The Battle of Leyte Gulf has been considered the largest naval battle of World War 2.
On October 20, 1944, American troops landed on the Island of Leyte in the Philippines, due to the country's key strategic position which, together with Formosa (Taiwan), was controlling the maritime communication routes of Japan with Southeast Asia.
Whereas a U.S. occupation of the Philippines would have made useless the Japanese Navy, which was dependent on external fuel sources, the Japanese decided to risk, throwing into battle their finest surface ships.
The Japanese plan was that, while a naval group, called "Northern Force," would have attracted to it the U.S. aircraft carriers which were protecting the landings at Leyte, another two naval forces, one named "Center Force" and other "Southern Force," were to attack the American invasion fleet.
The first blow to the Japanese came on 23 October 1944, when U.S. submarines sank two heavy cruisers of the Center Force in Palawan Passage. The Center Force continued its march but, a day later, aircraft from U.S. carriers attacked it in the Sibuyan Sea, managing to sink the battleship Musashi.
The Japanese reaction was to send aircraft based in Luzon, northern Philippines, to attack the U.S. carriers. An armor-piercing bomb of 250 kg (551 lb) launched by a Japanese Yokosuka D4Y dive bomber caused uncontrollable fires on USS Princeton carrier, which eventually led to being scuttled by the Americans.
The Japanese Southern Force was surprised by the U.S. Navy, during the night of October 24 to 25, while crossing the Surigao Strait, into a well-conceived trap. The Americans attacked with Patrol/Torpedo (PT) boats, destroyers, and cruisers on the flanks, while they put frontally a line of battleships which were capable of directing fire at long range by radar. The effect was that most Japanese warships were destroyed without being able to fight back.
The main clash occurred near the island of Samar when the Center Force appeared surprisingly in the morning of 25 October, threatening to destroy the ships with troops and supplies in Leyte Gulf. The Japanese plan to lure the U.S. fleet carriers to the north had worked, so in the path of the Japanese force, which included battleships and heavy cruisers, stood only small escort carriers, defended by destroyers.
The Americans reacted with an aggressive despair, attacking with destroyers the more powerful Japanese ships and sending all available planes from the escort carriers to attack the Japanese fleet, even if only a part of them had prepared anti-ship weaponry. The U.S. Navy sunk three Japanese heavy cruisers while losing two escort carriers and three destroyers. Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita, the commander of the Japanese Center Force, was convinced by the American resolute opposition that he met the main force of U.S. fleet carriers, able to annihilate his fleet; therefore he withdrew.
The Japanese Northern Force, having one fleet carrier and three light carriers, had drawn toward her five U.S. fleet carriers and five light carriers. The Americans had an overwhelming superiority in aircraft numbers, which left no chance to the Japanese, all their aircraft carriers being destroyed in the end, without the Americans to lose even one.
The Battle of Leyte Gulf was a victory that made possible the American occupation of the Philippines and thus attaining the primary strategical goal to cut off Japan from the resources of Southeast Asia. The Imperial Japanese Navy had played its last important act, afterward having an auxiliary role.