- Pettit, Geoff
- WWII operations
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Warramunga I, HMAS Shropshire
- September 1992 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
“Last night, in Surigao Strait, the Philippines, the Tokyo Express met the American Limited, and was completely derailed.”
“This is the U.S. Armed Services radio in San Diego, California.”
Thus, did the personnel of the heavy cruiser H.M.A.S. SHROPSHIRE learn about 0800 on the 25th October, 1944 of the result of the night battle in which, with the destroyer H.M.A.S. ARUNTA, it had played a significant part. The southern gate to the Leyte landing beaches in the Central East Philippines had been slammed shut, and remained shut, but only just as events turned out.
In terms of the tonnage involved, the Battle of Leyte Gulf, of which the Surigao Strait encounter was part, was the biggest naval engagement of all time, and is one of the least publicised. Churchill said in Volume VI of his “The Second World War”, “I have told the tale fully because at the time it was almost unknown to the harassed European world”.
SHROPSHIRE was the gift of the British Government to replace another County Class 8 x 8 gun cruiser, H.M.A.S. CANBERRA sunk in August 1942 in the Solomons by another Tokyo Express. SHROPSHIRE was the only fleet cruiser operational in the RAN at the time of the Leyte battle, and ARUNTA was one of the few RAN fleet destroyers. Several more Australian ships, however, were involved in pre landing surveying and in the landing at Leyte on 20th October, 1944 and some operated in the area for weeks.
AUSTRALIA, the RAN flagship, had been crashed in Leyte Gulf the day after the landing by a damaged plane whose crew sought glory for the Emperor. She had been withdrawn for repairs, escorted by ARUNTA’S twin, H.M.A.S. WARRAMUNGA.
Her Captain and a number of others were dead, and the Commodore wounded seriously.
Immediately following the Surigao Strait action the Japanese kamikaze campaign opened and imprinted a new word in our language. There is, for instance, at Blue Cow, Kosciusko a ski run so named which is definitely not for the unskilled or the faint hearted. How many, when they use or come across the word, know that the Royal Australian Navy was there at its international inception?
For SHROPSHIRE’S ship’s company the first indication that something different to bombardment and intermittent air attacks was afoot, came after lunch on 24th October. In a corner of Leyte Gulf a none too successful smoke screen was being put down over the oilers, and ships of the U.S. Seventh Fleet, of which the Australians were part, were manoeuvring awaiting fuelling.
The two RAN ships then proceeded into the Strait late in the afternoon in company with the American Limited, six old U.S. battleships of Pearl Harbour fame (three had been sunk at their moorings), wallowing somewhat in the light swell; surrounded by cruisers and destroyers, with torpedo boats inshore. The sun went down a blood red orb that Tuesday evening.
Soon all was dark except for a few village fires on shore. The radar tracked a lone aircraft coming in low on the port bow with progress reported on the ship’s loud speaker system. There was one great burst of light and sound from a for’ard eight inch gun followed by the laconic announcement that the radar screen was now clear.
At about 0100, 25th October those not on watch were wakened by the announcement that “we have a report of a skunk 26 miles to the westward. Hands to action stations!” Each knew in the pit of his stomach that this could be the last time he went to his allotted action job. The Japanese force was spear-headed by the battleships YAMASHIRO (flag) and FUSO, sister ships with tall pagoda like masts which featured in photographs pre-War.
A couple of hours later, while SHROPSHIRE continued to patrol across the Strait on the eerily calm sea, a large yellow flame developed and continued on the horizon 21 miles to the southwestward. It was the FUSO sinking. It had been harried by the torpedo boats and then hit by a torpedo from a destroyer. She sheared out of line, blew up into two pieces and sank soon after 0330.
As these events were unfolding, two aircraft screamed suddenly down the port side not much above mast height, their exhausts showing the usual soft yellow, red and blue colours. Presumably, they were American but they probably didn’t see us anyway.