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The Last Great Destroyer Flotilla Action

by Michael Marwood

Contributed by 
Michael Marwood
Background to story: 
Royal Navy
Article ID: 
A4194056
Contributed on: 
14 June 2005

Japanese Heavy Cruiser HAGURO

A while ago, I wrote for my family my personal account of the 26th Destroyer Flotilla's 1944/45 commission I was the Flotilla Communication Officer with the Captain (D) and his staff onboard HMS Saumarez.

With the recent 60th anniversary celebrations and with the BBC exhorting us to participate in their '"WW2 Peoples War" programme, it seemed appropriate to offer a short extract from my story dealing with the sinking of the huge 15,000 ton 8" gun Japanese cruiser, Haguro.

The flotilla in spread formation had been combing the Malacca Strait for the reported cruiser and was about to reverse course to return and rejoin the fleet west of Sumatra. The extract from my story starts with the moment radar contact was made.The narrative refers often to 'Lofty', a colloquialism for our 6' 6" Captain Manley Power.

1. CONTACT

At 2245, Venus on the port wing of our spread formation obtained a radar contact bearing NE range 34 miles. This was so far outside the equipment's maximum surface detection range that I was told to signal "Probably Popeye" (Code word for cloud). The weather during the day had been fine but now there were very heavy rain squalls making radar reflections off heavy clouds likely. However, Venus plotted her target and was convinced it was the enemy. She was able to report at 2322 that the enemy's course was 135 degrees, speed 25 knots and range 23 miles.We had found our prey minutes before we were due to turn back!

2. ATTACK

At 2340, Venus was ordered to shadow the enemy from the NW. The rest of the flotilla were allocated attacking sectors as follows: Virago from the SW, Saumarez from the S, Verulam from the SE and Vigilant from the E. Venus then lost contact and Lofty ordered the flotilla to alter course to the north and the two on our starboard side to spread four miles apart on a WSW-ENE bearing. This was to try and stop HAGURO slipping eastward out of our net.

At 0003 on 16th May (my 26th birthday!), we (Saumarez) obtained our first radar contact with the enemy bearing NNE 14 miles. As we plotted the radar contacts, she was believed to be on a southerly course, speed 20 knots. Lofty altered course also to the south and reduced speed to 12 knots to allow the enemy to close us and to allow the other destroyers to reach their attacking sectors.

At 0039, Lofty told the flotilla that we would carry out a torpedo attack at 0100 and to try and synchronise their attacks at the same time.

The atmosphere in the Action Information Centre became incredibly tense. It was hot and stuffy. We were all operating in a strange dim light; all exposed lights were red, so enabling anyone going up to the open bridge above us the quickest chance of seeing in the dark. There was the loud ticking of the operations plot and all the other gyro driven indicators. Noone spoke unless it was essential ie: to give or receive orders and signals. And there were the operators on the radar remote indicators reporting the enemy's range. "Range 24,000" (yards = 12 miles)..."Range 22,000"... "Range 20,000"...."Range 18,000". It was 0048 and the enemy must have detected us but there was still no challenge. Our radar now showed two echoes, a smaller one was the Japanese destroyer KAMIKAZE. "Range 14,000"...."Range 10,000". We increased speed to deliver our torpedoes but just before we did so, the HAGURO altered course 180 degrees to the NW, foiling our 0100 attack. Lofty increased to full speed 30 knots so as not to lose touch.

What was incredible was that here we all were at torpedo attack time only a few miles from the enemy and her main armament was still quiet. We remained unchallenged. Why? We could only believe the suggestions made at the time that, as we had approached her from the south-east, she must have thought that we were a supporting friendly force from Singapore. She must have been totally unaware of the enemy destroyer flotilla looking for her. I began to wonder if we might even hit her with torpedoes before her mighty armament opened up.

At 0105, HAGURO altered course to the south-westward probably to avoid a torpedo attack by Venus and at the same time we heard shouts from the bridge that the KAMIKAZE was in sight and rapidly closing us.

I remember cursing when the Gunnery Officer, Philip Moss, was ordered to open fire because from then on all hell was let loose. The HAGURO opened fire on us with all her 8" and 5" guns and a few minutes later the KAMIKAZE also opened fire on us. Lofty increased to full speed and closed the enemy to fire torpedoes.

By now, we were used to the deafening noise of our own guns firing but they were almost drowned by the overwhelming racket from enemy shells as they roared close by and burst all round us. The din in the AIC was terrific and it made communications difficult; one had to shout to be heard. Huge fountains of water from shells bursting in the water alongside us were cascading down on the bridge. Water was pouring down the hatchway into the AIC and down the voicepipes from the bridge. Then there was a huge explosion, all the lights went out and steam, smoke and shell fumes poured up from the hatchway below. We had been hit in the forward boiler room. The sensation in the AIC was very frightening. Everything went quiet and, in the steam-filled compartment, we felt the ship heel wildly over until I thought it was going to turn turtle. This seemed to be the end. It was a nasty moment but, after hanging over for what seemed an eternity to us, the ship slowly righted itself and emergency lighting came on. What had actually happened was that Lofty had gone hard-a-port in order to get the torpedoes away before the ship stopped and the high speed we were doing resulted in the ship heeling over so far. In fact, thanks to the excellent work by the engine room department, the ship never stopped.

Where do miracles and luck divide? It seemed to me to be a miracle that we had got into torpedo firing range before the HAGURO opened fire. It seemed to be a miracle that the mass of 8" and 5" shells that straddled us for about five minutes failed to hit us mortally except for the one hit in the boiler room that we later learnt was a 5" and not an 8" shell and that had only partly detonated. Had it fully detonated, vastly more damage would have been done to the ship. A Stoker and a Leading Stoker were killed and three other ratings were slightly wounded; remarkably light casualties for the pounding we took, especially with the amount of damage done by shell splinters. Also, the top of our funnel was shot away. It was almost a miracle that the order to fire the first torpedo had reached the tubes because a second later all communications from the bridge failed. Now, we had a routine drill that when firing a broadside of eight torpedoes, at the order fire one, the torpedo gunner on the tubes automatically fired one and the other seven mechanically at the tubes simultaneously with the electrical firing from the bridge. Little did he realise that in following this drill, it was he and not the torpedo officer on the bridge that fired the other seven torpedoes! And three of the torpedoes hit the HAGURO. The lucky ones on the bridge saw three huge plumes of water rise up on the HAGURO as the torpedoes struck her. She stopped firing at us. Lofty ordered full ahead and we disappeared behind a smoke screen as fast as we could on our one boiler room still in action. We were still alive!

3. THE AFTERMATH

A few minutes later, there was a huge explosion on our port beam. Vigilant later said she thought we had been blown out of the water. At the time it was believed to have been the KAMIKAZE but this proved untrue. She got back to Singapore. It was decided that it must have been two torpedoes from different ships of the flotilla colliding!

In the next few minutes, the HAGURO was hit by torpedoes from Verulam, one torpedo from Venus, two from Virago and at 0151 one from Vigilant. The HAGURO's upper deck was reported awash at 0130 and she was finally sunk by Venus with two torpedoes at 0209. Lofty agreed to Venus's request to pick up survivors but aircraft were then heard overhead, and he ordered all ships to join him and we set course WNW speed 25 knots to rejoin the fleet. No survivors were picked up.

I received a signal on VHF from Venus at about 0118 "Am illuminating enemy destroyer with starshell". Fortunately, she did not then open fire with her main armament and Lofty told me to reply "Think that is me!" A man of few words!

4. 26th DF REJOINS THE FLEET AND RETURNS TO TRINCOMALEE

During the forenoon, Lofty signalled his destroyers "Before rejoining the fleet I should like to be the first to congratulate you all on last night's excellent performance. Well done and thank you."

On rejoining the fleet at 1130, Admiral Walker signalled "Hearty congratulations to 26th DF on sinking an enemy cruiser last night."

The fleet was attacked by Japanese aircraft on and off throughout the day. Most attacks were intercepted by our Combat Air Patrol. Those that got through failed to hit our ships until the evening when a Japanese bomb exploded very close to Virago's stern. It seemed ironical that, after all the flotilla had been through, four members of the her ship's company were killed and eight seriously injured.

Twenty-four hours later, the 26th Destroyer Flotilla was released to return to Trincomalee. We arrived there at 0630 local time on 18th May and, despite the early hour, we were amazed to see the decks of every ship in the harbour lined with men cheering us into port. The 26th DF, the "V" Flotilla, had become famous and thereafter until decommissioning back in the UK in December, we received congratulatory signals wherever we went.

Long after the flotilla dispersed, the tactics of our Star Attack were the subject of much analysis and discussion at the Staff College and other naval training establishments in the UK. IT WAS CERTAINLY A PRIVILEGE TO HAVE TAKEN PART IN WHAT PROVED TO BE THE LAST GREAT DESTROYER FLOTILLA ACTION AGAINST A CAPITAL SHIP IN WORLD WAR II AND PROBABLY FOR EVER.

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