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In the final days of World War II, the Royal Navy achieved a victory over the Imperial Japanese Navy that restored some measure of the prestige that it had lost early in the war.

Driven from the waters of Southeast Asia by a resolute opponent intoxicated with victory in the first months of war, it would be years before ships of the Royal Navy returned to the Pacific to achieve some measure of revenge on the Imperial Japanese Navy. The prelude to one of the final naval battles of World War II began before the first bombs fell on Pearl Harbor, when people believed that the war to end all wars had already been fought. When World War I finally ended on November 11, 1918, victorious European nations refocused their attention on prewar pursuits. For the leading Allied powers, this included maintaining their vast overseas empires, some of which had been expanded further by the acquisition of German- and Turkish-held territories.

Among those nations with the largest overseas concerns was Britain, whose imperial outposts dotted the globe. Believing that future difficulties in these possessions would be confined to maintaining order and putting down internal dissent, Great Britain’s leadership did little to prepare for a larger conflict. The increased militancy and nationalism of Japan, however, eventually caused them to reconsider this stance.

In the 1930s, British military planners designated Singapore the empire’s most strategic point short of the home island itself, and they correctly saw Japan as the greatest threat to that crucial port. To counter this, plans were drawn up to establish a balanced fleet at Singapore’s great naval base that would secure the city as well as protect India to the west, Australia to the south and Malaya to the north. Planning, however, was not action, and when war with Japan finally came on December 7, 1941, the results were disastrous for Britain.

At war with Germany and Italy since 1939, the Admiralty could only spare two capital ships, battleship Prince of Wales and battle cruiser Repulse, to join a patchwork squadron of elderly cruisers and destroyers already at Singapore. Then, just three days after hostilities commenced, Japanese bombers caught Prince of Wales and Repulse and sank them both.

Allied with Japan during World War I, the British had provided training and built warships for the Imperial Japanese Navy during friendlier times, and in many respects Japan based its fleet on the British model. Having learned their lessons well at battles off Endau, in the Java Sea, Sunda Strait, off Borneo and in the Bay of Bengal in 1941-42, the Japanese sank the aircraft carrier Hermes, heavy cruisers Exeter, Dorsetshire and Cornwall, five destroyers and a sloop at little cost, driving the Royal Navy all the way to the east coast of Africa. After those losses, the commander of the Eastern Fleet, Vice Adm. James Somerville, hero of Gibraltar’s Force H and many Malta convoys, told his superiors at the Admiralty, “I can only create diversions and false scents, since I am now the poor fox.” Although efforts were made to reinforce the remaining Royal Navy forces in the Indian Ocean as the war progressed, it was never sufficient to play a major part in the conflict in the Pacific, a role eventually assumed by the U.S. Navy.

By the middle of 1944, however, the situation had changed. With Italy defeated and what remained of Germany’s High Seas Fleet confined to Arctic waters, Britain could finally base a strong fleet at Ceylon and, at long last, strike back at the Japanese. On the other side, years of struggle with the Americans had left the Japanese navy a shadow of its former self.

On February 25, 1945, the heavy cruiser Haguro joined the 10th Area Fleet at Singapore. This once mighty force now only mustered two cruisers, Haguro and Takao, destroyer Kamikaze, assorted mine vessels, submarine chasers and patrol craft. Haguro’s busy career mirrored the wartime fortunes of the Japanese navy. It had helped sink two cruisers and a destroyer at the Battle of the Java Sea and off Borneo in February and March 1942. It screened the carriers at Coral Sea and helped capture the Alaskan islands of Attu and Kiska in June 1942. It fought in the Solomon campaigns and in the cruiser duel of Empress August Bay in 1943. Haguro survived the Battle of the Philippine Sea and sailed in the armada that squandered an overwhelming advantage against American escort carriers at the Battle of Leyte Gulf in October 1944.

By March 1945, Japan still occupied vast territories, but it was losing them fast. After a long campaign that had more to do with imperial pride and the lack of a coherent strategy than military necessity, the British finally arrived at the banks of the Irrawaddy River in Burma and began infiltrating down the Burmese coast via small amphibious landings. In February 1945, the East Indies Fleet, based at Trincomalee, Ceylon, started sending destroyer patrols into the Bay of Bengal to harass the enemy. With a touch of overconfidence, they were called “club runs.” The 26th Destroyer Flotilla under Captain Manley L. Power, with Saumarez, Volage and Rapid, departed Trincomalee on March 14 to conduct the third of these sweeps.

The voyage began uneventfully. The British bombarded a train on Sumatra, fruitlessly scoured the coast of the Nicobars and looked into an empty Port Blair on the Andaman Islands. It might as well have been a training exercise. On March 19, Power led his ships to Stewart Sound between North and Middle Andaman islands. Saumarez negotiated a narrow, bent passage and discovered a junk moored alongside a pier, which the destroyer’s gunners began peppering.

Given the ease of the voyage to this point, the British were probably a bit shocked when their gunfire was interrupted by the report of a Japanese battery firing from behind them. A hidden 6.1-inch shore battery had surprised Rapid, which had been left to guard the sound’s seaward entrance. Five shells smashed into the destroyer, damaging the boiler rooms. When Saumarez returned, it found Rapid dead in the water, a large fire raging amidships and plumes of steam and smoke boiling up from its funnels. Power’s flagship passed a towline while Volage stood off, trying to distract the battery by furiously returning fire with its own 4.7-inch guns. In this it succeeded only too well; three Japanese shells struck Volage and disabled its steering. The British destroyers finally managed to escape. Rapid lost 11 men killed and 21 wounded in the clash, while Volage suffered three killed and eight wounded. Despite the heavy butcher’s bill, the British were lucky. The battery’s 123-pound shells could have easily sunk one or more of the thinly armored destroyers.

On March 25, the East Indies Fleet gave the 26th Flotilla, now including Saumarez, Virago, Vigilant and Volage, another chance. They headed east and at 10:30 the next morning found the submarine chasers Ch-34 and Ch-63 escorting a convoy of two small freighters, Rishio Maru (1,500 tons) and Teshio Maru (400 tons) carrying rice, reinforcements and women for the Andaman garrison. This time Power handled his ships too cautiously. Sailing in line ahead, Saumarez opened fire at 10:59, targeting Teshio Maru from 14,000 yards—beyond the range of the single 3-inch/40 gun that armed each of the subchasers. The other destroyers joined in.

The sea was calm and the air clear. The destroyers fired rapidly, their 4.7-inch guns capable of shooting a dozen 62-pound rounds a minute. After one pass that left the enemy unharmed, Virago closed to 4,000 yards. Four torpedoes whooshed into the water running toward Rishio Maru, but all missed. Volage launched four more, and those missed as well. At 11:29, with the untouched convoy fleeing southwest, Power called in a pair of patrolling Royal Air Force Consolidated Liberators. Attacking at mast level, the lead plane sank Teshio Maru with a well-placed stick of bombs, but got caught in the blast and went spinning into the sea.

Power’s destroyers had worked around to the south of the convoy during the bombing run, and at 11:50 they renewed their attack. The subchasers fled as the destroyers finally crippled Rishio Maru. Volage finished it off while Saumarez rescued the B-24 crew and Vigilant and Virago pursued the subchasers. Volage’s captain wrote, “I had not realized how easy it was to get rid of some 900 rounds in a short space of time.”

By 12:30 p.m., Vigilant and Virago had the subchasers under fire from long range. The Japanese skippers fought their small ships (one-quarter the size of their British opponents and capable, at 16 knots, of only half their speed) with determination and skill. They maneuvered smartly and successfully chased salvos, vacating a patch of water just before enemy shells arrived. Vigilant finally closed and, foregoing half measures, emptied all eight of its torpedo tubes. One ran true and exploded against Ch-63. “It was as though the whole of the forepart was blown out of the water and folded backwards over the bridge,” the Japanese captain later reported. The subchaser sank in just seconds, but its sister ship managed to strike some last defiant blows. A member of Vigilant’s crew recalled, “After training our tubes fore and aft a 4- inch shell from the other frigate hit our Bofors ammunition locker and went right through…three partitions of steel to explode in the catwalk over the after tubes…[and] a hail of small fire rattled along our decks.”

As Ch-34 fought back, Vigilant and Virago closed to Bofors range, having nearly exhausted their supply of 4.7-inch ammunition. Finally, at 4:30 p.m., seven and a half hours after the battle began, little Ch-34 succumbed, its guns still firing even as it sank. Vigilant returned to the site where the steamers sank and rescued some survivors, including one Filipina who could speak English, but left many more to drown. A crewman remembered “someone on the forecastle shouting up to the captain, calling him a bastard for leaving women in the sea.” In total, Power’s four ships expended 3,160 4.7-inch rounds and 18 torpedoes. The British official history dryly noted that “the Admiralty, not surprisingly, described the action as ‘unsatisfactory.’ ”

On April 23, 1945, the Japanese army evacuated Rangoon, Burma’s capital, just before Indian troops landed below the city. Destroyers sweeping the bay in advance of the assault claimed they sank nine small vessels carrying 1,000 Japanese troops, but Captain Power’s ships missed this action. They screened Queen Elizabeth and Richelieu when those battleships bombarded Port Blair on May 6. Their big guns avenged Rapid by leaving massive craters where the Japanese battery at Stewart Sound had been. The fleet returned to Trincomalee on May 9, in time to celebrate the end of the war against Germany.

The Andaman Islands guarded the sea lanes to Malaya, but the club runs had isolated them, and by May the Japanese garrison faced starvation. On May 9, the 10th Area Fleet sent two of its last three major operational units, Haguro and destroyer Kamikaze, along with two submarine chasers from Singapore, to bring in supplies and evacuate excess troops. Ultra, the British code-breaking machine, uncovered the plan. British submarines Statesman and Subtle, lurking in the Malacca Straits, unsuccessfully attacked the Japanese squadron. Subtle’s Lieutenant B.J.B. Andrew reported that Haguro was painted pink, a shade used by the Royal Navy called “Mountbatten pink.” This led to some head scratching and speculation that the submarine’s commander mistook the color in the light or that the Japanese had painted Haguro from stocks captured in Singapore.

Task Force 61 under Vice Adm. H.T.C. Walker, consisting of Queen Elizabeth, Richelieu, three cruisers, four escort carriers and eight destroyers, sailed from Trincomalee to intercept the cruiser. Japanese aircraft spotted Walker’s ships; aboard Haguro Rear Adm. Shintaro Hashimoto, now the fox to the British hounds, wisely turned back on the night of May 11.

In light of the Andaman garrison’s desperate situation, Hashimoto sailed again on May 15. Walker, anticipating this move, had stayed at sea hiding south of Six Degree Channel. On May 15, he released the 26th Flotilla, now with Saumarez, Verulam, Venus, Virago and Vigilant, to sweep the seas around Sumatra’s northern tip. Power craved independent action, but some of his men were less excited. “I had not been keen on going out again,” one officer recalled, “least of all against a cruiser when the war was supposed to be over.”

After being given the green light, Power continued at 27 knots steaming deep into enemy waters until 10:41. Then, because Walker lacked hard intelligence about Haguro’s whereabouts, the admiral recalled the 26th Flotilla. Power, however, had just intercepted an aircraft’s sighting report that sounded promising, so he turned a blind eye toward Walker’s order.

Little more than an hour later, while searching for a ditched aircraft, a British airplane finally spotted Haguro escorted by Kamikaze. Due to mechanical difficulties and crowded flight decks, Walker needed six hours to put a four-plane strike into the air from the escort carrier Shah. Haguro had long since come about and was steaming hard for Singapore—and safety. The quartet of Grumman Avengers conducted the longest British carrier strike of the war and the first dive-bombing attack on a cruiser since 1940, but they inflicted only minor damage and Haguro’s gunners shot down the lead plane, whose crew was taken prisoner. Meanwhile, Walker sent a battleship and a heavy cruiser forward to support the 26th Flotilla, but only Power’s ships had a chance to catch Haguro.

As darkness fell, Power’s five destroyers sailed south into the Strait of Malacca 85 miles southeast of Haguro’s reported position and between the cruiser and the safety of its home port. Power related in a letter to his wife: “It was a pitch dark night, with dense black clouds and occasional tropical rain, lit fitfully by vivid lightning. A proper stage setting for a rather desperate venture.” At 10:45 p.m., the unusual atmospheric conditions enabled Venus to establish radar contact with the enemy at the incredible range of 34 miles. As Hashimoto’s force closed the distance to 26 miles, Power swung his flotilla to the north in line abreast and reduced speed to 20 knots.

At 12:03 a.m., with the range down to 28,000 yards, the flotilla reversed course to the south and reduced speed to 12 knots to keep a telltale wake from showing in the incandescent sea. Power strung his ships in a rough crescent from northwest through south to east. If Haguro obligingly entered the crescent, the destroyers would torpedo it from all sides. At 12:50 a.m., Power ordered his flotilla to come about and head toward the enemy. Ten minutes later, however, Haguro’s lookouts reported suspicious shapes and its commander, Rear Adm. Kaju Sugiura, ordered his helmsman to zigzag at 20 knots, maintaining a southeasterly heading. Even then, all seemed well from the British point of view. Haguro loomed dead ahead of Saumarez at a range of 12,000 yards and the British were closing rapidly. Then, four minutes later, Japanese lookouts shouted an alarm. Sugiura reversed course to starboard and began working up to 30 knots heading northwest. Power, suddenly facing a sprung trap and the prospect of a stern chase, also rang up full speed.

At 1:05 a.m., Haguro came back around to the southeast. Admiral Hashimoto probably realized he would eventually run into the entire British fleet if he fled back into the open sea. The imposing cruiser now lay fine on Saumarez’s bow, range 6,000 yards and closing at 30 yards a second. The British ships held fire to keep their locations hidden. Then Kamikaze suddenly appeared just 3,000 yards off, and Saumarez had no choice; its forward guns erupted with flashes of flame as the British destroyer swerved hard to starboard to avoid crashing into the Japanese ship. Saumarez passed behind Kamikaze and its 40mm Bofors raked the surprised enemy’s deck, killing 27 men and wounding 14 others. Power’s flagship then twisted to port, closing with the cruiser as starshells erupted overhead. With a target finally in view, Haguro fired an eight-gun broadside. (Turret No. 2 had been knocked out at the Battle of Leyte Gulf by a 1,000- pound bomb and never repaired.) “All this time I had been conscious that the familiar crack of our 4.7s and the thumpthump-thump of my own guns were being blotted out by a gigantic hammering storm of tremendous noise, drowning all speech and sense,” a crewman aboard Saumarez recalled. “Haguro was firing on us, point-blank.”

Within a few minutes, 277-pound shells sheared off Saumarez’s funnel and gashed its forecastle. Another witness remembered: “The sea was spouting with shell splashes all round us. We were drenched to the skin with near misses and water streaming everywhere as we closed the range, our guns still firing rapid broadsides into the destroyer and hell’s delight going on with enemy salvos screaming over the ship.”

A 4.7-inch shell did the British destroyer the most harm, the 51-pound missile hitting the boiler room and severing the main steam pipe. As a large fire that killed two men and badly wounded three others erupted amidships, Saumarez lost speed. Nonetheless, the starboard screw still revolved at full power. The ship skewed around broad on the cruiser’s beam. At 1:13, the first of eight torpedoes leapt from its tubes, the others following at timed intervals while Saumarez’s black gang worked frantically to restore power. Sugiura thought he had disabled one destroyer and was training his heavy guns on Verulam when, at 1:14, the British destroyer began launching six “fish” from the cruiser’s bow, range 2,000 yards. A pair of torpedoes from those salvos, each packing 810 pounds of Torpex, exploded near No. 1 and No. 3 turrets. Making smoke, Saumarez—which had earlier survived an 11-inch hit when it and Virago helped sink the German battle cruiser Scharnhorst in the Arctic on December 26, 1943—escaped northwest to sort out its damage as Verulam headed east. Haguro’s speed fell and flooding water quickly produced a 30 degree list to port. Kamikaze fell in behind the cruiser, but Hashimoto ordered it to Penang and the elderly destroyer succeeded in escaping into the night.

Three British destroyers still maneuvered to attack, and Sugiura ordered abrupt alterations in course, trying to disrupt their aim. Starshells and flares exploded overhead; the roar of guns mingled with the rumble of thunder. The torpedo concussions cut Haguro’s electric power, and the turrets couldn’t train. After a time, the two aft turrets began to fire again, but under local control and without the accuracy of their first salvos. At 1:25, Venus closed to 2,500 yards and sent six torpedoes toward Haguro’s starboard side. Within two minutes Virago launched seven torpedoes toward the same spot. A rocket showed the seemingly gigantic form of the cruiser nearly dead in the water, listing 40 degrees to port. At least one of those 13 torpedoes struck Haguro in the engine room. Sugiura ordered smoke, but with the cruiser now barely moving, it hung in the air, giving scant concealment. Shortly thereafter a salvo of 4.7-inch shells sliced through the cruiser’s bridge, cutting down Hashimoto and most of his officers and mortally wounding Sugiura in the stomach.

Finally, at 1:51, Vigilant, its torpedo solutions fouled up to this point by its sister ships, closed to 1,800 yards. Eight torpedoes smacked the water one after the other, but they all missed. Venus fired its last two torpedoes from 1,200 yards. Its captain reported, “We opened up with Bofors and their pink tracers were very spectacular as they curved towards the now stopped cruiser with its deck awash and after part covered with billowing thick black smoke.”

Altogether the 26th Flotilla launched 37 torpedoes. The five captains claimed a total of nine hits, and at least three torpedoes found their target. That was enough. Haguro sank bow first at 2:32 in the morning, 45 miles northwest of Penang and safety. Power’s ships halfheartedly tried to fish a survivor or two out of the water and then made off at speed. The next afternoon Kamikaze rescued 320 survivors from Haguro’s complement of 1,200 men.

In the larger scheme of the war, even in terms of British plans to reconquer their lost colony of Malaya, Captain Power’s victory had little significance. Rather, its importance was psychological. Stephen Roskill, Britain’s official historian, wrote, “It was a heartening success for the East Indies fleet at last to sink a major Japanese warship.” The Royal Navy had returned to the waters where it suffered its greatest defeat in modern times. The navy redeemed itself in an old-fashioned gun and torpedo action, sinking a major warship that had triumphed over British forces in similar actions three years before. The battleships and cruisers didn’t get a chance because the 26th Destroyer Flotilla led the way.

Vincent P. O’Hara is a naval historian whose contributions appear frequently in World War II Magazine. For further reading, see Engage the Enemy More Closely: The Royal Navy in the Second World War, by Correlli Barnett.

Originally published in the May 2006 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here