The Imperial Japanese Navy of Togo Heihachiro, including the fleet that destroyed the Tsar’s armada at Tsushima, was primarily constructed in Great Britain. Although relations between Japan and the United Kingdom remained close, the Japanese understood the need for a domestic shipbuilding industry. The next four major IJN units (Satsuma, Aki, Kawachi, and Settsu) were constructed in Japanese yards with varying percentages of British parts.
The IJN understood that war in the Pacific was likely to be of a different character than war in the Atlantic. Because of the size of the Pacific, capital ships were less likely to find each other and fight. More common would be cruiser actions. The IJN found the battlecruisers of the Royal Navy very attractive, and decided to procure four battlecruisers to provide the basis for a new fleet. Finally, the Japanese decided that the first battlecruiser, Kongo, would be built in a British yard, although to a Japanese design. The British had experience with battlecruisers, and the Japanese wanted to take no chances with these expensive warships.
Kongo was commissioned in August of 1913. She was a magnificent ship. Kongo was the first warship anywhere in the world to carry 14″ guns, of which she possessed eight in four twin turrets. Kongo could make 30 knots, enough to outpace existing British battlecruisers, and displaced 27000 tons. When commissioned, Kongo was one of the most powerful warships in the world. Fortunately for the Japanese, Kongo was dispatched to Japan prior to the beginning of World War I. Had her construction been delayed a few months, it is possible that Winston Churchill would have been unable to give up the most powerful ship at his disposal, just as he was unable to give up Turkish and Chilean battleships under construction in 1914. Whether the Japanese, closely allied with Great Britain in 1914, would have taken this lying down is an open question. When the Royal Navy attempted to lease the Kongo and her sisters during World War I, the IJN refused. The presence of Kongo and her sisters at Jutland might well have turned a draw into a rout; their heavy weaponry would have made short work of Hipper’s battlecruisers.
Kongo was rebuilt twice during the interwar period. The first reconstruction was designed to bring her up to the armor standards of contemporary battleships. It resulted in a slower, but better protected, warship. Unfortunately, it also resulted in a less useful unit. More sensible heads prevailed in Japan, and the second major reconstruction of Kongo lengthened her hull, improved her machinery, and restored her speed to 31 knots. Even with the first reconstruction, Kongo’s protection remained inadequate to combat against other battleships, but her speed meant that she could perform carrier escort missions.
On December 7, 1941 Kongo and her sisters were, in spite of their age, the most useful units in the Pacific theater, with the exception of Prince of Wales. While any American battleship could defeat Kongo in single combat, none of them could actually force that combat because of their slow speeds. While the experience of the British battlecruiser squadron at Jutland left a bad taste in the mouth of most major navies after World War I, it turned out that the superior speed of battlecruisers made them more useful units in World War II. The British almost certainly erred in disposing of the battlecruiser Tiger, in 1930, instead of one of the slow “R” class battleships. Had the United States decided in 1918 to press ahead with the construction of three Lexington class battlecruisers instead of the three Colorado class battleships, the United States might well have possessed two useful ships in the wake of Pearl Harbor, instead of two more old, slow battleships.
Kongo’s first World War II duty was to counter the British battleships Repulse and Prince of Wales, both operating out of Singapore. Japanese aircraft dispatched both ships before they could meet Kongo or her sister Haruna, which freed Kongo for other duties. Kongo participated in almost every major action of World War II, including the Battle of Midway, the Battle of Gualdalcanal, the Battle of Philippine Sea, and the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Kongo and Haruna served together in every engagement, up to and including Leyte Gulf. At Leyte Gulf Kongo was part of Admiral Kurita’s main force, which included the battleships Musashi and Yamato. Kurita’s force intended to attack and destroy the American invasion fleet off Leyte after the main US force had been drawn off by Japanese decoy carriers. Shockingly enough, the decoy plan worked; Admiral Halsey and his battleships left their position off Leyte in a futile attempt to destroy the Japanese carriers.
Off the island of Samar, Admiral Kurita’s force of four battleships, ten cruisers, and eleven destroyers met an American force that consisted of three destroyers and four destroyer escorts. The US force was covering a group of eighteen escort carriers, small, slow ships with almost no defensive armament. In desperation, the US destroyers attacked. Miraculously, they won. The American destroyers, along with aircraft launched by the escort carriers, managed to sink three Japanese cruisers and to disrupt the Japanese attack. The Japanese battleships, expecting to meet battleships, had armed themselves primarily with armor-piercing shells. These shells passed through the unarmored American ships, causing only minimal damage. Eventually, terrified that the American battleships would return and cut off his retreat, Kurita ordered his fleet to turn around and escape. Kongo suffered heavy damage from ensuing air attacks.
Off Formosa, on her way to a refit in Japan, Kongo was hit by three torpedos from the US submarine Sealion. Yamato and Nagato were in line with Kongo, and the latter barely managed to avoid another set of torpedos. Fires started by the torpedo hits spread to Kongo’s magazines, and she exploded and sank. Had her captain not insisted on maintaining a high speed, the damage might have been contained, but he feared additional torpedo attacks. 1250 sailors died when Kongo sank.
Trivia: What was the only dreadnought lost in World War I to torpedo attack?