On December 8, 1941, an Allied naval officer might reasonably have thought to himself “It’s not that bad.Really, could be worse.” The United States Navy (USN) could still pack a punch, and it could rely on assistance from the Royal Navy, the Royal Dutch Navy, and the Commonwealth navies.
Over the next three months the Japanese would take advantage of Allied confusion at every level to win a series of devastating victories over Allied naval forces. The Battle of Java Sea, fought on February 27, 1942, marked the high tide of Japanese naval power in the Pacific. Poor organization, strategic confusion, inter-service competition, and national infighting doomed an Allied task force to destruction at the hands of the Imperial Japanese Navy, opening the door to the conquest of Java and the rest of Southeast Asia. Indeed, the Battle of Java Sea is the nightmare that American naval planners have when they hear terms like “offshore balancing.”
The World of December 8, 1941
The United States Navy remained potent. At Oahu, five American battleships lay sunk or aground, but the port facilities at Pearl Harbor remained in good condition, and the aircraft carriers of the Pacific Fleet had avoided damage. Three battleships escaped with only light damage, with a fourth undergoing regular maintenance in the Puget Sound. Three fast carriers, twelve heavy cruisers, eight light cruisers, and fifty destroyers remained ready for action, a force which could potentially cause huge problems for the Japanese. Reinforcements were on the way; USS Yorktown would join the Pacific Fleet in late December, with USS Hornet arriving in March. Other ships were forward deployed; the Asiatic Fleet included one heavy cruiser, two light cruisers, and thirteen destroyers.
From its bases in Singapore and Colombo, the Royal Navy also remained in fighting shape. The most powerful surface unit in the Pacific was HMS Prince of Wales, the fast battleship that six months earlier had inflicted the mission-killing blow on the German Bismarck. Support for Prince of Wales included the old battlecruiser Repulse, four light cruisers and five destroyers. Much more help was on the way. Two fast and one slow carriers would arrive in Ceylon in the months after Pearl Harbor. Jutland veteran HMS Warspite was working up in the Puget Sound at the time of the Japanese strike. By March, the Eastern Fleet would include four Revenge class battleships, seven cruisers, and sixteen destroyers. The loss of Prince of Wales and Repulse on an ill-conceived mission to intercept Japanese forces invading Malaya severely dented, but did not destroy, British naval power in the Far East.
The local navies also contributed. The Royal Australian Navy possessed two heavy cruisers, three light cruisers, and five old destroyers, and New Zealand could contribute another light cruiser. Finally, the Dutch defended their vast possessions with three light cruisers, seven destroyers, and a number of smaller warships.
Against this, the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) could marshal six fleet and four light carriers, ten battleships, eighteen heavy cruisers, twenty light cruisers, and 126 destroyers. The Japanese had certain advantages; while their ships weren’t necessarily any newer, the IJN had a more casual attitude towards treaty compliance than either the United States or the United Kingdom. The Japanese also trained rigorously at night warfare, and displayed excellent gunnery skills at all times. Finally, the Japanese Type 93 (“Long Lance”) torpedo could strike targets at longer range and with greater punch than Allied torpedoes.