Gateway to the Classics: The Boy's Book of Battles by Eric Wood
The Boy's Book of Battles by  Eric Wood


The Greatest Naval Battle of Modern Times

The Russian Bear and the Land of the Rising Sun were engaged in waging the most extensive war since the period of the first Napoleon. Great wars there had been previously, but the Russo-Japanese war must be given first place in many respects because it brought into play all the developments in scientific warfare which the ingenuity of man for centuries had been able to devise.

As all the world knows, the war was brought about as a result of the conflict of Russian and Japanese interests in Manchuria. Japan struck the first blow—an effective one, and all along the line her armies and navy were victorious. Defeat after defeat did they inflict on the Russians, whose land forces were held in check, their ships crippled.

Like a forlorn hope the Baltic Fleet left Cronstadt on September 11th, 1904, making with all haste for the theatre of war, intent upon striking one crushing blow, and so reversing the fortune of war. With the incidents of the voyage into Japanese waters we have no time to deal; our story begins with the Baltic Fleet in the Pacific Ocean at the opening of the Tsushima Straits, through which Admiral Roshdestvensky had decided to pass on May 27th. His fleet was made up of the first, second, and third squadrons, and the fact that the latter only joined the main fleet on May 9th rendered the execution of manúuvres very difficult.

As a matter of fact, instead of being an effective striking power, the Russian fleet was a mere conglomeration of war vessels; they had been hastily dispatched, without having collectively practised the art of war.

On approaching Tsushima, Roshdestvensky's fleet was on the qui vive  for the Japanese, who in their turn were keeping a strict look out for their foe, rumours of whose coming were reaching them. Togo expected them by about the 25th, and undoubtedly thought that they would make for Chin-Hai Bay, in Korea. He knew that Vladivostok was the destination of Roshdestvensky, and it was his intention to meet him and crush him before that object could be achieved. Standing on the bridge of his flagship, the Mikasa, Togo waited for the message that should tell him that Roshdestvensky was at hand. There was not a man in all his fleet who was not thinking the same thoughts as filled his admiral's mind; would the Russians come that day, would the great battle be fought at once? Moreover, not a man of them but looked forward with confidence. They were going to win.

All the evening of the 26th and during the small hours of the 27th the ether-waves had been bringing silent messages from here and there, yet none could give news of the enemy, until at 5 A.M. a guardship to the south sent the thrilling message:

"Enemy's squadron sighted in No. 203 section. He seems to be steering for the East Channel."

So Roshdestvensky was coming.

At full speed ahead the Japanese fleet cut through the waters, making for Tsushima, Togo keeping up wireless communications with his vedettes.

Meanwhile, what of the Russian fleet? During the night of the 26th and the morning of the 27th, Roshdestvensky had been carefully steaming up to the Straits. A thick mist favoured him, and he hugged himself in the belief that he would give Togo the slip. From the wireless messages which he intercepted he knew that the Japanese were as yet unaware of his proximity. But Fate played him a bad trick; at five o'clock Togo's auxiliary cruiser, the Sinano Maru, loomed out of the mist. In a moment her captain had grasped the situation, and across the ether the wireless message sped, sending Togo off post haste for Old.

Roshdestvensky was discovered; he could not slip by the waiting Japanese.

The Russian admiral immediately ordered the Almax, Ural, and Svetlana  to protect his transports in the rear, at the same time sending out scouts to keep a watch on Japanese movements. Every now and then these scouts hurried up with the news that ships were in the vicinity, and fearing that Togo's whole fleet was near at hand, Roshdestvensky desisted from sending out cruisers to attack them. He realised that he would need all his strength to meet Togo in the mass.

There is no need to go into the details of the passage up the Tsushima Straits. By half-past one in the afternoon the two fleets were within sight of each other. Togo, on the Mikasa, led the Japanese fleet, followed by the Fuji, Shikishima,  and Asahi;  and the armoured cruisers Kasuga  and Nisshina;  behind these came the armoured cruisers Idsumo, Iwate, Yakumo, Adxuma, Asama, and Tokiwa. Togo had previously dispatched his protected cruisers to attack Roshdestvensky's rear.

Roshdestvensky had formed his fleet into three sections: a right column, composed of his four best battleships, the Kniaz Suvaroff  (flagship), the Alexander III., Borodino  and Orel;  a left column consisting of four sections, the first made up of the battleships Ossliabya, Sissoi Veliky, and Navarin, and the armoured cruiser Admiral Nakimof, Rear-Admiral Folkersahn leading in the first of these. The second section consisted of the battleship Nikolai I. (Rear-Admiral Niebogatoff) and the coast defence ships Apraxin, Seniavine  and Oushakof;  the third, commanded by Rear-Admiral Enquist, had the protected cruisers Oleg, Aurora, Svetlana, and Almaz; the fourth, consisting of the six special service steamers, a converted cruiser, and two armoured cruisers, Dmitri Donskoi and Vladimir Monomakh.

As soon as he sighted the foe, Togo gave the order for his whole fleet to engage. Like the Nelson of England at the Trafalgar of the nineteenth century, the Nelson of Japan at the Trafalgar of the twentieth century gave his ships a signal. Togo's message ran:

"The fate of the Empire depends on this event. Let every man do his utmost."

And in his heart every man vowed to do his utmost for his country.

One by one Togo's squadrons loomed out of the mist. Heading south-west, Togo's own squadron seemed to be intent upon crossing the enemy's course. Suddenly, however, the course was changed due east, and with his cruiser squadron following, Togo bore down in single column diagonally on the head of the Russian column.

To Roshdestvensky and his staff it seemed a foolish course; it meant that to take up the position Togo evidently had in mind, each of his ships would have to pass the others, and so be unable to fire.

Taking advantage of this, Roshdestvensky immediately opened fire at a range of about 9,000 yards. It was the signal for the whole Russian fleet, which thundered forth a tremendous fire, although an ineffectual one. No damage seemed to have been done, and still the Japanese proceeded with their manúuvre, holding their fire until four or five of their ships had taken up the position for which Togo was working.

Eight thousand yards and still no reply; seven, and not a Japanese shell had sped through the air; six, and with a roar the Japanese gins spoke forth their messages of death.

The first shells went over the Russian vessels; the next fell short, but at the next try the range was found, and thereafter seldom lost. The big calibre guns of the Japanese ships hurled their four-feet shells across the water, pitching here and there and everywhere upon the Russian vessels. Crash! the first hit found the funnel of the Kniaz Suvaroff, battered it, and set fire to everything near it. Immediately the men with the hose were ready, and were working hard to cope with the flames. They worked in vain, for as they conquered in one place another shell burst somewhere else, and smoke and flames called them to renew their efforts.

One by one the Japanese crossed the Russian bows, and by the time the manúuvre was completed, the terrific firing had worked such havoc on the Russians that the Kniaz Suvaroff and the Ossliabya  were both in flames. The latter leaked and was compelled to retire, but the former, though she refused to answer to her helm, kept up a vigorous fire as she left the line. Handrails, funnels, cabins, derricks—all were wrecked; decks were plowed up by shells that exploded on the least resistance, and seemed little less than deadly mines; iron ladders simply crumpled up, and guns were lifted bodily from their mountings. Dead men lay piled upon the decks, wounded were being carried below by the dozen; and everywhere the flames were triumphing.

The Japs fired with fiendish accuracy; their cannonade was much heavier than the Russians, and it soon became evident that the latter were far out-classed. Faster, too, the Japanese were able to outwit Roshdestvensky every time he changed his formation. Single-column ahead, the Russians changed their direction from east to west, and for a while the two fleets steamed in opposite directions. The Russian manúuvre was fatal; Togo changed his course, seeking to head the foe off to the west, and shortly afterwards the Russian armoured vessels found themselves exposed to a cross-fire from Togo's battleships and armoured cruisers. A terrific fire was poured in upon them, and several other vessels caught fire. The Kniaz Suvaroff  was now all but helpless; her Admiral was wounded, of all her complement of guns but one or two were serviceable, and what men were fit kept them working. One by one they fell; sometimes in more than ones; yet still the guns blazed away.

The smoke was now so thick, that, together with the fog, it was almost impossible for the gunners of either fleet to fire, and so for a time Togo's men held their fire. From across the water where the Russians were steaming came ever and anon the sound of explosions as fires reached ammunition.

Presently the firing began again; remorseless, pitiless, dogged in their determination to strike the blow that should crush Russia's fleet, the Japs kept up their cannonade whenever the fog and smoke lifted and gave them a ship to aim at. On the Russian ships the men were in a panic; those shrieking shells that dealt out death and destruction almost drove them crazy, though some were still ready to return shot for shot, as far as their inferior guns would allow.

Let it not be thought that to the Russians alone fell all the losses, despite the fact that the Japanese shimose shells were much more effective. A Russian writer has said that these shells raised the temperature one and a half times higher than pyroxyline, and that one of them did twelve times as much damage as a Russian, even if the latter burst well which it seldom did.

However, Togo had to register some injuries; the Kasuga  had three guns put out of action; the Asama  had her steering gear injured, three shells struck her near the water-line, and, leaking badly, she was compelled to leave the fighting-line. Working like slaves, her engineers fixed her up temporarily, and presently the Asama  resumed her place.

Leading the van, the Mikasa  met the full fire of the Russian ships; shell after shell passed over her; shell after shell fell upon her, and one of them fell on the ladder of the bridge where Togo was directing the battle. Shell case and splinters flew in all directions. With a crash the iron cover of the compass was smashed, and an iron splinter struck Togo on the right thigh. Absorbed in his observation the Admiral seemed not to notice his danger! Fortunately, he was unhurt.

At three o'clock the Russians had been forced in a southern direction; aided by the fog and smoke they suddenly headed north in an endeavour to pass by the rear of the Japanese line. Lead by the Nisshin, the latter's main force squadron turned to port, the armoured cruisers following. Directing a heavy fire upon the foe, the Japanese forced them southwards again, and the move was frustrated.

Ten minutes after three the Ossliabya's  difficulties increased. Dead shots that the Japanese gunners were, they concentrated upon the vessel which, as we have seen, was early in the fight disabled. All day the sea had been rough, heeling the ships over on their sides, and making a good mark to the gunners. The Japs aimed low, and at last three shells in succession struck the Ossliabya—struck her on the water-line, gouged a great hole in her side—and the ship was doomed. With a rush the water poured into her; water-tight compartments were useless, and the vessel listed heavily. With startling suddenness—almost before her crew could tell what was happening—the leviathan heeled over, turned turtle, and, with a hissing of steam and the roar of exploding boilers, found a grave beneath the waves.

Meanwhile the Kniaz Suvaroff  was nearing her end. With a heavy list to port, a fire in her upper battery, and swinging round and round helplessly and hopelessly, she made a fine mark for the Japanese. A rain of shells descended upon her, smashing her last forward turret gun; and then Togo's torpedo craft was sent to complete the fiendish work. Through the water went the speeding death; yet for some time not one of the torpedoes reached the mark. At last, with a terrible impact, one of the deadly tubes hit the ship on the port side astern. Almost by a miracle the once proud giant of the seas kept afloat, her remaining gun spitting forth its vengeance, and the torpedo boats, "seeing that this strange-looking, battered vessel could still show her teeth, steamed off to wait for a more favourable opportunity."

Roshdestvensky was still aboard her—wounded, dazed; sitting alone on the box in the turret, he refused to say how severely he was wounded. The Alexander  had by this time taken the lead, and she was in almost as bad a state as the Admiral's flagship. A heavy fire was directed upon her, and after a time she and the ships immediately following her steamed away, great pillars of water rising heavenward as shells missed her.

Out of the mist and smoke there suddenly loomed the image of a torpedo boat.

"Torpedo boats ahead!" The cry rang out over the Kniaz Suvaroff, and the solitary gun was ready. It was a false alarm, for although it was a torpedo boat, it was only the Russian ship Buiny, coming to find out how matters stood with the Admiral.

Quickly her officer was commanded to take the Admiral off. But Roshdestvensky was adamant; he refused to leave his turret. At last, desperate and anxious, some of his officers took him bodily and began to carry him to the side. As soon as he was lifted the Admiral fainted; and the task of getting him away, became easier.

But there was another difficulty. Neither the Suvaroff  nor the Buiny  had a boat left in which he could be taken off. Several of the sailors quickly rigged up a raft of scorched hammocks and rope. It was never used; the Buiny  suddenly ran alongside the Suvaroff—a most difficult and dangerous move, for the sea was rolling heavily—and just as a wave swung the Buiny  beneath one of the ports, the Admiral was "lowered down, half thrown on board the torpedo boat."

As quickly as possible several other officers managed to reach the Buiny, which afterwards steamed away. It is said that some of them "completely lost their heads, and when they saw the ship was doomed, held back the men while they themselves escaped."

All the time that the Admiral was being taken off, some of the Japanese cruisers were pouring heavy fire into the ships; but the Buiny  and the Admiral escaped. Wallowing in the waves, the Suvaroff  lay almost a helpless hulk, that little gun of hers still keeping up a brisk fire. At 7:20 the end came: a third Japanese torpedo section sped out towards her. Her funnels gone, but one mast remaining, round which was clustered what was left of her gallant crew, she was made the mark of another torpedo. Creeping up to within a hundred yards, the Murasame  discharged an eighteen-inch torpedo at her. It missed! Nearer still the torpedo boat came; and once again there was the spurt of the horrific missile. This time the aim was truer. Straight as an arrow from the bow it went, then—with a resounding crash, it hit the mark. The Suvaroff  was doomed. She was crippled. High in the water her stern rose, hung for a moment in the air, and then—the Suvaroff  was gone!

In the cabin of the Buiny  Roshdestvensky lay helpless, his skull fractured. His last words before he once more swooned away delegated the command to Niebogatoff on the Nikolai I. This officer, seeing that it was fruitless to try to escape to the north, led his battered fleet southwards, pursued by the Japanese. "They are soon hidden by the fog, and at 5:30 Admiral Togo realises that they have cleverly turned on their tracks, and that he himself has for some time been steaming in the wrong direction. There is yet time to repair the mistake, and, accordingly, Togo himself turns north with his main squadron, and dispatches Kamimura with his armoured cruisers to assist the protected cruisers in the south.

Less than a quarter of an hour afterwards Togo's squadron met the auxiliary cruiser Ural. It was like a mouse meeting an elephant—the elephant was sure to win. One round and the Ural  went to the bottom to keep the Suvaroff  company.

Off to the north-east, six Russian vessels were seen striving to get away. After them sailed Togo. It was a stern chase, but the Japs won. Coming up with them, Togo steamed side by side with them, pouring in his deadly broadsides, forcing the Russians to change their course to the north-west. There was no escaping those Japs. The Imperator Alexander III  dropped astern, unable to keep up the fight. Fires raging in every part, men shattered by shells and crushed by falling masses as funnels and masts were hurled headlong from their places, she gave a heavy list, turned turtle—and the third Russian ship was at the bottom of the Sea of Japan.

It was the Borodino's  turn next. The deadly shimose shells fell upon her thick and fast. Bursting here, there, and everywhere, they set fire to everything combustible; hammocks flared up; cabins were shattered; the bridge was wrecked; men with hose were bravely fighting the flames, but all in vain. For three-quarters of an hour the fire raged, and at last reached the magazine, then with a terrific explosion the ship blew up. Her grave was marked by the troubled waters.

Away in the south the combating cruisers had been hard at it all day. At 2:30 Togo had sent his cruisers south to attack the enemy's rear, and by four o'clock, after a stiff conflict, they had managed to throw the Russians into complete disorder. All formation was lost. One special service steamer was sunk, another almost sent to the bottom. Then the Russian rearguard was strengthened by the battleship Nikolai I  and the three coast defence ironclads Apraxin, Seniavine, and Oushakoff. Nothing abashed that reinforcements had come out against them, the Japanese fought on, though both their flagships were hit below the water line, and one of them, the Kasagi, was so much battered that she had to hurry off to a convenient bay, and was unable to take part in the battle the next day.

While Togo was hastening northwards after the fleeing Russian main squadron, Kamimura, as we have seen, us was sent south to assist the protected cruisers, and, coming up when the fighting was in a critical stage, drove the enemy off, sending most of them flying to the north. After them the Japanese steamed, working much havoc. The repair ship Kamchatka  was sunk. She had been in much the same position as the Suvaroff. Steering gear almost gone, she had been a helpless hulk, wallowing about aimlessly. A shell swept across the bridge, carrying her captain and three officers overboard; her masts were shattered, her stern gouged open; listing heavily, there was no hope for her, and what remained of the crew were lowered into the boats. Just in time! With a sudden lurch, her bows rose high in the water, her boilers exploded, and all that remained was a seething whirlpool of foam.

The daylight fighting of May 27th was over, and the honours were to the Japanese. But the battle was by no means over. His main squadron being drawn off, and his cruisers being successful in driving the enemy northward, Togo, as if the day's fighting had not been enough, sent out his torpedo craft. Six sections each of torpedo boats and destroyers "all stood out before sunset, regardless of the state of the weather (the wind was strong and the sea running very high) and each vying with the other to take the lead, approached the enemy."


"Togo, as if the day's fighting had not been enough, sent out his torpedo craft."

From every side these small, but deadly craft bore down upon the fleeing Russians. Nervous and apprehensive, they worked their searchlights, seeking to locate the foes who raced upon them and let go their hidden danger. Steaming to close quarters, the Japanese kept up a continuous attack in the face of terrible broadsides. Forging ahead, they threw the Russians into confusion, broke up their formation, and scattered their vessels in all directions. After them went the torpedo boats. The Sissoi Veliky, the Admiral Nakimoff, and Vladimir

Monomakh  were struck by torpedoes and put out of action. Three Japanese torpedo boats went to the bottom, four destroyers and three torpedo boats were battered about and put out of action.

Farther away to the north-east, another torpedo-boat section sighted two ships, one of them the Navarin. Out from the sides of the torpedo boat the tubes of death sped; no less than four struck the Nevarin; through the holes in her sides the water poured in, and yet another Russian ship went below the waves.

Daybreak on the 28th. The last scenes in the drama of the Sea of Japan are about to be played. The Sissoi Veliky, drifting aimlessly about, was found by a Japanese special service steamer. She was on the point of sinking. The Japanese took off the crew, and made a great effort to tow the ship. The night torpedo attack, however, had been only too sure; and the Sissoi Veliky  sank.

The Nakimoff  met a similar fate. A special service steamer came up with her. The captain, Rodionoff, had already sent off seventy of his crew to Tsushima, close to where the ship had drifted. The Japs boarded her, and tried to drag the captain from his post. Brave man that he was he refused to budge, as also did the chief navigator. Listing heavily, the vessel seemed about to turn over, and the would-be rescuers perforce drew off. Almost immediately the ship went down, taking her captain with her. When the tumult of the waters was over, the Japanese eagerly scanned the surface for the gallant captain. They found him, locked in the arms of the navigator, and almost unconscious the two heroes were hauled aboard.

The Vladimir Monomakh  also went down off Tsushima. An effort was made to tow her, but she was leaking so badly that it was impossible to do so. Hardly had the cables been slipped than there was a loud explosion; the Vladimir Monomakh  had blown up, and in a few minutes, to the sound of a parting salute by the Japanese buglers, she settled down beneath the sea.

What remained of the Russian fleet—six ships only—was speeding away north. The Japanese main squadron steamed after them, heading east in order to cut off the retreat, the cruiser squadron coming up behind. By 10:30 the enemy were completely surrounded. They consisted of the Nikolai I, the Admiral Apraxin, Admiral Seniavine, the Orel, and the Izumund, the remains of a fine fighting force. "Five ships in all. Another cruiser was seen far southward, but she passed out of sight. Not only had these remnants of the enemy's fleet already sustained heavy injuries, but also they were, of course, incapable of resisting our superior force." So says Togo.

Almost shattered by the terrific cannonade and torpedo attacks of the previous day and night, weary from their labours, and well nigh broken-hearted in the consciousness of their helplessness against such an overwhelming force, the Russians sent up the white flag of surrender, "for," says Togo in his official dispatch, "soon after our main squadron and armoured cruiser squadron opened fire upon them, Admiral Nebogatoff signalled his desire to surrender with the force under him. I accepted his surrender," says Togo in his official dispatch, "and as a special measure allowed the officers to retain their swords."

One of the ships did not surrender, but managed to slip away, although the protected cruisers chased her for a long time, and the Chitose  pursued her. In Vladimir Bay, however, she was wrecked, and added one more to the tale of destruction.

While this surrender was taking place, the Admiral Oushakoff  came into sight. She had become separated from her section, and seeing the smoke of the Japanese and Russian vessels, her commander supposed that it betokened the presence of his squadron. Judge of his dismay, therefore, when he found that it was Togo's main squadron into which he was running. Putting about, the Oushakoff  steemed off with her boilers at full pressure. Togo immediately dispateched the armoured cruisers Yakumo  and Iwate, his fastest cruisers, to overhaul her. By eleven o'clock they were within range, but before opening fire signaled to her to surrender, saying that Nebogatoff had already done so. The watching Japanese saw a signal, then they saw it drop and almost at once there came a boom of a gun and a shell sped dangerously near. The foe was going to fight to the very last! And fight they did—to  the very last, for in less than thirty minutes the two cruisers had poured such a hail of shot and shell that the iron clad went hissing down beneath the sea. The Japanese immediately hastened to the spot and succeeded in saving over three hundred men from drowning.

Three other protected cruisers, the Oleg, Aurora, and Jemchug, managed to escape, and, steaming to the south, made Manila; the cruiser Almaz, battered about, reached Vladivostok, where a destroyer also arrived. A destroyer and two special service steamers fled to Shanghai.

Of the thirty-eight ships with which Roshdestvensky had entered the Sea of Japan, these eight ships alone eluded the shot and shell of the Japanese.

And those that remained?

Although the battle proper was over, several of them made the best of a bad job and showed a valiant resistance when face to face with the foe in the last phases.

At ten o'clock in the morning of the 28th, the Svetlana  was attacked by the Japanese cruisers Otawa  and Niitaka.

Fighting against hope, she made a brave show for over an hour, at the end of which she went to keep her sister ships company at the bottom.

Fresh from her victory, the Niitaka, accompanied by the destroyer Murakomo, sped over the waves in chase of the Russian destroyer Buistri. Fast as the fugitive steamed, the pursuers steamed faster, and at last, baffled and cornered, she was driven ashore.

The climax of this the most tremendous battle ever fought came in the evening when Roshdestvensky himself was captured. When night fell on the first day's fight, the Buiny  had become separated from the rest of the fleet, but early in the morning the Biedvi  and the Gromky  hailed in sight, and it was decided to transfer the Admiral to the former. During the day the Gromky  was sunk, but by three o'clock in the afternoon two Japanese destroyers sighted the Biedvi  and another destroyer hurrying away to the east. After them went the Japanese, overhauling them about an hour later. As soon as they were within range, the battle began. For a time the Russians showed fight, and eventually one of them managed to escape, but the Biedvi, running short of coal and water, was at last compelled to run up a white flag.

The Admiral had surrendered!

Until they boarded her the Japanese did not know that Roshdestvensky was aboard, but one can imagine their gratification at finding him there. In view of his injuries, he was allowed to remain on his ship, which the Japanese immediately took in tow, and after a dangerous voyage, during which the tow-rope twice broke in two, captive and captors arrived at Sasebo. Here the Admiral was put into hospital, and after a while was so far recovered as to be able to telegraph an official report of his defeat to the Tsar.

The Dimitri Donskoi, steaming away to the north, was sighted by several destroyers, which immediately set off in pursuit. Japanese reinforcements quickly came up, and surrounding the hapless foe, poured in a terrible cannonade which almost crippled the Dmitri Donskoi. When night fell she was still afloat, but drifting about aimlessly; the morning, however, showed her near the south-east coast of Ulneung Islands, slowly settling down. Fortunately, what remained of her crew had landed on the islands, and were afterwards taken off by the Japanese.

To sum up the battle of Tsushima in such a way as to exhibit the triumph of one side and the complete shattering of the other, it is but necessary to say that Togo lost only three torpedo boats, 116 killed, and 538 wounded; while his adversary, out of thirty-eight ships, lost six battleships, sunk, and two captured; three armoured cruisers, all he had, went down; one protected cruiser was sunk, and another wrecked; one coast defence ship fell a victim to Japanese shells, and the other two were captured. Five of the nine destroyers were accounted for, the Ural  auxiliary cruiser was sunk, as also were four special service steamers; the two hospital ships were captured, although one of them was released. And, last of all, between two and three thousand men were killed, and over six thousand captured.

Such a tale of woe as the world had never heard of. Russia's forlorn hope had failed, and though the war went on a little longer, it was evident that Japan had been triumphant; the Land of the Rising Sun had tackled and defeated the Great Bear.

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