Rennell Island

Relief map of Rennell Island and surroundings

Rennell Island (160.29E 11.67S) is located about 120 miles (200 km) south of Guadalcanal. It is about 50 miles (80 km) long and 15 miles (24 km) wide. The island is a former atoll that was raised 400 feet (120 m)  by tectonic activity. The original lagoon became a large brackish lake, Lake Te'Nngano, and the island is surrounded by high coral cliffs. There were no facilities to speak of here when war broke out.

The Battle of Rennell Island

During the last week of January 1943, the American commanders in the South Pacific became increasingly concerned because of intelligence suggesting a buildup of Japanese forces in the northern Solomons. The Japanese were actually making preparations for the evacuation of Guadalcanal, but the Americans assumed the buildup was for another attempt to capture Henderson Field. Halsey decided to respond to the perceived threat by sending a heavily supported convoy of four transports to bring in fresh troops and supplies and relieve the last elements of 1 Marine Division. Halsey hoped to draw out Yamamoto's forces for a decisive confrontation, but Yamamoto was short on fuel and limited his response to a night air attack.

The American naval forces, while formidable, were scattered across several bases and so were forced to sail in six separate forces. Three of these did not see action. The others were the transport group itself; the Enterprise task force under "Ted" Sherman; and Task Force 18, a close support force of cruisers, destroyers, and escort carriers under Robert C. Giffen. Giffen was new to the Pacific, having previously tangled with submarines during Operation TORCH in the Atlantic and Mediterranean. Halsey gave Giffen little tactical direction, but he did emphasize that Giffen was to rendezvous with Destroyer Squadron 21 off the southwest coast of Guadalcanal at 2100 on 30 January, then sweep up "The Slot" while the transports unloaded.

The escort carriers were not employed effectively. Instead of being sent ahead to await the cruisers, they were kept with the main force, where their slow speed and need to reverse course for flight operations (the wind being out of the southeast) slowed the advance. Giffen was anxious to make his rendezvous, and decided to drop off the escort carriers and rush ahead to the rendezvous, where he would have air cover from Guadalcanal. The escort carriers were to maintain a combat air patrol over the cruisers for as long as they could.

Radar detected aircraft nearby late in the afternoon of 29 January 1943, but IFF was erratic and it was uncertain whether these were Japanese snoopers or friendly aircraft. Giffen insisted on maintaining strict radio silence, which made it impossible to vector out fighters to intercept and identify. The answer came shortly after dark, when 31 G4M "Betty" bombers loaded with torpedoes made a night attack.

Giffen had ordered his force into a formation ideal for submarine defense but unsuitable for air defense. When his radar detected aircraft 60 miles to the west, he maintained course and formation and gave no further instructions. The Japanese strike commander circled the task force to its south, so as not to be silhouetted by the twilight, and split into two groups for an anvil attack. The first wave scored no hits, and Giffen stubbornly continued on course and even ceased zigzagging in order to make his rendezvous. Japanese scout planes then dropped illuminating flares and another attack wave came in from the east. A torpedo hit Louisville but failed to explode. At 1945 another torpedo hit Chicago, the aft fireroom began to flood, and steering control was lost. Shortly thereafter a second torpedo hit and flooded another fireroom, depriving the ship of all propulsion.  Meanwhile Wichita was hit by another dud torpedo.

At 2000, when the last glow of twilight had gone, Giffen finally ordered a reversal of course at reduced speed to avoid stirring up phosphorescent wakes. The Japanese aircraft now had considerable difficulty finding the American ships, and even turned on their running lights and fired tracers to try to entice the Americans to give away their position with gun flashes. The aircraft finally ran low on fuel and returned to base.

Shortly after midnight, Louisville took Chicago under tow at a speed of about 4 knots. The escort carriers moved close to provide better air cover, and Enterprise also closed to provide fighter protection. At 1445 twelve "Bettys" were spotted off New Georgia, and they were picked up on Enterprise's radar at 1554. Ten fighters were launched to join the ten fighters already over Chicago, but they missed their rendezvous. Six other fighters covering Giffen's main force raced south to cover Enterprise. The Japanese flight leader had sighted Chicago and changed course to attack the cripple rather than run the gaunlet of Wildcats protecting Enterprise. The American fighters destroyed three "Bettys", but nine evaded the Wildcats and raced in on Chicago at a speed of 300 knots (555 km/h). Another seven were destroyed by antiaircraft fire, but four torpedoes slammed into Chicago, which was immediately abandoned and sank twenty minutes later. Destroyer La Vallette was also hit and badly damaged.

A second group of Japanese aircraft failed to find the American force. The transports being covered by Giffen reached Guadalcanal unmolested and the remaining American forces remained at sea for another week as a counter to continuing Japanese naval activity north of the Solomons.

Halsey had no use for Giffen after the debacle. However, Nimitz was less scathing in his judgement, and gave Giffen a second chance in the Aleutians.

Task Force 18

Heavy Cruisers (Giffen)      
CA Wichita

CA Chicago

CA Louisville
Light Cruisers (Merrill)

CL Montpelier

CL Cleveland

CL Columbia
Air Support Group

CVE Chenango

VGF-28: 11 F4F-4 Wildcat     

VGS-28: 8 SBD-3 Dauntless, 9 TBF-1 Avenger     

CVE Suwannee

VGF-27: 18 F4F-4 Wildcat     

VGS-27: 15 TBF-1 Avenger     
Destroyer Screen

DD La Vallette
Badly damaged

DD Waller

DD Conway

DD Frazier

DD Chevalier

DD Edwards

DD Meade

DD Taylor


Morison (1949)

Rottman (2002) (accessed 2008-3-6)

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