The Japanese destroyers truly made their mark during the war in the Pacific. Fast, heavily armed and manned by well-trained crews, they took part in some of the most memorable surface and air-sea battles of the Pacific War, but also in hundreds of lesser known actions. Those workhorses of the Imperial Navy were employed in a wide variety of roles – from direct action against enemy fleet to escort duties and even pure transport tasks. Commander Hara Tameichi rightly observes that it was the destroyers that bore the brunt of the fighting at sea, and very few among them were as good as the Kagero class warships.
Origins of the Kagero class
The Washington Treaty of 1922 seriously curtailed Japanese fleet expansion plans. In the eyes of the Japanese commanders the restrictions placed on the development of battleships and heavy cruisers, as well as the parities in numbers of capital ships in service with major naval powers were unfair and put their country at a disadvantage compared to Britain or the United States. They therefore began to look for alternative ways to offset the U.S. lead in the construction of battleships, which the Japanese admiralty considered to be the key factor in naval warfare. Being unable to match the numbers of American capital warships (due in no small part to a huge gap between the two countries’ industrial potentials) the Japanese looked for other ways to keep up with the U.S. and to secure eventual victory in the “decisive battle”, since they firmly believed that the war with the United States will be won or lost in one massive confrontation of the two fleets with the battleships playing the leading role. Any and all ideas that could potentially erode the U.S. advantage were therefore welcomed by the Japanese admiralty. One of them was the development of a force of light warships, including the destroyers.
Believing that heavily armed, long-range destroyers would make a formidable weapon against the U.S. Navy, the Japanese admiralty quickly gave a green light to the construction of this class of warships and pressed on with the development of offensive weapons and intensive crew training (including workups in night-time tactics and torpedo attacks). One of the results of that effort was the development of the superb and deadly “Long Lance” torpedo.
The turning point in the development of Japanese light warships was the introduction of the Fubuki class destroyers. In the late 1920s no other ship of that type could match the Fubuki’s offensive punch. They were the quintessential offensive weapons and solid platforms for heavy torpedo armament, manned by crews well-versed in night attack tactics. But they did have weak spots. The topside weight of their powerful armament made them rather unstable and they did not fare too well in adverse weather conditions. During exercises in 1935 several Fubuki class destroyers sustained serious structural damage after an encounter with a heavy storm. The quest for an ideal destroyer was therefore not over. The designs that followed Fubuki (Hatsuharu, Shiratsuyu and Asashio class) were not problem-free either: there were issues with their stability and propulsion systems. However, the next generation of destroyers would prove to be a fully mature design: the Kagero class warships incorporated all of their predecessors’ advantages and none of the shortcomings.
As early as 1935 the Imperial Japanese Navy made plans for the construction of at least six Destroyers Type A, which were subsequently revised to include 15 units. By the time the 3rd Naval Armaments Supplement Program was approved by the Diet in 1937 the number of Type A vessels to be built grew to eighteen. When the lead ship of the Kagero class was laid down in September 1937 the Japanese believed they had at last found a perfect combination of firepower, speed and range to gain a critical edge in the fight against the U.S. Navy. There is little doubt that the Kagero class destroyers did live up to the expectations of the Japanese naval commanders.
Characteristics of the Kagero class
The Kagero class destroyers were big, fast and heavily armed (key technical specifications are summarized in Table 1). The destroyer’s hull design incorporated the lessons learned from the construction of Kagero’s predecessors, which eliminated many of the shortcomings of the Fubuki class warships. The hull featured a double bottom design (with some of the space used as fuel tanks) and was divided into 19 watertight compartments, which improved the ship’s survivability. Kagero had all the characteristic features of contemporary Japanese destroyer designs: slender lines, 127 mm main guns mounted in a single forward and two aft turrets, relatively small superstructure, two smoke stacks and a raised forecastle running along one third of the ship’s length. The destroyer’s designers were ever mindful of the Fubuki’s Achilles’ heel and went to great lengths to ensure the Kageros were stable and robust. Welding was widely used in the construction of the ship, which significantly reduced her overall weight. Smaller, lighter superstructure (made of duralumin) provided for improved stability as did the relatively low-placed center of gravity.