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Re: The Way of Torres

February 3 2012 at 7:08 AM
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Nelson  (no login)
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Response to The Way of Torres


> 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. >

I suspicion that you know my answer without having to ask what it will be. My answer, though qualified, is a resounding yes, with the qualification that we need to extend the time window beyond December 7-8, 1941, until the fall of Corregidor in May 1942, which covers ALL of the Allied disasters, permits a detailed study of how the Japanese military and naval forces achieved such astounding success both strategically and tactically, and gets us--just--onto the road of recovery for the Allies. As I've written, while not a Midway to be sure, I think the battle of Coral Sea was far more important than most give credit to. One question I would ask, after an immense amount of reading on both battles, is whether the U.S. Navy was more professionally competent during the May 1942 battle than the June 1942 one, the latter of which involved an enormous amount of incredible luck against the always relentlessly courageous and competent Imperial Japanese Navy. One example: the substantial number of American aerial assaults against the IJN's main battle force at Midway before scoring one hit. Can anyone imagine the straight-shooting IJN of June 1942 making a fraction of those assaults without drawing blood in copious quantities? But as I'm wont to do, I digress.

To return to your question, although there is a decided and surprising minimum of interest in the Philippines campaign among this disparate forum, I think most of the participants share that time frame interest. Beyond that observation, I'll let others speak for themselves.

If we exclude the very special Concord-Marblehead convoy in early 1941, once regular cruiser-escorted, Manila-bound convoys began in the late summer of 1941, there were seven such undertakings before war began, only one westbound convoy previous to the Pensacola convoy taking the southern route, and only one doing so on the eastbound return. In addition to the seven cruiser-escorted convoys, numerous single merchant ships carried military materiel, as part at least of their cargo load. With time approaching November and December 1941, all or most of these independent sailers went by the southern route. Quite obviously, it was one thing to steam through the Mandates in convoy, with a heavy or light cruiser to provide protection, quite another to do so alone, at the mercy of a German raider or the IJN. And one must keep in mind that the concern was by both Commonwealth nations then at war and the United States that the Japanese would give aid, comfort, and encouragement, implicitly or explicitly, to those raiders. I cannot review the independent sailers' routing instructions right now, but will do so soon.

That written, I haven't encountered any other routes except (i) the central one through the Mandates, passing Guam, and (ii) the southern one, passing through Torres Strait. There were few alternatives: going more northerly would place American shipping closer to Japan; going south, and turning west too soon would pass through the southern Mandates; even farther south and then west would still put the ships in range of IJN long-range patrol aircraft as they progressed farther westward. And I'm wondering whether the U.S. had sufficiently accurate charts of the waters of the eastern NEI, as opposed to the main route north described previously.

Everything you've written about Torres Strait is true, but you forgot one thing: it was mined against German raiders. Yes, pilots were always necessary to transit the strait between Port Moresby and Prince of Wales Channel (near Hammond and Thursday Islands), the time required to do so a function of direction and time of day.

Some interesting facts before the Pensacola convoy sailed:

The only westbound cruiser-escorted convoy to transit Torres Strait was a single ship, USAT Liberty, escorted by USS Portland (CA 33). It required 10 hours to transit the strait. On November 8, 1941, the cruiser turned Liberty loose, and thereupon she went to Tarakan and took on bunker oil. Both Portland and HMS Danae arrived at Manila Bay on November 12, and two days later, both SS Awatea and armed merchant cruiser HMCS Prince Robert stood in. That same day, November 14, the two Canadian vessels, both of them carrying the two Canadian rifle battalions, departed for Hong Kong along with the British cruiser as an additional escort. The two Canadian ships had taken the direct route west, though not the Philippine registry Don Jose carrying the two Canadian battalions' Bren gun carriers and trucks, which had come via the southern route (see below). Why a Canadian bottom had not been used to carry these vehicles to Hong Kong remains perplexing.

Not long thereafter, on November 20, 1941, a two-ship convoy escorted by USS Louisville (CA 28) arrived in Manila Bay. On the following day, her log noted the arrival of HMCS Prince Rupert, which I conclude is a typo for HMCS Prince Robert on its homeward leg (HMCS Prince Rupert was a River class frigate not commissioned until early 1943). Louisville left Manila Bay on November 25, took on bunker oil at Tarakan two days later, and passed Ambon on the 30th, at dark, noting Amboina Lighthouse was not lighted. She passed USAT Liberty on December 1; two days later, in Torres Strait, she and her convoy passed SS Don Jose with those Canadian military vehicles aboard. It required 22 hours to negotiate the strait eastward.

Supplying the Philippines, as in virtually every instance where an outpost lay deep in hostile territory, whether Fort Apache or the city of Berlin, was always difficult, dangerous, and costly. Whichever decision one made, there was a strong downside: west through the Mandates and one faced the maximum danger; going south maximized both time and difficulty....and time was something the U.S. badly lacked. Moreover, the burden on the escorts, whether the U.S. cavalry or the U.S. Navy's cruisers, pushed them to exhausting limits.


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