This little-known sea battle was fought between American and Japanese fleets towards the end of October, 1944. Japanese forces were seeking to stop the US re-conquest of the Philippines, which had started on October 20 with American troops invading the island of Leyte. It was seen as obvious that American success in the Philippines would cut Japan off from her oil supplies as well as essential raw materials in South-East Asia. Though they knew they were outnumbered, the Japanese decided to send all available warships into a conflict they were by no means certain to win.
The United States had one hundred and thirty-six ships, including twenty-six aircraft carriers, a stupendous battle fleet, whereas the Japanese had barely seventy ships, among them only six carriers. Oddly enough, though the looming battle is hardly mentioned in books and documentaries about the 2nd World War, it would turn out to be the biggest naval engagement of the War.
The Japanese divided their fleet into three; the first, which contained all the carriers, was far to the north of the island, hoping to lure the swiftest US ships away from the Gulf. The ruse worked, as US commander Admiral Halsey rushed off in pursuit with his fleet of carriers and battleships. Those American capital ships that were left moved south to engage another Japanese force, and thus started the only classical naval battle of the War in the Pacific. The fighting ships fired against each other at long and short range as if they had switched centuries. The United States had radar-controlled guns however, and won this part of the conflict conclusively.
Later, with Admiral Halsey in the north looking for trouble, and the rest of the capital ships in the south, the Americans were left with but sixteen slow escort carriers and a few supporting destroyers, whose task it was to defend the Leyte beachheads. Then Admiral Kurita with his main fleet of the three appeared – four battleships and six battle cruisers, but finding that he would be without his southern fleet Kurita mysteriously withdrew.
Halsey then moved back and sank four Japanese carriers, but was too late to intercept Kurita. The statistics were as follows: Japanese losses – four carriers, three battleships, ten cruisers, three destroyers and five hundred aircraft. American losses – three carriers, three destroyers and 200 aeroplanes. The battle was seen by Western Powers as a resounding victory, but it was in fact very nearly a disaster, as the Americans later admitted to having failed to co-ordinate. Kurita could with some facility have destroyed US beachheads on Leyte if he had tried; he seemed to lack the determination required. Leyte Gulf was the last important sea battle in the Pacific War. Dates: 23 – 26 October, 1944.
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