Warships – Destroyers and Escorts (Part 6)

It is worth noting that the Japanese, during the course of the Pacific campaign, came to appreciate that all their warships lacked the firepower to cope with saturation attacks by American warplanes, and in the surviving ‘Akitsuki’ class destroyers, the defensive anti-aircraft armament was steadily increased to 50 25-mm guns. In the first half of the Pacific campaign of World War II, the Japanese proved themselves particularly adept in the art of destroyer combat, for they had long thought about the tactics required for this type of warfare and undertaken very considerable training in this type of engagement, which required quick analysis of the tactical situation and the arrival at tactically astute solutions. The Japanese skills in light surface warfare were nowhere more apparent than in the Solomon Islands.

Sea Battles in the Solomons
In May 1942 the Japanese were consolidating their hold on the Solomons. From bases in these islands they could threaten not only the New Hebrides and Fiji but also Australia and, perhaps most importantly of all, the American lines of maritime communication between the USA at their north-eastern end and New Zealand and Australia at their south-western end. With the strategic initiative wrested from the Japanese by the US Navy’s success in the Battle of Midway at the beginning of June 1942, though, the Americans determined that the Solomons would be the point at which Japan’s flow of outward expansion would finally be halted. The decisive point in the battle that was therefore about to erupt was the island of Guadalcanal in the south-eastern part of the Solomons. The island was in itself strategically unimportant, but the fighting for its possession was the focus of American and Japanese efforts for nearly six months. By a time early in July 1942 the Americans were preparing themselves to mount their first amphibious operation of World War II, an operation that was brought forward as far and as fast as was possible when aerial photo-reconnaissance revealed that the Japanese were building an airstrip on Guadalcanal and a seaplane base on neighbouring Tulagi. Virtually unopposed, the landing took place on 7 August and two days later it seemed that the Americans had only to complete the mopping-up process.

On the night of 9 August, however, Vice-Admiral Gunichi Mikawa’s cruisers swept into the area and savaged an American and Australian cruiser force off Savo Island. In itself, this defeat of part of the forces covering the American landing area on Guadalcanal was only a tactical success, for Mikawa failed to press his advantage and descend on the now poorly protected force of transports lying off the northern shore of Guadalcanal. Even though the American transports were not attacked, the commander of the assault force felt it only prudent to pull back, and in the process leaving 16,000 US Marines unsupported on the island. Working feverishly in great heat and high humidity, the USMC’s engineers had completed the Japanese airstrip by 15 August with the name Henderson Field, and this airstrip was to play a crucial role in the campaign that now followed. The completion of the airstrip allowed small quantities of essential supplies to be flown in, and larger quantities were delivered by destroyers and fast transports that made the run to and from the island under cover of darkness. During the night of 17/18 August a Japanese force of high-speed transports, escorted by seven large destroyers, landed almost 1,000 troops on Guadalcanal as the start of the Japanese effort to retain Guadalcanal. Its speed was just high enough for the force to get in and out again in darkness, and the night activities of this force soon became so regular that the American nicknamed it the ‘Tokyo Express’. For a week the Japanese ran in small numbers of men to build up their strength to the point at which the reconquest of the island could be contemplated, but even at this early stage of the campaign the Japanese had to undertake their movements by night as American air power by day was virtually complete. During the early hours of 22 August the destroyer Blue, which was one of the radar pickets that had been so ineffective a fortnight previously in the Battle of Savo Island, was one of two such pickets sent to interdict the Japanese. Again the American ships were surprised and the Blue was so badly damaged by torpedoes from the Japanese destroyer Kawakaze that it was later scuttled.

On 24 August the Japanese attempted a direct assault. While the inconclusive Battle of the Eastern Solomons was being fought between the main fleets to tie down the US Navy’s main strength, a Japanese bombardment force of four destroyers under the redoubtable Rear-Admiral Raizo Tanaka escorted a group of transports down ‘The Slot’, the long channel dividing the double chain of the Solomons. The destroyers shelled Henderson Field but had one transport set on fire and the destroyer Mutsuki disabled because it tarried and was overtaken by daylight. The landing was called off, and the Mutsuki was scuttled. By launching his ‘Tokyo Express’ raids from Shortland Island, just off the south-eastern tip of Bougainville island at the north-western end of the Solomons (therefore closer to Guadalcanal than the main Japanese base at Rabaul on New Britain island to the north of New Guinea), Tanaka was able to shorten the trip that his ships had to complete in one night but nonetheless remained out of the range of the Douglas SBD Dauntless dive-bombers now based on Henderson Field. Three destroyers landed 350 men on the night of 26/27 August and 130 more men during the following night. Now slightly over-confident, the Japanese left too early on the next round-trip operation and were caught at dusk, losing the Asagiri together with the troops and equipment embarked on this destroyer. As the ‘Tokyo Express’ became more firmly established, it became the standard practice for the destroyers to undertake a short bombardment of Henderson Field after they had landed their troops and supplies. On 5/6 September the American destroyer/transports Gregory and Little sought to intervene, and were sunk for their pains.

Short-lived stalemate
By mid-September the situation on Guadalcanal had become something of a stalemate as neither side possessed the strength to overwhelm the other. It was at this stage that the Japanese made Guadalcanal a high-priority objective, and rotated the destroyers of the ‘Tokyo Express’ through a rapid modification that saw a considerable boost in their stowage and anti-aircraft weapons through the removal of some main-battery weapon; the torpedo armament was left unaltered. Supplemented by powered barges, the destroyers now built up the Japanese strength on the island for what the Japanese high command anticipated would be the decisive offensive. The Americans had greater strength on the island than the Japanese had estimated, however, and the defeat of the Japanese offensive meant that the ‘Tokyo Express’ had to ferry in the replacements that were now urgently needed. The Americans meanwhile landed 4,000 more men of the US Marine Corps at the cost of the carrier Wasp and a destroyer from the covering force. During October the destroyer force under Tanaka’s command achieved a major success, the nightly deliveries by the ‘Tokyo Express’ accomplishing the delivery of 20,000 men and considerable quantities of vital equipment. The American warplanes based on Henderson Field were a constant thorn in the side of the Japanese effort, however, and on the night of 11/12 October four Japanese heavy cruisers, under the command of Rear Admiral Aritomo Goto, swept down ‘The Slot’ as escort to a convoy and also to undertake a major bombardment of the airstrip and its surrounding area. However, the Japanese cruisers encountered a superior American force, under Rear Admiral Norman Scott, that had been covering one of their own landings. In the resulting Battle of Cape Esperance, the Japanese were taken unawares and the American cruiser line crossed the ‘T’ of the Japanese cruiser line, the Japanese losing one cruiser and one destroyer in the resulting firefight. Two ‘Tokyo Express’ destroyers were also sunk by aircraft at dawn.

Henderson Field, Guadalcanal, in April 1943By now the Japanese had decided that the destruction of Henderson Field was essential to any possibility of Japanese success on Guadalcanal. Japanese aircraft which bombed the airstrip undertook two heavy daylight bombing raids during 13 October, hampered repairs to the cratered runways with artillery fire and finally, after the fall of night, steamed in two battle-cruisers which, in the course of a 90-minute bombardment, struck at the airstrip with more than 900 14-in (356-mm) shells: the result of this Japanese effort was the destruction of 48 American aircraft and most of the airstrip’s aviation fuel. More bombing on the following day was followed by 150 8-in (203-mm) shells from two heavy cruisers during the night. At the same time the ‘Tokyo Express’ escorted a transport force that delivered more men and equipment and then, believing that Henderson Field was out of action, lay offshore during the day. Putting into the air everything that they could muster, the Americans sank three transports and forced Tanaka to pull back with his destroyers.

On the night of 15/16 October, Tanaka returned with heavy cruisers and hit Henderson Field with 900 8-in (203-mm) and 300 5-in (127-mm) shells. Even so, the defenders of Henderson Field were able to check the ground assault that the Japanese launched between 22 and 26 October in what was later to be proved their final effort to overwhelm the Americans. The destroyer force under Tanaka, who believed that it was now safe to provide fire support for the army by day, was given a very heavy battering by American artillery. All too aware of the drain that was being imposed on their resources by the continuing campaign on and around Guadalcanal, the Japanese now brought in stronger elements of the Combined Fleet to tackle the US Navy’s forces, now under the command of Admiral William F. Halsey.

Battle of Guadalcanal
This led to the Battle of Santa Cruz on 26 October. Though suffering a prohibitively expensive toll in aircraft and pilots, the Japanese succeeded in adding the carrier Hornet to the cost of Guadalcanal to the Americans. During the first 10 days of November, Tanaka ran 65 destroyer sorties to boost the Japanese forces ashore on Guadalcanal. As a result the Japanese then had a 1,000-man advantage over the American force of 29,000 men. In the process the ‘Tokyo Express’ suffered damage to three destroyers. On 12 November the Japanese used a convoy of 11 transport vessels, escorted by 11 destroyers and covered by a force including two battleships, to deliver 13,000 more men. Warned by their intelligence service of the Japanese plan, the Americans were ready for the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal: on 13 November the battle degenerated into a confused mêlée, the Americans losing four destroyers and two cruisers against the Japanese loss of one battleship and two destroyers. Undeterred, the Japanese returned during the following night, Henderson Field being on the receiving end of 1,400 shells from cruisers and destroyers in a mere 30 minutes. However, the break of day found the airstrip still able to launch aircraft, which found the bombardment force and sank one heavy cruiser. The shelling of Henderson Field had achieved its primary objective of diverting attention from the destroyers of the ‘Tokyo Express’, which had escorted 10 transport ships to deliver more men and supplies: six of the transports fell victim to air attack and the other four were beached to guarantee that their loads could be delivered. Cover was provided by other substantial forces which penetrated down ‘The Slot’: near Savo Island the battle-cruiser Kirishima was destroyed by the fire of the battleship Washington and, with two American and one Japanese destroyer, thus became another wreck on the bed of what was now known as ‘Ironbottom Sound’. Only 2,000 of 7,000 Japanese troops got ashore to bolster the Japanese forces, which were now outnumbered by 40,000 men to 25,000.

US marines rest in the field on Guadalcanal
Only the destroyers of the ‘Tokyo Express’ could now save the situation for the Japanese. Tanaka’s ships, now beginning to suffer from the effects of constant service and high-speed running without proper maintenance, could deliver supplies only by pushing them overboard in rubberised containers for possible recovery by the men on Guadalcanal. During the night of 30 November eight of Tanaka’s destroyers, cluttered with supplies and personnel, were surprised by an American force of five cruisers and six destroyers off Tassafaronga in the Battle of Rennell Island. The well trained and now highly experienced Japanese reacted rapidly with salvoes of potent 24-in (610-mm) ‘Long Lance’ torpedoes, while the less experienced Americans betrayed their positions by reliance on radar-directed gun fire. As a result the Americans had four of their cruisers torpedoed, one of them sinking, while the Japanese lost one destroyer but had turned a potential defeat into victory and still delivered the goods.

The first part of December was characterised by high-speed runs of up to 10 destroyers at a time. The operation on 12 December lost the destroyer Teruzuki to torpedo attack by a PT boat. The pace of operations without air superiority was now telling in terms of a massive tiredness of men and ships, and the Japanese therefore suspended their effort until the next moonless period, which was in the early part of January 1943. By this time, however, the Japanese had decided that their forces could not retake Guadalcanal and therefore opted for an evacuation. On 14 January the ‘Tokyo Express’ delivered 600 high-grade troops to act as rearguard while the remnants of the forces on Guadalcanal were extricated. Under the command of Rear Admiral Tomiji Koyanagi, who had replaced Tanaka, the Japanese used one cruiser and 20 destroyers to evacuate the surviving 13,000 men from Guadalcanal in the period between 2 and 7 February. The Americans did not realise what was happening, so the only Japanese loss was a destroyer that fell victim to a mine. Guadalcanal cost the Americans about 1,600 ground troops and a large number of sailors, while the Japanese lost more than 23,000 men. Each side had lost 24 ships of destroyer size or greater in the course of many skirmishes and seven major actions. The Japanese naval forces, experienced but outnumbered, performed with great skill and courage, while the Americans were at first very inexperienced but fought with courage and soon learned the required skills to emerge from the Guadalcanal campaign as experienced victors who could look forward to the next campaign with high expectations.

So far as convoy escorts were concerned, the Japanese suffered heavily as a result of the erroneous thinking of their high command, which had persistently based its planning on the concept of a quick victory and therefore ignored the possibility of a protracted war and a long defensive effort in which Japan would be strangled by American submarine and air power unless vital convoys could be protected. The belated realisation that such ships were desperately needed resulted in the ‘Matsu’ class of escorts, of which only 17 of a planned 28 were completed in 1944 and 1945 with a full-load displacement of 1,530 tons, an armament of three 5-in (127-mm) guns in one twin and one single mountings, 24 25-mm anti-aircraft guns in four triple and 12 single mountings, and four 24-in (610-mm) torpedo tubes in a quadruple mounting, and the speed of 27.5 kt on the 19,000 hp (14165 kW) delivered to two shafts by geared steam turbines. Another and somewhat more austerely equipped escort was planned as the ‘Tachibana’ class type of which more than 90 were planned, 27 laid down and only a few completed.


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