Operational Art: The Leyte Gulf Operation


Operational art is often the decisive factor in various situations. Warfare presents a theatre where operational art is often utilized through military strategy and tactics. Operational strategy in warfare involves the planning, synchronizing and directing of military actions to achieve the ultimate political and military objective. Military theorists summarize it as the art of using battles to win wars. An extremely accurate depiction of operational art being used to decide a major war is found in the events that took place in the Leyte Gulf operation. It is described as the greatest naval battle in the history of humankind. The Leyte Gulf operations pit two powers against each other, The United States and Japan. It also puts two sets of operational commanders against each other from the two countries. The Pacific battle was to prove decisive in the war of the Pacific during World War II.[1]The Leyte Gulf Operation is a valid depiction of a nation utilizing operational art to achieve dominance and eventual success in conflict with another.


In 1944, following extensive consultation, the Allied force decided to commence military operations to liberate the Philippines. The American strategy was straightforward. The first landing would be at the island of Leyte, using a ground force/amphibious unit under the command of General Douglas MacArthur. The United States 7th fleet was to assist the amphibious operation, under the command of Vice Admiral Thomas Kinkaid. Meanwhile, the United States 3rd fleet under the command of Admiral William “Bull” Halsey was to provide additional cover while stationed further out at sea. Vice Admiral Marc Mitscher commanded a fast carrier task force, within the US 3rd fleet to augment the operation if need arose. The landings at Leyte started on 20 October 1944.[2]

The Japanese Navy’s operational strategy was a complex staggered approach. With substantial awareness of the American military intention in the Philippines, Admiral Soemu Toyoda, commander of the combined Japanese naval fleet initiated a plan codenamed Sho-Go to block the planned invasion. The plan required the bulk of the Japanese naval force to deploy in four separate contingents. The first force, the Northern force, under the command of Vice Admiral Jisaburo Ozawa was to serve the purpose of bait. Ozawa’s mission was to lure Halsey and his fleet away from the island of Leyte. Ozawa’s fleet consisted of carriers, including their largest, that lacked sufficient aircraft and pilots for battle hence his assumed ‘bait’ status.

The Japanese Naval plan envisioned that the removal of Halsey’s fleet would enable a simultaneous three-pronged attack from the West by the remaining three Japanese naval forces to engage and destroy the US landing on the island of Leyte. Among the forces was Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita’s Center Force, which consisted primarily of five battleships including two super battleships and ten heavy cruisers. Kurita was to navigate the Sibuyan Sea and the San Bernardino Strait prior to the launch of his attack. The two remaining forces, albeit individually smaller than Kurita’s, under the command of Vice Admirals Shoji Nishimura and Kiyohide Shima was to constitute the southern force would advance from the south through the Surigao Strait.[3]

Utilizing Operational Art

Following the Allied landings on 20 October 1944, the Battle of Leyte Gulf began on 23 October 1944. The battle proper consisted of four major engagements between Japanese and Allied forces. The first meeting was on October 23-24 at the battle of the Sibuyan Sea. Kurita’s central force received a surprise attack from a contingent of American submarines and aircraft. Kurita suffered the loss of a super battleship and two cruisers, while sustaining significant damage to his fleet. Kurita eventually retreated out of US aircraft range, reverting to his original course by day’s end. The Allied forces only lost an escort carrier to the battle. These actions revealed the allied operational option of pre-emptive attack. They ambushed the Japanese navy’s most formidable central force before it had a chance of striking them.

The second encounter took place early morning on the 24th. Nishimura, commanding one-half of the southern force, entered the Surigao strait. There, they faced an attack by a contingent of Allied destroyers and a flotilla of PT boats. As they advanced North via Surigao strait, the Japanese encountered eight cruisers and six battleships belonging to the US 7th fleet support force commanded by the American Rear Admiral Jesse Oldendorf. By crossing the Japanese ‘T’, the rear admiral’s ships effectively sank two Japanese battleships and a heavy cruiser as well. Nishimura’s remaining fleet inexorably had to withdraw in loss.[4]

The remainder of the southern force, under Shima’s command entered the Surigao strait shortly afterwards to be met by the wrecks of Nishimura’s ships. Shima chose to retreat, in an example of deductive reasoning in operational strategy. The manner Nikimura’s force had been depleted suggested a similar fate for the equally small fleet under Shima were they to proceed.[5]

The Strategy

On the afternoon of the 24th, Ozawa’s northern force decoy was spotted by Halsey’s scouts. Halsey inaccurately got the impression that Kurita’s central force was retreating and subsequently elected to pursue the northern forces carriers. Halsey duly informed Kinkaid of his intentions and Kinkaid concurred believing that the landings were essentially under no apparent threat since he was of the inaccurate assumption that Halsey had left at least one carrier group to cover the San Bernardino Straight that led to the landings zone. Meanwhile, by the 25th, Halsey was engaged with Ozawa’s force in the battle of Cape Engaño. Halsey’s aircraft ravaged Ozawa’s force heavily. By days end, all four of Ozawa’s dummy carriers had been sunk.   Meanwhile, the Japanese force was registering an advantage off Leyte, at and near the landings. Apparently, Toyoda’s plan had worked. By Ozawa effectively baiting Halsey’s carriers, the San Bernardino Straight was left exposed to Kurita’s remaining central force, which proceeded to attack the landings. Halsey was thence obliged to break off his attack on the northern fleet and rush down south to assist in engaging Kurita’s central force.[6] Simultaneously, Kurita’s force encountered more opposition in the 7th Fleet’s destroyers and escort carriers. In view of the massive central force, the escort carriers adopted to launch their planes and flee while the destroyers exhibited valiance as they engaged Kurita’s superior force.

The Conflict

The battle between the 7th Fleet’s destroyers and Kurita’s force was unfolding in favor of the Japanese navy. In the course of the battle, Kurita realized that he was not engaging Halsey’s carriers but a weak destroyer flotilla. Kurita opted to retreat, an action that effectively ended the battle Leyte Gulf. Kurita’s operational strategy acumen dictated his retreat since he realized that the longer he persisted with the 7th Fleet’s destroyers, the more likely he was to be attacked by the approaching American aircraft under Halsey’s command. Halsey, through this action assumed the role of a deterrent in military operational strategy, somewhat amending his previous mistake of falling for the bait of the Japanese northern force.

Effectively, the Allied forces claimed overwhelming victory at the Battle of Leyte gulf. In the fighting that occurred, the Japanese suffered the loss of numerous lives and vessels. Over 10,000 Japanese personnel, service members and pilots lost their lives. Among the naval vessels lost included four aircraft carriers, eight cruisers, three battleships and twelve destroyers. Allied losses were on a much smaller scale in terms of lives and vessels as well. The Allied force suffered the loss of 1,500 personnel, service members and pilots. Among the vessels lost was one light aircraft carrier, two escort carriers, two destroyers and one destroyer escort.[7]

Severely crippled by their losses at the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the Imperial Japanese Navy was dealt a heavy blow. They now could not conduct a similar large-scale naval operation in World War II, effectively undermining the Axis cause. The victory by the Allies resulted in the immediate outcome of securing of the landings at Leyte and the subsequent outcome of the liberation of the Philippines as well as shaping the bearing of World War II in its entirety.

The Japanese found themselves isolated from their conquered territories in Southeast Asia greatly compromising the steady flow of supplies and resource to their home islands. Admiral William “Bull” Halsey nevertheless, faced immense criticism in the aftermath of the battle for rushing north to engage a decoy without leaving cover for the amphibious invasion fleet off Leyte. The resultant outcome of the Battle of Leyte Gulf demonstrated military operational strategy at work in the biggest of theatres: the largest naval battle in the history of humankind. It demonstrated the various frailties and advantages associated with various approaches to operational strategy in battle.[8]




The Allied simplicity of strategy proved effective as it allowed greater coordination among its forces, resulting in a resounding victory over a stronger adversary. The Japanese naval force alternatively, chose a complex plan for their operational strategy. The plan was temporarily effective, by confusing elements of the Allied force. Eventually however, the strategy failed since it required an extremely high level of coordination that the Japanese could not muster. This resulted in their loss of the Battle of Leyte Gulf.



Cutler, J. Thomas. The Battle of Leyte Gulf: 23-26 October 1944. Naval Institute Press, 2001

Stewart, Adrian. The Battle of Leyte Gulf. Scribner, 1980

Tracey, Michael. The battle of Leyte Gulf: 50th anniversary commemoration 1944-1994. Australian Defense Force Journal, 1994

Willmott, H. P. The battle of Leyte Gulf: the last fleet action. Indiana University Press, 2005

Woodward, C., and Thomas Evan. The Battle for Leyte Gulf: The Incredible Story of World War II’s Largest Naval Battle. Skyhorse Publishing Inc, 2007

[1] Michael Tracey, The battle of Leyte Gulf: 50th anniversary commemoration 1944-1994. (Australian Defense Force Journal, 1994)

[2] C. Woodward and Evan Thomas, The Battle for Leyte Gulf: The Incredible Story of World War II’s Largest Naval Battle. (Skyhorse Publishing Inc, 2007)

[3] H. P. Willmott, The battle of Leyte Gulf: the last fleet action. (Indiana University Press, 2005)

[4] Michael Tracey, The battle of Leyte Gulf: 50th anniversary commemoration 1944-1994. (Australian Defense Force Journal, 1994)

[5] J. Thomas Cutler, The Battle of Leyte Gulf: 23-26 October 1944 (Naval Institute Press, 2001)

[6] Adrian Stewart, The Battle of Leyte Gulf (Scribner, 1980)

[7] H. P. Willmott, The battle of Leyte Gulf: the last fleet action. (Indiana University Press, 2005)

[8] C. Woodward and Evan Thomas, The Battle for Leyte Gulf: The Incredible Story of World War II’s Largest Naval Battle. (Skyhorse Publishing Inc, 2007)

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