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Built in the early 1910s, Japan's Kongo class battlecruisers had eight 14-inch guns, a speed of about 30 knots, and a displacement of about 26,000 tons. This gave them advantages over British contemporaries such as the Orion class battleships (ten 13.5-inch guns, 21 knots and 22,000 tons displacement), but perhaps less so compared to the Revenge class battleships, which had eight 15-inch guns, 30,000 ton displacement, and 21 knots.

In the 1930s, the Kongos were upgraded to battleships by the addition of armor that increased their displacements to 32,000 tons. A source that I read rated them as being "comparable to the newer battleships of the King George V class (built during the treaty-busting rounds of the late 1930s. That seems like an exaggeration, because the King George Vs had 25% more guns (ten 14-inchers versus 8) and 30% more displacement, but were slightly slower (28 knots).

Even so, is it fair to say that the Kongo class battleships were more nearly like the King George V's built 25 years later than their peers of the Orion and Revenge classes? Put another way, how much more (or less) difficult was it to produce the superior speed of the Kongos compared to the greater heaviness of the Revenges and the King George V given the industrial technologies that were available in 1910-1915 versus 1935-1940?

My specific belief is that "speed" was harder to achieve in 1910-1915 than "heaviness," whereas "speed" was much easier to achieve by 1935. Am I right or wrong?

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  • The British had built Lion class battle cruisers that matched the tonnage, speed, armor, and almost matched the guns of the pre-upgrade Kongo ships. Would you consider those advanced? They were scrapped in the 20s. – ed.hank Oct 31 '20 at 17:41
  • On paper at least they were not that different (in WW1) from various British (as above) or American (say Nevada class, 'all-of-nothing' protection) ships. The Nevadas, while rebuilt, did not add as much displacement as the Kongos, but the newer 1930's American ships certainly did a number on the Kongos at Guadelcanal. – Jon Custer Nov 1 '20 at 3:31
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    I thought the many rounds of "which tank was superior" should have taught everybody that looking at a list of numbers does not even begin to tell a story. VtC as "opinion-based", sorry. – DevSolar Nov 2 '20 at 10:20
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    @DevSolar: I modified the end of the earlier question and added a new paragraph to highlight my real concern. I am not interested in whether one ship was "superior" to another. My concern is about the speed/size tradeoffs of the various classes of ships given "contemporary" technologies because each is relatively easy to achieve at some times, and notoriously hard at others. I stated my current hypothesis and asked if it was right or wrong. That can be answered objectively, and I have voted to reopen. – Tom Au Nov 3 '20 at 5:55
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    @TomAu: And I voted to reopen as well. Much better. ;-) – DevSolar Nov 3 '20 at 6:47
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If we stick to the time right around the completion of the Kongo class, we find they really are not that different from contemporary British battlecruisers. Yes, their appearance caused the USA to consider building battlecruisers, but that impulse did not start to be realized until after WW1 with the proposed Lexingtons, well out of the time frame to consider here. Realize that both battleships and battlecruisers were rapidly evolving, eventually converging on the fast battleships of WW2.

Let us compare two contemporaneous battlecruisers, the Japanese Kongo and the British Queen Mary, as built:

Kongo (specs listed as for Haruna, the last completed):

  • Laid down 1/17/1911, commissioned 8/16/1913

  • 27,384 tons, 704 feet long, 92 feet beam, 27 foot draft

  • 64,000 shp, 27.5 knots

  • 8x14” guns

  • Armor: Belt – 3 to 8 inches, Deck 1 inch, Turrets 9-10 inches

Queen Mary:

  • Laid down 3/6/1911, commissioned 9/4/1913

  • 26,770 tons, 700’ 1” long, beam 89’ 1”, draft: 32’ 4”

  • 75,000 shp, 28 knots

  • 8x13.5” guns

  • Armor: Belt – 4-9”, decks 2.5”, turrets: 9”

If anything, the slightly thicker armor and touch of speed of the Queen Mary makes it slightly better than the Kongo class.

Similarly, a comparison of contemporary British/American/Japanese battleships of that period (say King George V, Nevada, Fuso) also show close similarities with the Fuso having a bit less armor.

The extensive rebuilds of the Kongos between the wars only served to update the ships to be more like fast battleships than the battlecruisers they originally were. When push came to shove, neither Hiei or Kirishima could stand up to cruisers (Hiei) or new fast battleships (Kirishima).

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  • I disagree with the end: Hiei and Kirishima performed well during the naval battle of guadalcanal – totalMongot Nov 1 '20 at 18:51
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    First battle, Hiei and Kirishima with 11 destroyers take on two heavy and three light cruisers plus 8 destroyers, and Hiei is left a wreck and sinks. Second battle Kirishima's 14" guns fail to penetrate South Dakota's armor, and North Carolina sinks her easily. Not a great performance, particularly for night battles which were often a Japanese specialty. – Jon Custer Nov 1 '20 at 22:48
  • @JonCuster: The Japanese were at a disadvantage in the first battle because their ships were armed with high explosive (rather than armor piercing) shells, for the bombardment of Henderson Field. Even so, they sank two American cruisers and several destroyers, and damaged all but one of the remaining ships for the loss of the Hiei. It was an American victory because it prevented the destruction of Henderson Field. In the second battle, Admiral Willis Lee pointed out that the American victory was due to superior radar, not heavier guns, (and it was the Washington that sank the Kirishima). – Tom Au Nov 2 '20 at 6:43
  • @TomAu - yeah, brain fart on Washington vs North Carolina (same class at least!). Somewhere out there there should be a nice PhD thesis on Japanese commander training and selection - the destroyers and cruisers did very well in the Slot in their various actions, the battleship commanders were not up to snuff. If there are no enemy ships in the area it is easy to switch to high explosive shells and go after a fixed target. If there are enemy ships, then you need to be prepared for them. They weren't, which is all on the admirals. – Jon Custer Nov 2 '20 at 14:42
  • @JonCuster So battlecruisers were bad but now it's all admirals' fault! You neglicted the madness of a night battle: Hiei go through the American line, taking all the hits to save Japanese destroyers: this explains her loss – totalMongot Nov 2 '20 at 22:03
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@Jon Custer answered about actual characteristics of the cruiser. About the second part of your question:

Put another way, how much did the superior speed of the Kongos offset the greater heaviness of the Revenges and the King George V?

During WW2, there were many designs of heavy destroyers or heavy cruisers/battle cruisers that tried to outmatch heavier cruisers or battleships with speed and weaponry, even if they were inferior in armour and range.

Those designs had différent successes, manned by German, Japanese or French crews. Overall, the Royal Navy and the US Navy always managed to put a big battleship or a big cruiser in front of the fast ennemy boat, and to destroy or push back the ennemy. it depended of the tactical situation.

Since British and Japanese battlecruisers and battleships never met in a significant way, we can't really answer. However there are some points:

  • Unless in night battle, a Kongo tasked to sink a King George V would have been a failure, but the Kongo would always have had an escape way
  • When American battleships and Japanese battlecruisers met, the first often gained the upperhand, but they had either advantages: Two vs one, or radar and ambush situation.
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The Kongo class battleships had one clear advantage over the British battleships. They were "upgradable," and actually upgraded around 1940. (The most nearly comparable British ships of the Lion class were scrapped in the 1920s.) In modern tech terms, the Kongos were "scalable." That made them "advanced" compared to ships built in 1910-1915, because they were already "modern" in the earlier period, and then "improved," based on the technologies of the late 1930s, of the King George V era. In World War II, the Japanese thus fielded ships that were "hybrids" between the earlier British battleships and the later King George V class.

It is noteworthy that the later improvements to the Kongos improved both speed (from 28 to 30 knots) and armor (by about 6,000 tons displacement), while keeping "guns" constant. Thus, the 1910s battle cruisers had advantages of speed over other British capital ships, but had advantages in armor and guns only over the Orion class. The later upgrades improved their armor to or beyond that of the Revenge class ships, leaving the latter superior only in gunnery. One commenter noted that the Kongo battle cruisers were "upgunned" Lions. But the later battleships had advantages of speed and armor over the Lions as well.

It is also striking that the British later "pulled back" the gun calibers of the King George V class to that of Kongos (14 inch), while giving them much more armor (even compared to the upgraded battleships), at a slight disadvantage in speed. Again, the advantage was in armor (in the late 1930s), but it was much more possible to have speedy ships that were heavily armored at that time than in 1910.

So at the risk of oversimplifying, speed, armor and gunnery represented "tradeoffs." The Kongos had the advantage of initially being designed as fast ships with competitive gunnery to potential opponents, at the sacrifice of armor. Later developments showed that it was probably easier to add armor than speed (decades later), meaning that the Japanese were successful in upgrading them.

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  • An interesting point, although there are subtleties to it. Both the UK and the USA had more modern ships extant than could be kept under the Washington Treaty, so could pick and choose which to get rid of. Japan just had to stop building ships, so were 'stuck' with the Kongos. That left rebuilding as the only real option to bring them up to post-Jutland standards, and they did that pretty well. Still, they were old ships. To me one of the big differences in the data above is their shallower draft. That meant less armor on the superstructure, the reason why Hiei got beat up by cruisers. – Jon Custer Nov 5 '20 at 16:19
  • @JonCuster: As I understand it, the British scrapped the two Lions to make room for the Rodney and Nelson (built after the Washington Treaty), which had 16 inch guns and more armor, but were much slower. Then in the late 1930s, they built the King George Vs with smaller gun caliber (14 inch), but much faster than the Nelsons, and with even more armor. The Japanese took the much more economical course of upgrading the Kongos "toward" (but probably not up to) the King George V standard. – Tom Au Nov 5 '20 at 20:18
  • The Lions were pre-Jutland ships. The treaty itself states "On the completion of the two new ships to be constructed and the scrapping of the Thunderer, King George V, Ajax and Centurion, as provided in Article II, the total tonnage to be retained by the British Empire will be 558,950 tons." - Neither Lion or Princess Royal were on the list of ships to be retained. The late 1930's ships were designed with the 14" limit of the London treaties in mind, at least partly to persuade the other parties to stay within that limit. – Jon Custer Nov 5 '20 at 20:28
  • For whatever reason in the negotiations, Japan had no option to complete new ships, only to retain ones they had already. Curious perhaps, and maybe there is a nice PhD thesis out there on the negotiations leading to the result. – Jon Custer Nov 5 '20 at 20:30
  • From usni.org/magazines/naval-history-magazine/2016/august/… - "At the Washington conference, U.S. negotiators offered to cancel everything else. Two more battleships, the Colorado (BB-45) and West Virginia (BB-48), survived as part of a compromise allowing Japan to retain the recently commissioned battleship Mutsu and the British to build the post-Jutland battleships Nelson and Rodney." gives some hint. – Jon Custer Nov 5 '20 at 20:39

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