A naval battle New Zealand should remember

Many people will not be aware, but last night 12-13 November was the 75th Anniversary of the first phase of the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal. This was the naval battle that finally eliminated any threat of a Japanese invasion of Australia or New Zealand in World War 2.

The Guadalcanal campaign started on 07 August 1942. Three months earlier the United States Navy (U.S.N.)had stopped the Japanese task force trying to attack the Papua New Guinean capital of Port Moresby. However another strand of that task force had successfully landed at Guadalcanal and had started building an airfield. This would put most of the Solomon Islands and eastern Australia within bombing range. The Americans concluded that this was an unacceptable threat and had to be stopped.

The invasion started okay, but the naval forces protecting got the surprise of their lives on the night of 08-09 August 1942 when a Japanese raiding force sank 3 American and an Australian cruiser. Thus began 4 months of naval battles intermixed with brief but bloody ground battles each time a wave of reinforcements came ashore. 3 major land battles and a host of smaller skirmishes were reported during this time with large loss of Japanese life.

By mid September the Americans had local air superiority. However the Japanese were still the better at night fighting. But this did not stop significant naval clashes. Between mid-August and early November, there was:

  1. The Battle of the Eastern Solomons
  2. The Battle of Cape Esperance
  3. The Battle of Santa Cruz Island

All of these were attempts to establish naval superiority in the area, but also to support the landings of ground forces or to bombard Henderson Field in order to put the American air power there out of business. None of them were cheap – across the three battles the Americans lost 2 carriers, 2 destroyers with 2 cruisers and 3 more destroyers damaged and 500 dead; the Japanese losses were a carrier, 2 destroyers, 2 cruisers with several cruisers, destroyers and carriers damaged with about 1,000 killed.

But for all the losses, neither side had gained clear superiority. Both had no invested substantial forces both at sea around Guadalcanal and onshore. For the Japanese, Guadalcanal was starting to become prohibitively expensive. For the Americans, it was an island that simply had to be held onto if they were to stop Japanese expansion. Thus the scene was set for what was described as a bar room brawl and one of the last exchanges between battleships.

The Naval Battle of Guadalcanal happened in two phases:

  1. An all in brawl on the night of 12-13 November 1942 involving five American cruisers and eight destroyers with a superior Japanese force clearing the way for a convoy to reinforce Guadalcanal – despite their losses the Americans succeed in delaying the convoy’s approach
  2. On the night of 14-15 November an American force with battleships U.S.S. Washington and U.S.S. South Dakota surprise the Japanese just as the convoy makes a second attempt at reaching Guadalcanal

It was a costly battle for both sides. The Americans lost 2 cruisers and 7 destroyers and a total of 1730 personnel. For their part the Japanese lost 2 battleships a cruiser and 3 destroyers as well as transports from the convoy with over 2,000 killed.

But the battle was strategic. The Japanese military never made another serious attempt to reinforce the island of Guadalcanal and in December 1942 with permission from Emperor Hirohito, the I.J.N. began to evacuate the remaining forces. Although the Japanese had localized naval victories a combination of increasing American numerical superiority, better American tactics and weapons and Japanese indecisiveness meant no further large scale blue water defeats were suffered.

Japanese forces in Papua New Guinea were confined to a couple of tiny pockets in the north, when the war ended. Rabaul, from where so many of the Japanese naval operations had originated was neutralized in early 1944 after the Americans, not wanting a bloody, months long battle decided to strangle the Japanese base with air and naval power. The Solomon Islands were liberated by the end of 1943.

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