Warship Wednesday, Sept, 19, 2018: The well-traveled Sea Otter
Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1859-1946 time period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all of their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places.- Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday, Sept. 19, 2018: The well-traveled Sea Otter
Here we see the deteriorating Qing Empire’s most modern warship, the 1st class protected cruiser Hai-Chi (also seen as Hai Chi, Haicang, and Hai Qi), of the Northern Fleet of the Imperial Chinese Navy as she sat at anchor in the Hudson off Gotham on Sept. 11, 1911. Note her Yellow Dragon Flag, flown by the Qing Dynasty from 1889 through 1911. This proud ship was an important turning point in Chinese military history.
The sleeping dragon that was old Imperial China had a rude awakening in 1894-95 when the Japanese picked a fight in Manchuria over Korea that ended in humiliation for the larger country. Scarcely 10 months long, the First Sino-Japanese War saw the Japanese slaughter the vaunted Chinese Beiyang Fleet, hailed at the time as the largest and most battle-ready in Asia, complete with a pair of German-built armored turret ironclads — the 8,000-ton Dingyuan and Zhenyuan— both outfitted with thick armor and modern Krupp guns. The latter was even commanded by American naval mercenary and Annapolis legend Philo Norton McGiffin.
However, the Beiyang Fleet was filled with ill-trained landsmen, at the mercy of corrupt officials (who sold off the explosives and powder charges, replacing them with flour and sand) and had just an overall poor tactical appreciation of modern naval warfare. This showed in the disastrous Battle of the Yalu River (also termed the Battle of the Yellow Sea), the world’s first large fleet action since 1866. At the end of the engagement, the Chinese fleet was, for all intents, combat ineffective, bested by a smaller but more professional Japanese force that had done their homework.
Following the Japanese capture of Weihaiwei four months later, the battered Zhenyuan was taken as a war prize while Dingyuan was scuttled. The Beiyang Fleet commander, Qing Adm. Ding Ruchang, along with his deputy, Adm. Liu Buchan, committed suicide and were posthumously drummed out of the service. Philo McGiffin, shattered and suffering from wounds incurred at the Yalu, blew his own brains out in a Manhattan hospital two years after the battle, aged a very hard 36.
Suffice it to say, China needed a new fleet.
In the immediate aftermath of the war, Germany seized Tsingtao, the British took over Weihaiwei, Russia moved into Port Arthur and the French took over Kwangchow Wan, all on “leases” set to run out in the 1990s.
Between the signing of the Treaty of Shimonoseki in April 1895, which ended the war, and the Chinese Revolution that saw the end of the four-century-long Great Qing dynasty in 1911 and birthed the Republic of China, the Manchu court ordered over 40 new warships from around the globe. A trio of small cruisers, the 3,000-ton Hai-Yung, Hai-Chu, and Hai-Chen, were ordered from Vulkan in Germany. From Vickers came the 2,750-ton cruisers Ying Swei and Chao-Ho. French-made torpedo boats, Krupp-built river monitors, Kawasaki-produced gunboats (ironically), destroyers from Schichau. It was a rapid expansion and recrafting.
The largest of the orders, placed at Armstrong for production at its Elswick, Newcastle upon Tyne shipyard, was for a pair of 4,500-ton (full load) protected cruisers, Hai-Chi (Yard No. 667) and her sister Hai-Tien (#668).
(One note about the naming convention of our subject here, some translate Hai Chi as “Boundary of the Sea” while others go with “Sea Otter,” anyway, back to the story)
The design by British naval architect Sir Philip Watts, KCB, FRS, was what we would term “off the shelf” today, simply a very slightly modified version of the Chilean cruiser Blanco Encalada and the Argentine ARA Buenos Aires, also produced by Armstrong.
These cruisers were fast, at some 22 knots (which was surpassed on builder’s speed trials for the Chinese ships, whose hybrid Yarrow/Bellville boiler arrangement allowed them to break 24kts), and had long legs, capable of cruising some 8,000 miles– an important factor for ships in the Pacific.
Further, they were big, with twin 8″/45 cal Armstrong Pattern S guns in single fore and aft mounts (the Japanese also fitted these to their Kasagi and Takasago-class cruisers), and a secondary of 10 QF 4.7 inch Mk V naval guns. Add to this a host of smaller anti-torpedo boat guns, the latest Maxim machine guns, and five above-water torpedo tubes and you had a brawler. Armor protection ranged from 4 to 6 inches and a 37mm deck sheath. The ships were modern, with the best Barr & Stroud optics, electric lights and shell hoists, as well as powered turrets and forced ventilation.
Hai-Chi was commissioned 10 May 1899. When arriving in China later that summer, Hai-Chi was the nominal flagship of Admiral Sa Zhenbing (Sah Chen-ping), commander of the Imperial Chinese Navy– the seniormost survivor of the Battle of the Yalu. Luckily the Navy did not become involved in the mess that was the Boxer Rebellion, although some Army units did, and were the worse for it.
Her sister, Hai Tien, foundered 25 April 1904 after hitting a rock in at night in Hangzhou Bay, ending her career after just five years of service.
In 1911, Hai-Chi was tapped to participate by the dynasty in King George V’s coronation review in Spithead alongside an all-star cast of international warships. For the circumnavigational voyage, she was fitted with a Marconi wireless system, one of the first in the Chinese Navy.
On the way back to the Pacific, she crossed the Atlantic and paid lengthy port calls in New York and Boston.
The New York Times noted the event as the arrival of the “cruiser Hai-Chi of the Imperial Navy of China, the first vessel of any kind flying the yellow dragon flag of China that has ever been in American waters.”
Both hosting local dignitaries aboard and sending an honor guard to Grant’s Tomb (the former U.S. President was a key ally to China while in and out of office and was well-respected), the Chinese made a splash akin to visiting Martians in pre-Great War New York.
Recalled to China at the fall of the Dynasty, Ha-Chi became part of the new Republic’s navy and remained the most significant Chinese naval asset until the two-ship Ning Hai-class cruiser class was completed after 1932. During WWI, she served in home waters after China entered the conflict in 1917 on the side of the Allies, with no one around to fight.
She was later scuttled as a blockship in the Yangtze River at Jiangyin along with 39 other ships on 11 August 1937 to obstruct the Japanese advance during the Second Sino-Japanese war.
4,300 tons (standard)
4,515 t (full load)
Length: 423 ft 11 in o/a
Beam: 46 ft 7 in
Draught: 17 ft 11 in
Propulsion:2 shafts, 4 Humphrys & Tennant, Deptford VTE engines, four double-ended Bellville and four single-ended Yarrow 12-cylindrical boilers, 17,000 bhp at a forced draught.
Speed: 24.15 knots
Range: 8,000 nmi at 10kts on 1,000 tons of coal
Complement: 350-450 (sources vary)
2 × 203.2mm (8.00 in)/45 Armstrong Pattern S (2 × 1)
10 × 120mm (5 in)/45 Armstrong (10 × 1)
16 × 47mm (2 in)/40 Hotchkiss (16 × 1)
6 x Maxim machine guns
5 × 450mm (18 in) torpedo tubes (1 × 1 bow, 4 × 1 stern broadside) for Whitehead torpedoes.
Armor: Armstrong Harvey nickel-steel
Deck: 37–127 mm (1–5 in)
Turrets: 114.3 mm (5 in)
Barbettes: 51 mm (2 in)
Conning tower: 152 mm (6 in)
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