The largest naval engagement of all times both by the total tonnage of all ships involved and by the size of the area in which it took place, (referred to as the Battle of Leyte Gulf) was a series of four main battles between the 23rd and the 26th of October 1944. During these days the American – Australian forces engaged the entire remaining fleet of the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN), involving a staggering 370 ships and 1800 planes from both sides combined. The stakes were high, as the outcome of the battle would determine the fate of the whole Pacific campaign…
The previous years spent on the Pacific front did see the US forces slowly work off their initial numerical and technological disadvantage and relentlessly pushing back the Japanese forces towards their home islands. Their main goal was to isolate their most important bases and cut them off from the resources (most importantly oil) from the occupied territories. When earlier in 1944 the US Navy invaded the Mariana Islands (breaching Japan’s inner defense ring and putting the Japanese home islands within reach of long-range bomber attacks), the IJN responded with a massive counter attack that resulted in the Battle of the Philippine Sea – the largest aircraft carrier battle in history. This did see the Japanese carrier forces decimated with virtually no sea-based aircraft or experienced pilots remaining, and only a handful of operational carrier vessels.
The next step for the US Navy was the invasion of the Philippines, opening a beach head on the island of Leyte. In preparation for this, the 3rd Fleet’s carriers launched air raids on the Japanese bases on Formosa (Taiwan) and the Ryukyu Islands, with the aim of destroying their land-based aircraft so they can’t interfere with the upcoming invasion. The Japanese did try to launch air attacks against the US carriers, but lost 600 planes in just three days, almost their entire air force in the area. With this, the last obstacle was defeated and the invasion proceeded as planned. As a response, the Imperial Japanese Navy mobilized all of its remaining forces to mount an attack, separating them into three main groups. Their plan was to use the remaining (almost empty) aircraft carriers as bait to lure main US forces away from Leyte, and then attack the pursuing American fleet from both sides with the two other fleets.
The IJN fleet was seriously outnumbered however, only consisting of 67 ships (including the mostly empty carriers used as bait) and about 300 planes, going up against the combined forces of the 3rd and 7th fleet, mustering about 300 ships for the invasion, including 34 fully operational carriers with 1500 planes, 12 battleships, 24 cruisers, 166 destroyers and a variety of other sea-based armament. Legendary ships sailed into battle on both sides, like the Yamato, Nagato, Kongo and Fuso battleships on the IJN side, or the USS Essex, USS Lexington, USS Enterprise carriers from the US Navy. With all these legendary ships in place to engage each other, there was nothing else left but the battle to begin, and it did not start well for the Imperial fleet…
Battle of the Sibuyan Sea
At dawn on the 23rd of October two American submarines detected the main IJN force at the Palawan Passage, effectively rendering the Japanese plans useless. They also carried out an extremely successful torpedo attack, scoring at least 10 direct hits, immediately sinking the heavy cruisers Atago and Maya, and badly damaging another one (Takao), taking her out of combat. The attack on the main IJN fleet continued the next day with air raids from the carrier fleet, though an ill-timed provision run to their fleet base did see several of the main carriers out of action for most of the battle, reducing their air strength by 40% and making an early decisive strike impossible. Still, after several waves of Hellcat fighters, Helldiver dive bombers and Avenger torpedo bombers, the US forces managed to seriously damage the heavy cruiser Myoko (taking her out of action), and after at least 17 direct bomb hits and 19 torpedo hits sunk the battleship Musashi.
While the Japanese main fleet was forced to turn back to get out of range of the aircraft, they launched several waves of counter attacks from their bases on Luzon, each consisting of about 50-60 planes. Most of these were successfully intercepted and shot down by Hellcats, but a single Japanese plane slipped through and successfully hit the light carrier USS Princeton with a 250kg armor piercing bomb, causing a series of fires and explosions. The crew battled the flames most of the day, but eventually the remaining crew evacuated and carrier was scuttled. In a sad twist of fate, the crew of the light cruiser Birmingham suffered much more heavy losses, when during assisting in the firefighting (while sailing alongside the Princeton) a massive explosion on the carrier damaged it so badly that it was forced to retire.
Battle of Surigao Strait
In the meantime the weaker strike force of the Japanese fleet was moving in as well with two battleships (the Yamashiro and the Fuso), the heavy cruiser Mogami and four destroyers, trying to link up with the main IJN force. At 2AM on the 25th of October they entered the narrow Surigao Strait, little aware of the fact that they are sailing into a trap set by the 7th Fleet. Awaiting them were 36 torpedo boats, 28 destroyers, 4 cruiser and 6 battleships (5 of which were damaged or sunk back in Pearl Harbor and eager to pay off the debt). The ambush started with the torpedo boats running repeated attacks for several hours on the approaching ships. While no direct hits were made, they kept reporting the exact positions of the enemy force, helping to coordinate the second wave of the ambush by the destroyers. This time the result was devastating as both battleships were hit by several torpedoes and the Fuso was quickly sunk together with two of the Japanese destroyers.
Still in pitch black the battleships now joined in as well, opening fire from their 14 and 16 inch guns, raining over 270 shells in under 30 minutes on the Japanese warships. Their advanced radar fire control allowed most of the US Battleships to fire in the dark with relative effectiveness from well beyond the firing range of the Japanese ships. The eight American cruisers joined in as well, providing flanking fire from the sides. The result was utter chaos on the Japanese side, with the ships firing all batteries in several directions. Soon however the badly damaged Mogami and a single destroyer had to retreat, as all other ships quickly succumbed to the constant barrage. On their way back they run into a second wave of Japanese ships (consisting of 2 cruisers and 8 destroyers) – literally, as the already damaged Mogami collided with another Japanese cruiser, now causing flooding as well. The ships all turned around and retreated, but the Mogami fell behind because of the damage received and was sunk the next day by aircraft. This engagement was one of the only two battleship vs battleship engagements during the entire Pacific campaign, and also the last one in history.
The battle started well for US Navy with many enemy ships sunk, soon however they would make a mistake that would endanger the entire invasion, and present the IJN fleet with a golden opportunity…
- FM-2 Wildcat on patrol over USS Santee, Leyte Invasion, October 1944: ww2dbaseUnited States National Archives
- USS Yorktown aircraft carrier, during the Mariana Islands Campaign: United States National Archives
- US Navy LCM delivering men on the Leyte beachhead, October 1944: ww2dbaseUnited States National Archives
- Battleship Yamato of the Imperial Japanese Navy: United States National Archives
- Musashi battleship under US carrier aircraft attack, 24. October, 1944: ww2db.com
- USS Birmingham fights the fires on USS Princeton, 24. October, 1944: ww2db.com
- Battleship Fuso or Yamashiro under air attack, October 1944: ww2db.com
- Battleship USS West Virginia, 1944: ww2db.com