To build a balanced Fleet the early Imperial Japanese Navy had to rely upon foreign designs and construction. Just as the larger battleships and armored cruisers were
built abroad, so to were the smaller protected cruisers. Protected cruisers had an armored deck slopping to join the hull sides below the waterline protecting machinery
spaces but lacked the armored belt of an armored cruiser. In 1884 three protected cruisers were started for the infant Imperial Japanese Navy, the
Naniwa Class of two
ships built at the Armstrong yards in Great Britain and the single ship
Unebi built in France. Unebi was unique and hurt the reputation of French builders due to her fate.
French designers tried to out do the Armstrong design and mounted too heavy an armament for her displacement. During trials off France there was speculation that she
lacked stability. The Japanese Navy accepted the ship anyway in December 1886.
Unebi was lost without a trace somewhere between Japan and Singapore in October
1887 from unknown causes. Speculation was the top heavy design did not overcome a roll and capsized in bad weather.

Nonetheless, Japan returned to a French design for her next design, the
Matsushima Class. With her relations with Imperial China deteriorating, Japan needed cruisers
in a hurry. The noted French designer, Emile Bertin, designed this class with the Japanese requirement of a protected cruiser armed with guns sufficiently large to
penetrate the armor of Chinese battleships. The reason Japan chose France was the 12.6-inch Canet gun. This gun had a very slow rate of fire of one round every five
minutes but that didn’t stop the order. The critics were right, as was proven at the Battle of the Yalu, where the design proved more of a detriment to their own crews
due to the almost lack of armor, than to the Chinese Fleet. Two of the class were built in France but the third,
Hashidate, was the first modern ship of any size to be
built in Japan at the Yokosuka Navy Yard.
For the next three single ship designs, the Japanese Navy used either a British design built at Yokosuka, the Akitsushima designed by Armstrong’s Sir William White
as a smaller version of his design for
USS Baltimore, or ships built by Armstrong, for the Yoshino and Idzumi protected cruisers. With the Suma Class of 1892
broke the reliance upon foreign designs and construction. These two ships,
Suma and Akashi, were the first cruisers built to a Japanese design and to be built in
Japan, although her guns still were imported from Great Britain. The design used locomotive boilers and were less than successful. With the next two designs Japan
returned to foreign designs with foreign builders.
Takasago was a Philip Watt design of Armstrong and was one of the Elswick export cruisers. With the Chitose
design, very similar to the
Takasago, the Japan tried a new source, the USA. Chitose was built by Union Iron Works in San Francisco and the Kasagi was built by
Cramp in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Finally, Japan turned back to home grown talent with the
Tsushima Class of protected cruisers of 1901. As a starting point the Japanese design for the Suma Class
was chosen but significant changes were made that produced a vastly improved ship. They were larger with a greater displacement and had a main armament of six
6-inch guns instead of the mixed armament
Suma with two 6-inch and six 4.7-inch. The guns were situated with fore and aft guns on centerline and the other four
placed in sponsons sited lower than the 4.7-inch guns of the
Suma Class. These changes made the Tsushima Class far more seaworthy than the Suma Class and
far more powerful. For the first time a Japanese design outclassed many contemporary protected cruiser designs. The
Tsushima was laid down at the Kure Navy
Yard on October 1, 1901, launched December 15, 1902 and completed February 14, 1904. Sistership,
Niitaka, used the more experienced Yokosuka Yard and was
built quicker. She was laid down January 7, 1902, launched November 15, 1902 and completed January 27, 1904.
The length was 334-feet 6-inches (102m)(pp), beam 44-feet (13.44m) and draught of 16-feet 3-inches(4.92m). Displacement was 3366-tons normal. Another great
improvement over the
Suma Class was the use of 16 Niclausse boilers instead of the locomotive boilers of the Suma. The far more efficient boilers two compound
reciprocating engines for a top speed of 20-knots with 9,500 ihp. The sloping armored deck was 2.5-inches thick. Other than the armored deck, one the conning
tower had armor, 4-inches. The 6-inch guns had gun shields for splinter protection. In addition to the main armament of six 6-inch guns, the class carried ten 12-pdr
and four 2.5-pdr QF guns for defense against torpedo boats.

Niitaka had been completed in the nick of time, as the brand new protected cruiser was at Sasebo on February 6, 1904 when at 02:00 signal lamps from the flagship
Mikasa, ordered all commanders to come to the Mikasa. When aboard Admiral Togo greeted his commanders with the statement, “We sail this morning. Our
enemy flies the Russian Flag.
” After this eye-popping statement Togo read the Imperial Order of February 5 that stated that there would be no more negotiations
with Russia and that Army and Navy commanders could take any actions necessary to protect Japanese interests in Korea and China. Although not an overt
Declaration of War, the proclamation was certainly the authorization for war, very similar to the 14 point statement designed to be handed to the US government 30-
minutes before the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. After the reading of the Imperial Proclamation General Fleet Order Number One was read, which
had Togo’s plan for the attack of the Russian Asiatic Squadron at Port Arthur in China, starting with a nighttime surprise torpedo boat attack. At 09:00 the fleet put
to sea led by the torpedo boats, followed by the bigger ships, then Admiral Dewa’s four protected cruisers and three auxiliary cruisers, followed by Admiral
Kamimura’s armored cruisers. Then
Mikasa and the other battleships pulled into the column, followed by Admiral Uryu’s protected cruisers of Naniwa, Akashi,
Takachiho and Niitaka, and then flowed by armored cruiser Asama and three troop transports.
Niitaka was involved in a preemptive attack on the Russian Cruiser Varyag and gunboat Korietz. Both of those Russian ships were stationed at Chemulpo near present
day Inchon and at the time the main port for Seoul, Korea to protect Russian interests. Likewise, the Japanese had stationed the cruiser,
Chiyoda, to protect Japanese
interests. After crossing the Japanese Sea with the fleet, Admiral Uryu and his squadron were sent to Chemulpo to join
Chiyoda and polish off the Russian ships. On
February 7 the Russian merchant ship
Sungari arrived at Chemulpo and reported that a large group of warships was approaching the port. Early on February 8 the
Battle of Chemulpo was started by an exchange of fire between long-time residents
Chiyoda and Korietz for the first actual exchange of gunfire of the Russo-Japanese
War. Uryu’s cruisers appeared later that morning. Warships from Great Britain, France, Italy and the USA were also present in the port. Admiral Uryu sent a message
to the neutrals that Russia and Japan were at war and if the Russian warships did not leave, the Japanese Squadron would attack on February 9. The
commander consulted the neutral commanders and said he and
Korietz would fight their way out of the port. The sortie was late in the morning of February 9, 1904
and was unsuccessful. The Russians returned to Chemulpo where
Korietz blew herself up and Varyag scuttled herself in port. Uryu held Niitaka in reserve for the
battle and she was last in Uryu’s battle line.

On March 9
Niitaka was used to fire on Russian shore batteries guarding Port Arthur in an inconclusive engagement called the Battle of Port Arthur. In the month of
Niitaka was detached from the main fleet to patrol the Sea of Japan and Korea Straight. Togo would use his torpedo boat flotillas, his battleships, Kamimura’s
armored cruisers, and Dewa’s protected cruisers, but quite often Uryu’s squadron of protected cruisers was detached or otherwise not in the position to engage.

On June 23 Togo’s fleet was well down in strength due to losses in May with two battleships sunk by Russian mines and an armored cruiser damaged in a collision.
The Russian First Pacific Squadron was seen putting to sea. Togo countered with the remainder of his heavy ships as well as both Dewa’s and Uryu’s squadrons of
protected cruisers. However, the Russians turned around and went back into Port Arthur. This was as close as
Niitaka came to engaging the First Pacific Squadron.
On August 10 when the First Pacific Squadron did come out and fight at the Battle of the Yellow Sea, it was the battleships, two armored cruisers and Dewa’s
protected cruisers that got into the fight.
Niitaka and the rest of Uryu’s protected cruisers were too far to the north to reach the battle in time but Niitaka was tasked
to find the
Askold, which showed up in Manila to be interned. The cruiser squadron based at Vladivostock had been ordered to sortie in order to support the First
Pacific Squadrons attempt to break out of Port Arthur. They were met by Admiral Kamimura’s armored cruisers at the Battle of Ulsan and the Russian armored cruiser
Rurik was sunk. Although Niitaka was again too far away to engage in the battle, she did arrive in time to rescue survivors from the Rurik.
Niitaka’s role as a bridesmaid and never the bride ended with the Battle of Tsushima on May 27, 1905. For the climatic naval battle of the war, Niitaka was fully
engaged. First she was part of the cruiser squadron which engaged the Russian cruisers
Oleg, Aurora and Zhemchug, as well as finishing the badly damaged Russian
Kniaz Suvorov. Niitaka was only hit once with one killed and three wounded. The next day in the search for escaping Russian ships, Niitaka and Otowa found
the cruiser
Svetlana and sank her. Later that day she was part of the final part of the Battle of Tsushima when she helped destroy the old armored cruiser Dmitri
. For the rest of the war she escorted convoys. In September 1905 she went into a refit at Sasebo.

For the next decade
Niitaka patrolled the China coast. When Japan entered World War One the cruiser initially participated in the seizure of the German port of
Tsingtao in China and then with
Otowa was stationed in Singapore for patrols against German raiders. While at Singapore marines from both cruisers assisted in putting
down a revolt of Indian Sepoy troops in Singapore in February 1915, known as the Sepoy Mutiny of 1915. Later that year
Niitaka was teamed with sistership,
Tsushima and based at Cape Town to patrol the Indian Ocean against German raiders and U-Boats. In 1920 Niitaka was back in action against the Russians but this
time Red Russians instead of White Russians. She supported Japanese landings near Petropavlovsk during the interventionist period of the Russian Civil War. On
September 1, 1921 the
Niitaka was retyped as a 2nd Class Coastal Defense Vessel. On August 26, 1922 the Niitaka was anchored off the mouth of a river on the
Kamchatka Peninsula when very strong winds forced the ship onto rocks where she capsized All 284 crewmen aboard were lost, although there was a hunting party of
15 ashore that did survive. The next year the wreck was surveyed to see if it was worth salvage. It was not, the hulk was blown apart by explosives and
Niitaka was
removed from the rolls of the Imperial Japanese Navy.

Niitaka is one of the newest 1:700 scale releases from Combrig, which is reflected in the enhanced instructions included in the kit. Cast in dark gray resin, Niitaka
reflects the crisp and clean casting style associated with
Combrig kits. The first thing that I noticed upon examining the hull casting was that it was free of defects.
Minor sanding along the water line would be beneficial but is certainly not necessary. Hull detail starts with the sharp cutwater. There are two rows of port holes, one
along the raised forecastle and quarterdeck and the other below the weather deck. Hull anchor hawse have good depth and horse collar fittings. There are a number of
clean square doors on the hull sides that add interest to the overall appearance. The hull edge sponsons for the 6-inch guns have nice curves and moderately thin splinter
shielding. At the stern there are inset positions for QF guns, which are portrayed with their gun shield/panel closed. These positions lack locater holes for the barrels of
these guns. Of greater importance are the two forward 6-inch gun sponsons. The sponsons have closed shutters, which lack the holes that were present to allow the
barrel to protrude through the shutter when they were closed. Since the full gun with separate gun shield will be used in the build, holes will need to be drilled in the
shutters of sufficient size to accommodate the gun barrels. Another option would be to remove all of the shutters and used thin plastic or resin squares, cut to shape, to
portray these guns trained outboard with the gun shutters open.
Deck detail is very good on the hull casting. Wooden deck planking is reflected but lack butt end detail. The forecastle has very good deck plates for the run of the
anchor chains. The deck anchor hawse have the fittings but they are shallow. It would present a better appearance to deepen these so that the anchor chain disappears
inside. This is somewhat of a moot point as the kit has no photo-etch or metal anchor chain. Other forecastle detail includes subtly done bollard and open chock
fittings. Also present are a slightly raised base for the forward 6-inch gun and outline for placement of the superstructure. Locater holes are present for ventilator
cowlings. I especially like the detail found on the lower weather deck. This is dominated by numerous circular coal scuttles.
Combrig has always had a good touch at
portraying these. There is a very large skylight aft of the funnels that is especially well detailed. Aft of that dominant fitting is a deck access well with tread pads
descending into the hull. There is another stair well between two of the deck houses.  Slightly raised gun bases are provided for the two sponson 6-inch guns as well
as three 12-pdr QF guns on each side. There are also locater outlines for J cowlings and locater holes for the masts. The quarterdeck is also raised like the forecastle.
Detail here includes a closed deck access hatch, open cleats, bollards, the rear gun base and an outline for the aft superstructure/deckhouse.

The smaller parts are found on a thin resin sheet and 15 resin runners.
Combrig always casts thin parts such as decks and platforms on a sheet. After removing parts
from the sheet, their edges will need a light sanding. The sheet for the
Niitaka includes a long flying deck that fits over the centerline deck houses and funnel bases. It
has skylights and ventilation panels but does not have locater outlines for the funnels or ventilators. Consequently, use white glue to attach the funnels and ventilators
(over deck houses and funnel bases) so that you can position them properly using the profile and plan included in the instructions. Other parts include catwalk,
navigation platforms, forecastle extension overhanging the weather deck, quarterdeck extension overhanging the weather deck and top navigation platform, all of
which have wood decking detail. Other parts are the mast tops, searchlight platform and the conning tower/ forward superstructure base. The two navigation bridges
and top navigation deck have solid bulkheads representing canvas covered railing. This kit does not come with photo-etch but I recommend generic railing, inclined
ladders and vertical ladder. I am inclined to replace the solid bulkheads with railing.

There are fifteen runners of other resin parts. The largest are the three funnels, which have bottom aprons and top caps. Funnel grates/clinker screens are cast as part
of the funnel since there are no photo-etch parts provided for them. It is not the same as hollow funnel tops with photo-etch grates. Two of the runners have the 6-
inch and QF guns, which in the case of
Niitaka, are one piece castings. Combrig has done a very good job on these castings, although there were some broken QF
barrels. Two more runners have flying boat skids/chocks, which are very prominent on this model. The chocks are a little too thick but in large measure are hidden
by the boats. The aft deck house and open back chart house are on a runner. The windows on the chart house can easily be opened with a hobby knife. Three nice
searchlights are on a runner. Another runner has small navigation binnacles, the anchors and numerous davits. One runner is devoted exclusively to J ventilator cowls
in what appears to be nine different sizes. The last six runners have the ship’s boats with steam launches with separate funnels and three types of oared boats. As is
common with
Combrig, boat detail is very good.

As mentioned earlier, the
Combrig Niitaka has enhanced instructions that go into more detail than the previously used format. There are three back-printed large
sheets. Page one is the scale plan and profile that is essential to consult in building any
Combrig model. Normally the profile shows the rigging but this is missing for
Niitaka. Also, there are ships specifications in English and ship’s history in Russian. Page two is a parts laydown of the unnumbered resin parts. Page three
concentrates on the centerline flying deck with boat skid attachment. Also included are forecastle fittings and weather deck fittings. An inset is provided for extra
detail in assembling the forward superstructure. Page four shows how the model looks after completing the assembly shown on page three. It also identifies by
number each boat skid and ventilator. These are the same numbers used on page three. A template is provided to make the masts and yards, which are not included in
the kit. Page five has the concluding assembly instructions. Page six shows the model fully assembled with scratch-built masts and yards.
Combrig’s Niitaka is a nice resin model of Imperial Japan’s first successful Japanese designed and built cruiser. Pros: nicely cast, crisp resin parts. Cons: no photo-
etch and masts/yards not provided. The cons can easily be overcome with 3rd party generic photo-etch and plastic rod found at most hobby shops.
Steve Backer