The Battleship Kongō

The Japanese battleship Kongō, 金剛, a ship with a magical name and an important history, was budgeted in 1910 and ordered from the British shipbuilder Vickers in January 1911. This was a significant act in an era of important shipbuilding. Britain itself was in a great arms race with Germany.

The Dreadnought of 1905, with its speed, size, and firepower, had made all earlier battleships obsolete. The Dreadnought had been inspired by the lessons of the great battle of Tsushima, the first real naval battle with modern warships, in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05. That war itself had been fought in part because of the alliance that had been struck between Britain and Japan in 1902. The alliance had secured Britain's possessions in the Pacific, so that it could concentrate on Germany. The benefit for Japan had been to neutralize France and Germany, isolating Russia. At the end of the Sino-Japanese War in 1895, the "Triple Intervention" of France, Germany, and Russia had robbed Japan of some of the spoils of victory against China. Japan intended to deprive Russia of what seemed to it ill gotten gains. (No one, except China itself, the United States, and British Liberals, really cared at the time that such powers should be grabbing parts of China.)

At the Battle of Tsushima, after the Russian Baltic Fleet had sailed all the way around the world, the Russian Admiral Rozhestvensky opened fire at 7,000 meters (4.4 miles). Admiral Tōgō returned fire at 6,400 meters (4.0 miles). Previously, naval battles had been fought at close quarters, and many warships in the late 19th century had been built with rams. But in the same era guns with longer barrels and slower burning powder had been developed, which meant longer ranges. The Japanese, with faster ships, were able to determine the range at Tsushima, and Tōgō kept it about about 5,500 meters (3.4 miles). The fleets did not come to close quarters until the Japanese wanted to deliver torpedo attacks or until the Russian ships were sinking or surrendering. Of the eleven Russian battleships, some obsolete, in the battle, seven were sunk and the other four were surrendered. The Japanese only lost three torpedo boats. The Russians lost 4,830 men, the Japanese only 110. This was an international sensation, both that a non-white country should defeat a European Great Power, but also that gunfire had proven so decisive. Naval tacticians never thought about ramming for fleet actions again.

The Dreadnought was Admiral John ("Jackie") Fisher's answer to Tsushima. The ship's large size carried a main battery of large caliber (12 inch) guns. This made finding the range of the target easier than it had been with the pre-Dreadnoughts, whose main batteries of mixed caliber resulted in confusion about which guns had fired the shells that might be seen falling near the target. To greater size and firepower, Fisher also added increased speed, up to 21 knots from the standard 18 knots of the pre-Dreadnoughts. This made it possible to move in and out of range at will. Since the tradition of the Royal Navy had always been to seek battle -- poor Admiral Byng had been shot for not doing so ("Pour encourager les autres," according to Voltaire) -- superior speed would always keep that option open.

Fisher's love of speed, however, led to something more: the "battle cruiser." The Invincible class were larger, faster, nearly as powerful (a main battery of 8 rather than 10 guns), but more lightly protected than the Dreadnought. Such a ship would prove useful in that it could run down and destroy any ship smaller than a battleship. This is what precisely was done to the German cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau in 1914. However, the visible power of the battle cruisers, as opposed to their invisible vulnerability, let to irresistable temptations to commit them against battleships. Speed, however, could not compensate for lack of armor when the large shells were aleady on their way. This meant tragedy at the Battle of Jutland in 1916, when several battle cruisers blew up catastrophically and sank.

The consensus of opinion seems to be that the "battle cruiser" was misconceived -- neither fish nor fowl: too much of a battleship to be relegated to cruiser tasks, but too little of a battleship to be hazarded in the line-of-battle. On the other hand, the battle cruiser, however flawed, was the unknowing ancestor of revolutions in naval warfare in World War II.

Although Britain had restarted its naval race with German by the innovation of the Dreadnought, the kind of thing that the Royal Navy had always tried to avoid, in 1909 it was on the verge of falling behind. Through the 1908 program, Britain had ordered 8 battleships and 4 battle cruisers. Germany, starting in 1906, had ordered 7 battleships, together with 2 battle cruisers. This set off a panic in Britain, resulting in the famous "We want eight" program of 1909. As Churchill put it, the hawkish Tories wanted 6 ships and the dovish Liberals 4, so they compromised by budgeting 8! Subsequently, 7 ships in 1910 and 5 each in 1911, 1912, & 1913, although a crushing expense, safely left the Germans astern. As it happened, the Germans, like the French many times before, were unwilling to hazard their fleet on a desperate battle, despite the fact that a victory would deliver England to their mercy and a loss, however grievous, would not greatly affect their strategic position. Thus, the majority of the German fleet, whose very construction had driven Britain into the arms of France and Russia, her previous traditional enemies, was in the end ignominously scuttled at Scapa Flow.

The Kongō was ordered by Japan as a battle cruiser. The Japanese had already been building their own battleships, but they wanted to study the latest British construction techniques before building sister ships to the Kongō in Japan -- the Hiei, Haruna, and Kirishima. The Kongō was to have 14 inch guns, larger and more conveniently arranged than in previous British battle cruisers, where a midships turret had been unable to fire directly fore or aft. The Kongō, indeed, was such an improved design that the Royal Navy followed suit by ordering the Tiger, similar to it in most respects, in the 1911 program. But the Tiger was the last battle cruiser until Fisher himself returned from retirement in 1914. Instead, the speed element of the battle cruisers was incorporated into proper battleships with the Queen Elizabeth class of the 1912 program. As the Kongō itself would in effect become, the Queen Elizabeth was a "fast battleship." With 15 inch guns, the Queen Elizabeths also carried the heaviest practical armament of World War I. Their worth both in enduring and in inflicting punishment was proven at Jutland.

The Kongō and her sister ships, like all armored cruisers, battlecruisers, and heavy cruisers, were named after mountains, yama, . Battleships proper were named for the old Japanese provinces, shū, , and light cruisers for rivers, kawa or gawa, -- though these terms are not part of the ship names (except on a map of Japan). Mt. Kongō, or Kongō-zan, , was a mountain not far south of the old capital of Japan at Nara. The word "kongō" was the Japanese pronuncation of the Chinese translation, , of vajra in Sanskrit. The vajra was originally the thunderbolt of the god Indra. Later in esoteric, Tantric, or "vajrayâna" Buddhism, the vajra symbolized supernatual powers that could be obtained through esoteric rituals. In the sexual symbolism of Tantrism, the "vajra" was also associated with the male organ. On the other hand, "kongō" could also mean a jewel or a diamond, or hard as a diamond -- in Chinese it is literally "metal [or gold] hard." So, appropriately, "Kongō" as the name of a ship could imply the great power of a thunderbolt or the hardness of a diamond.

The universally understood "lesson of Jutland" was that if a ship was going to fight like a battleship, it would have to be protected like a battleship. And if was also going to be fast also, then it was simply going to have to be very big. Britain incorporated these ideas in a program of four super battle cruisers for 1915. But of the four ships laid down, only the Hood was completed. When the United States began a program of war building in 1916, it ordered a total of six such battle cruisers, along with 12 more conventional (i.e. slower) battleships. Only three of those battleships were ever completed, the Colorado, Maryland, and West Virginia, with 16 inch guns. Japan itself conceived a large program, for which it had far smaller resources: 4 battleships and 4 battle cruisers were actually laid down.

What cut short all these ambitious programs was the end of the War and the sense that there was no useful purpose served by such an arms race. Britain, also, was all but bankrupt. Only the United States was in a position to complete its program in any kind of reasonable time, and neither Britain nor Japan really wanted that to happen. So the result was the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922. Britain would finish the Hood and build two new battleships, the Nelson and Rodney (since so many others were now obsolescent). The United States would finish the three battleships, and Japan would finish two battleships, the Nagato and Mutsu. The ratio of captial ships would be 5:5:3 for Britain, the United States, and Japan.

This was a very bad deal for Britain. In the simplest terms, Britain had three oceans to defend, the United States two, and Japan only one. Canada, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand, although with a small number of ships themselves, were still essentially British defense obligations. The Washington ratio already put Britain at a disastrous disadvantage for the kind of war that World War II would be -- with both German and Italian fleets to contain, and with the whole Mediterranean hotly contested, the Royal Navy would have next to nothing available to devote to a war with Japan also, which meant that Australia and New Zealand were left in the lurch. The sense of betrayal was intense, especially after all the blood spilled by the ANZAC forces in the Middle East. Britain's formal "two power standard" of 1889, which was that the Royal Navy should be at least as large as any other two navies, was thus ended by the Washington Treaty. That would have produced an 8:5:3 ratio, which should have been more than reasonable. But now, all British battleships older than the Queen Elizabeth ended up getting scrapped. This meant all the contemporaries of the Kongō and her sister ships. The United States retained some older ships, but even the Texas and New York (of 1910 like the Kongō) would never see fleet action again.

Nevertheless, it might not have made much difference in the long run. The older ships really were obsolete, and veterans of Jutland like the Iron Duke probably would only have been sent against Japan to be sunk. What was worse, perhaps, about the Washington Treaty was that it ended the British alliance with Japan. This was disappointing and even humilating to the Japanese, where the Imperial Family and the Navy liked to feel a special affinity with Britain -- however much the army and the form of government had actually looked to Prussian models. In the struggle for the soul of Japan, the Prussian side received a boost. Adding insult to injury was the rejection by the Allied conference at Versailles of a Japanese proposal for a statement of racial equality -- however racist the Japanese would behave with their own neighbors, they were tremendously sensitive about disparagement from the white world. (Ironically, Nazi Germany would selectively overlook its own racism to embrace a Japanese alliance.) So, after insulting and slighting Japan, Britain then foolishly agreed to build no naval fortifications east of Singapore! This may have been seen as an act of good faith (or economy), but it would encourage aggression once Japanese isolation turned into real nastiness.

Deep in the Washington Naval Treaty was the hidden seed of the future. The United States and Japan would not need to completely scrap all the hulls they had been building. Instead, they could each use two of them to build aircraft carriers. This was a way to strike a balance with Britain. As it happened, when Fisher returned to the Admiralty in 1914, he immediately sought to indulge himself by ordering no less than five battle cruisers. Two turned out to be reasonable candidates to be used as battleships, the Repulse and the Renown (although the Repulse was ignominously sunk, with the Prince of Wales, by Japanese aircraft on 10 December 1941), but the other three were virtual parodies of Fisher's ideas, so over-gunned and under-protected as to be really useless. The real extreme was the Furious, which was given a main battery of two experimental 18 inch guns, whose rate of fire was so slow, and whose damage to the ship when fired was so great, that the ship was like the result of some awful experiment in inbreeding -- the "Hapsburg lip" of the Royal Navy.

Eventually something useful was found for the Furious and her sisters, the Glorious and the Courageous. They were reconstructed as aircraft carriers. The British did all the experimentation in that regard, but then when the war was over, the Americans and Japanese were ready to join the club. Hence the Treaty provision for aircraft carriers; and the candidate hulls, naturally, were from the incomplete battle cruisers, which would be the fastest ships. The American and Japanese battle cruisers, however, would be much larger ships than the Furious, etc. They were of the same generation as the great Hood, not of Fisher's strange 1914 experiments.

Thus, the idea of the battle cruiser serendipitously provided the platform for something very different. The two American hulls selected, the Lexington and the Saratoga even inaugurated the tradition of naming United States aircraft carriers after battles [note].

The nomenclature would be expanded, at different times, by the precedent of some of the other planned battle cruiser names -- the Ranger and Constellation -- though today many American carriers are named after presidents and other persons, given the precedent by which one of the Midway class carriers was named for President Franklin D. Roosevelt after his death.

The hulls selected by Japan were those for the battle cruisers Amagi and Akagi. Like the Kongō and her sisters, these were named after mountains: "Akagi," , as noted in the movie Die Hard (1988), means "Red Castle." "Amagi" means "Heavenly Castle." They were intended to carry ten 16 inch guns at 30 knots.

The Akagi was completed in 1927 as the planned aircraft carrier, with slightly better speed, at 31 knots. Until its catastrophic loss at the Battle of Midway, the Akagi was the flagship of the carrier Strike Force. The ship also had a very unusual feature. Like many early carriers, it was originally finished with no superstructure above the flight deck. This was inconvenient, and a superstructure was added when the ship was reconstructed in 1936-38. The British had worked out this kind of thing and always put their superstructures on the starboard side of the ship, on the understanding the gyroscopic forces on spinning propellers would tend to pull aircraft to the left. This became traditional, even until today, when there are few propellers; but the Japanese figured that the forces were not so great. They experimented with some port side superstructures, figuring that it could be put to advantage to facilitate signalling when ships where in formation under radio silence. The Akagi had one of the port side superstructures.

An odd thing happened to the Amagi on its way to being an aircraft carrier. The great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 so damaged the ship on its stocks that it was discarded in favor of the hull of the battleship Kaga. The Kaga, named as a battleship for a Japanese province, was completed in 1928; but as a shorter, broader ship, reflecting its origin, it could only make 28.5 knots. This certainly seemed fast enough at the time, but the Lexington and Saratoga, completed about the same time on hulls that were 40 feet longer than even the Akagi, set a standard of 34 knots which later fleet carriers would have to match. Like the two American carriers, the Akagi and Kaga might justly be called the first aircraft carriers that were truly capital ships, and they formed the core of the first carrier forces such as would come into their own in World War II.

Here the Kongō and her sisters reënter the story. No other Japanese battleships were fast enough to keep up with the carriers. The Kongōs were built to make 27.5 knots; and when reconstructed in 1933-34, they were brought up to 30 knots. This made them the fastest battleships afloat, except for the Hood (31 knots) and the later American Iowa class (33 knots), which essentially had the form of colossal cruisers. The reconstruction modernized them in several respects, also producing what the Allies would later call the "pagoda" superstructure.

Battleships had always required masts for spotting, range finding, and fire control, but the need for height increased as possible ranges of targets increased and eyeballing was replaced by heavy optical equipment. It had also been a problem how to do this with a sturdy enough structure to withstand the weight of the equipment and not vibrate when under way at sea. The United States navy had tried strange looking "cage" masts. Heavy tripods were also tried, which is what the Kongō had when completed, and what the Arizona had been given when it was sunk at Pearl Harbor. The Royal Navy was the first to go simply for a solid superstructure, a "Queen Anne's castle." The Japanese tripods evolved into the equivalent, and the United States followed suit with the battleships built in the 1930's. So the "pagoda" was structurally nothing unique.

The Kongōs were fast enough to run with the carriers. This became a standard assignment for at least two ships at a time. Thus, the Hiei and Kirishima were with the Pearl Harbor Strike Force, and the Haruna and Kirishima were with the carriers at Midway. This created the pattern of the standard Task Force of the Pacific War, carriers plus screening ships and fast battleships. The slow battleships, like all the old American ships at 21 knots, were now hopelessly obsolete for fleet actions. The carriers set the pace.

Another thing, as it happened, that their speed enabled the Kongōs to do was run in under the cover of darkness, which for a long time meant the end of air operations, for night surface actions. And the supreme place for that came to be the waters off Guadalcanal. In this they were joined by ships that, after a fashion, were, like the aircraft carriers, their descendants: The heavy cruisers that began to be built in the 1920's.

Another provision of the Washington Naval Treaty was that cruisers could not be more than 10,000 tons or be armed with guns larger than 8 inches. This was somewhat larger and more powerful than existing cruisers and so left room for growth. But, having lost the battleships and battle cruisers they had planned on, the Japanese immediately began designing ships right up to the limits. This produced the classic "Treaty Cruisers." By 1927 Japan was planning such cruisers with no fewer than 10 guns. Britain followed suit, reluctantly (building larger and smaller versions), and eventually similar American cruisers began to be planned in 1929. These cruisers all began to look like miniature battleships and, indeed, it was they that had the speed and range to form lines of battle in most of the significant surface engagements of the Pacific War.

American Treaty cruisers were designated "CA's," which signified "armored cruiser," an old type that was really the conceptual predecessor of the battle cruiser. American armored cruisers had even been named after States, like battleships; but the American CA's were named after cities, like other cruisers. The Japanese Treaty cruisers, on the other hand, were now named after mountains, like battle cruisers and the old Japanese armored cruisers too. This, in effect, is what they would be.

By World War II, the Treaty cruisers of the Twenties would be called "heavy cruisers" all because the London Naval Treaty of 1930 had generated another type. That Treaty had limited guns on cruisers to 6 inches, without, however, limiting the tonnage. This, without regard to the tonnage, was then called a "light cruiser." The Japanese therefore immediately planned a class of ships, just as large as the "heavy" cruisers, but with fifteen 6 inch guns, in triple turrets, instead of ten 8 inch guns, in double turrets. Britain scaled down their "light" cruisers, but the United States emulated the Japanese with the large Brooklyn class, which also had fifteen 6 inch guns. When Japan repudiated the naval treaties, the 6 inch guns were replaced with 8 inch, turning the "light" cruisers into "heavy." The United States and Britain retained the type, scaling back the size of the battery.

Thus, in surface combat in the Solomons, the Kongō and her sisters mainly supplemented their Treaty Cruiser descendants. The most frequent task of such ships was the famous "Tokyo Express," the often nightly bombardment of the American airbase, Henderson Field, on Guadalcanal. The damage done by the cruisers, however, was often minimal; and the Japanese knew this.

Thus the task was twice handed off to the Kongōs. The first time was in October 1942, in preparation for a serious ground assault against Henderson Field. Only two nights after the Battle of Cape Esperance, in which an American surface force inflicted serious damage on Japanese cruisers and destroyers, the Kongō and Haruna ran down to "Ironbottom Sound" off Guadalcanal. That was the night of October 13/14. In the most effective Japanese bombardment ever by either air or sea, the 14 inch shells from the battleships all but put Henderson Field out of operation. Weakened American air defense then could not stop most of the Japanese troops from being landed for the offensive [note].

The October assault on Henderson Field failed. But the Japanese did not give up yet. A November attack was planned. This time with the Hiei and Kirishima doing the heavy bombardment. The Japanese force came into Ironbottom Sound on the night of 12/13 November 1942 and, very uncharacteristically for the Japanese, who often visually sighted American ships before American radar identified them, blundered into a thrown together American force. Whatever the cost, Admiral Halsey was not going to let Japanese battleships bombard Henderson Field again. A chaotic melee resulted, where the paths of the ships have never been properly reconstructed. The battleships were firing shells that evidently passed entirely through some thin skinned destroyers without detonating. This was the first night of the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal. After the night was over, losses seemed about equal. A couple of Japanese destroyers had been sunk, against two American heavy cruisers damaged and the anti-aircraft light cruiser Atlanta, which should not have been there, sunk. The Atlanta's sister ship Juneau was then torpedoed and sunk by a Japanese submarine while withdrawing from the battle, to the infamous loss of most of its crew, especially the five Sullivan brothers, for whom two ships (as The Sullivans) have subsequently been named in the United States Navy.

The next day, however, the Hiei was in trouble. Slowed by damage, it was overtaken by American aircraft and met its doom. Although the next night (13/14) Henderson was bombarded by the cruisers Suzuya and Maya, aircraft sank seven Japanese transports on 14 November. That night, 14/15 November, the Kirishima returned, to be met, however, by the American battleships Washington and South Dakota. The South Dakota was first targeted by the Kirishima, and between damage inflicted and problems attendant on being a new ship, it lost all power. The Kirishima briefly looked triumphant, but she had not noticed the battleship Washington behind the South Dakota. Admiral Willis Augustus Lee in the Washington opened deadly fire with his 16 inch guns, and the Kirishima was soon a wreck. The contest for Guadalcanal was effectively over. The next day four more Japanese transports were sunk, and too few troops would ever be landed to make a November offensive against Henderson Field possible. Although Admiral Yamamoto had told the Japanese Army that he would park the superbattleship Yamato off Guadalcanal if necessary, neither Japanese battleships nor cruisers would ever return to Ironbottom Sound. The last Japanese forces, starving and harried, were finally taken off by destroyers on the night of 7/8 February 1943.

The Japanese falsely believed that new ships could be finished in time to reverse the fortunes of war. Thus, capital ships were held back until the Battle of the Philippine Sea, 19-20 June 1944, when Allied landings on Saipan and Guam were to be contested. The result was disaster -- often called the "Great Marianas Turkey Shoot" for the ease with which green Japanese pilots in now obsolescent planes were shot down. The old veteran of Pearl Harbor, the Coral Sea, and the Solomons, the aircraft carrier Shokaku, was sunk, and the new carrier Taiho, with an armored flight deck, was lost, in part because fumes from poorly refined aviation fuel exploded after a torpedo hit. That the War was lost was then obvious to all -- even to Prime Minister Tojo, who resigned. The only thing that kept the War going was that surrender was still inconceivable.

There wasn't much that battleships like the Kongō and Haruna could then do. The Kongō was finally sunk on 21 November 1944 by the submarine Sealion, SS-315, in the waters off Taiwan. The Haruna was caught near the naval base at Kure by America aircraft on 28 July 1945. Sunk in shallow water, she was raised and broken up in 1946. The other Kongōs all lie on the floor of the ocean. Perhaps some day, after underwater explorers move on from the Titanic and Bismark, their graves will be discovered and examined. But, the last of their kind, the Kongōs are not quite the last of their generation. The class of 1910, when the Kongō and Hiei were planned, survives today in the battleship Texas, as strange to modern eyes as a dinosaur, on public view at the San Jacinto Battlefield, outside Houston, Texas. The Kongō, indeed, as we now know about dinosaurs, was a terrifying predator, neither slow, nor ugly, nor stupid -- although we may say that the cause in which she died was stupid enough.


The Pearl Harbor Strike Force

U.S. Battle Cruisers & Aircraft Carrier Names

Japanese Battleships

Russian Battleships


The Treaty Cruisers

Advanced Japanese Destroyers of World War II

A Guadalcanal Chronology, 7 August 1942 - 6 March 1943

Waterline Models

Philosophy of History, Military History

Philosophy of History

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