The Royal New Zealand Navy
CHAPTER 17 — Peril in the South Pacific
Peril in the South Pacific
IN the early hours of 8 December 1941 the New Zealand Naval Board received an urgent signal from Commodore Parry, who was attending a conference at Singapore, stating that the situation was critical and war with Japan was thought to be imminent. The Commander-in-Chief, therefore, was hastening the concentration of the Eastern Fleet, which at the moment consisted only of the Prince of Wales, Repulse, and six destroyers. Commodore Parry strongly recommended that HMNZS Achilles should be sent as soon as possible to join the Eastern Fleet which was ‘desperately short’ of cruisers. None was available from Home Waters and the Commander-in-Chief was trying to collect cruisers from those in the eastern theatre – namely, two from the East Indies, two from the Royal Netherlands Navy, one from Australia, and one from New Zealand – for operations with his battleships and as a striking force in conjunction with air reconnaissance along the Malay Barrier.
Parry's request was approved at once by War Cabinet and he was so informed by a signal sent during the forenoon. Two hours earlier the Achilles, which was escorting the Wahine carrying troops to Fiji, had been ordered to proceed to Suva ‘with all despatch’, thence to Port Moresby ‘with despatch’, and on to Singapore ‘with all convenient despatch.’1
The Achilles arrived at Suva at 5.15 p.m. that day and, after refuelling, sailed less than four hours later for Port Moresby. In the meantime, Navy Office had been informed that the ship was 5 officers and 82 ratings short of her complement. They had been given advance leave in anticipation of her docking at Auckland for a refit in January, when the remainder of the ship's company was to have gone on leave. Arrangements were made for twelve officers and ‘key’ ratings to be flown to Singapore, the remainder to be sent on by steamer.2
1 ‘With all despatch’, ship to steam at nine-tenths of her full power; ‘with despatch’, at three-fifths of full power; ‘with all convenient despatch’ at two-fifths of full power.
The Achilles arrived at Port Moresby in the evening of 11 December, having made the passage of 1970 miles from Suva at an average speed of 27·78 knots. She was refuelling when she received a signal from Wellington cancelling her previous orders and instructing her to return to Auckland at 20 knots. She sailed at eight o'clock next morning and arrived at Auckland at midday on 16 December.
In the meantime, the Australian Naval Board had requested that the Achilles be ordered to Brisbane with all despatch to join HMAS Canberra, flagship of Rear-Admiral J. G. Crace, and that consideration be given to the active co-operation of the Leander with the Australian Squadron. The Achilles left Auckland at midnight of the 16th to assist in covering an important United States convoy in the New Caledonia-Brisbane area.
This convoy of seven merchant ships escorted by the United States cruiser Pensacola2 had sailed from Honolulu on 29 November for Manila, Philippine Islands. The ships were carrying 2600 troops of the United States Army Air Corps, including forty-eight pilots, and 2000 other troops comprising two field artillery regiments, as well as ninety aircraft, guns, and supplies. On 12 December the Australian and New Zealand naval authorities were informed that the convoy, which called at Suva next day for fuel and water, had been ordered to Brisbane. The commanding officer of the troops had received instructions that, if it were not possible for the troops to be sent to the Philippine Islands, they and their equipment were to be used in ‘aiding the Allies of the U.S.A.’
1 As soon as the news of the loss of Admiral Phillips was received by the Admiralty, Vice-Admiral Layton was ordered to re-hoist his flag as Commander-in-Chief Eastern Fleet.
2 Pensacola, 9100 tons displacement; ten 8-inch, eight 5-inch guns, numerous anti-aircraft guns; four aircraft; speed 32 knots.
This was indicated in signals made by the Flag Officer Commanding Australian Squadron dealing with the despatch of Australian troops to Noumea.1 In a signal to the Free French destroyer Le Triomphant which was to escort the troopship Ormiston2 from Sydney to Noumea, he mentioned that a D/F bearing indicated that an enemy transport was on the line Truk – Solomon Islands during the evening of 13 December. Appreciating the ‘possibility of enemy attempt to land in New Caledonia or vicinity, probably 18 December,’ he said, ‘my only object is to defeat any attempt by enemy to consolidate himself in New Caledonia area.’ His dispositions would provide cover for the movements of the Ormiston, the American convoy, and the Wahine, escorted by the Leander, carrying troops from Auckland to Fiji.
The Achilles met the Pensacola and her convoy at midday on 19 December about midway between Noumea and Brisbane, and the Canberra and Perth joined the escort about seven hours later. After dark on 21 December the Canberra and Achilles left the convoy and went ahead to Moreton Bay, where they refuelled. The Achilles left on the 22nd for Auckland but was recalled next day to rejoin the Canberra and Perth, with whom she arrived at Sydney on 24 December.
The rapid adverse developments in the situation produced several complications at this time. During November arrangements had been made that the Aquitania should arrive at Wellington from Sydney on 19 December to embark the 8th Reinforcements, 2 NZEF. She was to sail four days later for Sydney to join the Queen Elizabeth as Convoy US 14 for Suez. On 10 December, however, the New Zealand Naval Board was informed by Australia that the ‘present intention is not to run U.S. 14’, and on 14 December the Admiralty requested that ‘pending further decisions on future U.S. convoys’, the Queen Elizabeth and Aquitania be retained in Australia. New Zealand Army Headquarters accordingly cancelled the embarkation orders for the troops.3 The transport Empress of Canada, carrying Australian and New Zealand air trainees to Canada, was to have gone from Wellington to Vancouver to be docked and refitted, but as no cruiser was available to escort her on that route, she was diverted and sailed on 28 December for Halifax via the Panama Canal.
1 The signals were also addressed to the Australian and New Zealand naval authorities and to other ships concerned.
2 Ormiston, steamship, 5832 tons gross register; owned by Australasian United Steam Navigation Company Ltd.
The Achilles had been recalled to take part in an operation involving the transport of 4250 Australian troops and some 10,000 tons of supplies to Port Moresby in anticipation of a southward movement by the Japanese. The troops were embarked in the Aquitania and the Blue Funnel liner Sarpedon, 11,320 tons, the supplies being loaded in the latter vessel and the Norwegian motor-ship, Herstein, 5100 tons. Escorted by the Australia (flagship), Canberra, Perth, and Achilles, the convoy sailed from Sydney on 28 December and arrived at Port Moresby on 3 January 1942. In addition to daily patrols ahead of the convoy by aircraft of the Royal Australian Air Force, anti-submarine protection was given by HMA Ships Warrego and Swan1 for the last twenty-four hours of the passage, which was uneventful. During the month of December the Achilles had spent twenty-seven days at sea and steamed 10,608 miles. This had involved much high-speed steaming under trying conditions in tropical waters and the performance reflected credit on the ship's engine-room staff.
After assisting in landing the troops from the Aquitania, the Achilles sailed from Port Moresby in company with the Australia and Perth for Noumea, arriving there on 7 January. The Canberra escorted the Aquitania back to Sydney and thence to Ratai Bay in Sumatra, where the latter landed some 3500 Australian troops.
Port Moresby, New Caledonia, and Fiji – especially Fiji – were the linch-pins of Allied strategy in the South Pacific. Since November 1940, when the first units of the New Zealand 8th Brigade Group landed in Fiji, strong defences had been built up in the Suva peninsula and in the Namaka area at the western end of Viti Levu about Lautoka, the Nandi airfield, and Navula Passage, the entrance to Nandi Waters. In November 1941, at the request of the United States Government, New Zealand had undertaken to construct three major airfields in the Namaka area to operate the largest aircraft in service, the first to be ready in the middle of January 1942 and the other two in April. All three were in operation before those dates. A flying-boat base was constructed at Lauthala Bay near Suva and the Nandi Waters area was developed as a fleet anchorage.
In the second half of December 1941 the Leander made two voyages from Auckland to Suva as escort for the Wahine carrying reinforcements for the 8th Brigade Group. Three battalions were speedily organised from the 8th Reinforcements whose departure for Egypt had been cancelled, and these were sent to Fiji in three convoys. To supplement the shipping tonnage available in New Zealand, the Port Montreal1 came from Melbourne to Auckland and loaded the major part of the supplies for the troops. The Australian naval authorities also arranged to send the passenger steamer Anhui2 from Sydney to Auckland to embark 700 troops, but trouble with her Chinese crew necessitated her being replaced by the Taroona3 from Melbourne.
The first convoy, ZS 5, consisting of the Rangatira, Wahine, and Matua, escorted by the Leander and Monowai (which was also carrying troops) sailed from Auckland for Fiji on 2 January 1942. The convoy deviated 60 miles to westward of the direct course from Cape Brett to avoid any enemy submarine that might be patrolling the normal route. On the morning of 6 January the Monowai and Wahine parted company with the convoy and went into Suva, followed by the Leander after she had seen the Rangatira and Matua safely through Navula Passage on their way to Lautoka. On their return passage, the ships passed east of Kandavu Island and deviated 60 miles to eastward of the direct route to Auckland.
Convoy ZS 6, consisting of the Rangatira, Wahine, and Port Montreal escorted by the Leander, sailed from Auckland after dark on 10 January. In accordance with instructions from the Chief of Naval Staff, close anti-aircraft defence was provided in the transports by organising the machine guns of troop units. Aircraft of the RNZAF provided anti-submarine patrols ahead of the convoy to the limit of their range. The direct route to Suva was again avoided by a deviation of 60 miles to the eastward.
1 Port Montreal, motor-vessel, 5882 tons; owners, Port Line Ltd.; torpedoed and sunk, Caribbean Sea, 10 June 1942.
At daybreak on 15 January the Australia, Perth, Leander, and Achilles put to sea to cover the approach of the Monowai and Taroona, both carrying troops, which had left Auckland at midnight on the 13th. The Achilles parted company with the squadron at noon on the 17th and proceeded to Auckland, where she was docked for a brief refit. The other cruisers arrived at Sydney on 19 January.
The Monowai left the Taroona off Navula Passage at daybreak on the 16th and went on to Suva. After landing her troops and taking in fuel and fresh water, the Monowai sailed in the afternoon for Auckland. She was about eight miles south-south-west from the harbour entrance when two heavy and almost simultaneous explosions were heard and two columns of black smoke rose to a height of about 180 feet a ship's length away on her port side. Thinking that a high-level aircraft attack was being made from above the clouds, Captain G. R. Deverell ordered action stations, made an AAAA signal,1 and began a zigzag at full speed. A few minutes later, however, a sharp-eyed seaman stationed at one of the port 6-inch guns reported a submarine breaking surface just abaft the port beam at a distance of 7000 yards. At that time the Taroona, on her way from Lautoka to Suva, was about three miles away on the starboard quarter of the Monowai. She, too, sighted the submarine, which opened fire.
The Monowai at once replied with broadsides from her four port 6-inch guns, made an SSSS signal and then altered course away, as Captain Deverell said, ‘in order to comb possible torpedo tracks.’ The first rounds fell short, but before ‘A’ arcs2 were closed by the turn away, the submarine had been straddled and two shots fell close to it. No torpedo tracks having been sighted, the Monowai reversed course to reopen ‘A’ arcs and resumed firing with all guns that would bear. The submarine then crash-dived and disappeared.
1 AAAA signal indicates an aircraft attack; SSSS signal a submarine attack.
2 ‘A’ arcs are the arcs on which all guns of the main armament will bear on the target, thus enabling them to fire simultaneously.
Already the flow of troops and supplies from the United States to the South Pacific had begun. The Achilles left Auckland on 25 January and, two days later, met a convoy of three big transports from San Francisco escorted by USS Phoenix. The New Zealand cruiser took over the President Monroe, 10,500 tons, for Suva, where they arrived next day. The Phoenix, with the Mariposa, 18,000 tons, and President Coolidge, 22,000 tons, carried on for Melbourne and was joined on 29 January by the Australian cruisers Australia, Perth, and Adelaide and HMNZS Leander for the passage across the Tasman Sea. Meanwhile, the Achilles from Suva had met the United States Navy auxiliary Hammonds port, 8060 tons, which was carrying a cargo of crated aircraft. On 3 February she was handed over to the Leander, which escorted her to Brisbane while the Achilles returned to Auckland.
Less than three weeks after the setting up of the ABDA Command covering Burma, Malaya, the Philippines, and the Dutch East Indies, the principle of unified command was extended to the South Pacific. On 25 January the Combined Chiefs of Staff at Washington directed the establishment of a contiguous Anzac Area. This included most of the islands and territories south of the Equator in the Australian and New Zealand stations. Its western boundary cut south from the Equator to include the British half of New Guinea whence, excluding Torres Strait, it extended to the coast of Australia. The eastern boundary, which excluded the Gilbert and Ellice Islands, ran south-eastward from the Equator to include Fiji and Tongatabu, and then due south, passing east of the Chatham Islands.
The naval forces allocated to the Anzac Area were to be under the strategical direction of the Commander-in-Chief United States Fleet, exercised through one or more United States flag officers, assisted by one or more flag officers named by Australia or New Zealand. All practicable use was to be made of the naval supply, communication, and repair facilities in Australia and New Zealand. The initial assignment of ships to the Anzac Force was as follows:
1 HMS Hermes, 10,850 tons, 20 aircraft, six 5·5-inch and numerous small AA guns, did not join the Anzac Force. She had proceeded from Simonstown to Trincomalee and was sunk on 9 April 1942 by Japanese aircraft off the coast of Ceylon.
Australia – Two heavy cruisers (Australia and Canberra); one light cruiser (Adelaide); three auxiliary cruisers (Westralia, Kanimbla, and Manoora); two destroyers (Stuart and Voyager) and eight anti-submarine vessels. The remainder of the Australian seagoing forces, namely, two light cruisers (Hobart and Perth), two destroyers and three sloops, were to be assigned to the ABDA Area Command.1
The tasks assigned to the Anzac Force, in co-operation with the available air forces in the area, were to:
Cover the eastern and north-eastern approaches to Australia and New Zealand.
Protect shipping, including coastwise ships.
Support the defence of islands in the Anzac Area, with emphasis on key points, and attack adjacent enemy island key points.
Co-relate operations with the naval force in the ABDA Area and with the United States Pacific Fleet, as well as with local defence forces of Australia and New Zealand.
Vice-Admiral H. F. Leary, USN, assumed command of the Anzac Area on 7 February, the day on which he arrived at Wellington by air from the United States by way of Suva. He left a few days later for Melbourne, where he established his headquarters. Rear-Admiral J. G. Crace had arrived at Wellington in his flagship, HMAS Australia, on 3 February and on the 7th he took command of the Anzac Squadron.
During his stay at Wellington, Vice-Admiral Leary discussed the general situation in the Pacific with Rear-Admiral Crace and Commodore Parry, Chief of Naval Staff. On 27 January the Australian Naval Board, in an appreciation of the position, had pointed out to the Commander-in-Chief United States Pacific Fleet that the Japanese occupation of Rabaul on 23 January had increased the threat to Port Moresby and New Caledonia. The capture of the former, which had a garrison of 5500, would close Torres Strait. The capture of New Caledonia, which was virtually undefended, would give the enemy a base from which he could cut the sea and air routes from Australia to the United States, besides giving him control of the chrome and nickel resources of that island.
The Anzac Squadron assembled at Suva on 12 February when the Australia, Achilles, Monowai, and destroyer Lamson arrived from New Zealand, the Leander from Brisbane, and the Chicago and destroyer Perkins from Pearl Harbour, all within seven hours.2 The Monowai embarked twelve officers and seventy ratings of Admiral Leary's staff who had travelled in the Chicago and, after loading cipher and radio equipment and a quantity of destroyer ammunition, sailed next day for Melbourne and Sydney. Three notable ships passing through the Anzac Area at that time were HMS Warspite, on her way from Esquimault to join the Eastern Fleet, and the transports Queen Elizabeth and Aquitania, bound from Sydney to Esquimault and San Francisco respectively for docking.3
1 Task Force 11, commanded by Vice-Admiral Wilson Brown, USN, consisted of the aircraft-carrier Lexington, 33,000 tons, 80 aircraft, speed 33 knots; the 8-inch-gun cruisers Indianapolis, Minneapolis, Pensacola, and San Francisco, speed 32 ½ knots; and ten 5-inch-gun destroyers, speed 36 knots.
During the forenoon of 20 February when Task Force 11 was about 350 miles north-east from Rabaul, Japanese patrol flying boats were sighted by aircraft from the Lexington. Two were shot down, but the approach of the American ships was doubtless reported by a third aircraft which reversed course and disappeared. It was intended that the Lexington should launch her aircraft 125 miles from Rabaul at four o'clock next morning, but during the afternoon she was attacked by Japanese twin-engined bombers. Sixteen out of eighteen were shot down and one damaged for a loss of two American fighters. The element of surprise had been lost and, as a result of their high-speed manoeuvrings during the attack, the ships no longer had sufficient fuel to carry out their mission. They withdrew to the south-east during the night.
In the meantime, the Japanese had struck a heavy blow on the Australian mainland. On 19 February four aircraft-carriers under Vice-Admiral Nagumo, supported by two battleships, three heavy cruisers, and numerous destroyers, launched two devastating air attacks on Port Darwin. The first was made by 71 bombers and the second by 54 bombers, both with fighter escort. The American destroyer Peary and six merchant ships were sunk and two others badly damaged. Minor damage was done to HMAS Swan, three naval auxiliary vessels, and the hospital ship Manunda. Twenty aircraft were destroyed, the air station wrecked, and the wharves and township severely damaged. The wrecking of Darwin and the occupation of airfields on the island of Timor next day severed air communication between Australia and Java. The ABDA Area command was dissolved on 25 February.
Task Force 11, reinforced by the aircraft-carrier Yorktown, was about to make a second attempt on Rabaul when news was received that the Japanese had landed on 8 March in the Huon Gulf in New Guinea and captured Salamaua. Admiral Wilson Brown immediately decided to strike the enemy there. He headed into the Gulf of Papua while Rear-Admiral Crace, with the Australia and Chicago and two destroyers of the Anzac Squadron with an oiler, patrolled south of the Louisiade Archipelago.
In the forenoon of 10 March, 104 aircraft took off from the Lexington and Yorktown and flew over the 7500-feet passes of the Owen Stanley range to attack the unsuspecting Japanese on the far side. Three transports were sunk for the loss of one aircraft and its pilot. The task force then retired and, after refuelling, sailed for Pearl Harbour, where it arrived on 26 March, having been at sea continuously for fifty-four days.
Three weeks later sixteen long-range bombers under Lieutenant-Colonel James Doolittle, flown from the carrier Hornet of Vice-Admiral W. F. Halsey's Task Force 16, in a position 670 miles from Japan, made a bold and spectacular raid on Tokyo and other Japanese cities. No great damage was done but the attack was a token of things to come.
On 12 February the New Zealand Prime Minister received from the Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs a message stating that ‘under present conditions and having regard to the wide dispersion of enemy-occupied territories and the length of his sea communications’, it was considered that ‘serious damage could be inflicted on Japanese interests by one or more fast vessels acting as commerce raiders and capable of undertaking minor landing operations against outlying bases.’ Preliminary investigations had shown that the Union Steam Ship Company's turbo-electric vessel Rangatira was suitable for conversion for this duty, and it would be greatly appreciated if the New Zealand Government would requisition the ship and hand her over to the Ministry of War Transport.page 264
On the same date Commodore Parry as Chief of Naval Staff received a personal message from the First Sea Lord to the same effect. He added that the Rangatira would be required to proceed to Vancouver for conversion as quickly as possible and that it was desirable that the ship's engine-room complement should agree to continue service in the ship when converted. The Naval Board was in favour of the proposal. It considered, and the Chief of the General Staff concurred, that the Wahine and Maori could cope with the Wellington–Lyttelton traffic and that the Wahine would meet the Army's requirements for transport of troops to and from Fiji.
The Prime Minister, however, informed the Dominions Office that the Government were ‘reluctantly forced to the conclusion that they cannot afford to release the Rangatira unless some substitute vessel is provided which is capable of carrying on the present inter-island activities and likely future demands which are made on this type of vessel.’ The Rangatira and Wahine were the only two passenger ships in New Zealand waters capable of acting adequately as fast troop transports at short notice; and the services of both ships in recent months had been repeatedly requisitioned for purposes of the utmost importance to the defence of the Dominion. It was essential to have fast ships of their type available for carrying reinforcements to Fiji, where New Zealand had large numbers of troops and civil construction men engaged on defence work.
It might from time to time also be necessary to carry troops to other island outposts within New Zealand's sphere of naval responsibility, or even from one coastal point to another, the message added. If the Rangatira were released, the grave dangers to which New Zealand's isolation exposed her would be greatly accentuated, and if one or both the remaining passenger ‘ferry’ vessels were lost by enemy action, it would not even be possible to maintain adequate coastal connection between the North and South Islands, quite apart from the fact that there would, in an emergency, be no adequate fast means of carrying men to and from Fiji. Since the outbreak of war the Dominion had lost the services of all New Zealand registered passenger ships engaged in the trade to Australia and the Pacific Coast of North America. It was with the greatest reluctance that the Government had agreed in 1941 to the handing over of the Awatea and Aorangi, on the understanding that the Mariposa and Monterey of the Matson Line would maintain a monthly service to North America to enable drafts of airmen to be sent overseas and keep a trade connection. The American ships were now engaged on transport duty. Moreover, the New Zealand registered cargo vessels in the North American trade had also page 265 been requisitioned and, excepting cargo ships trading to Australia, New Zealand had no vessels of its own engaged in overseas trade.
On 1 March the Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs informed the Prime Minister that the force of the reasons for which the New Zealand Government felt unable to release the Rangatira was appreciated and ‘in view of our inability to find a suitable replacement ship, we no longer wish to press the request.’