The Battle of the Sea of Japan – Part 7

We will now dwell on some of the questions involved in view of the naval battle. The naval reviewer of “The Temps ” previously said that in consequence of Admiral Rozhestvensky’s superiority in heavy guns, he ought to seek battle at close quarters. This was not at all the case; and if it had been to Rozhestvensky’s advantage to get near, it would have been for different reasons. In regard to the most advantageous range in naval fighting there exists a perfectly logical and natural rule. This rule states that any superiority over the opponent compels one to endeavour to increase the fighting range while any inferiority makes a fight at short range more advantageous.

I will give an example. Suppose I have only heavy long-range guns, while my opponent has guns firing more quickly, but of less calibre, and not carrying so far. It is evident that it is more to my advantage to increase the distance sufficiently to be able to hit the enemy, while remaining practically invulnerable myself. He, on the other hand, has but one resource – to try to get near. Of course, there is a limit to increasing the distance; otherwise, although the enemy’s projectiles would none of them reach the mark, the probability of hitting with one’s own guns would become so small that the fight would be without appreciable result, degenerating into a mere expenditure of ammunition. Theoretically, the question would be decided correctly in this case too; but practice will, of course, in each case indicate the most reasonable limit. In just the same way, a long range is more advantageous to me if the quality of the guns being the same on both sides – my gunners are the better marksmen. But if I allow the enemy to approach, the firing will be so easy that the difference between my good gunners and his bad gunners may vanish. The same influence is exercised by the quality of the ship’s armour. If my ship, with artillery equal to that of the enemy, is considerably the better protected, it is to my advantage to carry on the action at such a distance that my opponent’s guns are no longer able to pierce my armour, while my guns continue to riddle his weak plates. Evidently he will strive to get near so that my armour may be vulnerable for his guns.

The sole means for preserving the most advantageous distance is superiority in speed. Therefore, when an armoured vessel meets one that is unarmoured, the latter, if for some reason (e.g. inferior speed) she cannot escape fighting, must strive to get as near as possible, otherwise she will be destroyed without inflicting any damage on her opponent. But as short range does not suit the latter, she will go about and keep off. From the accepted point of view of land fighting, such behaviour of the stronger party seems rather strange, as it looks like “retreat”. This misapprehension is quite intelligible on land, by moving in the direction away from the opponent, a piece of ground is surrendered to him having more or less value in many respects. But the area of sea over which ships move during an action is without value for either of them, and the seeming retreat is nothing more than a profitable manoeuvre  in order to inflict more damage on the opponent. In this way, a huge battleship will retreat before a tiny torpedo boat. The latter, of course, must come to close quarters, firstly in order to fire its torpedo, and secondly in order to hit the objective. The battleship, on the other hand, which must either sink or seriously damage the torpedo-boat before the latter succeeds in firing its torpedo, has no advantage in going to meet it, as she will thus diminish the time her opponent is under fire, and also reduce the accuracy of her own fire; the gunners will lose their coolness at the approach of the torpedo-boat, and from the rapid change of distance will constantly make errors in the range. All these circumstances will evidently be changed for the benefit of the battleship, if she shows her stern to the torpedo- boat.

If we apply this rule of naval fighting to the meeting of our fleet with the Japanese, we find that for Admiral Rozhestvensky’s first battleship division – consisting of four excellently protected and heavily armed ships of the “Suvorov” type – it was more advantageous to keep at a great distance. The same thing applies in the case of the three coast-defence armour-clads under Admiral Niebogatov. Their chief and, indeed, only strength was in their eleven 10″ guns; as their medium artillery (six 4`7″ guns on one side) was absolutely insignificant. Moreover, on account of their small size and low freeboard, they offered a very small target. This is, of course, an advantage, and makes it advisable to keep at a great distance; as at short range it is almost equally easy to hit a large or a small mark. Finally, at long range the weak armour of the three vessels would suffice. To a less degree the same applies to the “Sissoi Veliky”. The opponents of these four ships, just named, were Japanese armoured cruisers, having no 12″ or 10″ guns. All their battleships directed their efforts against our four ships of the “Suvorov” type. On the other hand, the battleships “Imperator Nikolai I” and “Navarin” and the cruiser “Nakhimov” if placed in line of battle, required a short range on account of their obsolete heavy ordnance and of the necessity of having with their weak guns to penetrate the armour of the well- protected Japanese armoured cruisers. It was for this reason, possibly, that Rozhestvensky had to seek battle at close range. He may also have been attracted by the desire to make the action as decisive as possible. 

The advantage or disadvantage of such procedure is, however, not a subject for discussion. It could only be seen on the spot and could only be the result of a proper appreciation by him of the whole of the circumstances. The real misfortune was that the choice of range did not rest with him. Not only had his ships less speed, but he was hampered by a fleet of transports, of which some were far slower than the slowest of his battleships. The Japanese fleet was more homogeneous, and would gain at short ranges; but it may have been restrained from fighting in that way, by its reluctance to engage in a decisive general action. Admiral Rozhestvensky would have to submit to this course, though after all it was not without advantages for him. In such case he would get all possible advantage from his superiority in the number of heavy guns.

One of the peculiarities of a naval action is the great probability of the officer in supreme command being killed or wounded. At the same time it usually happens that many of his assistants also may be placed hors de combat. On land this probability is incomparably less. The commander of an army is not immediately under fire; if he exposes himself he is justly blamed for so doing. Even the commander of a corps d’armée the late Count Keller – was found fault with for having gone into a place of danger quite uselessly. A German military writer, too, blamed Kuropatkin, not for being under fire, but for being too near the front; and held up Marshal Oyama as an example, for remaining far in the rear and receiving information by telegraph of all that was taking place in the fighting zone, directing the battle like a game of chess. 

This is how it should be; and therefore the putting out of action of superior officers on land is very rare – happening only by chance. Lastly, even if some accident should happen, there is always a capable substitute at hand among a numerous staff. At sea it is quite the reverse. The chief of a fleet or squadron must be on board one of the ships, in company with the whole of his staff. It is enough for this ship to go down, as for example was the case with the “Petropavlovsk” for the Commander-in-Chief to be lost with the whole of his staff. On board, the admiral is subject to the same risk as any sailor, and even more so than some; as, for example, the engine-room complement, and those in the magazines and shell-rooms. In general, all below the armoured deck and consequently below the water-line, are out of reach of direct hits, and incur considerably less immediate danger than those above. This is why the officer in command has so often been put out of action, e.g. in this war, Admirals Makarov and Withoeft. It was so in former times. The famous Nelson, and the no less famous De Ruyter, both perished in action. The chief officers of the staff are usually grouped round the admiral in a small space, either in the conning-tower or on the bridge, and there also is the captain of the ship. AIl these persons were put out of action on board the “Tsesarevitch” on 3 July, by a single shot. To transfer the command to another admiral in another ship is very difficult. It must be done by signal; but it often turns out that the signalling gear, which of necessity is quite exposed, is destroyed or damaged, as was the case with Admiral Ukhtomsky. This is also nothing new.

In the Sinope action, when Nakhimov, delighted with the manoeuvres of his subordinate, Admiral Novosilsky, wished to express his gratitude by signal, it proved impossible, as all the signal halliards were destroyed. Finally, an admiral who has just taken over the command, although he has seen what has occurred in the action, yet, not having been in constant communication with his chief, cannot know all his intentions and plans, developed as these have been in the course of the battle. There is no possibility whatever of transmitting all this, on account of the difficulty of signalling in action. Further, he cannot learn it from any one of the staff of the late admiral; all of them, even if not killed, are at any rate on board another ship. 

It is quite impossible to place the chief of the squadron in a position of absolute safety. He must see everything, and as in a naval action events develop quickly, he must without delay give the necessary orders. As it may happen that it is impossible to do this by signals, he must be able to show his intentions by the movements of his own ship, for which purpose he must be ahead of his squadron. In order to diminish as far as possible the risk of being put out of action, the chief of the squadron must be on board the largest and best- protected ship. Hence it was that Togo hoisted his flag on the “Mikasa” and Rozhestvensky on the “Suvorov”. Admiral Ukhtomsky, in conversation with some correspondents and also in his report, said that his squadron got scattered because no one saw his signal “Follow me”, which was hoisted on the rail of the bridge. It was impossible to hoist it on the masts as they had been carried away. This, though, is more than strange. The difficulty of signalling in action, I repeat, is not new, and the rule, always existing in naval actions, is to follow the motions of the admiral. If Admiral Ukhtomsky had remembered this and made for Vladivostok, the whole squadron would have done so too. When he turned back to Port Arthur, even without being able to make out his signal all followed suit. From what we have said, it is evident that in future naval actions every possible effort is likely to be made at the outset to damage the Commander-in-Chief’s flagship.

Until Vice-Admiral Birilev was appointed commander of the fleet in the Pacific, this post had remained vacant for almost five months after the appointment of Vice-Admiral Skrydlov as member of the Admiralty Council. Then the necessity was again recognized for the post at the seat of war, and it is only to be regretted that there should have been such hesitation with regard to the organisation of the highest command in our naval forces. The position of “Commander of the Fleet”, is of the utmost importance as uniting in the hands of one man all the operations of the different parts of the fleet, often separated by enormous distances. To do this is not within the power of a local squadron commander, as he is often away at sea. Besides this, the activities of the naval departments ashore must be so directed as to assist the active feet in the best manner. This is also attained by all being subordinated to a commander-in-chief. Unfortunately, their relation to the chiefs of squadrons and separate detachments is not precisely defined in our naval organisation, and there is a possibility therefore of various disputes, or even opposition; and as a result injury to the enterprise in hand. Finally, a like indefiniteness attaches to the relations of a squadron commander with the land authorities of coast fortresses. On the other hand, within the regions assigned to him, all the commandants of coast fortresses are subordinated to the “Commander of the Fleet”. 

The appointment of Admiral Birilev to this distinguished post could only be welcomed. He was one of our best admirals, and had spent his whole career on active service, in uninterrupted sea work, having commanded vessels since 1880. From 1897 he occupied the posts first of chief of the gunnery-squadron, and then of Commander of the Mediterranean squadron. In the first capacity he made his mark by the fact that, having found it in an archaic state, with great skill and energy he formed it on quite new bases, in harmony with the present conditions of gunnery science. It must not be forgotten that it was he who directed attention to the eminent talents of Rozhestvensky, who was then his subordinate and a captain of the senior grade. The latter was also far from being in favour, but Birilev did all he could to advance a talented officer. As Commander-in-Chief at Cronstadt, Admiral Birilev exhibited splendid qualities as an organiser – every one knows what energy he devoted to the fitting out of the second and third squadrons for the Far East. Europe he was in charge of the defences of the Baltic, and consequently was thoroughly prepared for similar duty on our coasts in the Pacific Ocean.

We noticed with a feeling of satisfaction that our Press after a time ceased to publish information which might be useful to the Japanese, especially what was apparently confidential. We may recall the publication by the Admiralty, four days before the first sortie by Admiral Withoeft from Port Arthur (on 23 June), of a detailed communication on the completion of the repairs to our ships, the consequence of which was the concentration of the whole Japanese fleet off Port Arthur by the date of the sortie of our fleet. Take again the reports of General Gripenberg, and many items of information extracted from the reports of various senior officers at the seat of war which our military censorship allowed to appear in the Press. This also happened in No. 142 of the “Rus” I read a conversation with the Chief of the Ministry of Marine, for which no doubt the paper was not to blame. From it I learnt that Admiral Rozhestvensky felt “worn out”, as the inevitable effect of the “constant tension of nerves and fatiguing work”. Further, “this fatigue was particularly trying on account of his having suffered from kidney disease before his departure”. It was later added that the state of Admiral Rozhestvensky’s health had nevertheless not deteriorated a whit since he started on his voyage. This was in evident contradiction to the first statement, but it would not remove its impression on the Japanese.

It was next given out that Rozhestvensky’s second in command, Rear-Admiral Felkersham – the commander of half the battleships – was ill. This was also not a bad “tip” for our opponents. It was also asserted that the “long stay of the squadron in the latitude of Madagascar, with its tropical heat, had affected the health of Admiral Felkersham more than the rest”, i.e. that on the whole the health of the squadron was not very grand. Finally, we learned that the main task of Admiral Rozhestvensky was “to conduct the fleet to Vladivostok”, and it was hinted also in no ambiguous manner that herewith his task might end, as “he was still chief of the General Naval Staff”.

Afterwards, we were wondering what course Rozhestvensky would take, and what the Japanese would really do; we were glad that the Japanese had at last set themselves a riddle which we ourselves were not helping them to read – when all of a sudden there appeared statements as to Rozhestvensky’s main task; what he was to do when he reached Vladivostok, by what means he would compel Admiral Togo to accept battle if the latter tried to avoid it, how we sent our steamers with coal to Vladivostok, etc., etc. – all useful facts for the enemy. 

In conclusion, I will briefly criticise Admiral Ukhtomsky’s action in the fight of 10 August.  In the statement made referring to that action, the view was expressed that the return to Port Arthur was justified by, among other things, the circumstances that two of his ships turned back for that point on their own initiative, as they did not see his signals, and that he found them already in Port Arthur when he himself arrived. This assertion is very strange. I know from credible sources that during the action, one of the ships was a long way ahead of the whole fleet, and all expected that she would be supported. As a matter of fact, she only turned back when she saw that all the rest, the Admiral included, had done the same. Darkness then came on, and she lost sight of the other ships, but being a fast vessel arrived in Port Arthur before the others. It appears, then, that she went there, not on her own initiative, but through following the course of the Admiral’s ship. Perhaps the other ship also reached Port Arthur before the Admiral for the same reason.

A whole series of despatches showed that Admiral Rozhestvensky loaded coal at the Saddle Islands (lying off the mouth of the Yang-tse-Kiang), and on the evening of 27 May or on the morning of 28 May sailed to the north-east, i.e. in the direction of the Gulf of Korea. In the gulf lies the island of Tsushima, news of the appearance of the Russian squadron off which, was given in communications from Tokio of 28 May. We must reckon the great advantage Rozhestvensky had in its being possible to take in coal so near the most probable locality of a battle with the Japanese. Although from the Saddle Islands to Vladivostok is about a thousand miles, all the large ships of the Russian squadron had coal supplies for a run of about two thousand miles. The battleships had not on an average so much, because it was much easier for them than for others to coal en route at sea. When awaiting battle it is necessary to have steam up in all boilers, in order, in case of need, to get up full speed; also, through the unavoidable damage in battle to funnels, the expenditure of coal is sure to be much augmented. 

I do not know exactly what were the considerations which induced Admiral Togo to allow our fleet to go so far without opposition, and permit it to coal peacefully. It is clear, however, that Togo reserved to himself the advantage of giving battle in the immediate neighbourhood of his own ports. 

Togo’s plan was thus defined: that he with his whole fleet should bar Rozhestvensky’s passage in the Tsushima Straits. According to one of our latest reports he kept himself during the whole time at Masampo, a fine bay on the Korean side of the Straits. The bay was at one time intended as the base of the Russian fleet, and one of our most distinguished admirals strongly advised the occupation of this place in preference to Port Arthur. To return to Togo’s plan. He could not definitely foresee the route that Admiral Rozhestvensky would take, and could not decide whether it would really be in the Straits of Tsushima that he would meet him in battle; but he clearly resolved not to go and seek for his antagonist on the wide ocean. He would await him, instead, in such a place where he would assuredly have to pass close by. Of such places there were only three – Tsushima, Tsugaru, and La Perouse Straits. The last two were unsuited to the Russian fleet, because in order to reach them a great expenditure of coal was necessary. For the Japanese the difficulty lay in the distance of these straits from their bases. Stationing several scouting vessels, fitted with wireless telegraphy, at some 200 to 250 miles off the Straits of Tsugaru, to observe any ships coming in this direction round the eastern side of the island of Yezo, and with the help of the coast look-out stations on the Kurile Islands, Togo would from time to time have received news of the approaching Russian fleet, and could therefore hasten with his feet to any point in these waters, since his course would lie off the west coast of Japan, e.g. off the island of Sado. He would certainly have arrived there from Masampo in the same time which should have brought Admiral Rozhestvensky past Formosa, off the eastern coast of Japan. 

I have previously discussed the immense difficulty of searching for a foe in the open sea, where he may select his own route, leaving behind no trace whatever. Togo’s decision was considerably affected by this. This resolve certainly goes to show that on no account did Togo desire to let Admiral Rozhestvensky’s squadron enter Vladivostok, about which so much was written at the time, so as to secure for its destruction the means which succeeded so well for the Japanese at Port Arthur. Neither did he evidently wish to run the risk of the Russian fleet’s escape – a risk that was undoubted had he gone in search off the coasts of Japan. The second reason which led Togo to his decision was, as I mentioned above, a desire to give battle in proximity to his own ports. In that respect the Tsushima Straits offered the greatest advantages.

These straits are divided by the island of Tsushima into two channels; the eastern, which is the wider, bears the name of the Strait of Korea; the western is known as Broughton’s Gulf. Near the entrance to the former, on the Japanese coast, is situated one of the chief naval arsenals of Japan, Sasebo; and not far south of that is Nagasaki, where are also docks and extensive means for the repair of ships. In the centre of the gulf is a narrow passage, leading to the Sea of Japan. It is defended by powerful fortifications, and not far distant is a second first-class arsenal, Kure. At a distance of about twenty-four hours’ steaming from the opening of the strait, there is yet another naval arsenal – Maytzuru. In Broughton ‘s Gulf there are no places suitable for naval bases; but at the commencement of the war, Fusan and Masampo were equipped by the Japanese, who, as usual, spared no pains to make their work perfect. Of large docks there are none; but there may have been floating docks for ships of moderate dimensions, and, likewise, all necessaries for repairing vessels which might call here instead of making the journey to Sasebo or Kure. 

Finally, an arsenal of the second rank, Tagesaki, is situated on the island of Tsushima. To this must be added, that all these ports are situated at the head of excellent and wide bays, which admit of easy defence by mines, fortifications, and artillery. Besides these, along the coast of Japan – and also along this part of the coast of Korea – there are good and convenient harbours in which a damaged fleet may find temporary refuge, and which would serve as suitable places for the numerous Japanese torpedo flotillas and the submarines. 

The inaction of the Japanese torpedo flotillas seems strange. By operating from Formosa and the Pescadores Islands, these flotillas would have caused not a little embarrassment to the Russian squadron on its arrival off the coast of Cochin China and the Saddle Islands. The only logical explanation of such inaction was that Togo desired to preserve all his strength and all his torpedo vessels in complete readiness for the supreme blow in the Straits.

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