Voyage to Annihilation via Damnation
Prelude to the Battle of Tsushima
By: Ian Johnson
One hundred years ago on 27 May 1905 the first fleet battle of the twentieth century took place. The Battle of Tsushima was one of the last acts of the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05). It would be the most dominating display of seamanship and firepower since the Royal Navy under Nelson at the Battle of the Nile, and the most telling strategic victory since Nelson’s at Trafalgar one hundred years before. Yet before this battle one of the most remarkable events in naval history took place. What began as the reinforcement of the Russian Pacific Fleet by the Baltic Fleet turned into the cruise of the dammed. Incompetence, apathy, poor training, combined with a tenuous supply situation and poor political & strategic planning would lead 60 warships over 18 000 miles to face total annihilation by the Imperial Japanese Navy.
The war began after several years of tension between both countries on the night of 8 February 1904. On the orders of the Emperor a Japanese destroyer flotilla conducted a surprise attack on Port Arthur (Lu-Shun) in Korea. Three Russian battleships were hit while the use of torpedo nets saved several more from destruction. This attack represents a turning point in history, as it was the first time an Asian nation successfully engaged a European power. In the months that followed both land and sea attacks the Japanese military would gain the upper hand. By October 1904 the Imperial Japanese Navy and Army had effectively bottled the Russian forces in and around Port Arthur, which was the primary objective for the Japanese and one of two Russian ports in the Far East.
On 9 October after months of delay Tsar Nicholas II ordered the Baltic Fleet from Kronstadt to Reval Naval Base in St Petersburg to sail to the Far East to break through the Japanese lines. Commanding this fleet was Rear Admiral Zinovy Petrovich Rozhdestvensky. A rarity in the Tsarist Navy, Rozhdestvensky was both experienced as well as a favourite of Tsar Nicholas II. At 57 years of age Rozhdestvensky was at the time Chief of the Russian Naval General Staff when he was ordered to Reval to take command of the Baltic Fleet. Within Russia he was considered a brilliant commander and tactician as well as a perfectionist toward himself and his men and until assuming command at Reval had not put a foot wrong during his career.
Waiting for Rozhdestvensky was Admiral Togo Heihechiro. Admiral Togo was the mastermind of naval operations that had eliminated the Russian Pacific Fleet as a factor in the war.
On 9 October as ships of the fleet departed Kronstadt for Reval the battleship ORYOL ran aground on a sandbar whilst under the care of tugboats. For more than a day the ORYOL could be seen as dredgers dug around the battleship before she broke free of the bottom. The 13 300-ton battleship then headed for Reval where the rest of the fleet was waiting. With the news of defeats from the Pacific general knowledge, many of the Russian sailors saw this event as sign of things to come.
When the Baltic fleet arrived at Reval RADM Rozhdestvensky ordered battle drills against a torpedo attack. The drills ended in mass confusion and Rozhdestvensky began to realise the work in from of him. Before the fleet left Reval Tsar Nicholas II inspected the fleet and to every ship, exhorted vengeance on the insolent Japanese for the everlasting glory of Holy Russia. Many sailors who heard the Tsar wondered if this voyage would be as successful as the Tsar’s words.
15 October saw the departure of the Baltic Fleet from Reval. Renamed the Second Pacific Squadron the Tsar was sending the newly-completed battleship SUVOROFF (Fleet Flagship) along with her sister-ships, the ORYOL, BORODINO, and ALEXANDER III. These battleships were the backbone of a fleet of 42 vessels that the Russians regarded as invincible. As the fleet sailed through the Baltic the Russian crews were nervous about possible Japanese forces nearby. RADM Rozhdestvensky was informed of his promotion to Vice Admiral as the fleet approached Cape Skagen, Norway. On 20 October at Cape Skagen the business of coaling and resupply began before VADM Rozhdestvensky ordered the fleet to prepare for immediate departure. Many in the fleet believed that Rozhdestvensky had secret information on Japanese destroyers waiting ahead of the fleet, thus the decision to depart. The fleet was formed into six detachments and each detachment had it’s own command.
As the fleet sailed into the North Sea the nerves of the Russian sailors began to fray as seagulls were mistaken as enemy dirigibles. The destroyers and cruisers lead the fleet for a course to take them to the Straits of Dover. The rumours on Japanese ships nearby continued to grow. As they sailed deeper into the North Sea those frayed nerves would give way to hysteria.
On the night of 22 October the Russian fleet was passing through the southern reaches of the North Sea. At 2000hrs the repair ship KAMCHATKA reported to the Flagship SUVOROFF that they were being chased by torpedo boats. With repeated question KAMCHATKA convinced Rozhdestvensky and his staff that something was happening. Without confirming the reports from KAMCHATKA, at 2100hrs the rest of the fleet was signalled to prepare for torpedo boat attack from stern. The crews moved to their battle stations, the continuing dread of a Japanese attack demoralising everybody.
Just after midnight the fleet was passing Dodger Bank, a rich fishing ground. When lookouts on the SUVOROFF spotted tricoloured flares a short distance away, the battleship turned on its searchlights. The lights illuminated the British fishing fleet. To the Russians it was the final straw in a frenzy of rumours and the 12-inch guns of the SUVOROFF opened fire. The confusion spread to the other ships and they began to engage the trawlers.
Onboard the Russian ships chaos reined as the lack of information along with the lack of experience had most sailors believing that they were surrounded. Onboard the ORYOL they had what they believed was a Japanese cruiser in their sights and opened fire. When the BORODINO fired its 12-inch gun the crew of the ORYOL believed that there had been a torpedo hit, either to them or the BORODINO.
When it became apparent to Rozhdestvensky that the ships were not Japanese he ordered the fleet to cease-fire. Even then onboard his flagship he had to personally ensure that SUVOROFF guns fell silent.
After nearly 12 minutes the end result was one trawler sunk, many more with varying degrees of damage. For the ORYOL their joy turned to horror when they discovered their target was the First Class cruiser AURORA that had been damaged by 5 hits.
For the Russians it was an embarrassing moment and a major diplomatic incident that would have serious repercussions for the fleet.
While the diplomats sorted out the mess from the ‘Dogger Bank affair’ the fleet moved quickly through the Dover Straits and into the Bay of Biscay. Onboard SUVOROFF, VADM Rozhdestvensky was incensed with both the incident at Dogger Bank and the abysmal gunnery performance displayed by what he believed were first class ships.
After an uneventful few days the fleet sighted the Spanish shore on 27 October and headed for the port of Vigo. Waiting there were five German collier ships ready to resupply the fleet. As the fleet anchored Spanish Authorities boarded the SUVOROFF and informed Rozhdestvensky that due to Spain’s neutrality, and British diplomatic pressure after the Dogger Bank incident, the fleet could not resupply in Spanish waters. Rozhdestvensky countered by informing them that the fleet had not been refuelled fully at Norway and that the fleet could not go much further. After intense diplomatic manoeuvring the Spanish agreed to allow 400 tons of coal per battleship with other ships getting enough to steam on.
As the fleet refuelled, Rozhdestvensky and the rest of the fleet discovered heard more on the aftermath of the incident at Dogger Bank. While the political fallout continued the Royal Navy deployed a squadron of four cruisers to shadow the Russians as they sailed from Vigo to their next port of Tangiers. Rozhdestvensky, still furious with the fleets ordered drills, drills and more drills at all times of the day and night.
On 2 November saw the majority of the fleet anchor at Tangiers, Morocco, with the fleet destroyers and several transports detaching from the main fleet to arrive in Algiers. Later that day Rozhdestvensky detached 3 ironclads and 3 cruisers to head via the Suez Canal for the fleet rendezvous at Madagascar. Although the British put pressure on the Moroccan Government to refuse the Russians access the visit continued amidst the growing bad weather and coaling the fleet off Tangiers became a problem. After a successful port visit the fleet left on 4 November.
The fleet with the destroyers and transports back with them headed south towards the equator. For ships designed for colder climates the conditions below decks were unbearable, the engine rooms of the fleet had to content with 140F+ temperatures as coal was shovelled into the boilers.
The next port of call was Dakar, Senegal, on 12 November. Eleven German colliers were waiting as the fleet arrived. Rozhdestvensky ordered each ship to load additional coal. In the case of the Oryol and her sister ships their coal bunkers would hold 1100 tons, but were ordered to load an extra 600 tons. As this began the French authorities in Dakar informed Rozhdestvensky to stop resupply until they got permission from their government. The Admiral ignored them and continued the task at hand. Even at night the temperature was 77F and loading coal during the day saw many sailors drop from heat stress. By the time the French government sent word that the fleet was not to load supplies there it was too late. Coal was stacked in every spare space in the fleet and the ships crews had tried to clean up the mess.
By 15 November the fleet was underway again but the strain of the voyage, the tenuous supply situation and the tropical heat were taking their toll. Many of the crew were falling ill with the coal dust. The stokers especially were tired and haggard from the heat and noise of the engine rooms. Discipline within the fleet began to drop; with those crew arrested and put in the brig enjoying a few days off work.
The Russian fleet sailed towards the Gabon estuary on the equator. Rozhdestvensky tried to bring the fleet up to battle conditions with drills. The now daily drill of steering the ships with backup methods and on one occasion ORYOL nearly collided with SUVOROFF. By the time the fleet reached French Equatorial Africa (modern day Gabon) the crews, and many of the officers, were sick, tired, and fed up with the situation.
It did not improve when on 25 November the fleet arrived off the capital of French Equatorial Africa, Libreville. For two days the fleet waited for two German colliers while the French Governor tried to move the fleet on. But VADM Rozhdestvensky refused to move. While at Libreville the minor discipline problems grew into larger ones. Onboard the repair ship KAMCHATKA civilian workers and naval engineers came to blows. On several of the transports civilian stokers refused to go on duty. Then several officers of the cruiser DMITRI DONSKOY were arrested for smuggling nurses from a hospital ship to the cruiser. Three officers were sent back to Russia for court martial.
For Rozhdestvensky the strain was total, as even the slightest infraction by anybody would soon feel the Admiral’s wrath.
On 30 November the fleet was underway in the South Atlantic. On 5 December they arrived at Great Fish Bay south of Angola where more German colliers waited. As they loaded coal a Portuguese gunboat sailed towards them and challenged Rozhdestvensky’s right load stores there. After a short exchange the Captain of the gunboat sent a formal protest to the Russian Government.
After departing Great Fish Bay the fleet crossed the Tropic of Capricorn and arrived at the Bay of Angra Pequena in the German colony of South West Africa (modern day Namibia) on 10 December. This rocky harbour afforded little protection from the wind and waves. The destroyers and transports had to wait out to sea. For the ORYOL her starboard anchor broke away as they took up anchoring position. Unlike other ports the German officials welcomed the Russians with open arms. But rough weather for three days caused problems and delays before resupply could continue. With concerns over British embargos against the Russian, the use of Cape Town for resupply was ruled out. Rozhdestvensky again ordered extra coal to be loaded so the fleet could sail past South Africa and onto Madagascar. While at Angra Pequena several crewmen throughout the fleet cracked under the strain. While their shipmates did what they could to help these men stayed with the fleet until their next port of call.
On 16 December the fleet left South West Africa and rounded the Cape of Good Hope and headed northeast into a storm. On 28 December the fleet arrived at the north east coast of Madagascar. On arriving at the island of Sainte Marie it was plain to see that the rest of the Russian fleet that were sailing via the Suez Canal had not arrived. Only two German colliers were there for resupply. At 1600hrs the hospital ship OREL arrived from Cape Town and with it came the news that the Japanese destroyed the Russian First Pacific Squadron at Port Arthur. The reason for the voyage was now non-existent. A mood of depression began to overrun the fleet.
Rozhdestvensky ordered a ship to head for the port of Tamatave to get hard information on what was happening, as well as to find out where the rest of the Russian fleet was. While waiting for the ship to return the Admiral ordered the fleet to conduct repairs. The next day the ship returned with the information that the rest of the fleet was anchored off Nossi-Bé, on the other side of Madagascar. This was due to British pressure on the French authorities at the French port Diego Suarez, where the ships were to have resupplied, refusing to allow the Russian there.
Other reports arrived, including those of suspected Japanese naval movements in the Indian Ocean. The repairs were put on hold as the fleet began reconnaissance sweeps for the enemy. A storm arrived and the resupply was halted as the fleet headed for the Bay of Tang Tang, which was a better place to continue resupply.
On the 5 January 1905 Rozhdestvensky was informed that Port Arthur had fallen to the Japanese on the 2nd. This piece of news destroyed all the crew’s, and most of the officer’s, confidence in the mission. Their faith in the invincibility of Holy Russia was now gone, and slowly sailors throughout the fleet began to talk about defeat at the hands of the Japanese navy. On the same day the fleet left Tang Tang and headed north where they met the cruisers of the fleet that had sailed via the Suez Canal.
On 6 January the Fleet celebrated Christmas (Russian calendar) off Diego Suarez. For many of the crew this was to be the last happy moment in the Russian Navy.
On 7 January the fleet arrived at Nossi-Bé and the appropriately named town of Hellville. The French authorities came out to the SUVOROFF and they warmly greeted Rozhdestvensky and the Russian fleet. Limited shore leave was granted. Resupply continued as all ships were overloaded with coal.
Shortly after Rozhdestvensky learned that another Russian fleet were heading his way. Unlike his, the fleet, known as the Third Pacific Squadron, was full of old, slow ships. As time in Nossi-Bé dragged on, moral dropped lower as the crew was forced to breath coal dust, disease began to take hold, and to top off the misery ill-fitting boots were distributed, much to the sailor’s disgust. But they were kept busy with repairs, maintenance, and more drills. The death toll began to climb from accidents, disease, and suicide. On 23 January onboard the cruiser ADMIRAL NAKHIMOFF the crew revolted after enduring poor food for weeks. Rozhdestvensky boarded the cruiser and called those involved Japanese sympathisers and proceeded to hand out punishment to those involved.
Rozhdestvensky’s problems did not end there. After much negotiation the German colliers agreed to sail with the fleet as far as the Dutch East Indies (modern day Indonesia). To top off Rozhdestvensky’s problems he was still waiting for the Third Pacific Squadron to arrive.
On 26 January in a preview of things to come, a fleet gunnery exercise was a total failure with little to no hits on either a stationary or moving target. This was a massive disappointment to the Admiral as it told him that four months of drills were wasted. The fleet conducted more gunnery drills with the same result.
On 13 February six Russian warships arrived at Nossi-Bé as reinforcements. The news from home that these warships brought shocked every sailor. On 22 January three hundred thousand men marched on the Tsar’s winter palace in St Petersburg and without warning were fired on with over two thousand people dead. This event shattered the faith in the Tsar, and would slowly begin the Russian Navy’s fall into revolution.
With morale non-existent, the sick parades got longer, drunkenness became a major problem. Liberty in Hellville turned into a depressing mix of drinking and gambling, with increasing civil disorder. Arrests amongst the fleet grew as the officers tried in vain to revive morale. Even Rozhdestvensky was affected, his temper at boiling point as the wait for the Third Pacific Squadron. Realising he either stayed and watched the problems of the fleet continue or left without the Third Pacific Squadron, the Admiral ordered the fleet to prepare for departure. Supply ships arrived with much needed food and spare parts, and again the fleet took on more supplies than they could carry.
On 15 March the fleet left Madagascar with the French authorities wishing them well. The crews were despondent with the news of events both in Russia and Port Arthur weighing on their minds. Men threw themselves overboard rather than continue the deployment. Engines were breaking down with the heat and the fleet had to slow as repairs took place. Resupply, which was hard enough in harbour, took on an added element with the continuing hot weather as the fleet conducted resupply operations at sea.
After a twenty day voyage the fleet arrived 3 April at Sumatra and sail through the Straits of Malacca. As the fleet advance the crews began to see every ship as a Japanese warship and paranoia throughout the fleet skyrocketed.
Off Singapore the Russian Consul boarded the SUVOROFF and informed Rozhdestvensky that the Japanese fleet was operating nearby. In fact that was not the case and this report increased the tension. The Consul also informed the Admiral that the Third Pacific Squadron had just left Djibouti and would meet them off Vietnam.
From Singapore the destroyers of the Russian fleet patrolled ahead for the Japanese fleet but found nothing. By 12 April the fleet had been underway for 28 days, steamed nearly 5200 miles (8360 kilometres), with the fleet stopping 112 times for repairs, when they arrived in Cam Ranh Bay in the French colony of Vietnam.
The fleet spent more than a week at Cam Ranh Bay resupplying and waiting for the Third Pacific Squadron. On the 20 April the French Government ordered the fleet to leave Cam Ranh Bay after Japanese diplomatic pressure. The fleet left the next day but only to sail to the Bay of Van Fong further up the coast to continue with the resupply and repairs to the fleet.
On 28 April while at Van Fong the crew of the ORYOL revolted after poor quality meat was served. The next day was Russian Easter Sunday. On 30 April Rozhdestvensky boarded the ORYOL and arrested what he believed were the ringleaders of the revolt two days prior. They were not, and the ringleader remained onboard. But events like the revolt were springing up through the fleet. With no morale and no hope of making it back to Russia alive the sailors of the fleet were beyond caring.
On 7 May the Third Pacific Squadron contacted Rozhdestvensky and informed him that they were near. On the 8th the fleet got underway from Van Fong Bay and assumed battle formation. At 1400hrs the Third Pacific Squadron finally rendezvous with the Second Pacific Squadron. Rozhdestvensky went over to the NICHOLAS I and met with Rear Admiral Nebogatoff, commander of the Third Squadron briefly before returning to his flagship. It would be the only time both Admirals would meet face to face.
On 9 May the Third Pacific Squadron arrived at the Gulf of Kua-Bé for resupply and repairs as Rozhdestvensky conducted battle drills nearby.
On May 13 the entire fleet, now numbering 60 ships ranging from battleships to transports, departed the coastline of Vietnam.
17 May saw an ocean resupply for the fleet. Coal dust layered the ocean as the fleet took on more coal stores. By now the sailors of the fleet knew that Rozhdestvensky was to get the fleet to Vladivostock. To do so the fleet would sail through the Sea of Japan. There were three routes. Korea Strait, Tsugaru Strait, or La Perouse. With the coal supply only the Sea of Japan was considered, as sailing far to the east coast of Japan would see the fleet run out of fuel.
Rozhdestvensky’s fleet had its last supply of coal on May 23 north of Formosa (Taiwan). At this time the Admiral gave his fleet instructions for the upcoming battle. As the fleet sailed on the temperature began to drop. The crews of the fleet realised that imminent death could be moments away. This lead crews forgetting previous bad behaviour and doing their duties in a professional manner. Even relations between officers and crew improved.
On 25 May the day was rainy as the colliers departed the fleet for China. It was on this day that officers on the flagship SUVOROFF realised that the Admiral was leading the fleet to Tsugaru Strait, near the island of Tsushima. This was the worst of the options that Rozhdestvensky had but it was the one he took.
The fleet sailed towards Tsushima with crews feeling that they were nothing but cannon fodder as they continued to conduct battle drills.
The morning of the 26 May saw bright sunshine and calm seas. A manoeuvring exercise conducted that day was as bad as those conducted off Madagascar and they delayed the fleet’s arrival at Tsugaru Strait. Onboard every ship in the fleet the crews knew they were five days away from Vladivostock. They also wondered why Rozhdestvensky was taking the most dangerous route their, when the La Perouse Strait was the safer option. Low crew morale as well as the events during the cruise played on Rozhdestvensky’s mind and it may have led to the decision to sail through Tsugaru Strait to get to Vladivostock as fast as possible.
A dark and foggy night fell on the fleet. It was quiet until 0500hrs the next morning. Lookouts onboard ORYOL spotted a ship shadowing them. It was the Japanese cruiser SHINANO MARU and it was the 27 of May, the battle of Tsushima had begun.
The cruise of the Russian Baltic Fleet was on most respects a disaster from day one. Only the strong will of Vice Admiral Zinovy Petrovich Rozhdestvensky ensured the fleet got there in the first place. They had steamed over 18 000 miles (nearly 29 000 kilometres) and little diplomatic support from St Petersburg. VADM Rozhdestvensky was forced to deal with revolts, a stable supply line, and a growing frustration in the ability of the fleet to fight. The fall of Port Arthur also had major consequences, changing his mission from one of reinforcement to one of survival of the fleet for use later in the future.
But at 0500hrs on 27 May none of that mattered as the Russian Fleet entered Tsugaru Strait. The Imperial Japanese Navy were waiting for them.
Annihilation on the High Seas
The Battle of Tsushima
At 0500hrs on 27 May the Tsarist Russian Fleet entered Tsugaru Strait. The Imperial Japanese Navy had been waiting for them since 9 October 1905. The voyage of the dammed, lasting nine months and 18,000 miles from the shores of the Baltic Sea, was about to end for the 60 pre-dreadnought warships of the Russian Navy in the waters off Tsushima Island.
Lying in wait for the Russians was the Imperial Japanese Navy under Admiral Togo Heihechiro. Admiral Togo had masterminded the naval strategy that had broken the will of Russian forces in the Pacific by the time Vice Admiral Zinovy Petrovich Rozhdestvensky arrived with the Russian Baltic Fleet (re-named the Second Pacific Squadron) in the waters between Korea and Japan.
Unlike the Russian fleet, the Imperial Japanese Navy was well trained and equipped. Their leader, Admiral Togo, had been trained by the Royal Navy in the 1870’s and had risen up the ranks. In July 1894 Togo fired the first shots in the Sino-Japanese war as captain of the cruiser NANIWA. Togo was involved in the Battle of the Yalu River in September 1894 resulting in the first modern Japanese naval victory.
Togo held all the advantages on the morning of 27 May. His modern warships, well-drilled and disciplined crews, were the equal of the Royal Navy that had taught them. The Japanese fleet were in a favourable position to engage the Russians no matter what passage they took. Togo had also been reading press reports on the progress of the Russian Baltic Fleet as it sailed towards him.
Tsugaru Strait at 0500hrs on 27 May. Onboard the battleship ORYOL lookouts spotted smoke through the mist on the horizon. With less than 70 nautical miles between them and Vladivostock a small ray of hope had existed within the Russian Fleet that they might make it. As the sun rose on the waters of Tsugaru Strait, the last ray of hope for the Russian fleet disappeared. The smoke was from the Japanese cruiser SHINANO MARU, which had been following the Russian Hospital ship OREL for several hours before it sighted the lead elements of the Russian Fleet.
SHINANO MARU sent a signal to Admiral Togo onboard his flagship MIKASA, then anchored in Chinhae Bay, on the south west coast of Korea, informing them of the first sighting of the Russian fleet. Togo quickly sent more cruiser to shadow the Russians and then informed Naval Command in Tokyo “The Russian Fleet has been sighted. I am going to attack it and annihilate it.”
The crews of the Russian fleet learned quickly that they had been spotted. Onboard SUVOROFF, the fleet flagship, Admiral Rozhdestvensky was informed but decides not to send the fleet’s faster cruisers after the SHINANO MARU and destroy her. This error in judgement sealed the fate for Rozhdestvensky and his fleet as at first the SHINANO MARU, then other Japanese cruisers, would shadow the fleet, sending reports back to Admiral Togo via wireless, the first naval battle to have this innovation.
For the rest of the morning both fleets closed on Tsugaru Strait. The mood onboard the Russian ship was of depression, tempers fraying, and confusion. The confusion stemmed from the lack of action taken against the Japanese cruisers that were continuing to report their movements. Just after 1000hrs a 6-inch round was fired from the ORYOL, barely missing one of the shadowing cruisers. The Japanese returned fire with range finding shells that on striking water set off black smoke. Other Russian ships began to open fire until a signal from Admiral Rozhdestvensky onboard SUVOROFF; “Ammunition not to be wasted.” Russian gunfire stopped and the Japanese cruisers, knowing they were out numbered, backed off into mist that was still present around the strait.
Many in the Russian fleet, including Admiral Rozhdestvensky, believed they had won an opening victory. It was not, and now Rozhdestvensky’s failures and fears were to be exposed. The failure of training, the failure of adequate intelligence on what was ahead of him, the failure to quickly destroy the shadowing cruisers that feed Togo constant updates. These and the non-existent moral on every ship in the fleet would soon come to haunt not only Admiral Rozhdestvensky, but the Tsar and the Russian people as well.
The Russian fleet was in two columns. The starboard column was lead by the flagship SUVOROFF, with her three new sister battleships, the ALEXANDER III, BORODINO, and ORYOL behind her. The port column closer to the Japanese fleet was lead by the older battleship OSLYABYA that contained many of the older ships of the fleet.
MIKASA led the Japanese Fleet in single line towards the OSLYABYA and the port column that was sighted at 1339hrs. Togo ordered the fleet to turn west cutting across the projected course of the Russian fleet. Thanks to regular wireless reports Togo knew that the port column had the weaker ships and ordered the fleet to increase speed.
At 1355hrs a signal flag was seen from MIKASA. With echoes of Admiral Horatio Nelson and the Battle of Trafalgar nearly 100 years before, the ‘Z’ flag went up MIKASA’s mast sending the following message to the ships of the Imperial Japanese Navy; “The fate of the Empire depends on this battle. Let every man do his utmost.”
By this time the Russian fleet was at battle stations and the ships in loose formation trying to stay together. At 1400hrs the MIKASA began to conduct a U turn, reversing course and sailing parallel to the Russians. The rest of the Japanese fleet followed in a manoeuvre lasting fifteen minutes. During these fifteen minutes the Russian fleet opened fire. Shells tore into the Japanese cruisers YAKUMO and ASAMA. The ASAMA’s steering gear was badly damaged and she began to move out of line. By the end of the turn three Japanese ships had been seriously damaged in the opening salvo. To Admiral Rozhdestvensky it seemed that his fleet had won a crucial advantage, but now it began to disappear as the old vessels trailing at the end of the Russian columns fell behind as the newer lead ship sped on.
While Rozhdestvensky was working on his next move the Japanese turn was completed. Now both fleets were parallel to each other. The high risk Togo took by executing the manoeuvre now paid off. Now Togo was in a position that ensured that the battle would not turn into a general chase. It also meant that he was in position to rain salvo after salvo on the greatest threat to his fleet, the SUVOROFF and her three modern sister battleships.
The battle was fought on Togo’s terms. The MIKASA opened fire with her 12-inch guns against SUVOROFF, smashing the fore-funnel. More salvos from the FIJI, SHIKISHIMA, ASAHI, KASUGA, and NISIN followed, their heavy calibre, new armour piercing rounds slamming into the flagship’s conning tower and severing communications with the rest of the fleet. Fire blazed out of control as smoke and flame belched from her decks. Within minutes SUVOROFF’s engines were damaged and the ship was quickly losing speed. Onboard, chaos reigned as the fires continued out of control, and masses of wounded or dying men lay as they fell. MIKASA’s opening salvos also wounded Admiral Rozhdestvensky and many on the bridge.
During this time Togo ordered MIKASA to turn broadside to the Russians. Shortly after Togo and his fleet ‘crossed the T’ of the Russian fleet. This manoeuvre, the hope of most commanders, allowed Togo and his ships to be broadside to the lead ships of the Russian fleet. Now Japanese gun batteries were now trained starboard and the volume of fire against the led ships increased dramatically.
The lead battleship of the port column became the target of six Japanese cruisers. OSLYABYA had her bow hit, her main armament of four 10-inch guns and eleven 6-inch guns destroyed, and the hull on her port side holed in numerous places.
Astern of the flagship, ALEXANDER III, BORODINO, and ORYOL were now exchanging salvos with the Japanese. The Japanese armour piercing shells were causing maximum damage to these most modern Russian battleships. The older warships were torn apart and sinking. Soon the ALEXANDER III was taking hits.
By 1445hrs the situation onboard SUVOROFF had worsened. Fire was spreading to the power magazines and Admiral Rozhdestvensky had been hit a second time as fire was heading for the bridge. The damage to the SUVOROFF’s steering finally forced the flagship out of the column.
At 1500hrs Togo again manoeuvred his fleet by reversing course and recrossing the ‘T’. It became clear that every minute the Russian guns fired 500 pounds (227 kilograms) of shells; the Japanese could fire up to 7500 pounds (3.5 tons) and with greater accuracy. The Russian fleet also began to change course in the hope of lessening the firestorm of heavy calibre shells that was causing terrible damage to ships and men.
At 1505hrs the OSLYABYA turned turtle and sank a short time later, becoming the first Russian ship to be lost.
Onboard SUVOROFF all control was lost. With both Admiral Rozhdestvensky and the SUVOROFF’s Captain injured, the ship slowly moved eastwards finding itself between the Russian and Japanese fleets. Onboard other Russian ships fires were slowly being extinguished and order returned. Rozhdestvensky’s last order “Carry on to Vladivostock.”
By now the situation for both sides was one of acceptance. For he Japanese fleet, still in formation and with little damage and with the ASAMA returning to the battle line, they were confident of finishing the Russian fleet. Admiral Togo had stated in MIKASA’s log at 1435hrs; “The results of the battle have already been decided.”
The Russian fleet was the opposite. With their high command incapacitated, the badly mauled fleet was doing its best just to stay afloat. With Rozhdestvensky out of action command of the fleet went over to the NICHOLAS I and Rear Admiral Nebogatoff, commander of the Third Squadron. But Rozhdestvensky had allowed his own inadequacies to rule his judgement. The only meeting between Rozhdestvensky and Nebogatoff on 8 May convinced Rozhdestvensky to issue Order 243 on 24 May, instructing that in the event of the lead ship being out of action, command would go to the next ship in line.
With SUVOROFF in flames and moving out of the line, Order 243 meant that the ALEXANDER III, not Nebogatoff on NICHOLAS I, which was further down the battle line, was now in charge of a fleet barely in control. When the ALEXANDER III was damaged the BORODINO took command, Nebogatoff was still cut off from commanding the Fleet, and the situation was worsening by the minute.
Another factor for the Russians was that the battleships had left the cruisers, destroyers, and transports behind as they tried to keep away from the Japanese gunfire. These old ships were now in range of modern Japanese ships and their accurate gunfire.
By 1530hrs both fleets had increased their distance when a fog bank, exacerbated by the smoke of both fleets, began to affect the battle. The roar of the guns slackened off as the fog and smoke encompassed a wide area. By 1600hrs both fleets had lost sight of each other, and an eerie calm had settled over the sea.
Onboard ORYOL, a situation was playing out that most of the Russian fleet was experiencing. Japanese shells had recked havoc, with two 12-inch guns out of action, damage to ORYOL’s engines, and the medical staff was pushed beyond their abilities. Sailors were throwing burning wreckage overboard as the battleship began to list. Then a ship was spotted and thought to be Japanese and it was fired on. Much to their growing horror, the crew of the ORYOL realised they had fired on the burning SUVOROFF.
The smoke and fog continued for more than two hours. While the Japanese fleet stayed in line ahead formation the Russians were moving out of formation as the damage from the early afternoon finally made its impact.
By 1800hrs both fleets were moving clear from the smoke and fog and battle resumed. Leading the shattered Russian line BORODINO was now the target for the lead Japanese battleships. As the Russians desperately tried to reorganize the Japanese fleet began to close for the kill.
South of the fleet onboard the wounded SUVOROFF all hope had vanished. The pride of the Tsarist Navy was finished. The wounded Rozhdestvensky was transferred to the destroyer BUINYI, which had come alongside the SUVOROFF to take of the Admiral and many wounded sailors. By 1900hrs SUVOROFF was a wreak. Armour-piercing shells had made the ship nearly unrecognisable. The sea poured in through the breaches, the main mast was hurled over and a funnel collapsed across the deck as the ship was afire from bow to stern. Shortly after Japanese torpedo boats conducted a mass attack with multiple hits on the Russian flagship. This was the last the SUVOROFF could take and the battleship rolled on her side and sank with great loss of life.
At the same time SUVOROFF’s sister ships were succumbing to the same fate. ALEXANDER III sank at 1900hrs.
Shortly after local sunset Admiral Togo signalled his battleships to withdraw. For the Japanese it seemed like the gods were with them as a parting salvo from the FIJI hit the BORODINO. Eyewitness accounts state that at impact BORODINO immediately burst into flame, and clouds of smoke poured from her funnels. Her boilers then exploded with a deafening roar as thick clouds of smoke and steam climbed high into the air. It was all to mach for BORODINO, which finally capsized and sank at 1930hrs with a series of massive explosions. Only the ORYOL remained, with only her starboard gun batteries operational. The rest of the Russian fleet were intact but with heavy damage and wounded.
Onboard NICHOLAS I Admiral Nebogatoff finally took command of the fleet when the destroyer BUINYI approached and signalled an order from the now unconscious Admiral Rozhdestvensky “Head to Vladivostock.” Now his flagship moved to head the fleet. From the masthead flew Nebogatoff’s orders, “Follow me. Course N. 23° E.” As the fleet began to follow the order a new terror appeared on the horizon. Withdrawing his battleships, Togo ordered his torpedo boats to attack throughout the night.
The NICHOLAS I turned to port as the first wave of torpedo boats closed rapidly. The rest of the fleet, including the cruisers, destroyers and transports that had finally reached the shattered battleships, began to manoeuvre as best it could. But at a time where the surviving battleships needed protection, nearly all the Russian cruisers inexplicably headed south at high speed. Only the cruiser ZUMRUD remained and she was ordered to steam near NICHOLAS I. Shortly after a signal light sent the following message “Speed 13 knots. Put about. Course N. 23° E.” In a moderate sea the Russian fleet began to follow the NICHOLAS I via a lighted stern lantern. While the lead ships after NICHOLAS I darkened ship, those that followed used their search lights, making them easy targets for Japanese torpedo attacks.
The Japanese torpedo boat attacks were now conducting attack runs that time and time again stunned the Russians as at times they to within 20 yards of the Russian ships before launching their torpedos. Two Torpedo Boats were lost, one of them after ramming a Russian cruiser. Several Russian cruisers and destroyers were sunk throughout the night.
As dawn broke it was all but over. A shattered Russian fleet found itself surrounded by Japanese cruisers and battleships. Admiral Togo waited for the Russians to surrender.
Onboard NICHOLAS I the Admiral and his staff began to discuss the surrender. By 0900hrs on 28 May the decision had been reached. Admiral Nebogatoff ordered the signal flags “XGE” the international code flag for “we surrender”, to be raised.
Onboard MIKASA Admiral Togo was stunned and confused at the ‘We surrender’ signal. No Japanese officer would ever make such a signal. Togo thought the signal was a Russian ploy, and stating “Never fear a strong enemy, and never despise a weak one,” he ordered the MIKASA to open fire on the NICHOLAS I, then ordered the rest of his fleet to fire in the helpless Russian ships.
Near hysteria gripped the crew onboard NICHOLAS I as they tried everything to convince the Japanese to cease-fire. Nebogatoff ordered the NICHOLAS I to stop its engines, also that the ship’s guns not reply as Japanese salvos rained down on them. With nearly all the Russian ships now flying white bed sheets as surrender flags and all motionless in the water Togo ordered the fleet to cease-fire.
One Russian ship attempted to escape. The cruiser IZUMRUD flew a surrender flag but as time past the cruiser’s Captain, Baron Fresen, changed his mind. With IZUMRUD sustaining little damage during the battle the cruiser put on a burst of speed. By the time the Japanese began to react IZUMRUD was beyond their reach. The crews on the remaining Russian ships cheered as they realised that IZUMRUD would make good her escape.
As Japanese prize crew began to board the Russian ships crew were finishing off the work of destroying vital documents. Onboard NICHOLAS I Admiral Nebogatoff informed his staff that he alone would accept the blame for the surrender. Shortly after a steam launch arrived from the MIKASA and an Aide-De-Camp of Admiral Togo requesting Nebogatoff to visit the MIKASA and formalise the surrender. By 1200hrs on 28 May the Russian Second Pacific Squadron, formally the Russian Baltic Fleet, had surrendered. Admiral Nebogatoff returned to the NICHOLAS I and sends the signal to the rest of the fleet as prize crews began to board the surviving Russian ships. Admiral Togo was later to recall, that the Russian decision to surrender was “utterly beyond our expectations”.
As the prize crews secured the captured Russian ships, they were escorted the to the Japanese port of Sasebo. On 29 May the badly damaged ORYOL began to list at 4°. Togo ordered the battleship ASAHI and the cruiser ASAMA to escort the ORYOL to the closer port of Shimonoseki. The cause of the list was the scuttles had been opened to try and sink the ship, but the prize crews managed to close them. Once in Japan the crews became prisoners of war.
The destroyers GROZNYI and BRAVYI and the ALMAZ limped into port several days afterwards. The cruiser IZUMRUD, which had escaped the Japanese fleet, unknowingly rushed passed Vladivostock and found itself two days later one hundred and eighty miles north in the Bay of St. Vladimir before Baron Fresen realised his mistake. With fear of Japanese pursuit still fresh and night falling, IZUMRUD ran aground off Cape Orekhoff. After several attempts to free the cruiser, Baron Fresen ordered the IZUMRUD scuttled rather than possible capture. With a massive explosion the cruiser was destroyed and Baron Fresen and his crew began the long and cold walk south to Vladivostock.
For the still unconscious Admiral Rozhdestvensky, he was again transferred from the BUINYI to the destroyer BEDOVYI, where the Admiral remained once the Japanese destroyer SAZANAMI arrived and escorted the BEDOVYI to Sasebo, arriving on 29 May 1905. The BEDOVYI was anchored near the only remaining Russian flagship, the captured and moderately damaged NICHOLAS I.
The Battle of Tsushima is the most decisive naval battle of the twentieth century. In strategic terms Togo’s victory is second only to Trafalgar. In maximum destruction of the enemy only Admiral Nelson’s victory at the battle of The Nile in 1798 or Rear Admiral Oldendorf at Surigao Strait in 1944 are as comparable.
This first naval battle of the 1900’s showed the world the devastation that modern armour-piercing shells could inflict on both man and ship. It also proved the worth of wireless in controlling the battle. Admiral Togo was impressed, and innovated with its use. Togo wrote about the wireless advantage, “Through a heavy mist covered the seas and visibility was only five miles, the enemy’s disposition was as clear to us, forty or fifty miles away, as if we had seen it with our own eyes.”
After nine months, 18,000 miles, mutinies, poor support and training, all the Russian Navy had to show was the loss of all of their battleships, four of their eight cruisers, seven of their nine destroyers, as well as 4,830 officers and men dead, with over 10,000 wounded or captured. Their once proud battle fleet no longer existed. Of the sixty Russian warships that entered Tsugaru Strait on 27 May 1905 only three made it to Vladivostock, the rest were sunk, captured or interned.
Admiral Rozhdestvensky was taken to a military hospital where he awoke and was told of the surrender. For the surviving Russian crews they were now prisoners of war and were moved to a camp outside Kumamoto. For eight months the crews waited for the end of the war and their return home.
The end of the Russian – Japanese war came with the Treaty of Portsmouth, brokered by American President Theodore Roosevelt (and winning him the 1906 Nobel Peace Prize) signed on 5 September 1905, but it was not until early 1906 that the first Russian prisoners set foot in their homeland.
For many Russians, the disaster at Tsushima needed a scapegoat. Admiral Nebogatoff and several of his officers were investigated on their roles during the battle. Nebogatoff was court-martialled by the Navy for ordering the surrender and was sentenced to death. Tsar Nicholas II intervened and commuted the death sentence on Nebogatoff to 10 years imprisonment.
As the weeks slipped by in hospital, Admiral Rozhdestvensky slowly recovered his health. His spirit was as shattered as the fleet he commanded. Visited in the hospital by Admiral Togo, it only increased his depression. Togo ordered that the best medical treatment be given to his adversary. Even a letter from Tsar Nicholas II, thanking him for his services to Russia, could not consol him. A broken man, Rozhdestvensky returned to Russia where he was cleared of any blame for the conduct of the battle. At the same time he was dismissed from the Navy. Rozhdestvensky saw the dismissal as an almost equal punishment to the 10 years being served by Nebogatoff. From that point on life no longer mattered to Rozhdestvensky. Within three years he was dead, a sad, shattered, and embittered man.
For the Sailors of the Russian Navy this was the first step towards revolution. The faith in God, Tsar, and their Officers was damaged beyond redemption after news of Tsushima reached the rest of the fleet and would never be restored, and the growing revolution gained many more supporters. By the time of the October Revolution of 1917 many sailors had joined Workers Soviets that were rising in Russia. Mutinies throughout the fleet were common.
At the beginning of the October Revolution, another Tsushima survivor gave the signal to start the disaffected sailors, soldiers, workers, and the Red Guards seizing power throughout Tsarist Russia. The repatriated cruiser AURORA fired a blank round over St. Petersburg, bringing an end to the power of Tsar Nicholas II, and plunging the country into over 70 years of communism. The Russian cruiser AURORA is still preserved in St Petersburg today, as much for the October Revolution as to the Battle of Tsushima, after surviving the World War II German siege of St Petersburg (then Leningrad).
Japanese losses at the Battle of Tsushima came to 117 men, with less than a thousand wounded, and two torpedo boats sunk.
For the victor of Tsushima the accolades came. Around the world Admiral Togo Heihechiro became known as the ‘Japanese Nelson’ and navies the world over looked over the battle with as keen interest as they did Horatio Nelson against the French and Spanish at Trafalgar.
Admiral Togo returned to Tokyo on the 100th anniversary of Admiral Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar on 21 October 1905, but not onboard his flagship MIKASA. On 11 September 1905 MIKASA was at Sasebo when during the night the ship exploded at its moorings. Admiral Togo had left the ship a few hours before, 580 of it crew died when drunken sailors spilt alcohol into the ship’s bilges, then tried to burn the alcohol off, causing the explosion and sending MIKASA to the bottom.
On 23 October the Combined Japanese Fleet was review by Emperor Meiji onboard ASAMA. Togo was awarded honours by the Emperor and was hailed as the greatest sea warrior Japan had ever known. All of Japan treated Admiral Togo as the saviour of their country; for he ensured that with his victory over the Russians he single-handedly brought Japan to the world as a dominant sea power, one that could influence world events if it chose to. To the European powers Japan was now viewed with renewed respect.
By late 1906 MIKASA had been salvaged from the bottom of Sasebo Harbour and placed back in service. After several years more in commission, MIKASA is moored as a memorial at Yokohama, similar to Admiral Nelson’s HMS VICTORY. It survived the bombing campaign of the Second World War and is the only battleship preserved outside the United States.
A statement on Tsushima came from Admiral Jackie Fisher, First Sea Lord of the Royal Navy, after the battle. “In any fleet the Admiral’s got to be like Nelson – “the personal touch”, so that “any silly ass can’t be an Admiral” (As Nelson himself once said) and… so it was that Togo won that second Trafalgar.” For Admiral Fisher, Tsushima was a watershed. It forced the First Sea Lord to look at the Royal Navy, and with a stroke of a pen, ordered the scraping of 154 ships that he considered obsolete. Fisher then ensured naval supremacy for the Royal Navy by ordering the development of a ship based on the lessons of Tsushima. This became HMS Dreadnought, and in 1907 this new modern battleship changed the face of naval warfare with its combination of speed and heavy guns. It would also begin an arms race between Britain and Germany for Naval supremacy.
For the Japanese, the battle was to lead to the increase in naval power, and by the late 1930’s the Imperial Japanese Navy would be ranked in the top four navies in the world. It would continue to produce great commanders; Admiral Yamamoto Isoruko and Rear Admiral Yamaguchi Tamon would command the IJN in World War Two, and both were veterans of Tsushima.
Admiral Togo Heihechiro was honoured over the world and revered by his people. He remained influential in Japan’s naval affairs before he died quietly in Tokyo on 30 May 1934, a quiet man who served for the glory of his Emperor and country.
[Source: Ian Johnson, Naval Historian/Author, Fremantle, Western Australia, via the forum at worldnavalships.com]
Another article with a lot of photos about the 1904-05 war can be found here …
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