An Ugly Fight – The Forgotten Sea Battle
By Mike Creasy
In the age of iron and steel, there have been relatively few big ship fleet actions. Some of these we may still recognize from our foggy history of World War 2 –the Bismarck chase, the Barents Sea battle, Guadalcanal, Midway, the Philippine Sea and some others. We also recognize the battle of Jutland from WW 1, notable for it’s size and the lack of a clear victory for either side.
But how many of us recognize the name of one of the largest capital ship actions ever fought. A battle that resulted in the destruction of one of the world’s largest battleship navies. A battle that did not involve Britain, or Germany, or even the USA.
A battle called Tsushima.
The 19th century had seen major changes in warship technology. From the battle of Trafalgar in 1805 – fought entirely with sail-powered wooden ships, muzzle-loading cannons (and hearts of oak) to the installation of steam power in a wooden two-decker in 1846, the first rifled cannons in 1853, the first iron-hulled warship in 1861, turrets, armour, electricity, and on and on.
By the 1880’s almost every country in the world had become caught up in a naval development craze – a sort of stylish arms race for the horse and buggy set.
Britain and France were the leaders in design and construction, although many other naval powers (Germany, Russia, United States, Turkey, Italy, Spain, Hungary, Japan) were building some types of iron warship.
Russian “Borodino” class pre-dreadnought
By the turn of the century, there were literally dozens of fleets around the world, equipped with everything from wooden hulled steam/sail combinations to the latest thing in ship design; the British Majestic class. 413 feet, 15,000 tons, 16 knots, armed with 4 x 12” guns. The Majestics were the pinnacle of pre-dreadnought warship design and were sold to several other countries, including Japan.
The Japanese Empire was engaged in an expansion program into Korea and Manchuria. This brought it into conflict with Russia, which had its own designs on the area.
In February 1904, Japanese destroyers attacked the Russian outpost at Port Arthur in North Korea, starting a sequence of events that would lead to one of the biggest fleet actions of the 20th century.
Japan had a large, modern navy with a number of battleships and armoured cruisers built by British, French, American and Japanese yards. The Russian fleet had some modern ships, but it was split into three separate fleets in the Baltic, the Pacific and the Black Sea.
To deal with the Japanese fleet, Russia had to send major elements from the Baltic and Black Sea fleets to join the Pacific fleet (based at Vladivostok). In 1904, with short-range coal-fired warships, no Russian bases enroute, this was not an easy feat. In October, Vice-Admiral Rozhestvensky sailed from Libau (Latvia) with 4 new battleships, 4 older battleships, six cruisers and a host of destroyers and support vessels. The squadron sailed all the way around Africa to rendezvous with the Black Sea squadron at Madagascar, in January 1905.
The combined squadron remained at Madagascar for repairs until March, when it sailed for Vladivostok. Crippled by shortages of coal, mechanical problems (some of the older ships came to be known as “self-sinkers) and a few mutinies as the Russian revolution started back home, the voyage became a floating disaster.
Adm. Rozhestvensky hoped to cross the Yellow Sea and reach friendly territory at Vladivostok before meeting the Japanese fleet. But Fleet Commander Togo had other ideas, and awaited his arrival in the Tsushima Straits.
On the morning of May 27, 1905, 11 Russian battleships steamed northwest to meet the Japanese battle line of 4 battleships and 8 armoured cruisers. Both sides had 12” main guns of contemporary design. Interestingly, these guns were capable of firing a projectile 12,000 yards, but with little or no accuracy beyond 1,500 yards. And, many Russian shells failed to explode even if they did hit the enemy!
The Russian fleet opened fire at 7,500 yards and scored several hits, but did no damage due to the poor quality shells. The Japanese began to fire at about 6,000 yards, but got no hits for the first 10 or 15 minutes, because of problems with the latest British rangefinders they were using on the 12” guns. As ranges came down, both sides began to score with their secondary batteries (primarily 6”). Once the Japanese found the range, they began to pound the Russian ships, while the Russians continued to wrestle with dud shells.
The two fleets moved into classic battle order: line astern formations steaming on parallel courses. Battle raged all afternoon. The Russian flagship Suvorov was sunk in the first hour and Adm. Rozhestvensky fatally wounded.
The Russian fleet pounded on, but the Japanese had about a 2 knot speed advantage so breaking off the action was not an option. Also, the Russian fleet was short of ammunition, not having made it to Vladivostok to re-provision after their epic 7 month journey.
During the night, Japanese destroyers and torpedo boats made repeated attacks, and in the morning, the scattered Russian ships formed up again.
At 1030 on the morning of May 28, the Japanese fleet opened fire again. The Russian gunnery officer told the senior surviving officer that none of the main guns on the remaining Russian ships could reply. Colours were struck and the battle was over.
The result was appalling for the Russians; 12 capital ships, 4 destroyers and 3 auxiliaries sunk, 4 capital ships and a destroyer captured. 4,830 men killed, 7,769 captured or interned.
On the Japanese side; 3 torpedo-boats sunk, 117 men killed. Period.
This wipeout led to a Russian pullout from Manchuria and other political losses. More importantly, it led to a number of gunnery and ship design changes for HMS Dreadnought – laid down in October 1905 and launched a year later.
Dreadnought quickly became the benchmark for warship design and was copied and improved upon by all the world’s navies. In particular, Britain and Germany began to re-equip with Dreadnought-style battleships, creating new fleets for a coming war in Europe.
Big Fleet Actions, Eric Grove, Brockhampton Press, 1998
Battleships, Anthony Preston, Bison Books, 1982