The Battle of Tassafaronga, off Guadalcanal

United States Navy Task Force 67 just before the Battle of Tassafaronga on November 30, 1942. USS Fletcher is in the foreground, followed by other destroyers and, in the distance, cruisers.

The Japanese were now struggling to maintain supplies to their troops on Guadalcanal, where the surrounding sea was fiercely contested. Henderson Air Field had been reinforced and the US planes made daylight re-supply missions by shipping impossible.

The Japanese had started sending munitions by a nightly submarine drop but this was only able to provide the bare minimum that was needed. Now they resorted to half filling oil drums with supplies – these would be tied together in long chains and would be dropped at night to float in the water. They would then be pulled in to the shore by the land forces.

The plan was for Japanese fast destroyers to deliver the first of these drops on the night of the 30th November. Coastwatchers were able to spot the departure of this force – the intelligence was passed along and the US Navy despatched Task Force 67 to intercept. The US ships should have been well placed to effect an ambush as they had the significant advantage of Radar on a proportion of their ships. The US ships did identify the Japanese force by Radar and launched 24 torpedoes at them.

If most, or even any, of the 24 torpedoes had hit their targets the subsequent controversies about the Battle of Tassafaronga would probably have never emerged. Unfortunately they did not. The US Navy had yet to recognise that their Mark 15 torpedoes used from ships, like their Mark 14 torpedoes on submarines, were not effective. Amongst other problems they usually ran too deep and passed under the ships they were targeted at.

So in this action when the Japanese realised they were under attack they were able to swiftly respond. Their Long Lance torpedoes were very effective and did terrible damage to the US ships.

USS Minneapolis at Tulagi with torpedo damage a few hours after the battle, on December 1, 1942

USS New Orleans near Tulagi on 1 December 1942. The bow was blown off forward of turret two during the Battle of Tassafaronga the night before, killing 180+ of the ship’s crew.

On the USS New Orleans a torpedo hit ignited the forward magazine and blew the whole of the front of the ship off.

Herbert Brown, a seaman on USS New Orleans described the scene after the torpedo hit:

I had to see. I walked alongside the silent turret two and was stopped by a lifeline stretched from the outboard port lifeline to the side of the turret. Thank God it was there, for one more step and I would have pitched head first into the dark water thirty feet below. The bow was gone. One hundred and twenty five feet of ship and number one main battery turret with three 8 inch guns were gone. Eighteen hundred tons of ship were gone. Oh my God, all those guys I went through boot camp with – all gone.

A close up of damage to the USS Pensacola during the battle of Tassafaronga.

The Battle did, however, prove to be a turning point. Despite the damage done to the US ships the Japanese were still unable to complete the resupply mission. Subsequent attempts to drop resupply loads in the water were shot up by the US planes from Guadalcanal. Soon the Japanese had to recognise that their attempt to dislodge the US forces from Guadalcanal had failed and they would have to withdraw. They would be retreating all the way back across the Pacific to Japan for the rest of the war.

It is striking how both the Japanese and the Germans were forced to recognise, by the harsh realities of war, that they were over-extended. In the space of little over a week both discovered that their most advanced units could not make any further progress and were in fact isolated and vulnerable. But the strategists in both countries took a very long time to face up to what that really meant.

The U.S. Navy heavy cruiser USS New Orleans (CA-32) camouflaged at Tulagi, Solomon Islands, some days after she was torpedoed during the Battle of Tassafaronga on 30 November 1942. Note that her stern is riding high, and that her forward end is low in the water. The torpedo and subsequent explosion had severed her bow between No.1 and No.2 eight-inch gun turrets.

See Navy Department, Office of Naval Intelligence, Combat Narrative for much more.

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