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Czarist Fleet in the Russo-Japanese War - 1904-1905

On January 13,1904, Japan agreed to regard Manchuria as outside her sphere of influence, but required in exchange, as an irreducible minimum, that Russia should give a similar undertaking as to Korea. In view of Russian military movements actually in progress, on February 5, diplomatic relations with Russia were severed. On the next day, the first orders for mobilisation were issued in Japan. The Japanese statesmen and soldiers knew that for their purpose the measure of Russia's strength was not the vast array which impressed Europe, but the number of ships and soldiers which she could deliver and maintain in what was to be the theatre of war.

Japan had six first-class and one second-class battleships, six first-class cruisers, besides two purchased in Europe which reached Japan about a week after hostilities began; twelve second-class and thirteen third-class cruisers. Russia had seven battleships, nine first-class, two second-class, and six third-class cruisers. Thus, on paper, Russia's battle fleet was slightly superior; but it was divided. Seven battleships, four first-class and two second-class cruisers were at Port Arthur, four first-class cruisers at Vladivostok, and one at Chemulpo. It was necessary to send out naval reinforcements from Europe in sufficient strength to avoid defeat in detail, and the preparation of a fleet for such a voyage was a matter of many months. Statecraft had secured for Japan the military advantage of the initiative, and left her free to prosecute an offensive campaign, since Russia could not collect sufficient transports in the Pacific for any serious expedition against the Japanese islands.

The necessary prelude to offensive Japanese operations on land was the command of the sea, which involved an attack on the main Russian fleet at Port Arthur. Vladivostok is icebound until the end of April, while Port Arthur was the only icefree port which Russia held in the Pacific. On 06 February 1904, four battalions at peace strength, so as to avoid the stir of mobilisation, were embarked at Sasebo and, escorted by seven cruisers and twelve torpedo boats under Admiral Uriu, sailed for Chemulpo, while the main fleet under Admiral Togo made for Port Arthur.

During the forenoon of February 9, the Russian ships Variag and Koriete, on Uriu's summons, gallantly came out to meet the Japanese fleet and were overwhelmed. Meanwhile, on this same eventful morning of February 9 Togo had been busy at Port Arthur. The entrance to that harbour was difficult of navigation, and, to be ready for emergencies, the Russian fleet had a week before moved into the roadstead. There it was surprised during the early hours of the 9th by the Japanese mosquito flotillas, and two battleships and a first-class cruiser were badly damaged by torpedoes. The arrival of Togo's main fleet brought on a general engagement, in which four more Russian ships were seriously injured. Thus, before any formal declaration of war had taken place, more than half the Russian naval strength in the Yellow Sea had been put out of action, and, at a cost of six men killed and 45 wounded, the command of the sea which was the foundation of the Japanese plans was, for a time at least, assured.

Early in March 1904, the arrival from Europe of Admiral Makaroff, an able and energetic officer, had infused new vigour into the Russian fleet, which began to leave the shelter of the harbour. The Japanese succeeded in laying mines secretly in the channels generally used by the enemy's ships, and, on April 13, the battleship JPetropdvlovsk, in returning to port, was sunk by a mine, with Admiral Makaroff and about 600 men on board, while a second battleship, the Pobieda, also struck a mine and was injured.

If Russia was to regain command of the sea, a fleet must be organised in Europe and sent to the Far East. Port Arthur, as the only icefree harbour provided with docks which could receive this fleet, had even greater value than it possessed as the base and refuge of the fleet already in Eastern waters.

For some time the four powerful Vladivostok cruisers had been making their existence felt by raids from that harbour, and a Japanese squadron under Admiral Kamimura was keeping them in check. On June 12 the Russian ships left the port, evaded Kamimura, and sank three Japanese transports in the Straits of Korea, the majority of the troops on board perishing. The cruisers regained Vladivostok on the 20th, after scattering a quantity of merchant shipping.

On June 23 Admiral Witthoft, who had succeeded Makaroff, sailed out of Port Arthur with six battleships, four cruisers, and their attendant destroyers and torpedo boats. This showed that the Russians had repaired their battleships secretly, that the channels of Port Arthur were navigable by their largest ships, and that, owing to the Japanese losses, the Russian fleet at Port Arthur was numerically superior to anything Togo could bring against it. For a short time the command of the sea hung in the balance. Had Witthoft attacked and gained even a partial victory, or had he evaded Togo and joined the Vladivostok squadron, the Japanese land operations must inevitably have been seriously compromised. But Witthoft did not perceive his chances, and on sighting one of Togo's divisions steamed back to port without fighting.

This revival of Russian naval activity seriously alarmed the Japanese, the dispatch of reinforcements and supplies was temporarily stopped, and by this all four armies were more or less affected. Togo at once resumed torpedo boat attacks on the harbour, and the blockade was made more stringent.

Alarmed for the safety of the fleet, the Tsar authorised Admiral Witthoft to break out and try to reach Vladivostok. So, on the morning of August 10, six battleships and four cruisers steamed out of harbour. But the ships were in poor trim for battle; the repairs had not been completed; indeed, some of the guns that had been landed had not been replaced. Even so, the Russian ships had all but gained a fair start of Togo's main squadron - such are the difficulties of blockade in the days of steam - when a chance shot killed Witthoft and temporarily disabled the flagship which was leading. This gave the Japanese the long-sought opportunity of bringing the enemy to a battle, which ended in the virtual annihilation of the Russian fleet. One battleship, two cruisers, and four destroyers escaped to neutral ports where they were disarmed; one cruiser, the Novik, after a gallant fight, was beached on the island of Saghalin; five battleships and a cruiser, all more or less severely injured, were driven back into the harbour; thus the sting of the Port Arthur fleet was finally drawn.

By the middle of October the Baltic Fleet, the preparation of which had been for months a topic of newspaper discussion, had actually put to sea under Admiral Rozhdestvensky. On the night of October 21 a division of this fleet, in crossing the Dogger Bank, passed through a group of Hull fishing smacks, and opened fire upon them. One smack was sunk, two of the fishermen were killed and eighteen wounded. The news of this astounding event did not reach England till the evening of the 23rd, by which time Rozhdestvensky had passed down Channel without reporting the incident.

Such a wave of indignation swept over Britain as might have forced a weak Government into war. Fortunately, Mr. Balfour and Lord Lansdowne never lost control of a critical situation, and on October 28 in a speech at Southampton the Premier was able to announce that the Tsar had expressed his regrets, promised compensation, and agreed to detain the responsible officers. The whole matter was to be referred to arbitration. Accordingly an international Commission of Admirals met in Paris in January, 1905. The Russian defence was that they had been attacked by torpedo boats concealed among the fishing smacks. There is no reason to doubt that the mistake was made in good faith, absurd though the explanation sounded to English ears at the time.

The Baltic Fleet had been mobilised with difficulty, the crews were untrained, and many of the hands were landsmen. Rumors as to Japanese designs were rife and a condition of nervous anxiety pervaded the fleet. In the darkness the signals for the movements of the steam trawlers were mistaken by credulous, suspicious, and not over-skilful eyes for those of torpedo boats. The Commission found by a majority that the torpedo boats were mythical and awarded compensation for the damage done, but agreed that the situation justified Rozhdestvensky's anxiety. While Europe had been on the verge of war, the Baltic fleet had continued its voyage, and had ceased to be an empty menace.

The fall of the Russian fortress at Port Arthur on 01 January 1905 had made the time of the arrival of the Baltic Fleet in the Far East a matter of minor importance. Accordingly Rozhdestvensky had made a long halt at Madagascar, partly in order to train his inexperienced crews, and partly to await an additional squadron, which was composed of the dregs of the Russian naval establishment. Steaming slowly eastwards, while overcoming all difficulties of coaling and feeding his fleet in a manner which displayed exceptional powers of organisation, Rozhdestvensky united his various squadrons in the China Sea on 09 May 1905.

His fleet consisted of eight battleships, four of them slow vessels of old type, four armoured and eight protected cruisers, of which about half were out of date, nine destroyers, and a number of auxiliary ships. The bottoms of all these ships were foul with their long voyage. Togo had had four months in which to refit his ships and rest his crews. He had four modern battleships, one battleship of old type, and three coast defence battleships, eight armoured and fifteen protected cruisers, with a swarm of gunboats, torpedo boats and destroyers. The Japanese squadrons were homogeneous, and almost all the ships of the most modern type.

The impossibility of carrying coal sufficient for fighting a battle and at the same time for making the wide detour round the islands of Japan, compelled Rozhdestvensky to take the direct route to Vladivostok by the Straits of Tsushima. Togo had established a complete system of reconnaissance over all waters by which the Russian ships could approach, and had fixed his base at Masampo, on the Korean side of the Straits, whence he could bring the enemy to battle close by, if the latter attempted to force the direct route, and could anticipate him if he chose the more circuitous way to Vladivostok.

At 5 a.m. on May 27, one of Togo's lookouts reported by wireless telegraphy that the Russian fleet was steaming for the Straits of Tsushima; and henceforward the faster Japanese cruisers were able to observe unharmed and report every movement of their enemy. Rozhdestvensky advanced in three long columns with his unarmed auxiliary ships in the centre, a formation which served indeed to protect these, but allowed Togo to concentrate an overwhelming fire against the leading ships. The battle began, about 2 p.m., to the east of the island of Tsushima, the Japanese engaging the enemy at 7000 yards, a range at which the superior training of their gunners enabled them to make the most of their weapons.

By steaming across the Russian fleet, so as to bring every possible gun to bear, the Japanese developed a crushing fire, while that of the Russians was comparatively ineffective. In less than three-quarters of an hour the battleships leading the two main columns were out of action and Rozhdestvensky was severely wounded. By nightfall every attempt of the Russian ships to break through to the north had been frustrated, and all cohesion in the fleet had been destroyed. During the night the Japanese torpedo boats continued the work which the heavy cannon had begun, and on May 28 a general chase of the flying enemy completed the work of destruction. Four battleships, four armoured and three protected cruisers, five destroyers, and five auxiliary ships were sunk; four battleships and two hospital ships were captured; three protected cruisers, one destroyer, and two auxiliary ships reached neutral ports and were disarmed; two protected cruisers and two destroyers alone reached Vladivostok. Thus the question of the command of the Pacific was definitively settled.

Before the battle of Tsushima, friendly Powers, led by the United States, had begun to make tentative overtures of mediation; but, until her last venture on the sea had been staked, Russia was unwilling to listen to advice. When, however, the naval campaign had been finally decided, the time was ripe for negotiation. So on 10 June 1905, at the suggestion of the President of the United States, the belligerents agreed to nominate representatives to consider terms.

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Page last modified: 09-07-2011 13:17:55 ZULU