Book Review: The Battle of Leyte Gulf by H.P. Willmott

Topic & Content

Published in 2005, this book is an examination of the Battle of Leyte Gulf that occurred in October 1944. The book is organized as follows:

  • One: The Nature of War and of Victory
  • Two: The Option of Difficulties: The American Situation in the Aftermath of the Victory in the Philippine Sea
  • Three: The Search for Solution: The Japanese Situation in the Aftermath of Defeat in the Philippine Sea
  • Four: Preliminaries: 6-18 October 1944
  • Five: Advance and Contact: 18-24 October 1944
  • Six: The Great Day of Wrath: 25 October 1944
  • Seven: The Naval Battle for the Philippines: The Postscript, 26 October-30 November 1944
  • Eight: To Pause and Consider: Blame, Responsibility, and the Verdict of History

For a book that covers arguably one of the largest naval battles in history, it’s surprisingly short at only 255 pages long (not counting the appendixes, notes, and bibliography).

Thesis

Due to the nature of Willmott’s writing, it took me some time to actually zero in on the thesis of this book. That said, it’s also fairly generic and nothing really revolutionary in terms of interpretation. Simply put, the book’s thesis could be summed up as follows: The Battle of Leyte Gulf represented the end of an era in naval warfare that had been practiced for centuries. It was the last great fleet versus fleet battle and one that the Imperial Japanese Navy had no hopes of winning or even affecting a strategic outcome.

Author’s Background

The late Hedley Paul (H.P.) “Ned” Willmott was a prolific writer of military history, often focusing on the Asia-Pacific Theater of the Second World War. Willmott graduated from the University of Liverpool with a Bachelor’s in History and Politics. He went on to earn a Master of Arts in History (also from Liverpool) and later a Ph.D. in War Studies from the University of London. Among his various teaching assignments, he taught at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst and he served in the airborne from 1972 – 1979. Willmott died in 2020.

Critical Observations

Positives

For those who don’t know, the Battle of Leyte Gulf was actually a series of 4 – 5 engagements that occurred around 23 – 26 October 1944, but they were all operationally linked and occurred around the Philippines which the Allies had come to liberate. Many books have already been written on these engagements (Samuel Eliot Morison’s volume on Leyte is a classic), so it’s somewhat hard for historians to offer anything new in terms of the overall narrative. Speaking of which, the narrative moves through the battle chronologically and spends a good deal of time setting up why the battle occurred in the first place and the strategic positions of both the U.S. and Japan. Willmott moves through the various engagements and keeps the action surprisingly constrained. Instead, he offers a beefy analysis of the decisions of mostly Adm. Halsey and Adm. Kurita.

One thing that always differentiates Willmott’s writing from others is the sharp critique of every party involved in the historical events. Willmott suffers no fools and spares no one (not even the British) when it comes to his analysis and evaluation of events. Too much of what passes for analysis or evaluation in history these days is too simplified or hagiographic. Willmott, whether he’s right or wrong, is at least able to articulate his opinion in complete sentences. Ergo, the best thing about any book by H.P. Willmott is the analysis and critique.

Negatives

This book is focused on the main naval actions of the Battle of Leyte Gulf and doesn’t cover the amphibious landings or subsequent land combat. Also, many of the descriptions of the naval battles are fairly short and the majority of the book is dominated by Willmott’s analysis. Basically, If you’re new to the Battle of Leyte Gulf, then this isn’t the book to start with (I’d recommend Morison’s Leyte for a good look at the overall operation).

I’m familiar with a few of Willmott’s other books, such as Empires in the Balance and The Barrier and the Javelin, but I found those books to be better written than this one. The thesis isn’t anything terribly jaw-dropping and this book is in need of another round of editing because the organization is a bit hectic. Willmott makes a lot of interesting and lengthy points in his critique of the various actions and decisions in the battle (on both sides), but how his analysis and evaluation fit into his overall thesis and within the chronology of the battle is often blurry. He frequently jumps from topic to topic and provides his analysis in a fairly helter-skelter manner. As a result, I found it really difficult to follow his train of logic because he would discuss one topic, move on to another, and then go back to the previous topic to provide another round of analysis. Another thing is that it’s not always clearly delineated where Willmott begins his analysis. Some subheadings would go a long way to providing some structure to the book. So another go with the editor to tighten things up, and improve the organization, and logical flow of the book would be much appreciated.

Some people may have trouble with Willmott’s writing because he tends to be very verbose. I don’t know any other way to describe it other than to say that his writing style is very British. He also has this strange habit of using the French phrases en passant (by the way, incidentally) and fin-de-siècle (end of a century) multiple times in this book. Maybe it’s because he’s from an older generation and is used to writing in that fashion. As a result, sometimes the wordiness of his writing can be annoying. However, if you read enough of Willmott’s work, you start to get used to it. It’s just his style of writing, but I often find that it requires a few reads to clarify what he’s talking about. In some ways, I’m actually tempted to re-read this book very soon to see if I can better understand it.

Evaluation (Does the content support the thesis?)

In the end, I found The Battle of Leyte Gulf to be one of Willmott’s weaker works. While I’ve always enjoyed Willmott for his sharp analysis and critique, the organization of his arguments in this book is a bit confusing and could be improved with more editing. Furthermore, the book seems to operate on the assumption that the reader is already very familiar with the chronology and main events of the battle and keeps the descriptions of the actions very short. Therefore, it’s advised that readers new to these events seek out other works before tackling this book. This doesn’t mean that the book is in any way bad, but I think it could’ve been much better. I’d still recommend it to those looking for a lengthy analysis of the battle.

Rating: 4 out of 5 (Very good. Worth your time.)

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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