THE BANKA ISLAND ATTEMPT16
During this conference it was learned that a Japanese expedition was coming from the Molucca Sea around the southeast corner of Celebes near Bouton Island. Its destination was not clear, but Admiral Hart believed it might be heading for Bandjermasin, chief city of southeast Borneo, or even eastern Java. He saw that if the enemy attempted either of these moves we must make at least a night attack, and Admiral
Doorman was ordered to make plans and get his fleet in readiness. The plan was to assemble southwest of Bali, and our ships began to leave port at once. But the enemy expedition moved only around the south of Celebes to take Makassar on the southwest coast, and there was no opportunity to strike.
As a matter of fact, we were faced with a dilemma. The Japanese were now closing in on Java from both sides and we had scarcely the strength to stop either arm of the envelopment. In Burma the Japs took Martaban on the 11th, thus turning the flank of the Salween line and forcing the British to withdraw to the Bilin River, which offered a much less favorable line of defense. The Japanese were already on Singapore Island, and there were indications that they would not wait for its fall before moving on Sumatra or attacking Java from the northwest. On February 5th a large force was sighted in the Anambas Islands northeast of Singapore, and on the 7th a convoy was reported near Banka Island, east of southern Sumatra.
While this danger appeared in the west, the situation on the east was no less threatening. The Japanese now controlled southern Celebes. They were known to have built up an important base at Kendari and to have considerable air power based there. From that region they could attack Bali, Madoera or eastern Java directly.
In which direction should we turn our striking force? Where was the enemy likely to move first? Bad weather or enemy air opposition interfered with our reconnaissance at this critical juncture and so delayed this important decision. Meanwhile the Japanese were making good use of their positions, bombing Port Moresby, Koepang, and other cities. Soerabaja was bombed repeatedly, and Batavia received its initiation in aerial bombing on the 9th.
As it turned out, the Japanese advanced about simultaneously in east and west. On the 11th they converged on Bandjermasin and 2 days later claimed to have taken it. On the 14th, the day before Singapore surrendered but when its fate was already sealed, they opened their attack on Palembang in southeast Sumatra. This region was a valuable prize indeed, as it produced more than half the oil of the Indies. The Dutch repulsed the first attack by paratroops, but the following day, while Singapore was falling in the north, the Japanese brought in their infantry, seemingly from the convoy which had been waiting in the Anambas Islands. The Dutch were overwhelmed and could only fire their wells
and tanks before the area passed to the enemy. At the same time it was learned that another enemy convoy was on the move from Balikpapan.
On the 13th, as soon as the enemy's intentions became clear, Admiral Doorman's little striking force jumped off to meet the threat to Palembang.
Although he did not have the American cruisers, De Ruyter and Tromp had been reinforced by the British heavy cruiser Exeter and the Australian light cruiser Hobart There were six American17 and several British destroyers, in addition to the Dutch. That gave him a total of four good cruisers with adequate destroyer support, and he was told that "he should consider the advisability of an attack upon enemy expeditions by day as well as by night in view of the considerably increased power of his force."
On the way northwest the Dutch destroyer Van Ghent ran aground and was lost. Banckert remained behind to take off her crew, but the rest of the force reached the area northeast of Banka Island on the night of February 13th-14th. It was 24 hours too late. The Japanese were already in Banka Strait and were advancing up the river. On the 14th our ships were bombed repeatedly. They escaped any serious damage, although the Hobart was straddled and two of our destroyers, Barker and Bulmer, were somewhat shaken up by near hits. Admiral Doorman did not dare rush the straits, particularly with the enemy in complete control of the air. Bright moonlight precluded any surprise by night, and there seemed no point in remaining to be bombed again by day. Consequently he retired to Batavia on the morning of the 15th without having accomplished anything.
16 Also described as the Gaspar Strait action.
17 There is no official report, but it appears that the American destroyers participating in this action were Stewart, Barker, Bulmer, Pillsbury, Parrott, and John D. Edwards.