The Evolution of the Battleship, Part 2

[Part 1. Part 3. Part 4. Part 5. Part 6.]

Before we can officially move on to the age of the dreadnought, we need to take a look at what may well have been the most important development of the pre-dreadnought era. It had absolutely nothing to do with ship technology itself. It was all about who was using it.

At the tail-end of the American Civil War the French built a warship for the Confederates. It was, for all intents and purposes, the most powerful warship on the planet: an oceangoing, ironclad, turreted ram ship designed for commerce raiding on the high seas. The Union Navy would not have been able to counter such a ship, as its own ironclad fleet were made of coastal or river ships and could not sail on the open sea[1] and its oceangoing fleet was comprised of wooden sloops. So when word got out about the CSS Stonewall, it was frightening news indeed.[2]

Fortunately for all involved, Stonewall never made it in to the war. By the time she reached the Caribbean the conflict was over and her captain surrendered the vessel to the Spanish in Cuba, who then sold the ship to the United States, who had no particular use for the vessel, as the US decided to maintain its isolationist stance.

In 1868 the United States decided to sell the vessel to the Japanese, specifically the Tokugawa Shogunate.[3] This was the eve of the Meiji Restoration and by the time the ship arrived for delivery open fighting had broken out. In 1869 the ship was turned over to the Imperial forces, where the rechristened Kotetsu played a key role in the Battle of Hakodate Bay.

CSS Stonewall became the first modern, ironclad warship of the re-empowered Japanese Empire. The United States had taken the first steps towards arming the nation that would become their chief rival in the Pacific Ocean during the 20th Century. Of course the United States had created that rival, so it’s not entirely surprising that they would be so short-sighted as to also arm it.

Following Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and the Warring States period in Japan the Emperor had been shunted aside in favor of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Under the Shogunate the Japanese maintained a strict isolationist policy, only allowing trade from China, Korea, and the Netherlands, with the latter confined to a trading post on a man-made island in Kobe harbor.

European powers largely ignored Japan in favor of carving China into chunks during the early colonial period. Russia repeatedly tried to make inroads in to Japan and failed miserably at every turn. It wasn’t until Commodore Matthew Perry[4] arrived in 1853 with a list of demands and modern warships to back them up that the Shogunate realized they’d have to open their doors to the West.

America was late to the colonization party. The nation was still far too busy expanding across its own hinterlands to really care too much about the vastness of the Pacific Ocean while the European powers were making their moves. With the nation secured from sea to shining sea in the aftermath of the Mexican-American War attitudes about that ocean off to the left began to change.

Japan was the logical target of American colonial will in the Pacific Ocean. It was a backwards, untapped market that had little or no foreign presence. It could also function as a way station for any ships attempting to make their way to the much bigger market in China.

The Japanese, unsurprisingly, did not much like this idea. They’d watched China get sliced up like a birthday cake and decided that they wanted none of that. The Shogunate was doing its best to maintain an isolationist policy with some limited trade with the United States. It was an impossible balance to maintain and the more progressive elements in Japanese society knew it. They realized that continuing on an isolationist path meant lost death and the only way to survive was to learn how to beat the West at its own game to maintain their independence.

The only power that could rival the Shogun in Japan was the Emperor. He’d remained a figurehead under the Shogunate, but could not be eliminated due to Emperor worship. When it came time to force a change in society, the Emperor was there, ready to step back in to the picture. Oddly enough the attempt to move forward as a society actually required stepping back to an earlier central power.

As we’ve already seen with the sale of the CSS Stonewall, the Western powers were partly to blame for the creation of their new, Asiatic rival. The reasons for this are simple: it allowed the Europeans to make some money, it allowed them to believe the Japanese would be dependent upon them, and — most importantly — they didn’t believe that any Asiatic power could possibly stand up to the might of the West. This cultural chauvinism would cost the Western powers time and again when dealing with Japan.

To aid their expansion and modernization, the Japanese turned to the British. As early as 1871 the Japanese began sending men to Great Britain for training alongside the Royal Navy. Included in that first group was Togo Heihachiro.

On top of training Japanese officers, the Brits provided the IJN with most of their warships. In a few cases, such as the protected cruiser Naniwa, the British simply built a Japanese design for them. Most of the Japanese warships were contract built British ships. As the culmination of their modernization efforts they ordered six battleships and six armored cruisers from Britain in the 1890s. At the tail-end of the 18th Century the Japanese were technologically equal to the greatest shipbuilders in the world, as the Fuji-class battlecruisers were modified Royal Sovereigns while the Shikshimas and the Mikasa were modified Majestics.

The Mikasa around the time of Tsushima

This mattered a great deal in 1904 and 1905 during the Russo-Japanese war. For the first time a Western power engaged Japan in battle.[5] Moreover, there was an interesting b-plot for the conflict, as the largely British-influenced Imperial Japanese Navy would be engaging the largely French-influenced Imperial Russian Navy. The Borodino-class Russian battleships were based off of the most modern French designs.

Borodino, with the tumblehome hull configuration somewhat visible

The war did not start well for the Russians. The Japanese bottled the Pacific Squadron up in Port Arthur. An attempted breakout ended in disaster for the Russian squadron at the Battle of the Yellow Sea. A decision was made to send most of the Black Sea Fleet to break the blockade and defeat the Japanese once and for all. The British partially ruined the plan by refusing to let the Russians through the Suez Canal.

This set the Russians up for one of the most epic naval journeys of the steam age, traveling out of the Black Sea, through the Mediterranean, around Africa, across the Indian Ocean, and past China. By the time they got in range of the fighting Port Arthur had fallen. The exhausted Russian squadron made for Vladivostock through the Straits of Tsushima.

Admiral Togo was waiting for them in his flagship Mikasa at the head of the Combined Fleet. The Combined Fleet was better rested, in better shape, and had recently engaged in battle, putting them in better stead than the Russians.[6] Experience is an extremely useful factor going in to any battle.

The Battles of the Yellow Sea and Tsushima had one other lasting consequence on naval warfare: the design of warships themselves. For the previous several years the secondary batteries of the pre-dreadnoughts had been getting progressively larger and naval architects were starting to wonder if an all big-gun ship would make more sense. When the results came in from the Russo-Japanese War the answer was a resounding, “Yes.”

The big 12-inch guns with modern rangefinders were found to be able to engage at far greater ranges than anyone suspected. Moreover, even at close range the secondary batteries were found to be ineffective against armor designed to stand up to 12-inch shells.

The British, owing to their superior shipbuilding capabilities, were the first to take advantage of the lessons of Tsushima. In October of 1905, just five months after the battle, a new warship was laid down. It was launched the following February.[7] The world changed over the course of four months.

Interestingly enough, the Japanese Satsuma, the first home-grown Japanese battleship, technically should have been the first all big-gun battleship. It was laid down just before Tsushima, but a shortage of guns meant the planned 12” battery had to be swapped out for four 12” guns and ten 10” guns. Moreover, it was launched nine months after Dreadnought.

The United States laid down the South Carolina in December of 1906. It would be a year and a half before the first US dreadnought was launched. The United States was as a sideshow for the moment. In July of 1907 the Germans laid down SMS Nassau, their first dreadnought. The world’s attention shifted to an Anglo-German arms race.

Still, we’re on the doorstep of the USS Texas. Or, at least, we’re on the doorstep of the first USS Texas.


[1]The Monitor herself had almost sunk on the way to counter CSS Virginia at Hampton Roads. She later sank in a storm. This happened a lot to the monitor-type ships, as they had almost no freeboard and could be swamped in almost any conditions.

[2]As best I can tell, there was basically no warship in the world that could stand up to Stonewall upon its completion, aside from its sister ship. If I had to choose, I’d probably go with HMS Warrior/Black Prince, as they probably had thick enough armor and enough maneuverability to bring their broadsides to bear. Other than that, I would take USS Amphitrite, a two-turret monitor, if I could be assured that the water was absolutely calm. Of course assuming a calm ocean is folly and the Stonewall would never have fought where the Civil War monitors and rams engaged, so speculation on such a contest is right up there with wondering whether a shark or a crocodile would win in a fight.

Interestingly enough, the Stonewall’s armament consisted of exactly three guns. Consider that a bare six decades before Nelson won everlasting glory at the command of the 100 gun first-rate Victory. Stonewall would have made quick work of the creaky old ship of the line, even when outgunned thirty-three to one. The world changed extremely quickly.

[3] Oddly, France sold Stonewall’s sister ship to the Prussians, which was a similarly stupid move in retrospect.

[4]No relation to Chandler Bing, as far as I can tell…

[5]That’s “Western” with an asterisk, as Russia wasn’t considered a true western power. They were regarded as being superior to the Japanese by dint of, well, being white and connected to Europe. Ergo, Japan’s absolute dominance of the Chinese during the previous decade’s Sino-Japanese was met with yawns, while everyone looked on with great interest when the Japanese fought Europeans.

[6]The Wiki article makes a big deal over the fact that Togo had four whole hours of experience commanding battleships at Port Arthur and the Battle of the Yellow Sea. It also goes on to point out that it was the only experienced battleship fleet in the world at the time. The main issue at hand was the understanding of how to engage at long range, and the necessary problem of understanding timing at long range. Togo would have understood that better, as he’d engaged the Russians initially from eight miles at the Battle of the Yellow Sea, which was twice as far as anyone believed was possible at the time due to the limits of the rangefinders. But the Japanese also had much better rangefinders than the Russians in either engagement. And the fact is that the Japanese warships were better, more maneuverable, and hadn’t just spent seven months traveling non-stop around the world. They also started from a better position than the Russians. So narrowing it down to four hours of experience and saying that’s the only difference is preposterous.

The fact is that only the Borodino-class Russian ships could hope to match the Japanese battleships and those designs were inferior to the Majestic-and Royal Sovereign- based Japanese ships. In fact, the tumblehome warship design would be discontinued by every navy after Tsushima until the United States started drawing up plans for the Zumwalt-class next generation destroyer in 2001. And the Zumwalt isn’t exactly a non-controversial design.

[7]This is unheard of. Mikasa took nearly two years to build. The King Edward VII, one of the last of the British pre-dreadnoughts, took just over a year to build. USS Idaho, last of the American pre-dreadnoughts, took about a year and a half to build. The battleship that made everything else obsolete was built in the space of four months.


As usual I hope you found this interesting and got something out of it. Please like and share and do all of that fun stuff. It’s also sheer serendipity that I’m publishing this 2 days before the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Some things just work out, I guess.

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