Fuji to Aki
Japanese Pre-Dreadnoughts in Great
War at Sea
By David Hughes
Japanese pre-dreadnoughts fall into three conveniently
distinct groups. The first contains the six ships built in
Britain and used to deadly effect in the Russo-Japanese War.
The second is the collection of Russian battleships captured
in that war. The third includes the powerful semi-dreadnoughts
built in Japan from 1904 to1907. The best known are of course
the first six, seen Great War at Sea: Russo-Japanese War.
They form three groups, the first being Fuji and Yashima,
both laid down in British yards in 1894 and in most respects
improved versions of the Royal Navyís Royal Sovereign
class. Instead of the British shipís 13.5-inch guns they
were given a new, lighter but equally powerful 12-inch model.
This had a rate of fire of one round every eighty seconds, though
only from a fixed position. These were supported by ten 6-inch
and the usual collection of light weapons. Speed was 18 knots
and the armour was 18 inches at its thickest, though only of
compound steel. Fuji was famous for firing the last
heavy round at the Battle of Tsushima, hitting the Russian battleship
Borodino and causing her to blow up. Yashima
was less fortunate, sinking after she wandered into a minefield
near Port Arthur. The next pair were Shikishima and
Hatsuse, laid down in 1897 and 1898 respectively and
instantly recognizable in having three, rather than the usual
two funnels. They were improved Majestic class vessels, with
the same main armament of four 12-inch, but a more powerful
secondary of fourteen 6-inch guns. The armour was nine inches,
but of Harvey steel and therefore comparable in resistance to
the much thicker and heavier compound steel of the Fuji.
The Japanese insisted that the speed be 18 knots and this, together
with the identical main armament, meant that they could operate
with Fuji and Yashima. One of this class
was also lost to mines. On May 15th 1904 Hatsuse
hit two mines, one exploding her magazine and sinking her with
the loss of 493 lives out of her complement of 750.
The next battleship, Asahi, was a virtual copy, laid
down in 1898, and significantly different only in appearance,
reverting to the usual two-funnel layout. Armour, guns and speed
were the same. However her experience and fate were different.
Unlike Yashima and Hatsuse she managed to
survive after hitting a mine, being fortunate that it exploded
against her armour belt, rather than her vitals. She was repaired
and fought the following year at Tsushima. Like the
other two survivors, Fuji and Shikishima,
she was immobilised under the Washington Treaty. Unlike them Asahi was given a new lease of life by conversion
into a repair ship. She appears in SWWAS: Midway in this guise. Her end came in 1942 when torpedoed by a
United States submarine.
The most powerful of the six pre-dreadnoughts was Mikasa,
laid down in 1899. Although her guns and armour appeared identical,
there were in fact major improvements. She was given Krupp
plate, which meant that her similar nine inches equated to
about 12 inches of Harvey steel. Equally important, her four
12-inch guns could be loaded at any angle or elevation, almost
doubling her rate of fire. She achieved her iconic status
by serving as the flagship of Vice-Admiral Togo throughout
the war. As a result, when she blew up after the war due to
decaying cordite, she was raised, rebuilt and eventually made
a memorial ship in 1925. Heavily damaged by American bombing
she was restored and is today the only pre-dreadnought battleship
still in existence.
In 1905 Japan collected various Russian battleships, renaming
them Hizen, Suwo, Sagami, Tango, Iwami and Iki.
These have already been described in the Russian section of
this series. As early as 1904 the Japanese had started to
build a series of what are now described as semi-dreadnought
battleships, that is with two different types of heavy guns.
This began with the next pair of battleships ordered from
British shipyards in 1904, Kashima and Katori.
Both ships, as well as the later constructions are shown in
the now outof-print game Cruiser
Warfare. Normally the Japanese insisted that their
ships follow the pattern of contemporary British design, but
these were an exception. While the Royal Navy's Lord Nelson
class had ten 9.2-inch guns in addition to the customary four
12-inch, the Kashima and her sister only mounted
four additional 10-inch guns much like the previous King
Edward VII class. Instead she added twelve 6-inch guns.
Possibly this was to save money, alternatively the Japanese
thought that the three gun types, all very powerful 45 calibre
weapons, were more suited to a war against Russia. In armour
and speed they were similar to Mikasa.
The next ships, Ikoma and Tsukuba, were
the first capital ships to be built in Japan, at the Kure Naval Yard. Their
design had to take local limitations into effect, so that
their Krupp armour could not exceed seven inches, as well
as the lessons discerned in the early battles of the Russo-Japanese
War. Laid down three months before the decisive victory at
Tsushima, they can be described as "semi-battle-cruisers,"
with speed (over 20 knots) emphasised over their protection.
More accurately they were intended to be the next generation
of armoured cruiser, as Vice-Admiral Togo was using
ships of that type to lead his battle-line. They were given
the usual four 12-inch guns, backed up by twelve 6-inch and
the same number of 4.7-inch guns.
Both ships took part in the hunt for the German Pacific Squadron
in 1914. Tsukuba was destroyed when her magazine
blew up in harbour in 1917, yet another victim of poorly maintained
charges. One of Japanís first true dreadnought battleships,
Kawachi, would suffer an identical fate just over
a year later. Ikoma like Kashima and Katori
was broken up to comply with the Washington Treaty.
I can happily skip over the next pair of battleships, Satsuma
and Aki as Mike Bennighof has already covered them
in detail in his Daily Content article called
Semi-Dreadnoughts. Suffice to say that after a long
and contorted design period they finished up with an armament
of four 12-inch and twelve 10-inch guns, which would have
made them the most powerful design afloat, had not the Dreadnought and similar ships made them instantly obsolete. Both were
discarded in 1924.
The last capital ships to be considered are Ibuki and
Kurama both laid down soon after the Russo-Japanese
War ended. They were improved versions of Ikoma,
capable of 22 knots (four knots faster than the battleship
Satsuma of the same date), but still with an armour
belt of only seven inches. These "giant armoured cruisers"
carried four 12-inch guns, but replaced the 6-inch guns of
the Ikoma with eight 8-inch weapons mounted in two-gun
turrets. Her tertiary armament consisted of fourteen 4.7-inch
quick-firers. Ibuki was the better ship, fitted with
the first turbines to be used in a large Japanese Navy vessel
and capable of one knot more than her sister. Although valuable
ships they were clearly outclassed by the British battle cruisers,
especially since the slower Japanese building time meant that
they were completed after Invincible and her sister
ships. However this did not stop the Japanese rating them
as battle-cruisers before the First World War. Their speed
and guns made them very useful in protecting convoys and the
Japanese were distinctly annoyed when the Australian cruiser
Sydney was detached to catch and sink the German
Emden, rather than the infinitely more capable Ibuki,
serving as part of the same escort. Both ships were broken
up in 1924.
One other battleship should be included. In 1895 the Chinese
warship Chen Yuan was captured after a hard and gallant
fight. She was well-constructed in a German shipyard and was
therefore taken into service as the first battleship in the
Imperial Japanese Navy retaining, most unusually, her original
name in the form of Chin Yen. She was a formidable
warship for her time, protected by 10 inches of compound steel
protecting a central citadel. As modified by the Japanese
she mounted four 12-inch guns as her main armament mounted
to maximise forward fire, and four modern 6-inch guns. Although
stationed off Port Arthur during the war, she could not be
included in the battle line as her speed was only 14 knots.
In addition her main guns were only 20 calibre in length,
meaning that she was incapable of firing at the extended range
at which the two battle lines were now engaging.
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