As World War II approached its conclusion in the Pacific, one could make the statement that the U.S. Navy dominated the action in the theater. And that would be true. One could also make the statement that, in May of 1945, the U.S. Navy was the only one involved in sinking Japanese ships out there. And that would be slightly less true.
The incomparable Max Hastings has put together sort of a two-part series dealing with the War’s final year. Armageddon covers the action in Europe (and is a must-read). In the volume covering the Pacific, entitled Retribution, Hastings writes that “Britain’s Royal Navy was embarrassed by its difficulties in sustaining a small fleet alongside the great American armada off Okinawa. In the spring of 1945, however, it conducted a series of little actions which helped to revive its battered self-esteem.” We’ll look at one of those today, as it’s significant for a couple of reasons.
On May 15th, intelligence revealed that the Japanese heavy cruiser Haguro (shown above), escorted by the destroyer Kamikaze, was making a supply and evacuation run to the Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean. The British Navy’s Force 61, consisting of five destroyers, headed off to engage.
If you recall back to when we discussed the Graf Spee, it’s not the number of guns, it’s the size of the guns. So while the British held a numerical advantage (5 ships to 2), they were overwhelmingly outmatched by the Haguro’s 10 8-inch guns. Royal Navy Captain Martin Power decided this engagement was best held at night, but make no mistake, with British pride on the line, there would be battle. Martin’s admiral let that be known in no uncertain terms when he sent the following cable: “You should sink enemy ships before returning.”
And that’s what they did in the early morning hours of May 16, 1945. The HMS Venus picked up the Japanese ships on radar at an astounding 68,000 yards, and they rapidly closed in. In a confused melee of shot and torpedoes, the Haguro and Kamikaze put up a good fight, inflicting significant damage on the destroyer HMS Saumarez. But the Haguro was punctured by four torpedoes and, shortly after 2:00am, slipped beneath the surface. The British quickly departed the scene (to be out of range of any possible land-based enemy aircraft before dawn), leaving the Kamikaze to fish sailors from the water.
The significance of this rather minor battle between a handful of ships is two-fold. First, it was the last ship-to-ship engagement of the World War II. And second, it was (and still is, as far as I know) the last gun battle between major surface ships ever fought.
Recommended Reading: Retribution