- Pettit, Geoff
- WWII operations
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Warramunga I, HMAS Shropshire
- September 1992 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Commander Buchanan in ARUNTA, who was not known for operational reluctance, was in tactical command of a group of three destroyers of which one U.S. destroyer scored a torpedo hit on YAMASHIRO. Later a further torpedo hit was made on YAMASHIRO by a U.S.N. destroyer after ARUNTA’S group had retired, but she continued to come on. Other U.S. destroyers then took Japanese destroyers under fire, and Buchanan’s group turned south again to participate. As he pressed in, he received a signal from a U.S. Admiral, wanting to open fire from the heavier ships, ordering him in effect to get out, or he would be blown out: no time for diplomacy.
At 0350 the U.S. Admiral in tactical command, Oldendorf, ordered all ships to open fire. From SHROPSHIRE’S point of view this was one-sided initially, but then lazily, a line of tracer shells from YAMASHIRO curved up but fell short. The next line of shells crept higher and finally went over. No one needed telling where the third broadside was likely to fall, but SHROPSHIRE and other ships got in first and YAMASHIRO was battered and capsized at 0419. Most of the rest of the Japanese ships were sunk, the last of these as early dawn suffused the eastern sky. Like flocks of shiny geese close-knit broadsides from U.S. cruisers arched in the sky, until inevitably a flock of shells found its target, a damaged Japanese destroyer.
SHROPSHIRE’S gunnery was of a high standard. The after direction platform, the alternative ship control in case of the bridge being wiped out, could be heard reporting approximately 25 per cent of the broadsides as hits. Captain Nichols, RN, of SHROPSHIRE, who was also Commander Task Force 74 in place of the injured Commodore Collins, said in his report “A very high rate of fire was attained in rapid salvos, as many as eight broadsides in two minutes” (Official Australian Naval History – Gill “Royal Australian Navy 1942-45′).
There was a tinge of pity for the fate of other sailors. Almost all were Japanese, as only one U.S. destroyer and a minor number of torpedo boats were damaged, and no U.S. ship was sunk.
“Porthole”, a chronicle written at the end of the War by SHROPSHIRE’S personnel, takes up the story.”…the force retired towards Leyte, and we went to breakfast at our action stations feeling that, at least, we had earned it. On our way we passed numbers of survivors in the water, who, with manifest Bushido, refused to be rescued. And so ended the Battle of the Surigao Strait.”
The official U.S. naval historian Morrison noted that this was the last time battleships lined up against each other. “Thus, when MISSISSIPPI discharged her twelve 14 inch guns at YAMASHIRO, at a range of 19,790 yards, at 0408 October 25th, 1944, she was not only giving the battleship the coup de grace, but firing a funeral salute to a finished era of naval warfare. One can imagine the ghosts of all great admirals from Raleigh to Jellicoe standing to attention as Battle Line went into oblivion, along with the Greek phalanx, the Spanish wall of pikemen, the English longbow and the row-gallery tactics of Salamis and Lepanto”.
With a chilling jolt it was soon learnt by the ship’s company that the Japanese thrust was only part of a much wider naval attack. Shortly after breakfast the announcement came, “We have a report of an enemy force 100 miles to the north-east. We are proceeding to engage”. For those on board who had been congratulating themselves to themselves that they had survived a naval battle in one piece, it seemed like putting it on too thickly to have another battle, within the same 24 hours.
The “general decisive battle” at sea, which the Japanese Imperial General Headquarters had decided in August, 1944 must be in the Philippines area was being revealed in detail rapidly. The “Sho-Go”, meaning “Victory Operation”, was aimed at destroying the invasion support fleet in Leyte Gulf and, in addition, as much U.S. naval strength as possible. The two fleets under Nishimura and Shima, acting in concert, were to force Surigao Strait in the south; Kurita with the largest force spearheaded by the giants YAMATO and MUSASHI, – at 65,000 tons odd each and 18.1 inch guns, they were the world’s largest and most powerful battleships – was to pass through the San Bernardino Strait to the north of Leyte and complete the pincer, while Ozawa’s carrier force, much depleted in aircraft because of battles some months before, was to cruise to the north-east of the Philippines as a decoy.