Leyte Gulf: A New History of the World's Largest Sea Battle
“a truly new history of the battle that specifically aims at the many controversies and traditional talking points of the battle.”
The Battle of Leyte Gulf has been surrounded by controversy for nearly 80 years. Considered history’s largest naval battle, it has been, according to the author, shrouded by myths and misunderstandings. Mark Stille, a prolific author on the American and Japanese navies in World War II, has written this new history in the style of a campaign analysis, examining three major factors that contributed to the outcome of the battle: the opposing pre-battle plans, the fleet and command organization for each navy to carry out their plans, and the actual command decisions made during the battle by the principal task force commanders. Although the author makes some very definitive statements, his archival research and multiple tables and charts provide irrefutable data to back up his assertions.
The first analysis of each side’s pre-battle plans receives the most attention by the author and these are the factors where he makes his most definitive statements to slay some of his myths of the battle. The Japanese plan was unrealistic from the start and had no real chance of succeeding without a catastrophic blunder by the Americans. They simply did not have the combat power to overcome the now fully rebuilt American Pacific Fleet that had reached its zenith. The critical factor throughout the battle was the lack of Japanese air power to challenge the combined air wings of Halsey’s carriers, which allowed the first amphibious invasion of the Pacific war to be conducted without the support of land-based air power.
As the author summarizes, the battle was really intended to give the Imperial Japanese Navy a means of dying gloriously in battle for the emperor, whatever the actual outcome. The Americans had a much more straightforward plan that was only muddled by Admiral Nimitz’s directive that if the Japanese Navy came out to do battle, that would be Admiral Halsey’s primary mission, which affected all the subsequent decisions made during the battle.
The fleet and command organizations also reflected each side’s intentions. The three Japanese task forces were only loosely coordinated, and the lack of command unity prevented them for achieving any sort of force concentration within Leyte Gulf. The American side was not much better. Because of the enormous egos involved, mostly due to General Douglas MacArthur, there was also a lack of unity of command with two American naval forces, the Third and Seventh Fleets, that operated almost independently of each other as one reported to Nimitz and the other to MacArthur.
This lack of command unity was compounded by a lack of coordination between Admirals Bill Halsey and Thomas Kinkaid, which left San Bernadino Strait unguarded and allowed the Japanese force under Vice Admiral Kurita to initiate the most controversial part of the battle, the fight off Samar Island.
Finally, the actions of each Task Force commander are reviewed, and here Mr. Stille offers a mixed evaluation of their performance. While he joins in the traditional criticism of Admiral Halsey, his points are a little different than many of the customary histories of the battle. The author believes that Admiral Halsey made the only possible decision to attack the Japanese Diversionary force since, given the intelligence available to him at the time, he had no way of knowing that the Japanese carriers were merely target hulls that had no real air power on them. Stille’s greater criticism is that Halsey did not use his vastly superior surface force to pursue and annihilate the remaining Japanese ships of the northern force when he turned his carrier forces south after receiving the distress call from the American forces under attack by Admiral Kurita.
Interestingly, Stille seems to be the first author to look more deeply at the Seventh Fleet commander, Vice Admiral Thomas Kinkaid and his command decisions during the battle. The Seventh Fleet also possessed enough combat power to annihilate the Japanese forces arrayed against them and the author makes a convincing case their neither of the American Admirals used their forces effectively in the pursuit of the retreating Japanese. Although the Americans won a clear and more decisive victory than was probably understood at the time, the victory could have been overwhelming with a unified command structure and better decision making.
This is a truly new history of the battle that specifically aims at the many controversies and traditional talking points of the battle. Using a wealth of primary sources and providing a large amount of data on ships, aircraft, and fleets, the author backs up his ardent assertions with sharp analysis and logic.