One of the most potent and dangerous military units of World War Two was the Imperial Japanese Navy. This was the force that launched the devastating assault on Pearl Harbour, sank the Repulse and Prince of Wales, and carried thousands of assault troops to places like Singapore, Hong Kong and the Philippines.
What most people do not realise is that the origins of this mighty juggernaut can be found in a tiny and long forgotten dockyard on Pembroke River in south Wales. The dockyard was known as Jacobs Pill and while it was only in existence for a little over 10 years, it holds a unique position in naval history.
The private dockyard, situated on the southern side of a ridge a mile and a half from the Royal Naval yards at Pembroke Dock, was founded by Sir Edward Reed in the early 1870s. Reed was, at one stage, chief constructor for the Royal Navy and actually designed many of the famous ships launched from Pembroke Dock. He was also MP for Pembroke Borough.
Jacobs Pill was part of the Milford Haven Shipbuilding and Engineering Company and Reed, as Chairman of the enterprise, was the prime mover in all its activities.
Through Reed's influence – these days he would probably be arrested for insider dealing or some such crime – an order was obtained from the Japanese navy. They wanted an armoured warship to add to their fleet as, at that stage, the Imperial Navy had only sailing ships. In order to secure their power base in the eastern oceans something more modern and more effective was required.
The Hei-Yei was an armoured corvette, the first in what became known as the Kongo Class. Launched on 12 June 1877, she was 230 feet in length and armed with three 6.7 inch, six 5.9 inch, five Nordenfeldt machine guns and two 14 inch torpedo tubes. A steam powered, screw driven vessel, the Hei-Yei was also fitted with masts and a full complement of sails. Under steam she was capable of 14 knots.
Bunting, balloons, choirs and speeches
The launch from the yards at Jacobs Pill was an affair of considerable pomp. Jacobs Pill was situated in the Pembroke Dock suburb of Pennar and nobody in the area had seen anything quite like it before. Not even the launches from the Royal Naval yard were quite so splendid. There was bunting and balloons, choirs and speeches, and virtually everyone in Pennar and nearby Bufferland lined the banks of the Pembroke River to watch the ceremony.
His Excellency Jushie Wooyeno Kagenori, Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to the Mikado of Japan, came to witness the event. He was greeted at Pembroke Dock station by a huge crowd and driven to the yards at Jacobs Pill.
To the music of three separate bands, Edward Reed's daughter performed the naming ceremony and the Hei-Yei slipped easily, without fuss, into the waters of Pembroke River. Also included in the party that day were Admiral Lord Clarence Paget and Edward Reed himself.
Following the launch a memorial tablet was unveiled on nearby Bethany Chapel and then everyone repaired to the Victoria Hotel in the town for a celebratory banquet. The day finished with a magnificent firework display on the slopes of the nearby Barrack Hill.
Journey to Yokashuka
After her launch the Hei-Yei started on a long-distance journey to Yokashuka, crewed by British sailors while Japanese seamen stood by to watch and learn. Also on board was the future Admiral Togo Heihachiro, later the victor over the Russians at the Battle of Tsushima. He had been studying on board the training ship Worcester on the Thames – even though he was far too old and had had to lie about his age to gain a place.
The Hei-Yei was a good stout ship, the workmen at Jacobs Pill had done their job well, and she reached her destination on 22 May 1878.
In the years that followed the Hei-Yei completed many more long-distance cruises for the Imperial Navy. She saw combat in the first Sino-Japanese war and was severely damaged at the Battle of Yalu River. She also took part in the Japanese invasion of Taiwan in 1895 and during the Russo-Japanese War, when Togo won his victory, she was guard ship at Maizuru and at Port Arthur.
The real significance for the Japanese Navy, however, was not what the Hei-Yei did but what she stood for. She had brought the imperial fleet into the 19th century and the planners and professional sailors used her example to drive forward a programme of development and skill training that, when it came to the test, shocked not just the Russians but all of the world's navies. The development did not stop until the final days of World War Two.
Sadly, after the success of the Hei-Yei, the Jacobs Pill dockyard failed to build on its more than promising beginnings. Several colliers were built and, most notably, the Acorn, a 970 ton sloop constructed for the Royal Navy in 1884. The yards also built the caisson gate for Milford Docks, a structure that was only finally removed in the closing years of the 20th century. But that was about all.
The last ship launched from Jacobs Pill seems to have been the Mary Jane Lewis in 1889 but little is known about her. These days all that remains of the dockyard are some slight indentations in the grass above the river, the remains of what was the mould loft - used as an isolation hospital in the early 20th century - and a few walls and ruins down on the river bank.
The yards may be gone but the memories remain. And nothing can ever take away Jacobs Pill's standing as the dockyard that really began to lay the foundations of the Imperial Japanese Navy.