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IJN's Yamato Class: The biggest of the big bois

Updated: Mar 15, 2021

This was the biggest warship class ever built. There is no contest. No warship before or since displaced 72,000 tons. No warship could match these in terms of raw power, size, or intimidation. The IJN Yamato and her sister ship Musashi were the pride of the Japanese navy in WWII, built to just overpower anything and everything that came in their way. They were supposed to be unbeatable, and symbols of the might of the Japanese Navy, showcasing the invincibility of Japan, and how they were supposed to win this divine war. But of course, they did not, so let's see what went wrong to put these two titanic warships at the bottom of the ocean.

The good

Let's start of with what was great about these ships. There are actually many good things to talk about here, but lets start of with the armour.

The armour

This was the first class of IJN to utilise the all-or-nothing armour scheme, focusing the armour around the most vital areas of the ship. Prior to this, all IJN battleships used a different armour philosophy, where. they would try and cover all areas of the ship with armour, while sacrificing the thickness of the armour itself. While this meant that the ship was more protected overall, it still meant that they were vulnerable in critical areas, and a good shot could destroy them easily. The Yamato class' designers were well aware of this, so they decided to try a new tactic, the all-or-nothing scheme. But they went just a tad bit overboard I think. So, following the all-or-nothing concept, the ship's extremities received very little armour, while the vital parts received simply ridiculous amounts of armour. The citadel bulkhead was up to 355 mm thick while the main belt was a simply unbelievable 410 mm thick, and was also inclined 20 degrees to increase the effective thickness of the armour slightly. The armoured deck ranged from 200 to 230 mm thick depending on the section. This was bloody ridiculous, especially when compared to other battleships. The Iowa, for example, had a maximum of 152 mm of deck. But the 230 mm deck armour on Yamato wasn't the most amazing piece of armour on that ship. No, the most amazing was the main turret face armour. It was a simply bullshit 650 mm thick. 650 mm. That is more than any other battleship ever launched. This made it impossible to destroy the Yamato's or the Musashi's turrets. Don't even try it, the armour was angled and bullshit thick. This ship really was insanely heavily armoured, surpassingly ship before or since. The armour was insurmountable. Complimenting this was 9 amazingly powerful main battery guns.

The Guns

They were BIG. I know I said the Iowa was the definition of big, but in truth, the this thing redefined BIG. BIG in both size and volume. So just how big were the guns on these things. The Yamato class warships had 9 460mm main battery guns. 460mm. That is the largest ever gun ever fitted on to a warship. It was the single most destructive main battery guns ever to exist, and was really only out matched by the Iowa's nuclear shells in terms of destructive power. As for secondaries, both Yamato and Musashi had a lot. They both carried 2 triple 155mm gun turrets, 9 twin 127mm gun turrets, 162 25mm AA guns and 2 twin mounted 13.2mm AA machine-guns. The 127mm guns were dual purpose guns, meaning that they could be used for both surface and air targets, so the overall AA armament of the Yamato class was monstrous. In general, we can say this class of battleship was one of the most heavily armed in history. And what about their range? Well, the 460mm guns had a maximum range of 60 km, the 155s had a range of 27.4km and the 127s had a range of 14.8km when used on surface targets. So the guns were amazing, effective at ludicrous ranges and unbelievably destructive. But nothing is perfect, so we need to look at what went badly wrong on these ships.

The Bad

This class was not flawless, in fact it had many weaknesses that were incredibly exploitable. They were riddled with unacceptable and numerous flaws, starting with that armour.

What was wrong with the armour?

First of all, the build quality was abysmal. I do mean it. The transition between the anti-torpedo bulkhead and the belt armour was known for being very weak, especially the Yamato herself. What this means is that if anyone aimed at the waterline of these ships, they were likely to cause significant damage to the ship and potentially incapacitate it. This was unacceptable, and it made the ships vulnerable to torpedo attacks. Plus, the extremities could be easily damaged just because of the lack of armour on that area.

Those were the main problems with the armour, so lets move on to the problems with the guns.

The guns had a fault?!?!?!

Yes they did, but the first problem had nothing to do with the guns themselves. It actually was radar systems used by the IJN being somewhat obsolete. They were very ineffective actually, and this meant that the Yamato and Musashi couldn't really fire their guns outside their view range. They could, but the radar was so inaccurate, that OVR (Outside View Range) fire was effectively useless. This made the Iowa more effective at greater ranges than the Yamato class, but when a ship entered the Yamato class' view range, that ship would become very dead. But there was another problem with the Yamato class' main battery. The fire rate of the main battery was 1.5-2 rounds per minute. The guns took over half a minute to reload! Granted, this was average for a battleship, and the shells were very heavy, meaning it wasn't weakness per se, but I felt it was worth mentioning here. But that wasn't even the worst problem with the guns. They had a crap shell velocity with a maximum of 780m/s and a minimum of 475m/s. It means that the shells take almost 100 seconds to hit a target 42km away and over 2 minutes at maximum range. 2 minutes. This significantly reduced the ship's effectiveness at range, which meant they had to deploy it closer to the enemy in order to be more effective, making it more likely to sink. If they went closer to the enemy, they would get attacked by many things, including torpedoes and bombs and LOTS of shells. The Yamato class needed to be agile enough to dodge them, but because it was the Yamato class...

Yea, it wasn't that mobile

Are you really surprised though? This damn things were 72,000 tons, it was going to be a slug. Its top speed was only 27 knots, and it turned like a slug, but I think I can explain this. Just to be clear, this next part is speculation, because I am honestly not too sure about what I am saying, but I do think that this is the only possible explanation for the Yamato class' issues. Because these issues seemed to be more like a compromise that could be accounted for by a fleet.

How did the designers want it to be used?

I believe the Yamato class was meant to be used in a similar manner to dreadnoughts. Dreadnoughts were a type of ship that had ludicrously powerful guns and armour, but lacked basically everything else, rendering them pretty ineffective on their own as they could easily be swarmed by multiple smaller, but faster ships. If we look at the Yamato class, we see the same things: Low speed, ludicrously powerful guns, obscene levels of armour. It was pretty inaccurate against any target OVR, and fired very slowly. These are the same characteristics as dreadnoughts, and this tells me a couple of things.

1) The Yamato class was never meant to operate alone. It is way to vulnerable to being swarmed by multiple ships to even consider fighting alone.

2) The Yamato class must have been designed as the main damage dealer of the fleet. Their oversized guns and the sheer volume of secondaries tells me it was designed to deal massive damage.

3) They were most likely capital ship killers. I say this because of the ridiculous levels of armour that could withstand hits from even the Iowa's shells, and it had a gun capable of severely damaging the Iowa. This means that the Yamato class was designed to utterly dominate 1-on-1 ship combat, and be unbeatable in close quarters.

All of this points to the Yamato class being the lead ships of any fleet or detachment they were assigned to. They were meant to lead a battalion into battle and wreak havoc at extremely close quarters. But they needed the support of the rest of the fleet, as they could easily be swarmed if the enemy managed to separate the Yamato class ship from the rest of her supporting fleet.

This is my interpretation of how the Yamato class was intended to be used. They were just too heavily focused on the firepower and armour of the ships to really be effective in any other role. They were titans of unimaginable might, ships capable of destroying everything before them. No warship before or since could match the Yamato class in terms of size, power and intimidation factor.

Despite being used in the role I described, both Yamato class ships were sunk. But how were they sunk? I think its time we went into the service history of these battleships, to see just what went wrong to put these ships 20,000 leagues under the sea.

Service History

The Yamato was laid down in March of 1937 and was finally launched in 1940 before being officially commissioned in 1941. The Musashi was laid down about a year after the Yamato, launched in 1940 and commissioned 2 years later. Lets look at the Yamato first.

Yamato was given to the famous Admiral Yamamoto and served as the flagship of the Japanese Combined Fleet during the Battle of Midway, but did not engage. Yamato was assigned to the 1st battleship division, and the Musashi took over the Yamato's role as the flagship. Yamato then spent the next 2 years in between the naval bases of Kure and Truk, sailing from one to another randomly. But somehow, Yamato received major torpedo damage from the USS Stake in 1943, forcing Yamato to the port of Kure, where she received several structural upgrades. Yamato then patrolled the area for a while, and after some more upgrades, Yamato fired her main battery guns for the only time in 1944, helping to sink an escort carrier and a Johnston-class destroyer, but torpedos from a nearby destroyer forced her to port for repairs. After that, in 1945, Yamato was one of many ships to take part in the suicide mission: Operation Ten-Go, where the IJN just desperately threw as many ships as they could at the USN in a desperate attempt to protect the motherland. Yamato didn't even take part, sunk en route to the battle by carrier planes. She ate 10 torpedos and 7 bombs before she sank taking most of her crew with her, including the Vice-Admiral Seiichi Ito.

Musashi, as previously mentioned, took over the Yamato's role as the flagship of the combined IJN fleet in 1943. She then patrolled the area in between the naval bases of Truk, Yokosuka, Kure and Brunei until July 1944. During that time, she received damage from an American submarine and got some minor upgrades, but nothing worth mentioning. She joined the 1st Battleship Division in April 1944. Then, in June of the same year, Musashi escorted Japanese carriers during the Battle of the Philippine Sea as part of the Second Fleet. Then in October, she was assigned to Admiral Takeo Kurita's Center Force for the Battle of Leyte Gulf. She was sunk in the same month during the Battle of Sibuyan Sea, eating, and this is actually bullshit now, 17 BOMBS AND 19 TORPEDOS!!!! That is more than DOUBLE the ordinance it took to sink the Yamato, and Musashi was the second ship!!! It just goes to show how durable they were.

OK, but that tells us nothing. WHY did they sink?

Jeez, hold your horses, I felt you needed to understand their service history to understand the reason they sank. If you payed attention, you could clearly see that the Yamato class warships were almost thrown into a hopeless battle that cost Japan dearly. The reason these ships sank was because the IJN just didn't have the resources to effectively utilise them towards the end of WWII. The USN had a MUCH bigger fleet, and better repair facilities than the IJN. So the Yamato and Musashi were doomed to sink the moment the USN directed it's attention to the Pacific.

Really, there is only one way for me to sum up these ships: The right ships for the wrong war. They were designed with a certain role in mind, and, in all fairness, they were used in that role well, rarely sailing alone. But the Japanese picked the wrong fight. They should have never challenged the USN, it was just them signing their own death warrant. So while the Yamato and Musashi were the correct ships for the IJN, but the wrong ships to fight the USN. The strength of the Yamato and Musashi was dependent on the fleet that supported them. The IJN's inability to produce enough ships to support the Yamato class battleships doomed them.

Why should you care?

These are battleships. Battleships are no longer in active service these days, so most battleships are viewed as legends these days. Battleships were built as the Lords of the Oceans, but the story of the Yamato class ships shows that even the greatest of them could fall. The Yamato Class ships were battleships taken to the extreme, but to the point where their weaknesses couldn't be compensated for it just goes to show that if you aim too high, your wings will melt and the fall will be that much harder.

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