The Battle of Leyte Gulf
The Last Fleet Action
H. P. Willmott
Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Indiana, 2015, 424 pages
Book Review published on: August 11, 2017
The Battle of Leyte Gulf, fought 23–26 October 1944, was the largest naval battle of World War II. Renowned military historian, Hedley Paul Willmott, examines this decisive naval engagement in The Battle of Leyte Gulf: The Last Fleet Action. He goes beyond previous works on the battle in examining it from a strategic, operational, and command perspective. His extensive research of Japanese archives provides for a richer analysis of the largest naval battle in history. Willmott opens with five reasons why the Battle of Leyte Gulf was uniquely unusual; he asserts two of these five are most important: that it was a full-scale fleet engagement fought after Japan’s defeat at sea had been decided, and that the battle itself resulted in a clear-cut victory and defeat.
Willmott states that Japan’s defeat at the Battle of the Philippine Sea in June 1944 had sealed its ultimate defeat. Japan’s intent from the beginning was to decisively defeat the U.S. Navy in battle in order to gain a negotiated settlement on Japanese terms. The annihilation of Japanese carrier groups that had been prepared for Japan’s desired decisive battle eliminated the Imperial Japanese Navy’s ability to conduct large-scale carrier operations. Defeat at the Battle of the Philippine Sea exposed the Japanese home islands and conquered areas of Southeast Asia to the Americans and gave the United States full power of choice of when, where, and in what strength to attack Japan.
A major theme in Willmott’s work is the impact of Japan’s declining strategic availability of fuel oil. Willmott attributes targeting of Japanese logistics and merchant shipping by the U.S. Navy as instrumental in severely restricting both the Japanese army in the field and Japan’s replenishment at sea (RAS) capability during Japanese naval operations. He states that Japan was always short the numbers of oilers required for both national and service requirements. An increase in Japanese naval losses resulted in a lack of available oilers and destroyers for escort screen during RAS operations. This required the Japanese navy to use civilian oilers, resulting in domestic oil shortages. The shortage of available oilers limited the Japanese warships’ range and refueling options, thereby restricting Japanese strategic mobility to a few undesirable options in responding to American landings in the Philippines.
Willmott emphasizes the importance of command and control in operational level warfare. He rightly points out the challenges faced by commanders on both sides in executing operations on a battlefield consisting of over 450,000 square miles. His discussion of Halsey’s decision to engage the Japanese Northern Fleet makes for an interesting question regarding mission command. Was Halsey correct in engaging the Japanese Northern Fleet, what he considered the main Japanese threat and an opportunity to destroy Japan’s remaining carrier fleet? Willmott’s description of the loss of Vice Adm. Kurita Takeo’s flag ship, heavy cruiser Atago, and his communications staff during the Battle of Samar makes it understandable why Kurita fled from the fight.
Curiously, Willmott examines an area he said he wanted to avoid: the individual roles of Adms. Kurita, William Halsey, and Chester Nimitz. Wilmott states the focus on individuals, or what he refers to as the “Carlyle approach,” is of little value and misleading. He instead emphasizes a systematic examination to how battles are fought. His discussion of these three individuals, while subjectively critical at times, contributes to deeper understanding of key events in the battle and should have been included in discussing the actual battle.
Willmott attributes Japan’s defeat in the battle and subsequently the war to a failure to account for the industrial might of the United States. He makes the interesting observation that the Imperial Japanese Navy fought two fleets during the war: the Treaty Fleet and the Two-Ocean Fleet. The Treaty Fleet, reflecting post-World War naval disarmament conference agreements, defeated the Imperial Japanese Navy in the first fifteen months of the war. The Two-Ocean Fleet, reflecting America’s industrial strength, completed the defeat of a Japanese navy that had evolved little since Pearl Harbor.
The strengths of The Battle of Leyte Gulf are the illustrations depicting Japanese naval formations and American-Japanese naval engagements, thirteen appendixes, and lengthy notes reflecting Willmott’s extensive research. A major disappointment is the lack of maps in the initial chapters depicting overall Japanese naval strategy and their options in 1944 forcing the frequent consulting of outside sources. Readers may find Willmott’s writing style and strong opinion a challenge.
The Battle of Leyte Gulf is a must read for those with an interest in American naval history, the Pacific war, or operational art. It would make a great addition to Willmott’s The Barrier and the Javelin and Empires in the Balance.
Book Review written by: Jesse McIntyre III, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas