Contributor: C. Peter Chen
This article refers to the entire Yamato-class; it is not about an individual vessel.
Even before Japan refused to recognize the Washington Treaty on 19 Dec 1934, the Japanese Navy had been planning for a super-battleship that would serve to intimidate any potential naval rivals. Preliminary plans called for a ship large enough to carry at least eight 46-centimeter (18.1-inch) guns as primary weapons and armor capable of withstanding a hit from her own primary weapons from a range of 20,000 to 35,000 meters. Through Mar 1937, 24 different designs were submitted; the final one, Plan No. A-140F6 by Captain Kikuo Fujimoto, was accepted to be the design for the Yamato-class battleships. The final plan called for turrets that weighed as much as a typical American destroyer, and beam so wide that the Yamato-class ships would be too wide to pass through the Panama Canal, which was a restriction for American naval vessels. The armoring plan for the Yamato-class ships was to place as much armor in the center of the ships as possible (thus making the beam even wider), and place as much vital machinery and spaces in this well protected region as possible, thus saving the need to grow longer in length. The resulting ships were floating fortresses with a relatively shallow draft for the size, stable enough even at high rudder angle to be effective gun platforms.
The armoring scheme, however, also had faults. Although the center portions of the ship were very well-protected, the entire bow and stern sections were completely unarmored. It was thought that even if the bow or stern were punctures, flood control compartments would prevent more serious damage. This theory would later prove to be flawed, as the compartments were too large to be effective.
Around the same time as the plan's acceptance, the drydock at Kure Naval Dockyards in Kure, Japan was expanded so that it would be large and deep enough to house the first of the new battleship design. The drydock was also partly covered so that the construction would remain in secret. Work on battleship Yamato began on 4 Nov 1937, and she was launched 8 Aug 1940. The second ship, Musashi, was built by Mitsubishi at the Nagasaki Shipyard, Nagasaki, Japan between 29 Mar 1938 and 1 Nov 1940. The planned third Yamato-class battleship was laid down on 4 May 1940, but was converted mid-way during the construction to become an aircraft carrier; Shinano was launched on 8 Oct 1944. The planned fourth ship was scrapped in 1943 when only 30% complete.
When Naoyoshi Ishida, an officer who served aboard the battleship Yamato, first saw her, he thought "How huge it is!" He recalled:
Because of the Yamato-class battleships' enormous size, men who served aboard them reported that there was no pitch or roll when sailing, even when standing at the top of the command tower. It was almost as if they were standing on firm ground, recalled Ensign Mitsuru Yoshida who served aboard Yamato as a radar officer.
As big naval guns are concerned, none were as fearsome as the Type 94 naval guns, built 46 centimeters in caliber just as originally planned. To hide their true size, they were designated "Special Type 40 cm" guns; this attempt was successful in fooling American intelligence. These guns were mounted on the battleships Yamato and Musashi in 3-gun turrets. Each one of the turrets weighed 2,774 tons, which was actually heavier than many destroyers in the WW2 time period. The range of these guns were stunning, being able to reach a target as far as 40 kilometers (25 miles) away. When they roared, a 15-meter semi-circle perimeter were considered dangerous for crew members, as the muzzle blasts generated intense heat. These Yamato-class battleships were typically stocked with:
- Explosive shells
- Armor piercing shells (Type 94)
- Sanshiki anti-aircraft shells (Type 3)
The explosive and armor piercing shells were heavier than their contemporaries, weighing in at 1,460 kilograms (3,218 pounds) each. The armor-penetration capabilities of the armor piercing shells were so great that when they were mis-used, as seen with Yamato during the Battle off Samar, they went right through target ships without exploding. With a capable crew, they could fire at the rate of once about every 40 seconds, which translated to about 1.5 rounds per minute.
While explosive and armor piercing shells were common among battleship ammunitions, the sanshiki shells were unique. They were 1360-kilogram (2,998-pound) shells filled with 900 incendiary tubes. They were fired toward toward the general direction of incoming hostile aircraft, and timed fuses triggered them to explode. After the fuses triggered, the cone-shaped space before each exploded shell were filled with steel splinters from the destroyed shell, shrapnel, and 0.5 second later fireballs from the incendiary tubes; the fireballs lasted for 5 seconds and burned at 3,000 degrees Celsius. Sanshiki shells were used by the battleship Yamato during her run at Okinawa, when she was overwhelmed by American carrier aircraft.
Battleship Musashi used her explosive shells in an interesting manner when she was attacked by American aircraft during the Battle of Sibuyan Sea. She fired explosive shells from her 46-centimeter primary guns into the water, making huge geysers aimed at knocking down torpedo bombers attacking her. "Running into one of these geysers would be like running into a mountain", recalled TBF Avenger pilot Jack Lawton, "I felt the muzzle blast each time they fired. I could swear the wings were ready to fold every tie these huge shockwaves hit us."
The Yamato-class battleships' secondary armaments consisted of four triple 6.1-inch guns, placed fore, aft, and one at each beam. As designed, they also carried 250mm guns and triple mounts and 13-mm machine guns.
In the stern, large hangar bays were found that were large enough to handle up to seven aircraft, though the battleships usually carried no more than three or four aircraft for spotting and reconnaissance purposes. Two 59-ft catapults were fitted on the quarterdeck of each battleship. During the war, Yamato and Musashi were fitted with various types of radar.
Although Yamato and Musashi, with their thick armor and huge guns, were the most powerful battleships of the Japanese Navy, they were never fully utilized to their full potential. They remained in port for the most part of the war, not engaging in combat until nearly the very end of the Pacific War. Both were sunk by overwhelming air power. Many historians had since argued that the Yamato-class battleships were a waste of resources, and they were obsolete even before construction began. Looking at the evolution of Japanese naval development in the 1930s, however, mirrored most major navies in the world, as naval aviation was still something that not too many had grasped well, and the building of the Yamato-class ships were almost rational. Once naval aviation established its place, however, unlike the American contemporary battleships which developed into anti-aircraft platforms, the Yamato-class ships never made a similar transformation, thus truly sealing its own fate as obsolete warships.
The Yamato-class battleships carries the legacy of being the largest and heaviest battleships to this day.
Sources: Imperial Japanese Navy Battleships 1941-45, Requiem for the Battleship Yamato, Sinking the Supership, Wikipedia.
Yamato-class Battleship Interactive Map
Yamato-class Battleship Operational Timeline
|1 Mar 1937||Some time during this month, Japanese Rear Admiral Keijii Fukuda and his design team completed the blueprint for the largest class of battleships in the world. This design would later become the Yamato-class battleship.|
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James Forrestal, Secretary of the Navy, 23 Feb 1945