Anglo-Japanese Naval Cooperation, 1914-1918

By Saxon, Timothy D. | Naval War College Review, Winter 2000 | Go to article overview

Anglo-Japanese Naval Cooperation, 1914-1918


Saxon, Timothy D., Naval War College Review


THE CAPTAIN OF THE ATTACKING SUBMARINE achieved complete surprise with his bold midday maneuver near Crete. Stealing to within two hundred meters of an unwary convoy escort, he fired at point-blank range. His torpedo ran true, striking the destroyer between its forward stacks and severing the vessel's bow. Its unlucky crew, packed into the crowded mess for the noonday meal, suffered horrific losses. The explosion and consequent inferno claimed sixty-seven members of the ship's company and its commander. Despite heavy damage, however, the battered warship survived and later reached port in Piraeus, Greece.1

At first glance, the 11 June 1917 attack by the U-27 on an allied destroyer operating off the Greek coast appears unremarkable among the countless similar engagements of the First World War at sea. Nonetheless, the identities of these two combatants still startle observers more than eighty years later. First, it was an Austro-Hungarian submarine that torpedoed the allied destroyer; the Austro-Hungarian Navy challenged allied naval supremacy in the Mediterranean Sea throughout the First World War. The identity of the destroyer is even more astonishing-the U-27's victim was the Sakaki, a warship of the Imperial Japanese Navy.

Japan rendered vital, worldwide naval support to Great Britain during the First World War, culminating in the service of Japan's first and only Mediterranean squadron. This long-forgotten Japanese flotilla fought alongside allied warships throughout the most critical period of the struggle against German and Austro-Hungarian U-boats in 1917 and 1918.

Japanese cooperation is all the more surprising given that both British and American historians have characterized Japan's role in the First World War as that of a "jackal state," one that took a lion's share of the kill after only minimally assisting the cause.2 The record tells a different story. Japan in fact stretched its naval resources to the limit during the First World War. Japanese naval assistance in the Mediterranean Sea in 1917 boosted the strength of allied naval escorts during the darkest days of the war. Beyond the Mediterranean, an argument can be made that without Japanese assistance Great Britain would have lost control of the Pacific and Indian Oceans. That would have isolated the British Empire's two dominions in the Far East, Australia and New Zealand, from the campaigns in Europe and the Middle East. Other British colonies, from Aden and India to Singapore and Hong Kong, would have been exposed. Despite this help, Japan, at best a mistrusted and suspect ally of Great Britain in 1914, emerged from the conflict feared and despised by its "friends."

A more balanced view of Japan's role does not overlook the gains garnered by Japan for its exertions. It argues, though, that Japanese gains were commensurate with its efforts and in keeping with the diplomatic understandings that had existed at the beginning of the war. Japan did not participate in the First World War for altruistic reasons-but then neither did Great Britain, France, Italy, or Russia. The concessions Japan received in China and the broadening of its Pacific empire were no more than comparable to the gains made by Great Britain, France, Italy, and Britain's Pacific dominions. Japan participated in the war as an ally of Great Britain while simultaneously pursuing an expansionist policy designed to maximize its territorial gains in China and the Pacific islands. In the event, Japan's acquisitions were unquestionably in line with the sacrifices it made and the assistance it rendered to its allies during the conflict.

At the end of the war, Japanese wartime diplomacy did not take on the Wilsonian, idealistic modes that Western leaders by then espoused.3 The Japanese discovered that the new idealism did not apply when it came to affirming (in the Treaty of Versailles) racial equality or equal opportunities for expansion. The British and Americans resisted Japanese expansion before, during, and after the First World War, out of fear of competition in the Pacific and racial hatred of the proud, at times arrogant, Japanese. …

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