By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
Exhausted by the First World War, most industrial
nations stopped building new warships in its
aftermath. Only the United States and Japan
truly continued the arms race, with new programs
of battleships and light cruisers at the heart
of their programs.
Both nations intended their cruisers to
perform dual roles: to scout ahead of the
battle fleet, and to support destroyer flotillas
in action. The American Omaha class and Japanese “5,500-ton type”
sacrificed protection for speed and firepower.
Japan built 14 of the cruisers in three groups;
three more were cancelled when the Washington
Naval Treaties were signed in 1922.
As built, the cruisers of the Kuma, Nagara and Sendai classes carried seven 5.5-inch
guns, a pair of 3.1-inch anti-aircraft guns
and eight torpedo tubes. The first group of
five cruisers carried 21-inch torpedoes; the
two follow-on classes upgraded to 24-inch
tubes. They had great speed at 36 knots, and
all of them had mixed oil- and coal-burning
The Imperial Navy introduced a powerful new
torpedo in 1934, the Type 93 oxygen-fueled
model. It carried an enormous warhead and
had a great theoretical range. In practice,
this long range would not prove a great tactical
advantage because the torpedo was not a guided
weapon and could not be aimed any better than
its short-ranged counterparts. But the Japanese
had high hopes for it as an equalizer against
the larger American battle line. The Naval
General Staff planned to open a night action
against the Americans by launching hundreds
of Type 93 torpedoes in a single salvo; this
would hopefully help make up for poor accuracy
at very long ranges. The reduced American
force would then be engaged at dawn by the
untouched Japanese battle line to produce
a decisive victory.
Sendai-class light cruiser Jintsu,
A great part of this killing blow would be
delivered by a squadron of torpedo cruisers,
ships converted to carry dozens of tubes.
But not all Japanese flag officers signed
on to the tactic, and bureaucratic infighting
developed over the concept. Not until 1941
did the torpedo faction win approval for the
conversions, and then only for four of the
oldest light cruisers in the Navy inventory,
a number soon reduced to two. As part of the
same program, the Akizuki-class anti-aircraft
cruisers then starting construction would
be completed as large destroyers, with a bank
of four torpedo tubes added amidships.
On 25 August 1941, the light cruiser Kitakami went to Sasebo Navy Yard for conversion to
a torpedo cruiser, while her sister Oi went to Maizuru Navy Yard for the same work.
Each ship landed three of her 5.5-inch guns
and their 21-inch torpedo tubes, and large
sponsons were constructed on either side of
the ship. Ten banks each with four 24-inch
torpedo tubes were placed on the sponsons,
giving each ship a total of 40 tubes. Some
sources claim they were designed for 44 tubes,
but this appears to be inaccurate.
Both ships re-entered service in November,
and early the next month sailed with the Combined
Fleet’s batteship force as part of their
screen. In January, Rear Admiral Matome Ugaki
filed a report criticizing the conversions,
stating that the ships had been rebuilt without
a sound doctrine for their use having been
determined. Ugaki’s words apparently
resonated with the Combined Fleet command,
and the torpedo cruisers dropped out of planners’
thoughts. For the Midway operation, they again
sailed with the fleet’s oldest battleships.
Soon after their return from the Midway operation,
the two cruisers were earmarked for conversion
to fast transports. Ugaki had pointed out
that the cruisers did not have the fire control
for such a huge number of tubes and would
be reduced to firing massive salvoes at vague
groupings of enemy ships. If fired at long
range as the 1934 tactics advised, most of
these extremely expensive weapons would be
expended for no result. The admiral had served
as Oi’s gunnery officer and appears
to have felt that his old ship had been denied
her place in Japan’s front-line forces
in pursuit of an ill-conceived experiment.
After their second rebuilding, each cruiser
now carried two Daihatsu landing craft and
32 torpedo tubes (some sources state 24).
They also received a serious upgrade of their
light anti-aircraft armament. Through the
rest of 1942 and all of 1943, they transported
troops to Japan’s far-flung outposts
in the Solomons, New Guinea and the Andaman
Islands. In January 1944 a British submarine
hit Kitakami in the stern with two
torpedoes. She barely made Singapore and remained
there under repair until June.
Returned to service, Kitakami escorted
a tanker to the Philippines but began to take
on water from her repaired sections. Drydocked
at Cavite, she underwent more repairs but
the workers could not fix all of her leaks.
She returned to Sasebo Navy Yard in August
and remained there in drydock until January
1945. Shipyard engineers recommended removing
all but two of her boilers because of the
damage, considering it uneconomical to return
her to high speed. She was therefore rebuilt
as a carrier for eight Kaiten suicide mini-submarines.
Armament now became four five-inch dual-purpose
guns, 67 25mm anti-aircraft guns, depth charges,
and new air- and surface-serach radars, plus
a 30-ton crane removed from the seaplane carrier Chitose. She could now make 23 knots.
Fuel shortages limited Kitakami to
brief training missions, and she was lightly
damaged in July, 1945 by American carrier
aircraft attacking the Kure Navy Yard. She
was surrendered to the Americans in September
and used as a repair ship for vessels used
to return Japanese troops to the home islands.
In 1946 she was towed to Nanao and scrapped.
Oi, meanwhile, continued transport
service for some weeks after her sister’s
damage but in March 1944 finally received
orders that would lead her into action. She
would join four other cruisers and three destroyers
on Operation SA-1, a raid into the Indian
Ocean against enemy merchant shipping. The
Japanese had just one success, when the heavy
cruiser Tone sank the freighter Behar on 9 March. The Japanese massacred her
For the next several weeks Oi moved
troops and ammunition back and forth in the
East Indies. On 19 July the American submarine Flasher hit her with two torpedoes,
only one of which exploded. A second spread
missed entirely, but Oi had been fatally
damaged and sank slowly by the stern.
The two cruisers have fascinated players
of naval wargames for decades, but as weapons
systems they have to be counted as failures.
Ugaki had it right. The huge Type 93 torpedoes
were far too expensive to waste in massed
fire, and the old, lightly-built cruisers
could not have hoped to survive in combat
long enough to fire all 40 in careful spreads
of four each.
The two ships appear as torpedo cruisers
in our Midway Deluxe Edition game.
In game terms they are imposing warships with
a dozen torpedo factors. The games account
for Ugaki’s critique without the need
for special rules: Ships are not allowed to
“split” their torpedo factors
to attack more than one target, meaning that
all 12 factors must be assigned to a single
American ship, a definite case of overkill.
The ships of 1942 are not those of the modern era; they
don't have the data management capability
to engage multiple targets. Seeing this overkill coming, the American
player will take special pains to sink the
cruisers before they can get close enough
to a high-value target for a torpedo run.
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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.