TMT has run pieces about former Royal Navy ships either in preservation or service overseas. There is one class that is sadly absent from modern types of ship – the battleship. None exists in this country. Indeed, there are no ex-RN battleships anywhere in the world – which is a very sad state of affairs.
The desire to preserve a capital ship is not new: even as it was decided to scrap HMS Warspite, people were arguing that she of all ships should have been kept as a monument to capital ship-building in this country, as well as a memorial to those who served in them.
Other candidates might have been HMS Rodney and the Vanguard, our last and biggest battleship, though completed with First World War guns in the interests of economy. In fact, if you consider that HMS Dreadnought was the first modern battleship, and HMS Vanguard the last, it just about sums up the British contribution to heavy naval ship construction in the first half of the 20th Century – and makes it even more astonishing that we do not have one of these vessels preserved today.
Perhaps all is not lost, however, as there is one British-built pre-dreadnought battleship left in the world. It is the Mikasa, an improved Formidable Class ship built for the Japanese Navy at Vickers shipyard in Barrow-in-Furness and commissioned in 1902.
She was not large, only 432ft long, with a beam of 76ft (please note the absence of metric dimensions; these are proper ships we are talking about!), and displaced just over 15,000 tons. Into this small space, they squeezed a crew of 830 men. Her 15,000 indicated HP could push her along at almost 18knots, though at a cruising speed of about 10kn she could cover some 9,000 nautical miles on her 2,000 tons of coal.
Four Elswick Ordnance Company, 40-calibre, twelve-inch guns made up her main battery; she was in fact commissioned only three years before HMS Dreadnought rendered this sort of firepower obsolete over-night. She also carried a range of 6” casemate-mounted guns, as well as 12pdr Quick Firers for defence against the torpedo-boats that were becoming all the rage in naval circles at that time.
She was the Japanese flagship at the Battle of Tsushima in May 1905 when the Japanese navy thrashed the Russian fleet in the first victory of an Asian navy over a Western force. After destroying two-thirds of the enemy ships, the Japanese accepted the surrender of the Russian fleet at sea, the last time this happened in naval warfare.
Mikasa had been hit many times but survived with relatively light casualties. However, a few days after the battle, she sank as a result of a fire and explosion that killed some 250 of her crew. She was raised the following year and went on to fight in the First War and afterward in operations against Soviet Russia. She was decommissioned in 1923 as part of Japan’s obligations under the Washington Treaty.
Japan was allowed to keep her as a memorial ship and preserved her by setting her hull in concrete next to the sea at Yokosuka. She was opened to visitors in 1926 and was set to be a permanent memorial – until the Second World War broke out. After the war, Russia insisted the Mikasa should be broken up, but the US agreed that she represented no threat and allowed her to be kept as long as anything to do with weapons or main machinery was removed – a sad decision as it turns out. She then started to go into decline as she had become a rather anonymous hull adorned with a building to turn her into an amusement centre. She was slipping into terminal decline when John Rubin, a British–borne US-citizen decided to try to save her in 1955. After getting support from the Japanese public and senior US naval officers, he managed to rebuild the ship sufficiently convincingly for her to open in 1961.
A quick look at her main weapons shows how no attempt was made to reconstruct them as working, or even demonstration, items. She also has no engines – they were removed as explained earlier. Down below, a lot of the space has been turned over to museum exhibition spaces – but enough of the original cabin-area has been preserved (or restored) to allow one to get a good feel for what a ship of this sort might have been like when first launched.
Trus – she is not a former RN ship, but she is still a monument to British ship-design and building at the height of this country’s naval power. The ship is commemorated in Barrow-in-Furness by Mikasa Street on Walney Island.