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During the Battle for Leyte Gulf, most elements of the American fleet fought two "side" groups of the Japanese fleet to the south and north of the main action, which would take place off Samar in the San Bernardino Strait. The end result was that only small task forces of escort carriers and destroyers, Taffy One, Two, and Three, stood between the main Japanese fleet and American transports landing troops and supplies.

The Taffy units fought bravely, until they had run out of serviceable aircraft, and the much superior Japanese fleet retreated. But suppose the battle had continued. Halsey's Third Fleet, by this time, was too far away to help directly. But was it possible for it to fly in replacements for the aircraft (and bombs) lost by the Taffys in the earlier fighting? That is, after a one way trip, could they have refueled and continued the fight from the same escort carriers, but using new planes and pilots?

Edit: My understanding is that Halsey's fleet was too far away for its planes to conduct a "round trip" attack on Kurita's fleet. My hypothesis was that Halsey could fly in enough planes on "one way" trips to replace the Taffy losses, maintaining their complement constant. Those planes would refuel on the Taffy carriers, and then make their strikes. Is this logistically possible? This would apply more to Taffy I and Taffy II, whose planes were operating at a longer distance, and perhaps not to Taffy III, which was already engaged with Japanese surface forces and on the verge of destruction. –

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  • The Battle of Surigao Strait was not a diversion.
    – Spencer
    Apr 26 at 0:22
  • @Spencer: I removed the word "lured" to remove the implication that it was a diversion.
    – Tom Au
    Apr 26 at 0:34
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    "The Taffy units fought bravely, until they had run out of serviceable aircraft" I don't believe this is correct, they were still launching aircraft even after the battle and into the subsequent air attack. Do you have a reference?
    – Schwern
    Apr 26 at 1:00
  • Well, the one Halsey chased to the north actually was.
    – Spencer
    Apr 26 at 1:09
  • With what from where?
    – Jon Custer
    Apr 26 at 1:31

2 Answers 2

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First, let's correct this...

The Taffy units fought bravely, until they had run out of serviceable aircraft

This is incorrect. Taffy did not run out of aircraft, Kurita turned away. After Kurita turned away, aircraft were still returning and air attack continued. Yamato and Chikuma were attacked by Avengers from Taffys 2 and 3.

Probably not effectively or timely.

tl;dr Halsey receives news of the danger at 0800. By 0930 Kurita is already withdrawing. At best a one-way strike could be organized to attack Kurita as he withdraws. Communications between 3rd and 7th Fleet are extremely poor, organizing a landing on Taffys carriers is almost impossible. Assuming they have the range, they could land on freshly captured Leyte airfields. However, these airfields are in very rough shape and under infantry attack; there will be no second strike.

Let's answer this in two parts.

First,

My understanding is that Halsey's fleet was too far away to conduct a "round trip" attack on Kurita's fleet. My hypothesis was that Halsey would fly in enough planes on "one way" trips to make up for the Taffy losses, those planes would refuel on the Taffy carriers, and then make their strikes. Then is this logistically possible[?]

Second, what impact would such a strike have had on the battle?

Before we begin, some important context.

Communications between fleets was crap.

Communications between fleets (really between everyone) in WW2 were slow and complicated. Messages from Taffy had to be dictated, encrypted, transmitted to 7th Fleet, received, decrypted, considered by 7th Fleet staff, and then a message to 3rd Fleet considered, dictated, encrypted, transmitted, received, decrypted, considered by 3rd Fleet, and handed up the ranks.

The messages were short, used jargon, and nonsense to throw off code breakers making plenty of opportunity for misunderstandings. This all had to be done carefully and according to strict protocols to avoid miscommunications. We're proposing to do this by hand, in combat.

For example, the simple message asking where the fleet carriers were...

Where is, repeat, where is Task Force Thirty Four?

Was encoded like this...

TURKEY TROTS TO WATER GG FROM CINCPAC ACTION COM THIRD FLEET INFO COMINCH CTF SEVENTY-SEVEN X WHERE IS RPT WHERE IS TASK FORCE THIRTY FOUR RR THE WORLD WONDERS.

And was read by Halsey as...

Where is, repeat, where is Task Force Thirty Four? The world wonders.

Who took it as a personal insult.

Keep this in mind while we try to coordinate a one-way scratch carrier strike between two fleets hundreds of miles apart in the middle of the largest naval battle in history.

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Could 3rd Fleet launch a one-way strike?

The idea is that 3rd Fleet is too far away to make a round trip strike, but maybe they could send a strike and that strike could then land on a Taffy carrier or airfield.

A lot of details have to be filled in before this can be answered.

Did 3rd Fleet aircraft have the range to strike Kurita and land safely?

Kurita was between 3rd Fleet and the Taffys and Leyte, so if they can reach the Taffys or Leyte they can reach Kurita. Did they have the range? Avenger strike aircraft had considerable range, but with how much ordinance?

My very rough estimate is about 800 km. This is well inside the range of an Avenger. I'll leave this for someone else to figure out the details because it's the least interesting part of the analysis. Either they do or they don't. I'll assume they do.

When would the strike arrive?

What is the earliest they could have learned there was a problem? When did 3rd Fleet know there was a crisis?

Halsey claims he did not receive word that 7th Fleet had a problem until at least 0800 over an hour after Kurita attacked, and possibly as late as 1000 after Kurita had already turned away. The confusion could be Halsey covering his ass as to why he ignored their cries for help.

Let's say Halsey receives the distress calls around 0800 and springs into action! Now he has to organize a strike. 3rd Fleet has been launching strikes at Ozawa since morning. Presumably he could order the next strike to instead launch against Kurita.

The strike would have be be refueled to have additional range. It's possible this would put them over their maximum takeoff weight in which case armaments would have to be removed or replaced. Deck handlers would have to scramble to shift plans around for the new plan.

Pilots would have to be briefed. What were the targets? Where are the targets? What is their course and speed? Where are they landing? If it's a carrier, what is its course and speed and will it be there when they land? How long does it take for 3rd Fleet to get this information from 7th Fleet?

Launching the strike and forming up takes considerable time. They would then have to fly to Kurita, attack, and land. With a cruising speed of about 350 km/h, it would take over 2 hours to cover the roughly 800km distance.

Even if the strike magically launched immediately upon receiving the distress call at 08:00, like a video game, it would not reach Taffy 3 until after 10:00. By this time the battle was over and Kurita was withdrawing. In reality it would have taken significantly longer.

Could they land on Taffy carriers?

This gets very complicated and risky.

Did 3rd Fleet even know the position and disposition of the Taffys? Probably not. Why would they? That's 7th Fleet's job. Could they have found out? Sure, but it would likely take hours as the request goes from 3rd Fleet to 7th Fleet to the Taffys who probably don't give it priority because they're all under attack or conducting intense air operations.

Let's say 3rd Fleet somehow gets accurate positions, courses, and speeds for the Taffys at the time of launching the strike. Will those still be accurate hours later when the strike arrives? What if they change course and speed? Taffy 1 has to evade air attack. Taffy 2 changes course to avoid Kurita. Taffy 3 is evading wildly. They're all conducting air operations which requires turning into the wind.

The Taffys are all undergoing their own air operations, strikes, combat air patrols, and recovery. How do they coordinate receiving the strike from 3rd Fleet? What happens if the strike shows up and they are unprepared to receive the strike? Maybe they're under attack, their decks are not clear, they're damaged... If so, the 3rd Fleet strike might run out of fuel and drop into the sea.

Probably don't try to land on the Taffy carriers. It's risky and complicated and requires a lot of coordination and the carriers might not be where they say they will be, or damaged, on fire, or sunk.

Land on an airfield

If you're throwing together a hasty one-way strike mission, it's a lot easier if your airfield isn't moving, on fire, or under water.

Dulag and Tacloban airfields had been taken on Leyte a few days earlier on 20 October, but had been under continuous Japanese air attack. These would be the logical and simple choice to receive and refuel the strike.

Some Taffy aircraft diverted to Dulag that morning. Upon landing they were handed carbines and told they were under attack by Japanese infantry. So while the strike could land, it is doubtful they would be refueled and rearmed in time to make a second go.


Could a hasty one-way 3rd Fleet strike have effected the battle?

No, there just wasn't enough time. By the time 3rd Fleet's strike was organized, launched, and arrived the battle was long over.

The US realized they were under attack at roughly 06:50. By 07:00 Yamato opens fire on the escort carriers at 31 km. Around 08:00 Halsey receives the distress calls. At 09:10 Kurita orders a regroup to the north and then a full withdrawal.

This leaves a little over an hour for 3rd Fleet to organize and launch a strike, and for it to fly to the battle. There simply isn't time.

3rd Fleet might have been able to attack Kurita as he withdrew, but this would not effect the outcome of the battle. It would be questionable to put pilots' lives on such a risky attack against a retreating enemy.

What if Kurita attacks?

Historically, upon learning the rest of Operation Shō-Gō 1 had failed Kurita withdrew. What if he went all-in?

By 09:20 Taffy 3 is combat ineffective. The heroic delaying action earlier in the battle was conducted by well-armed, high-speed fleet destroyers. These are now crippled and sinking. The three remaining destroyer escorts are designed for convoy duty; slow and poorly armed (two 5" guns and three torpedo tubes each), combined their firepower was barely equal to a single fleet destroyer.

In contrast the Japanese have four battleships, two serviceable heavy cruisers (Haguro and Tone), two light cruisers, and eleven destroyers. All expressly designed to sink ships. The Japanese destroyers alone could handle what remains of Taffy 3.

Japanese gunners have been firing at Taffy 3 and closing range for almost two hours. At the beginning of the battle the unarmored US ships were benefiting from the Japanese mistaken belief they were firing at larger and armored ships; their armor piercing shells were passing through without exploding. By this point in the battle, Japanese gunners were beginning to realize they were firing at unarmed targets and were switching to high-explosive to devastating effect. Without the heroic antics of the fleet destroyers to distract them, Japanese gunners make short work of the escort vessels.

Survivors are mopped up by the historical Japanese air attack at 10:50.

Kurita moves on to bombard the landings. The 3rd Fleet strike arrives either while is on his way to bombard the landings or on his way out. The hasty strike would struggle to sink even a single battleship; HMS Renown and Repulse took nearly 100 aircraft to sink them. Given the intensity of air attack Kurita has endured already, this one is unlikely to deter him.

Upon landing at the Leyte airfields, the pilots will find they are under Japanese infantry attack and under threat of bombardment by Kurita. A second strike is unlikely.

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  • A very good answer to my "stated" question. My "real" question, which I didn't ask, was, suppose the Japanese had continued to deplete the Taffy bombers, then advance to attack the transports. Could the Taffys have been reinforced from the Third fleet 1-2 hours away by air and regrouped to hit the Japanese fleet on the way back mid-afternoon , even if the main fleet could not? I assumed that Taffy 1 and 2 would run out of planes before they run out of carriers. They would be the ones to resupply.
    – Tom Au
    Apr 26 at 8:28
  • @TomAu It depends on how far away 3rd Fleet was from the Taffys and airfields. I'll ask you to do that basic research. But consider two things. 1) Kurita was retreating north away from Taffy towards 3rd Fleet and 2) an Avenger ferrying a torpedo has the same range as an Avenger conducting a strike with a torpedo. Seems easier for 3rd Fleet to strike Kurita directly. Historically Kurita was attacked while retreating. I know the Taffys scraped together some Avengers, but I don't know from where else. Again, I'll ask you to do that basic research.
    – Schwern
    Apr 26 at 16:27
  • It seems that I did not make my premise clear. My understanding is that Halsey's fleet was too far away to conduct a "round trip" attack on Kurita's fleet. My hypothesis was that Halsey would fly in enough planes on "one way" trips to make up for the Taffy losses, those planes would refuel on the Taffy carriers, and then make their strikes. Then is this logistically possible.
    – Tom Au
    Apr 26 at 18:23
  • @TomAu Start with the basic research on the distances between 3rd Fleet, the Taffys, and the US airfields. Let us know what you find and we can check if it's even possible. However, 3rd Fleet had only spotty communications with 7th Fleet coming in late and garbled. Carrier strikes are risky enough. Coordinating a complicated long range carrier strike on short notice in a pitched battle with bad communications would be a huge and unnecessary risk to chase a thoroughly defeated enemy. 3rd Fleet would be sending their planes out and just hope they find the escort carriers.
    – Schwern
    Apr 26 at 19:56
  • @TomAu I gave it a go and rewrote the answer. Hope that covers it.
    – Schwern
    Apr 26 at 23:22
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A few relevant factors to emphasize...

The Taffy's were there largely to act as anti-submarine and CAS to the ground troops, hence being equipped with Avengers and older F4F's. Their magazines would be largely filled with HE/frag for attack against ground troops, depth charges for subs, and not much of the armor piercing ammunition or torpedoes necessary for a major attack on Kurita's warships. And they were rapidly expending what they had. When bombs ran low, they used depth charges against warships, hoping to punch a hole in their hull with a close detonation.

The shuffled aircraft wouldn't have much in they way of munitions to draw on, even if they found the light carriers, which wasn't assured b/c the Taffy's were all maneuvering radically, to either escape or lend support.

And, there is the issue of deck operations. The Taffy light carriers, being conversions of cargo ship designs, were slower than fleet carriers. They had to be pointed directly into the wind for any aircraft operation, and even that was marginal for some aircraft, whereas an Essex had some leeway due to its higher speed and longer flight deck.

Hard to get a slow light carrier pointed directly into the wind, when you're trying to get away from the Yamato, and getting away isn't into the wind. It was amazing that Taffy 3 launched as many attacks as it did, although having pilots accustomed to the slow speed and short flight deck helped. 3rd Fleet pilots, coming from a long, fast Essex, might have had problems with the much tighter restrictions of an escort carrier.

Finally, there was the cumbersome command structure of the US forces. MacArthur, US Army, was running the Philippines invasion show, with 7th fleet answering to him. 3rd Fleet answered to Nimitz, USN, in Hawaii. This resulted in an almost absurd communications procedure that was slow and occasionally unreliable, contributing to having the San Bernardino Straits left unguarded in the first place.

Just coordinating a major transfer of aircraft would have taken hours, given the comm delays - request from Mac, up through Pearl Harbor and probably Washington, too, and then down to 3rd fleet, encoded/decoded each time. In fact, this was held up in subsequent Annapolis courses as an example of how not to coordinate a large offensive.

Theoretically, yes, planes could have been shuffled. Realistically, given a variety of confusing factors, a lot of them might have been lost due to the uncertain navigation and unfamiliarity of the pilots with the greater restrictions of Taffy flight decks, and wouldn't have been much help if they did find the Taffy's.

Fortunately for the US, Kurita decided to bug out.

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