Looking north-northeast toward Vella Gulf from Gizo Strait.

The track charts below show the battle plan, the approach and the progress of the battle and a summary.

Battle plan Approach Progress Summary
The Battle of Vella Gulf occurred at the climax of the New Georgia operation. Before it, not appreciating defects in their own tactics and equipment—particularly their torpedoes—American naval forces had won few night surface victories against the savvy, determined and well-trained Japanese and sustained several severe losses. After it, they never lost whenever they applied the tactics pioneered there, suggested by Comdr. Arleigh Burke following study of earlier actions including the Battle of Tassafaronga.
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In June 1943, U.S. Marines landed in the New Georgia Group of the British Solomon Islands. As with the Guadalcanal operation of the previous year, their objective was to seize an uncompleted airstrip from the Japanese—this time at Munda Point. During the next six months, the Japanese tried desperately to defend and complete their airstrip it before giving up in the face of American numbers, after which the fighting moved on to Bougainville. In all, the Solomon Islands campaign lasted nearly half of the United States’ involvement in World War II.

By August 1943, the problems with American torpedoes had at last been acknowledged and solutions identified. On the 3rd, Comdr. Frederick Moosbrugger relieved Comdr. Burke as commander of Task Group 31.2, a destroyer “striking force” under Amphibious Force Commander RAdm. Theodore Wilkinson.

On 5 August, Adm. Wilkinson ordered Comdr. Moosbrugger to depart his base at Purvis Bay near Guadalcanal the following night and sweep Vella Gulf with two destroyer divisions: his own DesDiv 12 flagship Dunlap plus Craven and Maury as “Division A-1” and DesDiv 15 Comdr. Rodger Simpson’s flagship Lang with Sterett and Stack as “Division A-2.”

Moosbrugger prepared a well-conceived, clearly written plan of action and reviewed it at a conference of his commanding officers on the morning of the 6th, achieving complete mutual understanding of all possibilities. They then took departure and shaped a course not up the “Slot,” the central channel through the Solomons where they might be readily detected, but via a southern route to approach Vella Gulf through Gizo Strait. Their priority: attack any enemy destroyers and cruisers encountered.

In Vella Gulf shortly before midnight, with the two divisions in formation 4,000 yards apart, they probed Blackett Strait; then turned north along the Kolombangara coast. Soon, radar contact was made with four Japanese destroyers carrying reinforcements for Kolombangara and closing on a course for Blackett Strait at a relative speed of nearly 50 knots. Less than ten minutes later, Division A-1 had maneuvered into position—exactly as planned—and fired 24 torpedoes. As it turned away to evade any Japanese response, Division A-2 crossed ahead of the oncoming Japanese formation to attack from a new direction.

After what seemed like an eternity, Division A-1’s torpedoes hit all four Japanese ships, blasting the first three and holing the rudder of the fourth. Division A-2 promptly opened gun and torpedo fire, completing the destruction of the three destroyers while the fourth, unseen, got away. The two divisions lingered, trying to pick up survivors but they refused rescue; Division A-2 then followed Division A-1 in retiring down the Slot, having sustained no damage or casualties.

The Battle of Vella Gulf, the U.S. Navy’s first independent destroyer action in the South Pacific, marked a turning point in American surface warfare. Coming a full year after the Guadalcanal landing, it showed that our weapons worked, that our doctrine was sound and that a surprise torpedo attack—delivered by destroyers as the primary attack unit—could be devastating to the enemy.