The Circus at (Picka) Dili
Task Force 5 under Rear Admiral Glassford continued to be plagued by events not in the Admiral’s control (like Vice Admiral Helfrich RNN replacing Admiral Hart). But help was at hand from the Royal Navy. Rear Admiral Palliser added the bulk of his force to Glassford’s at Surabaya and they sortied against a renewed Japanese effort against Dili.
The weather was good with a Force 2 wind (4 knits) from the SE, clear sky, no squalls, but sea haze reducing visibility to the west. The ABDA force steamed at 25 knots on a heading of 315 degrees. Max visibility would be 21,000 yards but dawn reduced that to 18,000 yards.
Rear Admiral Glassford led in line astern with USS Houston followed by USS Phoenix. Rear Palliser followed with his cruiser squadron, flying his flag in HMS Exeter; followed by HMS Mauritius, Dragon and Danae. The combined ABDA force had three divisions of destroyers; HMS Jupiter, Electra, Express and Encounter in one; trailed by another division of old destroyers, HMS Scout, Stronghold, Tenedos and Thanet. DesDiv 59, USS John D. Ford, Alden, Edsall and Whipple completed the column.
Japanese LBA had bombed the force late the day before without any hits and none of the American flush deckers had suffered their usual mechanical problems from lack of maintence and hard work. A report from a PBY of Patrol Wing 10, shadowing a Japanese convoy headed towards Dili promised over whelming superiority for the ABDA; things were looking up.
Just after 0412 hours the masthead reported ships dead ahead at 19,000 yards. Houston opened on the leading destroyer and immediately hit her twice. Glassford ordered a two point turn to port to open his leading ships’ broadsides and called for all ahead flank.
Rear Admiral Tanaka (that wily old sailor) steamed at 135 degrees at 15 knots in his flagship IJNS Jintsu followed by Rear Admiral Hara in Nagara. The 21st and 23rd Naval Air Groups had bombed an Allied cruiser/destroyer force late yesterday without any success. But their report gave him a good idea of what he was up against.
Tanaka had ordered his cruisers to land their float planes to cut down on the risk of fire. He still had the float planes of the AV, IJNS Sanuki Maru, so he was not blind. Tanaka knew that his gunnery would suffer without his cruisers float planes, but he was not looking for a gun fight. Tanaka intended to employ Torpedo Tactic Number 2 and thus led with the four Kagero class destroyers of DesDiv 16; after all it had worked two weeks ago at Kendari. Sanuki Maru and the AP, IJNS Kagu Maru trailed his combat ships by about 5,000 yards.
Tanaka’s leading destroyer, IJNS Amatsukaze reported Allied cruisers dead ahead shortly after dawn. The opening Allied salvo from a Northampton class heavy cruiser hit Amatsukaze twice knocking out her fore gun mount, searchlight and a torpedo mount. Luckily the Type 93’s oxygen did not ignite and she suffered no fire. Never the less Tanaka considered it an ill omen and remembered he had been backed up by IJNS Ashigara at Kendari. Tanaka began have his first doubts about Torpedo Tactic Number 2. Tanaka ordered full speed ahead, a turn to port and that Sanuki Maru and Kagu Maru reverse course while he sorted out the Allied cruisers.
But all was not well. Rear Admiral Glassford had read the summery of Rear Admiral Crace’s after action report from Kendari and recognized what Tanaka was doing. Glassford had given some thought to how to handle this new tactic and now put his plan into action.
Glassford turned a bit further to port with his cruisers, but ordered Rear Admiral Palliser to turn to starboard with his cruisers and both RN destroyer divisions to Palliser’s unengaged starboard side. Glassford ordered DesDiv 59 up to support his cruisers. The Japanese hid behind smoke successfully for the next 18 minutes while they tried to set themselves up for a torpedo ambush.
Amatsukaze failed to stay behind her smoke and the Brits fired on her with HMS Exeter, Mauritius and Jupiter. All missed except for Exeter which hit Amatsukaze twice; knocking out another gun mount as well as other unknown damage.
Tanaka was receiving reports from Sanuki Maru’s floatplanes and realized that he was not going to be able to cover his force with smoke from east and west at the same time. Tanaka ordered all ships to lay smoke and he retired at a speed that the Allies could not match.
Glassford pursued, but broke it off on receiving a report of an invasion aimed at Balikpapan. Glassford would try out this new Japanese force and take comfort in having aborted a second invasion attempt against Dili.
For his part Tanaka was sorely put out and hoped the next time the Japanese returned here that they would pick another destroyer flotilla for Dili.