As an archipelago nation, the Empire of Japan required a large navy to fulfill the plans of its leaders heading into World War 2 (1939-1945). Therefore various ship types were taken into service including transports, submarines, destroyers, cruisers, battleships and aircraft carriers. One subgroup of the cruiser was the "battlecruiser", a vessel type intended to serve in the capital role, preserving the speed of the cruiser and the firepower of the battleship while lacking the armor protection seen in the latter.
Four battlecruisers made up the Kongo-class of the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) and these were handed the names of Kongo, Hiei, Kirishima, and Haruna. All were based on an original British design with the first being constructed in British waters by Vickers. Construction of the group spanned from 1911 until 1915 and they served from 1913 until the end of World War 2 in 1945. Before the end, three would be lost to action. Beyond her service in World War 2, IJN Hiei was also a veteran of World War 1 (1914-1918) where she was used to patrol Chinese waters.
IJN Hiei was ordered in 1911 and laid down on November 4th, 1911 by the Yokosuka Naval Arsenal as the second of the four-strong Kongo-class. She was launched on November 21st, 1912 and commissioned on August 4th, 1914. As completed, IJN Hiei displaced 37,200 tons and showcased a length of 728.3 feet, a beam of 101.7 feet and a draught of 31.9 feet. Her crew complement numbered 1,360 and propulsion was by way of steam turbines driving 4 x shafts. The vessel ranged out to 10,000 nautical miles. Armor protection ranged from 8" at the belt and 2.75" at the deck to 9" at the bulkheads and 9" at the turrets. The conning tower was protected in 10 inches of armoring. As built, armament for IJN Hiei was led by 8 x 14" /45 caliber main guns set in four twin-gunned turrets. This was supported by 16 x 6" /50 caliber guns and 8 x 76mm guns. She carried 4 x 6.5mm machine guns for close-in defense work and 8 x 533mm (21") torpedoes were carried at her sides.
After her commitment in World War 1, IJN Hiei served in the rescue and recovery efforts after the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. She then fell under threat for dismantling and scrapping due to the restrictions set upon naval powers of the world by way of the Washington Naval Treaty. The treaty was intended to head-off another naval arms race similar to the one that precipitated World War 1.
Instead of scrapping their prized warship, Japanese authorities ordered her converted to a gunnery trainer and she then served as the Emperor's personal transport during the mid-1930s. Before the end of the decade, she underwent a period of major refit which saw her armament slightly changed to include 20 x 25mm Type 96 Anti-Aircraft (AA) guns set across ten twin-gunned turrets. These guns took the place of the torpedo tubes that once made up her armament. The move was consistent with other naval powers who realized protection from attacking warplanes was now more important than engaging enemy warships with torpedoes. Torpedoes would become the primary weapon of other ship types like destroyers, torpedo boats and submarines.
Beyond her armament changes, her superstructure was also modified which permanently changed her profile silhouette. The original powerplant was modernized to provide for better performance and power, making IJN Hiei faster and better able to keep up with the emerging Japanese carrier force which now headlined IJN naval power. Beyond all this, catapults were added about the design which provide facilities for launching floatplane aircraft. These aircraft could be used for reconnaissance sorties, and gunnery spotters, and to engage targets of opportunity if armed. Recovery of the aircraft would be through an onboard crane.
After her refit, IJN Hiei formed part of the contingent sent to destroy the American fleet at Pearl Harbor, providing protection during the journeying convoy that included six Japanese carriers carrying the attacking warplanes. The assault was only partially successful as the American carrier force was out at sea at the time. The event led the United States to officially declare war on the Empire of Japan.
IJN Hiei was in constant service into 1942 and took part in the Japanese operations to expand and hold positions throughout the Pacific. This eventually led her to the Battle of Midway (June 1942), which she survived, and then to the Battle of Guadalcanal (spanning August 1942 to February 1943 as part of the Solomons Campaign). It was here that she meant her fate at the hands of the Americans when USN warships ultimately crippled her. U.S. warplanes (Army and Navy) then finished her off with bombs and torpedoes which led to her being sunk on November 14th, 1942. 188 of her crew were lost while others were saved by accompanying destroyers.