by Kristian Fischer
The Road to War
The Russo-Japanese war of 1904 to 1905 was a historical inevitability. It grew out of the friction between Japan, which had transformed itself into a new, modern nation in less than half a century and now wished to be recognised as such on the international stage, and Russia, a gigantic and old empire that wished to secure holdings and influence for itself on the Pacific coast.
Japan’s ambitions came out into the open in 1894. A threatening civil war in Korea had prompted that nation’s rulers to appeal to China’s Qing Dynasty for help in restoring order. Unwilling to cede influence of its closest neighbour to any foreign power, Japan preempted the Chinese intervention by dispatching an expeditionary force to Korea and installing a puppet government in Seoul.
Japan’s military proved to be far superior in training, tactics and command structure to China’s, which suffered from massive corruption problems and inefficiency. The war came to an end with the Treaty of Shimonoseki (April 1895), which codified Japan’s influence over Korea, and ceded the Liaodong Peninsula (with the ice-free harbor at Port Arthur) as well as Formosa and the Pescadores Islands to Japan.
Japan had won a significant victory and a great deal of prestige by defeating its larger foe, but was forced to accept a modification of the treaty when Russia, France and Germany launched the Tripartite Intervention, a diplomatic offensive designed to force Japan to give Liaodong back to the Chinese in exchange for an increased war indemnity.
When Japan reluctantly accepted this and withdrew her troops, Russia immediately occupied the peninsula and fortified Port Arthur. This diplomatic humiliation was one of the major causes of the Russo-Japanese war of a decade later.
As Japan knew she would have to fight the Russian Empire, she embarked upon the building of a substantial battlefleet, under the ”6-6” programme. Lacking facilities to build her own battleships, she turned to Great Britain for assistance, commissioning the two ships of the Fuji class in 1897. Four others were put into service in the following years, culminating with the most powerful battleship in Asia at the time, the Mikasa, which entered service in 1902. The battlefleet was rounded out by six armoured cruisers, built in Britain and Italy, and destined to play a significant role in the Japanese battleline at Tsushima.
For the commander of Japan’s Combined Fleet, Admiral Togo Heihachiro, the task was to eliminate Russia’s First Pacific Squadron. Togo could be sure that Russia would send large fleet reinforcements and therefore had to move quickly to defeat the enemy fleet a piece at a time.
Togo’s plan was to open the war with a surprise torpedo attack on the Russian base at Port Arthur, simultaneous with landing Japanese army troops on Korea’s west coast at Chemulpo (Inchon).
The attack was launched on the night of 8 February 1904, when a Japanese destroyer squadron infiltrated the crowded roads and torpedoed Russian battleships Tsesarevich and Retvizan and the cruiser Pallada. No ships were sunk on either side, and the attack must generally be considered to have been ineffectual. The troop landings at Chemulpo achieved success without interference from Russian ships, however. By April, the Japanese army was ready to cross the Yalu river into Manchuria.
The only major engagement between the Combined Fleet and the First Pacific Squadron was the Battle of the Yellow Sea, fought on 10 August 1904. Russian admiral Vitgeft had sortied from Port Arthur to head to Vladivostok, only to be intercepted by Togo. The first battle between steel battleships ended inconclusively in terms of ship losses, but resulted in the Russian ships being forced back to Port Arthur, where they remained until sunk by Japanese land-based artillery in December.
After the Battle of the Yellow Sea, the Russian Baltic Fleet, now renamed the Second Pacific Squadron, sailed from Saint Petersburg in October. The force had to sail around the southern tip of Africa, having been denied passage through the Suez Canal by Japan’s British allies. Admiral Rozhestvensky’s force only reached Asia in May of 1905 after a journey of 18000 miles. Here he found Togo waiting for him.
The Russians had left Saint Petersburg with the objective of breaking the Japanese naval blockade of Port Arthur and linking up with their First Pacific Squadron to force a decisive battle with the Japanese and win the war at sea. When Port Arthur surrendered in January of 1905, however, that objective became moot. Instead, Admiral Rozhestvensky had to take his ships to Vladivostok, which required passing through the narrow waters between Korea and Japan undetected.
The Russians departed their last port of call at Cam Ranh Bay in Indochina on May 9 and set a course for the Tsushima Strait. Rozhestvensky had chosen this strait over the Tsugaru and La Perouse Straits because it offered the most direct run to Vladivostok and a much-needed chance to refit his ships and rest his tired and demoralized crews.
On the Japanese side, Admiral Togo had not wasted the intervening months. With the immediate threat of heavy Russian ships eliminated, he took the time to have his ships repaired and refitted, and have his crews perform vital training. By early May, the Combined Fleet had relocated to Masampo and Busan on the southern tip of Korea, where it could deploy rapidly to intercept the Russians. Auxiliary cruisers and other patrol vessels were deployed on the approaches to the two possible access points from the Yellow Sea to the Inland Sea, ready to report the first sight of the enemy by wireless telegraphy.
The Japanese order of battle included all four of her remaining battleships (Mikasa (fleet flagship), Shikishima, Fuji and Asahi), eight armoured cruisers (Kasuga, Nisshin, Izumo, Azuma, Tokiwa, Yakumo, Asama and Iwate), fifteen protected cruisers of various classes and 36 destroyers and torpedo boats.
All the heavy Japanese ships were fresh out of refit and the Combined Fleet had had the time to absorb the lessons learned during the war so far. An example of this was the decision to offload the heavy ”Shimose” shells. This explosive filler (known in the west as ”Lyddite”), although intended as a ”secret weapon”, had proven highly unstable and dangerous to its own side. Combined with overly sensitive fuzes, this ended up causing several premature detonations in the guns on the Japanese battleships during the Battle of the Yellow Sea. For Tsushima, the Combined Fleet went to sea with conventional black powder-filled shells in their magazines.
On the Russian side, numbers stood at eight battleships (Knyaz Suvorov (fleet flagship), Imperator Aleksandr III, Borodino, Oryol, Oslyabya, Sisso Veliki, Navarin and Imperator Nikolai I), three coastal defence battleships (General-Admiral Apraxin, Admiral Senyavin and Admiral Ushakov), three armoured cruisers (Admiral Nakhimov, Dmitri Donskoi and Vladimir Monomakh), three protected cruisers, nine destroyers and a fleet train of ten assorted auxiliary ships.
Unlike their Japanese counterparts, the Russians were not really ready for battle when they entered the Tsushima Strait. Their ships had travelled thousands of miles over a period of eight months and were desperately in need of maintenance, including having their hulls cleaned of marine growths. None of their heavy warships were capable of much more than 10 knots sustained speed. Both officers and crew suffered from low morale, brought on by the long time at sea, as well as the knowledge that they would be forced to sail to Vladivostok instead of the shorter distance to Port Arthur, and thus have to go past the Home Islands.
A technical comparison of the opposing flagships shows that there was little obvious difference in combat capability from a technological viewpoint:
Displacement: 15,140 tons
Armament: 4x12in guns, 14x6in guns, 20x75mm guns, 4x47mm guns, 4 x 45cm torpedo tubes
Armour: 4-9in belt, 4in bow & stern, 10in on main turrets, 2-6in casemates (secondary battery), 14in on conning tower, 1in main deck
Max speed: 18 knots in bursts, 15 knots sustained
Displacement: 14181 tons
Armament: 4x12in guns, 12x6in guns, 20x75mm guns, 20x47mm guns, 2x37mm guns, 4x machine guns, 4x38cm torpedo tubes
Armour: 6-8in belt, 4-6in bow & stern, 10in on main turrets, 6in on secondary turrets, 8in on conning tower, 1in main deck
Max speed: 17.5 knots in bursts, 15 knots sustained
The heavy guns on both sides had comparable maximum ranges (about 15000 yards for the 12-inch guns), but neither navy possessed rangefinders capable of good accuracy beyond 5000 yards. The Japanese and Russian battleships both used British-made Barr and Stroud rangefinders at Tsushima, but each Japanese ship had more of the devices (up to 4, versus 1 on the Russian ships) and their crews had far better training and experience with them.
It is more interesting to consider the effects of actual hits in that the Japanese shells carried a much heavier explosive charge (on some models four times as big as the comparable Russian type), thus greatly increasing their destructive potential. The idea was not necessarily to penetrate the armour, but instead cause extensive blast damage to the target’s superstructure, starting fires and killing exposed crewmen. Since the battleships of the day were ”fought” from open bridges (only the pilot houses were armoured), a hit on the bridge could decapitate the ship, as happened at the Battle of the Yellow Sea, when Admiral Vitgeft was killed on the bridge of the Tsesarevich along with most of his command crew.
The Japanese ships also had a much higher rate of fire than their Russian enemy, partly due to better training, but also due to their centralized electrical firing systems (the Russians still used lanyards).
Tsushima Strait 27 May 1905 – An Overview
At three o’clock in the morning on 27 May, Admiral Rozhestvensky took his force into the Tsushima Strait, trying to avoid the normal shipping channel and detection by the Japanese. Unfortunately for the Russians, at the rear of their line was the hospital ship Oryol, which in accordance with international law had all her lights burning brightly. Because of this, she was sighted and subsequently shadowed by the Japanese auxiliary cruiser Shinano Maru, whose captain signalled to Togo at 5 AM that he had found the enemy fleet. An hour and thirty minutes later, the Combined Fleet was underway.
At 1339 hours, the Japanese battlefleet, coming from north-northeast, sighted the Russians, at a range of about 13000 yards. After closing for half an hour, the Japanese had crossed the Russian ”T” and Togo now signalled the fleet to execute a U-turn to a roughly parallel course to the enemy. The line completed the turn at 1410 hours, by which time the range had shrunk to less than 7000 yards and the Russian ships had opened fire.
The Japanese continued to close the distance, exploiting their speed advantage, until the range dropped to below 5000 yards, when the Mikasa and Asahi began pouring deadly fire into the Knyaz Suvorov, whilst the remainder of the line concentrated their fire on the second Russian ship, the Oslyabya. Both ships were smothered under combined rates of 12-, 8- and 6-inch gunfire as high as 300 rounds per minute.
The Japanese primarily used explosive shells, which caused extensive blast damage and fire, whilst not having to worry about armour penetration. On the Russian side, their armour-piercing shots fired not only failed to cause considerable damage to the Japanese ships, but the small puffs caused by the impacts also made it very difficult to spot the fall of shell.
Within a few minutes, the Oslyabya had been struck many times in the superstructure and bridge, disabling her fire control system and killing and wounding her entire bridge crew, causing her to veer out of formation. Shot to pieces by rapid Japanese gunfire, the battleship capsized around 1515 hours, taking nearly 500 crew with her. She was the first steel battleship to be sunk with gunfire only.
At the same time, the Suvorov was also receiving heavy damage, including several 6-inch hits in the bridge area which killed or wounded most of the bridge crew, including Admiral Rozhestvensky. This was the beginning of the end for the Russian fleet, as command and control collapsed rapidly with the incapacitation of the force commander. At 1500 hours, Suvorov‘s steering was disabled and she veered out of formation.
Rozhestvensky’s second in command was Rear Admiral Nebogatov, in command of the 3rd Division from his flagship Imperator Nikolai I, travelling at the rear of the Russian column. Due to his distance from the Suvorov, Nebogatov had no idea that Rozhestvensky was out of action and that he should take charge. Instead, he followed the battleship Borodino and the remains of the Russian line south.
At 1700 hours, the van of the Russian column sighted Japanese admiral Kamimura’s force of six armoured cruisers, hitherto unengaged, blocking their way to the south. Turning back north, the Russians once again faced Togo, and a second gunnery duel began. In the vaning light, and taking almost no return fire from the Russians, the Japanese quickly pounded the Imperator Alexandr III, Knyaz Suvorov and Borodino under the waves.
As the foggy night closed in, the Russians attempted to pull their formation together and escape. They briefly vanished out of sight, until at 2015 hours, the battleship Navarin turned on her searchlights in order to see incoming Japanese torpedo boats, thus making herself and the rest of Nebogatov’s ragged command a target for Togo’s light forces.
Japanese torpedo attacks continued throughout the night, sinking the Navarin and Sissoi Veliki as well as scattering the rest of the Russian formation.
In the morning, Nebogatov’s force numbered four battleships and one protected cruiser when Togo cornered him at Liancourt Rocks (Takeshima Islands) some 150 nautical miles north of the Tsushima Strait. Unable to effectively engage the Japanese ships and too slow to run, Nebogatov chose to surrender his force at 1030 hours. The final act of the battle played out some 5 hours later, when the Russian coastal battleship Admiral Ushakov, separated from the formation during the night, was found and sunk by the Japanese armoured cruisers Iwate and Yakumo.
The Japanese victory at Tsushima was absolute. For the loss of just three torpedo boats and about 600 sailors killed and wounded, the Japanese sank or captured eleven Russian battleships, four cruisers, six destroyers and six auxiliaries. Only an armed yacht and two destroyers reached Vladivostok, with the balance of the fleet ending up interned in neutral ports. Nearly 12000 Russian sailors were killed, captured or interned.
As mentioned previously, the technological difference between the Japanese and Russian fleets was not great enough to explain the catastrophic Russian defeat. What caused it was the human factor.
Before departing the Baltic, the crews of the Russian battleships had been filled out with brand new conscripts and recalled reservists. Up to a third of the enlisted crew from rural areas were illiterate, making technical training more difficult, whilst sailors recruited from the cities were infected by anti-Czarist radicalism. Neither source of crew yielded high numbers of men experienced with the sea.
Reflecting the class structure of Imperial Russia, there was a sharp divide between enlisted men and officers with no thought being given to fostering esprít de corps and camaraderie. The officers ate much better food than the men and did so in seclusion. Another factor which would come into play during the battle was that Russian battleships carried less than half the officer complement of their Japanese enemies (about 25-28) versus 50-60). Once combat casualties began piling up, this would contribute to the collapse of the individual ships as combat effective units.
The crews of the Baltic Fleet spent very little time at sea, and had little opportunity to train both as individual ships and in their divisions and squadrons. When the time came to depart for the Pacific, the fleet sailed so quickly that no effort was spent in integrating the disparate elements of the force. Needless to say, the Russians also had no combat experience whatsoever.
The crews of the Japanese Combined Fleet were quite literally worlds apart from this. Many of them came from coastal communities and were literate, which made training them easier. The sailors were both conscripts and volunteers, and saw military service as an honour and patriotic duty. The men were well-fed and although discipline was quite strict, the hard-working and valorous Japanese enlisted sailor was treated with respect by his officers and given the potential for advancement.
The Japanese officer corps came out of the naval academy at Etajima, which had been established by a British training mission in 1873. The Japanese trained especially hard in gunnery and the use of rangefinders and telescopic gunsights, seeing correctly that the mission of a battleship was to actually hit enemy ships with its guns. The battleships trained with special sub-caliber spotting rifles in their guns, firing tens of thousands of rounds annually. In the last period of extensive training before Tsushima, the Mikasa expended 30000 sub-caliber rounds in ten days of exercises. The difference was telling.
Naval tactics, at least as concerns line of battle combat, were fundamentally altered as a result of Tsushima. Previously, massed naval combat had been thought of in Nelsonian terms; two long lines of enemy warships, pummelling each other to bits on parallel courses. After Tsushima, it became clear that maneuverability also had a part to play, and that faster, well-organised ships could outfight slower, more heavily armed ones.
Tsushima also became the birth place of the Japanese ”decisive battle” doctrine, in which she would strive to conserve her battlefleet at all costs for a final confrontation with an enemy. Japan held on to this doctrine all the way through World War II, ironically whilst developing new ideas about the massed use of aircraft carriers that made ”decisive battle” obsolete.
On the technological front, Tsushima was seen as a vindication for the advocates of big guns and speed in naval combat. Britain’s First Lord of the Admiralty, Jon Fisher, used it as the final argument to force through the construction of the first of a brand new type of all big-gun battleship, the HMS Dreadnought. She was laid down a mere five months after the battle and joined the fleet the following year, rendering every older battleship obsolete. Interestingly enough, the Japanese laid down their first all big-gun ship, the Satsuma, two weeks before Tsushima, but took four years to complete her construction.
The torpedo was not yet mature enough to be considered a battleship killer, with a small warhead and range of less than 1000 yards meaning it could not be used effectively against a maneuvering, defended target. During the battle, only two Russian battleships (the Knyaz Suvorov and Navarin) were finished off by torpedo, both after they’d been rendered combat ineffective by gunfire.
Similarly, the wireless telegraph was not yet powerful and robust enough to be used in combat. It was used to alert Togo to Rozhestvensky’s presence in the Tsushima Strait and allow him to position his fleet, but once battle was joined, command and control was facilitated through the use of signal flags, which could be extremely difficult to spot in the tumult of combat. Only extensive drilling of his ships and crews allowed Togo to keep his formation in order, whilst lack of training contributed immensely to the collapse of the Russian line.
Tsushima was the final battle of the Russo-Japanese War, which came to an end with the US-brokered Treaty of Portsmouth, signed on 5 September 1905. Neither country was really able to continue the war at this point. Russia formally acknowledged the Japanese sphere of influence in Korea (Japan would quietly annex the country in 1910) and abandoned Manchuria and the southern portion of Sakhalin Island.
The political consequences of the war would be disastrous for the Russian Empire. The first Russian Revolution of 1905 was a direct result of war weariness and the de facto collapse of the Russian economy. The Czar’s clumsy attempts at molifying the masses by establishing a parliament, coupled with heavy expenditures to rebuild the Russian military, paved the way for the second Revolution of 1917 and the collapse of the Russian Empire.
For the Japanese, the victory meant the first symptoms of ”victory disease”. The defeat of China in the 1894-95 war had been a relatively minor accomplishment, but the defeat of the Russian Empire meant a massive prestige gain and upsurge in military opportunism. Japan was now a power on the world stage, and her own confidence has been boosted considerably. The United States had convinced Japan to accept no monetary recompense from the Russians, which led to acrimony in Japanese military circles towards the West. It was felt that Japan had been denied the rightful rewards of her victory, and this combined with the feeling that Japan was now able to take on the other great powers of the world would sow the seeds of things to come.
During World War I, Japan joined the Entente of Britain, France and Russia, but mainly in order to secure German territories in the Pacific, showing little interest in chasing German commerce raiders around the ocean. In the inter-war period, she gradually absorbed territories in Manchuria and China, leading eventually to the second Sino-Japanese War of 1937-45 and Pearl Harbor.
- Forczyk, Robert: Duel 15: Russian Battleship vs Japanese Battleship – Yellow Sea 1904-05 (Osprey Publishing, February 2009, ISBN 9781846033308)
- Evans, David and Peattie, Mark: Kaigun: Strategy, Tactics and Technology in the Imperial Japanese Navy 1887-1941 (Naval Institute Press, 1997, ISBN 9780870211928)