Battle of Rennell Island - Conflict & Dates:
The Battle of Rennell Island was fought January 29-30, 1943, during World War II (1939-1945).
Forces & Commanders
Battle of Rennell Island - Background:
Having won key victories at Coral Sea and Midway in mid-1942, the Allies moved to the offensive and landed on Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands that August. This began a six-month campaign for control of the island and its airstrip. As the battle raged, Allied and Japanese naval forces repeatedly clashed in the waters around Guadalcanal. These engagements were largely tied to Japanese attempts to resupply their forces on the island. Due to Allied air superiority, these efforts were conducted at night and became known as the "Tokyo Express." Though the Japanese won several victories, such as Savo Island and Tassafaronga, the Allies triumphed at the key Naval Battle of Guadalcanal in November 1942. This saw the Japanese thwarted in an attempt to deliver a large amount of supplies by cargo ship to the island.
Unable to adequately resupply their forces ashore, the Japanese began to contemplate withdrawing from Guadalcanal. On December 12, the Japanese Navy officially proposed that the island be abandoned. Still believing that victory was possible, the Japanese Army opposed such a move. After some debate, the Imperial General Headquarter ordered the island evacuated on December 31. Designated Operation Ke, the evacuation was scheduled to begin on January 14, 1943. The removal of ground forces was scheduled for later in the month and was to be preceded by an air superiority campaign commencing on January 28. Learning of Japanese ship and aircraft movements, the Allies misinterpreted the intelligence and believed that the enemy was planning a new offensive.
Battle of Rennell Island - The Allies Respond:
Assessing the intelligence reports, the Commander South Pacific Forces and South Pacific Area, Admiral William "Bull" Halsey, hoped to draw Japanese naval forces into battle. In addition, he sought to deliver fresh US Army troops to Guadalcanal to aid in finishing the ground campaign. To this end, he deployed five task forces in the waters around the Solomons in late January. Among these ships was Task Group 62.8 which consisted of four transports carrying US Army units and four escorting destroyers. Forward of TG 62.8, operating between Rennell Island and Guadalcanal, was Rear Admiral Robert C. Giffen's Task Force 18. This consisted of the heavy cruisers USS Wichita (flagship), USS Chicago, and USS Louisville as well as the light cruisers USS Montpelier, USS Columbia, and USS Cleveland. Giffen's force also contained the escort carriers USS Suwannee and USS Chenango along with eight destroyers.
Though Giffen was charged with screening TG 68.2, he also had orders to rendezvous with destroyers from Tulagi for a sweep up "The Slot" north of Guadalcanal. Realizing that he would miss the rendezvous due to Suwannee and Chenango's slow speed, he detached the two carriers along with two destroyers at 2:00 PM on January 29. Concerned about Japanese submarines, he formed his remaining ships for anti-submarine defense and increased speed to 24 knots. Steaming north, Giffen's cruisers were in two parallel lines of three, while his six destroyers were deployed forward. While TF 18 was being followed by Japanese submarines, it was also being tracked by enemy aircraft.
Battle of Rennell Island - The Japanese Strike:
Utilizing these sightings, the 705 Air Group launched 16 Mitsubishi G4M "Betty" bombers from Rabaul. This force was soon followed by 16 Mitsubishi G3M "Nell" bombers from the 701 Air Group. Led by Lieutenant Tomō Nakamura and Lieutenant Commander Joji Hagai, all of the Japanese aircraft were armed with torpedoes. As the sun began to set, TF 18's combat air patrol (CAP) returned to the two escort carriers. Around this time, Giffen's ships began to detect the approaching Japanese aircraft on radar. Operating under radio silence, Giffen provided no guidance regarding how to proceed. Having lost an aircraft due to engine trouble, the remaining 31 Japanese bombers circled around to the east as to attack in complete darkness while the American ships were silhouetted in the twilight.
Attacking at 7:19 PM, Nakamura's bombers failed to score any hits on Giffen's ships and lost an aircraft to enemy fire. Thinking the attack was over, Giffen directed his ships to cease evasive maneuvers and to resume a course for Guadalcanal. Tracked by a Japanese reconnaissance plane which marked TF 18's course, the Americans were struck by Hagai's bombers at 7:38 PM. Launching their torpedoes, the Japanese hit Chicago with two which brought the cruiser to a stop. A third struck Wichita but failed to explode. In the attack, two bombers, including Hagai's, were shot down. Ceasing fire, TF 18 successfully hid in the darkness until the last Japanese aircraft left the area around 11:35 PM. Taking Chicago in tow, Louisville steamed south with the stricken warship.
Battle of Rennell Island - The Japanese Return:
In an effort to protect Chicago, Halsey directed that a task force centered on the carrier USS Enterprise move to the cruiser's aid. He also ordered the fleet tug USS Navajo north to take over towing duties from Louisville. An enhanced CAP consisting of aircraft from the two escort carriers and Enterprise was in place at dawn and the tow was transferred to Navajo by 8:00 AM. Though several Japanese scout planes entered the area during the morning, they were chased off by American fighters but not before reporting Chicago's position. Using this information, the 751 Air Group launched 11 G4M Bettys from Buka at 12:15 PM.
Though aware of the enemy's approach via reports from an Australian coastwatcher, Halsey directed TF 18's cruisers to leave Chicago and make for Efate at 3:00 PM. Departing, Giffen left six destroyers to escort Chicago and Navajo. Forty minutes later, the CAP fighters downed a G4M that was scouting ahead. At 3:54 PM, Enterprise detected the approaching bombers on radar. Initially believing the Japanese were targeting the carrier, the CAP fighters engaged. As they did so, the 751 Air Group bombers turned south towards Chicago. Approaching the wounded cruiser, they quickly lost two aircraft before dropping their torpedoes. Turning away, they lost six additional bombers to American fire. Entering the water, one torpedo hit the destroyer USS La Vallette while four hit Chicago.
With his ship fatally damaged, Captain Ralph O. Davis ordered Chicago to be abandoned. Closing on the sinking cruiser, Navajo and the destroyers were able to take off 1,049 of its crew. Chicago sank stern first approximately twenty minutes after the attack. Approaching La Vallette, Navajo took the destroyer in tow and the American ships sailed for Espiritu Santo.
Battle of Rennell Island - Aftermath
In the course of the Battle of Rennell Island, the Allies lost a heavy cruiser and had one destroyer badly damaged. Personnel losses totaled 85 killed. Japanese casualties amounted to 60-84 killed and 12 bombers lost. Though Halsey and Admiral Chester Nimitz, Commander-in-Chief Pacific Fleet, were angered over Chicago's loss, the action at Rennell Island distracted the Japanese and allowed for the successful arrival and debarkation of US Army forces on Guadalcanal. Conversely, with the withdrawal of TF 18, few Allied naval vessels remained in the immediate area of Guadalcanal which allowed the Japanese to complete Operation Ke between February 2 and 7. Learning of the Japanese evacuation after the fact, the Allies declared Guadalcanal secured on February 9.