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NavHist - Yamato: Flagship of the Japanese Imperial Navy

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Reviewed by Ed Calouro

A long evolutionary arc traces the design and development of metal battleships. It generally dates to the Battle of Hampton Roads in 1862 between the ironclads USS Monitor and the CSS Merrimack (Virginia). Surely, the behemoth super dreadnoughts of the Yamato-class sit at the apogee of this arc. At 63,315 tons standard displacement (Jane’s Fighting Ships), the Yamato and Musashi were the biggest battleships ever built. Their 18.1-inch/45 caliber Type 94 guns were the largest ever mounted on a battleship, though the Royal Navy placed 18-inch/40 caliber guns on the large light cruiser HMS Furious and the monitors HMS General Wolf and Lord Clive during World War I. 

Daniel Knowles, author of Yamato: Flagship of the Japanese Imperial Navy, is well qualified to pen this volume. He previously published books about the German battleship Tirpitz, the battle cruiser HMS Hood, and the Battle of the Denmark Strait. This relatively slim 192-page book contains a brief introduction, twelve chapters, three appendices, endnotes, bibliography, and index. Its approximately 138-pages of narrative text provide a detailed description of the Yamato’s characteristics. Knowles, however, does much more than just describe the Yamato’s specifications. The conception and rationale for this gigantic dreadnought class are presented, analyzed, and evaluated. The super battleship’s relatively short operational history is noted and appraised. Was the gargantuan investment made in these warships justified?

Knowles writes that the Yamato-class (though the book is about the lead ship, the author concedes references to the Musashi are sometimes required) was designed to outfight any enemy battleship. They outgunned any potential opponent and were meant to outrange and strike before an adversary could get within effective range to utilize its own armament. Indeed, the Yamato was designed to simultaneously engage more than one enemy battleship. According to Knowles, with a Gross Domestic Product only 18 percent of their most likely enemy, the United States, the Japanese aimed for qualitative superiority since they knew they could not attain a quantitative advantage. 

The Yamatos were tragic ships.  Designed to outmatch what would become their most likely opponents – the American Iowa-class – the former were almost obsolete when they were accepted into service on 16 December 1941, only seven years after they had been designed. Though he appears to appreciate the power and majesty of battleships, Knowles concedes by the time the Prince of Wales and Repulse were sunk on 10 December 1941, the aircraft carrier had replaced the battleship as the premier capital ship of World War II. 

Knowles observes that the Yamatos were relatively inactive ships and were not fully utilized for the purpose for which they were built, namely, to fight other battleships. Indeed, the Yamato largely laid at anchor at Truk from late August 1942 until May 1943. The author asserts this was due partly to Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto’s reluctance to send his flagship into battle (there were other considerations).  She therefore played no part in the Battle for Guadalcanal. This somewhat bears out one of Robert L. O’Connell’s major points in Sacred Vessels: The Cult of the Battleship and the Rise of the U.S. Navy: that battleships were such expensive warships and so valuable, that they should seldom be risked in battle. One cannot help but wonder what the outcome of the combined Naval Battles of Guadalcanal (12-15 November 1942) might have been if Admiral Yamamoto had sent the Yamato and Musashi instead of the old IJN battleships Hiei and Kirishima to bombard Henderson Field and engage the USS Washington and South Dakota. After all, Vice Admiral William Halsey was not averse to sending his precious modern battleships into those restricted waters. 

While the Yamato took part in the Battles of Midway and Philippine Sea, she made no significant contribution at either encounter. At the Battle of Leyte Gulf, in October 1944, the Yamato finally utilized her main armament against other warships. Still, her contributions were minimal. Battleship buffs will forever bemoan Admiral Halsey’s decision to chase Vice Admiral Jisaburo Ozawa’s denuded aircraft carriers rather than leave Task Force 34 to guard San Bernardino Strait. This was the only opportunity Iowa-class battleships (the Iowa and New Jersey) might have had to engage the Yamato. The American dreadnoughts arrived just hours after the Yamato and her consorts departed. 

Once the Philippines were lost, there was little point in preserving Yamato, and she was sent on her final suicidal mission in April 1945. The outcome of Operation Ten Gō was preordained and the only question was whether Vice Admiral Marc A. Mitscher’s aircraft or Rear Admiral Morton Deyo’s two old battleship divisions would engage the Yamato. The title of a previous book by Russell Spurr, about Japan’s namesake battleship, indicates the outcome. It was, at least from the Japanese perspective, A Glorious Way to Die (1981). 

Knowles emphasizes that for much of the Pacific War, there was a lack of detailed and correct American intelligence about the Yamatos’ exact specifications. The USN Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) consistently underestimated the Yamato’s displacement, main armament, etc., though it was generally on the mark concerning the super dreadnoughts’ operational movements. The author attributes this to racial and cultural prejudices, assumed Japanese racial inferiority, Japanese secrecy, and persistent underestimation of evidence (i.e., from POWs) which contradicted ONI’s preconceived prejudicial notions. 

The six pages of endnotes and four-page bibliography overwhelming feature references to noteworthy and applicable secondary sources, many of which are of recent vintage. The expertise of battleship authorities such as William H. Garzke, Robert O. Dulin, Malcolm Muir, and Mark Stille are incorporated into this volume. Only American primary sources are cited for a very good reason. Knowles underscores the fact the Japanese took great pains to destroy most of their written materials dealing with the Yamatos’ design, capabilities, etc. This dearth of official records was only compensated for by postwar interviews of Japanese officers.

This excellent history and evaluation of the Yamato is only somewhat marred by a few unnecessary errors. Starting on the inside front cover flap, there is a missing word. On p. 9 of the introduction there is another missing word, and this continues elsewhere. As of 7 December 1941, Knowles refers to Vice Admiral Chūichi Nagumo as a Rear Admiral (p. 54). Knowles referred to Marc A. Mitscher in October 1944 as a Rear Admiral, despite the fact he had been promoted to Vice Admiral earlier that year (pp. 76 – 79). On p. 29, the author wrote the Yamato had 162 25-mm AA guns in her final configuration, yet on p. 100, the final complement of these weapons was listed as 152 guns. The middle and the last name of Professor Samuel Eliot Morison, the dean of American WW II naval historians, are misspelled repeatedly. Additionally, a map showing the location of Lingga Roads, Brunei, and their relative distance from the Philippines would have been helpful.

These minor observations aside, Daniel Knowles’ Flagship of the Japanese Imperial Navy is a first-rate study of one of the world’s two largest battleships.  Anyone wishing to learn more about the most formidable dreadnought ever constructed would do well to start with this volume.

Ed Calouro is a freelance writer and adjunct instructor in the History Department at Rhode Island College.  

Yamato: Flagship of the Japanese Imperial Navy (Daniel Knowles, Fonthill Media Limited, Stroud, Gloucestershire, UK, 2021).

The post Yamato: Flagship of the Japanese Imperial Navy first appeared on Naval Historical Foundation.

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