The Battle of Savo Island 9 August 1942 - AKA "The Battle of the Five Sitting Ducks"

By John Dudek 21 Apr 2015 0

Large scale strategy games set in the Pacific Theatre of WW2, such as Matrix Games’ War in the Pacific - Admiral's Edition or their upcoming Order of Battle: Pacific, are extremely popular. However, by their very nature these large scale strategy games cannot show the nitty gritty of what actually happened in individual battles and encounters. Fortunately, the Second World War is one of the best documented conflicts of all time and there is an abundance of material available to fill this gap. Here at we regularly carry historical articles for the Pacific Theatre of Operations penned by regular contributor John Dudek. Here we delve back to August 1942. We hope this adds context to your games.



In the humid pre-dawn hours of 7 August 1942, a twin line of Allied warships silently steamed into the waters of Sea Lark Channel as they prepared to take the south Pacific Solomon islands of Guadalcanal, Tulagi and Florida Islands under a pre-invasion naval bombardment. The heavy cruiser USS Quincy's 8-inch main gun turrets swung out broadside as their spotters locked onto their land targets.  As the first salvo thundered out across the water towards the Japanese occupied island, one sailor shouted "Reveille you slant-eyed sons a' bitches!"  The three other cruisers and four destroyers in line opened a lively fire on the island as the attack transport ships moved into their debarkation areas.  At 0645 hours the command sounded loudly over the transport ship's bullhorns:  "LAND THE LANDING FORCE!"  Some 16,000 US Marines were soon splashing ashore onto the contested islands on this, the first US amphibious invasion of the Second World War. The naval bombardment and the Marines now landing ashore sent the Japanese construction and Special Naval Landing Force troops running into the surrounding jungle seeking refuge. In less than two days, the island's and their invaluable installations plus the equally priceless although unfinished airfield on Guadalcanal were in American hands. The question was, could they hold Guadalcanal and all the lesser islands against the inevitable Japanese counter attacks?'  By the late afternoon of 7 August, the first Japanese challenge to this question arrived in the form of dozens of twin engine “Betty” bombers flying down from their fortress at Rabaul over 650 miles to the north.  In the fierce aerial bombing and torpedo attacks on the Allied task force over the next two days, the Japanese hit and eventually sank a transport ship while badly damaging the destroyer USS Jarvis at a cost of 36 "Betty" bombers and 19 US carrier aircraft.  By nightfall of 8 August, only 1/3rd of the Allied transport's all important cargos had been sent ashore because of continued Japanese air attacks.  Meanwhile, a number of Allied cruisers and destroyers of the task force took up their picket stations to counter any Japanese naval attacks. What would occur over the next 12 hours constituted the worst wartime naval disaster in US Navy history.



The Battle of Savo Island occurred early in the morning on 9 August 1942 when the Japanese 8th Fleet surprised the Allied Task Force shortly after the landing at Guadalcanal. In approximately 37 minutes, the Japanese Navy destroyed four Allied heavy cruisers (while badly damaging a fifth) and killed more than 1000 American and Australian sailors, handing the U.S. Navy the worst defeat in its history. There were many strategic, operational, and tactical reasons for this debacle; however, the one common thread through the entire disaster was the poorly framed command and control relationships. The command and control breakdowns along with the various contributing causes such as personality conflicts between various commanders of the Allied force, communication and equipment shortfalls, common prejudices, and the superior night fighting ability of the Japanese force.

As the Allied transports continued to unload their cargos well into the evening of 8 August, Allied cruisers and destroyers under the command of British Royal Navy Rear Admiral Victor Crutchley VC provided the protective defensive screen of warships in the waters around Guadalcanal.  Crutchley was a Victoria Cross winner from the First World War and was now lent to the Royal Australian Navy. He was second in command to US Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner. Crutchley split the Allied warships into a number of separate formations.  Three heavy cruisers - USS Astoria, Quincy and Vincennes - along with the destroyers Helm and Wilson patrolled the passage between Savo Island and the Tulagi landing grounds. This was designated as the "Northern Group".  The Australian heavy cruisers HMAS Canberra, Australia and USS Chicago along with the destroyers Bagley and Patterson conducted a roving patrol in the waters between Savo Island and the Marine landing beaches at Lunga Point, Guadalcanal.  They were designated as the "Southern Group."  The light cruisers HMAS Hobart, USS San Juan, destroyers Monssen and Buchanan guarded the passage between Guadalcanal and Florida Islands.  They were designated as the "Eastern Group."  In addition, Crutchley sent the two radar equipped US destroyers Blue and Ralph Talbot west of Savo Island to act as early warning picket ships.  Lastly, fully aware of the threat of Japanese submarines endangering the transport ships, Crutchley positioned his remaining 5 WWI vintage flush decked destroyer minesweepers in the waters around the two transport groups for their protection.  Thus far, Japanese opposition to the Marine landings had been limited to 3 air attacks over the previous days and the current days worsening weather and loud thunderclaps seemed to be an evil portent of what was to come later that evening.



Japanese Vice Admiral Gunichi Mikawa was heading south with a sizable force of warships to challenge the Allied hold on the southern Solomon Islands. He had been tasked with attacking and destroying the Allied warships and transport ships of their invasion fleet off Guadalcanal.  His task force consisted of 7 heavy and light cruisers of Cruiser Divisions 6 and 18.  They consisted of the flagship Chokai, Aoba, Furutaka, Kako, Kinugasa, Tenryu, Yubari along with a single screening destroyer Yunagi.  His battle plan called for his cruisers to come up the south side of Savo Island before launching a night time torpedo and gunfire attack upon the Allied warships patrolling there.  With this first battle task complete he would turn north and east to destroy the remaining Allied warships along with landing force transport ships still anchored off Tulagi and Guadalcanal.  Mikawa also knew he had to get well clear of the area ASAP following the battle.  He knew American aircraft carriers under the command of Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher were in the vicinity and Mikawa needed to get out of carrier aircraft range by the time the sun rose the following morning.  He had been at the Battle of Midway two months earlier and had seen firsthand the effectiveness of U.S. Navy carrier air attacks.  This coming battle would be one of those rare moments in wartime history when a battle plan entirely survived its first contact with the enemy.  His battle plan was executed nearly to perfection.  The gods of war seemed to smile down upon the Japanese operation during their voyage south.  Although Mikawa's task force was sighted by a number of Allied aerial reconnaissance planes and submarines throughout all of 8 August, either the information was not properly passed up the chain of command or the wrong conclusions were drawn as to the Japanese warship's final destination and intent.  Meanwhile, Mikawa launched his own float plane reconnaissance aircraft throughout the day to learn of the location and disposition of the Allied task force and as a result had near perfect intelligence in the matter as nightfall came to the region.  Most importantly he knew the Allied warships were arrayed in two separate forces of warships with Savo Island separating them.  Even though Mikawa's task force was smaller than that of the Allies, his surprise attack planning could allow him to engage and destroy the two task forces separately before going on to attack the still loaded transport ships.

As Mikawa's task force continued steaming southward through the darkness at 26 knots, he launched two of his scout planes an hour before midnight to make a final check on the Allies warships.  The planes were spotted on Allied radar, but were thought to be friendly because their running lights were on.  A US destroyer radioed a message regarding this to Admiral Turner's flagship now anchored off Guadalcanal's Lunga point. The message was never received.  Turner was then in conference with Admiral Crutchley.  As a result his heavy cruiser HMAS Australia was alongside Turner's flagship rather than with the other Allied warships on patrol. At 0133 hours and upon sighting the ships of the Southern Group, Mikawa ordered "All Ships Attack!" The first salvo of his Long Lance torpedoes was launched and soon speedily swimming towards the Allied task force south of Savo Island.



Without a doubt the most deadly effective torpedo ever developed by any of the combatants in WWII was the Japanese Type 93 Long Lance torpedo.  Carrying a warhead of over a thousand pounds and with a top speed of 49 knots, a single torpedo hit could cripple or sink the heaviest of armoured battleships.  Depending on its set speed, it could accurately hit targets at 22,000 yards and up to 40,000 yards. Unlike most other torpedoes of the day it was powered by oxygen and left nearly a wakeless trail.  A number of naval battles throughout all of 1942 would be won by the Japanese largely through its use of torpedoes alone and Savo Island was no exception.  On the other hand, the US Torpedo Mark XIV developed between the wars had a much smaller warhead and a rather anaemic range of only 6,000 to 15,000 yards depending on its speed.  Even worse still, the Mark XIV was plagued by the usual design flaws natural to any new weapons system and they had never been found out and properly corrected.  The torpedoes were never test fired before the war in a live fire demonstration because of expenses involved.  When WWII broke out, it was immediately found that they seldom exploded even when making direct hits upon enemy warships.  Only the much older WWI vintage U.S Mark X torpedo could be counted on to explode properly when fired.

The first inkling the Allies had that a Japanese attack was imminent  was the destroyer USS Patterson sighting the oncoming Japanese cruiser column.  It flashed the warning  "WARNING-WARNING: STRANGE SHIPS ENTERING HARBOR!"  At the same time Mikawa's scout planes overhead began dropping the first of their parachute flares to illuminate the Allied ships as Japanese cruiser's million candle search lights snapped on, catching the Allied ships in their brilliantly blinding shafts of light.  HMAS Canberra was the first cruiser to be hit by two torpedoes but they were enough to sign her death warrant along with the 24 shell hits that ravaged her, killing a large number of her crew and captain.  USS Chicago took a torpedo that blew a portion of her bow away, yet she staggered away to live and fight another day.  Oddly enough the Chicago's Captain never warned the Northern Group of warships that they were under attack. In less than ten minutes Mikawa had destroyed the Southern Group and was on his way towards the as yet unalerted Northern Group.  The gods of war continued to favour the attacking Japanese and Mikawa's run of good luck continued to hold.  After making a quick change in course, three of his cruisers became separated from his main task force. This inadvertently created two separate attack columns.  This was to prove extremely fortuitous for the Japanese because it placed the Allied warships squarely in the middle and between the two Japanese attacking columns.

For the Japanese, it was like shooting ducks in a pond. The Northern Force was caught completely by surprise and pounded by Mikawa's force. The devastating fire brought to bear on the task force sank the heavy cruisers USS Astoria, Vincennes and Quincy. Extremely satisfied with his first pass around Savo Island, Mikawa contemplated another. Fortunately for the Allied Forces, Mikawa had a number of concerns. His force was divided, it would take him almost three hours to bring it back together, and daylight was not far away. Daylight meant that he was very susceptible to air attack and he still had no idea where the carrier group was located. Finally, his ships were out of torpedoes, and a second attack using only guns would be much riskier. At 0220, Mikawa gave the order to retire up the Slot. Mikawa left 1,023 Allied sailors dead and over 700 wounded in his wake. In addition, he sank four Allied heavy cruisers and severely damaged a number of destroyers. This defeat expedited the departure of Turner's Amphibious Task Force, leaving the under-supplied Marines to fend for themselves on Guadalcanal.



Small wonder the disastrous one sided battle would soon be colloquially referred to by the Allies as the "Battle of the Five Sitting Ducks."  However, Mikawa would not get away from the battle completely without loss.  On the early morning of 10 August Mikawa detached Cruiser Division 6's four heavy cruisers from the rest of his task force.  At 0650 hours, Lt.Cdr. John "Dinty" Moore's WWI vintage submarine S-44 caught sight of a line of four Japanese warships off the coast of Kavieng, New Ireland.  Moore fired four old Mark X torpedoes at the rear ship in the column from 700 yards away.  Two minutes later three out of the four torpedoes struck the heavy cruiser Kako.  The first torpedo hit near her No. 1 turret and the other two further aft.  The Kako rolled over onto her starboard side as her boilers exploded from sudden the inrush of seawater.  Seven minutes later the heavy cruiser vanished into the depths, sinking off the coast of Simbari Island.  Following a prolonged depth charging, the venerable S-44 managed to escape without serious damage. Perhaps a bit of vengeance was at last exacted from the victorious Japanese task force after the recent disastrous naval battle.

The Battle of Savo Island was the worst blue water defeat ever suffered in the history of the U.S Navy with four heavy cruisers sunk, one badly damaged and over a thousand Allied sailors lost.  The ramifications rocked the Navy to its very foundations and the after effects of the battle would continue to be felt for quite some time.  However, there was never the "witch hunt" of an official court of inquiry into the matter as most of Allied ship captain participants were either killed in battle or would soon be so during the coming and continuing savage sea battles around the Solomon Islands over the next several months.

As in any complex story, the defeat happened for many reasons. It was caused by errors at every level from the strategic to the tactical. It was caused by an ineffective command and control organization, poor leadership, misguided priorities, failure to understand the enemy, over-reliance on technology, and a rush to execute a military campaign. It was also caused by the fog of war, inflicted upon sailors operating under incredible pressure at the edge of exhaustion. Then there was the factor of luck. On this day, Admiral Mikawa had all the luck, while "Murphy" was embarked with the Allied Fleet.

Another factor in the defeat was the placing of Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher in overall tactical command of the ships in the Guadalcanal operation.  This was later seen as a major mistake because in his actions before, during and after the Battle of Savo Island, he acted solely as the aircraft carrier group commander, primarily focused upon the safe conduct of his three carriers. Thus he was unable to fulfil his much more important leadership roles and functions as the overall tactical commander.  In spite of his successful earlier leadership during the Battle's of the Coral Sea and Midway, he was quietly shunted aside and never commanded any of the new U.S carrier task forces then forming for the later battles in the Pacific.  While the defeat at Savo Island was indeed a major reverse for the Allies, the battle could have resulted in much greater losses of experienced Allied sailors, warships and the all too scarce numbers of transport ships.  Had Mikawa chosen to gamble and press his advantage even further to destroy the remaining ships of the amphibious task force, the US would have suffered a major strategic set back that would take months or even years to overcome.  In all probability the Americans would have lost the entire US 1st Marine Division, while the Japanese would be free to retake the recently lost islands of Guadalcanal, Tulagi and Florida Islands at their leisure.

This would later cost the Japanese dearly as the Guadalcanal campaign continued. Mikawa let the last big opportunity of the war slip through his fingers. The Battle of Savo Island was a great Japanese naval victory; it was also the beginning of the end for Japan.  Admiral Mikawa was later admonished by commanding Admiral Yamamoto for his failure to destroy the Allied transport ships and the other remaining warships off Guadalcanal. There is always good to find from the bad. The Allies learned many important lessons at Savo Island, most notably the importance of the ability to fight at night. Many tactics and techniques used at Savo Island were turned against the Japanese during later naval battles throughout the Solomon Islands.

The historian Richard Newcombe would later write: "The bright harvest of this battle, for Americans, was the speed and ingenuity with which the U.S. Navy adapted to the enemy's tactic of night fighting, mastered it, and turned it against him. In a way, the Pacific sea war was fought and won in these dark waters, for the enemy could never recover from the punishment sustained here. It was a heroic period in the history of the United States Navy, of which this is only the first chapter."



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