1st August--31st December, 1942

  'So reader, if this tale has seemed repetitious with shock and gore, exploding magazines, burning and sinking ships and plummeting planes--that is simply how it was'.
    S. E. Morison. The History of United States Naval Operations, Vol. V, p. 315.

When, after the first World War, Admiral of the Fleet Lord Jellicoe, as Governor General of New Zealand, visited the Solomon Islands, he remarked that if ever war came to the South Pacific their geographic position, and the wide stretches of sheltered water which they enclose, would make them the likely scene of the decisive struggle for maritime control over the whole theatre. For the next two decades little happened to disturb the peace of those remote tropical outposts. Then in 1942 Lord Jellicoe's prophecy was fulfilled very precisely, and there raged around the Solomon Islands some of the fiercest sea fighting of all time.

The Solomons group comprises two lines of islands running approximately north-west to south-east.1 This double chain is about 600 miles long, but it is with the southern end, and in particular the waters between the islands of Guadalcanal and Florida that we are concerned in this phase. The encyclopedia says of the Solomons that 'the climate is hot, the rainfall heavy, and the islands are largely clothed with thick forest'2 a description which those who fought there will probably consider a gross understatement. The Americans gave to the narrow strip of water between the western and eastern groups the appropriate nickname of 'the Slot', and it was there that most of the fighting took place, generally by night. It became the graveyard of many fine ships, and of thousands of Allied seamen and airmen. At one time the expectation of life for a cruiser or destroyer operating in those waters was assessed at about three night patrols.

Long before the Japanese invasion of the Solomons the Australian Navy enlisted the help of men who had acquired from their peacetime work special knowledge of the islands, and organised them into a coast-watching service. These brave men, mostly planters or



Map 22

Map 22. The Solomon Islands Theatre



belonging to Government services, remained behind the Japanese lines, living in the jungle with their wireless sets and a few faithful Solomon islanders. They kept watch on the narrow waters between the islands, and again and again were they able to send timely warning of enemy movements. When the campaign moved to the northern islands they also rescued and succoured many Allied seamen and airmen, whose ships had been sunk or whose aircraft had been shot down. The Japanese did their utmost to catch the coast-watchers, who had repeatedly to play hide and seek in the jungle with their lives as the forfeit. Some were caught, but none was ever betrayed by the islanders, whose loyalty to their British rulers is one of the most pleasing aspects of the story of the struggle in the Solomons. Among the British who took to the jungle when the Japanese arrived was the Anglican Bishop of Melanesia and his mission staff.3 They too survived the campaign, and the writer of this history well remembers his astonishment when in mid-1943 an Englishman wearing a pectoral cross, and accompanied by several Solomon islanders and a spaniel, boarded his ship at Tulagi and welcomed her company to his diocese, then mostly still occupied by the enemy. He preached on board the following Sunday, and kept up his association with that ship's officers and men to the end of her career.

To Britain, with her many pressing commitments in the Arctic and Atlantic and in the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean, the Solomon Islands were very far away; and as most of the fighting was done by the United States Navy the struggle attracted less attention than it deserved. Australia and New Zealand looked at it very differently, for it was happening almost on their front doorstep, and it was obvious to them that, if the enemy became firmly established in the Solomons, communications to and from America would be gravely threatened; and moreover their men of all three services were fighting there, generally under American command.

Because even today it may be difficult for a British reader to grasp the significance of the campaign and the nature of the fighting, it may be permissible to suggest a mythical parallel in our own home waters. If in modern times the British fleet and that of a Continental enemy were contesting the control of the English Channel, much as the Dutch and English fleets repeatedly did in the seventeenth century, the struggle might well centre around the waters enclosed by the Isle of Wight, leading to the great bases of Portsmouth and Southampton. If night after night the two contestants sent their squadrons into the Solent, one from the east and the other from the west, they would probably meet in the narrow waters of Spithead. If inhabitants of Southsea and Ryde can imagine the sight and


sound of large numbers of cruisers, destroyers and even of heavy-gunned battleships manoeuvring there at high speed in inky darkness, and engaging sometimes at point-blank ranges, they will have formed a fairly accurate mental picture of the fighting in the Solomon Islands 'slot'.

It was told earlier how in July 1942 the Japanese were preparing for a second attempt, this time by a land attack, to capture Port Moresby in New Guinea.4 To secure their seaward eastern flank in that operation, and in order to prepare for their next lunge to the south-east, they decided to establish an air base on Guadalcanal in the southern Solomons. Almost simultaneously the American Chiefs of Staff decided, as a first step towards the seizure of the islands of New Britain and New Ireland and the ejection of the Japanese from eastern New Guinea, to occupy the Santa Cruz Islands, and to establish bases near Tulagi.5 The date first intended for these moves was the 1st of August, but it was subsequently postponed until the 7th. Early in July it was reported that the Japanese, who had occupied Tulagi two months earlier, were preparing an air base on Guadalcanal. This made it plain that time was short, and unless the Allies acted quickly the Japanese would become firmly established in the southern Solomons and correspondingly more difficult to dislodge. It will thus be seen that in the early days of July both sides had their eyes focused on the same places. Clearly a major clash was pending.

The Americans moved fast, and before the end of July their expedition was ready. It consisted of an 'Air Support Force' commanded by Rear-Admiral L. Noyes, U.S.N., and an 'Amphibious Force' under Rear Admiral R. K. Turner, U.S.N. Vice Admiral F. J. Fletcher, U.S.N., who had commanded the Carrier Task Forces at Coral Sea and Midway,6 was in charge of the whole operation. The Air Support Force consisted of the carriers Saratoga, Enterprise and Wasp, supported by one battleship, six cruisers and a large number of destroyers. The Amphibious Force of twenty-two transports supported by four cruisers and eleven destroyers had a separate screening force under Rear Admiral V. A. C. Crutchley, V.C. Included in it were the Australian cruisers Australia, Canberra and Hobart. Admiral Crutchley was also second-in-command of Admiral Turner's Amphibious Force.

Towards the end of July the Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Fleet, (Admiral King) asked the Admiralty to stage a diversion in the Indian Ocean early in August to coincide with the American assault on the Solomons. The Admiralty was anxious to help contain


Japanese air and surface forces, but found it difficult to devise an effective way of doing so. They did not consider that hit-and-run raids on the Andaman Islands or on northern Sumatra would deceive the enemy, and they were determined not to run the risk of exposing a fleet, whose fighter defences were bound to be very thin, to attack by shore-based aircraft. In the end it was decided to simulate an expedition against the Andamans by sailing dummy convoys from the east coast of India and Ceylon towards those islands. The movements were started on the 1st of August, and there were indications that the Japanese moved bomber reinforcements to northern Sumatra at about that time; but it is doubtful whether the diversion deceived the enemy, or caused him to move any substantial force in the direction of the Indian Ocean.

To return to the Solomons expedition, the Amphibious Force left New Zealand on the 22nd of July, met the Air Support Force south of Fiji, and carried out rehearsals of the landings in a remote part of that group of islands for four days. On the last night of the month the expedition sailed again, and reached its destination undetected. On the morning of the 7th of August the assaults took place, and were completely successful. The partly-completed airstrip on Guadalcanal, which the Americans renamed Henderson Field, was captured and the Japanese garrison withdrew. Across the 'slot' at Tulagi opposition was stiffer, but the base was in Allied hands by the 8th.7 It was here that we first learnt how a Japanese garrison would fight until the last man was killed.

Meanwhile the Japanese naval commander at Rabaul, 550 miles to the north-west, had reacted as quickly as was to be expected. Troops were at once embarked in six transports, and sailed to reinforce the garrisons in the south. When, however, an American submarine sank one of the transports on the 8th the rest were recalled. Admiral Mikawa next led down his five heavy and two light cruisers to strike at Admiral Turner's Amphibious Force. Such a possibility had always been allowed for in the American plans, and extensive air searches by shore-based and carrier-borne aircraft were already on the look-out for enemies. On the evening of the 7th Mikawa's squadron was reported off the north of New Ireland, and an American submarine sighted it south-bound at high speed later that night. Special air searches were sent out next morning, but a combination of errors and ill-fortune enabled Mikawa to accomplish the one thing that it had been hoped to prevent, namely a surprise arrival near to the scene of the assaults. It is worth while studying in some detail how this came to pass.

A Hudson of the R.A.A.F. sighted the Japanese squadron at 10:26


a.m. on the 8th, but made no report until it returned to base in the afternoon. Not till 6:40 p.m. did the report reach Admiral Turner, and even then it was misleadingly inaccurate as regards the composition of the force sighted. Only three cruisers were mentioned, which was too small strength with which to attack the Allied covering forces; and the inclusion of two imaginary seaplane tenders led Admiral Turner to deduce that the enemy intended to set up a floating air base in a sheltered bay about 150 miles to the north, and to renew air attacks on his force in the morning. Nor was this chain of mistakes and mischances the end of the story. The aircraft ordered to make the special search in the most likely direction of approach by the enemy had been forced by bad weather to return; but this critical information never reached Admiral Turner, so that he remained in ignorance of the fact that the most likely approach route had not been fully covered. One is reminded of the failures in intelligence and communications which marked the opening hours of the Norwegian campaign in 1940.8 That evening Turner heard, to his dismay, that the Air Support Force was withdrawing almost at once. This would leave the transports to face the next day's air attacks without any carrier air support. Admiral Turner at once called a conference with Admiral Crutchley and General Vandegrift, who was in command of the assault troops, and it was decided that in such circumstances the transports must be sailed at daylight on the 9th, whether they were unloaded or not.

Meanwhile the ships of the screening force had taken up their patrol positions for the night, though without any information to indicate that attack was imminent. The seven-mile-wide southern channel between Savo Island and Guadalcanal was patrolled by the heavy cruisers Canberra (R.A.N.) and Chicago (U.S.N.) and two American destroyers.9 Admiral Crutchley's flagship, the Australia, formed part of this force, but at 8.30 p.m. she withdrew to the transport anchorage off Lunga Point, because the Admiral had been urgently summoned to attend the conference already mentioned.

To the north of Savo Island the other approach channel was patrolled by the three American cruisers Vincennes, Astoria and Quincy, and two destroyers. Further east were the light cruisers San Juan (U.S.N.), Hobart (R.A.N.) and two more destroyers. Finally, as extended radar look-outs, two destroyers patrolled outside Savo Island. In retrospect this division of the substantial forces available to cover the approach routes certainly seems to have been mistaken; but, as the Admiral lacked accurate information of the enemy's strength and intentions, it must have seemed at the time the natural thing to do.

Map 23

Map 23. The Battle of Savo Island, 9th August 1942


Shortly before 1 a.m. on the 9th the leading Japanese cruiser sighted, but was not herself seen by, one of the destroyers on extended look-out. Mikawa then led his column of five heavy and two light cruisers through the southern channel and turned to the north-east. At 1:34. the Japanese sighted strange ships on a closing bearing, and they fired torpedoes a few minutes later. Not till 1:43 did an American destroyer give the alarm, by which time it was too late for the Allied cruisers to do much to save themselves. A dense, tropical rain cloud had passed between them and the enemy at a critical time, and helped to conceal the Japanese squadron's approach. The Canberra was hit by two torpedoes and many shells. Within a few minutes her Captain was mortally wounded, all power had failed and she was badly on fire. Although strenuous efforts were made, it proved impossible to get the fires under control. At about 8 a.m., on Admiral Turner's instructions, her survivors were taken off and she was sunk. The Chicago, next astern of the Canberra, was a good deal luckier. She sustained no serious damage; but she did none to the enemy, who rapidly disappeared to the north-east. Unfortunately no enemy reports were made by the southern force, and as the rain cloud entirely concealed the surface action, the northern squadron unwisely assumed the gunfire to have been directed against aircraft. The three American cruisers Vincennes, Astoria and Quincy were thus also caught by surprise when at 1:49 they came under heavy fire from two directions. Within a few minutes all three were hit and blazing fiercely. The Quincy and Vincennes soon capsized, and the Astoria sank the following afternoon after a magazine explosion. It was a crushing defeat, brought about by faulty intelligence leading to faulty dispositions, and sealed by tactical errors. But the reader who feels strongly regarding the inadequate readiness of the ships, the failures of communications and the poor look-out maintained should himself experience the strain of trying to remain alert for several successive nights, after long and anxious days in the deadening, exhausting heat of the Solomon Islands' climate.

The ending of this disastrous episode was at least happier than it might have been, for the Japanese Admiral, after reducing the northern force to a shambles, decided to retire from the scene without attacking the transports, although they had been named as his primary objective. As only the Australia, San Juan and Hobart and about half a dozen destroyers, all of them very scattered, remained for their defence, Mikawa undoubtedly thereby sacrificed the chance of inflicting a defeat which would have brought disaster to the whole Allied expedition. Perhaps the price paid to avoid that was not excessive. Finally an American submarine did something towards restoring the balance of losses, by sinking the heavy cruiser Kako of Mikawa's squadron on her way back to base on the 10th.


As the day after the Battle of Savo Island dawned Admiral Turner's position was indeed difficult, while the outlook for the 11,000 U.S. Marines so far landed was, to say the least of it, unenviable. Turner, however, took the bold decision to continue unloading the transports. He thus assured the marines of sufficient supplies for a short time; but their position was still precarious.

The next fortnight was a very anxious one for the Americans. Though they had possession of the Henderson airfield, the Japanese had regained a measure of control over the adjacent waters, and could reinforce their garrison far more easily than the Americans could. Luckily the Japanese at first only landed troops in driblets, and so failed to drive home their temporary advantage. One thing was plain-that neither side intended to give up the fight and withdraw. Thus was the stage set for one of the longest and fiercest sea struggles in history.

On the 19th of August the Japanese sailed four transports from Rabaul with 1,500 troops to assault Guadalcanal. One light cruiser and four destroyers escorted the transports, but the movement was powerfully covered by Admiral Kondo, who had three carriers, two battleships, five cruisers and seventeen destroyers, which had come south from Truk in the Caroline Islands. Intelligence warned the Americans of these moves, and once more they formed a Task Force of three groups built around the well-tried carriers Saratoga, Enterprise and Wasp, again commanded by Admiral Fletcher. By the 21st they were in the waters south and east of the Solomons awaiting developments. Not till the 24th did the expected sightings take place, and by then the Wasp's group had been detached to fuel further south. Kondo's plan rather resembled that adopted at Coral Sea.10 The small carrier Ryujo was to be offered as a bait to attract the main American carrier air blows, thus giving Nagumo the chance to strike back heavily from the fleet carriers Zuikaku and Shokaku, which were kept away to the westward. At the start this worked out as intended, for the Saratoga and Enterprise did send their striking forces against the Ryujo, and they sank her at 3:50 p.m. on the 24th. But Nagumo's force had also been sighted by then, and the American carriers had their full strength of fighters in the air to meet the expected counter-attacks. The Enterprise was hit by three bombs, but she escaped serious damage; and a heavy toll was exacted from attackers. That night Fletcher withdrew southwards, not wishing to risk a night encounter, and Kondo retired in the opposite direction to escape renewed air attacks next day. This fight, called the Battle of the Eastern Solomons, was indecisive; but the advantage lay with the Americans. The enemy landing force which precipitated the


encounter went on towards Guadalcanal, but was attacked from the air on the 25th and suffered some loss. It was then recalled, and the troops were transferred to destroyers, which landed them by night a short time later.

There now ensued a period of balance of an unusual nature in the Solomons. By day command of the air gave the Americans sufficient maritime control to bring in stores and reinforcements, but by night the Japanese light forces commanded those narrow waters; and they could bombard shore positions, land men and hold off any surface ships encountered. Meanwhile the grim struggle on land continued with unabated fury, in appalling conditions.

On the last day of August, while the Saratoga was patrolling 260 miles south of Guadalcanal, she was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine. Her aircraft were flown off and sent to reinforce the Henderson Field, but the ship had to return to Pearl Harbor for repairs. It was an unlucky moment to have this valuable and experienced ship put out of action. Fifteen days later worse occurred. The Wasp, which we had known so well from her two reinforcements of Malta at a critical time11, was hit by three torpedoes fired by another enemy submarine. Uncontrollable fires broke out, and this splendid ship had to be abandoned and sunk. At about the same time the battleship North Carolina and a destroyer were both hit and damaged by torpedoes, and the carrier Hornet was narrowly missed. Although there was a second Japanese submarine in the vicinity she does not seem to have fired any torpedoes, and it is therefore likely that all these successes were achieved by one salvo fired from the submarine I-19. Had this convincing demonstration of the performance of the Japanese torpedoes been realised at the time, we might have been spared some of the losses caused later by them. As the Enterprise, like the Saratoga, was repairing battle damage, there was now only one carrier left in the South Pacific; and only one modern battleship, the Washington, remained. Nor was the solitary carrier Hornet destined to survive many days longer. These were two of the comparatively few occasions when Japanese submarines scored important successes. In fact among the many mistakes made by the Japanese must be numbered that of dispersing their substantial submarine strength far and wide in the Indian Ocean and Pacific, in pursuit of quite unimportant targets, instead of concentrating it for use in the vital areas.12 Now if ever was the chance for the Japanese to avenge Midway; but they entirely failed to seize it.


Throughout September and early October the battle swung to and fro on land, on the sea and in the air. Heavy losses were suffered by both sides, but neither could oust the other from Guadalcanal. The Americans determined to stop the nightly runs down the 'slot' by Japanese cruisers and destroyers carrying reinforcements, locally known as 'Tokyo Expresses'. Accordingly a Task Force was formed for the purpose, and on the night of the 11th-12th of October it intercepted a Japanese squadron of three heavy cruisers and two destroyers. On this occasion the battle of Savo Island was reversed, for the Japanese were caught unprepared for battle, and lost a large cruiser and two destroyers in those same waters. This encounter, called the Battle of Cape Esperance, was the second of the many deadly night actions between surface forces in the 'slot'; but it did nothing to curb the enemy's efforts. Indeed the Japanese quickened the pace with a heavy bombardment of the Henderson Field by two battleships on the 14th of October, while substantial reinforcements were being landed from transports. The land fighting reached its climax between that date and the 26th, but the Americans managed to cling to the Henderson Field. Meanwhile the Enterprise had returned to the South Pacific, where Admiral W. F. Halsey relieved Admiral Ghormley on the 18th as Commander-in- Chief. But the advantage still lay heavily with the enemy, had he but known how to use it; for Yamamoto's main fleet in these waters and in support consisted of no less than five carriers, five battleships, fourteen cruisers and forty-four destroyers.

The sinking of the Wasp made no difference to Halsey's determination to give the hard-pressed marines on Guadalcanal every support that lay within his power. His fleet was once again organised in three main groups. The first consisted of the Enterprise and the new battleship South Dakota, the second of the Hornet and cruisers, while the third was composed of the battleship Washington and more cruisers. Each group had its own destroyers for screening. Rear Admiral T. C. Kinkaid in the Enterprise was the senior officer afloat. A powerful Japanese force, which included four carriers, was operating near the Santa Cruz Islands with the same broad purpose as Halsey's relative to the fighting on Guadalcanal. Early on the 26th of October Kinkaid was ordered to attack it. Each side's search aircraft sighted the other's carriers at about 6:30 a.m., and the Americans started with the good luck of putting the Zuiho out of action with the first of the many bombs dropped that day. Then the main carrier air battle was joined. The Shokaku was so severely damaged that she was out of action for nine months; but the Japanese got her home. When the turn came for the Hornet and Enterprise to shield themselves, the defending fighters were overwhelmed and both ships were hit. The Enterprise, after some anxious


moments got her damage under control; but the Hornet was repeatedly hit, caught fire and had to be abandoned. She finally sank in the small hours of the 27th. The Japanese once again suffered heavy losses in aircraft, but the Battle of Santa Cruz, the fourth carrier air battle to be fought in six months, left the Americans for the second time with only one carrier in the South Pacific, and she was considerably damaged.

The Americans estimated that by the beginning of December the Japanese would have three or four carriers with about 250 aircraft ready for service in the South-West Pacific, besides powerful battleship and cruiser strength. Their assessment of Japanese naval air forces was, we now know, somewhat exaggerated, but the prospective disparity in aircraft carriers caused the United States Navy to turn to its principal Ally with an appeal for help. We will therefore take leave temporarily of the men fighting desperately in, over and around the embattled Solomon Islands to review the messages which passed between London and Washington on the subject. They show how easily two Allies, even two as closely tied together by blood, language and friendship as we and the Americans, can get at cross purposes.

On the 23rd of October the First Sea Lord signalled to Admiral Sir Charles Little, the head of our mission in America and Admiral Pound's representative on the Combined Chiefs of Staff Committee, that Admiral Stark (the head of the American mission in London) had suggested that 'now was a golden opportunity for positive action [by the Eastern Fleet] against the Bay of Bengal or along the Malay barrier'. Professor Morison tells us that this suggestion originated in a letter from Admiral Nimitz to Admiral King.13 The Admiralty quickly followed up its first message to Washington with another saying that they 'could not discover what they could do to relieve the pressure', and pointed out that Operation 'TORCH', which was about to be launched in North Africa, and which had been given overriding strategic priority by both governments, had 'reduced the Eastern Fleet to one carrier and two battleships'. Admiral King was apparently away from Washington when this message arrived, and Admiral Little discovered that his Chief of Staff was wholly in the dark as to who had originated the request for help. However Admiral Little persevered in discovering the American needs, and the reasons for them, and on the 27th he signalled to the First Sea Lord urging that 'one or more of the Eastern Fleet's carriers be sent to Halsey's command'. 'This', said Little, 'is a real cry for immediate help', because the Hornet had been sunk and the Enterprise was only fifty per cent efficient. Next day Admiral Pound replied that the


matter 'raises issues of the gravest importance concerning the ultimate command of the sea'. 'What', he asked, 'are the American dispositions? When and how was the Hornet sunk?'14 Admiral Little was instructed to 'tell King that we are most anxious to help, but must have a clear picture of the whole situation'. In retrospect it does seem surprising that the highest naval authorities in London should have been kept so very much in the dark regarding American dispositions, and events in the Pacific.

On the 30th Little signalled that he had seen King that day, that the American Admiral had resented what he had called 'the catechism' given to him which, so he said, did not make it appear that we wished to help; further that King had said 'he had not asked any questions over giving us Task Force 99'.15 'Both of us' said Admiral Little 'were rather ruffled'. None the less that same day Little was able to signal a full statement of American dispositions, and their assessment of the enemy's strength. On the last day of the month the Admiralty tentatively offered a fleet carrier, but asked a lot of technical questions about what aircraft she was to operate. It was they said, impossible to be more definite until operation 'TORCH' had been launched, and we knew whether we had suffered any carrier losses in it. Meanwhile Admiral Somerville, Commander-in-Chief, Eastern Fleet, had been asked how he viewed being deprived of his last carrier--a proposition which did not appeal to him at all. On the 6th of December, by which time the success of 'TORCH' was well assured, the Admiralty signalled that the Victorious was being sent to the Pacific, which left the Home Fleet without a carrier. Admiral Cunningham was therefore asked to release the Formidable, since 'two carriers with Force H are a luxury in face of the inactivity of the Italian Fleet'. Finally on the 8th Admiral Little was instructed to tell King that the Victorious and three destroyers would be ready to leave the Clyde on the 19th. We will return to the period of her service in the Pacific in a later chapter. By the time she got there and had been re-equipped to use American aircraft, the crisis had, in fact passed.

In retrospect it seems that much of this signalling and most of the misunderstanding would have been avoided had the Admiralty been fully informed of the progress of the Pacific war. Nor was the Admiralty the only place where the lack of information regarding American accomplishments, plans and intentions was felt. Admiral Somerville had quite recently told the First Sea Lord that he was only able to glean such information through unofficial channels in


Australia. It also seems certain that Admiral Nimitz's suggestion about sending a British carrier to the Pacific was passed to London without the American Navy Department having considered all aspects of the problem. Nimitz, of course, could not know all the details of operation 'TORCH', though he must have known that it was about to be launched. Admiral King and the Navy Department certainly knew all about it, knew that it had first claim on Allied resources, and that it involved the Royal Navy in very heavy commitments so long as the outcome was in the balance. Had these factors been carefully weighed in Washington, the problem might, even in face of the crisis which had arisen in the Pacific, have been viewed rather differently from the beginning. To send an aircraft carrier to fight on the other side of the world with a strange fleet is, of course, a very different matter from sending one to undertake short ferry operations such as the Wasp twice did to reinforce Malta.16 If the Victorious took out her own aircraft complement, she would find no spares or replacements in the Pacific; so it was obviously preferable that she should be re-equipped with American aircraft. Yet her aircrews would certainly have to be re-trained to fly the latter. The technical and human problems involved were undoubtedly serious. That such a transfer was not as simple a matter as Washington seems to have felt, is shown by the fact that after her arrival at Pearl Harbor early in March 1943 some time elapsed before, even with all the help the Americans could give, the Victorious was ready to work with their Pacific Fleet.17

After this digression we must return to the bitter contest on Guadalcanal. In spite of the failure of their October assaults the Japanese stuck to their intention of capturing the Henderson Field, cost what it might. Early in November cruisers and destroyers poured in reinforcements almost every night. At the same time troops and transports were being concentrated near Rabaul. For the next major attempt the Japanese planned to put the airfield out of action by battleship bombardment, and then run in powerfully escorted transports by day. The Americans were no less determined that their marines should be reinforced, and the enemy's plan defeated. On the 11th and 12th of November seven American transports successfully landed troops and stores under cover of a powerful naval force commanded by Rear-Admiral D. J. Callaghan, U.S.N., and in face of heavy air attacks. The empty transports were sent south on the evening of the 12th. Meanwhile Admiral Callaghan learnt that a large enemy force was coming down the 'slot', so he returned to the anchorage recently vacated by his transports, and prepared to meet the enemy. In the very early hours of the 13th the two forces met


almost head-on, and a furious night battle took place. As is all too likely in such circumstances there was much confusion, and the Americans lost two light cruisers and four destroyers. All their other ships were damaged, and Callaghan's flagship the San Francisco received so many hits that her upper works were riddled; but she survived. Admiral Callaghan was killed, as was Admiral Scott of the Atlanta, and casualties were very heavy. The Japanese battleship Hiyei was crippled in the night action, and was scuttled next day after numerous air attacks18; and two Japanese destroyers were also sunk. Though the balance of losses in the first phase of the Battle of Guadalcanal was in the enemy's favour, his intended bombardment of the airfield was frustrated. This enabled American aircraft to destroy all eleven Japanese transports during the next two days, a clean sweep which amply compensated for the warship losses suffered. Two nights later the battle was renewed, and there took place one of the few night actions in which capital ships were involved on both sides. The Enterprise, whose damage received on the 26th of October had been hastily patched up, and the 16-inch battleships Washington and South Dakota under Rear Admiral W. E. Lee, U.S.N., were on their way north from Noumea. The carrier was to support the defenders of Guadalcanal, and the battleships were to dispute control of the waters leading to the island. On the night of the 13th-14th a Japanese cruiser and destroyer force plastered the airfield with shells. On the afternoon of the 14th the Enterprise's aircraft sank the heavy cruiser Kinugasa, and damaged several other ships which were escorting a troop convoy. Meanwhile the Guadalcanal shore planes attacked the transports and sank seven out of eleven of them. Still the survivors came on, for Kondo was determined to bombard the airfield-that night with great strength--the battleship Kirishima, four cruisers and nine destroyers. Admiral Halsey had signalled to Lee on the 13th that his 'objective [was the] enemy transports expected . . . for Guadalcanal plus targets encountered'. Thus was the stage set for the meeting between the big ships. Shortly after 10 p.m. Admiral Lee led his two battleships round the north of Savo Island and into the narrow waters where the Japanese had gained their substantial success in the early hours of August the 9th.19 The encounter was even fiercer than its immediate predecessor. The Kirishima was so damaged that she had to be abandoned and sunk, three American and one Japanese destroyer went to the bottom, and the South Dakota was heavily hit; but she


managed to withdraw safely. This may justly be claimed as the first solid Allied victory in the Solomons campaign. Apart from his loss of another battleship, the enemy's bombardment was frustrated, and his intention to reinforce his garrison shattered. The four troopships which had survived the earlier air attacks were beached, and although 2,000 men got ashore all the stores were lost. In a short time the beached ships too were destroyed. Admiral Lee and the supporting American aircraft had dealt most adequately with the 'plus targets encountered' described in Halsey's terse definition of the battleships' objective.

These hard-fought battles put an end to Japanese attempts to dispute control of the narrow waters with their major warships, and they reverted to their earlier practice of sending down destroyers by night with stores and men. To deal with this renewal of the 'Tokyo Expresses' the Americans quickly assembled another strong cruiser and destroyer force. It was not long before it saw action. On the last night of November five American cruisers and six destroyers intercepted a column of eight enemy destroyers, which were carrying supplies for Guadalcanal. Although the Americans held the tactical advantage of surprise the Japanese destroyers got away deadly salvoes of torpedoes, and several found their marks. The heavy cruiser Northampton was sunk, and three other cruisers were severely damaged. The American historian has described this action, called the Battle of Tassafaronga, as 'a sharp defeat inflicted on an alert and superior cruiser force by a partially surprised and inferior destroyer force'.20 The principal error was without doubt to hold the destroyers rigidly in column with the cruisers, instead of freeing them to act independently as a striking force; this led inevitably to the destroyers firing their torpedoes at excessive ranges. But in addition to this the cruisers' gunnery was wildly erratic. We had learnt during the 1914-18 war, and especially from the last phase of the Battle of Jutland21, that night fighting demanded the most thorough and careful tactical and technical training if confusion was to be avoided; and in the Battle of Cape Matapan, the action off Cape Bon and in many other encounters we reaped the benefits of the constant training undertaken between the wars.22 It is difficult to say whether the special needs and difficulties of night action had been brought home as forcibly to the United States Navy; but, while admiring the way in which our Allies at once admitted and took energetic steps to rectify their errors, it is certain that the tactical handling of the American squadron was gravely at fault in the Battle of Tassafaronga.


Lastly the Japanese had shown that, in spite of their lack of modern instrumental aids to fire control, their destroyer torpedo, with its long range and exceptionally heavy explosive head, was a weapon to be feared. Many more Allied ships were to experience its effects before 'the slot' was finally cleared of enemy warships.

Tassafaronga was the last of the series of desperately fought night encounters which took place in the southern Solomons. In spite of their success on that occasion the Japanese had, taking the series of battles as a whole, undoubtedly tasted defeat. That they were aware of it is shown by their Navy's desire to withdraw from Guadalcanal towards the end of the year. It was the Japanese Army which insisted that the fight must be continued until a final decision was gained. Accordingly small reinforcements were run down in December; but these only led to more losses among their fast dwindling number of destroyers, and at the end of the year they were reduced to sending in supplies by submarine, much as we had been forced to do for Malta at the crisis of its fortunes.23 Gradually the condition of the Japanese land garrison deteriorated, and early in 1943 the decision was taken that Guadalcanal should be evacuated within a month. Once again the assertion of maritime control over adjacent waters brought decisive consequences on land.

While all these gruelling sea fights were happening in the Solomons an equally stubborn struggle was taking place in New Guinea for control of the Papuan peninsula. It will be remembered that the Battle of the Coral Sea had frustrated the enemy's purpose of capturing Port Moresby from the sea, and that after that check he decided instead to attack the base overland by crossing the wild and precipitous Owen Stanley mountains.24 To further this purpose a base and an airfield on the north coast of New Guinea was essential, and the Japanese selected the small port of Buna for these purposes .25 By the end of August 12,000 men had been landed there, and the advance across the mountains towards Moresby begun. After fierce fighting the Australians stopped the enemy in the mountains, and by the end of September he was in full retreat. Meanwhile the Allies had occupied Milne Bay on the south-east tip of Papua, and were thereby able to repel a Japanese landing on the flank of the defenders of Port Moresby. By October a strong offensive against Buna had been started by the Australians and Americans. As so often in these island campaigns, possession of an airfield, or even of a jungle landing strip was the critical object. That near Buna was the key to the hold on the Papuan peninsula, and its possession was most stubbornly contested. In spite of appalling conditions, fighting in as


bad a climate as can be found anywhere in the tropics, and having to endure the ravages of disease, the Allied troops persevered. On Christmas Day the surviving remnants of the Japanese garrison of Buna received orders to evacuate the base.

In the New Guinea campaign the chief problem of the maritime services was to provide adequate and suitable sea transport for the support and supply of the troops. The naval forces in General MacArthur's command were very slender, and almost wholly lacked the light craft so essential to combined operations. To employ transports and to escort them with cruisers and destroyers, even had these been available, would have tempted providence too far; for command of the air off the New Guinea coast was certainly not assured to the Allies. The solution was found in using Dutch and Australian coasting vessels, whose crews were familiar with those waters, and also native craft. Their services were of great value in ferrying troops along a coast which had only been inadequately surveyed many years previously. They were supported by light warships of the Royal Australian Navy, and together they proved adequate, if extemporised, substitutes for specially designed and properly equipped landing craft.

Before leaving the Pacific theatre it may be well to survey briefly the far-reaching campaign against the enemy's sea communications. In the first six months of the Pacific war the Japanese had gained control of a vast and scattered empire. Conquest had proved comparatively easy, but to exploit the resources of the captured territories and to sustain garrisons thousands of miles away from their home bases demanded a very large merchant navy. This simple need, so well known to Britain from her centuries of experience of the connection between imperial requirements and the sea, seems to have been inadequately understood by the Japanese. They embarked on their plan of aggression with only some six million tons of merchant shipping, which was barely sufficient to support their peace time economy. Though Japan gained about 800,000 tons of shipping from captures in the Far East, she still possessed nothing like adequate tonnage to meet her greatly increased commitments. Her losses in the first year's fighting reached the considerable total of a million tons; but in spite of this her rulers made little effort to build new merchant ships, or even to protect adequately those that they possessed. Surprising though it is in a maritime nation like Japan, merchant navy tonnage seems to have been regarded as readily expendable, and not as a vital war asset. To the Americans, as to ourselves, the vulnerability of Japan's long lines of communications was very plain, and our Ally immediately embarked on a large programme of submarine construction in order to attack them. There were over seventy American submarines in the Pacific at the


beginning, and about the same number of new boats were building; but their accomplishments remained disappointing for a long time. One factor which contributed to this was the poor performance and unreliability of American torpedoes.26 Immediate steps were taken to rectify these defects, but the results did not become apparent until the next phase. It is a curious fact that two nations as skilled in engineering design and production as Germany and the United States both entered the war with inefficient torpedoes.27 By contrast the Japanese torpedo was, as was mentioned earlier, a deadly weapon. It thus happened that at the end of 1942 the Achilles' Heel of the whole structure of Japan's strategy had not yet been subjected to sustained and effective attack.

While all the bitter fighting so far described was taking place in the Pacific, the Indian Ocean remained relatively quiet. But after the shock which we had suffered from Nagumo's and Ozawa's forays in the preceding April28, the Admiralty was bound to feel anxious lest a repetition should be attempted. In retrospect it seems that the effects of the American Victory of Midway, the consequences of the many battles fought near the Solomons, and Japan's obvious preoccupation with the campaign in those waters were not fully allowed for in London. Be that as it may, it is now abundantly plain that after the middle of the year there was never any real possibility of the Japanese making another foray in force into the Indian Ocean. The Admiralty, however, with the vulnerability of the vital WS convoys always in its mind, felt bound to reinforce Admiral Somerville as powerfully as possible. In May the aircraft carrier Illustrious joined his flag, but much of his strength was detached for the attack on Madagascar.29 Moreover, the Indomitable and several destroyers were then ordered home to help fight the August convoy through to Malta.30

The diversionary movement staged in the Indian Ocean at the end of July to coincide with the launching of the American assault on the southern Solomons was mentioned earlier.31 Soon after the Eastern Fleet returned to harbour from that operation, the Admiralty called home another of Somerville's carriers to replace the Indomitable, which had been damaged in the Malta convoy and could not be ready again in time to play her part in the invasion of North


Africa. The Formidable therefore left the Eastern Fleet on the 24th of August and, although the battleship Valiant had meanwhile joined Admiral Somerville's flag, his strength remained at a low ebb.

It thus happened that the Admiralty's many other pressing commitments from the Arctic to the Mediterranean prevented Somerville gaining any permanent and substantial increase in strength. By the end of August the fast squadron which provided the main deterrent against another Japanese incursion into the Indian Ocean consisted only of the Illustrious, Warspite, Valiant and two or three cruisers; and he had less than half a dozen destroyers with which to screen his fleet. Nor did matters improve in the autumn, when Somerville was first required to support the extension of operations southward from Diego Suarez in Madagascar, and then had to detach most of his destroyer strength to counter the heavy U-boat attacks which had just started off the Cape of Good Hope.32 As Somerville remarked at this time to the First Sea Lord 'the carrier striking force is at present a very poor thing. Much as I dislike having to hold off at all, I do feel very strongly that we must try to exploit our night striking to the utmost. I am convinced we have the advantage there, but I realise that good luck as well as good management will be wanted to bring off a night strike before the enemy can strike by day'.

The Prime Minister had for some time shown impatience over the apparent inactivity of the Eastern Fleet, and on the 15th of October he urged the First Sea Lord to consider whether its big ships could not be put to more profitable use in the Mediterranean. In his reply Admiral Pound said that 'the absence of Japanese surface ships in the Indian Ocean has, I think, given us an unjustified feeling of security. The Eastern Fleet is desperately weak. Every further detachment is an invitation to the Japanese to operate in the Indian Ocean. I am of the opinion therefore that we have reached a position in which we should risk neither capital ships nor carriers except to achieve some great purpose'. The Prime Minister replied that in accepting Admiral Pound's view he must not be deemed to agree with all the Naval Staff's arguments, and that in his opinion idle ships were a reproach. A week later came the request from the Navy Department for the loan of one or two British carriers to tide over the crisis which had arisen in the Pacific.33

As we look back today at these events it is very hard to see what more Admiral Somerville and the Admiralty could have done in the Indian Ocean. It was not as though the Commander-in-Chief possessed a well-trained, stable and properly integrated fleet. Ever since he arrived on the station ships had been taken away as often


as others had joined his flag; and in April he had been shown in no uncertain way what sort of opposition he might have to contend with. His deficiencies in such vital matters as bases and the shore-based air element of maritime power have already been recounted, as have the numerous extraneous commitments which he had somehow to meet. The truth is that we were still trying to fight a five-ocean war with, at the best, a two-ocean Navy. In such circumstances Somerville could only cling to the essential need to keep the WS convoys inviolate, and to preserve the flow of shipping in and across the Indian Ocean. Offensive operations must wait on an increase in his strength and a better balance in its composition.

The Admiralty's heavy cares are even more easily understood. Quite apart from the everlasting struggle in the Atlantic, in the Arctic we had taken a heavy knock in the disaster to PQ 17 in July34; and we were faced with a very powerful German surface squadron permanently threatening the exposed flank of the Russian convoy route. In the Mediterranean the August convoy to Malta had fared ill, and we had suffered heavy losses.35 Anxiety for the safety of the island on which so much, including the fate of our armies in Africa, depended was at its most acute. And looming daily nearer was the launching of operation 'TORCH'. We simply could not afford to take a gamble over the success of 'TORCH' by risking elsewhere the many and powerful ships which were needed for it. In war it is sometimes hardest of all to refrain from activity; yet the need to conserve one's strength for concentration at the vital point remains paramount. In the autumn of 1942 'TORCH' was the accepted first priority, and what the Admiralty was trying to do was to ensure its success without sacrificing any other essential. Surely that must be assessed as the essence of sound strategy. Somerville's weakness and his enforced inactivity was one of the prices we had to pay to accomplish a greater purpose than anything that could be gained in his theatre. No-one who knew that forceful commander would ever suggest that he accepted inactivity willingly.


Table of Contents
Previous Chapter (VIII) ** Next Chapter (X)

Transcribed and formatted for HTML by Rick Pitz for the HyperWar Foundation.