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Cleaning the Bloody Shambles: Lessons from the Fall of ABDA

Austin Sullivan

 Held every spring and autumn, members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) conduct Exercise Joint Warrior, which emphasizes coordination between the militaries of different nations, preparing them for combat.[1] Coordination is no easy task; each nation has their own procedures and chains of command. Given this, cooperation is essential. NATO forces need a unified strategy with emphasis on coordination in order to be successful.

This has not always been the case. Current NATO members fought together against a common enemy more than 70 years ago. Airmen, sailors, and soldiers of four nations fought against the might of imperial Japan in the early months of the Pacific War. Loosely, they were known as ABDA (American, British, Dutch, Australian). Like NATO, they were formed to combat a single threat. Unfortunately, ABDA was doomed to failure from the start, thus many lessons can be drawn for current and future organizations. Sadly, many of those lessons were earned in blood. Although naval affairs were most pertinent given the geography of the campaign, the breakdown of all three arms of ABDA were just as important for control of the seas.                                         

Reasoning and Formation of ABDA Command
War broke out in the Far East on 8 December 1941. The Japanese objective was to capture the resource-rich East Indies and Malaya to continue the war in China.[2] Plans for attacks on Pearl Harbor and the Philippines were also made to keep the United States from interfering. The initial month saw the Japanese make rapid advances southward. As 1942 dawned, the Allies moved to consolidate their forces into one unified command. Formed on 15 January, the command was designated ABDA for its component nations: American, British, Dutch, and Australian.[3] ABDA’s sole objective was to hold the Malay barrier, consisting of Malaya, Sumatra, Java, and northern Australia.[4] The initial command structure was as follows:[5]


Naval Component(ABDAFLOAT)

Army Component (ABDAARM)

Air Component (ABDAAIR)

Field Marshal Sir Archibald Wavell. Supreme Commander (British)

Admiral Thomas Hart, Commander Naval Forces (USA)

Lt. General Hein ter Poorten, Commander Ground Forces (Dutch)

Air Chief Marshal Sir Richard E. C. Peirse, Commander Air Forces (British)

General Sir Henry R. Pownall. Chief of Staff (British)

Rear Adm. Arthur F.E. Palliser, Chief of Staff (British)



Lieutenant General George H. Brett. Deputy Commander (USA)

Rear Adm. Karel Doorman, Commander Combined Striking Force as of 2 Feb. (Dutch)



  Internal problems were already apparent at the outset. First, ABDA was formed much too late to offer effective resistance. By mid-January, the Japanese had pushed the boundaries of the Allies far south. Hong Kong had fallen, along with Guam and Wake Island.[6] In the Philippines, U.S. and Filipino troops had been pushed back to the Bataan Peninsula. Worse yet was the situation in Singapore, with the Japanese having taken most of Malaya. The Dutch were also experiencing setbacks, losing parts of the East Indies.[7] With all these reverses, the prospect  of this hastily-formed command holding back the Japanese seemed slim.

More problems plagued the inner workings of ABDA, with differing national priorities among them. The British, in particular, were adamant in defending Singapore, which led to problems regarding the use of ABDAFLOAT. For their part, the Dutch wanted to defend Java to the last. Both the United States and Australia were concerned with defending the East Indies and approaches to the Commonwealth country. [8] Such conflicting priorities stretched the already meager forces of ABDA to the breaking point.

Worse yet was the lack of coordination between the branches. The command structure was poorly organized. For example, the components of ABDA were located in Lembang, Java, while Dutch navy headquarters were located in Batavia. Lack of coordination with each component branch led to independent, rather than joint, actions. Also, while British codes were used, the equipment and channels were Dutch, complicating communications. The English-speaking Allies had to get over the language barrier with the Dutch.[9] All of these problems hampered ABDA’s ability to defend against the Japanese. Even if the Allies had had no internal difficultiess, their forces were ill-suited against the Land of the Rising Sun.

Comparison of ABDAARM and Imperial Japanese Army

As ABDA was formed in mid-January, the Japanese had already inflicted several defeats on Allied ground forces. The orders of battle for Allied and Japanese ground forces were as follows:[10]

Belligerents/Major Campaigns

Philippines (Dec 1941–May 1942)

Malaya/Singapore (Dec. 1941–Feb. 1942)

East Indies (Jan. 1941–March 1942)

Rabaul, New Britain (Jan. 1942)

United States

130,000 est. (30,000 U.S., 100,000 Philippine)


Less than 900


British Empire


120,000 est.

3,000 est.

1,400 (Australians)




25,000 Regular Army, 40,000 Home Guard



129,000 est. Dec.1941 to May 1942. 43,000 initial on Luzon (Fourteenthth Army)

35,000 est. (Twenty-Fifthth Army)

45,000 est.(Sixth Army)


On paper, Allied ground forces outnumbered the Japanese in most campaigns. Numerous shortcomings nullified that advantage. To start, the bulk of troops under U.S. command were Philippine army personnel. These troops were poorly trained and equipped, and were unable to contest a determined Japanese attack. The Philippines garrison also suffered from scarce artillery and motorized transport; shipments before the war’s outbreak saw the islands reinforced with two light tank battalions and field artillery. Despite last-minute reinforcements, the Philippine army was still ill-suited to defend against the Japanese; this left only 30,000 Americans and the U.S. Army’s Philippine Scouts able to mount determined resistance.[11]

Similar situations were seen throughout Allied strongholds. The British-led forces in Malaya were mostly Indian and Australian. Pressing needs had seen the experienced outfits of those nationalities deployed to the Middle East. The troops left were raw, having had little training. They also had no tanks, few anti-tank guns, and a paltry amount of artillery. The Dutch faced a similar problem, with their Home Guard poorly-trained and equipped. Their regular army was better, but suffered from lack of heavy arms. The Australian contingents at Rabaul and Java were in the same predicament.[12] Overall, the numerical advantage the Allies possessed was offset by a qualitative deficiency.

By contrast, the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) performed much better. Lieutenant General Yamashita in Malaya was competent, using aggressive tactics. The Twenty-Fifth Army was small, but was concentrated to offset the larger British forces, which were hampered by having to defend a large area.[13] The Japanese experienced similar success elsewhere using this method, and only in the Philippines did their advance bog down.[14] What the IJA suffered from was a lack of logistics. The army’s transport and logistical support was not as developed as that of  their European counterparts. Due to pressing needs in China, Manchuria, and the Home Islands, only ten divisions were available to take the Allied territories. The offensive southward called for troops to shift from territory to territory. [15] Such a plan required control of the seas and the skies, or risked defeat. Compared to what ABDA had to offer, though, the Japanese were more than ready to meet the challenge.

Comparison of ABDAAIR with Japanese Army Air Force and Japanese Naval Air Force  

Compared to the size of their ground forces, ABDA’s air component suffered from a lack of aircraft to meet its needs. The disparity in numbers is shown on the table below; the figures indicate strengths at the war’s outbreak:[16]

Air arm of nationality; location; type of aircraft



Reconnaissance/Flying boats

Total amount*reserves included

Far East Air Force in the  Philippines (U.S.)



28 (from Patrol Wing 10 of U.S. Asiatic Fleet)


Royal Air Force (RAF) Far East Command at Malaya and Singapore (British)



5 Catalinas


Royal Netherlands Indies Army Air Division/Naval Air Force (Dutch)





Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) in South-West Pacific and Australia

90* these were CAC Wirraways, normally training aircraft.




Japanese Army Air Force Stationed in Indochina and Formosa



185 (cooperation between navy and army air units included)


Japanese Naval Air Force



42 (includes cooperation)


When added up, the Allied air arms were equal in number with the Japanese. Unfortunately, the Allied air component only looked imposing on paper. Air power was tempered due to being scattered over a large area. National priorities also played a role in the fragmentation of the Allied air forces. By contrast, Japanese air power was able to concentrate upon a single objective if needed.[17]

More problems beset the aerial strength of the Allies. The bulk of American and Dutch pilots were trained, but lacked combat experience. Commonwealth pilots, comprising much of RAF’s Far East Command, were green and had spent little time inside an aircraft. By contrast, both Japanese army and navy pilots had undergone a strict training regimen. Many had seen aerial combat over the skies of China and Manchuria.[18]

The quality of machines was also a factor. Due to pressing needs in Europe, the RAF was unable to send any fighters to Singapore until just before the colony’s capture. The Dutch had no support from the Netherlands due to the country’scapitulation to the Germans in 1940. The bulk of their aircraft purchases from the United States, were Brewster Buffaloes, while the Far East Air Force operated P-40s. Japanese fighters consisted of the Ki-27, Ki-43, and the navy’s A6M Zero. While Allied fighters were sturdier and better armed, Japanese fighters were superior in maneuverability and rate of climb. Out of all the Allied bombers, the B-17 was the best, while other types suffered from having a lighter defensive armament and smaller bomb load. Japanese bombers, while not having the same bomb load as the B-17, had much greater range. The effectiveness of Allied fighters and bombers in their primary missions was tempered by having to perform multiple roles due to lack of replacements.[19]

Perhaps the key weakness for the Allied defense was the lack of a suitable early warning system. Radar, which had proven to be critical in the Battle of Britain, was in short supply. Malaya and the East Indies possessed no sets, while Singapore and the Philippines only had a few running by the outbreak of the war. Aircraft spotting was done by ground observers, which left little time for interception.[20] Taking into account the Allied fighters inferior rate of climb; Japanese bombers were largely unmolested unless Allied fighters were already airborne.

Comparison of ABDAFLOAT and the Imperial Japanese Navy
Given the geography of the Pacific, achieving naval supremacy was paramount. In this field, all three Western powers faced a scarcity of ships from the beginning. The same problems that prevented Great Britain and the Netherlands from dispatching  air and ground support assets to the Far East plagued their naval arm as well. The United States faced immediate needs in the Atlantic and was still recovering from the Pearl Harbor debacle. Thusonly the small U.S. Asiatic Fleet was available. By contrast, the Japanese navy was a formidable force. By the time ABDAFLOAT was formed, the difference is clear:[21]


Naval Arm by nationality

Aircraft Carriers


Heavy Cruisers

Light Cruisers





























7 (would arrive in late February)






80 (43 transports)

In many regards, the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) outnumbered their Allied opponents.Although the southwest Pacific was a vast area, the Japanese had the advantage of consolidating their naval forces. As with ABDA’s other components, national priorities also kept ABDAFLOAT from focusing on one objective. Besides the difference in numbers, other factors came into the play.

Internal problems were prevalent in ABDA’s naval component as well, with language being the primary issue. Orders in Dutch had to be translated and sent again to English-speaking ships. Confusion in the sequence of orders was a very real possibility. Even communication in the same language was difficult, as the British and Australians used different codes and signals. [22] Coordination was made difficult due to differing objectives among the command leadership. Wavell wanted ships to protect convoys on the way to Singapore, while Admiral Hart wanted to form a striking force to contend against enemy landings. In the end, both plans were carried out, straining ships and crews to the breaking point.[23]

The quality of the ships must be taken into consideration. American warships—formerly of the Asiatic Fleet—were antiquated. Their Clemson-class destroyers were over 20 years old, lacked anti-aircraft protection, and were in need of refits. Heavy cruiser Houston was newer, but lacked radar and was due for a modernization. The Dutch light cruisers were lightly armed with 5.9-inch guns, while British Exeter was under-gunned for a heavy cruiser.[24]

Quality of armament was a problem, at least for the Americans. The strongest part of the Asiatic Fleet was its submarine arm, with 23 modern and six older boats. In combat, however, the submarines failed to reach even conservative expectations. The main reason behind this failure was the appalling quality of their torpedoes. From December to March 1942, Asiatic Fleet subs fired 223 torpedoes at 97 enemy ships, with only 11 confirmed sinkings.[25] Torpedo quality also undermined the effectiveness of U.S. destroyers. However, torpedoes weren’t the only problem. Budget constraints prevented Houston from practicing her 5-inch guns. Consequently, her ammunition sat in storage until the heavy cruiser came under air attack on 4 February 1942—at which point many shells were found to be faulty.[26]

ABDAFLOAT was also hampered by a lack of essentials. By January, only Java and Darwin, Australia were available as ports. They were ill-suited to answer all the needs of the ships. Both Houston and light cruiser Marblehead were heavily damaged during the  4 February air attack, the former losing her aft 8-inch turret. Facilities on Java were unable to repair the damage, forcing Marblehead to head home, while Houston was too valuable to lose.[27] Destroyer Edsall suffered damage to her stern when depth-charging a submarine, but had no time for repairs due to escort needs.[28] Toward the end of the Java campaign, American destroyers were allowed to flee to Australia partly due to lack of their essential weapon: torpedoes.[29]

One of the naval component’s biggest challenges was lack of adequate air cover. For much of the campaign, coordination between ships and aircraft for fighter support were abysmal. One of the worst breakdowns occurred even before ABDA was formed. HMS Prince of Wales and Repulse—both part of British naval squadron Force Z—were sunk by Japanese aircraft on 10 December 1941, off Malaya. Air support had been available in the form of a handful of Brewster Buffaloes, but through communication and coordination failings, they were not requested until it was much too late.[30] Although ABDA had not formed by December, the lapse in coordination among the British forces augured poorly for the future organization.

Everything Falls Apart: The Fight for Java

Japanese planning called for the isolation of Java, which became possible on 20 February. Much of Dutch army was deployed on Java, which left little to defend the other islands. Due to aforementioned problems, ABDAAIR was unable to defend the skies around Java. Admiral Hart faced numerous difficulties that prevented his ships from repelling Japanese invasions. One notable success for the Allies was at the Battle of Balikpapan on 24 January 1942, in which four U.S. destroyers sank a few transports.[31] Although it raised morale, it did little to hinder the Japanese conquest.

For a number of reasons, Admiral Hart was replaced on 15 February by Dutch Admiral Conrad Helfrich, who was determined to defend Java to the last. ABDA was dissolved on the 25th, placing all remaining warships under Dutch command. Two days later, Admiral Doorman led his Combined Striking Force against an invasion convoy bound for Java. The force’s entanglement with the Japanese escorts became known as the Battle of the Java Sea. Lasting from late afternoon of the 27th into the early morning of the 28th, the Combined Striking Force failed to disrupt the convoy. Many lives were lost—including that of Admiral Doorman.

The next 48 hours sealed the fate of the survivors. In an attempt to head to the southern port of Tjilatjap, Houston and Australian light cruiser Perth ran afoul of an enemy landing at the mouth of the Sunda Strait, and were sunk after a furious melee. Exeter and two destroyers were lost later that day in the Java Sea. South of Java, bombers sank seaplane tender Langley on 27 February, and tanker Pecos on 1 March. .Edsall, heeding the Pecos’ plight, steamed south to provide aid. En route, however, Edsall stumbled across the IJN’s carrier-centered Kido Butai (mobile force) and was sunk with no survivors. Dutch resistance on Java collapsed a week later, marking the end of the East Indies campaign.[32]

In summary, many lessons can be drawn from the failure of ABDA for similar organizations like NATO. The lack of in-depth coordination and planning prior to hostilities greatly hampered any chance of a solid defense. Coordination failings were not limited to ABDA’s high command, as cooperation between all three branches of the military broke down as the campaign progressed. Priorities over national interests took over, squandering whatever power ABDAFLOAT had as ships and crews were pressed beyond their limits. In order to resist a much stronger foe, all nations involved in an alliance must practice coordinating their militaries into a single entity. If not, tragedy can strike like it did in the first desperate months of the Pacific War.


Print Sources

Cox, Jeffrey R. Rising Sun, Falling Skies: The Disastrous Java Sea Campaign of World War II. New York: Osprey Publishing, 2014.         

Cull, Brian., Paul Sortehaug and Mark Haselden. Buffaloes over Singapore: RAF, RAAF, RNZAF, and Dutch Brewster Fighters in Action Over Malaya and the East Indies 19411942, London: Grub Street, 2003.

Dull, Paul S. A Battle History of the Imperial Japanese Navy (19411945). Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1978.

Hara,Tameichi., Fred Saito and Roger Pineau. Japanese Destroyer Captain. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1967.

Hornfischer, James D. Ship of Ghosts: The Story of the USS Houston, FDR’s Legendary Cruiser, and the Epic Saga of Her Survivors. New York: Bantam Books, 2006.

Kehn, Donald M. Jr., A Blue Sea of Blood: Deciphering the Fate of the USS Edsall. Minneapolis, MN: Zenith Press, 2008.

Leckie, Robert. Delivered From Evil: The Saga of World War II. New York: Harper Perennial, 1987.

Leutze, James. A Different Kind of Victory: A Biography on Admiral Thomas C. Hart. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1981.    

Morison, Samuel Eliot. History of United States Naval Operations in World War II: The Rising Sun in the Pacific 1931April 1942, Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1948.

Morton, Louis. United States Army in World War II: The Fall of the Philippines. Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History, 1953.

Schultz, Duane. The Last Battle Station: The Story of the USS Houston. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1985.

Shores, Christopher., Brian Cull and Yashuo Izawa. Bloody Shambles Volume I: The Drift to War to the Fall of Singapore. London: Grub Street, 1992.

Spector, Ronald H. Eagle Against the Sun. New York: The Free Press, 1985.

Warren, Alan. Britain’s Greatest Defeat: Singapore, 1942. New York: Hambledon Continuum, 2002.

Winslow, Walter, The Fleet the Gods Forgot: The U.S. Asiatic Fleet in World War II, Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1982.

 Digital Sources

Australia and the Second World War. “Japanese Advance: December 1941–March 1942,”

“One of Europe’s Largest NATO Exercises Begins.” BBC News, March 26, 2017,

US Army Center of Military History. “MacArthur’s Report Chapter I: The Japanese Offensive in the Pacific.”

“War Games: NATO’s Exercise Joint Warrior.” BBC News, April 4, 2017,



[1] “One of Europe’s largest Nato Exercises Begins,” BBC News, March 26, 2017; “War Games: Nato’s Exercise Joint Warrior,” BBC News, April 5, 2017.

[2] Louis B. Morton, The Fall of the Philippines (Washington, DC: Center of Military History, 1953), 51.

[3] Samuel Eliot Morison, The Rising Sun in the Pacific (Boston: Little, Brown & Company, 1948), 277; James Leutze, A Different Kind of Victory (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1981), 269.

[4] James D. Hornfischer, Ship of Ghosts (New York: Bantam Books, 2006) 34; Alan Warren, Britain’s Greatest Defeat (New York: Hambledon Continuum, 2002) 147.

[5] Leutze, A Different Kind of Victory, 267; Morison, The Rising Sun the Pacific, 271.

[6] Morison, The Rising Sun the Pacific, 184–186, 191; Hornfischer, Ship of Ghosts, 33.

[7] Paul S. Dull, The Imperial Japanese Navy (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1978), 27–35, 52; James D. Hornfischer, Ship of Ghosts, 33.

[8] Hornfischer, Ship of Ghosts, 34–35; Leutze, A Different Kind of Victory, 266; Ronald H. Spector, Eagle Against the Sun (New York: The Free Press, 1985), 131.

[9] Dull, The Imperial Japanese Navy, 47; Leutze, A Different Kind of Victory, 269–270; Morison, The Rising Sun in the Pacific, 312–313.

[10] Australia and the Second World War. “Japanese advance (December 1941–March 1942),”; “The Japanese Offensive in the Pacific,” Reports of General Douglas MacArthur Volume I,; Hornfischer, Ship of Ghosts, 196–199; Robert Leckie, Delivered from Evil (New York: Harper Perennial, 1987), 352; Morton, Fall of the Philippines, 49–50; Christopher Shores, Brian Cull and Yasuho Izawa, Bloody Shambles (London: Grub Street, 1992), 51, 59; Warren, Britain’s Greatest Defeat, 49, 205, 208, 301.

[11] Morton, Fall of the Philippines, 32–36, 50, 63; Shores, Cull and Izawa, Bloody Shambles, 55.

[12] Australia and the Second World War. “Fall of Rabaul” and “Fall of Java”; Hornfischer, Ship of Ghosts, 199; Shores, Cull and Izawa, Bloody Shambles, 55; Warren, Britain’s Greatest Defeat, 31, 289–292.

[13] Warren, Britain’s Greatest Defeat, 293.

[14] Spector, Eagle Against the Sun, 138–139.

[15] Morton, Fall of the Philippines, 52–58; Spector, Eagle Against the Sun, 128; Warren, Britain’s Greatest Defeat, 50.

[16] Shore, Cull and Izawa, Bloody Shambles, 52–62; Morton, Fall of the Philippines, 42.

[17] Shores, Cull and Izawa, Bloody Shambles, 63.

[18] Shores, Cull and Izawa, Bloody Shambles, 64–65.

[19] Brian Cull, Paul Sortehaug and Mark Haselden, Buffaloes Over Singapore (London: Grub Street, 2003), 12–13, 205; Shores, Cull and Izawa, Bloody Shambles, 55, 60, 69.

[20] Cull, Sortehaug and Haselden, Buffaloes Over Singapore, 243; Morton, Fall of the Philippines, 43–45.

[21] Morison, The Rising Sun in the Pacific, 271–276.

[22] Hornfischer, Ship of Ghosts, 72–73; Duane Schultz, The Last Battle Station (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1985), 141, 266.

[23] Leutze, A Different Kind of Victory, 266; Schultz, The Last Battle Station, 141.

[24] Hornfischer, Ship of Ghosts, 61; Schultz, The Last Battle Station, 141; Walter Winslow, The Fleet the Gods Forgot (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1982), 13, 37.

[25] Winslow, The Fleet the Gods Forgot, 33.

[26] Hornfischer, Ship of Ghosts, 8, 10; Winslow, The Fleet the Gods Forgot, 24, 32–33.

[27] Hornfischer, Ship of Ghosts, 47–48; Schultz, The Last Battle Station, 118–120.

[28] Donald M. Kehn Jr., A Blue Sea of Blood (Minneapolis, MN: Zenith Press, 2008), 107, 110.

[29] Winslow, The Fleet the Gods Forgot, 43.

[30] Jeffrey R. Cox, Rising Sun, Falling Skies: The Disastrous Java Sea Campaign of World War II (New York: Osprey Publishing, 2014), 108–109.

[31] Dull, The Imperial Japanese Navy, 51, 66–67.

[32] Hornfischer, Ship of Ghosts, 56, 69, 151; Winslow, The Fleet the Gods Forgot, 19–23, 220–240.

Published: Tue Sep 04 15:38:07 EDT 2018