O-I Super-Heavy Tank

Imperial Japanese Army Super Heavy Tank 150 ton (O-I), this 1/72-scale kit was released by FineMolds in 2015. Model by Nuno Lima.

The O-I (Oi-sensha) was a super-heavy tank prototype designed by the Imperial Japanese Army during the Second Sino-Japanese War after the Battles of Nomonhan in 1939. The O-I is one of the Second World War’s more secretive tank projects, with documentation regarding the tank being kept private for over 75 years at Wakajishi Shrine, Fujinomiya. Surviving files have been purchased by FineMolds Inc., and publicly previewed in mid-2015. The multi-turreted 150-ton tank was designed for use on the Manchurian plains as a supportive pillbox for the Imperial Japanese against the Soviet Union. The project was disbanded four years after the initial development began, deemed unsatisfactory for continuation in 1943 after the lack of resource material for the prototype.

History and development

After 1939, the Imperial Japanese Army quickly came to realize that previous forms of mechanized warfare were proved inefficient after their defeat at Khalkhin Gol.

Development of the super-heavy project was spearheaded by Colonel Hideo Iwakuro, the head of the Ministry of War of Japan (Rikugun-shō). Iwakuro opposed Japan’s advances towards the Soviet Union in 1939, and with the Japanese defeat, he decided to initiate a project to construct a heavily armored tank capable of withstanding large-caliber field cannons. Iwakuro assigned Colonel Murata of the 4th Technical Research Group to design and construct the super heavy tank in 1939. Colonel Murata noted Iwakuro’s words as described;

 “I want a huge tank built which can be used as a mobile pillbox in the wide open plains of Manchuria. Top secret.”

 “Make the dimensions twice that of today’s tanks.”

The 4th Technical Research Group began designing the super-heavy vehicle throughout 1940, attempting to meet Colonel Iwakuro’s vague instructions on the ultimate goal of the project. By March 1941, the research group had finished initial tank design and was ready to begin construction. The following month, a group of pre-selected engineers were chosen to partake in the building of the super-heavy tank. One recorded engineer was Shigeo Otaka, who stated they were sent to the 4th Technical Research Group’s previous headquarters in Tokyo. There, they were guided through a barracks containing multiple small fitting rooms, where they were to conduct meetings and reports on the progress of construction of the super-heavy vehicle. Towards the end of the barracks facility was a fully-enclosed room devoid of windows, with soundproofed walls to prevent external personnel from overhearing discussions related to the project. Each officer present possessed a portion of the project’s blueprint, which, when assembled, projected the full design of the tank, labeled “Mi-To”. The name originated from a collection of the Mitsubishi industry and the city, Tokyo; given to the vehicle to uphold secrecy of the tank’s project.

The chosen engineers voiced their concerns regarding the Mi-To’s design noting that previously, the largest-sized Japanese tank had been the prototype Type 95 Heavy in 1934. Issues that had been noted with heavy tank experiments in the years preceding the Mi-To showing Japan’s generally unsuccessful testing on multi-turreted vehicles exceeding the weight of standard armored vehicles. However, with the threat of a second Russo-Japanese conflict becoming more apparent, the project continued despite the engineer’s doubts on the size and mobility of the vehicle.

On April 14th 1941, the engineers began the construction of the Mi-To under secretive means. This entailed privately-made mechanical parts and equipment being shipped to the construction zone. Colonel Murata’s original concept was to complete the super-heavy tank three months after the initiation of Mi-To’s construction. This, ultimately, did not come into fruition; as technical issues on the project began to arise. Due to the limitation on material consumption by the government, the amount of parts that could be secretly shipped-in began to dwindle. By the first month of construction, essential construction resources had been depleted and the issues with the vehicle’s cooling system further caused delays. The construction of the Mi-To was postponed until January 1942, a delay of nine months.

After the Mi-To’s construction was resumed, the hull was completed on February 8th 1942. The tank had reached near-completion and was being prepared for mobility testing. Mitsubishi built the four turrets for the tank in May of the same year. Initial assembly of the tank’s armament took place soon after the turret’s superstructures were completed. However; the project once again did not have the necessary resources needed for the few remaining parts required for the final assessment. Due to this, the primary turret was removed as it lacked a 35-millimeter-thick roof plate, which had not yet arrived. Thus, the project was put on standby, until further development could continue. The total weight of the vehicle at the time was 96 tons, due to the lack of remaining structural plates and absent 75mm bolted-on armor.

The date on which the construction of the tank resumed is unknown, although active testing of the tank was scheduled for late 1943. The tank was unveiled to the Imperial Japanese Army’s highest command in 1943, and received a name change to O-I. This followed Japanese naming convention (O translating to Heavy, I for First, making it “First Heavy”) that was standard. In his place was Lieutenant Colonel Nakano, Murata’s assistant and colleague. Tomio Hara, head of the Sagamia Army Arsenal, was also present. Following the demonstration, senior officials within the IJA requested that field trials begin in August of the same year. The tank was disassembled at 2:00 AM one night in June of 1943 and sent to the Sagami Army Arsenal in Sagamihara, 51 kilometers from Tokyo. The vehicle arrived at the depot in June, and was reassembled and tested on the 1st of August.

On the day of the trials, the O-I performed satisfactorily until the second hour of the tests. While maneuvering on off-road terrain, the tank sank into the ground by up to a meter; attempts at traversing the hull to extricate the vehicle proved fruitless, resulting in further sinking due to the vehicle’s suspension coils compressing. The tank was eventually towed out, and further testing was continued on concrete. However, the earlier damage to the suspension resulted in vehicle’s movement damaging the concrete, which in turn, further damaged the suspension bogies to the point that further testing could not continue. The trials were postponed, and later canceled the following day.

Nevertheless, the trials conducted at the testing field were considered to be a success, and the vehicle was deemed ready for use in spite of its flaws. The engineers began disassembly of the tank on the 3rd of August due to resources being limited and the inability to maintain the tank in the field. Disassembly of the tank was completed on August 8th. Two days later, the engineers noted in a log that they were to inspect the parts and conduct research to fix the issues the O-I would face.

The fate of the O-I after its field-trials which took place on the 1st of August is unclear. Russian reports claim the Japanese were in possession of a wooden O-I mock-up mounting a Daimler-Benz DB 601A engine in 1945, however other sources point to the scrapping of the remaining parts of the same year. The remains of the O-I reside at the Wakajishi Shrine, with a track link of the prototype still present.


The O-I was conceived out of the necessity to produce an armored vehicle capable of withstanding modern weaponry being able to return fire with similar firepower. The O-I was designed to act as a mobile pillbox, supporting infantry and mechanized groups along the border of the Soviet Union. The tank had a length of 10.1 meters, width of 4.8 meters, and a height of 3.6 meters. The dimensions of the vehicle closely matched those of the Panzer VIII Maus. The tank was envisioned to have a standard thickness of 150 millimeters front and rear, in order to protect against common anti-tank weapons of the time, yet it was constructed with armor 75 millimeters thick. However, an additional armor plate could be bolted on to bring the total thickness of the armor to 150 millimeters. The use of additional armor allowed for ease of construction and transportation, while also providing the tank with additional defense. Side armor on the hull superstructure was 70 millimeters thick. The additional armor plates were 35 millimeters thick, but armor surrounding the suspension was only 35 millimeters thick. This made the tank’s theoretical armor on the side 75 millimeters. There were eight wheel-supporting beams located on both sides of the suspension area which added an additional 40 millimeters of armor to specific locations on the side of the O-I. 40 ladder pieces were placed around the tank to provide crew with the ability to climb onto of the vehicle with ease.

The two 47mm cannons used in the two frontal turrets were also modified to fit the armor layout of the tank. The weapon’s barrels were reinforced with steel to secure them to the tank, due to the standard gun not adequately fitting into the turret.

The tank was both designed and built with two inner armor plates to divide the interior into three sections; walls with two doors each and an ultimate thickness of 20mm. This allowed the crew and modules to remain relatively safe while the structure was kept safe with supporting stands. These supports allowed the interior armor plates to stay stable and also prevented collapse. Inside the O-I were two Kawasaki V-12 engines, both located in the rear, parallel lengthwise, to give room for the rear turret operator and transmission. The transmission copied that of the Type97 Chi-Ha’s, but used larger parts and gears making the total weight heavier. The vehicle had a coil spring system, with eight 2 wheeled boggies, totaling 16 individual wheels.

Data Sheet


Name: O-I

Factory: Private – Mitsubishi

Units Produced: 1

Type: Super Heavy Tank

Year Built: February 8th 1942

Length: 10.1 m

Width: 4.8 m

Hull Width: 4833 mm

Height Full: 3.6 m

Turret height: 1065 mm

Track width: 800 mm

Track Pitch: 300 mm

Track Thickness: 58 mm Half, 108 mm Full

Total Weight: 150t (96t prototype)


Name: Type 98 V12 Kawasaki

Power: 550hp (1100hp total with second engine)

Weight: 1020kg

Gears: 6

Lubricant type: Oil

Maximum speed: 40kmh on road (prototype), 29.4 kmh (design) on road


Hull height: 2530 mm

Hull Width: 4833 mm

Upper Front Plate: 150mm @ 56,29°

Lower Front Plate: 150mm @ 45°

Lowest Front Plate: 70mm @ 70,5°

Side plate: 35mm @ 0° + Bolted 35mm @ 0°

Superstructure side plate: 75mm @ 0°

Upper Rear Plate: 150mm @ 18°

Lower Rear Plate: 150mm @ 33,01°

Lowest Rear Plate: 30mm @ 75,99°

Top plate: 50mm @ 0°

Bottom plate thickness: 30mm @ 0°

Turret Primary

Turret height: 1065 mm

Turret side faces: 150mm @ 90°

Turret top: 50mm @ 0°

Turret Ring: 1870 mm


Model: Type96 15cm Howtizer

Weight: 4,140 kg

Elevation: -5 ° to + 20 °

Amount of ammunition: 100+

Type of ammunition: Type 95 APHE, Type92 Spifire HE, 4th Year HEAT

Ammunition Types

Name: Type 95 APHE

Shell weight: 36000g

Velocity: 540m/s

Penetration: 125mm @ 230m, 120mm @ 510m, 112mm @ 755m, 102mm @ 1000m

Explosives: 6150g

Name: Type 92 Spifire HE

Shell weight: 36000g

Velocity: 540m/s

Explosives: 6150g

Name: 4th Year HEAT

Shell weight: 21040g

Velocity: 650m/s

Explosives: 6150g

Secondary Armament

Model: Type1 47mm Experimental

Weight: 600(+/-) kg

Elevation: -10 ° to + 20 °

Amount of ammunition: 100+

Type of ammunition: Type 1 APHE, Tungsten Alloy Toku Kou Prototype

Name: Type 1 APHE

Velocity: 810m/s

Penetration: 65mm @ 200m, 65mm @ 500m, 50mm @ 1000m, 45mm @ 1500m

Explosives: 17g

Name: Tungsten Alloy Toku Kou Prototype

Velocity: 810m/s

Penetration: 85mm @ 0m, 79mm @ 200m, 70mm @ 500m, 56mm @ 1000m, 45mm @ 1500m

Explosives: 17g



The third Arakan campaign of 1944 was broadly a success in the end. By September the Japanese were retreating south as their command concluded that it was no longer possible to hold north Burma. Still, it was a costly campaign, bedevilled by military and political problems. The air war was a hit-and-miss affair. It consisted mainly of bombing already ruined towns into the ground. An intelligence officer recorded that Paletwa, the largest town in northern Arakan, was now no more than jungle. It had been completely bombed out by the RAF. ‘In all these bombings there was intelligence officer recorded that Paletwa, the largest town in northern Arakan, was now no more than jungle. It had been completely bombed out by the RAF. ‘In all these bombings there was not a single soul in the place and the only casualty was a Japanese officer who lost an eye.’ The town and environs had already been squeezed for labour and produce by the Japanese who worked through the corrupt local police. It was then occupied by a British West African force and things got even worse for the local people. Everyone commented favourably on the Africans’ fighting qualities, but they appear to have been used to living off the land. The people were terrified of them and they happily looted village after village, committing more than fifty rapes for good measure, or so it was reported. Their officers apparently turned a blind eye. The African generally seems to have a touch of kleptomania’, someone noted, after troops had made off with a cow and brought it into their camp without a single British officer stopping them.

This was an area where there had been fierce clashes even before the war between incoming Bengali Muslims and the local Arakanese Buddhists. The Thakins had found much support among the embattled Buddhists and had instigated or turned a blind eye to communal massacres in 1942. In 1943, during General Irwin’s abortive offensive, Muslim militias ‘bent on loot and revenge’ had moved into the region on the heels of British troops. The Muslims massacred Buddhists and when the British moved out again the vicious cycle was reversed with Buddhist massacres of Muslims. The scene was set for nearly ten years of conflict during which armed Muslim militants carried out a guerrilla war first against the incoming British and then against the government of independent Burma.

The coming of the Civil Administration (Burma) was not an unmixed success either. Initially, the administration’s main aim was to collect labour and supplies for the advance to the south. This proved difficult. The population was mobile. Timber workers were used to migrating between Chittagong in India and Arakan, depending on the price of rice in the two regions. During the famine they had dispersed into Arakan. Labour had to be coerced into service. The ‘old hands’ now working for the Civil Administration found it difficult not to revert to tried, pre-war ways. The former Burma civil servant, Frederick Pearce, onetime secretary to the governor of Burma who was now chief civil affairs officer, wanted to collect the land revenue in classic ICS form despite the fact that the population was malnourished and in rags. Conflicts soon broke out between civil and military officers. Such was the demand for coolies to work on the new military roads that the army began to pay piecework rates well above those of local day labourers. The only way the Civil Administration could get off the ground was to impress labour under the Defence of Burma Rules and starve agricultural operations of manpower. This caused deep dissatisfaction and was psychologically damaging. The returning British administrators expected to find themselves greeted as heroes. To many local people they seemed little better than the Japanese, if at all. There was a strong Thakin element in Arakan and the news spread fast to central and southern Burma. It was one reason why relations between the British and the nationalists deteriorated so quickly after the Japanese were beaten.

The Nagas and other hill peoples played a key role in the fighting. As the Japanese pushed towards Manipur, the hill people found themselves right in the front line. The Naga levies and the exiguous British forces sent to aid them – V Force – had set into something of a routine since 1942. They drilled, exercised and listened. But the fighting on this front was over two hundred miles distant in 1943 and the first months of 1944 as the Chindits of the second Wingate expedition and Shan and Kachin levies carried on hazardous operations behind enemy lines. The main enemies at this time were cholera and smallpox, which stubbornly revived during the 1943 monsoon. But at least V Force now had food, clothing and ammunition. A particular hit amongst the Nagas, who had a keen sense of colour, were red blankets. These were specially coloured for use in the region and were used as gifts and payment throughout the hills. Amongst the Nagas, a leader was only first among equals and his honour and respect depended on his courage and his generosity in distributing prized items such as these.

Suddenly, the calm was broken. Ursula Graham Bower recalled two sergeants coming up to her on 28 March 1944 with chilling news. ‘Fifty Japs crossed the Imphal Road about a week ago and they ought to be here by now. We wondered if you had heard anything of them.’ The defensive belt had suddenly been rolled up and she and the local Naga chiefs were facing the advancing Japanese army with 150 native scouts, one service rifle, one single-barrelled shotgun and seventy muzzle loaders. There was a nagging fear that they would all be boxed in as the Japanese tide flowed round them on both sides. The code ‘one elephant’ was devised to signal that ten Japanese were approaching. A near panic set in when someone arrived in the locality with forty real elephants. On this occasion, the only ‘Jap’ sighted was an unfortunate squirrel which was shot out of a tree by an over-eager scout. But the danger was real enough. Several Naga scouts in the Imphal area went over to the Japanese and led the Japanese to British arms dumps. Bower noted that they were from communities that had taken part in a rebellion during the First World War. There was always the fear that the whole scout force would break and flee as the attack proceeded. After all, these men were scouts and not a fighting force. Meanwhile, refugees once more tramped through the hills. Among them were Bengali and Madrasi pioneers evacuated from Imphal. Then came newly recruited and ill-disciplined Indian support staff, artisans, drivers and mechanics, who all stumbled by with Naga porters and children, sometimes accompanied by escaped Japanese prisoners. Morale hung on a knife-edge until a platoon of Gurkhas came up to support Bower’s detachment. They maintained calm until Kohima was relieved.

The sense of chaos and panic among the defence units of the hill people hid a more important fact. This was the extent to which Naga, Chin and other personnel contributed to the defence of Imphal and Kohima and to the shattering victory that British and Indian forces subsequently won against the Japanese. Army intelligence wrote in the summer: ‘The quantity and quality of operational information received from the local inhabitants has been a major factor in our success to date. A high percentage of our successful air strikes have been the direct result of local information.’ The loyal Nagas gave the Japanese false information about British troop numbers. They guided British and Indian troops through the jungle and pointed out Japanese entrenchments and foxholes to them.

Finally, the great Japanese strength as jungle fighters was being turned against them. Ironically, the Japanese high command was in part betrayed by its own racial ideology, as the British had been two years earlier. The Japanese found it difficult to see the Nagas and allied tribes as anything more than illiterate primitives, more backward even than the aboriginal groups that they encountered in Hokkaido island or Taiwan. Nor could they believe that any Asiatic could reject the idea of ‘Asia for the Asians’ unless they had been bribed or bullied into doing so. No native people could possibly support the British of their own volition. Nagas and Chins were therefore allowed to wander around the Japanese camps even at the critical time when the Imperial Army was moving against Manipur.

Slim told Ursula Graham Bower a revealing story about Naga support. The Japanese commanders on the Manipur front employed a number of Naga orderlies as batmen in the early months of 1944. Naturally, they treated them as illiterate numbskulls. Two of these Nagas decided to steal an operational map which they saw lying around in a commander’s tent. Only too well aware of the estimate the Japanese put on their brainpower, they covered their tracks by pretending that this had been an ordinary theft, and made off with clothing and small pieces of equipment as well as the map. Within a few hours the map was on Slim’s table at British headquarters. As the attack developed, Slim was astonished to find that the Japanese commanders had not modified their plan one iota, so sure were they that no mere Naga orderly could have understood the significance of a battle plan. Slim told Bower that this intelligence was of very great importance in the defence of Imphal and Kohima. Indeed, the debt of the British to the tribal people of the hills was incalculable. Smith Dun, the four-foot tall Karen officer, remembered how dependent he had been on intelligence supplied by the local people during the fighting in the Chin Hills in 1943 and ’44. By chance one of the unit’s batmen was the son of a member of the local Chin levies. Dun’s force was able to move around behind Japanese lines using the information supplied by family members. But vendettas were also in the air. Smith Dun believed that the batman was eventually betrayed by a rival Chin family.

In Simla during June and July, Dorman-Smith among many other officials was aware of the critical situation in Manipur. Their optimism waxed and waned day by day as they read intelligence appraisals and spoke to soldiers returning briefly from the front. They listened to the English-language propaganda broadcasts from Japanese and INA sources with a mixture of amusement and anxiety, unable to evaluate what they heard. The governor still had a lot of minor political skirmishes to fight and this kept his mind off the war. There were the constant battles with Simla officials over accommodation for his government. Would this irritate Archie Wavell? ‘Who would be an exile!’ he wailed. Then again news came that ‘Uncle Joe Stilwell is by no means the popular figure that he was with his own Yank forces’ because of his cavalier attitude to the Chinese troops’ brutal way with the civilians of north Burma. Best of all, ‘Chancre Jack’ and his corrupt cronies were in trouble. ‘I expect you have heard that Chiang is engaged in an affair with some chit of a nurse who is about to produce an infant. Hence Madame’s disappearance. Just what repercussions all this may have, I do not know. But I do not like to think of a Madame scorned set loose upon the world.’

The mood across India remained apprehensive. Yet there was still no panic as there had been in response to every rumour during 1942. Censorship was tight and the Information Bureau of the government was by now so skilled in packaging news of the campaign that, as an intelligence official recorded, ‘even the civilians in Delhi failed to realise its importance’. He remembered looking out over a quiet and peaceful Janpath, Delhi’s triumphal thoroughfare, during these weeks and later recorded that it was impossible to conceive of the vast Arakan battle, still less the looming fact of the independence of India and Pakistan. British India seemed to have survived once again as it had survived every challenge since the Maratha invasions of the eighteenth century.

Once the monsoon had begun in earnest the Japanese reverse in Assam became a rout and the scenes of horror were even worse than the green hell of the Hukawng valley in 1942. The 14th Army had become a cold, efficient killing machine. Very few prisoners were taken on the Allied side. The British, Indian and African troops methodically and ruthlessly killed all Japanese, enraged by cases of atrocities against their own wounded. The enemy were rooted out of their foxholes and shelters, shot down or burnt to death with the new American-made flame-throwers. British, Indians, Gurkhas and Africans took tallies of the numbers of the dead. Those Japanese who stumbled into Kachin and Shan levies sometimes had their heads taken as grim tokens of the new barbarism. Of these operations, Slim wrote laconically: ‘quarter was neither asked, nor given’. Worse even than the condign Allied vengeance were the ravages of disease, monsoon and malnutrition. The Japanese army thrown against Imphal and Kohima was a kind of mass suicide squad. When it was defeated by the vastly increased firepower of the British and Indian armies and American air power, it was cast aside and abandoned by its commanders. There were no reserves, little transport for the withdrawal, no food and medicines. The Japanese air force was and American air power, it was cast aside and abandoned by its commanders. There were no reserves, little transport for the withdrawal, no food and medicines. The Japanese air force was almost entirely a fighter force and could not supply its troops by air. The Japanese had aimed to live off the land and ‘Mr Churchill’s rations’ – captured British supplies – as they had done in 1942. But there was little left on the land by this time and Mr Churchill proved very much less obliging. Even during the advance, the Japanese were on completely inadequate rations, except where they encountered the few remaining herds of cattle belonging to the hill peoples. Now, in July and August, they simply starved or drowned, sucked into seas of mud and filth. One Japanese soldier remembered:

In the rain, with no place to sit, we took short spells of sleep standing on our feet. The bodies of our comrades who had struggled along the track before us, lay all around, rain-sodden and giving off the stench of decomposition. Even with the support of our sticks we fell amongst the corpses again as we stumbled on rocks and tree roots made bare by the rain and attempted one more step, then one more step in our exhaustion.

Thousands and thousands of maggots crept out of the bodies lying in streams and were carried away by the fast flowing water. Many of the cadavers were no more than bleached bones. ‘I cannot forget the sight of one corpse lying in a pool of knee-high water. All its flesh and blood had been dissolved by the maggots and the water so that now it was no more than a bleached uniform.’

For many their only recourse was suicide. Groups of soldiers huddled together over a grenade by the side of the road, while one pulled out the pin to end their misery. A British officer of the King’s African Rifles remembered encountering thousands of the dead or dying enemy. There were ‘strewn over gaseous, bloated bodies family photographs, postcards of cherry blossom and snow capped Mount Fujiyama and delicate drawings of flowers had fallen from dying hands as life ebbed away in the roar of the unceasing rains’.63 Near Tamu, scene of mass refugee deaths two years before to the month, the King’s African Rifles warily entered a village recently occupied by the Japanese. ‘At the far end of the village a small shrine beneath a rusted corrugated-iron roof housed a statue of Buddha gazing across the paddy fields. Lying at the foot of the Buddha was a naked Japanese soldier, a barely living skeleton, with an empty water bottle by his side. Glaring at us, he croaked some words before his head fell back on the mud floor.’ Later, in the British camp, a Japanese-speaking intelligence officer wrote down the dying man’s delirious ravings: ‘Lieutenant Hazaki! Lieutenant Hazaki, where are you, you bastard? Shoot me with your pistol! Come and shoot me! You useless fool! For the sake of the Emperor we came to these filthy hills to be disgraced. Dragged on my behind by blackamoors! We came from Indo-China to be disgraced and clowned by blackamoors. Lieutenant Hazaki, you bastard, bring a machine gun and mow them down. Ah, the disgrace. A Japanese officer dragged in the mud.’

It is estimated that more than 80,000 Japanese died in this campaign as a whole, making it the worst defeat in Japan’s military history and in terms of personnel killed a greater one than any suffered during the main battles of the Pacific naval war. After their failure at Imphal, the Japanese were beaten back at Manipur and the Manipur road was reopened. The 17th Indian Division moved forward on Tiddim, taking Tamu on 4 August. This finally obliterated the memory of the division’s mauling at the Sittang bridge in 1942. The rolling-up of the Japanese position in the northeast was accompanied by a new push by Stilwell and the Chinese from the north. This assault was led by the US Army’s 5307th Composite Unit, the famous Merrill’s Marauders, built up to strength with Kachin and Chinese soldiers. This long-range penetration unit, urged on by Stilwell, took nearly 80 per cent casualties from enemy action and disease as it pushed down from the north through rain-soaked jungle. By 3 August, however, Myitkyina and its airfield were once again in Allied hands, recaptured as the Japanese garrison withdrew.

Finally, the Allies on the Burma front had something to celebrate. Leo Amery, the secretary of state, visited the war front. He spoke to Gurkha troops in Urdu, revealing that it was ‘a language I learned with my Ayah’s [nurse’s] milk nearly seventy years ago’, a perfect example of how the whole British ruling class of those days was shot through with memories of India. Wavell later flew to Manipur and knighted Slim and Auchinleck on the field. He then held a durbar, or official audience, with the Naga chiefs, as the Japanese were finally cleared south into Burma, chased by deep penetration forces.

In the distant Punjab, the province from which such a large proportion of the troops came, there was quiet rejoicing. The National War Front published advertisements in newspapers and distributed posters proclaiming ‘Salute the Soldier!’ The Maharaja of Patiala met returning troops and moved amongst them, chatting. Recruiting posters harped on the modernity of the armed forces: ‘Pilot today. Airline executive tomorrow!’ But that quiet rejoicing was tempered by anxiety. The Railway Board published a notice depicting emaciated villagers staring at a railway carriage: ‘Travel less’. It urged people to refrain from leisure journeys when food distribution remained a priority. Rationing remained severe. The black market burgeoned. The poisonous fires of Hindu–Muslim hatred were stoked across the Punjab as Jinnah denounced Gandhi’s most recent political plans as ‘a death warrant to all Muslims’. It was as if the callousness of wartime killing was seeping into Indian political debate and polluting it.

As the Japanese perished in their thousands, the Punjab and Delhi were suffering a particularly punishing ‘hot weather’. Despite its appearance of blithe normality and the distance from the crisis in Assam, things were gradually deteriorating in the capital. The last few years of the Raj were far from the ‘cushy billet’ that expatriates had come to expect. Wartime restrictions on imports meant that people were forced to make do with poor-quality Indian goods: electric light bulbs that exploded with monotonous regularity, Indian beer which had to be upended in pails of water to let the toxins drift off. The cost of living had risen 200 – 300 per cent in a few months. Private servants were in very short supply because of the demand for labour from swollen government offices and the military. Several officials suffered nervous breakdowns because of the pressures of extra work. Race relations deteriorated further. Indians were resentful of the new influx of British and Americans and their own declining standards of living. The imprisonment of Gandhi and the other Congress leaders was regarded as a national insult and the prospect of Gandhi’s death from a hunger strike had threatened public order. The British, for their part, were tense. They knew that the eastern war was still in the balance, but were poorly informed about what was actually happening. They tended to take it out on Indians, who were regarded as secretly seditious. Water shortages became worse. Pumping stations could not cope with the greatly increased wartime population. Cholera made its appearance as people drank bad water and started to spread as the rains began. Police cordoned off the coolie camp near the city and 3,000 people were inoculated in the course of a few weeks.

Then, quite suddenly, with the coming of the rains, the mood lightened. People sensed that the crisis had passed. Noël Coward arrived in Delhi and began to entertain the troops. He appeared at a cocktail party at the viceroy’s house, while lower ranks were entertained all over town with sausages, fruit juice and cigarettes. Around the middle of July All-India Radio began to broadcast news of the Japanese retreat from Imphal. British India was saved for its final three years of existence. Not everyone rejoiced. The victory at Imphal and the Normandy landings in Europe triggered a slump on Indian stock markets. This was because ‘India was one vast black market’ and the fun would end with the war. One Indian merchant wired his agent: ‘Situation Changing. Don’t buy anything… the future is not at all promising. It seems the war is drifting towards its end.’

IJN Aircraft at Pearl Harbor

The Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) had a large carrier force at the start of the war, the air groups of which were weighted toward attack aircraft rather than fighters. Its aircraft were lightly built and had very long range, but this advantage was usually purchased at the expense of vulnerability to enemy fire. The skill of Japanese aviators tended to exaggerate the effectiveness of the IJN’s aircraft, and pilot quality fell off as experienced crews were shot down during the Midway and Solomon Islands Campaigns.

When it first appeared in mid-1940, the Mitsubishi A6M Zero was the first carrier-based fighter capable of beating its land-based counterparts. It was well armed and had truly exceptional maneuverability below about 220 mph, and its capabilities came as an unpleasant shock to U. S. and British forces. It achieved this exceptional performance at the expense of resistance to enemy fire, with a light structure and no armor or self-sealing tanks. Its Achilles heel was the stiffness of its controls at high speed, the control response being almost nil at indicated airspeed over 300 mph. The Zero was developed throughout the war, a total of 10,449 being built.

The Aichi D3A (“Val”) carrier-based dive-bomber entered service in mid-1940, and it was the standard Japanese navy dive-bomber when Japan entered the war. It was a good bomber, capable of putting up a creditable fight after dropping its bomb load. It participated in the attack on Pearl Harbor and the major Pacific campaigns including Santa Cruz, Midway, and the Solomon Islands. Increasing losses during the second half of the war took their toll, and the D3A was used on suicide missions later in the war. Approximately 1,495 D3As were built.

The Nakajima B5N (“Kate” in the Allied designator system) first entered service in 1937 as a carrier-based attack bomber, with the B5N2 torpedo-bomber appearing in 1940. The B5N had good handling and deck-landing characteristics and was operationally very successful in the early part of the war. Large numbers of the B5N participated in the Mariana Islands campaign, and it was employed as a suicide aircraft toward the end of the war. Approximately 1,200 B5Ns were built.

Japan relied on three primary reconnaissance floatplanes during the war. The three-seat Aichi E13A, of which 1,418 were produced, was Japan’s most widely used floatplane of the war. Entering service in early 1941, it was employed for the reconnaissance leading up to the attack on Pearl Harbor, and it participated in every major campaign in the Pacific Theater, performing not only reconnaissance but also air-sea rescue, liaison transport, and coastal patrol operations. Introduced in January 1944 as a replacement for the E13A, the two-seat Aichi E16A Zuiun offered far greater performance capabilities but came too late in the war to make a significant difference, primarily because Japan’s worsening industrial position limited production to just 256 aircraft. Based on a 1936 design that underwent several modifications, the two-seat Mitsubishi F1M biplane, of which 1,118 were produced, proved to be one of the most versatile reconnaissance aircraft in Japan’s arsenal. Operating from both ship and water bases, it served in a variety roles throughout the Pacific, including coastal patrol, convoy escort, antisubmarine, and air-sea rescue duties, and it was even capable of serving as a dive-bomber and interceptor.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the U. S. Pacific fleet moved to this shallow harbor in Hawaii in May 1940, thousands of miles from its base at San Diego. The idea was to deter a Japanese assault on Southeast Asia. Instead, American-Japanese relations continued to deteriorate toward war over the course of 1941. An Imperial Conference convened on September 6 made the decision for war. Japanese forces immediately mobilized and the Navy began planning the attack on Pearl. Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto ordered preparations for the attack on November 1. A final peace effort by Japanese diplomats failed in late November. A powerful warfleet, Strike Force Kido Butai, sortied from the Kurils on November 26. It comprised six aircraft carriers and many heavy escorts, destroyers, and submarines. The flagship of Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo flew the famous “Z” flag, which fluttered above victories over Russia at Port Arthur in 1904 and the Tsushima Strait in 1905.

After 12 days undetected at sea, facilitated by refueling from tankers, the carriers received the attack signal: “Climb Mount Niitaka.” Washington had broken the Japanese diplomatic code but not the naval code. Earlier in the day the War Department sent warnings to Pearl and Manila of an anticipated Japanese assault. The attack, if it came, was expected to fall on the Philippines; no one considered that the Japanese might be so daring as to hit Pearl. In any event, the warning to Pearl was delayed by a black comedy of technical and human errors and did not arrive in time. The battleships of the U. S. Pacific Fleet were therefore still neatly docked on a quiet Sunday morning and caught wholly unawares by the Japanese naval air attack. The first attack wave achieved total surprise just after 7:00 A. M. on Sunday morning, December 7th, 1941. It began before the official Japanese declaration of war was delivered: it was delayed by lengthy transcription and slow decoding by the Japanese Embassy in Washington. The declaration of war belatedly delivered to Secretary of State Cordell Hull accused the United States of conspiring “with Great Britain and other countries to obstruct Japan’s efforts toward the establishment of peace through the creation of a new order in East Asia, and especially to preserve Anglo-American rights and interests by keeping Japan and China at war.” Americans later made much of the “sneak attack” at Pearl, though in Japanese operational terms the achievement of surprise was desirable and effective

Surprise over Hawaii was total. The attack was designed by Commander Mitsuo Fuchida, a brilliantly innovative planner. It had as historical inspiration the stunning sinking of the Tsarist fleet at anchor at Port Arthur in 1904. Its spiritual inspiration and icon was even older: a famous samurai sword maneuver, the “i-ia” stroke that gutted or crippled an enemy before combat began. Its immediate progenitor was the RAF assault on the Italian fleet at Taranto. Fuchida led in the first wave, comprising 183 bombers, torpedo planes, and fighters. Splitting into four attack groups, the Japanese hit U. S. Army and Marine Corps air fields and bombed the ships lined up in “Battleship Row” in the harbor at Ford Island. A second wave of 170 planes attacked into more opposition, yet Japanese losses remained light. Within hours of the first explosions much of the Pacific Fleet was afire, sunk, or badly damaged. Among major capital ships, the battleship “Arizona” was gutted while the “Oklahoma” turtled. The battleships “California,” “Nevada,” and “West Virginia” were also sunk at anchor. On these and other ships, at the airstrips and elsewhere in Hawaii, the U. S. suffered 3,695 casualties, including 2,340 military personnel killed. Of the dead, 1,177 were aboard the “Arizona.” Another 48 civilians were killed. The USN saw 12 of its warships sunk or beached and another 9 badly damaged, while 164 Navy, Marine, or Army aircraft were destroyed and 159 more damaged. The Japanese lost a mere 29 planes and 64 men, including 9 navy crew killed on 5 midget submarines. However, the U. S. fleet carriers, the primary targets sought by Yamamoto and Fuchida, were fortuitously at sea on exercises and thus were spared. The “USS Enterprise” took some pilot casualties as it stretched its planes out from a distance to intercept the Japanese second wave. Admirals Nagumo and Yamamoto then clenched and refused to launch a third strike wave to destroy Pearl’s fuel and repair facilities. Had they done so, that action would have done more long-term damage to the Pacific Fleet even than dropping battleships in the shallow harbor.

Sino-Japanese War

The Battle of the Yalu River (“Naval Battle of the Yellow Sea”) was the largest naval engagement of the Qing-Japan War, and took place on 17 September 1894, the day after the Japanese victory at the land Battle of Pyongyang. It involved ships from the Imperial Japanese Navy and the Qing Beiyang Fleet. The battle is also known by a variety of names: Battle of Haiyang Island, Battle of Dadonggou, Battle of the Yellow Sea and Battle of Yalu, after the geographic location of the battle, which was in the Yellow Sea off the mouth of the Yalu River and not in the river itself. In the second half of the nineteenth century in Asia, both Qing and Japan put major resources into creating modern navies of armored steamships with guns firing explosive shells. Their battle at the Yalu River in 1894 ended with the defeat of Qing Empire Beiyang Fleet.

Turning to Germany for training and equipment of their army and to Great Britain for ships and naval instructors, the Japanese soon knew themselves to be the leading oriental military power and began to stretch their muscles. The first to feel their strength were the Chinese. Although the humiliating defeats leading up to the enforced treaties with the western powers had opened their eyes to the need to acquire western military and commercial skills and a `self-strengthening movement’ was set on foot under the guiding hand of the all-powerful minister Li Hung-chang, the Chinese people and their Manchu rulers lacked the martial ardour and the sense of purpose that raised the Japanese so rapidly to modern military and industrial power. Arsenals were founded at Shanghai, at Foochow and Nanking where small ships were built and guns manufactured. Chinese students were sent abroad, a naval academy founded at Tientsin and a steam navy, built abroad, was commissioned, or rather four separate navies – at Canton, at Foochow, in the Yangtse River and (in the north) the Peiyang fleet. Only the last of these was under the direct control of the Peking government.

Such an arrangement was an inadequate basis for sea power and when, in 1874, a Japanese expedition was sent to Formosa to exact retribution for the murder of some Ryu-kyu sailors by Formosan aborigines, the Chinese were unable to take any effective steps to protect this overseas outpost of their Empire. Actually the whole basis for the Japanese action was in Chinese eyes false. For the Ryu-kyu Islands had been a regular tributary of China since 1372. But the Japanese Lord of Satsuma had, unknown to the Chinese, subjugated them in 1609, since when the island king had been also a tribute-paying vassal of Satsuma.

Negotiations, in which the British minister to China, Thomas Wade, acted as mediator, led to a settlement by which China paid an indemnity of half a million dollars and agreed not to condemn the Japanese action. This latter concession tacitly implied Chinese acceptance of Japanese sovereignty over the Ryu-kyus and five years later this was confirmed by Japanese formal annexation.

Korea and Japan

In 1875 it was the Koreans’ turn to clash with the newly awakened aggressive power. Though Christian missionaries had, in spite of periodic persecution, spread their faith widely in the kingdom since the second half of the eighteenth century, the Koreans had successfully resisted all Western efforts to promote trade or establish diplomatic relations. In 1866, following a sweeping massacre of Christian priests, the French had sent a punitive expedition of seven ships and six hundred men which captured Kangwha near Seoul, but after suffering more than thirty casualties in a skirmish outside the city, withdrew. An American merchant ship seeking trade was destroyed and the crew killed in the same year. An American squadron sent to investigate the matter in 1871 steamed into the Han River, on which Seoul lies; on being fired on by shore batteries, the ships bombarded the city of Kangwha on two successive days but then withdrew, their mission unfulfilled.

To the Japanese, Korea represented either a natural stepping stone to their penetration of the mainland or a pistol pointing at the heart of their country. They soon determined it should be the former. An expedition to force diplomatic and trade relations was planned; a surveying team with gunboat escort began charting the approaches to the Korean capital in 1875, and when this was fired on, the gunboats retaliated, destroying the Korean forts. A squadron of six Japanese warships appeared. The Chinese government was at that time in no state to interfere on behalf of its tributary state. The Korean Regent was instructed to negotiate and the Treaty of Kangwha, 24 February 1876, was the result. Not only was Korea thereby opened to diplomatic and commercial relations with Japan, but she was recognized as an independent state on an equal footing with Japan and, in the absence of any protest by China, was thus freed of her ancient vassalage.

When the United States concluded a similar treaty in 1882, the Koreans took the opportunity, in a separate statement, voluntarily to acknowledge Chinese suzerainty ; and it was under the auspices of the Chinese government that the treaty and those with Britain, France and Germany which followed it were concluded. Nevertheless Japan soon became influential in Seoul, operating in support of Queen Min, to reform the government and modernize the army, and against the reactionary Regent, Taewongon. In 1882 the latter provoked a rising during which the Japanese legation was burned, seven Japanese officers were killed and the minister forced to flee to Japan.

Both Chinese and Japanese warships arrived to enforce a pacification. The Chinese envoy arrested the Regent and deported him to China. A settlement with Japan was patched up, the most significant feature of which was the establishment of the Japanese right to station troops for the protection of the legation. The Chinese government, however, now took steps to re-assert suzerainty. Extra-territoriality for their nationals was one of the terms of a commercial treaty ; six Chinese battalions were stationed in Korea and a young Chinese officer, Yuan Shih-k’ai, who was in the years ahead to play a leading role in the history of China, was appointed to train the Korean army.

Pro-Chinese and pro-Japanese factions now grew up and in December 1884 the latter, encouraged by the Japanese minister and aided by the Japanese legation troops, staged a revolt in which the royal palace was broken into and the king captured. Yuan Shih-k’ai’s troops gained the upper hand, however; the Japanese, facing annihilation, set fire to their legation and, formed into a square with their wounded and womenfolk in the centre, fought their way through the winter night to the coast.

With a technique that was to become only too familiar, the Japanese made the incident an excuse for sending an expedition to enforce payment of compensation while at the same time a Sino-Japanese Convention was concluded at Tientsin. By its terms both Chinese and Japanese troops were to be withdrawn; but, deeply significant for the future was the mutual agreement that either China or Japan might send troops into Korea for the restoration of order provided they gave each other prior notice. For the time being, however, Chinese influence was supreme with Yiian Shih-k’ai virtually Governor of Korea.

French Aggression

But the Japanese, growing ever stronger on land and sea, were biding their time, while China, for lack of adequate sea power suffered a humiliating defeat when she attempted to oppose French aggression in Vietnam. Annam, as Vietnam was then called, was an ancient tributary state of China. Tribute missions had been sent to Peking even after the French had annexed the three southern provinces (Cochin-China) following the despatch of a punitive expedition to Saigon in 1859 on account of attacks on missionaries. She established a virtual protectorate over the remainder by another treaty in 1874. French troops were stationed in North Vietnam and fortresses built along the Red River. They were opposed by an irregular Chinese `Black Flag’ army, a remnant of the rebel Taiping army which from 1850-64 had controlled much of China and came near to unseating the Ch’ing dynasty. Regular Chinese troops were also surreptitiously sent to Tonking.

The fighting on land that followed was sporadic and indecisive. But when on 23 August 1884 the French Rear Admiral Courbet, with a squadron consisting of three powerful armoured cruisers and nine smaller ships attacked the Chinese Foochow squadron of one iron vessel, six wooden sloops, two armed transports, two gunboats and a number of war junks, the huge French superiority of force made the encounter into little more than a military execution. It took a mere forty-five minutes, following which the French guns were turned destructively on the arsenal and the defensive forts. The French fleet went on to occupy Keelung in Formosa and the Pescadores.

Meanwhile a blockade of the Yangtse River estuary and stoppage of the tribute grain from South China to the capital had been undermining the warlike resolution of the Empress Dowager ; when a serious defeat of the French army in Tonking offered a face-saving opportunity, a peace treaty was negotiated in June 1885, which recognized France’s position in Annam.

Yet another ancient tributary was lost to China in the following year when Burma became a British protectorate. Japanese hunger for a share in the apparent break-up of China strengthened their determination to possess themselves of Korea when the moment was ripe.

In 1894 an uprising by a Korean religious sect known as the Tongkaks, assisted by agents of the Japanese secret society, Genyosha, caused the Korean government to appeal to Yuan Shih-k’ai for help. A force of about 2,500 Chinese infantry was landed at Asan on the Korean west coast. This was the moment the Japanese had been waiting for: a balanced army eight thousand strong was immediately transported to Chemulpo.

Li Hung-chang turned to the western powers for mediation. Proposals by the British and Americans were rejected by the Japanese and, with war imminent, the Chinese chartered three British steamers to carry reinforcements to Asan. Two of these, escorted by the small protected cruiser, Tsi-Tuen, and the sloop, Kwang-Yi, reached Asan safely ; but as the two warships put to sea again on 25 July 1894 to return to Taku, they were intercepted by the Japanese Flying Squadron of three fast light cruisers, Yoshino, Naniwa and Akitsushima, under the command of Rear Admiral Tsuboi who had orders to stop the transport of troops to Korea, if necessary by force, and to deal with any Chinese warships met, though war had not yet been declared.

Convoy Battle

In the unequal fight that developed the Chinese were overwhelmed, the Tsi-Yuen being heavily damaged, though she was unaccountably allowed to limp away to the Chinese naval base of Wei-hai-wei ; the little sloop was forced to beach herself, where she was quickly destroyed. While the Yoshino was chasing the Tsi-Yuen off the scene, there came in sight two more ships. These were the chartered Jardine and Matheson steamer, Kowshing, carrying 1,200 Chinese troops, twelve guns and two Chinese generals, and her escort the 572-ton sloop Tsao-kiang. The sloop was quickly induced to surrender to the Akitsushima. The Naniwa, commanded by Captain Heihachiro Togo (who eleven years later was to be the hero-admiral, victor at the Battle of Tsu-shima), meanwhile signalled the Kowshing to stop and, having ascertained that she was carrying troops, ordered her to follow the cruiser. When the British master signalled that the Chinese would not allow him to comply and requested Togo to take off the Europeans on board, the Japanese captain declined on the grounds that his boat might be attacked. Four hours of unproductive signalling was brought to an end when the Naniwa opened fire at point blank range and sank the Kowshing. The British officers were picked up by the Naniwa’s boats; some 512 Chinese managed to swim ashore or cling to wreckage, but loss of life was heavy.

War between China and Japan was formally declared on 1 August. As with all wars, this one would inevitably be concluded by the victory of one of the opposing armies; but the decision would have already been secured at sea, on the local control of which depended the support and supply of both. For although Korea was connected to China at its landward frontier, road communications were so primitive as to be of little use for the despatch of reinforcements or supplies.

That only by battle with the opposing fleet could such an essential control be secured was not understood by Fi Hungchang, who forbade Admiral Ting Ju-ch’ang, commanding the Peiyang fleet, to proceed to the east of a line drawn from his base at Wei-hai-wei to the mouth of the Yalu River. The Japanese fleet arrived off Wei-hai-wei on 10 August and bombarded its forts, but the challenge was not accepted; the Chinese ships remained in harbour. Thus Admiral Ito, the Japanese Commander-in-Chief, was left undisturbed to convoy his land forces to Korea where such a Japanese superiority was quickly built up that the Chinese army was defeated and driven north.

Battle of Yalu

Admiral Ting was now ordered to escort a troop convoy to the Yalu from Port Arthur. This was successfully achieved ; but it was off the mouth of the Yalu that Admiral Ito arrived on 17 September 1894, placing himself between Ting and his bases and forcing the Chinese admiral to accept the battle he had professed to desire. Ting at once put to sea and cleared for action.

The two fleets were, on paper, evenly matched. Indeed, to the school that believed that the heavily armoured battleship mounting four 12-inch guns was the arbiter of naval battles, the Chinese was the more powerful. For Ting had two of these, the Ting Yuen, his flagship, and the Chen Yuen as well as eight cruisers mounting guns varying in calibre from 10.2-inch to 5.9-inch. None of these guns was of the quick-firing type which had been invented seven years earlier.

The Japanese fleet under Admiral Ito was divided into a Main Squadron under his personal command and a fast Flying Squadron under Rear Admiral Tsuboi. The biggest ships of the Japanese Main Squadron were three unarmoured cruisers, Matsushima (Ito’s flagship), Itsukushima and Hashidate, which mounted but one 12.6-inch gun each. The remainder of the squadron consisted of two cruisers Fuso and Hiyei, ancient veterans built seventeen years before, carrying a few antiquated guns, and one, the Choyoda, armed with nothing bigger than 4.7-inch guns, but of the quick-firing type.

Rear Admiral Tsuboi’s flag flew in the cruiser Toshino, a fine modern ship of 4,150 tons with 6-inch and 4.7-inch quick firers. With him were three other fast cruisers; Takachiho and Naniwa, mounting two 10.2-inch guns and six 6-inch each, and the Akitsushima which, like the Toshino, carried only quick-firing guns of 6-inch and 4.7-inch calibre. None of these ships was armoured, but even the slowest could make nearly nineteen knots, a good speed at that time.

So far it might seem that the Japanese fleet was much too weak to think of facing the heavy guns of the Chinese. On the other hand all the Japanese ships except Takachiho, Naniwa, Fuso and Hiyei carried between ten and twelve quick-firing guns, either 6-inch or 4.7-inch. A meeting between the two fleets might show which of the rival theories was right – that of the believers in the massive blow of a few big guns, or the contrary theory that many quick-firers would smother the slow-firing, big-gun ships before they could score many hits.

When the time came, however, the test was not to be so clear-cut. There were several reasons for this. The Japanese fleet was a highly trained and skillful force, whereas the Chinese, who a few years previously had achieved a high state of efficiency under the guidance of Captain W. M. Lang of the British Navy, had reverted on his departure to the condition of glossed-over incompetence usual in the armed forces of the Empire. The ships were kept outwardly smart and well-painted, but behind this facade there were half-empty magazines and unpractised gunners. Troubles in the shell factories had led to indifferent bursting charges, or even cement and coal dust inserted in their place.

Furthermore, Admiral Ting had a faulty conception of naval fighting tactics based on the outcome of the Battle of Lissa, fought twenty-eight years earlier, in which the Austrian victory had been won by a frontal, line abreast attack on the Italian line, and an eventual recourse to the ram. The fact that the big guns of his two battleships could all fire ahead increased Ting’s faith in such a method. He had completely overlooked the fact that guns had greatly increased in range and effectiveness since Lissa, so that a fleet which awaited such an onslaught in line ahead would have a considerable gun advantage for a long period during the approach. The ram had consequently ceased to be a practical proposition.

Such were the two fleets that now steered for an encounter; the Japanese at about ten knots, which was the best that Fuso and Hiyei could achieve, the Chinese at a knot or two faster. Ito’s fleet was in line ahead with the Flying Squadron in the van. Besides the major units there were present two ships of little or no fighting value, the gunboat Akagi and an armed merchant steamer Saikio Adaru, which were to prove an embarrassment to Ito. It is not clear why the Japanese admiral did not send such vulnerable ships away to the southward, where they would have been clear of the battle. Instead he stationed them on the port side of his Main Squadron, the side away from the enemy.

Meanwhile Ting’s squadron was approaching on a south-westerly course in a formation somewhat similar to Tegetthoff’s at Lissa, with the two big ships in the centre. But owing to tardiness in getting under way, the two starboard wing ships were lagging, while on the other wing one of the Chinese cruisers, the Tsi-Tuen, was well behind and unable to get up into station. In fact, viewed from the Japanese ships, the Chinese squadron seemed to be in considerable disorder.

The tactics of the two admirals were soon evident. At the long range for those days of six thousand yards, the Chinese opened fire with their big guns. With calm confidence the Japanese held their fire, and indeed they could well afford to do so; for with the rapidly changing range making shooting difficult, the unpractised Chinese gunners failed to score a single hit during the approach.

The Japanese line drew steadily across the Chinese front until the Flying Squadron was able to pass round the starboard wing, and at a range of three thousand yards open a withering fire from their quick-firers on the wing ships of the Chinese formation. Their Main Squadron now came into action, passing close ahead of Ting’s flagship and the Chen Tuen, which bore down as though to ram, both battleships being heavily shot up in the process. The whole of Ito’s squadron except the Hiyei, the rear ship, passed safely round the northern flank of Ting’s line, and Ito then led round to star¬ board, circling the now completely disorganized Chinese fleet and keeping up a punishing fire to which only a feeble reply was made.

Indeed the Chinese had more than the enemy’s fire with which to reckon. Dense funnel smoke, increased by that from a hundred guns, enveloped the whole scene. The laggard Tsi-Tuen, coming up at last, plunged into the smother and ran amok, colliding with two ships of her own side, sinking one and so damaging another that it steamed away blazing to be beached. The Tsi-Tuen herself then withdrew to Port Arthur, where her captain subsequently paid for his actions with his head.

Meanwhile the Hiyei, unable to follow the Japanese Main Squadron round the Chinese flank, boldly turned to pass through the Chinese. Avoiding two torpedoes fired at her and which strangely enough hit nothing in spite of the milling throng of ships, the Hiyei won through, though suffering considerably in the process.

The two weak Japanese ships, Akagi and Saikio Maru, also cut off, kept on across the Chinese front, the former being badly battered. Seeing this, Rear Admiral Tsuboi led the Flying Squadron round to port to come back and cover them. This brought a temporary relief to the Chinese ships, but by the time Tsuboi had completed his turn the Chinese found themselves between two fires, Ito to the eastward and the Flying Squadron to the north-westward.

By now Ting’s squadron was in desperate straits. Apart from the victims of the Tsi-Tuen’s wild career, two other cruisers, smothered by the rapid fire of Tsuboi’s 6-inch and 4.7-inch guns, had gone down. Yet another had struggled away burning furiously, ultimately to be run aground near Port Arthur. Ting was thus left with only four of his original ten ships, all of which had suffered severely and had shot away nearly all their ammunition.

Complete annihilation of the Chinese squadron was in Ito’s grasp. The Japanese had not achieved this without damage to themselves, however; in particular Ito’s flagship Matsushima had been hit twice by 12-inch shells, once by a 10.2-inch, suffering more than a hundred casualties, and had been set on fire. By the time Ito had transferred his flag to the Hashidate and despatched the Matsushima, Hiyei, Akagi and Saikio to base for repairs, the sun was sinking low; and as dusk fell, the two fleets disengaged and formed up on parallel courses in line ahead.

A renewal of the fight might now have wiped out the Chinese force, but a new element had entered the situation. The two torpedo-boats of Ting’s squadron had joined him from the Yalu. This caused Ito to decide to await the dawn before completing the enemy’s annihilation, and in the night Ting slipped away with his surviving ships, which included his two battleships. Nevertheless the Japanese had won a considerable victory, and had secured control of the disputed sea area, making certain of victory on land. There the Japanese were able to occupy Dairen and to capture the fortified base of Port Arthur by attacking the forts from the rear. They went on to capture Wei-hai-wei in February 1895, turning the guns of the forts on the damaged remnants of the Peiyang fleet. Admiral Ting committed suicide; the fleet surrendered.

Li Hung-chang, the inspirer of the Self-strengthening Movement by which China had hoped to withstand further foreign aggression, but which had failed primarily because the Chinese public service was so riddled with corruption and incompetence, was disgraced and dismissed. He was reinstated, however, at Japanese insistence upon an envoy of sufficient stature being sent to negotiate a peace settlement. The Treaty of Shimonoseki which was finally signed on 17 April 1895 provided for recognition of Korean independence and termination of tribute to China ; a large indemnity ; the opening of four more Chinese ports ; Japanese right to open factories and engage in industry in China ; finally, and most ominously, the cession to Japan of Formosa, the Pescadores and the Liaotung Peninsula on which Port Arthur and Dairen were situated.

For the moment Japan had in spectacular fashion burst out of her backwardness and obscurity to claim an equal status with the western powers. Great Britain had already offered a treaty revision to abolish her extra-territorial rights and during the next few years her example was followed by other powers. But Japan was now to suffer a humiliating set-back on her road to great power status, one which was to colour her attitude ever afterwards.


The origins of ninjutsu, placed approximately between 500 and 300 B.C., are commonly linked (as are most Oriental arts of combat) to Chinese sources. Mention is often made of the interesting section on methods of espionage which is embodied in the ancient treatise The Art of War, written by the legendary Chinese general Sun Tzu. There is no single English term that can be used to define with precision this art or science, nor to accurately describe its practitioners, the notorious ninja. One translation of ninjutsu might be “the art of stealth,” which is a term commonly employed in the doctrine of bujutsu. This definition, however, identifies only one of the many characteristics and functions of ninjutsu—concealment, or the creating and perpetuating of an aura of mystery. The functions of the ninja may be represented in general as having been those of infiltration into hostile environments, performance of various acts of sabotage or assassination, and management of a successful escape once a mission had been accomplished. Infiltration of enemy centers and castles, in fact, gave rise to a particular subspecialization of ninjutsu which was known as toiri-no-jutsu, while slipping through enemy lines in time of open warfare or military alert became a specialty referred to as chikairi-no-jutsu. The various deeds to be performed once infiltration had been successfully accomplished were as varied as the military or strategic circumstances themselves. We can divide these deeds or acts into three main categories: first, the gathering of intelligence by espionage, and all of its correlated activities; second, assassination, subversion, destruction of enemy defenses; and third, action on the battlefield, including combat operations in almost every form, ranging from an open encounter to an ambush (whether against a defenseless victim or a heavily-protected lord).

Ninja, then, were often raiders who hired themselves out as spies, assassins, arsonists, terrorists, to the great and small lords of the Japanese feudal age. When certain “disreputable” tasks had to be undertaken, the honor-bound warrior (who was expected to fight openly against his foe in accordance with the rules of his profession) was not usually the one asked to perform them. Large organizations of ninja families, specializing in such tasks, were generally available to the highest bidder.

As spies, the ninja reportedly made their first notable appearance in the sixth century, with an employer of royal blood, Prince Regent Shotoku (A.D. 574–622). They were frequently hired by the fighting monks of the mountains, the redoubtable yama-bushi, who battled against both the imperial forces at the end of the Heian period and those of the rising military class (buke). Strong ninja guilds became firmly entrenched in Kyoto (which was virtually ruled by them at night), and their schools proliferated until there were at least twenty-five major centers during the Kamakura period. Most of these centers were located in the Iga and Koga provinces, and the concentration of these dangerous fighters had to be smashed time and time again by various leaders seeking to gain control of the central government. Oda Nobunaga is reported to have employed forty-six thousand troops against Sandayu at Ueno, destroying four thousand ninja in the process. The last impressive employment of these fighters on the battlefield seems to have been in the Shimabara war (1637), against forty thousand rebellious Christians on the island of Kyushu.

With the ascendancy of the Tokugawa and their heavily policed state, smaller groups of ninja were employed by practically every class against members of other classes, and even within a class by certain individuals against any clansmen who opposed them. Ninja were also used in the espionage network constructed by the shogun to control the imperial court and the powerful provincial lords. The ninja of Koga province, for example, were notorious throughout Japan as secret agents of the Tokugawa; and roaming bands of ninja are said to have engaged groups of warriors in local battles, either to suppress attempted sedition or to enlarge the ninja’s own territorial control. Individual lords and powerful members of other classes such as the merchants, for example, also employed the ninja, who left behind them an unbroken record of more than five hundred years of intrigues, disruptions, assassinations, and other assorted forms of disorder.

By the beginning of their teenage years, young ninja boys in the ninja villages of Iga and Koga will have internalized the basics of ninjutsu.

  1. Ninja kid learning the principles of balance, supervised by his dad, his primary instructor throughout his life.
  2. Young ninja learning underwater breathing techniques utilizing a bamboo tube. Later in life he might have to hide for hours under the surface of a lake or river to avoid detection by enemies.
  3. Vital swordsmanship training. Ninja kid taking his first lesson in how to deal with a ring of attackers. He has to anticipate how each bamboo rods will swing back and forth in order to avoid contact with them.
  4. Ninja boy in extensive missile practice, learning how to spin the shuriken and hit the target accurately.
  5. Young ninja learning survival skills traveling into the mountains and catering for himself. He is cooking a bag of rice buried under a campfire, with the rice wrapped in a cloth and soaked in water.
  6. Ninja child interviewed by the shonin, or head of the ninja settlement. He is assessing the child’s progress.
  7. 2-, 3- and 4-man techniques for jumping over tall obstacles like walls:
  8. Ninja teamwork with excellent acrobatic skills. On the other side of the wall the vigilant observer might conclude that the ninja has the ability of flying. In this technique one ninja runs forward carrying his mate on his shoulders, who then leaps from this lifted position.
  9. Two ninja assisting a third to maneuver over a wall by giving him a powerful ‘leg up’.
  10. Four men forming a human pyramid.
  11. Ninja utilizing an ashigaru’s yari, or long spear, to pole-vault over a ditch.

Reconnaissance became a primary concern during the Warring States period (Sengoku jidai, 1467– 1568) and centered on the famed spies known as ninja, whose activities were called ninjutsu (ninja arts and training). The widespread internecine warfare of the mid- to late-Muromachi period made infiltration and information-gathering a focus of military operations. Training in ninja techniques like those described below in “Dagger Throwing” and “Needle Spitting” have relatively recent origins in Japan, despite having developed out of espionage tactics that were fairly common in the medieval era. As with legends praising brave and virtuous samurai, modern (and medieval) misconceptions about ninja traditions have enhanced the ninja mystique. Clothed in notorious secrecy and black garments, and endowed with famed accuracy, acrobatic skills, and awe-inspiring weapons, these figures have played prominent roles in film and literature concerning the martial arts. Most ninja missions supplied little such drama, although concealing the identity of successful ninja was considered paramount.

Famed ninja bands, such as the Iga school (originating in present-day Mie Prefecture) and the Koga school (part of Shiga Prefecture today), were identified with the regions in which they began. Villages in these areas were entirely devoted to instruction and mastery of ninja techniques. Ninja who trained in such regional bands served as scouts, penetrating enemy territory to gather information, conduct assassinations, or simply to distract and confuse the enemy at nighttime. Daimyo relied upon legions of these figures beginning in the 15th century as domains competed for dwindling land and other resources.

Ninja techniques, known as shinobu in Japanese, included strategies of artifice, camouflage, and deception, as well as an array of weapons and tools designed especially for espionage and covert use. In the Warring States period, clandestine missions were critical to military tactics, and thus ninja practices were transmitted orally to maintain secrecy. While medieval samurai enjoyed a somewhat undeserved reputation for noble intentions and valor, ninja temperament was compared to that of a trickster who eschewed the forthright bravery of military retainers, preferring the advantages offered by ambush and sleight of hand. Opportunistic ninja offered themselves as assassins for hire and pirates during the nearly continuous unrest of the 15th to 16th centuries. They became a significant threat in the 16th century. For example, Oda Nobunaga sent 46,000 troops to Iga province in 1581, although tales recount that 4,000 were killed by the Iga ninja.

In the Edo period, threatened with extinction under the enforced Tokugawa peace, ninjutsu became a formal martial art which may have attracted followers simply because of the general fascination with these mysterious, elusive, seemingly magical figures. As ninjutsu became one of the most alluring of the standard 18 military arts (bugeijuhappan), samurai enthusiasts organized ninja teachers, classes, skill requirements, tools, weapons, and techniques systematically in manuals designed for instruction. One of the primary ninja manuals, the Mansen shukai, was compiled in 1676 by Fujibayashi Samuji. This important text detailed the traditions and techniques of the Iga and Koga schools of ninjutsu.

The ninja families were tightly-knit microcosms well integrated into larger groups (in accordance with the ancient clan pattern). There were leaders (jonin) who formulated plans, negotiated alliances, stipulated contracts, and so forth, which subleaders (chunin) and agents (genin) then carried out faithfully. These groups formed larger guilds with individual territories and specialized duties—all jealously guarded. A man seldom joined a group in order to become a ninja; he usually had to be born into the profession. The arts, techniques, and weapons of each family, of each group, were kept strictly secret, being transmitted usually only from father to son and even then with the utmost circumspection. Disclosure of ninjutsu secrets to unauthorized persons meant death at the hands of other ninja of the same group. Death usually also followed capture, either at one’s own hand or that of another ninja, who would leave behind only a corpse for the captor to question.

Books and documents (torimaki) related to the heritage, arts, and techniques of ninjutsu, therefore, were considered secret family treasures which it was the responsibility of each generation to preserve and transmit to the next. They contained instructions concerning those techniques of combat with which the ninja had to familiarize himself and which he had to master (including the traditional martial arts of the country: archery, spearmanship, and swordsmanship). In turn, the ninja cleverly adapted the use of these arts to suit his own devious purposes. He used an easily assembled short bow, for example, instead of the warrior’s long bow, and he also devised methods of telescopically reducing a spear—with astonishing results when it suddenly sprang into full extension. Members of the Kyushin ryu, a school of ninjutsu, became noted for their unorthodox methods of using a spear (bisento). Swords and other assorted blades, finally, were also used on the ends of various collapsible poles to which chains were attached for quick retrieval; often blades were projected by hidden springs, or they were simply thrown by hand according to the techniques of shurikenjutsu. The ninja were also masters of the techniques of iaijutsu, which enabled them to draw swords or daggers with blinding speed. The Fudo ryu, another school of ninjutsu in feudal Japan, was considered vastly superior in the development of this particular kind of dexterity with blades.

The ninja, however, also had a full array of specialized weapons for his exclusive use, each with its particular and fully developed method of employment. Blow-guns, roped knives and hooks, garrotes, various spikes (toniki), brass knuckles (shuko), an extensive assortment of small blades (shuriken), including dirks, darts, star-shaped discs, and so forth, were all included in his arsenal. The shuriken or “needles” were usually kept in a band containing up to five deadly missiles, and they could be thrown in rapid succession from any position, in any light, and from varying distances. The ways of throwing the shuriken seem to have been grouped together, attaining the status of a full-fledged art (shurikenjutsu). Even members of the warrior class reportedly studied its techniques in order to be able to use their short swords (wakizashi), daggers (tanto), and knives (such as the ko-gatana and kozuka) with greater accuracy and effectiveness at long distances. Shuriken could also be forged into a star-shaped disc with many sharp points radiating from a solid center. Sometimes called shaken, these sharp stars were usually thrown with a whipping movement of the wrist which sent them spinning toward their target—often unnoticed until it was too late. Especially famous were the chains or cords with a whirling weight on one end and a double-edged blade on the other (kyotetsu-shoge), which the ninja knew how to use with merciless precision; there was also the innocent-looking bamboo staff carried by an apparently unarmed pilgrim—the staff concealing, however, a chain with a weight at one end and a lead block at the other.

The ninja’s skill in penetrating enemy strongholds (houses, castles, military camps, individual rooms, etc.) was based upon his knowledge of practical psychology, as well as upon his mastery of a most impressive array of climbing devices (roped hooks, flexible ladders, special shoes, hand spikes, etc.), which he could also use as weapons. In addition, he usually carried breathing tubes and inflatable skins so that he could stay underwater for long periods of time or cross castle moats, lakes, or swamps with comparative ease. A skilled chemist (yogen) in his own right, the ninja often used poisoned darts, acid-spurting tubes, flash-powder grenades, smoke bombs, and so forth, cleverly adapting ancient Chinese discoveries in chemistry and inventions in explosives to his particular requirements. After the arrival of the Portuguese, he even used firearms. These weapons, in addition to the spiky caltrops which he dropped behind him as he made his escape, all contributed to his skill in evading capture by slowing down, blinding, killing, crippling, or merely surprising his pursuers.

Among the unarmed methods of combat which he mastered, jujutsu, in its most utilitarian and practical form, predominated. Schools of ninjutsu, however, also specialized in particular systems of violence seldom found elsewhere. The ninja of the Gyokku ryu, for example, were expert in the deadly use of the thumb and ringers against vital centers in the human body. This method became known as yubijutsu. The students of the Koto ryu were particularly proficient in breaking bones (koppo).

From the above, it appears obvious that a ninja was a truly dangerous foe, skilled and prepared to cope efficiently and ruthlessly with almost all the possible dimensions of armed and unarmed combat. His overall bodily control and range of muscular possibilities was often astounding. In addition to training in the various arts mentioned above, he is said to have been able to climb sheer walls and cliffs (with the help of certain equipment), control his breathing under water and his heartbeat under enemy scrutiny, leap from great heights (walls, etc.), disengage himself from knots and chains, walk or run for long distances, remain still for hours (even days, some authors claim), blend with shadows, trees, statues, and so forth, as well as impersonate people of every class, thus being able to move about freely even in areas which were under strict surveillance. In this context, his knowledge and command of practical psychology, as indicated earlier, appears to have been highly developed and is said to have included sleight of hand and hypnosis (saiminjutsu)—skills which may have formed the basis for a number of the ninja’s more startling exploits.

Explosion and Loss of the Battleship Mutsu

A Japanese sketch of the broken Mutsu on the bottom.

A Japanese sketch of Mutsu’s No 3 main gun turret as found. Gun, turret and barbette were later salvaged and are currently exhibited.

Mutsu’s original 41 cm No. 4 turret at the Imperial Japanese Naval Academy, Eta Jima in 1947.

The loss of the battleship Mutsu during the Second World War was the IJN’s biggest accident with regard to the displacement of the ship and number of dead.  

On 8 June 1943 Mutsu was moored to the buoy for the flagship near Hashirajima. At about 1210 she was shaken by a major explosion in the after part of the ship. The hull was severed abaft the No 3 main gun turret by the force of the explosion. The fore part capsized to starboard and sank. The stern section rose out of the water and sank more slowly. Four hours after the explosion Mutsu had disappeared beneath the waves.

When Mutsu exploded and sank the following four ships were in the vicinity: the battleship Fuso, the light cruiser Tatsuta, and the destroyers Wakatsuki and Tamanami. At first it was thought that the ship had been torpedoed by an enemy submarine. Consequently, the destroyers were ordered to drop depth charges, while at the same time the survivors were rescued. In addition to her own complement of 1,321, a further 153 men of the 10th Harbour Defence Unit were on board for training and of the total of 1,474 officers and men, 1,121 became victims of this catastrophe and only 353 survived.

An investigation committee with Admiral Shiozawa Koichi in the chair was established and began its enquiry. Basing on the testimony of survivors, the committee concluded that if a fire had broken out in the neighbour-hood of the No 3 and No 4 main gun turrets and caused such a catastrophic explosion, it must have begun in the powder magazine of No 3 main gun turret. The most likely cause was self-ignition of the Type 3 shell (3 Shiki-Dan) stowed in that magazine.

The Type 3 shell was a shrapnel (Sankai-Dan) shell recently developed for defence against air attacks. Inside the body of the 40cm shell there were 735 hollow steel tubes 20mm in diameter with a length of 90mm stacked in layers and filled with white phosphorus. The incendiary bodies were expelled forwards from the detonation point and formed a cone-shaped danger zone with a diameter of up to 240 metres at the end of their trajectory. However, despite the spectacular visual effects, the danger to an attacking aircraft was low.

Large numbers of Type 3 shells were stowed in the magazines of battleships and heavy cruisers but, following the destruction of Mutsu, all had to be landed by order. The investigation committee conducted repeated experiments at the Kamegakubi Experimental Range of Kure NY in order to confirm the self-ignition of this shell as the most probable cause of the explosion. Models of the original size were produced and numerous experiments carried out. In parallel a colour-burning experiment was executed in the presence of several dozens of survivors. The colour of the smoke generated by the burning of the powder of the Type 3 shell was white, while that emitted by the propellant for the standard projectiles (common and AP) was brown. Mutsu’s survivors confirmed that the smoke emitted when the magazine exploded was brown. The tests also failed to generate self-ignition of the Type 3 shell, and it was absolved as the cause of the loss of Mutsu; as a result, the Type 3 shell was again embarked on major IJN warships.

A later investigation by divers found that the third main gun turret and its barbette had been separated from the hull and was damaged. This discovery served to confirm the assumption that the explosion had taken place in the powder magazine below No 3 main gun turret. However, the true cause of the explosion could not be established and is still unknown; again, arson or decomposition of the propellant were suspected.

The IJN investigated all items relating to naval powder from the administration to the production including handling and stowage inside the ship, and there were further attempts to improve safety. A plan to increase powder production by the simplification of the processes was also postponed, meaning that the magazine explosion on board Mutsu did have an impact on powder production planning in the IJN.

Waging Gentlemanly War

The Battle of Kawanakajima was an annual event fought between Uesugi Kenshin and Takeda Shingen. Both daimyo would ensure the battle ended in a draw.

Depiction of the legendary personal conflict between Kenshin and Shingen at the fourth battle of Kawanakajima.

Two of the early Sengoku Jidai’s most colourful daimyo were Takeda Shingen and Uesugi Kenshin. They represented the last of the gentlemen warriors, who conducted their warfare according to the honourable traditions of old. Every year for five years in a row the armies of Kenshin and Shingen met in the same place on the plain of Kawanakajima to do battle. Sometimes, when one army had gained the upper hand it would withdraw as a sign of respect for the opposition. When Shingen’s salt supply was cut off by Kenshin’s ally, the Hojo clan, Kenshin sent Shingen a supply of salt from his own stock, commenting that he `fought with swords, not salt.’

The first half of the fifteenth century in Japan saw sporadic rebellions taking place, all of which were quelled successfully until 1467, when a quarrel between two samurai houses developed into a military and political disaster. The resulting Onin War was fought largely around the capital and even in the streets of Kyoto itself, which was soon reduced to a smoking wasteland. The shogun at the time was Ashikaga Yoshimasa, Yoshimitsu’s grandson, who was totally unable to prevent a slide into anarchy. Instead Yoshimasa contented himself with artistic pursuits, and was one of the early devotees of the tea ceremony. He also built the Ginkakuji (Silver Pavilion) in an attempt to emulate his illustrious ancestor. His cultural achievements were many, but the power of the shogunate declined as never before.

With such a vacuum at the heart of Japanese politics, many samurai took the opportunity to develop their own local autonomy in a way that had not been seen for centuries. It was as if the powerful landowners of the Nara period had been reborn, and throughout Japan there was a scramble for territory. Some ancient families disappeared altogether to be replaced by men who had once fought for them and achieved local power through war, intrigue, marriage, or murder. Other ancient lines prospered, and found themselves having to share Japan with upstarts who may have started their careers as ashigaru (foot soldiers) but who now owned a considerable amount of territory, which they defended using wooden castles and loyal followers. These lords called themselves daimyo (great names), and led lives that were constantly being challenged by neighbors. Literally scores of battles took place, leading to the century and a half between 1467 and 1600 being dubbed the Sengoku Jidai (the period of Warring States), by analogy with a similar turbulent period in ancient China.

A good example of the trend was to be found in north-central Japan where the territories of the Takeda and Uesugi families were located. They were at war for half a century. Their most famous members, Takeda Shingen and Uesugi Kenshin, were princes in their own provinces, and led thousands of fanatically loyal samurai. Takeda Shingen is customarily credited with being the finest leader of mounted samurai in Sengoku Japan. At Uedahara in 1548 and at Mikata ga Hara in 1572, the Takeda cavalry rode down disorganized infantry missile units. But for cavalry charges to succeed, the old samurai tradition of singling out a worthy opponent for a challenge to single combat had to wait until the enemy line was broken, so group operations became the norm.

The Takeda and Uesugi fought each other five times at a place called Kawanakajima (“the island within the river”), a battlefield that marked the border between their territories. Not only were the armies the same, the same two commanders led them at each battle. In addition to this intriguing notion of five battles on one battlefield, Kawanakajima has also become the epitome of Japanese chivalry and romance: the archetypal clash of samurai arms.

In its more extreme form, this view even denies the possibility that anyone actually got hurt at the Kawanakajima battles, which are seen only as a series of “friendly fixtures” characterized by posturing and pomp. In this scenario the Kawanakajima conflicts may be dismissed as mock warfare. During some of the encounters, admittedly, the two armies disengaged before committing themselves fully to a fight to the death, but the wounds and the dead bodies were real enough, and the fourth battle of Kawanakajima in 1561 produced many casualties on both sides.

The Battle of Kawanakajima


Author: Hiroyuki Shindo

From February 1942 until July 1944, a war of attrition was fought by the air forces of the United States, Australia and Japan in Papua, New Guinea, the Bismarck Archipelago and the Solomon Islands. Although this period comprises more than half the length of the war in the Pacific, somehow more attention seems to be paid in popular histories to other aspects of that war, such as the actions of the carrier fleets of Japan and the United States. The air campaign in the South Pacific, however, was of extreme importance, not just to the persons of all sides who fought there, but to the outcome of the war. This is because it was in, over and around the island of New Guinea that the Japanese Army and Navy, and their air forces, were first stopped, worn down and finally pushed back. Since it is obviously impossible to look at every aspect of that campaign in a single article, the following discussion concentrates on the major strategic and operational issues on the Japanese side. It also focuses on Japanese air operations over the main island of New Guinea, even though in actuality these operations, when seen from the Japanese side, were closely intertwined with activities undertaken in the Solomon Islands.

Broadly speaking, the Japanese air campaign over New Guinea may be divided into four phases. The first phase was the Japanese Navy’s offensive campaign against Port Moresby, from the spring through fall of 1942. Next, from early 1943 until about June of that year, the Japanese Army filled in for the Navy (whose air forces were increasingly committed to the Solomons campaign) and fought a campaign which was intended to be offensive but became increasingly defensive in nature. The third phase was a short period in the summer of 1943 in which the Japanese Army assigned a more positive role to its air forces in New Guinea, only to see the bulk of that force destroyed in a single air attack. Finally, the Japanese Army air forces fought an unglamorous defensive campaign for approximately a year, from the summer of 1943, before the Japanese Army was pushed out of New Guinea and the war itself shifted to the Marianas and the Philippines.

Occupation of Rabaul and the start of air operations against Port Moresby

When the Japanese Army and Navy developed plans for a forthcoming war with the United States and Great Britain in 1941, the islands of the Bismarck Archipelago, particularly New Britain, were included in their target list from early on. This was because Japanese planners (especially those in the Navy) saw Rabaul on New Britain, with its excellent natural harbour, as a potential threat to Truk Island in the Carolines. Situated only 1100 kilometres from Rabaul, Truk was the site of the Japanese Navy’s most important base in the central Pacific Ocean. The seizure of New Britain was therefore necessary to protect the base at Truk, and the surrounding islands had to be controlled as well, in order to secure Rabaul. While the main efforts of the Army and Navy would be aimed at the southwest Pacific area – i.e. the Philippines, Malaya, Singapore, Netherlands East Indies and other surrounding areas that made up the so-called “Southern Resources Area” – both the Army and Navy therefore assigned units to operations in the South Pacific.

In the plans which received imperial sanction on 5 November 1941, the Army’s South Seas Detachment was assigned the task of seizing first Guam, then airfields in the Bismarck Islands, in order to eliminate the threat posed by the enemy. Since the operation in the South Pacific was seen as the Navy’s responsibility, however, the Navy’s Special Landing Forces were to take over the occupation of Guam at an appropriate time, after which they would cooperate with the Army in occupying Rabaul. It was further specified that the South Seas Detachment would be replaced by the Special Landing Forces and withdrawn to the Palau Islands as soon as possible. The Navy’s Fourth Fleet, based in Truk, would be responsible for supporting both the Guam and the Rabaul-Bismarcks operations. A sea-borne assault on Rabaul was accordingly made on 22 January 1942 by the Special Landing Forces, with the support of both land-based and carrier-based aircraft, and the town quickly captured.

While these operations were being carried out, the Japanese Army and Navy, faced with the unexpectedly rapid success of their operations in the Philippines, Malaya and Netherlands East Indies, had to decide upon their next steps. Briefly speaking, Japan’s options included continuing westward into India; invading the Australian mainland; invading New Guinea, the Solomons, Fiji and Samoa, in order to cut off Australia from the United States; and driving eastward towards Hawaii. The Navy High Command wanted to invade Australia, in order to eliminate it as potential springboard for a counter-offensive by the Allies, but the Army balked at this because it would require an excessive commitment of manpower. The Navy therefore settled for the lesser option. The Fourth Fleet, with the XI Air Fleet (the Navy’s land-based air force in the Pacific theatre), was ordered to assault Lae, Salamaua in New Guinea, Port Moresby in Papua, and the Solomon Islands.

In compliance with this strategy, Zero fighters of the Chitose Air Corps moved to Rabaul on 31 January. Shortly afterwards, on 2 and 5 February, Kawanishi Type 97 “Mavis” flying boats of the Yokohama Air Corps bombed Port Moresby for the first time, and the air war over New Guinea was underway. On 9 February, Gasmata (on New Britain’s southern coast) was occupied, and work begun on an airstrip. To carry out further operations, the 4th Air Corps was newly created, with a nominal strength of 27 fighters and 27 bombers. It was placed under the command of the 25th Air Flotilla, and its headquarters was located in Rabaul. On 24 February, aircraft from the 4th Air Corps began bombing Port Moresby.

On 7 March 1942, the Japanese High Command decided upon the operations which would follow the so-called “First Stage Operations,” which had been aimed at the occupation of the Netherlands East Indies and other areas of the Southern Resources Area. The second stage of operations which was thus adopted called for the continuation of major offensive operations in order to secure a long-term, unbeatable politico-strategic situation, after which additional active measures would be taken aimed at forcing Great Britain to capitulate and making the United States lose the will to fight.1 As part of this new strategy, the decision was made to continue the advance in the Solomons and New Guinea area, with the aim of eventually cutting off the supply route between the United States and Australia. The 7 March decision therefore confirmed what was already being executed. Lae and Salamaua on the northeastern New Guinea coast were occupied on 8 March. Two days later, the Tainan Air Corps (one of the fighter units deployed to Rabaul as part of the new strategy) sent eleven of its Zero fighters to Lae, which became an exceedingly busy advanced airbase.2

Until the end of July 1942, the naval air units based at Rabaul and Lae became intensely involved in flying missions over the Owen Stanley Range to attack Port Moresby, or other Allied bases on the New Guinea mainland. Such operations consisted of either bombing missions with fighter escort, or sweeps by fighters alone. The Japanese fighter units at this time were also kept extremely busy intercepting Allied air attacks on the Japanese bases. This phase of the air war was characterized by the lack of clear superiority by either side. Although the Australians and Americans often lost more aircraft in individual air battles, Allied air strength did not diminish significantly. On the other hand, the Japanese, although suffering fewer losses, saw a slow decline in the quality of their forces as highly-trained and experienced pilots were lost and replaced by less and less experienced ones. This period was, therefore, somewhat of a stalemate, as the Japanese could not batter the Allied air forces enough to drive them out of New Guinea.

The commitment of Army air forces to the South Pacific

The next stage in Japanese air operations over New Guinea involved the deployment of Japanese Army air forces in the region. After the Americans landed on Guadalcanal Island in the Solomons on 7 August 1942, the Japanese air forces based in Rabaul became involved in a two-front operation. Now they were forced to make increasingly greater efforts in the Solomons, while continuing their campaign against New Guinea (which still principally meant Port Moresby). The air battle in the Solomons would be fought principally by naval aircraft, and, as this commitment grew, the Army’s air forces would play a greater role over New Guinea.

The American counter-attack at Guadalcanal came as a complete surprise to the Japanese. In their estimate of the world strategic situation in March 1942, the Japanese High Command had concluded that the Americans would not mount a major counter-attack before 1943. On 12 August the Army and Navy High Commands agreed that the American landing on Guadalcanal was only a local tactical move, and the island could be easily recaptured. This view began to change after the Battle of the Tenaru River on 21 August, when the Japanese Army’s Ichiki Detachment, numbering some 900 men, made the first attempt to retake Henderson Field and was almost completely wiped out. The Japanese Navy High Command now realized that it would take more than a simple operation to retake Guadalcanal, and that controlling the air around the island was a prerequisite for success. The Navy felt, however, that it alone was unable to make the necessary commitment in terms of air forces, due to the depletion of its air units in Rabaul. In late August it therefore asked the Army to send some of its forces to reinforce the air effort in the Solomons and New Guinea area.3

The Army considered the Navy’s request, and almost immediately rejected it. First of all, the Army was not inclined to make a major commitment in the South Pacific area, because it still felt that its traditional area of responsibility was the Asian mainland, while the Pacific Ocean area was the traditional responsibility of the Navy. This had been the understanding since the establishment of the Japanese Army and Navy in the late 19th Century, and while there was no formal written agreement to this effect, the Army and Navy’s doctrines, training, tactics, strategy and equipment were all based upon it. Over the years the Army’s air units had been prepared almost solely for fighting a war with Japan’s traditional enemy on the continent, Russia. The Army had never even considered the possibility of conducting air operations in the New Guinea-Solomons area, and recognized that it knew almost nothing about the geographic, climatic and other conditions of the South Pacific. Not only was the Army extremely reluctant to commit its air forces in such circumstances, but it suspected that the Navy actually did have additional air forces in quieter areas of the Pacific which it could commit to the South Pacific.

The Army formally replied to the Navy in late August. Besides the reasons given above, the Army explained that its air forces were spread out all over Manchuria, China, Burma and Sumatra, and in addition had to defend the Japanese homeland from possible threats from the North Pacific area. There were, it claimed, no personnel or aircraft that could be spared for the South Pacific. The Army also pointed out that its air forces had been trained and prepared for mainland operations, and were ill-suited for conducting operations or deployments over large expanses of water, which would be the case if they were committed to this new theatre. Furthermore, it was mentioned that there were no overland air routes to the South Pacific front which Army air units might follow, and that airfields and other necessary facilities were too unprepared there for them to operate properly. Thus, no agreement was reached at this stage concerning the deployment of Army air forces to the South Pacific.

In mid-September a further attempt to retake Henderson Field which the Army mounted, using the Kawaguchi Detachment, also failed. As preparations commenced for yet another attempt involving the 2nd Division, the need for regaining command of the air around the Solomons was keenly recognized by Army planners. Gradually, opinion within the Army High Command began tilting towards the deployment of Army air forces to the region. In late October a proposal was produced by the Operations Section of the Army General Staff for the assignment of two fighter and two light bomber sentais (air groups) to support Army operations in New Guinea. This, however, was only intended as a temporary measure to help out the Navy while its air units were committed to the Guadalcanal campaign. (In fact, by then the Navy’s major bombing missions against Port Moresby from Rabaul had all but ceased, except for night raids by one or a few planes at a time, as more and more Navy planes were sucked into the Guadalcanal campaign.) As soon as Port Moresby was captured, it was intended that the Army air forces would be pulled out again.

The issue was settled shortly afterwards. From 28 October, Takushiro Hattori of the Operations Section, Army General Staff, visited the New Guinea-Solomons front, including XVII Army headquarters on Guadalcanal. His report dated 11 November called for, among other things, the deployment of army air forces to the region in order to regain air superiority. In mid-November, the Army and Navy High Commands and the Government produced an estimate of future American air power which projected that the Americans would have in the South Pacific some 11,000 army and navy first-line planes by December 1942, and 24,500 by December 1943. It was recognized that the most urgent need facing Japan was to increase her air power.

Faced with looming defeat on Guadalcanal, and with setbacks in their drive on Port Moresby where Japanese forces had begun withdrawing from Kokoda on 26 October, the Army finally decided to commit some of its air forces to the South Pacific. On 18 November an “Army-Navy Central Agreement on Operations in the South Pacific Area” was signed, and the 6th Air Division was committed to the New Guinea front. This, it should be noted, was only a temporary arrangement to support the Navy’s operations – that is, the Army units would be “loaned” until the Navy’s air forces recovered or certain victorious conditions (such as the occupation of Port Moresby) were attained. In accordance with the agreement, sixty Nakajima Type 1 “Oscar” fighters of the 11th Sentai reached Rabaul via Truk on 18 December, and almost immediately became involved in air defence operations. By the end of the month they were flying missions against targets on mainland New Guinea, such as Buna, some of these as joint missions with Navy aircraft. On 29 December, heavy bomber units of the Army were ordered to deploy from Burma to New Guinea.

Six weeks later, on 3 January 1943, another Army-Navy Central Agreement was signed which designated the areas of responsibility of the Army and Navy’s air units. The Army air forces were given the mission of supporting the ground forces on New Guinea and providing their air defence, and supporting the transport of supplies to New Guinea. The Navy air forces would be responsible for air operations in the Solomons, and for air operations in New Guinea other than those assigned to the Army.4

While the decision to withdraw from Guadalcanal was made at the end of 1942, on 4 January the Army and Navy High Commands ordered that operations on New Guinea were to be continued. The purpose of Japan’s operations in the South Pacific was to be to “secure a position of superiority”. Lae, Salamaua, Wewak and Madang on New Guinea were to be strengthened or occupied, and the area north of the Owen Stanleys was to be secured so that it could function as a base for operations aimed at Port Moresby.5 The Japanese then had 164 Army and 190 Navy aircraft on their bases at Rabaul and the surrounding area. At this stage, therefore, the Japanese had decided to abandon the southern Solomons but still intended to continue offensive operations in New Guinea, aimed at the eventual capture of Port Moresby.

Thereafter, Japanese air operations over New Guinea were conducted principally by the Army, operating out of Wewak and other bases. In addition to bombing raids on Allied airbases, the Japanese air forces also had to take on ground support missions (although never conducted as closely as was the case with the Allied air and ground forces), combat air patrol over their own airbases and escort missions of ship transports operating around New Guinea. As was the case with the Japanese Navy aircraft operating against Port Moresby in mid-1942, however, the Japanese never really gained the initiative in the air, and instead were gradually pressed into the defensive.

The Japanese were acutely aware of the gradually growing strength of the Americans during this period. At the end of January 1943, the Japanese Army estimated that American strength in the New Guinea area was 300 aircraft – the same as the combined strength of the Japanese Army and Navy. They estimated, however, that the Americans were producing 4,000 aircraft per month, of which the South Pacific would receive 480 (and the New Guinea front at least 80) aircraft per month. Judging that the Americans would suffer losses of 50 per cent per month, the Japanese Army projected that the Americans would have 700 aircraft in the New Guinea area by June, and 950 by September. Compared to this, the combined strength of the Japanese Army and Navy in the New Guinea-Solomons area was projected to grow to possibly 350 in June, but was not expected to exceed that number at any time.6 The Japanese were therefore clearly aware that if the current situation continued, the Americans would gradually attain a sheer superiority in numbers through 1943.

After the Japanese successfully withdrew from Guadalcanal in early February 1943, the next major setback which befell them was the Battle of the Bismarck Sea on 2-3 March that year. In this action, an entire convoy of transports carrying the 51st Division and a large amount of heavy weapons and supplies earmarked for the reinforcement of Lae, was sunk in the Dampier Straits, along with four out of eight escorting destroyers. As a result of this disastrous defeat, which occurred even though the Japanese had provided the convoy with what they believed was an adequate fighter escort, the Japanese were forced to realize that they could no longer run major convoys of transports in areas where the Americans were able to operate their bombers more or less freely. This posed obvious problems for the supply of the Japanese troops on New Guinea.

Following the Bismarck Sea battle, the Army reconsidered its entire New Guinea strategy, including the possibility of abandoning New Guinea outright and withdrawing to a new defensive line. This option was not adopted, however, because the Navy’s operations – not only in the New Guinea area but also throughout the South Pacific – would be constricted by such a pullback by the Army. In addition, no new defensive line to which the Army might safely fall back was prepared, and in any case, such a retreat would only expose the Philippines, Celebes and other Japanese-held islands in the South Pacific to air attack. Joint Army-Navy studies which were held on 14 March confirmed this policy, and the Army continued to try to hold its current positions in New Guinea.7