World War II could have been the height of battleships, it was their graveyard. So it was with the famousYamato, star of the Imperial Japanese Navy. Very quickly supplanted by aircraft carriers, these sea monsters, heirs to the great sailing warships of the Navy's Golden Age, have seen their most illustrious representatives experience contrasting destinies. After the heroic raids of Graf Spee and Bismarck, the agony of Prince of Wales and Repulse or the miraculous escapes from Jean Bart and Scharnhorst, what happened to the biggest of all, the Yamato ?
The Yamato, a giant ... which floats!
How can we imagine that such a monster could ever have taken to sea? Let us judge rather: a displacement of 64,200 t; a length of 263 meters; a width of 39 meters; a 400mm main armor belt; an armament composed among others of three turrets of each three cannons of caliber 457 mm, able to send shells of more than one ton; the whole being able to spin at 27 knots (ie more than 50 km / h)! Able to carry more than 3000 men, the Yamato was the most powerful battleship of the war, even beyond the Bismarck or the last American battleships (type Iowa for example).
Developed from 1934, before the cancellation of limitation standards affecting warships, her keel began on November 4, 1937 at Kure; it entered service on December 16, 1941, nine days after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Initially intended to be the flagship of a "super-fleet", it was transformed throughout the war into a simple flagship, while its twin brother, the Musashi, was sunk in the Gulf of Leyte at the end of 1944 by the American air force (it still takes nineteen torpedoes and seventeen bombs to overcome them), with little in the way of fighting; a third copy, the Shinano, was quickly converted into an aircraft carrier, a symbol in itself of the loss of power of the battleships during this war.
Long away from fire
Entered service after Pearl Harbor on Yamato stays away from the fighting for a long time, actively anyway. It is in almost all battles after December 7, 1941, particularly Midway in 1942 and the Battle of the Gulf of Leyte in 1944, where it was also briefly bombed. Yet at no time did the Yamato cannot bring its terrible main artillery into action, simply because it has no opponent! From May 1942, most of the decisive battles were fought without the fleets coming face to face, it was only for the air force to act; this is evidently the case at the Coral Sea and the Battle of Midway, but also later in the Eastern Solomons. There are certainly some “real” naval battles, with guns, during the Battle of Guadalcanal for example, but they are on a small scale and rather concern cruisers.
When the Japanese believe they can finally use the fantastic firepower of Yamato, fate decides otherwise; thus, again at Midway, Admiral Yamamoto wants to throw his ships of the line, whose Yamato, in the battle for a night fight. But the victorious American fleet, which has already sunk four Japanese aircraft carriers, cautiously withdrew.
In Leyte, while the Yamato is integrated with its sistership the Musashi at Admiral Kurita's battle squadron, tasked with attacking the US invading fleet, the plan fails when it comes to taking the enemy by surprise; it is the latter who takes the initiative with his air force, bombing the Japanese fleet and therefore sinking the Musashi. Kurita's hesitations ultimately prevent his squadron and the Yamato to be decisive when, at last, they manage to make contact with the enemy fleet and fire. The Japanese admiral decides to withdraw, for fear of sacrificing for nothing the last large unit of the Imperial Navy, which may still be of use in the defense of Japan.
The Yamato sacrificed in Okinawa (April 1945)
The other major American operations which see the conquest of Japanese strongholds do not allow the Japanese staff, which has almost no aircraft carriers, to risk its last naval forces. He will do so only when the homeland is threatened.
This is what happens when the Americans decide to attack the island of Okinawa. The battle to defend it must be the last stand of the Imperial Navy (and the army), with the aim of inflicting maximum casualties on the enemy and forcing them to renounce a landing in Japan.
Yet once again the Yamato does not seem to be a priority in Japanese plans. Previous battles (and defeats) have confirmed the need for mastery of the skies, and it is here that Japanese efforts are being made for Okinawa. But they have barely two thousand planes, and especially crews whose training has not been completed ... Among them, as in Leyte, many candidates for suicide attacks.
The Battle of Okinawa begins, and one wonders what role the Yamato. On April 4, the battleship was integrated into a mobile force intended to counterattack, and above all to serve as bait for the fleet of American ships to lure it into the land-based Japanese aviation sector. Very quickly, we understand that the attack on Yamato, called "special", will in fact be suicide; with his escort the Yahagi he only receives the go ration of his fuel ...
The small squadron of Yamato finally set sail on April 6, 1945, and she was quickly spotted by the enemy air force. However, it is primarily submarines that threaten her, pushed aside by the destroyers in the escort. The night passes, relatively quiet, and on the morning of April 7, the battleship continues its route south, apparently without being spotted by the Americans. It was only around noon that the squadron received a message about the take-off of more than two hundred planes from American carriers, for a major attack on Okinawa! The enemy devices soon appear in clusters; first is the rear guard of the squadron of Yamato who is struck, then his very heart, all with always bad weather which handicaps defenders even more than attackers.
The anti-aircraft artillery of the Yamato was greatly improved from the start of 1944, thanks to the use of the "San-shiki" projectile (fired from the main parts), capable of creating a cone of fire of 400 meters by 1000 meters, over a range of 30 kilometers! But without air protection, this is not enough in the face of a massive attack from enemy planes, especially when they are protected by a cover of low clouds ... which prevents the firing of large pieces, and therefore of "San-shiki"! It’s not one o'clock, and the Yamato has already been hit by two bombs, then by a torpedo; at the same time, the cruiser Yahagi is badly hit and must stop, and a destroyer is sunk.
A short lull, and new American waves appear about twenty minutes later. A second destroyer is hit, then the Yamato himself, who this time takes two torpedoes. Another escort is then sunk in turn.
The agony of Yamato
A third raid did not let the Japanese take their breath away: there were nearly one hundred and fifty aircraft to swoop down on the Japanese squadron, determined to end it, including about twenty torpedo boats just for the Yamato ! The battleship was hit three times, seriously since one of the rudders was destroyed and its starboard compartments were flooded ... Its speed and maneuverability were therefore severely affected. Meanwhile, the Yahagi gave way under the blows and in turn sank.
At 2 p.m. the Yamato is then struck in the middle by three bombs, then a few minutes later three torpedoes hit it again, two on port side, one on starboard. The large ship is gradually laying down on its side and only moving forward at seven knots. It was, however, a quarter of an hour later that the fatal torpedo struck him: the Yamato leans over, the ammunition rolls into the holds and ends up exploding, and so does the battleship. He takes more than 3000 men into the abyss, only 269 will be saved ...
The sacrifice of Yamato and his squadron ended up being of little use: the Imperial Navy was gone, and the island of Okinawa fell after some of the worst fighting in the war. The road to Japan is open. As for the adventure of the battleships, it is definitely over.
- Jean Moulin's WWII battleships. 2009.
- 20th century battleships by Bernard Ireland. 2004.