The Battle of the Sea of Japan – Part 9

I now turn to the analysis of the battle itself from the point of view of naval tactics. One is immediately struck with the idea that our fleet was taken quite unawares by the Japanese, as if it were not expecting to meet the whole fleet of the enemy. If this was indeed so, it means that the reconnoitring was very badly managed.

Although the force of cruisers with Admiral Rozhestvensky was much weaker than that of the Japanese, yet when our fleet left the Saddle Islands and was at no great distance from the Straits of Korea, while it still had the chance to retreat, this force might have gone forward to reconnoitre on both sides of Tsushima island, and have satisfied itself as to the presence here of a considerable force of the enemy. Certainly in this case there would have been a risk of losing part of the cruisers, but this would have been a reasonable loss – and at least the situation would have become clear.

From the description of the battle, it is evident that our fleet entered the Straits with the cruisers drawn up on the flank, i.e. the battleships and cruisers entered at the same time. This means that the cruisers – the eyes of the fleet – were not made use of. They might have gone far ahead, and communicated with the battle fleet by wireless telegraphy. By means of a chain, formed of groups of cruisers, the situation might have been reconnoitred two hundred miles ahead. There would not have been any special difficulty in guarding against a torpedo-attack. Such attacks, on ships unharmed by gun fire and having room to manoeuvre, have little chance of success. This was proved in the battle. The ships which perished in the torpedo attack on the night of 27-28 May were either those which had been badly damaged by the enemy’s fire, or those surrounded by other ships and deprived of room to manoeuvre. The great majority of cruisers did not receive the heaviest fire of the enemy and were not much damaged. These appeared unhurt on the morning of 28 May, although one of them, according to the report of her commander, had a narrow escape from the Japanese torpedo-boats, which launched seventeen torpedoes at a short distance. 

The appearance of our cruisers in the Straits, twenty-four hours before the main force, would probably have drawn thither a considerable detachment of the Japanese, and from this it might have been guessed that the main body of the enemy was not far off. The only possible explanation of the fact that cruisers were not sent ahead to reconnoitre, is that there was a hope that our fleet would reach the Straits unobserved and pass quickly through before the Japanese were prepared to bar the way.. In that case, sending ahead a cruiser detachment would have betrayed our intentions. However, it is hard to believe in this explanation, when one considers how much superior the enemy’s fleet was in scouting vessels. Meanwhile, if the presence of the main body of the Japanese in the Straits had been discovered, our squadron could have turned back and waited for more favourable weather- sailed round to the east of Japan, or tried to baffle the enemy by false moves. Even if the presence of the enemy’s principal force had not been discovered, and it had been decided for some good reason to advance to the Korean Straits, an elementary knowledge of tactics ought to have shown Rozhestvensky that, granted a meeting with the enemy’s main force was unavoidable, it was most likely to take place in the most unfavourable situation for using a strait, under circumstances the very worst for us and best for the enemy. If this was so, the formation adopted by our feet in passing through the Straits is inexplicable.

It is a fundamental rule in naval tactics, that in battle a fleet must be drawn up in line. Many years’ experience in naval warfare, the results of manoeuvres, the opinions of all prominent naval writers, all agree that a fleet in two or more lines is not in good order for battle. The reason for this is clear. A vital disadvantage of formation in two columns consists in the difficulty of manoeuvring. A naval battle is a continuous movement. A single column can wriggle like a snake, and change direction again and again. If there are two columns, when such movements are suddenly made, and in the heat of battle, collisions must result. For instance, if the chief of the fleet is with the starboard column and is obliged to turn to port, then to avoid confusion he must go ahead of the port column in order that it may lose way if he moves to starboard, not losing way, then the port column is considerably behind.

One can picture to oneself how all these inconveniences which I have mentioned are increased when there are not two columns merely but several. Then, indeed, chaos must be the result. Again, formation in several columns is specially inconvenient on passing through a strait, where a torpedo-attack is expected, or where there may be floating mines scattered about. When there is a single column, if the first ship does not strike a mine then the way is safe for the others; but when there are several columns the probability of striking mines is greatly increased. And so too there is a greater possibility of striking on a series of mines scattered about or thrown across a strait. Success in the repulse of a torpedo attack depends to a large extent on freedom of manoeuvring, but this freedom is wanting when the fleet is in several columns. Lastly, the danger of such a formation is infinitely greater in a fog, for this is the most favourable opportunity for the enemy’s torpedo attack. These are reasons why, when expecting to meet the enemy, a fleet always forms in one line.

In pointing out the advantages of a single column, I had in view battleships and armoured cruisers, which, according to their strength, are capable of fighting in a so-called line. This expression has been in use from time immemorial and indicates what ought to be the battle formation, whence the phrase, “ship of the line”. With regard to light cruisers, some of these are selected to form separate divisions – one or several, according to their number – to be kept entirely out of the battle formation, at a sufficient distance so as not to interfere with manoeuvres. Their task, by taking advantage of the different combinations of the battle, is to render help according to their ability where it is required, to attack the weak points in the hostile formation, and to prevent the execution of similar attacks by similar light cruisers of the enemy. In a like separate division the torpedo vessels are formed. This division endeavours to so dispose itself as to avoid the fire of the enemy, and must observe precautions up to the end of the battle, so as to be fit to assail the enemy’s damaged ships.

As regards the transports, which in the battle itself proved a hindrance, it is usually considered wise to keep these as far as possible from the fleet, and out of sight, on the side opposite from where the enemy may be expected. In the present case the proper place for these transports would have been about twenty to thirty miles behind the battle fleet. After the battle had opened in the eastern passage, of which they would have been aware by the sound of the firing or learnt by wireless telegraphy, they might have made directly for the western passage and thence to Vladivostok. During the general engagement in the eastern passage, pushing the transports through the western passage would have offered the best chances of success. It would have been quite reasonable to have kept the transports with the fleet and protected them if the encounter with the Japanese had taken place in the vicinity of Formosa, or farther south but in that event the best defence would have been to have sent them, during the hours of battle, as far from the fleet as possible. Here, when from the scene of action it was, at most, only forty-eight hours’ cruise from Vladivostok, there was no special need to keep the transports with the fleet, and they might easily have been either left behind at the Saddle Islands or taken round the east of Japan, or, as mentioned above, sent through the western part of the Straits of Korea. 

At all events, in view of the proximity of Vladivostok, it might have been possible to risk them, and send them (along with the colliers and auxiliary cruisers left at Shanghai) through the western passage during the night preceding the appearance of the fleet in the eastern passage. They would have attracted to themselves a considerable number of torpedo-vessels and small craft. To keep them about the fleet during the battle, and guard them from firing and the attack of small cruisers, was a senseless proceeding, and the worst way to protect them. They terribly impeded the squadron in manoeuvres, and all the cruisers, and even larger vessels like the “Oleg”, “Aurora”, “Dmitri Donskoi”, and “Monomakh” were specially occupied in their defence; the torpedo-vessels also crowded round them, being thereby rendered of practically no advantage. If the torpedo-craft had kept to one side of the area of the battle, as the Japanese arranged theirs (they only moved them out after sunset), ours might have had chances at night of attacking the Japanese fleet and doing their work as destroyers, protecting the vessels at the extremity of our squadron, against which the full force of the Japanese torpedo-vessels was concentrated. Among the latter were very many small torpedo-vessels for coast defence, and here would have been sufficient work for our destroyers. However, being scattered among the columns, under a cross fire, part were withdrawn from the line for no reason at all ; others confined themselves to saving men from sinking vessels; part left the scene of action with the cruisers as night came on – at the very moment when they might have been of advantage to the fleet. It may possibly be that, in defending these unfortunate transports, our cruisers were rendered useless. At the time the Japanese cruiser division appeared in sight of our squadron, 2 and a half hours before the battle of the main feet, and, having observed its disposition, reported it to Admiral Togo, enabling him to arrange his plan of operations accordingly; at that time the cruiser division, during the battle, passed from one wing to the other of our fleet, and produced complete confusion among the transports. Our cruisers kept close to the fleet and the transports, and made no attempt to prevent the Japanese cruisers giving their admiral a complete report of the strength and disposition of our fleet. Meanwhile, in view of our squadron, there appeared to port (see the report of General Linievitch, P. 111.a particularly weak scouting division – two second and two third-class cruisers – and to starboard only one third-class cruiser. The division to port approached so near our squadron that the second division of battleships opened fire on it (see Linievitch’s report). After having inspected everything, it withdrew. As night drew on, all our cruisers, whose task should have been to attract to themselves the torpedo-attacks against the battleships and destroy the Japanese torpedo-boats, quitted the armoured ship division, near which, in the morning, there was only one cruiser, the “Izumrud”. 

I return now to the three divisions of armoured vessels, of four ships in each. At first they were in one column (see Linievitch’s report), extended along the strait, one division astern of the other. About one and a half hours before the appearance of the enemy, however, they were formed into two columns, with an interval between them of three cables (three hundred sazhens of six feet). The starboard column consisted in all of four battleships of the “Suvorov” type, and astern of the port column was attached Admiral Enquist’s division of cruisers.

In speaking of the necessity of ships being in one line for battle, I did not point out that this might be done by two methods. What is known as a “line ahead” is where vessels follow one another in file. If they are extended in one line, abreast of one another, i.e. from side to side, then such formation is known as “line abreast”. Each formation has its advantages and its defects, but both are necessary, and each forms the complement of the other. 

I have already mentioned one of the advantages of the line ahead formation, the flexibility and facility of turning it affords, and in this respect the line abreast formation is the direct opposite. In order to change direction while in this latter formation, it is necessary that the end vessel at the side on which the turn is to be made should remain stationary, while the vessel at the other extremity should describe an arc whose radius is the length of the whole line. Meanwhile, the intervening vessels describe arcs of correspondingly less radius. All this is executed according to definite rules requiring great attention, besides signalling; therefore it is evidently very difficult to perform in time of battle. It is also generally difficult to retain this formation in order if first one vessel moves ahead and then another. But if we imagine two fleets advancing directly towards one another, one in line abreast and the other in line ahead, the advantage to the former will be enormous. The vessels of the former fleet can concentrate the fire of all their bow guns on the foremost vessel of the latter, but the vessels forming the second fleet screen the enemy from one another, and the rearmost vessels have to fire at too great a distance. The foremost vessel of the second fleet will probably be overpowered; and as the flagship usually leads, there is the greatest probability of the admiral being put out of action. For this reason, once the enemy approaches us in line abreast formation, it is necessary to adopt this formation also, or, if this is undesirable, to extend the line ahead formation until it becomes parallel to the enemy’s formation. Then our position would be even more advantageous, as we can bring all our guns on the port side to bear, while he can only reply with his bow guns. Moreover, we can, thanks to the flexibility of our formation, begin to outflank the port side of the enemy. To hinder us from doing that, he will have to re-form out from line abreast to line ahead, for which purpose his ships will have to turn simultaneously to port at right angles. If he were late in beginning this manoeuvre, and we were already on his flank, this move would be very dangerous for him, as his foremost vessel (formerly on the left flank) would be exposed to the concentrated fire of all our fleet, and then all his vessels would have to turn at right angles to starboard and begin to turn our rear, while we should carry out the same relation to his rear vessels. Then the chances would be even. For these reasons I am of opinion that it is evident that in a naval battle the line ahead formation and the line abreast formation ought to alternate, and either antagonist should be able at any moment to pass from one formation to the other. To effect this there must be freedom to manoeuvre, which was lacking from our fleet at Tsushima owing to its formation in parallel columns, and also to the presence of the transports, which created panic, hampered the whole formation, and introduced disorder.

To complete our examination of the causes which led our fleet to disaster at Tsushima we must now discuss the chief cause – the personal element. Indeed, upon this factor fall all the strategic errors in the fleet’s movements  tactical mistakes in battle; the surrender of some vessels, and the departure of others from the scene of action; wrong firing; and finally bad equipment and faulty construction of vessels. For all these, men are clearly to blame. It has often been declared in the Press, and publicly, that the chief cause of these defects in the personal element may be found in the fact that, generally speaking, we are not a maritime nation, that on this account good sailors cannot be raised among us. (How is it possible to fight at sea without good sailors?) Again, it is said that because the Japanese are a sea-going nation they built an excellent fleet in some ten to fifteen years. It is also said that after all a fleet is of no use to us whatever, and sea warfare is so unnatural to us that it should be put a stop to once for all. 

I cannot agree with this in any way. It was of course difficult to discuss the matter when the impression produced by the annihilation of nearly all the Russian fleet was so vivid, and when many wanted to explain the disaster by purely I do not elemental causes. Now, however, it is different. consider it right to keep silence.

Most of all I am struck by the supposed desperate condition of our land forces. But in the faces of those who talk like this, cannot the fact be thrown that this war has clearly shown that our army is bad, our diplomacy bad, and many other things bad? Are we therefore not to have an army because it has shown itself bad and displayed, through lack of development and culture, its incapability of adopting the methods of modern military art? Has the Japanese army proved worse than the Japanese fleet? Has it once lost a battle? Has it not taken Port Arthur from us, and captured thousands of our men, not only at Port Arthur, but after Mukden? Has not artillery fallen into its hands on land, with large stores of provisions and military stores, our plans, and even secret ciphers? All that has been the case. This means that the Japanese have constructed very rapidly, not only an excellent fleet, but an excellent army, and that no less rapidly than the fleet. It means that Japan is not only more of a naval nation than we are, but more of a land power as well. In Japan there are scarcely any horses, for they are neither employed for locomotion nor agricultural purposes  yet for all that it appears that their cavalry did better than ours. What does all this mean? In my opinion it means that the causes by which the Japanese have excelled in their diplomacy, in their army and navy, are as general as those by which everything has turned out badly for us. It is possible to create everything, and to teach everyone under sound conditions, with broad culture and development of the people, conscious of patriotism and love of country, and participating in affairs, according to the ability of each, by means of a system of popular representation. When I am told that our fleet was destroyed in the Straits of Korea simply because we are in general bad sailors, I cannot agree with this at all. Were those bad sailors who completed a voyage unheard of in the history of fleets, under exceptionally difficult conditions, on miserable, unstable, and partly worn-out vessels, and succeeded besides in taking such vessels safely to the seat of warp? Were those bad naval engineers who in such an exceptionally difficult voyage knew how to preserve the boilers and engines from serious defects? 

No, a thousand times no; and I think every one devoid of bias will agree with me. Every one who knows our fleet will also agree that bad sailors and bad naval engineers sailed from Libau, because our personnel had never been obliged to learn sea duties – such was the pernicious system of senseless economy favoured by the Ministry of Marine! And yet these bad seamen, sons of a nation of hopeless landsmen, became good sailors, because in the course of a seven months’ voyage, under most trying conditions, they practised incessantly and learned how to cope with every difficulty. They endured terrible storms, tropical heat, fogs, privations and, indeed, surmounted all things, because they had practised and learned. Not only did bad seamen sail from Libau, but also bad fighting seamen, including admirals, commanders, and officers who had never studied the science of naval history, nor naval strategy, nor modern naval tactics. They had all grown up in an atmosphere of prejudice as to the unnecessary character of all this, and even contempt for naval history and any science whatever. Many remained in this frame of mind, while those who felt that there was something wrong and strove to improve their knowledge had no possibility of doing so. No opportunities existed, and the service did not furnish them. In our navy, for instance, it is ages since there were any manoeuvres. That is why the tactical movements of the fleet proved bad, why there was no scouting service, and why no battle formation was adopted. To the same want of practical knowledge may be attributed the fact that our vessels went into action painted black, with their funnels brightly picked out in yellow; that is why no one was told off to work out the chief’s plans beforehand, although history deals with the urgent necessity of this. All this could not be learnt during a voyage, especially by men under the conviction that such things were not necessary to be troubled about. Weather, heat, and fogs did not teach The battle did – when it was too late. Exactly the same that thing happened with the army. In No. 149 of the “Rus” Mr. N. Kirilov – who published the opinions of a soldier just returned from Manchuria – replying to the question, Why were we beaten? answers, and decisively, “Because from the very first step taken in this war we cast away all that we had so long and diligently studied at the Academy, and, refusing the instruction of science and her truths, commenced to devise our own tactics and strategy, imagining that we possessed more genius than great military leaders. It was a sort of bacchanalia of improvisations!”

The only difference was this, that our land forces had studied and despised science, while our sailors had previously despised it and not studied it. Which course is the more culpable or contemptible is a question to be argued. This contempt for science, however, is a general characteristic among us. I do not desire to blame either our admirals or our officers – for they could not help themselves in this universal ignorance of tactical matters in which the personnel of our fleet has stagnated. I know many who made tremendous efforts to free themselves of this ignorant spirit; but the whole system was against them, and it was all but impossible to contend with it. It is easier to study tactical matters than to become a good sailor, and if our officers had only studied these as diligently – this I know for a fact – as the Japanese studied, then our fleet would have been no worse than theirs in this respect. 

Finally, not only did inefficient seamen and officers leave with the fleet from Libau, but men whose instruction in gunnery had ceased two or three years before; and some of them, too, had learnt much that was incorrect. This might, no doubt, have been rectified on the journey – our seamen learn remarkably quickly when they are well instructed – but they did not receive any instruction, so that during the battle our firing was much worse than that of the Japanese, and this was added to by the rolling of the ships. We turned out excellent sailors and expert gunners, even in the old days of sailing ships, when natural aptitude for the sea played an incomparably greater rôle than it does now. This was at periods when our men were well and earnestly trained, when the personal element was regarded as the chief consideration, and money was not spared over their instruction. Now, in an age of all kinds of mechanisms which help to simplify the struggle with the sea – especially with the element itself – this is more possible than ever. It is possible for us; and only in this way can the causes be removed which have made our army deteriorate, and we be able to possess a good fleet. 

But the surrender of four armoured vessels and the “Biedovy”, with the unconscious Commander-in-Chief on board, the abandonment of the “Biedovy” by the destroyer “Grozny”, and the departure from the scene of action of some of the cruisers what do all these mean? They are, indeed, practically the most painful and distressing events connected with the disaster. These ignominious facts – in particular, where the ships yielded without a struggle – are a result of the undoubted depression of spirits, but no word of mine shall be used to lay all the blame, without reservation, upon those who surrendered. That they acted shamefully, directly against the Regulations, and against the naval gospel at the reading of which all on board uncover – all this is true. But besides this, they were under the influence of their imagination as to how this would be received by others, as to what the fleet, the authorities, the nation, would say. This does not influence the strong and energetic; but in every personnel there is a number of weak, wavering, and unfaithful souls! How necessary it is to direct these, and rigidly to place an ideal before their eyes – how they should act, and what must be regarded as a disgrace by all! Such matters greatly assist in raising men’s spirits and in their depression, and as the spirits of all in the fleet had long been much depressed, they served more readily to depress than to raise. It began with the very commencement of the war. No one appears to be responsible for the criminal abandonment of our squadron in the outer roadstead of Port Arthur on the night of 8-9 February, and for the inadequate look-out, when all knew that war was immediately ahead – and the idea went abroad also that such neglect might not result even in censure, still less in punishment. After that there is the story of the “Variag”, All are agreed that this was a matter exalted far beyond measure; that it demanded investigation as well as I think that the participants in this affair were astounded when they learned the credit assigned to their act. How pitiful it all appears in comparison with, for example, the exploit of the “Rurik”! – I do not speak of the “Steregusht- shy”. But did this exploit receive a thousandth part of commendation in comparison with that accorded over the affair of the “Variag”? No one scarcely said a word about it, and for those who took part there only remained the consolation derived from the consciousness of duty actually, and not only visibly, fulfilled. 

An incident, indeed, which has remained entirely uninvestigated is the abandonment of the “Rurik” by her two big cruiser consorts. Perhaps there was no other course to adopt, but many did not believe this. I well remember how the report of the action was kept back for nearly forty-eight hours. Why? Another affair has likewise not been investigated, – how our division of cruisers on 14 August were cut off from Vladivostok; although there were reasons for this which also contributed to the defeat. Finally, this has remained entirely uninvestigated: how was it that on board the cruiser which had by far the best armour on her sides, the losses in men were incomparably greater than in another, almost unprotected by armour? This was in consequence of lack of order and skill, but no one has drawn attention thereto. And why was no punishment awarded in the case of two of our three cruisers at Vladivostok being run on the rocks? As all who are acquainted with the matter know, it was in circumstances which could in no way be justified. Due appreciation was not awarded in regard to the departure of the “Askold”‘ for Shanghai, the “Diana” for Saigon, and the “Lena” for San Francisco. These affairs could not but exert a depressing influence upon our personnel, and principally of course upon its weakest They could not help making the deduction that members. all this was in the order of things, all this might safely be done. 

Therefore, what grounds are there for surprise that three cruisers left the scene of a battle and went to a neutral port until it had finished? That the “Grozny” abandoned the”Biedovy”? That at length the farthest possible step was taken in this direction – i.e. vessels began to surrender almost unscathed and without making any attempt to sink themselves?

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