Battle of Leyte Gulf, October 24 – 26, 1944

Posted on October 26, 2016

Editor: Michael Spilling and Consultant Editor: Chris McNab

In terms of tonnage of warships deployed, the battle of Leyte Gulf is the largest naval battle ever fought. Incredibly engaging 282 vessels as well as 180,000 sailors and pilots. The Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) hoped to use the battle to destroy the US Third and Seventh Fleets outside the Philippine Islands. After, isolate the US ground forces and invade the Philippines themselves.

Leyte Gulf

The Battle of Leyte Gulf, 1944. Courtesy of American Battles and Campaigns

The Japanese plan, developed by Adm Soemu Toyoda, envisioned amassing the Japanese fleet from disparate bases then dividing it into two in the waters off the Philippines. A decoy fleet of four carriers would steam to the northeast of the islands. Then attract the attention of the carriers of the US Third Fleet before running off to the northeast. Given that these carriers had few planes or pilots owing to Japan’s earlier defeats, Toyoda did not believe that they could do much more. If, however, they could distract the US carriers, then the Japanese battleships coming from the west could even the odds against the US Seventh Fleet.

Japanese Navy commits to the Leyte Gulf

Aware that Leyte was possibly the last major engagement Japan was capable of fighting. The Japanese Navy committed almost everything it had. It included its two enormous 72,000 ton battleships, the Yamato and the Musashi. Five other battleships and 16 cruisers joined them. Supported by land-based planes on Japanese airfields in the Philippines. If they could lure the US Seventh Fleet away from the carriers and perform a pincer movement, the Japanese might deny the Americans access to the Philippines, giving them the major strategic victory they needed.

The battle of Leyte Gulf involved four related engagements in the gulfs and straits of the Philippines. Gen Douglas MacArthur’s landing of the Sixth Army on the island of Leyte drew both navies towards Leyte Gulf like a magnet. Then making it the center of gravity for the subsequent battle.

Neither side had one admiral in overall command of the entire engagement and confusion therefore reigned from beginning to end. With the clash spread out over hundreds of miles, it was nearly impossible for the commanders to develop a sense of the entire battle as it unfolded. Superior intelligence and quick decision-making gave the Americans a fundamental geographic advantage. Although the Americans did initially fall for the carrier bait and divide their forces.

Read more about the loss of the USS Samuel B. Roberts here

A Devastating Victory

The decision to chase the decoys limited the power the Americans could bring to bear. Although in fairness it must be noted that the Americans had no way of knowing how depleted of aircraft the Japanese decoy carriers really were. The Americans thus might have scored even greater triumphs at Leyte Gulf had they concentrated their ships. But they won a major victory nevertheless.

Leyte Gulf

St. Lo exploded after a kamikaze strike. By US Navy. Image is in the public domain via

The Japanese Navy suffered devastating losses of all four decoy carriers, three battleships, 10 cruisers and nine destroyers. Most of the other
capital ships the Japanese engaged were damaged and they also lost more than 500 planes. Perhaps most crucially, some 10,000 irreplaceable pilots and sailors died in the battle. Japan could not make good these losses, and was forced to rely increasingly on poorly trained replacements, who were virtual cannon fodder for the Americans. The American losses were three light carriers (out of 16 deployed), two destroyers, and 200 aircraft, but American industry could more than make good these losses. American personnel losses equalled 2800 men, about half of them from suicide attacks that previewed the deadly kamikazes.

The battle of Leyte Gulf effectively destroyed Japanese naval power and opened the way for the American reconquest of the Philippines.

Dr. Chris McNab is the editor of AMERICAN BATTLES & CAMPAIGNS: A Chronicle, from 1622-Present and is an experienced specialist in wilderness and urban survival techniques. He has published over 20 books including: How to Survive Anything, Anywhere. An encyclopedia of military and civilian survival techniques for all environments. Special Forces Endurance Techniques, First Aid Survival Manual, and The Handbook of Urban Survival.

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