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Leyte Gulf: A New History of the World’s Largest Sea Battle

26 Sep 23


(Osprey – £25.00)

ISBN 978 1 4728 5175 8

320 pages

Dr James Bosbotinis

Having recently reviewed Mark E. Stille’s book Pacific Carrier War (see NR, Vol. 111, No. 3, pp. 139-140), this reviewer expected Leyte Gulf to provide an engaging, yet detailed, and thought-provoking analysis, and was not disappointed. The author, a former US Navy officer and prolific naval history writer with a particular focus on the Pacific in the Second World War, seeks to analyse the Battle of Leyte Gulf and dispel the myths surrounding it, in particular relating to the Battle off Samar, and the likely consequences of Admiral Kurita successfully breaking through into Leyte Gulf. In order to do this, Stille examines the Battle of Leyte Gulf from the strategic through to the tactical levels, the leadership on both sides, as well as the four key engagements that make up the wider battle. Whilst the book includes endnotes, a detailed bibliography, and supporting appendices, and is written following academic conventions, it is meant to be accessible to a wider audience.

As the author explains, the book follows a broadly thematic, rather than strictly chronological approach, and across 11 chapters, examines the background to the campaign, Japanese plans to fight a decisive battle, a comparison of the Imperial Japanese and US Navies, the key engagements, and the implications of the battle. The appendices cover the respective US and Japanese orders of battle, the characteristics of the principal US Seventh Fleet ships and Japanese ships involved, and the fates of the ships of the Imperial Japanese Navy First Diversionary Attack Force. A black and white photographic plate, plus tables and maps are also included.

At the core of the book is the critical point that Japanese expectations and capabilities were wildly divergent. The Japanese plan – ‘Sho-I’ for defending the Philippines and attempting to draw the US Navy into a ‘decisive battle’, was as Stille explains, “simple and utter desperation…For the Imperial Navy, the notion of a decisive battle was a cherished element of strategy…Against an opponent with the resources of the USN, the idea that any battle could be decisive was never viable”. More succinctly, “The idea that Sho-I provided the opportunity for a decisive victory was strategic lunacy”. The Battle of Leyte Gulf did prove decisive though, but for the US Navy: “After October 1944, the Imperial Navy was finished as a force capable of large-scale operations. The USN gained control of the Pacific and prepared to launch the final offensives of the war against Japan…”. This was achieved through the imposition of massive losses on the Japanese fleet; “the Japanese lost more ships in combat than any other navy in modern naval history”.

Through the text, Stille ably examines the causes of the disaster that befell the Japanese, but also discusses the mistakes on the part of the US Navy, not least “their divided command structure”, and Admiral Halsey’s decision-making. Leyte Gulf provides well-thought-out, well-argued and well-written naval history. It will appeal particularly to those with an interest in the Pacific in the Second World War, US or Japanese naval history, and the impact of airpower on navies. Moreover, the book provides a valuable study across the levels of war: the interplay between strategic planning, operational decisions, and tactical action, plus factors such as the influence of the fog of war, and the impact of fatigue. All in all, Leyte Gulf would be a worthy addition to any bookshelf and is recommended.