Battle of Surigao Strait

by Anthony P. Tully, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 2009, $27.95

For more than four centuries, the big gun reigned as the supreme arbiter of war at sea. Beginning in 1512, when Henry VIII commissioned the 1,500-ton warship Henri Grâce a Dieux —often referred to as “Great Harry”—the world’s navies concentrated on building ever-larger warships armed with more and heavier-caliber guns, which they regarded as the true measure of any navy’s power.

All that came to an abrupt end during World War II. Carrier-based aircraft disabled the Italian and U.S. battle fleets inside their bases at Taranto and Pearl Harbor. Land-based Japanese aircraft sank the British capital ships Repulse and Prince of Wales on the high seas. Numerous major naval battles were fought in the Pacific solely by means of carrier-based aircraft, without either fleet ever laying eyes on the other. It became manifestly clear that the aircraft carrier had supplanted the dreadnought as the new capital ship. Although battleships continued to serve alongside the aircraft carriers, they increasingly did so chiefly in supporting roles, such as shore bombardment and contributing to antiaircraft defense.

The subject of Anthony B. Tully’s new book, Battle of Surigao Strait, was an epoch-marking event in military history by virtue of the fact it was the last occasion when gun-armed capital ships faced off against each other in battle. Since no navy maintains armored, gun-armed battleships anymore, it is safe to assume it will retain that historic distinction.

Beyond that, however, Surigao Strait remains a fascinating event, shrouded in ambiguity partly because it was fought at night and because there were so few Japanese survivors left to explain their officers’ actions. The Japanese commander, Vice Adm. Shoji Nishimura, led a fleet consisting of two old dreadnought battleships, one heavy cruiser and four destroyers in what in retrospect seems a suicidal banzai charge through the narrow Surigao Strait, between the Philippine islands of Leyte and Dingat, straight into the guns of six battleships, eight cruisers, 28 destroyers and 39 PT boats. Five of those six U.S. Navy battleships were reconditioned survivors of the devastating attack on Pearl Harbor three years before, finally getting a chance to avenge themselves against the Japanese fleet. Only one of the Japanese warships survived.

A degree of mystery has cloaked Nishimura’s course of action that night, since he went down with his flagship, the battleship Yamashiro. Many other Japanese sailors apparently survived the sinking of their ships only to perish at sea after refusing to be rescued by U.S. warships. Equally perplexing were the actions of Vice Adm. Kiyohide Shima, whose fleet of three cruisers and seven destroyers was supposed to support Nishimura, but followed so far behind it never had the opportunity to do so.

Tully has provided fresh insight into the battle by researching records from U.S. Navy and Imperial Japanese Naval headquarters, American and Japanese after-action reports, postwar U.S. intelligence debriefings of Japanese naval officers and rare interviews with some of the battle’s very few Japanese survivors. The result provides a new understanding of the Japanese navy’s complex battle plan to stop the American invasion of the Philippines and how Nishimura’s and Shima’s fleets fit into that plan. Nishimura, in particular, comes off far more sympathetically than heretofore. Often depicted as reckless, fanatical and even suicidal, he appears here as a courageous and competent naval officer ordered to carry out a nearly impossible mission with inadequate forces at his disposal and who simply strove to carry out his assignment as well as could possibly have been expected.

Battle of Surigao Strait is probably destined to become the new standard reference work on that naval engagement. It is a must for anyone interested in naval history, World War II in the Pacific or the Battle of Leyte Gulf.


Originally published in the January 2010 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here