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The Career of the Pride of the Chinese Navy, the Battleship Dingyuan

The Career of the Pride of the Chinese Navy, the Battleship Dingyuan


Illustration of Dingyuan and Zhenyuan under fire from the Japanese cruisers.

The Dingyuan was an ironclad battleship and the flagship of the Chinese Beiyang Fleet. She was the lead ship of the Dingyuan class, which included a sister vessel, Zhenyuan. The ships were armed with a main battery of four 12 inch guns in a pair of gun turrets, making them the most powerful warships in East Asian waters at the time.

Dingyuan was ordered in 1880 and was laid down at the AG Vulcan shipyard in Stettin in Germany in March 1881, her name means “eternal peace” in Chinese. She was built quickly and she was launched on the 28th of December 1881 to clear the slipway so work could begin on her sister ship Zhenyuan.

The fitting out work took longer and took until May 1883, but delivery was to be delayed until the Zhenyuan was finished in April 1884.

An overview of the layout of a Dingyuan-class ironclad

The start of the outbreak of the Sino-French War in August prevented both Dingyuan-class ships from being delivered until 1885, since Germany couldn’t transfer a vessel to a nation at war.

“Chinese battleship”. The Ting-Yuen is now commonly referred to as the Dingyuan. This version has been cropped by uploader.

Both vessels were manned by German crews and sailed on the 3rd of July 1885 under a German flag in company with the also German-built protected cruiser Jiyuan. The three ships arrived in Tianjin in November, where they were transferred to Chinese control. Li Hongzhang, the Viceroy of Zhili and director of China’s naval construction program, inspected the vessels following their arrival. The two ironclads were then commissioned into the Beiyang Fleet, which was based in Port Arthur. The ships then steamed south to Shanghai for the winter of 1885–1886.

In the 1880s, the Beiyang Fleet was occupied with the annual routine of winter training cruises to the South China Sea, most times in company with the Nanyang Fleet. This cruise typically involved visits to Zhejiang, Fujian, and Guangdong provinces, and sometimes went as far south as stops in Southeast Asia. The rest of the year was spent in northern waters off Zhili, Shandong, and the Fengtian provinces while conducting training exercises. Training cruises to foreign ports were conducted in the mid-1880s and early 1890s, both to train navigational skills on voyages far from shore and to show the flag to rivals. Discipline aboard the ships of the Beiyang Fleet was famously poor, which led to a low and bad state of readiness of the ships. During this period, the fleet was commanded by Admiral Ding Ruchang, who employed the Dingyuan as his flagship. At the time, China lacked dry docks large enough to handle Zhenyuan and Dingyuan which forced the navy to rely on shipyards in Japan or in British Hong Kong for maintenance and repairs.

The two Dingyuan-class ships began their training routine in April 1886 in joint maneuvers with the units of the Nanyang Fleet, which culminated in a naval review in Port Arthur. They received the British vessels of the China Station from the 19th to 20th of May. Dingyuan, Zhenyuan, and four cruisers made the first of their overseas cruises in August 1886, which included stops in British Hong Kong, Busan and Wonsan in Korea, Vladivostok in Russia, and Nagasaki in Japan. While at the last port in August, Chinese crewmen became involved in a fight with Japanese locals that resulted in the deaths of eight of the Chinese sailors and two Japanese police, also there were 42 Chinese and 29 Japanese injured. The so-called Nagasaki Incident was seen in the Japanese press as an attempt by China to try and intimidate Japan which led to calls for naval expansion to counter the Beiyang Fleet. The Japanese government ordered three Matsushima-class protected cruisers in response.

The Japanese also refused to allow the Chinese ironclads to return for repairs in their shipyards which severely hindered the ability of the Beiyang Fleet to keep the vessels operational.
Dingyuan side view

In 1887 the ships spent the bulk of the year in the Bohai Sea. Late in the year, another group of four European-built cruisers arrived, further strengthening the fleet and calling for maneuvers in 1888 to familiarize the crews with the rest of the fleet. The Beiyang Fleet adopted the same black, white, and buff paint scheme used by the Royal Navy at the time; the vessels were repainted at some point in 1888. In 1889, the fleet was then divided into two divisions; Dingyuan and several cruisers were sent on a tour of Korean ports while Zhenyuan and the rest of the fleet remained in the Bohai Sea for exercises. The two divisions rendezvoused in Shanghai in December, going on to Hong Kong for Zhenyuan and Dingyuan to be dry docked. They then cruised off Korea for a while.

Another visit to Japan came in June and July 1891, the fleet stopped in Kobe on the 30th of June and Yokohama on the 14th of July.

At the last port a large Japanese delegation of senior military commanders and members of the imperial family received the ships. Another voyage to Japan took place the following year. Along with the Nagasaki Incident, these voyages contributed to the growing tensions between China and Japan, since Hongzhang intended the voyages to make clear Chinese naval strength at a time when the Japanese fleet was small and poorly developed. At the core of the dispute between them was the control over Korea, which since the Convention of Tientsin of 1884, was treated as a co-protectorate of China and Japan.

In early 1894, the Donghak Peasant Revolution broke out in Korea, prompting China to send an expedition of 28,000 soldiers to suppress the rebels. Japan viewed this as a violation of the Tientsin Convention and deployed 8,000 troops in response which led to the outbreak of the First Sino-Japanese War on the 1st of August. The Chinese fleet was no match for the new Combined Fleet of Japan, as years of insufficient naval budgets had not allowed Hongzhang to update the vessels, the funds he had planned to use to add new quick-firing guns to Zhenyuan and Dingyuan were instead appropriated for the 60th birthday of the Dowager Empress Cixi.

Oil painting of the dowager Empress Cixi

The Chinese lacked effective commanders and sufficiently trained crews in the navy. And to add to China’s disadvantages during the war, the Japanese had broken the Chinese diplomatic codes in 1888, giving them access to China’s internal communications.

As the Chinese made preparations in August for action, they removed the gun shields from the main battery turrets. Experience at the Battle of Pungdo had revealed the thin shields created numerous splinters when struck by enemy fire, and these fragments had inflicted numerous casualties to the gun crews of the cruiser Jiyuan at Pungdo. The crews also strangely placed bags of coal around the gun batteries as a form of improvised armor. The ships were repainted light gray to make them more difficult to observe at sea like many other Navy’s. The ships of the Beiyang Fleet then steamed to Taku to take on supplies leading them to do little for the next month.

Ding then took the fleet on a sweep into the Korea Bay on the 12th of September to clear the way for a convoy of troop ships scheduled to deliver reinforcements to Korea. While on the way to the bay, he received faulty reports indicating the presence of Japanese warships off the Shandong Peninsula, prompting him to change course to search for them. Finding no enemy vessels, he took the fleet to Weihaiwei and on 15 September the fleet rendezvoused with the convoy to cover its approach to the mouth of the Yalu River so the transports could unload the men and supplies on the 16th of September. During the unloading process, Dingyuan and the bulk of the fleet remained underway to provide distant support and avoid presenting themselves as easy stationary targets to Japanese torpedo boats known to be in the area. While the Chinese were on the way back to Port Arthur, the Combined Fleet under Vice Admiral Itō Sukeyuki intercepted them on the 17th of September which led to the famous Battle of the Yalu River. See our piece: Battle of the Yalu River

The poorly-trained Beiyang Fleet sailed in a disorganized line in an abreast formation, while the Japanese approached them from the south in a steady organized line ahead, the Chinese ships steamed at around 6 knots and the Japanese at 10 knots.

Itō turned his ships to pass in front of the oncoming Beiyang Fleet. Dingyuan opened fire first at the extreme range of 5,300 yards which was far in excess of what fire-control equipment was capable of accurately directing at the time. The blast effect from Dingyuan’s initial salvo destroyed her own bridge, collapsing it and trapping Ding and his staff for the duration of the action, depriving the Beiyang Fleet of central control. The rest of the Chinese fleet quickly followed Dingyuan, but failed to score any hits as their opponents passed in front of them. The Japanese ships soon returned fire, having divided into two squadrons and turned back to starboard to encircle the Chinese.

They concentrated their fire on the cruisers on the Chinese right flank and they quickly destroyed the Chinese cruisers Yangwei and Chaoyong.

Zhenyuan and Dingyuan in Germany before departing for China

The battle quickly devolved into a melee at close range, and the Chinese cruisers Zhiyuan and Jingyuan were sunk. In return, the Chinese warships inflicted serious damage on the old ironclad Hiei, which had been unable to keep pace with the rest of Itō’s fleet and was forced to disengage and flee the battle. Zhenyuan and Dingyuan hit the auxiliary cruiser Saikyō Maru with four 12-inch shells and inflicted significant damage.

The Japanese ships then concentrated their fire on Dingyuan and Zhenyuan. The ships’ heavy citadel armor proved to be impervious to the Japanese shellfire that was directed against it, though the large-caliber Canet guns mounted on the Matsushima-class cruisers proved to be nearly useless and the other Japanese cruisers were engaged with their Chinese counterparts. Both ships were hit numerous times and several fires broke out, but both crews adeptly suppressed them despite being under heavy fire. Later in the day both sides were low on ammunition and the Chinese began to reform their surviving vessels into a line-ahead formation. The Japanese eventually broke off and withdrew. The battered Beiyang Fleet, by then reduced to the two Dingyuan-class ships and four smaller vessels damaged, decided to limp back slowly to Port Arthur, arriving there the next day.

Japanese soldiers mutilating bodies at Port Arthur during Sino-Japanese War in 1894

Repairs to the damaged ships began immediately, and fresh supplies and ammunition were sent to ready the vessels for more action. By October, the Japanese Army had begun to approach Port Arthur, forcing the Chinese to withdraw the Beiyang Fleet to Weihaiwei. Ding sortied on the 20th of October and without encountering Japanese forces. In early November, Ding sought to cover the transfer of the Zhenyuan, which had remained in Port Arthur as long as possible to complete repairs.

Lieutenant-General Yamaji leading the attack on Port Arthur by Nobukazu Yōsai, 1894

The Japanese Army had advanced all the way to Weihaiwei by the end of January 1895, launching a major attack on the port on the 30th to begin the Battle of Weihaiwei. They quickly captured the fortifications on the side of the city despite heavy fire from Dingyuan and other vessels of the fleet. The capture of the fortresses forced the Chinese ships to withdraw to the western portion of the harbor, where they would be out of range for the guns there. Dingyuan disabled one of the 9.4 inch guns, destroying some guns in the fortress at Luchie Tsui, but several guns remained in operation, and Japanese gunners quickly set to work to bring them to bear on the trapped Chinese fleet. The Chinese ships bombarded Japanese forces as they advanced on the city’s defenses.

On the night of the 4th of February a group of ten Japanese torpedo boats broke into the harbor and hit Dingyuan with a torpedo on the port side towards the stern of her. The attack inflicted serious damage and the crew’s poor damage control efforts failed to contain the flooding, hampered by leaking watertight doors. They got steam up in the boilers and began to get underway, but with the uncontrolled flooding threatening to sink the ship, the crew had to ground her to prevent her sinking. The ship was then used as a stationary artillery battery and Ding shifted his flag to Zhenyuan. Two of the attacking torpedo boats were discovered having been disabled in the previous night’s action at dawn. The next night, the torpedo boats made another assault on the Chinese fleet, sinking a cruiser, a training ship, and an auxiliary vessel.

Dingyuan after the battle, showing extensive damage amidships

By the 9th of February, the Japanese had seized the fortifications that overlooked the rest of the harbor. They used the position to bombard the crippled Dingyuan with field artillery guns which further damaged the vessel. With their position in the harbor no longer tenable and most of the vessels damaged including the Zhenyuan which had also been badly damaged and was no longer seaworthy, Ding decided to scuttle Dingyuan the next day and then surrender. The decision provoked many of the senior officers of the Beiyang Fleet to commit suicide, including the ship’s commander, Captain Liu Buchan. The exact nature of the crew’s efforts to disable the vessel are unknown.

Some reports indicate that a mine detonated amidships, and observers aboard the British protected cruiser HMS Edgar noted seeing a large explosion aboard Dingyuen. Photographic evidence shows the vessel aground in shallow water and with a gaping hole amidships supports these reports of her sinking as does the observations of the British Vice Admiral Edmund Fremantle, who inspected the fleet shortly after the battle. The battle ended the career of the pride of the Chinese fleet. The Chinese loved the ship so much a full-scale replica of the ship was built in Weihai in 2003 as a museum ship.


Historian Harry Gillespie : Collected Works

Harry Gillespie is a writer who resides in the UK with his family. His work focuses on Naval & British history with a specific look at 20th century warfare and ships. From World War 1 to The Falkland Islands Campaign.

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