Thus by the end of December our Navy had been compelled to abandon the Philippines. The few small craft which remained there


assisted in the defense of Bataan. The Conopus continued to do excellent work in spite of bombings in which she was hit; one of the gunboats assisted in blasting out a dangerous enemy force which landed behind our Army's lines; and the PT Boats rendered extremely valuable service in spite of constantly increasing difficulties of fuel and repairs. Our submarines continued some patrols in Philippine waters but there could no longer be any major naval activity in the north.

The Army's stubborn defense of Bataan, while it occupied a considerable number of the enemy for several months, could not, of course, prevent the Japanese from establishing bases in the Philippines for further conquest. Even before the end of December the Japanese were preparing bases at Davao (on Mindanao) and at Jolo (in the Sulu Archipelago) for their next attacks. On December 27th Patrol Wing TEN sent six PBY's north to attack shipping at Jolo, but Japanese fighters intercepted them and shot down four. Fortunately many of our men were saved. The yellow tide was rolling on, with only an eddy about Bataan, which still stood against it. Already our submarines were being forced to operate farther to the south in their attacks on enemy communications. But they were doing better. On January 7th Seawolf came into Soerabaja after having sunk four Japanese ships off Hainan, thus equaling the record of the most successful Dutch submarines.

Meanwhile our Navy was reorganizing in the south. The Navy and War Departments, correctly judging that the Malay Barrier might not remain secure, chose Port Darwin in Australia for development as a major base and our auxiliaries were sent there. Darwin's existing faclities were poor, its situation in some respects disadvantageous and exposed, and it was too far away for effective operations north of the Soenda chain. Therefore our operational command was set up at Soerabaja. The command post of our task force was already established in space supplied by the Dutch. Admiral Glassford remained in the Houston in command of the task force and Admiral Purnell, Chief of Staff, exercised a de facto fleet command. When Admiral Hart arrived on January 1st he added his establishment. Facilities were good except for radio, and our fleet personnel did well in remedying this deficiency rigging up apparatus from parts obtained from a variety of sources.

The Dutch Naval Command was in Batavia and Vice Admiral Conrad E. L. Helfrich urged Admiral Hart to join him there. However, with our prospective main base at Port Darwin and with a large pro-


portion of our ships engaged in convoying army ships through Torres Strait our "center of gravity" was in the east, and Soerabaja was better suited to our needs. Meanwhile it was learned that the British Far Eastern Command had left Singapore. While Admiral Layton and most of his staff were at Colombo awaiting reinforcements, a secondary command post was to be established in Batavia.

All these arrangements were overshadowed, however, by the question of a unified command. On January 10th Gen. Sir Archibald P. Wavell, R. A., arrived to take over the Supreme Command, for which he chose the title of ABDACOM. His staff organization was as follows:

Intendant General (and Deputy ABDACOM): Lt. Gen. George H. Brett, U.S.A.
Chief of Staff: Maj. Gen. Sir Henry R. Pownall, R. A.10
Intelligence: Col. Leonard F. Field, R. A.
Navy Operational Command: Admiral Thomas C. Hart, U. S. N.(ABDAFLOAT).
Chief of Staff:11 Rear Admiral Arthur P. E. Palliser, R. N.
Air Operational Command: Air Chief Marshal Sir Richard E. C. Peirse, RA.F.12 (ABDAIR).
Army Operational Command: Lt. Gen. Hein ter Poorten, N. E. I. A. (ABDARM).
Chief of Staff: Maj. Gen. Sir Ian S. Playfair, R. A.13

The next week or so was spent in organization of the new command. Consequently Admiral Hart was engaged in Batavia most of the time after January 9th and could visit the American operational base at Soerabaja only briefly. General Wavell formally took over his command on January 15th and 3 days later established his headquarters at a mountain resort hotel at Lembang, 10 miles north of Bandoeng. The site was chosen because it permitted dispersal and (it was hoped) offered some security from air attack. Its remoteness from the sea was some handicap for the naval command, but Admiral Hart agreed to join it in the interest of unity. Communications were far from adequate and remained so in spite of hard work for their improvement. To keep contact with American operations at Soerabaja Admiral Hart established at


Lembang an American radio and coding unit, which proved of tremendous value.

The machinery of a unified command was thus established, but the obstacles to its smooth working were tremendous. Admiral Hart indicated the nature of the difficulties: "ABDACOM had a very complicated command, involving four Army, four Navy and six Air organizations. Consequently there was a great deal to do in organizing and equipping a GHQ, which naturally required time. In the face of an advancing enemy there was, of course, not time. The command function had to be exercised; but we never reached a condition under which it could be so exercised that there would be certainty that information and clear directives would be transmitted with despatch." There was, too, the difference in language, always a handicap, even in such small ways as the inability of our officers to read Dutch charts and sailing instructions, which were superior to ours for Netherlands East Indies waters. Finally, beyond the major common interest, there were differences in national attitudes which made it difficult to frame our ultimate strategy. For instance, when the time came it was the natural and courageous determination of the Dutch to make a desperate, last ditch stand in Java. The British view was that it was more important to preserve our forces intact for a moment when they might be used to greater advantage. How could such views be reconciled?

The actual solution was that in fact each nation retained control of its own forces. Admiral Palliser was consulted when it was a question of using British ships, and Admiral Helfrich whenever Dutch forces were concerned. The sincere desire-and desperate necessity-for cooperation made this system work, but it was not a unified command in the strict sense.

The attention of the Supreme Command was focused on Malaya and Burma, where things were going badly. General Wavell was for some time absent from Lembang to visit Singapore and a second time to visit Rangoon. The British naval interest was chiefly in convoying troops to Singapore, in which the Dutch assisted. This work was necessary, but this employment of cruisers and destroyers of course prevented the creation of a striking force which might break up Japanese amphibious expeditions advancing from other directions. The Dutch were interested in convoying their own merchant shipping, but at the same time worked for the formation of a striking force.


The news that the Japanese, operating from Davao and Jolo, had taken Tarakan (Borneo) and Menado (Celebes) on January 11th served as a reminder that while one prong of the Japanese advance was threatening Singapore there was another equally dangerous to the east.

Japanese tactics were becoming clear. They depended heavily upon air power. After building up their force at some base, their planes proceeded to overcome Allied air opposition (when there was any) at the next point of attack. Sometimes this was done by seaplanes, sometimes by carrier planes, or, if the distance was not too great, by land-based planes. Then they sent down heavily loaded transports, keeping to shallow water and screening them heavily against submarines, and landed men and even heavy equipment without wharves. Generally the distance was too short to permit our naval forces to attack them en route. As soon as they were in control of the new area, they repaired the air field and set about gathering force for the next advance.

These tactics were well adapted to the nature of the Dutch East Indies. The absence of interior communications in most of the islands-outside Java and Sumatra there are only about 50 miles of railroad in the whole group, and very few roads-meant that it was necessary to seize only a few coastal points and to control the sea and air in their vicinity. Since the Japanese maintained the initiative it was simple for them to build up a local sea and air superiority for each move.

In one sense, air power was decisive. It was the Japanese air force which had virtually driven us from Manila 2 weeks before their ground force entered the city and which later made Soerabaja and Port Darwin untenable in the same manner. It was their air force which dogged our ships on passage and on occasion pounded our striking force before it could approach its objective. Our only really successful surface engagements were fought at night or when for some reason Japanese planes could not be present. Their planes gave them excellent intelligence of our movements and often denied us information of theirs. Admiral Hart was keenly aware of this and worked hard for closer cooperation of our air and naval forces, but it was never possible to plan an operation with air support.

To oppose Japanese air power we had some Army bombers based on Java, and a few fighters, in addition to the British and Dutch planes.

Our greatest weakness was in fighters, of which we never had enough adequately to protect our bases. Our Navy relied heavily on Captain


Wagner's Patrol Wing TEN. This group, flying their highly vulnerable PBY's, did magnificent work, but they led a hunted existence, dodging into clouds to escape Jap fighters while on mission, moving from place to place to escape destruction on the water at home. Only the mobility of our tenders made their continued operation possible.


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10 Formerly Commander in Chief in Malaya.

11 This position was first offered to Capt. van Staveren, Admiral Helfrich's Chief of Staff, but he could not be spared for it.

12 Air Marshal Peirse was in England, so that General Brett was in charge of air pending his arrival.

13 Formerly Chief of Staff to General Pownall in Malaya.

Last updated: June 12, 2002

Transcribed and formatted by Jerry Holden for the HyperWar Foundation