In 1911 the Imperial Japanese Diet (Teikoku-gikai) passed funds to support the Naval Emergency Expansion Bill that authorized the design and construction of a battleship and four battlecruisers. Due to a lack of port facilities and big guns in Japan proper, the Japanese navy approached Great Britain and Sir George Thurston to propose blueprints of a battlecruiser to be built in England for the Pacific nation. An agreement was reached and the keel to what would become the IJN Kongo was laid down on January 17th, 1911, at the Vickers shipyard in Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria and she would be formally commissioned in August of 1913.
The IJN Kongo was first of a class of four-strong 26,230 ton battlecruisers for Japan and the last major Japanese warship to be built out of the country - the other three would be built in Japan. She was the first ship in the Japanese navy - and the world - to feature 14-inch (356mm) main guns and four dual-mounted turrets, two held forward and two aft. This arraignment allowed a full complement of 8 x big guns to engage a target in unison. As built, the secondary armament were sixteen single-mounted 6-inch (152mm) guns with eight located to port and eight to starboard. Anti-aircraft protection was 8 x 3-inch (76mm) guns in single mounts, these evenly divided around the ship deck structure. As in most capital ships of the day, the Kongo was fitted with 8 x 21-inch (533mm) torpedo tubes in mounts of four on each side of the ship.
As mentioned, the three remaining ships of the Kongo-class were built in Japan using the blueprints of the original. Next in line came the IJN Hiei in 1914 followed by the IJN Haruna and the IJN Kirishima, both of these in 1915 and all three built at local Japanese shipyards. Each was completed with a small bridge and two identifiable tripod masts. The ships sported three funnels and a sleek profile. Interestingly, the Vickers design supported the present-day methodology of the battlecruiser as having heavy armament, a high maximum speed and limited armor protection. The armor protection used in 1913 was 23.3 % of the ship's total weight and she was built to take fire from 14-inch enemy shells at ranges up to 21,900 yards. Her overall firepower made the IJN Kongo, and her class, some of the most formidable ships in the world at the time.
The British appreciated the Kongo design to the point that the Lion-class of battlecruisers and her lead ship - the HMS Tiger - were thought to have been influenced by the Japanese design. The British knew war was coming to Europe and contacted the Japanese to lease the Kongo and her sister ships, however, Japan politely declined. On August 3rd, 1914 the German Empire declared war and, within days, the Japanese government demanded that Germany remove their troops from Tsingtao. Germany refused and Japan declared war against the German Empire on August 23rd and subsequently attacked and took the German island possessions in the Marshalls, Caroline, and Mariana Islands and the stronghold islands of the Palau group. Kongo and Hiei, assigned to the First Battleship Division, were directed to support Japanese troops by patrolling the Chinese coast. Kongo spent World War 1 at the Naval base at Sasebo or on patrol along the Chinese coast.
Kongo and her sisters became the pride of the Imperial Japanese Navy who continued to modernize the class as years went on. Kongo was placed in reserve in 1918, the final year of the war, and received anti-torpedo bulges to her hull and upgrades on her deck armor. In 1924, the decision to improve the tripod masts by adding supports allowed for watch point platforms to be installed. Additionally, extra searchlights and spotter positions on the new massive pagoda mast developed by the Japanese Navy itself was installed. A hood was added to the most forward funnel to reduce smoke on the new pagoda. The turrets were modified to allow the gun elevation to increase from 30-degrees to 40-degrees. New boilers were added and armor was increased by 3,800 tons, reducing her maximum speed from 27.5 knots to 25.9 knots. Space for three floatplane aircraft were added along with a catapult launcher and retrieval crane.
Kongo was kept in local waters until a drastic refit took place from 1933 to 1940 - just in time to see the Japanese military active in actions preceding World War 2. The main focus was to regain the speed lost during the last refit. The existing propulsion machinery, including the boilers, were removed and replaced. Lighter boilers and turbines now allowed the reduction of one of the funnels, reducing weight and doubling the ship's power. To further help increase speed, the hull was lengthened (26 feet / 8.0 meters) giving Kongo an increased length-to-beam ratio. The ship's speed increased to over 30 knots (approximately 35mph) allowing Kongo to keep up with the new generation of aircraft carriers. Her speed now allowed her to be formally classified as a "fast battleship".
At the outbreak of World War 2 in the Pacific, Kongo was positioned to attack the Philippines, Malaya, and the Dutch West Indies. During the Battle of Midway, Kongo was stationed with Admiral Kondo's covering group. Kondo and Hiei were needed at Guadalcanal to shell Henderson Field. Later, on November 13th, 1942, Hiei and Kirishima were engaged with the US Navy and inflected heavy damage on American ships. However, Hiei herself was hit by naval fire and air attack and sank the next day. Kongo was removed for her final refit and was not involved in combat operations until 1943 and into 1944. She was sent to aid the Japanese fleet during the Battle of the Philippine Sea in June 1944. Kongo was witness to the destruction of the Imperial Japanese fleet during the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the largest naval battle in recorded history.
Kongo was then ordered back to Japan in late November of 1944 and passed through Formosa Straight. On November 21st, she was sighted and sunk by the US Navy submarine, the USS Sealion. This action made the IJN Kongo the only Japanese battleship to be sunk by a submarine in all of World War 2 and her downing also marked the last time a battleship was sunk by a submarine in naval history.
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