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Satsuma & Dreadnought : How Japan’s Early Naval Manufacturing Shortcomings Paved the Way for the Rise and Fall of the Largest Battleship of the Second World War

Satsuma & Dreadnought : How Japan’s Early Naval Manufacturing Shortcomings Paved the Way for the Rise and Fall of the Largest Battleship of the Second World War

If Satsuma had been built as originally intended, naval historians would probably have been calling all uniformly big-gun battleships ‘Satsumas’ rather than ‘Dreadnoughts’. 

Recent military successes from 1870 onwards left the Imperial Japanese Navy feeling triumphant yet hungry for more.

The construction of the Battleship Satsuma was a necessary technological step for the desired Japanese domination of Asia.

The HMS Dreadnought, a worthy rival to the Satsuma, was commissioned nearly 39 months prior, yet the Japanese Battleship was laid down before Dreadnought and was on track to become the world’s first true modern battleship.

The Imperial Japanese Navy intended to equip Satsuma with 12 x 12″ guns, but it faced difficulties in production  as Satsuma was Japan’s first attempt to build its own battleship.

The increased cost ultimately led to a mixture of 12” and 10″ guns and caused tremendous delays in production.

Still, Satsuma was beautifully designed and ahead of its time, powered by vertical triple expansion engines, while its sister Aki still had more powerful steam turbines due to its later development. Aki’s development was also delayed due to a lack of space in Japanese shipyards. With steam turbines Aki could outrun Satsuma.

In 1903, just two years before the construction of Satsuma, the mastermind of Dreadnoughts Vittorio Cuniberti  published his article on an ‘all big-gun battleship’ in “Jane’s Fighting Ships”.

In the article, Cuniberti showed his idea for an all-12” gun super cruiser. This article is incredibly important in naval history. Cuniberti is considered the father of the monocaliber battleship.

Cuniberti believed that all-big-gun battleships should be built with numerous 12-inch guns with reduced sec­ondary batteries in conjunction with 12-inch armor to fortify the ship against enemy fire.

Cuniberti argued for an abundance of ammunition supply and speeds unmatched by other battleships.

Many Navy departments, such as those in Washington and Tokyo, were stockpiled with obsolete vessels – senior bureaucrats even embraced the concept.

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However, many senior officers had spent their careers under mast and sail and were unenthusiastic (as was the French Navy) about this idea.

Japanese shipbuilding and naval armaments manufacturing still trailed behind the UK at the time. Americans were developing their South Carolina class around the same time that the Japanese were developing plans for Satsuma. 

It is also worth noting that the battleships HMS Bellerophon, HMS Superb, HMS Temerairé, HMS Vanguard, USS Michigan, USS South Carolina, SMS Nassau, and SMS Westfalen were all commissioned before but launched after Satsuma! 

Satsuma was laid down over a year before Dreadnought, but the domestic Japanese construction was slow, inexperienced, and considerably strained as a result.

The setbacks to the Satsuma were made even more impactful as the Royal Navy took great pains to rush the building of the HMS Dreadnought.

It was a logical step for the Imperial Japanese Navy planners to move the uniform main armament because the developments in range finders and gunnery control systems had increased the range of naval engagements — only the biggest guns were going to be effective.

The days of USS Olympic storming into Manila Bay with her guns firing seemed to already be a thing of the past, in only a short amount of time. Short-ranged guns and their “hail of fire” tactics no longer made sense! HMS Dreadnought changed the battleship ‘design book’ forever.

A battleship with only four of these big guns in two twin turrets plus a myriad of smaller guns was going to be very restricted in the firepower that it could effectively bring to bear. The ship needed greater reach!

Before the battle of Tsushima; naval history’s first decisive sea battle fought by modern steel battleship fleets, there was already a significant debate ongoing between the proponents of ‘’all big guns’’ and those of ‘’hail of fire’’. 

Battle of Tsushima

The evidence wasn’t clear-cut for “all big guns.” 

After all, the Japanese captured and recommissioned several Russian warships that had their upperworks demolished, but still remained afloat. 

Technical advances were trending towards longer engagement ranges and larger guns. 

It was not long before Dreadnoughts were again carrying secondary batteries in the same 6” size as the majority of pre-Dreadnoughts.

The legendary Admiral Cunningham of the Battle of Taranto in 1941 still held the opinion that the correct range for a battleship to fire her guns at the enemy was “point blank – so even a gunnery officer cannot miss”.

Not surprisingly, there were always different schools of thought about almost all aspects of naval warfare and those who held reputable  positions within the navies had the most  influence on the ships that were built and the strategies that were employed.

If John Arbuthnot Fisher, 1st Baron Fisher had not become the first sea lord of the Royal Navy, then Britain might have built at least one more version of the King Edward VII Class Battleship.

This was a class of ships with a Lord Nelson lineage that had just four main guns and very heavy secondary and tertiary batteries.

Profile drawing of Lord Nelson-class battleship HMS Agamemnon

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Lord Nelson (foreground) and Agamemnon (rear) anchored at the Dardanelles in 1915.

It is ironic that the Japanese Navy loved the British Navy to the point of emulation and yet ended up at war with it.

They admired the British Navy so much that they even hired a British architect to create their Department of Navy’s Headquarters.

The Japanese Naval Academy Building
The Department of Navy’s Building was designed by a British Architect Josiah Conder

Written by Alexander Fleiss, Hantong Wu & Abhinav Raghunathan

Edited by Jules Hirschkorn, Michael Ding & Bernhard Böck