- Date, John C., RANVR (Rtd)
- RAN operations, WWII operations, History - WW2
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Arunta I, HMAS Shropshire
- March 1988 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
IN THE GREATEST SEA BATTLE of all time, near the Philippine Island of Leyte in 1944, overmatched ships fought desperately against three Japanese fleets to keep the hard-won beachheads open. And through bluff and bravery they succeeded.
In the latter part of 1944, Churchill had been to Moscow, the Allied armies led by the British and American forces of the 2nd front were advancing through France and Belgium, and in southern Europe they were fighting their way through northern Italy.
On the 23rd/24th/25th October 1944, the greatest naval action between the American and Japanese fleets was to take place off the Philippines and to be known as the Battle of Leyte. This was played out in three great actions:
1. Surigao Strait to the south (as will be described now)
2. San Bernardino Strait (or Samar) in the centre
3. Cape Engarno to the north.
Each was interwoven by encounters that happened by the second, by the minute and by the hour. As said by Vice Admiral Sir John Collins (RAN), ‘All Australians should know more about this battle and be proud that the Royal Australian Navy took a small but active part in the victory.’ All naval movements and action times quoted remain completely factual.
HMAS Shropshire, Australian heavy cruiser, fired on a Japanese battleship in this last great sea battle fought between capital ships, in Surigao Strait. HMAS Shropshire in her participation was the only Australian cruiser, or warship, to have fired her main gunnery and obtained direct hits on an enemy battleship.
As part of the Japanese master plan for the defence of the Philippines, called Sho-1, a Japanese battleship squadron under the command of Vice Admiral Shoji Nishimura, consisting of the two battleships Yamashiro and Fuso, each mounting 6×14″ guns plus 8 x 6″ guns, with the heavy cruiser Mogami and four destroyers, supported by Vice Admiral Kiyohide Shima with three cruisers and four destroyers, moved to attack the American landing force at the Leyte beachhead, thereby opening up the great battle of Leyte.
During the afternoon of 24th October, Nishimura’s ships were spotted and attacked by American carrier planes, but were able to maintain course. As the enemy entered Surigao Straits from the south they were subjected to intense torpedo boat attacks, with many hits being scored, but in the early hours of the morning of the 25th October the Japanese fleet continued their movement up the strait to the inevitable confrontation with the waiting Allied force.
The Allied ships consisted of the US 7th Fleet under the Commander-in-Chief, Vice Admiral T.C. Kinkaid, with Rear Admiral Oldendorf as his Fire Support Commander. Patrolling in single line were the six US battleships, West Virginia, Maryland, Mississippi (flagship), Tennessee, California and Pennsylvania (California had been raised from the bottom of Pearl Harbour) plus cruisers and destroyers positioned for defence and attack, to which were attached HMAS Shropshire, County class heavy cruiser, and HMAS Arunta, Tribal class destroyer.
Kinkaid now had no doubts as to Nishimura’s intentions to sail up Surigao Strait and so Oldendorf arranged his force in text-book battle-line formation across the top of the strait, thus crossing the T with the enemy. At 0300 hours Captain J.C. Coward led his three destroyers – Remey, McGowan and Melvin – together with Commander R.H. Phillips with two destroyers – McDermut and Monssen – in a ‘Pincer Movement’ attack at some 8/9,000 yards. Twenty seven torpedoes were fired resulting in both enemy battleships being hit, one destroyer sunk and two badly damaged. The Fuso sheered out of line and began to burn and explode and was to blow up, breaking into two parts and sinking at 0430 hours.
After the war, the captain of the Japanese destroyer Shigure, said that the Fuso had had her back broken by two deep running torpedoes which had hit the keel. The US destroyer Killen said its torpedoes were set to run at 22 feet.
Shropshire in enacting her share of the engagement fired on the Yamashiro and as stated by Captain C.A.G. Nichols, ‘During the preliminary ‘ranging salvos’ I saw nothing of the ‘fall of shot’ when the indicator bell rang behind me on the bridge. The smaller projectiles of the quick firing US cruisers who opened fire just before us did not show at all on our bridge radar screen, but when Shropshire started straddling the target in about the 3rd salvo, the 8″ fall of shot bell coincided exactly with a big and seemingly red flash on the radar, for every salvo, but one, until we ceased fire.