- Collins, Vice Admiral Sir John
- WWII operations
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Arunta I, HMAS Manoora I, HMAS Kanimbla I, HMAS Westralia I, HMAS Warramunga I, HMAS Shropshire, HMAS Gascoyne I, HMAS Australia II
- January 1972 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Returning to the morning of the 24th, shortly after the Centre Force was sighted, air searches discovered the Southern Force, under Admiral Nishimura, south of Negros.
This Force, consisting of two battleships and attendant craft, was immediately reported and attacked by aircraft. The battleship Fuso was hit and a destroyer damaged. Three hours later the rear echelon of the Southern Force comprising three cruisers and four destroyers under Admiral Shima was sighted and reported, Kinkaid having enough information now to assess that the two southern forces would attack Leyte Gulf through the Surigao Strait.
The 24th was a busy day, for things were also happening up north. The Japanese Northern Force, the carriers, under Admiral Ozawa had left Japan on 20th October. On the morning of the 24th, search planes from this force found the Northern Group of Halsey’s carriers and launched an attack which achieved nothing. It was not until late afternoon that Halsey’s search planes discovered the Japanese Northern Force in two groups, the two converted battleships and light forces to the southward of the carriers and their escorts.
So at sunset the US Admirals had this picture, Kurita heading for San Bernadino Strait, with a force of battleships, cruisers and destroyers which had suffered some losses. Nishimura steaming for Surigao Strait with a similar but originally less powerful force, followed by Shima with his cruisers and destroyers. Four Japanese carriers and two converted battleships with escorts under Ozawa off the north east point of Luzon.
We now come to the great controversy of Halsey’s decision. He had been ordered by the Commander-in-Chief, Pacific (Nimitz) to provide protection for the landing and had, in fact, organised his battleships and cruisers into Task Force 34, ready for a surface battle should Kurita emerge from the San Bernadino Strait.
This organisation was signalled and thus known to Kinkaid, the 7th Fleet Commander. Any doubts he may have had about the 3rd Fleet dealing with Kurita were set at rest and he prepared his defence against the southern forces. Halsey, however, never brought the organisation into being. It was there if he wanted it, but he decided otherwise.
Nimitz had also instructed Halsey ‘in case the opportunity for the destruction of major portions of the enemy fleet offers or can be created, such destruction becomes the primary task.’ To Halsey the enemy’s carrier force was the ‘major portion’, and the report of their presence to the north was the word on which he had been waiting.
The Pacific Fleet had fought many carrier battles across the Pacific and Halsey was determined to make a clean sweep of his old foes. He gathered all his fleet, including the battleships and cruisers which might have formed Task Force 34, and went off after the bait. He left nothing to guard San Bernadino Strait, although he knew Kurita had turned eastward and was coming on.
It will be recalled that the Japanese had been misled by reports of their aviators and thought the 3rd Fleet had been practically destroyed whereas in fact it had suffered only minor damage. Halsey fell into the same trap. The pilots were honest and really believed they had done great damage, but once again their reports proved misleading. In fact the Centre Force still consisted of four battleships with eight cruisers and fifteen destroyers. Halsey thought it had been reduced to an ineffective remnant that could no longer be considered a menace.
He also was not aware of the weakness of the Japanese Carrier Force, which was very short of planes and skilled pilots. Had he known all this he would have realised he had ample force to do both jobs.
We leave him steaming north and return now to the Southern Force and the Battle of Surigao Strait. Admiral Oldendorf, who had charge of the defence under Kinkaid, had organised his battleships in good old fashioned battle line steaming slowly east and west, thus crossing the T of any ships entering the Gulf from the Surigao Strait. The cruisers and destroyers, including Shropshire and Arunta, were deployed on each flank to the southward. Thirty nine PT boats were stationed in groups in the approaches to the Strait from the westward.
Just before 11 p.m. on the 24th the first group of PT boats sighted Nishimura’s force and attacked. Nishimura turned away. The PT boats were illuminated by enemy searchlights and came under heavy fire. They were driven off scoring no torpedo hits. However, at last an enemy report was received by Admirals Kinkaid and Oldendorf. This was the first report since the morning and confirmed the wisdom of the 7th Fleet dispositions. The PT boat group attacks continued right up the Strait, their only success being one light cruiser damaged. Ten PT boats were hit by Japanese gunfire, one being sunk.
Let us turn to the Battle proper. It was a warm night in Leyte Gulf, calm with a glassy sea. Destroyer Squadron 54, under Captain Coward, patrolling east and west to the southward of the battle line, was well informed of the approach of the Japanese Force through the Strait. At 2.30 a.m. on 25th, Coward formed his destroyers into two groups and proceeded south to attack the enemy. He wisely ordered a night torpedo attack using torpedoes only and no guns, which were of little use against the Japanese battleships and only gave away the destroyers’ positions.
At 3 a.m. the eastern group fired 27 torpedoes and retired at full speed. Although it came under heavy fire it escaped damage. Nishimura took no evasive action and the battleship Fuso was hit, probably by more than one torpedo. She sheered out of the line and eventually sank. She was astern of Yamashiro, the flagship, and strangely enough none of his staff told the Japanese Admiral, who thought he was still leading two battleships.
Meanwhile the west group of Destroyer Squadron 54 were going into the attack on the port bow of the Japanese column. They came under heavy fire and at 3.09 fired their torpedoes. This time Nishimura took evasive action but to no avail. His battleship was hit by a torpedo, which failed to stop her, one enemy destroyer blew up, a second was in a sinking condition and a third had her bows blown off, but was able to retire under her own steam. This well executed attack from both flanks scored hits on five vessels and sank three including the battleship Fuso. Nishimura was in real trouble, with more to follow.
Coming down behind Coward’s destroyers were the right and left flank destroyers. The right flank attacked in two groups from close inshore, one group being under the operational control of Commander A.E. Buchanan RAN in Arunta leading USS Killen and Beale. US ships had been controlled by Australian officers in many 7th Fleet operations, as had Australian ships by the US command. It was a fitting climax to our co-operation with the US Navy that an Australian officer should lead a mixed force of RAN and USN ships in that most exacting of naval tactics, a night torpedo attack on an enemy battle fleet.
Buchanan maneuvered his group into a good position on the enemy’s port bow and launched torpedoes, scoring at least one hit on the battleship Yamashiro. The second group attacked a few minutes later, and blew up a disabled Japanese destroyer. Damaged ships were engaged by gunfire as the group withdrew to the northward.
It was next the turn of the left flank destroyers who set off at 3.25 in three groups against the Japanese forces which were by now in some disorder. Attacks were made till just after 4 a.m. and one or possibly two hits were scored on the battleship Yamashiro. By this time the main gun battle had started and the destroyer USS Albert W. Grant was hit by our fire but was towed clear.
The destroyer attacks had left one damaged battleship, one heavy cruiser and one destroyer to be dealt with by the Battle Line consisting of six battleships with nine cruisers on the flanks. Remember it was a pitch dark night, and it says a lot for our gun control radar that fire was opened by the cruisers at over 15,000 yards and the battleships at almost 23,000 yards (11½ sea miles). The battle was soon over. Fire ceased after 15 minutes and Yamashiro capsized and sank. The heavy cruiser Mogami and the destroyer Shigure, both badly damaged, retired down the Strait. They were the sole remnants of Nishimura’s force.
Incredible though it seems, the Japanese Admiral had not thought fit to warn Admiral Shima, following him up the Strait, of what was happening. As already described, Shima’s Force had lost one cruiser in the PT boat attacks but the two heavy cruisers and four destroyers pressed on, presumably to mop up after the victorious Nishimura!
However, as Shima neared the Gulf he started to pass wreckage and began to fear the worst. He did not investigate too far. When still some 10 miles off Hibuson Island he fired his torpedoes at long range at the island, which he took to be ships, and retired. This was the Second Striking Force’s only contribution to the battle. As Admiral Kinkaid said in his report ‘ . . . the Island was not damaged.’
Shima’s luck was not in. As he turned to the southward he collided with the damaged Mogami, one of the two remnants of the First Force. Nachi’s stern was badly damaged and her speed was reduced. By this time, 7th Fleet cruisers and destroyers had been detached to follow up the retreating enemy forces. The damaged Mogami was again brought under fire but this force did not proceed down the Strait. A small group was detached to polish off the cripples; it was now 20 minutes after sunrise. They sank a damaged destroyer but were recalled about 7.30 a.m. to meet a new development.
PT boats again attacked the retiring Japanese force but without success. Later the badly damaged Mogami was the target of carrier aircraft. A tribute must be paid to the designers, builders, Captain and crew of that cruiser. The day before the battle her seaplane had reported the strength of the 7th Fleet in Leyte Gulf, she had suffered the full brunt of the gun battle sustaining many shell hits and, although apparently on fire from bow to stern, had limped to the southward. She withstood further shell damage from the right flank destroyers and follow up forces. Although out of control she tried to join up with Shima’s group as they retired and in so doing rammed the Nachi. She still survived to suffer bomb hits from these aircraft attacks which further battered her. Finally she was sunk by a torpedo from a Japanese destroyer which had taken off her survivors. She was an ugly looking ship, but a good one, for we failed to sink her.
The remaining light cruiser, which had been damaged by the PT boats on the approach, was sunk by aircraft next day. So ended the Battle of the Surigao Strait. One wonders how the Japanese thought they could achieve their object. They knew the strength of the 7th Fleet in Leyte Gulf. Did they gamble on a surprise attack despite our air reconnaissance, and their approach through narrow waters suitable for PT boat patrols? Did they hope the Centre Force would draw off the 7th Fleet? They obviously did not know the effectiveness of the US fire control radar at night. Whatever hopes they had were certainly dashed. The Southern Forces were practically annihilated and no striking victory was achieved.
As the last shots in the Battle of Surigao Strait were being fired, the Battle of Samar was on. We left Kurita steaming towards the San Bernadino Strait on the evening of 24 and Halsey’s 3rd Fleet going north to battle with the Japanese carriers off Cape Engano.
Unfortunately space does not permit the story of these two battles to be told. No description can therefore be included of the heroic fight of the escort carrier Groups Taffy 1, 2 and 3 against Kurita’s battle fleet, the centre force. They had a miraculous escape owing to the gallantry of their escorts and aircraft, and Kurita’s withdrawal at the critical moment.
Neither can any account be given of Mitcher’s destruction of all Ozawa’s carriers and most of the northern force, nor of Halsey’s dash south, with his battleships and a carrier group, only to arrive three hours after Kurita had escaped. The rights and wrongs of Halsey’s acceptance of Ozawa’s bait will be discussed as long as the battle is remembered. The initial cause of the near disaster to the escort carriers seems clearly to have been the dual control of the battle. It could not have happened under one command. Disaster was escaped because in the fog of battle errors were made on both sides.
In these battles for Leyte Gulf, the US Navy’s fighting spirit and materiel proved their superiority. The Japanese Fleet, as a fleet in being, was eliminated. A comparison of ships sunk gives some indication of the scale of Japanese defeat. They lost three battleships, their four remaining carriers, ten cruisers and nine destroyers against our losses of one light carrier, two escort carriers, two destroyers and one frigate. It was a tremendous sea battle that cleared the way for final allied victory in the Pacific.