Experiences in the “Zhemtshug”

A special correspondent furnishes a stirring narrative from Manila, 29 May: – 

“The recollections of the battle in their disordered sequence rise up before me like some horrible nightmare. It is beyond my power to give a full and coherent account of these terrible events. No human being is able to grasp and coordinate such complex impressions. Our fleet was smashed to pieces, and when darkness fell and the battle – which lasted for seven hours – ended, our vessels had been scattered to the four winds by the enemy. Therefore, I can only try to describe the things that I myself witnessed; flashing as they did one after the other before my eyes as in some portentous and swiftly moving dream. 

“By morning we arrived at the narrowest portion of the Korean Straits between Tsushima and Kiu Shiu. My servant woke me with the words “The Japanese ships are in sight”. The day was bright, but a thick mist enveloped the horizon all round. The wind was from S.W., with a strength of between 4 and 5, and there was a swell on the sea. At nine o’clock, at a distance of from fifty-five to sixty-four cables, we could make out the dim silhouette of a grey Japanese cruiser. They told me that earlier (at 6.30 a.m.) three ships had been sighted, and that the “Oslabya” had by signal asked for permission to engage them, but that our Admiral had refused and the fleet had continued on its course. The cruiser meantime had been following us, always at the same distance, sending off frequent messages by wireless telegraphy, which we of course could not decipher. We were advancing in two columns. The starboard column consisted of the battleships “Kniaz Suvorov” (flying Rozhestvensky’s flag), “Imperator Alexander III”,  “Borodino”, “Orel”, “Oslabya (flying Felkersham’s flag), “Sissoi Veliky”, “Navarin”, and “Nakhimov”.The port column was composed of the battleships of Admiral Niebogatov’s squadron. Four transports, the “Irtish”, “Anadyr”, “Kamtchatka” and “Korea” with the auxiliary river tugs: “Rus” and “Svir”, followed astern of the battleships, and were protected by our cruisers and scouting vessels. The cruisers “Zhemtshug” and “Izumrud” were in advance of the leading vessels four points to starboard and port respectively, and at a distance of about ten cables. Our duty was to warn off any steamers or junks we might meet. We fell in with some coasters and a small Japanese steamer, the latter on a course at right angles to our own. We fired a shot across her bows, and she thereupon turned away from us and stopped. The poor Japanese on board her were dreadfully frightened, being convinced that we were about to sink them. They had already begun to lower a boat to save themselves, but it was dashed against the side, owing to the heavy swell, and swamped. 

“We passed on, leaving the peaceable little steamer unmolested. During the dinner hour, as a measure of precaution, our transports were ordered to steam between the two columns of battleships. During the morning several alarms of battle, as when the Japanese cruiser appeared and the steamer was met with, served to heighten one’s tension of mind. Dinner itself was at the very beginning interrupted by a fresh alarm. At 11.20 two Japanese cruisers were observed ahead, and three more on our port beam. On our right, the Japanese ship previously sighted continued her course, parallel with us as before. A milky fog hung over the horizon, so that we could only with difficulty make out, by the aid of the range-finder, that their distance from us was some fifty to sixty cables. They must have been fast third-class cruisers of the “Nitaka” type, forming part of the enemy’s light scouting division. We gave them one shot from our forward gun, but could not well see where the shot fell. Our battleships also fired a few shots, until the Admiral signalled “Cease fire”. The strong swell and the mist on the horizon made such long-range shooting quite useless. 

“And now the outlines of these cruisers were swallowed up in the fog, and we went below to continue our interrupted dinner. The mess-table, on account of the alarms, had already been taken and adapted for our prospective wounded, so we had to finish our meal as best we could. For a while there was no further disturbance, and we rested. At 12.50 the Admiral ordered the “Zhemtshug” to fall into line with the “Orel”. At 1.20 p.m. the alarm for battle was sounded, and my man rushed to his quarters. When I got to the forecastle, by our forward gun, our battleships had changed their two-column formation and were now steaming in single column. The transports had taken up a position of shelter under the cover of our cruisers, to starboard of their former course and on the starboard beam of our battleships. Ahead of the “Suvorov” and a little to port of her course, the Japanese battleships were emerging from the fog in one single column; steaming at great speed to meet us. The “Suvorov” was moving very slowly, in order to give time to our sternmost battleships to take up their stations, and our line had become pretty well extended. 

“What happened subsequently does not admit of a systematically detailed description. The booming, roaring, hissing of the big shells, their shrill screaming as they struck the water, causing great splashing clouds of spray, the peculiar noise made by the ricochets, like that of a steamship going at full speed – all these sounds in one inextricable confusion now began. All the shells which struck the water ahead of us and ricocheted, were clearly visible to the naked eye. Spinning round and round, they gave me the impression of the flight of birds overhead. Whenever they struck the water a second time, a high column of water and black smoke was thrown up by the shock. I perfectly appreciated the object of Togo’s first manoeuvre. He did not bring his fleet along on a cross tack, but when abreast of the leading battleships in our column he put on full steam He then described a looped course on their and went by them. port beam, and, cutting across their bows, went right on until he was on the other side of them, to starboard.

“This brilliant manoeuvre of the Japanese, which they could not have carried out if their vessels had not been superior in speed, allowed them to concentrate the fire of all their guns on whichever of the leading ships of our column they pleased. And this is exactly what they did. It was at once evident that nearly all their shots were directed at the “Suvorov” and the “Oslabya”. They made targets of them, as it were. It is difficult to say at what particular time each stage of the fight occurred. It was not as though I could just look at my watch and write down what was happening, for I had my own duties to attend to.

“We on board the “Zhemtshug” also kept on firing haphazard on every Japanese vessel that we saw. The uniform grey colour of the Japanese ships made them nearly invisible in the mist on the horizon. Their distance from us at the commencement of the battle was about forty-three cables. Their shells literally fell in showers about us, and how our vessel remained unscathed was simply inexplicable. After a few minutes, as it seemed to me, but in reality after an hour, the “Oslabya” went out of line with a big list to port. By this time the enemy had already crossed to starboard of our column in continuation of their manoeuvre; so the “Zhemtshug” had to move away on the port beam of our battleships so as not to be between them and the Japanese, and I lost sight of the “Oslabya” as I was looking after the Admiral’s flagship. I was afterwards told that within a few minutes of this she turned turtle. Some torpedo-vessels also succeeded in reaching the spot where the battleship sank. At the same time as the “Zhemtshug” crossed over to the port beam of our ships, fires broke out on board the “Suvorov.”. Suddenly a huge column of flame and smoke shot from her after turret and its cover was blown up as high as the tops. These moments were, I think, the decisive ones. The “Borodino” now left the line, and a fire on board the “Alexander III” broke out by her forward funnel. The “Suvorov”, however, shattered and wrecked as she was, mastless, and with both her fore and aft bridges on fire, still maintained her place as leading ship and kept on firing from her undamaged turrets. 

“This was about three o’clock in the afternoon. The Japanese fire was still concentrated on our four leading vessels. Now fires began to break out on our other ships, and the “Borodino’s” forward bridge was ablaze. The nervous qualms to which the flight of the first few shells had given rise had vanished altogether; one could evidently get used even to this. Every minute shells were flying over our heads, and often burst quite close to the side. It was after the destruction of the “Oslabya” and the explosion on board the “Suvorov” that we were hit for the first time. The firing from our own ships and from those of the enemy, and the fight and bursting of the shells, made such a din that the noise the shell made as it crashed into us was indistinguishable from the general uproar. I heard a shout of “stretchers” from the poop. The shell was from a 6″ gun, and must have passed through the entering hatch to the commander’s cabin and burst. The hatch was riddled with splinters like a sieve, and Lieutenant Baron Vrangel and three others were killed.”‘

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