The biggest naval battle of the Great Russian-Japanese War, which ended with a total, devastating defeat of the Russian squadron, going towards friendly forces in the Pacific. Tsushima caused Russia to lose its position as a maritime power and the beginning of Japanese domination in East Asia. At the same time, it is one of the most interesting and important sea battles of all time – among other things, because the Russians sailed for 9 months in half of the world only to lose almost all the ships in less than 2 days.

The end of the 19th century was to be a period of political and economic expansion in Asia for Russia. In 1891, the first subsoil of the Trans-Siberian railway was created to connect the Urals with Vladivostok, the main Russian port in the Far East. At the same time, the Russians decided to find a new, unfreezing port for the fleet operating in the Pacific Ocean. In Vladivostok there was neither infrastructure needed for ships, nor qualified shipbuilding workers and engineers. Both the attempts to establish a base in the Korean Strait and the lease of the port on the east coast of Korea ended in failure. However, in March 1898 the Russians managed to lease from China the Liaotin Peninsula with a sea base named Port Arthur. As it turned out later, the choice of Port Artur as a navy base was the worst possible one. The infrastructure had to be built from scratch, the fortifications were destroyed, and the entrance to the base was narrow and shallow. The small town was too poor to accept and sustain tens of thousands of soldiers, so water and food had to be imported from China and Japan. The problem of Port Arthur depicted perfectly well the mess prevailing in the then tsarist Russia, especially in its army.

Rosyjski pancernik Sewastopol w Port Artur, maj 1904
Russian battleship Sevastopol in Port Artur, May 1904 via Wikimedia Commons

Japan was a natural competitor of Russia in East Asia. Until the middle of the nineteenth century, the country ruled by the Emperor was controlled by the Americans and the British, who imposed trade agreements unfavourable to the Japanese people. However, after The Meiji Restoration, Japan quickly modernised and became a regional power. Numerous well-equipped and well-trained troops were created. From 1882 to 1890, 32 ships with a total displacement of 30,000 tonnes entered the service. Meanwhile, Russia had underestimated the growing threat from Japan. The Tsar concurred with the military attaché in Korea, who claimed that “decades will pass, perhaps centuries, until the Japanese army will be in one line with the weakest European army“. Time has shown how much he was wrong…

Russia and Japan could not agree on sharing their spheres of influence in Korea and Manchuria, so in 1902 Japan concluded an anti-Russian alliance with Great Britain. In 1903, the Japanese staff began to prepare vigorously for war; it was assumed that the opponent’s fleet would be quickly annihilated and then Korea will be invaded. Meanwhile, the Japanese mobilisation was disregarded in St. Petersburg. There was even a dominant view to allow the Japanese to enter Manchuria and break it down there. The Tsar and his advisors believed that in the event of a conflict they would be able to quickly move eastwards with the help of the Trans-Siberian railways.

An attack on Port Arthur and the end of Russia’s Pacific fleet

On the night of February 8-9, the Japanese fleet unexpectedly attacked Russian ships standing in Port Arthur. Two battleships and a cruiser were seriously damaged, but the plan to sink the Russian fleet failed. At the same time, the army also launched a landing on the Korean Chemulpo Bay, where the Russian cruiser “Varyag” and the canonnabis ship “Korietz” were sunk.

The Japanese fleet blocked and mined Port Artur. After entering the mine, the battleship “Petropavlovsk” sank (the commander of the port vice-admiral Stepan Makarov, and the famous painter Vasily Verylaphepagin were killed). Japanese ships were also affected by mine damage. Among other things, two battleships and a cruiser were lost.

Rosyjski pancernik "Oslabja", pierwszy okręt zatopiony pod Cuszimą
Russian battleship “Oslyabya”, the first ship sunk in the battle of Tsushima
Source: Wikimedia Commons

On 1st May the Japanese brought a raid to Manchuria. They quickly dealt with a limited number of Russian defenders and soon afterwards cut off Port Arthur. On 17th July the Japanese infantry was already close to the base and started the artillery fire of the Russian port. The Russian Admiral Witthoft ordered the transfer of ships stationed in a besieged port to Vladivostok, but his forces (6 battleships, 4 cruisers, 8 torpedo boats) were caught up by the fleet of General Togo (4 battleships, 6 cruisers and torpedo boats). During the battle, the Russian commander was killed, and only a few units managed to avoid destruction and returned to Port Arthur. In addition, on 14th June in the Korean Strait, Rear Admiral Karl Jensen, who was unaware of the failure of the Port Artur division, was crushed. In this way the Russian fleet in the Pacific had ceased to exist (!). Soon afterwards, after a murderous siege, Japan captured Port Arthur.

The expedition through half of the world

At the time when Port Arthur fell, there were Russian ships off the coast of Madagascar, which in September 1904 departed from the Baltic port of Lipawa and went to aid the forces in the Pacific Ocean. At the beginning of the war with Japan, the Tsar and his advisors decided to send the so-called Second Pacific Squadron to East Asia. Its commander was Admiral Zinovy Rozhestvensky.

From the very beginning everything went wrong. The condition of the ships and the training of the seamen was tragic, and for some vessels, their first test was a voyage to East Asia. About 30% of the crews were deployed from the reserve, and the remaining majority were conscripts who had no experience at sea. The mood among officers is best illustrated by the statement of Commander Nikolai Bukhvostov, the commander of the battleship “Imperator Aleksandr III”: “There will be no victory (….) but for one I can assure you: if we will all have to die, we will not give up for sure!”.

Admiral Zinovy Rozhestvensky, Russian commander in the Battle of Tsushima
Admiral Zinovy Rozhestvensky, Russian commander in the Battle of Tsushima
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Russian navy command knew from the outset that before the Second Pacific Squadron will reach the east coast of Russia, Port Arthur would collapse a long time before, so it was planned to go to Vladivostok and treat it as a starting point for further action against Japan. In fact, it was a suicidal mission because the contact with Japanese ships was almost certain, and Vladivostok did not have the technical support to remove any possible damage to the ships. The Tsar sent the ships for a certain destruction because he wanted to keep public opinion in the belief that the situation in the east was under control.

The cruise of Rozhestvensky’s fleet was to start in the Baltic Sea, lead through the Atlantic and finish 18 000 nautical miles further, in the Korean Strait. A separate echelon composed of smaller vessels was to follow a shorter route through the Mediterranean Sea and the Suez Canal. The relocation of the Russian fleet was a huge effort, which required, among other things, the following: the purchase of 500 000 tonnes of coal in Germany, and the hiring of Norwegian commercial ship fleets to carry the vessels through the North Sea and mobilise the tsarist police to secure their passage through the Danish Straits. The group led by Rozhestvensky stopped for two months in Madagascar, where inexperienced ship crews trained themselves in shooting. When the Russian fleet entered the Korean Strait, its cruise had already lasted for almost nine months.

The annihilation of the Tsar’s fleet

The Japanese knew well about the approaching enemy and patiently patrolled the strait awaiting the arrival of the Russians. On 27th May, a Japanese auxiliary cruiser saw the Russian squadron. Admiral Togo had units with less firepower under his orders, but more modern and faster, and the crews were incomparably better trained.

The Japanese commander’s plan was to cut through the chic of the Russian ships, and then destroy their battleships, which, according to Togo, was the key to victory. At 11:15 AM, the first shots in the direction of Russian warships were fired. At 1:49 PM a signal appeared on the Japanese flagship battleship “Mikasa”: “The future of the Empire depends on the outcome of the battle. Let everyone do their part!”.

Togo’s ships were sailing from west to east. After being ahead of the Russian troops, they suddenly turned southward and crossed the enemy’s route and started to fire on the enemy ships. Rozhestvensky tried to escape, but the difference in speed made this plan fail, and in a short time the Russian formation went into a crumble. Modern Japanese bullets easily penetrated by Russian ship’s armor and the first victim of these was the battleship “Oslyabya “, which sank with almost 500 sailors on board (the commanding officer shot himself, seeing a huge defeat). The flagship “Knyaz Suvorov” was so badly destroyed that the wounded Rozhestvensky had to be evacuated to one of Russian destroyers. Togo’s men focused the fire on the battleship “Imperator Aleksandr III”, which after a few hits lost her steering ability and sank in the evening, and with her almost 900 people. The battleship “Borodino” was also sunk, which is said to have fought to the end by shooting Japanese units from his gun. Soon afterwards, “Suvorov” went to the bottom, where her heroic defenders used the last remaining cannon of 75 mm until the end.

Admiral Togo on the battleship
Admiral Togo on the battleship “Mikasa”, the flagship of the Japanese fleet
Author: Tōjō Shōtarō via Wikimedia Commons

In spite of the falling darkness, Togo’s torpedo vessels, thrown into the chase behind the Russians sank other damaged battleships “Navarin” and “Sissoi Veliky”. At the coast of Tsushima, the battlecruiser “Admiral Nakhimov” was sunk by the ship’s own crew.

On 28th May the Japanese fleet caught up with and drowned another Russian ships: the battleship “Imperator Nikolai I”, coast defense ships “General Admiral Graf Apraksin” and “Admiral Seniavin”, and the cruiser “Izumrud”. Rear Admiral Nebogatov, when he saw the opponent’s overwhelming advantage, decided to lay down his arms. His capitulation was not recognized by Admiral Togo, who, as a descendant of samurai, did not accept something like giving up. It was only the intervention of his officer cadre that saved the Russians from certain death.

On the other ships Russians usually defended themselves very bravely, which was noticed by their opponents. Only four cruisers and two destroyers escaped from the massacre. 5182 Russian sailors died and 5917 (including Admiral Rozhestvensky) were captured.

Japanese losses were negligible: three torpedo ships were lost, several ships were damaged, 181 sailors died (a very small number compared to Russian losses!) and 587 were injured.

The battle of Tsushima ended with the total defeat of the Russian fleet. Her best ships were destroyed, and the reputation of the Russian empire and the position of the third maritime power were in ruins. On September 5,1905 in Portsmouth, both countries signed a peace treaty that gave Japan part of Manchuria, Korea and the North Pacific fisheries. Japan began to dominate East Asia, and Russia was on the brink of civil war as a result of strikes and revolts. Soon afterwards, World War I began and the tsarist government collapsed – but that’s another story.

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