Battle Cruiser Kongo
Following the launch of Britain’s Dreadnought, the cost of new warship construction soared. The Imperial Japanese Navy at first reacted with frugality, resulting in several classes of new capital ships decidedly less capable than those built by other powers.
After buying their capital ships from foreign, chiefly British, shipyards, the Japanese had begun to buy local with the Satsuma-class semi-dreadnoughts of 1905 and Tsukuba-class armored cruisers laid down the same year, all in Japanese yards. Both classes proved disappointing, with compromises made in their design and construction, and the Japanese compounded the problem by ordering follow-on classes to similar designs before the problems became apparent. New British designs – the battleship Dreadnought and battle cruiser Invincible – made the Japanese ships obsolete before they hit the water.
To reverse that trend, the Japanese returned to their British suppliers. Armstrong offered a ship with eight 12-inch guns, which the Japanese rejected. The Japanese knew the British had adopted the 13.5-inch gun for their new dreadnoughts and battle cruisers, and that the Americans would arm their New York class battleships with 14-inch guns. A Vickers design with six 14-inch guns was also rejected, leading to a new proposal drafted by George Thurston, the firm’s lead designer, for a battle cruiser equivalent of the Turkish battleship Reshadieh he had just finished designing.
Haruna fitting out at Kawasaki’s Kobe shipyard, October 1914.
Two variants were apparently offered, one with twelve 12-inch guns in four triple turrets and one with eight 14-inch guns in four twin turrets. Aware that the Royal Navy had rejected the triple turret on technical grounds, the Japanese chose the 14-inch variant and ordered one ship to be constructed at Vickers, with three sisters to be built in Japanese yards with substantial components provided by Vickers as well.
To secure the contract for Kongo, Vickers increased the kickbacks offered to Japanese purchasing officers from the usual 15 percent to a massive 25 percent, which the company of course recovered by adding the bribe to the ship’s final cost. Japanese officials pocketed 210,000 yen (silver yen, worth half a dollar each, an enormous sum at the time), and riots broke out when Japanese newspapers reported on the corrupt practice. The government fell, the prime minister (a Navy admiral) and navy minister were court-martialed and reduced in rank, and several procurement officers went to prison.
Kongo would be the last major warship built overseas for the Japanese, only partially because of the growing capacity of Japanese industry. After the payback scandals, Vickers was banned from receiving new contracts and the Japanese had no realistic choice but to build their battleships at home. The increased costs would hold the Fuso class of dreadnoughts to only two ships, with all materials including weapons produced in Japan.
Kongo, laid down at Vickers’ Barrow-in-Furness yard in January 1911, was completed in August 1913 and arrived in Japan in November. Her sister Hiei was laid down at Yokosuka Naval Arsenal in November 1911, completing in August 1914 and undertaking her first mission in October when she helped support the Japanese siege of Tsingtao.
Mitsubishi launched Kirishima at Nagasaki, December 1913.
Two more ships were laid down in private yards in March 1912, Kirishima at Mitsubishi in Nagasaki and Haruna at Kawasaki in Kobe. Both were completed in April 1915, but underwent lengthy trials periods before the Imperial Navy would accept them and they did not actually join the fleet for another year.
The new battle cruisers would be fast, with a designed speed of 27.5 knots. Their original power plant consisted of 36 coal-fired boilers with an oil spray, providing steam to two sets of turbines driving four shafts for 65,000 horsepower. Tiger, the British near-copy designed by Sir Philip Watts, made 28 knots on 70,000 horsepower.
Main armament consisted of eight 14-inch guns (356mm once Japan shifted to the metric system in 1917). Vickers built the initial heavy guns for Kongo and some weapons for the other three, to a Japanese design which turned out to be a very fine weapon with outstanding range and accuracy. Kure Arsenal and Japan Steel Works produced most of the guns, which would also be fitted to the Fuso- and Ise-class battleships.
The turrets were copies of the British Mark I turret for twin 15-inch guns then under development, suitably re-sized for the slightly smaller gun. The turrets had a far better layout that previous battle cruisers, with X turret (third from the bow) superfiring over Y turret (the aft-most), though due to the great space between X turret and the stern its guns could not be fired directly aft at less than 10 degrees’ elevation.
For defense against torpedo-launching enemy destroyers, the ships carried sixteen 6-inch guns in armored casemate mountings, eight of them along each side. These were a Vickers design, apparently produced only for the Japanese (Vickers built a slightly different 6-inch gun for the battle cruiser Tiger and the Iron Duke class battleships). On the main deck, unshielded 3-inch guns gave further protection against enemy small craft – eight of them on Kongo, sixteen on her sisters. Eight torpedo tubes rounded out the ship’s arsenal.
Belt armor varied from six to eight inches in thickness, providing slightly better protection than the Lion class battle cruisers then under construction for the Royal Navy, or Kongo’s near-sister Tiger. That was considerably less than contemporary battleships (Fuso, the next Japanese battleship, would have 12 inches of belt armor). The turrets had nine inches of protection, while the deck armor was quite thin.
Hiei fitting out at Yokosuka Navy Yard, September 1913.
Japan turned down repeated pleas from the British Admiralty to either sell the four battle cruisers to the Royal Navy, lease them for the duration of the Great War, or deploy them to the North Sea with Japanese crews under Japanese command. The Japanese turned down all of these requests, and the four ships served in the Pacific. Kongo and Hiei escorted convoys and hunted German cruisers in the war’s first weeks. Either would have been well capable of sinking the entire German East Asia Cruiser Squadron on her own, but they never made contact with the elusive enemy. None of the quartet fired any shots in anger during the Great War.
All four were retained by the Imperial Japanese Navy under the Washington Naval Conference’s limits, including Haruna which had been laid up in reserve after A turret exploded during a training accident. They would be heavily reconstructed in the late 1920’s, and again just a few years later to emerge as fast battleships intended to escort carrier task forces. But that’s another story.
Kongo appears in Great War at Sea: Cruiser Warfare, while all four battle cruisers see action in Great War at Sea: Rise of the Dragon.
You can order Cruiser Warfare right here.
You can order Rise of the Dragon 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 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. Leopold needs no ad latus assistance.