The Royal New Zealand Navy
CHAPTER 20 — The Struggle for Guadalcanal
The Struggle for Guadalcanal
AFTER their defeat at Midway the Japanese shelved their plans for the seizure of New Caledonia, Fiji, and Samoa1 and turned their attention once more to the capture of Port Moresby – this time by landing troops on the north-east coast of New Guinea and advancing over the Owen Stanley Mountains. This operation was to be staged from Rabaul where the existing airfields were being expanded. Others had been constructed at Gasmata, on the south coast of New Britain, at Lae and Salamaua in New Guinea, and in the northern Solomons.
The Japanese had first moved into the Solomon Islands in March 1942 and established fighter strips on Buka, the northernmost island, 170 miles from Rabaul, at Buin and Kahili on the south end of Bougainville, at Kieta on the east coast of that island, and later in the Shortland Islands near Buin. These were ultimately developed into major air bases. At Tulagi harbour in the southern Solomons, which they seized at the beginning of May, the Japanese had established a seaplane base.2 During May and June coastwatchers and reconnaissance aircraft reported much activity at Lunga at the northern end of Guadalcanal, opposite Tulagi. By 4 July, when a small force of Japanese marines landed there, the construction of a large airfield was well advanced. Less than a fortnight later, Japanese troops were landing in strength at Buna and Gona in New Guinea.
Supreme importance attached to the Solomon Islands, which extend in a south-easterly direction for some 600 miles from the Bismarcks towards the New Hebrides. In Japanese hands they were a bastion of the Pacific defence perimeter and could provide a chain of sea and air bases ideally placed for striking at New Caledonia and the New Hebrides, and at the sea communications between Australia and New Zealand and the United States. Conversely, in Allied hands they would secure that line of communications and provide advanced bases for operations against the Bismarcks and beyond.
1 On 11 July 1942 the Imperial General Headquarters finally cancelled the orders for the seizure of these islands.
2 The little island of Tulagi, administrative centre of the Solomon Islands Protectorate, lies 675 miles south-east from Rabaul, 560 miles north-west from Espiritu Santo in the New Hebrides, and about 800 miles north-north-west from Noumea in New Caledonia.
After consultations with Admiral Nimitz at Pearl Harbour and a visit to Noumea, Vice-Admiral Ghormley had arrived in New Zealand on 21 May and established his headquarters at Auckland. On 19 June he formally assumed command of all sea, air, and land forces in the South Pacific Area, with the exception of those assigned to the local defence of New Zealand. The naval command in Fiji was transferred from Commander T. S. Critchley, RNZN, to Commander Holmes, USN, as Port Director, the former becoming New Zealand naval liaison officer, Fiji.
On 2 July the United States Joint Chiefs of Staff issued their directive for offensive operations in the South Pacific in three stages as follows:
Operation WATCHTOWER to seize and occupy the Santa Cruz Islands, Tulagi, and adjacent positions. The Commander-in-Chief United States Pacific Fleet was to be in charge and the date was fixed for 1 August.
The seizure and occupation of the remainder of the Solomon Islands, Lae, Salamaua, and the north-east coast of New Guinea under the overall command of General MacArthur.
Operation WATCHTOWER, the first major Allied offensive in the Pacific, was hastily planned in New Zealand under the direction of Vice-Admiral Ghormley who, after conferring with General Mac-Arthur, postponed it to 7 August. It involved landings on Guadalcanal and at Tulagi, separated by 18 miles of sea – analogous to simultaneous landings on both sides of Cook Strait – for which air support and surface protection would be given from a common pool. The troops assigned to the landings were two regiments of the 1st Marine Division, a regiment of the 2nd Marine Division, and two battalions of Marines, totalling 19,105 officers and other ranks and commanded by Major-General A. A. Vandegrift, USMC.
1 In the event, it was not necessary to occupy the Santa Cruz Islands (east of the Solomons) in force; the execution of the second stage was divided between the South Pacific and MacArthur's forces, and several islands in the Solomons were bypassed, as was Rabaul where large Japanese forces were neutralised.
The Amphibious Force assembled at Wellington, where the United States Navy transports and supply ships arrived at intervals during May, June, and July and the waterfront became a scene of intense activity. The first echelon of Marines arrived on 14 June and was accommodated in specially constructed camps in and about Wellington.2 A convoy of four supply ships arrived on 11 July. They had been escorted from the vicinity of Bora Bora by HMNZS Achilles and the United States destroyer Walke. On the same day the second echelon of US Marines arrived from San Francisco. Two of the ships in the convoy had gone into Suva and three others went on to Australia, escorted by HMNZS Monowai and the destroyer Tucker, which returned to Auckland on 17 July. The Heywood, last of the attack transports in the convoy, arrived from Noumea on 16 July.3
All the harbour facilities of Wellington were placed at the disposal of the Americans, who were given the full and active co-operation of the naval and military authorities and the Harbour Board. The capacity of the port was taxed to the utmost to handle the requirements of the Amphibious Force, as well as normal shipping traffic. All the transports were discharged and then ‘combatloaded’ – supplies and equipment that would be needed first in the landing areas being loaded last. Operations were centralised at Aotea Quay, which accommodated five or six ships at a time, and great dumps of ammunition, fuel, and other supplies were set up there. To speed up the work all the stevedoring was done by the Marines themselves working in continuous eight-hour shifts.
1 Saratoga, 33,000 tons; speed 33 knots; 90 aircraft; sixteen 5-inch and many AA guns. Enterprise, 19,800 tons; 34 knots, 80–85 aircraft; eight 5-inch and many AA guns. Wasp, 14,700 tons; 30 knots; 80 aircraft; similar armament. North Carolina, 41,000 tons; 27 knots; nine 16-inch, twenty 5-inch, and 70 AA guns.
3 All the ‘attack transports’ were converted merchant ships ranging from 4000 tons to 10,000 tons, commissioned as units of the US Navy. All were equipped for the rapid handling of troops and equipment by means of self-propelled landing craft. They were fitted with heavy-lift gear for handling tanks and amphibious tractors.
During their stay at Wellington all the American ships, transports as well as fighting ships, kept their many anti-aircraft guns manned for action at short notice. In co-operation with RNZN vessels, antisubmarine patrols were maintained by two destroyers in Cook Strait and landing craft carrying depth-charges patrolled inside the harbour.
The assembly of the Amphibious Force was completed on 18 July, when Task Group 62.2, commanded by Rear-Admiral V. A. C. Crutchley, VC, DSC, arrived from Brisbane. This escort force consisted of the Australian cruisers Australia (flag), Canberra, and Hobart, the United States 8-inch cruisers Chicago and Salt Lake City and seven destroyers.
The Amphibious Force went to sea in the morning of 22 July 1942 in twelve transports. Screened by the destroyers, they passed out of harbour in succession, watched by thousands who speculated about their destination. On the following day the escort was joined off East Cape by the destroyers Helm and Bagley from Auckland. The force of twenty-six ships, the safeguard of considerable affairs, then shaped course for its Pacific rendezvous.
Meanwhile, the other forces were on their way south. The air-craft-carrier Wasp and her screening destroyers, which had come from the Atlantic, sailed from San Diego, California, on 1 July escorting five transports carrying the 2nd Marine Regiment. The Saratoga (flagship of Vice-Admiral Fletcher), Enterprise, and North Carolina with their cruisers and destroyers came down from Pearl Harbour. Four destroyer-transports went on to Noumea and embarked part of the Marine Raider Battalion which had been training in New Caledonia. The remainder of the raiders, numbering some two hundred, were lifted by HMNZS Monowai which, with the destroyer Tucker, arrived at Noumea on 25 July from Auckland. The troops were transhipped to the Amphibious Force at Koro Island in the Fiji Group, and the Monowai, after refuelling at Suva, returned to Auckland.
In the afternoon of 26 July the forces joined company at the rendezvous on the 180th meridian at a point 400 miles south of Koro Island. The combined fleet, numbering eighty-seven ships, then steamed to Koro Island where two landing exercises were carried page 295 out. After refuelling, the fleet sailed in the afternoon of 31 July. Six thousand miles away the British Eastern Fleet under Admiral Sir James Somerville was carrying out a sweep in the Bay of Bengal planned to prevent the transfer of Japanese air forces from the Malayan to the South Pacific Area.1 On 3 August the Amphibious Force was joined by two more transports with a battalion of Marines direct from Pearl Harbour. The ships stood on to the westward till noon on the 5th and then headed due north on the 159th meridian for Guadalcanal.
Preceded by heavy bombardments by ships and carrier aircraft, unopposed landings were made in the morning of 7 August on beaches at the northern end of Tulagi Island and eastward of Lunga Point on Guadalcanal. As successive positions in the latter area were occupied without opposition, it was evident that the small Japanese force had been completely surprised and had gone inland without waiting to destroy their plants and great quantities of stores and material. The airfield was captured intact and only required rolling to make it usable.2 Two attacks by Japanese bombers from Rabaul were driven off during the afternoon, sixteen being shot down at a cost of twelve American fighters. By nightfall about 11,000 Marines were ashore, but the unloading of the transports had to be suspended later because of congestion on the beach.
On the Tulagi side the attack on the southern end of that island3 had failed to dislodge the Japanese from caves and air-raid shelters blasted in the rock. The enemy also had most of Gavutu and Tanambogo. It was well on into the next day before these positions were cleared by the virtual extermination of their fanatical defenders. At midday on the 8th a strong force of torpedo-bombers attacked the transports. The George F. Elliott was set on fire by an aircraft which crashed on board and she became a total loss. The destroyer Jarvis was damaged by a torpedo and subsequently lost with all hands while on her way to Noumea for repairs. That night Admiral Fletcher's carriers, which had been cruising about 75 miles from Guadalcanal, retired to the south-eastward. This left the Amphibious Force without air cover, and barely half the supplies and equipment had then been unloaded from the transports.
2 The Japanese had built large camps, wharves, bridges, machine-shops, two radio stations, two electric-power plants, ice-making plants, and an elaborate air-compressor plant for torpedoes. The airfield had a 3600-ft runway, hangars, and blast pens. Anti-aircraft batteries and machine-gun emplacements had been installed.
3 Tulagi lies close to the promontory at Haleta on the south side of Florida Island, 18 miles north from Guadalcanal. Gavutu Island, joined by a causeway to Tanambogo Island, is about two miles east from Tulagi.
Evading the American destroyers on radar patrol, they made a lightning attack on the two groups of patrolling 8-inch cruisers which were quickly disabled by gunfire and torpedoes. They then steamed away to the northward, not attempting to attack the transports anchored a few miles to the eastward. The Vincennes and Quincy sank about an hour after the attack and the Astoria and HMAS Canberra, both badly battered and on fire, were sunk by torpedoes some hours later. The Chicago was badly damaged by a torpedo and a destroyer was disabled. Two Japanese cruisers sustained minor damage and another – the 8-inch Kako – was torpedoed and sunk by an American submarine near Rabaul next day.
Following this disastrous action, all the ships of the Amphibious Force were withdrawn in the evening of the 9th and shaped course for Noumea. Vandegrift and his 17,000 Marines were left without air cover or near naval support. They were short of heavy equipment, and less than half their sixty days' supplies had been landed from the transports. Fortunately, the Japanese had no troop reinforcements immediately available, but their ships – secure in their local command of the sea – bombarded the American positions day and night. The Americans, however, flew in aircraft from the New Hebrides; within a fortnight they were operating dive-bombers with such effect as to restrict the enemy to night operations. This airfield2 thus assumed a crucial importance, and it was on its capture or immobilisation that Japanese effort was centred throughout the campaign. Few of the thousands of men who fought on Guadalcanal set foot further than ten miles from the spot on which they landed.
In the afternoon of 24 August aircraft from the Saratoga found and attacked the small carrier Ryujo,1 which was set on fire and sank. A counter-attack from the Shokaku and Zuikaku damaged the carrier Enterprise. The seaplane-carrier Chitose2 was hard hit by American dive-bombers and had to return to Rabaul. During the action the Japanese lost ninety aircraft as against the American loss of twenty (eleven pilots). Their supporting force retired, leaving three destroyers to carry out a midnight bombardment of Henderson Field. The transport convoy was attacked next morning by dive-bombers from the airfield which sank a 9300-ton transport and a destroyer and badly damaged the light cruiser Jintsu. The attempt to land troops was cancelled and the enemy ships retired to the Shortland Islands.
After this defeat the Japanese began to reinforce and supply their troops on Guadalcanal by what came to be known as the ‘Tokyo Express’. Small groups of destroyers, sometimes supported by light cruisers, steamed at high speed down the ‘Slot’ – the deep-water passage between the two chains of islands – from the Short-land Islands anchorage, under cover of darkness, and made their landings at any convenient spot. They also dribbled in supplies by means of power-driven barges which travelled by night and remained hidden during daylight. Small-scale reinforcements and supplies for the US Marines were run by APDs – old destroyers modified as high-speed transports.
Vice-Admiral Fletcher's carrier forces covered the line of communications between Espiritu Santo and Guadalcanal. The importance of this route was apparent to the Japanese, who by well-planned submarine operations inflicted serious damage on the carrier forces. On 31 August the Saratoga was torpedoed and so badly damaged that she was sent to Pearl Harbour for repairs. On 6 September the carrier Hornet3 and battleship North Carolina narrowly escaped three torpedoes. Nine days later the Wasp, North Carolina, and a destroyer were torpedoed in quick succession. The carrier took fire and sank, the destroyer was lost on its way to Noumea, and the battleship had to go to Pearl Harbour for repairs. The Hornet was the only carrier remaining with the American task force.
1 Ryujo, 8500 tons; 25 knots; 30 aircraft; twelve 5-inch guns.
2 Chitose, 9000 tons; 20 knots; 20 seaplanes; eight 5-inch guns.
3 Hornet, 20,000 tons; 321/2 knots; 94 aircraft; eight 5-inch and numerous light AA guns.
The Leander continued as escort to the President Coolidge carrying American troops from Auckland to Fiji until the middle of August. She then went to Pago Pago, whence she sailed to meet a convoy from San Francisco escorted by the United States cruiser Raleigh. The latter took one ship into Pago Pago and the Leander, joined by the destroyer Cummings, went on with four others to Noumea. The Achilles and two destroyers left that port on 2 September and escorted five American transports to Nukualofa (Tonga). A few days later near Niue Island, the Achilles took charge of a convoy of five transports carrying 5000 United States Marines and supplies for Guadalcanal. The convoy went to Nukualofa, where the ships were re-stored, and the Achilles came to Auckland to undergo a refit.
After a spell of nearly six weeks at Auckland, the Monowai embarked four officers and forty-five ratings, all wounded survivors from the Canberra, sunk in the night action off Savo Island on 8 August. She called at Wellington on 11 September to embark twelve naval officers and 220 ratings from American ships sunk in that action. In company with the United States destroyer Benham, the Monowai took them to Sydney. She returned to Auckland whence she and the Wahine made two voyages carrying New Zealand troops to garrison Norfolk Island.
The Leander was the first New Zealand ship to take an active part in the Guadalcanal campaign. In company with USS McCawley (flagship of Rear-Admiral Turner) she arrived at Espiritu Santo on 10 September and, two days later, joined Task Force 641 commanded by Rear-Admiral C. H. Wright, USN. This force sailed on the 14th and next afternoon met the McCawley and five transports from Nukualofa.
Meanwhile, the second Japanese attempt on Guadalcanal had failed. Their plan was to capture Henderson Field, after which large reinforcements were to be landed to destroy the Americans. A powerfully escorted convoy of transports had put to sea, but when the attack on the airfield failed after heavy fighting on 13–14 September this force retired to the northward. The ‘Tokyo Express’ landed some troops during the night of the 15th–16th.
Turner's force arrived off Guadalcanal two days later. The Minneapolis, Boise, and Leander patrolled the anchorage area, with the destroyers as an anti-submarine screen to seaward. By seven o'clock most of the troops had landed and at the close of the day all their equipment and supplies for forty days had been unloaded. In addition, a large quantity of aviation fuel, oil, and stores had been landed from three other ships which arrived during the day. Shortly after dark the transports and their escorts sailed on their return to Espiritu Santo. At midnight a force of Japanese cruisers and destroyers arrived off Kukum and, finding the anchorage empty, bombarded the Marines' shore positions.
By the end of September the nightly sorties of the ‘Tokyo Express’ destroyers had landed virtually an entire division of Japanese troops. In order to check this constant stream of reinforcements, a cruiser task force1 left Espiritu Santo on 7 October with orders to patrol the north-western approaches to Guadalcanal by night, keeping well to the southward by day.
Shortly before midnight of 11 October a transport and two destroyers were seen landing troops on one of the beaches, and a few minutes later the task force sighted and engaged three Japanese 8-inch cruisers and two destroyers. A fierce action followed in which the cruiser Furutaka and a destroyer were sunk and the Aoba suffered severe damage and many casualties, including Rear-Admiral Goto, who was mortally wounded.2 The cruiser Kinugasa was also damaged. On the other side the Salt Lake City, Boise, and a destroyer were damaged and the destroyer Duncan sunk. After daybreak aircraft from Guadalcanal sank two Japanese destroyers. Two days later the Marines were reinforced by some 3000 Army troops. The American strength was now nearly 28,000, of whom 23,000 were on Guadalcanal and the remainder at Tulagi.
2 Furutaka, Aoba, and Kinugasa, 7100 tons; 33 knots; six 8-inch and four 4·7-inch guns; eight 24-inch torpedo-tubes. Destroyers sunk: Fubuki, Murakamo, and Natsugumo, 1700 tons; 34 knots; six 5-inch guns; nine 21-inch torpedo-tubes.
But the Japanese still enjoyed local command of the sea by night. During the night of 13–14 October two battleships, a cruiser, and eight destroyers bombarded Henderson Field for more than an hour, destroying many aircraft. The bombardment was repeated with less effect by cruisers and destroyers on the two following nights. Before dawn on the 15th the Japanese landed about 10,000 troops and equipment from six transports, three of which were sunk by aircraft from Henderson Field soon after daybreak.
In the evening of 23 October, after a heavy artillery bombardment, the Japanese land forces which had been built up to some 29,000 attacked with tanks and massed infantry along the Matanikau River, their objective being Henderson Field. There was hard fighting throughout the 24th and 25th, but the Japanese failed to break through. At this juncture Vice-Admiral Nagumo, commanding the powerful naval forces1 assigned to cover the passage of an occupation force from Buin, informed the Japanese Army commander that he would very soon have to retire owing to shortage of fuel. During the afternoon of the 25th American aircraft broke up many bomber attacks and sank the light cruiser Yura.2 That night the Japanese broke through the American lines but were driven back with heavy losses. The great attack had failed and the occupation force once again turned back.
A sequel to this defeat was a major engagement north of the Santa Cruz Islands next day between Nagumo's combined fleet and the American Task Force 613 commanded by Rear-Admiral T. C. Kinkaid. This action was fought by the carrier-borne aircraft of both sides. The Japanese carriers Zuiho and Shokaku, the heavy cruiser Chikuma, and two destroyers were severely damaged. The American carrier Hornet was completely disabled by numerous hits and had to be sunk. The Enterprise, South Dakota, San Juan, and a destroyer were damaged and a destroyer was sunk by a Japanese submarine. The enemy lost 100 aircraft shot down and the Americans 74, most of them on board their carriers.
1 These were divided into three groups, totalling 4 aircraft-carriers, 4 battleships, 10 cruisers, and 27 destroyers.
2 Yura, 5170 tons; 33 knots; seven 5·5-inch, three 3-inch guns; eight 21-inch torpedo-tubes.
3 Task Force 61 consisted of two carriers, Enterprise and Hornet, the fast battleship South Dakota, heavy cruisers Northampton, Pensacola, and Portland, light cruisers San Diego, San Juan, and Juneau, and 14 destroyers.
Before the Japanese could make good their recent losses, the United States Marines struck across the Matanikau River and by 3 November had advanced beyond Point Cruz. During the night of 2 November the ‘Tokyo Express’ destroyers landed some 1500 troops east of Koli Point, and the American advance westward was halted to meet this new threat, which was liquidated by 11 November.
Meanwhile, the Americans had landed reinforcements at Lunga and another force well to the eastward at Aola Bay to construct an additional airfield.1 Arrangements were also made to bring 6000 additional troops in two convoys, one from New Zealand. The Leander had left Espiritu Santo on 10 October for a rendezvous east of Fiji, to meet a convoy of six ships from the United States which she escorted to Auckland. She afterwards took three of them to Noumea, where they arrived on 6 November.
It was now apparent that yet another large-scale Japanese attack was imminent. On 10 November a coastwatcher reported some sixty ships in the Buin-Faisi anchorage in the Shortland Islands area. The Japanese had organised four naval task forces for the operation. Two bombardment forces were to neutralise Henderson Field, a third was to land the 38th Division and its equipment, while a fourth force gave general support. Because of damage to their carriers and the heavy losses of aircraft and pilots in the Santa Cruz action in October, no fleet air support was available and the Japanese had to rely upon land-based aircraft.
1 This site proved unsuitable and the airfield was constructed at Koli Point.
2 Four of the transports were carrying troops of the Americal Division, US Army, which had been garrisoning New Caledonia. This division, now in process of transfer to Guadalcanal, was being relieved in New Caledonia by the 3rd NZ Division. Most of the supplies in the ships had been loaded at Wellington.
Shortly after one o'clock in the morning of 13 November the two forces met near Savo Island in one of the fiercest naval actions of the war. Two Japanese destroyers were sunk and four damaged. The battleship Hiyei was hit about eighty-five times and withdrew with serious damage to her upperworks. Later in the day she was bombed and torpedoed by aircraft from Henderson Field and after dark was scuttled by her own crew. Admirals Callaghan and Scott and Captain C. Young, commanding officer of the San Francisco, were among the many killed in action. The cruisers Atlanta and Juneau2 and four destroyers were sunk. The San Francisco, Portland, and Helena and three destroyers were more or less seriously damaged.
In the early hours of 14 November an enemy force of six cruisers and four destroyers bombarded Henderson Field for more than an hour and then withdrew. During the morning they were attacked near New Georgia by aircraft from the airfield and the carrier Enterprise.3 The heavy cruiser Kinugasa was sunk and the Chokai, Maya, and Isuzu4 and two destroyers badly damaged. Despite their heavy losses, the Japanese were determined to push through reinforcements. A convoy of eleven transports escorted by light cruisers and destroyers was sighted steaming south during the afternoon and attacked by aircraft. Seven transports totalling 50,560 tons were sunk.5 Four others totalling some 27,000 tons beached themselves on Guadalcanal after dark. They were shelled and bombed and set on fire next morning. Of more than 12,000 troops in the transports, fewer than 4000 got ashore. Some thousands were drowned and the remainder rescued by Japanese ships. Very little of the thousands of tons of supplies and equipment was landed.
1 San Francisco (flag, Rear-Admiral Callaghan) and Portland, 9900 tons; 32·7 knots; nine 8-inch, eight 5-inch guns. Atlanta (flag, Rear-Admiral Scott) and Juneau, 6000 tons; 38 knots; sixteen 5-inch guns. Helena, 9700 tons; 32·5 knots; fifteen 6-inch, eight 5-inch, and sixteen 1·1-inch AA guns.
3 Task Force 16, consisting of the Enterprise, battleships Washington and South Dakota, two heavy cruisers, and eight destroyers, had arrived from Noumea in the morning of the 13th and was cruising south of Guadalcanal.
4 Kinugasa, 7100 tons; 33 knots; six 8-inch and four 4·7-inch guns; eight 24-inch torpedo-tubes. Chokai and Maya, 9850 tons; 33 knots; ten 8-inch and four 4·7-inch guns; eight 24-inch torpedo-tubes. Isuzu, 5170 tons; 33 knots; seven 5·5-inch and three 3-inch guns; eight 21-inch torpedo-tubes.
Thus ended the decisive battle of the fiercely-fought Guadalcanal campaign. In the words of the Commander-in-Chief United States Pacific Fleet: ‘In four days the fate of Guadalcanal and the fate of our campaign in the South Pacific for months to come were decided’. For a brief period the defeated and depleted Japanese naval forces abandoned their advanced base in the Shortland Islands area and withdrew to Rabaul; but it was soon seen that the enemy was making every effort to strengthen his positions in the mid-Solomons where a new airfield was being constructed at Munda, New Georgia, about 200 miles north-west from Guadalcanal.1
In view of their losses of cruisers, it was decided that HMNZS Leander should postpone her refit and do duty with the Americans. Accordingly, she left Noumea on 16 November for Espiritu Santo, where she joined Task Group 16.6 under Rear-Admiral Tisdale who was flying his flag in the heavy cruiser Pensacola. But, as ill luck would have it, the Leander was to be out of service for some months. On 19 November a crack was found in the hull plating in one of the ship's fuel tanks. She was therefore withdrawn from the task group and, escorted by a destroyer, sailed for Auckland, where she was docked for repairs and a refit which were not completed till the beginning of March 1943. Owing to ill-health which necessitated his return to England, Captain Bevan left the ship on 27 November and Commander Roskill, RN,2 assumed temporary command.
1 The construction of the Munda airfield was so cleverly concealed by the natural camouflage of coconut palms that its existence, though suspected, was not definitely verified till early December when it was nearly complete.
Meanwhile the 1st Marine Division was being relieved by Army troops from New Caledonia and on 8 December Major-General Vandegrift turned over his command to Major-General A. M. Patch. By 7 January 1943 there were more than 50,000 American troops in the Guadalcanal-Tulagi area. The greatest concentration of naval strength yet available in the South Pacific was based at Espiritu Santo and Noumea. The ships included seven battleships, two fleet aircraft-carriers, three auxiliary carriers, twelve cruisers, and numerous destroyers. The ultimate outcome of the Guadalcanal campaign was no longer in doubt and in January the Americans were able to carry the offensive into enemy waters.
2 Tenryu: 3230 tons; 33 knots; four 5.5-inch and one 3-inch guns; six torpedo-tubes.
3 The Nassau and Altamaba were two of the first US escort carriers, of which a large number were evolved from merchant ships. On a displacement of about 10,000 tons, they were given a flight deck about 450 feet in length and carried about 30 aircraft.
In the meantime, the 25th Minesweeping Flotilla had been assigned to anti-submarine and escort duties in the Guadalcanal-Tulagi area under the operational orders of the Commander South Pacific Area. The flotilla consisted of the Matai (Senior Officer), Kiwi (Lieutenant-Commander G. Bridson, DSC, RNZNVR), Moa, and Tui. They arrived off Lunga Point from Espiritu Santo on 15 December and, after refuelling and watering at Tulagi, proceeded on anti-submarine patrol. Except when they went in turn to New Zealand to refit, the ships of the flotilla remained on active service in the Solomon Islands area for two and a half years.
The Achilles took part in the final stage of the relief of the 1st Marine Division on Guadalcanal at the beginning of January 1943. Six transports and a supply ship carrying part of the 25th Division, US Army, recently arrived from the United States, sailed from Noumea on New Year's Day. They were met on the 3rd by Task Force 67 and escorted till dark. The next day the task force proceeded round Guadalcanal to a position 25 miles south of the Russell Islands. There it divided into two groups, one of which steamed at high speed to New Georgia, where it carried out a heavy bombardment of the new airfield at Munda.1 The other group, including the Achilles, patrolled to the south-eastward during the night to cover the transports which were to sail next day with the Marines for Melbourne.
The two groups of Task Force 67 rejoined next morning about 12 miles off the western end of Guadalcanal and headed east at 15 knots in fine, clear weather. The divisions were in line ahead formations, disposed abeam, Rear-Admiral Tisdale's group being to the northward in the order Honolulu (flag), Achilles, Columbia, Louisville. At 9.25 a.m. when the ships were off Cape Hunter on the south coast of Guadalcanal, a formation of four aircraft was sighted at about 12,000 feet above the Achilles. They were positively and correctly identified as American Grumman fighters. Two minutes later another group of four aircraft was seen spiralling down through the high clouds at an angle of sight of about 40 degrees ahead of the ship and the aircraft alarm was sounded.
1 A total of 4150 rounds of 6-inch and 5-inch shell was fired. The damage caused, however, was so quickly made good that aircraft were operating from the airfield in less than eighteen hours.
The Achilles was swinging to starboard when a bomb hit the top of ‘X’ turret (manned by Royal Marines), piercing the roof and exploding on the right-hand gun. The gun-house was wrecked; eleven men were killed outright, two died of wounds, and eight others were more or less seriously wounded. The explosion blew the right side of the turret overboard and split the roof in two, throwing one half on to the quarter-deck together with the Oerlikon anti-aircraft gun mounted on the turret; the other half landed upside down on the turret. Fires were confined to the turret and quickly extinguished.
It transpired later that the enemy aircraft, which approached from the direction of Guadalcanal and originally numbered ten dive-bombers and fifteen fighters, had been engaged by fighters from Henderson Field, all the bombers except the four which attacked the ships being shot down. At the time of the attack, the American fighters were short of ammunition and engaged by enemy fighters. No enemy aircraft were detected by the ships' radar until the bombing started, possibly owing to the proximity of the high land of Guadalcanal. After the attack, Task Force 67 retired at high speed to the south-eastward and covered the withdrawal of the transport convoy from Guadalcanal, arriving at Espiritu Santo on 8 January. Temporary repairs to the damaged turret of the Achilles were carried out by the American repair ship Vestal.
During January the Americans extended and consolidated their positions on Guadalcanal. Henderson Field was expanded into a first-class air base and Tulagi and Port Purvis were developed to provide facilities for fuelling and repairing ships. The Japanese troops were mostly in poor physical condition. If malaria decimated the American ranks, it caused havoc among the enemy. Of more than 21,500 Japanese casualties on Guadalcanal, some 9000 died from disease. The increasing shortage of supplies had reduced rations to less than one-third of the regular allowance and the troops were often reduced to eating grass, roots, and jungle vegetation. The nocturnal ‘Tokyo Express’ achieved little to relieve the situation, and in eleven runs to Guadalcanal between mid-November 1942 and the end of January 1943, nine destroyers were sunk and nineteen damaged. The destroyers carried rice and other supplies packed in drums, roped fifty together. These were dumped overboard off shore to float in with the tide. Many were destroyed on the reefs and more by American motor torpedo-boats and aircraft. Of more than 20,000 drums carried to Guadalcanal, the Japanese page 307 recovered less than 30 per cent. According to Japanese army officers, the troops not only did not receive the greater part of their heavy equipment but lost all but 10 per cent of their ammunition.
On 27 January 1943 a convoy of four transports loaded with supplies from Wellington and carrying troops left Noumea for Guadalcanal. In the evening of the 29th the escort force was attacked by Japanese aircraft and the cruiser Chicago was hit and disabled by two torpedoes. She was taken in tow, but next day was again attacked from the air and sunk by four torpedoes. The convoy arrived safely at Guadalcanal and, after unloading, took on board the Second Marines and part of the Eighth Marines and sailed direct for Wellington, where the troops went into camp.
The night of 29–30 January 1943 also proved eventful for two ships of the 25th Minesweeping Flotilla of the Royal New Zealand Navy. The Kiwi and Moa were patrolling one mile apart off Kamimbo Bay at the north-west end of Guadalcanal when Able Seaman McVinnie,1 on asdic watch in the former ship, obtained a ‘contact’ at 3000 yards with a vessel immediately identified as a submarine. The Kiwi at once altered course toward the enemy and increased to full speed to attack with depth-charges. The Moa kept her course to act as ‘asdic directing vessel’.
The phosphorescent outline of the submarine could be plainly seen when the Kiwi dropped a ‘pattern’ of six depth-charges, one of which fell in the wake of the periscope. The Kiwi carried on to open out the range and regain asdic contact, which normally is lost at close range or marred by depth-charge explosions. Contact was regained at 900 yards, but was lost during the run in for a second attack and no depth-charges were dropped. The range was then opened out to about 1300 yards and the Kiwi regained contact as she reversed course. This time she dropped six depth-charges. The submarine was forced to surface with its electric motors apparently disabled and, using its diesel engines, shaped course to escape in the darkness under the high land of Guadalcanal.
The Kiwi and Moa turned toward the enemy at full speed, firing star shells and high explosive. The Moa scored a hit with her third round. The submarine opened fire with its 5-inch gun, two shells passing close over the Kiwi and three over the Moa. At 400 yards, the enemy being nearly beam-on, the Kiwi opened up with her 20-millimetre and machine guns and prepared to ram, the Moa assisting by firing star shells.
1 Able Seaman E. McVinnie, RNZNVR, m.i.d.; born Opua, Bay of Islands, 3 Oct 1919; refrigerating engineer.
During this stage of the action the Kiwi's searchlight and signalling lamp kept the submarine well illuminated and the star shell fired by the Moa lit up the whole area. The searchlight was controlled by Acting Leading Signalman Buchanan,2 who, though mortally wounded by machine-gun fire, remained quietly at his post during the action until he was relieved.
Keeping up a hot fire at close range, which was returned briefly by troops on the submarine's deck, the Kiwi steamed in to ram a third time. She struck the submarine on the starboard side abaft the conning tower, rode up on to its deck while fuel-oil spouted over her bows, and lay there listing heavily to port, still firing every gun that would bear. The shock of collision threw a number of Japanese into the sea. The Kiwi had to work her engines hard astern to break clear and, as she did so, oil was seen to be pouring from the submarine, which was well down by the stern. The action had now lasted for nearly an hour, the Kiwi's 4-inch gun was too hot to use and, as she had damaged herself in the ramming bouts and her asdic gear was out of action, she hauled off to give the Moa a clear target.
1 Japanese official records show that Lieutenant-Commander Eiichi Sakamoto, commanding officer of the submarine, was killed in action.
The ammunition expended by the Kiwi and Moa was 58 rounds of 4-inch (which included seventeen definite and several probable hits), 1250 rounds of 20-millimetre shell, and 3500 rounds of machine-gun and rifle fire. It was remarkable that in this bold and resolute action there was only one casualty in the New Zealand ships. As a result of ramming the submarine, the Kiwi's stem was stove-in and buckled from the first plate below the sheerstrake and as far back as the fifth frame. She also sustained minor damage by gunfire and was sent to Auckland for repairs.
Inspections of the wrecked submarine, which was identified as I-1 by HMNZS Matai and an American salvage vessel, revealed extensive damage. The wreck contained food and medical supplies, obviously intended to be landed at Kamimbo Bay. The American divers estimated that there were from forty to fifty bodies in various compartments.1 The submarine's torpedo-tubes, four forward and two aft, were loaded with 21-inch torpedoes.
The I-1 was a formidable opponent to be engaged by the Kiwi and Moa. The submarine measured 320 feet in length — more than twice that of the New Zealand ships — with a surface displacement of 1955 tons (2500 tons submerged) compared with their 600 tons, and a speed of about 18 knots as against their 12 ½ knots. The I-1 mounted a 5-inch gun (weight of shell, 82 lb) a six-pounder, and one or two machine guns. The armament of the Kiwi and Moa was one 4-inch gun (weight of shell, 31 lb), one Oerlikon 20-millimetre gun (two in Kiwi), two ·303 machine guns, and forty depth-charges. The I-1 had seen war service in the Aleutian Islands area, the Indian Ocean and the South Pacific, and had completed several exceptionally long cruises.
1 According to Japanese official records 66 men got ashore from I-1, but that number possibly included some of the troops. The crew complement of I-1 was 8 officers and 85 ratings.
All the members of the Moa's gun's crew suffered burns and several were wounded by splinters. During and after the action they were tended by Steward Barton,1 who, with complete disregard for his own severe wound, worked for one and a half hours until he collapsed. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal, having already been mentioned in despatches for his good work during the action with the Japanese submarine.
At the end of December Imperial General Headquarters in Tokyo cancelled the Guadalcanal operation and on 4 January ordered Imamura and Vice-Admiral Kusaka, commanding the South-Eastern Fleet, to evacuate Guadalcanal and hold defensive positions in New Georgia. The remnants of the Japanese 17th Army began their withdrawal toward Cape Esperance on the night of 22–23 January 1943, fighting a series of delaying actions as they went. Flotillas of destroyers steamed south under cover of darkness and evacuated some 13,000 sickly troops during the nights of 1–2, 4–5, and 7–8 February. When the Americans advancing along the north coast joined up at Cape Esperance on 9 February with a force that had landed on the south-west coast on the 1st, they found only a few stragglers and some abandoned landing craft and supplies.
The Guadalcanal campaign, waged for possession of an airfield on a savage island 3000 miles from Japan, 6000 miles from the United States, and 2000 miles from New Zealand, secured the Allied sea communications between Australia, New Zealand, and America. Japan, with her limited shipbuilding potential, suffered losses in fighting ships and transports that she could ill afford and was unable to make good. There was a brief period during which the Allied naval losses caused some embarrassment, but these were quickly replaced by new and powerful ships of the immense building programme of the United States Navy, which less than a year later had attained an overwhelming strength in every category.