The Russo-Japanese war or why the Imperial Russian Navy sucked at naval warfare.

Seriously give it a read, it’s all worth it!

As the result of both powers seeking to expand their empires into
Manchuria and Korea, Japan opened hostilities with a surprise attack on
the Russian naval base at Port Arthur (now in modern China) on 8th
February 1904 in which two battleships and a cruiser were sunk. In
August an attempted breakout by the Russians resulted in a second defeat
at the Battle of the Yellow Sea. The surviving Russian ships were now
either contained in Port Arthur, Vladivostock or friendly ports to which
they had fled.

In reply to the resounding defeat of the Russian Far Eastern Fleet, the Tsar Nicholas II
authorised an unbelievable proposal from his government. Forty-five
ships from the Russian Baltic Fleet would sail 18,000 miles around the
world from its bases in northern Europe, defeat the Japanese navy and
relieve Port Arthur thus bringing about a swift end to the war as Japan
relied on her navy to support her land forces.

The epic journey that followed would be highly comic were it not for the
fact that 4,000 Russian naval personnel died as a result. From the
outset, the expedition was doomed to failure yet no one sought to
question the folly of the plan.

Russian Naval Power?
In 1904, Russia was a backward country. In terms of geographical area it
was the largest nation in the world, and the Tsar ruled over an empire
which spanned eastern Europe and Asia incorporating many different
races. On paper, Russia was a major military power – in reality her
armies were poorly equipped and trained and as a naval power she was
third rate despite expanding the size of her navy to rival that of other
European powers. Russian power was certainly over estimated by other

Because of its geography, Russian naval activity was split between three
operational areas – the Far East, the Baltic and the Black Sea. Russian
naval operations in the Black Sea were restricted under several
international treaties which hindered the development of Russian naval
ambitions. This theatre was the only area in which Russia could hope to
secure ports in warm water with access to the seas throughout the year
but the numbers and size of ships which Russia could station in the area
was limited, together with their operational activities. Consequently
any ships needed to reinforce the Far Eastern fleet had to be
transferred from the Baltic on the other side of the world.

The Baltic fleet’s task of completing an 18,000 mile voyage, presented a
considerable logistical problem as the fleet would need to re-supply
and refuel en route. Unlike the Royal Navy, the Russians had no bases
around the globe and international treaties prevented them from using
the ports of other friendly foreign powers such as France. Hence a plan
to re-supply the fleet was devised – freighters chartered from the
German Hamburg-Amerika line would refuel the ships at sea.

Potentially, the Baltic fleet was a large and powerful force. In 1904,
the leading naval powers were Britain, France and Germany. The United
States had entered into a period of significant naval expansion
following years in which its fleet had been a predominantly coastal
protection force. Italy had a small but technically advanced fleet and
Italian naval architects and designers were held in high regard. The
emerging naval power of the time was Japan whose highly disciplined navy
and officer corps had been trained by the British. In contrast the
Russian navy faced several problems.

Prior to the launch of “HMS Dreadnought”,
which lead to standardised design for battleships , many ships of the
day were a bizarre mixture of different experiments in naval
architecture, which were mostly untried in combat conditions. This often
resulted in ships being top heavy as the latest innovations were added
to the superstructure causing vessels to become unstable. The French
navy was the most significant victim of this period of experimentation
and had lost several ships which had keeled over and sank due to design

The Baltic fleet suffered similar problems with some of its battleships
being as much as 1,500 tons overweight. In practice this meant that the
secondary armament was often underwash and could not be fired. The belt
armour was also below the waterline and therefore offered no protection
against enemy shells. An example of the hazards posed by these design
flaws can be seen in one of the fleet’s battleships “Oroyol” which sank while anchored in Kronstadt harbour and had to be re-floated.

Russian Manpower
As if the problems with logistics and ship design were not enough,
Admiral Rozhestvensky – the unfortunate soul in charge of the expedition
– had a third source of problems – the quality of his crews.

The majority of Russian naval ratings were uneducated peasants and did
not come from the coastal areas of Russia, consequently they lacked any
experience of the sea. The Baltic Fleet spent long periods of the year
inactive as Russia’s northern harbours were iced up for months at a
time. This resulted in limited time being available for training crews
in the intricacies of modern naval warfare.

The state of affairs was so bad that one officer on the battleship “Kniaz Suvoroff
said of his gunnery crews that “One half have to be taught everything
because they know nothing; the other half because they have forgotten
everything; but if they do remember anything then it is obsolete”. To
compound the problem it would later emerge that some of the ratings were
members of various revolutionary groups who tried to stir up unrest
among the crews.

In addition, Rozhestvensky was also dissatisfied with his senior
officers. He referred to his obese second-in-command Rear-Admiral
Folkersham as “a manure sack” and described the cruiser commander
Rear-Admiral Enkvist as “a vast empty space”.

The Voyage Begins
These difficulties notwithstanding, on 16th October 1904, the fleet (now
renamed the Second Pacific Squadron) set sail from Libau, in modern
Latvia, on its epic voyage. The tone for the expedition was set as the
flagship ran aground and one of the escorting cruisers lost its anchor
chain. While the fleet waited for the flagship to re-float and the
cruiser to retrieve its misplaced anchor, a destroyer accidentally
rammed the battleship “Oslyaba” and had to return to Reval (Tallinn in modern Estonia) for repairs.

Approaching Denmark
Having overcome these initial problems, the fleet sailed through the
narrow waters between Sweden and Denmark. A note of hysteria set in as
reports reached the fleet that Japanese torpedo boats were stationed off
the Danish coast. The question of how a Japanese torpedo boat squadron
(which had a limited range) had managed to travel 18,000 miles in so
short a time was never asked.

These rumours were further fuelled with talk of the Japanese having
mined the seas and Japanese submarines being seen. This invoked a
further outbreak of mass hysteria amongst the fleet. To quell this,
Rozhestvensky then issued an order that “no vessel of any sort must be
allowed to get in amongst the fleet”.

When two fishermen delivering consular dispatches from the Tsar
approached the fleet, the Russians opened fire. Ironically, the two men,
who were thankfully unharmed due to the appalling standards of Russian
gunnery, had a personal message for Rozhestvensky from Tsar Nicholas
informing him that he had now been promoted to Vice-Admiral.

For good measure the fleet repair ship “Kamchatka” signaled that she was
under attack by torpedo boats. When asked how many she replied “about
eight from all directions”. This was a false alarm. The antics of the
captain and crew of the “Kamchatka” would be the cause of several
incidents of an increasingly farcical nature later in the expedition.

The ‘Battle’ of Dogger Bank
Having survived attacks from phantom Japanese torpedo boats and
submarines and having negotiated a non-existent minefield, the squadron
sailed into the North Sea where the Russians spotted the Hull trawler
fleet fishing on the Dogger Bank. The Russians identified the innocent
trawlers as being yet more Japanese torpedo boats and opened fire – an
incident which almost caused war between Russia and Britain.

In the ensuing pandemonium several Russian ships signaled that torpedoes had hit them. On the battleship “Borodino”,
some of the crew donned life belts and lay prone on the deck while
others charged around wielding cutlasses shouting that the ship was
being boarded by the Japanese and thus panicked the fleet even more.

The Russian battleships continued firing, damaging four British trawlers
and sinking one. For good measure they also managed to hit two of their
own cruisers the “Avrora” and the “Donskoy” which had been subject to a bombardment from seven Russian battleships sailing in line-ahead formation !

The following morning revealed a night of madness caused by mass
hysteria amongst the Russians. Fortunately for the British trawlers (and
the two Russian cruisers) Russian gunnery was so bad that damage had
been kept to a minimum. For example, the battleship “Oroyol” had fired over 500 shells without hitting a thing.

The Russian government was quick to apologise but British public opinion
and the media demanded war against Russia. Twenty-eight British
battleships from the Home Fleet were ordered to raise steam and prepare
for action while British cruiser squadrons shadowed the Russian fleet as
it crossed the Bay of Biscay and sailed down the Portuguese coast.

Nearing Vigo, Rozhestvensky was ordered to dock and leave behind the
officers who had been responsible for attacking the British trawlers.
Rozhestvensky used the diplomatic furore as an excuse to rid himself of a
Captain Klado one of his most bitter critics.

Klado was ordered to return to St. Petersburg to organise reinforcements
for the fleet. Klado would use this as an opportunity for revenge on
Rozhestvensky by rounding up old, obsolete vessels which the Admiral had
condemned as “old tubs” and jokingly referred to as the
“sink-by-themselves” squadron.

The Fleet Reaches Africa
The main fleet then approached Tangier having lost contact with the
“Kamchatka” for some days. The “Kamchatka” eventually rejoined the fleet
reporting that she had fired 300 shells in an engagement with three
Japanese ships – the enemy vessels were actually a Swedish merchantman, a
German trawler and a French schooner. For good measure as the fleet
left Tangier one ship managed to cut the city’s underwater telegraph
cable with her anchor which prevented communication with Europe for four

The next phase in the operation was to rendezvous with ten of the German
supply ships off Dakar in Western Africa. Having made contact, the
fleet then proceeded to take on double loads of coal. These extra loads
had to be stored on the decks, which caused coal dust to spread
throughout the ships. The coal dust, combined with the humid equatorial
atmosphere, resulted in the death of some of the seamen who suffered
severe respiratory problems from breathing in the filthy black air,
which congested their lungs.

Having been quiet for some days, the “Kamchatka” sent a new wave of
panic throughout the fleet when she sent the wrong signal during a storm
off the coast of Angola. Instead of issuing the code “We are all right
now” the message “Do you see torpedo boats” was signaled.

As the fleet neared Cape Town, Rozhestvensky received a signal that
Klado was sending the reinforcements to join him. The Admiral knowing
the quality of the ships decided to avoid a rendezvous with them. Morale
amongst the fleet reached an all time low as many of the sailors became
convinced that they were sailing to certain destruction.

To lift their spirits, the crews collected exotic pets on shore visits –
including a crocodile and a poisonous snake that caused a panic on one
battleship when it wrapped itself around the guns and then bit the
commanding officer. The fleet turned into a floating zoo as a bizarre
menagerie of birds and animals was left free to roam the decks. Events
took a more severe downturn when the cooling plant on the “Esperance”,
the fleet’s refrigerated supply ship, broke down. A lot of rotting meat
had to be jettisoned which resulted in the fleet being followed by

To Madagascar and the Indian Ocean
At Madagascar, events took a turn for the worse. For two weeks, Admiral
Rozhestvensky was severely ill and remained confined in his cabin. His
Chief of Staff suffered a brain haemorrhage and was partially paralysed.
No one was really in command of the fleet and the crews spent
increasing amounts of time ashore at various saloons, brothels and
gambling houses. Disease broke out with daily deaths from malaria,
dysentery and typhoid. During the funeral for one of her dead, the
“Kamchatka” fired a salute. Unfortunately a live shell was used which
hit the cruiser “Aurora” which was by now becoming used to being a
mobile target for Russian gunnery.

Mental illness from the long period at sea began to take a toll on the
crews as religious fervour broke out. The worst cases together with a
group of mutineers and revolutionaries from the “Admiral Nakhimov
were sent back to Russia on the supply ship “Malay”. Many officers were
frequently drunk or drugged. One officer had bought 2,000 cigarettes in
Madagascar, which were found to be filled with opium.

The fleet also needed to be re-supplied with ammunition having fired
most of its shells in the “battle” with the British trawlers. Spirits
lifted when the supply ship “Irtysh” arrived. The “Irtysh” was expected
to be carrying ammunition for the fleet. When the cargo was unloaded it
was found to comprise 12,000 pairs of fur-lined boots and a matching
number of winter coats – ideally suited to equatorial Africa where the
fleet was now stationed!

To try and restore some semblance of order and battle readiness,
Rozhestvensky ordered gunnery practice. None of the destroyers scored
any hits on a stationary target. Of the battleships, the flagship scored
a single hit which was on the ship towing the target. A destroyer
squadron ordered to sail in line abreast formation scattered during
exercises, as the officers had not been issued with new code books.
Seven torpedoes were fired – one of which jammed, three swung off
target, two chugged slowly and missed the target altogether and one went
round in a circle causing ships to scatter in panic. For good measure
the “Kamchatka” sent a signal saying she was sinking – on investigation
this turned out to be nothing more than a cracked steam pipe in the
engine room.

In the meantime, the reinforcements now named the Third Pacific
Squadron, set sail from Reval (Tallinn) under the command of the elderly
Admiral Nebogatoff. The Admiralty ordered him to rendezvous with the
main fleet “You are to join up with Rozhestvensky, whose route is
unknown to us”. Rozhestvensky had no intention of joining up with what
he had described as an “archaeological collection of naval architecture”
and it must have appeared to him that he was being pursued around the
globe by a fleet of ghost ships. To add to his problems, Rozhestvensky
read in a newspaper that the Admiralty in St. Petersburg had ordered him
to destroy the Japanese fleet, sail to Vladivostock and there hand over
command to Admiral Biriloff who was traveling to the port by the
Trans-Siberian Railway.

Appointment With Destiny
The fleet then crossed the Indian Ocean where it was met by a transport
ship “Gortchakoff”. Spirits lifted in the hope that the ship had some
long overdue mail from home. In fact the only mail the ship was carrying
was the letters the crews had sent home from Madagascar one month

On 11th May 1905, the Third Pacific Squadron , having made good progress
for a collection of old tubs, joined the main fleet off the coast of
Indo-China. The new arrivals bought news from home of unrest, mutiny and

The fleet now headed for Vladivostock, but was engaged by the Japanese
at the battle of Tsushima during 27th-29th May 1905. The outcome was a
one-sided victory for the Japanese who sunk eight Russian battleships,
nine cruisers and several other ships resulting in the deaths of 4,000
Russian sailors, 3 admirals and 7,300 captured. In contrast Japanese
losses amounted to 3 torpedo boats, 116 killed and 530 wounded Those
Russian ships which survived managed to escape to Vladivostock and Port
Arthur where they remained blockaded until the end of the war or the
nearest neutral port.

The decision to send the Baltic fleet around the world to its
destruction must rank as one of the gravest in the long line of naval
follies. Diplomatically, the victory at the battle of Tsushima was a
major boost to Japan, which became the first eastern nation to defeat a
European power.

Russia was beaten militarily and Japan was financially exhausted by the
war so both powers agreed to negotiation with talks mediated by Theodore
Roosevelt the President of the United States. The resulting Treaty of
Portsmouth signed on 5th September 1905 saw Russia surrender its leases
to the important naval bases of Liaoyang and Port Arthur. Russia
evacuated the southern half of Sakhalin and Manchuria and recognised
Korea as a Japanese sphere of influence. Two months after the treaty was
signed, the 1905 revolution rocked Russia, which enabled Japan to make
Korea a protectorate before formally annexing it in 1910.

As for Admiral Rozhestvensky, he didn’t follow a naval tradition and go
down with his ship but survived the war only to commit suicide.


Jesus fucking Christ, that greentext barely makes justice to this clusterfuck of a fleet!