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The Battle of Cape Esperance: “One Learns More from Adversity than Success

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Winston Churchill noted:

Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.

These words are as true as the day that he penned them. Individuals, as well as organizations often learn more from failure than success. Failure, real or perceived often proves more valuable to ultimate success than being successful and never having failed. In the case portrayed in this article, the lessons apply to the military, specifically the Navy, but they are applicable to individuals as well as organizations. As General and former Secretary of State Colin Powell noted:

There are no secrets to success. It is the result of preparation, hard work, and learning from failure. 

Failure is a great teacher. I know that I have learned more from failure than success. Success often made me complacent and led to failure. I have learned more from the difficult times than the good times. So, on to the article…

Naval battles between U.S. Navy and Imperial Japanese Navy surface forces around Guadalcanal in 1942 were almost always brief and bloody. The number of ships from both sides sunk in the waters around Guadalcanal, and the islands near it: Tulagi and Savo Island, led to the area being nicknamed “Iron Bottom Sound.” Over fifty ships and craft would be interred in the waters around Guadalcanal by the end of the campaign. These numbers included 2 battleships, 8 cruisers, and 22 destroyers.

The battles around Guadalcanal occurred in a time of technical transition for the United States Navy as its radar became better at detecting ships and fire direction systems advanced in their accuracy and targeting ability. While almost all U.S. warships had radar primarily the SC search radar and FC Fire Control radar, not many U.S. Navy warships had the advanced SG surface search radar. But it was not just a matter of technology, it was a matter of training and experience. Their opponents, the Imperial Japanese Navy had very few ships equipped with radar, but their training for surface actions, especially night fighting where their superior optics, gunnery skills, and torpedoes proved deadly during the first year of the war before U.S. Navy crews mastered their technology edge.

By October 1942 the U.S. Marines battling on Guadalcanal were fighting an enemy growing in numbers on the ground even as they felt the effects of the the predatory Japanese surface raiders that routinely bombarded their positions and endangered U.S. resupply efforts.

                                                  USS Helena

Since the Marine, Navy and Army Air Force Squadrons based on Guadalcanal maintained air superiority in the nearby waters during the day the Japanese were limited to night surface operations against the island. These operations involving the reinforcement and resupply of Japanese Forces on the island as well as offensive naval gunfire operations to aid the land forces in which Japanese warships attempted to destroy or degrade Henderson Field.

                                              Henderson Field

The first major operations mounted by the Japanese was in early August when a Japanese cruiser destroyer force ravaged the U.S. cruiser forces off Savo Island. The Japanese inflicted the worst defeat of an American naval squadron, sinking 3 American and one Australian Heavy cruiser while damaging another. The battle was a disaster for the U.S. forces and led to the early withdraw of transport and supply ships of the invasion force before many could finish unloading the equipment and supplies that were critical to the operation. In that operation radar played no role for U.S. forces, and sets were either turned off or not relied upon by commanders. Admiral Richmond Turner noted:

“The Navy was still obsessed with a strong feeling of technical and mental superiority over the enemy. In spite of ample evidence as to enemy capabilities, most of our officers and men despised the enemy and felt themselves sure victors in all encounters under any circumstances. The net result of all this was a fatal lethargy of mind which induced a confidence without readiness, and a routine acceptance of outworn peacetime standards of conduct. I believe that this psychological factor, as a cause of our defeat, was even more important than the element of surprise”

Despite this admission it would take several more engagements in the waters around Guadalcanal before the U.S. Navy fully appreciated the superiority of Japanese optics, training in night fighting, and their deadly 24″ “Long Lance” torpedoes. It would not be until 1943 that the U.S. Navy began to exploit its advantage in radar and use it to their advantage in night surface actions.

                        The Tokyo Express Route along the Slot

Japanese resupply and reinforcement operations to Guadalcanal were so frequent that the Japanese forces were nicknamed the Tokyo Express by the Americans. Knowing that the Marines who had been in bitter combat with the Japanese needed reinforcements the U.S. sent a convoy to land the 164th Infantry Regiment of the Americal Division on October 13th.  To protect the convoy the U.S. Navy dispatched a surface task force, TF-64composed of the Cruisers USS San Francisco, USS Boise, USS Salt Lake City and USS Helena and 5 destroyers under the command of Rear Admiral Norman Scott to protect it from any Japanese surface threats.

                        IJN Heavy Cruiser Aoba after the battle

The U.S. move to reinforce Guadalcanal coincided with a Japanese effort to reinforce their forced on the island. They Imperial Navy sent a covering force of three heavy cruisers, the Aoba, Furutuka and Kinugasa and two destroyers under the command of Rear Admiral Arimoto Goto. In addition to protecting the landing force, the Japanese cruisers were to bombard Henderson Field. Since the Japanese were not expecting any American surface forces to oppose their effort, their plan would go awry.

                                    Rear Admiral Arimoto Goto

The Japanese were detected by aerial reconnaissance on the afternoon of the 10th when they were still about 200 miles from Guadalcanal. Scott, whose forces lacked experience in night surface combat made a simple plan to “cross the T” of the enemy force in a single line formation with three destroyers in the van, the cruisers in the center and two destroyers in the rear.

                                  Rear Admiral Norman Scott

U.S. floatplanes from the American cruisers detected the Japanese at 2300 hours. At 2322 the radar of the USS Helena picked up the Japanese force at a range of about 27,000 yards. However misunderstandings of Scott’s orders aboard his flagship broke his formation and put the van destroyers out of position in the poor visibility of the moonless night. The confusion caused Scott to believe that the radar contacts were his own destroyers.

The Japanese still did not realize that an American force was near them and continued on. At 2345 the ships were only about 5,000 yards apart when Helena radioed Scott asking permission to fire. The message was received by Scott who acknowledged his receipt of the message did not grant permission open fire. However, his response of “roger” was mistaken as permission to open fire by Helena. The American cruiser opened fire on the Japanese aided by her SG and FC radars. She was followed by the other cruisers which opened a devastating fire on the Japanese force.

The Japanese task force was completely surprised, they had not expected to encounter American surface ships and failed to be on alert. Goto’s lookouts had sight the Americans at 2343 but assumed that they were friendly Japanese ships. The result was that the Americans inflicted heavy damage to the Japanese flagship, the heavy cruiser Aoba and left Goto mortally wounded.

                                 IJN Heavy Cruiser Furutaka

Scott was taken by surprise by the action of his cruisers and ordered ceasefire at 2347 thinking that he was shooting at his own destroyers. Four minutes later he ordered his ships to resume fire at 2351. At 2349 the heavy cruiser Furutaka was heavily damaged by American fire and at 2358 she was was hit by a torpedo fired by the destroyer Buchanan. The Japanese destroyer Fubuki was mortally wounded about the same time and began to sink. The U.S. destroyers Duncan and Farenholt were both damaged in the crossfire with Duncan so badly damaged that she would be abandoned and sunk.

                                                      USS Duncan

Instead of continuing to rely on radar the American cruisers turned on their searchlights which provided the last Japanese cruiser, Kinugasa the opportunity to hit them hard. Kinugasa’s gunners heavily damaged Boise and but for a certain amount of luck would have sunk the American ship. One shell hit the number one turret setting fires in it, while another hit below the waterline and detonated in the forward 6″ magazine threatening to blow the ship to pieces but the onrushing water from the hit doused the flames and saved the ship. Despite that Boise was out of action with over 100 casualties, all of the forward magazine and handling crews were all killed.

As Boise sheared away from the action, Kinugasa and Salt Lake City exchanged fire, each hitting each other before the Japanese cruiser broke off the action.

The commander of the Japanese reinforcement group, his mission completed dispatched his destroyers to assist Goto’s force at it withdrew and rescue survivors. However these ships were caught by U.S. aircraft from Henderson Field as the light of the dawn lit the sky. The destroyers Murakumo and Natsugumo were heavily damaged, abandoned, and scuttled by the Japanese.

On the 13th the American reinforcement convoy arrived, as did Japanese reinforcements later that night. On the night the 13th, the Japanese battleships Kongo and Haruna  conducted an attack which most destroyed Henderson Field. However, the resilient Marines kept the airfield operational as the Marines of the 1st Marine Division and the nearly arrived soldiers of the 164th Regiment held off a major Japanese assault from 23-26 October, known as the Battle of Henderson Field or Bloody Ridge.

Scott’s Task Force 64 lost one destroyer sunk and two cruisers damaged while the Japanese lost one cruiser and three destroyers sunk, with two cruisers damaged in the action.

The Japanese flagship Aoba was severely damaged by nearly 40 6” and 8” shells fired by the American cruisers. Her bridge was shattered and her number three turret destroyed. The damage knocked her out of the war for four months and the number three turret would not be replaced. On the American side the heavily damaged Boise was sent to the East Coast for repairs while Salt Lake City was repaired at Pearl Harbor. The battle had lasted less than 50 minutes from the time Helena picked up the Japanese force on her radar.

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                                             USS Salt Lake City

The battle was a tactical victory for the U.S. Navy. However, the Navy did not learn  but the lessons of the battle about the power of Japanese torpedoes and effectiveness in night combat. While he Scott maintained a cool head and reacted to the situation with great courage he assumed that his deployment of his ships in a line formation coupled with superior American gunnery had won the battle. However, his ignorance on the proper use of the various types of radar used by the U.S. Navy meant that he and other American commanders would continue to misuse it and rely on searchlights and recognition lights during night surface actions. Likewise, he made the false assumption that Japanese torpedoes were no longer a threat.

This caused other U.S. task forces to have to learn the hard way in the subsequent engagements of the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal and the Battle of Tassafaronga. Rear Admiral Scott would not long survive his victory. He was killed in action aboard the USS Atlanta during the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal just a month later. The great American naval historian of the Second World War, Samuel Elliott Morrison wrote:

“So, because we won the Battle of Cape Esperance, serious tactical defects were carried over into subsequent engagements with unfortunate results. One learns more from adversity than from success.” 

While the battle helped inspire American confidence, it was not a strategic victory. Japanese forces nearly destroyed Henderson Field on the night of the 13th, and the the most decisive battles were yet to come.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under history, leadership, Military, Navy Ships, US Navy, world war two in the pacific

The Treaty Cruisers: A Warship Review

Note: Since childhood I have loved naval history and the study of various types of warship design throughout history. My favorite period is really from the Spanish-American War through the mid 1970’s.  I find the leaps in Naval design and architecture, weapons and fire control systems and the diversity of the types of ships built absolutely fascinating.  Not only initial designs but the various modifications and modernizations of various ships or classes of ships went through during their service careers. The cruisers of the inter-war period were some of the most ascetically pleasing warships to ever grace the high seas. They were well proportioned, and graceful while still looking every part the warship.  This is something that many ships in our modern era lack, despite the fact that their armament despite limited gun power is formidable. With VLS launchers and Harpoon Missile tubes they pack a punch, but unlike the old cruisers, their offensive teeth are hidden. I had the privilege of serving aboard the USS HUE CITY CG-66 which is about the same size and displacement of the Chester Class

I think I actually began reading Naval history back in 2nd or 3rd grade, and it was not uncommon for me to spend hours at the public library going through reference stacks to read old issues of “Jane’s Fighting Ships” and the main collection to check out every book on Naval Warfare and warships that I could find. One of the most interesting types of ship to me was the Heavy Cruisers built under the restrictions of the Washington Naval Treaty. The treaty had several major provisions but today I only deal with the restrictions on Heavy Cruisers, the response of treaty nations to the limitations and the combat summary of each class.  This is all pretty much out of the deep recesses of my sometimes dark mind and tonight I didn’t have to crack a book to write this.  It’s thanks to having one of those phonographic memories that just keeps going around and around. This is another one of the things that I am passionate about.  Anchor’s Away! Peace, Steve+

atago

IJN Atago

The Washington Naval Conference of 1921-1922 set a number of limits on warship construction and fleet composition.  One of the ship types limited by the treaties was cruisers, notably heavy cruisers.  These ships, descended from the Armored Cruisers developed by the navies of the great powers prior to the First World War were considered a major part of each of the navies of the signatory nations.  The armored cruisers had 8-10 inch guns and a relatively substantial armored belt.  The type was not particularly successful as with few exceptions they were used in fleet actions where they were under-gunned and under-armored.  They were most successfully used in overseas service against raiders or commerce.  The most famous of the type were the German Scharnhorst and Gneisenau of the German Far East Squadron.  Smaller and faster than a battleship, the type had developed by the 1920s into a ship that could be used for fleet screening and scouting as well as showing the flag in foreign waters where many were found.  The Washington treaty did not limit numbers of these ships as it did Battleships and Aircraft Carriers, but it did place maximums on the gun size and displacement of individual ships.   A heavy cruiser could be armed with 8 inch guns and were limited to 10,000 tons displacement.  Of course this led to compromises in the designs of the ships which frequently gave up protection for speed.

uss pensacolaUSS Pensacola

The Americans were the leaders in the development of the treaty cruisers.  The Japanese only built one class of cruiser, the Kako class which complied with the terms of the treaty.  They mounted 6- 8” guns and displaced about 8,600 tons.  They were fast but because of their light displacement were top-heavy.  Subsequent classes, the Nachi and Atago classes violated the tonnage limits by as much as 4,000 tons while the Japanese reported them as 10,000 tons. They were armed with 10-8”guns in five turrets, had good protection and also mounted 12 24” “Long Lance” torpedo tubes.  Two subsequent cruisers of the Kumano and Tone classes were built in the 1930s. The Kumano class of about 13,000 tons were initially classed as “light cruisers” mounting 15- 6” guns prior to being re-armed with 10-8” guns.  The Tone’s mounted 8- 8”guns in 4 turrets all mounted forward leaving the entire aft section for use as a seaplane launching area; the Tone class carried 8 float planes for fleet scouting.

hms exeterHMS Exeter

The British treaty cruisers abided by the limits included the York and Exeter, of the same displacement and armament as the Kako class except they were slower, a common feature of British ships which were generally slower than their American and Japanese counterparts.  The later County class ships were armed with 8- 8” guns and were distinctive looking having three funnels. The County class included such famous ships as the Norfolk, Suffolk and Dorsetshire which played critical roles in the chase and sinking of the German Battleship Bismarck. Australia had two Counties, the Australia and Canberra which did most of their service in the Pacific. The Counties were armed with 8- 8” guns and were distinctive with their three funnels.  They were slower than their Japanese or American counterparts.

uss houstonUSS Houston with President Roosevelt Aboard

The first American treaty cruisers the Pensacola and Salt Lake City of about 9,500 tons with an unusual arrangement of 10- 8” guns mounted in 4 turrets.  However it was the Chester class which was the quintessential U.S. Treaty Cruiser design.  These ships, and the later Astoria class, also displaced 9,500-10,000 tons and mounted 9- 8” guns in three turrets.  A further “treaty” cruiser was Wichita, converted from a St. Louis class light cruiser. All were fast but were lacking in armored protection and none mounted the torpedoes found in Japanese or British ships.  Some of the more notable ships in the U.S. treaty classes included the Houston which served as the Flagship of the Asiatic Fleet which was sunk at the Battle of the Java Sea. The Augusta which took Franklin D Roosevelt to Argentia for the signing of the Atlantic Charter in 1941; The San Francisco which helped stop the Japanese fleet in a point blank encounter in the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal and Indianapolis which with just weeks left in the war having completed the secret mission to deliver the Atomic bomb was sunk by a Japanese submarine.

PrinzEugen-2Prinz Eugen

The Germans did not build true “heavy cruisers” until the late 1930’s and their ships, the Hipper, Blucher and Prinz Eugen mounted 8- 8” guns and displaced about 19,000 tons.  The German “Pocket Battleships” Deutschland, Graf Spee and Admiral Scheer, mounted 6-11” guns on a hull of about 11,000 tons (officially 10,000) in compliance with the Treaty of Versailles restrictions on German battleships.  They were designed to outgun and be more heavily armored than the heavy cruisers and be faster than battleships, much more in the Armored Cruiser tradition.  During the war the German Navy reclassified them as Heavy Cruisers. None of these ships were built under the treaty limits for cruisers.

hms suffolkHMS Suffolk

These ships saw distinguished service throughout the war.  The British ships remained their only heavy cruiser design throughout the war. The ships took part in the sinking of the Graf Spee and Bismarck. They also suffered heavily; York was sunk at Crete and Exeter in the Java Sea. Cumberland and Dorsetshire were sunk by Admiral Nagumo’s carriers which had attacked Pearl Harbor, in the Indian Ocean. Canberra was sunk at the Battle of Savo Island off Guadalcanal.  Some of the British Ships remained in service until the 1950s and all eventually we paid off and sent to the breakers.

The Japanese ships were involved in almost every major action of the Pacific war.  Fast, heavily armed and manned by well trained crews they dominated almost every surface action of the early war in the Pacific.  The were key at the Battle of Java Sea and Savo Island where they annihilated Allied or American cruiser and destroyer squadrons. In action so often they were destroyed leaving only two marginally operational at the end of the war. Three of the four Kako class were lost in the Solomon’s.  They were all involved at Savo Island, and the last survivor, Aoba was lost at in harbor to U.S. air strikes at Yokosuka at the close of the war.  The Nachi class saw considerable service and were the workhorses of the Japanese cruiser force. They were the principle executioners of the ABDA fleet in the Java Sea battles and continued their service until late 1944 and the end of the war. Nachi and Ashigara were sunk in the aftermath of Leyte Gulf while Haguro fought the last surface action of a major Japanese combatant in a surface action of the war against a British force in 1945 and was sunk. and Myoko survived the war in a damaged condition being surrendered in Singapore.  The Chokai class also served throughout the war and three of the four were lost at Leyte Gulf. The Atago and Maya were lost to the U.S. Submarines Darter and Dace, Chokai in the action at Samar to combined U.S. destroyer and air attacks from TAFFY-3. Takao survived the war in a damaged condition having been torpedoed at Leyte Gulf but making port.  Of the later cruisers Mikuma was sunk at Midway and Mogami survived almost unimaginable damage in that battle.  Mogami was sunk by the resurrected Pearl Harbor Battleships at the Battle of Surigo Strait while Kumano and Suzaya were lost off Samar.  Chikuma and Tone also served in many battles, it was Tone’s float plane which was delayed in launching and discovered the U.S. carriers at Midway too late. Chikuma too was lost at Samar; Tone was sunk at anchor at Yokosuka in 1945.  Leyte Gulf in a sense could be described as the “Death Ride” of the Japanese Cruiser force.

The U.S. cruisers fought valiantly in nearly every engagement of the Pacific war and a few in the Atlantic.  Houston was immortalized by her actions with ABDA in the Java Sea against hopeless odds.  Astoria, Vincennes and Quincy were sunk in the Savo Island debacle.  Northampton and Chicago lost also in later actions in the Solomon’s.  San Francisco and Portland fought toe to toe with the Japanese Battleships Hiei and Kirishima in the epic Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, inflicting so much damage on Hiei that she was later sunk by American Aircraft the following day.  Indianapolis met an unlikely fate at the close of the war being sunk by a Japanese submarine after returning from a secret mission delivering the Atomic bomb.  A series of unfortunate events led to her loss not being noted with the result that most of the survivors of the sinking being lost to the elements and shark attacks while waiting days for rescue.   Others survived horrific damage from “Long Lance” torpedoes and Kamikaze attacks.  Following the war the Pensacola’s were expended as targets and the remaining ships placed in “mothballs” until the late 1950s when all were scrapped.  Some artifacts of San Francisco including her mast are at “Land’s End” park in that city.

uss san franciscoUSS San Fransisco Returning After the  Naval Battle of Guadalcanal

Of all the navies involved only the United States Navy and German Kriegsmarine built or attempted to build new classes of heavy cruisers during the war.  The US Navy brought out the Baltimore Class which was highly successful and built upon lessons learned from the Treaty Cruisers and the follow on Oregon City class which incorporated design improvements based on experience with the Baltimore Class.  Some of these ships would be converted into the first US Guided Missile Cruisers. The later Des Moines Class the largest class of all gun cruisers ever built with fully automated 8″ gun systems.  Of these ships only Salem survives in Quincy MA as a museum ship, sadly the Des Moines which had been slated to become a Museum ship in Milwaukee was scrapped in 2007 .

No treaty cruiser survives today.  Their service, heroic, unceasing and tireless service is remembered only by their surviving crews and a few naval historians and buffs.  The epic damage control actions of the San Francisco are still taught at the Naval Surface Warfare School.  They have passed into history, of those sunk some have been rediscovered, the Ballard expedition discovered and photographed the wrecks of Astoria and Quincy and their Australian consort Canberra in the waters of “Iron Bottom Sound” off Guadalcanal.  The German “Prinz Eugen” though not a treaty cruiser survived the war and was expended as a target in the Atomic bomb tests.  Her wreck lies capsized and submerged at Bikini Atoll.  An attempt to salvage her by a German group was abandoned and one of her screws was brought back and placed on display near Kiel, Germany.

Though all had design drawbacks due to the treaties, the American and British ships performed magnificently and without their service, especially in the early days of the war history today might be different.  Here’s to gallant ships and steadfast crews. May they never be forgotten.

Peace,

Steve+

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