by Mike Creasy
In the early 1900s Japanese relations with Britain (and the Dominions) were reasonably good, even to the extent of a mutual defence agreement between the two powers. In 1914 Japanese ships helped flush out von Spee’s East Asia Squadron, and Japanese troops took over numerous German colonies in the Pacific including the Marianas, Marshall and Caroline Islands as well as German colonies on mainland China – all at the request of the British. The Americans didn’t much care for this expansion of Japanese influence, and they weren’t impressed by British actions in India. Things got so bad that by 1915 the American Atlantic Fleet was sent round to the California to “protect American sovereignty”. Finally, in late 1916, British and American leaders got together and realized that they had much in common and much at stake in the European War. In April 1917, the Americans entered the war, only to find themselves now allied with the Japanese!
The Americans weren’t happy to see an arms race growing from the ashes of the WW 1 armistice and convened a Conference of Naval Powers in 1921, where Britain and the US agreed to destroy the bulk of their battle fleets (over 70 ships). The Washington Conference also set a 5:5:3 ratio for capital ships between the US, Britain and Japan. There were no other major navies; the German Navy having surrendered (and then scuttled) at Scapa Flow, the French fleet having been destroyed during the war and the Russians having never recovered from their earlier destruction at Tsushima during the Japan-Russia War in 1905.
The Americans also demanded that Britain should end its long-standing alliance with Japan – a move which created resentment and hostility towards the “Western Powers” and which would have a large impact on the lead-up to WW 2.
Japanese-American relations continued to decline after WW 1 as Japan continued to expand her sphere of influence in the Asian-Pacific theatre. The Americans had acquired the Philippines (along with Cuba, Puerto Rico and Guam) from Spain in 1898 after the Spanish-American War, and then fought an extended action with Philippine nationals that lasted until 1913, in which over 34,000 Philippinos died.
Against this background, Japanese naval squadrons visited Esquimalt fairly regularly during the 1920s, while the new Royal Canadian Navy was taking shape. By 1934, Japanese leaders were convinced that war with America was coming and they began planning for a new fleet to be led by a class of super-battleships, larger than anything ever built.
In November 1937, the keel of the first new battleship was laid at Kure Navy Yard, while a sister ship was laid in March 1938 at the Mitsubishi Industries Yard in Nagasaki. These ships, Yamato and Musashi, were to be giants – ensuring Japan’s position as a major naval power. The keel of a third ship was laid down in May 1940 at Yokosuka Naval Yard, and a fourth keel was laid later that year in Kure. These monsters would displace 72,000 tons at full load and carry 18” guns, by far the largest battleships ever built. By comparison, the German Tirpitz class ships displaced 52,000 tons with 15” guns, while the American Iowas came in at 58,000 tons with 16” guns.
Yamato and Musashi entered service in early 1942, shortly after the infamous attack on Pearl Harbour (December 7, 1941). In June 1942, the Japanese fleet attacked Midway, at the western end of the Hawaiian Islands, in an effort to wipe out the American carriers that had escaped the Pearl Harbour debacle. It was not to be. Japan lost 4 of their 6 large carriers and never recovered from the blow.
Work on the third super-battleship was immediately slowed while plans were revised – the ship would become a giant aircraft carrier. Now named Shinano, the new ship was built under the most stringent security possible. Photos were forbidden, and access to the Yokosuka Yard near Tokyo was highly restricted.
The new carrier was floated out of her construction drydock in October 1944, perhaps in time to change the course of a war that was going badly for Japan. Sea trials began in November, by which time B-29 bombing raids on Tokyo had begun. The time needed for final completion, system testing and crew training on such a large warship is usually measured in years, but that time simply wasn’t available. Japan was mustering every available warship in the Inland Sea, southwest of the Japanese Islands, for a last major offensive. Ready or not, Shinano would sail.
At 1800 hrs on November 28 1944, Shinano set sail on her first operational voyage. Accompanied by the destroyers Isokaze, Yukikaze and Hamakaze, Captain Toshio Abe hoped that darkness would be his ally. His ship carried no operational aircraft for air defence or anti-submarine patrol, there were no land-based aircraft available, many of the systems and weapons aboard his ship had not yet been tested, and the escorting destroyers were all battle-damaged; none had an operational radar or direction-finding system, and only one destroyer had functioning sonar. Only 8 of his ship’s 12 boilers were functional, limiting her speed to 21 knots. Captain Abe had also been told that several American submarines were thought to be in the area.
Meanwhile, aboard the USS Archer-Fish (the only submarine for 500 miles), Captain Joseph Enright couldn’t believe his eyes when, at 2048 hrs, a large shape appeared on the moonlit horizon. Over the next few hours, Archer-Fish would manoeuvre for the best firing solution almost unimpeded by the Japanese destroyers who could detect her radio and radar transmissions but couldn’t determine her location.
At 0300, the carrier turned directly toward the submarine. One of the escorts passed within 200 yards of the now submerged Archer-Fish, still unable to detect her. At 0317, Archer-Fish fired 6 torpedoes from 1400 yards range, set to run at 10 feet. All hit near the joint between the eight inch anti-projectile armour and the concrete-filled side blisters which formed the anti-torpedo protection. The design of the joint was faulty and huge amounts of water began to enter the ship. Chaos ensued as water-tight bulkheads leaked, crewmen got lost and pumps failed.
The ship sank at 1030. Her first voyage had lasted 17 hours.
Shinano! The Sinking of Japan’s Secret Supership, Capt. Joseph Enright USN, St. Martin’s Press, 1987
Hirota Cabinet's Fundamental Principles of Foreign Policy (Informally reported to the Emperor on 15 August 1936), Japanese Monograph #144, US Department of the Army Online Archives
The Gathering Storm, Winston S. Churchill, Houghton Mifflin Co., 1948
The Pacific War Papers Japanese Documents of World War II, Goldstein & Dillon, Potomac Books, 2004