No Battle Plan Survives Contact with the Enemy
This adage by Helmuth von Moltke (the Elder) sums up much of the Guadalcanal Campaign of 1942-1943, but perhaps nowhere near as completely as when describing the First Naval Battle of Guadalcanal. This running nighttime brawl, fought in the early morning hours of November 13, 1942, has been described in exquisite detail both online and in print, so I won’t be using this post to re-tread old ground. Instead, I want to focus on specific historical evidence which justifies and flavors a 1:700 vignette featuring USS O’Bannon and USS Atlanta as they steam into that confused and – for one of these ships – final action.
Having decided to use the kits discussed in this earlier post, I needed to place them in an interesting and correct historical context. Directing his ships (classified as Task Group 67.4) into the waters between Guadalcanal and Florida Island, Admiral Dan Callaghan had arranged them into a line formation, leading and tailing his cruisers with destroyers. The rearmost lead destroyer was the Fletcher-class O’Bannon; according to the official Battle Narrative published by the Office of Naval Intelligence, Atlanta followed her at a range of 700-800 yards. Even at 1:700, this distance is much too large for display purposes, so portraying the ships as steaming in column was out.
Fortunately (for me, not for the men who actually manned these ships), Callaghan would almost immediately lose control of his fleet as it sailed directly into the path of multiple Japanese surface forces. The passage of seventy-four years has only slightly lifted the veil of confusion over the next few moments as one ship after another independently steered, course-corrected, and swerved to avoid the ship ahead of it.
From all accounts, it was a disaster. The ONI narrative linked to earlier is a good place to start. The critical opening phase of the engagement is described as follows:
The TBS, in the words of Admiral Spruance, “became chaotic with queries and incomplete information.” At 0142 the Cushing informed the OTC that she was turning left to get in position to fire torpedoes at the ships crossing and asked leave to do so. This permission was granted by Admiral Callaghan, and course was changed to 310 T. The Cushing turned to port but did not fire because she recognized the targets as destroyers which were sheering away. Also, the OTC had ordered all ships back to course 000 T Again.
With this latest shift our column became disorganized. The Atlanta was forced to turn left to miss the O’Bannon which was making many rudder changes to avoid ramming the Sterritt. The OTC ordered the Atlanta to return to course. Several other times he requested the column to maintain 000 T, but the order did not get through to all vessels. Some steered 315 T. The cruisers turned as far left as 270 T. The San Francisco maintained this course and went between the left and center enemy groups, 2,000 and 3,000 yards away respectively, leaving the Atlanta on her starboard hand. Meanwhile, the van mingled with the Japanese ships, and a melee existed even before firing began.
Describing this same scene in his work Neptune’s Inferno, James Hornfischer adds vivid detail and clarifies some points in the way that only hindsight can allow:
[Cushing] was instructed to maintain a course heading north, but abruptly had to veer to port to avoid hitting the Japanese ships in front of him. So did the Laffey, following five hundred yards astern, and the Sterrett, and then the O’Bannon, rushing fast into this mess, turning even more sharply to avoid a telescopic bucking of the entire front of the line. … The fire-control officers in the Atlanta were the first of the cruisers to glimpse the chaos at the intersection of the vans. … Close ahead, and startlingly so, the four van destroyers were broadside to the ship’s course, making emergency turns to avoid running into their enemy. Captain Samuel Jenkins swung the helm, sharply left. When Callaghan saw the ship heeled over and veering away to the west, he radioed, “what are you doing, Sam?”
“Avoiding our own destroyers,” was the reply.
At 1:46 a.m., Callaghan said “Come back to your course as soon as you can. You are throwing the whole column into disorder.” But the disorder was not Jenkins’ doing. The disorganization of Task Force 67 was irreversible now.” (269)
Once battle is joined between the two fleets, it becomes almost impossible to track each ship’s exact movements in respect to the others. But it is clear that at around 0145 Atlanta and O’Bannon came close to colliding as the American battle line began to telescopically collapse. Here is what was needed for setting the scene of the vignette.
Both O’Bannon and Atlanta were armed with the ubiquitous 5″/38 caliber rifle as well as Mk. 15 torpedoes. Each ship was also equipped with at least one Mk. 37 fire control director, making it easy for fire to be accurately concentrated by the director crew. In The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors, a separate work from his Guadalcanal study, Hornfischer aptly described the advantages of director-controlled fire:
Among the greatest innovations of the 1940s-era Navy were the radar fire-control systems with which all new surface combatants were equipped. Unlike the weapons on the smaller destroyer escorts, the guns of a Fletcher-class destroyer were controlled centrally by its gunnery officer. … When [the gunnery officer] ordered the crews in the guns to “match pointers,” the guns came into alignment with the director, and the gun captains relinquished control of their mounts … In heavy seas, the sight of a destroyer’s five director-controlled guns swaying in unison to stay on target as the ship pitched, yawed, and rolled could be unsettling.
I like the idea of these small and mid-sized vessels aligning their guns in unison, so I decided to model them with their weapons synced to their directors. This is straightforward, but demands patience if you’re going to line each barrel up to fire at the same target.
OK, so we have the scene, we have the nuances…now we just have to set the places.
Staging the Scene
Initially I planned to mount this vignette on a 11″ x 14″ wood plaque base, but even though this is the maximum size that the larger of my two display cabinets can support, it’s a tight fit that leaves no room at all for anything else to go on the cabinet shelf. So, I decided to downsize slightly to a 12″ x 12″ wood painting panel. That will make the scene pretty tight, but since we’re illustrating a near-collision that shouldn’t be too much of a problem. Of course, I set the gun and director angles before shifting over to this smaller size, requiring a bit of historical extrapolation to make the scene work.
Here’s where we’re at and where we’re going:
O’Bannon, her guns pointed at the southern-most group detected by her SG radar, has turned hard to starboard to avoid Sterritt ahead of her. Seeing this and closing fast Atlanta is doing the same, ultimately coming along the port side of O’Bannon before the former tries to reform the column as ordered by Admiral Callaghan. While there is no direct historical evidence that this is how the near-collision played out, the fact that both ships turned hard left and that Atlanta kept going west at approximately 270 T make this as likely as not. While Atlanta had been targeting the larger center group, her turn requires her to slew her guns southward towards the same cluster that O’Bannon is targeting: we knew that one of the first victims of Atlanta‘s shellfire was the cruiser Akatsuki, and her position in this southern group bears out this positioning.
“It was Like a Barroom Brawl After the Lights Had Been Shot Out”
This quote by an American captain sums up the feeling of November 13, 1942. Ultimately, this 40-minute close-range action by US ships, the later additional punch by carrier-launched airpower, and the final hammerblow assault by battleships South Dakota and Washington would deny the Japanese the ability to resupply their forces on Guadalcanal. In the November 13 battle, the Imperial Japanese Navy lost one battleship (Hiei) and two destroyers (Akatsuki and Yudachi). The United States Navy gave as well as it took, losing four destroyers (Barton, Cushing, Laffey, and Monssen) and two light cruisers – Juneau and, notably for this post, Atlanta; the anti-aircraft cruiser absorbed a Japanese torpedo and a volley of friendly fire from San Francisco. Battered and broken, she sank later the next night in the waters off Lunga Point.
According to historian Richard Frank, during this fight 1,439 Americans were killed, as well as between 500 and 800 Japanese. Despite this bloody engagement (one of many fought in the waters off Guadalcanal), it seems that the land battles fought for control of the island have received the lion’s share of attention and historical remembrance. It isn’t much, but hopefully things like this blog post serve as a small nod toward those seamen and ships lost three quarters of a century ago.
Next up in this blog series will be a look at the execution of this vignette – at how everything came together to present the scene described here and hopefully do a bit of justice to the madness of that night in the waters of Iron Bottom Sound. I hope to see you then. And until then, as always, happy modeling!
Hornfischer, James. Neptune’s Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal. New York: Bantam Books, 2011.
Hornfischer, James. The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors: The Extraordinary World War II Story of the U.S. Navy’s Finest Hour. New York: Bantam Books, 2004.
Office of Naval Intelligence. The Battle of Guadalcanal: 11-15 November, 1942. US Navy, 1943. Accessed January 24, 2015. http://www.ibiblio.org/hyperwar/USN/USN-CN-Guadalcanal/USN-CN-Guadalcanal-1.html