From Tragedy to Triumph Pt 2

By John Dudek 07 May 2014 0

Part 1 of this article can be read here -


For the first six months of Japan's Pacific War against the Allies in World War II, their army and navy conquered a greatly expanded overseas empire comprising much of Asia and the Pacific Ocean from the far off Aleutian Islands to New Guinea, at little cost.  They invaded and seized the Dutch East Indies, the Philippine Islands, Malaya and every worthwhile island and atoll chain that lay in between.  The Japanese Army would eventually stand at the very gates of India.  They were clearly an irresistible military power in its terrible ascendency, although this was only the first round of what would prove to be a bitter fight to the death.  After absorbing the first terrible shattering military blows, the Allies withdrew to regroup and await reinforcements in men, ships and aircraft that would eventually turn the tide of battle and the war in their favor.

By early 1945, the once much vaunted and feared Japanese Navy was now but a broken, anemic shadow of its formerly powerful self.  The increasing pressure of ever mounting, irreplaceable naval losses and military defeats throughout the Solomon Islands in 1942-43, leading to the twin overwhelming, strategic defeats at the Battles of the Philippine Sea and Leyte Gulf in 1944 spelled the complete destruction of Japanese aircraft carrier naval aviation, and the loss of thousands of their most experienced pilots, sailors and many dozens of their precious warships.  At the same time, continuing US long range B-29 fire bombing raids on the Japanese home island cities meant the killing or displacement of a large portion of the Japanese populace as they were left homeless. The air raids also caused the near complete destruction of the nation's remaining industrial production facilities.  In addition, the ever worsening losses of merchant shipping due to the Allied unrestricted submarine warfare campaign not only meant the disruption of remaining Japanese war production, but the very real possibility of famine breaking out among its already hungry civilian populace.  The now badly weakened and tottering Japanese Empire was on the verge of complete military defeat and utter collapse as the Allies now closed in for the kill.

With the final defeat of Germany in May 1945, the British Far Eastern Fleet would now grow quickly and exponentially within the coming days with the release of dozens of British warships and fleet auxiliary ships from home waters. These ships were immediately sent out to the Pacific.  Upon arrival, they were to both execute and embark upon their own military operations against the remaining Japanese ships and military garrisons in the Far East, as well as operating in concert alongside their US Navy allies.  This amicable working relationship had begun the year before when the American aircraft carrier USS Saratoga operated along with the British aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious to launch bombing raids against the Japanese held oil well and gas installations in the Dutch East Indies. The foundations of mutual good will, shared sacrifice, and a common goal that began there would carry over during the US invasions of Iwo Jima, Okinawa and eventually, the planned-for invasions of the Japanese home islands.  A fleet of some 6 British fleet aircraft carriers, four light carriers, 9 escort carriers, four modern battleships and literally hundreds of lighter British and Commonwealth warships and support vessels now formed the back bone of this powerful force, and were soon operating as the newly named British Pacific Fleet. They were based out of Sydney Australia.  In addition, the 4th Submarine Flotilla was transferred to the Far East to be based out of Fremantle Western Australia.  They quickly made their presence known in the Pacific Theatre of Operations by sinking a number of remaining Japanese merchant ships in addition to a respectable number of Japanese warships on the high seas.  The British submarine force shut down the vital Japanese sea supply route to their forces in Burma by effectively closing the Strait of Malacca.   The newly arrived flotilla went as far as staging a raid on the very heart of Singapore Harbor by using two midget submarines to attack Japanese warships anchored there. Using Limpet mines and high explosive demolition charges, the pair of mini subs blew the bottom out of the heavy cruiser TAKAO and sank her at her moorings.

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The rapid growth and sudden arrival of the British Pacific Fleet quickly proved to be yet another nail in the Japanese Empire's coffin.  On 17 July 1945, the British battleship King George V operating along with an American battleship task force comprised of the USS Iowa, Missouri, Wisconsin, North Carolina and Alabama bombarded targets around the city of Hitachi northeast of Tokyo.  The damage to the city was considered light with only three of nine military targets hard hit. The B-29 firebomb raids of a few days later destroyed 79% of the city.  However, the official history of the U.S. Navy states that "individual Japanese" considered the naval bombardments to be far more terrifying than the later air attacks.  The crucial difference being, the Japanese people could see these warships operating brazenly and without fear a few miles offshore in broad daylight, whereas the B-29 bombers came at night.

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On 29 July, Allied battleships USS South Dakota, Indiana, Massachusetts and HMS King George V returned to bombard the enemy industrial production facilities and naval installations in and around the city of Hamamatsu in the suburbs of nearby Tokyo.  King George V alone fired some 265 14-inch main battery shells at various targets in some 27 minutes. This proved to be the final occasion that a British battleship fired main battery salvos in anger during wartime.  To sum up the Allied naval artillery bombardments:

"The Allied naval bombardments were successful in disrupting the Japanese steel industry.  While several of the factories were operating at reduced capacity, the important Kamasishi and Wanishi Iron Works suffered heavy damage when they were bombarded in July and August.  During both of these attacks, the Allied gunnery was accurate and focused on the factories' coke batteries, which were critical to continued production."

At about the same time, British carrier aircraft operating along with US Carrier Task Force 38 planes began hammering a series of Japanese seaports, factories and arsenals along the coast.  On one such attack mission they hit and badly damaged one of the last remaining Japanese aircraft carriers still afloat.

The few serviceable Japanese navy warships left were now either stationed near their remaining sources of oil and gas in their conquered territories of the Dutch East Indies, or bottled up in homeland ports because of unrepaired battle damage and lack of fuel.  Whenever a Japanese warship set sail from the Dutch East Indies it was common practice for them to take aboard hundreds of 55 gallon drums filled with fuel oil, because there were so few Japanese oil tankers and fleet oilers remaining following their utter evisceration and decimation by the Allied unrestricted submarine warfare campaign.  As a result, these remaining Japanese light and heavier warship units were now used in roles never intended for them because there were so few remaining fast military transport and cargo ships to carry badly needed fighting men and supplies from one place to another due to the loss of so many ships.

The fortunes of war were also not kind to the four executioners of the HMS Exeter, HMS Encounter and USS Pope.  The heavy cruiser IJN NACHI, after suffering collision damage with her sister cruiser MOGAMI during the Battle of Leyte Gulf, put into Manila Bay for dry dock repairs.  She suffered further damage from US carrier air attacks but managed to make hasty repairs.  As she was preparing to get underway, a second and third follow up wave of US carrier air attacks smothered her with over 25 bombs and 8 torpedoes blowing off the heavy cruiser's bow and stern and sinking her with a heavy loss of life in 102 feet of water some 12 nautical miles northeast of Corregidor Island.  On13 December 1944, the heavy cruiser IJN MYOKO, after leaving Singapore enroute to Camranh Bay, French Indo-China (Vietnam), was hit by a number of torpedoes by the submarine USS BERGALL.  The torpedo hits blew off most of the cruiser's stern.  She was towed back to Singapore and placed in dry dock, but soon found to be unrepairable. MYOKO was relegated to the role of a floating, stationary anti-aircraft battery in Singapore Harbor for the remainder of the war. 

By this time Allied code breakers had broken the Japanese military codes and were secretly reading their military messages almost in real time. Armed with this information, they were able to keep close tabs on all remaining serviceable Japanese warships and their planned sorties.  On 9 May 1945, the British Far Eastern Fleet executed "Operation Dukedom", the hunt for the heavy cruiser IJN. HAGURO.  The Japanese heavy cruiser and a single escorting destroyer IJN KAMAKAZE were ordered on a supply mission to take food and military cargo to the Port Blair garrison in the Andaman Islands.  On the return leg of their voyage they were to evacuate a large number of Japanese troops to augment their military garrison at Singapore.  The Royal Navy 26th Destroyer Flotilla, consisting of destroyers HMS Virago, Verulam, Saumerez, Vigilent and Venus, under overall command of Captain Manley L. Powers now moved to set a trap and intercept the Japanese warships in the Malacca Straits.  Around midnight of 16 May 1945, British radar picked up the HAGURO and her destroyer escort at a range of 28,000 yards.  The British destroyers rang up full speed and took up a semi-circle formation to allow the two Japanese warships to enter into the center of their trap.  The two opposing task forces were now approaching each other at a combined speed of over 60mph.  Sometime after 0114 hours, the British sprang their trap to launch their torpedoes and open fire on the enemy ships from all directions.  The surprised Japanese returned fire and manage to hit the Saumerez with both 8 inch and 5 inch shellfire before reversing their course.  The two enemy ships began zig-zagging, but it was too late.  HAGURO was staggered by at least six torpedo hits, each one sending towering, cascading waterspouts skyward. HAGURO soon settled and sank bow first at around 0230 hours.  HAGURO's escorting destroyer IJN KAMAKAZE, although damaged, managed to escape the trap.  The Battle of the Malacca Strait was the final surface naval action of WWII.

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This left the Japanese heavy cruiser IJN. ASHIGARA to be dealt with.  On 8 June 1945, with over 1,500 Japanese troops aboard, ASHIGARA was bound for Singapore but ran afoul of Allied submarines.  Submarine USS Blueback sent a coded ULTRA radio message telling of ASHIGARA's recent departure from Batavia (Dutch East Indies), but was not in position to make a torpedo attack.  The British submarine HMS Trenchant had better luck.  Her Commander Arthur R. Hezlet found the ASHIGARA hugging the shallow waters just off the Sumatra coast.  Sighting through his periscope, he fired 8 torpedoes at the cruiser from both his bow and stern tubes.  ASHIGARA frantically tried to evade the inbound torpedoes but was unable to do so because of the closeness to shallow coastal shoal waters on one side and a mine field on the other.  Five torpedoes slammed into ASHIGARA reducing her to flaming, sinking wreckage.  She soon capsized and sank with many of her crew, and most of the army troops still aboard.  Once again the Japanese destroyer KAMIKAZE was on the scene and managed to rescue 853 sailors and nearly 400 half drowned army troops from the water.

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With the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Japanese realized the utterly hopeless nature of their military situation.  They finally agreed to a complete and formal unconditional surrender to the victorious Allied powers.  Among the last naval air actions of WW II occurred on VJ-Day with British and US carrier planes shooting down a number of threatening Japanese aircraft who violated the agreed upon surrender conditions.  American Admiral Halsey implored his combat air patrols jokingly.  "Make sure to shoot down those Japanese planes in as friendly a manner as possible.". The British Pacific Fleet was well represented at Japan's surrender ceremonies in Tokyo Bay. Among the British and Commonwealth warships present were the battleships HMS Duke of York, King George V, the escort carriers HMS Speaker and Salamaua the heavy cruisers HMAS Shropshire, the light cruisers HMNZS Gambia, HMAS Hobart and HMS Newfoundland.  As the final signatures were affixed to the surrender document a salute of hundreds of Allied bombers and carrier aircraft suddenly thundered overhead, so perished the dreams and martial depredations of the Japanese Empire.  To sum up the end of the WWII Japanese Fleet, historian Bernard Edwards writes an equally appropriate and fitting epitaph of the final moments of the heavy cruiser IJN HAGURO in his book "Salvo! Classic Naval Gun Actions":

"The HAGURO went down, hit by three torpedoes simultaneously in a triple explosion an eye witness described as sending up 'three gold-coloured splashes like a Prince of Wales feathers.'  Hallucination or portent- who is to say?  But so ended the day of the big gun at sea."



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