The final and decisive naval battle of the Russo–Japanese War. It was fought during 27–28 May 1905 near the Tsushima Straits, between the Japanese Combined Fleet under the command of Admiral Tôgô Heihachirô and the Russian Second Pacific Squadron under Vice Admiral Zinovii Rozhestvenskii. It was not only the most devastating defeat suffered by the Imperial Russian Navy in its entire history, but also the only truly decisive engagement between two fleets of battleships in modern times.
As the voyage of the Baltic Fleet, comprising the combined Second and Third Pacific Squadrons, was reaching its final stages, Russian leaders pinned their hopes on the ability of this large armada to fight its way through to Vladivostok, thereby reestablishing a Russian naval presence in the Pacific Ocean. The engagement of the Japanese and Russian fleets, both sides believed, would determine the final course of the war. A Russian victory could lead to Russian control of the seas west of the Japanese home islands, and as a result interrupt the flow of men and materials to the Asian mainland. This, in turn, might allow the Imperial Russian Army to crush the Japanese land forces in Manchuria and decide the war. A defeat, however, would end any Russian hope of altering the course of the war, and consequently might oblige the Russians to negotiate peace.
Before the battle, naval experts were divided on the prospects of each side, but many predicted Russian victory. The naval force under Rozhestvenskii had an overwhelming quantitative advantage in the number of battleships and large-caliber guns, two factors of decisive importance in naval battles of that period. He had 41 guns of 254- and 305-millimeter [10- and 12-inch] caliber, while Tôgô had only 17 guns of similar caliber. The Japanese, however, had a significant advantage in the number of guns of medium caliber as well as in the number of destroyers (16 compared to 8) and torpedo boats (69 compared to 9). Another important advantage of the Japanese fleet was its faster speed: at least 15 knots as against 11 knots [27 as against 20 kilometer per hour] or less of their Russian opponents. The Japanese vessels were of greater uniformity and higher quality of construction. Finally, the Japanese had greater motivation, a stronger fighting spirit, better training, and above all battle experience, the importance of which was hard to estimate until the battle ended.
Tôgô received constant information about the advance of the Russian fleet and intended to confront it as soon as it reached the vicinity of Japan. He estimated that Rozhestvenskii would pass through the Tsushima Straits, and therefore he determined to locate his force before its arrival there. Rozhestvenskii indeed chose this course, and after sending his supply ships to Shanghai, he divided his warships into two columns. In the eastern column there were all the seven main battleships of the fleet, led by the Kniaz Suvorov, Imperator Aleksandr III, Borodino, and Orel, as well as a cruiser, while the secondary column that moved on a parallel course included all the other vessels, led by the battleship Osliabia under the command of Rear Admiral Nikolai Nebogatov. For all the Japanese calculations as to their opponents’ plans, a heavy fog covered the location of the Russian armada for 10 days, and Tôgô began to lose his confidence. Then, suddenly, on 26 May 1905, one of the scouts of the Japanese fleet sighted the prey and called for additional forces. On the following morning, the Japanese ships followed their long-waited opponents like a distant shadow, and their number increased continually toward noon.
The Russians sighted Tôgô’s force around 13:15 on 27 May 1905, and at that stage Tôgô turned south with his main force, comprising his four battleships, the Mikasa, Shikishima, Fuji, and Asahi, and two armored cruisers, the Kasuga and Nisshin, of his 1st Battle Division. The Japanese battle line steamed across the bows of the oncoming Russian convoy, then turned in a dangerous maneuver: each Japanese warship turned in succession at the same point. Rozhestvenskii, however, failed to concentrate his fire at this spot. Having advantage in speed, Tôgô began to cross the “T” of the Russian line again, as he had done earlier in the battle of the Yellow Sea. After the turn, he was joined by the 2nd Battle Division, under the command of Vice Admiral Kamimura Hikonojo, which consisted of the six armored cruisers, the Izumo, Azuma, Tokiwa, Yakumo, Iwate, and Asama. The reinforced Japanese line concentrated its fire first on the leading Russian ship in each column, the Kniaz Suvorov and the Osliabia. Rozhestvenskii responded with an attempt to alter course eastward, but his flagship was heavily damaged and dropped out of the line, while the Osliabia sank at 14:45. Subsequently, the Imperator Aleksandr III, now leading the Russian line, attempted to cross behind the Japanese rear in an effort to get back on course for Vladivostok.
Tôgô reacted with a course alteration that forced the Russian line to turn away to the south. The range between the two sides was now down to about 1,500 meters, but visibility was very poor due to the smoke and mist that covered the arena. Consequently, when the Russians again turned north around 17:00, the Japanese temporarily lost contact. Following a short break, Tôgô located the Russian battleships again and opened fire once more. The first casualty this time was the Imperator Aleksandr III, which capsized, followed by the Borodino, which blew up when a shell hit her magazine; the Kniaz Suvorov was sunk by torpedoes. Rozhestvenskii, gravely wounded and unconscious since the early stages of the battle, had earlier been transferred to the destroyer Buinii. At nightfall, Tôgô ordered his smaller units of destroyers and torpedo boats to attack the remaining older Russian warships with torpedoes. At this stage the Navarin was sunk and the Sissoi Velikii was severely damaged and later scuttled. A similar fate was suffered by the old cruisers the Vladimir Monomakh and Admiral Nakhimov, which were sunk the next day.
During the night, a number of Russian warships, such as the modern battleship Orel and the older Imperator Nikolai I, General Admiral Graf Apraksin, and Admiral Seniavin, became separated from the main body, now under the command of Nebogatov. By dawn of 28 May 1905, these were the only ones to survive of the heavy ships. At the sight of the Japanese main force, which appeared at 10:00 on the horizon, Nebogatov decided to surrender. Rozhestvenskii too fell into Japanese hands when the destroyer Bedovii, to which he had been transferred, surrendered on the afternoon of that day. He had been unconscious throughout the Russian defeat and surrender. Only a few of the remaining Russian warships, such as the three light cruisers led by Rear Admiral Oskar Enkvist, managed to escape to internment at Manila. All the Russian battleships were lost: eight were sunk and four captured. Only two destroyers and the armed yacht Almaz completed the voyage and arrived safely at Vladivostok.
Russian casualties in the battle were appalling: 4,830 dead, more than 6,000 prisoners of war, most of them wounded, and 1,862 crewmen interned in neutral ports. The Japanese had only 117 dead and 587 wounded. In the final account, almost every warship of Russia’s Baltic Fleet had been sunk or captured by the enemy. The Japanese had lost three torpedo boats but none of their heavy ships, although some of them were heavily damaged but reparable. Following the battle, the Russian government’s hopes of somehow reversing the military situation in East Asia were dashed forever. Now it was compelled to enter into peace negotiations, which resulted in the Treaty of Portsmouth, signed just over three months later.