Experiences in the Transport “Korea” from the Letter of Another Eye-Witness

“Five days have elapsed since the battle of Tsushima, and the impression made by it still presses on my consciousness with the weight of a heavy nightmare. Several times I have seized my pen in order to describe the battle to you, but each attempt brought with it an agonising heartache. Every thought, however irrelevant to it, seems to lead me back to that fearful day. Would that it could be buried in oblivion! I know that you, in our dear native land, are profoundly anxious, and I should not have been able to overcome the oppressive feeling evoked by the remembrance of that fatal day, if I did not know how you are pining in the absence of information, information more or less detailed and trustworthy. Although you will only receive my letter in six weeks’ time, yet my communication will not, I think, be superfluous, and will probably supplement the accounts in the newspapers.

“Having left the transports at Shanghai, escorted by two auxiliary cruisers, our fleet consisted of three divisions of battleships (in which was included the first-class armoured cruiser “Admiral Nakhimov”’) in all, twelve vessels : the cruisers “Oleg”, “Aurora”, “Dmitri Donskoi”, “Vladimir Monomakh”, “Zhemtshug”, “Izumrud”, the scouts “Svietlana” and “Ural”, nine torpedo-boat destroyers the military transports “Anadyr”, “Irtish”, “Kamtchatka”, and the merchant transport “Korea”, two tugs, the “Rus” and “Svir”, two hospital ships, the “Orel” and “Kostroma”. So we directed our course towards the Korean Straits. 

“On the evening of the 26th the commander of the squadron signalled “Prepare for battle”. Early on the morning of the 27th we arrived in the Straits. About five or six miles off on our starboard beam appeared a Japanese warship, which was sailing parallel with our course. Towards eight o’clock, we saw to port six Japanese cruisers; of which, shortly afterwards, only four remained in view. The other two disappeared. Two double-funnelled cruisers were in front, followed by two with three funnels, of the type of the “Aurora”. The day broke clear, but later on the horizon became cloudy, so that the shores of the island of Tsushima were invisible. About half-past nine we entered the narrowest part of the Straits ; and then the signal was hoisted, “Take the course N.E. 23°”. The Japanese cruisers followed the same direction. At eleven o’clock they began to approach nearer to our fleet. Then our Commander-in-Chief altered the disposition of our squadron. At the head was the “Suvorov” with the armour-clads (first division), and the second and third divisions (under Admiral Niebogatov) ; in their wake followed the cruisers. In the second line were the transports, and, keeping at a considerable distance astern of them, the hospital ships < Orel’ and 6 Kostroma.’ The “Vladimir Monomakh” was placed to starboard of the transports.

“At half-past eleven, or thereabouts, the armour-clad division, under Admiral Niebogatov, and the cruisers, opened fire on the four Japanese cruisers, which had been accompanying us. After the first discharge, the latter drew off eight points, and then they also opened fire. The first two battleship divisions did not, it seems, fire at all. On our side there were fired about twenty shots. The Japanese, after from four to five rounds, turned about and withdrew towards the island. We continued to move forward. When the Japanese ships drew off, we perceived that one of them remained behind, and precisely that one which, as I saw, had been struck by our projectiles. The fire of the others sometimes hit and sometimes missed; one or two of the shells burst on board their own vessels. What was the object of the Japanese in this case? By approaching closer to us they probably wished to examine the disposition of our ships, and reckoned on enticing us nearer to the island, where, maybe, some kind of trap was prepared for us – a mine, submarine, or shore battery.

“After twelve o’clock the battleship divisions changed their position by an evolution, at first to starboard of us, and subsequently to port. They were proceeding towards the little island of Kotsushima, when, about 1.45 p.m., there appeared on our port side Togo’s feet, at first numbering eight battleships. Admiral Rozhestvensky began a battle which, for intensity and duration, can certainly not be compared with anything in the annals of naval warfare. It is very difficult to give a detailed and trustworthy account of the battle; but, as far as possible, I shall describe to you all that we were able to see from the bridge, standing among the zealous and experienced signalmen. It is possible that I may make some mistakes, but I shall give the essential truth of the matter.

“It is necessary to remark that during the continuance of the whole battle there was a considerable swell on the sea. The cannonade began at a distance of about 60 cables, but in the evening it had decreased to 10 cables. Eight Japanese armourclad ships advanced straight to meet ours. The cross-fire began terribly. The Japanese projectiles fell like hail. Ours did not reply so quickly. The Japanese fire struck the cruisers and the transports, which did not reply. The “Oslabya” (flagship of At Admiral Felkersham) in particular was strewn with shells. At  first they fell on the body of the hull, the bows, and finally burst all over the ship. She took fire. In half an hour nothing remained of her. She was submerged. On board the ironclad “Orel”, the masts and funnels were shot away, and she ceased to answer her helm. A Japanese torpedo-boat endeavoured to launch a torpedo against her, but a shot from the “Orel” caused the torpedo-boat to sheer off to some distance. The “Orel” remained afloat. 

“During this time the cruiser “Vladimir Monomakh” had opened fire on our flank against the vessel which we had seen on our starboard beam in the morning. Some extremely lucky shots soon compelled the Japanese to retire. They also fired, but with no damage to our cruiser. Some ten or fifteen minutes had passed since the beginning of the battle, when there appeared in our rear some Japanese cruisers coming from the island. These cruisers numbered not fewer than sixteen, of which twelve were first-class vessels. They opened a cannonade on our cruisers and transports, and turned our flank on the island side. Here was presented a frightful scene. The transports and the cruisers were in a heap together. The Japanese shells burst, and found a target all round this heap. We were in the centre of a concentrated fire. Our cruisers, under the command of Rear-Admiral Enquist, also opened fire. They did not free themselves from the transports, but fired from the midst of the crowd, and these tactics of the cruisers were continued during almost the whole of the battle. Some of them fired from behind the “Korea”. The “Vladimir Monomakh” comported herself the most valiantly of all. She alone extricated herself from the mass of cruisers and transports, and, with the utmost sang-froid, opened fire. Our best cruiser, the “Oleg” (flagship of Rear-Admiral Enquist), and “Aurora” behaved with more coolness than the others. Thanks to this wretched position of affairs, we were almost unable to move, and remained a target for the Japanese gunners. In the course of a whole hour, columns of water, thrown up by the explosion of shells, kept rising close alongside the “Korea”, and it remains incomprehensible how a ship of her size, and so big a target, should have escaped destruction. 

“The shells kept bursting on the side of the ship itself, on the bows and stern, or, with a fearful whistling sound, they flew over us as we stood on the bridge. Then, circling round our heads, as it were, they would fall and burst near the vessel’s side. Later on we found some possibility of moving, and strove to get out of the zone of exploding projectiles. Nevertheless, throughout the battle the shells continued to fall all around. The splinters of a shell, bursting close to the ship, made a huge hole in her starboard side just at the waterline, and the water began to pour into the coal-bunkers. It was only by the greatest skill and energy on the part of the ship’s officers that we were able to keep the water out by temporary stopping, and artificially making the ship list to port. The lifeboats on the starboard side were riddled with holes by the splinters. The bridge itself was struck by them. The Japanese shells were, for the most part, charged with lyddite. In bursting they gave out first a yellow, and then a greenish smoke. We all felt a certain bitter taste in the mouth from this smoke. It seemed as if there was no salvation for us. One shell would have been enough for the transport. We should either have had to go to the bottom, or be burned, in about ten minutes. The ship lay there before the eyes of the pitying spectators of what had happened – helpless, without the possibility of firing one shot in self-defence. The transport “Korea” was entirely unarmed. Whether it is easier to look on at this hell, or to take an active part in it oneself, I know not. But men who were occupied during this time in strenuous labour, have said that while you are at work, you do not experience those horrible impressions which are felt by those who merely look on at a battle. Here may lie the psychological cause of that panic which seized on some portion of the crews of the fighting and volunteer fleets. Taking off their shirts, and donning life-belts, these distracted men stood on the deck hiding behind the cabin companion, as though that could protect them. 

“When they began to cry out that a torpedo was coming at us, close to our side, I went into the crowd of men, and almost drove three or four of them into the forecastle to watch the course of the torpedo and give warning to those on the bridge. The men, however, remained there only a short time, and then hid themselves. Soon a second torpedo came to within five fathoms’ length of us to starboard. Our situation was made worse by the fact that the signals from the flagship “Oleg” were given by the military code, which we had not got. On board the other ships around us, things were not going better. The bows of the “Ural” were settling down, her rudder was knocked to pieces, and the crew were about to take refuge in the boats. The “Ural”, however, continued to float for some time, until the “Vladimir Monomakh” shot her down. The tug “Rus” having had a hole in her, and received other injuries, also withdrew. Her crew were saved. She was afterwards sunk by another shot. The “Kamtchatka” was just getting away behind the “Korea” when she was struck below the waterline, and soon ceased to answer the helm. The “Zhemtshug” had lost one of her masts”.

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