World War II: Battle of Leyte Gulf

Battle of Leyte Gulf
The Japanese carrier Zuikaku burns during the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Photograph Courtesy of the US Naval History & Heritage Command

The Battle of Leyte Gulf was fought October 23-26, 1944, during World War II (1939-1945) and is considered the conflict's largest naval engagement. Returning to the Philippines, Allied forces began landing on Leyte on October 20. Responding, the Imperial Japanese Navy launched plan Sho-Go 1. A complex operation, it called for multiple forces to strike the Allies from several directions. Central to the plan was luring away the American carrier groups that would be protecting the landings.

Moving forward, the two sides clashed in four distinct engagements as part of the larger battle: Sibuyan Sea, Surigao Strait, Cape Engaño, and Samar. In the first three, Allied forces won clear victories. Off Samar, the Japanese, having been successful in luring away the carriers, failed to press their advantage and withdrew. In the course of the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the Japanese suffered heavy losses in terms of ships and were unable to mount large-scale operations for the rest of the war.

Background

In late 1944, after extensive debate, Allied leaders elected to begin operations to liberate the Philippines. The initial landings were to take place on the island of Leyte, with ground forces commanded by General Douglas MacArthur. To assist this amphibious operation, the US 7th Fleet, under Vice Admiral Thomas Kinkaid, would provide close support, while Admiral William "Bull" Halsey's 3rd Fleet, containing Vice Admiral Marc Mitscher's Fast Carrier Task Force (TF38), stood further out to sea to provide cover. Moving forward, the landings on Leyte commenced October 20, 1944.

Adm. William Halsey
Admiral William "Bull" Halsey. US Naval History and Heritage Command

The Japanese Plan

Aware of American intentions in the Philippines, Admiral Soemu Toyoda, commander of the Japanese Combined Fleet, initiated plan Sho-Go 1 to block the invasion. This plan called for the bulk of Japan's remaining naval strength to put to sea in four separate forces. The first of these, Northern Force, was commanded by Vice Admiral Jisaburo Ozawa, and was centered on the carrier Zuikaku and the light carriers Zuiho, Chitose, and Chiyoda. Lacking sufficient pilots and aircraft for battle, Toyoda intended for Ozawa's ships to serve as bait to lure Halsey away from Leyte.

With Halsey removed, three separate forces would approach from the west to attack and destroy the US landings at Leyte. The largest of these was Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita's Center Force, which contained five battleships (including the "super" battleships Yamato and Musashi) and ten heavy cruisers. Kurita was to move through the Sibuyan Sea and the San Bernardino Strait, before launching his attack. To support Kurita, two smaller fleets, under Vice Admirals Shoji Nishimura and Kiyohide Shima, together forming Southern Force, would move up from the south through the Surigao Strait.

Japanese fleet before Battle of Leyte Gulf
Japanese battleships at Brunei, Borneo, in October 1944, photographed just prior to the Battle of Leyte Gulf. The ships are, from left to right: Musashi, Yamato, a cruiser and Nagato. US Naval History and Heritage Command

Fleets & Commanders

Allies

  • Admiral William Halsey
  • Vice Admiral Thomas Kinkaid
  • 8 fleet carriers
  • 8 light carriers
  • 18 escort carriers
  • 12 battleships
  • 24 cruisers
  • 141 destroyers and destroyer escorts

Japanese

  • Admiral Soemu Toyoda
  • Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita
  • Vice Admiral Shoji Nishimura
  • Vice Admiral Kiyohide Shima
  • Admiral Jisaburo Ozawa
  • 1 fleet carrier
  • 3 light carriers
  • 9 battleships
  • 14 heavy cruisers
  • 6 light cruisers
  • 35+ destroyers

Losses

  • Allies - 1 light carrier, 2 escort carriers, 2 destroyers, 1 destroyer escort, approx. 200 aircraft
  • Japanese - 1 fleet carrier, 3 light carriers, 3 battleships, 10 cruisers, 11 destroyers, approx. 300 aircraft

Sibuyan Sea

Beginning on October 23, the Battle of Leyte Gulf consisted of four primary meetings between Allied and Japanese forces. In the first engagement on October 23-24, the Battle of the Sibuyan Sea, Kurita's Center Force was attacked by the American submarines USS Darter and USS Dace as well as Halsey's aircraft. Engaging the Japanese around dawn on October 23, Darter scored four hits on Kurita's flagship, the heavy cruiser Atago, and two on the heavy cruiser Takao. A short time later, Dace hit the heavy cruiser Maya with four torpedoes. While Atago and Maya both sank quickly, Takao, badly damaged, withdrew to Brunei with two destroyers as escorts.

Yamato during the Battle of Sibuyan Sea
Battle of the Sibuyan Sea, 24 October 1944 Japanese battleship Yamato is hit by a bomb near her forward 460mm gun turret, during attacks by U.S. carrier planes as she transited the Sibuyan Sea. US Naval History and Heritage Command

Rescued from the water, Kurita transferred his flag to Yamato. The next morning, Center Force was located by American aircraft as it moved through the Sibuyan Sea. Brought under attack by aircraft from 3rd Fleet's carriers, the Japanese quickly took hits to the battleships Nagato, Yamato, and Musashi and saw the heavy cruiser Myōkō badly damaged. Subsequent strikes saw Musashi crippled and drop from Kurita's formation. It later sank around 7:30 PM after being hit with at least 17 bombs and 19 torpedoes.

Under increasingly intense air attacks, Kurita reversed his course and retreated. As the Americans withdrew, Kurita again changed course around 5:15 PM and resumed his advance towards the San Bernardino Strait. Elsewhere that day, the escort carrier USS Princeton (CVL-23) was sunk by land-based bombers as its aircraft attacked Japanese air bases on Luzon.

Surigao Strait

On the night of October 24/25, part of the Southern Force, led by Nishimura entered the Surigao Straight where they were initially attacked by Allied PT boats. Successfully running this gauntlet, Nishimura's ships were then set upon by destroyers which unleashed a barrage of torpedoes. In the course of this assault USS Melvin hit the battleship Fusō causing it to sink. Driving forward, Nishimura's remaining ships soon encountered the six battleships (many of them Pearl Harbor veterans) and eight cruisers of the 7th Fleet Support Force led by Rear Admiral Jesse Oldendorf.

Battle of Surigao Strait
USS West Virginia (BB-48) firing during the Battle of Surigao Strait, 24-25 October 1944. US Naval History and Heritage Command

Crossing the Japanese "T", Oldendorf's ships used radar fire control to engage the Japanese at long range. Pounding the enemy, the Americans sank the battleship Yamashiro and the heavy cruiser Mogami. Unable to continue their advance, the remainder of Nishimura's squadron withdrew south. Entering the strait, Shima encountered the wrecks of Nishimura's ships and elected to retreat. The fighting in the Surigao Strait was the last time two battleship forces would duel.

Cape Engaño

At 4:40 PM on the 24th, Halsey's scouts located Ozawa's Northern Force. Believing that Kurita was retreating, Halsey signaled Admiral Kinkaid that he was moving north to pursue the Japanese carriers. By doing so, Halsey was leaving the landings unprotected. Kinkaid was not aware of this as he believed Halsey had left one carrier group to cover the San Bernardino Straight.

At dawn on October 25, Ozawa launched a 75-plane strike against Halsey and Mitscher's carriers. Easily defeated by the American combat air patrols, no damage was inflicted. Countering, Mitscher's first wave of aircraft began attacking the Japanese around 8:00 AM. Overwhelming the enemy fighter defense, the attacks continued through the day and ultimately sank all four of Ozawa's carriers in what became known as the Battle of Cape Engaño.

Samar

As the battle was concluding, Halsey was informed that the situation off Leyte was critical. Toyoda's plan had worked. By Ozawa drawing away Halsey's carriers, the path through the San Bernardino Straight was left open for Kurita's Center Force to pass through to attack the landings. Breaking off his attacks, Halsey began steaming south at full speed. Off Samar (just north of Leyte), Kurita's force encountered the 7th Fleet's escort carriers and destroyers. 

Launching their planes, the escort carriers began to flee, while the destroyers valiantly attacked Kurita's much superior force. As the melee was turning in favor of the Japanese, Kurita broke off after realizing that he was not attacking Halsey's carriers and that the longer he lingered the more likely he was to be attacked by American aircraft. Kurita's retreat effectively ended the battle.

Aftermath

In the fighting at Leyte Gulf, the Japanese lost 4 aircraft carriers, 3 battleships, 8 cruisers, and 12 destroyers, as well as 10,000+ killed. Allied losses were much lighter and included 1,500 killed as well as 1 light aircraft carrier, 2 escort carriers, 2 destroyers, and 1 destroyer escort sunk. Crippled by their losses, the Battle of Leyte Gulf marked the last time the Imperial Japanese Navy would conduct large-scale operations during the war.

The Allied victory secured the beachhead on Leyte and opened the door for the liberation of the Philippines. This in turn cut off the Japanese from their conquered territories in Southeast Asia, greatly reducing the flow of supplies and resources to the home islands. Despite winning the largest naval engagement in history, Halsey was criticized after the battle for racing north to attack Ozawa without leaving cover for the invasion fleet off Leyte.