A Whiff of Powder
Part 41 – Closing in for the kill
Even before Ripper was airborne the RAF had had reconnaissance flights out trying to locate Chikuma. There were two distinct groups. The first, call sign Sea Lion, comprised two Sunderland flying boats while the second, call sign Walrus, consisted of four Beauforts.
Walrus Three, in flight
Walrus Three was a DAP Beaufort, belonging to the RAAF – assigned to one of the squadrons taking part in Ripper. However unlike the rest of the squadron she and three of her three sister ships were equipped with ASV radar. They’d just arrived last month as replacement aircraft and the plan had been to have one ASV aircraft in each flight, as this would increase the chance of anti shipping sweeps finding targets.
With the need to find the cruiser someone had come up with the idea of using the four radar equipped ships to fly a search line to locate her, so the four aircraft had taken off before the main strike. They’d been briefed on the importance of the mission, and the need for visual identification of the target had been stressed.
Walrus Three’s pilot was not happy about the idea. With the target known to have fighter cover a solo Beaufort was fairly vulnerable. He’d much rather have flown on the strike with the rest of his squadron, and enjoyed fighter cover of his own. However no one had asked his opinion on the matter and in wartime you did what you were told, so here he was.
Suddenly the ASV Operator’s voice came over the intercom.
“Getting a return on the ASV skipper, about five degrees to port, extreme range.”
“Can you make out any detail?”
“Not yet, we’re too far out.”
“OK Colin, we’ll get closer. Let me know when you have any detail.”
Plotting Room, HIJMS Chikuma
The Captain had been called down to the Plotting Room
“What is it?”
“Radar has picked up aircraft. Here and here – looks like single aircraft, probably reconnaissance.”
“Too far out to see us yet ... can we get CAP to get them before they get close enough to sight us?”
“Yes sir, although it would weaken the CAP if an enemy force turned up before the relief arrives. If we do send someone out I recommend that we send a single flight, vector them in on this one first, then the other afterwards. That leaves us with two flights overhead.”
“Approved, do so.”
“Aye Aye sir. Lieutenant Itoh, call up the Cap and send one flight out. Vector them on this aircraft first.”
“Aye Aye sir.”
The Captain and the Commander remained at the plot table, the Captain studying it carefully.
“Two aircraft ... search planes from Walthrop-Channing’s squadron?”
“Possibly sir, although they could be land based aircraft, a follow up to the air strike.”
“Either way we want them downed before they can report us.”
Walrus three, in flight
“It’s a group of ships, one big one and three or four smaller ones.”
“OK Colin, stay at it. Bill call it in. Tell base probable detection of the cruiser and that we’re going in closer for a visual confirmation.”
“And everybody keep your eyes peeled for fighters.”
Operations Room, RAF Bentong
“Walrus Three has possible sighting sir, radar only at present but she’s closing for a visual.”
“Is it plotted yet? Ahh there it is ... contact Ripper. Advise them of the sighting – stress that identity isn’t confirmed yet and that Walrus Three is seeking visual confirmation.”
“Do we order them in?”
“No, it’s not confirmed yet, might be another group entirely. I mean look at the location – if they’d been going for the convoy they wouldn’t be there.”
Lieutenant Commander Fredricks thought back to all the exercises he’d been on pre war. None of them had prepared him for this situation.
With the Admiral wounded, his first flagship sunk and the second badly battered the Senior Naval Officer was the captain of the British Destroyer – only she was sunk and he was exercising command from the deck of a merchant with no radio or flag signalling capability, so he was reduced to communicating via lamp. He was setting overall direction – which boiled down to “protect the convoy” - but leaving execution in the hands of the RN PT boat Flotilla Commanders, who both had seniority over Ketch and himself.
He moved to the radar repeater and checked it again. There was the convoy and Peel, with the British PT boats and the remnants of the original escort force close in to protect them. Further out he could see what must be the Jap PT boats – lots of them – reforming, and to seaward the Japanese Destroyers – and he hoped fervently that they were Destroyer Escorts and not true Destroyers – were reforming after the air attack and closing in.
“Sir, radar contact. Two ships closing on the convoy at about twenty five knots. Probably those Destroyer Escorts we were expecting.”
Commander Isoroku kept his face impassive, although he cursed inwardly. This would make things more difficult. If only those bombers hadn’t interfered he’d have wrapped this up by now. He moved to the radar repeater and studied the readout.
“Signal the Flotilla and the Coastal Forces. We’ll co-ordinate our attacks. We’ll close to just out of gun range for now, but hold off – that’ll force them to cover us, tie up those two Destroyer Escorts. Then when CF engage we’ll go in too – split the enemy fire. Tell CF to inform us when they engage.”
“Aye Aye sir.”
“And someone get a report on Kunashiri and Uji, see if they’re in any state to re-join the fight.”
Plotting Room, HIJMS Chikuma
“Sir Target two has changed course, heading directly for us.”
“Sir, radar detection equipment indicates radar from that bearing.”
“Call up those fighters. I want that aircraft killed as quickly as possible. And why didn’t the radar detector pickup on this earlier? His signal must have been detectable before now.”
“Shock damage from the attack sir, we gave priority to getting the radar back on line and we’ve only just managed to get the detector back up.”
Operations Room, RAF Bentong
“Sir, message from Walrus Three. Says Fighters then cut off mid word.”
“Damn. We can assume he’s lost then.”
“It tells us something though. We know the cruiser has CAP, those fighters must have come from that. That suggests that the contact is the cruiser.”
“Hmmm ... I agree. Signal Ripper. Tell them Walrus Three’s sighting is the cruiser. Warn them that enemy CAP seems to be alert.”
Commander Isoroku had been re-evaluating the odds. Thanks to the airstrike he’d lost Kunashiri and one of his own gun mounts – that reduced the squadron to six heavy guns rather than ten.
“The Buckley class – tell me about them again.”
His first officer picked up the recognition book and turned to the right page.
“Buckley class Destroyer Escort. 1,500 tons, three 3 inch guns, two 21 inch torpedoes, 24 knots.”
So we each have six guns, although ours are heavier calibre. They have the edge on us in speed, and they both carry torpedoes while we only have Okikaze. We’re damaged, they’re fresh. We can still take them but …
“Take a signal …”
Star of Hope
Wessex-Faversham could make out the US Destroyers now. He turned to look to seaward, towards the Japanese Destroyers, but all he could see was the smoke screen generated by the MTBs.
Ten minutes, that’s all we need. If we have ten minutes grace then the Yanks should be able to intervene when the Japs make their move.
“Make a signal to the MTB Commander. Ask him how he plans to deploy the US ships, and how the Japanese are deploying.”
Five minutes later, USS Fogg
Wessex-Faversham’s query had caused a TBS discussion between the US ships, the MTBs and Lieutenant Dasgupta. It was quickly agreed that the US ships and 25th Flotilla would provide the primary cover on the Seaward side while 27th Flotilla and the remnants of 7th Indian and 1st Attack fended off the Japanese Coastal Forces to landward.
Fredricks listened as Ketch’s voice came over the speakers.
“Donnell - From the radar I see three groups to seaward. Three ships moving ahead of the convoy, two ships astern, and a single ship moving to join the rear group. Over.”
“7th Indian – the rear group may be the ones that engaged earlier, in which case they’ll be damaged. Over.”
“27th – Do we know how badly? Over”
“7th Indian – No sir, we know Peel and Hero did a lot of damage with their guns, and that the MTBs hit at least one of them with a torpedo, but we don’t know how badly they’re damaged. They’ve had time to make repairs too.”
“27th – so we have to assume that they could be capable of returning to the fight. Over.”
“Donnell – assuming they are, then that deployment looks like an attempt to split our defences. Fogg and I can try and block one group – three verses two will be tough but doable – but if both groups come in at once you’d have to handle one of them. Over.”
“25th – That’d take both Flotillas to be certain, you agree Kevin? Over.”
“27th – Yes, but if the Jap CF come in while we’re playing with the Destroyers that just leaves 7th Indian between them and the convoy. Could be a bit sticky. Over.”
There was silence - Fredricks had served as a liaison officer with the British, and he understood that “a bit sticky” was a euphemism. He wondered if Ketch had understood the significance.
“7th Indian. If we have to cope we have to cope, that’s all. At least we can shoot back at them again.”
“Donnell – Lets see if we can even things up a bit, I’ll get on the horn shore side and …”.
The message came in to the Naval signal station, who passed it to CFSD 22 and RAF Operations. When he saw the signal Standish got on the phone to the RAF himself.
Operations Room, RAF Bentong
Wing Commander Grosman put down the telephone handset.
“Sir that was Standish, Navy received a signal …”
“I know, Naval signal station just forwarded it to us, here read it yourself.”
Grosman took the proffered document.
From: USS Donnell
To: Staff Officer 4174, copy to FOC RIN, Rear Admiral (Logistic) USN Rangoon
1. Japanese force of six repeat six destroyers and escorts plus numerous PT boats surrounding convoy. Japanese currently maneuvering into position. Believe Japanese plan co-ordinated attack from three directions.
2. Escort insufficient to defeat attack from three axis simultaneously – if we fend off the Destroyers we let the PT boats through. If we fend off the PT boats then at least one Destroyer group gets into the convoy.
3. Urgently need air strike on the destroyers.
“Sounds desperate sir.”
“Yes, they need help so let’s send something. What’s available?”
“Nothing from here – if we launched now it’d be all over by the time we got there, even if there was anything available, which there isn’t. Everything we could spare went into Ripper.”
“Nothing left – are you sure?”
“About the only thing left is the survivors of the Hampden attack earlier, and they’re just a handful of serviceable machines anyway, a half dozen at most. And as I said they wouldn’t get there in time. The only thing we can do is divert part of Ripper – but weakening them means the cruiser group might get through.”
Air Commodore Temple thought carefully – the Cruiser was the primary target, and the strike against her was already a makeshift one thrown together, however not sending anything looked like it would mean the convoy’s destruction.
“Let me see that signal again will you?”
Re reading the signal his mind turned to the political aspects
Look at those addressees - Vice Admiral commanding the Indian Navy and a US Rear Admiral. Whoever drafted that signal has made sure that world knows that they’re screaming for help – and if they don’t get it questions will be asked.
“There’s no option, we need to hit the cruiser group and the new target – just hitting one won’t do any good. Tell Ripper to detach part of the strike to support the convoy – keep enough to settle the Cruiser’s hash, but send something out to help. Stress that the situation is desperate, that time is of the essence.”
“Yes sir. They’ll need to find he convoy though. Most of them aren’t used to naval ops, you know what navigation over water is like. I’ll bet that the Coastal Command chaps are doing the navigation while the bulk of them are just tagging along.”
“So there’s a risk that they’ll get lost, that they won’t turn up at all … hmmm … divert Walrus Four, have her locate the convoy and stay with it, broadcasting a signal the others can home in on.”
“Someone get me the Navy – Standish is that the name? – I want to send them a message.”
Lieutenant Commander Ketch took the signal form from the messenger.
From: Staff Officer 4174
To: All Force WC ships at sea, Copy to FOC RIN, Rear Admiral (Logistics) USN
1. Message from RAF Operations Quote Help is on the way Unquote.
2. RAF is diverting aircraft already in flight. Estimate they should arrive within forty five minutes.
Ketch took another look at the radar repeater, trying to estimate if they had forty five minutes. The Japanese group ahead of the convoy was closing in, while the third Japanese ship had reached the rear group.
If they’re going to attack, it’ll be soon.
Wing Commander Boyce watched the Mosquitos of Yellow Raven head off towards the convoy. He’d been loth to release them – as Fighter Bombers they’d have been a useful supplement to the Beaufighters if the CAP was overwhelming them – however if he was going to deal with the cruiser then one squadron was all he could spare and it was either them or the Blenheims. Given the urgency of the mission the Mosquito’s edge in speed had been the deciding factor.
While the British had been responding to Lieutenant Commander Ketch’s signal the Japanese had been responding to Commander Isoroku’s. His signal had informed Rear Admiral Kubo and Naval Headquarters of the British air strike and said that while the Inshore squadron could still perform their mission, they would not have the strength to do so if further British reinforcements turned up. He also enquired about the possibility of an airstrike on the US Destroyers to soften them up.
Rear Admiral Kubo was discussing Isoroku’s signal with his Chief of Staff.
“The air strike can’t have affected them that badly surely?”
“They did detach two ships to aid Chikuma sir, and the strike cost them forty per cent of their remaining gun power.”
“Very well … tell them that if more British forces arrive they are free to disengage.”
“And the request for an airstrike. We could divert some of our strike.”
“No, we’ll need it all if we’re going to cripple Walthrop-Channing’s cruisers.”
“If we want to hang on to it we’d better call Headquarters, otherwise they might decide to divert part of it to help Isoroku.”
“Call them, tell them that I don’t want anything diverted from our strike package, but ask them if they can spare anyone else to help Isoroku.”
“They’re not likely to have anything, our strike took everything they could spare, and they’re still fighting off the British air offensive.”
“That’s Isoroku’s problem.”
“Excuse me sir.”
Kubo and the Chief of Staff turned to see an Ensign at the hatchway.
“Our lead ship is in sight of the Chikuma group sir, we should be able to see them ourselves soon.”
“Good, let’s go to the Bridge and see how they look.”
“I’ll send these signals first sir.”
Operations Room, Singapore Naval Base
The staff had been on the point of diverting part of Kubo’s air strike when his message arrived.
“Well that’s a blow. We’ll need to find something else.”
“Do we? Those aircraft are under our command not his, and if we want to divert a portion of the strike we can.”
“In the face of a direct request of the Operational Commander at sea? And we’d be diverting from the primary target – the cruisers – to a secondary one. And if we did divert someone but the main strike failed who do you think would take the blame?”
“Yes, so that settles it. Find something else. What do we have available?”
“Well all the modern aircraft we could spare went into the strike, and the rest are responding to the British assault … I suppose … we could re-task part of the back up strike.”
“The back up strike? I didn’t know about that.”
“Neither does Kubo, which means he can’t complain about it if we re-allocate it.”
“Well we managed to scrape together a force of some of our older aircraft. Most of them don’t have the legs of the more modern types, so we couldn’t just launch them to stooge around on spec without a clear target. The plan is to launch them once Walthrop-Channing’s cruisers are located. They’d hit a target already softened up by the first strike.”
“What’s the strike composed of?”
“B5Ns and B4Ys – the remnants of the earlier strike on the convoy, plus a few extra aircraft that were in maintenance earlier, and there are some C5Ms and some D1As from a training unit.”
“That’s scraping the bottom of the barrel … the C5Ms, how many? Who are they?”
“I’m not sure … hang on … Seven, it’s a squadron recently re-rolled to ASW patrol.”
“The C5Ms are a good 100 knots faster than the others … they might be able to make it in time to make a difference. Send the C5Ms against the Destroyers and keep the others in reserve for when we find the cruisers.
Star of Hope
Al Derrighan watched as the Destroyer turned and took up its position out to seaward. He noticed that the British MTBs had stopped laying a smoke screen and were moving to take up position themselves. He didn’t know enough about naval tactics to make sense of it, so he moved along the deck.
“Excuse me Commander. Could I ask a question please?”
Wessex-Faversham turned his head.
“Yes Mr Derrighan what is it?”
“I don’t understand the tactics, can you explain them to me please? Why have they stopped laying smoke?”
Wessex-Faversham paused, obviously thinking how best to put it.
“Originally the MTBs lay smoke to protect us from the Japanese ships out there …” he gestured to seaward. “… to prevent them shelling us from long range. Now the US ships have arrived that’s less likely, as they’ll probably be the initial target. As they aren’t tied up maintaining the smoke screen that frees the MTBs for a more offensive role, and they’re forming up to be ready when the time comes. Does that help?”
“Yes, thank you Commander. Do you … do you know how long until the Japanese attack again?”
“You’d have to ask the Japanese that.”
Escort One was the flagship of the Escort group. The three Diahatsu based escorts closed the convoy at full speed – although as this was only 10 knots they weren’t closing all that quickly. The Lieutenant in charge of the Escort Group thought it made a nice change to be taking offensive action for once.
“What’s the range?”
“8,000 meters sir.”.
“Send a signal. Escort Two to open fire with the 120mm when she is in range. Target the merchants. All ships to reserve the 76s for the enemy CF. Wait till they get to 3,000 meters then open fire.”
Lieutenant Commander Fredricks and his Executive Officer were at the Bridge rail, looking out on the convoy. Their gaze was drawn to Peel. With only a single mast remaining, hull blackened by fire and visibly battered by the shell fire she’s received, and with smoke pouring out of the stump of her funnel and from her innards (where the bunker fire had chosen this moment to re-ignite) she naturally drew the eye.
“I still find it hard to believe, the Limey’s putting sailing ships into commission as escorts. It seems crazy … but … well even though I know it it’s difficult to believe she fought off Destroyers. ”
“I visited her before I took up this command you know, was on board for sea trials while she worked up. That ship is tougher than she appears. You know she’s got two 6 inchers in there – she actually carries more fire power than we do. And her Captain went over her plans with me – she was designed from the keel up as a warship, everything arranged with battle in mind.”
“Even so … I mean look at her.”
“How many hits must she have taken? What sort of state would we be in after taking so many? Yet she’s still in the fight.”
The conversation was interrupted by the sound of gunfire and the splash of a shell near the convoy.
“Short, about three hundred meters.”
“We’re at the limits of range sir. I’ll try firing on the up roll.”
“Very well. We’re closing steadily so it shouldn’t be a problem for long.”
Star of Hope
Tejendra hadn’t enjoyed being under shell fire on the river, and according to Lieutenant Grace those had only been sells from a small gun. There however at least he’d had the gunners firing back. This was different, not only were the shell splashes much bigger, indicating a much bigger gun, but the fire was coming from well outside the range of any weapon on the merchants. He felt helpless, and could see by the faces of his crew that they were feeling it too.
Another splash, closer this time.
Japanese Divisional Leader, attached to 7th Squadron
As Commander Kuroki watched through his binoculars a smile appeared on his face, the smile of a predator who has his prey where he wants them.
They can’t afford to let us shell the merchants so they have to do something about it. Their Destroyers are tied up with the Inshore Patrol so that leaves the Coastal Forces – only our Escorts are too shallow draft for torpedoes to be effective and well armoured against their gunfire. To stand any chance at all they’ll have to come in close – into the teeth of fire from all three escorts and my flotillas. That puts the advantage with us, we can concentrate our fire and chop them to pieces.
Another boom, another shell splash.
That one was closer. They’ll have to react,
“Tell Inshore Patrol that we’ve engaged. Then warn the flotillas to expect company – the MTB are going to try and close. We’ll let them through to the escorts, but we’ll harry them as they close. Then while they’re focussed on the escorts we’ll pick out a group and concentrate on them – swamp them with fire, cripple them and them pick another group and repeat the process.”