H. P. Willmott. The Battle of Leyte Gulf: The Last Fleet Action. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005. 255 pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-253-34528-8.
Reviewed by John Kuehn (Department of Military History, U.S. Army Command and General Staff College)
Published on H-War (June, 2008)
H. P. Willmott's re-examination of the Battle of Leyte Gulf comes at a time when this esteemed naval historian has already published widely on the topic of the Pacific War strategy and history. Willmott is an historian of exceptional range and interest having, in addition to penning such classics as The Barrier and the Javelin (1983), also written extensively and authoritatively about the Great War. Willmott makes his agenda clear in his final chapter, where he states that the purpose of the book is not revisit ground already covered by other accounts--ground Willmott identifies as a "disproportionate" emphasis on individuals and the damage sustained by individual ships.
No doubt Willmott has S. E. Morison's classic volume on Leyte in mind in making this criticism, as well as more recent accounts that spend a considerable time on the actions of Admirals William F. Halsey, T. C. Kinkaid, Kurita Takeo and others. Willmott's account avoids an approach where the heroism of individuals is the focus. Instead, Willmott concentrates on his forte--a cogent operational and strategic account that, in his words, addresses "the basic question of how nations wage war and how armed forces fight" (p. 237). He says the focus on individuals, what he calls "the Carlyle approach," is not only of "little value, but it is positively misleading" to a correct understanding of "the basis of the American way of war" (p. 237). Willmott, like the late Russell Weigley, ascribes this way of war to a tradition dating to the American Civil War that combines "mass, firepower, and shock action" (p. 237). Willmott's account, then, serves the purpose of providing more evidence to support this much larger and more important argument. For those who wish personal criticism of the commanders, Willmott does include a substantial appendix on this score vis-à-vis Admiral Halsey and some additional verbiage on Admiral Kurita in the concluding chapter. But individual command errors are not his real focus.
Willmott emphasizes that the two-day fleet action between the U.S. and Japanese fleets, in late October 1944, was part of a continuum of war involving an annihilating defeat for the Japanese, actually and strategically. Accordingly, he spends a great deal of time on events before the battle, beginning with the results of the Battle of the Philippine Sea and closing with the disaster that the American command of the sea spelled for Japanese shipping in the months after the battle.
Willmott supports his contention with abundant statistics in the narrative and a plethora of appendices, lest the reader miss the fact that, increasingly, the major victims of U.S. carriers were not Kaigun warships, but Japanese logistics and the merchant shipping belonging to both the Japanese Army and Navy. To this end, Willmott argues first that the Japanese Navy was defeated prior to the battles around the Philippine Island of Leyte. However, the victory over the residual Japanese forces, Willmott continues, "resulted in a clear, overwhelming victory and defeat" (p. 2). This was because the naval victory created the basis for U.S. success after Leyte based on the "command of the skies over and the seas that washed the Philippines" (p. 2). In other words, this victory gave the U.S. military a command of sea and air that enabled the naval and air forces the equivalent of a strategic pursuit against any Japanese forces unlucky enough to be caught in these critical waters.
Willmott rightly points out that the high losses of warships after Leyte exceeded those sunk during the battle proper. He further buttresses his argument for strategic decisiveness when he discusses the final emasculation of Japan's strategic mobility as the last of its valuable but vanishing merchant fleet was polished off by air and sea forces--in great part due to the U.S. position in the Philippines--in the last year of the war. These are valuable arguments and alone make the book worth a read. However, as Willmott himself notes, they only form the "starting point" for his discussion of the symbolic and other significances of this battle (p. 4).
Willmott also emphasizes an under-appreciated consensus that seems to be emerging among naval historians about the U.S. Navy in World War II--namely that the United States fielded two fleets during the war. The first fleet, Willmott argues, was the "Treaty Fleet" that was built as a result of the Washington and other naval treaties. This fleet defeated the Japanese Imperial Navy in the first fifteen months of the Pacific War. The second fleet was the "Two-Ocean Fleet" that resulted from the 1940 Naval Act and the accelerated construction at the outbreak of war in late-1941. This second fleet, Willmott suggests, proved instrumental in the defeat of Japan overall. Willmott critically examines the performance of this fleet in his book.
Willmott also criticizes previous historians for neglecting the command and control challenges posed by the battle's immense geographical scope, which should govern any analysis. How does one command modern warships and airplanes on a scope this vast (450,000 square miles)? He argues that staffs, communications, and standard operating procedures are what are important for such a battle--not "individual commanders" (p. 6). In this analysis, Willmott argues for a systemic approach, while criticizing those histories that have minimized Halsey's errors in covering the San Bernadino Strait. Willmott argues that Halsey's approach served him no better, in terms of commanding the spaces and procedures aboard his flagship, than those adopted by admirals in the age of sail. Although Halsey had air and sub reconnaissance as well as extensive communications, command arrangements aboard the flagships of the period had not yet caught up to the technology. Other authors have done yeoman work, as does Willmott, in bringing this important point to light. Jon Parshall and Tony Tully address the important issue of inadequate flagship command centers in their account of the Japanese at Midway in Shattered Sword, and recently Thomas and Trent Hone have looked at the same problem aboard U.S. ships in the interwar period and after.
As for the Japanese, Willmott asks how their strategic calculations could have resulted in the opposition of the greatest powers of their day--the United States in terms of industrial power, China in terms of population, Great Britain in terms of imperial resources, and Russia in terms of military might, not to mention the opposition of lesser powers such as France and the Netherlands. In Willmott's opinion, Japan lost the war when she attacked Pearl Harbor. Willmott takes considerable effort to show that Japan's merchant marine was in trouble by 1943, and doomed after June of 1944 due to the results of the Battle of the Philippine Sea. He also demonstrates that Japanese shipping losses were a combination of factors--submarines; carrier air force; land-based air force; and the naval campaigns that resulted in the strategic interdiction of Japan's critical sea line of communication with its southern resource area (which was the nominal reason for war with the United States, Britain and the Netherlands). In this manner he places the Battle of Leyte in what he sees as its proper context, a naval battle to further secure the Allies' strategic stranglehold on the Japanese ability to wage war.
One of the problems with this extremely readable account is that Willmott wishes to pursue a variety of topics, including issues surrounding A. T. Mahan, the U.S. Navy's anti-historicism, and a U.S. proclivity for winning the war but losing the peace. All of these themes make their appearances, often without elaboration, when the real issue is a timely reconsideration of the "last fleet action" in one concise and relatively short book. Willmott executes this last objective quite effectively, but the reader is certain to wish for a bit more on the larger themes and, one supposes, will have to go find such discussions in Willmott's other works. Also, some readers may be put off by Willmott's extensive use of explanatory lists of things--"threefold results," "three problems," "notable on two counts," etc., followed by a first and second elaboration. At times this becomes tiresome and pedantic. Although Willmott emphasizes that this is an operational and strategic history, one does long for a bit more of the Japanese side of the operational equation. This may be a function of sources, since one suspects much of Willmott's source data for Japanese actions comes from his earlier work (which he cites) and the secondary sources. It does not appear that there is any new scholarship using Japan's War History Series in this book. For the U.S. related primary sources, Willmott makes excellent use of the extensive archives maintained in Great Britain at the Admiralty in the War Histories, but not much else.
Willmott also raises a relatively under-explored dimension of the strategic debate about Douglas MacArthur versus Ernest King over the issue of where to invade next: Taiwan or the Philippines. He frames the strategic debate in terms of service roles and missions vis-à-vis China, a perspective that should resonate well with today's Department of Defense-policy audiences. But this sort of writing also has its downside. Willmott raises many interesting issues and judgments, often as accomplished interpretations rather than for what they really are--Willmott's ruminations. They are stimulating and fun, but they are also often contentious in terms of scholarly consensus. This sort of thing might leave the general reader a bit confused, if it does not lose his or her interest altogether. However, if the general reader sticks with it, he or she will be rewarded with a highly entertaining and provocative account of the last major fleet action in history (at least as of this writing).
. Samuel Eliot Morison, The History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, Leyte, Vol. XII (Boston: Little Brown and Co., 1958), and see also Ronald H. Spector Eagle Against the Sun (New York: Vintage Books, 1985), Chapter 19 for the controversy surrounding Halsey. Willmott devotes appendix 14 to this controversy.
. For an excellent example see James D. Hornfischer, The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors (New York: Bantam Books, 2004).
. See J. B. Parshall and Anthony Tully, Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway (Washington, D.C.: Potomac Books, 2005); Trent Hone and Thomas C. Hone, Battle Line: The United States Navy, 1919-1939 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2006); and Trent Hone, "Victory at Surigao: the Triumph of USN Night Combat Doctrine," Naval History20, no. 5 (October 2006), 52-59.
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John Kuehn. Review of Willmott, H. P., The Battle of Leyte Gulf: The Last Fleet Action.
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