Japanese Maritime Blockade Tsingtau 1914

On August 27th, the Japanese took possession of some of the small islands at the mouth of the harbor of Kiao-chau, and on September 2nd they landed troops in Shandong Province at the northern end of the peninsula where the German settlement at Tsingtao was situated, initiating the Siege of Tsingtao. The Japanese army employed four Maurice Farmans and a Nieuport IVG2 while the Navy provided a three seater Maurice Farman and three two seater Farmans from the seaplane tender Wakamiya. On arrival to the area they launched the first naval air operations of the Great War.

The first step taken in dispossessing Germany of her ‘place in the sun’ was the assembling of a naval force, named the Second Squadron, under Vice Admiral Kato Sadakichi to enforce a maritime blockade. Kato had seen action during the Russo-Japanese War as commanding officer of the cruiser Akitsushima and his squadron was built around five obsolete vessels captured during the course of that conflict. He flew his flag in Suwo, which had originally been the ‘Peresviet’ class battleship Pobieda. A veteran of the Battle of the Yellow Sea, Pobieda had been sunk by artillery fire at Port Arthur before being salvaged and re-commissioned into the Japanese Navy. Another combatant from the Yellow Sea battle was Tango, originally the ‘Petropavlovsk’ class battleship Poltava, and a vessel also salvaged from Port Arthur. Arguably his most powerful unit, and certainly the most modern, was Iwami, constructed as the ‘Borodino’ class battleship Orel. Orel had been part of the 1st Division of the 2nd Pacific Squadron and had surrendered on the orders of Rear Admiral Nikolai Nebogatov the day after the Battle of Tsushima, the only modern battleship to survive on the Russian side. Two more survivors of Tsushima, members of the 3rd Pacific Squadron and unfit to fight in 1905, comprised the other heavy units of Kato’s command. The Mishima and Okinoshima were ‘Admiral Ushakov’ Class coastal battleships commissioned in 1897 and 1899 as Admiral Senyavin and General-Admiral Apraxin respectively. One more unit of somewhat similar power and vintage, to Kato’s better ships at least, was later added to the blockading force in the shape of the ‘Swiftsure’ class battleship Triumph. Triumph provided, along with the destroyer Usk, the British naval contingent.

Kato also had four armoured cruisers; the British constructed Chiyoda, Tokiwa and Iwate, and the, ironically, German built Yakumo. In addition were several old lighter cruisers, including the American constructed protected cruiser Chitose and the protected cruiser Akashi. Other notable warships were Takachiho, constructed in Britain and originally designated a protected cruiser but re-classified as a second-class Coastal Defence Ship in 1912, and his former command, Akitsushima, originally considered a light cruiser but similarly re-designated in 1912. One of the few modern vessels in the squadron was the second-class protected cruiser Tone. If, apart from the last mentioned, the ships of the Second Squadron were firmly rooted in the past, then an additional vessel could be said to very much represent the future; the seaplane carrier Wakamiya Maru, a British-built freighter, captured from Russia in 1905 and commissioned into the Japanese Navy in 1913, carrying four seaplanes.

Against this large, if largely outmoded, force Meyer-Waldeck had little in the way of assets. All the naval units scattered throughout East-Asian waters had been recalled to Tsingtau, but even though the majority successfully complied, the resultant force was very weak. There were four ‘Iltis’ class gunboats: Iltis, Jaguar, Luchs and Tiger. These vessels were not designed or equipped for fighting other ships; the heaviest weapon carried being the two 105mm guns of the latter two.

Of perhaps more utility was the minelayer Lauting, which had a capacity of 120 mines, and the Torpedo Boat S-90, it being the original of the design that had caused a step-change in the relationship between Torpedo Boats and Torpedo Boat Destroyers, known generally thereafter as just Destroyers. S-90 was designed to accompany the battle-fleet to sea, and was thus larger and more substantially constructed than previous types. In reply to this danger the Royal Navy had introduced the ‘River’ class destroyers, which were able to keep the sea in much tougher conditions than their predecessors, the Torpedo Boat Destroyers, and displaced some 560 tonnes as against the S-90’s 315 tonnes.

Augmenting this strength, if that is the correct term, was the Austro-Hungarian ‘Kaiser Franz Josef I’ class Ram-Cruiser Kaiserin Elizabeth. Austro-Hungarian Ram-Cruisers, also known as Torpedo-Rams, were envisaged as leading a division of warships, consisting of two light cruisers, two torpedo boat destroyers and twelve torpedo boats, in attacks on enemy battleships and heavy units. The philosophy of utilising torpedocarrying craft to attack larger vessels came from the French Jeune École (Young School). Arising in the 1880s, this school of thought argued that equipping the French Navy with large numbers of torpedo-carrying vessels would nullify the overwhelming preponderance of heavy units in the British Navy. This ‘strategy of the weak’ was taken up by several lesser naval powers including Austria-Hungary. The British constructed one such vessel, Polyphemus, which was not followed up. The ‘Kaiser Franz Josef I’ class was quite heavily gunned as originally constructed, being armed with two 240mm guns, in turrets fore and aft, and six 150mm broadside guns in casemates, though the primary weapon was, at least initially, envisaged as the five torpedo tubes. The ramming function was, perhaps, a hangover from the Austrian victory over Italy in the 1866 Battle of Lissa. During the engagement the deliberate ramming of the Italian battleship Re d’Italia by the Austrian flagship, Ferdinand Max, caused the total loss of the former. In 1905–6, Kaiserin Elisabeth and her sister ship Kaiser Franz Josef I were refitted at Pola Navy Yard, and their 240mm guns, which had proved too heavy for their mountings, replaced with modern 150mm pieces. The casemate-mounted weapons, having proved difficult to work in anything but a calm sea, were moved up to main deck level.

The Kaiserin Elizabeth, the only naval unit deployed by Austria-Hungary in East Asia, arrived at Tsingtau on 22 July following orders from the naval command; there being nowhere else friendly to go and, with war imminent, no prospect of making the long journey home. Also present, though unserviceable, were the ‘Bussard’ class light cruiser Cormoran, which had been with Diederichs during the acquisition of the Kiautschou Territory, and the torpedo boat Taku, constructed by Germany for the Chinese Navy, but taken following the Boxer War. Cormoran had suffered engine failure, which was considered irreparable, and Taku had been severely damaged by a collision the previous year. There were three other German warships in the theatre that were unable to obey the order to make for Tsingtau, the purpose-built ‘Vaterland’ class river gunboats Vaterland, Tsingtau and Otter. Constructed in Germany specifically for service on the Chinese rivers, these vessels were then broken down before reassembly and commissioning in China. They were laid up at various Chinese ports in 1914, though the crews attempted to make the overland journey to Tsingtau and several succeeded.

In order to maximise his defensive position from naval attack, Meyer-Waldeck had ordered mines be laid in the near approaches to the territory. The day before the Japanese ultimatum expired he decided to utilise the rest of the stock around some small groups of islands lying some 15–20km offshore to the southeast, during the course of which operation Lautung was covered by the S-90.

Unbeknownst to the Germans, units of the British China Squadron were at sea on that day engaged in setting up a patrol line in order to intercept ships attempting to leave Tsingtau before the expiry of the ultimatum. There were four destroyers engaged in this activity during the evening of 22 August, all, coincidentally, of the ‘River’ class built to counter the threat of the S-90 Torpedo Boats; the Colne, Jed, Kennet and Welland. Seeing the smoke of the German torpedo boat the Kennet, which happened to be closest, increased to full speed and moved to engage. The S-90 became aware of this vessel closing fast, and accordingly turned and made for Tsingtau at her full speed. The design speed of the S-90 was 27 knots as against the 25 knots of the Kennet. Both vessels were around a decade old however and it would appear that the Kennet was in better shape, inasmuch as she was able to close on her smaller opponent. Kennet was also the more heavily armed; carrying four 110mm (12-pounder) guns in comparison with the three 77.5mm (4-pounder) weapons of S-90, and with her heavier metal was able to open fire first.

Here then, some ten years and 20000km from the arena that they were originally conceived as joining combat in, the torpedo boat and the (torpedo boat) destroyer finally came to blows, though in anything but the circumstances as originally envisaged. It was essentially a stern chase for the British vessel, and one that she would have won eventually given the maximum speed her opponent seemed capable of was just over 20 knots. During the course of the chase the British vessel fired some 300 rounds, and scored no hits, whilst S-90 replied with 250, and hit Kennet several times. Notwithstanding this, what essentially saved S-90 was some cunning on the part of her commander, who lengthened the distance by forcing Kennet to avoid shallow reef water, and, ultimately, the coastal artillery of Hui tsch’en Huk Battery. This began firing on Kennet whilst she was still out of range and thus gave warning of what the vessel could expect if she persisted. She did not, and turned away allowing S-90 to escape; ‘So vigorous had been the pursuit that the funnels of the S-90 gleamed red-hot in the night.’ During the course of the engagement the torpedo boat suffered no casualties, whilst three men were killed and six wounded, including her commander, aboard Kennet.

With these events in mind no doubt, the next sortie by Lauting, carried out the following day, was afforded a more powerful escort consisting of S-90, Jaguar and Kaiserin Elizabeth; the 150mm guns of the latter being seen as powerful enough to discourage the attentions of lighter units. The operation remained unmolested by surface units and passed off successfully, but when the minelayer turned to return to port she was almost overwhelmed by a massive explosion some distance astern. The ship had clearly not hit a mine, weighing only some 580 tonnes she would have been totally destroyed by such an event, and, despite reports that a shard of steel marked with the word ‘Portsmouth’ was found on her deck after the explosion, indicating the presence of British ordnance, the most likely explanation is that one of her recently laid mines had malfunctioned and exploded. The damaged ship was able to return to port under her own steam, but required two days of repairs in the floating dock before she was fit for service again, though this was somewhat academic as, early in the morning of 27 August, Kato’s squadron appeared off the coast.

The Japanese came no closer than about 25km, and requested, by radio, permission for an emissary to approach Tsingtau and land. This was refused; Kato’s next action was to proclaim, by radio and in English, a blockade:

I hereby declare that on the [27 August 1914] the blockade of the whole coastline […] of the leased territory of Kiautschou is established and will be maintained with the naval force under my command […] the ships of friendly and neutral powers are given twenty-four hours grace to leave the blockaded area and that all measures authorised by international law […] will be enforced […] against all vessels which may attempt to violate the blockade.

The Japanese also landed on and proceeded to occupy two small islands lying offshore, Taikungtao and Tschu tscha tau, upon which they constructed signals posts and navigation lights, and commenced minesweeping operations.

With the announcement of a naval blockade, and the cutting of the undersea cables to Shanghai and Chefoo (Yantai) on 14 and 24 August respectively by the Singapore-based Eastern Extension Australasia & China Telegraph Company (EEA&CTC) Cable Ship Patrol, the territory was cut off from maritime and cable communication with the outside world. Radio communication was also interdicted with the network of radio stations constructed in the Pacific territories, Anguar, New Guinea, Nauru, Samoa and Yap, having been, or in imminent danger of being, captured. Communication was possible with the Telefunken station in Shanghai, but either directly or indirectly with Nauen, the powerful station near Berlin that was the core of the network, much more problematical. There was of course still the inland telegraph and the Shantung Railway, though these would come under threat if the Japanese landed military forces.

Despite their inferiority the Germans were able to strike a blow, albeit minor, against the Second Squadron on 31 August with the assistance of the unseasonable weather. A severe storm had blown up the previous day and raged overnight; when the skies cleared somewhat they revealed a Japanese destroyer aground on Lien Tau Island some 10km to the south. The unfortunate vessel was the ‘Asakaze’ class Shirotaye, which had gone, or been driven, onto the island during the night. Other ships were undertaking a salvage attempt, but these were dispersed by the fire of Hui tsch’en Huk Battery thus allowing a foray by Jaguar, which was able to destroy the beached warship by gunfire before fleeing back to safety.

The improvement in the weather was temporary, which precluded any further naval action. It also did massive damage to the territory’s infrastructure with the swollen watercourses demolishing roads, bridges and several sections of the Shantung Railway. In respect of the latter, nature performed the work that German engineers were preparing to carry out, inasmuch as Meyer-Waldeck had ordered that preparations be made for demolishing several railway bridges. This was in order to prevent the Japanese capturing the railway intact, and, if they landed in the north, using it to facilitate their operations. The weather also benefited the Japanese, in the sense that along with the railway went the telegraph running alongside it. From the beginning of September then Kiautschou was effectively cut off in almost every sense of the word.

 

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