Build-up to Battle
The Battle of Cape Engano
The Battle of the Surigao Strait
The Battle of Samar
The battle of Leyte Gulf (22-26 October 1944) was one of the largest and most complex naval battles in history and ended as a massive American victory that effectively destroying the fighting capability of the Japanese navy.
The American plans had evolved significantly during the summer of 1944. The original plan had been for a landing on Mindanao, the southernmost of the main Philippine islands. Next would be a larger scale invasion of Leyte, nearer the centre of the islands and then the invasion of the largest of the islands, Luzon. In mid-June the Joint Chiefs of Staff suggested abandoning the invasion of Luzon and instead going straight from Leyte to Formosa. Unsurprisingly this angered MacArthur, who had promised to return to the Philippines after being forced to leave the islands in 1942. In late July MacArthur, Nimitz and Roosevelt met on Hawaii, and the invasion of Luzon was confirmed. The campaign in the Philippines was to begin in December 1944.
Preliminary operations began on 6 September when aircraft from Admiral Mitscher's Task Force 38 bombarded the Palau Islands, 550 miles to the east of Mindanao. That island was attacked on 9-10 September, triggering a false invasion alarm. Next came an attack on the Visayan Islands, in the centre of the Philippines. This went so well that Admiral Halsey, commander of the US Third Fleet, suggested a new plan. Instead of waiting until December and then carefully advancing from south to north through the Philippines, he believed that the Japanese were so off balance that an almost immediate invasion of Leyte would be a success. This suggestion reached Roosevelt and Churchill while they were meeting at Quebec. The two leaders were in favour of this daring idea, but MacArthur was un-contactable, having decided to accompany a force that was about to attack Morotai and that was operating radio silence. MacArthur's chief of staff made the decision for him, and approved the new plan. Leyte would be invaded on 20 October.
MacArthur's troops were to land on the good beaches on the east coast of Leyte. The engineers would then build airfields on the difficult ground inland and they would be used to support both the fighting on Leyte itself and the landings on Luzon. The 7th Fleet would provide direct support, both from the big guns of the battleships and cruisers and from the aircraft on the escort carriers. The 3rd Fleet would provide cover against any attempt by the Japanese navy to intervene.
The Japanese Plan
The Japanese also spent the summer of 1944 working on a grand plan. They were now entirely on the defence, and so Operation Victory (Sho-Go) was a defensive one. The Japanese high command decided that four different American moves were possible - an invasion of the Philippines or Formosa in the south, the Kuriles in the north or even a direct attack on the Home Islands. In the south Sho-1 was the defence of the Philippines and Sho-2 the defence of Formosa. As had happened repeatedly since Pearl Harbor the Japanese were obsessed with the idea of the 'decisive battle', a single massive battle that if it ended in a Japanese victory could save the day.
By the autumn of 1944 the Japanese fleet was widely scattered. The main battle fleet was based at Lingga, a small island east of Sumatra and south of Singapore. This location had been chosen because it put the fleet close to its main sources of fuel. The carrier force had retreated to the Inland Sea in the Japanese Home Islands where new naval aviators were being trained.
The Sho-1 plan took advantage of this deployment. Admiral Ozawa with his force of carriers was to approach the Philippines from Japan. His role was to pull the main American carriers and fast battleships away from Leyte Gulf leaving the invasion fleet vulnerable to attack. Ozawa's northern fleet was being deliberately sacrificed in an attempt to win a decisive battle. He had the carriers but he didn’t have trained naval aviators, so his ships were effectively toothless. Ozawa's original role had been to take part in the main battle, but after the destruction of his last effective air groups in mid-October he suggesting the diversionary tactic.
The main fleet at Lingga was to split into two. Admiral Kurita was to take the largest and most powerful part of the fleet, I Striking Force, through the middle of the Philippines. He was to emerge from the San Bernadino Strait, north of Leyte, and sweep south to attack in the invasion fleet. Kurita objected to the plan - not because he saw any flaws in the operation itself, but because he didn't see the point in risking the entire fleet for an attack on transport ships that would probably already have been loaded when the Japanese arrived. His objections were overruled.
The second part of the main fleet, under Admiral Nishimura, was to pass through the Philippines further south and emerge from the Surigao Strait, between Mindanao and Leyte. He was to attack the invasion fleet from the south.
Finally Admiral Shima, with the smallest force (II Striking Force), was to sail from Japan via Formosa and join Admiral Nishimura. Shima hadn't originally been included in the plan but had persuaded his superiors to let his small force take part. The Japanese hoped that these three southern fleets could break into Leyte Gulf and inflict crushing losses on the landing craft, supply vessels and smaller warships supporting the invasion of Leyte.
Admiral Halsey's 3rd Fleet was the main American striking force in the Pacific. At Leyte Gulf it contained fifteen fleet carriers, seven modern fast battleships, twenty one cruisers and fifty eight destroyers. His ships were armed for combat with Japanese battleships and carriers. Halsey's main weakness was that he had contradictory orders - his main role was to find and destroy the Japanese fleet, but he was also there to protect the invasion fleets in Leyte Gulf.
Admiral Kinkaid's 7th Fleet was dedicated to supporting the ground troops. He had sixteen escort carriers, six 'old' battleships including several sunk at Pearl Harbor, eleven cruisers and eighty six destroyers. This was a powerful force, but did have one weakness. His carriers and battleships were armed for coastal bombardment, with high explosive shells and bombs, and carried very few armour piercing shells or bombs. When Kinkaid found himself facing Japanese battleships this caused great problems.
Admiral Ozawa's Northern or Main Force was coming from the Inland Sea in Japan, where his carrier air groups had been carefully reconstructed. He had four carriers, including the Zuikaku, one of the best Japanese carriers of the war and a veteran of Pearl Harbor. The other three were all light carriers produced by converting support ships that had been designed with that in mind - Zuiho, Chitose and Chiyoda. Many of the aircraft allocated to the carrier force were lost in the battle off Formosa (12-16 October 1944), and at Leyte Gulf he only had around 100 aircraft and very few experienced air crews.
Admiral Kurita commanded I Striking Force, which approached the battle from Brunei. At the heart of I Striking Force were the battleships Yamato and Musashi, the largest battleships in the world with nine fearsome 18.1in guns. Kurita also had Kongo and Haruna, two pre First World War battlecruisers that had been turned into battleships in the late 1920, and the Nagato, a 16in battleship launched in 1919. This powerful force was supported by twelve cruisers and fifteen destroyers.
Admiral Nishimura, coming from Brunei, was given the two old battleships Fuso and Yamashiro, one cruiser and four destroyers. His only chance of success would come if Kurita or Ozawa had drawn almost the entire US fleet north away from the Surigao Strait.
Admiral Shima's II Striking Force (coming from Formosa) was the weakest of the Japanese fleets, and only contained three cruisers and four destroyers.
This gave the Japanese a total of four carriers, nine battleships, nineteen cruisers and thirty one destroyers. Despite the presence of the carriers, the most dangerous units were the battleships, which included the two largest and potentially most powerful in the world.
The Japanese plan came quite close to success. The fighting began when two American submarines discovered Kurita's force on 23 October, sinking two cruisers (Battle of the Sibuyan Sea, 23-24 October 1944). This battle continued on 24 October when American aircraft sank the battleship Musahi. Admiral Halsey then detected Ozawa's carrier force and decided to head north to deal with this apparent threat. The bait had been taken.
The key day of the battle was 25 October when three separate battles were fought. In the north Halsey sank all four Japanese carriers (Battle of Cape Engano). In the south Kinkaid intercepted and destroyed Nishimura's fleet (Battle of Surigao Strait), and Shima decided to turn back.
The Japanese came closest to success in the centre. With Halsey in the north and Kinkaid in the south the northern approaches to Leyte Gulf were only protected by escort carriers and destroyers. Kurita emerged from the San Bernardino Strait, turned south, and found Taffy Three, one of three task groups of six escort carriers. The American carriers turned and tried to reach relative safety. Their destroyer escorts made valiant attempts to interrupt the Japanese attack, while their aircraft made repeated attacks on the Japanese battleships. One escort carrier was sunk, but Kurita then decided to regroup and return to his original task in Leyte Gulf (Battle of Samar). Kurita spent the rest of the day chasing ghosts off Samar, before giving up and retiring through the San Bernardino Strait. With a bit more determination he could have inflicted a serious defeat on Taffy Three, and possibly done real damage to the invasion fleet in Leyte Gulf.
Build-up to Battle
The pre-invasion attacks on Japanese bases between the Philippines and the East China Sea soon paid an unexpected dividend. On 10 October Mitscher attacked Okinawa. He then turned south and on 12 October attacked Formosa. This time the Japanese responded in some strength, having mis-interpreted the massive American air strikes as the start of an invasion. Admiral Toyoda issued the instructions to begin Sho-1 and Sho-2, and Japanese navy aircraft rose to attack the Americans. The resulting battle off Formosa (13-16 October 1944) was a massive American victory. Over 600 Japanese aircraft were destroyed. In return the Japanese managed to damage two cruisers. The Japanese claimed a massive victory and the destruction of eleven carriers and two battleships. The belief that they had crippled American naval air power played a part in the planning for the attack on Leyte Gulf. It also helped to convince the Japanese defenders of the Philippines that the first signs of the upcoming invasion weren't genuine, and instead were either false alarms or just American ships fleeing from the defeat.
The invasion began on 17 October when a small force of US Rangers landed on Suluan Island, at the mouth of Leyte Gulf. A Japanese lookout reported sighting two battleships, two carriers and six destroyers off the island (the attack force actually contained two light cruisers, four destroyers and eight destroyer transports). Admiral Toyoda decided this was indeed the start of the invasion, and issued the orders that set the Japanese fleets in motion. His colleagues on the Philippines weren't convinced
On 18 October the Americans captured Homonhon and Dinagat Islands, at the entrance to Leyte Gulf, where they erected navigation lights. The defenders of the Philippines still didn't realise the attack was imminent, but back in Japan Toyoda issued the orders for Sho-1, after getting Imperial approval.
The naval bombardment of Leyte began on 19 October, and did massive amounts of damage to the Japanese defences on the Leyte beaches.
A-Day on Leyte was 20 October (MacArthur deliberately didn't use the more normal D-Day, which was now closely linked to the Normandy invasion in the public imagination). The landings went well - the Philippines were far too large for the Japanese to defend in the same way as was familiar from smaller islands, and the garrison of Leyte was both badly outnumbered and in some confusion. The Americans were ashore, and by the end of the first day 100,000 tons of supplies had been landed.
The first preliminary move came on 22 October when the Japanese fleets sailed from Brunei, heading for the Philippines. Kurita left first, as he had the longer journey, and Nishimura followed in the afternoon. Four separate Japanese fleets were now heading for the massive American armada in and around Leyte Gulf.
The battle of Leyte Gulf began well to the west of the Philippines on 23 October (battle of the Sibuyan Sea, 23-24 October, although this battle began outside that sea). Darter and Dace, two American submarines, found Kurita's fleet while it was sailing along the north coast of Palawan Island in the South China Sea. The American subs attacked Kurita and sank two cruisers, including his flagship Atago. A third cruiser was crippled and had to return to Brunei, taking two destroyers as a screen.
On the morning of 24 October a Japanese scout plane based on Luzon found Task Force 38, sailing to the east of the island. The Japanese Navy had more aircraft based on Luzon than on Ozawa's carriers, and during the morning of 24 October just over 200 Japanese land based naval aircraft attacked the task force. For about an hour the Japanese were fought off, but just as the main attack ended the light carrier Princeton, part of TG 38.3, was hit by a single Japanese dive bomber. Prolonged efforts to save the carrier failed and eventually she was sunk by American torpedoes. Most of her crew survived, but an explosion caused heavy casualties on the cruiser Birmingham, one of the ships taking part in the fire fighting effort.
Ozawa's carrier aircraft then made an appearance. At about 11.45 about two thirds of his aircraft attacked Halsey's fleet but without any success. The inexperienced carrier aviators then flew on to land on Luzon. At this point Halsey probably didn't realise that these aircraft came from a carrier force, but Ozawa was finally located by American scout planes in the afternoon.
Further south the IV Air Army (General Tominaga) attacked the 7th Fleet in Leyte Gulf, but again with little effect, although the escort carriers were forced to concentrate on air defence instead of close support. The Japanese lost around 70 aircraft in this attack.
Halsey's carriers also went onto the offensive on 24 October, launching five separate air strikes against Kurita, spread out from 9am until the mid-afternoon. The main victim of these attacks (battle of the Sibuyan Sea) was the giant battleship Musashi which sank after being hit by multiple torpedoes and bombs. A heavy cruiser was also badly damaged and forced to turn back. At around 15.30 Kurita decided to temporarily turn back to avoid coming under aerial attack in the narrow San Bernardino Strait. This move was seen by the Americans, who believed that Kurita might be retiring from the area. Instead after just under two hours he turned back east and headed into the San Bernardino Strait unobserved.
Halsey now had a choice to make. His orders from Nimitz were to protect the invasion fleet unless a chance came up to destroy the Japanese fleet. He now knew of three Japanese forces. To the north was Ozawa with four carriers and two battleships. To the west was Kurita, who had been battered all day, lost the biggest battleship in the world and begun a possible retreat. To the south was Nishimura with a force that wasn't really a threat to Kinkaid's 7th Fleet. Halsey decided that he could combine his two tasks by leading his 3rd Fleet north to destroy the Japanese carrier force. In every earlier battle of the Pacific War this would have been the correct decision - the carriers were now the most dangerous weapon in the naval armoury and the highly skilled aviators of Pearl Harbor and the year that followed could have caused havoc if they reached the invasion fleets. Halsey's real mistake was that he failed to make sure that someone was watching Kurita and the San Bernardino Strait. He and Kinkaid both assumed that the other fleet was carrying out that task and in the event neither did.
Halsey has also been criticised for deciding to attack the Japanese carrier fleet in the first place, largely on the grounds that it was carrying very few aircraft, but there is no way that Halsey could have known this. The Japanese had only recently deployed large numbers of naval aircraft in the battles off Formosa, and Halsey had just been attack twice by naval aircraft on 25 October. As far as he knew the four carriers and two modified battleships in the north were all carrying their full complement of aircraft. Halsey's mistake was not making sure a suitable force was watching the San Bernardino Strait.
Although there had been some hard fighting on the previous days the main part of the battle took part on 25 October when there were three separate engagements. In the north Halsey attacked Ozawa and sank all four of his carriers (Battle of Cape Engano). In the south Oldendorf's battleships crushed Nishimura's attack (Battle of the Surigao Strait). The crisis came in the centre, where Kinkaid's escort carriers were unexpectedly attacked by Kurita's battle fleet (Battle of Samar). Here the Japanese came closest to success, sinking one carrier and threatening to wipe out an entire task group of six, before Kurita unexpectedly withdrew from the battle.
The Battle of Cape Engano
In the north the Americans won an easy victory. Halsey found Ozawa's carriers at dawn and send in five air strikes. He sank all four of the carriers and one destroyer and was about to complete the destruction of the Japanese fleet when urgent signals from Kinkaid and a stinging message from Nimitz finally forced him to turn south in an attempt to intercept Kurita.
The Battle of the Surigao Strait
In the south the fighting was equally one sided. Admiral Oldendorf, with the six old battleships of the 7th Fleet, blocked the exit from the Surigao Strait. Nishimura's ships were attacked by PT boats in the strait and by torpedoes from American destroyers as they approached the exit. One battleship and two destroyers were sunk and a third forced to turn back. By the time Nisihimura reached the American battleships he only had one battleship, one cruiser and one destroyer. In the resulting gun battle the battleship was sunk and the cruiser very badly damaged. It escaped for the moment but was sunk while attempting to escape. Only the destroyer reached safety. Shima realised the battle was lost and turned back, saving his ships. Their escape was aided by news from the north, where Kurita's battleships had emerged into Leyte Gulf. Oldendorf had to cancel the pursuit and turned north to prepare for a possible second battle.
The Battle of Samar
The most dangerous of the battles came in the centre. Kurita emerged unnoticed from the San Bernardino Strait, turned south and headed towards Leyte Gulf. He then found Admiral Sprague's Taffy 3, of six escort carriers, three destroyers and four destroyer escorts. Sprague conducted a skilful fighting retreat, harassing the Japanese with his aircraft (despite their lack of armour piercing bombs) and destroyers. During the fighting the carrier Gambier Bay was sunk as were three of the escorts. Sprague's small group was close to defeat when Kurita decided to withdraw from the battle, reform his fleet and resume his advance into Leyte Gulf. The Japanese also suffered losses - three cruisers were sunk on the day and a fourth badly damaged.
Kurita turned away at 9.11am. It took two hours for his fleet to come back together. He then turned south and headed towards Leyte Gulf and the American shipping. At about 11.40 his scouts reported sighting a battleship (falsely) and Kurita turned aside to try and catch it. He then turned south again, before at 12.35 he decided to turn back north and try and find an American carrier group believed to be 100 miles to his north. In fact Halsey's carriers were much further north, and out of range. Kurita steamed north all afternoon in an attempt to find this phantom force, before at around 6pm he finally gave up and made his way back into the San Bernardino Strait heading west. The last surface naval battle of the Second World War was over.
The battle of Leyte Gulf rather faded away on 26 October. Halsey sent aircraft to attack the retreating Kurita, but they only succeeded in sinking one cruiser. The battered remnants of the Japanese Navy escaped, but not to fight another day.
The battle of Leyte Gulf was a massive Japanese defeat. The Japanese navy lost three battleships, four carriers, ten cruisers and nine destroyers, a total of 300,000 tons of shipping. The Americans only lost 37,000 tons of shipping, including one light carrier and two escort carriers. The Americans could easily replace these losses - they already had one hundred carriers of various types in the Pacific by October 1944! The Japanese Navy was crippled by its defeat at Leyte Gulf. The destruction of a large part of their surface fleet meant that the Americans were free to advance into the Philippines and then towards Japan without any fear of a major naval clash. The best the Japanese could manage was the final suicidal sortie of the giant battleship Yamato, sunk during an attempt to reach Okinawa.
Even if Kurita had been more determined on 25 October there was a limit to how much significant damage he could have done. As the Japanese commanders were aware, by 25 October most of the American transport ships were empty. He could have inflicted more damage on Taffy 3, but while that would have been embarrassing for the Americans it wouldn't have set them back. The loss of transport ships might have been more significant, but even that could only have delayed the final Japanese defeat. The Japanese Navy had found its decisive battle, unfortunately for Japan that battle had been lost.