Australian British Dutch American (ABDA) Command

The rapid advance of the Japanese stunned even them. Their advance - formed by superior equipment, training, tactics, and in some cases, numbers - left the Allies confused and in disarray. Despite immediate setbacks such as Pearl Harbor and the destruction of the British Battleships and destroyers of Force Z, the Allies made immediate plans to organize their forces for a counterattack. First in London, and then in Java, the British and Dutch led efforts to organize the remaining combat units on land and sea into a joint command on January 3, 1942 under UK General Archibald Percival Wavell. They took their operational name, ABDA, from the first letter of each nation who had armed forces involved.

The immediate goal of Wavell was to hold Java and Malaya until help could arrive. Even before his area was expanded to include Burma, he had too little to defend too wide of an area. Both he and some of his staff officers were plagued with tactically outmoded thinking and racist underestimation of Japanese capability.

Despite a successful United States Navy action against Japanese transports off Borneo on January 24, 1942, that sank six supply vessels, ABDA units were unable to stop the fall of the oil fields there. With the fall of Singapore on February 15, 1942 rendered ABDA’s land defense objectives untenable. Wavell resigned his command of ABDA on February 25.

In February 1942, remaining elements of the Allied naval forces gathered to coordinate their defense of Java and try to stop the tide of the Japanese advance. Four navies, Australian, British, Dutch, and American, were gathered under the command of Dutch Admiral Karel Doorman. Throughout February-March 1942, Doorman and his command fought a series of battles that were never in the Allies' favor, and resulted in the destruction of ABDA as a major threat to the Japanese. Doorman himself was killed during the Battle of the Java Sea (February 27, 1942.)

ABDA suffered from a lack of modern ships, but more so from a lack of coordinated training as a unit. All of the capital ships were lost: HMS Exeter, the cruiser that chased the Nazi pocket battleship Graf Spee to extinction in 1939; USS Houston, HMAS Perth, and the Dutch Navy’s Java and DeRutyer. The Japanese only suffered damage to several destroyers and lost a transport.

The Japanese night-fighting tactics would remain superior to the Allies throughout 1943. The ability to fight at night and the superiority of their torpedoes meant that the Japanese could hold their advantage in the Solomons, despite their losses.