Book Review: Leyte Gulf: A New History of the World's Largest Sea Battle


by Mark Stille

New York: Osprey Bloomsbury, 2023. Pp. 320+. Illus., maps, tables, appends., notes, biblio., index. $30.00. ISBN: 1472851757

A Fresh Look at the Greatest Sea Battle

This new look at America’s retaking the Philippines from the Japanese in the fall of 1944 focuses on the battle of Leyte Gulf, the largest naval encounter in history. The last encounter between the two opposing fleets, Leyte Gulf was also arguably the most decisive naval battle in the entire Pacific War.

Following Japan’s sweeping defeat at the Battle of the Philippine Sea and the near annihilation of its carrier air forces in June 1944, it was clear that the Imperial Japanese Navy’s ability to ward off the expected US push to regain the Philippines had been severely compromised. Nevertheless, since it was essential for the IJN to keep open access to oil and other vital resources, in its cherished tradition it once again planned to do this with a decisive battle they named Sho-Go. The naval component of Sho-Go was led by Admiral Toyoda of whom Stille wrote that he “cared more about presenting the IJN’s Combined Fleet with an opportunity to die fighting than to produce a plan in the best interests of the nation.” (p. 7)

Stille shows how both the US and Japan realized they would need to engage land as well as naval forces in this crucial encounter. He explains how significant it was that, despite continuing tensions, the US gave control to General Douglas MacArthur over Admiral Nimitz, minimizing internal confusion, and allowing for joint planning. The Japanese, on the other hand, never succeeded in consolidating navy and army plans. Toyoda’s inability to coordinate, synchronize, or even consult with land forces made defeat all but inevitable.

After describing the leaders of both sides and explaining their planning for the struggle ahead, Stille points out that there were, in fact, four major engagements together composing what has been called the battle of Leyte. These were what Stille refers to as the adventures of the First Diversionary Attack Force led by Japanese Admiral Kurita; the engagement at Surigao Strait; the battle off Samar; and finally, Halsey’s pursuit of the Japanese carriers. Zeroing in on the goal and purpose of each of the engagements Stille debunks many of the myths that have long surrounded them. This is particularly true of his analysis of Admiral Halsey’s leadership and Halsey’s much criticized dash to the north with the Third Fleet to engage Japanese Admiral Ozawa’s carriers.

Stille then describes the composition of the forces marshalled by each nation. Here he may well lose many but the most dedicated readers since he not only focuses on the number and types of vessels, naming most individually, he also discusses the construction of each and their relative speeds and protective armament. In addition, he examines the number of personnel on each vessel and the amount of equipment each carried. This level of detail can be overwhelming and somewhat tedious, although two noted historians, Richard Frank and Anthony Tully are both quoted on the back cover of the book referring to Stelle’s work as “accessible.”

In this reviewer’s opinion, the two most important contributions of Stille’s account are his placement of the battle in the larger context of the Pacific War, and his analysis of Ozawa’s diversionary action with the Japanese carriers as well as Halsey’s response. On the first issue Stille points out most forcefully and persuasively that the entire Japanese plan to protect their position in the Philippines was in effect lost before it began since MacArthur’s forces had already established themselves on land. By that point in the war the disparity between US and Japanese strength was already too great to overcome and Japanese errors, such as their total inability to coordinate the attacks they attempted, only emphasized Japanese determination – in line with Toyoda’s guidelines - to go down fighting honorably. Indeed, Stille’s conclusion is that “… the Japanese should not have fought the battle at all.” (p. 257).

The US forces come in for plenty of criticism too – including how naval intelligence failed to understand that Ozawa’s carriers were merely intended as a decoy. Unlike many other accounts, Stille believes that Halsey’s decision, given what he knew at the time, to go after Ozawa’s carriers was the correct one. While Stille criticizes some of Halsey’s decisions, in this important respect he praises his actions.

All in all, Stille does an admirable job of minutely analyzing the complexities of a very difficult situation. He hands out praise and blame to each side where he believes it is warranted. This enables him to convincingly explode many of the myths surrounding earlier examinations of the battle of Leyte Gulf. His new in-depth account makes for indispensable reading.


Our Reviewer: Prof Williams, former visiting professor at Annapolis, and Executive Director Emerita of The New York Military Affairs Symposium, is the author of several books on naval history and technology, including Secret Weapon: U.S. High-Frequency Direction Finding in the Battle of the Atlantic, Grace Hopper: Admiral of the Cyber Sea, The Measure of a Man: My Father, the Marine Corps, and Saipan, and most recently Painting War: George Plante's Combat Art in World War II. Prof Williams’ previous reviews include The Trident Deception, Battleship Commander: The Life of Vice Admiral Willis A. Lee Jr., Churchill, Master and Commander, Admiral Hyman Rickover, Allied Air Operations, 1939-1940, Nimitz at War, Global Military Transformations, Great Naval Battles of the Pacific War, and Fighting in the Dark: Naval Combat at Night, 1904-1939


Note: Leyte Gulf is also available in e-editions.


StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

Reviewer: Kathleen Broome Williams.    

Buy it at



Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close