Contact Us   |    Join   |    Donate


[Editor’s Note: The submarine engagement at the Battle of Leyte Gulf ts analyzed In this article using naval operational art. The author considers the command organization, principles of war, and operational fires. The submarine operations are examined stressing the weak areas and lessons learned. The principal finding is a limited use of naval operational art, with several weakness’ related to a lack of coordination and unity of command revealed by operational commanders and tactical leaders. This was written while the author attended Naval War College.]


The Battle of Leyte Gulf, fought to prevent the Japanese from interfering with an amphibious landing, occurred from 17 to 26 October 1944. Codenamed Operation King II, this engagement was the largest naval battle in the history of warfare.

The war effort in the Pacific theater was proceeding at a rapid pace. Operation Forager, the reclaiming of the Mariana Islands, was a highly successful operation from 11 June to 8 August 1944. The Third Fleet’s relentless air bombardment of the Philippines, in preparation for the upcoming landing, showed significant and unexpected Japanese air warfare weakness. Coupled with the rapid availability of several amphibious landing groups, both Commander-in-Chief U.S. Fleet Admiral King and CINCPAC Admiral Nimitz obtained approval to cancel the Mindinao invasion and advance the Leyte Gulf invasion by two months.

The Pacific theater was mature, with strong allied sea lines of communication. The U.S. logistics tail was stretched to the limit in support of Leyte. Submarine warfare had reduced the Japanese merchant fleet from 6,000,000 tons to approximately 3,000,000 tons, which could meet only routine peacetime requirements. Japan was unable to import the raw materials and fuel needed to keep her war machine running at full capacity. If Leyte was captured, the successful occupation of the Philippines would be virtually assured due to overwhelming air power and solid logistics support. Further, a springboard for assault on Japan would be made available and the Japanese supply lines to East Indies oil would be completely cut.

The Submarine Force had solved the early growing pains of the war with respect to poor performance of all torpedoes, incompetence of some commanding officers, and a general lack of submarine radar.

When the Leyte Gulf operation went into action, the Japanese SHO-GO plan was not ready. Japanese leaders were desperate, given the flogging incurred in the Philippine Sea. Recuperation time was needed to ready the fleet for action, but only a quick breath was allowed.

Command and Control

Structure/relationships. Submarines were operated in two distinct chains of command.

  • TF 17 under Vice Admiral Charles A. Lockwood who served as Commander Submarine Force. Pacific Fleet reporting directly to Admiral Nimitz serving as Commander-in-Chief. Pacific Fleet.
  • TG 71.1 under Rear Admiral Ralph W. Christie who served as Commander Submarines, South West Pacific reporting to Admiral Nimitz (administrative) and Commander Submarines, Seventh Fleet reporting to Admiral Kinkaid (operational).

Assets. There is no doubt that all available submarines were utilized for the Battle of Leyte Gulf. TF 17 operating from Pearl Harbor, Hawaii had 26 submarines located in the waters between Japan and the northern Philippines. TG 71.1 operating from several tenders in Australia had 14 submarines located in Palawan Passage, northern Palawan, Brunei Bay, Makassar Strait, Sulu Sea, Manila, and the northwest coast of Luzon. These forces constituted what was believed to be a watertight blockade around Leyte. This positioning method did not best deploy available submarine assets against the known position of Japanese forces. The vast majority of the U.S. submarines should have been placed around the southern tier of Leyte to intercept the battleship fleet known to be refueling in the Singapore area, with a smaller number covering the northern approaches.

Indication and warning were the main objectives of the Submarine Force in and around Leyte. Admiral Halsey and Admiral Kincaid received a steady stream of intercepts with accurate accounts of Japanese fleet movements. The exploits of USS DARTER and USS DACE are the most highly reported aspects of the Submarine Force accomplishments at Leyte. Assigned as a wolfpack in Palawan Passage, their orders were to intercept, report, and attack the Japanese forces. At daybreak on October 19th, while surfaced, both DACE and DARTER intercepted two Japanese torpedo boats by radar, indicating the strong likelihood of a convoy by the main body of Japanese forces. Their guard was raised to a high level. No contacts were sighted on the 20th and 21st. DACE held intermittent contact on a fast moving group of ships early on the 22nd but was unable to maneuver into a firing position. DACE received a routine message to return to base after her allotted time on station. The DACE Commanding Officer stated he bad that “funny feeling in bis bones” and was granted permission to remain on station. The next night about 12 heavy men-of-war were intercepted along with escort vessels. This vital contact report gave U.S. forces 48 hours to prepare for the Japanese fleet arrival.

DACE and DARTER fought one of the most successful wolfpack attacks in submarine history on Admiral Kurita’s Central Force. The daring and leadership of both submarines is legendary and show that great tacticians are just as important as great plans and orders. Delaying their torpedo attack: until dawn, to allow an accurate report of the Japanese forces, DACE and DARTER sank the heavy cruisers AT AGO and MA YA and seriously damaged the TAKAO. The courage of these men is further exemplified by the physical toll on their submarines and personnel. DACE bad “touched bottom” four times while evading depth charges and DARTER ran hard aground on a reef during a surfaced approach. The DARTER crew was rescued by the DACE under extremely trying circumstances.

On October 20th at 1400, Admiral Ozawa’s forces moved out of the Inland Sea and into Bungo Suido in preparation for transit. This important movement should have been intercepted, position reports made, and tactically engaged by a waiting wolfpack led by USS BESUGO. Two days prior however, the wolfpack left the area, with the concurrence of Admiral Lockwood, due to little observed outbound traffic and a desire to “get some good hunting before fuel supplies ran low.” This demonstrated desire for tactical effect, and failure to understand the operational purpose of their mission, reduced the warning time to the U.S. fleet of the approaching Japanese forces. The Commanding Officer also may have been misapplying his general war order: “Throughout the year the submarines available will be used primarily to inflict attrition on naval forces and shipping and will be directed to scouting, observation, and rescue services only in cases of urgent necessity.,, There are many examples of strong unity of effort, but this example displays the negative effect of a lack of centralized planning and decentralized execution.

The Submarine Force achieved the objective of indication and warning despite both Admiral Christie’s decision to withdraw DACE (subsequently changed) and Admiral Lockwood’ s removal of BESUGO (and other TF-17 submarines not discussed) immediately prior to the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Many of the U.S. submarines provided valuable contact reports to higher command. Admiral Christie did a much better job in this mission area than SUBPAC. Admiral Lockwood failed to maintain his submarines in position to intercept the enemy because “if they were to have any hunting before they ran low on supplies, they had best get going elsewhere.” In conclusion, the Submarine Force leadership could have done a much more effective job by sticking with the mission.

Principles of War

The goal in analyzing these submarine operations against the index of the principles of war is to aid future leaders in making war as short as possible and, ultimately, a victory for our side. Critical analysis of the principles of war will save future leaders from repeating past leaders mistakes.

The objective is unquestionably the most important of all the principles of war. Best defined as the aim, scope, mission, or purpose of the war fighting effort. The strategic objective was the defeat of Japan. The operational objective was the capture and liberation of the Philippines. The tactical objective of the U.S. Submarine Force was to provide indication and warning of approaching Japanese naval forces and to maximize destruction of these ships prior to arrival at Leyte. These objectives were clearly attainable, well defined, and decisive.

The offensive as a principle of war means carrying the war to the enemy and to seize and maintain the initiative. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Submarine Force was the only military asset available to fight the Japanese forces until the battleships, associated surface battle line, and base infrastructure could be reconstituted. As the war proceeded, our submarines became increasingly successful at intercepting and destroying both military and merchant vessels.

The U.S. submarine war effort was aided by poor and ineffective Japanese ASW. These factors included frequently neglected shipping protection, passive anti-submarine tactics, and defective ASW weapons. Depth charge tactics showed a lack of persistence, poor mathematical solutions, and were prone to accept scant proof of sinking.

U.S. submarine wolfpacking was very effective against major combatant units. Although single units had many successful attacks, if surface forces conduct continual zig zag maneuvers coupled with high speed, multiple submarine assets conducting coordinated attacks are generally more productive.

The sinking of AT AGO and MA YO coupled with the heavy damage inflicted on the TAKAO by the DACE and DARTER wolfpack and the heavily damaged AOBA by USS BREAM on 23 October decisively influenced the Japanese leadership. ATAGO took 30 minutes to sink, allowing Admiral Kurita (Central Force) to shift his staff to the YAMATO. Rear Admiral Koyanagi, serving as Admiral Kurita’s Chief of Staff, stated during a post war interview that the loss of the AT AGO had a devastating effect on his staff’s communications capability. Half of the flagship radiomen were killed and communication was reduced at times to flashing light. Poor message handling and limited connectivity plagued Admiral Kurita’s fighting ability throughout the Battle of Leyte Gulf.

Unity of Command. By the design of the chain of command, this concept was made difficult to succeed. General MacArthur serving as Supreme Commander, Allied Forces, South-West Pacific Area did not have operational control of Admiral Lock- wood’s TF 17 submarine forces. Rather, Admiral Christie had operational control of less than half the submarine assets allotted to Leyte via TG 71.1 . The points brought out under indication and warning exemplify these shortcomings.

Both the allied submarine and surface/air forces were extremely fearful of blue on blue engagements. The submarines were not allowed to operate in the interior areas around the Leyte Gulf region, instead massing at the approaches and exit areas. This failure to mass effect, by coordinating submarine operations inside the Third and Seventh fleet operating areas, at the decisive point could have reduced the loss of allied lives and equipment and delivered an overwhelming blow to the Japanese fleet.

Surprise is the greatest single weapon of war, the creation of an unexpected situation for which the enemy is not prepared. Surprise is one of a submarine•s strongest assets which was solidly demonstrated in Leyte Gulf. While not documented. it is highly likely that Admiral Kurita was surprised by the loss of four ships just prior to his last ditch defense of the Philippines.

Simplicity. The keynote is simple planning, easy to understand instructions, and time to prepare the organization for battle. Moving up the battle time line, while a solid decision, did have some negative effects. DARTER and DACE received their orders for the Battle of Leyte Gulf on 1 October, although they were periodically in port during the weeks prior. The DACE Commanding Officer stated in his patrol report that he first learned of the invasion by a radio news broadcast on 20 October. It is difficult to expect our tactical operators to think operationally when they have little information of the battle around their ships.

Security provides the means to give freedom of action, denial of information to the enemy, and deny enemy interference with our own forces. ..It prevents surprise by the enemy; it is essential to the surprise of the enemy.” Operational commanders poorly positioned their submarine assets in relation to expected tasks. Admiral Nimitz completed final positioning arrangements with Admiral Halsey on the morning of 15 October. The error was pulling some submarine assets off station early before Admiral Ozawa sailed.

Following the Battle of Leyte Gulf, poor communication between Admiral Halsey’s aircraft intercepts of the retreating Japanese forces, and submarine staff officers who failed to press for this valuable intelligence, reduced the ability of U.S. submarines to surprise the enemy and inflict heavy damage. To achieve surprise requires proper force location and timely intelligence data, both of which could have been conducted more effectively.

Operational Fires

Operational fires are attacks in the enemy’s depth aimed at influencing the outcome of a major campaign. One final look at the ATAGO sinking is warranted. A wounded ship frequently proves more burdensome than a destroyed ship. Admiral Kurita’s Chief of Staff stated ….. my remaining communications personnel were divided between two destroyers, one of which had to accompany the TAKAO back to Brunei.” A wounded ship requires the enemy to expend effort both in transport back to friendly waters but also to protect the vessel in transit.

The destruction of Admiral Kurita’s staff integrity and the resulting psychological effects prior to the decisive battle was the primary influence of the ATAGO attack. Accounts differ on bow Admiral Kurita and staff achieved the transfer, some references stating they bad to “‘swim for it” and others stating that lifeboats were utilized. Regardless, this was a rude beginning to their SHO-GO plan execution. This effect is an excellent example of how tactical action can influence the operational level of war.

Lessons Learned

The following lessons learned are intended to apply the strengths and weaknesses at the Battle of Leyte Gulf into summations that can be applied to our current operational art philosophy.

  • Submarine operations must be closely coordinated with surface and air forces by intensive joint training. We must focus our submarine assets into the joint arena stressing the seamless integration with air and surface forces.
  • IFF systems must be significantly improved to better support integrating complex ASW missions in the battle groups area of operation.
  • Poor ASW tactics can have devastating effects. The U.S. must maintain our submarine technological advantage over likely opponents.
  • Take advantage of your opponent at every possible opportunity. Bold and aggressive offensive tactics will pay big dividends. Always take the initiative and maintain a high tempo of operations.
  • Operational commanders must not let their subordinates. tactical desire for glory result in a missed strategic or operational advantage. Stay focused and maintain concentration on the mission. Try to see through the fog of war.
  • Operational commanders must keep their subordinate commands appraised of the developing situation to enable them to support his operational mission. Adequate planning and training time should be allotted if available.
  • The sinking of enemy vessels may not be as important as mission kill, as evidenced by the ATAGO attack.
  • Our leaders today must be constantly reminded of the force multiplication effect that submarines bring to the battle during a wide range of missions.
  • A faulty command structure inhibits the proper application of operational art.


To fight smarter with fewer resources, we must become masters of operational art. Since few future leaders can learn from practice, we must study and teach the detailed review of past military engagements.

The best proponent on this subject is Rear Admiral C.R. Brown, this quotation written in 1949: .. Some say war is an art, not a science. But to say this is to sacrifice truth for a maxim. There is both an art and a science of war. Were there no science of war, war would tend to become a lost art for want of a continuing body of knowledge to keep it alive. Art and science are not incompatible. They are both found in all forms of human endeavor. The arts of the musician, the sculptor, and the painter all are erected on the firm foundations of their particular sciences. Science consists of knowing; art of doing. Science is knowledge; art is knowledge translated into action. Indeed science is more than knowledge. It is classified knowledge. It is useful knowledge. But science is only an instrument. It can never be master. Art is the master.

After the war General Tojo stated that one of the three main reasons Japan lost the war was the destruction of merchant shipping by U.S. submarines. Japan’s defense of Leyte Gulf was a last ditch effort, an all or nothing gamble. However, the war was already lost by Japan’s inability to sustain itself logistically.

The ability of U.S. submarines at the Battle of Leyte Gulf to seize the initiative, convert tactical actions into operational advantage, and aid in the destruction of Japan’s navy was a result of the limited use of operational art. Overall, the results of the battle could have been more decisive had early knowledge been gained, and engagement joined, of Admiral Ozawa’s decoy Northern Force by SUBPAC submarines. This missed opportunity may be attributable to Admiral Lockwood’s decision to pull TF 17 submarines off assigned patrol areas.

Naval Submarine League

© 2022 Naval Submarine League