The fall of Singapore, a city of more than 500,000, on 15 February 1942, to a Japanese force half the size of that defending Malaya, drove the British back to Burma and into Ceylon and the Indian Ocean. Singapore, an island connected to Johore, Malaya, by a short causeway, had been the symbol of British authority in Malaya and Malaya’s administrative, political, and economic center. Now, however, it was made part of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.
Banka, an island 138 miles long and 62 miles wide, then supplied over ten percent of the world’s tin. Lying as it does a short distance northeast of the south tip of Sumatra, it’s occupation was essential both for ” the attack on Batavia and for an invasion of Palembang and southeast Sumatra.
Sumatra was a prize because of its rich oil fields. It is a long rather narrow island, covered with lush jungle and infested with disease-an inhospitable land. The Japanese made their initial assault on Palembang, the center of one of the world’s richest oil deposits, in order to obtain desperately needed oil and drive the Allied forces out of southeast Sumatra, from which the Japanese could invade west Java unimpeded. There was oil also in the northwest part of the island, but it was still relatively unexploited. Northeast Sumatra, separated from the west coast of Malaya by the Malacca Strait, would be a buffer to Malaya if the English ever tried to return, and it lay along most of the sea routes to Burma.
The four days 12-15 February saw as wild a scene of confusion as war can bring, in the area of Singapore through the Bangka Strait to Palembang, Sumatra. The orderly Japanese table of organization for the occupation of Bangka-Palembang went to pieces, as a variety of factors left every ship and squadron on its own. ABDA intelligence reported that the first convoy in anew Japanese occupation force left Camranh Bay on 9 February. Admiral Ozawa’s powerful Southern expeditionary Fleet followed the next day, and on the 11 February an even larger convoy of transports sailed under escort. Obviously the attack would be directed at Palembang, Sumatra, since it held over half of the Netherlands East Indies oil reserves.
General Wavell, as defender of Singapore and the ABDA region, was ina desperate plight, for Singapore was falling, and Sumatra was threatened. On 11 February, he ordered Admiral Doorman’s strike force to assemble west of Java. When these orders were received, the strike force was south of Bali, some 800 miles away. Doorman, however, at once ordered his ships to assemble north of Sundra Strait; he would try with his small force to save Palembang.
In Singapore, thousands of people finally realized that the impossible was going to happen-the city was about to fall to the Japanese. Fleeing civilians and high-ranking government officials (civil and military) all crowded onto almost anything that could float. If they could not go directly to Java and then Australia, they headed instead to Sumatra, hoping that by overland they could find unoccupied ports from which they could reach Australia. Bangka Strait, the main route to Sumatra or Java, became crowded with fleeing ships for the next three days. But Admiral Ozawa’s force was also in Bangka Strait, and the air was filled with Japanese planes. To add to the confusion, the Bangka-Palembang Occupation Force was coming through this melee. Thus most of the ships trying to escape Singapore were brutally massacred.
Admiral Doorman sailed into this confusion on 14 February, from a rendezvous north of Sunda Strait. His hastily gathered force contained the light cruiser De Ruyter (Flagship), his two other light cruisers, the Java and the Tromp; the British heavy cruiser Exeter, and the light cruiser Hobart; the Dutch destroyers Banckert, Kirtenaer, Van Nes, Van Ghent and the American destroyers Bulmer, Barker, Parrott, Stewart, Pope, and John D. Ford. Misfortune struck almost at once, when the Van Ghent hit an uncharted reef at Stolze Strait, off Bandka and sank. The Banckert was detached from the force to rescue the survivors.
Admiral Ozawa knew by dawn of 15 February that the ABDA force was approaching. He ordered his main convoys dispersed, and ordered continuous strikes by planes from the Ryujo and from the well-stocked Japanese airfields. He then prepared for an engagement with any remaining ABDA Command ships. Japanese high-level bombing of Doorman’s fleet was ineffective, with only slight damage inflicted on two American destroyers by near misses, despite continuous bombing, during the entire day.
Admiral Doorman however was realistic, and in the afternoon he ordered a retirement, preferring not to risk an encounter with Ozawa’s dangerous force in the Bangka Strait. However, the Van Nes, still in the area picking up surviving escapees, was sunk off Bangka Strait on 17 February by Japanese bombers. The retirement of Doorman’s strike force meant the loss of Bangka and Palembang, both fell 15 February, and the Dutch and British defenders retreated to Java, with out fully demolishing their oil fields and refineries. There was no opposition left in southeast Sumatra, thus Java was blocked in from the west.
SOURCE: Battle History of the Imperial Japanese Navy 1941-45; BY: Paul S. Dull