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The Pacific

I: The Navy in the Solomons

page 240

I: The Navy in the Solomons

IN addition to convoy duty in the Pacific, which was undertaken by ships of the Royal New Zealand Naval Squadron from the outbreak of hostilities, two New Zealand cruisers were damaged in action while fighting under American command in the battle for the Solomons. Corvettes of the squadrons also took part and lent valuable assistance, particularly during the struggle for Guadalcanal, where they were engaged on submarine patrol work.

Following one of several bombardments of the Munda airfield, in New Georgia, by surface craft, HMNZS Achilles, commanded by Captain C. A. L. Mansergh, DSC, RN,1 was damaged and forced to retire from service with Halsey's naval forces. On the night of 4–5 January 1943, a task force of four cruisers and three destroyers commanded by Rear-Admiral Mahlon S. Tisdale, in the cruiser Honolulu, patrolled off Guadalcanal while another task force bombarded Munda in the first co-ordinated night action of surface craft, aircraft, and submarines. Next morning, as both forces joined and steamed off Cape Hunter, Guadalcanal, they were surprised by four Japanese Aichi dive-bombers which came from the direction of Henderson Field and were mistaken for friendly aircraft.2 The enemy planes dived on the line of cruisers before

1 Rear-Admiral C. A. L. Mansergh, CB, DSC, m.i.d., US Silver Star; born England, 7 Oct 1898; served First World War, 1914–18 (DSC); captain HMNZS Achilles, 1942–43; HMNZS Leander, Feb-Oct 1943; promoted Rear-Admiral, 1948.

2 Bombardments of Munda and Vila-Stanmore, combat narrative by Office of Naval Intelligence, US Navy (p. 13) and Admiralty battle summary No. 21, Naval Operations in the Campaign for Guadalcanal (p. 75).

Captain Mansergh's report on the engagement, dated 17 Jan 1943, reads in part:

‘The armament was manned by the AA Defence Watch, the highest degree of antiaircraft readiness short of action stations, namely, all 4-inch guns and control manned, seven Oerlikons manned, “B” and “X” turrets skeleton-manned for barrage fire and all lookouts posted.

‘At 0925 a formation of four American Grumman fighters was sighted at about 12,000 feet immediately above the ship. These aircraft were positively and correctly identified as American machines. Two minutes later a further group of four aircraft were sighted spiralling down through the clouds at an angle of sight of about 40 degrees ahead of the ship and the aircraft alarm was sounded.

‘The aircraft followed one another in quick succession, the first three attacking Honolulu without success and the fourth attacking Achilles. The ship was swinging slightly to starboard when a bomb hit the top of “X” turret, piercing the roof and exploding on top of the right gun….’

page break Black and White Map of Pacific Ocean page break page 241 the Allied ships began firing, and a bomb from the third Japanese plane scored a direct hit on the roof of No. 3 gun turret of Achilles. It penetrated the one-inch steel plates and exploded on the cradle of the right gun, wrecking the gun house and killing six of the crew. Seven others were wounded. The right side of the turret was blown into the sea. The force of the explosion split the roof, one half of which was thrown on to the quarter deck; the other half turned upside down in the air and came down again on the turret. Fires were quickly extinguished. An American naval report recorded that Achilles, hero of the Battle of the River Plate, ‘took the damage in her stride and never lost position. Her A/A fire continued throughout the brief engagement.’

A few months later, during the progress of the battle for Munda airfield, strong naval forces periodically swept the waters of Kula Gulf, between New Georgia Island and Kolombangara, for the dual purpose of bombarding Japanese installations and concentrations ashore and holding off determined attempts to reinforce garrisons established near Rice Anchorage and at Bairoko Harbour and Enogai Inlet. By this time the line of the Tokyo Express had been reduced in length but it was still running under cover of darkness. These expeditions to contain enemy activity developed a further series of naval engagements, in one of which, the Battle of Kolombangara, HMNZS Leander was gravely damaged. She was commanded by Mansergh and for some months had been on convoy duty to Fiji, the New Hebrides, and Guadalcanal. On 11 July the Leander joined Rear-Admiral W. L. Ainsworth's task force to replace the cruiser Helena, which had been torpedoed in the Battle of Kula Gulf a week previously after surviving twelve major naval engagements in the Solomons. That night Ainsworth's force protected a convoy landing munitions and supplies for units fighting in the jungle, and after returning to Tulagi to replenish fuel and munitions was again ordered north to disrupt any enemy forces bringing reinforcements to New Georgia. Ainsworth moved out of Tulagi on the evening of 12 July, and on the journey north hugged the coast of Santa Isabel because of bright moonlight. Because the Leander's radar was inferior to that of the American cruisers, she was placed between Ainsworth's flagship, the Honolulu, and the St. Louis. Soon after one o'clock on the morning of 13 July, a Japanese force led by the light cruiser Jintsu was encountered off Kolombangara, and about twenty minutes after the action began the Leander was struck by a torpedo, after firing four herself, just as she was straightening up after completing a turn. Defects in the TBS system caused the page 242 Leander and several of the United States destroyers to miss an executive signal, and the situation was further complicated by dense smoke from flashless powder.

The Leander came round promptly after seeing the movement of the flagship through a rent in the smoke clouds, but there was considerable bunching at the turn and drastic avoiding action had to be taken to prevent collisions as the cruisers and destroyers came into line again. The Leander was hit by a torpedo while executing this movement. The explosion tore a hole in her port side and flooded No. 1 boiler room; No. 2 boiler room had to be abandoned; the ship's electrical installations failed and five fuel tanks were wrecked. Seven men were killed. One gun crew and the upper deck fire party, numbering 21 all ranks, were swept overboard and the ship travelled some distance before this was noticed. Fifteen men were injured but the ship's crew, many of them in action for the first time, behaved like veterans throughout the engagement and afterwards. Two American destroyers, the Radford and the Jenkins, were detached by Ainsworth to escort the Leander 200 miles back to Tulagi, where she remained for a week before returning to Auckland. The American force lost heavily in this action, which continued after the Leander was struck. Both cruisers, Honolulu and St. Louis, were damaged by enemy torpedoes, the destroyer Gwin was lost, and two other destroyers damaged in a collision. The Jintsu was sunk.

New Zealand's little ships, the 600-ton corvettes, added a well-documented page to the country's naval tradition while they worked as part of the American naval command. Six of them spent lengthy periods in the forward zone and were actively engaged round Guadalcanal, working from a base at Tulagi before and after the Japanese evacuation, and afterwards as far north as Green Islands, moving forward as naval bases were established on recaptured islands. Except for periods of refit in New Zealand, these corvettes remained in the Solomons until the end of the campaign. They constituted the 25 Minesweeping Flotilla, South Pacific Command—HMNZS Moa, commanded by Lieutenant-Commander P. Phipps, RNZNVR; HMNZS Kiwi, commanded by Lieutenant-Commander G. Bridson, RNZNVR; HMNZS Tui, commanded by Lieutenant-Commander J. G. Hilliard, RNZNVR; HMNZS Matai, commanded by Commander A. D. Holden, RNZNR, senior officer of the flotilla; HMNZS Gale, commanded by Lieutenant-Commander C. MacLeod, RNZNR; and HMNZS Breeze, commanded by Lieutenant-Commander A. O. Horler, RNZNR. These last two were small coastal ships taken over by the Government early in the war. Holden was page 243 relieved by Phipps on 21 August 1944, and in December of that year HMNZS Arabis arrived in the Solomons to relieve Matai, and he transferred to her. From June 1945 until the end of the war two months later HMNZS Arbutus, commanded by Lieutenant N. D. Blair, RNZNVR, served with the British Pacific Fleet as an escort and radio and radar servicing vessel with the fleet train.

The corvettes' first ‘kill’ was one of Japan's submarine fleet operating with land forces at the time the evacuation of Guadalcanal began, the I-1, of 1970 tons. She was destroyed in a combined action by Kiwi and Moa on the night of 29 January 1943. In heavy rain squalls which limited visibility, they were on patrol off the northern tip of Guadalcanal opposite Kamimbo Bay when the Kiwi's Asdic officer, Sub-Lieutenant D. H. Graham,1 reported a contact 3000 yards away, the maximum range. It was then five minutes past nine. Further contacts confirmed the presence of the enemy submarine, and the Kiwi went into the attack, dropping six depth charges as she closed the distance between them, until the submarine could be seen outlined in the phosphorescence which is such a feature of tropical waters at night. A second release of depth charges forced the submarine to surface about 2000 yards away, and the Kiwi, being the nearer vessel, raced towards her with machine and 20-millimetre guns blazing and her searchlight, operated by Leading Signalman Howard Buchanan,2 playing on the enemy vessel. The Moa supported her sister ship, firing star shells to illuminate the murky tropic night. Both corvettes were outclassed by the submarine's heavier armament which by now had come into action. The Kiwi decided to ram her from about 150 yards. She struck the submarine on the port side to the rear of the conning tower, but was unable to cut through the ship's heavy plating. The Kiwi's guns put the submarine's 5.5-inch gun out of action, but her machine and six-pounder guns were still operating. Although he was mortally wounded and died later in the night, Buchanan continued to operate the Kiwi's searchlight, holding the enemy ship in its beam. Bridson3 decided to ram again, but as the submarine had begun to move towards the shore the two ships met at a glancing angle. Bridson quickly manœuvred and rammed a third time, this time with success, for the Kiwi slid up on the submarine's deck, spilling the Japanese crew into the water. As she retracted from this dangerous position, oil spouted from the submarine's tanks.

1 Lt D. H. Graham, m.i.d.; born Feilding, 25 Jun 1919; law student.

2 Ldg Sigmn C. H. Buchanan, m.i.d., US Navy Cross; born Port Chalmers, 7 Apr 1920 factory employee; died of wounds, Tulagi, 31 Jan 1943.

3 Cdr G. Bridson, DSO, DSC, VRD, US Navy Cross; Auckland; born Wellington, 2 Dec 1909; commercial traveller; served in HMS Walnut (RN) and HMNZS Kiwi; Naval Officer-in-Charge, Lyttelton.

page 244 The Kiwi's guns, which had been in action almost continuously for an hour, were now too hot to continue the fight. The Moa took over and scored more hits on the submarine, which struck a reef and sank before she could reach the shore. The Hon. Walter Nash later took I-1's flag back to New Zealand.

The Moa remained on patrol for the remainder of that night, and then, in company with the Tui, fought an engagement the following night off Cape Esperance, from which the Japanese had begun evacuating their troops. The two corvettes engaged four Japanese landing barges and sank two of them. Cordite on the Moa caught fire when she was struck by an enemy shell, but the flames were extinguished before any great damage was done.

As soon as the Japanese evacuation of Guadalcanal was confirmed, preparations were made by 14 Corps headquarters to move into the Russell Islands, a group farther north and most suitable for navy and air staging bases. To the Moa fell the task of carrying the first reconnaissance party there, and on the night of 17 February selected officers of 43 US Division and others from Navy and Marine units moved from Guadalcanal to Renard Sound, in the south of the group, where they were put ashore in darkness, only to be told by the natives that the Japanese had gone.

The Moa was lost at Tulagi two months later during one of the last concentrated Japanese air attacks on shipping lying in the channel between Florida and Guadalcanal and in Tulagi Harbour. Thirty-three of 117 enemy aircraft were shot down on 7 April 1943, but not before they had wrecked the New Zealand corvette, sunk an American destroyer and an LST, and damaged three cargo vessels. One 500-pound bomb struck the Moa near the bridge, passed through Phipps's cabin, and exploded below. Five ratings were killed, seven seriously injured, and Phipps1 and seven other ratings injured.

The following August the corvette Tui was primarily responsible for the destruction of Japanese submarine I-17, a craft of 2563 tons, which had shelled the Californian coast in February 1942. Early on the afternoon of 19 August the Tui left Noumea, New Caledonia, to escort two American supply ships to Espiritu Santo. Sixty miles south-east of Noumea, her Asdic operator recorded a contact and she made three runs over the area, dropping depth charges before proceeding on her way, but without confirming the presence of the enemy. Later that afternoon aircraft on patrol over the approaches to Noumea Harbour asked the Tui to

1 Cdr P. Phipps; Wellington; born Whitby, England, 7 Jun 1909; bank officer; served in HMS Bay (RN) and HMNZS Scarba, Moa, Matai and Arabis; wounded, Tulagi, 7 Apr 1943.

page 245 investigate smoke on the horizon, and at 7.15 o'clock that evening she sighted the conning tower of the submarine which had been forced to the surface by the depth charges. The corvette opened fire at extreme range as the submarine tried to escape in the evening light, but she was ultimately sunk by aircraft. Six survivors of a crew of 97 were rescued by the Tui. I-17, which had spent from April to June in waters round Fiji, Tonga and Samoa, carried one reconnaissance aircraft and had a cruising range of 14,000 miles.

Until the Solomons campaign ended, New Zealand corvettes undertook tours of duty at anchorages of the various islands where ground forces were operating. When elements of 3 Division occupied the Treasury Group, they did patrol duty in Blanche Harbour and again at Green Islands, protecting the cargo ships which lay off the entrance to the lagoon. When the American forces landed in Empress Augusta Bay to establish a perimeter, the Breeze on the night of 1–2 November laid mines off Cape Moltke to protect surface craft unloading in the bay off Torokina.

‘The alert and courageous actions of the crews of these gallant little ships merits the highest praise’, Halsey observed in a report on their activities.