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ABDA: The Unsuccessful Band of Brothers

Suggested by the Chinese, endorsed by the Americans, commanded by the British, and presented as a fait accompli to the Dutch and Australians, ABDACOM – American-British-Dutch-Australian Command – was the first attempt at combined Allied military theater command in World War II. Lasting about two months, it became a textbook example of how not to run a supreme headquarters. Pitted against a Japanese army and navy unified command at the height of its power, it’s a wonder ABDACOM lasted as long as it did.


ABDA Command’s operating area. Photo courtesy United States Army Center of Military History

ABDACOM was created during the three-week ARCADIA conference in Washington, D.C., that began on Dec. 22, 1941. Attended by President Franklin Roosevelt, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and their advisors, its purpose was to develop the Allies’ master strategy against the Axis. Among their deliberations, made without consulting any of the other Allies, was the “Germany first” strategy, the creation of the Anglo-American Combined Chiefs of Staff (the uniting of the British Imperial General Staff and the yet to be created American Joint Chiefs of Staff) to militarily coordinate the strategy, and ABDACOM.

According to the Combined Chiefs of Staff, ABDACOM was:

  1. To hold the Malay Barrier – a defensive “line” that ran down the Malay Peninsula, through Singapore and across the southern border of the Netherlands East Indies (NEI), now Indonesia.
  2. To hold Burma and Australia.
  3. To reestablish communications through the Netherlands East Indies with Luzon and support the Philippines garrison.
  4. To maintain essential communications within the theater.

Everyone knew the command was a dog’s breakfast, and when Army Chief of Staff Gen. George C. Marshall recommended that British Lt. Gen. Archibald Wavell be ABDACOM’s commander, the British chiefs were suspicious. They believed it was a set-up job where American public opinion would blame Britain for the defeat they regarded imminent. It also didn’t help that Churchill had sacked Wavell following his recent defeat in North Africa.

USS Parrott DD-218

USS Parrott (DD 218), one of the few survivors of the U.S. Asiatic Fleet and ABDAFLOAT, seen after her return to the United States. Parrott, along with USS John D. Ford (DD 228), USS Pope (DD 225) and USS Paul Jones (DD 230) took part in one of the few ABDA successes in the Battle of Balikpapan, sinking several Japanese transports. U.S. Navy photo

Assuming command on Jan. 15, 1942, Wavell had responsibility, but he did not have authority. His top subordinates from the component nations could override Wavell’s orders if they believed the orders ran counter to their country’s national interest. Wavell had a brilliant mind, and though his staff admired him, he lacked charisma; and if ever there was a command within a theater in desperate need of inspirational leadership, ABDA was it.

The coalition nations had competing and contradictory priorities. Britain’s strategy centered on Singapore and Burma. Dutch strategy made the NEI its centerpiece. Australia sided with the Dutch, believing that if the NEI fell northern Australia would be next. American strategy was muddled, split by three factors: support for its troops in the Philippines, establishment of a new base of operations in Australia, and avoidance of getting caught up in the defense of outdated colonial empires.

Wavell’s headquarters in Lembang, Java, proved inadequate. Communications between the physically scattered commands were deficient. Logistics was a nightmare. The closest important depot was Darwin, Australia, 1,200 miles away. Finally, ABDA just didn’t have the necessary resources, particularly aircraft. Japan had complete air supremacy. On Feb. 15, 1942, Singapore and its 85,000-man garrison surrendered. Earlier, the Japanese army had successfully landed at Borneo, the first of a series of amphibious operations in the NEI. On Feb. 25, Wavell dissolved ABDA and left for India to organize defenses there.

“For a house to be in unity, its members must agree. ABDA was never able to agree on strategy until it agreed the Netherlands East Indies was lost.”

– Lt. Cmdr. Steven B. Shepard, USN

But, ABDA had one last hurrah. Dutch Rear Adm. Karel Doorman commanded its Dutch, British, and American naval component, composed of two heavy cruisers, three light cruisers, and eleven destroyers. On Feb. 27, 1942, Doorman’s force intercepted a Japanese invasion convoy and its escorts in the Java Sea. At heavy cost, including the death of Doorman and sinking of his flagship, his command delayed for a day the invasion of Java. A follow-up attack by three surviving ships was attempted the following night in the Battle of Sunda Strait. When dawn broke on March 1, those three Allied ships had been sunk.

The last surviving Allied ships, including four obsolete four-stack American destroyers, escaped to Australia, closing the final chapter of the ABDA saga.


DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, and president of the...