World War II: Battle of Empress Augusta Bay

USS Montpelier during World War II
USS Montpelier (CL-57), served as Merrill's flagship at Empress Augusta Bay. Photograph Courtesy of the US Naval History & Heritage Command

Battle of Empress Augusta Bay- Conflict & Date:

The Battle of Empress Augusta Bay was fought November 1-2, 1943, during World War II (1939-1945).  

Battle of Empress Augusta Bay - Fleets & Commanders:


  • Rear Admiral Aaron "Tip" Merrill
  • Captain Arleigh Burke
  • 4 light cruisers, 8 destroyers


  • Rear Admiral Sentaro Omori
  • 2 heavy cruisers, 2 light cruisers, 6 destroyers

Battle of Empress Augusta Bay - Background:

In August 1942, having checked Japanese advances at the Battles of the Coral Sea and Midway, Allied forces moved to the offensive and initiated the Battle of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands.  Engaged in a protracted struggle for the island, numerous naval actions, such as Savo Island, Eastern Solomons, Santa Cruz, Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, and Tassafaronga were fought as each side sought the upper hand.  Finally achieving victory in February 1943, Allied forces began moving up the Solomons towards the large Japanese base at Rabaul.  Situated on New Britain, Rabaul was the focus of a larger Allied strategy, dubbed Operation Cartwheel, which was designed to isolate and eliminate the threat posed by the base. 

As part of Cartwheel, Allied forces landed at Empress Augusta Bay on Bougainville on November 1.  Though the Japanese had a large presence on Bougainville, the landings met little resistance as the garrison was centered elsewhere on the island.  It was the intention of the Allies to establish a beachhead and construct an airfield with which to threaten Rabaul.  Understanding the danger posed by the enemy landings, Vice Admiral Baron Tomoshige Samejima, commanding the 8th Fleet at Rabaul, with the support of Admiral Mineichi Koga, Commander-in-Chief of the Combined Fleet, ordered Rear Admiral Sentaro Omori to take a force south to attack the transports off Bougainville.

Battle of Empress Augusta Bay - The Japanese Sail:

Departing Rabaul at 5:00 PM on November 1, Omori possessed the heavy cruisers Myoko and Haguro, the light cruisers Agano and Sendai, and six destroyers.  As part of his mission, he was to rendezvous with and escort five transports carrying reinforcements to Bougainville.  Meeting at 8:30 PM, this combined force then was compelled to evade a submarine before being attacked by single American aircraft.  Believing that the transports were too slow and vulnerable, Omori ordered them back and accelerated with his warships towards Empress Augusta Bay. 

To the south, Rear Admiral Aaron "Tip" Merrill's Task Force 39, consisting of Cruiser Division 12 (light cruisers USS Montpelier, USS Cleveland, USS Columbia, and USS Denver) as well as Captain Arleigh Burke's Destroyer Divisions 45 (USS Charles Ausburne, USS Dyson, USS Stanley, and USS Claxton) and 46 (USS Spence, USS Thatcher, USS Converse, and USS Foote) received word of the Japanese approach and departed their anchorage near Vella Lavella.  Reaching Empress Augusta Bay, Merrill found that the transports had already been withdrawn and began patrolling in anticipation of the Japanese attack.

Battle of Empress Augusta Bay - Fighting Begins:

Approaching from the northwest, Omori's ships moved in cruising formation with the heavy cruisers in the center and the light cruisers and destroyers on the flanks.  At 1:30 AM on November 2, Haguro sustained a bomb hit which reduced its speed.  Forced to slow to accommodate the damaged heavy cruiser, Omori continued his advance.  A short time later, a floatplane from Haguro inaccurately reported spotting one cruiser and three destroyers and then that the transports were still unloading at Empress Augusta Bay.  At 2:27 AM, Omori's ships appeared on Merrill's radar and the American commander directed DesDiv 45 to make a torpedo attack.  Advancing, Burke's vessel's fired their torpedoes.  At approximately the same time, the destroyer division led by Sendai also launched torpedoes.

Battle of Empress Augusta Bay - Melee in the Dark:

Maneuvering to avoid DesDiv 45's torpedoes, Sendai and the destroyers Shigure, Samidare, and Shiratsuyu turned towards Omori's heavy cruisers disrupting the Japanese formation.  Around this time, Merrill directed DesDiv 46 to strike.  In advancing, Foote became separated from the rest of the division.  Realizing that the torpedo attacks had failed, Merrill opened fire at 2:46 AM.  These early volleys severely damaged Sendai and caused Samidare and Shiratsuyu to collide.  Pressing the attack, DesDiv 45 moved against the northern end of Omori's force while DesDiv 46 struck the center.  Merrill's cruisers spread their fire across the entirety of the enemy formation.  Attempting to steer between the cruisers, the destroyer Hatsukaze was rammed by Myoko and lost its bow.  The collision also caused damage to the cruiser which quickly came under American fire.  

Hampered by ineffective radar systems, the Japanese returned fire and mounted additional torpedo attacks.  As Merrill's ships maneuvered, Spence and Thatcher bumped but sustained little damage while Foote took a torpedo hit that blew off the destroyer's stern.  Around 3:20 AM, having illuminated part of the American force with star shells and flares, Omori's ships began to score hits.  Denver sustained three 8" hits though all of the shells failed to explode.  Recognizing that the Japanese were having some success, Merrill laid a smoke screen which badly limited the enemy's visibility.  Meanwhile,  DesDiv 46 focused their efforts on the stricken Sendai.  

At 3:37 AM, Omori, wrongly believing that he had sunk an American heavy cruiser but that four more remained, elected to withdraw.  This decision was reinforced by concerns about being caught in daylight by Allied aircraft during the voyage back to Rabaul.  Firing a final salvo of torpedoes at 3:40 AM, his ships turned for home.  Finishing off Sendai, the American destroyers joined the cruisers in pursuing the enemy.  Around 5:10 AM, they engaged and sank the badly damaged Hatsukaze which was straggling behind Omori's force.  Breaking off the pursuit at dawn, Merrill returned to aid the damaged Foote before assuming a position off the landing beaches.  

Battle of Empress Augusta Bay - Aftermath:

In the fighting at the Battle of Empress Augusta Bay, Omori lost a light cruiser and destroyer as well as had a heavy cruiser, light cruiser, and two destroyers damaged.  Casualties were estimated at 198 to 658 killed.  Merrill's TF 39 sustained minor damage to Denver, Spence, and Thatcher while Foote was crippled.  Later repaired, Foote returned to action in 1944.  American losses totaled 19 killed.  The victory at Empress Augusta Bay secured the landing beaches while a large-scale raid on Rabaul on November 5, which included the air groups from USS Saratoga (CV-3) and USS Princeton (CVL-23), greatly reduced the threat posed by Japanese naval forces.  Later in the month, the focus shifted northeast to the Gilbert Islands where American forces landed Tarawa and Makin.

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Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: Battle of Empress Augusta Bay." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Hickman, Kennedy. (2020, August 26). World War II: Battle of Empress Augusta Bay. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: Battle of Empress Augusta Bay." ThoughtCo. (accessed December 10, 2022).