New Look at the Greatest Naval Battle in History

By Kappes, Irwin J. | Sea Classics, August 2004 | Go to article overview

New Look at the Greatest Naval Battle in History


Kappes, Irwin J., Sea Classics


Historians are still debating the true significance of many aspects of the Battle of Leyte Gulf... or was it FOR Leyte Gulf?

Nothing is neat and tidy about Naval battles. Not only are they apt to be chaotic but in the aftermath confusion sometimes reigns concerning exactly what happened, where they took place, when, and even what to call them. For example, an otherwise authoritative book refers to the battle we now know as The Battle Off Samar as "The Battle of San Bernardino Strait - Part II," whereas the strait and the battle's actual site are 175 miles apart. Even the redoubtable National Geographic Society is apparently confused. Its 1986 historical map of the Philippines lists only three battles comprising the Battle for Leyte Gulf, omitting the Battle of Sibuyon Sea in which the largest warship ever built met its demise. The Pacific War Encyclopedia got it half right on page 366: "The Battle of Leyte Gulf was actually a series of interrelated engagements fought over tens of thousands of square miles of ocean in October 1944."

Variously known as "The Battle of Leyte Gulf and "The Battle for Leyte Gulf," it was unarguably the greatest episode of Naval combat in world history. However, words do mean something, and of and for should definitely not be used interchangeably. But it gets even worse.

As presently defined, the Great Battle was really four separate Naval engagements, but only two were fought anywhere near Leyte Gulf. The Battle of Sibuyan Sea (24 October 1944) occurred approximately 330 miles distant and the Battle off Cape Engafio (25 October 1944) was fought about 700 sea miles to the north. So much for "The Battle o/Leyte Gulf (though it must be admitted that if one interprets events broadly enough all four battles had some bearing on securing the pivotal Gulf in the campaign for the Philippines in WWII).

Now let's take a closer look at the term "The Battle for Leyte Gulf." While the four battles presently comprising it sounded the death knell of the Japanese fleet, the immediate objective (as the name clearly indicates) was to bring the Leyte Gulf area securely under Allied control. But this did not happen. When the fourth - and ostensibly - the last battle ended, the famed "Tokyo Express" went right back into business by continuing to land reinforcements at Ormoc, the enemy's largest port on the western half of Leyte. The Japanese continued to strengthen their hold on Leyte and one month later the enemy garrison there had actually more than doubled. This does not qualify as a tremendous Allied victory by any measurement if the Battle's goal was to secure Leyte Gulf.

Sure, the Japanese fleet, which by now was outnumbered more than three to one, had been decimated. But at this point in the war large gunships counted for relatively little. What now mattered most was air power and, for the Allies, amphibious and re-supply capability. One must remember that, for the Japanese, Leyte was every bit as important as one of the home islands. The High Command knew that the loss of Leyte would quickly spell the loss of the Philippines. And because this would mean Allied control of the sealanes from Japan to their main oil sources in Borneo, it would inexorably lead to defeat. But defeat was not in the Japanese lexicon, so a number of desperate measures were undertaken in the futile effort to roll back MacArthur's invasion attempt, including the sacrifice of the Empire's two proudest battleships - the world's largest - and scores of kamikazes.

In the end, it was the rather amorphous Battle of Ormoc Bay that finally brought Leyte and the entire Gulf area under firm Allied control. From 11 November 1944 until 21 December, the combined efforts of Third Fleet carrier planes, Marine fighter-bomber groups, a pincer movement by the Army's 77th Division and the First Division plus a motley assortment of destroyers, amphibious ships and PT boats trounced the now semiisolated Japanese in a series of skirmishes and night raids. …

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