The Battle of Leyte Gulf – Largest Battle In Naval History

The Battle of Leyte Gulf is considered the largest battle in naval history. It was the most decisive air and sea battle of World War II that crippled the Japanese Combined Fleet.
USS Princeton

The Battle Of Leyte Gulf happened on October 25th, 1944, off the coast of the Philippine island of Leyte, American battleships are trading blows with the remnants of the Japanese fleet. Cruisers and destroyers cut through the waters at high speed, laying withering barrages against each side’s most vulnerable ships. In the air, fighters screen the skies from opposing dive bombers and torpedo planes.

Japanese naval aviation has been decimated by a year and a half of fierce combat across the Pacific, and now its surviving pilots are inexperienced raw recruits, thrown into the teeth of American aces. For Japan, the battle is dire- if it loses the Americans and their Australian allies will sever Japan’s supply lines and cut off its access to the oil it so desperately needs to keep its ships at sea.

For the US and Australia, a defeat of the Japanese here means the protracted war will be cut dramatically short, potentially leading to victory in just a few months. Both sides know that the outcome of the war hangs on a knife’s edge, and are throwing everything they have at each other in what will become the greatest naval battle in history.


The beginning of the largest battle in naval history

Naval Battle of Mariana Islands, Naval History & Heritage Command, Public domain

Between August 1942 and 1944, the Americans have pushed the Japanese steadily back across the Pacific. Their losses in Pearl Harbor have been quickly replaced, the full might of the American economy turning to a wartime footing. In June 1944 the Americans launched an invasion of the Mariana Islands, with the Japanese counterattacking in the battle of the Philippine Sea, resulting in a disastrous defeat of the Japanese Imperial Navy which cost it 600 aircraft and the loss of three of their remaining aircraft carriers.

This defeat has left Japan with virtually no naval airpower and struggling to replace its losses with inexperienced pilots fresh from a training program that has been slashed in half. America on the other hand has started rotating its combat pilots back to the states where they do short tours as combat instructors, giving new American airmen an unparalleled training advantage compared with their Japanese counterparts.

The seizing of the Mariana Islands has penetrated Japan’s inner defense ring and made the mainland vulnerable to long-range attacks by B-29 Superfortress bombers. America’s next move is now carefully being calculated, with Admiral Ernest J. King, supported by members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, advocating for a blockade of Japanese forces in the Philippines and focusing on an attack on Taiwan in order to give the US and Australia control of the sea trade routes between Japan and southern Asia.


The plan is solid, and with Japanese forces blockaded in the Philippines, they will be unable to resupply and eventually, perhaps in a few months, forced to surrender. Any attempts by the Japanese to break out their besieged forces will end in disaster, as they will be sailing straight into the teeth of a combined US/Australian naval task force supported by airpower from surrounding islands. The seizing of Taiwan will also give the US a second launching-off point for air attacks against the Japanese mainland, and allow medium-range bombers to join in the strikes.

Douglas MacArthur
General Douglas MacArthur, Institutional Creator: Department of Defense, Public domain

Yet General McArthur disagrees with this plan, partly because he sees leaving the Philippines in Japanese hands as a blow to American prestige and because it would be a personal affront to the man who had claimed in 1942, “I shall return” after his forced retreat.

The General also highlights the considerable land-based airpower that Japan has amassed in the Philippines, a threat significant enough that it is considered too dangerous to ignore by many high-ranking officers outside of the Joint Chiefs, including Admiral Chester Nimitz. Eventually, President Roosevelt lends his support to take back the Philippines, and thus the greatest naval battle in history is set into motion.


Battle plan of the invasion of island Leyte

Map of Battle of Leyte Gulf
Map of Battle Of Leyte Gulf, United States Army derivative work: Gdr, Public domain

General McArthur and his forces would invade the island of Leyte in the central Philippines, with close naval support provided by the Seventh Fleet which was at the time made up of both American and Australian units. The US 3rd Fleet, commanded by Admiral William F. Halsey Jr. would provide long-range cover for the invasion. From the onset, the plan held a critical flaw: no single American officer would be in command of the overall attack, a flaw which combined with failures in communication would result in a crisis and nearly a complete strategic disaster for the US.

The Japanese, who by pure coincidence also lacked an overall commander, drew up four “victory” plans in response to the obvious pending invasion. The plans however all called for Japan to commit almost all of its forces in response to any single attack, falling within the lines of Japanese wartime strategy of seeking the decisive battle- a strategy which had failed them repeatedly throughout the war in the Pacific.

Most of the times the Japanese had overcommitted their forces and attempted to force a decisive battle against the US fleets, the Americans had simply withdrawn- the US could afford to replace its loses and oil supplies, while Japan could not. Hence the Japanese desperate attempts to force one single decisive battle that would cripple the Americans for good.


The day of the invasion

American Admiral William F. Halsey
American Admiral William F. Halsey, Official U.S. Navy Photograph, the National Archives collection, Public domain

It’s early in the morning on October 12th, and Admiral Halsey has ordered the launching of massive airstrikes against the Formosa and Ryukyu islands. American dive bombers climb through a sky filled with enemy fighters and anti-aircraft fire, struggling to deliver their payloads against Japanese airfields. All around them American Wildcat fighters scream through the sky, goading what’s left of Japans airpower into a fight and protecting their bomber escorts. Japan’s naval air power may have been severely diminished, but its land-based forces have long been itching for a fight versus the American aviators that have scored such catastrophic losses against their fleets.

From sunup to sundown waves of fighters and bombers swarm the skies above Japanese airfields. The Japanese try to retaliate by targeting the American carriers but are intercepted by American fighters. After four days of non-stop air battle, the Japanese have lost hundreds of fighters and bombers and their airfields and support facilities have been taken out of commission.

The Americans meanwhile have lost only 89 aircraft and suffered 1 light cruiser damaged with 1 heavy cruiser seriously damaged and in need of repairs. The battle over Formosa has been a stunning American success and has taken Japanese airpower out of the equation for the invasion of Leyte.


The Japanese counterattacks, but a surprise awaits them underwater

USS Darter, U.S. Navy, Public domain

In response to the pending American invasion, Japan orders a force of five battleships, ten heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, and fifteen destroyers to set sail from Brunei to the Philippines. Squarely in their path though are the American submarines Darter and Dace, which at 0016 hours on October 23rd, make radar contact with the incoming Japanese while they wait on the surface.

Facing off against a force of 32 combat ships, the two submarines decide to engage anyways, knowing that this fleet could inflict serious damage to the rest of the American forces. The Darter shoots off three contact reports to the rest of the US Navy, one of which is intercepted by a radio operator on Yamato, but Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita orders no anti-submarine action, believing an attack on his superior forces to be too suicidal for the Americans to consider.

Unbeknownst to the Admiral, that’s exactly what the Americans are considering though, and the two submarines steam at full speed for several hours to get ahead of the Japanese ships. Submerged and lying in wait, the Japanese sail straight into the planned ambush, still taking no anti-submarine actions to protect themselves.


At 0524 hours Darter fires a rapid-fire salvo of six torpedoes and hydrophone operators aboard the heavy cruiser Atago raise the alarm- but too late. Explosions rack the heavy cruiser as four torpedoes score a direct hit. The fleet now scrambles, Admiral Kurita incredulous that a single American submarine would dare to threaten his fleet. Ten minutes later, the Darter lines up for a firing solution on the heavy cruiser Takao, scoring two more hits.

The Japanese fleet begins dropping depth charges at random, hydrophone operators unable to pinpoint the American submarine and at times getting what they believe to be false positives from locations the attacking submarine could not possibly be at. At 0556 hours, Dace breaks its cover and fires a spread of torpedoes that scores four hits on the heavy cruiser Maya, and the Japanese realize that they’re not dealing with one sub, but two.

Chokai, Maya, Atago, Takao cruisers, Japanese Imperial Navy, Public domain

The Atago and Maya have taken catastrophic damage and quickly sink, and the Takao is so damaged that her seaworthiness is in question. After being rescued from the water, Admiral Kurita orders the Takao to retreat back to Brunei, escorted by two destroyers.


The rest of the fleet is on high alert, and the American subs are in serious danger of being blown out of the water if they remain, so instead, they break off their attack and follow the Takao, hoping for a chance to finish her off. Three of Japan’s most formidable ships have been knocked out of the fight, and her sailors rattled by the seeming impunity in which American submariners attack them from out of the deep.

The great battle continues

Japanese destroyer under air attack at Battle of Leyte Gulf – cropped, U.S. Navy, CC BY-SA 4.0

On the 24th of October Admiral Kurita’s force continues towards the Philippines, where it makes contact with the US 3rd Fleet. Despite being superior in firepower, the 3rd fleet is missing two of its carrier groups which had been detached and sent to provision and rearm. As the Darter’s contact report comes in, Admiral Halsey recalls one of the groups, but lets the other continue on its resupply mission- this leaves the Americans with only 60% of their air power.

To support the incoming Japanese fleet, aircraft based out of Luzon are dispatched against the American carriers. Three waves of 50 to 60 aircraft scream towards the American carriers, but long range radar has warned them of the threat. Combat air patrols made up of Hellcats rise up to meet the incoming attack, and the majority are shot down or driven off in fierce fighting. Only a single Japanese aircraft carrying an armor piercing bomb penetrates the heavy air cover, and at 0938 hours the light carrier USS Princeton is struck.


The resulting explosion knocks out her emergency sprinklers and fire spreads throughout the ship. The light cruiser Birmingham pulls up alongside her to assist in the fire fighting when suddenly a massive explosion rocks the Princeton, killing 233 sailors. Alongside her, the Birmingham is so badly damaged that the ship is forced to retire, her crew transferred to another vessel. The Princeton is a total loss, but the Americans have decimated the Japanese aircraft further clearing the skies of hostile fighters and bombers.

USS Princeton bombed
USS Princeton bombed, Naval History & Heritage Command, Public domain

An hour and a half after the Japanese launched their attack, the Americans launch their own against the Japanese fleet. The battleships Nagato, Yamato, and Musashi are struck, along with the heavy cruiser Myoko which is forced to retreat. The Musashi is hit another 10 times in a subsequent wave and Admiral Kurita orders his fleet to retreat in order to get out of range of the aircraft. Later that night and under cover of darkness, he orders the fleet to turn back around. The Musashi has been sunk and the Myoko crippled, but the rest of the fleet is still battleworthy.

Meanwhile, the Japanese Northern Force, made up of a large formation of Japan’s remaining carriers, steams south towards the Americans. The move is a feint however, the carriers are only lightly armed and only have about 100 aircraft between them- they are bait for the Americans to engage and thus pull their battleships and other defensive vessels from the San Bernardino Strait, which will leave the amphibious landing force vulnerable to Admiral Kurita’s forces.


The Americans suspect that the Northern force is a feint, but a series of bad radio communications and poorly worded orders have sown confusion amongst the American commanders. Without a single unifying leader to command the entire operation, Admiral Halsey takes three of his carrier groups north to chase down the Japanese carriers. This leaves the American landing vessels completely unprotected from Admiral Kurita’s battleships except for a single escort carrier group.

Japan’s Southern Force destroyed in an ambush at the battle of Surigao Strait

The Battle of Surigao Strait
Battle off Surigao Straight, Part of the Battle of Leyte Gulf, Public domain

With the landing forces vulnerable, Japan’s Southern Force attempts to link up with Admiral Kurita’s ships but to do that it must sail through the narrow Surigao Strait. Yet as the fleet enters the strait at 0300 hours on the 25th, it runs directly into an American trap set by the US’s 7th Fleet Support Force. Scores of PT boats swarm the Japanese ships, loosing torpedoes at close range- though miraculously not a single one manages to land a hit. Yet as the fleet pushes through the strait, it runs straight into the main American battle line and its two battleships are struck by torpedoes from American destroyers.

The Yamashiro is able to power through the ambush, but the Fuso is badly hit and sinks forty minutes later. Two of the Japanese destroyers are also immediately sunk, and a third is forced to retreat only to sink later. The rest of the fleet tries to escape the deadly ambush, but waiting past the destroyers are six American battleships. The Japanese are decimated, and with a single salvo of twelve 14 inch shells, the Mississippi fires off the last battleship-to-battleship attack in history, closing a chapter in naval warfare forever.


Small American fleet, bests Japanese Northern fleet

American Destroyers Under Japanese Fire, U.S. Navy, Public domain

At the same time, Admiral Kurita’s force has sailed through the San Bernardino Strait completely unopposed- the American carriers and battleships meant to defend the landing craft off on a wild goose chase for the Japanese Northern Force. Now a force of four battleships, six heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, and eleven destroyers steam down on a small force of American escort carriers protected by destroyer escorts and light destroyers, catching them completely by surprise.

Takeo Kurita
Japanese Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita, US Navy Post-Work: W.wolny, Public Domain

Yet Admiral Kurita is unaware that the Northern Force has successfully lured away from the bulk of the US fleet, strict radio silence does not allow the three fleets to coordinate with each other. Thus he orders his ships into an anti-aircraft formation in order to defend against an overwhelming air attack he believes is coming.

It’s only a half hour later that he realizes that the force he is facing is not the feared 3rd Fleet, and immediately orders a General Attack. This sows confusion amongst the Japanese ships, who must now break their formation and link up for independent division attack.


Closest to the enemy, the destroyer USS Johnston, commanded by Lieutenant Commander Ernest E. Evans, is first to respond. He sees the situation before him and knows that the landing vessels are doomed if the Japanese break through. On his own initiative, he steers his ship directly into the Japanese formation at top speed, firing her torpedoes and scoring direct hits on the heavy cruiser Kumano, which is forced to drop out of the fight.

Upon seeing the reckless charge by the Johnston, the order is given for the rest of the American destroyers and destroyer escorts to attack. Hopelessly outgunned and dwarfed by the mighty battleships and heavy cruisers, the smaller American ships nonetheless take the Johnston’s lead and sail straight into the teeth of the Japanese fleet.

Explosion on USS ST. LO, Part of the Battle for Samar, tormentor4555, PDM-owner, via Wikimedia Commons

The Americans swarm the Japanese, who were not expecting this suicidal rush and are forced to drop out of their formations in order to avoid the spreads of torpedoes coming their way. Getting into knife-fight range, the small American vessels are savaged by Japanese fire, but the determined ships manage to sow major confusion and seriously damage several of the larger Japanese ships.


The escort carriers meanwhile launch every available plane, armed with anything that they can carry. The carriers know they are in a fight for their lives, and planes are launched with nothing more than depth charges and machine guns if need be.

As escort carriers they are primarily armed for long range recon and anti-submarine warfare, and are lacking the anti-shipping munitions carried by the larger main carriers. Yet because the Japanese have no air cover, 450 American planes swarm the Japanese ships. Even inadequately armed as they are they manage to cause serious damage to several vessels.

The end of the largest naval battle

A memorial to fallen navy men, Public Domain

Believing that he is facing the main American fleet due to the ferocity of the attack instead of just a lightly armed escort group, Admiral Kurita orders a general retreat for his forces. Incredibly the Japanese thus pass up their opportunity to seize victory and score catastrophic losses on the poorly defended troop transports. Kurita would go on to regroup his forces, but ultimately the Battle of Leyte Gulf is won here, and the Japanese defeat is ensured.


Had Kurita correctly ascertained that he was facing no more than a light escort group the US and the Australian invasion force would have been decimated with severe loss of life, and Japan’s sea trade routes would have remained open. With his withdrawal, however, Kurita has ensured that Japan’s critical link to its oil supplies is forever severed, and a total defeat is inevitable.

Featured image: USS Princeton, USN, Post-Work: W.wolny, Public domain

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