Howdy folks, and welcome back to the good ol’ blog! Today’s tidbit about me is: this morning, I wanted nothing more than to feel the sweet, sweet decadence of a Krispy Kreme donut on my tongue. Sadly, a donut is a treacherous thing: if I had admitted one to by belly, it would no doubt have wandered out onto my waistline within the hour.
The Civil War was the first time that an ironclad ship fought wooden ships and the first time that two ironclad ships fought each other. However, the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia were NOT the world’s first ironclad ships: there were many pre-industrial ships that are reputed to have used metal armor for protection. While sources are varied on the actual amount of armor these ships may have had (if indeed they had any at all) some of their stories are nevertheless quite impressive, even if they actually didn’t have armor. Today, I will talk about one of the most famous examples of a pre-industrial “ironclad:” the Turtle Ship!
After Japan was unified in 1590, it turned its attention to China. Japan had long hoped to expand onto the mainland: with the Warring States Period at an end, the Japanese had a humungous army of well equipped and battle-hardened Samurai at its disposal. The problem was, in order to get to China the Japanese had to go through Korea first. Korea was a vassal state of China, and had a rather poor army compared to Japan. Now, Japan did not have a great navy – most of their fleet was made up of either defenseless troop transports or light ships used for boarding actions. All their vessels were made of wood, and they had almost no cannons to speak of. Korea, on the other hand, had a well equipped and well trained fleet of heavy warships that had lots of cannons. And leading the Korean fleet was a new, special ship: the Turtle Ship.
The Turtle Ship was the brainchild of the brilliant Korean Admiral Yi Sun-sin, who resurrected old ship designs and made a host of improvements to create a ship more powerful than East Asia had ever seen. The Turtle Ship was a big, wooden vessel with ten oars on each side and two masts on top. The ship had a U shaped hull instead of a more standard V shaped hull, which gave it increased maneuverability at the expense of speed. The Turtle Ship had a whopping 26 cannons on board for murdering Japanese ships, as well as an “ornamental” dragon’s head at the prow that doubled as a cannon AND a smoke generator. It was a maneuverable, death-dealing monster on the waves.
For defense, the Turtle Ship had a covered, closed roof coated in a host of sharp iron spikes, making boarding actions virtually impossible. Sources vary as to whether or not the iron spikes were attached to protective metal or wooden plates: the case can be made either way since no one knows for sure. In any case, if it was wooden plates with iron spikes, it was still impervious to Japanese fire arrows, the primary ranged weapon of the Japanese navy. The Turtle Ship’s design made it the equivalent of an ironclad since all the Japanese weapons were useless against it.
Since Japan only had fire arrows and boarding parties to fight the Korean cannon-armed navy, almost all of Yi Sun-sin’s 20ish naval battles ended in ridiculously one-sided Korean victories. Time after time, the Japanese lost hundreds of ships and thousands of men while the Koreans only suffered a dozen men wounded. The Japanese did very well on land, but on the water, the Turtle Ship smashed, sank and drove off the Japanese navy at every turn. For a technology level equivalent to the early Renaissance, the Korean Turtle Ship stands out as master of its domain.
And so concludes Part 1 of an exploration of old, pre-industrial ironclads! Tune in next time for Part 2, or maybe some other topic that will (hopefully) be just as entertaining. Have a good one!