Indecisive clashes around Guadalcanal had grated on both sides. During November, both the Japanese and the Americans decided to mount a surprise attack with strong forces in an effort to reach decision. These forces were even put into motion at about the same time, on 11th November 1942., and included warships, transport ships, submarines and aircraft. Long columns of ships criss-crossed the open sea, while scout aircraft desperately searched for the enemy.
It was the moonless night as the midnight of the 12th of November approached. Sea was calm, with occasional rain squalls and lightning strikes. American squadron was racing towards the Guadalcanal in complete darkness, and 24 submarines that had been sent ahead as a reconnaissance screen were already in position. Far ahead of the squadron of warships were transport ships that were disembarking troops and supplies at Lunga Point. These were being protected by a squadron of 5 cruisers and 8 destroyers, but had already suffered losses. Japanese air attacks damaged three transport ships and one destroyer, and cruiser San Francisco was struck by a damaged aircraft, damaging its radar and killing 30 men.
American scouts reported during the day approach of a Japanese convoy escorted by strong naval forces. It was expected that the Japanese would follow an already established pattern, delivering reinforcements to Guadalcanal before having warships bombard American positions. This is exactly what happened, and the Japanese warships approached American portion of Guadalcanal under cover of darkness.
Americans did not know what forces the Japanese had available. Scouts had reported two battleships, one cruiser and a large number of destroyers in one group. There were 11 destroyers, but some scouts reported 15. Other scout aircraft reported approach of other groups. These included heavy cruisers and aircraft carriers escorted by destroyers. These were over 100 miles distant from the first squadron. Thus, commander of the US screening force of cruisers and destroyers, Admiral Callaghan, concluded that only the first group would manage to arrive in time to bombard the target area. In order to save them, transport ships were sent southwards while Admiral Callaghan was to confront the far stronger Japanese squadron.
Admiral Callaghan’s squadron sailed towards the Savo island during the night, while the Japanese squadron was approaching from the opposite side under command of Vice Admiral Abe. Significant portion of American warships had radars, but among many other mistakes, Admiral Callaghan failed to place the warships with best radars at the front of the formation or to transfer himself to a ship that actually had an operational radar. Instead, he stayed aboard the San Francisco.
Both squadrons were approaching each other through darkness of the night, and about to reinforce the Ironbottom Sound’s supply of iron. Both sides were aware they were in a danger area and could run into the enemy at any point. Despite that, both sides had basically no scouting arrangements and allowed themselves to be surprised.
Japanese were sailing in three groups, believing that the American warships had been withdrawn southwards during the night. For this reason they had prepared only the high explosive ammunition, which had large bursting charge but thin shell and contact fuze meant that it could be stopped even by sheet metal. Japanese had a massive advantage over the Americans in that they had flashless powder, which allowed their ships to stay hidden in the night.
The midnight had passed and Friday the 13th had arrived. In the complete darkness of the night, radar of cruiser Helena detected unknown ships at 1:30, distance of less than 30 kilometers. Soon after Helena sent the more precise information: direction 312, distance between 25 000 and 29 000 meters (27 000 to 32 000 yards).
Callaghan increased speed of his squadron to 20 knots. With the Japanese squadron sailing at 23 knots, squadrons were closing in at rate of 43 knots. At this speed, distance was being rapidly aten up, and Helena soon reported that the enemy was only 13 000 meters away. This was well within the engagement range, and reduction in distance also reduced the advantage Americans were provided by their radar.
American squadron was sailing in a line of battle. At the head were four destroyers, followed by five cruisers and then again by four destroyers. Having received news of the enemy approach, Callaghan ordered a sharp turn starboard, hoping to cross the enemy T and thus get them under fire of all of his guns. At 01:41, destroyer Cashing noticed – at distance of only 2 700 meters (2 950 yards) – a Japanese destroyer.
By this time the Japanese ships had already passed the strait, having rounded the Savo island. Their destroyer too noticed the American ships, and just a minute later all ships were aware of the enemy’s presence. Americans for their part hesitated with opening fire despite having been tracking the Japanese on radar for a significant period of time. This gave the Japanese six minutes to prepare for battle.
Japanese themselves quickly overcame the surprise and pulled themselves together. Already at 1:50 the Japanese searchlights were looking for the enemy. One Japanese destroyer illuminated cruiser Atlanta at distance of 1 400 meters. American squadron itself was in a complete disarray, with formation falling apart and various orders only increasing the confusion.
Both sides opened fire now, beginning one of the most intense naval battles of the war. Fighting was intense, and at moments ships came so close to each other that torpedoes did not have time to arm. Short distance also caused trouble for larger ships, whose heavy guns could not depress low enough to hit targets so close. Formations mixed up, and not once did it happen that ships opened fire at their own compatriots.
US cruiser San Francisco was bombarded by heavy projectiles. Command bridge got quickly destroyed, killing the commander and several officers, and soon after admiral Callaghan died along with majority of his staff. Command was then taken by one of senior officers at a secondary command post, but this too was quickly destroyed – as were the steering and radio devices. Guns however were still operational, as the Japanese high explosive shells lacked the penetration. One of San Francisco’s 5 inch guns managed to hit attacking Japanese destroyer among the stored depth charges, destroying the ship in one shot.
Already in the beginning of the battle the Japanese destroyers had launched their torpedoes, two of which hit the anti-aircraft cruiser Atlanta. This brand-new ship was crippled, rendered immobile and thus an easy target. Rear admiral Scott was also killed. In total, Atlanta was hit 50 times, of which 14 hits were by 203 mm (8 in) projectiles, and was on fire.
American ships directed their fire primarily at the Japanese battleship Hiei. This ship received 85 hits and was crippled. As fighting continued into the night, two Japanese destroyers were sunk, while Hiei managed to stay afloat until the morning when it was attacked and sunk by the American aircraft. Hiei was the first Japanese battleship to have been sunk in the Second World War. Atlanta also sank during the day, and four out of eight American destroyers were also sunk with further three heavily damaged. These too sank later, leaving only single destroyer as survivor of Guadalcanal.
During the forenoon, a salvo of three torpedoes from a Japanese submarine hit the anti-aircraft cruiser Juneau which exploded. Believing that nobody had survived, other ships did not search for survivors. But in reality, some 120 men managed to survive, mostly wounded. Only ten survived long enough to be resuced several days later.
Next night, between 2 and 4 o’clock, newly arrived Japanese warships bombarded Guadalcanal with artillery. Main target was the air field, where 18 aircraft were destroyed. Despite this, airfield was capable of operations the next morning. American torpedo boats had attacked these warships, but failed to destroy any. The morning saw arrival of a powerful US naval squadron, consisting of a repaired aircraft carrier Enterprise, fast battleships Washington and South Dakota, two cruisers and six destroyers. Aircraft, both from the Enterprise and the Guadalcanal, were very active. They discovered the Japanese convoy, attacking it eight times from the morning until the four in the afternoon. During these attacks, they sank seven transport ships and heavy cruiser Kinugasa, while damaging three cruisers and one destroyer.
Night fell, but despite significant casualties, battle was not over yet. US cryptoanalysts could read the Japanese code thanks to a lucky break that had happened even before the war. This meant that Admiral Halsey was fully aware of the Japanese intentions to keep bombarding the Henderson Air Field from the sea, and reinforce Guadalcanal’s starving Japanese garrison. In fact, the Japanese had already sortied another force south.
Next night, the Japanese squadron commanded by Admiral Kondo, arrived to shell the island again. Squadron included battleship Kirishima, four cruisers and nine destroyers. In the dark night, conflict occured with the American squadron. US destroyers took pounding, and in mere minutes, four destroyers were already out of the action. South Dakota suffered a complete electronics failure, including the radar. Sailing blind, South Dakota was illuminated by Kirishima’s reflectors after she had mistakenly closed to only 4 500 meters from the Japanese ships.
South Dakota got perforated, suffering over 26 hits, but by presenting herself as a bait she created an opportunity for Washington. Opportunity was well utilized and Washington opened fire from distance of 8 000 meters with a salvo from all of her nine 16 inch guns. After only a few salvoes, Kirishima – which despite its battleship moniker was really a rebuilt battlecruiser – was aflame, and being destroyed by explosions, having suffered 20 16-inch hits and numerous 5-inch hits from Washington’s secondaries. At around 3 in the morning she had to be sunk by the Japanese destroyers. South Dakota too had to limp back to shipyard for repairs, having received 42 hits by heavy guns, while Washington remained undamaged.
This second battle of Guadalcanal had seen the Japanese lose 2 battleships, one cruiser, 4 destroyers and 11 transport ships. US Navy had lost 2 cruisers and 7 destroyers, with a battleship, three cruisers and several destroyers heavily damaged. It also essentially ended any hopes the Japanese had of wrestling the control of the island from the US.