Berlin defeat: 1945 (Book review)

 The fall of Berlin

berlinBook review by Fred Lane

Beevor, A. (2002) Berlin: The downfall 1945. Penguin Books: London. 490 pp including index and footnotes. $35.00.

Antony Beevor has done it again. On top of his excellent description of the siege of Stalingrad (Naval Officers Club Newsletter 51 pp. 23-4), he now describes in authoritative and entertaining detail the final push that overwhelmed Berlin in 1945.

He reminds us that Hitler’s interference, by disregarding valid intelligence reports and insisting on suicidal tactics, probably helped the Red Army’s thrust on Berlin more than any other single factor. Despite overwhelming repeated independent eyewitness and other evidence of massive troop build-ups on the Vistula and East Prussia fronts around 9 January 1945, Hitler was content to believe his sycophants, like Goebbels, Goering, Himmler, and even Keitel who should have known better, that 8,000 Russian aircraft deployed just behind the front line were mere decoys. Instead of redeploying some 200,000 troops wasting away in Latvia, he left them there to rot and failed to guard against his greatest danger.

Sideshows like the fuel-consuming Ardennes offensive in December 1944 and futile planning to retake Budapest were uppermost in Hitler’s mind during the crucial planning stages of the final Russian offensives. He also placed far too much faith on the new Wunderwaffen “V” weapons. At the same time he seemed oblivious to the effects of mounting pressure from day and night air raids.

Folly and lies

The folly and lies of chocolate soldiers and political expediency begat the seeds of massive disaster.

Beevor traces the downfall of Berlin from the massive Russian assault, planned since October 1944 and unleashed on 12 January 1945. The first attacks were across the Vistula River, south of Warsaw, in conditions favoured by the Red Army: a blinding snowstorm at night. The major German strategy, no retreat, was weak. They did create a new defence force, the Volkssturm, in 1944, and this militia of mainly teenagers and grandfathers was supposed to strengthen resistance and hold back the Red Army. “Some forty Volkssturm battalions raised in Silesia were allocated to defend their eastern and north-eastern frontiers. A few concrete emplacements were built, but since they had no anti-tank weapons, Soviet tank forces went straight through them,” said Beevor (p 41).

On 27 January, the Russians liberated the first and perhaps worst of the German extermination camps, Auschwitz. Of an initial estimate of 4,000,000 prisoners entering the camp, only 3,000 were left, “many too sick to save” (p 44).

Refugees torpedoed: greatest ever loss of life at sea

On 30 January, the greatest ever loss of life at sea to date occurred when a Soviet submarine torpedoed the cruise liner Wilhelm Gustloff. Designed for 2,000 passengers, but with between 6,600 and 9,000 refugees from Gdynia aboard, at least 5,300 and possibly 7,400 of them are estimated to have perished in the icy Baltic Sea. On 16 April another Soviet submarine sank the hospital ship Goya with “nearly 7,000 refugees.” Only 165 people were rescued (p 188).

Hitler made his last broadcast on 30 January, exactly 12 years after the Nazis came to power. “His voice had lost all its strength and sounded completely different,” says Beevor. This did not stop Hitler meddling in army plans and flying into monumental rages whenever he perceived treachery, which seemed to be often. Even though Himmler lacked the training and experience for Wehrmacht command, Hitler put him in charge of the most vital of the German forces, Army Group Vistula. Hitler’s strategy and Himmler’s puerile attempts to follow it sacrificed thousands of lives and precious resources on under-strength counterattacks and futile resistance.

By April, Himmler contracted a bout of timely influenza and he abandoned his post for a sanatorium some 40 kilometres safely to the west of his now exposed army headquarters. General Guderian, Chief of the Army Supreme Command, persuaded him to step down, but Himmler was reluctant to put such a resignation in writing and risk Hitler’s wrath. Nevertheless, he permitted Guderian to tell Hitler of his wishes and let Guderian reorganise his headquarters.

About this time, the Soviets were building up a massive force for their Berlin assault. This involved no less than “2.5 million men, 41,600 guns and mortars, 6250 tanks and self-propelled guns and 7,500 aircraft,” says Beevor (p 147). Simply feeding such a force and supplying it with ammunition is a daunting task. Welding the whole into a cohesive fighting mass required very rare skills.

On the German side, instead of imminent danger uniting everybody under a common goal, senior Nazis conspired for months against one another for aims as disparate as inheriting Hitler’s mantle to organising postwar partisan Werewolf forces. Goering, Goebbels, Borman and Himmler all scrabbled tooth and nail for Führer status in anticipation of Hitler’s demise. Instead of a single Werewolf organisation, a second was set up and even a third proposed by rival Nazi factions. In any event, despite grandiose plans, lack of equipment and training for the very few volunteers and conscripts doomed the idea to failure from the start.

Singleness of purpose problems were not confined to the Germans. There was an undercurrent of machinations, distrust and deceit by the Allies at the highest levels, especially about wartime plans that impinged on postwar politics.

The licentious soldiery

Beevor discusses the effects of alcohol and propaganda (pp 169-70) as root causes of the shocking rape and plunder by the Red Army of German citizens (pp 30-33) and even routine rape of their own nationals deported to Germany and liberated by the Soviet advance (p 110). Is he correct? Perhaps he should go no further than his early observation that while very few Red Army weaknesses remained in 1945, “The worst was the chaotic lack of discipline (due in part) to the terrible attrition among young officers,” (p 13-14).

Cycle stealing
A Red Army soldier attempts to steal a bicycle from a woman in broad daylight.

This alone would seem both necessary and sufficient to account for the atrocities committed by the victorious testosterone-laden troops. A cursory look at history shows how isolated instances occur, but blatant rape and plunder rarely follow victory by well-disciplined and ably led troops. Yet they are an almost invariable corollary when discipline breaks down. This seems to hold true throughout the ages and across all cultures, through tribal skirmishes to multi-nation conflicts.

The big message here, muddied by Beevor’s analysis, is that it might be not so much alcohol and propaganda but simple lack of discipline that causes these excesses.

Propaganda or not, Beevor’s tale of the assault on Berlin and the political manoeuvres of Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill make riveting reading. The book contains many well-documented references, eyewitness reports, maps and photographs. It might be argued that the waging of war is too important to be left to the generals, but the book convincingly demonstrates that the kind of political interference exercised by the Nazi politicians risks disaster.


Beevor, A. (1998) Stalingrad. Penguin Books: London.

The Battle of North Cape: 1943

The Battle of North Cape and HMS Belfast

By Richard Johnstone-Bryden. Reprinted with permission of the editor, Broadsheet, 2003.

Since 1971 the heavy (sic) cruiser HMS Belfast has been preserved in the Pool of London as the last of the big gun armoured ships to have served in the Royal Navy during the Second World War. Sixty years ago she played an important role in the destruction of the German battlecruiser Scharnhorst. When the Arctic convoys to Russia resumed in November 1943, Scharnhorst posed a major threat to the safe passage of these vital supplies.  

The winter ice forced the convoys to steam to the south of Bear Island, bringing them within easy striking range of the battlecruiser operating from her base in Altenfiord. To counter this threat the Home Fleet reinforced the convoys’ destroyer escort as it passed within the vicinity of Bear Island with close support from a force of cruisers and distant cover provided by a battleship.

Initially, the German Naval War Staff decided against using Scharnhorst to attack these convoys because they feared that the Royal Navy’s more effective radar could prove decisive in an engagement during the Arctic winter’s long hours of darkness. However, by late December, with the successful passage of three eastbound and two westbound convoys, political considerations became more pressing as the C-in-C of the German Navy, FADM Doenitz, needed to prove the continued importance of Scharnhorst to a sceptical Hitler.

Scharnhorst sorties

To do this Doenitz decided to deploy the battlecruiser against the next Arctic convoy. Wearing the flag of VADM Robert Burnett, HMS Belfast headed the cruisers of Force One, while Force Two was under the personal command of the C-in-C Home Fleet ADML Sir Bruce Fraser in Duke of York.

Duke of YorkBelfast

Duke of York (left) was C-in-C Home Fleet’s flagship, while Belfast wore the flag of VADM Robert Burnett. HMS Belfast is classified as a Town class light cruiser, first commissioned in August 1939. She displaced 11,553 tons from a 187 x 21 x 6 metres (613.5 x 69 x 19.75 feet) hull. Four boilers and four turbines delivered 80,000 SHP and permitted a maximum speed of 32 knots. A complement of 750 to 850 served the armament of 12 x 15.2 cm (6-inch), eight 101.6 mm (4-inch), four x 6- or 8-barrrell pom-pom mounts, eight 0.5 inch guns and two triple 533 mm (21-inch) torpedo tubes. The ship was fitted to carry two Supermarine Walrus aircraft. Twelve 40mm Bofors replaced the pom-poms in 1959.

Having covered the east and west bound convoys, in the first half of December 1943 Force One stopped at Kola Inlet to take on fuel while Force Two called in at Akureyri. Following their brief stopovers both forces sailed on 23 December to cover the next pair of convoys (OW55B and RA55A). JW55B left Loch Ewe on 20 December and was soon detected by the Germans who began to shadow it with aircraft and U-Boats. Believing that the convoy’s protection would not be reinforced by a British battleship the German Naval War Staff issued orders to RADM Erich Bey in Scharnhorst on 25 December.

North Cape

The battlecruiser was to leave her Norwegian base and intercept the convoy off North Cape at first light the following morning. In the event of an enemy capital ship appearing Scharnhorst was to withdraw immediately. Admiral Fraser received confirmation of Scharnhorst‘s departure from the Admiralty at 0339 on 26 December. The constant surveillance of JW55B by the Germans led ADML Fraser to believe that Scharnhorst would attack this convoy rather than the westbound convoy.

North Cape

Scharnhorst sorties 26 December 1943.

By 0400 JW55B was 50 miles south of Bear Island while Force One was 150 miles to the east of JW55B and Force 2 was 350 miles to the south west. To frustrate VADM Bey’s efforts in locating the convoy ADML Fraser diverted JW55B to the north and ordered VADM Burnett’s cruisers to close the convoy for mutual support. ADML Fraser hoped this would buy him valuable time to close in with Duke of York and bring Scharnhorst to action.


The German battlecruiser Scharnhorst commissioned 7 January 1939. Displacing 38,430 tonnes, her dimensions were 231 x 30 x 9.9 metres (758 x 98 x 32.5 feet). Armament included 9 x 29 cm (11 inch), 12 x 15 cm (6 inch), 14 x 10.5 cm (4 inch), 17 x 37 mm and 38 x 20 mm guns and 6 x 53.3 cm (21 inch) torpedo tubes.The ship was equipped to carry 1968 crew and three Arado ar 196 seaplanes. Propulsion from 12 boilers and three Brown-Boveri turbines  delivered 160,000 hp and drove the ship at up to 32 knots.

Duke of York

Duke of York

Duke of York commissioned 4 November 1941. Displacing 45,360 tons, the British battleship measured 227 x 31.4 x 10.5 metres (740 x 103 x 34.5 feet). She carried 10 x 35 cm (14 inch), 16 x 13 cm (6 inch),  32 x 2pdr AA, 10 x 40 mm Bofors and (later) 65 x 20 mm Oerlikon guns. The propulsion plant included eight Admiralty three-drum boilers and four Parsons geared turbines that drove the ship at 29.5 knots. Her crew is listed as 1422 and the ship could carry four Supermarine Walrus aircraft.

As the opposing forces steamed towards JW55B Belfast made first contact with Scharnhorst at 0840 when her radar placed the battlecruiser between the convoy and Force One.

(Ed.Note: some authorities claim Norfolk detected Scharnhorst at 0830.)

As the gap continued to close Sheffield caught sight of Scharnhorst at 0921 and three minutes later Belfast opened fire with starshell prior to Admiral Burnett ordering his cruisers to engage with their main armament.

Scharnhorst evades

In the ensuing brief engagement Norfolk scored one hit before the battlecruiser managed to use her greater speed to open up the range again and attempt to attack the convoy from the north. Realising RADM Bey’s intentions, VADM Burnett turned his cruisers to keep them between Scharnhorst and JW55B but lost radar contact with the enemy in the process.

VADM Burnett’s instincts were proved correct when Belfast regained radar contact at 1205. Sheffield once more established visual contact at 1221 and the cruisers immediately opened fire while the destroyers manoeuvred into position to launch a torpedo strike which was frustrated by the weather conditions and Scharnhorst‘s rapid retirement. Although the cruisers claimed several hits, Scharnhorst inflicted serious damage on Norfolk with two direct hits on X turret and the disabling of her radar. As RADM Bey withdrew from his encounter with VADM Burnett’s cruisers he decided to abort his plans and return to Norway. This placed her on a favourable intercept course with Force Two, enabling VADM Burnett to shadow the battlecruiser and report her movements to ADML Fraser.

During the battle, Scharnhorst was targeted by no fewer than 55 torpedoes, 11 of which probably found their mark. More than 2000 shells were fired at her: 446 x 356 mm (14-inch) from Duke of York, 161 x 203 mm (8-inch) from Norfolk, 874 x 152 mm (6-inch) from Jamaica, Sheffield and Belfast, 686 x 133 mm (5.2-inch) from Duke of York and 126 x 120 mm (4.7-inch) from the destroyers.

As the two groups continued to converge, Scharnhorst was detected by Duke of York‘s radar at 1617 at a range of 45,500 yards. Half an hour later Belfast opened the third engagement with starshell, which failed to illuminate the target because of the range. However, Duke of York‘s starshell proved more successful a minute later, enabling her to open fire with her main armament at 1650. The battleship’s presence came as a severe shock to those onboard Scharnhorst who had failed to detect Duke of York‘s approach by radar. Scharnhorst responded by heading north and then east, pursued by Force Two.

To prevent her escape to the north Belfast and Norfolk opened fire until Scharnhorst was out of range at 1712. Pursued by the British warships RADM Bey headed east in a final attempt to outrun his hunters. By 1742 he had opened up the gap to 18,000 yards, placing her beyond the range of the cruisers’ guns.

However, the two capital ships continued to exchange fire, with Duke of York scoring a direct hit at 1820, leading to a drop in the speed of her opponent. Seizing their opportunity, Force Two’s destroyers launched a torpedo attack resulting in three direct hits, including one that hit a boiler room and damaged a shaft to further reduce the battlecruiser’s speed to 22 knots.

These hits proved decisive because they enabled ADML Fraser to significantly reduce the gap and re-engage Scharnhorst with Duke of York and Jamaica at 1901. They immediately scored direct hits and the effects of their pounding were quickly evident as a series of fires and explosions took hold onboard the doomed battlecruiser, while her speed continued to drop from 20 to five knots.

Intermittent return of fire

Scharnhorst‘s main armament only provided an intermittent return of fire, with A turret out of action and U turret severely damaged. At 1915 Belfast rejoined the action to score a further two hits, before being ordered, along with Jamaica, to sink the almost stationary Scharnhorst with torpedoes.

After their first attack the two cruisers were joined by the four destroyers attached to Force One, which launched a further assault before Jamaica delivered her second strike at 1937. Seven of these torpedoes fatally wounded the battlecruiser and by the time Belfast approached to make her second attack at 1948 Scharnhorst had sunk. Despite an extensive search by Belfast, Norfolk and the destroyers only 36 sailors from her ship’s company of 1,970 men were rescued.

The last RN battleship surface action

Although the damaged Tirpitz remained as a potentially serious threat for the Royal Navy, the destruction of Scharnhorst removed the biggest immediate threat to the Arctic convoys. The event had added significance because it was the final occasion that a Royal Navy battleship engaged another capital ship.

Following Belfast‘s participation in the battle of North Cape she was used in support of the D- Day landings, the Korean War and the independence of Tanzania before finally paying off in August 1963. Plans to preserve Belfast were first mooted in 1967 and eventually came to fruition on 21 October 1971 when she was opened to the public in the Pool of London.

Rufigi Delta and HMAS Pioneer: 1915-16

The Rufigi Delta and HMAS Pioneer

HMAS Pioneer, the RAN’s old Pelorus class light cruiser, fired more shots in anger than any other RAN ship in WW I. Most of her angst was directed towards the blockade and destruction of the commerce raider SMS Königsberg and other targets in German East Africa between 6 July 1915 and 22 August 1916, but no Pioneer shell was ever directly aimed at Königsberg herself.


HMAS Pioneer

This is not just a simple history of a boring blockade interspersed with frantic but glorious action, like the Nelson-era sailing ship blockades. Perhaps one of the biggest stories yet to be told was the effort required simply to keep Pioneer going. Like others of her class, Pioneer required not only frequent coaling, but also constant maintenance. These ships had a maximum design speed of 20.5 knots, but were notoriously unreliable. As one commentator said: “By World War One, they were not good for more than 16 knots and often suffered from boiler trouble and mechanical defects,” (Bastock, p 50).

First Naval Gunfire Support

On the other hand, Rufigi was important because this was the first time aircraft had ever been used in support of naval gunfire that had no other means of observing fall of shot, and an Australian ship was there on the spot, so to speak. Königsberg was destroyed by naval gunfire and scuttling charges. Our cruiser remained there, watch on stop on, for most of the blockade from the moment she arrived.

east africa

German East Africa, 1914.

When war was declared on 4 August 1914, the near-brand new SMS Königsberg was in East Africa, fresh out from Germany. Her commerce raider sister ship, SMS Emden, was a part of VADM von Spee’s German East Asia Squadron, based at the German colony Tsingtao (now Qingdao), China. Emden was detached with a collier, like Königsberg, to play havoc in the shipping trade routes, initially in the Indian Ocean. The rest of the German East Asia Squadron went on to a brilliant victory on 2 November, 1914, off Coronel, Chile, and near annihilation off the Falklands a month later. About the same time HMAS Sydney caught and destroyed Emden at Cocos, on 9 December 1914.


SMS Königsberg.

Königsberg recorded some early notable successes, for instance capturing the first British merchant ship to be lost in the war, the 6600-ton City of Winchester, in the Gulf of Aden, on 6 August 1914. She also destroyed the elderly light cruiser HMS Pegasus, of the same class as Pioneer, in a bold attack on 20 September in Zanzibar Harbour. The German cruiser intended to fight her way back to Germany in time, but she experienced serious problems with a high pressure steam valve (other sources say a broken connecting rod) and retired, around 21 September, to the Rufigi River Delta (in present-day Tanzania, some 70 miles south of Dar-es-Salaam) with her collier Somali and other small craft for repairs. The disease-infested delta was a huge maze of shifting channels and shallow waterways. It was impassable to ocean-going vessels, according to British charts, but a recent survey and local knowledge gave the Germans an edge.

Modern cruiser and armed merchantman cruiser

chatham infauns castle

The modern (in 1915) cruiser HMS Chatham (left, in 1920 livery) and armed cruiser HMS Kinfauns Castle were first on the scene.

When the modern British cruiser HMS Chatham arrived on the scene 30 October, they sighted Somalia‘s topmasts and sent an armed landing party ashore that gained intelligence that a large warship was anchored out of sight some five miles upstream. They also found the whole delta area strongly defended by German and Askari troops and the waters probably mined. Meanwhile, Königsberg‘s defective high pressure steam valve (or connecting rod) had been taken overland, remanufactured in the German Dar-es-Salaam railway workshops and was being reinstalled (Alliston p 26).

Somali destroyed

It did not take long for a motley group of British ships to blockade the delta. On 1 November Chatham fired on the Somali at 14,500 yards and set a blaze that led to the collier’s total loss. Königsberg responded by moving further upstream. The modern cruisers HMS Dartmouth and Weymouth arrived a couple of days later to help seal the delta. The British sank a block ship, the collier Newbridge, across one main channel, but this did not necessarily seal in Königsberg.

The Union Castle liner Kinfauns Castle had been requisitioned by the RN at the outbreak of war and converted into an armed merchant cruiser with eight 4.7-inch (120 cm) guns. In early November she picked up a Curtiss 90 hp Flying Boat Type S and its pilot, Mr H.D. (Dennis) Cutler from Simonstown, South Africa. The British planned that the aircraft would find the Königsberg, then either destroy the anchored ship by bombing or provoke her into sailing into the trap they were setting outside.


A Curtiss 90 hp flying boat, with Glenn Curtiss (left) and Henry Ford.

The civilian pilot was quickly commissioned as a SBLT RNVR and, helped by MIDN A.N. Gallehawk RNR, worked feverishly to make his machine airworthy. No-one, it seems, was aware of the way tropical heat and humidity affected these aircraft and their engines. The flying boat obstinately refused to get airborne “unless the sea was dead calm” (Alliston p. 33). On 19 November, after a number of test runs and with the aircraft finally stripped to its bare essentials, Cutler staggered off and headed for the coast into monsoonal weather. He had no compass and only an hour’s fuel. He failed to find his target, got lost in cloud and many aboard the ships gave him up for lost when he did not return.

T-model Ford radiator

Fortunately, a local sailing boat reported sighting the aircraft heading south and six hours later launches found Cutler, recovering from a precautionary landing that he made near uninhabited Okusa Island. His aircraft was damaged, but after replacing the radiator with a T- model Ford version fetched by HMS Fox from Mombasa, Cutler repaired it enough for a second try on 22 November. This time he located Königsberg some seven miles upstream, heavily defended and apparently ready to sail should the RN relax the blockade. Unfortunately, he damaged the aircraft’s hull on landing after this sortie, but the boxed parts of another Curtiss had been located in Durban and these were brought up by Kinfauns Castle.

Königsberg‘s upstream position was disputed by the navigators, on shallow water grounds, so Cutler made yet another sortie on 4 December, this time with a CMDR Fitzmaurice as an observer. Fitzmaurice confirmed Königsberg was anchored close to Cutler’s estimated position and well out of cruiser-gun range.

The Curtiss aircraft and its engine were performing so poorly in the tropical conditions that any attempt to bomb the cruiser was out of the question. The leaky wooden hull was waterlogged and the engine could not produce full power, despite replacing parts cannibalised from the second flying boat. On his next flight, 6 December, Cutler was either shot down or had an engine failure about one mile upriver. He swam ashore and was taken prisoner. MIDN Gallehawk, however, lurking nearby in the armed tug Helmuth, drove off eager Askaris who aimed to pull the aircraft ashore. He towed the machine out to sea under heavy fire from the delta river banks but it was all to no avail, because that flying boat never flew again. Cutler spent the next three years as a prisoner and his aircraft was eventually consigned to the Durban Museum.

Sopwith floatplanes

The Admiralty sent two highly reputed Sopwith floatplanes, variants of the 1914 Schneider Trophy-winning Tabloid machine with 100 hp Monsoupape-Gnome rotary engines. They arrived on 21 February 1915, together with a 20-man RNAS party commanded by F/LEUT J.T. Cull. In temperate climes, the aircraft could carry a two-man crew and a useful bombload: two 50 lb (22.7 kg) and four 16 lb (7.3 kg) bombs. This proved impossible in the tropical conditions of the Rufigi Delta and one of the delicate machines was wrecked when the propeller disintegrated during testing. The heat had softened the glue that held the beautifully hand-crafted laminated propeller together. The other machine also fell victim to the climate, with the engine producing nothing like its rated power, even stripped of its cowlings. It took only a few days for the oppressive heat and humidity to warp the wooden frame and propeller out of shape. At best, it was found that the remaining Sopwith could make only 1000 feet altitude, with reduced fuel, no observer and no bombload.

sopwith baby

A Sopwith Baby, similar to the floatplanes at Rufigi.

Meanwhile, the old light cruiser HMAS Pioneer, built in 1900 and commissioned into the RAN in 1913, had been patrolling out of Fremantle. She was detailed to escort the first AIF convoy that departed Albany 1 November 1914, but had to withdraw because of condenser problems. At Admiralty’s request, she finally left Fremantle 9 January 1915 to bolster the Rufigi Blockade. On her arrival, the Rufigi force was a “most heterogeneous one,” including “the modern light cruiser Weymouth, the less modern Hyacinth, the Pyramus (sister ship of the Pioneer), the armed liner Kinfauns Castle, four armed whalers, an armed steamer and an armed tug,” said Arthur Jose in his typical understated manner (Jose, p. 234).


RADM King-Hall

Chatham had retired to Bombay to refit and go on to the Mediterranean but RADM King-Hall arrived on 6 March 1915 to take charge in the old battleship HMS Goliath. The battleship had been in the area since October but she had been restricted to harbour, then sent to Simonstown for urgent work on her unreliable engines. The admiral called for reinforcements, including aircraft to bomb the German cruiser, torpedo boats for a surprise attack and shallow-draft monitors for longer-range bombardment. He also asked for extra ships to maintain the blockade of both of the Rufigi Delta area and to prevent roaming German armed forces ashore from being resupplied by sea. Goliath‘s big 12-inch guns did not have the range to hit Königsberg, so the battleship was recalled on 24 March for more promising duty in the Dardanelles. The admiral shifted his flag to Hyacinth, then Weymouth.


HMS Goliath.

Tragically, Goliath fell victim to a Turkish torpedo boat attack off Cape Helles, less than two months after leaving the delta. Around 0100 on 13 May, she was hit by three torpedoes. She capsized and took 570 of her 700 crew with her to the bottom.

Other aircraft to try their luck in the delta included three old Short Folders, brought there from Durban by the auxiliary cruiser HMS Laconia. On 25 April, just as the Anzacs were landing at Gallipoli, the newly promoted F/CMDR Cull made a reconnaissance sortie with an observer and camera in a Short. He experienced an engine failure due to enemy ground fire, but landed safely and brought back solid evidence that Königsberg was still full of fight. What the camera did not show was that nearly a third of the original 330-strong Königsberg crew had disembarked to fight ashore, by order of the German Admiralty. Colonel (then) Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck employed these men to bolster his rag-tag guerrilla army that was brilliantly harassing British forces in East Africa.

Mafia Island

Earlier in 1915, on 20 January, a small British force had taken Mafia Island, about eight miles to seaward from the delta. They constructed an airfield, eventually comprising a cleared field with a corrugated iron hangar and small living-quarters huts. The old Shorts operated from there for a few weeks but soon all three became totally unserviceable, including one that crashed after its rudder was shot away by ground fire.

caudron g3 short folder
A Caudron GIII at Mafia Island in 1915 (left) and a 160 hp Short Folder.

No torpedo boats were ever despatched, but the next significant event was the 3 June arrival of the monitors HMS Severn and Mersey. These low freeboard, shallow draft and unwieldy craft had been painstakingly towed by four tugs all the way from Malta, but their draft of only 4 feet 9 inches (1.45 metres) made an up-river sortie possible. Their arrival also coincided with the delivery of more ground crew plus four land planes by HMS Laurentic: two Caudron GIII biplanes with 80 hp Monosaupe Gnome engines and two Henri Farman HF27 Pushers with 140 hp Canton-Unne engines. The Henri Farmans were from a special batch built for tropical conditions, with steel tubing frames, a four-hour endurance and a temperate climate bombload of 550 lb (249.5 kg).

Naval Gunfire Support Training

Sqn/CMDR R. Cordon assumed command at Mafia Island and naval gunfire support (NGS) training commenced in earnest. Importantly, the new aircraft had wireless, but a “Plan B” flag signal system was also rehearsed. One Caudron and one Henri Farman were lost during this arduous set up, training and testing phase. The monitors were also reinforced with steel plate, sandbags and hammocks along their superstructure and main deck.

In a scheme worthy of WW II Japanese admirals, a mock diversionary attack was mounted on Dar-es-Salaam on 5 July by Laurentic. The monitors, preceded by minesweeping whalers, entered the delta via the northern Kikunja Mouth branch about 0520 on 6 July. At about the same time the remaining Caudron provided yet another diversion by bombing Königsberg from about 6000 feet but, not surprisingly, scored no hits. Simultaneously, Weymouth and Pyramus shelled targets ashore in the Kikunja Mouth while Hyacinth and Pioneer lobbed shells into the Simba-Uranga area. The tiny monitor squadron reported light artillery and heavy small arms fire from the banks but they responded with machine guns and other weapons as they pressed on.

Well dug in

The troops and artillery ashore were well dug in and camouflaged. Pioneer‘s Surgeon Lieutenant G.A. Melville-Anderson confirms this: “Previous to anchoring, a shell burst in the water not far from the ship, and another in the air. No one knew from whence they came. Very soon we were firing salvoes and then each gun rapidly independently. Our shells were bursting everywhere, throwing up great clouds of sand and earth. No sign of life was visible in the neighbourhood,” (cited in a Semaphore monograph, July 2005).

rufigi delta

The Rufigi Delta, 6 July 1915.

Anchoring about 0630, at a supposed 11,000 yards range, the monitors expected their six-inch guns to out-range Königsberg‘s 4.1-inch cannon. Unfortunately, they were not only closer than expected, but within clear view of at least one of Königsberg‘s many spotters who were linked to the ship by a network of telephone wires. Severn opened the account at 0648 but was almost immediately straddled by the first of many accurately-laid salvos. Wisely, she shifted berth and opened the range 1000 yards, but Königsberg scored first, a direct hit at 0740 on Mersey‘s forward six-inch mount that killed four men, damaged the gun and wounded four more (Semaphore, July 2005).

First hit, 0751

F/CMDR Cull, in the remaining Henri Farman, at last signalled a hit on Königsberg at 0751, but he had to leave because he was running low on fuel. This aircraft and the Caudron continued to spot fall of shot intermittently for the rest of the day. Between them, the two monitors fired 635 rounds for three confirmed hits (Alliston p. 64) before they withdrew around 1545.

A reconnaissance flight the next day confirmed that apart from losing one forward 4.1 inch gun, Königsberg‘s seakeeping and fighting qualities remained relatively unscathed.


Fire control shift

Importantly, the monitors learned the hard way that instead of firing at their own rate under their own control, they must fire in a manner that allowed spotters to identify and correct the fall of shot and allow for shots that might not explode or be lost in nearby dense jungle.

Six days later, just before noon on 12 July, the monitors once more steamed into the delta, receiving defensive small arms fire as strong as ever, with Pioneer and the other ships again in support. Severn closed to 10,000 yards despite being straddled by a series of four-gun salvos during her approach. When Severn opened fire at 1230, Königsberg‘s accuracy suddenly slackened, due to a lucky hit severing their spotter communications network. Severn‘s eighth salvo registered a hit, according to the spotting aircraft, with eight more targets recorded from the next 12 shots. Königsberg was quickly reduced to three-gun salvos, but there was more drama in the air.

Two cylinders were shot away from the spotting Henri Farman’s engine at 1250. Königsberg‘s captain claims it was a deliberate shot from his ship with his last round of shrapnel (Alliston p. 74). However, the ship had no proximity fuses and a direct hit or near miss from a main or secondary armament shell should have caused much more damage to the frail aircraft than just a couple of shot-away cylinders.

Friendly shrapnel?

The ragged cloud base, at best, was 3000 feet, so it is probable that the aircraft was flying at 2000 feet or even lower. This puts it well within range of machinegun fire from both the ship and surrounding bush, as well as “friendly” shrapnel. There was a lot of metal in the air that day, any of which could have caused the engine damage and the concomitant “explosion” reported by the pilot. F/CMDR Cull ditched 150 yards from Mersey and one of her boats rescued the aircrew.

An ever-decreasing rate of fire and a number of large explosions shortly after 1300 signalled Königsberg‘s end. Her surviving crew abandoned ship and they set scuttling charges to fire around 1330. The monitors withdrew about 1420 to the cheers of the flagship.

The Germans reported 32 killed and 125 wounded in the battle, while the British lost six killed and four wounded. Many more were incapacitated by disease. The German delta troops, artillery and other weapons remained reportedly unscathed despite many bombardments by the cruisers and other ships. Over the ten-month blockade, the RN deployed 21 warships, four colliers and 10 aircraft. Altogether, the monitors fired 837 six-inch shells (Alliston p. 82).

In a final twist of fate, the remaining Caudron overturned on landing after its last spotting sortie on 12 July and was out of action for a “long period”. It would have been impossible for the monitors to finish off the job without an aerial spotter. It was not until August that a reconnaissance flight by F/CMDR Cull confirmed the cruiser’s destruction and coincidentally recorded that her guns were being salvaged.

Pegasus link

The Rufigi Delta saga did not quite end there because the Germans salvaged all 10 of Königsberg‘s 4.1 inch guns. They were were refurbished in Dar-es-Salaam and mounted on wheeled platforms. Two were used with great effect to resist a British attack on Kahe, in the Kilimanjaro-Aruscha area, around 21 March 1916. A little later, in June 1916, others were employed to bombard Kondoa Irangi. Ironically, in the latter action, two guns that responded to this assault were salvaged by the British from the same HMS Pegasus that Königsberg sank in Zanzibar in September 1914 (Jackson, 1985).

By the end of July, except for brief harbour visits that totalled nine days, Pioneer had been under way every day for six months, with her crew living and working in appalling conditions. The ship herself was wearing out. “On at least one occasion she went to sea with one main engine out of action,” said Jose (Jose, p 236). Her crew were looking forward to a well-earned rest and relaxation period and, perhaps, a quick cruise home to Australia. However, it was not until February 1916 that the ship was released, in conformity with earlier Admiralty promises, only to have that order smartly countermanded upon the appointment of General Smuts as the new land force commander. The cruiser spent another half a year on boring and enervating East African patrols, punctuated every now and then by brief shore bombardments of inert-looking targets and all too short dockyard visits.

NGS history

Although it probably was not appreciated at the time, Pioneer was there at the gestation of aircraft-directed naval gunfire support. This led directly to the efficient WW II and later procedures where 16-inch battleships destroyed anything from pinpoint targets to whole villages at ranges of 20 miles, all in less than thirty minutes from the time the spotter first established radio contact.


The nine 16-inch guns of the WW II-era Iowa-class battleships were devastating NGS weapons.

Independently, according to an RAF 269 Squadron report, a similar NGS operation was conducted on 24 July 1915 in the Agean with “a Short seaplane 184 spotting for HMS Roberts on target No 1 (fort)” (www.oca.269 Squadron.)

HMS Roberts was certainly at Gallipoli later on, but compared with the glacial movement of similar ships involved in the Rufigi Delta campaign, it is not clear how the monitor Roberts could possibly have been engaged in a complex NGS action at Gallipoli a mere 35 days after commissioning in the UK on 19 June 1915.

The tired old warrior Pioneer finally dropped anchor in Sydney Harbour on 22 October 1916, more than a year and nine months after leaving Fremantle. Patched up and worn out and patched up again, she paid off while her crew transferred to other ships and shore establishments. The RAN sold the gallant ship in 1924. Her hull was scuttled outside Sydney Heads in 1931.


Alliston, J. The African wars 1914-16. The Naval Historical Society: Garden Island. 1996.
Bastock, J. Australian ships of war. Angus and Robertson: Sydney. 1975.
Bruce, J.M. British aeroplanes 1914-1918. Putnam: London. 1957.
Jackson, F.E. Diary of the German East Africa campaign 1914-1918, entry 23 May 1916. Military History Journal, Vol 6 No 6. 1985. SA ISSN 0026-4016.
Jose, A.W. Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-18: Vol IX Royal Australian Navy. 2nd edition. Angus and Robertson: Sydney 1935.
Semaphore. Issue 12, July 2005. Blockading German East Africa, 1915-16.


www.oca.269squadron.btinternet. Narrative, p6.

Battle of Convoy ONS-5: 1943

The ONS-5 Convoy and U-boat battle

By Mike Downes
Paper presented to the Company of Master Mariners, Sydney Branch, 24 November 1993, reprinted with permission.

Type 7

The chief ONS-5 adversary was the Type VII U-boat. The most common variant, the Type VIIC, was 67 x 5.85 x 4.37 metres (220 ft x 19 x 14 feet) and displaced 770/865 tons surfaced/submerged. Two supercharged four-stroke Germaniawerft six-cylinder diesels delivered 2800-3200 bhp to twin propellers and, with fully charged batteries, the two electric motors produced 750 SHP. Maximum speeds were17 knots surfaced or 7.6 knots submerged. Armament typically included six torpedo tubes with nine reloads, but some Type VIIs were specialist minelayers, flak-ships, milch-cows, etc.The Type VIIs usually carried one 88 mm deck gun and multiple variations of 27 mm and 20 mm AA guns. Crew numbers might vary from 44 to 60.

The fiercest convoy/U-boat battle of WW II, indeed one of the major turning points of the war, was the defence of convoy ONS-5. Until that point, U-boats had almost succeeded in starving Britain into submission, with all that that implies. This was the scrap that finally turned the corner (Syrett 1994, Roskill 1956).

Priority: U-boats

In 1939 Germany did not have very many U-boats, but they soon proved to be a very effective weapon. As the war went on, Admiral Döenitz, who had been in charge of the U-boat arm, was made operational head of the German navy in late 1942. The three big ships, Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen had made their successful dash up the English Channel in early 1942 and were now bottled up in German ports. Döenitz paid them off to provide the sailors to man the 17 U-boats that he was building every month. At the time of this battle there were some 400 U-boats in commission, building or working up.

These U-boats were fitted with torpedo tubes and a decent-sized gun for surface attack. To detect shipping they relied on visual lookouts and on good quality hydrophones. Their greatest asset was speed. They only did two knots under water with bursts to seven knots, but they usually travelled at between 14 and 16 knots on the surface.


Once a convoy was detected, they would shadow it, reporting directly to Döenitz and to other submarines in the pack. Then they would try to get ahead of the convoy, where they would lie in wait. In daylight hours with good visibility they would tend to go deep and try to attack from inside the convoy itself. Their favourite tactic was to attack down-wind and down-sea on the surface at night, submerging as soon as the torpedoes had been fired.

They did not have radar but did have a radar detector geared to the 10 cm wavelength. Unfortunately for them, we were using a three cm wavelength radar, which they could not detect. Another weakness was that they had to report daily by radio to Döenitz, who closely controlled them, but their signals were detected by direction finders from shore and a few British ships. In some cases the signals could be decoded and read by Ultra, the secret British signal decoding section.

The British Escort Groups at this time comprised older destroyers with one boiler removed and replaced by additional fuel tanks to give greater range, as well as new frigates and corvettes.

Radar and Asdic limitations

We all had good radar but this did not have the modern display. We had only a single small cathode ray tube that gave a distance and a hand-trained aerial that indicated the bearing. Asdics, the underwater detection system, was similarly hand-trained and effective in most conditions out to about 1500 to 1800 yards. However, because of water noise it became pretty useless in really heavy weather and at any speed over 16 knots. The asdic beam worked basically in and just below the horizontal plane, with the result that a submarine echo could only be tracked down to some 100 to 150 yards in front of the ship. It was then guesswork as to what the submarine was doing until we were in position to drop our depth charges from the stern.


So the Admiralty started fitting some ships with hedgehog. Hedgehog is an ahead-throwing weapon firing off 24 bombs with contact fuses. These formed a circle some 24 metres in diameter, about 220 metres in front of the ship. Any bomb that exploded against a submarine’s casing was powerful enough to blow a hole in the pressure hull.


Hedgehog was a 24-barrel mortar. Each round carried 13.6 kg (30 pounds) of TNT or 16.3 kg of torpex.

Finally, one or two ships of every Escort Group were also being fitted with a high frequency direction finder (H/F D/F). This was a rather inaccurate instrument but could detect submarine radio transmissions and gave an indication from which direction the attack was likely to come and the very approximate range (either groundwave or distance from the U-boat making the signal). Our own ship, Tay, was the only ship so fitted in the B7 Escort Group.


So much for the protagonists. I was a lieutenant and the navigator of HMS Tay, which was the Number Two ship in the B7 Escort Group. My job was to plot the information coming from the asdics, radar, etc. on a track chart. My station was in a small hut next to the anti-submarine cabinet at the front of the bridge, where the skipper could look down from above and see the display. I also had the job of monitoring the signals from the other ships.


HMS Tay K-232, commissioned in 1942, was the fourth of 151 River class frigates built in WW II. The class displaced 1370 tons, on a 91.8 x 11 x 2.74 metres (301 x 36.5 x 9 feet) hull. Two boilers fed two four-cylinder VTE engines that developed 5500 ihp and could push the ships along at 20 knots. These specialist ASW ships carried two 102 mm (four-inch) and 10 x 20 mm guns, one hedgehog mount and 150 depth charges. Crew size might vary between 107 and 140.

Our boss in B7 Escort Group was CMDR Peter Gretton. He was a brilliant commander and worked up B7 to become the ace of the Close Escort Groups in the same way that CAPT Johnnie Walker was the ace of the Support Groups. The Close Escort Group operated as the close escort to the convoy, usually taking station one mile clear, whereas the Support Groups were fairly fast free-roaming ships whose function was to close any convoy under attack and provide additional support. When they detected a submarine, they could sit on it for perhaps 24 hours until it surfaced and could be killed. The Close Escorts had to remain with the convoy and while we did detach for single submarines when there were none others threatening, we usually only concentrated on putting the submarine down until the convoy had gone past.


CMDR Peter Gretton commanded HMS Duncan D-99, a D class destroyer leader, 1400 tons, 97 x 10 x 1.37 metres (318 x 33 x 4.5 feet) with four 120 mm (4.7 inch) one 77 mm (3 inch) guns and eight torpedo tubes. Commissioned in 1933, her 38,000 hp engines gave a handy speed of 36 knots (later 25 knots). In a 1940 modernisation refit Duncan lost one main gun and four torpedo tubes, but bolstered her ASW armament and range.

Convoy ONS-5

ONS-5 was a medium-size slow convoy, west-bound from Liverpool for Halifax and North American ports. The convoy speed was officially 7.5 knots, but in practice was nearer six knots and maybe half that in heavy weather. The 44 ships formed up in 12 columns of four or less, having a front of about 5.5 nautical miles. The escorts were zig-zagging approximately three-quarters of a mile further out.

There would be a fast ship sweeping across the front, the slower but very effective corvettes protecting each side, and one or two faster ships astern, ready to reinforce or take over an attack as necessary.

The battle started on 27 April when we beat off attacks by eight submarines during the night. This kept up and our first loss was during the following morning. This was to set the pattern for the next few days, with many attacks being made and a number of ships sunk. The battle lasted eight days, fought in gales with wind force between six and ten or more, with very heavy seas that frequently scattered the convoy. In fact, ten ships became detached and formed their own convoy escorted by the corvette Pink. Strangely enough, that group did not get attacked again. The rest of us battled on, beating off attacks, frequently in ice and constantly bitterly cold. During the heavy weather, our asdic transducer in Tay jumped its support bearings and became jammed, so that we were impotent against submerged submarines.


Four wolfpacks

German records suggest that four wolfpacks were involved in the ONS-5 battle: Wolfpack Star comprised 18 U-boats, Amsell I and II contributed 13 and Fink had 28.

Then, Peter Gretton in Duncan began to run out of fuel and the weather was so bad that he was unable to refuel from the tanker provided for this purpose. In those days, when we refuelled at sea, the tanker paid out perhaps 150 yards of hose, the end of which we picked up on the fo’c’sle head. The bight of this hose was always dragging in the water and the strain, with both ships pitching in heavy seas, would often prevent it being connected. If and when this was done, the hose could break, even before any oil was pumped. Eventually, Duncan had to leave to refuel in Greenland, and Tay, with our skipper Bob Sherwood as Acting Senior Officer of the escort, was left in charge for the final three nights.

Three ships hit almost simultaneously

I clearly remember being on afternoon watch on 5 May looking around towards the convoy just in time to see three ships hit almost simultaneously. The first was Selvestan, which sank stern first. Gharinda sank bow first and the little ship Bonde broke in two. All three sank within two minutes. It was a sight I’ll never forget. These were the last of our ships sunk and at this point the score was 11 ships to one U-boat. We had a rescue ship, the trawler Northern Spray, which was full, having picked up 146 survivors. Tay picked up some 143 other survivors from those three ships and this also made us very crowded, as our own crew was only 126.

The Admiralty had instructed the Third Support Group to come and assist us and they joined on 2 May, but most of them had to leave a few hours later because the weather was still too rough for them to refuel and they were running out. Only the destroyers Offa and Oribi remained until the final night. On the evening of 5 May, we received a signal from the Admiralty saying “25 U-boats in contact with your convoy, 40 in the immediate vicinity closing, 70 in general area.” In fact, we now know, from German records, that 51 submarines were deployed to trap ONS-5 and that Döenitz had called for an all-out effort. One of the U-boat skippers who survived the war has since said that the U-boats thought that they could wipe out the entire convoy during that night, but at last the weather changed in our favour with near-calm conditions and thick fog.

HMS Pink K-137, was one of the four Flower class corvettes working with the destroyers HMS Duncan and Vidette and the frigate HMS Tay in Escort Force B7. The group also included two designated rescue ships, the trawlers HMS Northern Gem and Northern Spray. Pink and sister ships Sunflower, Snowflake and Loosestrife displaced 940 tons, on a 62.5 x 10 x 3.5 metres (205 x 33 x 11.5 feet) hull. Two boilers served a four-cycle triple expansion reciprocating steam engine that delivered 2750 ihp to a single shaft, giving a maximum speed of about 16 knots. They carried one 101 mm (four-inch) gun, two depth charge throwers, two sets of depth charge rails and 40 depth charges.

This meant that the U-boats on the surface had trouble finding the convoy, whereas we could pick them up easily on radar. But now we only had Vidette, Loosestrife, Sunflower and Snowflake as effective close escort vessels. Tay was in control but had no asdic. Offa and Oribi were all that were left of the support group and they were stationed five miles further out on each bow. We were all running out of depth charges.

Oribi ramming

The signals coming in were exciting. Oribi: “Ramming.” Vidette: “Sank one U-boat with hedgehog.” Loosestrife: “Three contacts am engaging.” Then, “One dived. Dropped five-charge pattern.” Finally, “Third contact dived, dropped 10-charge pattern. U-boat surfaced alongside and blew up.” Snowflake signalled: “Three echoes bearing 185 degrees.” Then, “U-boat sighted, turned away.” Then, “Second U-boat sighted, engaged with four-inch gun until dived.” Then, “Third U-boat sighted, dived, dropped one charge. No charges left.”

Although this left Snowflake largely impotent, she was not yet finished. She came across the U-boat that had been rammed by Oribi, but which had not yet sunk, and both vessels had a brief gun duel. The U-boat eventually sank or scuttled herself but, in the confusion and fog, Snowflake turned to ram a radar echo which she thought was a submarine. She almost rammed Sunflower, who was coming to assist her.

Snowflake then made the signal, “Lights in water, interrogative save?” To which we had to reply “Negative, resume station,” because we were so short-handed. And that turned out to be the end of the battle as far as B7 was concerned. Four hours later the U-boats withdrew.

That night, we escorts claimed seven U-boats sunk, four very probably sunk, two probable and many damaged. In fact, the Germans later confirmed that they had lost 11 U-boats (one by aircraft attack) in that 24 hours. Döenitz called off the attack and thereafter the German skippers seemed to have lost their nerve. B7’s next convoy, eastbound, was attacked by 20 U-boats but the attacks were not pushed home. We did not lose a single ship, but we sank five of the attackers.

Harold Chesterman

Incidentally, many Master Mariners know the skipper of Snowflake. He was Harold Chesterman, who lived in Caloundra, and was for years in the Queensland Lighthouse Service ships. He sent me a photograph of his empty depth charge rails, with a notice, “Sold out”.


41 U-boats sunk in May 1943

At the time, Britain was the forward base for the second front and troops were pouring into the country. We lost 97 ships in the Atlantic in the first 20 days of March 1943. Britain was nearing starvation levels and the navy, while their ready-use tanks were full, had a reserve supply of only 30 days of oil fuel. Quite clearly, we could not have sustained these loss rates, but in May 1943, a total of 41 U-boats were sunk for the loss of only 17 ships.

Our own escorts were increasing in numbers and skill, whereas the U-boats had lost their ace skippers and their ability to attack on the surface, due to radar and H/F D/F. They lost the initiative and never regained it. The massed wolf packs, which were so nearly successful, had failed and were never really tried again. The main reasons for our success in the late spring of 1943 were the increased numbers of escorts being commissioned and, for the first time, the formation of the Support Groups together with very intensive training of all ships and crews. New tactics were being worked out and practised by the groups.

Air support

Hedgehog was being fitted to frigates and sloops and this made a big difference. H/F D/F was being carried in one or two ships of every escort group and that also helped, but the main help came from the air.

In 1940 and 1941, 35 CAM ships were fitted with a rocket-powered cradle on a 22.8 metres (75 feet) long track. The first successful Hurricane launch was from a similar-looking RN-manned “Fighter Catapult Ship”, HMS Maplin, when LEUT R. Everett RNVR shot down a shadower, 3 August 1941. The first CAM ship launch, 1 November 1941 from the SS Empire Foam “frightened the shadower away”. In two years’ service, CAM ships launched only eight aircraft in anger. They shot down six enemy and lost one RAF pilot. Unfortunately, the conspicuous CAM ships became prime targets and 12 of the 35 were lost to enemy action.


cam ship

First of all there were Catapult Aircraft Merchantmen ships (CAM ships). This Heath Robinson contraption comprised a Hurricane aircraft mounted on a catapult on the bows of the ship. The aircraft could be flown off to attack shadowing Focke-Wolf Condor aircraft, which was very useful on the Gibraltar run. Of course the aircraft could not land and had to be ditched near an escort so that the pilot could be picked up.

Escort carriers

Then there were the small escort carriers, (see: Emergence of the escort carriers) aircraft carriers built on merchant ship hulls, which initially carried four Swordfish aircraft, sufficient to force a submarine to submerge so that it could not keep up with the convoy. If a gale blew up quickly, when these 80 knot aircraft were astern, the carrier had to turn back to pick them up. And finally, there was the bridging of the air gap between the USA, Greenland, Iceland and Britain by Liberator and similar long-range aircraft, although some of those airfields were often closed by bad weather.

tracker and 816

HMS Tracker, seen here with 816 Squadron Swordfish embarked,  was a Bogue class escort carrier built in the USA. Her aircraft, together with those of HMS Activity, sank U-288 during the passage of convoy JW-58 in April 1944.

I knew Peter Gretton very well as he frequently sailed in Tay, before getting his own ship Duncan. Later he rose to become VADM Sir Peter Gretton, KCB, DSO, OBE, DSC and Chief of Naval Staff, but in those days he was the youngest confirmed Commander in the RN.

Kept in touch Bob Sherwood, my captain for three years in Tay, came from the Holyhead/Dublin Ferries and subsequently returned to the ferry service. He eventually became Marine Superintendent for the ferry services running out of Britain to the continent, Ireland, etc. Ray Hart in Vidette was a Canadian and Harold Chesterman in Snowflake an Australian. The other two skippers were British. I still keep in touch with four officers from the Tay, even after all these years. She was a very happy ship and B7 was an extremely efficient Escort Group. Those eight days were some of the most hectic of my life.


Roskill, S.W. History of the Second World War: The war at sea, 1939-1945, Vol II. HMSO,1956.
Syrett, D. The defeat of the German U-boats: The Battle of the Atlantic. Chap III, The Battle for Convoy ONS-5. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1994.
The Battle of the Atlantic: The official account of the fight against the U-boats, 1939-1945. HMSO, 1946.


Battle off Samar Island: 1944

In harm’s way: The saga of Gambier Bay, the Battle off Samar

By Barrett Tillman. Reprinted with permission from The Hook, Vol 14/4 Winter 1986, pp 40-52.

USS Gambier Bay
Gambier Bay, straddled by large calibre rounds from VADM Kurita’s surface force, 25 October 1944.
(Painting is by C.G. Evers, reproduced with permission of the U.S. Naval Institute.)
Supported by the Seventh Fleet, Army troops landed on Leyte Island in the central Philippines 20 October 1944. The invasion sparked one of the largest naval-air battles in history. The sprawling three-day engagement passed into history as the Battle of Leyte Gulf.

On the morning of 25 October Task Group 77.4.3 – six escort carriers, three destroyers and four destroyer escorts – was caught off Samar by a Japanese battleship-cruiser force totalling 23 men-of-war. It was the only occasion when U.S. carriers were engaged by enemy surface combatants. Taffy Three, under RADM Clifton A. Sprague, conducted a magnificent defence but sustained severe casualties. In four hours, two CVEs were sunk (one by a Kamikaze) and three escorts were lost. Only one CVE escaped damage.

Aided by aircraft of nearby Taffy One and Two, Sprague’s out­numbered, outgunned group passed into American naval legend. This account of Gambier Bay‘s ordeal is dedicated to all CVE sailors and aviators who fought “The Battle of the Taffies.”

It was nearly 0630 when the sun broke over the eastern rim of the Philippine Sea. The quickly-gathering daylight revealed a one-third cumulus cloud cover but the sea remained calm. An easterly breeze of 6-8 knots was blowing, with occasional gusts to 15 knots within the scattered rain squalls.

Gambier Bay photo
USS Gambier Bay CVE-73 commissioned 24 December 1943. Kaiser-built Casablanca class: 20-30 aircraft, 7800 tons, 156 x 20 x 6.85 metres (513 x 65 x 22.5 feet) two reciprocating steam engines, 9000ihp, 19 knots.

 In USS Gambier Bay (CVE-73) sailors and airmen prepared for the escort carrier’s 303rd day since commissioning. Attention was focused upon supporting the army troops who had gone ashore on Leyte five days before, 20 October 1944. Composite Squadron 10 had launched eight FM-2s at 0500 for CAP over Leyte. In aerology, LEUT Rannie Odum and his crew expected another of those hot, humid days when smoke and haze lay low in the air.

Up on the bridge, CAPT Walter V.R. Viewig was joined by the navigator, CMDR George Gelhorn. A couple of minutes later, at 0637, the skipper received authorisation from RADM Clifton A. Sprague to stand down from GQ. Sprague commanded the force of six CVEs and escorts officially known is Task Group 77.4.3, but which passed into history for its call sign, “Taffy Three”.

Viewig passed the word to secure and set Condition Three. All over the ship, men loosened lifejackets, removed helmets, got up to head for chow. Others, not yet on duty, returned to their bunks for a bit more sleep.

At 0640 some men were just sitting down to breakfast and others were standing in line. Topside, lookouts were pointing their glasses to the north-west, where something seemed to be happening just over the horizon. Bursts of anti-aircraft fire were observed in that quadrant. It was a puzzling development. A few men speculated that other American ships were firing at friendly aircraft; it happened all too often.

A Grumman TBM Avenger (left) was the first to raise the alarm and attack the enemy. The TBM was a Grumman TBF torpedo reconnaissance aircraft built by General Motors. The FM Wildcat fighter was a Grumman F4-F, also built by General Motors.

But other strange occurrences also were happening. Down in the radio shack, the duty crew monitored a peculiar, almost unintelligible VHF transmission. Apparently it came from a Taffy Two Avenger on anti-sub patrol; something about many Japanese ships sighted 30 miles from base. If true, it was a startling development. Not only had there been no word of any such enemy force, but the contact report, if accurate, placed the Japanese only 20 miles away. Taffy Three at that moment was about 10 miles north of Taffy Two.

A minute later the transmission was repeated, and this time there was no doubt of what the TBM pilot said. ENS Hans Jensen of VC-20 off Kadashan Bay (CVE-76) accurately reported what he saw: four Japanese battleships, eight cruisers and numerous destroyers. He was heard to say he was being fired upon – hence the AA bursts – and he was attacking a cruiser with his bombs.

The radio watch heard Fanshaw Bay (CVE-70) relay RADM Sprague’s plea: “Check identification.” Everyone who heard the transmission knew what the Taffy Three CO must be thinking. It wasn’t unusual for U.S. ships to fire at U.S. aircraft, but seldom had American planes accidentally bombed their own ships. Perhaps Jensen’s contact was Task Force 34, the contingency battle line to be formed in case of a surface engagement, or an element of VADM Pete Mitscher’s fast carrier Task Force 38.

Pagoda masts

Almost simultaneously Jensen said, “BBs have pagoda masts,” and lookouts in several Taffy Three ships spotted the distinctive superstructures of enemy warships. Down in CIC, LTJG Bill Cuming’s radar operators noticed new blips on the surface-search SG scope. Whatever this force was, it was a big one. And it was close; bearing 300 degrees true at 23½ miles.

As if that wasn’t enough, radio monitors overheard garbled transmissions on the same frequency as LEUT Bill Buderus’s fighter direction channel. They quickly recognised the unintelligible voices as Japanese.

All this information came to Walt Viewig within two minutes. Its strength was overwhelming; there was no room for doubt. At 0645, Viewig ordered Gambier Bay to General Quarters and called up maximum speed. At 0647, all battle stations were re-manned and ready.

Something, something, had gone terribly wrong.

At the same moment the klaxon sent sailors and airmen scrambling to their battle stations in Gambier Bay, another officer was issuing another order. VADM Takeo Kurita and his flagship Yamato, one of the two largest battleships ever built, flashed the word to his armada, “General attack.”

HIJMS Yamato, the biggest (72,800 tons) warship afloat in 1944, mounted nine x 460mm (18 inch) plus six x 155 mm (6.2 inch), 12 x 12.7 mm (5.1 inch) guns and 146 x 25 mm cannon. She measured 263 x 38.7 x 11 metres (863 x 127 x 36 feet). Her 12 Kampon boilers fed four turbines that delivered 150,000 SHP to four shafts, giving a maximum speed of about 27 knots.

Kurita and his lookouts optimistically believed they had trapped one of Mitscher’s fast carrier task groups. Many of his junior officers cheered and fought back tears of joy. They believed they had been presented “a heaven-sent opportunity” to destroy a major portion of the U.S. Navy.

Takeo Kurita needed all the good fortune he could obtain. A highly experienced officer with a firm background in destroyers and cruisers, he had been roughly handled in the previous two days. U.S. submarines and air strikes had deprived him of Yamato‘s sister, Musashi, plus two cruisers and several destroyers sunk or turned back. Yet even these losses left Kurita with the still-formidable force of four battleships, six heavy and two light cruisers, with eleven destroyers.

Three-pronged thrust

This force, transitting San Bernardino Strait the night of the 24th-25th, was the centre of a three-pronged Japanese attempt to engage and destroy American invasion shipping in Leyte Gulf. The southern prong was destroyed in a surface engagement that same night, but the northern force, “the bait which the Imperial Navy assessed ADML W.F. Halsey could not ignore” worked to perfection. ComThirdFleet took the fast carriers north to engage the four remaining enemy CVs off Cape Engano, leaving Kurita a clear shot at the Seventh Fleet units now in his path. VADM Ozawa’s flattops were almost empty shells, with few aircraft or fully-trained aviators. But Halsey didn’t know that. He intended to finish the last of Imperial Japan’s carriers.

VADM Thomas C. Kinkaid, ComSeventhFleet, therefore had no indication of the danger which his CVE groups (not to mention the troop transports) faced off Samar. Such was the situation at 0645 when two surprised admirals, Clifton Sprague and Takeo Kurita, suddenly learned of one another’s presence.

Battle of Samar Is
The Battle of Leyte Gulf

 VC-10’s skipper, LCDR Ed Huxtable, was sitting alone in Gambier Bay‘s wardroom when GQ sounded. His immediate thought was, “Here’s another hop to the Sulu Sea.” But if that were the case, there was time enough to wait for a slice of toast and some fruit juice before reporting to the ready room. Just then, LTJG John Holland, the squadron personnel officer, rushed in. Using the term then in vogue for squadron COs, Holland said, “Captain, you’d better get up to the ready room in a hurry. They’re already manning the planes.”

No longer hungry, Huxtable followed Holland into the passageway at a dead run. He asked what was happening. “I don’t know,” Holland replied, “but all hell must be busting loose.”

That was how most Gambier Bay personnel learned of the situation-waiting for breakfast. Rannie Odum was reaching for a glass of tomato juice when the alarm sounded. He wondered “should I or shouldn’t I,” and decided he shouldn’t. He left for his battle station without getting anything to drink. AMM2/c Charlie Westbrook, the 25-year-old gunner in LTJG Bob Crocker’s TBM crew, was one of the lucky ones. He had actually started to eat when the gong went off. Grabbing his gear from his locker, Westbrook detoured long enough to shake his radioman out of the bunk, but the radioman was too groggy to respond and Westbrook wasted no more time trying to rouse him. Westbrook dashed up to the flight deck and saw four TBMs lined up, ready for launch. One spare crew was standing nearby and Westbrook grabbed the radioman and shoved him into Crocker’s plane. No ordnance had been loaded but while waiting for launch, ordnance-men quickly attached two rockets under each wing.

Other pilots and aircrew were scrambling for their planes, too. Ed Huxtable found his intelligence officer, LEUT Vereen Bell, suited up ready to go, anxious as ever to fly a mission. However, the situation remained unclear. Hux was still under the impression that a strike to the Sulu Sea was being hastily organised and told the ACIO, “You’d better stay here.” Nobody else was in the ready room and the CO wanted someone there to coordinate things.

Hux snatched up his plotting board and dashed topside. He found ENS R.B. “Tuffy” Barrows sitting in the fourth Avenger and motioned Barrows to jump out. While buckling in, Hux asked plane captain Jerry Gutzweiler if he had a bomb load. Gutzweiler said “no” and Hux told him to call the air officer, LCDR E.E. “Buzz” Borries, about getting some ordnance. None of the TBMs had started engines yet, so there was apparently time enough for arming.

Gutzweiler called Borries on the voice tube at the base of the island, relaying Huxtable’s request. Looking over his shoulder, Hux saw the air officer move forward and speak briefly to CAPT Viewig. The captain immediately made a sweeping motion with one arm and seemed to say “Get ’em off.”

Hux was wondering what the rush was all about when he heard “what seemed to be a rifle shot next to my left ear”. He snapped his head around just in time to see a salvo of shells explode not far from White Plains (CVE-66). The urgency was now clear.


First salvo

Kurita had opened fire at 0658 and that first salvo landed before 0659. The final countdown had started for Gambier Bay.

Curiously, many men were unaware of their circumstances. When the first shells started falling, several gunners looked up, squinting for a glimpse of the Japanese bombers they thought must be overhead. It was even longer before some of those below decks learned what was happening.

Even some of the men in communications didn’t immediately have a full grasp of the situation. In CIC one talker called up to the bridge, just as the first enemy shells were fired, that the radar contact was confusing. He theorised that it might be an ionised cloud. Viewig, with characteristic coolness, replied, “That’s the first cloud I’ve seen with a nine-gun salvo.”

In the five minutes before 0700, events accelerated at a fantastic pace. The seven Avengers and ten Wildcats on deck started their engines and began taxiing into position for launch. Gun
flashes were visible on the north-western horizon as the Japanese ships commenced fire and multi-coloured splashes fell astern of the CVE formation.

In the midst of this frantic activity, Walt Viewig was conforming to the orders issued by Clifton Sprague. At 0657 Taffy Three had turned due east and commenced launching. It was not directly into the wind, but near enough to permit flight operations. Task group speed was first set at 16 knots and then at flank speed: between 17 and 18 knots for the CVEs.

CAPT W.V.R. (Bowser) Viewig (left) CO Gambier Bay, and RADM C.A.F. (Clifton) Sprague, Commander TG 77.4.1, Taffy Three, in Fanshaw Bay.

Then, having done all he could for the moment, Clifton Sprague did the next best thing. He screamed for help on the Inter-Commander Support Aircraft circuit. This plain-language voice broadcast notified every level of the Seventh Fleet of Taffy Three’s grim situation. It was. Sprague would recall, “the ultimate in desperate circumstances.”

Indeed it was. Sprague’s six CVEs formed a 2,500-yard circle with the three DDs and four DEs on an outer circle 6,000 yards from the centre. Kurita’s 23 ships, deployed in five formations to the north-west, outnumbered Taffy Three nearly two-to-one. But that was the least consideration. Almost any six of the Japanese ships should have been enough to destroy Sprague’s unit in 60 minutes.

But this was a gunfight, conducted at relatively close range by powerful men-of-war against thin-hulled escorts which were never intended for anything remotely approaching such a situation. Only once before had an aircraft carrier come under the guns of a surface force; off Norway in June 1940 when the British Glorious was caught by the German battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. They sank Glorious and her two attendant destroyers in less than two hours.

Taffy Three was on the short end of every yardstick; outnumbered, outweighed, outranged and apparently out of luck. But if Sprague’s ships couldn’t trade gunfire with the enemy, perhaps they could blind him for awhile. Employing the favourite tactic of every outgunned admiral, Sprague ordered all ships to start laying smoke screens.

Launch all aircraft

During the eight minutes from 0657 to 0705, Gambier Bay launched all 17 planes on deck. With the wind quartering from port, it was a little tricky, and the enemy salvos were falling closer. Some of the Wildcats skidded across the deck as nearby explosions jarred the CVE’s light hull. But they all made it off.

LEUT Dick Roby’s division, LTJG Rocky Phillips, LEUT Gene Seitz and ENS Chuck Dugan, which had been standing by as the duty flight, was the first airborne. Dugan had barely started to crank up his wheels when he got his first look at the Japanese force closing from astern. His reaction was typical, “Oh, shit!”

Two destroyers were cutting in from the starboard quarter, and since they presented the most immediate threat, Roby took his four fighters down to strafe. Each pilot made three or four passes, pushing the gunnery runs low and making abrupt high-G pullouts. Dugan made four passes, recovering so steeply that he blacked out each time. Fearful of diving into the water, he trimmed his Wildcat for climb and recovered consciousness each time nose-high, heading into the 1500-foot clouds.

The combined firepower of 16 .50-calibers was formidable. The tubby FMs bored in low and close, the dark grey forms of the destroyers looming larger in their gunsights as tracers lanced out in both directions. Motes of white light played over the superstructures as the heavy bullets hammered against steel plates.

Dick Roby lost contact with his three pilots after the second pass at the two DDs. But it was enough. Both ships heeled hard over, reversed course, and headed away from Taffy Three, at least temporarily. Roby then sought some company and joined a formation of five Avengers and two Wildcats. They were from Kitkun Bay (CVE-71), led by VC-5 skipper CMDR R.L. Fowler. An Annapolis classmate of Ed Huxtable, Fowler was senior squadron commander in Taffy Three.

As well as possible, he established himself as strike director. There remained little coordination for the first 90 minutes, however. Roby stayed with the Kitkun Bay planes, straffing to suppress flak and draw as much firepower away from the TBMs as possible.

Meanwhile, VC-10’s bombers were getting into the battle, but many had been launched too hastily for arming. Most of those with ordnance had 500-lb bombs or depth charges. A few had five-inch rockets. None of the first seven Avengers had a torpedo, the weapon they really needed.

Attack immediately

Huxtable was fourth off and gained the lead by the time he came round the standard 180 degrees turn which pointed his planes back toward the Japanese ships. In his Arizona drawl he called RADM Sprague to report his flight airborne, “Bendix, this is Catnip Lead. What are our orders? Over.” Fanshaw Bay snapped back, “Attack immediately!”

The seven Avengers were flying under very low ceiling as the task group approached a rain squall. As Hux led his flight on a westerly heading he broke out into better visibility over the destroyer escorts and climbed for a bit more altitude. Visible through the gloom was what appeared to be four enemy cruisers and behind them, four battleships. Hux sized up the situation and decided to utilise the reduced visibility to better advantage. He turned back over the carriers and rolled out on a course he figured would take his flight over the hostile cruisers. Hux knew that he had no ordnance and was uncertain what the others had, if anything. But he figured “at least we’d give the Japs a scare.”

Chikuma, a Tone class heavy cruiser: 15,200 tons, 198 x 18.5 x 6.4 metres (649 x 61 21 feet) 8 x 20.3 cm (8 inch), 8 x 12.7 cm (5 inch) 12 x 25 mm guns, 12 torpedo tubes, six aircraft, eight boilers, 152,000 SHP, 35 knots, 850 crew.

The flight broke into the clear again, broad on the starboard beam of the four cruisers, sailing line astern. They were Kumano, Suzuya, Chikuma and Tone: each displacing 11,000-to-13,000 tons and mounting eight to ten 20 cm (8-inch) guns. The Japanese spotted the TBMs almost immediately and opened a torrent of AA fire. Huxtable’s crews saw the red “golf balls” curling toward them at deceptively slow speed, then accelerating as tracers always seem to do. Most passed under the Avengers.

Abruptly Hux came hard left and went for the last cruiser in line, leaving the other pilots to pick their own targets. He glanced at his airspeed indicator and saw the needle passing through 190 knots, but held to his shallow dive till 3,000 yards out. At that range the AA fire was “getting just too hot”. The CO broke left and paralleled the formation, heading astern. He then made a wide circling turn to port, passing ahead of the cruiser column and made another approach from starboard. Hux levelled off about 3,500 yards out, intending to evaluate the situation and report to Sprague again, but five multi-coloured flak bursts appeared only 150 yards ahead of his Avenger. The enemy gunners had his range and elevation but slightly overestimated the deflection. He flew through the smoke of the middle burst.

It was obvious that the Japanese were gaining on the carriers. If the task group remained on its easterly heading it would soon be over­run. Huxtable called Bendix and informed the OTC that his best course was south. Then he called Gambier Bay and got the assistant air ops officer, LCDR Elmo Waring. Buzz Borries was busy with flight operations, leaving Waring to handle communications. Waring suggested that the airborne planes head for newly-won Tacloban airfield on Leyte to pick up ordnance. But it was nearly 100 miles to Tacloban on Leyte’s northeast coast. With plenty of fuel remaining, Hux and the others elected to remain and harrass the Japanese as much as possible.

Like Huxtable, ENS Paul Bennett had no bombs or rockets for his TBM. He did what he could by making two straffing passes, one at a battleship and another at a cruiser. He then broke off and headed south towards Taffy Two, hoping to get aboard a carrier and pick up some ordnance before returning to the battle. Most of the others also were making dry runs by now. Dick Roby called Waring and asked about prospects of landing on any Taffy Three flight deck to rearm. The reply was emphatic, “You’re not getting aboard any of these ships.” There was too much to do merely getting spare planes in the air to think about recovering those already launched. Roby had to head for the beach; his fuel was down to only 30 gallons.

Ammo zero

Chuck Dugan also was out of ammo. After shooting up the two destroyers he joined Huxtable and tried to divert some AA fire by strafing a Fuso-class battleship. That was the last of his .50-caliber load. “I doubt if I scratched the paint,” he recalled. He joined Tony Osborne’s TBM, and the two flew along in loose formation for several moments. Each was waiting for the other to make the first move, and gradually they realised both were without any ammo or ordnance. Like Roby, Dugan set course for Tacloban.

At 0715 the carriers had entered a providential rain squall which, combined with the smoke screen produced by the destroyers, temporarily hid the force from effective Japanese gunnery spotting. During the several minutes spent in this very welcome cover, Clifton Sprague took Huxtable’s advice and altered course more southward, from 090 degrees to 119 degrees. This temporarily caused Kurita’s gunfire to fall wide of the mark.

Borries also used the unexpected reprieve. He had the first torpedo-armed Avenger brought up from the hangar deck where ordnancemen had been removing the “fish” from their racks. Gambier Bay had nine aerial torpedoes aboard, but it took time to check and load each one. The one-ton weapons had to be removed from their racks, laid on a dolly and lugged to the waiting TBM. Air pressure, alcohol and rudder throws had to be inspected and depth setting fixed. Then each had to be hoisted into an Avenger’s bomb bay. To ordnanceman Nordeen “Skinny” Iverson, it seemed to take forever just to get the first torpedo loaded. As soon as that job was done, the VC-10 ordnance crew quickly went aft to fetch another. Three more Avengers remained aboard, and they all needed to be armed with torpedoes.

A call had gone to the ready room for the more experienced torpedo pilots to man Gambier Bay‘s last remaining planes, regardless of who was on the flight ops list for the day. LTJGs Bill Gallagher, Bob Weatherholt and Hank Pyzdrowski were the first to respond.

The first torpedo-armed TBM was brought up on the flight deck at 0708. In the haste and confusion there had been no time to service it; only 35 gallons of gas were in the tanks. Gallagher was to fly it and he had two very clear choices. He could make an attack, which would mean a water landing from fuel exhaustion or he could head for Taffy Two, refuel, then come back.

It was obvious Gallagher had already made up his mind. The big, jovial Bostonian had barely cleared the flight deck when he turned back towards the Japanese. He kept his Avenger almost at deck level and made straight for the threatening cruiser column, watched by numerous sailors from Gambier Bay. Joining a TBM from another squadron, he initiated a torpedo attack, knowing he would run out of fuel in a few minutes.

Pickled fish ran true

Bill Gallagher had made his choice and he stuck to it. Keeping low, he opened his bomb bay doors and pressed through a tremendous concentration of anti-aircraft fire. He pickled his fish, which was seen to run hot, straight and normal. Circling nearby, still drawing off some of the flak, Ed Huxtable saw the third cruiser take a torpedo aft and turn out of formation. She made a full circle and rejoined the column at the rear, proceeding at reduced speed. Nobody could say for certain that Gallagher’s torpedo was the one that connected, but Hux thought it likely.

Running on fumes, Gallagher found Huxtable and joined formation. The Japanese AA had scored repeated hits on his TBM, which was streaming a thick plume of smoke from the engine. The two Avengers briefly flew together and Hux pointed over his shoulder, gesturing for Bill to head for the beach.

Gallagher had everything a torpedo pilot needed-skill and courage, a weapon and a target. Everything but luck. Even if he had enough fuel, which he didn’t, he could not have made it. He ditched his flak-riddled TBM near the task group. Another pilot saw the crew float in liferafts but neither Bill Gallagher nor his crewmen, L. Holly and George Saint, were ever seen again.

Hux and the remaining TBMs continued their dry runs, diving into the flak to split the AA defenses. They made their pullouts with bomb bay doors open to simulate a genuine attack. The Japanese were kept guessing as to which runs were “wet” and which were “dry”. About this time, 0715, Sprague ordered his destroyers to initiate torpedo attacks against the vastly superior enemy force. They were upwind of the CVEs and therefore on the leeward side of their own smoke screen. During one of his numerous dummy runs, Hux looked down to see the DDs and DEs turn into the attack. A former destroyer man himself, he “really felt for them”.

USS Hoel
USS Hoel DD533: Fletcher class Destroyer: 2700 tons, 114 x 1 x 5.4 metres (376 x 39 x 18 feet), five x 12.7cm (5 inch), four x 28mm (1.1 inch), four x 20 mm guns, 10 x 21 inch torpedo tubes, 60,000 SHP, two shafts, 38 knots, 273 crew

In perhaps the most gallant action in the history of the U.S. Navy, the three DDs and four DEs took on nearly two dozen enemy ships, concentrating on the cruisers and battleships. In the next two hours three of them, Hoel (DD-533), Johnston (DD-557) and Roberts (DE-413), were shot to battered, flaming, sinking derelicts. But they worked a not-so-minor miracle.

One of their torpedoes struck the cruiser Kumano, slowing her down. More importantly, however, the prolonged series of bold attacks diverted much of the enemy’s attention from the CVEs. Kurita’s flagship, the mighty Yamato, was forced out of gun range by a spread of destroyer torpedoes. During the ten minutes it took Kurita to evade the threat, Yamato‘s huge guns were put out of effective range.

It was nearly 0730 when the first CVEs began to emerge from the blessed cover of the rain squall. During the previous 15 minutes the task group had altered course between south-east and south-west, hoping to throw off the Japanese spotters even more. But as visibility improved again, a new menace showed itself.

The four cruisers Huxtable and several others had been harrying for almost half an hour were now pulling well ahead of the main enemy force, obviously attempting to circle around Sprague’s port quarter and cut off his retreat. Eight-inch salvos began falling nearby – the cruisers were getting the range. Sprague went on the air again and ordered the Taffy Three planes to concentrate on the four fast ships threatening to hem in the little task group.

Samuel B Roberts DE413: John C Butler class Destroyer Escort: 1745 tons, 93 x 11 x 4.1 metres (306 x 37 x 13 feet), two 12.7 cm (5 inch), two twin 40 mm AA guns, three 21 inch torpedo tubes, one hedgehog, eight depth charge throwers, two boilers, 12,000 SHP, two shafts, 24 knots, 201 crew.

The rest of the Japanese armada, thrown off balance by the destroyers’ bold and persistent attacks, was as yet not the major threat. Kurita had made a serious mistake in ordering general attack, for he lost tactical control of his force. Instead of cutting the corner of Sprague’s arcing turn to the south, most of Kurita’s ships continued the stern chase and followed the same general track as their targets. As the CVEs emerged from the squall line, Gambier Bay‘s second torpedo-armed Avenger was brought up to the flight deck. Unlike Gallagher’s TBM, this one was quickly filled with enough fuel to remain on station. Then the avgas lines were purged by pumping an inert gas to all fuelling stations to neutralise much of the potential fire hazard.

Last launch: 0745

The TBM was manned by LTJG Bob Weatherholt’s crew and launched at 0745. Weatherholt didn’t know it at the time but he would be the last pilot to ever launch from Gambier Bay. Rather than jump on the first target which presented itself, “Weatherbird” lit a cigarette and evaluated the setup. When an FM joined up and the pilot radioed that he would cover the TBM in its approach, Weatherholt held back for a moment. “Let me finish my cigarette,” he said. Then he attacked, the second and last VC-10 aviator to drop a torpedo in combat. The result of his attack was unobserved.

Most of the Taffy Three aircraft now were airborne. Those just getting off were forced to launch with a quartering or following wind. A fully-loaded TBM could not safely launch under these conditions, but one partially armed or without ordnance could make it. The Wildcats had relatively little trouble.

Hank Pyzdrowski’s plane was the third to be armed with a torpedo and it was brought up on the forward elevator. Hank taxied into position on the cat and waited for the bridle to be attached. Then, following Catapult Officer LTJG Bob Krida’s directions as more shell splashes burst close aboard, he ran up his engine and waited for the familiar jolt.

Nothing happened

Running before the wind, Gambier Bay at that moment could not generate enough wind over the deck. Krida had ordered the cat crew to stand down, waiting for a change in course which he hoped would bring more favourable launch conditions. Several minutes later, Krida and Pyzdrowski were ready to try again, but once more it looked too risky and the launch officer aborted the attempt. Preparing for a third try, Hank ordered his two crewmen, ARM2/c Jerry Fauls and AMM3/c Bob Jensen, out of the plane. Professionally, it reduced the aircraft weight by more than 300 pounds, and since this was to be a torpedo attack, there was little the aircrewmen could do with their two machine guns. Personally, Hank didn’t want his long-time crewmen aboard on such a hazardous launch.

Alone in his TBM, Pyzdrowski exchanged ritualistic signals with Krida for the third time. Krida looked forward, watching the bow’s upward movement in the swell, judging the relative wind. Then he shook his head and gave Hank the “cut” signal. It was no use. On the ship’s course of 210 degrees, with the wind from the port quarter at best, there simply wasn’t enough lift for eight tons of Avenger, fuel and torpedo. Hank climbed out of his plane and watched it flung off the bow into the water as the cat was fired.

Standing by the island, Pyzdrowski noted the varied colours of the shell splashes; pastel shades of green, yellow and pink. Several carriers were being near-missed. But Viewig and the other captains were “chasing salvos”, steering for the previous splashes in order to confuse Japanese gunnery spotters. It was nearly 0800, almost an hour since the enemy opened fire, and almost 30 minutes since the first shells had landed close. Other than splinter damage, however, the six CVEs remained unharmed.

Up spirits

Pyzdrowski finally tired of watching pyrotechnics and went below to his locker with his roommate, LEUT George Bisbee. He figured this was as good a time as any to break out the 10 bottles of whiskey he had stashed away. Actually, there was a considerable quantity of booze in Gambier Bay. The crew’s official ration of beer was kept locked in the brig: 400 cases of Olympia. Unofficially, many officers had private stocks. Ed Huxtable and LTJG John Holland had brought seven cases of whiskey aboard and Buzz Borries had a case, all stashed in one locker. Quite unknown to Borries, Hux and Holland had managed to work their way through all of their own liquor and half of Buzz’s.

Ganbier Bay straddled
Gambier Bay, making smoke and straddled by large calibre rounds.

Hank read the combination of the lock to Bisbee, who was working the dial. After three attempts, Bisbee’s fingers still hadn’t the touch. Finally Hank opened the locker himself and began passing out bottles to those in the room. Bisbee, Vee Bell, LTJG Owen Wheeler and one or two other VC-10 stalwarts pulled some mattresses together to form a protective teepee of sorts (in case shell fragments penetrated the hull) and sat crosslegged, exchanging swigs from several bottles. Before long, the lethal circumstances began to look a bit less formidable. Or at least more tolerable.

Topside, things didn’t look quite so rosy. By now the five separate enemy columns had Taffy Three inside almost a full hemisphere, from due west through northeast. As the threat increased and enemy gunnery improved with steadily diminishing range, Clifton Sprague issued an order of last resort, “Open fire with the pea-shooters when range is clear.” Gambier Bay had no need to await such an order. At 0741 CWO Frank Hughes’ gun crew in the stern went into action. They trained their 5/38-inch gun to port, sighting on the lead enemy ship 17,000 yards off the port quarter. She was Chikuma, a fast 11,200-ton cruiser mounting eight 8-inch guns. Down in CIC the surface-search radar plotted Hughes’ target at 8½ miles as the 5-inch mount opened fire. But the tracking worked both ways, as the radar operators also could see the Japanese shells in mid-flight, headed towards Taffy Three.

Minutes later, up on the bridge, another development was taking shape. Two or three unidentified ships had appeared hull-down on the horizon, off to port. The signals chief was tall, lanky Andy Lindow, who squinted through his binoculars and tentatively identified the middle ship as a cruiser. He couldn’t be sure of the others.

There was one way to find out. Lindow directed one of his signalmen, Carroll Smith, to flash the major warship challenge on his big 24-inch searchlight. The unidentified ships immediately responded with the correct reply.

Chief Lindow’s heart almost skipped a beat. “Friendly ships to port,” he cried.
“Good,” CAPT Viewig replied. “Tell them we’re under attack.”

Lindow told Smith to send it, and the venetian-blind shutters on the circular light opened and shut in a series of dashes and dots. The message began with dash dot dot dot-pause-dash. The Baker Tare identifier. Then the four-word message, “We are under attack,” followed by Baker Tare King for end of message. Lindow saw the centre vessel “dash” in acknowledgement for each word. At the end of the message it blinked, “Roger”.

Then the newcomers fired at Gambier Bay.

They were more Japanese cruisers, rushing down from the north after following Sprague’s turn south out of the rain squall. It had taken this long for their superior speed to make up the lost distance. Taffy Three was now surrounded on three sides by the faster enemy force.

First hit 0800

It was now 0800. After nearly an hour of almost incessant firing, the Japanese landed their first hit on the CVE force. Kalinin Bay (CVE-68), pounding along off Gambier Bay‘s starboard quarter, took an eight-inch shell in the starboard side of the hangar deck just as she launched her last Wildcat. Taffy Three was running hard to the southwest. Since the wind was from the northeast, the carriers’ funnel and chemical smoke afforded almost no screen for Kalinin Bay or Gambier Bay, the two rear­most ships in the circular disposition. RADM Sprague had brought the group’s course around successively to the southwestern quadrant as the four intrusive cruisers had gained headway and turned his flank. Base course was altered frequently as the situation changed, and this tactic, combined with each individual ship’s salvo chasing, resulted in a zigzag track which only slowed the already-impeded rate of advance.

But there was no other choice. Even running straight ahead, the CVEs had at least a six-knot disadvantage to the slowest Japanese ships. Shortly before 0800, when the troublesome cruiser quartet was 13,000 yards to the northeast, Frank Hughes’ gun crew was firing at the lead ship. The 5/38-inch shells snapped out across 6½ nautical miles towards the target, and in a few minutes they had the range. Observers in Gambier Bay clearly saw three flashes on the target’s superstructure, indicating direct hits. The cruisers kept coming, however, maintaining “a heavy and disastrous fire” from their combined three dozen 8-inchers.

At the same time, the enemy battleships’ salvos were falling closer astern. Their dye-tinted splashes provided spotting information for gunnery officers to call the fall of shot and make corrections.But the battlewagons remained the secondary threat. The cruisers were the real danger.

On the bridge, Walt Viewig calmly watched the situation developing. He noted with a professional eye that the cruisers were firing four-gun salvos in unusually small patterns. He estimated that the four shells always fell within a 25-yard circle, with about 60 seconds between each salvo. Navigator George Gellhorn, who was actually responsible for directing the zigzag course changes to avoid being hit, saw that the Japanese fire director was methodically “walking” his salvos toward Gambier Bay in 100-yard steps. Such regularity made Gellhorn’s job easier. Just when it seemed certain the next salvo would land directly on top of Gambier Bay, he altered course two points. The next salvo then landed where the ship had been a minute before.

Small course changes

By using small course changes, Gellhorn made it more difficult for the enemy to notice the change. When they did, the plotting began again from scratch. The first close shells had fallen about 0730, and Gellhorn’s subtle evasive tactics had kept Gambier Bay from all but shrapnel damage for over half an hour. But by 0810 the deadly cruisers had closed to 10,000 yards and they straddled CVE-73 with a well-placed salvo. An eight-inch shell went through the after portion of the flight deck on the starboard side near Batt II. Fires flared topside and on the hangar deck.

There were few personnel casualties, however, and the fires were controlled. Five minutes later, Clifton Sprague took Taffy Three back more to the south-southwest. Evasive action was now relatively ineffective. Clearly exposed to Japanese gunfire, Gambier Bay became the primary target. At 0820 she was hit again, holed below the waterline in the forward engine room. The assistant engineering officer, LEUT Al Hirtin, took immediate measures to handle the seawater gushing into the compartment. Two portable electric submersible pumps were put into operation but Hartin feared they would not be enough. He also had the bilge pumps turned on.

For five minutes the men in the engineering spaces watched the level of seawater continue to rise. It was no use. Hartin called up to the bridge that the pumps were incapable of handling the deluge into the engine room, and added that he would almost certainly have to shut down in a few minutes. He was right. As the seawater continued to rise, the engine room was flooded to burner level. Hartin ordered his men to secure the boilers and prepare to evacuate the compartment. At this same time, 0825, Viewig informed Sprague over TBS that Gambier Bay “had been hit hard and had lost one engine”. All loads were shifted to the after generators and engine room. Hartin’s crew secured the forward engine room, evacuating the flooded space and dogging the hatches behind them as they left. The ship slowed to 11 knots, dropping astern of the other CVEs and out of formation.

Big trouble

If anyone aboard still harboured thoughts of escaping, all such hope was lost when Gambier Bay fell out of line. Andy Lindow, still on the signal bridge, “knew we were in big trouble”. The ship was listing to port, afire aft and within easy gun range of the cruisers. Though VC-10 pilots were still in the area making repeated runs on the Japanese ships, many had by now expended even their machine gun ammunition. Looking down from his Avenger, Ed Huxtable (CO VC-10) saw one CVE afire and listing to port. According to the position of the ship, he thought it was White Plains (CVE-66). But in the prolonged radical manoeuvring the disposition’s axis rotation had shifted.

Hux didn’t know it at that moment, but he was looking at his own ship. Until now Gambier Bay had been almost completely unsupported, as the escorts were busy attacking the Japanese and making smoke screens around the force. The destroyers Johnston (DD-557) and Heermann (DD-532) now made a valiant attempt to distract the enemy’s attention. Johnston had already taken three heavy hits, which had reduced power and knocked out three guns. Undaunted, her skipper, CMDR Ernest E. Evans, noted Gambier Bay was drawing a torrent of shellfire from the lead ship and dashed to within 6,000 yards of the big cruiser. Johnston fired her remaining five-inchers, gaining several hits.

Chikuma ignored the lone destroyer and continued to direct her eight-inch guns at the little carrier. Johnston was fortunate to have survived as long as she did; in another 90 minutes she would be sunk. Heermann as yet was undamaged and closed Gambier Bay from starboard, commencing a harassing fire at Chikuma from 12,000 yards. Oddly, Chikuma responded to this more distant intruder and turned in a tight circle, trailing her churning white wake in the dark blue water. While turning, she directed part of her battery toward the destroyer.

Chikuma Torpedo strike
Chikuma, shortly after receiving a torpedo hit aft. The Tone class cruiser sank about 0900 after repeated aerial torpedo hits.

But only temporarily. At almost the same time the two destroyers made their desperate charge, Gambier Bay was hit again, repeatedly. A hit near the island severed liquid lines to the steering motor and another opened circuit breakers on the main electrical distribution panel. The latter prevented re-establishment of steering control from any position in the ship. Three minutes later the after engine room was pierced by an eight-inch shell which holed number three boiler and probably lodged in the lower part of the generating tubes. Water deluged the compartment, and like Al Hartin 20 minutes before, senior engineer LCDR Jim Sanders tried to compensate with bilge pump suction. It was a losing battle.

CIC loses power

In CIC things came to a halt, too. The radar operators had tracked the tormenting Japanese ships to about 15,000 yards. But with loss of steam pressure, the after engine room generators ceased to supply power and most electrical systems failed. The exec, CDR Richard “Smiley” Ballinger, keeping an eye on things in the most vital compartments, poked his head in CIC. “It’s time to go for a walk,” he said. Bill Buderus, Bill Cuming and their crews began to file out, waiting in the passageway. Gambier Bay was now the focal point of the combined fire from three heavy cruisers, a light cruiser and a destroyer. A heavy-calibre hit in the stern had knocked the five-incher out of commission, forcing the crew off the gun deck. At 0843 chief engineer Jim Sanders secured all boilers and Gambier Bay began coasting to a stop. She was now completely helpless, without defensive armament and unable to manoeuvre.

From the open bridge recognition officer Murray Sacks attempted to identify six of the enemy ships near enough to recognise details. He recorded them as a Tone cruiser, a single-stack destroyer, an Atago cruiser, an Aoba or Mogami cruiser, a two-stack DD and a Kongo battleship. He was largely correct. Though there were no single-stack destroyers and Mogami- and Aoba­-class bore little resemblance, the other descriptions proved accurate.

To most Gambier Bay sailors, the identity of their assailants made no difference. The only thing that mattered was the fact that their ship was being systematically perforated by numerous shells. Unknowingly, however, the Japanese had loaded the wrong type of ordnance for use against thin-skinned CVEs. Kurita was prepared to fight a major surface battle and his ships were loaded with armour-piercing projectiles designed to penetrate thick steel and explode inside a warship’s hull. The 3/8-inch plate on the CVEs offered virtually no resistance to armour-piercing shells; consequently, few of them detonated.

Serious casualties

Still, shells exploding close aboard caused some serious personnel casualties. In the parachute rigging loft between the hangar deck and flight deck, flight surgeon W.H. Stewart was tending the injured. He asked rigger Tony Potochniak and a buddy, G.C. Phillips, to help him move a mortally-wounded man whose legs were nearly severed. Potochniak and Phillips, standing on either side of the doctor, had just leaned down to pick up the man when a large shell fragment penetrated the hull and struck LEUT Harold Fleischer in the back of the neck. He was killed instantly. Potochniak went out to the port catwalk and Phillips disappeared to starboard.

Now certain Gambier Bay was going down, Potochniak began cutting retaining wire to free some of the life rafts on the catwalk. On the hangar deck there had been no lights since the power failed. A shell exploded near the spot Al Hartin was standing with several of his forward engine room personnel. Hartin was knocked down, stunned, and slowly realised many of the men around him were dead. Then he noticed his own injuries – a broken right arm and knee. He dragged the body of one man out to the catwalk with him, unable to tell in the darkness whether the casualty was alive or dead.

Skinny Iverson, at 34, the “old man” of the ordnance crew, was also on the hangar deck. He had just helped load the fourth torpedo into the last Avenger when flight operations ceased. The TBM was on the forward elevator, which had jammed about three feet up, and the plane was set afire by shell fragments. Seeing this, Iverson and several others prepared to go over the side. They didn’t want to be around when that torpedo went off. At 0845 Gambier Bay was dead in the water, listing to port and burning amidships.

Walt Viewig was still on the bridge but knew the situation was hopeless. He ordered all classified material thrown overboard. Signalman chief Andy Lindow had nothing more to occupy himself.

Glancing about, he took in the scene: thick smoke tinged with orange flame rising from the flight deck, the worsening port list, the pack of bloodthirsty cruisers closing in for the kill. Lindow turned to Buzz Borries and said, “We’d better think about getting the boys off.”

0850 abandon ship

Almost as if in response, Viewig arrived at the same decision. He told everyone to pass the word. Abandon ship. It was 0850, only 40 minutes after the first hit and not quite two hours since Kurita had opened fire. To the skipper, it seemed “as a bad dream of a few minutes’ duration.” All over the listing, burning ship men made their way topside and overboard as best they could.

Many, like Viewig’s yeoman Harry Fudge, simply jumped from the deck. Fudge went in feet first and estimated he plunged to a depth of 60 feet. Disoriented, he thought he was inverted so he turned over to head for the “surface”. Actually, he was headed down, not up. It seemed he was under water for several minutes; his lungs were “on fire”. Then Fudge felt himself propelled in the right direction. Borries, the star athlete from Annapolis, had jumped at almost the same moment and noticed Fudge’s predicament. When they broke surface, Fudge gasped in great gulps of air and nearly passed out from the dramatic oxygen influx. Borries inflated the yeoman’s lifebelt for him and the two began swimming.

Fighter director Bill Buderus saved several men from probable drowning when he directed them away from the ship’s side towards a raft. He ordered them to grab hold and kick the raft a good distance away, beyond the inevitable suction caused by a sinking ship. A good swimmer, Buderus refused to climb into the raft himself and was content to cling to one side as his little group pushed farther away from the doomed carrier.

Short of fuel, Gambier Bay‘s surviving VC-10 Wildcats land ashore at the Tacloban emergency field.

Hank Pyzdrowski, who had been left aboard after his TBM was jettisoned, headed aft. He waited with LSO LTJG Bill McClendon, until things looked their gloomiest. Finally Mac said, “We’d better get off. The ship is going to turn.” Both men went down a rope hand over hand and swam away on a diagonal from the starboard quarter.

The ship was now listing rapidly to port. When Al Hartin made his way to the port forward 20 mm sponson, the catwalk was only about six feet off the water. In shock and pain from his multiple injuries, Hartin dragged the man he had brought up from the hangar deck with him into the sea. Only then did he notice the man was dead.

A few men had the time and presence of mind to gather up various supplies before leaving the ship. One was W.H. Sparrow, a photographer’s mate who threw together a packet of medical equipment. His foresight would prove valuable, particularly since Doc Stewart had been killed.

In five minutes most of the crew was in the water. A line of heads was strung out behind the ship, looking like a collection of coconuts floating in the wake. Gambier Bay‘s forward motion had not quite dissipated before abandon ship had been completed.

At 0855 Viewig ordered George Gellhorn off. The navigator went down the starboard side of the bridge via a lifeline and hit the water just as another salvo pierced the island structure. He identified a Mogami cruiser 2,000 yards away. She was still firing at the CVE, taking a parallel course, compounding the noise, fright and confusion.

Yet amidst the terror there were little vignettes of humour. Dick Ballinger was swimming away from the ship with one young sailor who saw some reason for optimism. “Commander, this means 30 days survivor’s leave, doesn’t it?”

ACMM Walt Flanders, the quiet, competent chief of Repair I, was among the last to abandon ship. He was standing on the flight deck with only three or four others, preparing to jump, when he saw Stewards Mate John Lovett standing at the deck edge. Lovett was looking down to the water where the catwalk had been blasted away. Although wearing a life jacket, he was reluctant to jump. He kept saying, “Ah cain’t swim, ah cain’t swim.”

Flanders knew Lovett had no chance if he remained on the ship and pushed him overboard. A strong swimmer, Flanders quickly followed and swam steadily away. He passed several swimmers, pulling ahead of most until he was nearly exhausted. Then he stopped to shake the salt water from his eyes and look back. He saw Lovett cruise past him at a steady clip, still loudly insisting, “Ah cain’t swim, ah cain’t swim.”

Last man off

As far as anyone knew, Walt Viewig was the last man to leave Gambier Bay alive. Three minutes after he sent George Gellhorn over the side, Viewig attempted to reach the interior of the ship via the island structure ladders but was driven back by the hot, black toxic smoke and diverted onto the flight deck. The skipper made his way aft and went down the starboard side, which was now well canted out of the water. He shortly joined Dick Ballinger, so both senior officers were in the same group of survivors.

In the next several minutes the men began taking stock. They were in the midst of a hostile battle fleet, swimming in shark-infested water, entirely without friendly support. Some life rafts and numerous floater nets had been dropped overboard and the injured or non-swimmers were pulled onto these platforms. One was Merrill Kuster, the talker who had helped pass the word to abandon ship. He had jumped overboard, came up near a raft and was hauled aboard.

However, not all the wounded or poor swimmers were near any rafts. Skinny Iverson helped keep two young sailors afloat until help arrived. A strong swimmer from his childhood in northern Idaho, he had grown up swimming in Lake Coeur d’Alene.

The torpedo-armed TBM which Iverson and other VC-l0 personnel had loaded was a main source of worry. Everyone who knew the Avenger was left on the hangar deck near the spreading fires swam as far from the ship as possible. Moments later the 2,000 lb torpedo exploded and the TBM with large parts of the forward elevator were blown high in the air. Then bombs and stowed torpedoes began exploding in their storage lockers. Little Gambier Bay was rocked visibly by the detonations as her insides turned into a flaming oven.

Minutes later, at 0907, she capsized to port.

With her keel exposed to the sky, the men nearest to her could clearly see the underwater damage she had sustained. Several shell holes were visible and the port screw was gone, evidently carried away by the heavy-calibre hit aft. Harry Fudge, the captain’s yeoman, recalled that the skipper estimated the ship had taken nine 14- or 16-inch hits from battleships and 28 six- or eight-inch shells from cruisers. Of these, probably a half-dozen were fatal, mainly those that flooded and wrecked the engine rooms.

Gambier Bay remained floating inverted for only four minutes before succumbing. Her hull was so evenly perforated that she dropped straight down without rolling to either side or dipping her bow or stern.

It was one hour and one minute after the first hit. From that day at Astoria, Oregon, when she was commissioned, to this Wednesday off Samar, her career had lasted three days less than ten months.

A brief cheer

When the last of the hull disappeared, a peculiar thing happened. Amid the sound of firing from Japanese ships, a ragged, irregular cheer went up from several of the groups of survivors. Most of the men were plankowners. Gambier Bay had been their first and only home in the Navy. Those who shouted a brief cheer for their little carrier were expressing in the only way possible that they were still proud of her. More than a few had tears in their eyes, and not from the salt water.

The Japanese fired at Gambier Bay almost till the moment she sank, but in the general pursuit of other Taffy Three ships, their attention was turned to the south. For the next few minutes the Gambier Bay sailors were treated to a spectacle they never expected: a closeup view of the enemy.

Battleships and cruisers passed within a mile on either side of Gambier Bay‘s grave. At least one cruiser and a couple of destroyers went through the swimmers at slow speed. It was one of those eerie, unexpected moments which sometimes occur even in modern war.

Enemy compassion

Several survivors were close enough to the enemy ships to hear sailors talking on deck. One was Lou Rice, a 21-year-old radar operator. Clinging to a wooden wheel chock, Rice watched a cruiser pass by so close that he was lifted in the swell of its bow wave. He distinctly heard several Japanese conversing. Then his insides went cold as he saw one sailor uncover a machine gun and point it at the Americans in the water. It wasn’t unexpected; tales of enemy atrocities were common.

Then, incredibly, Rice saw an officer shove the bloodthirsty sailor away from the gun. None of Rice’s group was fired upon.

Other men had similar experiences and some reported something even more unexpected. Several survivors looked up in astonishment as Japanese officers and men on one ship saluted while cruising past. Hank Pyzdrowski, floating in his mae west, looked up at a destroyer and saw numerous enemy sailors lining the rail. Many of them also saluted their opponents. In retrospect, Pyzdrowski thought that such uncharacteristic chivalry was born of mutual hardship. “They knew we’d had it,” he said, “and so had they.”

Kurita withdraws

For, incredible as it seemed, the Japanese at that moment were withdrawing. Admiral Kurita was convinced by the exceptional aggressiveness of the Taffy Three destroyers and aircraft from Taffy Two and Three that he was up against a fast carrier task force. He had seen three of his cruisers crippled or brought dead in the water, including Suzuya, which was sinking. Poor communications deprived him of knowledge about the success of Chikuma, Tone and Haguro, which had closed Gambier Bay to point-blank range. Still behind the fight in Yamato, Kurita elected to quit just when he had the battle won.

VADM Takeo Kurita ordered withdrawal at 0911.

At 0911, exactly the same time Gambier Bay went down, VADM Takeo Kurita ordered his fleet to withdraw.

Though Gambier Bay was gone, she had played a role in one of the most astonishing victories in naval history. Even with her air group dispersed and her crew adrift nearly 40 miles from shore, she remained part of the winning Taffy Three team.

Rescue delayed

Few of her aviators or sailors felt like winners at that moment, however. More than 700 men survived the battle off Samar, formed into seven or eight large groups. Most expected early rescue, but as morning turned to afternoon the wait lengthened.

Not until 1530 did Seventh Fleet order a search. Reasons for the delay still are unknown, but apparently a complex communications system and pressing combat considerations were involved. Destroyer escorts, acting upon erroneous information from VADM Kincaid’s command, spent more than 24 hours searching the wrong areas. The major effort departed San Pedro Bay at 1835 the 25th: five LCIs and two PCs under LCDR R.E. Sargent of LCI (Rocket) Group 20.

During the morning of the 26th Gambier Bay survivors saw an FM/TBM search team about five miles off. Signal flares and dye marker failed to attract the planes, either outbound or on their return leg 45 minutes later. It was a bitter disappointment, especially as wounds, exposure and sharks were taking their toll.

At 2230 PC-623 was nearing the search area when flares were seen 18 to 20 miles west. In 90 minutes the rescue group was among the survivors, who had drifted 30 miles in 39 hours. Rescue operations continued until 1000 the 27th, when the last survivors of Taffy Three were picked up. In all, the seven rescue vessels retrieved 1,150 men, the majority 10 miles from Tugnug Point on Samar.


This article was researched during the 1977 Philippine tour conducted by the Gambier Bay Survivors Association. Many veterans of the ship’s company and VC-10 contributed their recollections, ostensibly for a book, but space considerations limited coverage to the Battle off Samar.

The following individuals provided information for this portion of the CVE-73/VC-10 story: RADM Richard Ballinger, USN (Ret); Charles J. Dugan; ACM Walter B. Flanders, USN (Ret); LCDR Leon Fletcher, USNR(R); Harry Fudge; Jerome P. Gutzweiler; Albert E. Hartin; A.C. Johnson; Anthony Potochniak; Henry A. Pyzdrowski; Lou Rice and Richard W. Roby.

Since the 1977 reunion trip, at least three contributors have passed away (by June 1986): Andy Lindow, Rannie Odum and CAPT Edward J. Huxtable. If anyone epitomised the dedication and teamwork inherent to Gambier Bay, it was Hux. Our sincerest thanks to all.

At length it was possible to count noses, and 122 Gambier Bay men were missing or known dead. The survivors were transferred to hospital ships and transports at San Pedro for the trip home, enjoying merely being alive.

VC-10 would re-form, still under the popular Ed Huxtable, for a short second tour in Fanshaw Bay (CVE-70). The squadron had the pleasure of being present at war’s end. But for the majority of Gambier Bay‘s crew, the war ended that night 40-plus years ago. What has remained is the enduring friendship of men who have been family to one another for four decades. That camaraderie is perhaps their greatest victory of all.

Glorious vs Scharnhorst: 1940 (Book review)



The Loss of HMS Glorious

Book review by John van Gelder

Winton, J. (1999) Carrier Glorious: The life and death of an aircraft carrier. Cassell Military Paperbacks: London. $16.95.

John Winton is a well-known author of many fiction and non-fiction books concerning the Royal Navy and naval subjects generally. In this book he has brought to life a fascinating story of a ship and many, perhaps unusual, people who served in her during a period of massive evolution in the Royal Navy. Regrettably, the end of the story is tragic in the extreme and controversial beyond belief.

Winton’s thoroughly researched book traces the history of Glorious from concept, building, service in World War I as a “big gun cruiser” to her conversion to an aircraft carrier and re-commissioning in 1930. Operation of the ship throughout the 1930s, primarily in the Mediterranean, provides great insight into the frustrations experienced by aviators, both RN and RAF, due to their perceived divided loyalties. The author does point out that the heavy RN/RAF battles were fought in the vicinity of Whitehall rather than at squadron level, where integration appeared to be on a happy note. In fact, during the 1930s Glorious had the reputation of being an efficient, well-run and happy ship.

The final two thirds of the book is concerned with the ship’s operations after the appointment of a new captain on 16 June 1939, until she was sunk twelve months later.

There is no doubt that the arrival of CAPT Guy D’Oyly-Hughes DSO DSC had a profound adverse effect, not so much on the ship’s company, but on the senior command structure of the vessel. The author treats this central character in a fairly even-handed manner in setting out the views of his supporters and detractors. On balance it would appear that the captain suffered from some very severe psychological problems. It is interesting to note that the remarks of the military historian Correlli Barnett, in his book Engage the enemy more closely, is far more forthright and scathing regarding D’Oyly-Hughes’s character. The reader, as in so many literary works, is left to ponder to what degree the captain’s mental state may have had on the subsequent tragic events.

Flawed aviation strategy?

For any person, with or without sea experience in the navy, this is a most absorbing story. The narrative raises many questions that beg answers as to why certain decisions were made in the operational area of Norway 62 years ago. Unfortunately, these questions can only now be answered in one’s imagination.

The evacuation of the two RAF squadrons, 263 Squadron Gladiators and 46 Squadron Hurricanes, from their bases in Norway and their landing on Glorious without arrestor hooks and without incident was a remarkable achievement and well described by Winton.

Leaving aside the issue of conflicts of personalities within Glorious, and there were many, there are two questions of utmost importance. Why was Glorious given permission from higher authority to proceed independently from the operational area back to Scapa Flow escorted by HMS Ardent and Acasta? Glorious had requested this course of action but for what reason? She was certainly not short of fuel.

HMS Glorious
HMS Glorious, showing her 1930s-style “flying off deck” at hangar deck level.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, since the carrier was proceeding independently without any support from heavy surface vessels in good weather and excellent visibility, why was she not flying reconnaissance patrols? Apparently, one Swordfish and a flight of three Sea Gladiators were at ten minutes notice, but they were not even ranged on the flight deck.

The author provides a detailed account of the destruction of Glorious and her escorts by Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. There is a clear impression that the first inkling Glorious had of the presence of the German ships was when the first salvoes of 15-inch projectiles crashed around her from a range of 28,600 yards.

Gallant destroyers

The subsequent actions of Ardent and Acasta during the engagement were gallant beyond belief. There was only one survivor from both ships, making it difficult to imagine why posthumous awards for bravery were not made after the event.

In the sinking of Glorious, Ardent and Acasta the casualty list amounted to 1,519 killed, with only 34 survivors.

This is a well-written book. It is historically informative and contains lessons for both naval personnel and politicians, even in this missile age.

(Ed.note: Some of the blame for the reckless mishandling and almost criminal waste of RN aircraft carriers in the early stages of the war has been sheeted home to political interference, probably by Winston Churchill, and an ineffective, probably demented, First Sea Lord.)

Despite leading the world in some aspects, such as damage control and aircraft refuelling systems, the RN was woefully behind with modern aircraft and carrier employment strategies, Taranto notwithstanding. Before and even after the loss of Glorious it had long been argued by the RAF and supported by senior RN officers that modern aircraft were just too fast for the carriers.
The hookless RAF Hurricanes demonstrated convincingly that they could safely take off and land aboard Glorious. This was at a time when the Japanese were building their Zeroes and the USN was experimenting with a number of advanced fighter types.

Winton alludes to a “powerful force” supporting D’Oyly-Hughes and names Churchill as the probable ally. This “connection” might help to explain D’Oyly-Hughes’s arrogance based on ignorance and an evident reluctance of senior flag officers to curb his recklessness.

Churchill himself glosses over the tragedy, yet as he demolishes the “fuel shortage” straw man argument he offers no plausible alternative explanation.

“The Glorious had been detached early that morning to proceed home independently owing to a shortage of fuel, and by now was nearly 200 miles ahead of the main convoy. This explanation is not convincing. The Glorious presumably had enough fuel to steam at the speed of the convoy. All should have kept together.” (Churchill p. 516)

No British authority satisfactorily explains the apparent failure to act on Glorious‘s enemy report. One nearby cruiser, HMS Devonshire, heard her WT calls, but could take no action, such as relaying the message, for very good reasons. Hundreds of survivors needlessly succumbed to exposure after successfully abandoning ship because the Admiralty initiated no timely search and rescue operation.


Barnett, C.  Engage the enemy more closely: The Royal Navy in WW II. Norton: New York, 1991.
Churchill W.S. The second world war, Vol 1. Cassel and Co: London, 1948.

Battle of Midway: 1942

The Battle of Midway

The Battle of Midway, fought 4-7 June 1942, is regarded by many to be as significant for the USA and Australia as any of Nelson’s victories were for England. This article, downloaded from the USN’s Naval Historical Center’s web site, describes the fight:

The Battle of Midway, fought near the Central Pacific island of Midway, is considered the decisive battle of the war in the Pacific. Before this battle the Japanese were on the offensive, capturing territory throughout Asia and the Pacific. By their attack, the Japanese had planned to capture Midway to use as an advance base, as well as to entrap and destroy the U.S. Pacific Fleet.


The Commanders: ADML Chester Nimitz inspects a Midway Island bunker after the battle (left) and ADML Isoruku Yamamoto considers his strategy.

Because of communication intelligence successes, the U.S. Pacific Fleet surprised the Japanese forces, sinking four of the six Japanese carriers that had attacked Pearl Harbor only six months before, while only losing one carrier. After Midway, the Americans and their Allies took the offensive in the Pacific.

Following the outbreak of the Pacific War in December 1941, the Japanese armed forces conducted military operations against U.S., British Commonwealth, and Dutch possessions in the Pacific and Southeast Asia. The first phase of these operations, which was the seizure of Malaysia, Singapore, the Dutch East Indies, the Philippines, and various island groups in the central and western Pacific, was virtually complete by March 1942. The second phase, initiated by Japanese Imperial Headquarters on 23 January, was designed to isolate and neutralise Australia and India.

In the Pacific, this plan envisioned the seizure of bases in Papua-New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, which would be used to support future operations against New Caledonia, Fiji, and Samoa. By early March, with the seizure of Lae and Salamaua, the entire north coast of Papua-New Guinea had fallen to Japanese forces who were planning an amphibious invasion of Port Moresby.

COMMINT: Pearl Harbour and Melbourne

By this time, two secure American naval intelligence centres were in operation in the Pacific: one in Melbourne, Australia, and another at Pearl Harbour (Hypo). A third, at Corregidor (Cast), was rapidly disintegrating under Japanese air and artillery attacks on the island. Its cryptanalysts and equipment were in the process of evacuation to Melbourne.

These facilities intercepted Japanese radio communications and, through traffic analysis and code breaking, uncovered the location of major fleet units and shore based air forces. More importantly, by translating messages and studying operational patterns, Melbourne and Hypo predicted future Japanese operations. The intelligence centres provided their analysis, through daily communications intelligence (COMINT) briefings and warning reports, to senior American commanders, including Commander in Chief, U.S. Fleet (ADML Ernest J. King), and Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Fleet (ADML Chester W. Nimitz).

In early March, the Japanese postponed their planned seizure of Port Moresby because of previous events. An American carrier raid on Japanese shipping at Lae and Salamaua on the 10th, along with a previously unsuccessful attempt to attack Rabaul on 20 February, had demonstrated to Commander-in-Chief, Fourth Fleet (ADML Shigeyoshi Inouye), that the Japanese were not assured of air superiority in the region. It was not until early May, when ADML Inouye had three carriers for operations, that the invasion could begin.

On 7-8 May, the first all-carrier battle in history took place in the Coral Sea. Each side had a carrier damaged, while the American lost the carrier USS Lexington and the Japanese lost the light carrier Shoho. More important, the Japanese broke off their invasion attempt. It was the first time the Japanese had been stopped in the Pacific.

Order of battle

Significantly, American cryptanalysts had provided crucial order of battle and operational communications intelligence to the Allied commanders in the South Pacific. In addition to this advance toward Port Moresby, evidence that Japan was intent on expanding east of the Marshall Islands appeared in COMINT in early 1942.

Land-based air units and equipment began appearing in message traffic to and from the Marshall Islands and the Mandates. On 4 March, the designator “AF” began appearing in partially decoded messages. Then, on 5 March, Japanese seaplanes, refuelled from a submarine at French Frigate Shoals, Territory of Hawaii, conducted a small armed reconnaissance mission over Oahu.

Finally, on 13 March, American cryptanalysts both broke the Japanese Navy’s General-Purpose Code (JN 25) and identified “AF” as Midway Island.





CAPT (then CMDR) Joseph J. Rochefort devised the decisive disinformation intelligence strategy.







On 16 April, after several months of discussion, Commander-in-Chief, Combined Fleet (ADML Isoruku Yamamoto), convinced the Imperial General Staff to agree to his Midway and Aleutians strategy for the summer. In ADML Yamamoto’s view, the capture of Midway Island would allow Japan to pursue its Asian policies behind an impregnable eastern shield of defences in the Central Pacific.

The centrepiece of this plan was a feint toward Alaska, followed by an invasion of Midway. When the U.S. Pacific Fleet responded to the landings on Midway, Japanese carrier and battleship task forces, waiting unseen to the west of the Midway Strike Force, would fall upon and destroy the unsuspecting Americans. If successful, the plan would effectively eliminate the U.S. Pacific Fleet for at least a year and provide a forward outpost from which ample warning of any future threat by the U.S. would come.

Midway Battle
The Japanese thrust and the American response.

Two days later, LCOL James Doolittle and a small number of American airmen from the U.S. Army Air Corps took off from USS Hornet in land-based bombers to attack the Japanese home islands. As a result of this attack, which caused the Japanese to want to extend their first line of defence as far east as possible, the Japanese advanced the date of their planned attack on Midway.

On 5 May, Imperial General Headquarters issued Navy Order No. 18, directing Admiral Yamamoto to carry out the occupation of Midway Island and key points in the western Aleutians in cooperation with the Army.

At the same time, Japanese Navy communication activity in the vicinity of Japan dramatically increased, reflecting naval exercises conducted in preparation for both the Midway and Aleutian operations. On 7 May, Hypo provided a translation of the agenda for a Japanese aviation conference, called by Commander-in-Chief, First Air Fleet (VADM Nagumo), scheduled for 16 May. The conference concerned tactics to be employed in obtaining air superiority over a target, assisting in amphibious landings, and bombing and strafing attacks to wipe out local resistance.

Melbourne intercept and fake fresh water deception

On 9 May, Melbourne intercepted and translated 1st Air Fleet Striking Force Order No. 6, which confirmed the creation of a new carrier strike force and that a major fleet movement would begin on 21 May. In response to this COMINT, American cryptanalysts supplied warning notices of Japanese offensives scheduled for late May.

On 19 May, the Officer in Charge of COMINT processing at Hypo (CMDR Joseph J. Rochefort) and the intelligence officer for the Pacific Fleet (LCDR Edwin T. Layton), identified Midway and Dutch Harbour, Aleutian Islands, as specific Japanese objectives.

On the 22nd, following a fake fresh water distillation failure report, Melbourne completely confirmed that “AF” meant Midway. Hypo then discovered the date cipher used in Japanese message traffic. This meant analysts could determine exactly when the attack would take place.

After examining previously intercepted messages, Hypo predicted an attack on Midway on 4 June. ADML Nimitz used this estimate to plan American countermeasures.

On 26 May, since COMINT suggested the Japanese intended to approach from that direction, the submarine USS Gudgeon (SS-211) sailed for a surface patrol northwest of Midway. Also on the 26th, aircraft ferry USS Kitty Hawk (AKV-1) arrived at Midway with reinforcements for Marine Air Group (MAG) 22, a light tank platoon earmarked for a mobile reserve, and the Third Defense Battalion, equipped with 76mm (3-inch) anti-aircraft guns.

On that same day, Task Force 16 (TF 16) under the command of RADM William F. Halsey, and centred around USS Hornet (CV- 8) and USS Enterprise (CV-6), returned to Pearl Harbour from the South Pacific to begin preparations for the upcoming battle. Although suffering from damage inflicted by Japanese bombs during the 7-8 May Battle of the Coral Sea, USS Yorktown (CV-5) returned the next day.

Fast Carrier Strike Force

Also on the 26th, the Japanese Northern Force, which included two light carriers, sailed from Ominato toward the Aleutians. The next day, Japanese forces began getting under way for Midway. Chief among them was First Mobile Force, Carrier Strike Force (VADM Nagumo Chuichi), comprising the four large carriers Akagi, Kaga, Soryu, and Hiryu with a total of 229 carrier aircraft.


HIJMS Soryu: 19,500 tons, length 227 metres (746 feet), eight boilers, four shafts, 34 knots,1250 crew, 18 Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighters, 18 Aichi D3 Val dive bombers, 18 Nakajima BN5 Kate torpedo bombers and two dedicated scouts.

On the 28th, the Japanese First Fleet, Main Body (ADML Yamamoto in battleship Yamato), sortied from home waters. The Second Fleet, Escort Force (RADM Tanaka Raizo), including 15 transports, sailed from Saipan; Second Fleet, Occupation Support Force (RADM Kurita Takeo) sortied from Guam. These forces were supported by 17 patrol seaplanes.

TF 16 (RADM Raymond A. Spruance), formed around Enterprise and Hornet, departed Pearl Harbour on 28 May to take up a position northeast of Midway. Spruance replaced Halsey for this operation because Halsey was suffering from a painful shingles attack.

USS Enterprise

USS Enterprise CV-6, at 0730 4 June 1942. 25,500 tons, 274 x 33.3 x 7.92 metres (809 x 109.5 x 26 feet) nine boilers, four Parsons geared turbines, 120,000 SHP, four shafts, 32.5 knots, 2217 crew, 90 aircraft.

Two days later, Task Force Seventeen (TF 17) under the command of RADM Frank Jack Fletcher, formed around the quickly repaired Yorktown, and sailed from Pearl to join TF 16 northeast of Midway. When TF 17 and TF 16 joined about 350 miles northeast of Midway on 2 June, RADM Fletcher became officer in tactical command. The three American carriers, augmented by cruiser-launched float-planes, provided 234 aircraft afloat. These were supported by 110 fighters, bombers, and patrol planes at Midway.

As part of the pre-battle disposition, 25 fleet submarines, under the command of RADM Robert H. English, were deployed in scouting and ambushing positions around Midway.

French Frigate Shoals

Meanwhile, on 29 May, the seaplane tender (destroyer) USS Thornton (AVD-11) arrived at French Frigate Shoals to relieve light the minelayer USS Preble (DM-20) on patrol station there. The presence of U.S. ships at French Frigate Shoals prevented the Japanese from refuelling flying boats to reconnoitre Pearl Harbour.

Although the Japanese could not visually confirm the departure of Task Forces 16 and 17 from Pearl Harbour, American preparations to defend Midway were on the verge of discovery anyway. Japanese COMINT stations not only learned of carrier movements in and out of Pearl Harbour, simply by listening to increased air-ground radio chatter, but traffic analysis of “Urgent” American radio messages coming out of Pearl Harbour suggested at least one Task Force was at sea.

Incredibly, these discoveries by Japanese COMINT were withheld from the Midway Strike Force because of Yamamoto’s strict radio silence restrictions.

Hiryu B17s
Hiruyu successfully evades B-17 bombs, 3 June 1942.

On 3 June, in the preliminary moves of the Battle of Midway, American land-based aircraft from Midway located and attacked Japanese transports about 600 miles west of Midway Island. U.S. Army Air Force Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress bombers inflicted no damage, however, and four Consolidated PBY Catalinas from VP-24 were sent out for a night attack on the approaching transports.

As part of the overall Japanese plan, the Second Strike Force (RADM Kakuta Kikuji) bombed Dutch Harbour with planes from light carriers Ryujo and Junyo. In an event whose importance became clear only later, one Mitsubishi A6M Zero carrier fighter was disabled by anti-aircraft fire and made an emergency landing on Akutan Island. The pilot, fooled by the flat ground, flipped the plane over upon landing in a bog and was killed. American aeronautical engineers later studied the plane to discover its strengths and weaknesses.

Just after midnight on 4 June, ADML Nimitz, based on patrol plane reports, advised Task Forces 16 and 17 of the course and speed of the Japanese “main body”, also noting their distance of 574 miles from Midway. Shortly after dawn, a patrol plane spotted two Japanese carriers and their escorts, reporting “Many planes heading Midway from 320 degrees distant 150 miles.”

First shot: PBYs

The first attack on 4 June, however, took place when the four night-flying PBYs attacked the Japanese transports northwest of Midway with one PBY torpedoing fleet tanker Akebono Maru. Later that morning, at roughly 0630, Aichi D3A Val carrier bombers and Nakajima B5N Kate torpedo planes, supported by numerous fighters, bombed Midway Island installations.

Although defending U.S. Marine Corps Brewster F2A Buffalo and Grumman F4F Wildcat fighters suffered disastrous losses, losing 17 of 26 aloft, the Japanese only inflicted slight damage to the facilities on Midway. Motor Torpedo Boat PT-25 was also damaged by strafing in Midway lagoon.

SB2U-3 Vindicator scout bombers (left) and Brewster Buffalo F2A fighters were easy meat for the Japanese Mitsubishi Zero.

Over the next two hours, Japanese Zeros on Combat Air Patrol (CAP) and anti-aircraft fire from the Japanese fleet annihilated repeated attacks by American Marine Corps aircraft, including Douglas SBD Dauntless and Vought SB2U Vindicator scout bombers from VMSB-241, Navy Grumman TBF Avenger torpedo bombers from VT-8 detachment, and U. S. Army Air Force torpedo-carrying Martin B-26 Marauder bombers sent out to attack the Japanese carriers.

Army Air Force Flying Fortresses likewise bombed the Japanese carrier force without success, although without losses to themselves.

A6M Zero
The Japanese Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero (Zeke) was superb fighter with a very low (60 knots) stalling speed. It had a 14 cylinder 940 hp Nakajima NKIC Sakae 12 engine, two 20 mm cannon and two 7.7 mm machine guns. It carried two 30 kg bombs and a 60 kg bomb or drop tank. Even at 2,410 kg (5,313 lbs) fully loaded it had an extraordinary 1975 nm (3105 km) range with drop tanks.

Between 0930 and 1030, Douglas TBD Devastator torpedo bombers from VT-3, VT-6, and VT-8 on the three American carriers attacked the Japanese carriers. Although nearly wiped out by the defending Japanese fighters and anti-aircraft fire, they drew off enemy fighters, leaving the skies open for dive bombers from Enterprise and Yorktown. VB-6 and VS-6 Dauntlesses from Enterprise bombed and fatally damaged carriers Kaga and Akagi, while VB-3 Dauntlesses from Yorktown bombed and wrecked carrier Soryu. American submarine Nautilus (SS-168) then fired torpedoes at the burning Kaga but her torpedoes did not explode.

Akagi had a rare port side island. Built on a converted battlecruiser hull: 42,000 tons, 261 x 31 x 8.7 metres (855 x 102 x 28.5 feet) 11 boilers, four steam turbines, four shafts, 133,000 shp, 31 knots, 2000 crew, 18 Zero fighters, 18 Val dive bombers, 18 Kate torpedo bombers.

At 1100, the one Japanese carrier that escaped destruction that morning, Hiryu, launched Val dive bombers that temporarily disabled Yorktown around noon. Three and a half hours later, Hiryu‘s Kate torpedo planes struck a second blow, forcing Yorktown‘s abandonment.

In return, Dauntlesses from Enterprise mortally damaged Hiryu in a strike around 1700 that afternoon. The destruction of the Carrier Strike Force compelled ADML Yamamoto to abandon his Midway invasion plans, and the Japanese Fleet began to retire westward.

VT-6 Squadron Douglas TBD Devastator torpedo bombers range for a launch from
Enterprise in the Battle of Midway.

During the battle, Japanese destroyers had picked up three U.S. naval aviators from the water. After interrogation, however, all three Americans were murdered. One TBD pilot, LEUT George Gay, escaped detection by the Japanese ships and was later rescued by a PBY.

On 5 June, TF 16 under command of RADM Spruance pursued the Japanese fleet westward, while work continued to salvage the damaged Yorktown. Both Akagi and Hiryu, damaged the previous day, were scuttled by Japanese destroyers early on the 5th.

Last air attacks

The last air attacks of the battle took place on 6 June when dive bombers from Enterprise and Hornet bombed and sank the heavy cruiser Mikuma, and damaged destroyers Asashio and Arashio, as well as the cruiser Mogami. At ADML Spruance’s expressed orders, issued because of the destruction of three torpedo squadrons on 4 June, Devastators from VT-6 that accompanied the strike did not attack because of the threat to them from surface anti-aircraft fire.

After recovering these planes, TF 16 turned eastward and broke off contact with the enemy. COMINT intercepts over the following two days documented the withdrawal of Japanese forces toward Saipan and the Home Islands.

Meanwhile, on the 6th, Japanese submarine I-168 interrupted the U.S. salvage operations, torpedoing Yorktown and torpedoing and sinking the destroyer USS Hammann (DD-412). Screening destroyers depth-charged I-168 but the Japanese submarine escaped destruction. Yorktown, suffering from numerous torpedo hits, finally rolled over and sank at dawn on 7 June.

USS Yorktown (above) listing and abandoned after taking three bomb hits, two aerial torpedoes and damage from four torpedoes fired by I-168 (below). The submarine’s torpedoes actually sank the destroyer USS Hamman, which was alongside Yorktown providing power for salvage parties. Hamman‘s depth charges exploded as she sank, contributing to Yorktown‘s ultimate fate.


On 9 June, the submarine Trout (SS-202) rescued two survivors from the sunken Japanese heavy cruiser Mikuma. Ten days later, on the 19th, the seaplane tender (destroyer) USS Ballard (AVD-10) was directed by a PBY to the site where Hiryu crewmen were in the water. The tender rescued 35 Japanese survivors who, as members of the engineering department deep in the ship, had been left for dead in the abandonment of the carrier. On 21 June, a PBY from VP-24 rescued two men from an Enterprise TBD about 360 miles north of Midway. These were the last survivors of the Battle of Midway to be recovered.

Thanks to American signals intelligence, judicious aircraft carrier tactics, and more than a little luck, the U.S. Navy had inflicted a smashing defeat on the Japanese Navy. Although the performance of the three American carrier air groups would later be considered uneven, their pilots and crew had won the day through courage, determination, and heroic sacrifice.

The Japanese lost four large carriers that had attacked Pearl Harbour, while the Americans only lost one carrier. More importantly, the Japanese lost over one hundred trained pilots, who could not be replaced.

Recognizing this defeat for what it was, ADML Nagumo’s Chief of Staff later wrote: “Felt bitter…I felt like swearing”. In a larger strategic sense, the Japanese offensive in the Pacific was derailed and their plans to advance on New Caledonia, Fiji, and Samoa postponed. The balance of sea power in the Pacific shifted from Japan to an equity between America and Japan. Soon after the Battle of Midway the U.S. and their allies would take the offensive in the Pacific.


Cressman, Robert J. No End Save Victory: A Chronological History of the U.S. Navy in World War II, 1939-1945. Washington DC: Naval Historical Center, 1998. [unpublished manuscript]

Parker, Frederick D. A Priceless Advantage: U.S. Navy Communications Intelligence and the Battles of Coral Sea, Midway, and the Aleutians. Fort Meade MD: Center for Cryptologic History, National Security Agency, 1993.