The Great White Fleet and the Imperial Japanese Navy

Edmund Morris and other biographers of Theodore Roosevelt have suggested that TR’s dispatch of the Great White Fleet on its around-the-world voyage was intended, in large part, as a demonstration to Japan of the U.S. Navy’s global reach. Had an actual shooting war broken out between the U.S. and Japan in 1907-09, which fleet would likely have emerged victorious? Why?

I’m no sort of expert, but if a quick internet search is accurate, in 1905 the Japanese Navy had seven battleships in commission and the US Navy had twelve. The Japanese ships appear to have been a little bit faster. The oldest of the American battleships were designed with low freeboards that made them less than ideal for their jobs, but I believe the newer ships were the equal of the best of the Japanese.

I think Japan might have had a few more armored and protected cruisers of the types that might have been expected to take part in a fleet action (as opposed to commerce-raiding ships).

It seems to me that the location of the battle(s) would have a great deal to do with the outcome. One factor among many that led to the Russians’ loss at Tsushima was the long voyage they had made prior to the battle, and it seems that the japanese would have preferred to repeat that winning strategy. On the other hand, the battle of Manila Bay was won by Americans far from their bases.

My wife bought me a board game that addresses this subject for my last birthday, and I wish I could offer the benefit of my experience in playing out one of these scenarios, but I haven’t yet found anybody to play against!


Nobody wants to play a board game based upon relatively obscure events that didn’t occur almost 100 years ago? What is this world coming to?!


Sounds fascinating- where do you live in CA?

About thirty miles south of Fresno. There’s a bunch of cows, then a lot of corn, and then our house.

Where would the whole game industry be if it weren’t for things that never happened but might have?

One aspect of the battle that would need to be examined would be the accuracy of the respective fleets’ artillery. The Japanese were very accurate, in ways that astounded the Russians. Several years earlier than Tsushima, the U.S. Navy had out-shot the Spanish with an accuracy of only 1.3%. A battle between the Japanese and the U.S. in 1898 might have meant the loss of the entire U.S. fleet.

However, Lt. William Sims (after being rebuffed by the naval Command) sought the support of President Roosevelt, in 1902, to change the way that gun training was handled in the U.S. Navy and by 1904, the U.S. Navy had increased its shooting accuracy by around 3000%. I have no idea, however, whether a 39% hit rate by the U.S. would compare favorably or unfavorably with the Japanese and I do not have any figures for actual fleet accuracy by 1905.

The other issue would have been speed. Togo’s entire fleet could maintain 15 knots. I do not know what mix of U.S. ships in service in 1905 could maintain that speed. Adfmiral Rozhestvensky was also hampered by the accompaniment of transports heading for Vladivostok, reducing his fleet speed to 8 knots. In a fleet-on-fleet battle, the U.S. would not have been hampered by that condition, but Istill do not know the speed of the “typical” armored cruiser in the U.S. fleet in 1905.

(Of course, we could get really hypthetical and speculate that Congress had appropriated the funds to complete the USS Michigan and USS South Carolina in a timely fashion. They were the first “dreadnought”-designed battleships and would have actually preceded the HMS Dreadnought, except that after being laid down in 1900, funding was delayed so that they were not launched until 1906 and fitted out until 1908. With eight 12" guns on center-line turrets, they would have made a huge difference in the capacity of any navy that used them in 1905.)

I’d think that 39% accuracy would be pretty hard to beat. Was Sims the officer who introduced “continuous aiming?” I seem to recall that that development led to a big increase in accuracy. I believe much of the damage done by American gunnery during the Spanish - American war was done by the ships’ secondary batteries, so the actual percentage of hits by big guns actually likely to seriously damage a battleship might have been even worse at that earlier date.

I’ve also read that the particular formulation of the exposive used in Japanese shells was innovative in its day. Does anybody know what the general opinion was of American ordinance? How did the respective navies’ targeting equipment compare? Was it still just guys staring through telescopes and handheld binoculars, or were there actual rangefinders at the time?

Yes. It had first been developed by Percy Scott of the British Royal Navy.

Is this the Great War at Sea: U.S. Navy Plan Orange game? I have the 1898 Spanish-American War game from this series.

Sounds more like the Great War at Sea: Great White Fleet supplement.

Yes, it’s 1898 and The Great White Fleet supplement. I believe the company published an edition based on Tsushima, but I’ve never actually seen that one.