Battle of Surigao Strait by Anthony Tully

Talk about an unexpected treasure, I think this book has been sitting in my “to read” pile for five years.  I do have a large pile, and I regularly buy books that look like they might be interesting and just get to them when I get to them.  But I think I had failed to notice when I picked this up that the author is part of the “Parshall and Tully” who wrote Shattered Sword.  It might have moved higher up the pile if I’d noticed this!  It also might have languished because I’ve read a number of excellent books over the years about the larger Battle of Leyte Gulf, of which the Battle of Surigao Strait is just one of the four actions that make up that major epic.

The introduction makes the usual big claims about how this book will completely re-write our understanding of this battle.  That claim always rubs me a little wrong, Japan STILL lost this battle in spectacular fashion and went on to loose the war.  But what Tully does proceed to do is address misperceptions and sort out details that have been frustrating and confusing for any student of history.

The first thing I appreciated was a look at the battle plan and what Admiral Nishimura expected to accomplish. The overall plan called for three major forces; first the main carrier group under Admiral Ozawa stayed north of the Leyte area in an attempt to draw Halsey’s Third Fleet away from the invasion beaches and the vulnerable American amphibious forces.  Then Admiral Kurita’s large Main Body of battleships and cruisers would enter Leyte Gulf from the northern San Bernardino Strait while Admiral Nishimura’s smaller southern force entered the gulf through Surigao Strait.

Historians, both American and Japanese (and HP Willmott who is British!) have leaned towards severe criticism of Nishimura.  His force of two battleships, one heavy cruiser and four destroyers sailed directly into Admiral Kinkaid’s waiting battleships.  This was the last battleship on battleship fight in history. And it was fought by older units, the Fuso and Yamashiro were the oldest in the Imperial Japanese Navy and three of the six American battle wagons had actually been sunk at Pearl Harbor.  Nice, poetic end to an era.
Right from the start Tully has some new conclusions about Nishimura.  Most significantly, he likely knew this was a death ride.  While Ozawa’s empty aircraft carriers are always understood as a decoy, Japanese plans look like the southern force was also a decoy. This has to be more implied, but significantly it was weakest Battleship division and a weak escort broken off to the south.  Nishimura likely thought the plan was working better than expected.  The American battleships had been reported heading out to sea the day before, presumably to resupply/refuel.  So Nishimura probably thought he would only face some cruisers and a destroyer screen.  That could have meant the Southern Force and Main Force coming upon amphibious supply/transport and escort forces from two directions. I can just see him anticipating the carnage!
Nishimura would have known this best case scenario was unlikely by dusk just before he entered Surigao Strait. Admiral Kurita’s Main Force reversed course for about an hour in the face of overwhelming air attack (the first encounter of the Battle of Leyte Gulf, usually known as The Battle of the Sibuyan Sea) meaning he would likely arrive well ahead of Kurita. But that would still work in his decoy role. And when he heard of the American battleships withdrawing, well just maybe…

Many readers likely know a little about Admiral Shima’s odd supporting force too.  An independent group of two heavy cruisers, one light cruiser and four destroyers followed Nishimura into battle. They remained separate apparently because Admiral Shima was senior to Admiral Nishimura, but did not know the plan.  He was attached more specifically to Philippines defensive forces so also may have wanted to avoid getting sucked into a larger fleet operation that could interfere with his specific responsibilities. He may have thought he could help clean up cripples and provide distant gunfire support.

There are a number of confusing issues in how events unfolded.  For one, Japanese survivors were apparently under the impression the PT boats that first attacked them did the most damage.  Early American accounts of the battle often repeat this.  But serious historians have long ago observed that the timing of torpedo strikes makes this impossible. The Japanese’ primary tormentors were several destroyer squadrons that attacked in between the PT boats and the battle line opening fire. This shouldn’t be too surprising for any students of naval warfare; MTBs are really lousy torpedo platforms while destroyers often punch above their weight class.  They are big enough to fire a large spread of torpedos and stable enough to hit what they aim at.  So destroyers seem to have taken out Fuso and three Japanese destroyers.
Much of this is well known, but Tully does an admirable job of sorting out details in these attacks.  Both confusing timelines and who shot at who sort of stuff. The biggest thing may be the fate of the Fuso. There has long been a story that ship was hit in a magazine, and after an awesome explosion two burning halves stayed afloat for an hour or more. This is apparently completely wrong and has been inferred from one eyewitness who was unclear on just what he’d seen.  Other eyewitnesses, including one survivor of Fuso in a long buried interview, say the ship continued under power for forty-five minutes after being hit and finally succumbed to flooding. It may have only burst into flames as it slipped under the water. At that point there were several exploding, sinking ships in the area so confusion was rampant.

But Nishimura apparently never knew he’d lost Fuso. On the bridge of Yamashiro he received confusing transmissions from his cruiser. His last commands indicate he thought he’d weathered a storm. He ordered Fuso, cruiser Mogami and surviving destroyer to join up for a dash into the gulf. And then the American battle line lit up the horizon.

A major part of this book traces the fate of the various cripples and survivors.  A lot of this with far more detail than I’ve seen elsewhere.  Cruiser Mogami was the ship with nine lives suffering several hundred shell hits, a collision and bombs from aircraft the morning after; before finally sinking.

Kurita’s phase of the attack that next morning may be one of the bravest, proudest moments in American naval history, but that is not a part of this story (!). Nishimura’s brave sacrifice came to naught, but surprisingly it DID complete its objective as far as it went. The American battle line was drawn south and in no position to oppose the Japanese Main Body the next morning.  I highly recommend James D. Hornfischer’s appropriately titled Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors for that amazing story.

As may be gathered from this review the book is heavily focused on the Japanese side of things.  However it does not ignore American plans and preparations.  I may have, but Tully does not.  This is really a terrific look at one part of the largest naval battle in history. I’ll say four stars, because I can’t seem to find those little star thingies on my keyboard…

 ~ Dave

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About atcDave

I'm 54 years old and live in Ypsilanti, Michigan. I'm happily married to Jodie. I've been an air traffic controller for 31 years; grew up in the Chicago area, and am still a fanatic for pizza and the Chicago Bears. My main interest is military history, and my related hobbies include scale model building and strategy games.
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2 Responses to Battle of Surigao Strait by Anthony Tully

  1. Sounds a worthy book to pull to the top of your pile.

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