The Battle of Tsushima: The Sound of the Guns

Byron King continues his recounting of the Battle of Tsushima, one of the most important battles of the Russo-Japanese War, discussing not only the battle itself but the whole war and its immediate origins.

The Sound of the Guns

“Although there was nothing else to be done, the crew determined to die and refused to hoist the signal of surrender. Bathed in a shower of shells, they waited for their ship to sink. The captain had been killed and the commander mortally wounded. The immense Russian vessel gradually heeled over. Most of the surviving sailors jumped into the sea, there to drown in the ice-cold waters. The circling Japanese ships ceased fire.”

YOU KNOW, SERGEI YULEVICH,” said Tsar Nicholas II to his foreign minister, Count Witte, shortly after the end of the Sino-Japanese War, “I have decided to occupy Port Arthur.”

“Your Highness,” replied Witte, “Remember this day, because you are taking a fateful step that will have disastrous results.”

Perhaps only in Russia in the 1890s could an absolute regent have made such a whimsical and poorly thought decision, to send his troops into a region of vital strategic importance to Japan, and this just after Japan had fought and won a war over the issue. And perhaps only in Russia at that time could a trusted minister have spoken so bluntly to his ruler.

But Nicholas II, tsar of Russia, was not one to be dissuaded from his impulsive decision, even by so able an adviser as Witte. In his only firsthand experience with Japan, Nicholas had been subject to an assassination attempt near Yokohama during a state visit in the early 1890s, and he still bore the scar on his face where he had been cut by a blade. Thus Nicholas had little use for the Japanese, had little respect for that nation or its culture, and referred dismissively to an entire race as “just little yellow people.”

Dutifully, the Russian military carried out the order from the tsar. At first, and in accordance with the terms of the treaty that ended the Sino-Japanese War, the Russians sent naval ships to Port Arthur, there to anchor in its ice-free harbor during the winter of 1896-1897.

And then came the transports filled with troops and construction equipment. The Russians had come to stay. By 1898, the Russians were building a spur of the Trans-Siberian Railroad to Port Arthur. The Japanese believed, and not without good reason, that they were betrayed, but they decided to bide their time.

In another matter commenced in 1897 — and taking advantage of vagaries in treaty language as well as in the boundary lines between poorly mapped areas — the Russians began to exploit a vast tract of timber and other mineral resources along the Yalu River in Manchuria and northern Korea.

The Japanese viewed the Russian activity as a serious encroachment on what they determined was part of a Japanese area of control, purchased hard with Japanese blood and gold in the Sino-Japanese War.

During the late 1890s, the Japanese attempted to dislodge the Russians from Port Arthur, and from other regions of Manchuria and northern Korea, by using diplomacy. But the Russians were not to be swayed and met Japanese diplomatic notes with news reports of the extension of Russian rail lines and construction of additional military and industrial facilities.

The Battle of Tsushima: New at Power Politics

But still, the Japanese attempted to negotiate with the Russians. At one point, and fatefully anticipating a division that would not occur for another 50 years, a Japanese official went so far as to propose dividing the Korean peninsula into two spheres of influence along the 38th parallel. The northern region, the Japanese proposed, would go to Russia, and the southern region would go to Japan. The Russians declined the offer and brazenly landed troops at a port in southern Korea.

Japan was new to the game of power politics, particularly with European states. But still, the Japanese persisted in their efforts to negotiate. The Russians, who in general held little respect toward, let alone fear of, the Japanese, would not alter their goal to gain dominion and control in Manchuria and to exert their influence to the south of Korea.

The Japanese, those “little yellow people” in the eyes of Nicholas II, retained their customary politeness. And they quietly drilled their army, placed orders for the world’s finest artillery guns from Krupp of Germany, and commissioned and placed into service the battleships that they acquired from the shipyards of Great Britain.

In 1900, events began to occur in China that would later bring matters to a head. German missionaries in the Shantung region had been preaching and converting the Chinese to Christianity for a number of years.

But a crop failure had caused a famine and led a significant number of Chinese to believe that the Germans had angered the ancient Chinese spirits. These Chinese, mostly members of the rural peasantry, formed into a group called the “Society of Righteously Harmonious Fists,” better known as the “Boxers.”

The cause of the Boxers was to fight back against foreign encroachment into China and to issue retribution for the foreign exploitation of China. This sentiment quickly spread throughout northern China.

Mission compounds, foreign missionaries and Chinese churches and converts were all subject to attack by legions of Boxers. Many foreigners and Chinese Christians were murdered, and much foreign-owned property was looted or burned.

Almost all foreigners, missionaries and nonmissionaries alike, soon found themselves captive in various compounds and foreign missions within Chinese cities.

After a series of unsuccessful attempts by Western powers to put down the Boxers, using relatively small numbers of their own Western soldiers, the Japanese offered to step in and lead a relief unit to Peking (Beijing). As things turned out, the Japanese contributed over 10,000 troops to the effort. Due in no small measure to the Japanese contribution, the Boxer Rebellion was subdued.

To the Japanese, and to a small number of rather prescient observers, the effectiveness of Japanese troops against the Boxers drove home the point of the growing military capability of the Japanese army. It was sizable, competent, fast, well equipped, and superbly trained. The Japanese army was also quite effective, and when deployed to China, it was not far from home.

At the same time, the Boxer Rebellion offered the Japanese an opportunity to observe firsthand the difficulty that Western powers had in transporting and supplying even a relatively small number of their own troops to fight an insurrection, and not even a war, in Asia.

While Western powers were certainly strong and militarily capable in their own home areas, and to some extent at sea distant from the homeland, it was a different thing entirely to project force halfway around the world and to fight against an Asian populace in its home culture.

Boxers or not, the Japanese were particularly wary of the Russians and the growing Russian presence in Manchuria and Korea. To the Japanese, the state of affairs with Russia was perceived as truly a threat to their home islands that struck resonant chords in ancient cultural memories.

All of Japan’s past invasions and calamities had come from either China or from the Korean peninsula. The growth of Russian power in northeast Asia, ashore and afloat, could mean nothing good to long-term Japanese interests.

The Battle of Tsushima: Korea Slipping Away

By 1903, Russian meddling in Korea had made it difficult, and on occasion impossible, for Japanese business and commercial interests to be successful. The Japanese believed that Korea was slipping from their control. To the Japanese, this situation was intolerable.

Japan was, and had been for centuries, a hierarchical society. One of the tenets of Japanese society was that Koreans should and would, by one means or another, show due deference to Japanese.

Within Japan, a “war party” began to gain political ascendancy within the halls of government. Key to its rise was concern over Russia’s expansion; Russia’s sowing of anti-Japanese sentiment in Korea; and Russia’s growing power, which constituted a greater threat to Japan in the future.

In late 1903, an impending war between Russia and Japan was an open secret. One European observer based in Asia noted, “It is difficult to see how (war) can be averted…Russia seems not inclined to give up her occupation of Manchuria…The Japanese are most bellicose and equally indignant.”

In St. Petersburg, then the capital of Russia, the tsar went out of his way to mention to numerous listeners, “War with Japan would be healthy for Russia.”

This comment, so complimentary to the prospect of a war, was made in the context of the socialist revolution that was sweeping across Russia at the time. The tsar was looking for a means to unify the nation and to justify the severe means that it would take to suppress the growing socialist rebellion. A distant war against the “little yellow people” of Japan would serve his interests, or so he thought.

At the beginning of 1904, the Russian army consisted of over 1.1 million troops, with another 1.3 million in reserve. But most of these troops were in the European theater of Russia, at the far end of the Trans-Siberian Railroad from the perspective of a war in Asia.

Any movement of major numbers of Russian troops across Eurasia would take many months, and this across a single-track railroad that was subject to attack along much of its length.

Of particular concern, Russia’s artillery corps in its Far East armies were not well supplied with either modern guns or large amounts of ammunition. Only the artillerist, the connoisseur of indirect fires, truly understood the implications of this shortcoming.

Russia’s navy in 1904 was a collection of ships of varying ages and uneven quality. The bulk of Russia’s ships were serving in either the Baltic Squadron or in the Black Sea Fleet. Hence the two different fleets were not accustomed to working together.

A very few Russian ships had made the 18,000-mile transit around the world to dock at Port Arthur, or at Vladivostok. These ships had almost no experience in operating as a coordinated naval unit, nor were there any well-developed sets of doctrine or tactics for fighting against the Japanese navy.

Overall, Russia’s naval ships varied greatly in speed, armor protection and main armament. While the latest combatant ships possessed guns that were the equivalent of those in any other navy in the world, the Russian treasury had scrimped on funds for training over many years. Hence the Russian fleet would find it difficult to operate together in effective tactical formations at sea.

At the beginning of 1904, Japan’s army numbered fewer than 200,000 front-line troops, but had another 400,000 in its first and second reserves. Depending on the place of intended landing, Japan had sufficient shipping to transport these troops to the shores of Korea or to Chinese ports on the Yellow Sea.

In any confrontation with the Russians, Japan could place its troops ashore, but it would require extreme feats of logistics to supply and to maintain its armies in the field.

The Battle of Tsushima: Never a Simple Decision

Japan’s navy was entirely dependent upon foreign shipyards, mostly British, to construct its warships. Japan had essentially no capability to construct combatants and only limited ability to repair damaged vessels. Thus, any conflict with the Russian navy would rely upon the Japanese fleet-in-being and could not count on additional ships or equipment being produced at home or procured abroad.

Despite what you might read, or whatever you might think you know, there is no simple decision by any nation to go to war. As Carl von Clausewitz, the master of the theory of war, wrote, “The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish the kind of war on which they are embarking. They must neither mistake it for, nor try to turn it into, something that is alien to its nature. This is the first of all strategic questions and the most comprehensive.”

For the Japanese, the decision to go to war was a profound balance of competing factors and interests. In the years since the 1868 Meiji Restoration commenced, Japan had grown strong and was growing stronger.

But did Japan have the national strength, the financial ability, and the political will to wage a war with Russia, which was one of the world’s great powers and a strong nation that was also expanding its influence in the Asian arena?

To the Japanese, a key element of the decision to go to war was to save their national honor. In the Japanese view, Russia had cheated on its obligations to Japan and was encroaching where it was not supposed to be in Manchuria and Korea. This Russian expansion pre-empted what the Japanese leadership perceived as its own national destiny in those areas.

Thus, the leaders of Japan determined that the nation would fight Russia, and go deep into debt if necessary, to salvage the national honor. Japan’s opportunity to prevail hinged upon the fact that the Trans-Siberian Railroad was still being completed (it was single track for much of its length in Siberia), and that passage from European Russia to the Far East remained a long and difficult trek.

The shooting phase of the Russo-Japanese War, a conflict that was many months in the planning, and many years, if not decades, in the making, commenced on the early morning of Feb. 8, 1904.

At that time, forces of the Imperial Japanese Navy, under the command of Adm. Heihachiro Togo, attacked the Russian Far Eastern Fleet that was anchored at Port Arthur.

During the initial phase of the Japanese attack, three Russian battleships were destroyed by Japanese torpedoes. After daylight, the Japanese ships returned and shelled the remaining Russian ships, which had by then prepared to steam out and fight. The Russians, disorganized and confused, were unable to confront the Japanese to any effect.

Japan’s Adm. Togo had accomplished his first mission, which was to secure control of the seas around Korea, making possible the transit of the Japanese army to land upon that peninsula. Japanese troops quickly and efficiently occupied all of their Korean objectives, including places formerly garrisoned by Russian troops.

By March 1904, the besieged Russian vessels attempted to sortie from the harbor at Port Arthur for another go at the Japanese. As the Russians exited, they struck mines that had been laid by the Japanese, and more ships were lost. The Russians retreated to the relative safety of Port Arthur, where the ships remained for the rest of the war.

The Battle of Tsushima: The Yalu River

Frantically, the Russian high command poured troops through and across the Trans-Siberian Railroad with which to confront the Japanese. However, in May 1904, the Japanese army, moving north out of Korea, dealt a severe blow to Russian forces with a sweeping defeat at the Yalu River.

For the first time in centuries, a major European army had been defeated by an army of Asians. The London Times noted, “The echoes of battle will reverberate afar, and distant is the day when the story will weary of telling among the races of the unforgiving East.”

At the same time, and not entirely in consequence of its defeat of the Russians at the Yalu, the Japanese government found itself able to secure a large line of credit (the first of several) via loans from bankers in Paris, London, and New York.

It did not help the Russian cause that the world was reading of another in a series of pogroms being conducted on Russia’s Jews. Because of the Russian pogrom, many Jews and Jewish-related interests were only too happy to purchase Japanese government bonds, certainly if it meant assisting in handing a military defeat to Russia. This, in turn, deepened the characteristic Russian suspicion of Jews.

By June 1904, the Japanese army had reached the outer approaches of Port Arthur. Japanese artillery began to fire their Krupp siege guns and to rain 11-inch shells upon the hapless Russian troops and ships at anchor.

The siege of Port Arthur, which lasted until its surrender in January 1905, is a story in and of itself, of artillery duels that lit the horizons for miles in any direction, of attacks and counterattacks, of vicious hand-to-hand fighting between battle-hardened troops.

At Port Arthur, the Japanese guns turned the remaining Russian warships into burnt hulks of twisted scrap metal. This reduction of the Russian fleet permitted Adm. Togo’s fleet to return to Japan for a refit and supplies. Togo’s armada would need this respite before confronting the Baltic Squadron of the Russian navy, then on its way around the world to Tsushima. But this gets ahead of the story.

On the ground in Manchuria, one battle alone near Port Arthur in October 1904, between the Russian and Japanese armies, at a place called Shaho, inflicted over 60,000 casualties on both sides.

The scope of this war was beginning not just to draw attention in the West, but to stagger imaginations. Operationally, this contest at Shaho was the precursor to an even larger battle at Mukden in February and March 1905, toward the end of a bitter Siberian winter.

In essence, at Mukden, the Japanese flanked the Russians along a 40-mile front and routed an entire Russian army with all of its supplies and equipment. As their battle lines collapsed, Russian soldiers rioted as they witnessed wagons hauling chests of regimental silver, officers’ braided uniforms, and even pianos away from the front, while thousands of wounded and sickened Russian troops were left to die in the trenches.

Casualties at Mukden were of Biblical proportions, over 200,000. The Battle of Mukden was, at that time, the largest battle ever waged in human history.

During the summer of 1904, the Russian government realized that the situation in the Far East, and at Port Arthur in particular, was becoming desperate. The Russians had minimal forces at Vladivostok, although Russian ships from that locale did manage to conduct raids on Japanese commerce and even to shell targets in the Japanese homeland.

Still, in a classical strategic error, the main bodies of Russian forces had become divided between Vladivostok and Port Arthur. Those at Port Arthur were besieged and suffering from attrition. Those at Vladivostok were too few to be militarily effective. The Russians determined to send an entire fleet from Europe to Port Arthur, to break the Japanese blockade and relieve their forces.

On Oct. 15, 1904, Russia’s Baltic Fleet set sail from Libau harbor in Latvia (the city is now called Liepaja) to confront, eventually, the Japanese. This was the beginning of an unprecedented 18,000-mile journey around the world that would end, we now know, in the complete destruction of that fleet. But at the time, no one could foretell the ways of fate or the whims of Mars and Neptune.

The tale of the journey from Latvia to Tsushima is a chronicle of both endurance and damnation. It took almost nine months for what was called the Second Pacific Squadron (the Baltic Fleet’s new name), consisting of 39 ships, most not ready for battle, to make the transit. A few ships broke down en route. Most were sunk or captured, and a small number were interned in neutral ports. Only two of the vessels that started out from the Baltic ever reached Russian territory.

From the outset, the fleet appeared to be cursed and doomed. The mission itself was simply an act of military desperation, ordered by a tsar with few other options in St. Petersburg.

The war with Japan was not going well, and was, in fact, turning into a costly military disaster for the Russians. Despite common knowledge in informed military circles that the Japanese had built up a formidable military force, the Russians, and particularly their political leaders, still believed that their adversaries in Nippon were novices on the battlefield.

The battle of Tsushima: Obstacles for Admiral Rozhdestvenski

The tsar appointed Rear Adm. Zinovi Rozhdestvenski to command the fleet. The obstacles before this new commander were tremendous.

First, a significant number of the battleships themselves were slow, older vessels that had been built for service in the Baltic, and which were designed more to defend shorelines than to engage in an offensive campaign of naval maneuver on the other side of the world.

Second, the crews of the Russian ships were inexperienced, uninspired, and largely illiterate. During two weeks of sea trials in the Baltic before setting sail, Rozhdestvenski cursed from the bridge, and on occasion threw his binoculars into the sea in anger, as he witnessed his ships drifting in and out of formation, and on occasion colliding. The Russian gunnery was atrocious.

To add bad omen to bad luck, not even a week out of port on the voyage track, several ships in Rozhdestvenski’s command accidentally fired upon British fishing trawlers in the North Sea, the so-called Dogger Bank incident, under the mistaken belief that they were Japanese torpedo boats. This caused monumental embarrassment to the Russian government.

Most important to Rozhdestvenski was his fuel problem. His warships were powered by steam, and the steam was generated by burning coal in the boilers. Under the best of circumstances, it was an extreme demand to task these coal-fired ships to sail halfway around the world and then into battle. And this Russian fleet did not enjoy the best of circumstances.

Complicating matters, coal was a strategic commodity that was rigorously tracked and rationed at that time. Britain, in an effort to play favor with its good naval and industrial customer Japan, refused to sell Russia even a pound of its quality Cardiff coal.

Consequently, when the Russian fleet departed Liepaja, many ships were so weighed down with coal and coated with coal dust that it was unsafe for them to fire their guns.

Coal, in fact, became Rozhdestvenski’s obsession, as well as his curse. Coal stations were few and far between. In consequence, Rozhdestvenski worried endlessly over how to obtain new supplies. His sailors practically slept among sacks of coal and worked for hours cleaning the steam boilers.

Black dust was everywhere, clogging machinery and wrecking the calibrations of critical equipment. It was only the willingness of the German government to allow German-flagged colliers to deliver coal to Rozhdestvenski’s fleet that permitted the Russian navy to make its long voyage.

Rozhdestvenski’s fleet made lengthy stops along the western coast of Africa, in Mozambique, and in French Indochina to conduct repairs and battle drills, as well as to take on coal and fresh water. But finally, in early May 1905, his ships sailed north on their final track. Although the Russian fleet’s mission was to relieve Port Arthur, its destination was Vladivostok.

It was not Rozhdestvenski’s intention to seek battle with the Japanese fleet during the transit to Vladivostok, but he knew that the possibility was there. Rozhdestvenski chose to sail through the Tsushima Straits, between Japan and the Korean peninsula.

Wisely, he attempted to mask his passage under the cover of mist. But as fate would have it, one of his vessels, a hospital ship that was lit up in accordance with international regulations, was spotted by a Japanese patrol cruiser.

The Battle of Tsushima: Engaging the Enemy

Upon learning of the presence of Rozhdestvenski’s fleet, Adm. Togo — in his flagship, named battleship Mikasa — immediately decided to engage the Russian enemy.

The Russian fleet was sailing north by northeast, in a single-line formation with Rozhdestvenski’s flagship, battleship Knyaz Suvorov, at the lead. Behind Rozhdestvenski’s ship were more Russian battleships, followed by the cruisers and other auxiliaries.

Togo’s Japanese fleet sailed southwest, toward a point just ahead of the Russian lead ship. In doing so, Togo “crossed the ‘T'” of the Russians, allowing all Japanese warships to bring their guns to bear in a broadside against only the forward armament of the Russians.

The Russian gunners in Knyaz Suvorov, and several of the trailing battleships, fired first. Several shells struck the leading Japanese vessel, the Mikasa. Among the first Japanese to be wounded was a young gunnery officer named Isoroku, who lost part of his left hand to a Russian shell fragment. That officer would later be called Yamamoto, and as an admiral would lead the Japanese navy in its attack on the American base at Pearl Harbor in 1941. But this gets ahead of the story.

The Japanese began to return fire. As any student of naval gunnery knows, the keys to its effect are range, volume of fire, and the nature of the target. By “crossing the ‘T'” of the Russians, the Japanese were able to bring all of their guns to bear, firing broadside at relatively close range to the lead elements of the Russian line.

The Russian ships that were further to the rear were out of range of the Japanese and hence unable to come to the assistance of the lead elements, or if they were in range, it was with reduced accuracy and only with forward guns.

The Japanese tactic was initially to concentrate fire on Rozhdestvenski’s flagship Knyaz Suvorov and the large Russian battleships in its trail. This the Japanese did with remarkable effect. The topsides of the lead ship, the Knyaz Suvorov, were rapidly reduced to steel wreckage.

Fires were blazing from bow to stern, consuming anything that would burn, including the bags of coal that Rozhdestvenski had worked so hard to acquire during the course of his voyage. Exposed ammunition began to ignite and explode, adding to the damage. The Knyaz Suvorov lost her steering and began to steam aimlessly out of formation, with smaller Japanese vessels circling for the kill.

The Knyaz Suvorov’s conning tower was a cramped cylinder of armor plate, from which location Rozhdestvenski and his staff attempted to survey and manage the battle.

Rapidly, the conning tower was struck by multiple Japanese shells, which sent steel splinters ricocheting around the enclosed space, killing many of the occupants. Rozhdestvenski suffered a grievous head wound, as well as shrapnel in his back, and later a severe wound to his leg that almost led to his bleeding to death.

His assistants carried Rozhdestvenski to a place of relative safety on the doomed ship. Later, just before the Knyaz Suvorov sank, the unconscious admiral was transferred to the Russian destroyer Buiny.

Other ships in the Russian line soon followed the fate of the Knyaz Suvorov. Japanese shells fell heavily upon the decks of the Oslyabya, the Kamchatka, the Alexander III, and almost every other Russian ship. Masts broke, funnels came crashing down, coal and exposed ammunition erupted in fire and explosion, combustibles burned, men died.

The Battle of Tsushima: Not Russia’s Day

Many of the Russian sailors displayed exemplary bravery and stayed at their posts to the bitter end, manning their guns and trying to give as good as they got. But it was not to be their day.

As the Russian flotilla broke formation and its ships began to scatter upon the seas, the Japanese fleet executed a brilliant maneuver, turning as one formation to the northeast. The Japanese commenced to shadow each Russian vessel, concentrating fire until the Russians either stopped and surrendered or sank into a slick of debris, dead bodies, and steam. One by one, the ships of the Russian fleet went to the bottom or fled from their Japanese pursuers.

One Russian vessel, the Svetlana, although surrounded, kept the Japanese at bay for several hours, firing her deck guns and launching torpedoes at every approach by the enemy. According a report in the official Japanese naval archives, although there was nothing else to be done, the crew determined to die and refused to hoist the signal of surrender.

Bathed in a shower of shells, they waited for their ship to sink. The captain had been killed and the second-in-command mortally wounded. The immense Russian vessel flooded and gradually heeled over. Most of the surviving sailors jumped into the sea, there to drown in the ice-cold waters. The circling Japanese ships ceased fire.

After the smoke cleared from the seas around Tsushima, Japan had won a lopsided victory that changed the balance of power in Asia, if not the world. Russia lost 22 warships sunk and six captured, including the destroyer Buiny with the wounded Rozhdestvenski on board.

(The Japanese officer who accepted the surrender did not believe that the Russian fleet commander was on board and insisted on looking at the unconscious Rozhdestvenski.) Six more Russian vessels were interned in neutral ports. Only two battered ships limped into Vladivostok, having burned in their boilers the ship’s furniture, and even sailors’ clothing, in order to make steam. Only three Japanese destroyers had been sunk

Russia’s humiliating defeat exposed the weakness of Russia’s tsarist regime and hastened its eventual collapse. Violent street riots broke out across Russia, coupled with industrial and transportation strikes. All through Russian society, people began to speak up and demand government reforms that culminated, years later and after many more great events, in the Russian Revolution of 1917.

European nations were shocked at Russia’s military weakness, and both Russia’s allies and foes rethought the tangle of relationships that had held the peace in Europe, off and on, for much of the 19th century. One of the greatest losers was Germany, which saw its relations with Russia rapidly deteriorate as the Russians began to curry favor with the great naval power Britain. It would matter greatly by August 1914.

The Battle of Tsushima was a dramatic climax to a disastrous military effort by Russia. Distilled to an essence, it highlights the disastrous consequences of making national strategic and military policy based on poor assumptions and even worse understanding of the capabilities and motives of an opponent.

The Russo-Japanese War has come to be called “World War Zero.” It was, in many respects, a dress rehearsal for the Great War (World War I) that would break out in 1914. Its consequences are still with us, a century after the last shot was fired.

Tsushima was the culminating battle of a war that changed the world. In future articles in Whiskey & Gunpowder, we will discuss more about the echoes of its guns.

Until we meet again…

Byron W. King
June 8, 2005