Imperial Japan’s Six-Six Fleet Programme

Shikishima at Sasebo 13 December 1915. The first of four battleships authorised under the Second Period Expansion Programme of 1895, she was ordered from Thames Ironworks, Blackwall, and completed in 1901.

Tokiwa early in her career. Despite being ordered from three different European countries, all six armoured cruisers had a similar displacement and a common British-pattern armament of four 8in guns and twelve/fourteen 6in QF guns.

The victory in the Sino-Japanese War brought Japan a huge war indemnity which made possible enormous modernisation and expansion programmes which, in turn, enabled the IJN to win the naval war against Russia. Before the victory in the Sino-Japanese War public opinion towards the IJN was unfavourable, but this situation changed thereafter and the IJN was supported by the whole nation and the subject of high expectations. Without this money and public support for a growth in naval force strengths, the efforts of Yamamoto would have failed, the Six-Six Fleet concept could not have been realised, and Japan would either have been compelled to back down from a military confrontation with Russia, or waged war and lost. The subsequent history of the Imperial Japanese Navy and of Japan would then have been very different.

Yamamoto Gonnohyoe (Gombei), often called the `father of the Imperial Japanese Navy’. It was he who overcame the dominance of the Army, securing equality with the sister military service, and `cleansed’ the IJN prior to the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95. However, one of the less happy consequences of equal status was the dual command system that deepened the rivalry between Navy and Army to an extent that Yamamoto failed to anticipate.

The Man Behind the Six-Six Fleet Programme

The First and Second Period Naval Expansion Programmes provided for the realisation of the Six-Six Fleet as conceived by Yamamoto Gonnohyoe. The warships built under these programmes, which were as usual subject to revision. These ships were generally completed before the Russo-Japanese War and provided the foundation for the IJN’s defeat of the Russian fleet.

After a more or less unexceptional career as a naval officer Lt-Cdr Yamamoto Gonnohyoe (1852-1933) became adjutant to Navy Minister Saigo Tsugumichi in July 1887. In June 1891 he was transferred to the Navy Ministry as Secretary (Kambo shugi) and entered the political stage. Promoted Rear Admiral, as head of the Naval Affairs Bureau he was at the centre of the Navy’s administration and was not afraid to carry out unpopular measures such as the enforced retirement of 97 naval officers, among them eight of flag rank, before the Sino- Japanese War, and the promotion of young, well- educated officers in their place. In 1893, as the éminence grise behind the Navy Minister, he embarked on a struggle to place the staff organisation of the IJN on a par with that of the IJA.

Yamamoto was promoted Vice Admiral in May 1898 and became Navy Minister on 8 November of the same year. He remained in this post until his resignation on 6 January 1906, on which date he was succeeded by Vice Admiral Baron Saito Makoto. Taking into account Yamamoto’s time as Secretary, he was a key figure in the ministry for 14 1/2 years, during which time he was at the centre of naval policy.

During his time as Navy Minister Baron Yamamoto was promoted to full admiral in 1904 and twice became Premier: 20 February 1913 – 24 March 1914, when his Cabinet fell in the course of the Siemens bribery affair, and then from 2 September 1923 – 19 December 1923.

The IJN required some ten years to prepare for the Russo-Japanese War despite the most favourable conditions, namely good cooperation at the highest levels between the political body and the military, particularly with regard to the basis of diplomacy and the defence of the country. Yamamoto’s personal decisions deserve the highest praise. He was responsible for the selection of Vice Admiral Togo, whose career thus far had been unexceptional, to command the fleet. The appointment of Togo surprised many high-ranking officers, but it proved to be a fortunate choice, and he is still remembered today as one of the outstanding admirals of the IJN.

On 7 January 1906 the Saijoni Kinmochi Cabinet was formed and Saito Makoto was appointed Navy Minister; Saito held this position for seven years until 1913 and his successor, Admiral Kato Tomosaburo, filled this post for eight years despite some cabinet changes. This was advantageous in terms of continuity: despite regular changes in the composition of the cabinet, these three prominent admirals each held their posts for long periods of time, and were able to concentrate their abilities upon the organisation and expansion of the IJN and the selection of its leaders.

Why A Six-Six Fleet?

Saigo’s justification for the size and power of the new ships deserves attention. He was keen to point out that the 15,000-ton displacement of the battleships in the new programme matched that of the latest British construction. The advantages were stated to be as follows:

– Battleships of that size cannot pass through the Suez Canal. An enemy fleet with comparable ships would therefore have to be sent around the Cape of Good Hope, which would be time-consuming and costly. A considerable quantity of coal would have to be embarked, as with Britain neutral the necessary coaling stations would not be available.

– Should the enemy send a battle fleet to the Far East, most of our forces would be tasked with the defence of the naval ports, shipyards and locations along our coast- line well-suited to the establishment of a base. Therefore we must expand our navy. by means of the proposed large construction programme. The enemy has no ship- yard or dock capable of repairing his big ships in the Far East and the construction. or expansion of his facilities would require considerable expenditure.

– The warships the enemy is able to dispatch to the Far East via the Suez Canal would necessarily be limited to 2nd class battleships and cruisers. If we have a force composed of six battleships and four powerful 1st class cruisers of 7,000 tons our country can be adequately defended.

– The cruisers in this programme are all big ships we have never seen in this country, and they are equivalent in size and power to any armoured cruiser or older-type battle- ship that the enemy can send to the Far East.

– The 2nd and 3rd class cruisers are all superior to those currently in service; they have high speed and are armed with many QF guns.

– The battleships are comparable in fighting power to the British Centurion, which is currently the largest ship in the Far East, and displacement is 5,000 tons greater. The 1st class cruisers are similar to the British Edgar currently deployed to the Far East, and the 2nd class cruiser is an improved Yoshino class.

The above reasoning underpinned the Six-Six programme. The Japanese concluded that, given the constraints on the deployment of 1st class battleships from European waters to the Far East, the IJN battle fleet proposed was sufficient both to defend Japan and to defeat any fleet that one or two allied powers might dispatch.

The Defensive Character of the Six-Six Fleet

The defence of Japan’s approaches and coastline against an attacking fleet was the key element in all these deliberations. Offensive warfare in distant waters was never mentioned, and the characteristics of the six battleships and six armoured cruisers reflected this strategic approach.

All six battleships and four of the armoured cruisers were designed by leading British naval architects to Japanese requirements, and the plans had to be approved by Japan. Due to the rapid progress in technology, the guns and protection systems were subject to incremental improvements in the course of the building programme. However, even though the details of the individual ships were different, armament and speed were virtually the same to permit their operation as a single unit in a single formation.  

The battleships had two more secondary 6in guns than their British counterparts. This was made possible by a reduction in coal bunkerage and the acceptance of relatively spartan living quarters. As the ships were intended to operate in Japanese waters, being tasked with the interception and defeat in combat of a fleet approaching the Japanese mainland after a very long voyage, these features were considered less important; deployment to distant seas to fight against an enemy fleet stationed there was out of the question. This emphasis on fighting power and protection at the expense of range and habit- ability is testimony to the essentially defensive character of Japan’s first modern battle fleet, which was built in preparation for the clash with Russia. This tendency can also be seen in later warships.

Finally, it should be noted that the concept of a Six-Six Fleet as a definition of naval force structure was the result of a new process of reasoning, and would subsequently be further developed with the so-called Eight-Eight Fleet.