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December 04, 2006

The Battle of Leyte Gulf: The Last Fleet Action - H.P. Willmott

Posted by Jeremy Black

The Battle of Leyte Gulf: The Last Fleet Action
by H. P. Willmott
Pp. xii+399. Indiana University Press, 2005
Hardback, 22.95

Following his excellent When Men Lost Faith in Reason: Reflections on Warfare in the Twentieth Century, H. P. Willmott has turned to a narrower focus, but he still ranges widely, covering not only the climactic battle in October 1944 but also the strategic background. As such, this is a worthy successor to a series of books he has produced on the Pacific war, including The Barrier and the Javelin and The War with Japan: The Period of Balance.

Drawing on both American and Japanese material, Willmott shows how bad the Japanese situation was prior to the battle. The availability of oil helped determine Japanese dispositions and, with carrier formations based in home waters and the battle force based just south of Singapore, any American movement against the Philippines presented a very serious problem.

Willmott also indicates how losing honourably was a goal for at least some Japanese naval leaders. The head of the naval operations section asked that the fleet be afforded:

a fitting place to die ...[and] the chance to bloom as flowers of death.
The Americans, as Willmott emphasises, faced serious challenges. Hitherto, in offensives in the central and southwest Pacific, they had confronted individual air bases which were isolated from outside support and overwhelmed by carrier air power.

The Philippines, however, were very different. The number of air bases and feeder strips presented the Americans with an enemy land-based air power that was essentially continental in character, but American carrier-based aircraft were now clearly superior in quality to their land-based opposite numbers.

Leyte Gulf involved a series of separate actions, not all of which worked out as the Americans wanted. Willmott points out that for all the American superiority of numbers and potentially overwhelming advantage (in quality as well as quantity) in the air, it proved very difficult to control the tempo of the battle.

The American failure to understand Japanese plans also emerges, and Willmott draws attention to deficiencies in reconnaissance. At the same time, Japanese operational mismanagement is fully clarified. If Willmott's account largely confirms the established narrative, he, nevertheless, contextualises it far better than other studies. The book is supported by clear and helpful maps, helpful appendices, and lengthy footnotes that underline the scholarship involved. It is good value as a hardback book and will contribute to Indiana's reputation for publishing first-rate military history.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter. Amongst much else, he is the author of The Dotted Red Line: Britain's Defence Policy in the Modern World (Social Affairs Unit, 2006).


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