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Russo-Japanese War:
Japanese Armored Cruisers

The Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905 had a profound influence on fleet tactics, warship design and procurement strategy for the next decade. The strengths, and weaknesses, of the pre-dreadnought battleship had been laid bare for any to see, at least any who wished to see.

One of the principles some observers took away from the conflict was the value of a “fast wing” of the battle fleet. The Japanese squadron of six big, fast and modern armored cruisers – known, along with its supporting cruisers and destroyers, as the Second Fleet - proved capable of hunting down Russian raiders, scouting for the battle fleet, and standing in line with the battleships to fight it out with the Russians.

The Second Fleet under the leadership of Vice Admiral Hojinoto Kamimura had a mixed record. The Russian cruiser squadron based at Vladivostok conducted a number of successful raids and Kamimura took the blame. The Japanese press made a hero of Heihachiro Togo, and suggested that Kamimura could best serve the Empire by killing himself sooner rather than later. But his fleet did finally shoot the Russian squadron to pieces, ending its raids. At the Battle of Tsushima they sank the Russian battleship Osliaba, but then veered out of the battle line to conduct a fruitless pursuit of some fleeing Russian cruisers that took them out of action for several hours.

All of the Japanese armored cruisers came from foreign shipyards, with the five classes built in four different nations. We’ll take a look at them today.

The Elswick Cruisers, First Group

Following the Sino-Japanese War, Japan was humiliated by Russia, France and Germany, who forced the Japanese to return much of the most valuable territory taken from China in exchange for a larger cash payment. The Russians then stepped in to scoop up the prizes, chief among them the strategic naval base at Port Arthur. The Japanese then used their Chinese cash to expand their fleet and avoid such events in the future.

Among the first purchases was a pair of large, modern armored cruisers from Armstrong’s Elswick yard. Designed by Sir Phillip Watts, who would go on to draft the battleships Dreadnought and Queen Elizabeth among many other warships, Asama and Tokiwa displaced 10,500 tons and carried a main armament of four eight-inch guns in twin turrets fore and aft, plus fourteen 6-inch guns mounted in casemates along the sides of the ship and, as was usual for the time, a large array of light guns to defend against torpedo boats.

Armored with the latest Harvey nickel-steel armor, the new cruisers made 22 knots on trials, very fast for the time (they were completed in March and April 1899). These ships gave Japan a pair of outstanding warships, superior to any cruisers then in service with the Royal Navy, only being matched by the Drake class which began commissioning three years later.

The pair saw a great deal of service in the First World War; afterwards Tokiwa became a minelayer and was sunk by American aircraft in 1945. Asama served as a coast defense ship until 1937 when she became a harbor-based training ship.

The French Ship

The Japanese spread their orders around, purchasing a similar armored cruiser from a French yard. Adzuma resembled the Elswick ships; the Japanese had specified that she must carry the same Elswick-pattern guns and turrets: four eight-inch guns in twin turrets, plus a dozen 6-inch guns in casemate mounts. The resulting ship externally resembled the British-built cruisers far more than contemporary French ships.

Adzuma had a slightly longer and considerably narrower hull while displacing slightly less than the Elswick ships, and a power plant similar to that of the contemporary French Dupleix-class armored cruisers. She never made the speed for which her designers hoped, and was somewhat slower than the British-built ships.

She also proved less durable, and had been re-assigned to training duties by 1914. By 1927 she had been reduced to a stationary role, and was removed from even that role in 1941. American aircraft sank her hulk in 1945 and she was scrapped the next year.

The German Ship

The Japanese placed their fourth order with Vulkan’s yard in Stettin, Germany, a firm with a great deal of experience in handling overseas orders – they had built a number of cruisers and a pair of battleships for the imperial Chinese Navy. Like the other ships, Yakumo carried Elswick-pattern guns and turrets: four eight-inch guns in twin turrets fore and aft, and a dozen six-inch guns along her sides.

She had the same power plant as the French-built Adzuma, but a shorter and wider hull. Even so, she matched the French-built ship’s trial speed but not that of the Elswick ships. Vulkan’s architects maintained the Japanese-directed deck and belt armor scheme, but used Krupp armor and the “honeycomb” protection scheme of German warships. Yakumo would have been very tough to sink, with her hull divided into 247 separate watertight compartments.

Yakumo never came close to sinking: after extensive action in the Russo-Japanese War, she deployed to hunt the German cruiser Emden during the early months of World War One and became a training ship afterwards. She remained in that role through the end of World War Two. Late in the war she was re-armed to also serve as a floating anti-aircraft battery, but continued her training mission as well. She was scrapped after the war.

Elswick Repeats

Soon after Asama and Tokiwa cleared the slipways at Elswick, workers began laying the keels for a second pair of armored cruisers for the Imperial Japanese Navy. Idzumo and Iwate, also drafted by Sir Philip Watts, had significant improvements over the first pair: Krupp armor in place of Harvey nickel-steel, lighter and more efficient Belleville boilers, better deck protection and a stronger hull. The armament remained the same, with four eight-inch guns and fourteen six-inch guns. Despite the new boilers, these ships never met the same speed as their earlier near-sisters.

Like the other armored cruisers, the pair saw extensive action during the Russo-Japanese War. The Japanese liked these ships very much, deploying them regularly during the First World War and retaining them after the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty as coast defense ships. They returned them to service for the Second World War – Idzumo, the longtime flagship of Japanese forces in China,  was damaged by a mine while covering the landings in the Philippines in 1942, 43 years after commissioning. Had they not been limited by treaty, the Japanese likely would have modernized them in the 1930’s for continued use. Instead they served as training ships during the war years and were re-armed to serve as anti-aircraft batteries late in the war. Both were sunk during an American air raid, their seams opening after numerous near-misses.

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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.