WWI – Russian Navy versus German Navy


Gangut at anchor in Helsingfors, 1915. Note the deployed torpedo net.


After the debacle of the Russo-Japanese War reforms were initiated, and under the able Admiral von Essen the reconstruction of the Russian Navy was taken in hand. In the Baltic, the aim was to reach sixty percent of the strength of the German High Seas Fleet. At first, help from the outside was utilized to a considerable extent. The armored cruiser Rurik (15,400 tons, 4 254-mm. guns, 8 203-mm. guns) was built in England by Vickers, turbines for large destroyers in Germany. At the same time, the creation of an efficient armaments industry was begun; large shipyards were built. In June 1909 the keels of four fast battleships (23,400 tons, 12 305-mm. guns) were laid in shipyards in St. Petersburg. The ships were commissioned in 1914-1915. Three similar battleships, slightly slower, but better protected, were finished in Black Sea shipyards between 1915 and 1917, but four very large battle cruisers (32,400 tons, 12 356-mm. guns) for the Baltic were never completed. A high-quality product of the new Russian shipyards was a series of 36 large destroyers, excellently suited for minelaying.

When war broke out, both sides considered the Baltic a secondary theater of operations. The Germans had to be more active because they were more vulnerable to Russian naval operations. They generally used their old ships in the Baltic but had the advantage of being able to send ships from the High Seas Fleet as reinforcements on short notice. This possibility made the Russians very cautious. They were well prepared for minelaying, and in the first winter of the war undertook a number of cleverly planned operations of this kind in the eastern and central Baltic. Several German warships and merchant steamers were sunk or damaged by Russian mines; operations were considerably hampered. On the other hand, German submarines, as well as mines, proved dangerous to the Russians. After the death of Admiral von Essen in the spring of 1915 Russian naval activity decreased noticeably.

In the spring and summer of 1915 a massive German-Austrian land offensive forced back the Russian armies several hundred kilometers. When German land forces approached the large naval base of Libau (Liepaja) a squadron of Russian armored cruisers tried to interfere but retreated after a short fight with German light cruisers, in which no ship was seriously damaged. The only other encounter between surface forces in the open Baltic happened on 2 July 1915. A squadron of five Russian armored cruisers intercepted the minelayer Albatross (2,200 tons, 8 88-mm. guns), which was protected by the light cruiser Augsburg (4,300 tons, 12 105-mm. guns). The Albatross was soon damaged and beached herself at Östergarne on the Swedish island of Gotland. Then the German armored cruiser Roon (9,500 tons, 4 210-mm. guns) and the light cruiser Lubeck joined in the fight. With 4 254-mm. and 20 203-mm. guns the Russians were still far superior but they did not succeed in seriously damaging the German cruisers. They received some hits, too, and finally retreated although no other German forces were near.

In August 1915, a German squadron, reinforced from the North Sea, made two attempts to break into the Gulf of Riga. In the first, the mine barriers proved impenetrable. The second succeeded, in spite of considerable losses to mines, but had no lasting consequences because the German Army did not participate, although its flank on the Gulf of Riga was being continuously harrassed by bombardments from the sea and even raids by parties landed from the sea.

In the summer of 1915, the number of British submarines in the Baltic was increased. The larger E-boats again passed the Sound (between Denmark and Sweden) as in the fall of 1914; the smaller C-class arrived via canals from the White Sea. They proved distinctly more effective than the Russian submarines. For two years neither side undertook any large naval operations. The Germans suffered losses to mines and submarines, but their domination of the Baltic was never challenged. Sea power worked unobtrusively.

For Germany it was vital to have absolute control of the central and western Baltic: she received most of her iron ore from Sweden, most of the grain from her eastern provinces and coal from the Ruhr district was carried by ship, the supplies for the northern wing of the army fighting Russia went by sea, and-last but not least-sea power relieved the army from the necessity of defending the long coasts in the Baltic. Lord Fisher, for many years the British First Sea Lord, strongly advocated large-scale operations in the Baltic. He was of the opinion that this would compel the Germans to station one million men along their coasts. His estimate was probably too high, but it indicates the size of the potential problem for the German armed forces. Early in 1915 the Royal Navy ordered the Courageous class (19,000 tons, 4 381-mm. guns, 32 knots, draft only 6.8 m.) for Baltic operations. However, the outcome of the Battle of Jutland (31 May/l June 1916) clearly showed that such an undertaking would be too risky even for the Grand Fleet. The battle did not change the over-all strategic situation and therefore in some quarters is considered of little importance. True, the blockade of Germany continued but so did that of Russia, since the British had to abandon their plans for directly supporting her through the Baltic.

As early as January 1915 the Russian government had asked the Western allies to open the sea routes to European Russia again. This request led to the well-conceived, but clumsily executed attack on the Dardanelles in the spring of 1915. In the land campaign of that year the Russian armies suffered disproportionately heavy losses in men as a result of lack of ammunition. According to Minister of War Suchomlinov, field batteries received no more than four rounds per gun for a whole day of fighting. When the Black Sea and the Baltic remained closed the situation in Russia deteriorated steadily. Construction of the Murmansk railway had only just begun; from Arkhangelsk 900 kilometers of narrow-gauge rail led to the main railway system. Nine thousand kilometers of single-track railway crossed Siberia to the Far East. In the winter of 1916-17 food in the larger towns was in such short supply that four meatless days per week had to be instituted. The revolution in February 1917 was the consequence of starvation at home and decimation and defeat in the field. When the Kerensky government tried to continue the fight, the Central Powers put pressure on with three limited offensives. The last was an amphibious operation to take the Baltic Islands of Ösel, Moon (Muhu), and Dago. Russian ships still fought well but without luck. The old battleship Slava was damaged by German battleships and had to be blown up by her own crew. The destroyer Grom was taken. The Germans lost a number of smaller vessels to mines.

In this context it is amusing to read another fairytale [1] of Gorshkov’s: “The Moon Sound operation (12 to 20 October 1917) … had the far-reaching goal of uniting the Central Powers, Britain, the U. S. A., and France in the struggle against the Russian Revolution.” When he quotes Lenin to support this strange idea he only shows that this paragon of political wisdom knew very little of sea power and its consequences. He should have been grateful to the Central Powers, for the loss of the Baltic Islands further weakened the Kerensky government and helped make the Bolshevist October Revolution possible. Figures and facts are distorted in Gorshkov’s short description of the operation, which practically ended the naval war in the Baltic.

[1] In a series of articles written in 1972 (published by the U. S. Naval Institute Proceedings in 1974) Admiral Gorshkov.


In the Black Sea the Russian naval forces were more active than in the Baltic. After the German battle cruiser Goeben joined the Turkish fleet in August 1914 neither side had a marked superiority until the new Russian battleships appeared. There were quite a number of engagements, but no conclusive results. When their allies attacked the Dardanelles the Russians repeatedly bombarded the fortifications at the entrance to the Bosporus but did not attempt any landing operations. By this abstention they may have missed the best opportunity for radically improving their supply situation.

The Turkish army in East Anatolia depended on sea transport for a great part of its supplies. When the first new Russian battleship was commissioned· in the winter of 1915-16, Admiral Kolchak, formerly chief-of-staff to Admiral von Essen, made good use of her, and soon the Russians had the upper hand. Well-supported from the sea, their army advanced deep into Turkish territory. At the same time naval forces attacked and nearly stopped the vital transport of coal from Zunguldak on the Black Sea to the Bosporus. With a British army advancing on Palestine, Turkey’s situation soon became critical, but then the October Revolution put an end to Russian operations in Anatolia. The Germans occupied the Ukraine and the Black Sea ports. After the German capitulation, French forces entered Sevastopol temporarily. The best ships of the Russian Black Sea Fleet left with them and rusted for many years at the French base of Bizerta in Algeria.

After foreign war, two revolutions, and a long civil war, the remnants of the Russian Navy were in bad shape. Its reconstruction had to take second place behind that of the Army. The experts disagreed on the type of navy needed by the Soviet Union. The Communist Party decided for a kind of “jeune ecole” fleet, a navy for coastal defense with torpedo craft and submarines. Then Stalin assumed command. With his acute sense for politics and power he saw the possibilities of a strong navy for furthering his plans. He also saw the technical difficulties and therefore did not precipitate matters. The second Five-Year Plan (1933-1937) provided for construction of six heavy cruisers, a number of large destroyers and a minimum of 50 submarines. Then, in the Party Congress of 1934, Stalin launched his campaign for capital ships-through a prominent submarine officer. For the construction of battleships and carriers, begun in the third Five-Year Plan, he tried to get help from the USA, but his request was turned down. After the treaty with Hitler in 1939 .he received a half-finished heavy cruiser (the Seydlitz), fire-control gear, and other equipment. In the Supreme Soviet, Premier Molotov declared that in the third Five-Year Plan the Navy had first priority. Pravda declared: “Only the biggest High Seas Fleet will meet Soviet demands.” When the Germans attacked in 1941, the big ships were not yet ready, but 291 submarines of the target number of 325 were in service or nearing completion.



A key objective of the High Seas Fleet commander, Gustav von Ingenohl (1857-1933) was to reduce the strength of the Grand Fleet to such a degree that a subsequent fleet action would have the prospect of German success. Before the war, it had been anticipated that a close blockade strategy would be pursued by the Grand Fleet, leaving it open to decimation by mine and torpedo. However, in the event the British, recognising the impracticability of the time-hallowed close blockade, adopted the alternate strategy of distant blockade – effectively stopping the exits of the North Sea to prevent commerce passing through. Accordingly, other approaches were required to carry through a reduction in Grand Fleet strength. Apart from wider-ranging minelaying and submarine activity, it was decided to carry out surface operations of sufficient size to draw out a part – but not all – of the British battlefleet, which would then be surprised and obliterated by the lurking High Seas Fleet. The ‘bait’ for such operations would be the large cruisers of the I. SG.

The Yarmouth Raid

The first such operation began on 2 November 1914, when the I. SG, comprising Seydlitz (flag), Von der Tann, Moltke and Blücher, supported by the II. SG’s small cruisers Straßburg, Graudenz, Kolberg and Stralsund, sailed to bombard the coastal town of Yarmouth, and lay mines between there and Lowestoft. Two squadrons of battleships and supporting vessels sailed some time later to provide the ‘ambush’ force.

In the event, the next morning the raiding force did no more than land a few shells on the beach (which were armour-piercing, high-explosive ones not then being available) and skirmish with British light forces, a force of British battlecruisers being ordered towards the action long after the raiders had begun to withdraw. The only direct losses were HMS/M D5, sunk by a mine laid by Stralsund, and three British trawlers. However, Yorck, serving with the covering force, strayed into a German defensive minefield at the mouth of the Jade on the morning of 4 November, having missed the swept channel in fog while attempting to reach Wilhelmshaven ahead of the rest of the fleet to rectify defects; she sank with the loss of 336 men.

The bombardment of Hartlepool 1914 by artist Stuart McMillan

The bombardment of Hartlepool 1914 by artist Stuart McMillan

The Hartlepool, Scarborough and Whitby Raid

A further operation of the this type was to be carried out by the same group of cruisers, augmented by the brand-new Derfflinger, together with eighteen torpedo boats, against three further coastal towns on 16 December. All three squadrons of battleships of the High Seas Fleet were deployed in support 130nm to the east (the III. Sqn being only five strong, as the brand-new König was under repair and Markgraf and Kronprinz had still to complete their trials), together with the two surviving ships of the III. SG, the seven ships of the IV. SG and fifty-four torpedo boats. Submarines were placed off Harwich and the Humber to attack any British ships reacting from these ports.

The departure of the cruisers on 15 December was detected by British code-breakers3 – but not that of the battlefleet. Thus, the response was to dispatch just the BCS (Lion, Queen Mary, Tiger and New Zealand – the remaining four British battlecruisers were overseas), the 2nd BS (King George V, Ajax, Centurion, Orion, Monarch and Conqueror), the 1st LCS (Southampton, Birmingham, Falmouth and Nottingham) and destroyers from the Grand Fleet, plus the light cruisers Aurora and Undaunted and forty-two destroyers from Harwich and the armoured cruisers of the 3rd Cruiser Sqn (Devonshire, Antrim, Argyll and Roxburgh) from Rosyth. This assemblage was placed to intercept the German raiding force on its return voyage.

Bad weather meant that all the small cruisers except Kolberg (carrying mines) and torpedo boats were detached from the raiding force to return home early on the morning of the 16th. Seydlitz, Blücher and Moltke were to bombard Hartlepool, while Derfflinger, Von der Tann and Kolberg were to attack Scarborough and Whitby. Hartlepool was defended by 6in [152mm]-armed shore batteries, a pair of light cruisers and destroyers, the batteries scoring four hits on Blücher, one on the forward superstructure disabling two 8.8cm guns and killing nine. The second hit was on a starboard 21cm turret, wrecking its sight and rangefinder, but leaving it still operational, the third shell striking the belt below. The fourth hit the foremast, damaging aerials and other equipment. Seydlitz received three hits, one on the forecastle, one which passed through the casing of the fore funnel, making a 4 to 5 metre-square hole in the uptake itself, and one on the aft superstructure, splinters from which penetrated the low-pressure turbine room; however, there were no casualties. Moltke received a single hit, forward.

Of the four British destroyers patrolling in the area, Doon, Test, Waveney and Moy, only the first-named was able to attack the German force, firing three torpedoes, all of which missed, the destroyer retiring damaged. Neither British cruiser was able to come into action, Patrol ran aground after two hits from Blücher, while Forward was only able to leave harbour when the Germans had already begun their retirement.

The bombardment of Hartlepool, during which some 1150 German shells were expended, killing seven soldiers and eighty-six civilians, with fourteen soldiers and 424 civilians injured. Three hundred houses were damaged and significant damage caused to industrial and other infrastructure. At Scarborough, no effective defences were available, significant damage being caused by the cruisers’ secondary and tertiary batteries, 333 15cm and 443 8.8cm shells being expended. Von der Tann and Derfflinger then sailed for Whitby to destroy the signal station there, firing 106 15cm and 82 8.8cm shells. Their tasks finished, the ships then sailed for their rendezvous point, beginning the homeward journey around 11.00.

Meanwhile, at 05.15, the screens of the British force and the High Seas Fleet had come into contact. Roon which, with Prinz Heinrich, was in the van of the High Seas Fleet, ran into Lynx and Unity, but no shots were exchanged. Unfortunately for the Germans, concerns at exceeding standing orders regarding avoiding action with potentially superior forces meant that it was decided at this point to withdraw the High Seas Fleet – only a few minutes away from encountering just the kind of detached element of the Grand Fleet that the strategy had envisaged as the fleet’s victim. The likely outcome of an engagement between the British squadrons and the much larger High Seas Fleet has been much debated. The British had superior speed (in particular given the speed-handicap of the II. Sqn) and could have fairly easily withdrawn, but it is possible that they could have decided to stand and fight: given the issues regarding British shells and damage-resistance that became apparent at Jutland, a negative outcome for the British would have not been unlikely.

The reversal of the fleet’s course placed Roon at the tail of the line, and at 05.59, the large cruiser, now joined by the small cruisers Stuttgart and Hamburg, again encountered British destroyers, which shadowed her until 06.40, at which point the two small cruisers were detached to deal with them. However, they were recalled at 07.02, and the ships continued home in the wake of the fleet. News of the encounter reached the BCS at 07.55, and New Zealand was directed towards the location of the action, followed by the remainder of the squadron. The pursuit was, however, broken off when news of the Scarborough bombardment diverted the British to attempt to deal with the I. SG.

The remainder of the Grand Fleet then sailed to join the hunt, and during the middle of the day there were a number of encounters between the British and German forces, but various breakdowns in communication within the British forces meant that no action was joined, and the I. SG reached port safely. During the High Seas Fleet’s retreat, HMS/M E11 fired a torpedo at Posen, which missed and all of the fleet returned safety.


Patriot Naval Exploits


Engagement Between the ‘Bonhomme Richard’ and the ‘ Serapis’ off Flamborough Head Artist: Richard Willis.


The courses of the opponents up to the moment just before the first sighting, early afternoon, 23 September 1779.

The campaigns of George Rogers Clark and John Sullivan gave cause for cheer among the patriots, even though the war in the eastern theater did not seem to be getting off dead center. At the same time, the exploits of the fledgling American navy represented a source of some rejoicing. With trepidation, the Continental Congress ventured into naval affairs during the fall of 1775. John Adams was among the few enthusiasts who had grand visions for a respectable American fleet, especially in challenging British war vessels sent out to blockade the coast- line and harass commercial carriers and port towns. Other delegates, however, feared the costs associated with a massive naval building program.

On October 30, 1775, Congress partially side stepped the issue by establishing its navy committee (later called the marine committee). Within severe financial constraints, the delegates authorized the committee to find and outfit armed vessels for defending the provinces. By January 1776, Congress had pur- chased eight ships and ordered the construction of 13 new frigates. (Frigates were smaller but normally faster and more maneuverable than ships of the line. The latter could carry as many as 120 guns and crews of up to 1,000; the former rarely held more than 50 pieces of ordnance and 300 sailors.) Worried about bankrupting the rebel cause, Congress gave support to what may fairly be described as a modest naval program throughout the war.

The rapid advent of various state navies, as well as privateering vessels, also militated against the need for a sizable Continental navy. All told, combined state navies never had more than 40 craft at their disposal. By comparison, over 2,000 American privateers entered the fray before 1783. Anyone with a ship who had secured a letter of marque (a license to raid enemy craft) from one of the states or Congress could join the ranks of these privately owned vessels to prey upon enemy commerce. Any prize coming from a captured and condemned vessel would be turned over to owner, captain, and crew, according to proportions of investment and crew rank on the craft. Many privateers made fortunes for their owners during the war, as long as they were not caught or destroyed by British war vessels trying to blockade the American coastline.

Privateering was nothing more than a form of legalized piracy in time of war, and its long and well-developed tradition ably served the American cause. Estimates vary as to how many enemy vessels, quite often carrying vital supplies to the British army, were taken. One figure credits American privateers with 600 prizes, with another 200 going to the American navy. On the other hand, David Syrett, in his detailed study of British transport activities, Shipping and the American War, 1775–83, points out that overseas trading operations in 1775 involved 6,000 British vessels (including American-owned bottoms). Of these, 3,386 fell into enemy hands, with 495 being recaptured and 507 ransomed back to their original owners. Permanent seizures, which also would have involved French, Spanish, and Dutch maritime exploits, amounted to 2,384 vessels. If this number is even close to accurate, total privateering and naval operations had a far more profound impact on Britain’s long- distance supply problems than has usually been conceded, even if the British transport service held up well for most of the war.

Whatever the outer limits of vessels seized and condemned, privateering “throttled development of a navy” in Revolutionary America, as Howard H. Peckham has stated. Also inhibiting the process were the many mariners who preferred privateering duty. One key reason was that all the prize money went to owners and crew, whereas Continental naval vessels had to turn over at least half of all proceeds from condemned vessels to Congress. Another was that discipline was often less rigorous on privateering ships, even though American naval regulations (like the army’s Articles of War) were not as harsh as those of European navies, befitting a virtuous citizenry-in-arms. Floggings, the standard form of discipline, could include as many as 1,000 lashes for British mariners; the American code permitted a maximum of 12 stripes, unless the crime was so severe that formal court-martial proceedings exacted a higher penalty—and then only with the approval of the naval commander in chief.

The gentlemen-sailors who commanded the American navy, beginning with phlegmatic Commodore Esek Hopkins of Rhode Island, did little to distinguish themselves or the cause of muscular naval forces, relative to more aggressive privateers. What claim to dash and élan the Continental navy earned has focused on boisterous, free-wheeling John Paul Jones, a man whom sailors considered a rigid disciplinarian but extraordinary seaman. Born John Paul in Scotland, the future “father of the American navy” went to sea at an early age and eventually took the surname Jones to cover his identity after killing a mutinous sailor. He soon joined the Continental navy and, early in the war, took many cargo prizes along the Canadian coastline. Then, at the beginning of 1778, Jones appeared in France with the 18-gun sloop of war Ranger. His timing was excellent. The completion of the Franco-American alliance guaranteed patriot naval and privateering captains outfitting privileges in French ports. Even before then, the American commissioners had urged Congress to send patriot war vessels across the Atlantic to harass British commercial carriers in the North Sea and Baltic areas—and even to raid enemy ports. Now guaranteed refitting privileges, Jones was about to gain infamy for his seagoing ventures around Britain.

In April 1778, Jones sailed north into the Irish Sea toward Scotland and raided the English port town of Whitehaven, while attacking British merchant vessels along the way. In the immediate shadow of the French alliance, an intrepid patriot-mariner had carried the war into the vitals of the parent nation. “For the first time in more than one hundred years,” as historian William M. Fowler, Jr., has remarked (Rebels under Sail), “a British port had actually come under close attack by an enemy.” Jones’s raiding expedition helped unnerve a civilian population heretofore isolated from the war and spurred a wave of antiwar protest in Britain. It also underscored the important harassing role that the American navy, however limited in strength, could play. With the French alliance, the allies could strike the extended British empire at almost any point, inflicting nasty wounds from the Caribbean islands to India. After 1778, the global maneuver- ability of allied naval and privateering fleets made the newly defined British military task of protecting the vitals of a far-flung empire that much more of a perplexing challenge.

Jones’s raid was a symbolic warning of the plight facing the British war machine. In 1779, the commander boldly issued a second manifesto. After his Irish Sea activities, Jones returned to France, dallied with a number of French women, and sought a better vessel with which to carry on further seafaring ventures. The French government finally offered him an old merchant hulk. Jones transformed this craft into a 40-gun warship, calling it the Bonhomme Richard in honor of Benjamin Franklin’s almanac character “Poor Richard.” On September 23, 1779, while sailing in the North Sea, the American commander engaged the Royal navy’s better-armed (50 guns) frigate Serapis off Flamborough Head. What followed was one of the most memorable naval confrontations of the war. The outgunned Richard nearly sank under withering fire but somehow stayed afloat as Jones and his mariners finally forced the Serapis to capitulate (the Richard sank two days later). The Serapis had been taken within sight of England, some 3,000 miles from North America, which certainly fed fears among English subjects, especially in light of the rumored French invasion, that the war could easily spill over into their homeland.

The Bonhomme Richard against the Serapis was a major capstone to American naval action during the Revolution and represented, as historian James C. Bradford has written, “one of the few glimmers of hope” for the patriot cause “in an otherwise dark year for the young United States.” Certainly, too, isolated, small-scale ship battles on the high seas, especially after the French alliance, exacerbated the problems faced by Great Britain in its attempt to supply its armies and reconquer the North American continent. The unremitting harassment provided by Continental, state, and especially privateering vessels made the Royal navy’s blockade of the American coastline even more paper thin. The Continental fleet was never strong enough to become a truly menacing force, since Congress lacked the resources to underwrite a comprehensive naval program. That is just one more reason why the French alliance was so important in buttressing the rebel cause. Along with critical troop reinforcements on land, the French provided significantly expanded naval capacity, both of which played an indispensable part in bringing the war to a successful conclusion for the American patriots.

Destroy Tirpitz! Part I



From an Post-WWII Report


There was nothing sensational about the design of Tirpitz; she was merely a very large battleship, designed on conventional lines, propelled by three screws driven by steam turbines and mounting eight 38 cm. (approx. 15-in.) guns in twin turrets, arranged in the conventional way, two forward and two aft. This German mastodon was designed to a standard displacement of 42,600 tons, although the displacement reported for Treaty conditions was 35,000, the same as that of the King George V and Washington classes of battleship, which were genuinely designed to this size. In the deep condition she displaced 50,000 tons and had a draught of nearly 34 ft. Other things being equal this greater displacement would have been accompanied by greater ability to withstand damage. Although she measured 822 ft. overall, her most impressive dimension was her beam of 118 ft. which would have prevented her from passing through the Panama Canal. It was always thought that this implied a very deep “bulge” for protection against underwater attack, but it is now known that there was nothing remarkable about her underwater protection which was, in fact, inferior to that fitted in both British and American contemporary Capital Ships. The very large beam was adopted to provide an abnormally high initial stability. Such measures, however, may often reduce the resistance of the ship to the more severe states of damage. It is doubtful whether Tirpitz was at all better than her allied counterparts in this respect.

Information gained from a survey of the wreck and numerous drawings brought from Germany confirm that Tirpitz’s reputed fine watertight subdivision, and consequent “invincibility”, were a complete myth; her subdivision was very similar to that of our own Capital Ships, and indeed those of all major sea Powers. Her watertight integrity was in several ways subordinated to requirements of convenience; for example, every transverse watertight bulkhead in the ship was pierced by watertight doors on the lower and middle platform decks, a menace which has been eliminated from H.M. ships for many years, and the engine rooms seemed to contain far more space than was needed.

Some of the available weight was used to secure a very high speed. Tirpitz was designed to develop 150,000 shaft horse-power which enabled her to make over 30 knots in the average action condition, and she was capable of developing 165,000 shaft horse-power for sudden bursts of over 31 knots. Her range based on an oil fuel capacity of 5,000 tons was over 10,000 sea miles. More fuel could be carried in an emergency.

More of the extra displacement in Tirpitz was accounted for by the fact that her 38 cm. guns were mounted in twin turrets rather than the weight saving triple and quadruple arrangements used in modern American and British Capital ships. Also the Germans fitted separate low angle and high angle secondary batteries rather than the dual purpose mountings used in Allied ships. She thus had twelve 15 cm. (5.9-in.) low angle guns in twin turrets, three on either side of the amidships superstructure, and sixteen high angle 10.5 cm. (4.1-in.) guns in twin mountings – four on each side. A further battery of sixteen 3.7 cm. (1.46-in.) mountings for close range anti- aircraft work was also provided.

This powerful armament was controlled by range-finders and director sights on the forward and after conning towers, and on the fore top. There were smaller range-finders for the secondary armament, one on each side of the bridge. The 10.5 cm. H.A. armament was controlled by four special gyro stabilized directors, one to port and one to starboard of the bridge, and two on the centre line abaft the main mast.

Tirpitz’s general layout is illustrated by the small-scale drawing (Figure 2) which has been prepared for this report from larger scale drawings found in the Naval Arsenal at Kiel. It will be seen from the drawing that the machinery spaces, consisting of six boiler rooms, three engine rooms and miscellaneous compartments housing auxiliary machinery, the magazines and shell rooms, and other vital compartments such as fire control rooms, were well protected by a long armoured citadel. The sides were of 320 mm. (12.6-in.) thick cemented armour plates from 8 ft. below the waterline up to the battery deck and thinner plating of 145 mm. (5.7-in.) thickness to the upper deck. In addition, the third deck down was armoured with 80 mm. (3.15-in.) non-cemented plating over the machinery spaces and 100 mm. (3.94-in.) over the magazines between the torpedo bulkheads, while the sloping deck armour between the centre portion and the base of the side armour was 110 mm. (4.33-in.) in way of machinery spaces and 120 mm. (4.72)-in.) in way of magazines. There were extensions of the citadel by thinner armour, the lower belt being 60 mm. (2.36-in.) plating forward and 80 mm. (3.15-in.) aft and the upper belt being 35 mm. (1.38-in.) forward and aft. While there was no deck armour before the forward magazines, deck protection aft over the steering gear compartments was 110 mm. (4.33-in.) in thickness. This armoured citadel, re-inforced by a strength deck (the upper deck) which was 50 mm. (1.97-in.) thick generally, afforded efficient protection against splinters and all but the largest bombs dropped from a considerable height. Barbettes, and turret sides and roofs, and conning towers were protected by armour on the same generous lines.

Four sea-planes which were carried for spotting and reconnaissance were accommodated in special hangars abreast the funnel and under the main mast. They were launched by a fixed athwartships catapult between the funnel and the main mast.

Attack by Fleet Air Arm Torpedo Bombers

On 6 March, 1942, H.M. Submarine Sealion, on patrol off the northern entrance to Trondheim, reported an enemy heavy ship proceeding on a north-easterly course. As a convoy on passage from Iceland to North Russia had been shadowed by a Focke-Wulf aircraft on the previous day, it was thought possible that the battleship Tirpitz might have left Trondheim to attack it. The C.-in-C., Home Fleet, in the King George V, with the Duke of York, Renown and Victorious, were at sea covering the convoy. On the following day C.–in-C., Home Fleet, intercepted a distress message from the Russian Ijora in position 72° 35’ N, 10° 50’ E. Early on 9 March six Albacores were flown off Victorious to search the area in which Tirpitz was believed to be operating. She was sighted at 0800 and a striking force of 12 Albacores armed with torpedoes, which had been flown off Victorious at 0735, was guided to the target by the shadowing aircraft. At 0842 Tirpitz was sighted by the torpedo planes which attacked in two waves, one on each side of the ship. The torpedoes appear to have been dropped at an excessively long range which enabled Tirpitz to “comb the tracks”, turning sharply first to port and then to starboard. No hits were scored, but the German command seemed to have been somewhat scared because Tirpitz retired at high speed to her safe anchorage in the Foetten Fjord near Trondheim.

Early Bomber Command Attacks

In the Foetten Fjord she was immune from most forms of attack; she lay surrounded by mountains and was moored close in to the cliffs on one side and surrounded by torpedo nets on all others. On the occasional fine day which made air attack just possible she had only to put up a smoke screen to rectify the climatic defect. Despite these difficulties she was attacked by Bomber Command aircraft during the early hours of 31 March, and 28 and 29 April, 1942. The weather conditions during the first of these attacks were so bad that only one aircraft succeeded in finding Tirpitz at all, the usual smoke screen was in use and the attack was abortive. During the second and third attacks, most of the aircraft despatched, 32 and 30 respectively, managed to find the ship but again the smoke screen prevented useful results from being achieved. The Germans who were interrogated after the surrender reported that in one of these attacks the bombs (probably hydrostatically fused mines) rolled down the cliff into the sea – a mode of attack which they regarded as worthy of more success than it achieved.

Although the difficulties of carrying out an attack against a Capital Ship under these conditions are fully appreciated, the 4,000 lb. blast bombs with instantaneous fuses which seem to have constituted the major part of the bomb loads carried in these early attacks, were rather unsuitable. A hit would have caused only superficial damage to superstructures, while near misses would have detonated on the surface with little fragmentation and practically no effect on such a heavy ship. 2,000 lb. A.P. bombs dropped in level flight would have been a better choice, since twice as many of these bombs could have been carried and any hits would have had a direct effect on the vessel’s fighting efficiency. The small Mk.XIX mines containing 100 lbs. of explosive and fitted with hydrostatic fuses to operate at 30 ft. depth had an almost negligible target, and the 500 lb. and 250 lb. G.P. bombs had little chance of producing serious damage against a ship of this size.

Operation Source

Tirpitz had a very quiet time from April, 1942, until March, 1943, during which period nothing useful was accomplished. At the end of this period Scharnhorst and Lutzow joined forces with her in the Altenfjord; these three ships with their attendant destroyers constituted a serious menace to the Russian convoys, which were suspended during the long daylight of the summer months for this reason. In early September, 1943, the squadron made a raid on Spitzbergen, showing that it was beginning to feel somewhat more aggressive, then returned to the anchorages in various branches of the Altenfjord. Tirpitz lay moored in Kaa Fjord – an arm of the Altenfjord some fifty miles from the sea – completely protected by torpedo nets. Though he disposed a superior Naval Force, it was extremely difficult for the C.-in-C., Home Fleet, to tempt the three ships to action from over 1,000 miles away, or to lay on a successful air or submarine attack against such secluded foxholes. It was finally decided to attack them with the new midget submarines officially known as X-Craft, which each carried two special ground mines, and which had been evolved after a careful study of the specific problem of attacking enemy units in such anchorages.

Six of these novel craft (X5 to X10) which had recently joined the Fleet, set out on the night of 11/12 September, 1943, on the hazardous journey to a position off the Norwegian coast, towed by ‘S’ and ‘T’ Class submarines. Two of them, X8 and X9, failed to complete this passage but the remaining four reached their rendezvous on 20 September, slipped their tows and proceeded independently to the attack.

X10’s periscope and compasses immediately began giving much trouble and eventually failed completely; as a result, she had to retire from the attack. (The plan had been for X5, X6 and X7 to attack Tirpitz, X8 to attack Lutzow and X9 and X10 to attack Scharnhorst). During 20, 21 and 22 September, X5, X6 and X7 successfully negotiated the Altenfjord as far as the anchorage of Tirpitz in Kaa Fjord, passing en route mine fields, enemy surface vessels and the anti-submarine boom defence at the entrance to the Kaa Fjord.

X6 entered the torpedo net enclosure around Tirpitz at about 0705

G.M.T. using the official entrance which was open at the time for the passage of store ships (see Figure 3). After a series of instrumental defects had caused her to surface three times (she was mistaken for a porpoise on the first occasion, correctly identified on the second (at 0710) and attacked with machine-gun fire and hand grenades on the third), X6 succeeded in releasing her two charges under the ship abreast ‘B’ turret. As escape was then impossible, she was scuttled and her crew surrendered. Meanwhile, X7 endeavoured to penetrate the net defence by passing under it. She experienced a number of setbacks but eventually succeeded in entering the anchorage. Passing down it under the keel of Tirpitz, from forward to aft, she released one charge abreast ‘B’ turret and the other further aft, under the after Engine Room. This X-Craft left the enclosure at 0740, this time sliding over the nets, and then dived. During the manoeuvre she was sighted by the Germans and hit several times with machine-gun bullets. At 0812, while still submerged, the crew heard a tremendous explosion which they thought to be due to the explosion of the X-Craft charges. X7 subsequently became uncontrolled; it was decided to scuttle her and at 0835 she was brought to the surface, but sank again with her hatch open after only one member of the crew had managed to escape. The full movements of X5 are not known but she was seen at 0835 on the surface some 500 yards outside the nets, when she was fired upon by Tirpitz and appeared to sink.

There were thus four charges laid under or near Tirpitz, namely, one placed by X7 under the after engine room and three from X6 and X7 abreast ‘B’ turret.

From the German point of view, the first intimation that an attack was in progress came at about 0713 when a small craft (X6) – correctly identified as a submarine – was observed to break surface momentarily inside the torpedo nets about 200 to 250 ft. off the port beam. The submarine alarm was sounded, watertight doors were brought to the action state and the anti- aircraft guns were manned. The submarine was sighted again at 0720 and was attacked with 20 mm. and 37 mm. fire from Tirpitz and hand grenades thrown from a motor boat which had been despatched to attack her. The X-Craft was eventually brought to the surface and abandoned in a sinking condition by her crew. The motor boat tried to tow the submarine, which the Germans suspected might contain explosives, away from the battleship but it sank at 0732, some 50 to 60 yards off the port bow.

The Germans were aware of the existence of British midget submarines but had no information as to their armament. They were, therefore, undecided as to whether an attack by torpedoes, mines, or limpet charges had been made. To clear any limpets which might have been attached to the bottom, they pulled from stem to stern a wire strop slung around the ship under the keel. At the same time, preparations were made to get underway but, in view of the unknown menaces awaiting the ship in the fjord, it was ultimately decided to remain inside the nets. However, Tirpitz’s bow was moved away from the submarine known to have sunk off the port bow by tightening and slackening the port and starboard forward mooring cables. Unbeknown to the Germans this had the effect of clearing the forward part of the ship from the three charges placed abreast ‘B’ turret. The single charge aft remained effective.

Shortly after this evolution was complete at least two heavy explosions occurred in quick succession; spray was thrown up over the ship which shuddered violently. The other two X-Craft were destroyed in turn soon after this. An intensive depth charging of the fjord followed.

Although only one of the six charges originally intended for Tirpitz was effective, the results were undoubtedly worthwhile. Only a relatively small quantity of water entered the ship but damage to main machinery was enough to immobilize her for six months. It is doubtful whether the repairs carried out in Kaa Fjord restored the ship to her original standard of mechanical efficiency.

Destroy Tirpitz! Part II

Gillies-Cole, Ralph; Operation Tungsten, 3 April 1944; Fleet Air Arm Museum; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/operation-tungsten-3-april-1944-40617

Gillies-Cole, Ralph; Operation Tungsten, 3 April 1944; Fleet Air Arm Museum; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/operation-tungsten-3-april-1944-40617

Operation Tungsten

The repair of damage caused by the X-Craft attack was complete by the beginning of March, 1944; Tirpitz then began a series of trials to test the efficacy of these repairs. These were to have culminated in prolonged sea trials in early April.

The first movements in Altenfjord were observed by our reconnaissance aircraft and C.-in-C. Home Fleet was therefore asked to lay on a bombing attack using Fleet Air Arm Aircraft. This attack took place on 3 April. Forty Barracudas were escorted by 81 Corsair, Hellcat and Wildcat fighters. Enemy reconnaissance was avoided by sending the Carrier force about a day behind a large Russia bound convoy. Complete surprise was achieved, the striking force reached the ship just as she was about to get underway for the open sea trials. Weather conditions were good.

The first strike began its attack at 0530 just as the second anchor was being weighed. Before a smoke-screen could be developed and before the flak batteries had been fully manned, the accompanying fighters were strafing the upperworks with machine-gun fire. Diving attacks by Barracudas carrying 1,600 lb. armour-piercing, 500 lb. semi-armour-piercing, and medium capacity bombs followed. A few 600 lb. anti-submarine bombs were also used. In all, nine hits (with one profitable near miss) were scored by this strike on the German ship. The second strike attacked at 0630 but found Tirpitz obscured by smoke, this time five hits and three near misses were obtained.

Unfortunately, owing to the low height from which the bombs were released (the Germans gave figures between 300 and 1300 ft.) none succeeded in penetrating the armour deck – in fact only two reached it. Two other bombs ricochetted off the 2-in. thick upper deck, and one lodged half-way through this deck. As all the vital parts of a large capital ship lie below armour, only superficial damage to living spaces and other unessential compartments was caused by the direct hits. This damage, however, was fairly extensive and several large fires resulted. Heavy casualties were caused both by the bombs and by the fighters. The greatest nuisance value was achieved by a bomb, probably 1600 lb. A.P., which struck the water a few ft. from the ship’s side, penetrated the side plating beneath the armour belt and detonated near the main longitudinal protective bulkhead. This bomb flooded bulge compartments nearby and extensive work by divers was required to effect a repair.

In about a month Tirpitz was again operationally fit, no significant damage to armament or main machinery having been sustained in the attack. About two more months were required to complete the less important repairs.

Fleet Air Arm Attacks

Although Tirpitz showed no signs of leaving the Kaa Fjord it was suspected that the attack on 3 April had not inflicted any vital damage as it was realised that the bombs might not have been dropped from a height sufficient to enable them to penetrate the thick deck armour. Intelligence reports and reconnaissance photographs also indicated that the battleship was ready for further action. Attacks on the above dates were therefore made by bomber forces flown from Carriers of the Home Fleet in an attempt to prolong Tirpitz’s stay in the Kaa Fjord.

The first of these attacks developed during the early hours of 17 July, the Arctic summer being then at its height. Warning of the attack had been received about half-an-hour before the planes arrived and all necessary preparations, including the smoke-screen, had been made in Tirpitz. The aircraft dropped 1600 lb. armour piercing and 500 lb. bombs; no hits were scored.

Two attacks made at noon and in the evening of 22 August were also anticipated; again Tirpitz was enveloped in a smoke-screen, and no hits were registered. 500 lb. semi-armour-piercing bombs were used in these strikes. The attack on 24 August was made during the afternoon, 80 aircraft being employed. The defences were once more in fully effective operation when the planes reached the Tirpitz, but this time, despite the difficulty of aiming through smoke, two of the 23 large armour-piercing bombs and 10 smaller semi-armour-piercing bombs which were dropped, scored hits. One of these detonated on the armour roof of ‘B’ turret which was only slightly damaged but the other – a 1600 lb. armour-piercing bomb – hit the port side of the upper deck abreast the forward conning tower, and penetrated through the armour deck to the lower platform (inner bottom) where it came to rest but – because of a fuse failure – did not detonate. Had this bomb been effective the main fire control rooms, switchboard rooms, etc., would have been put out of action. The resultant flooding would probably have extended to the forward auxiliary boiler room. In their official report on this attack the Germans stated:

“The attack on 24 August, 1944, was undoubtedly the heaviest and most determined so far experienced. The English showed great skill and dexterity in flying. For the first time they dived with heavy bombs. During the dive-bombing, fighter planes attacked the land batteries which, in comparison with earlier attacks, suffered heavy losses. The fact that the armour-piercing bomb of more than 1,540 lbs. did not explode must be considered an exceptional stroke of luck, as the effects of that explosion would have been immeasurable. Even incomplete smoke screening upsets the correctness of the enemy’s aim, and it has been decided from now on to use smoke in wind strengths up to 9 m. per second irrespective of possible gaps.”

The last of this series of attacks made on 29 August by 26 Barracudas, seven Hellcats, 10 Fireflies and 17 Corsairs from Indefatigable and Formidable, was carried out in exactly similar conditions. No hits were obtained.

Attack by Bomber Command Lancasters

A great improvement in technique was made on 15 September, 1944, when Tirpitz was attacked with the newly-developed Tallboy bombs. These massive bombs contained 5100 lbs. of desensitized torpex in a comparatively thin streamlined case and were fitted with fuses having a slight time delay of 0.07 sec. Although it was anticipated that they might be damaged in passing through the heavy deck armour, it was hoped that the very large charge would compensate for any loss of efficiency and that even near misses would have considerable destructive value.

The operation was carried out by about 30 Lancasters which had previously flown from Scotland to North Russia, where they were based for the attack. The aircraft approached the target at high altitude from the South-East, descending to about 12,000 ft. for their attacks which they made in groups of about six, in close formation. The battleship was found moored at her berth; she had been given warning by shore radar installations so that shortly after the attack commenced an extensive and effective smoke-screen covered the greater part of the fjord, leaving only the boom surrounding Tirpitz and small portions of the ship visible. The main armament, directed by the shore radar installations, was used for putting up a barrage in way of the attacking aircraft.

Out of the 21 heavy bombs dropped, only one fell sufficiently close to Tirpitz to damage her. This bomb hit the upper deck on the extreme starboard side some 50 ft. abaft the bow, passed out through the flare of the forecastle into the water and detonated below keel level close to the ship. The explosion wrecked a large portion of the fore end, particularly that part below the waterline, and as a result of this damage the first 120 ft. of the ship became flooded to the waterline. Although this single hit did not seriously affect either machinery or armament, the damage to the fore end of Tirpitz could not be repaired without docking her, and she was henceforth unfit to undertake a voyage in the open sea and in consequence ceased to be an effective fighting unit.

The following resume, extracted from the translation of a captured German document shows the German reaction to this attack:–

“It was estimated that repairs, if they could be carried out without interruption, would take at least nine months.”

“It was eventually decided at a conference on 23 September, 1944, at which the C.-in-C. and Naval War Staff were present, that it was no longer possible to make the Tirpitz ready for sea and action again. It was therefore considered that, in order to preserve the remaining fighting efficiency of the ship, she should be used as a reinforcement to the defences in the Polar Area. For this purpose Tirpitz was to be moved as soon as possible to the area west of Lyngenfjord, moored in shallow water and brought into the operation as a floating battery. A suitable berth had to be selected which would be reasonably secure and would offer favourable operational possibilities for the ship’s armament. Adequate anti-aircraft, smoke-cover and net protection were to be provided. Makeshift repairs were to be made and the Tirpitz moved with the assistance of powerful tugs.”

“The operation of moving the Tirpitz was carried out on 15 October, 1944. A berth was selected near Tromsø, Haakoy net enclosure, by F.O.I.C., Polar Coast in co-operation with Flag Officer, First Battle Group. The ship was protected against underwater attacks and aerial torpedoes by means of a double net barrage. Shore anti-aircraft guns and smoke-screen units were moved from Kaa Fjord to Tromsø. As the ship was only partially seaworthy, the crew, particularly the engine room complement, was decreased. It was found that there were varying depths of water at the selected berth; in particular there was a hollow below the midship section. Too many difficulties would have arisen if the ship were to be moved again, so it was decided to fill in the hollow till the water was 2 m. deep below the keel. Work was commenced by dredgers on 1 November, and by 12 November about 14,000 cm. had been filled in at both sides below the midship section.”

Second Bomber Command Tallboy Attack

On 29 October, 1944, the lame Tirpitz now moored at Tromsø off Haakoy Island was again attacked by Bomber Command. A force of 32 Lancasters flying this time from British bases and carrying one Tallboy each, began bombing her at 0850. The target was seen obliquely as the aircraft approached, but low clouds obscured her from view during the bombing runs and made accurate bomb-aiming impossible. Once again, prior warning of the approaching raid was received and the ship was in a high state of readiness when the attack commenced. No direct hits were scored but the end was brought one stage nearer by a near miss off the port quarter, which damaged the port shaft and rudder and flooded about 100 ft. of the aft end of the ship on the port side.

Final Bomber Command Attack

The struggle between the British armed forces and Tirpitz came to an end on 12 November, 1944, when Bomber Command aircraft executed what was undoubtedly one of the most effective British air operations of the late war. 29 Lancasters, again carrying one 12,000 lb. M.C. bomb each, attacked the ship as she lay in her anchorage at Tromsø. Bombing commenced at 0941 and finished eight minutes later in clear weather and excellent visibility. Tirpitz had received ample warning by radio of the approach of the bombers and was again prepared when the attack developed. Intense anti-aircraft fire was augmented from nearby flak ships and shore batteries, but there was no effective smoke-screen. The bombing runs were made at heights varying between 12,500 ft. and 16,500 ft. Tirpitz received severe structural damage from, at least, two direct hits and one near miss, and as a result of this damage she capsized to port about ten minutes after the first bomb was dropped. Part of the starboard side of her hull is still to be seen above the surface – a reminder of the inability of a capital ship without adequate fighter cover to resist a determined and concentrated attack with modern airborne weapons.

Battleship Clash at Iron Bottom Sound! Part I


USS South Dakota (BB-57)



Fast battleship Kirishima as she appeared in WW2: a reconstructed Kongo class WW1 era battlecruiser, she was sunk at the second Battle of Guadalcanal in September 1942 by USS Washington – but not before she had badly damaged USS South Dakota.




Faithfully motoring in circles as it cast its ten-centimeter microwaves, the Washington’s SG radar spied the enemy ships to the north of northwest, as they left the cover of Savo Island making twenty-one knots. The radars watched the enemy vessels for several minutes at a range of eighteen thousand yards, sharing their data on human wavelengths via the PPI scope, and to the mechanical fire-control computer that delivered calculus to the gun turrets, before losing track of the contacts because of interference from land.

The radars were sketching a picture, definite in range and bearing if indistinct in composition, of two groups of enemy ships north of Savo Island. Admiral Lee and Captain Davis had designed the Washington’s fire-control procedures around the fact that this type of data was essential to everything. They made sure that their radar plot officer did not operate the traditional way, communicating through a sailor who served as his “talker.” Instead, he was wired up with his own headset to speak directly to the gunnery officer, the main battery plotting room officer, and the trainers in each of the gun director stations, all at the same time. In this way, he could describe the appearance of the scope and designate targets directly to all stations with a need to know, with less confusion.

With a Philip Morris hanging from his lips, Willis Lee said to Davis, “Well, stand by, Glenn, here they come.” In every compartment of the Washington, an electronic bell gave two short rings, signaling a warning that a salvo was imminent. Hydraulic hoists trundled twenty-seven-hundred-pound projectiles up from the magazines to the turrets. The powder cars whisked up silk cylindrical bags filled with explosive propellant. The projectiles were eased mechanically onto the heavy bronze breech-loading trays and the powder bags laid in behind them, as many as eight per load depending on the range to the target. After the breech had been rammed and locked, the gun captain hit the ready light indicating the gun was ready to fire.

Admiral Kondo had arrayed his force in three groups. Consisting of the Kirishima and the cruisers Atago and Takao, his Bombardment Unit was his centerpiece. Ahead of those large ships went his Screening Unit, the light cruiser Nagara leading six destroyers, commanded by Rear Admiral Susumu Kimura. Off to the east steamed a separate Sweeping Unit made up of the light cruiser Sendai and three destroyers under Rear Admiral Shintaro Hashimoto. It was this latter group that Lee’s radars detected first as the Washington and South Dakota plunged along on their westerly heading, tracing a course south of Savo Island. On the radar scope, the Washington’s radar plot officer watched the light echoes separate from the mass of Savo Island, “then separate into ‘drops’ similar to the effect of planes taking off from a carrier.”

The Washington’s turrets trained to starboard and fixed on Hashimoto’s group as it approached on the east side of Savo Island, sliding aft relative to the battleships as they moved west. At 11:13 p.m., when Main Battery Control reported to Lee that the narrow-casting fire-control radars had found targets and were yielding ranges, Lee hailed Gatch over the TBS and gave the South Dakota permission to open fire. It was not until the enemy vessels were spotted visually, at 18,500 yards, that the Washington, followed closely by the South Dakota, let loose. For the second time in three nights, Savo Sound erupted in thunder and light.

Ensign Robert B. Reed of the Preston watched the mighty flagship astern. As the corona of the Washington’s first broadside faded, he could follow the nine red tracers as they flew away, “grouped together for all the world like a flight of airplanes,” he said. Reed watched the salvo disappear up into the low-hanging clouds, then reemerge ten miles downrange. When the fire-control radar received echoes that showed the first salvo had landed “over,” beyond its target, the plotting officer checked his headphone chinstrap—the concussion of the big guns sent more than a few headsets clattering to the deck—then instructed the gunnery officer, Commander H. T. Walsh, to “spot down,” lowering the elevation of the gun. The second salvo, fired forty-five seconds later, registered a “straddle.” The officers watching the radars knew their fire was on target when they saw the radar image of the target flicker at the moment of impact.

After the two battleships commenced fire, radio snoopers in the South Dakota heard a cacophony of Japanese voices, “excited and very numerous.” They counted at least thirteen stations on this frequency at one time. Though the South Dakota’s main battery was hamstrung, with just four guns working in her two forward triple turrets, she continued her cannonade until her forward turrets, swinging aft to remain on target, bumped up against the stops that kept her from firing into her own superstructure. The after turret, with no such restraints, kept firing, however, and as it trained straight aft the wash of fire from her barrels set fire to her two floatplanes, fantail-mounted on catapults. The small bonfires raged briefly before the next salvo blew them right off the ship.

The light cruiser Sendai and the destroyers Shikinami and Uranami were the objects of this large-caliber fury. Though Hashimoto’s small squadron was engulfed in that maelstrom, not one of his ships was actually hit. The Sweeping Unit commander, the first naval officer to take fire from sixteen-inch guns, ordered his captains to lay a smoke screen—of little benefit against a radar-guided foe—and reverse course to seek other opportunities to “sweep.” Surrounded by towering splashes, the captains of the Japanese ships, making smoke, beat a high-speed retreat.

The Washington’s secondary battery cracked ferociously away as well, with the two forward five-inch mounts shooting at the main battery’s targets, and the next two mounts aft firing on a cruiser that appeared to be illuminating the South Dakota. The after dual five-inch mount lofted star shells. The intense flash of the five-inch fusillades blinded his main battery director operators and turret captains as they looked out through their night scopes. But fighting by eyesight was the old way of war. Now the human senses were an auxiliary system. “Radar has forced the Captain or OTC to base a greater part of his actions in a night engagement on what he is told rather than what he can see,” Lee would write. Coolly deciding which directors would control which turrets, and switching them as the geometry of the engagement shifted, Willis Lee became the first naval commander to manage a gunfight mostly by radar remote control.

Using the picture his radar provided him, Lee could see his four destroyers ahead and monitor the shifting geometry of the landmasses around him. He had a fine view of the naval landscape. What he did not have, owing to an oversight in ship design, was an electronic picture of the situation to his rear. With his radar transmitters bolted to the front side of the tower foremast, he could register no returns through a sixty-degree arc astern. The South Dakota was in that blind spot. Without visual contact with the other battleship, he was susceptible to the same uncertainty that clouded the view of Scott and Callaghan in the previous surface engagements in Savo Sound. Lee could no longer be completely sure that large targets on his radar were hostile.

Lee’s battleships were the first ships that night to make their powerful presence felt, but in short order the destroyers in his van were grappling with the enemy—and suffering the consequences of the collision. At about 11:30 p.m., the lead vessel, the Walke, located a target on her starboard beam at fifteen thousand yards. It was a lone enemy ship, the destroyer Ayanami, which had strayed from Hashimoto’s formation and was winding a course west of Savo Island, alone. As the ship closed on their starboard hand, the Walke opened fire with her five-inch guns. Five minutes later, lookouts in Commander Max Stormes’s Preston, third in line, spotted the Nagara ahead, leading four destroyers of the Screening Unit, and opened fire on her at seventy-five hundred yards. The Walke and the Benham, Preston, and Gwin turned their fire on these ships ahead.

The Walke’s captain, Thomas E. Fraser, had a hard time seeing his target, the Ayanami, given how closely the enemy destroyer was hugging Savo’s shore. His radar could see the target only when it was far enough from land to return a separate echo. The Ayanami’s captain had no plans to allow that to happen. From the cover of the dark shoreline, around eleven thirty, he fired torpedoes at the American van and reversed course away from the action. The torpedoes were on their way. Enemy gunfire was faster in arriving.

By the light of a setting quarter moon flirting with low clouds, the Preston opened fire on another ship, the light cruiser Nagara, in the loom of Savo Island. Steaming at twenty-three knots, Stormes’s ship found a hitting range at nine thousand yards when she was struck hard by a pair of 5.5-inch shells that plunged into her machinery spaces from the starboard side, killing everyone in her two fire rooms. The blast propelled a filthy cloud of firebrick and debris out of the stacks that settled all across the amidships area. Shattered torpedo warheads leaked TNT that quickly caught fire. The ship’s after stack fell across a searchlight installation, knocking it over onto the starboard torpedo tube. A heavier hit followed as a strange ship—which the Preston’s officers would speculate was a Japanese heavy cruiser—approached from the port side of the American column and fired on the destroyer. One large shell entered the engine room, exploding against the electrical generators. Another hit near the number three gun, and a third was a direct hit on the number four. The blast was so great that it jammed guns one and two all the way forward. Aft of the stacks, the Preston’s decks were a blazing ruin. Captain Stormes was forced to give the order to abandon ship almost immediately.

However, to the executive officer of the South Dakota, Commander A. E. Uehlinger, and another officer, Henry Stewart, it was clear that the Preston was a victim of friendly fire. “I saw the Washington open fire to her starboard,” Stewart said. “To us it looked as if the Washington’s fire had caused the accident.” The action reports would lend credence to the idea that even Willis Lee was susceptible to making deadly mistakes in the heat of battle.

As the Preston coasted to a stop, the Walke was hit, too. Captain Fraser was working to set up a torpedo solution at a large target to starboard when the enemy fish arrived. One struck the Walke forward of the bridge, lifting the forward half of the ship “bodily out of the water,” the action report read. As the destroyer crashed back into the sea without a bow forward of the bridge superstructure, one of the ship’s magazines detonated and its explosion ruptured forward fuel oil tanks and tore holes in the superstructure decks. A few seconds later, several medium-caliber warheads slammed into the ship, blowing away a swath of her forecastle and forward superstructure decking. Across the main deck surged a flood of fuel oil several inches deep. Flames roared through the forward compartments. Very quickly it became clear that the Walke was going down by the bow. When machine-gun ammunition started popping and the forward bulkhead of the fire room finally buckled, Fraser decided to abandon ship. The severed bow floated on as the stern sank. Minutes later the survivors in the water were rocked by an undersea blast as the ship’s depth charges exploded, to grievous effect in their company. The dead included Captain Fraser. The Walke’s dead would number eighty-two men, including six of her officers.

The Benham, behind the Walke, briefly took the lead before a shell plunged into her fire room. Then a torpedo struck, a Type 90 fish probably fired by the Ayanami. It carried away about fifty feet of the Benham’s bow below the main deck. The blast produced no fatalities but sent a tall column of hot seawater soaring toward the stars. When it came back down, it washed heavily over the length of the ship, causing injuries topside and carrying a man overboard. Then another shower fell on the Benham: oil and debris from the explosion on board the Preston ahead. The Benham continued along at ten knots. The Gwin, riding in the van’s rear, popped star shells, illuminating the coast of Savo, where flashes of gunfire were visible. Her torpedo crew had a solution on a cruiser but a short circuit caused a torpedo to fire prematurely, well out of range. Then the Gwin, too, started absorbing shells, taking a hit in the engine room. A failure in her safety circuits caused three torpedoes to release from their tubes and slide harmlessly overboard. The Gwin came right to avoid the dying Preston and continued on her westerly course.

The Benham’s captain, Lieutenant Commander John B. Taylor, saw the trouble ahead and decided to steer clear of the damaged ships and the churn of enemy gunfire. Turning hard right, he made a half circle and steadied up, heading east until the Washington passed on an opposite course. Circling back around, Taylor, seeing the burning Walke and Preston, planned to stop and recover survivors. When the two cripples came under fire again, he elected, however, to withdraw.

It was around this time, at about 11:33 p.m., that the South Dakota suffered an appalling systems failure. Her after turret had just lashed out at a target off the starboard bow when Captain Gatch’s ship was seized as if by an aneurysm, a short circuit in her main switchboard. As the breakers tripped out in the switchboards that served her secondary battery, only to find that they had been tied down by the chief engineer, the overload surged to other switches, creating a collapsing house of cards within the ship’s power grid. In an instant the great battleship went dark. Gone were her gyros and all her fire-control equipment. As the battleship’s main battery fell silent, there was nothing Gatch could do to his enemy but curse.

When the Washington turned left and passed the burning destroyers on their disengaged side, hidden from the enemy by their fires, she entered waters dense with flotsam and survivors. Making twenty-six knots through the debris field of the stricken Walke and Preston, the battleship’s sailors threw life rafts overboard. From the ranks of bobbing heads they heard cries of encouragement: “Get after’em, Washington!”

Captain Gatch in the South Dakota tried to follow the Washington as she passed on the disengaged hand of the destroyers, but when a wreck of a destroyer loomed, threatening collision, he was forced to turn the other way, conning sharply right, passing between the Walke and Preston and the enemy. The maneuver placed his blinded warship in an unfortunate tactical position, silhouetted by the burning wrecks and plainly visible to an enemy hungry for targets. Three minutes after her switchboard failure, power returned to the ship. The outage was long enough to disorient one of the two most powerful ships in Savo Sound that night. And the confusion that reigned led to a tactical error in shiphandling that would draw concentrated enemy attention in the coming minutes.

The heavy toll inflicted on the four leading ships of the American column was the pattern set by previous engagements. Destroyers, always expendable, had sacrificed themselves in faithful adherence to duty. Seeing the plight of his leading foursome, Willis Lee excused his van from battle, ordering the Benham and the Gwin to retire. The Washington and South Dakota would carry this fight alone.

In the Washington, the detonation of the Walke’s depth charges could be felt like a speed bump under tread. The battleship, whose five-inch guns helped batter the Ayanami to a powerless, burning hulk, had to cease firing her secondary battery now for fear of hitting friendly destroyers.

Battleship Clash at Iron Bottom Sound! Part II


The battleship Washington (BB-56) leading South Dakota (BB-57) while firing at Kirishima on the night of 14-15 November 1942.


The Japanese battleship Kirishima takes hit after hit from Washington (BB-56) as the battle reaches its climax.

For his part, Kondo was eager to send his two smaller groups to tangle with the Americans, but he was cautious and hesitant with his more powerful Bombardment Unit. He received a report from Commander Eiji Sakuma, captain of the Ayanami, taking credit for the grievous damage inflicted on the American destroyer van. The elation on the Atago’s bridge was squelched when word arrived from Admiral Hashimoto in the Sendai that the Ayanami had been terribly hit herself. Adrift northwest of Savo Island, she would finally sink when spreading fires detonated her torpedo battery, breaking her in two.

As his widely roaming forces circled and sparred with Lee, Kondo seemed torn between two objectives. Keenly aware that his mission was to suppress the airfield so as to give Tanaka’s transports, steaming well to his north, a chance to land without further interference from the Cactus Air Force, Kondo kept the Kirishima and his two heavy cruisers interposed between Lee and the transports. Even as lookouts in the Atago and Takao insisted they had seen an American battleship among their opponents, Kondo discounted the possibility. He let his light forces carry the fight while awaiting his opportunity to throw the Kirishima at Henderson Field.

Having learned from his destroyers that the fight was going well against the U.S. “cruisers,” Kondo ordered Hashimoto to assist the damaged Ayanami. As Hashimoto turned north to comply, he encountered Admiral Kimura’s destroyers, compelling them into a full circular turn to avoid a collision. Kondo’s unwieldy task force organization thus turned and bit him. As the Bombardment Force—the Kirishima and the two cruisers—finally turned south to close on Henderson Field, both Kimura and Hashimoto found themselves out of the fight.

Kondo had barely settled into his new heading when his lookouts spotted the South Dakota and identified her as a cruiser. At the same time, the Nagara reported seeing two enemy battleships near Cape Esperance. The Atago’s lookouts corrected their error in short order, announcing the presence of battleships. But it was only after his flagship’s searchlights swept over the compact and powerful form of the forty-two-thousand-ton South Dakota that Kondo himself finally grasped the nature of his opponent. All at once both the admiral and his flagship’s commanding officer, Captain Matsuji Ijuin, began shouting orders to engage.

Fixed by searchlights, the U.S. battlewagon drew the immediate violent attention of every major ship in Kondo’s force. The Japanese flagship Atago and her sister ship, the Takao, struck the South Dakota especially hard, repeated scoring with eight-inch fire from five thousand yards. From the Atago, the Nagara, and four destroyers, thirty-four Long Lances splashed into the sea. The Kirishima fired on Gatch’s ship with her fourteen-inch battery from eleven thousand yards, scoring with a hit at the base of her great after turret. The blast turned the surrounding deck planks into a storm of chips, incinerated the canvas gun bloomers, and cast fragments up and down the deck. A loader on the left gun inside the turret heard officers on the phones, wondering about the extent of the damage and whether the gun would still fire with an Olympian dent in her barbette. “Our turret commander was certainly a cool-headed duck,” he recalled. “He said, ‘Never mind how bad we’re hit. I don’t give a damn if the guns blow up. I’m going to fire.’ ” There came a double buzz followed by a long buzz, indicating the turret was about to discharge. The expectant seconds passed, but the great guns remained silent. With the main battery out, paralyzed by the electrical failure, Gatch was able to respond only with his secondary battery. The battleship’s five-inch guns jackhammered fiercely in local control, but were hardly a deterrent to heavy cruisers and a battleship.

Topside, the South Dakota was taking the same kind of punishment that had turned the San Francisco’s decks into a killing field two nights before. The wash of shrapnel made a sizzling sound as it sliced into cables, gun shields, and steel decking. Well protected though the engineering compartments were deep within the vital “armored box,” no battleship’s topsides stations were proof against such firepower. More often than not, the armor-piercing rounds fired by Kondo’s ships penetrated and passed through the superstructure plating without exploding. Still, the fires raged so fiercely that some enemy observers became convinced she was a goner. The barrage of hits to the South Dakota’s superstructure shattered steam pipes going to the ship’s whistle, and gusts of steam scalded many sailors in those exposed spaces. In Battle Two, the executive officer, Commander A. E. Uehlinger, refused to abandon station after it was engulfed in steam. In the end, the battleship’s high foremast superstructure was poor shelter. It was a death trap.

The chaplain, James Claypool, recalled hearing men praying. Some were so scared they couldn’t remember the words to the Lord’s Prayer. “At such times everything you do is a prayer,” a chief petty officer said. “Even your cuss words are prayers.”

The South Dakota was designed for a different kind of fight, conducted at distances to the horizon and beyond, where her huge guns could kill at standoff range. At close ranges, the variables were too many to manage and the risk was great. When an eight-inch shell exploded near an ammunition hoist, flashing through the opening and igniting some life jackets, a fire rose in a passageway adjacent to a handling room serving the five-inch battery. This small fire was a dangerous one. But it and the rest of the South Dakota’s below-decks fires were quickly extinguished, and a disastrous secondary explosion was forestalled. It was Gatch’s good fortune especially that none of the many torpedoes fired his way struck his ship, as her design was vulnerable below the waterline. Several Long Lances exploded prematurely on the way in. Topside, the flames danced.

Willis Lee in the Washington had been patiently tracking a large target on his starboard hand, but since he had lost track of the South Dakota, owing to his blind spot astern, he dared not turn loose his big guns on this bogey, the Kirishima, until her identity could be verified. When the Japanese opened their searchlight shutters on the South Dakota, however, he had his answer. Lee’s flagship enjoyed momentary concealment as she slid behind the burning Walke and Preston, which blinded Kondo to his presence. Here was an hour of truth, and the truth was this: Willis Lee was the contemporary master of radar fire control, and Washington’s SG system gave him a clear electronic view of the oceanic battlefield under almost any circumstances.

While sailors in open-air stations saw the horror of naval combat in the machine age with their own senses—steaming through the debris fields of the sunken destroyers, shouting out to sailors bobbing on rafts nursing ghastly wounds, smelling the sweet tang of burned flesh—inside, officers with access to a radar image watched an abstract painting of the battlescape unfurl in a remorseless electric light. It was a picture cleansed of horror and emotion. Lee knew how to operate by it. He trained one group of his starboard side five-inch dual mounts on the Atago, and his main battery and the other group of five-inch mounts on the larger blip on his scope, the Kirishima. The Washington’s unblinking electronic eyes nudged the main battery on target. From eighty-four hundred yards—“body punching range,” as a Washington lieutenant put it—the South Pacific’s battleship gunslinger emerged from the cover of his burning destroyers and turned loose with everything he had. Naval engineers who designed protective armor schemes for battleships calculated from the need to stop large-caliber direct gunfire from around twenty thousand yards. But at close ranges, stopping a sixteen-inch projectile was hopeless. One of the South Dakota’s turret officers, Paul Backus, exclaimed, “Throwing fourteen-inch and sixteen-inch shells at that kind of range—Jesus.” Willis Lee had won the draw on the Kirishima.

The last time Lee had held night spotting and gunnery practice was in January 1942. But since then, he had drilled his crews in target selection and fire-control procedures so thoroughly that it did not really matter whether it was night or day. An ensign named Patrick Vincent, stationed in the Washington’s armored conning tower, said, “I was amazed at how well Captain Davis and Admiral Lee could function on the bridge with all the noise and blasting pressure from the guns. The racket was unbelievable. Even in the conning tower, it was almost impossible to communicate. The pressure from the gunfire spurting through open ports was knocking men down.” It was nothing like what a battleship experienced on the receiving end of that fury.

It had been just six minutes since the Kirishima’s gunners had lost a solution on the South Dakota and checked their fire. Lookouts on the Atago, spotting the Washington, shouted, “There is another ship forward of the first, a big battleship!” Short seconds later the lookouts were crying, “Kirishima is totally obscured by shell splashes!” According to Lee, the Washington’s fire control and main battery “functioned as smoothly as though she were engaged in a well-rehearsed target practice.” The first salvo probably hit, and the second one certainly did.

Ashore, roused from sleep by the heavy hammering of main batteries in the sound, Bill McKinney was among a team of Atlanta electricians stationed on a searchlight installation that stood watch over Guadalcanal’s northern coast. Defended by a detachment of marines, the facility consisted of a tower of sixty-inch searchlights with a diesel generator and a remote-control director station. It was inoperable because its power cable had been slashed by overzealous foxhole diggers. Now, awakened, they were seized by the sight of battle. There was no telling who was friend or foe. It was like watching a baseball game without lineup cards, with everyone in the same colorless uniform. Ships revealed themselves suddenly with long gouts of flame and the bright parabolas of tracer rounds lazing through the night. The luminous red globes that seemed to float across the water knew no nationality. A few of them seemed to hover and disappear into the silhouette of a large ship, which stopped firing.

The Kirishima took a frightful battering from the Washington. The first hit destroyed the forward radio room located at the base of the foremast pagoda, below the main deck. Shells smashed into the barbettes of her two forward fourteen-inch turrets, starting fires that threatened the magazines. The battleship’s assistant gunnery officer, Lieutenant Commander Horishi Tokuno, ordered a forward powder magazine flooded to prevent fires. The rush of water caused the ship to list slightly to starboard. Another projectile hit the steering machinery room, flooding it and leaving the rudder jammed to starboard. After this, only the ship’s inboard shafts were working, making it impossible to steer by reversing the outboard shafts. When hydraulic pressure failed in the after part of the ship, her two after main gun turrets were left inoperable.

Heat and smoke from topside fires, sucked into the ship by ventilation turbines, forced the evacuation of the engine rooms. A pair of thirty-foot holes yawning in her deck amidships were the scars of this massive assault. On the Kirishima’s bridge, Lieutenant (j.g.) Michio Kobayashi noticed the ship slowing and turning in a circle.

The Kirishima’s main battery managed to roar several times in return. The commanding officer, Captain Sanji Iwabuchi, thought his first salvo scored two hits, one of them blowing off the bridge of his target. “At least ten hits were made upon them, but the enemy could not be finished off,” he said. It was the familiar optimism of a warrior lost in a battle larger than he can comprehend. The fourteen-inch armor-piercing rounds passed like giant subway cars over the Washington’s rigging. “They must have been mighty close,” a Washington sailor said, “but an inch is as good as a mile.” Ed Hooper’s remorseless radars would have allowed no escape, even if the enemy ship retained the ability to maneuver. As the radar automatically lay the big rifles, the Washington’s gun trains kept rolling and the night rained murderously with heavy metal. The U.S. flagship’s rapid-firing secondary battery popped five-inch rounds into the Kirishima’s pagoda foremast, stacks, and superstructure, causing untold loss of personnel.

When the officer in Main Battery Control ordered the guns to cease fire, based on an erroneous report that his target had sunk, Captain Iwabuchi tried futilely to conn the Kirishima away from the Washington, but “we couldn’t make way at all,” he said. “In the meantime, the engine rooms became intolerable because of the increased heat, and most of the engineers were killed though they had been ordered to evacuate. Only the central engine could make the slowest speed. Fires brought under control gained strength again, so that the fore and aft magazines became endangered. Orders to flood them were then issued.”

Ninety seconds later, Captain Davis ordered his main battery, “If you can see anything to shoot at, go ahead,” and the great guns opened up again on the Kirishima, whose gunners were able to respond with only her after turret. “More hits obtained,” the action reported declared.

More than two hundred sailors lay dead in the Kirishima, victims of a stem-to-stern pummeling by at least twenty sixteen-inch shells from the Washington. Lieutenant Kobayashi believed the ship took half a dozen torpedoes as well, but these were most likely underwater hits. Many of the great twenty-seven-hundred-pound American projectiles struck short but plowed under the sea on flat trajectories to strike below the waterline. Admiral Lee, seeing their splashes, most likely counted these as misses. But they did, by far, the greatest damage to the Kirishima, all along her length. These underwater hits were Willis Lee’s answer to the Long Lance torpedo.

After midnight, Kondo ordered his battered Bombardment Unit onto a westerly course. Only the Atago, lightly damaged, and the Takao, unhit, could comply. The Washington’s radars tracked the Japanese ships as they withdrew—a light cruiser was fixed for the forward turrets, and a destroyer for the after turret. But Lee, unsure of the South Dakota’s location, would not allow the main battery to fire.

Captain Gatch was fortunate to escape with a seaworthy battleship. The South Dakota had taken twenty-six hits, including eighteen by eight-inch projectiles and one by a fourteen-incher. The damage wrought to the upper works was serious. With all of the ship’s lights out, working parties operated by feel as they searched for the dead in the darkened foremast tower. They would not soon forget the things they found.

Having lost track of the Washington, Gatch decided that his night was over. His battered ship, alone, was unable to carry the fight any longer. He elected to retire. This decision came as a relief to Willis Lee, who had pursuit on his mind and didn’t need a wounded compatriot to worry about. The last report from Cactus Control at 7 p.m. put five Japanese transports dead in the water about fifteen miles north of the Russell Islands, and four more limping northwest with a small combat escort.

His big rifles not yet cool, Lee steered a course to intercept them the next day. The Washington had come through virtually unscratched by enemy fire. A five-inch hole in her giant “bedspring” air-search radar transmitter was her only wound. She took a much worse thrashing from the blast of her own guns: bulkheads caved in, compartments violently tossed, and a floatplane left in ruins, suitable only for parts. Her only human casualties were a punctured eardrum and an abrasion to the back of a hand. She was the most powerful ship in these waters, but any ship alone is a vulnerable one.

Shadowed by several of Kondo’s destroyers, Glenn Davis rang the Washington’s engine room to make emergency power, and his raging boilers piped enough steam to whistle up the four shafts to nearly twenty-seven knots. At that speed, the 44,500-ton battleship, accelerating through a turn, cleaved wakes from her bow and stern that, in collision, generated wave peaks high enough to register on radar and spook her plotting officers that enemy ships were close in pursuit. When the Washington’s radar registered real phantoms—small blips, presumably destroyers, on the starboard bow—and when a smoke screen was sighted ahead, Captain Davis turned sharply right to avoid contact with a torpedo-wielding enemy; he continued turning until the flagship was headed south, on course to retire. As he did so, large explosions raised great columns of water in her wake. He had turned away just in time.

The battered Kirishima would not be saved. The light cruiser Nagara was nearby and Captain Iwabuchi requested a tow, but it was refused. The captain sent a radio message to Admiral Yamamoto, requesting that he order Nagara to tow the ship, but there was no time for intervention from Truk. The big vessel’s list was just too severe. “An attempt to prevent the flooding of the steering gear room also failing, the ship became hopeless,” Iwabuchi said. The ship alternated listing to left and to right, as the free-surface effect of floodwaters pulled her from side to side. Finally the ship listed to starboard so badly as to make it impossible to stand on the bridge. Iwabuchi ordered Lieutenant Kobayashi to use a flashlight to signal the destroyers Asagumo and Teruzuki to come alongside, one to starboard, the other to port, to remove survivors. Officers in the wrecked and burning ship performed the earnest rituals of defeat—lowering the ensign to shouted banzais, transferring the emperor’s portrait to the Asagumo. As eleven hundred souls were taken off the colossal wreck, the list was so severe that Iwabuchi had no choice but to scuttle her. His engineers opened the Kingston valves, attached to the bottom of her fuel tanks to enable cleaning, and the sea flooded in.

Lieutenant Kobayashi had scarcely hopped over to the Asagumo when the Kirishima rolled hard and unexpectedly to port. The Asagumo freed her lines and pulled safely away. The captain of the Teruzuki had to order an emergency back full to avoid being capped by the turtling battleship’s superstructure. With about three hundred men still on board, the Kirishima joined the boneyard in Ironbottom Sound shortly after 3 a.m. on November 15, about eleven miles west of Savo Island. “My men fought well and displayed the noble spirit of servicemen,” Iwabuchi said. “My only regret is that we could not sink the enemy in exchange for our ship.” Before the two fleets parted ways and returned home, the Atago tried one final time to grapple with the American battlewagons. Captain Ijuin’s ship launched a dozen torpedoes in three salvos, but these, fired at a poor angle astern their retiring target, never had a chance. The cruiser opened fire with her eight-inch main battery on the Washington from fifteen thousand yards, but this was a halfhearted final gesture from a force that had spent its fighting energies. Ijuin ordered a smoke screen and turned away to the north. The Washington’s fire-control specialists tracked the Atago and observed the flashes of her gunfire, but Admiral Lee and Captain Davis had had enough for one night, too. They set course south and departed the battle area.

Lee had good reason to be satisfied with his night’s work. Beyond the hammer blows he had landed on the Kirishima—the only battleship that would be sunk by another, one on one, during the entire Pacific campaign1—he knew that the Japanese troop transports, wherever they were, were too far away to reach Guadalcanal before sunrise, when Henderson Field’s pilots, spared a thrashing from the sea, would be ready with a savage greeting. Lee directed the Gwin and the limping Benham to head for Espiritu Santo, but the Benham would not make it. Her fractured hull put her at risk of floundering and losing her entire crew. The Gwin scuttled her that night.

Finally locating the South Dakota, which greeted them with the signal, “I AM NOT EFFECTIVE,” Lee and Davis formed up with Gatch. Following behind, the Washington plowed seas tainted with the South Dakota’s bunker oil all the way back to Nouméa. Shorn of the company of destroyers, the victorious American battlewagons, one riddled like a can on a stump, with thirty-nine fatalities, the other completely unscathed, rode beam-to-beam toward the comfort of their tropical home.

Later the South Dakota’s captain would marvel at the fact that the battleships hadn’t been hit by torpedoes. Gatch credited the destroyers for this. He thought they had “indirectly deceived” the Japanese; judging by the swarms of torpedoes Kondo’s escorts had fired at his van, Davis thought Kondo had mistaken the U.S. destroyers for more lucrative targets. “This probably saved the battleships being hit by torpedoes,” he observed. When Lee asked Gatch afterward whether he felt the use of his destroyers had been proper in light of their near total loss, Gatch told him, “As things turned out, I thought it was.” This was cold testimony to the expendability of the destroyer force, which lost more than two hundred men on the night of November 14–15. Lee appreciated their sacrifice. “In breaking up the enemy destroyer attack, our destroyers certainly relieved the battleships of a serious hazard and probably saved their bacon,” he wrote.

At Nouméa, the crews of the two battleships were far less generous with each other. Until the South Dakota departed for a stateside overhaul, they had more than a week to fight out the question of her combat performance in the bars and lockups. “War was declared between the two ships. It was that simple,” a Washington sailor said. Furious, Lee finally called a truce, issuing a special Order of the Day that stated, “One war at a time is enough!” and arranging for the two battleships to stagger their liberties ashore.

Halsey’s decision to throw his two battleships into the breach was vindicated by victory. It was the sort of risk that Nimitz had implicitly counseled against, and that Fletcher had forsworn with his carriers. “Our battleships,” Lee wrote, “are neither designed nor armed for close range night actions with enemy light forces. A few minutes intense fire, at short range, from secondary battery guns can, and did, render one of our new battleships deaf, dumb, blind and impotent through destruction of radar, radio and fire control circuits.” Halsey would say of his decision to send in Lee’s battleships: “How are all the experts going to comment now? The use we made of them defied all conventions, narrow waters, submarine menace, and destroyers at night. Despite that, the books, and the learned and ponderous words of the highbrows, it worked.” Naval tacticians would find it tempting to undervalue what Lee accomplished that night, saying the Washington did what any modern battleship should do to a smaller specimen of the previous generation. But his victory was anything but an anticlimax foretold in a war lab—especially to the men who were there. Had Lee not confronted Kondo, the airfield would have been a feast for the IJN that night and perhaps into the next morning. If Henderson Field had been neutralized, the Enterprise would have been the only source of U.S. airpower left in the combat area, and a feeble one at that: When the carrier retired south, she had only eighteen Wildcat fighters on board. Her entire complement of Avengers and Dauntlesses had gone to operate with the Cactus Air Force at Henderson Field.

With the battle of giants over, Rear Admiral Tanaka turned the broad prows of his four navigable transports southward. (Several of their damaged cohorts would lie dead in the water near the Russell Islands, soon to fall victim to pilots from Guadalcanal.) Yamamoto himself endorsed Tanaka’s plan to run the ships aground. It was around 4 a.m. when they beached themselves near Tassafaronga. Though they brought one last load into “Starvation Island,” they took themselves out of the war. These ships would be easy targets for attacks from air, land, and sea. Set upon by the forces of nature in the ensuing decades, the wreckage of the transports would stand as symbols of Japan’s futile determination to hold the southern Solomons. From a force of more than twelve thousand soldiers that Tanaka had originally embarked at Rabaul, only about two thousand straggled ashore, along with 260 cases of ammunition and fifteen hundred bags of rice. Every one of more than fifty-five hundred men Turner had transported to the island that week arrived safely. The numbers would spell victory.