Timor, the largest and Most southeasterly of the Lesser Sunda Islands, belonged partly to Portugal and partly to the Dutch. The Portuguese capital was Dili, and the Dutch capital was Kupang. Most of the population was primitive, and Timor contained little in the way of needed resources; but, just as Bali had been a staging area for large ABDA plane reinforcements to Java, Timor was the only staging area for short range ANDA fighter planes. Although a flight from Timor to Java was longer than one from Bali, Timor was the only place in the Lesser Sunda Islands within fighter-plane range of Australia. That marked it for invasion by the Japanese, because it’s possession would destroy the fighter-plane support for Java’s defenders.
The troops carried in fourteen transports, one carrying paratroopers, landed on 20 February. The paratroopers were landed, and after the airfield was captured, they were picked up by landing planes and dropped over Kupand. Both jurisdictions of the island were fully under Japanese control by 24 February, despite fierce resistance by ABDA forces. The Portuguese had some troops en route to defend Dili, but the Japanese arrived before them. Cut off effectively from Australia at all points, Java was about to be forced to fight alone for it’s existence–the eastern pincer on Java had been established.
Simultaneously with the Eastern Force’s southward sweep Admiral Takahashi sent his Central Invasion Force from Davao to capture Dutch Borneo, to assist his Eastern Force if necessary, and then to wait to invade east Java–the invasion timed to take place when Admiral Ozawa would be able to cover the invasion of west Java.
Tarakan Island is isolated on the east coast of Borneo, just south of what was British Borneo. The Japanese wanted it because of it’s rich oil fields, and because its capture would provide a base and airfield from which Japanese forces could be covered in their next advance. Tarakan was defended by a Dutch garrison of 1,300 men.
The Tarakan Invasion Force sailed from Davao on 7 January 1942. En route, it was bombed without result by three of Air ANDA’s B-17’s based in Java. The speed of Japanese operations had made it impossible for ANDA Command to position intercepting submarines. By the after noon of 10 January the convoy, with fourteen transports carring Army and Marine troops, was just off Tarakan Island. The Dutch garrison commander, on his on initiative, immediately set fire to the Tarakan’s oil fields and sabotaged it’s airfield. At 2400, the landing troops began a double envelopment, and on the morning of 12 January the small Dutch garrison at Tarakan surrendered, facing overwhelming odds, without any hope of reinforcements. Dutch planes attacked the invaders on 13 and 14 January, further damaging Tarakan’s airfield. But by 17 January, Japanese Navy’s 23rd Air Flotilla was using a repaired Tarakan airfield as its headquarters.
The next targets, which would put all of Borneo in Japanese hands, were the port of Balikpapan and the island settlement of Banjarmasin, both of which had oil fields. The Japanese had begun gathering a Balikpapan Occupation Force at Tarakan, and had ordered the Balikpapan authorities to surrender their oil fields, and installations un-sabotaged. The invasion ships had only intermittent air cover because foul weather; however, because of the weather, and scarcity of ABDA planes, they were not attacked until they arrived off Balipapan. As fifteen transports prepared to anchor 23 January, great columns of fire and smoke covered the Balikpapan oil fields. The local Dutch commander had not heeded the Japanese order.
Admiral Shoji Nishimura, the escort commander, was to have a busy afternoon and night. First, beginning at 5125, the convoy was attacked by three B-17’s flying from Surabaja; the transports Tatsugami Maru and Nana Maru were hit and damaged. Nevertheless, anchorage was made at 1945 on 23 January, and the troops were landed, screened by the light cruiser Naka and he squadron of destroyer’s. Despite Nishimura’s screen, the Dutch submarine K-XVIII torpedoed and sank the transport Tsuruga Maru, around 2400. The night was dark with thunderclouds, and Nishimura’s primary concern was additional submarine attacks; he certainly was not expecting an attack by ABDA surface ships.
Naval Battle off Balikpapan
The threat to Balikpapan, however, had caused considerable anxiety at ABDA Command. The American naval force at Timor under Vice Admiral W. A. Glassford, was available to contest the landings. It consisted of the light cruisers Boise, Marblehead, and the destroyers Pope (flagship), Parrott, John D. Ford, and Paul Jones. When ABDA Command first heard of the convoy headed south 20January, it ordered the American ships to sail at once to intercept and destroy the transports. But on the next day, Boise hit an uncharted reef and had to retire, while the Marblehead developed engine trouble and could only make 15 knots; she continued north, however in order to provide a rendezvous point for the returning destroyers. The four destroyers making 27 knots, headed for Balikpapan on a course which would bring them into the area at about 0000hrs, on a north-northwesterly course. The burning oil fields would silhouette a relatively unguarded transport force.
The American force, holding course in column, mad a parallel attacking run. In the first attack, from 0316 to 0325, three destroyers fired ten torpedoes at close range. None found a mark, or did not explode. The Americans had attacked quickly and boldly, and a more stealthy and calculated approach would probably have yielded better results. They were unaware, however of the precise location of Nishimura’s protecting force.
The destroyers reversed course to the south in a second more deliberate attack. At 0330, the Pope torpedoed the Sumanoura Maru, which immediately exploded and sank. The John D. Ford used main batteries at close range on the transports, and at 0345 she torpedoed and sank the Kuretake Maru. The last two destroyers in column, torpedoed and sank the Tatsugami Maru at 0335, and continuing south, they exchanged fire with two patrol boats. The Battle of Balikapapan was over at 0350.
With the first intimation of enemy action, Admiral Nishimura in the Naka had taken his destroyers even father away from the transports, to the east in an antisubmarine sweep. Such amove was understandable, for it must have seemed inconceivable to him that a hard-pressed ABDA navy would attack his large force with surface ships. His transports had already been attacked by at least two submarines, and he knew that ABDA had about forty, so his movement to the east was a proper antisubmarine tactic. This course, however, allowed the American force to slip in between Nishimura’s force and the transports. Such are the gambles of war.
The Japanese landed at Balikpapan in the early morning of 24 January. They were resisted by the Dutch garrison until the Dutch commanding officer received permission to withdraw his 200 men to an airfield at Ulin, 120 miles west of Samarinda. Realizing the Japanese would soon discover the new Dutch position, the Dutch commanding officer had already destroyed the nearby oil fields on 20 January, with drawn his troops, this time to Muaranmuntai. The Balikapan garrison was finally trapped there by the Japanese Army, and it surrendered 8 March.
The Japanese Troops, taken by barges from Balikpapan, disembarked 50 miles south-southeast of Bandjarmasin. From this point they marched overland to Bandjarmasin. Another column marched 160 miles overland, directly from Balikpapan. Bandjarmasin was captured on 16 February; by 28 January Air Flotilla 23 was operating from the Balikpapan airfield and by 23 February also from the Bandjarmasin airfield. The arc of air protection available to the Japanese Navy had been expanded by occupation of Borneo. The sea lanes for the Japanese attack on Singapore, Sumatra, and west Java were now protected by the occupation of Borneo and Malaya. The line of advance for the attack on east Java was secured by the seizure of the Celebes and the key islands in the Molucca Sea and Flores Sea.
SOURCE: Battle History of the Imperial Japanese Navy 1941-45; BY: Paul S. Dull