Japan's Super Battleships
Part Two: Giants at War
by Arrigo Velicogna
Part One concluded with the two giant battleships Yamato and Musashi slipping into the water and preparing for war. Actually the war had already started when Yamato joined the fleet. We also discussed the reasons behind their construction and their design. But now we have to talk about the two giants as actual warships.
Many readers may be familiar with two images: the sinking of Musashi in San Bernardino Strait and of Yamato en route to Okinawa. We have been told this was because the two battleships were obsolete, airpower was supreme and they were just two relics of the past. But that is really what happened?
I do not think so, and interestingly enough not even William Halsey held this idea. After Leyte he said surface forces at sea cannot be stopped by airpower alone. So what was the real contribution of our two behemoths to the Japanese efforts during the war?
When Yamato entered service she was used as Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto's personal command ship, usually moored in a safe place away from danger, hardly a fitting role for the most powerful ship afloat. She sailed for the big Midway operation, but played a secondary role, actually being out with the fleet and forced to keep radio silence her involvement in the operation was certainly detrimental. Yamamoto was forced to relinquish any command function to his subordinate leaders in other task groups without having any effect on the battle. Certainly Yamamoto tried to surge ahead with his battleships in the hope to lure Spruance in a surface engagement, but the American admiral refused the bait. The main battle fleet thus played no role in the operation.
After Midway Yamato was uninvolved in combat for several months, used as a “palace” for Yamamoto and his officers first at the anchorage in Harashima, then in Truk, the major naval base in the Caroline islands. But this is not the whole story.
Yamato was actually alerted for deployment to the South Pacific area immediately after the Americans landed on Guadalcanal, but she never took part in any action even though at least once Combined Fleet staffers proposed sending her down “The Slot” to bombard Henderson Field.
An almost complete lack of fuel in the area hampered Yamato and the entire Imperial Navy. While the Japanese war machine’s oil shortage problems during World War Two are a matter of common knowledge, the fact that Truk had no oil storage facilities is not so widely known. Several authors have already tackled this topic, and sending out the Yamato was certainly not feasible from a logistical point of view. According to Agawa Hiroyuki in "The Reluctant Admiral," there was not enough fuel in all of Japan to meet the needs of the fleet. According to the same author, in the period of the Guadalcanal campaign fuel consumption had reached 10,000 tons per day. Fuel reserves at Kure were down to 65,000 tons.
At the tactical level, despite all the emphasis put on the atoll during pre-war planning, the reality was that Truk was nothing more than an anchorage. Ammunition storage facilities were available, but nothing more: no repair facilities, no fuel storage. Fuel had to be provided by oilers. When the Combined Fleet was deployed to Truk in reply to the landing at Guadalcanal, every available oiler had to be redirected to Truk to provide support. And in some instances the oilers reached the atoll empty. On October 17th when the tanker Kenyo Maru reached Truk empty, both Yamato and the older battleship Mutsu had to transfer 4500 tons of oil each to the tanker to enable it to refuel other vessels. Yamato had a bunker capacity of 6300 tons, which left her almost without fuel after topping off the tanker. An additional remark is contained in the diary of Admiral Ugaki Matome. Both battleships while at anchor at Truk were not outfitted with anti-torpedo nets to avoid hampering other ships refuelling from them. In the end the situation in the South Pacific was one where the Imperial Navy was operating at a barely minimal logistic capacity.
While the situation says a lot about the nature of Japanese planning for war, it does not reflect the utility, or lack of it, of super battleships. The fact was that the entire campaign was collapsing around its logistics.
Fleet in Being
After the conclusion of the bloody struggle for Guadalcanal, Yamato was replaced by Musashi as headquarters of the Combined Fleet at Truk. In May she departed to return home to deliver the ashes of Admiral Yamamoto. Then she stayed in Japan for a brief dry-dock period and some refit; she received a radar set and some increases to her armor and her antiaircraft armament. To compensate for this increase in weight, fuel capacity was reduced. In July the ship received the visit of the German naval attaché I have already described.
Musashi remained at Truk acting as static HQ for the new commander of the Combined Fleet, Admiral Koga Mineichi. In August the big ship was employed in a first for battleship, acting as fast transport to ferry troops and supplies to Truk. In September Yamato led the Combined Fleet in a sortie to reply to the American carrier raids against Tarawa and Makin, but no contact was made. When signal intelligence warned Koga of the possibility of another carrier raid against Wake Island the entire Combined Fleet including both Yamato and Musashi sortied. Again no contact was made, but those operations set the pace for the next months. The two behemoths were sent to chase phantom contacts or used as fast transports. In October Musashi participated in an abortive sortie destined to relieve Attu in the Aleutians, but again the operation was called off.
Both ships acted as transport to and from Truk, ferrying both supplies and troops. During one of those runs, on December 25th 1943, Yamato was hit by a torpedo from the submarine Skate. The damage was almost catastrophic: 3000 tons of water flooded the ship. The damaged shocked the Navy because it exposed several glaring defects in the battleship’s underwater protection. The hit happened inside the citadel area, just under number 3 turret, and the armor belt unhinged at the point of the impact due to faulty welding. In addition defective joints in a longitudinal bulkhead permitted water to flood turret number 3’s magazine. In short the citadel was proved less than impenetrable.
A crippled Yamato returned to Truk for emergency repairs and then moved to Japan for proper refit. A new project to increase anti-torpedo protection and correct the armor belt defects was put forward. A new 45-degree sloped plate was to be fitted all around the citadel and 5000 tons of steel had to be added to forward and aft compartments to increase compartmentalization and reduce empty spaces, but lack of time, resources and the increase in weight and draft forced the Navy to settle for a much less ambitious plan adding the sloped armour plate only in the damaged areas. After repairs a full refit was carried out in February. The side-mounted 155mm turrets were unloaded and antiaircraft armament increased while a new radar set was installed.
While Yamato was in drydock the same fate befell her sister. During the night of March 29th 1944, USS Tunny put a torpedo into her bow. Flooding again totalled 3000 tons of water. After repairing the damage in Japan, Musashi underwent a refit similar to Yamato. Antiaircraft armament was increased substantially at the expense of secondary guns. The two side 155mm turrets were removed also from her and replaced with more 25mm guns for air defense.
The change in weaponry corresponded also to a change in doctrine. After Midway and Guadalcanal the Imperial Navy did a thorough review of its doctrine and started to change its underlining concepts. The emphasis in the decisive torpedo and gunnery battle that shaped pre-war thinking was replaced by a more flexible approach where the battleships were supposed to perform more roles. Now their actions were to be coordinated with carriers. Fast battleships had to act in an integrated force with the carriers. They were supposed to provide both surface and antiaircraft protection for the carriers and to act as a forward screen both to attract enemy airpower and to be ready to engage enemy forces in surface battle. The concept had been first introduced during the Battle of Santa Cruz and seemed to have been considered successful because in all further sorties battleships and carriers were operating in an integrated fashion and not in widely dispersed groups like at Midway.
Send Yamato into battle! Pick up Second World War at Sea: Midway today.