On the night of 12th-13th November 1942 an extremely violent and intense naval battle broke out off Guadalcanal. A large Japanese task force was intent on landing troops onto Guadalcanal to continue the attack on the U.S. positions at Henderson Field, while its’ battleships would be used to bombard the same positions. They were met head on by a smaller U.S. Navy force. In a pitch black night in the early hours of Friday 13th November, the two naval forces hammered into each other at almost point blank range. The action consisted of combined air and sea engagements over four days, most near Guadalcanal and all related to a Japanese effort to reinforce land forces on the island. The only two U.S. Navy admirals to be killed in a surface engagement in the war were lost in this battle. Below picture shows USS Washington (BB-56) engaging Japanese battleship Kirishima in battle in Iron Bottom Sound.
The first phase of the naval battle of Guadalcanal took place on the night of 12-13 November 1943, when Callaghan's force of cruisers and destroyers attempted to intercept the incoming Japanese bombardment force.
At first appearance Callaghan was very badly outgunned. He had the 8-in heavy cruisers San Francisco and Portland, the 6-in light cruiser Helana and the 5-in anti-aircraft cruisers Juneau and Atlanta, as well as eight destroyers. The Helena carried modern radar, but Callaghan's flagship Callaghan didn't.
The Japanese had the battleships Hiei and Kirishima, each with eight 14-in guns, the light cruiser Nagara and fourteen destroyers. The Japanese had also proved to be better at night-time battles, despite their lack of radar.
Their only weakness was that the battleships were armed with high explosive shells, ready for the bombardment of Henderson Field, rather than with armour piercing shells. On the American side a lack of confidence in their ability to manoeuvre at night meant that they entered battle in a single long line.
At 1.24am on 13 November 1942 the Japanese formation appeared on the Helena's radar at 27,000 yards. Admiral Abe had deployed in an arrow formation. The cruiser Nagara was in the lead, followed by the Hiei and then the Kirishima. He had wanted to have two lines of destroyers on the flanks, but the three destroyers from the right-hand side of the front line had fallen back, so there were two destroyers to the left of the Nagara then three destroyers on each side of the line just ahead of the Hiei. The remaining destroyers had been detached and were patrolling to the west of Guadalcanal.
For the next seventeen minutes the Americans had the advantage of surprise, but Callaghan failed to take advantage of it. His own radar didn't show the Japanese ships, and the two fleets closed to within 2,500 yards of each other. At this point the leading American Cushing and the leading Japanese destroyers Yudachi and Marusami came into sight of each other. The Cushing turned sharply to avoid a collision, and part of the American line followed. At 1.45 Callaghan issued the order to stand by to open fire, but the Japanese moved first.
At 1.48am, with the American fleet almost in amongst the Japanese formation, the Japanese fired star shells, illuminated their targets and then opened fire with guns and long lance torpedoes. A confused melee quickly developed, with American guns focusing as much as possible on the battleship Hiei while the Japanese commanders were able to use their experience and initiative to inflict heavy losses.
The long lance torpedoes accounted for the cruiser Atlanta, which was badly damaged and had to be scuttled after the battle, and the destroyers Cushing and Laffey. Admiral Scott was killed by gunfire that hit the Atlanta.
The San Francisco was hit by fifteen large shells, including a number from the Kirishima. The bridge was destroyed and Admiral Callaghan and his staff were killed. By the end of the fighting the San Francisco's superstructure had been wrecked, although she was intact below that level and still capable moving under her own steam.
The Portland and the Juneau were both hit by later salvoes of torpedoes. The Portland survived to be towed to safety at Tulagi, but the Juneau was sunk by a Japanese submarine as the fleet withdrew after the battle.
The destroyer Barton was hit by two torpedoes and sank quickly. The destroyer Monssen caught fire and had to be abandoned. She exploded at around noon.
When the American ships did open fire they were able to inflict some significant damage on the Japanese ships. The destroyer Akatsuki was sunk, the Yudachi was badly damaged and the battleship Hiei was hit by around 80 shells.
Although the Japanese had dominated the fighting, at 3am the Kirishima, the Nagara and the remaining destroyers turned and withdrew to the north without carrying out the planned bombardment.
At this stage the fighting appeared to have gone very badly for the Americans. Two cruisers and four destroyers and been lost. The San Francisco and Portlandwere both heavily damaged, as were the destroyers Aaron Ward, O'Bannon and Sterrett. Of the original force of five cruisers and eight destroyers only the cruiser Helena and the destroyers O'Bannon and Fletcher had avoided heavy damage or destruction. (historyofwar.org)
Illustration below: USS Atlanta and IJN Hiei, Naval Battle of Guadalcanal