The Memorial Ship Mikasa and Wargaming Pre-Dreadnought Naval Encounters

By Joe Fonseca 21 Mar 2019 2

After a comfortable train ride through the hills along Tokyo bay, I found myself in Yokosuka. A pleasant little town, the bustling high street hosting a colourful mixture of Japanese and American influences made the walk from the station an interesting one, a reminder that the town’s rich tradition of naval history was ongoing. I was on my way to the waterfront situated alongside the naval base, United States Fleet Activities Yokosuka, hunting a surprisingly elusive prey. After almost stumbling on to the base itself, (you’d think the warning signs in multiple languages would be enough) I eventually reached my goal, seeing first the masts, then smokestacks come into view. Here it was, the Imperial Japanese Navy Battleship Mikasa, last of its kind.

IJN Mikasa 2

The Mikasa, now preserved in concrete, is the last surviving pre-dreadnought battleship, and is remembered primarily for its service as Admiral Togo Heihachiro’s flagship during the Battle of the Tsushima 1905, one of the greatest battles of the pre-dreadnought age, fought at the tail end of the Russo-Japanese War (1904-5).

That struggle between two empires for control of Korea and Manchuria in North-Eastern China was titanic, both on land and at sea. Ground forces experienced, for the first time at such a scale, the deadly impact of industrialized warfare with artillery, machine guns, trenches, and terribly costly bayonet charges being the order of the day. A grim foreshadow of what was to come to Europe in the First World War. At sea, the war demonstrated the importance of heavy long-range guns and telegraphy, and perhaps more importantly, was the scene of one of the most decisive naval engagements in history.

The Russian Baltic fleet, sailing to the aid of the beleaguered ports in the far east, was forced to travel a massive distance of 29,000km around the entirety of Africa with few friendly stops for relief and refuelling. Though a large fleet, most of the ships were older, and had suffered from the long journey. The Japanese fleet was fresher and led by an experienced commander. With the Russian fleet tracked and eventually discovered in the Tsushima strait, Admiral Togo, aboard the Mikasa at the head of his fleet, managed to cross the elusive T. Over a day’s battle the Japanese virtually wiped out the Russian fleet at the cost of four torpedo boats.

IJN Mikasa 3

The ship, now firmly cemented in the ground, has been restored since the 1960s as a museum. At the cost of 600 yen (around £4 GBP, $5 USD) one can spend a leisurely couple hours wandering the wonderfully preserved structure of the ship, complete with videos, artifacts, and a few interesting oddities scattered throughout. Not a navy man myself, I was struck by the size of the ship. It is a battleship, and stands at 122m long, but I couldn’t help but wonder at fitting over 800 souls aboard during the height of its service. The 6-inch guns, complete with mannequins and other props gave a real sense of the difficult work sailors faced trying to operate such a weapon at sea, and it was great to see so many artifacts preserved throughout (the only remnants of the head, funnily enough, is a tile floor whose pattern seems to scream ‘washroom’ no matter where in the world you find yourself). Standing atop the bridge, where, over a hundred years ago Togo and his staff stood under fire from the Baltic fleet, I felt very exposed. Taking in the 12-inch guns ahead of me and the great smoke stacks behind, I’m sure I would have preferred the armoured Conning tower below me, but then, I’m not about to win any battles.

Below decks there are a variety of rooms dedicated to different aspects of the Russo-Japanese War and the ship itself. Most interesting to myself, as an educator, was the inclusion of a VR module in the center of an artifact filled room. Putting the VR headset on, you find yourself flying over the sea before landing at the bridge of the Mikasa just as it is about the engage the enemy fleet. You can look all about you and see the crew going about their business, the guns firing, and the water flying up around you as the Russian shells fall just short. It’s a fun little addition to the experience and maybe something other museums, in an effort to attract a younger audience, should aim to include. (There’s also a little videogame corner where you can steer the Mikasa while the admiral yells at you. Less informative, that one.

IJN Mikasa 1

For miniature lovers, the port side interior museum hallway contains a massive collection of scale models of all of Japan’s naval vessels, with a good splattering of Russian and other ships and aircraft scattered about. I admit I spent a little too long slowly working my way down that aisle. In all, the leisurely tour I took lasted two hours, though I can easily see someone spending less time if they don’t stop to read all the inscriptions or marvel at scale models. The Mikasa is an interesting relic of a past age of naval warfare, and its existence as the last standing pre-dreadnought and one that saw combat in one of the most important naval battles of recent times makes it worth stopping to see if you ever find yourself in or around Tokyo.

For the wargamers who cannot make that quick hop over to Tokyo bay, there are a few ways to explore the Mikasa and the war it fought in on our computer screens. Most recently, I played and reviewed Clad in Iron: Sakhalin 1904 (though it focuses on smaller engagements north of Tsushima), one of the few modern games that tackles steam ship combat in a 3D engine. If you can work through the sometimes-esoteric rules, Clad in Iron and its sister games can be great fun. Looking a little further back, Storm Eagle Studio’s Distant Guns looked promising, but I haven’t had the opportunity to give it a try myself.

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There are interesting scenarios for the Russo-Japanese War in a trio of more traditional wargames that I’ve played. The Operational Art of War IV contains a scenario dedicated to it, while Hearts of Iron II spin-off Darkest Hour includes one alongside a First World War Scenario (also interesting to play as the Japanese). Finally, AGEOD’s Pride of Nations includes DLC for the Russo-Japanese War, though I wouldn’t recommend it without a dedicated play by email partner. Mostly I find myself waiting with bated breath, (now all the more excited that we have a release date) for Rule the Waves II. Its predecessor was a great time for the more granular wargaming that some love, and the sequel looks to deliver the same. I know I’ll be building a grand fleet for a rising Japan this April, will you?

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