Doorman served in the Netherlands from June 1934 to September 1937 as chief of the naval staff and then returned for his fourth tour in the Far East, where he commanded a cruiser. He then headed the Royal Netherlands Naval Air Service in the NEI from August 1938 to May 1940. Promoted to rear admiral in May 1940, Doorman was appointed commander of the Netherlands Squadron in the East on 17 June. Because of his close connection with the naval air service, Doorman was well aware of the importance of aircraft and aerial reconnaissance.
In order to try to stop the Japanese forces moving toward Singapore and the NEI, the Allies formed the ABDA (American-British-Dutch-Australian) command structure in mid-January 1942. Dutch Vice Admiral C. E. L. Helfrich took overall command of the naval elements on 14 February, and Doorman held tactical command of the naval strike force. As Japanese intentions became clearer, Helfrich combined the naval elements available to him into the Combined Striking Force under Doorman. The fleet departed Surabaya on the evening of 26 February following reported sightings of Vice Admiral Takagi Takeo's Eastern Invasion Force as it approached Java.
The Combined Striking Force consisted of two heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, and nine destroyers. Outgunned by Takagi's ships, Doorman's command faced heavy odds even before it entered battle. It had never trained together as a unified force, lacked a common doctrine and common communication system, was suffering from fatigue the day of the battle, and had nothing to match the excellent Japanese Long Lance torpedoes. More important, although Doorman had requested aerial reconnaissance, none was available.
As a consequence, Japanese reconnaissance aircraft discovered Doorman's fleet first. In the Battle of the Java Sea on 27 February 1942, the Japanese sank the light cruisers De Ruyter (the flagship) and Java and three destroyers. Three cruisers and five destroyers (four of them American) survived. The Japanese lost no ships. Doorman himself perished aboard the De Ruyter.
Although some have criticized Doorman for his tactics in the battle, no one can question his bravery or his decision to attack. In order to defend Java, his fleet had to give battle. Doorman was posthumously awarded the Militaire Willemsorde 3rd class, the highest Dutch military decoration during the war. Two Netherlands aircraft carriers were later named for him.
Jon D. Berlin
Great Britain Ministry of Defense (Navy). War with Japan. 5 vols. Vol. 2, Defensive Phase. London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1995.; Kampen, Anthony C. van. Ik val aan, volgt mij! (I attack, follow me!). Amsterdam: Voorheen C. de Boer Jr., 1947.; Oosten, F.C. van. The Battle of the Java Sea. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1976.; Willmott, H. P. Empires in the Balance. Japanese and Allied Pacific Strategies to April 1942. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1982.