Leyte Gulf – A New History of the World’s Largest Sea Battle, Mark E. Stille

Leyte Gulf – A New History of the World’s Largest Sea Battle, Mark E. Stille

The battle of Leyte Gulf was the largest naval battle in history, and also one of the most complex, involving two US fleets, four major Japanese forces and consisting of four main battles and several subsidiary actions. The battle has been the subject of many books over the years, but as this book proves there is still room for more.

Stille’s aim is to examine some of the long held beliefs about the battle, and at the same time to produce a clear account of the entire campaign. We start with an excellent look at the strategic background – the American debate over whether to attack the Philippines or Formosa and the Japanese plans to try and force yet another ‘decisive battle’. We then move on to the preliminary moves, including the US carrier raids of Formosa which triggered a massive Japanese aerial counterattack which saw the Japanese suffer very heavy losses including most of what was left of their naval aviation force. We then move on to the individual battles that made up the wider battle of Leyte Gulf, with each getting a separate chapter. I like this approach – the three battles of 25 October were entirely separate from each other, so this allows us to focus on each of them without getting distracted by what was going on elsewhere. Including the fighting at Formosa is also a good idea – it was part of the same overall campaign, and triggered the Japanese plan, but is often only mentioned briefly in accounts of Leyte Gulf.

The main ‘myth’ that Stille attacks is the idea that the Japanese performed badly in the battle off Samar, when a force including the largest battleship ever built was only able to sink one escort carrier from Taffy 3. I think he only partly convinces here. He is most convincing in his arguments that the Japanese task was actually much harder than is often believed – the escort carriers weren’t defenceless and were able to carry out a large number of air attacks during the battle, some from Taffy 3 and some from their fellow escort carrier groups. Between them they were able to sink three of the six Japanese heavy cruisers present at the battle, an impressive achievement. For much of the battle the Japanese were firing at long range in poor visibility, which reduced the effectiveness of their battleships. In addition Admiral Clifton Sprague performed brilliantly, and conducted a very skilful defense.

However the Japanese misidentified the small escort carriers as Essex class fleet carriers (the tiny islands on the escort carriers make them quite easy to identify compared to the massives structures on the fleet carriers) and their destroyer and destroyer escorts as cruisers and destroyers (and even in some cases battleships!). They were then unable to take full advantage of their 10 knot speed advantage and Admiral Kurita quickly lost control of the battle, failed to realise his heavy cruisers were getting into position for a devastating close range attack and failed to use his strong destroyer force. I think a more balanced approach here is to admit that the Japanese didn’t do terribly well, failed to use their four battleships effectively, and faced a skillful defence and heavy air attacks, while the American force was stronger than is normally acknowledged. Stille is particuallry good on the details of the air attacks the escort carriers carried out – they are often said to have been poorly armed to take on warships, but it becomes clear here that they were actually able to carry out a large number of torpedo attacks on the Japanese

I think the author is a little hard on Halsey on occasions. I agree with his view that Halsey had no choice other than to dash north to deal with the Japanese carriers – he had no way to know that they carried no air groups and at any earlier naval battle they would have been the biggest threat by far. His main failure after this was his sluggish reaction to calls from help from the forces fighting off Samar, but even here I’m not sure that his actions were entirely unjustified. As the author points out, if the Japanese coming from the San Bernadino Strait had broken into Leyte Gulf they would have been rushing towards the victorious US forces coming from the Surigao Strait, and if they had managed to deal with them, could then have been caught by Halsey’s force coming south later. If they were heading north looking for Halsey then he would have been best finishing off the Japanese carriers, which he still had to believe were potentially dangerous (admittedly there was a very long gap between the first call for help from the escort carriers and Halsey’s decision to turn south, and several major air attacks were launched after the calls for help started to come in). Sometimes one has to admit that at least some part of the other side’s plan worked, and that without hindsight it would have been hard for the other side to react much differently. The big American failing at Leyte Gulf was the failure to appoint an overall commander of the naval forces involved, and instead to leave Halsey’s Third fleet and Kinkaid’s Seventh fleet as separate units. On this occasion one would have to say Nimitz was at fault for not insisting that there was an overall naval commander, and if that wasn’t possible, for not setting up better communications between the two fleets.

This is an excellent history of this complex battle. I’m not entirely convinced by the ‘myth busting’ element – I can’t say I’ve read many books that try and portray it as anything other than a crushing American victory (a few that suggest a bigger victory might have been achieved, although given that the Japanese lost all of their carriers, one of the two largest battleships ever built and almost all of the force engaged at the Surigao Strait that seems a but unjustified), but the detailed accounts of the individual battles are excellent, as is the material on the two side’s situation before the battle, their respective plans, and the impact of the battle. As the author comments, this was a truly decisive naval battle that eliminated the threat from the Japanese surface fleet for the rest of the war.

1 – The Road to Leyte
2 – The Japanese Plan Another Decisive Battle
3 – Two Navies, Two Different Directions
4 – Toyoda’s Opening Gambit Fails and MacArthur Returns
5 – The Adventures of the First Diversionary Attack Force
6 – Execution at Surigao Strait
7 – The Misunderstood Battle off Samar
8 – Kurita’s Decision
9 – Halsey’s Race to the North – Folly or Justified?
10 – Final Actions
11 – The Reckoning

Author: Mark E. Stille
Edition: Hardcover
Pages: 320
Publisher: Osprey
Year: 2023

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