When the Japanese navy intervened in the Mediterranean to help the British

At the Kalkara Naval Cemetery in Malta there is a memorial to the 68 Japanese sailors buried there, who lost their lives aboard the destroyer Sakaki, torpedoed in the Mediterranean by an Austrian submarine.

The story begins on January 30, 1902, when representatives of the United Kingdom and Japan sign a military cooperation and mutual aid treaty in London whereby both countries pledge to help each other in the event of war.

The only exceptions included in the agreement implied that the United Kingdom would not help Japan in the event of a confrontation with the United States, and that Japan would never enter a strictly European war.

Japanese cruiser Akashi / photo Public Domain on Wikimedia Commons

The agreement was to jointly oppose Russia’s attempted expansion into China and the Pacific, and was to be renewed in 1905 and 1911. So, when World War I broke out in 1914, the agreement was in force. With the British concentrating on European operations, the responsibility for controlling the Pacific was left to the Japanese.

They were not limited only to patrolling, but also cooperated in the escort of the British ships that transported the ANZAC troops (Australia, New Zealand and Canada) to the theaters of operations of the conflict. They also harassed and persecuted the ships of the Triple Alliance (German Empire, Austria-Hungary and Italy) that operated in the area, as happened with the Squadron of German Vice Admiral Von Spee that was heading to the battle of the Malvinas.

The United Kingdom, despite the Japanese inhibition clause in the agreement in case of war in Europe, repeatedly urged its ally to declare war on Germany. Japan accepted, as long as it was guaranteed that it could occupy the German territories in the Pacific.

On August 23, 1914, Japan formally declared war on Germany and, two days later, on Austria-Hungary. On September 2, Japanese forces landed in China, besieging the city of Tsingtao, under German control, and began the conquest of the insular German possessions (Mariana, Caroline and Marshall Islands) with hardly any resistance.

During the siege of Tsingtao the Japanese navy launched, being the first to do so in history, several air strikes from aircraft carriers. On November 7, the city surrendered, leaving the Pacific in Japanese hands.

During the following years, the United Kingdom repeatedly insisted, this time urging Japan to intervene in the European theater, which they resisted, citing a lack of military capacity. But finally, on February 10, 1917, they gave in and agreed to send a fleet to the Mediterranean.

Thus, on April 16 of that year, a Japanese flotilla made up of the cruiser Akashi and eight other destroyers, commanded by Rear Admiral Sato Kozo, arrived in Malta through the Suez Canal, escorting the British transport. saxon. During the rest of the war the Japanese presence would increase until reaching the number of 20 ships of different classes.

From Malta they were in charge of escorting allied troop transports and carrying out anti-submarine operations, since the Germans were sinking allied ships at a truly alarming rate.

Among other outstanding episodes, they helped in the rescue of troops from the transport transylvaniatorpedoed off the French coast on May 4, 1917. 413 men died in the disaster, but the combined intervention of the French, Italian (which had already changed sides) and Japanese navies managed to bring more than 2,500 to safety. .

The Japanese navy suffered hardly any casualties in the Mediterranean, except due to accidents. The only exception occurred on June 11, 1917, when the destroyer Sakaki was hit by a torpedo launched by the Austro-Hungarian submarine U27 off the coast of Crete. 68 Japanese sailors died.

However, despite the damage suffered, the ship remained afloat and managed to return to Malta to be repaired. The dead were buried in the Kalkara Naval Cemetery, where a memorial was erected, which is still maintained today by the Commonwalth War Graves Commission.

In total, Japanese ships in the Mediterranean carried out 788 operations during the First World War, escorting more than 700,000 British and allied troops, even participating in the transport of troops from Egypt to Thessaloniki, for the autumn offensive of 1918.

At the end of the war, the Japanese fleet collaborated in the inspection of the surrendered enemy ships, and even in their concentration in Scapa Flow, Scotland, where they would be stranded and destroyed. Japanese sailors from the Mediterranean fleet would also participate in the victory parades in Paris and London in 1919.

On May 15 of that year, 1919, the last Japanese ships in Malta set their course for home, arriving in Yokosuka on July 2.

Various authorities, including Winston Churchill, who was First Lord of the Admiralty at the time, praised the Japanese work and dedication. It is known that even the commanders of some ships committed suicide by the Hara-Kiri method, embarrassed by losing one of the ships they were escorting.

As for the alliance treaty between the United Kingdom and Japan, despite the services rendered and the insistence of some prominent British soldiers, it was definitively canceled in 1921.


Times of Malta / World War I: The Definitive Encyclopedia and Document Collection / Kaigun: Strategy, Tactics, and Technology in the Imperial Japanese Navy (David Evans and Mark Peattie) / Japan Times / Wikipedia / The Naval War in the Mediterranean: 1914- 1918 (Paul G. Halpern).