The Battle of Savo Island
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Table of Contents
It is early August 1942, and the Japanese advance in the South Pacific has been halted, for now, with some Allied strategic victories.
The Pacific Front was mostly a naval war, and the Japanese had received huge crippling blows both at the Battle of the Coral Sea and at Midway, losing a lot of very important carriers and aircrews.
The Japanese ground operations too were not going very well, since Operation Mo (the planned amphibious invasion of Port Moresby) failed even before their soldiers touched the ground, and since the Kokoda track campaign, that started on the 21st of July, while going well, was very worrying on the supply side.
Worst thing of all, the Allied, especially the Americans, had decided to go on the offensive.
In fact, the Americans had just decided to activate Operation Watchtower, the landing at Tulagi and nearby positions.
Tulagi had been taken in May by the Japanese, and they had started the construction of a seaplane base. However, the main concern was the new airfield being constructed on Guadalcanal Island, at Lunga Point that, if used by long range bombers, could have caused some damages to allied shipping from America to Australia and New Zealand.
Also, the Japanese had planned Operation FS, the invasion of the Fiji, Samoa and New Caledonia, and those planes would have provided air cover for the invasion fleet.
However, it shall be noted that the Operation was halted after the defeat at Operation MO, and cancelled after the one at Midway.
The Allied medium term strategy was simple:
Stop the Japanese in the Kokoda Track, in Papua New Guinea, capture the Solomon islands and work their way north to the Bismarck Archipelago.
The Americans assigned part of the 1st Marine Division and part of the 2nd Marine Division for the initial landing, that started on the 7th of August.
The Japanese answered with airstrikes, but this was not enough so, the Navy was called in to the fight.
FLEETS AND PLANS:
The Allied had two Task Forces, TF 61 and TF 62.
Task Force 61, under Vice Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher, had the job to cover the other task force, and had:
– 3 Fleet Carriers
– 1 Fast Battleship
– 5 Heavy Cruisers
– 1 Anti-Air Cruiser
– 16 Destroyers
– 5 Fleet Oilers
The troops were transported by Task Force 62, under Rear Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner, that was divided in five groups.
Task Force 62.1, the landing group, was divided in two sub-groups, 1 for Guadalcanal (with 9 transport ships and 6 attack cargo ships) and 1 for Tulagi (with 4 transport ships and 4 destroyer transports).
Because of the distance of the two islands and for the shape of the naval area, the ships of TF.62 assigned as covering forces composed three of the five groups, and those were:
TF 62.2 “Southern Group”, under Rear Admiral Victor A.C. Crutchley, near the island of Guadalcanal:
– 3 Heavy cruisers
– 1 Light Cruiser
– 9 Destroyers
TF 62.3 “Northern group”, under Captain Frederick Riefkohl, near the island of Tulagi:
– 3 Heavy cruisers
– 4 Destroyers
TF 62.4 “Eastern group”, under Read Admiral Norman Scott, to cover the eastern flank of the fleet:
– 1 Anti-Aircraft Light Cruiser
– 2 Destroyers
Additionally, Task Force 62.5 was composed of 5 fast minesweepers.
Against all of this, the Japanese were able to send the newly formed Eight Fleet, under Vice Admiral Gunichi Mikawa, composed of 5 Heavy cruisers, 2 light cruisers and a single destroyer.
The Rising sun’s navy was in a huge disadvantage, so they had to level the fight to have better odds and, thanks to both luck and skill, they were able to achieve something that was deemed impossible.
After the landing, because of the Japanese air raids, Task Force 61 was moved away from the operational area.
The Japanese also decided to use their gunnery advantage at night, a fact that was not known by the allied at the time of the battle.
This was because, already in the interwar period, the Japanese recognized that they would be very quickly fighting against a much more numerous enemy with superior technology, therefore they needed to do this sort of stealth attack at night when the enemy was not prepared, a sort of naval guerrilla warfare.
Also, it shall be noted that the Japanese had probably the best night spotting equipment in the world, and that was a huge force multiplier at night.
It should be noted that this night fighting strategy was part of the “Kantai Kessen” doctrine, that required a decisive fleet engagement to cripple the enemy and their will to fight, and night fighting was probably the only chance of the enemy to survive against the hordes of enemy planes.
Night fighting was also important as a “parallel fight” that should be done (by submarines, destroyers, light cruisers and airplanes) before the battle, to reduce the number of enemy capital ships that could join in the fight, or at least damage some of them, in order to reduce the disadvantage that the Japanese had against the United States.
The United States Navy was very reliant on its radars at night and, due to their infantry, those were sometimes not very effective, and this helped the Japanese in order to gain an advantage against the US.
Another reason was also that Task Force 62 assigned only two destroyers as “early warning”, USS Ralph Talbot (DD-390) and USS Blue (DD-387), that had uncoordinated patrol patterns that left huge gaps between the two ships.
These two destroyers had radars, but these faced only forward, and this meant that, because of the uncoordinated pattern of patrol, sometimes the two ships left a big zone of sea, when facing in opposite direction, with no radars checking it.
More destroyers were available but those were left near the transport ships in fear of enemy night submarine attacks.
On the night of the 8th of August, the commander of Task Force 62.2 was called on a meeting with the commander of Task Force 62 and the commander of the First Marine division, to discuss the effects that could be caused by the order to leave the area issued to Task Force 61. At 20:55, therefore, the heavy cruiser HMAS Australia left the southern group, leaving the USS Chicago in charge. However, the other cruiser groups were not informed, and this added to the overall confusion that will rise later.
During the meeting the officers also discussed about the Japanese fleet spotted the day before.
In fact, the Japanese fleet had been spotted three times by the allies.
The first one to spot was submarine S-38 on the 7th, at around 20:00 , that reported “two destroyers and three larger ships of unknown type”. However, the report was considered vague and the size of it did not suggest an impending danger to the allied fleet.
Also, the enemy fleet was not considered a danger because they were spotted near Rabaul, that was a major Japanese base, and so it was normal to spot enemy cruisers there.
The second and third report was done by two Australian Hudson, one at 10:20 AM and the other at 11:00 AM. The first report indicated “three cruisers, three destroyers and two seaplane tenders” but, having the crew not received an acknowledgment of the communication, they returned to base at Milne Bay in order to deliver it.
The second Hudson also failed to communicate the finding to the base, reporting “two heavy cruisers, two light cruisers and one unknown type”, but they decided to finish the patrol before returning to base.
This would later create some issues and criticism for decades to come. However, it’s not the subject of this article.
Also, considering the position of where they were spotted, and that the first Hudson reported two seaplane tenders, this led to the conclusion that the cruiser force was not intended for a surface action, because seaplane tenders do not resist a lot against enemy gun batteries.
It is plausible that the allied command thought that force as a reconnaissance unit, to survey what the allied were up to, or to create another seaplane base, something that would become a danger but not in the immediate time.
What is also important to note is that the reports were delivered very late on the 8th, so the allied navy did not had an entire day to think on that, just hours.
The navy had requested the air force to conduct additional recon operations, which were not done. However, the air force commander did not notify the navy of the absence of missions, and the navy thought that the zone around the operational area had been scouted accordingly.
It shall be noted that the air force had very few forces in the area, and that Task Force 62 had around fifteen scout planes available, that were not used, and were left on the deck of the cruisers filled with gasoline, and this would later become quite a big fire hazard on the allied ships.
Last but not least, the allied crews were at general quarters for two days, therefore they were fatigued even before the battle started and had to operate the battle stations at half strength, in order to rotate the personnel.
The Japanese fleet had a simple plan:
Knowing, thanks to a scout plane, that the enemy fleets were divided, they decided to defeat them in detail, first concentrating on the northern fleet and then on the southern one.
Near 1:00 AM Mikawa’s fleet spotted the destroyer USS Blue and had more than fifty guns pointed at them, ready to obliterate them in case they made any strange movement, but this never happened, as the Japanese fleet remained undetected, and continued their course at thirty knots.
However, the lookouts later spotted USS Ralph Talbot and Mikawa decided to change his plan, first concentrating on the southern force and then on the northern one.
At 1:31 AM, the order “Every ship attack” was communicated to the fleet.
The destroyer Yunagi was dispatched after the Japanese fleet spotted the destroyer USS Jarvis heading away from the combat area, after the American ship had been damaged by aircrafts during a raid on the 8th, but the Japanese and the American ship later traded shells with no effect.
The raid had also set ablaze the cargo ship USS George F. Elliott, and the fires silhouetted the cruisers and the destroyers of the southern force, and started launching torpedos.
The USS Patterson’s crew was on alert because their Captain had decided to take seriously the report on the Japanese ships, and found strange that they spotted Japanese scout planes above their heads.
At 1:43 AM the American destroyer spotted a cruiser and alerted the rest of the fleet signalling “Warning! Warning! Strange ships entering the harbour!” and started firing fire star shells to illuminate the area.
At the same time, Japanese scout planes above the American fleets started to drop flares on the enemy, to make friendly gunnery easier.
The HMAS Canberra reacted to contact by increasing speed and turning to port, however quick salvos of precise Japanese fire from the Chokai and Furutaka, and later Aoba and Kako, crippled the bridge, the boiler rooms, killing the gunnery officer and mortally wounding the captain. Also, the ships electrical systems were out, and it started to take water and to list on the starboard side, unable to pump out the water due to having no electrical power.
The loss of power also prevented it from signalling the other ships nearby.
The HMAS Canberra suffered a total of 24 large calibre hits.
Due to differences in the procedures, especially in crew management when the general quarter is sound, between the Australian Navy, modelled after the British Navy, and their American counterpart, the Australians were able to react faster than their stars and stripes colleagues, and this explains why the USS Chicago was almost a sitting duck compared to the HMAS Canberra in the first crucial moments of the engagement.
Luckily for the Americans, the Japanese were aiming at the Canberra at first, but this did not meant that the Chicago would survive undamaged.
The USS Chicago was hit by a torpedo on the bow and a second one failed to explode, while a high calibre shell hit its mast, killing two sailors.
The ship moved westward away from the combat area and from the transport ships it was meant to protect, and was able to fire only the secondary battery at the Tenryu, probably hitting it and making some casualties but no important damage.
Worst thing of all however, the Chicago’s Captain did now inform the other ships in the area of the Japanese fleet, nor it tried to organize a formation and it’s worth to remember that, technically, the Chicago was in charge of the southern group.
The USS Patterson tried to engage in a gun duel, and it is unknown if they hit something, but in return it received a shell and ten sailors died.
USS Bagley fired a salvo of two torpedo, missing the Japanese fleet and, it is not clear, probably even hitting the Canberra, and this would explain why the Australian ship was listing to the starboard side.
Another possible explanation for the Canberra’s list was that, because of the very short range involved, probably the shells entering on the port side were exiting on the starboard side under the waterline.
However those theories are impossible to verify because of the very limited amount of proofs on the matter, and probably we will, sadly, never know.
The Japanese fleet steered north, splitting in two columns, probably unintentionally.
For the Japanese, half the battle had already been won easily.
Now, they had to fight an enemy alerted and ready, or not?
The northern group ships crews had observed the fighting south, but were very slow to man their positions.
The USS Astoria called General Quarters at 1:49 AM, six minutes after the fighting begun.
The ship opened fire but a ceasefire was ordered by the Captain, who had just awakened from his sleep, thinking that those were friendly forces.
Less than a minute later the order was revoked, but that precious time gave the Japanese enough time to range the ship, and the Astoria was hit multiple times and set ablaze.
Remember when earlier we talked about the Allied seaplanes being full of fuel and that it was a big fire hazard? Well, the Americans found their ships ablaze mostly for this reason.
Astoria was left dead in the water, and with no electricity badly needed for the firefighting equipment.
It was able to return fire and hit Chokai’s forward turret, damaging the ship and putting the gun our of action.
Astoria was hit multiple times, probably around forty or fifty hits.
USS Quincy suffered a similar fate, being hit by 54 shells and two torpedo from Tenryu.
The American ship was able to fire back and hit Chokai, destroying the Chart room and killing or wounding 36 sailors, but in return she was hit at 2:10 on the bridge.
Interesting to know is that this shell almost killed Mikawa, as the chart room was around 20 feet near where he was at the moment of impact.
USS Quincy, with also almost all its bridge crew killed, including the captain, was basically lost.
Another torpedo hit him at 2:16 and at 2:38 AM it sank.
USS Vincennes hesitated to open fire, but when it started to receive damaging hits the order to hold fire was revoked. The Captain ordered to increase speed, but they were hit with two torpedo from Chokai and later from one by the Yubari.
In total, the Vincennes was hit 74 times and in return he hit once the Kinugasa causing moderate damage.
However, the precise firing of the Japanese soon put almost all its guns out of action, and the ship was left fighting the fires.
The captain ordered to abandon ship at 2:16, and the ship rolled over at 2:50 AM, with more than 300 sailors still on board.
The destroyers played no mayor role in the northern engagement.
At 2:16 the Japanese fleet ceased fire and moved out of the engagement area.
USS Ralph Tabot was intercepted and was hit several times, but was able to escape.
At 2:16 Mikawa confronted his staff in order to decide if they wanted to go back and hunt the transport or slip away with the cover of darkness.
In the end they decided to return to base because their ships would need time to regroup, they would have needed to reload their torpedos, and they did not knew if there were other enemy warships in the area. Keep in mind that the allied eastern group did not participated in the battle, and it was probably not spotted during the day by Japanese planes.
Also, the Japanese ships had spent a big amount of torpedo on the allied ships. There is no clear figure, but this was still a considered factor.
However, the most important factor was that hunting the transport would require time and they would have risked being caught during the daylight near the operational area, therefore under risk of enemy air attacks.
And no, the Japanese were not aware that Task Force 61 had retreated long before the battle.
And, since the Japanese were not the industrial power that the US was, they could not risk to take any loss.
Last thing needed to be considered is that Chokai’s chart room was destroyed, and being that ship the flagship, my guess is that Mikawa did not wanted to risk around in enemy waters having lost the charts and navigational equipment.
So, at 2:20, Mikawa ordered his ships to return to base.
AFTERMATH AND LOSSES:
At 5:00 AM it became apparent that the Canberra could not be saved, and it was scuttled.
This required quite a big allied effort, with 300 shells and 5 torpedo needed, and this might indicate a misunderstanding of how much the Canberra could still have taken, as it probably could have been saved.
Astoria sank at 12:15, after its fires went out of control.
On the morning of the 9th the destroyer USS Jarvis, that was badly damaged on earlier air raid, was sunk with all hands by Japanese planes, after Mikawa’s fleet spotted him during the night and mistook it as a light cruiser.
By nightfall on the 9th, all allied ships had left the area, leaving the soldiers on Guadalcanal and Tulagi with limited supplies.
In total the allied lost 4 cruisers, one damaged, 2 destroyers damaged and one later sank in a follow-up engagement, the USS Jarvis.
The Japanese on the other hand suffered slight damages on some ships, but while returning to base, the heavy cruiser Kako was sunk by the submarine USS S-44, that hit the cruiser with three torpedo, claiming the biggest “line warship” so far in the war sunk by a submarine.
In total the allied suffered 1077 killed in action and 709 wounded. Most of the deaths were on the Quincy (with 370 deaths), Vincennes (332), Astoria (216) and Canberra (85).
The Japanese suffered 35 killed and 51 wounded.
The sinking of the Kako brought some additional 34 killed and 48 wounded, while the loss of the Jarvis added to the allied losses 247 deaths.
In hindsight, Mikawa should have turned back and finished the transport, as that would have crippled the American advance in the Solomon islands for a lot of time, but by putting ourselves in the Japanese commander shoes, it was a clever decision.
The American Navy conducted a board inquiry, but it did not impacted the careers of most of the protagonists of the fight.
The only one affected was Captain Rieflkhol, who after Savo Island never commanded a ship again.
Captain Bode, of the USS Chicago, shot himself on the 19th of April 1943, and died the following day.
Admiral Turner described why the allies lost, and to quote him: “The Navy was still obsessed with a strong feeling of technical and mental superiority over the enemy. In spite of ample evidence as to enemy capabilities, most of our officers and men despised the enemy and felt themselves sure victorious in all encounters under any circumstances. The net result of all this was a fatal lethargy of mind which induced a confidence without readiness, and a routine acceptance of outworn peacetime standards of conduct. I believe that this psychological factor, as a cause of our defeat, was even more important than the element of surprise”
The report of the inquiry caused the US Navy to make many operational, and structural, changes. All the earlier models of US Navy cruisers were retrofitted with emergency diesel-electric generators. The fire-fighting equipment of the ships were changed to a vertical loop design that could be broken many times and still function.
During the battle at Savo, many ship fires were attributed to aviation facilities filled with gas, oil, and planes. Motorboats were filled with gasoline and also caught fire. In the American heavy cruisers designs, these facilities were dead midships, presenting a perfect target for enemy ships at night. Ready-service lockers (that are lockers containing ammunitions which are armed and ready for use) added to the destruction, and it was noted that the lockers were never close to being depleted, meaning that they contained much more dangerous ammunitions than they needed to. A focus was put on removing or minimizing flammable midship materials, and this would prove vital to future allies, especially American, firefighting efforts on board of their ships.
This battle was a huge morale defeat for the Americans and proved the world that the Japanese might have lost their carriers at midway, but not their will to fight.
- Colonel David E. Quantock. Disaster at Savo Island, 1942. United States Army USAWC Class of 2002 U.S. Army War College, Carlisle Barracks, PA
- (book) Newcomb, Richard F. (1961). The Battle of Savo Island: The Harrowing Account of the Disastrous Night Battle Off Guadalcanal that Nearly Destroyed the Pacific Fleet in August 1942 (2002 reissue ed.). New York: Owl Books. ISBN 0-8050-7072-9.
- (book) Twining, Merrill B. (1996). No Bended Knee: The Battle for Guadalcanal (2004 reissue ed.). Presidio Press; Reprint edition (March 30, 2004). ISBN 978-0891418269.
- (book) Johnson, William Bruce. The Pacific Campaign in World War II: From Pearl Harbor to Guadalcanal. London; New York: Routledge, 2006. ISBN 978-0-415-70175-4.
- (book) Frank, Richard B. (1990). Guadalcanal: The Definitive Account of the Landmark Battle. New York: Penguin Group. ISBN 0-14-016561-4.
- Navsources: http://www.navsource.org/
- The Battle of Savo Island August 9th, 1942 Strategical and Tactical Analysis PDF version 1 and PDF version 2
- USS Astoria: https://www.ar15.com/forums/general/Heavy_Cruiser_USS_Astoria__sunk_by_naval_gunfire_9_Aug_42__Battle_of_Savo_Island/5-1897196/
- Map of Guadalcanal: https://blog.epicmilitaria.com/august-map-battle-guadalcanal/
- The Battle: https://www.world-war.co.uk/savo.php
- US Army in WW2, the War in the Pacific. Guadalcanal: The first offensive: https://ibiblio.org/hyperwar/USA/USA-P-Guadalcanal/USA-P-Guadalcanal-1.html
- Disaster at Savo Island 1942 by L. Colonel Quantock: http://www.ibiblio.org/hyperwar/USN/rep/Savo/Quantock/