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The Battle of Rennell Island (Japanese: レンネル島沖海戦) took place on January 29, 1943 – January 30, 1943, and was the last major naval engagement between the United States Navy and the Imperial Japanese Navy during the lengthy Guadalcanal campaignmarker in the Solomon Islands campaign during World War II. The battle took place in the South Pacific between Rennell Islandmarker and Guadalcanalmarker in the southern Solomon Islandsmarker.

In the battle, Japanesemarker naval land-based torpedo bombers, seeking to provide protection for the impending evacuationmarker of Japanese forces from Guadalcanal, made several attacks over two days on United Statesmarker' warships operating as a task force south of Guadalcanal. In addition to approaching Guadalcanal with the objective of engaging any Japanese ships that might come into range, the U.S. task force was protecting an Allied transport ship convoy that was carrying replacement troops to Guadalcanal.

As a result of the Japanese air attacks on the task force, one U.S. heavy cruiser was sunk, a destroyer was heavily damaged, and the rest of the U.S. task force was forced to retreat from the southern Solomons area. Partly because of their success in turning back the U.S. task force in this battle, the Japanese were successful in evacuating their remaining troops from Guadalcanal by February 7, 1943, leaving Guadalcanal in Allied hands and ending the battle for the island.

Background

On August 7, 1942, Allied forces (primarily U.S.) landed on Guadalcanal, Tulagimarker, and Florida Islandsmarker in the Solomon Islandsmarker. The landings on the islands were meant to deny their use by the Japanese as bases for threatening the supply routes between the U.S. and Australia, and to secure the islands as starting points for a campaign with the eventual goal of isolating the major Japanese base at Rabaulmarker while also supporting the Allied New Guinea campaign. The landings initiated the six-month-long Guadalcanal campaignmarker.

The last major attempt by the Japanese to drive Allied forces from Guadalcanal and Tulagi was defeated during the decisive Naval Battle of Guadalcanalmarker in early November 1942. Thereafter, the Japanese Navy was only able to deliver subsistence supplies and a few replacement troops to Japanese Army forces on Guadalcanal. Because of the threat from Allied aircraft based at Henderson Fieldmarker on Guadalcanal, plus nearby U.S. aircraft carriers, the Japanese delivered these supplies at night, usually by destroyer or submarine, in operations the Allies called the "Tokyo Express." However, these supplies and replacements were not enough to sustain Japanese troops on the island, who by December 7, 1942, were losing about 50 men each day from malnutrition, disease, and Allied ground or air attacks. On December 12, the Japanese Navy proposed that Guadalcanal be abandoned. Despite initial opposition from Japanese Army leaders, who still hoped that Guadalcanal could eventually be retaken from the Allies, Japan's Imperial General Headquarters, with approval from the Emperor, on December 31, 1942, agreed to the evacuation of all Japanese forces from the island and establishment of a new line of defense for the Solomons on New Georgiamarker.

Japanese titled the evacuation effort of their forces from Guadalcanal Operation Kemarker (ケ号作戦) and planned to execute the operation beginning January 14, 1943. An important element in the operation's plan was an air superiority campaign set to begin on January 28, with the objective of inhibiting Allied aircraft or warships from disrupting the final stage of the Ke operation, which was the actual evacuation of all Japanese troops from Guadalcanal.

Allied forces misinterpreted the Ke preparations as the beginning of another Japanese offensive to try to retake Guadalcanal. At this same time, Admiral William Halsey, Jr., overall commander of Allied forces involved in the battle for Guadalcanal, was under pressure from his superiors to complete the replacement of the U.S. 2nd Marine Regiment on Guadalcanal, which had been involved in the fighting since the initial landings in August, with fresh U.S. Army troops. Halsey hoped to take advantage of what he believed was an impending Japanese offensive to draw Japanese naval forces into a battle, while at the same time delivering the replacement army troops to Guadalcanal. On January 29, Halsey prepared and sent towards the southern Solomons area five warship task forces to cover the relief convoy and to engage any Japanese naval forces that came into range. These five task forces included two fleet carriers, two escort carriers, three battleships, 12 cruisers, and 25 destroyers.

In front of this array of task forces was the troop convoy (Task Group (TG) 62.8), consisting of four transports and four destroyers. Ahead of the troop convoy, between Rennell Islandmarker and Guadalcanal, was a close support group called Task Force 18 (TF 18), under Rear Admiral Robert C. Giffen, which consisted of heavy cruisers USS Wichita, Chicagomarker, and Louisville; light cruisers Montpelier, Cleveland, and Columbia; escort carriers Chenango and Suwannee; and eight destroyers. Admiral Giffen commanded TF 18 from Wichita. A fleet carrier task force, centered on carrier USS Enterprise, steamed about 400 kilometers (250 mi) behind TG 62.8 and TF 18. The other fleet carrier and battleship task forces were about 240 kilometers (150 mi) further back. Admiral Giffen, along with cruiser Wichita and the two escort carriers, had just arrived in the Pacific after participating in Operation Torchmarker in the North African Campaign. Also, Chicago had just arrived back in the South Pacific, after completing repairs from damage suffered during the Battle of Savo Islandmarker almost six-months before.

Battle

Prelude

In addition to protecting the troop convoy, TF 18 was charged with rendezvousing with a force of four U.S. destroyers, stationed at Tulagi, at 21:00 on January 29 in order to conduct a sweep up "The Slot" north of Guadalcanal the next day to screen the unloading of the troop transports at Guadalcanal. However, the escort carriers, under Commodore Ben Wyatt, were too slow (18 knots) to allow Giffen's force to make the scheduled rendezvous, so Giffen left the carriers behind with two destroyers at 14:00 and pushed on ahead at 24 knots (44 km/h). Wary of the threat from Japanese submarines, which Allied intelligence indicated were likely in the area, Giffen arranged his cruisers and destroyers for anti-submarine defense, not expecting an air attack. The cruisers were aligned in two columns, spaced apart. Wichita, Chicago, and Louisville, in that order, to starboard and Montpelier, Cleveland, and Columbia to port. The six destroyers were spread along a semicircle 3 kilometers (2 mi) ahead of the cruiser columns.

Giffen's force was being tracked by Japanese submarines, who reported on Giffen's location and movement to their naval headquarter's units. Around mid-afternoon, based on the submarine's reports, 16 Mitsubishi G4M Type 1 bombers from the 705 Air Group (705AG) and 16 Mitsubishi G3M Type 96 bombers from the 701 Air Group (701AG) took off from Rabaul carrying torpedoes to attack Giffen's force. One Type 96 turned back with engine trouble, leaving 31 bombers in the attack force. The leader of the 705AG aircraft was Lieutenant Tomō Nakamura and Lieutenant Commander Joji Hagai commanded the 701AG planes.

Action on January 29

sunset, as TF 18 headed northwest 80 kilometers (50 mi) north of Rennell Island and 160 kilometers (100 mi) south of Guadalcanal, several of Giffen's ships detected unidentified aircraft on radar 100 kilometers (60 mi) west of their formation. Having previously insisted on absolute radio silence, Giffen gave no orders about what to do about the unidentified contacts, or any orders at all, for that matter. With the setting of the sun, TF 18's combat air patrol (CAP) from the two escort carriers returned to their ships for the night, leaving Giffen's ships without air cover.

The radar contacts were, in fact, the approaching 31 Japanese torpedo bombers, who circled around to the south of TF 18 so that they could attack from the east, with the black backdrop of the eastern sky behind them. From this direction, the Japanese bombers were hidden by the night sky, but Giffen's ships were silhouetted against the twilight of the western horizon. The 705AG aircraft attacked first, beginning at 19:19. Nakamura's aircraft missed with all of their torpedoes and one was shot down by anti-aircraft fire from Giffen's ships.

Believing the attack was over, Giffen ordered his ships to cease zigzagging and to continue heading towards Guadalcanal on the same course and at the same speed. Meanwhile, a Japanese reconnaissance aircraft began dropping flares and floatlights to mark the course and speed of TF 18 in order to assist with the impending attack by Higai's bombers.

At 19:38, 701AG attacked, planting two torpedoes in Chicago, causing heavy damage and bringing the cruiser to a dead stop. One other torpedo hit Wichita but did not explode, and two of the bombers were shot down by anti-aircraft fire, including the one piloted by Higai, who was killed. At 20:08, Giffen ordered his ships to reverse direction, to slow to , and to cease firing their anti-aircraft guns, which succeeded in concealing his ships from the Japanese aircraft, who all departed the area by 23:35. In pitch darkness, Louisville managed to take the crippled Chicago under tow and slowly headed south, away from the battle area, escorted by the rest of TF 18.

Action on January 30

immediately took steps to try to protect the damaged Chicago, notifying the escort carriers to make sure they had a CAP in place at first light, ordering the Enterprise task force to approach and augment the escort carrier's CAP, and sending the fleet tug Navajo to take over the tow from Louisville, which was accomplished at 08:00. Between daybreak and 14:00, numerous Japanese scout aircraft approached TF 18. Although they were all chased away by the CAP, they were able to observe and report the position of Chicago. At 12:15, a force of 11 Type 1 torpedo bombers from the 751 Air Group (751AG), based at Kaviengmarker and staging through Bukamarker, launched to attack the damaged U.S. cruiser. The U.S. ships knew the bombers were coming, because of a warning report from an Australian coastwatcher in the Solomon Islands, with an estimated arrival time of 16:00. However, Halsey ordered the rest of the cruisers to leave Chicago behind and head for port at Efatemarker, in the New Hebridesmarker, which they did at 15:00, leaving behind six destroyers to protect Chicago and Navajo.

At 15:40, Enterprise was 69 kilometers (43 mi) away from Chicago, with ten of her fighter forming a CAP over the damaged cruiser. At this time, four of the CAP fighters chased and shot-down a scout Type 1 bomber. At 15:54, radar on Enterprise detected the incoming flight of bombers, and launched 10 more fighters to attack the Japanese formation. The escort carriers, however, had difficulties in getting their aircraft launched, preventing them from joining in the attack on the bomber formation until the engagement was over.

first the Japanese bombers appeared to be trying to approach and attack Enterprise but turned towards Chicago after six Enterprise CAP fighters began to engage them. Four other CAP fighters chased the 751AG aircraft as they entered the anti-aircraft fire from Chicago’s escorting destroyers. Two of the bombers were shot down before they could release their ordnance. Six more were shot down moments later, but not before they dropped their torpedoes.

One torpedo hit the destroyer USS La Vallette in her forward engine room, killing 22 of her crew and causing heavy damage. Chicago was hit by four torpedoes, one forward of the bridge and three others in her engineering spaces. Chicago’s captain, Ralph O. Davis, ordered the ship to be abandoned, and the cruiser sank, stern first, 20 minutes later. Navajo and the escorting destroyers rescued 1,049 survivors from Chicago’s crew, but 62 of her crew died. A final attack force of Japanese torpedo bombers failed to find the remaining U.S. ships. Navajo took La Vallette under tow, and all of the remaining ships of TF 18 were able to make it to port at Espiritu Santo without further incident.

Aftermath

The Japanese widely publicized the results of the engagement, claiming to have sunk a "battleship" and "three cruisers." The U.S., on the other hand, tried to conceal the loss of Chicago from the public for some time, with Admiral Chester Nimitz, commander in chief of Allied Pacific forces, threatening to "shoot" any of his staff who leaked the loss of Chicago to the press. Halsey and Nimitz blamed Giffen for the defeat and stated so in Giffen's official performance report for the period. The defeat and resulting recriminations do not appear to have affected Giffen's career too adversely; he continued to lead Allied battleship and cruiser task forces in the Pacific until 1944 and was later promoted to vice admiral.

With Japanese air assets tied up in the battle with TF 18, the Allied transports were able to complete their mission of replacing the remaining Marine forces on Guadalcanal over the last two days in January. During this time, the other Allied task forces, including the two fleet carrier task forces, took station in the Coral Seamarker, in anticipation of an expected Japanese offensive in the southern Solomons

In reality, however, the Japanese were completing the secret evacuation of their remaining forces from Guadalcanal over three nights between February 2 and February 7. With TF 18 forced to retreat, very few Allied naval forces were left in the immediate Guadalcanal area, allowing the Japanese to successfully retrieve all of their ground forces, and the Allies did not realize the evacuation was happening until it was over. Many of these evacuated ground forces would play an important part in future battles between the Japanese and the Allies in the critical Solomon Islands campaign.

Notes

  1. Hogue, Pearl Harbor to Guadalcanal, p. 235–236.
  2. Frank, Guadalcanal, p. 526.
  3. Frank, Guadalcanal, p. 527.
  4. Dull, Imperial Japanese Navy, p. 261.
  5. Dull, Imperial Japanese Navy, p. 268.
  6. Frank, Guadalcanal, p. 541.
  7. Morison, Struggle for Guadalcanal, p. 351.
  8. Frank, Guadalcanal, p. 577.
  9. McGee, The Solomons Campaigns, p. 216.
  10. Morison, Struggle for Guadalcanal, p. 352.
  11. Frank, Guadalcanal, p. 577–578.
  12. Crenshaw, South Pacific Destroyer, p. 62.
  13. Morison, Struggle for Guadalcanal, p. 352–353.
  14. Morison, Struggle for Guadalcanal, p. 354.
  15. Tagaya, p. 66 says that it was a Japanese search airplane that spotted Giffen.
  16. Morison, Struggle for Guadalcanal, p. 354–355; Tagaya, p. 66.
  17. Morison, Struggle for Guadalcanal, p. 355.
  18. Frank, Guadalcanal, p. 579; Tagaya, p. 66.
  19. Crenshaw, South Pacific Destroyer, p. 63; Tagaya, p. 66.
  20. Tagaya, p. 66.
  21. Morison, Struggle for Guadalcanal, p. 358–359.
  22. Frank, Guadalcanal, p. 579–580; Tagaya, pp. 66–67.
  23. Morison, Struggle for Guadalcanal, p. 360.
  24. Frank, Guadalcanal, p. 580–581; Tagaya, p. 67. Of the remaining four Type 1s, three lost an engine but were able to make it back to base. One of the bombers landed at Munda, New Georgia and the other three reached Ballale Airfield in the Shortland Islands (Tagaya).
  25. Crenshaw, South Pacific Destroyer, p. 64–65.
  26. Frank, Guadalcanal, p. 581.
  27. Morison, Struggle for Guadalcanal, p. 363. La Vallette was under repair in the U.S. until August 6, 1943. Dictionary of American Fighting Ships, [1]
  28. Morison, Struggle for Guadalcanal, p. 363.
  29. Wukovitz, Setback in the Solomons, p. 3.
  30. Naval Historical Center, [2]


References



External links

  • — Article originally printed in World War II magazine.


Further reading




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