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Russian forces mistook British trawlers for their Japanese enemy in 1904.

Posted in Famous news stories, Historical articles, History, Ships, War on Thursday, 9 January 2014

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This edited article about Russia first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 504 published on 11 September 1971.

Russian attack on trawlers, picture, image, illustration

The Russian forces mistake a British fishing fleet for invading Japanese craft in 1904

A Russian spy in Denmark started it all. It was 1904 and the Russians were at war with the Japanese. The Russians wanted to send a big fleet of ships from the Baltic to the Pacific, and they did not want this to be sunk by any Japanese torpedo boats on the way.

They need not have worried. The nearest Japanese ships were in the Far East. But the Russians’ spy, a Mr. Hekkelman, who called himself Arnold, wanted to earn his money. He invented fantastic tales of Japanese naval activity around Denmark for the benefit of his bosses.

Consequently, the 2nd Squadron of the Russian fleet was very wary when it began sailing in the North Sea. Innocent ships of various nationalities were fired on by the “Kamchatka,” whose skipper was drunk. The Russian cruisers, “Donskoi” and “Aurora,” were shot at by their own squadron’s flagship in the darkness.

Meanwhile, the shapes of small vessels began advancing. They were fishing vessels from Hull, but the Russians misled by their imaginative spy thought they were Japanese.

Fire from the Russian ships pounded the small British trawlers, which had been firing signal rockets. Several minutes passed before the trawlers were recognised in the beams of searchlights. The ceasefire order went out, but not before one trawler had been sunk and several Hull fishermen killed or wounded.

Britain was outraged. It was a period when the country was in a patriotic mood, and a lot of people would have been glad of an excuse to go to war against Russia. For some while, war was a real danger.

Lurid stories of the attack appeared in the newspapers, and an international commission of enquiry was set up. This put the blame squarely on to Russia, who paid compensation.

This ended the matter sparked off by the imaginings of Mr. Hekkelman, the spy who nearly started a war.

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