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From Fuji to Aki
Japanese Pre-Dreadnoughts in Great War at Sea
By David Hughes
October 2014

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.


Japan's British-built Fuji fired the last shot at Tsushima.

 
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.

 


Hatsuse seen in 1899, five years before she was lost to a mine.

 
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.


Togo's flagship as she was
then ...


and now.

 

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.

 


Semi-dreadnought Aki, seen in 1911.

 
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 Japanís 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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