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During the afternoon and night of 15 and 16 May 1945, the Japanese heavy cruiser Haguro, 14,000 tons, 900 officers and men, armed with ten 8-inch guns, twenty 5-inch guns, and 16 torpedoes, was intercepted in the Strait of Malacca by the 26th Destroyer Flotilla, commanded by Captain M. L. Power, Royal Navy, in HMS Saumarez- This was the last major surface gun and torpedo action fought by the Royal Navy in World War II, and stands as a classic model of a night torpedo attack by destroyers.
We were all well blooded and expert 1,1
action against aircraft, shore batteries, ships of our own size, but a heavy cruiser something beyond our experience. We kn that if we met her in daylight, our chanc^ would be slim indeed. With her great spee
stroy the Flotilla piecemeal long before could get close enough to retaliate. g excitement, mounting all the time, beca more strongly tinged with apprehenst As the heat increased and the day wore
Twenty minutes before first light on 15 May 1945, I was called, as usual, for dawn action stations. As I rolled off my camp bed on the forecastle and stumbled aft along the catwalks to the twin Bofors mounting amidships, I guessed that something unusual was brewing. The Saumarez, an S-class destroyer, was driving through the night at 27 knots, and the whole ship shook and rattled.
The Flotilla had refuelled and reammunitioned in Trincomalee on 9 May, and everyone was dead tired after the seaborne assault and capture of Rangoon. On 10 May, we were ordered to sea again, and sailed in company with the Queen Elizabeth, the French battleship Richelieu, four cruisers, four aircraft carriers, and nine other destroyers.
The Fleet was bound on an anti-shipping sweep in the Andaman Sea, to prevent Japanese attempts to reinforce or evacuate their garrisons in the Andaman Islands.
By midnight on 15 May, we were south of the Nicobar/Sumatra Channel. At 0217, the 26th Destroyer Flotilla was detached to sweep eastwards around the northern tip of Sumatra. Our target was a force of escorted Japanese merchant ships reported off Diamond Point.
My usually sleepy gun crew—a mixed bunch of stokers, seamen, and supply ratings, but all experienced and expert gunners—were eager and excited when they heard on the armament broadcast that we were now off on our own.
Dawn action stations over, I left the duty crew closed up on the guns, power on the stabilized mounting, guns trained into the eye of the sun (we kept the vital up-sun guard for the whole Flotilla), and went below to take over as duty cypher officer.
At 1000 the alarm rattlers hurried us back to action stations: air attack was expected from the Japanese airfields in Sumatra. We did not realize at the time that we were to remain at action stations for another 16 hours. Back at my gun, I settled down in my deckchair—not to enjoy the sun, but to stare around its rim through darkened binoculars, searching for the black speck of a diving kamikaze bomber. Every 15 minutes, 1 would change places with the layer on the gun, to rest my eyes and my sunburned face.
Meanwhile, the Flotilla swept on eastwards
in close order at 27 knots. The sun was blaz' ing, sea milk-smooth, and visibility extreme- A following wind added to our sweaty discomfort. ,
In the operations room, Captain Power ha received a signal from the Commander-n1 Chief ordering him to abandon the sweep arl rejoin the main fleet. This was an unwelcome surprise, because our aircraft were sti reporting worthwhile targets in our are - Believing (rightly) that the recall signal ha been originated without knowledge of 4>c local situation and would soon be cancels > and remembering the famous paragraph 111 the Fighting Instructions which dissuades an) captain from prematurely relinquishing tou with the enemy, my Captain ignored 1 order, and we stood on to the east. Seven1)
minutes later an aircraft reconnaissance > port was received—one heavy cruiser and one destroyer 130 miles ahead and to east nod1 east of us, steaming towards Penang. ,
All doubts dispelled, the Flotilla sette down to intercept the enemy, if we could- At the Bofors mounting, the prospect action was greeted with a cheer, and I myse^ felt the familiar eager excitement taking hold of me; but as the hours passed, the _ appreciation of our prospects began to sink ^
and overwhelming firepower, she co
the men around me—no doubt for the s- reasons—fell silent, pale and sweating their jungle-green action dress. ^
At noon we were still storming eastwar but now the Flotilla was spread in line abre approximately five miles apart, cracK - along at near maximum speed. ^jj)
Food that day was welcome. I can . remember the taste and feel of bully 11 ,
tepid from a sun-warmed can, eaten wit’1 ^ fingers, and washed down with tinned aP cots, fruit and juice and all running Stic -
Crews ........... ^
J^y> I felt better for it. cn “245, the Venus reported an enemy Po aCt bear'ng 045 degrees at the phe- ca'enal range of 34 miles. The Venus, in- ^ ulous, held the contact down to 23 miles, ,, e" it vvas certainly identified as the
yur°- At this point the Flotilla swung *'ud to the north, still in line abreast, peaC reduced to 20 knots. The enemy ap- red to be walking right into the trap.
down my chin. The heat, the strain of searches the sky and distant horizon for signs of the enemy, the rattle and shake of the ship herSelf, began to have its effect on us all. Most °f the men dozed around the gun, spreading their anti-flash gear over the deck to protect themselves from burning on the hot steel; only the layer, the trainer, and I remained uhy alert throughout that long day.
In our operations room, it was now clear nat the enemy ships, unaware of our presence, were holding their course for Penang.
e were cutting across like a rugby fullback going for the corner flat, where it seemed we t^’ght intercept them. The Richelieu and the unit)erland were hurrying to our support, but . ey were still a hundred miles astern. We elt a long way out on our limb.
hly Captain’s intentions at this juncture pere to stand on to the Malay coast south of enang, and then sweep back westwards across the Malacca Strait. If we met the enerny in daylight, we were to hold off at extreme range and entice or drive her west- Nvards to annihilation under the Richelieu's guns. If we met }jei. at night, it was quite Slrnple we were to sink her.
dusk we were still holding our course y. , speed, five ships, the Venus, Virago, ^gilant, Verulam, and Saumarez now spread Ur miles apart in line abreast. Heavy rain Qualls and lightning began to shorten the 'entity and the effectiveness of our radar. ' ene'ny was 70 miles to the north of us, j unsuspecting, still making for Penang, se'zed the opportunity to send my gun
cl m away’ one I*y one> to 'nto clean spell ^le ^unner rebeved nre for a I while I, too, went below to change, j a moment of bravado, I reappeared, maculate, clad in full white uniform, sword, als) and all. At least this gave my gun something to laugh about, and curi-
Old Navy 149
At 2347, the Haguro’s range was down to
19 miles. Three minutes after midnight, we in the Saumarez got our first radar contact— enemy dead ahead, range 14 miles. Immediately, the whole Flotilla reversed course to due south, reducing speed to 12 knots to allow the enemy to penetrate deeper into the trap. By this time, the five destroyers were well strung out in a great half-circle, from northwest through south to east, and the Haguro, now alarmed, began zigzagging violently, although still steaming south at 20 knots, well inside the net.
At 0050, all seemed set for a simultaneous attack by all ships, planned to be executed at 0100. The Flotilla turned north, increased to
20 knots, thus putting the Haguro dead ahead of the Saumarez, range 6 miles, closing at the rate of over 40 knots.
Suddenly, at 0054, the Haguro altered her course right around to starboard, and fled to the northwest, increasing speed to 30 knots. Captain Power, faced with a sudden transition from a bow attack to a stern chase, increased to 30 knots in pursuit.
After that, things began to happen very quickly indeed. At 0015 the Haguro reversed course again to the southeast, now placing herself fine on the Saumarez’s port bow, closing at 60 knots, range three miles. At the same moment, her attendant destroyer was sighted on our starboard bow, crossing from starboard to port. I could see her bow wave gleaming in the lightning flashes as she first appeared a mile and a half away. Our forward guns engaged, hitting with the second salvo. The Saumarez heeled violently to port, shuddering under full helm as she turned to starboard to pass under the Haguro1 s stern—• indeed it was a very near miss.
The next few minutes were confused but exciting. The enemy destroyer re-appeared under our port bow, and as she passed close down our port side at more than 50 knots relative speed, the Bofors raked her from stem to stern.
Above the growl and groan of the stabilized mounting, always level in spite of the heel and slew of the ship, I heard my layer yelling wordlessly as he depressed the gun and stamped on the pedal. Then the shells streamed out in a double hose-pipe sweep, the tracers hitting all along her whole length.
There were no ricochets on this soft target.
All this time I had been conscious that the familiar crack of our 4.7s and the thump- thump-thump of my own guns were being blotted out by a gigantic hammering storm of tremendous noise, drowning all speech and sense. The Haguro was firing on us, point- blank, with her main and secondary armament, opening with a full ten-gun broadside.
At this moment I had forgotten her existence, and could not comprehend why great waterfalls of water were erupting ahead and astern of us. The Haguro'1 s salvos were pitching close aboard, short and over, and the tons of water, thrown up were swamping the upper deck so that our position was awash up to the lids of the ready-use lockers.
All this took but a minute or two, when the Saumarez heeled far over to starboard (beyond the maximum depression of the gun) as we slewed to port. The Bofors stopped firing, and I glimpsed the high, shining wet side of the Haguro herself, lit by intermittent lightning flashes and our rocket flares.
As the Saumarez swung further to port, closing the Haguro at 30 knots, a tremendous crack and a roar like the end of the world overwhelmed us; all our guns stopped firing.
An unnerving silence fell; all power was off and communications dead. Deaf, wet, and confused, I looked forward and saw that the upper half of our funnel—30 feet away—had disappeared. The remnant was belching out a towering eruption of steam and smoke. The silence was not silence, but the total deafness caused by the tearing shriek of escaping superheated steam. Beneath my feet the deck tilted even more to starboard as our turn to port tightened, and looking down on the iron deck a few feet below me, I saw (but could not hear) all eight torpedoes leap, one by one, from their tubes trained to starboard.
Slowly the Saumarez came upright, and slowly she appeared to be coming to a halt. At any rate, we were no longer under fire; our guns were silent, and the enemy had vanished. The uncanny stillness persisted, however; only the steam still roared out.
I looked astern, and saw three golden explosions split the blackness. The Haguro had been hit.
The time was 0115. We had been in close action exactly ten minutes.
While the Saumarez was limping slowly northwards, temporarily out of action and control, the rest of the Flotilla, assuming we had been sunk, closed for the kill.
At 0114, the Verulam got her torpedoes away from one on the Haguro’s bow at 2,000 yards> her salvo and ours arrived on target a minul;e later. At 0125, the Venus closed to 2,500 yards on the enemy’s starboard side and scored one torpedo hit; two minutes later, two torpedoes from the Virago stopped the Haguro dead in th® water. At 0151, the Vigilant, hindered unti now by the movements of her sister ships> closed in to 1,800 yards and scored one hd- At 0202, the end came, when the Venus fireC^ her last two torpedoes at 1,200 yards. '
The Haguro sank at 0209, hit by nine torpedoes and having been under heavy close- range fire from the Flotilla’s guns for nearly an hour.*
Meanwhile, in the Saumarez, power, Ugh1’ and communications were quickly restored- We turned south, summoned the rest of the Flotilla and set course to the east.
Our damage was unbelievably light. Th® Haguro’s 8-inch guns had fired nearly 6 shells at the Saumarez alone at point-blaa range, and many more 5-inch and lesser stuff. One 8-inch shell had nicked our for®' castle, our main aerial and the top of °Lir funnel had been shot away, and one 5-fo® shell had severed the main steam pipe 111 our boiler room, killing two men and burning three more. The rest of the Flotilla had 110 casualties or damage.
The enemy destroyer, badly shot tip> reached sanctuary in Penang. ,
At 1220 on 16 May, the Flotilla rejoin® the main Fleet and set course for Trirl comalee, 1,500 miles away.
* See also H. E. Horan, “Sinking the flagur0< U. S. Naval Institute Proceedings, January l"6 ’ pp. 38-44.