Who sank the Shinonome ?


Throughout the years, there has been some discussion about the fate of the Japanese destroyer Shinonome. She was lost near Miri, Borneo in on December 17 1941. This small paper is intended to summarize the cause and circumstances surrounding the loss of the Shinonome.


The destroyer Shinonome was a powerful ship, completed in 1927 as one of the Fubuki-class fleet destroyers. At the outbreak of war in the Pacific, she was under command of Commander Sasagawa Hiroshi. His ship had been assigned to Destroyer Division 12 under Commander Ogawa Nobuki, which was initially deployed as escort for the valuable troop transports steaming towards the shore of Malaya. On December 16, Shinonome left Camranh Bay for Miri, British Borneo, together with the other two ships of DesDiv 12 (Shirakumo and Murakumo), the light cruiser Yura, the seaplanetender Kamikawa Maru, a few subchasers and two minesweepers. Also present were destroyer Sagiri of DesDiv 20, and a cover force with two heavy cruisers (Kumano and Suzuya), a light cruiser (Kinu) and the destroyer Fubuki. The invasion fleet reached Miri in the night of 15 and 16 December, where the troops went ashore almost unopposed. The 2500 men were able to capture Miri without much delay.

Dornier Do 24K. Click to enlargeThe next day was far less comfortable for the Japanese. Word of the invasion had reached the Dutch HQ, after which the various airfields on Borneo were put on alert. An initial attack by Glenn Martin bombers was unsuccesful, but the flying boats of GVT-7 [1], stationed on Tarakan on the eastern coast, did far better. Both X-33 and X-34 missed (the latter was presumably shot down by a Japanese floatplane from Kamikawa Maru), but X-32 managed to drop 5 bombs of 200 kg each, scoring two hits and a near miss on a destroyer. The latter apparently did most of the damage, as the target immediately started to list, and fires broke out aboard. A few minutes later, the waves closed over the Shinonome and her entire complement.

The controversy

After the war, a committee was formed to assess the casualties the Allied naval and airforces had inflicted to the Japanese Navy and merchant navy during the war. They reached a remarkable conclusion regarding Shinonome's loss. This warship was supposedly sunk by a Dutch mine. This conclusion was taken over by two leading sources (John Dull "The Battle History of the IJN" and Jentschura/Jung/Mickel "Warships of the Imperial Japanese Navy: 1860-1945"). Dutch evidence contradicts this conclusion.

Dutch evidence regarding the attack

I recently came across a report [2] regarding the activities of GVT-7 (with thanks to the Dutch Naval Historical Section in Den Haag). It contains an interesting passage regarding the demise of the Shinonome: .....Ordered by the CZM, on December 17, an attack was made on three enemy ships near Miri. On arrival, the enemy force consisted of 1 large cruiser steaming with high speed in the direction of Cam Ranh Bay, 1 anchored merchant ship and 1 small torpedoboat [3]. The aircraft attacked seperately shortly after dawn with a 5-minute interval. Each aircraft carried 6 bombs of 200 kg. The X-32 arrived over the area first, and attacked the cruiser, which was hit by two or three of the five bombs dropped. Apparently, the ammunition for the aft turret exploded. A white column of smoke rose to about 1500 or 2000 metres; after about one minute, the ship had stopped and after about 5 minutes, the area between the stern and the two stacks had disappeared beneath the surface. The ship evaded about 10 seconds after dropping the bombs, and stopped after it had turned about 4 points (app. 45 degrees)...... Clearly, this report mentions the Shinonome was steaming independently. The attack was made shortly after sunrise, which is consistent with the timeframe mentioned by Japanese reports. There was cloudcover over the area, as the X-33, attacking the freighter about 5 minutes later, had to change the direction of her attack due to this circumstance.

Although the author has little doubt about the true cause of the sinking, it is interesting to see how the committee may have reached this conclusion. In 1998, an article based on Japanese records was posted on the Nihon Kaigun website, narrating the history of Destroyer Division 12 during its short career [4]. The passage about the Shinonome mentions that the Commander of DesDiv 12, Commander Ogawa reported the Shinonome went down in a violent explosion at 0650 hours Tokyo Time on December 17 (0550 hours local or "Zulu time"). Ogawa nor anyone else had apparently observed the flying boats making their attack. He therefore concluded that the Shinonome must have been lost to a mine or induced explosion. The Assessment Committee apparently adopted this theory, and rejected other possibilities.

It is however remarkable that the Japanese authorities, in Monograph #101, do mention that Shinonome succumbed to aerial attacks. A few thoughts on why a mine was thought to be responsible:

  • There were no survivors of Shinonome to account for her loss. The crew was aware of the fact that they were under aerial attack, since they put up some AA-fire. It is however strange that none of the other ships observed this display.

  • The weather conditions prevented the Dutch aircraft from being sighted, and therefore caused the confusion. Clouds started to form in the morning of the 17th, and the Dutch flying boats apparently made use of these during their bomb runs, keeping the Japanese floatplanes at bay. The Dutch flying boats must have popped out of the clouds, or bombed through a clearing, which hid them from view. [5]

  • The Shinonome was steaming independently. The distance to the other ships (a mile to Hiyoshi Maru) may have obscured the true cause.

  • Poor air watch was maintained by the Japanese ships. Although this is not a cold fact, there were various occasions where the Japanese were lax in spotting air activity.

  • I have researched the possibility of mine fields in the area, but this revealed that nor the Dutch, nor the British laid any in the area. Then there is ofcourse the remote possibility of Shinonome hitting an own mine. Although this occured on occasion during the war, I have been unable to find any reference to Japanese mine fields in this part of the East Indies.

    Some myths

    Over the years, several myths persistently surfaced in various books around the world. Here are a few:

  • One story is that the Dornier aircraft carried torpedoes instead of bombs. Although the Dutch did have aerial torpedoes, the Dorniers were not rigged to carry them. Torpedobombing was in fact still in its infancy in the NEI. Dorniers usually carried 200 kg-bombs or depthcharges. This myth may have originated from Rohwer/Hümmelchen "Chronology of the war at sea: 1939-1945".

  • Another story is that Shinonome didn't sink on December 17, but on the 18th (Samuel L. Morison "Rising sun in the Pacific") or even the 19th (S.W. Kirby "The war against Japan", volume 1). I cannot account for these discrepancies, but most sources (Monograph #116, Paul S. Dull "The Battle History of the IJN" and Senshi Shoto Volume 21) list the correct date.

  • In various Dutch, older sources, one can often read that X-32 sank a cruiser off Miri. The lack of information shortly after the war led to this erroneous conclusion.

  • Comments or additional details can be sent to my e-mail.

    [1]: These flying boats were Dornier Do 24 K-1 of German origin, with X-pennants. They were armed with one 20 mm and two lighter machine gun for self defence. In addition, they were able to carry a payload of 1200 kg of bombs or depthcharges. X-32 carried six bombs, but one failed to detach itself from the rack. The Dorniers operated in small tactical units (so called GVT's) which normally consisted of three aircraft.

    [2]: This report came from "De strijd in Nederlands Oost-Indië: verrichtingen van de MLD in Nederlands Oost Indië gedurende de Japanse opmars", compiled by the Bureau Maritieme Historie in The Hague in 1962. This agency was so kind to send a photocopy. An attempt to obtain the original aviator's report proved unsuccessful.

    [3]: The small torpedoboat was the minesweeper W.7 with the merchant ship Hiyoshi Maru. The "large cruiser" Shinonome had escorted these ships to this landing site north of Miri, near Seria. Hiyoshi Maru sustained minor damage in the attack made by X-33 around 0700 hours (which apparently is Tokyo Time).

    [4]: This article was written by Allyn Nevitt: "Fleeting Glory: The Fubukis of DesDiv 12". From this article, it becomes clear that Mr. Nevitt did not have opportunity to study information from Dutch sources.

    [5]: Several sources (C.C.Küpfer "Onze vliegers in Indië" and P.C. Boer "De luchtstrijd om Borneo") mention that the attack was made from an altitude of some 4500 metres. Hitting a moving target from this height is an example of excellent marksmanship !














    Thanks to Bert Kossen, Allan Alsleben and Luca Ruffato for providing additional details

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