graduate

Kula Gulf

Kula Gulf (157.25E 8.1S) is located between Kolombangara and New Georgia.

"First Battle of Kula Gulf." On the night of 5-6 March 1943, Task Force 68 (four light cruisers, eight destroyers) under the command of "Tip" Merrill was patrolling Kula Gulf when word came that a pair of Japanese destroyers had been spotted sailing south from the Shortlands. At about 2235 the Japanese ships were detected by "Black Cat" Catalinas scouting for TF68. The Japanese ships were carrying provisions for the airfield at Vila on Kolombangara and successfully unloaded their cargoes before heading north into Kula Gulf. The American force picked up the Japanese destroyers on radar and achieved complete surprise, sinking both ships (Murasame and Minegumo) with gunfire and torpedoes. The American task force then carried out a bombardment mission against Vila.

This engagement was not considered major enough to be given a formal name by Navy historians, but it was known informally as the First Battle of Kula Gulf.

Battle of Kula Gulf. On 5 July 1943 Allied intelligence learned that a transport force was on the way to New Georgia from the Shortlands. Ainsworth's force of light cruisers and destroyers was replenishing at Tulagi, but quickly finished preparations and raced north to intercept. Ainsworth did not have time to confer with his ships' captains, but they had trained together and were familiar with the battle plan. This called for a radar-directed gunnery duel at medium range, 8000-10,000 yards (7000-9,000 meters). Ainsworth assumed that his force would have a clear radar advantage and that the enemy torpedoes would be ineffective at this range, but both assumptions were incorrect. By this time the Japanese had begun installing radar on their lighter warships, and Niizuki was equipped with the latest model set; and the Long Lance had a much greater range than Allied intelligence realized. Ainsworth also planned to stay with a column formation with destroyers in the van and rear: The Americans had still not learned the lessons of Tassafaronga.

In the early hours of 6 July 1943 the two forces met at the entrance to Kula Gulf, spotting each other at about the same time. Ainsworth, overconfident in his radar advantage and unaware that he had been detected, closed the range. His cruisers opened fire at 0157, quicky reducing lead Japanese destroyer Niizuki to a sinking wreck. The American destroyers held fire until they could launch torpedoes, which kept them out of the action until very late. The van destroyers never did get a good torpedo solution, and the rear destroyers missed. However, two of the Japanese destroyers launched torpedoes at about the time Niizuki was crippled, and Helena sailed directly into their path and was fatally damaged, with her bow blown off and her keel broken. She sank quickly.

The initial exchange was followed by an indecisive gunnery duel. While the American and Japanese warships were exchanging gunfire, and Amagiri and Nicholas exchanged torpedo salvos, the Japanese managed to land 850 out of the 2600 reinforcements for New Georgia. With ammunition running low, Ainsworth ordered a withdrawal. The Japanese did likewise.

During the withdrawal, destroyer Nagatsuki ran aground and could not be pulled free. Aircraft from Henderson Field attacked the next day, setting the ship afire, and at about dusk her magazines exploded.

The Americans had erred in assuming they were undetected; in incautiously closing to within torpedo range; and in relying on gunfire rather than their own torpedoes. As a result, the superior American force was unable to achieve anything better than a draw.

Japanese order of battle

Reinforcement Force (Akiyama)     

 
Support Group



DD Niizuki Sunk by gunfire


DD Suzukaze
Slight damage from gunfire


DD Tanikaze
Slight damage from gunfire

1 Transport Group



DD Mochizuki



DD Mikazuki


DD Hamakaze

2 Transport Group



DD Amagiri Moderate damage from gunfire


DD Hatsuyuki Moderate damage from gunfire


DD Nagatsuki Sunk by aircraft after running aground


DD Satsuki

U.S. order of battle

Task Group 36.1 (Ainsworth)     


CL Honolulu


CL Helena Sunk by torpedoes

CL St.Louis

DD Nicholas

DD O'Bannon

DD Radford

DD Jenkins

References

Dull (1978)

Morison (1950)

Spector (1985)


Valid HTML 4.01 Transitional