Operation Battle of Cape St George

The 'Battle of Cape St George' was a naval battle fought between US and Japanese forces in the waters between Cape St George, New Ireland, and Buka island (25 November 1943).

During the engagement, a force of five US Navy destroyers led by Captain Arleigh A. Burke intercepted an identically sized Japanese force that was withdrawing from Buka toward Rabaul on New Britain island after landing reinforcements on Buka. In the battle, three Japanese destroyers were sunk and one was damaged, with no losses among the US forces.

In their 'Cherryblossom' operation, the Americans had landed troops of the 3rd Marine Division around Torokina on Bougainville island on 1 November 1943. Deciding that landings were a ruse, and that the real Allied objective was the airfields around Buka to the north of Bougainville, the Japanese delayed the launch of a concerted counterattack on Cape Torokina, and instead decided to reinforce Buka. As a result, 920 Japanese army troops were embarked on the destroyers Amagiri, Yugiri and Uzuki under the command of Captain Katsumori Yamashiro and despatched to reinforce the Buka garrison, escorted by the destroyers Onami and Makinami under the command of Captain Kiyoto Kagawa. The convoy of Destroyer Division 31's ships was spotted by US reconnaissance aircraft, and the US Navy despatched Burke’s Destroyer Squadron 23, comprising Destroyer Division 45 (Charles Ausburne, Claxton and Dyson), under Burke’s direct command, and Destroyer Division 46 (Converse and Spence) under Commander Bernard Austin, to intercept it. Meanwhile, nine PT-boats under Commander Henry Farrow moved into the Buka Passage to engage the Japanese if Burke’s force was unable to make contact.

In their operational plan, the Japanese divided their force into two columns, with the three transport destroyers trailing the two escort destroyers. The Americans' battle plan also divided their force into two columns using tactics devised by Burke and first employed successfully by Commander Frederick Moosbrugger in the 'Battle of Vella Gulf' during the previous August. One column was to deliver a torpedo attack while the other took up a supporting position ready to open fire with its ships' guns as soon as the first column’s torpedo attack had struck home.

The Japanese destroyers landed the 920 troops and supplies and embarked 700 Imperial Japanese navy air force personnel being withdrawn as Allied bombing had rendered the airfield at Buka unusable. The Japanese force was then returning to Rabaul when Farrow’s PT-boats spotted four of the Japanese ships on their radar just after midnight. However, the PT-boats mistook the Japanese vessels for friendly units and hove to farther ashore. Two of the Japanese ships subsequently attacked the PT-boats, firing on them and attempting to ram PT-318. They failed to score any hits, however, while one of the PT-boats, PT-64, fired a torpedo which missed its target. After this skirmish, the Japanese destroyers steamed to the west toward Cape St George.

At about 01.41, Kagawa’s two screening destroyers were detected on radar by Burke’s destroyers, which had moved into position between Cape St George and Buka, with Dyson making contact first. Poor visibility prevented the Japanese from spotting the US ships. Burke elected to use his own division for the torpedo attack, and superior radar allowed the US ships to approach within 5,500 yards (5030 m) and launch their torpedoes at about 01.55 before the Japanese sighted them. Onami was hit by several torpedoes and sank immediately with all hands, including Kagawa. Makinami was hit by one torpedo and disabled.

Burke’s force established radar contact with the rest of the Japanese force at a range of 13,000 yards (11885 m) soon after launching their torpedoes and turned to pursue; Yamashiro’s three transport destroyers fled to the north, pursued by Burke’s division, while Converse and Spence of Austin’s division finished off the disabled Makinami with torpedoes and gunfire. During the chase, torpedoes fired by Japanese destroyers exploded in the wakes of the US destroyers. Burke’s three destroyers steadily gained on the three heavily laden Japanese destroyers, opening fire at about 02.22 and scoring several hits. Uzuki was hit by one shell which failed to detonate and escaped without significant damage. Amagiri escaped untouched. At about 02.25, the Japanese ships divided and fled in different directions. Burke chose to pursue Yugiri with his entire force and sank her at about 03.28 after a fierce engagement.

By 03.45, Burke’s and Austin’s divisions had linked, continuing to push north to pursue the withdrawing Japanese ships.[7] Burke subsequently called off the attempt at 04:04, low on fuel and ammunition, and needing to withdraw before daylight, when Japanese aircraft would likely begin operations to search for them. In the event, the only aircraft the US ships spotted once daylight came were Lockheed P-38 Lightning twin-engined fighters of the Air Solomons command.

The battle represented a significant victory for the new US tactics and was later described as an 'almost perfect action'. It was the final surface engagement of the Solomon islands campaign, and the last such action in the wider Pacific theatre for nine months. Although the Japanese had been able to land their troops and withdraw their supporting personnel, they lost three destroyers sunk and one damaged, without inflicting any loss on the US force, as well as 647 men killed. Some 279 survivors from Yugiri were rescued by the Japanese submarine I-177 and 11 by the Japanese submarine I-181.