A Flawed Concept – Imperial China’s Rendel Cruisers

For a short period in the 1880s the Imperial Chinese Navy possessed two ships, the Yang Wei and the Chao Yung, which carried what was probably the heaviest armament for any ships of their sizes afloat. Built in British yards, their design had been evolved by Sir George Rendel, building on the success of his earlier concept, the “Flatiron Gunboat”, which was armed with a single large-calibre weapon. While the latter were intended for use in estuaries and sheltered waters, the new design envisaged a small, cheap cruiser-type vessel suited for service in the open sea and carrying two of the most powerful guns then available. These were Armstrong 10” breech-loaders.  With reasonable speed for the time, and high mobility, these vessels would be suited, in theory at least, to engage larger and more heavily armoured, but less nimble ships. Despite the superficial attractiveness the concept was turned down by the Royal Navy, due to concerns about seaworthiness in the Channel and the North Sea. These might well become battlegrounds in any future war since France was perceived as a likely potential enemy in this period.

Overseas customers were now sought and the first ship of the type was laid down for Chile in 1879 as this nation’s war with Peru and Bolivia was commencing. In the event the war ended before the vessel was completed and she was taken over by the Imperial Japanese Navy as the Tsukushi.  She was to serve without distinction in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95 and the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05.Her construction and completion was however overtaken by two generally similar vessels for another Far Eastern customer when an order was placed by China. In the early 1880s the corrupt and floundering Chinese Empire was wakening up to the threats posed by growing Russian and Japanese power on its northern and eastern borders, as well as the pressure from France  the south, from what is now Viet-Nam, and which was to erupt into the Sino-French War of 1885. The need for a strong navy to protect China’s long coastline was obvious but corruption and inefficiency was to make progress in this spasmodic and inconsistent. A few ships of limited capacity could be built at the Foochow Dockyard and equipped with imported guns, but the majority were contracted from European sources, German as well as British, resulting in a variety of calibres of guns and munitions.

The two Chinese cruisers, named Yang Wei and Chao Yung, were of a mere 1350 tons, length 220 feet and beam of 32 feet. Two compound engines, each 1300 HP, ensured a maximum speed of 16 knots, a respectable speed at a time when the Royal Navy’s HMS Iris, then entering service, was regarded as a marvel for achieving just under 18 knots. Like the Iris, the Chinese cruisers were of all-steel construction, which was also an innovation, but their most remarkable feature was their armament. Each ship carried two 10-inch Armstrong breech-loaders, one on the bow and one on the stern. These were mounted so as to pivot inside fixed steel drums , armoured shutters being raised to allow bearing on limited arcs ahead and astern (45 °) and on either side (70 °). In addition each ship carried four 4.7 – inch breech-loaders, two on each broadside, as well as what would have been a fearsome collection of Gatling and Nordenvelt guns’ for protection against torpedo boats. The hulls had only low freeboard fore and aft and had to be built up for the delivery voyage from Britain to China. A simple fore and aft-rig was carried to supplement the engines and was probably of most use during delivery. Like Royal Navy ships of the period – notably HMS Inflexible – electricity generation on shipboard represented a major innovation, allowing incandescent light fixtures, including arc searchlights. Hydraulic steering was another innovation – and perhaps a needless complication.

The Battle of the Yalu from the Japanese standpoint
One of many superb Japanese woodblock prints made during the Sino-Japanese War

The Yang Wei and Chao Yung entered service in 1881 but by the time of the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95 were in a very poor state of maintenance, little more than half their original top speed being achievable and probably several of their weapons were unserviceable. Extensive use of wooden partitioning, overlain with layers of varnish, made them particularly vulnerable to fire. Lack of professionalism, and corruption so serious that there were rumours of munitions being sold off privately by officers, had made the Chinese Navy a hopeless adversary against the super-efficient Japanese.

 Japanese cruisers at the Yalu Battle

In the key Battle of the Yalu on 17.09.1894 both vessels were placed in the Chinese line of battle. They were subjected to a hail of explosive 6-inch and 4.7-inch shells from the Japanese cruisers involved and both vessels were soon engulfed in flames as the wooden fittings took light. With her steering damaged the Yang Wei collided with the German-built Chinese cruiser Jiyuan and she sank in shallow water, as did the Chao Yung, which may have been trying to save itself by beaching. It was a sad end for two vessels which in their time were mistakenly regarded as being at the cutting edge of naval development.

The Yang Wei and Chao Yung’s Nemesis – Japanese gun crews in action

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