HMNZS Leander

Page 4 – Pacific attack

Tensions were rising in the Pacific by the time that the Leander’s crew returned to a huge civic welcome at Auckland in September 1941. On 7 December Japanese carrier planes struck the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, sinking and damaging most of its battleships.

In February 1942 Leander and Achilles joined Australian and American ships in Suva as part of the Anzac Naval Force. They escorted convoys and supply teams fortifying island bases on voyages that took them as far afield as New Caledonia and the New Hebrides. Later that year, the New Zealand cruisers escorted supply runs to Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands, where US Marines had landed in August. After the naval victory in the battle of Midway in June 1942, Guadalcanal marked the real start of the island-hopping fight-back. Japan’s carrier fleet may have been smashed at Midway, but its surface fleet was largely intact. With both sides contesting the narrow waters of the island-studded Solomons in support of land operations, things were about to get bloody.

Battle of Kolombangara

In July 1943, after a refit at Auckland and further convoy duty, the Leander, commanded by Captain Cecil Mansergh RN, joined Rear-Admiral Walden Ainsworth’s US Task Force 36.1 off the Kula Gulf in the Solomon Islands to replace the USS Helena, sunk a week earlier by Japanese destroyers. Its consorts were the big US light cruisers Honolulu and St. Louis and ten destroyers.

Heading towards them was the Japanese light cruiser Jintsu and five destroyers, part of the famous ‘Tokyo Express’, escorting four destroyer transports carrying 1200 troops and supplies.

By now, the United States dominated the air, forcing Japanese surface ships to sail at night to supply their garrisons. Although the USA had superior radar, the Japanese were superb night fighters, using the cover of darkness to launch their formidable Type-93 610-mm (24-inch) ‘Long Lance’ torpedo from a distance of up to 20 km, twice the range the Allies expected; the big torpedoes also travelled faster and packed a heavier punch than Allies' 533-mm ‘fish’.

Even so, the odds should have favoured the Allies. The Jintsu, a contemporary of the old D-class, carried just seven 140-mm guns, no match for the more than three dozen 152-mm guns mounted in the three newer, bigger Allied cruisers.

The two forces closed at over 60 knots in the darkness. In the early hours of the 13th, Rear-Admiral Isaki’s ships appeared on the American radar screens. Then the leading US destroyers sighted the enemy and attacked with torpedoes. The Leander, which unlike the American cruisers, had torpedo tubes, joined in the US destroyers’ attack, firing four.

At first things went well for the Allies. No Japanese ship carried radar, although some had used their radar detectors to learn that the enemy was close. After foolishly playing a searchlight on the leading American destroyers, the Jintsu was pounded by Honolulu, Leander and St. Louis, vanishing into the dark to explode and sink, taking 482 officers and crew with it.

But already the tide had turned in favour of the Japanese. Earlier, taking advantage of their long-range torpedoes, four destroyers had launched about 30. Then miscommunication between the Allied ships over a turn to port saw them bunch badly, narrowly missing colliding. Not only was Leander a stand-in, so were many of the destroyers. Most ships had never operated together. In the confusion, Leander took a torpedo, fell out of line and was left behind. Fortunately the Japanese broke off action, pursued by the Americans.

But it was only to reload. Less than 20 minutes later they returned to the attack, torpedoing and damaging both the St. Louis and the Honolulu and wrecking the destroyer Gwin so badly that it had to be scuttled. To add insult to injury, two American destroyers collided, inflating the damage count.

How to cite this page

'Pacific attack', URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/war/hmnzs-leander/pacific-attack, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 20-Dec-2012