The Battles of Leyte Gulf and Surigao Strait – an eyewitness account

‘The Battle of Leyte Gulf, formerly known as the Second Battle of the Philippine Sea, is generally considered to be the largest naval battle of World War II and, by some criteria, possibly the largest naval battle in historyIt was fought in waters of the Leyte Gulf, near the Philippine islands of Leyte, Samar and Luzon, from 23–26 October 1944, between combined American and Australian forces and the Imperial Japanese Navy.

On 20 October, United States troops led by General Douglas Macarthur invaded the island of Leyte as part of a strategy aimed at isolating Japan from the countries it had occupied in Southeast Asia, and in particular depriving its forces and industry of vital oil supplies.

The Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) mobilized nearly all of its remaining major naval vessels in an attempt to defeat the Allied invasion but was repulsed by the U.S. Navy’s 3rd and 7th Fleets. The IJN failed to achieve its objective, suffered very heavy losses, and never sailed to battle in comparable force thereafter. The majority of its surviving heavy ships, deprived of fuel, remained in their bases for the rest of the Pacific War.

The battle consisted of four separate engagements between the opposing forces: the Battle of the Sibuyan Sea, the Battle of Surigao Strait, the Battle of Cape Engaño and the Battle off Samar, as well as other actions. It was the first battle in which Japanese aircraft carried out organized kamikaze attacks. By the time of the battle, Japan had fewer aircraft than the Allied forces had sea vessels, demonstrating the difference in power of the two sides at this point of the war.’ – from Wikipedia

The Battle of Surigao Strait

The following is a letter dated 16th November 1944 by my late father, Bruce Harding (then aged 20), who was an anti-aircraft gunner on the heavy Australian cruiser HMAS Shropshire.  It provides a gripping eye-witness account of the Battle of Surigao Strait from his vantage point on the upper deck of the ship.  The letter was taken back to Australia by a friend of my father’s who was going on leave, and so it escaped military censorship. The original of this letter has been offered to the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.

Shropshire-06464

HMAS Shropshire in action

16 November 1944

My Dear Family,

I had not intended to write in detail about our experiences of the last month, but today I received a letter from Mother threatening me with murder if I held my tongue on this subject.

Geoff Whitten will no doubt be able to deliver this to you, failing that he will post it on at the first opportunity. I doubt if this letter contains any ‘censorable information’ but if I were you I should not make any of it too public.

At the beginning of October we knew something was in the wind. The ship’s rumours or ‘buzzes’ as we call them are generally fairly correct despite the wild guesses frequently made. We knew we were to take part in the landings on Leyte Is. in the Central Phillipines.

In the early days of October, the mustering of the shipping was in full swing and the arrival of powerful naval units in our usually quiet harbour made our small ‘task force’ very insignificant. Up til this time, we had been the naval strength of this area. Every type of vessel from battleships, cruisers, aircraft carriers to destroyers and landing craft were gathering and fueling and taking on stores, troops and equipment.

About 10 days before ‘D day’ we left our harbour with a large fleet and our small unit oiled [fueled] next day at another base, and in the afternoon stood outside while the invasion convoy steamed out to sea. I’ve marvelled at the immensity of the invasion fleets and Atlantic convoys but they were dwarfed by this one [300 ships in total].

Immediately the scores of ships and landing craft were clear of the harbour we took up our position in the lead and the destroyers provided a circle around the whole convoy as anti-submarine guards. Our pace was slow – painfully slow because we had a long journey and the smaller ships had to conserve oil. Fortunately, the weather was fine and the sea calm, although we often thought of the troops in the open barges at the mercy of the tropical sun. To travel a week in an open boat and then storm a beach and fight is no mean task.

Far in the rear of the convoy we could just see the aircraft carriers with their ‘guardian angels’ on deck ready to take off in an emergency. The long journey was uneventful except for the approach of an enemy reconnaissance plane which was shot down by one of our fighters unfortunately lost on his return journey to the carriers.

Two days prior to the landing we changed our dress from shorts and sandals to shirts and long trousers plus boots and socks. Very uncomfortable in the heat but a necessity when action is possible. Everyone on board was given a lecture on our job in the coming event; and with a large canvas map of the area we had a mindful view of the situation. On this day our minesweepers were to sweep the approaches to Leyte Gulf – a dangerous job as they were within easy range of the enemy’s air bases.

During these two days we were expecting an attack from land-based Japanese bombers but apparently the Nip didn’t know of our approach to his shores.

On Thursday night after supper we went to our action stations and slept at our guns and action positions, quite expecting a restless night but I heard nothing until four o’clock in the morning of the landing when we were given soup or coffee.

Since midnight those awake on watch on deck were keeping an eye on a mine caught on our port paravane which left a glistening wake near the ship’s side – too close for comfort. With the slight rolling motion of  the ship the mine surged towards the ship and then away from us at regular intervals – a few silent prayers were offered believe me!

Dawn broke with the convoy still stretched out for miles astern of us and enemy aircraft in the vicinity. A number of ships had reported mines swept up and were detailed off to destroy them in an outlying cove. As we swung at right angles to the course of the convoy, to rid ourselves of this uncomfortable little bundle of ours, the mine broke adrift and lay in the path of the oncoming fleet. We dropped a flare to denote its position making it easy for the other ships to avoid it.

In the meantime, we anti-aircraft crews were scanning the clear sky for a twin-engined Japanese bomber making his run towards us. He approached from the West and went the full length of the convoy with nearly every ship firing at him. The tracer ammunition presented a wonderful sight in the half light. How the Nip escaped so much flak I don’t know. I should advise his people to take a ticket in the Nippon lottery. He held his bombs for the aircraft carriers but they fell wide and he followed them into the sea.

In the meantime, the battleships had commenced their bombardment and we had taken up our preparatory position near them. Our fighters could be seen overhead waiting for aerial opposition. The battleships were laying down a particularly heavy barrage, and we were scanning the shoreline in the hope of getting a crack at opposing shore batteries, but for a while they wisely held fire. Our turn came with the completion of the heavy bombardment and the approach of the troops. For 3 hours we fired at specified targets with 8″ and 4″ guns, and we were pleased when the reports came through – “ammunition expended – none wasted”.

As you can imagine, by noon, we were all tired, dirty and soaked with perspiration, and all as deaf as door-nails. Dinner [lunch]  reminded me of our Sunday night high tea at home – a cup of tea in one hand, a sandwich in the other – no insults Mother!

The first wave of troops were on the beach, the rocket firing barges had done their job and were returning to a safe position in the gulf. Our naval dive bombers were in action coming down from a great height and worrying enemy shore installations. The going was tough ashore but a beach head was established by late afternoon and we were watching for troublesome shore batteries. We couldn’t understand the lack of enemy air activity but the answer came that night and we missed our beauty sleep.

Dawn broke with low flying Jap aircraft over the area carrying bombs and torpedos. It was just becoming light enough to see nearby shipping when one plane flying very low drew heavy fire from our force and flew between us and [HMAS] Australia about half a mile away. Although she was hit many times, the plane struck the foremast of the “Aussie” with her starboard wing and landed on her upper bridge in flames spraying petrol and explosives in all directions. The fire was under control within 20 minutes but many were injured [30 Australian navy personnel were killed, including the ship’s captain]. AA gunners over the whole area were busy and tracer shells could be seen everywhere.

That dawn began a very busy day for us – the Jap had his victims but we took the toll of his pilots. At one time we saw 50% of his planes making their final dive together. Two spiraled to Earth in flames. One slid down a steep hill a ball of fire and two others plopped into the sea near the landing beach like shot ducks.

For ten days until our fighters were established ashore the enemy airforce put all they had into a vain effort to wipe out the invaders. Of course we were given little respite and remained at our guns for all this time. The lads on deck didn’t go below and those between decks didn’t see daylight. During the lulls we slept. To me, my old army boots seemed the softest pillow I had ever had. Fortunately, the weather was fine although a couple of nights of wet weather spoilt our chances of sleep, and we were forced to sit up or walk around until daybreak.

During this period our job had reverted from bombardment support to defence against possible intrusion by enemy shipping. Things became more interesting when we were told that an enemy naval force was intending to enter our newly claimed harbour and we should contact them at midnight. That afternoon we fueled from a huge tanker sheltering from air attack in a smoke screen thrown out by our destroyers. The crew of the tanker startled us a bit by telling some of the lads that she had oiled [refueled] 3 ships since her arrival – we were the 4th. All 3 were now at the bottom [of the sea]. The same tanker was sunk by torpedo bombers that next morning.

At dusk, the fleet formed up in battle order. It was a powerful force but I think it best not to expose the actual strength [Ed: 6 battleships, 8 cruisers, 28 destroyers and 39 PT boats]. Shortly after midnight, our destroyers launched torpedo attacks on the enemy fleet and the fireworks started. An Aussie destroyer firing Australian-made ‘tin fish’ closed to short range and scored a direct hit. Our part seemed small compared with some of the huge guns in action, but it is believed that out of 30 broadsides we scored 21 hits on an enemy battleship [the Yamashiro] – a good job done by the lads below on the big guns. We members of the AA defence of the ship had an easy task but a grandstand view of the whole business. In the blackness of the night, the tracer shells showed up clearly and we could follow the bout. It was not until the unpleasant whine of shells over our ship was heard that we realised perhaps Nip will throw a few back. We counted only two close ones, but believe me we ducked! With a great flare the enemy ships caught fire one after the other and their return of fire gradually petered out – we knew we’d won.

Dawn revealed four columns of smoke coming from those ships still sinking. And a Jap destroyer, the only one still on top was faithfully standing by her doomed friends. No doubt she was picking up survivors and preparing to destroy any remnants of the lost force to prevent us taking information. No fewer than 4 destroyers and 2 cruisers brought their guns to bear on this bloke, and within 5 minutes the smoke cleared and he had followed the others to the bottom.

Of the survivors, only 3 accepted aid from us – the others preferred to remain in the water. Maybe they believed that we are cruel captors but I rather think that the majority held hopes of reaching shore some 4 or 5 miles away. I understand their courage didn’t last for long and many eagerly grasped lines thrown to them in the second offer of rescue.

The job done we returned to our patrol area and the ‘nuisance air raids’. We had many exciting incidents before our fighters took control of the air over us during which time many good lives were unfortunately lost.  One plane launched a torpedo in our direction at dusk one evening mistaking us for a moving target. I think the fact that we were stationary saved us from a smack in the ribs – some of the lads watched the track of the ‘tin fish’ cross our bows. Another Jap two-engined bomber came so close to us and flew directly across the ship in the moonlight at mast level that had I been on my toes I could have let him have my tin hat fair and square!

A typhoon prevalent in this area happened along to add to our discomfort and by gosh it blew!

As we stood out in the Gulf we saw very little of the natives. Some paddled out in primitive canoes and seemed eager to befriend us. Most spoke excellent English – one greeted us by saying ‘where have you been? We have waited long for this day’. I should say Jap treatment was harsh. The Jap money circulated was worthless and they held rolls of it in their hands begging for clothes. I believe in the southern part of the island the inhabitants reached the ships with no clothes and prepared to give anything they had for a pair of shorts or a shirt. Some of the young women were very attractive with dark wavy hair and naturally received most attention from the sailors.

As you know, a month showed the land forces in control of most of Leyte Island and our job was done. We need no longer ask ‘where will the Jap make his stand’. We only hold one small island of a large group and I should say we’ll fight for the rest of them. No only will we fight a race of hard fighters but we will fight a fanatical belief that to die is a victory won. [Letter ends here without sign off – was it the last page?]

 

 

 

 

 

1 Comment

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One response to “The Battles of Leyte Gulf and Surigao Strait – an eyewitness account

  1. Here is some archival footage of the Battle of Surigao Strait: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Exk3K7w82eI

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