Battle of the Surigao Strait, 25 October 1944

The battle of the Surigao Straits (25 October 1944) was the last clash between battleships and saw a force of older American battleships crush a Japanese squadron attempting to break into Leyte Gulf.

The battle was fought as part of the wider battle of Leyte Gulf (23-26 October 1944), a Japanese attempt to destroy the vast American fleet supporting the amphibious landings on Leyte. Four separate Japanese forces were involved in the plan. A carrier force was to approach from the north in an attempt to draw the main American carriers and fast battleships away from Leyte Gulf. The remaining three forces were to cut through the Philippines and emerge to the north and south of the vulnerable American shipping in the gulf. A central force was to emerge from the San Bernadino Strait while a southern force came out of the Surigao Strait, between Leyte and Mindanao.

Two separate Japanese forces were involved in this southern attack. The most powerful was Vice Admiral Shoji Nishimura's Southern (or 'C') Force, which contained two battleships, one heavy cruiser and four destroyers. The second force, the 'Second Attack Force', consisted of three cruisers and four destroyers under Vice Admiral Kiyohide Shima. These two forces were approaching the Philippines from different directions - Nishimura from the west and Shima from the north. They didn't come close to each other until they reached Mindanao, and they never really coordinated their activities. The battle would be fought entirely by Nishimura. Nishimura's two battleships were the Fuso and the Yamashiro, launched in 1914 and 1915 respectively and armed with twelve 14in guns. They were thus of a similar age, or slightly older, than the six 'old' battleships of the American force.

The Japanese would face part of Admiral Kinkaid's 7th Fleet. Kinkaid's main task was to support the landings on Leyte, and his fleet contained 16 escort carriers, 6 battleships, 11 cruisers and 86 destroyers. By the end of 24 October the Americans had discovered the three Japanese fleets that were to attack through the Philippines. Admiral Kurita's Centre Force had suffered from two days of submarine and air attack (Battle of the Sibuyan Sea, 23-24 October). Late in the afternoon of 24 October he had temporarily turned back to avoid passing through the narrow San Bernardino Strait and the Americans hoped that he was retreating. Even when they learnt that he had turned back towards the east they didn't believe he posed a threat. Further south Nishimura had been discovered heading for the Surigao Strait. Kinkaid believed that Halsey was watching Kurita and so he sent his strongest forces south to deal with Nishimura.

The Surigao Strait was defended by Admiral Oldendorf's fire support group of six 'old' battleships. The Tennessee, California and West Virginia were the most effective of these ships, having been largely rebuilt and given gun radar. Maryland, Pennsylvania and Mississippi hadn't undergone such extensive modifications and played a less significant part in the fighting. Oldendorf also had eight cruisers, twenty eight destroyers and a large number of PT boats at his disposal. The only weakness in his position was that his battleships had been equipped with high explosive shells for the shore bombardment and only a small number of the armour piercing shelled needed against battleships. On the evening of 24 October Oldendorf placed his battleships across the exit from the strait, with his cruisers on the flanks and the destroyers ready to make torpedo attacks on the advancing Japanese. The PT boats were sent down the straits to find the Japanese.

The PT boats discovered Nishimura's squadron at 10.36pm on 24 October and began to harass the Japanese. This didn't stop Nishimura, and his squadron soon entered the straits. Next came the American destroyers and they achieved a dramatic success. Just before 3am on 25 October five destroyers launched a torpedo attack and struck the Fuso. She caught fire and just after 3.30 sank. Two Japanese destroyers were also sunk and a third too badly damaged to continue. This left Nishimura with the battleship Yamashiro, which had also been hit by torpedoes, the cruiser Mogami and the destroyer Shigure.

The Japanese ships were picked up on American radar at 3.02am (at a range of 44,000 yards). The cruisers opened fire from the flanks at 3.51 and the battleships followed a few minutes later. The more modernised ships were able to open fire at a range of just over 20,000 yards and played the main part in the battle. Tennessee fired 69 14in shells during the battle, California fired 63 14in shells and West Virginia fired 93 16in shells. Of the less modernised ships the Maryland did best, firing 48 16in shells, taking her range from the West Virginia's fire. The Mississippi only fired a single salvo while the Pennsylvania was masked by the other American ships and didn't fire.

Yamashira being bombed at Leyte
Yamashira being bombed at Leyte

The two heavier Japanese ships took a terrible beating. Just after 4am the cruiser turned to flee, followed by the Yamashiro. It was too late for the battleship and at 4.19 she capsized and sank. The destroyer Shigure hadn't suffered to the same extent, and managed to make her escape. The Mogami was badly damaged and on fire but she managed to limp away to join Admiral Shima's force. By now Shima had found the remains of the Fuso, which had split in half, convincing him that it was between different sunken ships. He decided that there was no point in sacrificing his own much weaker force and decided to retreat. As his fleet turned the cruiser Nachi collided with the Mogami, although both ships survived.

Oldendorf sent his cruisers and destroyers into the straits to pursue the Mogami and Shigure. This force opened fire on the Mogami but was forced to turn back before they could sink her. The Mogami was finally sunk by American aircraft soon after the surface ships retired.

The reason for this retreat, which probably saved the survivors of Shima's force from destruction, was that Oldendorf had now learnt that Kurita's battleships had emerged from the San Bernardino Strait and were now attacking the 7th Fleet's escort carriers (Battle of Samar). With Halsey off to the north chasing aircraft carriers this meant Oldendorf's battleships were urgently needed and they turned north ready for a second, potentially much more difficult battle. They were saved from this desperate battle by Kurita himself, who believed that he was actually facing fleet carriers. After a two hour battle he withdrew, briefly attempted to head towards Leyte Gulf and then gave up and headed back into the San Bernardino Strait. The crisis had passed and the Japanese plan had ended in failure.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (7 May 2012), Battle of the Surigao Strait, 25 October 1944 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_surigao_strait.html

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