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The Way of Torres

February 2 2012 at 10:01 AM
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Jacques  (no login)
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Response to quotations from the Joint Committee on the PH attack


I'm glad you brought up the subject again. Don't know if you totally agree with me but I think that the immediate pre-war (from a US point of view) period and days leading up to the bombing of PH is probably the most interesting of all WW2 history. There is still much to uncover and the Pensacola Convoy episode is just one good example of how much we think we know vs. what we DO know. Let's see:

"... Until International conditions on and subsequent to 25 November become defined and clarified, however, any further direct or Great Circle routing between Hawaii and the Philippines should not be used. Until further advised by department, routes south of Mandates should be prescribed."

This protocol did not prescribe the exact route to be taken - just to keep South of the Mandates. So, how is it that the Pensacola convoy was directed to take the route through Torres Strait - from what we do know, not because of the attack on Pearl Harbor but because of a decision made sometime before the convoy departed from Hawaii?

The usual pre-war route, Pearl Harbor to Manila (passing close to Guam) was (still is!)a distance of 4820 nautical miles and steaming at 12 knots, the voyage would have taken about 16 days 18 hrs. The Suva/Torres Strait route as PensacolaCo was directed to take: 7242 nautical miles and without stop-over, pilotage and other delays - 25 days 3 hrs!

An alternative route, which must have been considered at one time or another, would have been to take the convoy South to the Equator at about 170°W, run westward to skirt South of the Mandates, then along the northern coast of New Guinea, to approach the Philippines from the South via the Molucca,Celebes and Sulu seas - a voyage of around 5920 miles (or 20 days 13 hrs). Why this route was not taken we do not know or perhaps it was indeed the route intended but changed after the PH attack. Please confirm what you wrote:

"The ships were scheduled to depart "on or about" November 28, 1941, and to sail the southern route, to Suva, Fiji, and take on water and fuel as necessary. From there, they were instructed to sail west between the Loyalty and New Hebrides island groups, north of New Caledonia, through the Coral Sea and Torres Strait, and then NW and north through Molukka Passage, across the Celebes Sea, through Sibutu Passage into the Sulu Sea, and on to Manila Bay." - Was the instruction definitely given prior to departure from PH to go by way of Torres or was it for the convoy to sail to Suva, in which case the "Middle Route" North of New Guinea would still have been an option?

Going by way of Torres was not a simple alternative to the usual pre-war direct (or great circle) route but clearly a drastic measure and an attempt to absolutely eliminate any chance of meeting at sea with the IJN, even if it added two thousand nautical miles to the voyage and delayed the delivery of priority cargo - urgently required planes, guns, stores and fuel to the Philippines by at least 10 days. Apart from the additional distance PensacolaCo would also have had to contend with the following:

1.Torres Strait
Torres Strait is not to be taken lightly. Because of the many reefs and shoals it cannot be approached directly from the East, especially if after a few overcast days, proper fixes could not be obtained. Navigation without a good fix off a known landmark was not accurate at all - positions determined by celestial observation under the best circumstances was and still is only accurate to about 1.0 nautical miles. Even today, with GPS and modern navigational aids, "Torres Strait is arguably one of the most hazardous and navigationally difficult stretches of water routinely use by international shipping".

"The waters of Torres Strait are shallow and strewn with numerous islands, small islets, reefs and shoals. The northern half of the Strait is only navigable by vessels of a shallow draft and deep draft vessels are restricted to using narrow channels between the various islands off Cape York principally the Prince of Wales Channel, immediately North of Hammond Island. Navigation in the Strait is extremely hazardous. Apart from the complex topography of the area, tidal streams and currents are very strong and visibility is frequently impaired by flash squalls and storms." (RAN Website 2011)

For these reasons vessels approaching from the East would have sailed to make landfall near Port Moresby and if not familiar with these waters, would have had to make use of the services of a pilot to make the passage.

2. Other Navigational hazards
The run down to Suva, across the southern Pacific, through Torres, through the eastern islands of the NEI and up to the Philippines was not a straight forward routine voyage for anyone. It made for difficult navigation virtually all the way, weaving through a seemingly never-ending maze of islands, cays, reefs and shoals, some of which were not properly charted and without much in the way of navigational aids - very few lighthouses and RDF beacons.

3.Weather conditions
November to April is Tropical Cyclone (like Hurricane or Typhoon)season in the southwestern Pacific . Weather reporting for this region was at the time not as well developed as it is today and severe storms could be expected to blow up without warning. PensacolaCo passed through at the height of summer in these parts and sudden squalls with heavy rain and reduced visibility would have been experienced.

3. Logistics
I'm not sure if all the vessels in the convoy had the range to make it all the way to Manila non-stop. Of course there was a stopover at Suva to take on fuel and water but this was only a little over a third of the way (2780 nm from PH) to Manila. We do not know if PensacolaCo was directed to have another stopover - at Port Moresby or Ambon perhaps. Would fuel and water have been available?

4. German Raiders
As previously discussed, German commerce raiders, was indeed considered a real threat - the very reason for a cruiser escort. PENSACOLA would not have been troubled much by a lone raider but would surely have preferred not having to deal with one. Once the convoy arrived in Suva, the world would have known all about it. Even if the men were not allowed ashore, the arrival of the convoy would not have gone unnoticed and the secret would have been out. It is likely that the Germans or Japanese had spies on the islands and would have relayed the information to the IJN. Even if a German auxiliary cruiser was not going to confront USS PENSACOLA, it could have mined any of the passages between the islands in the path of the convoy. I'm not talking about a what-if situation here, just pointing out another threat that PensacolaCo would have had to be prepared for by taking the Southern Route.

It's abundantly clear then that the Suva/Torres route was going to be long, expensive, difficult and dangerous - understandable in time of war like with for example,the US East coast/Mediterranean convoys that ran through the Panama Canal, down the Pacific coast of South America, across the Atlantic to South Africa and then up to the Suez Canal to avoid U-Boats in the mid-Atlantic. But for the US there was no war yet.

If indeed the Pensacola Convoy was directed to take the Torres Strait route from the outset, perhaps it formed part of a pre-war plan to get supplies to an isolated Philippines, not accessible from the East and Operation Plum was a trial run for future Manila-bound convoys. It should be noted that BLOEMFONTEIN did the trip from San Francisco via Brisbane, Torres Strait and Thursday Island up to Manila in August 1941. And along with this theory, was Ambon part of the plan? I know that the NEI government requested RAAF reinforcements on 5 December 1941. Air cover for the convoys perhaps?



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