In the belting rain, in the dark of a no moon night, the crew of CVE Nassau tend to the miserable work of refuelling the destroyer. Decks are slippery, conditions dangerous.
The encounter with the enemy is short, sharp, brutal.
Steaming in directly the opposite direction, the three E class boats barely have time to swing guns to bear, barely have time to register before the dark and rain will swallow them up again, before Nassua’s wild gyrations find her safety
But the E boats do have time enough to spray her flanks with 25 mm fire, to punch her sides with 3 inch shells, to leave her burning, to leave her decks running with blood.
How she could be here, alone, almost un escorted, remains a mystery.
How the Japanese mean to meet the threat growing north of Darwin , no longer will be.
They will meet it in the only way the imperial Navy knows
Captain Shibayama on the Hiei stands rock like on his bridge. Silence surrounds him, for he will tolerate no unneeded chatter.
Battle requires discipline. Here, on this mighty bridge, it is Krupp strong
‘Enemy contacts, bearing 160, range 20000 yards sir, one large contact, 3 smaller, possibly a cruiser, 3 destroyers”
Soft words, spoken gently in the dark, as if the speaker orders a simple meal . Soft words, announcing so much violence…….
“Very well, prepare to engage”
Great guns begin to turn, barrels seeking, pointing into the rain, into the dark.
At 12000 yards, Hiei engages.
And somewhere, out there, through the rain, the fog of battle, the unseen enemy shoot back.
Firing by radar, firing by solution, she shoots deliberately, with many periods of silence while the uncertain science of Radar struggles to guide them.
Destroyers launch fish, shells straddle them, a flare of a hit in the dark, announcing Haranua’s 14 incher striking home on something………
The battle, a strange impersonal affair, goes on for nearly an hour, before the pips fade from sight. Dawn is 2 hours away, his fish are gone. No other targets are likely to be found now, not with so much time to run away from this threat.
Time for home.
Plenty of time to run away, yes.
But this is 1944. The time for running away for the allies is long gone.
The sun is well up, the rain still falling under a low grey sky, when Battleship Massachusetts finally catches them.
Shibayama has just finished breakfast, his great ship trembling under full power below him, when the sighting is made.
“Battleship, 3 heavy cruisers, 4 destroyers, starboard flank, bearing 030 sir………moving to intercept.”
A battleship!. Two against 1!. He glances again at the still dark sky. No planes, none . Nor any likely to be. A thrill passes through him. History will be made today………..
‘Form line ahead, port ten, inform Haranua to engage enemy BB only, ,she is the greatest threat gentlemen. Have destroyers stand clear, this will be for the big boys !”
Haranua passes ahead, 1000 yards ahead, great guns to starboard, seeking. White foam boils at her stern.
It is 9 am. There is only one way to describe this.
18000 yards. Stand aside children, the giants are going to work.
The horizon lights up, flashing, brighter momentarily, than the sun. Broadsides away.
In thunder, in smoke, in flame Hiei, Haranua reply.
Shibayama watches closely, the enemy cruisers are moving ahead of the BB, moving to cut him off.
‘I have no fish………..but the enemy do not know this’
‘Signal destroyers……….initiate torpedo attack”…….if they can be made to turn away......
Now the battle rages, guns pounding, pounding, firing with perfect regularity, and the ocean about them erupting with ones of its own.
A brighter flash upon the massa……….a 14 inch hit.
But she keeps coming
9 30 am, 16000 yards.
Now the entire horizon is aflame, the faint grey shapes spitting fire with stunning speed, 6 inch, 8 inch shells streaming towards them.
His destroyers weave, wriggle…….and turn back towards him, it is getting too hot….
Nenohi takes a 16 inch……..it passes through, fails to explode
“I am alright”
They plunge on, course ever so slowly bending west, as the allies push across their bows
Destroyer Hatsuharu takes an 8 inch, fires burn admidships……
Again, that flash, another hit on the enemy…………’Tell guns well done”.
But the enemy is from an age long removed from when Shibayama’s commands ancient steel was laid down………
The 14 inch shell apparently does little to slow the buka down.
Nor does the next from Haranua.
1015 hrs. 15000 yards.
And still the guns thunder. They thunder, beating senses down, numbing men, taking them into tiny insulated worlds, worlds that are full of noise, and noise, and noise.
Again, and again, they hit the Massa, and still she keeps on coming
No captain can expect any more, no ship can fight so well, hit so often, be so professional………..
But still, it seems, they are losing…………….
Now other members of his team are coming into work, bringing the 5 inch barbettes into play, firing onto the cruisers that come steadily closer, and closer.
Two of his destroyers burn, but hang on, bows still carving seas at 30 knots.
Something crashes into the tower below him, screams away. A 16 incher. The Buka is finding the range at last.
‘Gunnery officer, ammunition state”
Time to be away………..
“Fleet will turn away, new course 270, standby to execute”
16 inches of armour piercing death do exactly that, slicing through ancient armour, steel and plate.
Deep into Haranua’s gut
They see it clearly, the puff of dust on her side, the shudder, the shake, so seemingly insignificant, but there is no missing the towering burst of steam and flame from the aft stacks base, nor the sudden, dramatic drop in her speed.
The thought rises immediately, unbidden, unwelcome, unwanted. Bitter. “We are beaten”
As if to full stop it, as if to mock them, Haranua fires again, strikes again, her shells defeated by Pittsburgh steel again………..
The stricken battleship, slides down his port side, light flashing………… ‘Do not wait for me, I will cover”
Oh the weight of command. But some decisions are almost forced upon you.
Ammunition gone. Destroyers falling behind, lagging, burning. A ring of steel closing in.
Destroyer Akitsuki, which has lead them the whole way, lead them and lived a charmed life, turns, races past,, laying smoke, spitting fire, covering the battleships distress.
Until she too, is abruptly shredded.
Hiei turns way, belching smoke, still belching fire from her secondary guns. The cruisers race astern, chasing her, hunting her, sensing her rifles are empty now.
They hit her, again, and again,
But battleships can handle that.
1200 hrs, and the guns fall silent
Hiei sails alone. Behind her, the guns rumble on.
And tears run down Shibayama’s face.
Extract from “shattering the sword” a cantona production
………….and yet, with the withdrawal of Massachusetts and her task force, the battered Haranua, ,and her two burning escorts, crawling north at 5 knots, still would perform one last task.
The airstrikes from CV $#@#$ should have found Hiei, should have sunk her. Instead, the towering smoke from the crippled ships draw them like flies to a carcass.
It takes 7 bombs to finish Haranua, she sinks, firing to the last.
Japan has lost her first battleship.
With 5 carriers now identified near Darwin, and a sea full of ships, this will not deter her at all.
Battleships are designed to fight. And fight they will.