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Java Sea:
Siam’s Navy
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
November 2021

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 Naval Museum.

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 single Montecuccoli.

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.


Dhonburi’s conning tower and forward turret, today a memorial at the Royal Thai Naval Academy.

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.

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.

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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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