Korean Turtle-Ship

Korean Turtle-Ship

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Korean Turtle-Ship - History

Originally developed in 1413 the kobukson, or 'turtle ship', began as an updated version of the kwason, or 'spear ship' (designed for ramming enemy vessels in combat). The turtle ship is probably the most famous class of vessel to exist in Korean naval history. However, the initial design of this craft only generally resembles that of those built later in the 16th century which culminated in the famous battleships of 1592.

As is common for most famous weapons systems the turtle ship did not suddenly emerge, but rather evolved from earlier and less refined designs. The immediate ancestor of the turtle ship was the p'anokson which functioned as the workhorse of the Korean navy both before and throughout the time of the turtle ship (normally outnumbering the turtle ships in combat). It's most noteworthy features are that it has two decks, an upper deck where troops would be stationed and an enclosed lower deck to protect the oarsmen in combat a 'castle' situated centrally on the upper deck, used as a command and observation post by the captain and high sides designed to repel boarders. This last point is significant as the Japanese, Korea's long-term and primary naval adversary, would typically attack an enemy ship by boarding it.

Following on from the p'anokson the original turtle ships featured high sides and two separate decks. However, they typically omitted the inclusion of a 'castle' and were originally designed with the emphasis of being able to be used to ram and damage an opponent's ship without suffering damage themselves. Because of this they were boxy and very solidly constructed, as has been historically typical of Korean warships, but even more so in this case.

This design was taken to its ultimate conclusion in the 16th century by the legendary Korean naval figure, Admiral Yi. These improvements included a completely enclosed and overhung upper deck. This was shared by the gunners and oarsmen and was covered over by a sturdy, curved, roof. Armoured plates to which spikes had been attached would form an outer skin making this roof both tough and practically impossible to walk across. As a final touch these spikes would often be obscured by straw or mats to lure in unsuspecting boarders.
On the sides of the upper deck gun ports were positioned, allowing the firing of cannon or for use by archers. There were also additional ports at the bow and stern of the ship.

While the open decked p'anokson made an ideal platform for carrying out remote bombardment the advanced turtle ships of the 16th century were best suited to rapidly moving in to engage enemy vessels up close and break up enemy lines before quickly withdrawing. While turtle ships of this vintage were still occasionally used to ram enemy ships they were now generally seen as too valuable to risk in a collision with another ship. Also despite their power and their fame it was uncommon for more than five of these vessels to see action in any one battle.

Following the transmission of gunpowder technology from Ming dynasty China in 1373 the Koreans rapidly developed a highly advanced range of naval artillery. By 1410 it was common for their ships to be armed with a variety of cannon with records showing that at this time they possessed 160 ships of war with artillery on board. This marked a turning point where the Koreans began to favour an approach similar to that of the Chinese. This emphasised the bombardment of enemy vessels rather than attacking by ramming or boarding them.

These weapons included deck mounted mortars which fired the Korean version of Chinese 'thunder-crash' bombs - a hard-cased fragmentation projectile. They also used four classes of commonly used cannon, as distinguished by their size, which were typically mounted on mobile wooden carriages (as shown below).

While these cannon would fire stone or iron balls, the preferred projectile weapon used by the Koreans at this time was a giant arrow with an iron tip and iron or leather fins (shown right). While these may look like rockets they were not self-propelled but rather fired from a cannon. The largest of these measured up to nine feet (around three metres) long. These projectiles possessed both a longer range and greater accuracy than ball shot but had equivalent destructive power. They also had the advantages that upon impact they would both damage the ship and also often shatter, spraying deadly splinters of wood among the crew of the ship they hit. As well as this, they could be easily converted into fire arrows. Turtle ships would typically be armed with a full range of normal cannon, firing both ball and arrow projectiles, as well as being crewed by a number of archers.

Fighting Ships of the Far East (2) by S. Turnbull. Osprey Press, 2003.

Was History’s Greatest Ever Military Leader an Unknown Korean Admiral?

Admiral Yi Sun-Sin is a well known national hero in Korea, but he is often overlooked in the West. Yet, many historians place him on the same level as Horatio Nelson and the best admirals in world history.

He famously never lost a battle or even a single ship. His revolutionary contributions to naval warfare and remarkable naval skills should not be overlooked. As an admiral, Yi managed to overcome superior forces on numerous occasions, including one battle where he was outnumbered at least 20 to one.

If it were not for Yi’s contributions, Korea today might well be part of Japan.

(Note: East Asian naming conventions hold that the last name comes before the given name. Yi is the family name.)

Making a Legend

Despite Yi’s legendary status in Korea, his military career did not get off to a promising start. In fact, he did not become an officer until he was 34, making him the oldest junior officer in the army.

Part of the reason for this was that Yi failed the Korean military exam on his first attempt when he was thrown from his horse and broke his leg. However, he passed on his second attempt.

Yi first saw action in the army against a group of marauders called the Jurchen. Yi lured them into battle and utterly crushed them. He captured and executed their leader, then continued to lead successful campaigns against those who remained.

A Korean painting depicting two Jurchen warriors and their horses

However, the military of the Joseon Dynasty had several rival cliques, and Yi was one of many leaders undermined by jealous superiors. After being falsely accused of desertion during battle, Yi lost his rank. However, he still had his allies and was soon appointed as commander of a military training academy.

It was becoming clear that Japan had designs upon Korea, and Yi took advantage of his new post to build up the regional navy. It was during this time that Yi showed his creativity by creating a revolutionary new type of ship.

Yi Sun-Shin

The Turtle Ship

One of Admiral Yi’s most significant accomplishments, which in turn enabled many of his later successes, was the invention of the turtle ship.

The turtle ship gets its name from the metal covering over its top deck which was in contrast to the open decks of other ships at this time. This covering provided excellent protection against incendiary and ranged weapons. Most historians believe the turtle ship was the first armored ship and some consider it the first ironclad.

16th century Korean turtle ship in a depiction dating to 1795. The woodblock print is based on a contemporary, late 18th century model.Photo: PHGCOM CC BY-SA 3.0

Its primary weapons included cannons, a dragon’s head on the bow that could be used for various weapons, and spikes on top of its metal plating. The cannons were significant since the Japanese generally did not use many cannons on their ships.

The dragon’s head was originally intended only for intimidation purposes, but Yi soon found that he could place various weapons in it. A simple cannon could be used, but smoke screen weapons and even incendiary weapons were used as well.

Finally, the spikes on the metal covering the deck made boarding the ship nearly impossible. It was both an offensive and defensive marvel.

A turtle ship. While the spikes are known to have been made of iron, the historical existence of the ironclad roof is disputed.

Japan Invades

Japan launched an invasion of Korea just over a year after Yi took up his post. Yi had never commanded a navy before, but went on to win 11 naval battles in the first four months of the war.

His first naval battle was the Battle of Okpo where he and another commander, Won Gyun, destroyed 26 Japanese ships while only suffering three men wounded on the Korean side. Yi soon pursued other Japanese ships in the area and destroyed them. The Japanese often abandoned their ships in fear when he arrived, leaving them to be destroyed.

Japanese invasions of Korea The Japanese landing on Busan

Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the leader of Japan, responded by increasing his navy’s size to 1,700 ships. However, Yi had a number of advantages.

First, he made sure his men were well trained. Second, he knew the coastal areas where the fighting took place well and was able to take advantage of tides and straits. Third, his natural leadership abilities inspired his men. Finally, Yi had his turtle ships.

Unfortunately, the war was going poorly for Korea on land. The Japanese had been able to land away from where Admiral Yi was and had taken much of Korea, including Seoul. However, the Koreans formed an alliance with the Ming Chinese dynasty, who helped turn the tide of the war on land.

Early 15th century Korean turtle ship in an illustration dating to 1795

Stopping Four Invasions

The Japanese launched three more naval campaigns in 1592. Yi unleashed his turtle ships during the second campaign.

The turtle ship first saw action in the Battle of Sacheon where Yi’s forces destroyed the entire Japanese fleet while only suffering five men wounded. However, one of these men was Yi, who was shot in the shoulder although he survived.

By the end of 1592, Admiral Yi had won at least 15 battles and forced back all four invasions. Japan retreated from Korea however, they would not stay away for long.

Map of Admiral Yi Sun-Sin’s Naval Campaigns – 1592

In the meantime, Admiral Yi ran into problems of a more political nature. The Japanese decided to take advantage of rivalries in the Korean court and sent one of their men, a double agent named Yoshira, to sabotage Yi’s reputation.

Yoshira gave false information to Korean leaders and convinced them to send Yi to an area that Yi knew would be too treacherous for his ships.

Yi was suspicious of anything spies claimed but, although Yi’s instincts were correct, he was arrested, demoted, and almost tortured to death at the behest of his political opponents for disobeying orders. His allies eventually secured his release.

In the meantime, Japan, aware that Yi had been removed, launched a new invasion.

A naval battle. Close combat was very rare during Admiral Yi’s operations.

The Hero of Korea

Won Gyun was killed in action shortly after taking command of the Navy in the disastrous Battle of Chilcheollyang. Yi once again became an admiral. He was placed in charge of the entire surviving Korean fleet – 13 ships.

Admiral Yi, seemingly doomed due to Won Yun’s failure, prepared to make a last stand. However, he planned to take as many Japanese with him as possible. He took up his position at the Myeongryang Strait because it was a choke point, had a strong favorable current, was enveloped in shadows from the surrounding mountains, and had treacherous whirlpools.

The battle began early in the morning when the current was flowing north. Around 330 Japanese warships attacked Yi’s 13 vessels.

Panokseons were sturdy and powerful battleships superior to the Japanese vessels during the Imjin war.

In reality, the battle began as 330 versus one, as only Admiral Yi was bold enough to advance his ship towards the Japanese. He knew that he had two more advantages on his side: his numerous cannons (which the Japanese barely used at this time) and his archers. In contrast, the Japanese ships were designed for ramming.

As the flagship bombarded the Japanese from a distance, the other Koreans took heart and slowly joined him.

The current soon shifted to the south as the Japanese were in the strait. Consequently, the closely grouped Japanese ships began ramming into each other. The nearly helpless Japanese ships were an easy target for the Korean cannons. Japanese sailors began jumping ship but drowned in the strong current.

By the end of the day, the Japanese had lost half of their men and 30 ships. Some modern historians believe that even more Japanese ships were lost. Admiral Yi took around ten casualties and lost zero ships.

Yi Sun-sin’s crane wing formation, famously used at the Battle of Hansando

The Final Battle

In December 1598, the Japanese sent yet another fleet to Korea, this time towards Noryang. The Battle of Noryang would prove to be Admiral Yi’s final battle.

By this time, the Ming navy had arrived to help. The Ming brought six war junks and 57 smaller ships. The Koreans had 82 of their usual warships, plus three turtle ships. The Japanese retreated once again as the Koreans used the straits to their advantage.

Admiral Yi ordered an aggressive pursuit to destroy the fleet. However, this came at a great price as Admiral Yi was fatally shot in the shoulder during the battle.

Map of the Battle of Noryang.Photo: Masterdeis CC BY-SA 3.0

Ever dedicated to his cause, the Admiral’s last words were for his nephew, Yi Wan, to put on his armor and beat his war drum. By impersonating Admiral Yi, he knew that Yi Wan would keep up the morale of his troops.

The pursuit was incredibly successful, and the Korean-Chinese fleet destroyed around 200 Japanese ships. The Koreans, once again, lost no ships.


After Yi’s death, Koreans everywhere were distraught. Shrines were built across the country in his honor, and he was given a proper burial next to his father. Fortunately for the Koreans, this battle proved to be the end of the war, and Korea was saved.

Today, not many things unite North and South Korea, but honoring the memory of Admiral Yi Sun-Sin is one of them. Admiral Yi’s posthumous title is now the third highest ranking position in the South Korean military, and North Korea had a military award named after him.

The statue of Admiral Yi at Sejongno, Seoul, South Korea.The statue of Admiral Yi at Sejongno, Seoul, South Korea.Photo: Hnc197 CC BY-SA 2.5

There are numerous streets named after him, many monuments to him, a destroyer class named after him, and a South Korean coin depicting him.

In popular culture, he has been portrayed as the hero of one of the major campaigns in the strategy video game Empires: Dawn of the Modern World.

He was more recently portrayed in the 2014 Korean film The Admiral: Roaring Currents. However, the film was never translated into English (ironically there is a Japanese version), and his legend is still largely overlooked in the West. Hopefully, that will change as his legend continues to spread.

WMD – The Turtle Ship

In 1591, with the threat of foreign invasion in mind, Korean Admiral Yi Sunshin collaborated on the design of a vessel called a kobukson, or ‘turtle ship’. The ship was based partly on a design going back to at least the early 16th Century, and partly on the standard Korean warship, the panokseon. Admiral Yi and his team completed the first new turtle ship in 1592, in time for its participation in the Seven Year War (1592-1598).

Dimensions and construction

Allowing for variations between individual vessels, the turtle ship was an ark-like vessel of 100 to 120 feet in length, 20 or more feet in height, with a beam of 30 or more feet. It had two sails each with a fold-down mast, a dragon’s head at the bow, and a tail at the stern.

Most distinctively, the vessel had a turtle shell-like roof capping the top deck. This shell was covered in heavy planking and bristling with protruding iron spikes to deter enemy boarders. A turtle ship’s crew could camouflage the spikes with mats, empty sacks, thatch, or straw, creating a minefield of sharp points and blades to greet unsuspecting raiders.

There is controversy over whether or not the shell of the turtle ship was iron-armoured. Contemporary Korean sources refer to the spikes, but a contemporary Japanese record mentions turtle boats being ‘covered in iron’. Whether the latter reference indicates iron plating or simply a thick peppering of iron spikes is still debated.

Some vessels had a gargoyle-like face painted below the dragon’s head, which was a reinforced structure for ramming.

The frame of the ship was constructed of interlocking beams, perhaps using a mortise and tenon method or something similar. The vessels are believed to have been made of spruce, red pine, or other dense wood so that the ship could carry heavy armament and withstand cannon recoil. Nails or fasteners of the same wood may have been used in place of iron, not only to avoid rusting, but because their expansion when exposed to water would further tauten the joints.

The turtle ship had two interior decks: the lower for the oarsmen the upper for the gunners and archers. (In one Japanese painting, the ships were portrayed as three-deck leviathans with soldiers, archers, and gunners each on separate decks.) The ship’s fortress-like design allowed its occupants to view outside, while they remained invisible to their enemies.

Armament, propulsion, and crew

Besides the sails, a turtle ship had eight to 10 oars per side – each operated by as many as four oarsmen and one leader – which powered the vessel. This aspect made the ship highly manoeuvrable and adept as a close-combat vessel.

A turtle ship’s crew might be made up of 80 non-combatants and 45 combatants, depending on its quantity of oars and cannon. While its non-combatants were rowers and rowing leaders, its combatants were gunners, munitions chargers, and archers.

With typically six to 11 cannon ports per side, a turtle ship also had two cannon ports each in the bow and stern, allowing the vessel to fire in any direction. A turtle ship carried a range of light to heavy cannon. The medium-range cannon could shoot flaming arrows or cannonballs. The heaviest cannon, called Chon (Heaven), had a range of perhaps over 650 yards.

The dragon’s head at the bow of the ship was not purely an intimidating ornament of psychological warfare. The edifice was so designed so that a cannon could be fired through its mouth, propelling cannonballs or flaming arrows from its jaws. Some turtle ships’ dragon’s heads could expel clouds of noxious vapour created from a saltpetre and sulphur mixture. This tactic could not only leave enemies choking and gasping, but provide a smokescreen to mask the turtle ship’s manoeuvres.
The turtle ship design was used into the nineteenth century.

Turtle Ship

The Turtle Ship (also known as Geobukseon or Kobukson by its Korean name)[거북선] was a type of large warship belonging to the Panokseon class in Korea that was used by the Royal Korean Navy during the Joseon Dynasty from the early 15th century up until the 19th century. It is considered the world's first armored warship.

Over the cause of time, there were many versions of the Turtle ship. Korean admiral 이순신 (Ee Sun-shin) is credited with designing and building the craft known today. His turtle ships were equipped with at least five different types of cannon. The turtle ship's most distinguishable feature was a fully covered deck that was shielded to deflect cannon fire with iron spikes to discourage enemy men from attempting to board the ship.

Turtle ships are famous for participating in numerous victories against Japanese naval forces that supported Toyotomi Hideyoshi's attempts to conquer Korea from 1592-8, inflicting heavy losses.

1960s [ edit | edit source ]

Continuing from the '50s, the ROK Navy continued to build naval surface forces mainly with ships transferred from the US Navy.

In May 1963, the ROK Navy acquired its first destroyer ROKS Chungmu (DD 91 and later DD 911), the former USS Erben (DD-631), a Fletcher class destroyer. On October 3, 1964, ROKS Chungnam (DE 73, later DE 821), formerly USS Holt (DE-706), "successfully prosecuted an unidentified submarine contact for more than 17 hours until the contact surfaced and was positively identified as a Soviet Whiskey class submarine with pendant number 017". ⎟] ⎠]

During the Vietnam War, the ROK Navy dispatched naval transport units called Baekgu the ROKMC dispatched combat units called Cheongryong to Vietnam.

In 1969, the ROK Navy began "Isolated Islands Visiting Program" to support people living in small and remote islands around the peninsula. ⎛]

On January 19, 1967, ROKS Dangpo (PCEC 56), the former USS Marfa (PCE-842), was sunk by North Korean coastal artillery north of the demarcation line off the east coast of Korea ⎡] (USS Pueblo (AGER-2)) was captured by North Korea in January 1968.). In June 1970, a navy broadcast vessel (ROKS I-2) was captured by North Korean patrol craft in the vicinity of Yeonpyeong Islands in the West Sea (Yellow Sea). ⎢]

The Korean Turtle Ship

I've been doing some research on the Korean turtle ship. I have found a good number of paintings and drawings, both Korean and Japanese, which depict it. It seems to me that the modern replicas do not match the paintings very well.

This is the drawing that all modern reconstructions are based on. I don't think the drawing is wrong, just the interpretation. This is said to be the type used in the 1590s (called jwasuyeong).

This drawing is always said to be the type used in the early 1400s (called tongjeyeong).

I think they were distinct types, but both used during the 1590s, judging by the paintings that follow.


It seems to me that both types are depicted side by side in the paintings.

Here are pics of what I think is the most accurate reconstruction

There are more pictures of this reconstruction but I can't seem to find them on the web.


Interestingly, none of the depictions I have seen show the spikes on the roof, even though many of the written records speak of them. Some of the depictions show a hexagonal pattern on the top, suggestive of metal plating.

They seem to generally have 12-37 gun ports on each side (depending on the number of decks), as well as a several each on the front and back. They were also armed with cold weapons (swords, spears, pole-swords, etc.), cannons, small guns, and flamethrowers. The cannons and small guns fired balls and bolts. Rockets and hwachas were also used on Korean ships of this time period, but I don't know how much they were used on turtle ships. Spears were often stuck through the small-arms holes above the cannon portholes.

The jwasuyeong type has two doored cannon portholes on each side which allowed room to turn the cannon in different directions. These would be perfect for firing down on enemy decks, and were probably fitted with bullanggi breechloading swivel guns.


The cannons used on board were the Heaven, Earth, Black, and Yellow, as well as the bullanggi and maybe a few Chinese cannons. Korean cannons of this time period were small but very powerful.

The Heaven cannon fired a 74 lb bolt up to about 1300-1400 yards
The Earth cannon fired a 40 lb bolt up to about 1200-1300 yards
The Black and Yellow cannons fired smaller darts weighing several pounds, with ranges of 1200-1300 yards and 1600-1700 yards.
These cannons also fired shot and balls (which would have fired much farther), but I don't have info about them.

The Korean navy also used the shin'gijeon rockets and hwacha rocket launchers, though to a lesser extent than the cannons. I don't currently have the ranges of these rockets, but the smaller ones could fire at least about 500 yards, and the larger ones even farther (possibly up to about a mile). They also used bow-launched explosive arrows.

In my previous post, I forgot to mention the Koreans' wide use of archery in the navy. Their bows could, at maximum, reach about 500 yards, but as with all bows, people rarely shot at that range.

The Koreans used a variety of primitive-but-well-made hand-cannons. Most of them belonged to the Victory class. They could fire a bolt that weighed about a pound up to about 900-950 yards, as well as shot. As soon as the Koreans came in contact with Japanese matchlocks, they started using them. Admiral Yi Sunshin's chief blacksmith figured out how to make guns identical in performance to the Japanese ones, and they began producing them.

Korean Turtle Ship

The Korean Turtle Ship is considered to be the first ironclad warship in the world, shaped like a turtle, invented and built by Admiral Yi Soon in 1592.

From a turtle ship rebuilt and kept by the Korean Naval Academy in Jinhae are the following structural details:

Length 113 feet Width 34 feet Height 21 feet

The deck was made firm with board two inches to a foot thick and it was roofed with iron plates on boards and covered with spikes and knives to prevent an enemy from boarding. The crew were thus well protected while still being able to view the enemy, permitting musketeers to fire through gunports.

The bow was shaped after the head of a dragon and the stern like the tail of a turtle. A gunport was installed at each end of the dragon head and six more on each side of the ship. It was from its general appearance that it derived its name of a ‘turtle ship’.

It had eight oars on each side and two sails used for manoeuvring with the masts designed to be raised or to lay down as necessary.

The ship was divided into many compartments for storage of iron products, metal works, guns, bows, arrows, spears, swords and other weapons and the rest of the spaces were quarters for the crew, with separate raised cabin areas for the captain and officers.

During the Japanese invasion of 1592-1598, under Admiral Yi’s command the turtle ships were engaged as the vanguard in a battle in Chinhae Bay near Pusan, when twelve of these ironclad turtle ships annihilated the Japanese fleet of 300 warships to gain supremacy of the surrounding seas, thus giving the Koreans a masterful victory.

Supported by a small number of iron-clad turtle ships, a Korean fleet (right) approaches the invading Japanese fleet. When within weapon range (left), Korean seamen engage the enemy with musket fire and arrows.

Turtle Ship

After Japan was unified in a series of wars, General Hideyoshi decided to invade China and eventually India. It was decided to conquer Korea first as it was on the way. Initially the Japanese were successful, taking Seoul in three weeks and reaching Pyongyang. But the invasion bogged down. Increased Korean resistance, Chinese intervention, and the famous turtle ships all conspired to defeat the Japanese.

This war, known as the Hideyoshi War or Imjin War, began in 1592 and ended in 1598 with the withdrawal of Japanese troops. Koreans are justly proud of the turtle ship, the first ironclad warship in world history, first used in 1592 and mounting several cannon, some of which could hurl incendiary devices.

When western sailing ships first reached the Pacific, they were able to dominate the trade routes. Closer to shore, Asian rowed galleys, even without armor, were able to defeat western warships. In 1886 near Pyongyang, a turtle ship was used against the American ship General Sherman but was ineffective.

Explanation of Turtle Ship Model

Hansan Island Map. Adm. Lee lured the Japanese from their anchorage and destroyed them.

Sinking Japanese pavilion ships.

Kids Love the Turtle Ship

Admiral Yi his campaigns and the art of war. Includes pirate wars of the 13th to 15th centuries.

Turtle Ship and Adm. Lee includes an overview of the war.

Turtle Ship with a history of the ship's development.

Page created by IFAlbum
Copyright © 2002 John Hamill All rights reserved.

Korean Turtle-Ship - History

The Korean Turtle Ship is the first ironclad warship in the world shaped like a turtle that was invented and built by Admiral YI, SOON SHIN in 1592 (16C).
During the IM JIN WAR (Korean and Japanese 1592-1598), under Admiral YI's command, the turtle ships were engaged as the vanguard and brought the seas under their control to lead the country to victory.
Therefore, the Korean people admire general YI as the most famous Admiral in Korean history, and an original form of the turtle ship was rebuilt and kept by the KOREAN NAVAL ACADEMY in JIN HAE.
The following are the details about structure of the original turtle ship

Length: 34.2m Width: lO.3m Height: 6.4m

The turtle ship had it's deck made firm with boards from two inches to a foot thick, and it was roofed with iron plates on boards, and numberless spikes on them which prevented the enemy from boarding.
Although it's crew could look at the enemy from the ship, the enemy could not see into it from outside.
The bow is shaped after the head of a dragon and the stern the tail of a turtle.
A gun-port is installed at each end of the dragon head, and six more on each side of the ship. The name turtle ship is derived from the shape.
It had eight oars on each side and two sails used for maneuvering.
The masts were designed to stand up or lay down as necessary.
It had a total of 24 cabins: two were used as storage for iron products and metal works, and three for guns, bows, arrows, spears, swords and other weapons. The rest of the rooms were quarters for the crew.
In the upper part of the ship were two cabins one for the captain and the other for the officers.

The geobukseon ( 거북선), known in the west as a “turtle ship”, was one of the most instrumental pieces of military technology in Korea during the Joseon era. For roughly four hundred years, the ship was used to defend Korea from invasion by foreign countries. Although the geobukseon fell out of use due to a long period of peace, the ship is still famous today for its innovative design as well as its role as a symbol of strength and military power.

The geobukseon that we know today originated from the mind of famed Korean admiral Yi Sun-shin. According to his war diary, or nanjung ilgi (난중일기), Admiral Yi designed the ship in 1591 while referencing pre-existing designs. Admiral Yi and his subordinates felt that invasion by the Japanese was imminent. As a result, he and his subordinates — including chief constructor Na Do-young — decided to build the first modern turtle ship.

Though there were many different versions of the turtle ship that were used by the Korean Royal Navy, the general appearance was about 100-120 feet long and a resemblance of the panokseon (판옥선), the main class of warship used by the military during the time. The crew of a geobukseon was usually composed of the captain, about fifty to sixty fighting marines and seventy oarsmen.

The ship also had sharp iron spikes on hexagonal plates that covered the top of the ship (hence the term “turtle ship”).

One of the most iconic features of the geobukseon, however, was the dragon head mounted on the bow of the ship. Large enough to fit a cannon inside, the intimidating creature’s head also emitted sulfur smoke, effectively hiding the ship’s movement from the enemy during short distance combat. Some early versions of the geobukseon also allowed the crew to burn poisonous materials in the head, which would emit toxic smoke.

The geobukseon were primarily used in the war against Japanese naval forces under Toyotomi Hideyosh, who attempted to conquer Korea from 1592 to 1598. Today, Admiral Yi Sun-sin’s turtle ships are credited with greatly contributing to sixteen victories in sixteen battles against the Japanese Navy, until they were destroyed in the Battle of Chilcheollyang. Though no original geobukseon ships still exist today, many replicas exist in museums to teach current generations about the history of the fearsome ships.

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