The Battle of the Sea of Japan – Part 11

We all anticipated a miracle and so passionately desired one, that many of us closed our eyes to the extremely doubtful character of our chances, and created for ourselves some sort of assurance that this miracle was inevitably being effected; that, indeed, it could not be otherwise. With this ardent longing at heart, people anxiously hunted through the tabulated calculations. Thus only could they get an idea of the endless variations in the different proofs that the fleet of Admiral Rozhestvensky was more powerful than the Japanese fleet. In reckoning the number of vessels, their displacement, and the number of guns, they compared what was really incomparable – and were comforted.

But, alas, in the end the miracle did not come off. Hard facts in their most pitiless aspect demolished all the calculations and how mournful do they seem to us Russians now! We did not like to look the terrible spectre of the future full in the face; and now, when this spectre has changed to reality, it is doubly grievous for us to lift our eyes and see it. Of course, the chances always were that preponderance in numbers, power, warlike experience, preparedness of the fleet, suitability of the theatre of war, and the equipment of the armament of the feet, would gain the day. So, indeed, it has happened. There may, of course, be occasions when much may be equalised by the talent and energy of the commander, and we trusted to that more than all; but on this special occasion really little could be expected, as proved to be the case. To grumble at what has happened we have no right. No one could be dissatisfied as matters have turned out. Hardly any one has the heart to blame Rozhestvensky. 

It might be asked: Why did he not make for the Straits of Tsugaru or La Perouse? But if he were to answer, “I had too little coal for that” what could be said in reply? Nothing. And if this were so and the further supply of coal was an impossibility, it was still imperative to pass by the Straits of Korea, in spite of whatever dangers threatened in that quarter. What then? Still less was there a chance by the two other straits. There the situation was the worse for the Japanese only in this respect – that their military ports were farther away. Ports, however, are necessary after a battle. At the time of battle a convenient field of action is quite as necessary. I have already spoken of the advantages which a battle in the Straits would offer to the Japanese, and how such a battle would be unpropitious for the Russian squadron. The chief of these disadvantages was the possibility of the Japanese utilising their immense preponderance in torpedo-boats and submarines, and their opportunities for placing floating mines in the very course of the squadron. I do not think that they did lay, or ever intended to lay, fixed mines in these Straits, such as they laid before Port Arthur. The depth of water is too great to allow of this; the current is a serious hindrance also, and above all a large number of Japanese and neutral ships constantly pass the Straits of Korea and Tsugaru.

They probably laid floating mines in the course of the Russian fleet, but of such construction that after remaining in situ for an hour or two they would sink and no longer present danger. 

A particular circumstance favouring the action of torpedo craft is fog, and in this respect the Straits of Korea would appear to be the least dangerous, seeing that the probability of fog is vastly greater in the two northern straits. In addition, the Tsugaru Strait is much narrower than the Straits of Korea, and more tortuous. As to La Perouse, although it is both broad and direct, yet to enter there it is necessary in the first instance to traverse the narrow straits between the Kurile Islands – i.e. one must cut through two straits lying at a distance of 230 miles from one another, and not through one, and there is greatest probability of encountering fog. 

Torpedo-vessels, submarine-boats, and fixed torpedo defence form the best means of coast protection, and the protection of a narrow strait reduces itself to defence of the shores. This is why these agents played a prominent part here which they never could have played in the open sea. On this account battleships must never approach shore or face obstacles which favour the use of such means. They should never come near batteries under cover of which mines have been laid, and never move forward in that direction by night or in fog. The only occasion on which a fleet cannot escape these obstacles is when it has to cross a strait occupied by the enemy. To encounter a fog at that moment, or be surprised by night, at once renders the position of the approaching fleet in the highest degree risky. To fight torpedo-vessels it is indispensable to be able to manoeuvre freely. In passing through straits one must sail in one definite direction and thus give opportunities to torpedo-vessels which are rendered doubly favourable in a fog or during the night. 

The first official Russian intelligence carried to Vladivostok by the cruiser “Almaz” announced the loss in a day engagement of our three best battleships, the “Suvorov”, “Borodino” and “Oslabya” and of severe damage to the battleship “Imperator Alexander III”.

Once again fate showed herself unkindly to us. At the commencement of the engagement Admiral Rozhestvensky was wounded, and though successfully transferred to another vessel he was not in a condition to direct the battle. The next senior to him, Admiral Felkersham, as is known from a report at the Ministry of Marine, had lately been ill; indeed, according to private rumours he really died before the battle. Consequently the command was transferred to Admirals Niebogatov and Enquist.

The official despatch of Admiral Togo confirmed the worst that could be imagined in reporting that Admiral Niebogatov with four battleships and one torpedo-boat-destroyer had been taken prisoner. This was the most cruel blow of all, following as it did on the catastrophe to the fleet. The names of the vessels which surrendered were: the warships “Orel”, “Imperator Nikolai I” and the coast-defence ships “Admiral Seniavin” and “General-Admiral Apraxin”. From the number of prisoners received at Sasebo (2223 men) this would appear to have been a reliable report. A telegram from Tokio mentioned that the commander of the “Admiral Nakhimov ” was also taken prisoner: this cruiser, perhaps, was captured, instead of one of the coast-defence battleships. There was also another telegram from Tokio, to the effect that according to reports from prisoners the Vladivostok squadron received orders to put to sea, but returned to port after a short cruise. 

The Russian official despatches only announced the result of the day battle; the Japanese despatches evidently embraced the night engagement, in which their many torpedo-boats played a most important rôle.

These are the words of section 354 of the Naval Regulations:

“In time of battle the commander must set an example of manliness, and continue the struggle to the very end. For the avoidance of useless bloodshed he may decide, with the general consent of all the officers, how to surrender the ship, if under the following circumstances: firstly, if the ship shall be so struck that it is impossible to keep down the leaks, and she is plainly about to sink; secondly, if all ammunition and shot are spent, guns put out of action, and means of defence generally exhausted, or if the losses in men are so considerable that opposition appears impossible; thirdly, if there shall be fire on board the ship which it is impossible to extinguish with one’s own resources; also if, besides the occasions indicated, there should be no possibility of destroying the vessel and seeking safety for the crew on shore or the boats” 

The meaning of this clause is plain – an officer may decide to give up, not only the ship, but also the personnel, so as to avoid useless bloodshed. He might surrender the ship to the enemy in the presence of a whole series of conditions set forth in this clause; at least on an occasion when there were no means for blowing up the ship. Formerly, when vessels were built of wood, it was difficult to destroy them. To blow up a ship it was necessary to have in hand a sufficient quantity of gunpowder, which might not be the case at the end of a battle, when all ammunition is usually exhausted. Finally, no regulation could demand more than this, which involves the destruction of all hands, while the shrift is short and the exploit agonising. To sink a wooden vessel was in a high degree difficult, and demanded a considerable time. But as soon as battleships began to be constructed of iron and steel, the sinking of ships was much simplified: it was only necessary to open the Kingston valves (which are openings below the water-line, for the admission of water to all parts of the vessel) and it would only remain for the victor to take the people from the sinking ship. To prevent a ship in such a case from sinking is almost impossible, as it would be necessary to search for the whole series of Kingston valves in the lower section of the vessel, for which again one would have to know the interior construction. Besides that, the lower portion, of course, is the first to fill with water. To close the Kingston valves under those conditions would be practically an impossibility.

Means for opening and closing some of the Kingston valves are at hand in the upper part of the ship, but the enemy would have the greatest difficulty in discovering these; and moreover these means may easily be destroyed. Thus it happened with Lieutenant Ivanov, who after the death of the commander and senior officer remained on board the “Rurik”, on the 27th, and was drowned when the ship foundered. She did so without having her flag hauled down, and there only remained for the Japanese to rescue the crew, about half of whom were saved. So also did two unknown “Ivans” on board the destroyer “Steregushtshy”. Owing to the simple structure of that destroyer and the possibility of quickly reaching its interior so as to close the Kingston valves, it was obvious that the Japanese would easily succeed in closing them soon after boarding. These unknown “Ivans” decided to prevent this by enclosing themselves in the part where the Kingston valves were. These parts were flooded before anything else, and at the cost of their heroic lives they prevented the Japanese from saving the sinking vessel. She was not surrendered; not a single Russian raised his hand to strike the fag, even though all on board were hors de combat.

Was nothing similar to this done? This must not be asked for in reference to large vessels, since there is no necessity for the question – why was not what was done in the “Rurik” performed in our four battleships taken by the Japanese? But, how did this capture happen? This question was in-supportably distressing for every Russian, especially coming as it did after a terrible stroke of misfortune – a general naval action thrown away and all hope of regaining command of the sea with it.

Was what we read in the Japanese despatches concerning the number of undamaged weapons found on board these ships trustworthy, as was the case after the surrender of Port Arthur, when it was reported that a large quantity of unused war stores had been left behind? Was it also true that by way of a set-off there was no official explanation offered regarding the abandoned supplies after the fall of Port Arthur? Yet such knowledge was unquestionably in the possession of the Ministry of War. 

With what distressing impatience did the Russian people await news concerning the surrender of the four ships! What indignant rumours and foul accusations did not their· suspense engender! The Ministry of Marine should have recognized that the Russian public was overcome with the most painful doubt. They should have taken steps at once to learn from Admiral Niebogatov the circumstances under which he was captured with four battle- ships; how it was that these vessels were not sunk, but were towed into the enemy’s ports, as the Japanese announced, with their own victorious flag waving above the disgraced Russian standard. We needed to know all this at once, not after the Japanese had already circulated their own fantastic accounts. The public had the right to know the whole truth and nothing less. During the course of this ill-fated year, indeed, we had become so used to disasters that no verity could present terrors: we wanted the truth without concealment; rumours, doubts, and indefiniteness are harmful and always tormenting. Reports long continued to be meagre, especially regarding the losses of the Japanese. Togo said his losses were insignificant; but those on board the Russian transports “Korea” and “Svir” declared that they witnessed the sinking of three Japanese ships, and that five were damaged. 

According to telegrams from Tsin-dao the Japanese admitted that they lost two battleships, one cruiser, and nine torpedo-boats. There was also an interesting report in a telegram from the officers of the “Almaz”, sent by the special correspondent of the “Rus”. These officers stated that, although their ship sailed away at the beginning of the engagement, they were able with their glasses to make out that two Japanese warships foundered, and two sustained heavy damage. The wounded commander of the “Grozny” confirmed this in a conversation with a correspondent of the “Rus”, who visited him in the hospital at Vladivostok. Why was nothing said of all this in our official communications – nothing, indeed, concerning the arrival of the “Grozny” at Vladivostok? There is still one very weighty detail in the report of the officers of the “Almaz”. They stated that when they steamed from the scene of battle, thick mists settled down. If this was so, the colossal success of the Japanese is more intelligible. It was a bad sign that there were no official tidings from the Russian side about Admiral Rozhestvensky’s fate. Similarly, there was no news concerning Admiral Enquist and the warships  “Sissoi Veliky”,  “Navarin”, “Admiral Ushakov” and all our cruisers. How was it that we had to take the Japanese reports for our sole guide? Togo stated officially that already, on 27 May, the Japanese torpedo-vessel “Sazanami” had cleared for action and captured the Russian vessel “Biedovy”. on board which were Admiral Rozhestvensky and his staff; in addition to another admiral, both of whom were seen to be severely wounded. 

From the further despatches of Admiral Togo it appeared that there were also sunk the armoured vessels “Imperator Alexander III”, “Sissoi Veliky”, “Navarin” and the coast-defence vessel “Admiral Ushakov”, the cruisers “Admiral Nakhimov”, “Vladimir Monomakh” and “Zhemtshug”, the transports “Kamtchatka”, “Irtish” and three destroyers. The cruiser “Dmitri Donskoi” grounded on a sand-bank. So far nothing was known of the “Oleg”, “Aurora”, “Svietlana”,  “Izumrud”, and two or three destroyers. It was rumoured that the cruiser “Izumrud” had reached Vladivostok. Thus the reasons why the Vladivostok cruisers did not take part in the battle are made evident. From Tokio it was announced that the cruiser “Gromoboi”’ struck a mine on its exit from Vladivostok, and that Admiral Jessen returned.

Thus, almost the whole of Rozhestvensky’s squadron was destroyed or captured by the Japanese, all three admirals made prisoners, and even if the four cruisers had succeeded in getting to Vladivostok, the rôle of the Russian fleet in the war was at an end.

The surrender of Admiral Niebogatov was a disgrace such as had never been heard of before, both to the Russian fleet and to the country. I fancy that it was the Admiral himself who was the prime mover in that surrender, and very much doubt whether the officers in general assented to it, as the Naval Regulations require. It is evident that these regulations were not carried out in this respect; nor were the means of resistance exhausted.

The chief and most direct proof of this may be found in the fact that very slight loss of men was incurred by the ships which surrendered, with the possible exception of the “Orel”. What surprises me is that the Admiral’s staff, and the officers of the flagship, allowed the signal for surrender to be hoisted; also that the officers of the other ships consented to carry out the Admiral’s order to lower the Russian flag. Lastly, I am firmly convinced that there was no mutiny among the crew. I am so sure of this, because as far as I know our sailors are incapable of such conduct in action. It is a slander; and all the more vile because they cannot defend themselves against it.’ One of the Commander-in-Chief’s latest reports on the battle comprised nothing new, but simply reduced to some sort of order the whole of the preceding ones, which were most incomplete and disjointed. Among the causes that may have contributed to the loss of the battle, as the report affirms, was that the squadron entered the straits in three columns, line ahead (the third column being transports), and that when the engagement commenced even the battleships were still in double column. It was this that prevented our fleet from developing the full fire of the ships composing it; because this formation is one from which ships cannot be readily deployed into line, and it was also owing to this formation that the Japanese were enabled to concentrate their full fire on our two leading flagships. It is also clear that the transports greatly hindered the manoeuvring of the battleships, while supreme efforts had to be made to protect them until it was decided to sacrifice them, So that instead of endeavouring to protect our transports against the Japanese cruisers we had finally to concentrate all our force against the main body of the enemy. 

It is perfectly evident how the three cruisers under Admiral Enquist succeeded in escaping to the south. In the first place we learn that it was not then dark, as Admiral Enquist afterwards reported, and that while the battleships steered north-east the cruisers, with the “Oleg” leading, stopped their engines and turned southwards. The battleships then turned to port to try and form a junction with them – though the cruisers should have kept in the wake of the battleships and not vice versa. Many other cruisers steered northwards at the same hour. Admiral Enquist, however, obstinately kept his course to the south. It was not till after this that darkness fell. I again repeat that this flight of the three cruisers to the south was an exceedingly “shady” business. It is to be regretted, too, that in the Commander-in-Chief’s report no explanation was given of the inexplicable behaviour of the “Grozny”. 

I return to the question of the capture of Admiral Niebogatov with four battleships. The sole reasons I had for previously introducing the paragraph of the Regulations – which might have been adopted to justify the ship’s surrender without everything having been done to destroy her – was the impossibility of seeking safety by running ashore or getting off in the boats. Although these conditions are set down in the Regulations, it is nevertheless difficult, and in the majority of cases likely to be quite impossible, to carry them out. In battle the boats would be damaged sooner than anything else. This is obvious, since they are suspended from the sides of the ship, or stand on the bridges or upper works, and are entirely in the open. They specially suffer in modern battles, where each shot that hits carries hundreds, nay thousands, of splinters, and a hail of missiles is scattered, owing to the quick firing of modern artillery. In the battles of the past there were occasions when all the boats were damaged ; e.g. at the battle of Trafalgar, when Admiral Villeneuve was not able to escape from his flagship (which was damaged with shot) to another vessel, and thus was taken prisoner on board his own ship. At the present day it is barely possible for even one boat to remain serviceable on board ship especially would that be unlikely when all the ship’s guns had been silenced at the close of a battle. Equally futile is the point l as to “the safety of the crew on shore”. There again it is also necessary to take to the boats, even if the ship is “run on shore”. The vessel may run on to a shallow bottom, but the shore itself may be still far distant. Grounding on a sand-bank is only one of the expedients by which a ship is destroyed, and is much less dangerous for the personnel, though in other respects not half so certain as the opening of the Kingston valves. After grounding, it is necessary to complete a ship’s destruction by explosions in her different vital parts, by spiking the guns, and so on; or, at all events, to force her aground in such a manner as to render it impossible for the enemy to refloat her and carry the vessel a prize into his own ports. How can we explain the fact that all the four battleships captured by the Japanese were brought into their ports within two or three days (30 May) after the battle? That implies that these ships, when surrendered, could have kept the sea for some days at least. 

These ships were captured at the island of Okinoshima. From there to Maysuru, where the more seriously damaged warship “Orel” was brought, is about 165 miles, and from these islands to Sasebo, where the remaining battleships were towed, is about 235 miles. I was myself no less ill at ease concerning the number of prisoners, which were said to be about 2300. On board battleships of the “Orel” type there are about 800 men, including the officers, on the warship “Imperator Nikolai I’ about 600, and on the coast- defence ships up to 400 men. Therefore, on board all the four vessels this makes a total of about 2200 men. Apparently the Japanese were not able to reckon the number of prisoners and killed, which led to the conjecture that the killed among the crews could not have been numerous. These questions needed to be answered, and without delay; and after them many more such queries remained.

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