the battle
Can you lose but win?

Of course you can. The key is to understand that the Tactical, Operational, and Strategic are linked – but they are not perfectly linked.

Let’s look at the Tactical.

In the battle, a US warship force of five cruisers and four destroyers under the command of Rear Admiral Carleton H. Wright attempted to surprise and destroy a Japanese warship force of eight destroyers under the command of Rear Admiral Raizo Tanaka. Tanaka’s warships were attempting to deliver food supplies to Japanese forces on Guadalcanal.

Using radar, the US warships opened fire and sank one of the Japanese destroyers. Tanaka and the rest of his ships, however, reacted quickly and launched numerous torpedoes at the US warships. The Japanese torpedoes hit and sank one US cruiser and heavily damaged three others, enabling the rest of Tanaka’s force to escape without significant additional damage but also without completing the mission of delivering the food supplies.

All you need to know about Operational and Strategic is right there, but let’s stick with the Tactical for a bit.

Do Commanders feel today that they are too limited in their ability to exercise their best judgement in combat? Well, consider it a Navy tradition.

At 23:14, operators on Fletcher established firm radar contact with Takanami and the lead group of four drum-carrying destroyers. At 23:15, with the range 7,000 yards (6,400 m), Commander William M. Cole, commander of Wright’s destroyer group and captain of Fletcher, radioed Wright for permission to fire torpedoes. Wright waited two minutes and then responded with, “Range on bogies [Tanaka’s ships on radar] excessive at present.” Cole responded that the range was fine. Another two minutes passed before Wright responded with permission to fire. In the meantime, the US destroyer’s targets escaped from an optimum firing setup ahead to a marginal position passing abeam, giving the American torpedoes a long overtaking run near the limit of their range. At 23:20, Fletcher, Perkins, and Drayton fired a total of 20 Mark 15 torpedoes towards Tanaka’s ships. Maury, lacking SG radar and thus having no contacts, withheld fire.

Amazing even in hindsight. Recall – the action from initial radar contact by FLETCHER at 2306 Tanaka’s withdraw at 23:44 was only 38 minutes …. roughly 13% of the battle was spent waiting to be micromanaged. Recall that the Japanese did not have radar.

There is a point here that one should keep in mind. As opposed to the leisurely combat the USN has engaged in since WWII – mostly keeping station, supporting TACAIR operations or leisurely TLAM missions – this was as it is – quick, deadly, and devastating combat. Luck, speed, training, and finally your weapons determines success.

Knowing your enemy, and acknowledging that you may not fully know him, is also critical.

The results of the battle led to further discussion in the US Pacific Fleet about changes in tactical doctrine and the need for technical improvements, such as flashless gunpowder and improved torpedoes. The Americans were still unaware of the range and power of Japanese torpedoes and the effectiveness of Japanese night battle tactics. In fact, Wright claimed that his ships must have been fired on by submarines since the observed position of Tanaka’s ships “make it improbable that torpedoes with speed-distance characteristics similar to our own” could have caused such damage. The Americans would not recognize the true capabilities of their Pacific adversary’s torpedoes and night tactics until well into 1943.

Now, the god of Operational and Strategic: Logistics.

Due to a combination of the threat from CAF aircraft, US Navy PT boats stationed at Tulagi, and a cycle of bright moonlight, the Japanese had switched to using submarines to deliver provisions to their forces on Guadalcanal. Beginning on November 16, 1942, and continuing for the next three weeks, 16 submarines made nocturnal deliveries of foodstuffs to the island, with one submarine making the trip each night. Each submarine could deliver 20 to 30 tons of supplies, about one day’s worth of food, for the 17th Army, but the difficult task of transporting the supplies by hand through the jungle to the frontline units limited their value to sustain the Japanese troops on Guadalcanal. At the same time, the Japanese tried to establish a chain of three bases in the central Solomons to allow small boats to use them as staging sites for making supply deliveries to Guadalcanal, but damaging Allied airstrikes on the bases forced the abandonment of this plan.

On November 26, the 17th Army notified Imamura that it faced a critical food crisis. Some front-line units had not been resupplied for six days and even the rear-area troops were on one-third rations. The situation forced the Japanese to return to using destroyers to deliver the necessary supplies.

And that is where we get the success of the battle. If all you do is count ships sunk and damages, then sure The Battle of Tassafaronga was a loss for the USA. Cole and Wright sure saw it that way – as do many. But was it really?

What were the Japanese trying to do? What was their Operational Center of Gravity (CoG)?

Of course, it was keeping their land forces supplied ashore. By preventing their resupply, you attack and weaken the Japanese Operational CoG …. therefore, at the Operational (and arguably Strategic as well) you actually won.

Not too different from the American experience with Tet. The USA and South Vietnamese forces destroyed the Viet Cong during Tet – effectively removing them from being a threat to the existence of the South Vietnam government. That wasn’t the point …. as that wasn’t the war’s Strategic CoG from the Communist point of view.

Thanks to a superior INFO OPS and PSYOPS campaign by the North Vietnamese along with their allies – and useful assistance by the likes of Walter Cronkite – Tet was an exceptional victory by the Communists as it significantly undermined the Strategic CoG of the Americans; the support of the American people.

There are two examples of why one should be very careful when declaring a victory or defeat. Perspective and a clear understanding of the larger issue is key.

New Orleans
Finally, here is a nice lesson on how Senior Leadership should not act … and how it should. CYA, wagon circling, and blaming subordinates for your own failure is nothing new.

In spite of his defeat in the battle, Wright was awarded the Navy Cross, one of the highest American military decorations for bravery, for his actions during the engagement. … Halsey, in his comments on Wright’s report, placed much of the blame for the defeat on Cole, saying that the destroyer squadron commander fired his torpedoes from too great a distance to be effective and should have “helped” the cruisers instead of circling around Savo Island.

I think history has done some justice to Cole – and it sure doesn’t put a great deal of glory on Wright.

In contrast, look at what Tanaka said. This is a good way to end the post – Leadership 101.

After the war, Tanaka said of his victory at Tassafaronga, “I have heard that US naval experts praised my command in that action. I am not deserving of such honors. It was the superb proficiency and devotion of the men who served me that produced the tactical victory for us.”

That and some great Japanese engineering in the Long Lance.

Posted by CDRSalamander in History, Strategy, Tactics
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  • Grandpa Bluewater

    Classy guy, that Tanaka.

  • UltimaRatioReg

    So… it wasn’t “information dominance”? Just kidding.

    Superbly stated, CDR Sal. A fight that cost us much, but sealed forever the fate of Japan in the Solomons. A great read.

  • JD

    Very enlightening, CDR! I must confess to having never dwelt on the strategic outcome of Tassafaronga before. Until a few minutes ago, I considered the damage control efforts aboard New Orleans, Minneapolis, and Pensacola to be the biggest American successes of the battle.

    Savo had a similar outcome considering that Mikawa did not touch the invasion fleet. Unfortunately, our damaged cruisers did not stay afloat in that case.


    For me, a couple of things about the Tassafaronga fiasco have always stood out:

    1.) Wright was indecisive and wasted too much time. He only had one brief combat command after this, and thankfully it was not as an OTC.
    2.) The Navy Cross award seems like a “political” move.
    3.) Even with the new SG radar, the Japanese destroyers did not appear clearly on most American screens–largely because they were between the island landmass and the Americans–and close to it, as well.
    4.) The Americans still had no real grasp of the Type 93’s capabilities.

  • Chuck Hill

    Tanaka also got “no respect” and was soon relieved of command. He told his chain of command that what they were doing was not working.

    Fortunately for us, he was not in charge at Samar.

  • D. E. Reddick

    Raizo Tanaka at Samar… What a particularly horrifying set of conjectures one might surmise if he been present – there and then. I mean, he was far and beyond competent – he was a genius level naval commander. I can imagine MacArthur and staff going down with USS Nashville as one probable outcome. Then, with Admiral Oldendorff arriving with BBs, CAs, CLs, and DDs having little in the way of remaining ammunition (especially torpedoes) following the overnight battle of Surigao Straight that just might have just reduced part of the surface fleet of BBs into acting as ramming warships (to protect the amphibious forces).

    Back to Tassafaronga: the best source regarding this battle is the excellent book by Capt. Russell S. Crenshaw, Jr. (USN, retired – he was there as the gunnery officer aboard USS Maury, DD-401). I have an original copy of this excellent book and it’s an eye-opening expose’ of what was wrong with the USN in ’42 & ’43 during the Solomons campaign.

    A re-printing appears to be available (soon, if not currently – otherwise, Amazon has some copies available).