In one of the deadliest naval disasters in history, more than 600 men lost their lives when a Japanese battleship exploded and sank 100 years ago today.
Launched in October 1910, the dreadnought battleship “Kawachi” was the pride of the Japanese Imperial Navy. At more than 520ft long, capable of 21 knots and with a range of 2,700 nautical miles, she was home to a crew ranging from 1,000 to 1,100 officers and enlisted men.
Bristling with more than 40 guns, including four 50-calibre deck guns in twin revolving turrets fore and aft, she was a formidable adversary. She also had five submerged 18-inch torpedo tubes and was heavily armoured against attack.
Together with her sister-ship, “Settsu”, she saw her first and only action in combat early in the First World War, when she successfully bombarded German fortifications at Tsingtao on the east coast of China between October and November 1914. The siege of the German port was the first encounter between Japanese and German forces. It also marked the first Anglo-Japanese operation of the war, with two Royal Navy battleships supplementing the Japanese naval attack.
In the Second World War, the Royal Navy would find itself pitched against the Japanese fleet, but the “Kawachi” was not destined to be part of it. Following a routine refit in early 1918 she re-joined the navy’s First Squadron for a series of sea trials and entered Tokuyama Bay, off the southern tip of Japan’s main island of Honchu, on the evening of July 11th. Torpedo practice was scheduled for the following morning but was cancelled due to high seas and instead the battleship remained at anchor.
It was around 3-50pm when a loud explosion was heard below the main forward gun turret on the starboard side, with plumes of smoke erupting from the turret between the battleship’s first and second funnels. The huge explosion happened in the ammunition magazine, set below the main guns and packed with high explosives. Anyone in the vicinity of the explosion was killed by its force, but many more deaths would follow.
With her hull badly damaged, the Kawachi very quickly listed to starboard and capsized at 3-55pm, less than four minute after the first explosion. Most of those who died were trapped below decks and unable to escape as the stricken ship sank to the seabed. More than 600 were killed, with 433 survivors rescued by other vessels which rushed to the scene.
A commission to investigate the disaster was convened the very next day and initially sabotage was suspected, as the First Word War was not yet over and Germany was thought to have agents operating within her enemies’ armed forces. However, no plausible suspect or evidence could be found. Instead it was thought that cordite stored in the ammunition magazine might have spontaneously ignited due to decomposition, setting off the explosion.
As a result of the commission’s findings, tighter controls governing the handling, storage and regular inspection of cordite were adopted by the Japanese Imperial Navy. It initially considered salvaging and rebuilding Kawachi, as she was in relatively shallow waters, but abandoned the idea due to the complexity and cost of the salvage operation. Instead she was partially dismantled where she lay, with the bulk of the hull left on the seabed to serve as an artificial reef.