Watching the US Secretary of State arriving in Japan last week to discuss the increasingly troubling military posturing of North Korea, I was pondering the curious turn of history and thinking about a time when the rising power of Imperial Japan viewed the military might of the USA with equal suspicion and jealousy as the regime in Pyongyang now does.
In an age when the capital battleship rather than the intercontinental ballistic missile was the ultimate expression of military power, Japan set out to achieve not only parity but ultimately superiority over the US Navy in their quest to dominate the Pacific.
Under the terms of the Washington Naval Treaty drawn up in 1922 in order to curtail the naval arms race which had once more broken out in the aftermath of the First World War, the five signatories; Britain, France, Italy, Japan and the USA, had agreed to impose maximum limits on the displacement and armament of battleships, cruisers and aircraft carriers and the overall size of their fleets. In adhering to the treaty the signatories were obliged to scrap some existing warships and curtail the construction of others or convert partially constructed battleships and cruisers into aircraft carriers.
US warships being scrapped under the terms of the Washington Treaty
By the mid 1930’s Japanese naval strategists had become convinced that their treaty obligations consigned them to certain defeat should they find themselves in a war with the United States and believed that the treaty must be abandoned. One man who argued against this school of thought was the future mastermind of the Pearl Harbour attack Admiral Yamamoto, who believed that the industrial might of America was such that Japan could never hope to out-build her naval rival and that Japan should not antagonise America by breaking the treaty but rather should stay within its provisions and look to even the odds with the US through strategy by landing a knock-out blow when the time came…
Yamamoto was outvoted and by 1936 an increasingly belligerent Japan had failed to turn up at the London conference which had aimed to extend the provisions of the Washington Treaty. Instead Japan now launched an ambitious building programme in which it intended to construct the largest battleships ever seen, armed with the largest guns yet created. The Yamato class was born.
According to the terms of the Washington Treaty the main armament of a capital battleship could not exceed 16 inches in diameter. Japan intended the construction of six battleships armed with a main battery of nine 18 inch guns. These were to be succeeded in turn by a further four so-called Super Yamato class ships which would carry 20 inch guns. It was envisioned that these ten leviathans would all be commissioned by 1946, by which time the US, having stuck to the rules of the treaty and constructed nothing larger than a 16 incher, would find itself hopelessly outgunned in any encounter with the Imperial Japanese Navy.
Yamato under construction
Such grand plans amongst the naval strategists however made little allowance for the stark reality that was soon to intrude upon the Japanese warship programme. The war which broke out in 1941 with Yamamoto’s brilliant first strike against the US Pacific fleet, came five years too early for the Japanese planners, with not ten but only two of the planned battleships having been launched. Neither the Yamato, which was commissioned nine days after the outbreak of war nor her sister ship Musashi, commissioned on 5th August 1942, were ready to take the fight to the US navy. The Japanese had made unfeasibly long term plans in a world that was changing fast. The aircraft carriers which had been fortuitously absent when the attack on Pearl Harbour came from out of a clear blue sky, would turn out to be the crucial weapon in a conflict in which air power - not giant battleships - would provide the decisive edge.
This was a reality reflected in the fate of the third of the Yamato class battleships, Shinano, which following the disastrous defeat at Midway, found itself converted into a much needed aircraft carrier. A fourth Yamato class was abandoned in mid construction and the none of the vaunted Super Yamatos ever made it off of the drawing board.
Battleship Yamato in 1941
Yamato and Musashi then, were destined to be the largest and most heavily armed battleships ever constructed; the magnificent culmination of an era that was already fading. They were the last of the giants; born too late into a world at war that had already moved on to a new way of fighting in which great sea battles would be decided by swarms of carrier borne aircraft over even greater ranges than their colossal 18 inch guns could shoot. Floating follies though they may have been, what magnificent ships they were.
A Yamato class battleship was 862 feet in length with a displacement of 65,000 tons. It had a top speed of 27 knots and a range of over 7000 nautical miles. It carried a crew of 2,400 men. The main battery comprised nine 18 inch guns housed in three turrets, each of which weighed more than a typical destroyer of the period. The ships bristled with an array of six 6 inch secondary guns, a further twenty four 5 inch anti-aircraft guns and by the end of the war they had been fitted with one hundred and fifty machine guns. They also carried seven aircraft which could be launched from their two catapults.
The main guns could fire a shell weighing a little under 3000 pounds a distance of twenty five miles. Yamato and Musashi were also equipped with anti-aircraft shells for their big guns known as beehives. These burst in the air releasing a deadly cloud of steel splinters.
Musashi's forward battery of 18 inch guns
Yamato and Musashi were constructed in closely guarded secrecy at Kure and Nagasaki respectively. The ships were roofed over and screened from prying eyes and the main guns were referred to as ‘sixteen inch specials’ to mislead the intelligence services of rival nations. The true size of the guns was not known by the allies until the end of the war.
These colossal weapons would have a long wait however to be fired in anger. Yamato put to sea in time to join in the Midway campaign but remained beyond the fringes of the battle whilst the Japanese carrier fleet met with disaster.
As the Japanese counter-attacking forces converged on Guadalcanal, Yamato languished at Truk Atol in the Caroline Islands, with neither the ammunition or the fuel being available for her to play a part in the coming struggle.
Here Musashi joined her in February 1943. Neither ship however would see combat as the tide of the war continued to flow inexorably against Japan. Spending long periods confined to port either in Truk or back in Japan, the ships undertook the occasional transportation role but otherwise were deemed either too precious to be risked or simply too fuel thirsty to embark on long operations. In spite of these mundane duties, both ships nevertheless fell prey to the attacks of US submarines.
Yamato and Musashi in Truk Atol 1943
On Christmas Day 1943 as she was steaming towards Truk, Yamato was sighted by the submarine USS Skate which successfully torpedoed her. The impact on her aft starboard quarter caused 3000 tons of water to flood the hull but the Yamato, which was designed to be virtually unsinkable, was able to reach port and effect repairs before returning to Japan. Three months later, whilst en route from Palau to Kure, Musashi was torpedoed by the submarine USS Tunny. The impact tore a nineteen foot hole in the bow and Musashi limped back to her home port for extensive repairs and upgrades.
Both ships were back in action in time to join in the ill-fated attempt to thwart the US landings on Saipan which led to the disastrous losses of aircraft and carriers in the Battle of the Philippine Sea, but once again with matters decided by airpower at long range, the Japanese battleships did not fire a shot in anger. The time had come however for the decisive showdown which the Japanese command had always hoped would allow them to bring the superior firepower of Yamato and Musashi into play. As US forces closed in on the Philippines, the full might of the Imperial Japanese Navy was being prepared to be thrown against the invaders.
Yamato and Musashi joined Admiral Kurita’s Centre Force for Operation Sho Go. Their task was to force a passage through the San Bernardino Strait and fall upon the US invasion fleet in Leyte Gulf. A second attacking force would approach from the south whilst the surviving aircraft carriers would approach from the north. With almost all of their fighters lost however, the carriers posed no threat to the American forces but rather served as a diversion intended to draw Admiral Halsey’s powerful Third Fleet away from the vulnerable invasion forces, leaving them easy prey for Kurita’s mighty predators.
Yamato bomb impact during Battle of Sibuyan Sea
As they steamed through the Sibuyan Sea on 24th October 1944, Centre Force was spotted by a scouting plane from the carrier USS Intrepid. As the American carriers scrambled their dive bombers and torpedo bombers in the direction of Centre Force, the Japanese ships soon came under attack by wave after wave of aircraft. Yamato took a bomb through the foredeck which ruptured the hull allowing the sea to flood in, although once again the toughness of her design allowed her to remain afloat. The Yamato class battleships were designed with over 1100 watertight compartments in order to minimise flooding resulting from bomb and torpedo impacts. Yamato steamed on. Musashi however was less fortunate.
Despite adopting the novel defensive tactic of firing her 18 inch guns directly into the water to create huge waterspouts with the intention of knocking the low-flying torpedo bombers out of the sky, Musashi was eventually hit by 20 torpedoes and 17 bombs. The carnage aboard the ship was unimaginable. The greater the damage grew, the more Musashi slowed and listed and she was gradually left behind by the other ships of Centre Force as they turned about and headed away from the conflict zone. Finally the order to abandon ship was given before the crippled, blazing hulk of Musashi slipped beneath the waves, taking 1,023 of her complement with her to the bottom.
The sinking of Musashi
Halsey now assumed that Centre Force had been driven off and set out with his powerful fleet of carriers and battleships to hunt down and destroy the carriers of the Northern Force, not realising that these were paper tigers and that the Centre Force remained the principle threat. Kurita meanwhile swung his remaining ships around and under cover of darkness successfully negotiated the San Bernardino Strait.
On the following day the escort carriers and destroyers of the US flotilla known as Taffy 3; cruising off the island of Samar, whose role was to support the landings rather than engage in combat with the cream of the Japanese navy, were horrified to find the giant battleships of Centre Force steaming towards them.
Nevertheless, in one of the most celebrated naval engagements of the Second World War the ‘tin can’ destroyers of Taffy 3 boldly attacked the Japanese fleet; steaming into a hail of massive shells, zig-zagging to avoid being hit until they were able to close within torpedo range. The destroyer USS Johnston succeeded in blowing the bow completely off of the heavy cruiser Kumano before succumbing to murderous shell fire. Her captain Ernest Evans received a posthumous Congressional Medal of Honour and the ship’s company as a whole received a Presidential Unit Citation for their bravery. Meanwhile USS Samuel B Roberts made for the Yamato and launched her torpedoes at the giant warship. In the naval equivalent of a Jack Russell seeing off a Bengal Tiger, the Yamato turned about and fled from the conflict zone in an effort to outrun the torpedoes. Having succeeded, she kept right on going. The Samuel B Roberts was less fortunate, also being sunk by shell fire from the other ships of Centre Force. Finally the combined heroism of the little destroyers and waves of aerial attacks from the carrier borne aircraft of Taffy 3 and the nearby groups Taffy 1 & 2, persuaded Admiral Kurita to withdraw.
Yamato retired to Truk and thence to Hiroshima; surviving a submarine attack en route, which sent the Battleship Kongo to the bottom of the Pacific. Whilst refitting in Hiroshima she was struck by a bomb during an air raid. Finally repaired, the Yamato was sent out once more, this time sailing to her doom. Her mission, Operation Ten Go, was to fight her way through the US naval forces around the island of Okinawa, run herself aground and thereafter to use her huge guns to attack the US forces landing on the island.
In the event Yamato never made it that far. On 7th April 1945 Yamato and her escorts were spotted steaming towards Okinawa. Four hundred aircraft from 11 carriers were sent up against the approaching Japanese fleet. With no air support of their own, the Japanese ships were helpless under the onslaught. A dozen bombs and seven torpedoes struck the Yamato in a two hour period. Finally the ship was torn apart by a series of massive explosions and sank rapidly. 2,747 of her crewmen lost their lives. 269 survived.
It was the final word in the end of an era. The greatest battleships ever constructed had both been destroyed by attack from the air. They were marvels of construction but the time for such magnificent beasts was past and in the end they served as colossal monuments to an outdated mode of warfare, sacrificed with terrible loss of life in an ultimately futile cause.
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Sinking of the Yamato