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A curious incident in the Russo-Japanese War

Posted in Historical articles, History, Ships, War on Saturday, 30 March 2013

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This edited article about the Russo-Japanese War originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 216 published on 5 March 1966.

Rusian fleet destroyed 1905, picture, image, illustration

The Battle of Tsu-Shima by Richard Hook

At 4 p.m., on October 16, 1904, forty-two obsolete Russian warships weighed anchor and set sail from Libau, in the Baltic, on a voyage to do battle with the Japanese fleet – 18,000 miles away on the other side of the world.

The Russo-Japanese war had started in February that year with a Japanese attack on the Russian Navy’s First Pacific Squadron while it lay at anchor in Port Arthur, on the south coast of Manchuria. The Japanese bottled up the entire Russian fleet, and Port Arthur was threatened with capture. It became a matter of urgency to save the harbour, which provided the Russians with their only year-round ice-free port in the Pacific.

Only four of the fleet that left Libau were really seaworthy. Most of the officers and crew were ill-trained, and some were revolutionaries. The Commander-in-Chief was Vice-Admiral Zinovy Petrovitch Rozhestvensky, a tall man with piercing black eyes and a neat beard.

One problem above all others haunted Rozhestvensky: refuelling his ships. Along the 18,000-mile route, Russia had not one coaling station, nor any friendly powers who would allow her to refuel her ships in their harbours.

Consequently, the fleet would have to refuel at sea. Forty times it would have to rendezvous with colliers of the Hamburg-Amerika line, taking on a total of half a million tons of coal before it reached the battle zone. Everyone except the Russians thought the whole operation impossible.

From the time it left its base at Libau, the fleet was beset by mishaps, some of them comic, some tragic.

To start with, the flagship, Suvoroff, ran aground between the harbour moleheads, and the Sisoy Veliky, an old ironclad, lost her anchor.

The fleet then steamed out of the Baltic and made its first coaling stop off Denmark without incident. But ahead lay the “dangers” of the North Sea.

For months, Russian agents had sent back reports of Japanese torpedo-boats lurking off the Norwegian and Dutch coasts disguised as trawlers. No one was more grateful than Admiral Togo, the commander of the Japanese fleet for these reports. In fact, there was not one Japanese agent in the area, let alone a squadron of torpedo-boats.

A very different “fleet” was, however, operating in the North Sea at that time. . . .

On the Dogger Bank during the evening of October 21, the Gamecock Fleet, of little, single-screw British trawlers reached its fishing grounds. Soon after midnight, the trawlermen sighted the lights of the Russian fleet coming directly towards them. The chief smacksman ordered the trawls to be cut in case they were run down.

Suddenly, searchlight beams pierced the night, and picked out three trawlers. Panic broke out among the fishermen as a salvo of twelve-inch shells burst about them. Soon one of the trawlers, the Crane, was sinking, with two of the crew dead, and the rest wounded.

The barrage eased off. The Russians had found a more important target – cruisers! The enthusiastic gunners opened fire. Then again the shelling petered out, as the Russian battleships realized their blunder. They were now firing on their own cruiser squadron, which had been attracted by the sound of gunfire!

This action lasted twenty minutes. Then, with all lights extinguished, the Russians made off for fear of another “attack.”

The next evening, a deputation of fishermen told the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Lansdown, what had happened. Immediately, all units of the Royal Navy were put on a war footing. For a week British warships shadowed the Russians, waiting for orders to attack. Then the Russian Government apologized for the Dogger Bank incident, and the way was open to peaceful negotiations for compensation.

The Russians’ coaling difficulties now increased. No country would allow them inside the three-mile limit. Off Dakar, in Africa, with the colliers unable to make the next rendezvous, each battleship had to take on a thousand extra tons of coal. Coal was crammed into every nook and cranny of the ships, and filled the air with choking dust.

The fleet now sailed round the Cape of Good Hope to Madagascar. During this stage of the voyage, several mutinies were suppressed. To keep his marksmen in trim, the Commander-in-Chief ordered gunnery practices with live ammunition. Only once did the gunners score a hit – when the flagship, Suvoroff, blasted the bridge of the Donskoy, which was towing the target. Of a salvo of seven torpedos fired during another exercise, one jammed, one swung ninety degrees to starboard, two ninety degrees to port, two kept their course but missed the target, and the last one went round and round in circles, causing panic in the fleet.

On January 10, 1905, twelve weeks after leaving Libau, the fleet dropped anchor in Nos-si-Be harbour in Madagascar, for a much needed refit. It should have been a pleasant stop, but bad news awaited Rozhestvensky. Port Arthur had fallen, leaving him without a base in the Pacific. And the First Pacific Squadron had been captured. Together, the two squadrons might have had a chance against the Japanese, but now the situation seemed hopeless.

On March 16, Rozhestvensky’s ships weighed anchor again. They sailed out into the Indian Ocean, and for three weeks were lost not only to the world at large, but to the Russian Admiralty as well.

Then, on April 8, the news spread through the streets of Singapore that the Russian fleet had been sighted. Thousands of people flocked to the waterfront. The Times correspondent called it a “splendid spectacle” as the ships steamed by. There was great praise for the Admiral who had contrived to bring this bizarre fleet across three oceans to fight the Japanese.

Conflict was now imminent. Units of the Japanese fleet had been seen off Singapore. A cruiser squadron under the command of Admiral Kamimura had called there three days before. News came also of Russian reinforcements, ludicrously named the Third Pacific Squadron, which had been hurriedly assembled at Libau when Port Arthur fell. This “archaeological collection of naval architecture” included several converted sailing frigates. By sailing through the Suez Canal, it was able to join forces with Rozhestvensky’s fleet on May 9, east of Singapore.

On May 26, the Russians were steaming north-east from Formosa. In twelve hours they would enter the Korea Strait, a narrow channel between Korea and the island of Tsu-Shima. The final crisis was approaching.

Visibility was poor, and a Russian lookout suddenly saw a ship cutting through the water not far away. It was the Japanese auxiliary cruiser, Sinano Maru. But she sheered off and disappeared before a gun could be brought to bear.

Throughout the next morning, the Japanese cruisers shadowed the Russians. At 1.30 p.m. the two fleets sighted one another. Admiral Togo ordered his ships to cross the enemy’s bows from starboard to port, and at 2.08 he opened fire.

The Russians replied with astonishing accuracy. In the first few minutes of the action they disabled three Japanese cruisers and damaged several other ships. But the superior fire power and seamanship of the Japanese began to tell. By 2.15, the Russian fleet was in a hopeless state.

To finish off the enemy, Togo ordered his gunners to change from instantaneously fused shells to the armour-piercing variety. At less than a mile range, the result was catastrophic. At 3.30 the Russian Oslyabya went down, gaining the unenviable distinction of being the first armoured battleship to be sunk by gunfire. Another direct hit on the flagship knocked her steering out of action, and she swung out of the line, a burning, useless hulk.

Admiral Rozhestvensky, wounded, with his ship out of action, transferred to the destroyer Buiny. At 7 p.m. the Suvoroff went down. That evening four more ships were lost, two of them sunk by gunfire and the other two rammed in the confusion by their sister ships. The next morning three Russian ships slipped into Manila and were interned. Six more surrendered, including the Buiny, with Rozhestvensky on board.

The Battle of Tsu-Shima ended a little after 3 p.m. on May 28. Only four Russian ships out of the original forty-two – a second-class cruiser and three destroyers – escaped to Vladivostok. The rest were sunk, captured or interned in neutral ports. This defeat signalled the end of the Russo-Japanese war.

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