By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
Unlike her neighbors, Thailand never came
under European colonial rule, always maintaining
her independence though at times coming under
foreign influence. One of the trappings of
an independent nation is a navy to “show
the flag,” and in 1862 Siam (as she
was then known) entered the age of steam by
purchasing a small yacht in Germany. Five
more steam-powered warships were bought in
France in 1865, and some of these craft would
continue in service until the early years
of the next century.
Through the first decades of the 20th century
the Navy depended on foreign officers, including
many Danes even after the fleet’s Danish
commander was recalled to Copenhagen for “compromising
Denmark’s neutral status” by ordering
his Thai sailors to open fire on French warships
in 1893. By the 1920s the officer corps had
a greater number of Thais, and the sailors were
uniformly of local origin.
Dhonburi under construction at
Kawasaki, Kobe, 1938.
“I was told by residents,” reads
an unnamed American naval intelligence officer’s
report from 1920, “that the Navy was
considered inefficient, badly trained and
not prepared for the emergencies of war.”
Things began to improve afterwards, though
the Army continued to receive preferential
treatment. The Navy bought a used destroyer
from the British in 1920, and a used sloop
in 1923. The next year the Siamese ordered
a small armored gunboat from the British Elswick
yard, named Ratanakosindra. She was
an odd-looking little ship, displacing just
900 tons and carrying two six-inch guns in
turrets forre and aft. Though she looked much
like the British coastal monitors of the Great
War, she was designed for operations on the
open sea and though she had a low freeboard
she also had a raised forecastle.
Pleased with Ratanakosindra, the
Navy ordered a sister ship, Sukhothai,
in 1928. These ships formed the core of the
Siamese Navy when Col. Luang Phibul Songkhram
seized power in 1935. The Army’s influence
had been growing for the last several years
of King Pradjadhipok’s reign, and defense
spending increased considerably. Already in
1934, the Navy had ordered a class of nine
small torpedo boats from an Italian shipyard.
The 318-ton Puket class were small versions
of the Italian Navy’s 600-ton Spica-class
torpedo boats, themselves miniaturized versions
of the Freccia-class destroyers. Puket and her sisters carried the same armament
as Spica, sacrificing some speed and endurance
to do so.
Soon after his installation as military
dictator, Songkhram told the Navy to draw
up a four-year building program. The Navy
should be ready for coastal operations in
the Gulf of Siam, aimed at protecting the
seaward flank of an invasion of French Indo-China.
The Siamese placed the program up for international
bidding, attracting offers from Italy, Germany,
Britain, the Netherlands and Japan, awarding
most of the contracts to Japanese yards.
Two enlarged versions of Ratanakosindra formed the program’s centerpiece. Sri
Ayuthia, laid down at Kawasaki in 1937,
and Dhonburi, which followed a year
later, displaced 2,265 tons and carried four
eight-inch guns in a pair of turrets fore
and aft. They resembled contemporary Japanese
warships, with their deck elegantly curved
from the prow aft in place of the “stepped”
forecastle common in Western ship designs.
Both were delivered in the summer of 1938; Dhonburi completing in just seven months
— ahead of schedule and under budget.
Dhonburi returns the fire of the French
imperialists, Koh-Chang, 1941. Royal Thai
Along with the “battleships,”
as Songkhram always called them, the Navy
ordered a pair of 1,400-ton sloops from Uraga
Dock in Japan for use as training ships during
peacetime and escorts in war. Three 110-ton
coast guard vessels (equipped to serve as
slow torpedo boats in wartime) from Ishikawajima
in Japan and two 370-ton minelayers built
in Italy completed the surface component.
The Thais also ordered four small coastal
submarines from Mitsubishi.
Along with the new equipment, the Thais
also constructed a modern new naval base at
Sittahip, about 200 kilometers southeast of
Bangkok. The Thais also made heavy use of
the roadstead at Koh-Chang, closer to the
border with Indochina.
The battleships made a good impression on
the dictator, who approved Navy requests for
more new ships. After some discussion over
the merits of a second pair of Sri Ayuthia-class
ships, those wishing to develop more “blue
water” capability won out and the Navy
ordered a pair of small cruisers in the Italian
yard Cantieri dell Adriatico in 1938, which
had built the torpedo boats and minelayers.
The Siamese had been much more satisfied with
the mechanical reliability of its Italian-built
ships, and this probably played the major
role in steering the limited funds toward
the cruiser program. Four more small submarines
from Mitsubishi were authorized at the same
time, but orders had not been placed when
a war scare with France broke out in 1940.
As designed, the two cruisers had a standard
displacement of 4,300 tons, eventually rising
to 5,500 tons. They were “export”
versions of the Itaian Montecuccoli class
light cruisers; the after boiler rooms and
one gun turret were deleted from the Italian
shp’s design, creating a profile that
definitely resembles a crude cut-and-paste
change to Montecuccoli’s elegant
shape. The Siamese cruisers would have six
six-inch guns and a speed of 30 knots (compared
to eight big guns and 37 knots for the Italian
original), but at a price for the pair much less than a
The yard laid down both ships in 1939, and
when Italy entered the Second World War construction
continued as long as Siam made her payments.
Not until December 1941 did the Royal Italian
Navy take over the ships, redesigning them
as anti-aircraft cruisers but never completing
the work. The Germans seized the incomplete
hulls in September 1943 and appear to have
actually done some work on them before scuttling
them in the general orgy of vandalism that
accompanied their retreat from Italy.
Despite a promising beginning, Siam’s
fleet expansion met a sudden and inglorious
end in January 1941, when a smaller French flotilla
surprised the Siamese at Koh-Chang roads. The
French badly damaged both coast defense battleships
and sank several of the torpedo boats, suffering
little damage in return. Thailand would not
begin to rebuild her fleet for many years, and
the ships built in the 1930s continued in service
until the early 1970s. Dhonburi was relegated
to service as a stationary training ship after
the Koh-Chang action; apparently much of her
damage was never fully repaired. Sri Ayuthia was bombed and sunk by the Royal Thai Air Force
in 1951 after a small group of naval officers
kidnapped the Prime Minister and took him aboard
the ship. A bomb passed through the room housing
the captive, who was unhurt, but started a fire
in the engine room that could not be put out.
Dhonburi’s conning tower
and forward turret, today a memorial
at the Royal Thai Naval Academy.
The Siamese Navy appears in Second World War at Sea: Java Sea. Both of the armored gunboats and both coast defense ships are there, plus the projected second set of coast defense ships and the light cruisers. Plus you get the torpedo boats and gunboats, and the surprisingly modern air force. They fight the French at Koh-Chang, and against and alongside the Japanese in other operations that could have taken place, but did not.
You can order Java Sea right here.
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published a great many books, games and articles on historical subjects; people are saying that some of them are actually good.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children, and his Iron Dog, Leopold.
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