In examining this battle I shall follow the report of the commander of the “Grozny”, as well as some additional information he has communicated to me.
At the dawn of day on 28 May, the “Grozny” found herself at the opening of the Korean Straits into the Sea of Japan, in proximity to the “Dmitri Donskoi” and the torpedo-vessels “Biedovy” and “Buiny”. The Admiral had then been removed from the latter torpedo-boat to the “Biedovy”, from which immediately afterwards there came to the “Grozny” the order to follow her. To the question by whom this order was given, the commander of the “Grozny” received the reply, “Admiral Rozhestvensky is on board the torpedo-vessel, wounded in the head and other places. The majority of the staff are also wounded. We are going to Vladivostok. If coal will not hold out, then we go to Possiet”. Soon after this the “Dmitri Donskoi” turned back and disappeared, together with the “Buiny” and only the “Biedovy” in company with the “Grozny” proceeded on the way to Vladivostok.
At a little after 3 p.m., near the island of Matsushima, there appeared two ships, rapidly overtaking them. “On a nearer view” so says the report, “the vessels proved to be Japanese; one was a two-funnelled destroyer, and the other a torpedo-boat-destroyer with four funnels”. I entirely fail to understand by what marks a “destroyer” can be distinguished from a “torpedo- boat-destroyer”. So far as I know, these words are absolutely synonymous. And this same type is called by us “squadron torpedo-boat”. Thus, when they were in presence of each other, it was apparent that on both sides – on ours as on the enemy’s – the forces were equal, each consisting of two squadron torpedo-boats, which, for the sake of brevity, I shall simply call torpedo-boats or destroyers. In dimensions, in type and class, in numbers of the crew, and in the supply of torpedoes, the advantage was on our side; in guns and in speed, on the side of the Japanese. The following data are from an official source.
Both our destroyers were built at the Neva yard. The “Biedov” was launched in 1902 and the “Grozny” in 1904. The latter made her first voyage with Rozhestvensky’s squadron. The constituent elements of both torpedo-boats were identical; dis- placement, 350 tons; highest (contract) speed, 26 knots; ship’s company, 62 men; torpedo tubes, 3; one gun of 75 mm. and five guns of 47 mm. One of the Japanese destroyers, viz. that with four funnels, proved to be the “Sadanami”, the other (two- funnelled) the “Kadgero”. Both were built in England, the first at Yarrow’s works, the second at Thornycroft’s. The first was launched in 1898, the second between 1898 and I900. The “Sadanami’s” displacement was 311 tons; speed, 31knots. The other’s displacement was 279 tons, and speed about 30 knots. Both carried a crew of 54 men, one gun of 75 mm, five guns of 57 mm and two torpedo tubes. It must be noted that the superiority in speed of the Japanese torpedo-boats, highly important as it was for coming up with the enemy and seizing on the most favourable position and distance, was yet accompanied by certain defects. The fact is, that during the period when these destroyers were being built in England, there was an almost frantic craze for high speed, and to this all the other qualities of torpedo-craft were sacrificed, especially strength of the hull.
Here is what is said on this matter in the “Register”, by the Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovitch for the year 1904, pages 350, 35: “The Admiralty, by bitter experience, arrived at the conclusion that in the pursuit of great speed they had lost sight of the necessity of strength of hull. Besides, latterly, not one of the destroyers has reached the speed contracted for. For instance, a whole series of destroyers, bound by contract to give 33 knots, were accepted, after protracted trials, at from 30.5 to 31.5 knots. At the same time, continual breakdowns became an ordinary phenomenon. Then the Admiralty decided (1) not to build destroyers of a speed exceeding 25 knots; and (2) to strengthen the frames of the stringers and the skirting (i.e. to strengthen the hull)”. And in fact, on the roll of the English destroyers, all the eighteen built in the year 1903 (p. 425) have a speed of about 25.5 knots, while of those constructed in the preceding years not one gave less than 30 knots. Some years before this decision, the well-known French torpedo-boat builder, Norman, gave us very energetic warnings on this point; but up to that point they had not been followed.
I have deemed it necessary to set forth all this in order to explain why our most modern torpedo-boats – to which category the “Biedovy” and “Grozny” belonged – were bound by contract to develop a speed of 26 knots at the outside. Consequently, their hulls were stronger, and their sea-going qualities (for example, the stability of the platforms, which facilitates the action of the guns) were better than those of the Japanese torpedo-boats which overtook them. As regards the guns, the Japanese had in each of their vessels two 75-mm. guns. In the smaller pieces there was some superiority on the side of our adversaries, in as much as they had ten 57-mm. guns as against our ten 47-mm. guns. This circumstance made the conflict more favourable for our vessels in proportion to the nearness of the range since, the larger the calibre of the gun the greater the distance at which it strikes, and the better its aim. Superior accuracy of aim is much more sharply manifested at long range than at short.
On the Russian torpedo-boats the 75-mm. gun is placed at the bows, on the Japanese at the stern. This means that it was more advantageous for our torpedo-boats to fight with their bows towards the enemy, but for the Japanese it was better to attack from the stern. During the time the Japanese fleet was before Port Arthur, it leaked out that they had strengthened the artillery of their torpedo-craft, by the addition of a second 75-mm. gun; and even by the substitution of guns having a range of 120 metres for those with a range of 75 metres. however, could scarcely have been done for those japanese torpedo-vessels, which are said to have been very old and with an extremely small displacement (306 and 279 tons). It probably refers to the newest destroyers of 381 tons constructed in Japan during the year 1902-3. In either case, however, the advantage on the side of our destroyers at short range remained in full force; and the absolute necessity of fighting in such a position so as to fully utilise the 75-mm. gun in the bows was evident. Otherwise the enemy’s superiority in artillery would have been simply crushing. Finally, at short range it would have been possible to bring the torpedoes into action, as to which the superiority was on our side. I hasten to say, however, that this superiority is no great matter; since to hit a torpedo-boat with a torpedo when the boat is in motion is excessively difficult. But although in other respects our vessels may have the advantage of short range, yet we need not altogether neglect this extreme measure (i.e. launching torpedoes). In what condition the Japanese torpedo-vessels found themselves after the battle of 27 May, or what part they took in it, I am ignorant. In the report of the commander of the “Grozny” no mention is made of his having suffered any damage or lost any of his men on the preceding day. That everybody on board the “Biedovy” was alive and well after the surrender was officially announced. As regards her hull and machinery, we must suppose that these were all right; otherwise the Admiral and his staff would not have removed from the “Buiny” (probably in a precarious state) to the “Biedovy” while the “Grozny” was there quite uninjured.
Thus our torpedo-boats could not be reckoned inferior to those of the Japanese as regards material. And their chances in battle were better in proportion to the shortness of the range. Consequently, the choice lay between two alternatives; either making off in order to run away from the battle, or else going to meet it, so as to take up a favourable position as soon as possible. The question is plainly this: Which resolution ought to have been followed, only having regard to material strength? The second, it would seem. Especially considering the superiority of the Japanese in point of speed, which gave the decision “to fight or not to fight” into the hands of our enemies ; and considering also that in retreating we must turn our stern towards our adversary, and thus deprive ourselves of the advantage of coming to close quarters. But over and above the material strength, we must take into consideration the bearing of the moral forces on the question.
The crews of our destroyers could not but be under the painful impression of a defeat, although they were not yet acquainted with the whole frightful extent of the disaster; while the Japanese were full of enthusiasm over their recent brilliant victory, and were reckoning on pursuing the miserable remnants of our squadron, which were seeking safety in flight towards Vladivostok. Our men had every ground for expecting the appearance of more of the enemy’s ships behind these two Japanese torpedo-boats, and that the Japanese would advance impetuously to seize on their prize. In these circumstances it would not have been surprising, nor could any one have blamed them, if our vessels had first of all made the attempt to get away, and, to this end, had pursued their course towards Vladivostok. The Japanese torpedo-vessels would certainly have pursued them, and in that case the result would have directly depended on the difference in speed. Had this difference been so considerable that there could be no hope of getting away, and the Japanese were able to give battle in the position most favourable for themselves and most unfavourable for the Russians, i.e. at a range too great for the 47-mm. guns, then the only thing for the Russians to do would have been to turn, to get into shorter range as quickly as possible, and to plunge desperately into the conflict, on the chance that the Japanese, carried away by their pursuit, might not all at once change their course, and might be forced to accept a position favourable to the Russians.
Here arises the question: Might not this design have been changed by the fact of the presence on board the “Biedovy” of the Admiral, wounded and deprived of consciousness? I cannot, of course, answer for it that I have examined all the possible considerations in this connexion; but I have not been able to find any reason for answering that question in the affrmative. The presence of the wounded Admiral would all the more have justified the avoidance of action and the attempt to reach Vladivostok intact. But had this proved to be impossible by reason of the enemy’s superior speed, all the more energetically, all the more obdurately, ought we to have fought. It is true that, to the outside world, this is merely a surrender without resistance. But such a surrender is categorically forbidden by the Regulations of the Navy.
Who was it, then, who ordered the action of the destroyers in question? From the report of Admiral Rozhestvensky, he was in an unconscious state. From the letter of Captain Andrzheievsky, the flag-captain was on the upper deck. That means that he gave the orders. Further on I shall show that his right to give orders was contested. Meanwhile, I shall examine the matter as it was. The flag-captain, by his rank, was the senior of the commanders of both torpedo-boats. Consequently, next to him in seniority came the commander of the “Grozny” and after the latter the commander of the “Biedovy”.
The Russians were only able to partially estimate the strength of the Japanese torpedo-vessels. The “Sadanami” of course they could recognize as one of the most powerful torpedo-boats, which have four funnels. But the two-funnelled boat might be one of the type of 279 tons, very much weaker in the construction of the hull, and inferior in sea-going qualities. From the Japanese reports, it is evident that she was the “Kadgero” precisely of the above-mentioned type.
I am persuaded that our officers, during the course of their seven months’ voyage to the theatre of war, studied with the greatest assiduity all particulars as to the quality and armaments of the enemy’s ships, so far as these could be gleaned from trustworthy sources. Of course the members of the staff and the commanders of the cruisers and torpedo-boats specially occupied themselves with these studies; for on them rests the duty of keeping a watchful look-out.
The flag-captain, however, took neither of the above mentioned resolutions, which it would seem would have been the best possible. This is how he acted: in the first place he did not increase the speed of the “Biedovy” ; thus giving the Japanese the opportunity of swiftly gaining the range which best suited them for attack, and at the same time depriving himself of the means of estimating the position. It is evident that he quickly took the resolve to surrender without fighting; and therefore, having informed himself what speed could be got out of the “Grozny” he ordered her to proceed to Vladivostok. He paid no attention to the inquiry of the commander of the “Grozny” why he was not to give battle instead of making off. He gave orders to hoist a flag of truce and the Red Cross flag, and ordered the commander of the “Biedovy”, to stop the engines. He ought, if prevented by a wound from giving orders himself, to have handed over the command to the captain of the “Grozny” as the senior of the commanders. But how was it possible to decide on surrendering without fighting, when this is categorically forbidden by the Navy Regulations, and to bring on oneself the heavy penalties of so doing?
The precise answer to this question can be given only by the flag-captain himself. Not to go far afield for examples, I will merely refer to the explanation given to the Press by General Hannefield as to certain episodes of the retreat from Mukden, inserted in the “Novoye Vremya” (No. 10,573). From his letter it is evident that Russian newspapers reached the prisoners, and, in consequence of some correspondence on the subject of the war, the General gives these elucidations. Precisely in the same way, if my memory does not deceive me, correspondence appeared in the Press from other officers who were prisoners of war. Be this as it may, no explanation has been forthcoming from Captain Klanier de Kolon, and therefore we are obliged to have recourse to conjectures. I consider that I, rather than another, have the means for attempting this, since whosoever is not personally acquainted with this officer may easily fall into mistakes – and mistakes of an injurious nature – in judging his actions. I have long known Constantine Constantinovitch Klanier de Kolon, both as a man and an officer. Not long ago I was serving under his immediate command, and I deem it my duty to say that he is in the highest degree an honourable and excellent man, with the best heart in the world; somewhat too soft-hearted perhaps, and lacking in resolution; but highly conscientious, and devoted to the service, and positively incapable of consciously doing any unworthy action.
To Admiral Rozhestvensky he was bound by the duties of the service and by a profound esteem, and officially as his flag-captain. His devotion to him knew no bounds. His whole soul was set upon lightening the Admiral’s heavy duties, and assiduously sparing him all annoyance. Suddenly he sees his beloved commander lying seriously wounded and unconscious in a little vessel which was never designed for artillery warfare, in which there was no spot impenetrable to even the lightest shot, and on him, on the flag- captain, it depends whether to inflict on the wounded Admiral fresh moral and material suffering by continuing the struggle, or, by surrendering to the victorious enemy, to save his life. Such, I imagine, were the thoughts which whirled through the brain of the flag-captain on the appearance of the Japanese torpedo-boats. These thoughts overcame all the rest-the rules of the service, and the affliction which must befall the Russian navy and the Russian people when they learned that a Russian ship and the Commander-in- Chief of a Russian fleet had surrendered without a struggle. He was not aware that Niebogatov, with a whole division, had already surrendered; and therefore he may have thought that he was giving up one sole and unique prize into the hands of the enemy, a consideration, however, which ought to have militated against the surrender. He forgot everything; his whole being was possessed with one idea – that of saving his beloved Admiral. This was an erroneous and illegitimate motive, but nevertheless a lofty and noble one. In looking at this act of Captain Klanier de Kolon I perceive (knowing him as I do) the cruel error of judgement, but at the same time the self-sacrifice with which he staked his honour and reputation.
He ought not to have done so. He had no right to take such a step, and by taking it he has inscribed in the history of the Russian navy one of its blackest pages. To understand why he acted as he did is only possible for one who knows him. But, I repeat, to hold him justified is impossible. And for the truth of history, for the instruction of future generations, we must speak thus : “This man sincerely deluded himself; he wished to act honourably; but in the terrible dilemma in which he found himself he was not able to understand that he had a reputation to maintain, and sacrificed everything to his Admiral. I am profoundly convinced that it would have been incomparably easier for him to perish in battle than to order the hoisting of a flag of truce. He must have had to put a terrible force upon himself in order to do that. It had to be done in face of a foe not of superior numbers, but having a force only equal with his ow ; but there was his much-loved Admiral lying helpless, speechless, unconscious, and he decided. Nevertheless, he had no right to decide as he did”.