The Forgotten Ally: Japanese escorts in the First World War

One feature of our exhibit is the tragic story of the troopship HMT Aragon. This ship was torpedoed by the German submarine UC-34 off the Egyptian coast just outside Alexandria on the 30th December 1917, with the loss of 610 lives. She had been due to offload her cargo and passengers in Alexandria, but a series of delays and misunderstandings lead her to being ordered to remain outside the harbour for longer than anticipated. As a result, she was attacked before her troops could be disembarked.

At the time she was torpedoed, the vessel only had the protection of a single destroyer, HMS Attack. Yet she had made her journey to Egypt from Malta (carrying troops bound for the Palestine campaign), together with the troopship Nile, in a convoy which included two additional destroyers to Attack.

These two vessels were drawn from an allied squadron that had been based in Malta since April 1917. By the December of that year, this squadron already had a strong operational record. As such they were the most accessible and capable reinforcement when the convoy stopped at that island.

This squadron that helped to escort the Aragon in her final days – along with many other British and Allied troopships in the Mediterranean – was drawn from one of the largest and most modern navies to fight alongside the Royal Navy in the First World War. Yet its contribution is largely forgotten in popular history and by the general public.

In general, the contribution to the Allied cause of the nation whose flag these escorts flew under is also seldom remembered. The destroyers were not from the French Navy, nor from the Italian Royal Navy. They were from the Imperial Japanese Navy. The unit they were part of – the Second Special Squadron – numbered seventeen vessels at its height, and served all over the Mediterranean.

1Kaba-class destroyers Ume and Kusunoki moored at Marseilles. (image digitally colourised)


Kaba-class destroyer Katsura, Adriatic port of Brindisi, Italy (image digitally colourised)

The story of the involvement of the Empire of Japan in alliance with Britain during the First World War dates back to the Anglo-Japanese alliance of 1902. This alliance was pursued by the British partly due to concern about Russian expansionism in the Far East, in an attempt to contain Britain’s long-term rival from the Great Game.

However, it was also sought and maintained due to the fact that Japan – which had been increasingly modernising since the 1870s – was becoming a recognised military and economic power in Asia. The Japanese had concluded a victorious war against Imperial China in 1895, and were rapidly growing as a new industrial nation. Tokyo saw an alliance with Britain as an opportunity to further expand its influence in Asia and benefit from the expertise of the Royal Navy. The British, in turn, saw the Japanese as holding a sphere of maritime influence in Far Eastern waters, freeing up the Royal Navy for elsewhere.

Three years after the alliance was signed, Japan would achieve victory in the Russo-Japanese War. During this conflict, British military observers attended many of the major battles – including the destruction of the Russian Baltic Fleet at Tsushima. The flagship of the Japanese fleet in that battle, Mikasa, was built by Vickers shipyard in Barrow-in-Furness, and a large number of the ships of the Japanese Navy at this time were also British and French-built.

The victory over Russia lead to Japan’s ascendancy as a major world power. This was recognised by the British, who renewed and expanded the Anglo-Japanese alliance in 1911. Though Russia had been defeated in 1905, Germany maintained a presence and colonies in China and the Pacific, which both London and Tokyo considered problematic to their interests.

By the time of the outbreak of war in 1914, the burgeoning Japanese Empire already included Korea and Taiwan. Japan was also increasingly asserting itself politically, economically and militarily in China. The Imperial Japanese Navy was also one of the largest in the world, containing 21 battleships and 29 cruisers.

Though Japan was not required to go to war under the terms of the Anglo-Japanese agreement (such a move was only required if Britain’s Asian colonies were attacked, and Germany had proposed to leave them be in return for Japanese neutrality), Tokyo saw an opportunity. Within hours of the British declaration of war on August 4th, the Japanese Foreign Minister Kato Takaaki offered to join the war in support of Britain – provided Japan was permitted to take German Asian-Pacific territory for itself.

The Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, was wary of Japanese expansionism. However he was soon persuaded by his colleagues – particularly the First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill – that Japanese support was required to counter Admiral von Spee’s Far East Squadron and German merchant raiders in the Pacific and Indian oceans, and also for convoy escort in the Indian ocean in light of the Admiralty’s stretched resources.

On August 7th, Grey made a formal request for assistance, to which Takaaki persuaded his seniors in the Japanese government to agree. On August 15th, Tokyo sent an ultimatum to Germany demanding the withdrawal of German and Austrian naval forces in the Pacific and the handover of the German-held port of Tsingtao (now Qingdao) to Japanese sovereignty. No response was forthcoming, and Japan declared war on Germany and Austria on August 23rd.


The Japanese Empire, 1914 (Source: New Zealand History)

Compared to the many millions of casualties suffered by all belligerents in the Great War, the Japanese losses were marginal – an estimated total of just over 500 deaths due to enemy action.

Most of these losses were suffered when the Imperial Army, supported by the Navy, assailed Tsingtao almost immediately after Japan’s entry into the war. This was also supported by the Royal Navy and a Brigade of the British Army (including the 2nd Battalion South Wales Borderers and the 36th Sikhs). The vastly outnumbered German and Austrian garrison was inevitably overwhelmed on the 7th November; but not before the Japanese military suffered its worst single loss of the war when the cruiser Takachiho was sunk by a German torpedo boat. All but three of her 271 crew were lost.

Tsingtao and the territory it commanded, the Shantung peninsular, was swiftly occupied by the Japanese. Most of the early Chinese labour battalions that were sent to the Western front – mentioned powerfully in our exhibition film – came from this newly captured territory, with the permission of the Japanese government. Tokyo also imposed a list of twenty-one demands on the Chinese government, granting Japan further influence in China – particularly Manchuria. This move would presage Japan’s later actions in the region.

Yet Japan’s efforts were not limited to this. The German-held Marshall, Mariana and Caroline islands were seized with no opposition in October, but the presence of the Japanese Navy and the rapid seizure of Germany’s Asian empire persuaded Spee to sail his squadron to South America in the hope of escaping to the Atlantic – which would lead to the battles of Coronel and the Falklands. Until Spee’s squadron was sunk, most of the Japanese naval effort was spent trying to track it down.

In addition, the Imperial Navy also provided ships to help locate German merchant raiders in the Far East and to escort convoys across the Indian Ocean. These included the first troop convoys to carry the ANZACs to the European and Mediterranean theatres. A large proportion of the warships that escorted the first ANZAC troops were Japanese.

In one instance in October 1914, while other Allied warships were occupied with tracking down the German cruiser Emden, the Japanese cruiser Ibuki was the only protection to an ANZAC convoy. This cruiser and her escorts would accompany the ANZACs as far west as Aden and the Red Sea. Escorting convoys headed for Europe from Australia, India and New Zealand provided the bulk of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s duties during World War I. They were effectively given primary responsibility for the Pacific and Far East while the bulk of the Royal Navy was engaged elsewhere.

The Japanese Navy even helped maintain British rule in Singapore by helping to put down a mass mutiny of Indian soldiers in that city in February 1915. Marines stationed aboard the cruisers Otowa and Tsushima, together with troops from a French and Russian cruiser, assisted the outnumbered British garrison (only a single Royal Navy sloop, HMS Cadmus, was on station) in ending the uprising on 17th February after responding to a distress call from the garrison commander. This forgotten action was another indicator of Japan’s ascendant naval power in Asia.

The most significant contribution the Allied cause, however, came in 1917. Long under pressure to assist the Allies in Europe, and long-delayed by fractious inter-service politics within the Japanese military, Tokyo finally agreed to dispatch a squadron of escorts to the Mediterranean to assist Allied convoy efforts. This small task force was commanded by Rear Admiral Kozo Sato (a veteran of the Russo-Japanese War, including Tsushima) aboard the flagship cruiser Akashi, and departed Singapore on the 11th March 1917.


Admiral Kozo Sato, Commander of the Japanese Mediterranean Squadron


Cruiser Akashi, first Flagship of Mediterranean Squadron

During the journey across the Indian Ocean, the Second Special Squadron assisted in hunting German merchant raiders still at large, before eventually reaching Aden on 4th April.

Sato’s task force, in addition to Akashi, included eight Kaba-class destroyers. Designed and built in Japan, these ships had a top speed of 30 knots and were specifically designed for overseas deployment and long-range escort. Their capability was emphasized by the fact that the French later ordered an export version to be produced for its own use.

Within days of their arrival at Aden, the Japanese task force received an urgent request from the British to escort the troopship Saxon to Malta. On the 10th April, Sato responded to the request, and sent two of his destroyers to accompany the transport from Port Said to the strategic island. The rest of the squadron followed and would be based in Malta for the rest of the war.

The Mediterranean was a crucial area of maritime operations for the allies, due to the sheer volume of troops transferred and required between the various fronts in France, Italy, the Balkans and the Middle East, as well as traffic from the Suez canal carrying personnel and resources from the British Empire east of Suez, and colonial troops mobilised from French territory in North Africa. A large proportion of the Royal Navy and other Allied navies were committed to this region for the purpose of keeping this vital supply route open.

At the time when the Japanese arrived, the Allies were suffering heavy losses in shipping and personnel in the Mediterranean. Throughout the whole conflict over 3 million tons of registered British Merchant shipping were lost in that theatre, out of a loss of 12 million tons suffered by the Merchant Navy in every naval theatre throughout the entire conflict. In April 1917 alone, Allied losses totalled 218,000 registered tons – 7 percent of total Mediterranean losses between 1914 and 1918.

The Allies were under strong pressure due to these losses and the large volume of traffic in the Mediterranean – there was almost always a shortage of escorts. They were serious proposals to divert the convoys to the passage around the Cape of Good Hope, and even to evacuate the British contingent in Thessaloniki. The arrival of the Imperial Japanese Navy provided a much-needed reinforcement; though the Second Special Squadron was of modest numbers, it would perform out of all proportion to its force strength and western expectations.

Though the Japanese Squadron was based at Malta under British command, many of the convoys they escorted were speeded up to run directly between Egypt to France, only stopping at Malta if more ships were gathering there. The Japanese destroyers and other Allied escorts often had to remain with their charges throughout the whole route, putting their crews under considerable pressure.

Given this fact and the conditions for the Allies in the Mediterranean mentioned above, it is unsurprising the Japanese Navy was ordered into action immediately on arrival – and why it ended up shouldering a considerable workload. The first major action for the Second Special Squadron took place on May 4th, 1917, when the Kaba destroyers Matsu and Sakaki were tasked with escorting the troopship Transylvania (a passenger liner commandeered from Cunard) on the common convoy route from Marseilles to Alexandria.

On this date, the vessel was struck in her port engine room by a single torpedo fired by the German U-63 near Cape Vado, off the western coast of northern Italy. A second torpedo was headed for Matsu, but the Japanese crew were able to save their ship by going to full astern. However, the torpedo struck Transylvania instead, which proceeded to sink within forty minutes

The Transylvania was carrying a total of 3,000 troops, but in spite of the danger of another torpedo attack, the Japanese destroyers mounted a very effective rescue operation. Matsu pulled alongside the stricken troopship and deployed its lifeboats to pick up as many survivors as possible (it was during this undertaking that the destroyer evaded the second torpedo), while Sakaki circled the area to force the U-boat to remain submerged. 

With the help of French and Italian vessels nearby, the Japanese managed to rescue the majority of the crew and passengers – a total of 2,708 people, including sixty Red Cross nurses. The majority of them were picked up by the Matsu‘s lifeboats. The masses of injured were quickly ferried to local Italian hospitals. A total of 413 men lost their lives in the sinking of the Transylvania, but the efforts of the Japanese prompted the British Admiralty to send a telegram of thanks and great praise directly to Admiral Sato, in recognition of his forces’ efforts.


RMS Transylvania, the centre of a successful rescue operation

In June 1917, the Imperial Navy stepped up its efforts in the Mediterranean. The Akashi was replaced as flagship by the armoured cruiser Izumo, with the former flagship heading back to Japan. Built by Armstrong Whitworth in the UK, the Izumo was a major participant in the war with Russia and would later support the invasion of China at Shanghai in 1937. In addition, four additional destroyers arrived with the new flagship, bringing the number of destroyers up to twelve. These were Momo-class destroyers, designed like the Kaba-class for high speed and “blue-water” expeditionary capabilities.

As the tempo of operations increased, Sato was also granted use of two gunboats and two old destroyers from the British Royal Navy, which were temporarily manned by Japanese sailors and renamed. The Second Special Squadron was thus brought up to its peak strength of seventeen vessels.

Though Japanese warships were certainly involved in engagements with German and Austrian submarines in the Mediterranean, it is not known to this writer if they ever claimed a U-boat sinking. However, at the same time as the Japanese were reinforcing their presence in Malta, the Second Special Squadron suffered its worst and only single loss to the U-boats on 11th June 1917.

On that day, the destroyer Sakaki, fresh from the rescue of survivors from the Transylvania, was on convoy escort duty north of Crete when she was spotted by the Austro-Hungarian submarine U-27.

The destroyer was struck by a torpedo forward, which blew off her bows – worse still, the majority of her crew were at the same time gathered in the forward mess hall. Sixty-seven men were killed, including the ship’s captain, out of a total ship’s company of ninety-four. In spite of this tragedy, the Sakaki was able to limp to the port of Piraeus, Greece, where after receiving repairs she made her way back to Malta.


Cruiser Izumo, Second Flagship that relieved Akashi. Shown here in Shanghai, twenty years later


Kaba-class destroyer. This class was the most common Japanese warship in the Mediterranean. Eight formed the original squadron that arrived in April 1917


Momo-class destroyer. Four vessels of this type arrived to reinforce the Mediterranean Squadron in June 1917

In spite of this loss, the Second Special Squadron proved to be a very valuable and efficient asset to the Allies in the Mediterranean. Admiral Sato’s overseers in the British Royal Navy, having been at first sceptical of Japanese ability, were increasingly impressed by the performance of their allies. Sato’s immediate superior, Senior Naval Officer-in-Charge at Malta Admiral George A. Ballard, noted the impact that the Japanese squadron was having out of all proportion to its size as a result of sheer efficiency.

In a highly complementary report to the Admiralty he described the Japanese efforts as invaluable in reversing a prior shortage of escorts before April 1917. He also compared the professionalism of the Imperial Navy rather disparagingly with those of Britain’s other allies:

French standards of efficiency are certainly lower than British, however, and Italian standards
are lower still. With the Japanese it is otherwise. Admiral Sato’s destroyers are kept in a highly
serviceable condition and spend at least as large a proportion of their time at sea as our own,
which is far from being the case with the French and Italian vessels of any class. The Japanese
moreover are very independent in all matters of administration and supply whereas the French
will never do anything for themselves if they can get it done for them.

At the end of the war, the Japanese warships were recorded as having spent 72 percent of their total time in the Mediterranean at sea. By contrast, the French and Royal Italian Navies were recorded as having been at sea just 45 percent of the time. However, the Japanese are also shown to have spent more time at sea than even the British Navy, which came second at 60 percent. This amount of time spent on operations reveals the sheer workload that the Japanese Squadron shouldered for the Allies.

Ballard was not alone in giving Sato’s task force praise. Winston Churchill did not think that the Second Special Squadron “had ever done a foolish thing”. The Governor of Malta, Lord Methuen, reviewed the Japanese Squadron still based at the island after the war in March 1919. In his speech, the governor praised their efforts and expressed his wish that “God grant our alliance, cemented in blood, may long endure”.

Such praise was well deserved. From April 1917 to the end of the war in November 1918, the Imperial Navy’s Mediterranean squadron escorted a total of 788 ships, which included troopships with a cumulative total of 700,000 troops between all fronts. The Japanese also performed a key role during the German spring offensive of 1918, where they escorted the transfer of 100,000 British troops across the Mediterranean to the Western Front during the crucial months of April and May. They would also escort the troops that would take part in the Fall “Hundred Days” offensive.

After the war ended, the Second Special Squadron remained in European waters into mid-1919. During this time Izumo, together with the destroyers Hinoki and Yanagi, assisted the Royal Navy in keeping watch over the surrendered German High Seas Fleet in the Scapa Flow. Other vessels supervised the surrender of German and Austrian warships in the Mediterranean, where they were interned at Constantinople. Here, Sato oversaw operations from the newly-arrived cruiser Nisshin. Some destroyers even escorted seven captured U-boats from the UK to Malta to be taken to Japan as war spoils.

Soon after Governor Methuen’s speech, the Japanese warships began to leave Malta, the last to leave being the cruiser Izumo and several accompanying destroyers on the 15th May. All vessels of Sato’s squadron, together with the captured U-boats, arrived back at the port of Yokosuka between June and July 1919.

Since then – and understandably in light of the events of the Second World War – the Japanese contribution to the Allied effort against the Central Powers has largely faded into history. But though it may be a little known fact, it is worth bearing in mind that the hospital and troopships in our exhibition that sailed the Mediterranean from 1917 to 1918 were likely safeguarded – at least in part – by the Imperial Japanese Navy.

James Whittaker


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