Welcome, everybody to the Mariner’s Mirror Podcast, and this the third edition of our ‘Great Sea Fights’ series. Previously, we have had multipart special editions on the Battle of the River Plate of December 1939: the first naval battle of the Second World War, and which led to the scuttling of the German pocket battleship, the Admiral Graff Spee; and the Battle of St Vincent of 1797, in which Horatio Nelson first shot to fame by boarding not one but two of the largest enemy ships, one from the other, in what he described as his patent bridge for boarding first rates. Today we begin our third edition of the Great Sea Fights series as on this day in history in 1905 the Battle of Tsushima was fought in the Sea of Japan between the Japanese fleet and the Russians, in what was to become famous as one of the most decisive naval battles in history.
This episode gives you a general background to the battle and to the events which unfolded. To go with this episode we have, you will be pleased to hear, attempted something entirely innovative by animating a contemporary battle plan. The plan we have used was made by William Packenham, a Royal Naval officer then attached to the Japanese fleet, who witnessed the events firsthand from the depths of the battleship Asahi. We have taken Packenham’s sketch of the events which resembles a plate of spaghetti, so dense are the squiggly lines representing the various movements of the two fleets, and we have redrawn them using the timestamps he gave to the action. So, you can see the positioning of the two fleets in real-time as the events unfolded: you can in effect watch the battle plan be drawn as if you were Packenham sitting at his desk. And you can find this excellent animation on the Mariner’s Mirror Pod YouTube channel.
The following text for this episode was written by Nicholas Blake and Tim Concannon has been indispensable in providing detailed background knowledge and access to the sources and images without which none of this would have happened. So thank you both. Subsequent episodes in this series on Tsushima will provide an important Japanese and Russian perspective to the battle. So do please keep in touch, and we’ll make sure that you don’t miss a thing.
The Battle of the Sea of Japan (Tsushima)
27 May 1905 (14 May 1905 by the Russian calendar)
The Battle of Tsushima was the decisive naval action between Japan and Russia that effectively ended the Russo-Japanese War: but the Imperial Japanese Navy engaged and annihilated the much larger Russian Baltic fleet, not the Russian Far East fleet, which Japan had attacked by surprise on 8 and 9 February 1904. The battle is important because it was the first in which wireless (or radio) telegraphy played a major part; the action that demonstrated the power of the all-big-gun battleship, leading to HMS Dreadnought of 1906 and the Anglo-German dreadnought race; the first time a modern battleship was sunk by guns, and largely fought at previously unimaginable ranges of up to 12,000 metres (eight miles); the first, and last, decisive steel battleship action (the Russians lost eight battleships and more than 5,000 men while the Japanese lost only three torpedo boats and 116 men); the first modern defeat of a great European power by an Asian nation; and arguably the battle that made both the First World War more likely and another great fleet action less likely.
From the 1860s, Imperial Japan looked to occupy the Korean peninsula, which is about 200 kilometres to its west. Imperial Russia was expanding eastwards, and in 1861 attempted to establish an anchorage on the Japanese island of Tsushima, about 500 kilometres south of its southernmost port, Vladivostok, and halfway between Japan and Korea, but was driven off with British help. So instead, Russia developed and fortified a base at Port Arthur (now Lüshunkou), in the Chinese province of Manchuria. Port Arthur was approximately 500 kilometres west of the Korean peninsula, but Manchuria had a border with Korea and with Russia. The importance of both Port Arthur and Tsushima was that they could be used year-round; all Pacific ports in Russia froze in winter. To counter this expansion, Japan, therefore, seized both Port Arthur and its peninsula as part of the First Sino-Japanese War, of 1894–5, but after a threat of war by France, Germany, and Russia, returned Port Arthur. The people of Japan considered this a national humiliation, and that the whole of Manchuria fell within Japan’s natural sphere of influence.
Russia re-occupied and re-fortified Port Arthur, and in 1897 the whole of the peninsula, at the same time building the Trans-Siberian Railway. This railway would link at Harbin, a Russian city in China, with a Russian-built and Russian-garrisoned railway that ran south to Port Arthur, where it had stationed its Far East Fleet. Japan considered this an unacceptable threat. It consolidated its position by an alliance with Britain in 1902, and after the failure of prolonged negotiations with Russia over respective spheres of influence in Manchuria and Korea, largely because Russia was playing for time, Japan attacked the Russian fleet without warning while it was at anchor in Port Arthur on 8–9 February 1904.
The Battle of Port Arthur
The battle began before the Japanese declaration of war was received by the Russian government, and was in two parts. The first was a night action in which Japanese destroyers damaged a Russian cruiser and two battleships, putting them out of action for several weeks. The second, the next morning, saw the Japanese attack both the Russian fleet and the Russian shore batteries, damaging three cruisers and two battleships, then retreat, suffering some damage. The Japanese blockaded the port until December, with support from Japanese armies besieging it, and minor actions continued with losses on both sides, as well as two attempts by the Russians to break the blockade and steam to Vladivostok to join the 1st Pacific Squadron there.
In October and November, Russia decided to relieve Port Arthur and sent most of its Baltic Fleet, renamed the 2nd Pacific Squadron for the purpose. It was ordered to relieve the Japanese blockade, and with the Russian ships it released, link up with the 1st Pacific Squadron and then defeat the Japanese navy. The lighter Russian cruisers and support vessels made their journey east through the Suez Canal, and the newer, heavier battleships worked all the way around Africa, reuniting at Cam Ranh Bay in Indochina in April and May 1905 after a journey of nearly 30,000 kilometres. However, Port Arthur had fallen on 2 January, so the fleet was ordered directly to Vladivostok, and chose the shortest route to get there, past Tsushima.
As the Baltic Fleet assembled, the sailors were told that theirs was a holy war against the infidel; but even as they left on their long journey they had little expectation of victory. The captain of the new battleship Imperator Alexandr III, Nikolai Bukhvostov, said during a farewell banquet, ‘We . . . know that Russia is not a sea power and that the public funds spent on ship construction have been wasted. You wish us victory, but there will be no victory . . . But we will know how to die, and we shall never surrender.’
At Tsushima, the Imperator Alexandr III was placed second in the line; after rescuing the Russian flagship from concentrated Japanese gunfire it capsized, with the loss of all 778 men on board.
The Battle of Tsushima
During the night of 26/27 May 1905 the Tsushima Strait was obscured by thick fog with visibility 8,000 metres or less, and the Russian fleet hoped to pass through undetected on the eastern side of the island. But the Japanese had more than seventy patrol ships south of the Korea Strait looking for them. The Russian hospital ship Orel had lights showing and was seen by the Japanese cruiser Shinano Maru, which at 04.45 Japanese time radioed the fleet’s position to Admiral Heihachiro Tōgō, in the harbour about 100km north-west of the island. The Japanese Combined Fleet left harbour two hours later: the Russian positions and formations were continually reported by radiotelegrams.
The Japanese Combined Fleet had five battleships, twenty-three cruisers, twenty destroyers, and auxiliaries; the Russians outgunned them with eleven battleships, nine cruisers, nine destroyers, and auxiliaries. But the Japanese had several advantages in addition to radio. First, instead of the Russian system of independent fire from each turret they had central fire control from the bridge of each ship, to fire all guns on the same target simultaneously. They also had British-built rangefinders that were much more accurate at ranges of up to 12,000 metres than the Russians’, which were accurate only to 4,000. Tōgō’s used this advantage to concentrate fire on the enemy flagship first then destroy the remainder. Second, instead of the Russian armour-piercing shells, they had high explosive. These were hugely destructive to superstructures (a 12in shell made a hole 7ft high and 6ft wide) and caused fires in hammocks, ropes, and even the paint (the Orel had thirty-four separate fires during the action), and turned the coal stored everywhere on deck into thick black smoke. The high-explosive shells were smokeless and exploded if they hit the sea, which helped the gunnery officers improve their accuracy. Third, they had already defeated the Russians at Port Arthur and in the Russian sortie, called the Battle of the Yellow Sea, and had greatly improved their gunnery and torpedo tactics: the Russian Admiral Zinovy Rozhestvensky had never commanded a fleet in a major sea battle while Tōgō was described by the naval historian Alfred Mahan as ‘a naval officer who, beyond all others at the moment, can appreciate . . . the real possibilities open to each branch of naval warfare’.
The two fleets were in sight at 13.40, about 12,000 metres apart. The Russians were steaming north-east in two columns with the slower ships to the west, and the Japanese were steaming in one line from the north-east to the west, which meant they crossed the Russian T – they could use their whole armament while the Russians could only fire forward, with the Russian eastern column masked by the western. Then Tōgō ordered a turn in sequence so that his ships were in a column parallel to the Russians, who responded with a gunnery battle at 6,000 metres or less. Throughout the action the Japanese were able to manoeuvre at sixteen knots while the Russians were only capable of around nine knots and Tōgō used this decisively: a Russian observer said this accounted for ‘the baffling and overwhelming tactics displayed by the Japanese throughout the battle.’
Although slow to respond, the Russian gunnery was good; they hit the Japanese flagship Mikasa more than thirty times during the action, the Imperator Nikolai I shot away one of the Fuji’s 12in gun barrels, and hit the Asahi, fourth in the Japanese battle group, four times. A British officer, Sir William Pakenham, was on board the Asahi. He recorded: ‘An explosion under the after-bridge . . . filled the air with flying fragments. Of these one fell underfoot. It was the right half of a man’s lower jaw, with teeth missing. Everything and everybody for twenty yards around was bespattered with tiny drops of blood . . .’
However, the Japanese gunnery was better. Commander Vladimir Semenoff was on board the Russian flagship Knyaz Suvarov, leading the left column. ‘It seemed impossible even to count the number of projectiles striking us. Shells seemed to be pouring upon us incessantly one after another. The steel plates and superstructure on the upper decks were torn to pieces, and the splinters caused many casualties. Iron ladders were crumpled up into rings, guns were literally hurled from their mountings. In addition to this, there was the unusually high temperature and liquid flame of the explosion, which seemed to spread over everything. I actually watched a steel plate catch fire from a burst.’ The steering gear was hit and jammed in the first broadside and the mainmast damaged, and the Suvarov left the line unable to signal.
As the Russians steamed north-north-east the Japanese crossed the T again. As each ship made its turn it concentrated its fire on the battleship Osiyabya. The forward turret was hit three times and put out of action: ‘five high-explosive shells each made an enormous hole in the bow plating, and the water, entering, brought the ship down until her three-inch battery gun ports were awash. Three twelve-inch shells striking in succession an armour plate on the waterline amidships, first loosened, then tore it off, and finally opened a huge hole in the side’. In an hour it was sunk. All the forward shell plating above the armoured belt of the Suvarov was shot away and at 14.25 it was ablaze fore and aft, and the Borodino exploded before sinking. Then the Japanese began torpedo attacks from the destroyers. The Imperator Aleksandr attempted a breakout to the southeast with four other battleships and the flagship but was hit and caught fire at about 18.15. Within an hour the Aleksandr and three other Russian battleships had been sunk. About 19.30, in mist and darkness, the action paused.
Around 8 pm the Japanese sent in twenty-one destroyers and thirty-seven torpedo boats to harass and destroy the Russian fleet, which was scattering to the north. Part of the Russian fleet used searchlights to spot the Japanese, which only made them better targets. The Russians lost two more battleships and two armoured cruisers, the Japanese only three torpedo boats.
In the morning the remaining Russian ships were sighted near the island of Takeshima, about 400km to the north. The Japanese continued the action for nearly two hours until the Russian admiral, outnumbered, surrounded, and unable to return fire, surrendered on board the Japanese flagship Mikasa. Of the thirty-eight Russian ships that began the action, only an armed yacht and two destroyers escaped to Vladivostok, and one cruiser made it all the way home to Kronstadt.
The Russians lost 4,380 men killed, 5,917 captured including two admirals and 1,862 interned by neutral powers. The Japanese lost 117 men killed and 500 to 600 wounded. Russian ship losses were eleven battleships sunk or scuttled and four surrendered; five cruisers lost and three interned, with one escaping; and six destroyers lost, one interned and two escaping. The Japanese lost three torpedo boats.
More than six thousand Russians were taken prisoner, including the wounded Admiral Rozhestvensky. He was visited later in a Japanese hospital by Admiral Tōgō, who apologized for the ‘absence of comforts due to such a distinguished patient’. Rozhestvensky was court-martialled in Russia for his conduct and acquitted. Tōgō, who as an officer cadet had trained onboard HMS Worcester and HMS Victory, was made a member of the Order of Merit by Edward VII and a count in Japan, and when he died in 1934 he was a marquis and the most decorated Japanese naval officer. The Mikasa, which was built by Vickers in Barrow-in-Furness, is preserved as a museum ship at Yokosuka Naval Base.
I very much hope you have enjoyed this our first part of the special edition on the Battle of Tsushima. Do please make sure that you follow us on social media so you don’t miss out on anything: the Society for Nautical Research is on Twitter and on Facebook and the Mariner’s Mirror Podcast has its own Instagram page, and also a YouTube channel where not only will you be able to see the magnificent animation of Packenham’s battle plan of the Battle of Tsushima but also all sorts of other interesting visual material. Best of all, though, please do check out the Society for Nautical Research’s website @snr.org.uk And please, please join the Society because your annual subscription will go towards publishing the most important maritime history and towards preserving our maritime past.