The battle of Cape Engano (25 October 1944) was a one-sided American victory that saw Admiral Halsey's 3rd Fleet sink four Japanese aircraft carriers, but at the same time exposing the invasion shipping in Leyte Gulf to a possible Japanese attack.
The Japanese had long realised that an American conquest of the Philippines would cut their empire in half, isolating their main sources of fuel in the south. Accordingly they decided to fight the 'decisive battle' of the war in the Philippines, using just about every available naval unit. Admiral Ozawa's Main Force was to sail from Japan, where new naval aviators had been training, and approach the American fleet from the north. In the final version of the plan his role was to draw the powerful American 3rd Fleet away from the invasion fleet, leaving them vulnerable to an attack by other Japanese forces approaching from the west.
Admiral Ozawa started the battle with four carriers, two battleships that had been converted to carry some aircraft, three cruisers and eight destroyers. The four carriers were something of a mixed bag. The best of them was the Zuikaku, a veteran of the attack on Pearl Harbor and one of the best Japanese carriers of the war. The other three were less impressive. Zuiho was a light carrier produced during 1940 by converting a submarine support ship. Chitose and Chiyoda were sister ships produced by modifying seaplane carriers. Work on the conversions began in the aftermath of the battle of Midway and they arrived in service in late 1943-early 1944.
The two battleships were the Ise and Hyuga, both of First World War vintage. After Midway their rear turrets had been removed and a short flight deck installed. Neither ship was carrying any aircraft at Leyte Gulf.
Halsey's 3rd Fleet contained fifteen fleet carriers, seven modern fast battleships, twenty one cruisers and fifty eight destroyers. His orders were to protect the landing fleets at Leyte Gulf but also to seek out a chance to defeat and destroy the Japanese fleet.
On 24 October the Americans detected all of the incoming Japanese fleets (although Ozawa's carriers weren’t found until quite late in the day). Halsey launched a series of air strikes on the most powerful of the surface fleets, Admiral Kurita's I Striking Force. This contained the Musashi and Yamato, the two most powerful battleships in the world, but during the day the Musashi was sunk by repeated air attacks. Kurita briefly turned back to avoid further attacks while passing through the narrow San Bernardino Straits. This, combined with a belief that Kurita had suffered more damage than he had, convinced Halsey that the Japanese battleships no longer represented a serious threat and could be dealt with by the old battleships and escort carriers of Admiral Kinkaid's 7th Fleet. In contrast four Japanese aircraft carriers posed a potentially very serious threat to the invasion fleet, and so at 20.00 Halsey ordered his entire fleet to move north.
At this point the American command structure broke down. Halsey created a new Task Force 34, under Admiral Lee. This force, of four battleships and a large number of cruisers, might be used to engage Kurita if he passed through the San Bernardino Strait. As Halsey didn't expect this to happen Lee's ships were taken north with him. Unfortunately Kinkaid heard this message and assumed that Task Force 34 was being left behind to watch Kurita. Kinkaid thus felt free to move his six old battleships south to deal with Nishimura's fleet heading for the Surigao Strait. Kinkaid was not the only person to make this assumption - Admiral Nimitz back on Hawaii also believed that Task Force 34 was watching the San Bernardino Strait.
At 2.2am Admiral Mitscher's scout plans find the Japanese carriers. The first of a series of air strikes went in at about 8am. The few Japanese aircraft left were quickly destroyed and in this first attack the light carrier Chitose was sunk and the fleet carrier Zuikaku hit by a torpedo. The second attack was unopposed and the Chiyoda was badly damaged. At about the same time Halsey received the first in a series of messages from Kinkaid requesting urgent help. Kurita's powerful battleships had indeed emerged from the San Bernardino Strait and turned south to head for Leyte Gulk. Instead they ran into six of Kinkaid's escort carriers and a desperate running battle began (Battle of Samar). Over the next two hours Kinkaid sent two more increasingly urgent requests for help, but Halsey refused to be budged. He was dealing with the most dangerous Japanese fleet and Kinkaid would have to cope by himself (to be fair to Halsey by the time the second and third messages arrived Kurita had withdrawn from combat with the escort carriers, but it was still at large).
At around 10am Halsey received a message from Nimitz, 'Where is repeat where is Task Force thirty-four'. Unfortunately some padding added to increase security was erroneously left in the final message, so Halsey read ' Where is repeat where is Task Force thirty-four rr The World Wonders'. Halsey was furious, but he did finally send one of his three carrier task groups south to try and help Kinkaid.
The remaining carriers launched a third strike on the Japanese carriers at 1.10pm. This time Zuikaku and Zuiho were both set on fire. Zuiho managed to keep going, but Zuikaku was doomed and at 2.07 she sank. The fourth and final American strike finished off the Zuiho. The last Japanese carrier, Chiyoda, was already dead in the water and sank later. The two converted battleships managed to escape, but the Japanese carrier force had been eliminated. Further south Kinkaid's carriers had escaped total destruction through their own efforts, and Kurita had retreated back through the San Bernardino Strait.
Halsey's conduct of the battle has remained controversial. Afterwards he wrote 'At that moment Ozawa was exactly 42 miles from the muzzles of my 16in guns. … I turned my back on the opportunity I had dreamed of since my days as a cadet', a revealing statement that suggests that Halsey was so focused on the chance of engaging in a major gun battle that he ignored the danger to his south.