The Battle of Leyte Gulf in October 1944 was the biggest naval battle of WW2. It ended with defeat for the Japanese and virtually ended their navy's active role in the war. In the main talk of the evening museum curator and society committee member Hamish Paterson explained what happened.
The central aim of US Pacific strategy in mid-1944 was to complete the process of cutting off mainland Japan from its sources of oil and raw materials in the East Indies, while pushing US land-based forces as close as possible to the Japanese mainland. It was decided that a landing in the Philippines was a more practicable proposition than an attempted invasion of Formosa (Taiwan), and the island of Leyte in the middle of the Philippine archipelago was chosen as the site.
A huge US naval force was assembled to protect the troop landings. This consisted of the Third Fleet under Admiral Halsey, which comprised 16 aircraft carriers along with six battleships and various smaller units, and the Seventh Fleet under Admiral Kincade whose task was to accompany and protect the landings. The Third Fleet took up a position south-east of the main Philippine island of Luzon, from where it could command the San Bernardino Strait between Luzon and the island of Samar to the north-east of Leyte.
The bulk of Japan's carrier-borne air power had already been destroyed in the Battle of the Philippine Sea the previous June, so its main naval strength was concentrated in its surface vessels. These comprised seven battleships, including the two 71 000-ton, 18-inch-gun giants Musashi and Yamato, the largest battleships ever built. They were accompanied by 13 heavy cruisers and a powerful force of destroyers. The four fleet carriers still available to the Japanese, being too weak in terms of aircraft and trained crews to perform an active role, were sent to the north-east tip of Luzon to act as decoys to divert Halsey's attentions from a two-pronged surface attack aimed at disrupting the landings on Leyte.
This tactic not only took account of the weakness of Japanese carrier forces. It was also based on the known character of Halsey, who was noted for his impetuosity, and who it was judged would take the bait and so deprive the landing forces of much of their air cover. In this role the Japanese carriers proved extremely successful, although all four were lost to US aircraft.
The landings on Leyte began on 20th October, and within hours two Japanese fleets were sailing to intercept. The four aircraft carriers, accompanied by two battleships, three cruisers and eight destroyers under Admiral Ozawa sailed from Japanese home bases. The larger, more powerful force, sailed from Singapore and Brunei on the north coast of Borneo. It was divided into two arms, the northern one, under Admiral Kurita, aimed for the San Bernadino Strait south of Luzon, while the southern one under Admiral Nishimara aimed for the Surigao Strait south of Leyte. The intention was to take the island in a crushing pincher movement.
Kurita's force, which included five battleships, 12 cruisers and 15 destroyers, was soon under attack from US submarines and Halsey's aircraft. It had lost three cruisers, two destroyers and the battleship Musashi before Halsey turned northward to look for Ozawa's carriers. After a series of manoeuvres Kurita succeeded in breaking through the San Bernadino Strait, but turned back when only 40 miles from the invasion force, and before making contact with Nashimura. He had sighted what he believed to be a massive US fleet, but in fact what he saw was only a comparatively weak force under Admiral Sprague, which comprised a task force from Kincade's Seventh Fleet that had already defeated Nashimura's attempt to force the Surigao Strait.
This retreat of Kurita, when he had the Seventh Fleet and the landings beaches virtually at his mercy, cost the Japanese victory in the Battle of Leyte Gulf, and was always regarded by Sprague as the result of divine intervention.
George Barrell (Chairman/Scribe) (011) 791-2581