The battle of Tassafaronga (30 November 1942) was the last of six naval battles to be fought around Guadalcanal, but although it ended as a notable Japanese victory it came during a minor supply mission and had little impact on the long-term course of the fighting.
The fifth of the sixth battles, the naval battle of Guadalcanal (13-15 November 1942) had been a notable American victory. The Japanese had lost two battleships and a convoy of eleven troop ships had been destroyed, ending their last major attempt to reinforce the garrison of Guadalcanal. Admiral Tanaka, the commander of the transport fleet, had managed to get four of those ships to Guadalcanal, but they were destroyed while unloading.
Although the Japanese never tried to run a large convoy of reinforcements onto Guadalcanal they weren't ready to give up on the island. Early on 30 November 1942 Admiral Tanaka left Bougainville with eight destroyers. Six of them were used as transports, with two as escorts. Admiral Tanaka led the way in his flagship Naganami. The six destroyer-transports followed in a line, with the second escort, Takanami, three miles to Tanaka's port.
The Americans were aware of their failures in previous night actions. Admiral Thomas Kinkaid had come up with an alternative to the simple line-astern formation used in earlier battles. He had a mixed force of cruisers and destroyers. The destroyers would be posted ahead of the cruisers, and when the enemy was detected on radar would be moved to a position that would put them closer to the enemy (at a bearing of thirty degrees from the leading cruiser). The destroyers would launch a surprise torpedo attack. The cruisers would then wait until the torpedoes were about to hit before opening fire with their guns. Kinkaid organised his force so that both the leading cruiser and destroyer were equipped with the best radar.
By late November Kinkaid had been replaced by Rear-Admiral Carleton H. Wright. He adopted Kinkaid's plan, but the events of 30 November suggest that he didn't entire trust it. Wright had five cruisers and four destroyers. His flagship was the radar equipped cruiser Minneapolis, and on 30 November she was followed by New Orleans, Pensacola, Honolulu and Northampton. His destroyers were Fletcher, Perkins, Maury and Drayton.
Soon after Tanaka set sail coastwatchers reported his departure to the Americans. Wright was ordered to intercept the Japanese force. At 22.25pm on 30 November he entered Ironbottom Sound, north of Guadalcanal, and steamed west towards the Japanese beachhead near Tassafaronga. At this stage the formation was intact, with the destroyers and cruisers steaming in two parallel lines, with the destroyers ahead of the cruisers, 20 degrees to the port of the Minneapolis. At 22.38pm Wright ordered all of his ships to turn 40 degrees to port at the same time. This meant that they were heading towards Tassafaronga with all nine ships steaming almost in parallel.
At 23.06 the Japanese ships were detected on the Minneapolis's radar. They were heading south/ south-east along the coast of Guadalcanal, heading for Tassafaronga. Admiral Wright ordered his ships to turn back onto their original course, restoring their formation. This meant that the Americans ships were heading slightly away from Tanaka's force, so Wright ordered them to turn twenty degrees to port. The two fleets were now moving in opposite directions, with the Japanese to the south of the Americans.
The Americans still had a chance to win a major victory. The Japanese were preparing to unload their supplies and hadn't noticed the American force. If Wright had allowed his destroyers to fire a full spread of 40 torpedoes as the two formations were passing each other, and before the Japanese had detected him, then they might have scored a number of hits. Instead Wright waited for four minutes after the commander of the destroyer flotilla asked for permission to fire. By the time Wright issued the orders his destroyers had already passed the Japanese, and the twenty torpedoes that were fired now had to try and catch up with them. Just to make things worst Wright then ordered his ships to begin gunfire, revealing his position to Tanaka.
The Americans had surprised the Japanese, but Tanaka's men were skilled veterans and they reacted quickly. The isolated Takanami managed to fire her torpedoes before she was battered by American gunfire and sank. Tanaka's flagship and the last two ships in his line also fired their torpedoes towards the American line. The four central ships continued on to the south-east for a little longer while they dropped their supply drums into the water. Two then fired torpedoes and retired and the last two headed towards the Americans, fired and then left. After firing their torpedoes Tanaka's destroyers all retired to the west.
Behind them they left a scene of chaos. At 23.27 two long lance torpedoes hit the Minneapolis, wrecking her forecastle. New Orleans was hit as she tried to avoid the Minneapolis. Her forecastle was blown off and inflicted more damage as the ships drove past it. The Pensacola turned to port to avoid the two damaged cruisers, but was hit soon after turning back to her original course. Her aft engine room was flooded, she lost power and was stopped in the water and on fire.
The Honolulu turned to starboard, headed north-west at high speed and avoided the torpedoes.
Last in line was the Northampton. She too turned to starboard, but then turned back on to her original course, and just like the Pensacola ran into two torpedoes. The Northampton suffered the most serious damage of the four, and soon sank. The other three damaged cruisers were saved by their crews, and all reached safety at Tulagi although they needed a great deal of work in repair yards before they were ready to return to action. New Orleans and Minneapolis weren't ready until August 1943, while Pensacola didn't return to the fight until November 1943, a full year after the battle.
Although the battle of Tassafaronga was a personal triumph for Tanaka, it hadvery little impact on the fighting on Guadalcanal. The Tokyo Express made three more trips in December 1942, but few of the supplies they carried actually reached the Japanese troops on the island. In January 1943 the Japanese decided to evacuate Guadalcanal and pull back to New Georgia, where they would attempt to make a stand.