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Rise of the Dragon:
Penny Wise

By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
July 2016

At the height of the Russo-Japanese War, Japan's squadron of six big armored cruisers appeared to be a decisive weapon in the war at sea. Fast enough to scout and operate against Russian commerce raiders, and powerful enough to fight in the line of battle, under the aggressive leadership of Vice Admiral Hikonojo Kamimura they saw far more action than the main battle fleet.

For all their superior qualities, they lacked the firepower to truly damage enemy battleships. To correct this, the Japanese sought a hybrid ship with the speed of an armored cruiser and the big guns of a battleship. With these requirements in hand, the Japanese turned to their usual supplier for ships and naval arms, the British firm of Vickers and Sons.

Vickers presented the Japanese with a series of proposals, ranging from an armored cruiser upgraded to carry six 12-inch guns, through a very large fast battleship with eighteen 12-inch guns in six triple turrets. With the Japanese economy already straining mightily to meet the costs of war with Russia, the Japanese asked for a less costly variant of the six-gun ship with four guns and made plans to build six of them in Japanese yards as British firms were enjoined from selling warships to nations actively at war.


Japan's hybrid cruiser Tsukuba.

 

The four-gun ship, which would become the cruiser Tsukuba, had good speed for an armored cruiser, but was hopelessly outclassed by modern battle cruisers. The original Vickers proposal included turbines rather than conventional reciprocating engines, which would have given her much better speed.

The Japanese laid down the first pair in 1905, rushing completion of Tsukuba, which commissioned in January 1907. Her sister, Ikoma, followed her into the fleet in March 1908. Tsukuba immediately suffered a number of structural and mechanical defects thanks to her rapid construction, but the Japanese soon sent her around the world, visiting naval reviews in the United States and Europe and escorting the Great White Fleet on its approach to Japan.

Two somewhat improved versions were laid down in 1907. Ibuki had turbines while Kurama carried a conventional power plant, but only generated a knot more in speed over her near sister. The second pair had a heavier secondary armament, with eight 8-inch guns mounted in turrets in place of the dozen 6-inch guns carried in casemates by the first two ships.


Kurama, one of the two improved cruisers.

 

The four big cruisers had a significant speed advantage over the semi-dreadnought Satsuma, laid down in 1905 and having a very similar layout and profile. But Satsuma's near-sister Aki, begun in 1906 and fitted with turbines, was only slightly slower than the armored cruisers.

The Japanese declared all four ships to be "battle cruisers" in 1912, but they were much too slow for this role and outpaced by the new dreadnought battleships laid down in 1912. All of them participated in the fleet's 1914 operations, but when the war ended they found themselves on the disposal list even before the Japanese agreed to scrap their older warships during the Washington Naval Conference of early 1922.

That outcome would have been far different had the Japanese accepted the smallest of the Vickers proposals. Choosing to save money with a less-capable ship, the Japanese instead pretty much wasted their investment. Thanks to the launch of the British battle cruiser Invincible in 1906, all four Japanese ships were obsolete the moment their keels touched the water.

Vickers' six-gun proposal, in contrast, would have given the Japanese a very capable ship on the cutting edge of naval technology. Her six guns had a much better turret arrangement than the eight carried by Invincible, giving both ships the same broadside firepower despite the Japanese ship's much smaller size.

While costlier than the four-gun ship that became Tsukuba, the Imperial Navy was pouring money into the reconstruction of captured Russian battleships and armored cruisers at the same time. Scrapping these prizes instead, or relegating them to moored museum pieces, would have freed more than enough funds for the improved cruiser design.

That move also would have solved another problem facing the Japanese: a world-wide shortage of 12-inch guns brought on by the advent of the dreadnought battleship. Twenty of the scarce gun barrels were fitted to the Russian prizes, exactly enough to equip the four cruisers actually built plus their two authorized but unrealized sisters. Spares, of course, would also be needed eventually.

A squadron of six such small battle cruisers would have been very useful ships, able to scout for the main battle line and effectively project power in their own right. They would not, however, be able to stand against real dreadnoughts like the fast battleships eventually built by Germany and Britain. They would still have been cruisers with a battleship's big guns, and in the event of an actual fleet battle Japanese admirals would doubtlessly have been just as prone as their British counterparts to place them in the line of battle. Armored cruisers had fought as front-line units at the Yalu River against the Chinese and the Yellow Sea and Tsushima against the Russians. They would have been placed in the line of fire in the dreadnought age, and the Japanese could well have learned their vulnerabilities in the same way the British did at Jutland.

How fiercely would the Japanese have tried to protect them during the Washington talks? Their total displacement, had six of them been built, would have come to just 81,000 tons. The Americans entered the conference quite willing to grant the Japanese 80 percent of their own tonnage, which would easily have covered the six ships. But their lightweight protection would have argued against their retention if it meant sacrificing the dreadnoughts Fuso and Yamashiro, and their small size would have made modernization difficult.

However, the new Kampon boilers and turbines introduced with the Nagato class dreadnoughts of 1916 produced enormous horsepower, more than any similar power plant until the Americans built their new fast battleship North Carolina in the late 1930s. The six cruisers would likely need their hulls lengthened to accommodate the new machinery, and would have gotten upgrades to their anti-aircraft weaponry similar to those given the much bigger Kongo class fast battleships. Unlike Kongo, they could not have received much of an increase in protection, but would have gotten thicker deck armor.

Their armor would still have been better than that of most heavy cruisers, but with a main battery of six 12-inch guns they could easily out-range any ship with 8-inch guns. That would have made them the prototypical "cruiser killer," useful for escort against surface raiders or for some raiding themselves. But Japanese doctrine gave little attention to these missions, and so the six old "light battle cruisers" would probably have formed one or two divisions of the cruiser force and been assigned to similar missions: carrier escort, and combat as a fast wing of the main battle fleet.

All six proposed ships appear in Great War at Sea: Rise of the Dragon.

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.