jacob van Heemskerck (DesFlot Leader) was following the cruisers with his third DesDiv. of four Callenburgh class destroyers; HrMs Isaac Sweers (leader), HrMs Gerard Callenburgh, HrMs Tjerk Hiddes and HrMs Phillips van Almonde. The first and second DesDivs. of the DesFlot in columns to his starboard and port respectively.
The Dutch had seen during WWI how the Japanese snatched up all the German colonies they could. The Government decided to pay more heed to its Admirals’ warnings about Japanese intentions towards the Dutch East Indies colonies. The Dutch realized they could never match the Japanese ship for ship and looked for some way to slow the Japanese down until the Royal Navy and the Americans could intervene. They decided they needed capital ships that were stronger than the Kongo class and faster than the Japanese battleships. They approached Germany in late 1919 about the three Mackensen class battle cruisers that had been launched but not completed. Germany was only too happy to sell the Mackensen’s rather than scrap them at their own expense. But the Dutch had to get past the French. They consulted with the Americans and the British and got them to agree to the deal provided the Germans did not arm the ships. The ships were towed to Britain and completed there with British 13.5” guns. They were reboilered and converted to oil firing. But the Dutch did more. They ponied up the money to refit the Java class pending replacement and those ships were in much better condition than they were historically. The Dutch also accelerated their ship building with both the Tromp class Flotilla Leaders and Callenburgh class destroyers being completed before May 1940 (barely). The Endratch class cruisers (the Java class’s replacements) were also much farther along. They had been launched and were towed to Britain in May 1940, but they were still not complete.
The attack on Pearl Harbor and the sinking of HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse meant that the Dutch had the only capital ships in the newly formed ABDA. VAdm Helfrich was thus able to resist integrating the Dutch Fleet into ABDA commands not under Dutch officers. He had been holding his fleet south of Java during the day to avoid Japanese LBA while he bided his time waiting for a chance to strike at the Japanese.
But his moment had never come. The Japanese moved too fast and now it was late February and a Japanese invasion convoy aimed at Surabaya was steaming south through the Makassar Strait. VAdm Helfrich took his fleet through the Sunda Strait to intercept. The Dutch had maneuvered towards Surabaya and then turned north. They had beaten off attacks by LBA several times, so Helfrich knew his approach was no surprise.
The visibility was about 20,000 yards with no squalls or sea haze. The wind was Force 2 from the north. But the afternoon was passing swiftly. At 1600 hours the lookout spotted ships ahead and Helfrich ordered the spotter a/c launched. A column of capital ships was dead ahead heading south with destroyers to either flank and other ships behind. Helfrich ordered a 90 degree turn to starboard to bring his BCs broadsides to bear and 30 knots.
A moment later came flashes on the horizon; HrMs De Seven Provincien and HrMs Amsterdam answered (HrMs Rotterdam had not yet turned). Two four shell salvos landed near Provincien and Amsterdam respectively and one shell struck Provincien on her belt causing minor damage that did not affect her speed.
VAdm Helfrich could see that the two leading Japanese battleships (He believed they were Kongo class) had turned sharply to port (his POV) and had unmasked their broadsides. He also saw that they had at least one DesDiv to either flank and the destroyers had moved closer to the Dutch then their battleships were. The Japanese destroyers were making funnel smoke and it appeared that they would cover the Japanese battleships within minutes.
It appeared to VAdm Helfrich that the Japanese would try and close the range behind cover of smoke. VAdm Helrich did not want a close fight. He wanted to fight the fight with his BCs at ranges over 15,000 yards. He needed to shelter his cruisers as they were no match for the Japanese heavy cruisers, he was sure were present. It was obvious the Japanese had no intention of offering him the fight he wanted. But two could play the smoke game.
VAdm Helfrich ordered his BCs to turn away to stay outside 15,000 yards. He would have RAdm Doorman’s DesFlot lay smoke perpendicular to the Japanese line of advance. He would have the entire DesFlot within 4,500 yards of the smoke and RAdm Staveren’s cruiser squadron within 9,000 yards of the smoke screen. VAdm Helfrich’s battle squadron would try to get over 15,000 yards from the smoke screen.
The concept was that any Japanese ship poking its nose through the smoke screen would be smothered in shell fire and torpedoes. Meanwhile the Dutch BCs would be in position to intervene if the Japanese battleships or their heavy cruisers came through or around the smoke screen.
VAdm Helfrich realized that both he and the Japanese Admiral had the same problem. What they wanted to strike was on the far side of each force. Neither had the speed advantage needed to get around the other. The first side to penetrate the other’s smoke screen would probably be severely punished for their aggression. But VAdm Helfrich had an additional problem; time was not on his side and night fall was less than four hours away.
The Japanese made no attempt to breach his smoke screen but had turned due west. Every time the Dutch tried to get in range with their BCs the Japanese covered themselves in smoke. Then the Japanese reversed course to due east using the same tactics. It was clear they intended to wait on nightfall. If the Japanese veered towards the Dutch behind their smoke the Dutch recreated their smoke screen and the Japanese backed off. As night fell, the Dutch turned back 135 degrees to the NNW to try and silhouette the Japanese against the setting sun. But the Japanese just turned south behind their smoke. That forced the Dutch to turn south also.
By this point both sides spotter a/c had a good look at what their parent ships were up against. The Dutch pilots had reported four Kongo class battleships, four heavy cruisers, two light cruisers and at least sixteen destroyers. That the Japanese out numbered them was no surprise to Helfrich.
It was now full dark. The moon state was full. VAdm Helfrich estimated that his ships could see about 16,000 yards. That would have to do. He ordered the Fleet to turn 45 degrees to port to close the Japanese at an angle.
To be continued