The Short, Tragic Life of ABDACOM

When top American and British military leaders met in Washington for the ARCADIA conference in December 1941, one of their immediate tasks was to organize the remaining American, British, Dutch, and Australian military forces in the Pacific for a defense of the resource-rich Dutch East Indies. This new command was organized on the fly, with the Dutch and Australians not even present to take part in the discussions that led to the creation of ABDACOM. With the British in overall command under Sir Archibald Wavell, the naval chief was American, the air chief was British, and the Dutch commanded the ground force as well as the combined naval striking force. Each nation represented in ABDACOM held different ideas about which islands were most important to defend. These disagreements, combined with the split command structure, ensured that ABDACOM would never succeed in mounting a coordinated defense of the area assigned to it. 

ABDACOM’s modest fighting power was concentrated in the Combined Striking Force (CSF) consisting of two Dutch cruisers, two American cruisers, and four destroyers from each navy. This small surface fleet was hopelessly outnumbered by the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN). Since the U.S. had lost two-thirds of its front-line aircraft in the opening hours of the war, the ships of ABDACOM were forced to operate against an enemy that enjoyed air supremacy over the entire theater of operations. The appearance of the Zero fighter came as a surprise to the Allies since the Japanese had been careful to keeping their new military equipment out of public view. The Zero’s incredible range allowed Japanese pilots to launch surprise raids that destroyed Allied aircraft on the ground, all while operating at a safe distance from enemy bases.

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HNMLS De Ruyter, one of two Dutch light cruisers assigned to ABDACOM

When the old U.S. Asiatic Fleet was subsumed into ABDACOM, it contributed its twenty-nine submarines to the new command’s striking power. Many were of the most recent designs and could have posed a threat to both Japanese naval power and merchant shipping. Their lethality was severely compromised by the well-known problems experienced with the Mark 14 torpedo. In addition, the crews had received little training in long-range patrolling and were simply not ready to conduct a sustained campaign against enemy shipping.

Fighting without radar or search planes, the CSF was effectively First World War fleet trying to stop a Second World War enemy. It first saw action attacking an invasion convoy off Balikpapan. Conditions were perfect for the attackers with the Japanese caught unloading and without escort. However, the ABDA ships launched their torpedoes too far out and suffered a high dud rate. Their efforts held up Japanese progress by only one day.

When the CSF tried to disrupt operations in the Makassar Strait, three of its cruisers suffered severe damage from air attacks and inflicted no damage. On February 15th, the same day that Singapore fell, Admiral Karel Doorman tried to launch an attack against Japanese landings at Palembang. Carrier aircraft arrived to disperse the CSF, and he was forced to call off the operation.

USS Pope (DD-225) under attack at the Battle of the Java Sea

For the final assault on Java, the IJN had one light and four fleet carriers, four battleships, and eight cruisers supported by numerous light cruisers and destroyers. After sinking the old American carrier Langley that was trying to bring much-needed aircraft to the defenders at Surabaya, the Japanese destroyed almost half of the CSF with minimal loss. Their superiority in torpedo attacks and night fighting helped carry the day. Wavell had already closed his headquarters and flown to Ceylon two days before the Battle of the Java Sea. At that point, ABDACOM formally ceased to exist.

Rob Doane


Naval War College Museum


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