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Episodes & Studies Volume 2

Night Action off Kolombangara

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Night Action off Kolombangara

THE TASK GROUP returned to Tulagi for fuel during the forenoon of Monday, 12 July, and sailed at 5 p.m. for the Kula Gulf area, having been reinforced by six destroyers—Taylor, Buchanan, Woodworth, Maury, Gwin, and Ralph Talbot.* These ships were from three different flotillas, had not worked together with the cruisers, and had not functioned at any time as a single tactical unit under the group commander. The high command ‘fully appreciated the situation, but felt that the advantages to be gained justified the risks involved’.

After leaving Tulagi the Task Group steamed fast on a north-westerly course close along the coast of Santa Isabel Island to avoid being silhouetted against the bright moon, which was about three-quarters full and not due to set until 2.15 a.m. By midnight, course had been altered to approximately due west and the ships were heading towards Visuvisu Point, the northernmost tip of New Georgia. About half an hour later the first enemy report was received from a patrolling Catalina, which had sighted six ships steaming about south-east by east at 25 knots. Thereafter, various signals were received amplifying the information and reporting the enemy force as one light cruiser and five destroyers. The Task Group, steaming west at 28 knots, assumed a line ahead battle formation. The five van destroyers were about three miles ahead, and the rear destroyers about the same distance astern of the flagship, but some of the latter were not properly in station when the action started. The cruisers were about 1000 yards apart, the Honolulu (flagship) leading the Leander and St. Louis in that order. The sea was calm and the sky clear, except to the westward where the moon was setting behind a bank of clouds.

According to a captured Japanese document, the enemy force consisted of the light cruiser Jintsu (flagship of an unnamed rear-admiral) and the destroyers Yukikaze, Hamakaze, Mikatsuki, Kiyonami, and Yugure.** They were operating as a supporting force for a transport group consisting of the destroyers Satsuki, Minatsuki, Matsukaze, and Yunagi. The latter ships, which were running troops and supplies to Japanese positions at the head of Kula Gulf and which kept well over toward the steep coastline of Kolombangara, were not sighted at any time.

It was a minute before one o'clock when the enemy ships began to appear on the American radar screens. Four minutes later the van destroyers reported the enemy in sight at a distance of 16,500 yards. Steaming on almost reciprocal courses, the two forces were closing each other at the rate of a mile a minute. At 1.9 a.m. Admiral Ainsworth ordered his destroyers to attack with torpedoes, and there began another swift, fierce night action of the pattern common to the Solomon Islands campaign. During the next ten minutes the leading destroyers discharged twenty-six torpedoes and those in the rear, though badly bunched, got off twenty-five. The Leander fired four from her starboard tubes, but these probably all passed south of the enemy.

* Taylor, destroyer, 2050 tons, 37 knots, five 5-inch guns, ten torpedo-tubes. Gwin, 1630 tons, 36.5 knots, five 5-inch guns, ten torpedo-tubes. Buchanan and Woodworth, 1630 tons, 36.5 knots, four 5-inch guns, five torpedo-tubes. Maury and Ralph Talbot, 1500 tons, 36.5 knots, four 5-inch guns, eight torpedo-tubes.

** Jintsu, 5900 tons, six 5.5-inch guns, eight 21-inch torpedo-tubes, 33 knots. Yukikaze, Hamakaze, and Kiyonami, 2000 tons, six 5-inch guns, eight 24-inch torpedo-tubes, 34 ½ knots. Yugure, 1600 tons, five 5-inch guns, eight 24-inch torpedo-tubes, 34 knots. Mikatsuki, four 4.7-inch guns, six 24-inch torpedo-tubes, 34 knots.

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The first torpedoes had barely started to run when the Jintsu, second ship in the enemy line, exposed a searchlight on the leading American destroyers, opened fire, and discharged torpedoes. Almost instantly she became a target for the rapid gunfire of the Honolulu, Leander, and St. Louis, the New Zealand cruiser opening at a range of 11,000 yards. The Jintsu's searchlight was extinguished almost at once, and thereafter the cruisers used radar ranges and the indications of hits on the enemy's ships and his gun flashes as points of aim. By this time it was intensely dark, the moon being completely hidden behind dense rain clouds. The Japanese account of the action says that the Jintsu was ‘exposed to a concentrated fire, so, together with the Mikatsuki, she ducked into a squall and disappeared to the eastward’. The Jintsu took no further part in the action and must have sunk soon afterwards. According to two survivors who were picked up by an American destroyer three days later, there was a heavy explosion in the forepart of the cruiser, which they thought was caused by a torpedo-hit. Another Japanese account of the action says that the Jintsu ‘achieved a heroic end, with the admiral, his staff, the commanding officer, and all but a very few witnesses heroically killed’.

Immediately after the Jintsu had opened fire, the destroyers Yukikaze, Hamakaze, Kiyonami, and Yugure followed suit and, at a mean range of 6500 yards, discharged twenty-nine torpedoes, all of which were of the 24-inch type, with warheads of 1200 lb. These were well on their way when Rear-Admiral Ainsworth passed a signal to his ships by TBS radio* to make a turn of 180 degrees to port together, but as a result of defects in the system, the ‘executive’ order was not received in the Leander and was missed by all the rear destroyers except the Ralph Talbot. All the ships were firing hard and the situation was complicated by the dense smoke from the guns. It was seen through a gap in the smoke that the Honolulu had started to turn to port, and as the initial formation was ‘port quarter line’, drastic action had to be taken by the Leander to avoid collision, and she checked fire after getting off twenty-one broadsides. The Ralph Talbot was ‘forced to put her engines full astern, manoeuvre radically, and use whistle signals to avoid the other four destroyers which were standing on at thirty knots’.

* Inter-ship voice radio communication.