To Leyte Gulf

 
Sailing towards Leyte Gulf from left to right CA Chikuma, BB Nagato, BC Haruna, BC Kongo and CA Tone.
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Toyoda readied his various forces on 20 October for the decisive action to come. Setting dawn of 25 October 1944 as ‘X-Day’, he ordered Kurita and Vice- Admiral Shoji Nishimura’s forces to leave Brunei Bay on 22 October and instructed the three other components of the plan: the transport unit of Vice- Admiral Naomasa Sakonju from Manila, the 2nd Striking Force of Vice- Admiral Kiyohide Shima from the islands of the Pescadores in the waters off Formosa, and the diversionary force of Jisaburo Ozawa from the Inland Sea to set out on their travels so that they could meet the requirements of the plan. Despite their major setbacks in the recent past, the Japanese were still able to put a formidable naval force together for this latest and most decisive battle with the Americans. Apart from Musashi and Yamato, the two super-battleships that formed the apex of his designated Centre Force, Kurita could rely upon the substantial battleship Nagato, the two fast ex-battlecruisers that had been reclassified as battleships Haruna and Kongo, ten heavy cruisers, two light cruisers and fifteen destroyers. Shoji Nishimura’s warships, which were expected to form the southern part of the pincer movement against the invasion fleet in Leyte Gulf, were much less impressive both in quantitative and qualitative terms than Kurita’s Centre Force. Although the southern force contained two battleships (Fuso and Yamashiro), the heavy cruiser Mogami and four destroyers, both of the battleships were relatively old, slow and ponderous. Because their route to Leyte Gulf by way of the Surigao Strait was more direct than that to be taken by Kurita, Nishimura left Brunei Bay seven hours after the cutting edge of Shō–Gō- 1 had left port at 0805 hours on 22 October for its longer, more circuitous voyage through the Philippines to Leyte Gulf via the Sibuyan Sea, the San Bernardino Strait and along the east coast of Samar – a distance of some 1400nm (2,593km). Shima’s group was meant to join it in the Sulu Sea west of Leyte and bring a further mix of two cruisers and seven destroyers to bear when the southern part of the pincer snapped shut. That at least was the theory, but would it work out in practice? Much hung on theory and speculation at this time. Ozawa’s appearance with the 1st Mobile Fleet was a case in point. It was to be a decoy force meant to lure Admiral Halsey 3rd Fleet away from Leyte to the north and enable Kurita, Nishimura and Shima to execute a brilliant pincer movement trapping and eliminating Vice-Admiral Thomas Kinkaid’s 7th Fleet off the invasion beaches in Leyte Gulf. Despite losing so many planes and, even more importantly, experienced pilots in the Pacific campaign, Ozawa could muster more than 100 aircraft for the fleet carrier Zuikaku and the light carriers Chitose, Chiyoda and Zuiho to use. Along with him, Ozawa brought two old battleships (Hyuga and Ise) which, despite having been converted into seaplane carriers, were carrying only guns – a battery of over a hundred light A.A. guns and six rocket launchers – and no aircraft for this operation. Their main purpose was to be the initial magnet for Halsey’s carrier fleet and then subsequently to defend the rest of Ozawa’s carriers with their A.A. armament. Rounding off his force were three light cruisers, eight destroyers and a supply force that brought together a further destroyer, two tankers and six corvettes. Commanding a decoy force with few aircraft at his disposal was no easy undertaking, but if any Japanese naval officer could pull off this risky manoeuvre Ozawa had the fearless qualities to do so.

As part of the plan to shore up resistance on Leyte to assist the 20,000 Japanese troops already there, Naomasa Sakonju was made responsible for bringing in troop reinforcements in the shape of the 30th and 102nd Infantry Divisions to Ormoc, a port on the northwest coast of the island. His force, consisting of the heavy cruiser Aoba and the old light cruiser Kinu, a destroyer and four fast transports, stayed well clear of the invasion sites in Leyte Gulf, but was still found a few miles south of Cape Calavite off the northeast coast of the island of Mindoro at 0325 hours on 23 October by the US submarine Bream which managed to torpedo the Aoba before making good her escape. That hadn’t been in the script and neither were the activities of two other American submarines, Dace and Darter, which were to strike with even more telling effect a few hours after Bream’s moment of partial success. Cruising off the west coast of the island of Palawan, the two submarines picked up Kurita’s Centre Force on their radar screens at 0116 hours on 23 October. They reported the contact to Halsey and closed in on the warships which were intent on conserving fuel and only making about 15 knots during the hours of darkness. Manoeuvring their way into position before dawn broke, the two submarines waited for the Centre Force to pass before Darter fired a spread of six torpedoes at Kurita’s flagship Atago at 980 yards (274m) distance at 0632 hours. Four of them hit home with deadly effect a minute later. Atago took on an almost immediate 25* list and sank within twenty minutes. Darter was far from finished. She also managed to hit the Takao twice two minutes later on her starboard side totally destroying her rudder, carving two sizable holes in her hull, smashing two of her four propellers and flooding three of her boiler rooms. Not surprisingly, she took on a 10* list to starboard. Her day was done. She was forced to limp back to port in Brunei Bay in the company of the two destroyers Asashimo and the Naganami. Well before arrangements could be carried out to save the Takao, however, Dace announced her entrance onto the scene by firing four torpedoes at the heavy cruiser Maya – all of which hit her port side at 0657 hours and literally blew her apart. She took a few minutes to join her flagship in sinking. Rescued from the wreck of the Atago before she foundered, Kurita quickly transferred his flag to the Yamato (much to Ugaki’s chagrin) and forged on ahead determined that he would fulfil his part of the Shō–Gō- 1 plan even if the element of surprise had been lost, which it obviously had been!

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