Episodes & Studies Volume 2
Escorting South Pacific Convoys
Escorting South Pacific Convoys
FOR FOUR DAYS following the treacherous attack on Pearl Harbour, which signalised Japan's entry into the war, HMNZS Leander was patrolling north of New Zealand. During the second half of December 1941, and most of January 1942, she was escorting ships carrying reinforcements and equipment for the New Zealand troops in Fiji.
At the beginning of February 1942 an Anzac Area was defined in the South Pacific and an Anzac Naval Force established under the command of Vice-Admiral H. F. Leary, United States Navy. The Anzac Squadron, then comprising HMAS Australia (flagship of Rear-Admiral J. G. Crace, RN), USS Chicago, HMNZS Achilles, HMNZS Leander, and the United States destroyers Perkins and Lamson, assembled at Suva on 12 February and subsequently operated in the area between Fiji and New Caledonia, in co-operation with one or more United States Task Forces.
The American effort in the Pacific was directed in the first place to countering the Japanese menace to New Zealand and Australia and securing the long lines of communication between the United States and the South Pacific. The Fiji Islands, Efate and Espiritu Santo in the New Hebrides, and Noumea in New Caledonia were selected as advanced bases. Energetic measures were taken to develop these and minor island bases for naval and air operations, as fuel and troop staging stations, and as distribution points for supplies and material. ‘The establishment of those bases was in large measure responsible for our ability to stand off the Japanese in their advance towards New Zealand and Australia. Without them we should have been at such a disadvantage that it is doubtful if the enemy could have been checked….’*
The Anzac Squadron covered the passage of numerous convoys transporting troops and material from the United States to the South Pacific, the Leander, Achilles, and other ships being detached for close-escort duty as requisite. During the first three months of the war in the Pacific, the Leander was at sea for seventy-two days and steamed 23,220 miles. Towards the end of April 1942, new areas known as the South Pacific Area and the South-West Pacific Area were constituted, and the title of Anzac Area lapsed. Subsequently, the New Zealand cruisers passed to the operational control of the United States Commander, South Pacific Area.
The Leander and Achilles and three United States destroyers, operating as Task Group 12.2, arrived at Vila, New Hebrides, on 4 May 1942, with a convoy of five ships carrying American troops and the material and supplies for the establishment of a forward base. While the ships were discharging and airfields being constructed, the New Zealand cruisers maintained a constant patrol north and west of the New Hebrides. On the day of their arrival at Vila, American carrier-borne aircraft attacked Japanese shipping carrying out landing operations at Tulagi in the southern Solomon Islands. On 7–8 May was fought the Battle of the Coral Sea, the first naval action in which the issue was decided solely by carrier-based aircraft. Both sides lost an aircraft-carrier, but the Japanese accepted defeat and abandoned their great combined operation against Port Moresby. A month later the enemy suffered another major defeat in the Battle of Midway, in which he lost four aircraft-carriers.
* Admiral E. J. King, Commander-in-Chief, United States Navy, Our Navy at War.
On 28 May the Leander landed American troops and supplies on Espiritu Santo. From the middle of June to 13 August she was engaged in escorting ships carrying the 37th Division, United States Army, from Auckland to Fiji, where they relieved the New Zealand troops.
The surprise assault landing of the United States Marines on Guadalcanal and at Tulagi, in the Solomon Islands, on 8 August 1942, opened a bitterly-fought campaign, the issue of which was vital to the security of New Zealand and Australia and of prime importance in the Pacific War. This campaign for possession of an air base on a remote and savage island at the apex of an inverted triangle, 3000 miles from Japan and 6000 miles from the United States, was a dour bout in the struggle between two great naval powers for sea and air supremacy in the Pacific. Six notable naval actions were fought and four major attempts made by the enemy to recapture the Guadalcanal airfield, while minor operations to reinforce and supply the troops on shore were carried out continuously by the Americans and the Japanese. In desperate fighting at sea, in the air, and on land, very heavy losses were suffered by both sides. At one time the Japanese came within an ace of success.
Neither the Leander nor the Achilles took part in any of the naval actions about Guadalcanal, but both were actively employed in supply operations during the six months’ campaign. Acting independently or as units of United States Task Forces, they covered the movements of a number of important convoys. On 14 September 1942, the Leander, in company with the United States cruisers Minneapolis and Boise and several destroyers, sailed from Espiritu Santo and next day met a convoy of six transports carrying 5000 United States Marines and their equipment and supplies for Guadalcanal. During the afternoon a Task Force covering this operation was attacked by Japanese submarines, which torpedoed and sank the aircraft-carrier Wasp and a destroyer and damaged the battleship North Carolina. Despite the threat of a considerable Japanese force a day's steam to the north-west, the convoy and its escorts carried on to Guadalcanal, where the sorely-needed reinforcements and supplies were landed on 18 September.
After a further period of escort duty, the Leander went to Auckland in November for an extensive refit which lasted three months. By the time she returned to active service in March 1943, under the command of Captain C. A. L. Mansergh, DSC, RN,4 formerly of the Achilles, the Guadalcanal campaign had ended and the Americans had carried their operations forward into the New Georgia Group in the central Solomons. Their major objective there was the capture of Munda airfield, and to that end landings were made on New Georgia during the last days of June.
After a visit to Pearl Harbour in May and the escorting of more convoys, HMNZS Leander joined United States Task Group 36.1 off Savo Island on 11 July, taking the place of the light cruiser Helena, which had been sunk in action against Japanese destroyers in Kula Gulf on 6 July. The Task Group, which consisted of the cruisers Honolulu (flagship of Rear-Admiral W. L. Ainsworth, USN), St. Louis, and Leander and the destroyers Nicholas, Radford, and O'Bannon,* operated off the entrance to Kula Gulf during the night of 11 July as a covering force for a number of transports which unloaded reinforcements and supplies for the American troops at Rice Anchorage.
* Honolulu and St. Louis, light cruisers, 9700 tons displacement, 100,000 horse-power (32.5 knots), fifteen 6-inch guns, eight 5-inch anti-aircraft guns. Nicholas, Radford, O'Bannon, destroyers, 2050 tons, 37 knots, five 5-inch guns, ten torpedo-tubes.
From the SUB-ANTARCTIC to the GULF OF ADEN
THE NORTH ARM OF CARNLEY HARBOUR from Musgrave Peninsula. In one of these inlets of the Auckland Islands the German ship Erlangen is said to have hidden in September 1939 while the Leander was visiting the group
ACTION IN THE INDIAN OCEAN
The Italian merchant raider Ramb I on fire after being hit by the Leander
After Kolombangara. Cement was mixed for temporary repairs to the Leander. This photograph was taken near Tulagi Beach
IN DOCK at Auckland