The Turtle Ships of Medieval Korea,
In 1592, the de facto ruler of Japan, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, ordered the invasion of Korea. Hideyoshi, the successor to Oda Nobunaga, had grandiose plans which began with the conquest of Korea and ended with the conquest of Ming Dynasty China. Little did he know that the Koreans would fiercely resist their invasion, nor did he know that the Koreans had weapons technology far more advanced than that of Japan. Among that advanced technology was a heavily armed and armored warship called the “turtle ship”, a tough and mighty gunboat that better resembled a floating tank rather than a ship.
Invented by the Korean Admiral Yi Sun-sin, the turtle ship was named as such because it resembled a turtle. Unlike other vessels of the day, the turtle was enclosed in an armored shell. Around 100 to 120 feet long, the turtle ship featured a large armored roof to protect its crew from arrow or musket fire. While some suggest the armor may have been iron plate, thus making the turtle ship the first ironclad, most historians disagree. Regardless the roof was armored with strong materials as well as anti-incendiary materials. The roof was also lined with metal spikes to prevent boarders from climbing on to it. While the turtle ship had two sailing masts, primary propulsion in combat was from oar power. Crew numbered to around 130, with 80 oarsmen and officers, and another 50 marines.
While the Japanese had firearms, Korean technology had developed far past Japan’s due to their contact with China. The key to the turtle ship’s power were its heavy cannon, about a dozen mounted on each side. The Japanese, who never mounted guns on a boat or ship, preferred to get in close and board the ship, fighting in hand to hand combat. Against the turtle ship, this wasn’t a very good idea as the cannon, with a range of 300-600 yards, pounded away at the Japanese ships from a distance. The front of the turtle ship also sported a dragon’s head, which typically concealed a flamethrower. A sulfur gas thrower was also available to create a smokescreen to hide the ship from the enemy.
Toyotomi Hideyoshi invaded Korea with a force of 158,000 soldiers and Samurai. However, all of his men and equipment had to be shipped across the Sea of Japan. Thus, Hideyoshi needed tremendous naval power to support the invasion. Although heavily outnumbered, Korea’s fleet of 40 turtle ships, as well as hundreds of other warships, harassed and decimated the Japanese fleet. At the Battle of Hansan Island, Admiral Yi Sun-sin ambushed a Japanese fleet of 133 ships with his fleet of 3 turtle ships and 52 panokseons (a traditional battleship wihch was also armed with cannon). In the ensuing battle, 60 Japanese ships were sunk. The Koreans lost no ships of their own, with casualties numbering only 19 dead.
Despite the might of Korea’s fleet and the power of the turtle ships, eventually the Japanese were able to overwhelm the Koreans with superior numbers. The Japanese invasion was a success, but a short lived one as the Chinese intervened, pushing out the invaders with a superior army. Hideyoshi attempted a second invasion in 1597, but by then the Koreans had strengthened their defense and reformed their military. The second invasion quickly ground down into stalemate, a stalemate which would be ended once against with Chinese interventions.