Great Sea Fights: The Battle of Tsushima, 1905 Part 2 – The Russian Perspective

May 2021

Part 2 of our 3-part special on the Battle of Tsushima explores the Russian perspective of the battle with a reading of the diary of Captain Vladimir Semenoff. Semenoff was a well known Russian naval officer who served in several positions throughout the course of the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905. His presence during the siege of Port Arthur and later during the Baltic Fleet’s long voyage to Tsushima gave him an unusually broad perspective on the war’s progress, and he later wrote several titles relating to these experiences. Indeed, he was one of very few Russian officers who could write as an eyewitness to both major naval battles of the war. The account is read by an A-level history pupil at Clifton College, Nikita Gukassov.

The Battle of Tsushima was the decisive naval action between Japan and Russia that effectively ended the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5 and one of the most important naval battles in history. It was the first in which radio 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.

To catch up on the rest of the series, listen to Part 1, a description of the events, and Part 3, the Japanese perspective.

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    Sam Willis

    From the Society for Nautical Research, in partnership with Lloyd’s Register Foundation, I’m Sam Willis and this is the Mariner’s Mirror Podcast, the world’s number one podcast dedicated to all of maritime history.

    Welcome, everybody to the Mariner’s Mirror Podcast, and this part two of a ‘Great Sea Fight’ special on the Battle of Tsushima of May 1905; one of the most decisive naval battles in history fought between the Russian and Japanese fleets, this was the first in which wireless telegraphy played a major part: the first time a modern battleship was sunk by guns, the first and last decisive steel battleship engagement and the first modern defeat of a great European power by an Asian nation. Part One gave a general background to the battle and to the events which unfolded, so if you need a bit of background do please check that out. Today in Part Two, we are exploring the Russian perspective through the eyes of Captain Vladimir Semenoff.

    But before we hear from Semenoff, please note that to go with the special episodes on Tsushima, we have 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. He witnessed the events first-hand from the depths of the battleship Asahi. We’ve taken Packenham’s sketch of events, which resemble 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 positions 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 them sitting at his desk. And you can find this on the Mariner’s Mirror Podcast YouTube channel.

     

    But now to Semenoff: CAPTAIN VLADIMIR SEMENOFF was a well known Russian naval officer who served in several positions throughout the course of the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905. His presence during the siege of Port Arthur and later during the Baltic Fleet’s long voyage to Tsushima gave him an unusually broad perspective on the war’s progress, and he later wrote several titles relating to these experiences. Indeed, he was one of very few Russian officers who could write as an eyewitness to both major naval battles of the war: The Battle of the Yellow Sea of August 1904 when the Japanese fleet foiled an attempt by the Russian fleet at Port Arthur to join up with the Vladivostok squadron; and the Battle of Tsushima. In some cases, his writings are the sole published accounts of the events at hand.

     

    At Tsushima, he was present on board the flagship Knyaz Suvorov during the engagement. Interestingly, he was present in an unofficial capacity, which gave him an unlimited opportunity for observation. And the fact that he was able to make a series of notes at the time until he was too seriously wounded to continue put an additional stamp of reality onto his already most graphic account. Intriguingly, however, his accounts are littered with inaccuracies. The intelligence of the Japanese that he regularly reports is a fine example of this, as it is repeatedly and fantastically inaccurate and his constant desire to compare and contrast the Russian Navy with the Japanese leads to an inevitable focus on certain aspects at the expense of others. Semenoff’s account of Tsushima, in particular, has been written for a popular audience. It is fabulously entertaining but must be handled with care by the historian. So you have been warned but do enjoy it, it really is fantastic. This is not the entire account, but an abbreviated section of it – it is chapter three. And it offers a fascinating insight into daily naval life and the conditions of combat at the start of the 20th century. In an era when the earliest modern steel battleships were beginning to meet each other in battle.

    The account caused something of a stir when published the following year. And I think perhaps the best way of introducing it is by reading part of a review of it because it was published in book form the year after the battle. So this review is from The Times literary supplement of the 17th of August 1906: “Captain Semenoff’s little volume, which would well repay translation, is a remarkably graphic and luminous account of Admiral Togo’s great victory, compiled from notes taken by the author during the engagement. Every word of this little volume bears the impressive reality and enables the reader to form a vivid picture of the various phases of the battle”; and that was from The Times literary supplement of the 17th of August 1906. So, there we go. Here is Vladimir Semenoff and his recollections and they are read brilliantly, may I just say, by Nikita Gukassov, a Russian sixth former studying A-level history, and I’m also assured with a love of naval history, currently at Clifton College in Bristol. So thank you so much Nikita for your time and considerable energy expended in becoming Seminoff for the afternoon, and also to Daniel Jank, and Tim Green, who made this all possible. So without further ado, here is Captain Vladimir Semenoff.

    Semenoff account.

     

     

    Vladimir Semenoff

     

    I kept a diary from January 30, 1904, to December 19 1906 (even a little longer), and made daily entries, on specially important days even hourly. Everything I tell of here is based on the data of my diary. In every case, at the moment the event occurred I noted the time by watch; the general feeling at the time was noted somewhat later. My diary also contains conversations and remarks, which I wrote down whilst still fresh in my mind. Naturally, they stand in a very condensed form-mere heading sometimes. I desire all the more to lay stress on the fact that this is not a narrative written from memory, but a diary, as I know from personal experience how unreliable one’s memory is. This is especially the case in action

     

    ‘I won’t boast about my memory (though I have been told that in this respect God had not dealt with me in a niggardly spirit), but it certainly is remarkable that one can altogether forget a fact which had been noted down in writing.

     

    “Now the fun will begin,” thought I to myself, going up to the after-bridge, which seemed to be the most convenient place for carrying out my duty of seeing and noting down everything, as from there I could see both the enemy and our own fleet. Lieutenant Reydkin, commanding the after starboard 6-inch turret, was also there, having dashed up to see what was going on, as the fight was apparently to commence to port, and his turret would not be in action.

    We stood side by side, exchanging now and again abrupt remarks, not understanding why the Japanese intended crossing to our port side when our weak spot—the transports and cruisers covering them—was astern, and to starboard of us. Perhaps, having commenced the fight while steering on the opposite course, and having taken advantage of their superior speed, they calculated on rounding us from the stern, in order to fall at the same time on our transports and weak rear! If so, a raking fire would present no difficulties.

    “Hullo! Look! What are they up to?” said Reydkin, and his voice betrayed both delight and amazement.

    I looked and looked, and, not believing my eyes, could not put down my glasses.53 The Japanese ships had suddenly commenced to turn “in succession” to port, reversing their course!

    If the reader recollects what has been said previously on the subject of turns, he will easily understand that this manœuvre made it necessary for all the enemy’s ships to pass in succession over the point on which the leading ship had turned; this point was, so to speak, stationary on the water, making it easy for us to range and aim. Besides—even with a speed of 15 knots, the manœuvre must take about fifteen minutes to complete, and all this time the vessels, which had already turned, would mask the fire of those which were still coming up.

    “How rash!” said Reydkin, who could not keep quiet. “Why, in a54 minute we’ll be able to roll up the leading ships!”

    “Please God, we may!” thought I.

    It was plain to me that Togo, seeing something which he had not expected, had suddenly changed his mind. The manœuvre was undoubtedly risky, but, on the other hand, if he found it necessary to steer on the opposite course, there was no other way of doing it. He might have ordered the fleet to turn “together,” but this would have made the cruiser Iwate the leading ship in action, which he evidently did not wish. Togo accordingly decided to turn “in succession,” in order that he should lead the fleet in person, and not leave success at the commencement of the action to depend upon the presence of mind and enterprise of the junior flag officer. (The55 Iwate flew Rear-Admiral Simamura’s flag.)

    My heartbeat furiously, as it had never done before during the six months at Port Arthur. If we succeeded! God grant it! Even though we didn’t sink one of them, if we could only put one out of action! The first success—was it possible?

    Meanwhile, Rozhdestvensky hastened to avail himself of this favourable opportunity.

    At 1.49 p.m., when the manœuvre had been performed by the Mikasa and Shikishima (two only out of the twelve), the Suvoroff fired the first shot at a range of 6,400 yards, and the guns of the whole fleet thundered forth. I watched closely through my glasses. The shots which went over and those which fell56 short were all close, but the most interesting, i.e. the hits, as in the fight of 10th August, could not be seen. Our shells on bursting emitted scarcely any smoke and the fuses were adjusted to burst inside after penetrating the target. A hit could only be detected when something fell—and nothing fell! In a couple of minutes, when the Fuji and Asahi had turned also and were following the first ships, the enemy began to reply.

    The first shells flew over us. At this range, some of the long ones turned a complete somersault, and could clearly be seen with the naked eye curving like so many sticks thrown in the air. They flew over us, making a sort of wail, different to the ordinary roar.

    57“Are those the portmanteaus?”13 I asked Reydkin, smiling.

    “Yes. Those are they.”

    But what struck me most was that these “portmanteaus,” curving awkwardly head over heels through the air and falling anyhow on the water, exploded the moment they touched its surface. This had never happened before.

    After them came others short of us—nearer and nearer. Splinters whistled through the air, jingled against the side and superstructure. Then, quite close and abreast the foremost funnel, rose a gigantic pillar of smoke, water and flame. I saw stretchers being carried58 along the fore-bridge, and I leaned over the rail.

    “Prince Tsereteli!”14 shouted Reydkin from below, in reply to my silent question, as he went towards his turret.

    The next shell struck the side by the centre 6-inch turret, and there was a tremendous noise behind and below me on the port quarter. Smoke and tongues of fire leapt out of the officers’ gangway; a shell having fallen into the captain’s cabin, and having penetrated the deck, had burst in the officers’ quarters, setting them on fire.

    And here I was able to observe, and not for the first time, the stupor which seems to come over men, who have never been in action before when the first shells begin to fall. A stupor which59 turns easily and instantaneously, at the most insignificant external shock, into either uncontrollable panic which cannot be allayed or into unusually high spirits, depending on the man’s character.

    The men at the fire mains and hoses stood as if mesmerised, gazing at the smoke and flames, not understanding, apparently, what was happening. I went down to them from the bridge, and with the most commonplace words, such as “Wake up! Turn the water on!”—got them to pull themselves together and bravely to fight the fire.

    I was taking out my watch and pocketbook to make a note of the first fire when something suddenly struck me in the waist, and something large and soft, though heavy, hit me in the back, lifting60 me up and hurling me onto the deck. When I again got up, my notebook and watch were in my hands as before.

    My watch was going, but the second hand was slightly bent, and the glass had disappeared. Stupefied by the blow, and not myself, I began carefully to hunt for it on the deck and found it unbroken. Picking it up, I fitted it into my watch—and, only then realising that I had been occupied with something of no importance, I looked round.

    I had probably been unconscious for some time, as the fire had been extinguished, and, save for two or three dead bodies on which water was pouring from the torn hoses, no one was to be seen. Whatever had struck me had come from the direction of the deck house61 aft, which was hidden from me by a mantlet of hammocks.

    I looked in the direction where the flag officers, with a party of poop signalmen, should have been. The shell had passed through the deckhouse, bursting inside. Of the ten or twelve signalmen, some seemed to be standing by the starboard 6-inch turret, others seemed to be lying in a huddled group. Inside was a pile of something, and on the top lay an officer’s telescope.

    “Is this all that is left?” I wondered, but I was wrong, as by some miracle Novosiltseff and Kozakevitch were only wounded and, helped by Maximoff, had gone to the dressing station, while I was lying on the deck occupied with mending my watch.

    “Hullo! a scene that you are62 accustomed to? Like the 10th August?” said the irrepressible Reydkin, peeping out of his turret.

    “Just the same!” I replied in a confident tone. But it was hardly so: indeed, it would have been more correct to say—“Not in the least like.”

    On 10th August, in a fight lasting some hours, the Cesarevitch was struck by only nineteen large shells, and I, in all seriousness, had intended in the present engagement to note the times and the places where we were hit, as well as the damage done. But how could I make detailed notes when it seemed impossible even to count the number of projectiles striking us? I had not only never witnessed such a fire before, but I had never imagined anything like it. Shells seemed to be63 pouring upon us incessantly, one after another.15

    After six months with the Port Arthur squadron, I had grown indifferent to most things. Shimose and melinite were to a certain extent old acquaintances, but this was something new. It seemed as if these were mines, not shells, which were striking the ship’s side and falling on the deck. They burst as soon as they touched anything—the moment they encountered the least impediment in their flight.

    Handrails, funnel guys, topping lifts of the boats’ derricks, were quite sufficient to cause a thoroughly efficient burst. The steel64 plates and superstructure on the upper deck were torn to pieces, and the splinters caused many casualties. Iron ladders were crumpled up into rings, and guns were literally hurled from their mountings.

    Such havoc would never be caused by the simple impact of a shell, still less by that of its splinters. It could only be caused by the force of the explosion. The Japanese had apparently succeeded in realising what the Americans had endeavoured to attain in inventing their “Vesuvium.”

    In addition to this, there was the unusual 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. Of course, the steel did not65 burn, but the paint on it did. Such almost non-combustible materials as hammocks, and rows of boxes, drenched with water, flared up in a moment. At times it was impossible to see anything with glasses, owing to everything being so distorted with the quivering, heated air. No! It was different to the 10th August!16

    66I hurriedly went to the Admiral in the conning tower. Why? At the time I did not attempt to think, but67 now feel sure that I merely wished to see him, and by seeing him to confirm my impressions. Was it all imagination? Was it all a nightmare? Had I become jumpy?

    Running along the fore-bridge I almost fell, slipping in a pool of blood (the chief signalman—Kandaooroff—had just been killed there). I went into the conning tower and found the Admiral and Captain both bending down, looking out through the chink between the armour and the roof.

    “Sir,” said the Captain, energetically gesticulating as was his want, “we must68 shorten the distance. They’re all being killed—they are on fire!”

    “Wait a bit. Aren’t we all being killed also?” replied the Admiral.

    Close to the wheel, and on either side of it, lay two bodies in officers’ tunics—face downwards.

    “The officer at the wheel, and Berseneff!”17 was shouted in my ear by a sub-lieutenant—Shishkin—whose arm I had touched, pointing to the bodies. “Berseneff first—in the head—quite dead.”

    The range-finder was worked. Vladimirsky shouted his orders in a clear voice, and the electricians quickly turned the handles of the indicator, transmitting the range to the turrets and light gun batteries.

    “We’re all right,” thought I to69 myself, going out of the conning tower, but the next moment the thought flashed across me: “They can’t see what is going on onboard.” Leaving the tower, I looked out intently on all sides from the fore-bridge. Were not my recent thoughts, which I had not dared to put into words, realised?

    No!

    The enemy had finished turning. His twelve ships were in perfect order at close intervals, steaming parallel to us, but gradually forging ahead. No disorder was noticeable. It seemed to me that with my Zeiss glasses (the distance was a little more than 4,000 yards), I could even distinguish the mantlets of hammocks on the bridges and groups of men. But with us? I looked round. What havoc!—Burning bridges, smouldering70 débris on the decks,—piles of dead bodies. Signalling and judging distance stations, gun-directing positions, all were destroyed. And astern of us the Alexander and Borodino were also enveloped in smoke. No! it was very different to the 10th of August.

    The enemy, steaming ahead, commenced quickly to incline to starboard, endeavouring to cross our T. We also bore to starboard, and again we had him almost on our beam.

    It was now 2.5 p.m.

    A man came up to report what had taken place in the after 12-inch turret. I went to look. Part of the shield over the port gun had been torn off and bent upwards, but the turret was still turning and keeping up a hot fire.

    The officer commanding the fire parties71 had had both his legs blown off and was carried below. Men fell faster and faster. Reinforcements were required everywhere to replace casualties, even at the turrets into which splinters could only penetrate through the narrow gun ports. The dead were, of course, left to lie where they had fallen, but yet there were not enough men to look after the wounded.

    There are no spare men on board a warship, and a reserve does not exist. Each man is detailed for some particular duty and told off to his post in action. The only source which we could tap was the crews of the 47 millimetre, and machine, guns, who from the commencement of the fight had been ordered to remain below the armoured deck so as not to be unnecessarily exposed. Having nothing to do now,72 as all their guns, which were in exposed positions on the bridges, had been utterly destroyed, we made use of them, but they were a mere drop in the ocean.

    As for the fires, even if we had had the men, we were without the means with which to fight them. Over and over again the hoses in use were changed for new ones, but these also were soon torn to ribbons, and the supply became exhausted. Without hoses how could we pump water onto the bridges and spar-deck where the flames raged? On the spar-deck, in particular, where eleven wooden boats were piled up, the fire was taking a firm hold. Up till now, this “store of wood” had only caught fire in places, as the water which had been poured into the boats prior to the commencement of the action was still73 in them, though it was fast trickling out of the numerous cracks momentarily being made by the splinters.

    We, of course, did everything possible: tried to plug the holes, and brought up water in buckets.18 I am not certain if the scuppers had been closed on purpose, or had merely become blocked, but practically none of the water we used for the fire ran overboard, and it lay, instead, on the upper deck. This was fortunate, as, in the first place, the deck itself did not catch fire, and, in the second, we threw into it the smouldering débris falling from above—merely separating the burning pieces and turning them over.

    Seeing Flag Sub-Lieutenant Demchinsky74 standing by the ladder of the fore-bridge, with a party of forecastle signalmen near the starboard forward 6-inch turret, I went up to him. Golovnin, another sub-lieutenant, who was in charge of the turret, gave us some cold tea to drink, which he had stored in bottles. It seems a trifle, but it cheered us up.

    Demchinsky told me that the first shell striking the ship had fallen right into the temporary dressing station, rigged up by the doctor in what seemed the most sheltered spot on the upper battery (between the centre 6-inch turrets by the ship’s ikon). He said that it had caused a number of casualties; that the doctor somehow escaped, but the ship’s chaplain had been dangerously wounded. I went there to have a look at the place.

    The ship’s ikon or, more properly75 speaking, ikons as there were several of them, all farewell gifts to the ship, were untouched. The glass of the big ikon case had not even been broken, and in front of it, on hanging candlesticks, candles were peacefully burning. There wasn’t a soul to be seen. Between the wrecked tables, stools, broken bottles, and different hospital appliances were some dead bodies, and a mass of something, which, with difficulty, I guessed to be the remains of what had once been men.

    I had not had time properly to take in this scene of destruction when Demchinsky came down the ladder, supporting Flag Lieutenant Sverbeyeff, who could scarcely stand.

    He was gasping for breath and asked for water. Ladling some out of a bucket76 into a mess kettle, I gave him some, and, as he was unable to use his arms, we had to help him. He drank greedily, jerking out a few words—“It’s a trifle—tell the Flag Captain—I’ll come immediately—I am suffocated with these cursed gases—I’ll get my breath in a minute.” He inhaled the air with a great effort through his blue lips, and something seemed to rattle in his throat and chest, though not, of course, the poisonous gases. On the right side of his back, his coat was torn in a great rent, and his wound was bleeding badly. Demchinsky told off a couple of men to take him down to the hospital, and we again went on deck.

    I crossed over to the port side, between the forward 12-inch and 6-inch turrets, to have a look at the enemy’s fleet.77 It was all there, just the same—no fires—no heeling over—no fallen bridges, as if it had been at drill instead of fighting, and as if our guns, which had been thundering incessantly for the last half-hour, had been firing—not shells, but the devil alone knows what!19

    Feeling almost in despair, I put down my glasses and went aft.

    78“The last of the halyards are burned,” said Demchinsky to me. “I think I shall take my men somewhere under cover.” Of course, I fully agreed. What was the use of the signalmen remaining under fire when nothing was left for them to signal with!

    It was now 2.20 p.m.

    Making my way aft through the débris, I met Reydkin hurrying to the forecastle. “We can’t fire from the port quarter,” he said excitedly; “everything is on fire there, and the men are suffocated with heat and smoke.”

    “Well! come on, let’s get someone to put the fire out.”

    “I’ll do that, but you report to the79 Admiral. Perhaps he will give us some orders.”

    “What orders can he give?”

    “He may alter the course. I don’t know!”

    “What! leave the line? Is it likely?”

    “Well! anyway, you tell him.”

    In order to quiet him, I promised to report at once, and we separated, going our ways. As I anticipated, the Admiral only shrugged his shoulders on hearing my report and said, “They must put the fire out. No help can be sent from here.”

    Instead of two dead bodies, five or six were now lying in the conning tower. The man at the wheel having been incapacitated, Vladimirsky had taken his place. His face was covered with blood, but his moustache was smartly twisted80 upwards, and he wore the same self-confident look as he had in the wardroom when discussing “the future of gunnery.”

    Leaving the tower, I intended going to Reydkin to tell him the Admiral’s reply and to assist in extinguishing the fire, but instead, I remained on the bridge looking at the Japanese fleet.

    Sam Willis

    Thank you all so much for listening, I hope you enjoyed that. Please do listen to the other editions of the ‘Great Sea Fight’ series, not just part one and part two and part three of the Tsushima episodes, but also the first one we ever released on the Battle of the River Plate of December 1939 – it was the first naval battle of the Second World War and it led to the scuttling of the German pocket battleship the Admiral Graf Spee: or the second one, the Battle of Cape 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. They’re great fun, and they really introduce some fascinating scholarship. Do please follow the Society for Nautical Research on social media, on Twitter, on Facebook. The Mariner’s Mirror Podcast has its own YouTube channel and Instagram page. But first of all, please check out the website @snr.org.uk. And if you are not a member, please, please, join the Society because your annual subscription fee will go towards publishing the most important maritime history and towards preserving our maritime past.

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