A Chaplain’s Narrative

Peter Nikititch Dobrovolsky, chaplain of the cruiser “Dmitri Donskoi”, and formerly with Rozhestvensky’s Second Squadron, returned to St. Petersburg from Japan. While omitting a general description of the battle of Tsushima, we will here give an account in the words of Father Dobrovolsky of that which particularly concerns the “Dmitri Donskoi”, about which there appeared in the Press but scrappy and often contradictory information:

“Towards the evening of 27 May, when our battleships had been destroyed one after another, the Japanese, as is well known, opened an attack with torpedoes. As soon as it began, the “Oleg” and “Aurora” began to make head way at full speed, and the “Donskoi”, which could only make thirteen knots, soon lost sight of them. Astern of the “Donskoi” followed the “Vladimir Monomakh”, but as the latter had a speed of fifteen knots, she, too, soon out-distanced the “Donskoi”. Not hearing any signals from the “Oleg”, on board which Admiral Enquist was, and on the strength of former orders from Rozhestvensky, the commander of our cruiser, Captain Lebedev, steered for Vladivostok. The cruiser successfully made her way through a whole chain of the enemy’s torpedo-craft that were scattered along the route from Tsushima to Japan, and came out into the open sea. At about midnight three torpedo-vessels, which turned out to be ours, were seen astern; one of these came up to the “Donskoi” to make inquiries as to the course. At daybreak we espied from on board our cruiser two more torpedo-vessels, and after a little while a third signalling for us to stop. This was the “Buiny”, on board of which was the wounded Admiral Rozhestvensky. On coming up to the Donskoi,’ he gave orders for the boats to be lowered, so as to take up those that had been saved by the destroyer from the “Oslabya”, and also for supplies of coal to be furnished. The first order was carried out, but not the second. There was no possibility of bringing up coal, as the smoke from the enemy’s torpedo-vessels now appeared on the horizon. After demanding a surgeon, the “Buiny”, with two other destroyers, took her course for Vladivostok. In about two hours, however, it was again noticed from the cruiser that the “Buiny” was advancing towards us, and already signalling that she was “in distress”.Her engine was damaged. It was found necessary to transfer the Admiral to the “Biedovy”.The “Buiny” for her part, received orders to go to the “Donskoi”, transfer the crew, and then sink the vessel.

All this was accomplished, but meanwhile our cruiser lost about two or three hours of precious time. Then she proceeded again at her former speed. The horizon was clear and open for a vast distance. At two in the afternoon the rocky island of Dazhelet appeared in the distance. Anxious to mask his movements, the commander of the “Donskoi” took a course between Dazhelet and a small island near the Japanese coast. Another two hours passed by, and then there appeared four Japanese cruisers belonging to the third squadron ; the “Matsushima”,the “Idsukushima”, the “Hashidate”, and the “San-yen”. They advanced at the slow rate of fourteen knots. 

“Then, at six o’clock, just as we were opposite Dazhelet, appeared two more cruisers of the “Otova” or “Nitaka” type, accompanied by two torpedo-vessels. About the same time, three torpedo-vessels advanced from the direction of Korea. The “Donskoi” was now surrounded on all sides. She shaped her course for Dazhelet, from which place she was separated by a distance of thirty to thirty-five miles. The Japanese cruisers advanced rapidly, and about 6.30 action began. The “Donskoi” was at first attacked by two cruisers, but after half an hour four more cruisers advanced from the other side, and opened fire at once. The “Donskoi” replied by firing from both sides, concentrating her fire upon the headmost vessels. The continuous crash of shells was heard all round, and the cruiser was quivering continuously. On board, the glassware, crockery, pictures, lamps, were all shattered to atoms, and fragments were flying about. The din was so great that many were literally deafened. Several times the ship caught fire, but, thanks to the activity of the officers and the brave determination of the crew, the flames were immediately extinguished. Without being interrupted for a moment, the battle continued for two hours. Already there were 60 killed and 120 wounded on board the ship. 

“At the beginning of the battle I went about with the cross and sprinkled holy water round the decks; but when the number of wounded increased, I was obliged to go down into the sick bay to administer the last sacrament to the dying. On the upper decks, where those picked up from the “Oslabya” and “Buiny” had been placed, moaning and sobbing could be heard, and as I passed along they surrounded me and kissed The captain enjoined the cross with tears in their eyes. me to reassure the wounded by telling them we would proceed to Dazhelet. Towards the end of the battle, the air resounded with the joyous shouts of “Hurrah!” From the top, it was communicated that the “Donskoi” had sunk the cruiser “Nitaka”, which had been leading, and upon which an admiral’s flag had been hoisted. On the other side, two more of the enemy’s cruisers had been thrown out of line, and the “Donskoi” was soon left alone. Having slackened her course, she was already getting near to Dazhelet, when another torpedo-attack was made on us. It resulted once more in a defeat for the Japanese. Out of five torpedo-boats, the Donskoi’ succeeded in sinking two, while a third went off heeling over. 

“The attack having ceased, the Donskoi’ slackened her course. I then came up on deck. All the lights were extinguished, the gangway ladders were broken down everywhere; corpses were lying about on all sides. With great difficulty I managed to make my way to the upper bridge. There too all had been killed: the senior quartermaster Scholtz, his assistant Lieutenant Giers, the senior gunnery officer Durnovo, also the helmsman and two of the captain ‘s orderlies. The captain had at one time stood at the wheel himself, but towards the end of the battle he was wounded in the leg and was now lying on the bridge. I offered to call the surgeon, but he said that he had already tied up his wound with his handkerchief. He added, The doctor had better attend to the others. There are, no doubt, plenty of wounded besides me.

“Everywhere on board the cruiser were to be seen the marks of destruction, although no holes had been made under water. Above the waterline we could count about six. A shell had fallen into one of the boilers, and it was only due to the fact that this boiler had previously been put out of use that an explosion was prevented. On board the “Donskoi” there remained only just enough shells to have lasted for a quarter of an hour’s fighting. In view of all this it was resolved to land the crew. In the course of an hour one of the cutters was repaired, and, having chosen a convenient spot, we began to transfer the wounded. The work of landing continued till daybreak. From a distance could be seen signal-fares on board the enemy’s vessels. Early in the morning the enemy’s torpedo-craft appeared. Thereupon the crew that had still remained on board the cruiser threw themselves into the water to swim ashore, by order of the senior officer. The “Donskoi” herself was taken by the senior officers, together with the assistant engineers, to a depth of 100 fathoms, where they opened the Kingston valves, and in twenty-five minutes she sank to the bottom, while the officers reached the island amid a hail of the enemy’s bullets.

“The wounded were placed on shore, and, lest the Japanese should open fire, we showed the Red Cross and a flag of truce. The Japanese stood on and off for a long time near the coast, after which an officer came off in a boat. On landing, he took our senior officer with him, and after about two hours the “Kassuga” appeared, accompanied by a torpedo-vessel which remained out at sea. They then proceeded to transfer our wounded, taking them first to the torpedo-vessel and afterwards to the cruiser. At midnight, the work of transferring us ceased. It was resumed on the following day, and towards ten o’clock in the morning we had all been removed. In a day we arrived at Sasebo. On entering the port, all the prisoners were shut in below, not being allowed to come on deck. At Sasebo, the wounded were removed to the hospital, while we were taken to one of the transports, where we remained for fully twenty-four hours. On the following day I and Doctor Hertzog, with the chaplains and doctors of the other vessels, were sent to Nagasaki, and installed at the hospital there. 

“After two days had elapsed, the body of our commander, Captain Lebedev, was brought in, and I buried him in the Russian cemetery at Nagasaki. 

“Father Dobrovolsky had nothing but high praise for the dead commander of the “Dmitri Donskoi”, as also for the senior gunnery officer Durnovo, who had both of them been thorough sailors, experienced, well-informed, and energetic. As to Lebedev, even the Japanese spoke of him as one of the bravest of Russian seamen. 

“I am telling you all this”, the Father concluded, “because it seems to me that so little has hitherto been written about the “Dmitri Donskoi”. Hardly any one would have anticipated that the vessel, which had been counted among our feeblest, would have succeeded in causing so much damage to the Japanese. Who knows, had Admiral Enquist not retreated with the rest of the cruisers, but that we might have succeeded in effecting a passage to Vladivostok? It is, of course, difficult to speak with certainty about this: undoubtedly there were good reasons for doing so.

“Have you not heard anything, Father, about Admiral Niebogatov? he was asked.

“At first the Admiral was praised a great deal”, replied Father Dobrovolsky, “for had he not accomplished so successfully a long and difficult passage? But as regards the surrender, everybody is absolutely at a loss how to explain it. I can only say this much, that the Japanese have treated us as well as the other prisoners  very differently from the way they treated Niebogatov’s crew.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *