The Battle of the Sea of Japan – Part 1

Let us first consider the circumstances under which Rozhestvensky’s fleet left Russia. It depended on the co-operation of the Government and the Ministry of Marine and the Press for the despatch of the Baltic Fleet to the Far East. As long as that despatch was not decided upon, it was still open to point out that in this war everything depended on the turn events might take at sea. It was for the benefit both of the country and the Government that that should be realised, both by the Ministries of War and Marine, in order that the question might be definitely settled one way or the other. Also, the question was whether there was any chance, and if so what chance, of obtaining the command of the sea ; and as a corollary, whether the fleet should be sent out or not. 

To point out all the short-comings and deficiencies of that fleet and of the vessels composing it was the duty of the Admiralty rather than of the Government, in order that the latter might not be led astray in adopting either course. This, of course, could not be done through the Press, as it would undoubtedly have revealed military secrets, to the obvious advantage of our enemies should the fleet be actually despatched. Reckoning could only be made on the basis of the information contained in naval handbooks accessible to all. But when once the Government had realised the great importance of the part before the Navy, when once a public subscription was opened at the instance of the Government in aid of the augmentation of the fleet, once the despatch of the fleet was determined on, and its composition had to be decided on, then everyone who was in a position to know the truth about the fleet – and consequently its weakness – realised that it might arouse hopes that were ill-founded. 

These people then who really knew were bound by all the means at their disposal – since they knew that to send the fleet was only to offer a gratuitous triumph to the enemy – to impress, both on the Admiralty and the Government, the absolute necessity of sending a still stronger force or nothing at all. If the despatch was definitely decided upon, they were bound to use their best efforts to prove that a larger force was indispensable, and that in addition to the ships told off for the purpose, such and such others must also be sent. This had necessarily to be done, not through the Press, but through “Service” channels. Otherwise there would have been too great a disclosure of our plans of war; and besides, the military censorship would never have passed such strictures. 

Lastly, when the composition of the fleet was finally settled and known to everybody, and more especially when the force determined on was already on its way, and all the world knew of how many ships the fleet was composed, then every one who realised that the force sent was inadequate was at liberty to demonstrate its insufficiency in the Press. It was his duty to show both the Government and the Admiralty their mistake, and to draw the attention thereto of the public, on whose opinion it was necessary to reckon. That being so, it was naturally admissible to support one’s assertions by the data to be found in the naval handbooks. If these data proved convincing, they would serve a double purpose. Either such reinforcements as the Government pronounced adequate would be sent – when the question was decided for them by the Admiralty – which would give a reasonable hope of success ; or the fleet sent out would be recalled on the ground of its insufficiency and the impossibility of reinforcing it. 

To point out which of these courses was the right one no longer rested with the Press. That would have meant the exposure of matters which at that time were secrets of vital importance to the Empire. Only the Government could make the decision, because the Admiralty not only might, but was bound, to tell it everything. Moreover, the Admiralty was also in a position to obtain information direct, and ascertain the opinions of the commanders of the squadrons that might successively be sent to the Far East. There was no lack of such opinions. Admiral Rozhestvensky had reported openly on all the shortcomings of his command. It is only necessary to read extracts from his report of 1 January, 1905, since published in the “Razsviet”, which he concludes with the frank avowal that he laboured under a great disadvantage owing to the direct pressure put upon him by the Technical Committee, which had ordered him to be very careful what course he steered with the more recently added units. Thus the Press was only at liberty to publish such hints as were within its reach, but could not dictate what decision should be adopted. 

As to the reasons why the second Pacific Fleet was sent just as it was, and in no greater numbers, we may now say a word. The necessity of deciding whether to despatch it or not, and if it were sent, what its composition should be, became evident on the very first day of the war, which witnessed the elimination from our line of battle of five of our larger ships, including two of our best battleships and two of our newest cruisers. Meanwhile, up to 25 April (a period of 2.5 months), no decision was arrived at, either as to what ships should compose the fleet, or even who should command it. It is true that the work on the new cruisers under construction was hastened somewhat, but the utmost efforts were by no means made. Then, though the commander – in-chief was selected, viz.  Admiral Rozhestvensky, yet he continued to act as chief of the General Staff. Thus, he had still on his hands a vast and complex task, and could not give himself up to the duty of directly supervising the equipment of his fleet. He had no one to help him in organising it ; the composition was not decided upon. As an entity it was held together solely by the force of will of its chief ; and even when the squadron was already sailing to its destination it had not become a living force. In this way 22 months of precious time were lost. 

This, correctly speaking, was the only period at which the war was to any extent a popular one, and when much more might have been achieved than was afterwards possible. It was only at this period also, when there had so far been no disasters, when there had been no “Petropavlovsk” catastrophe as yet, when the prestige of our army was still intact, when the block-ships of the Japanese and their bombardments of Port Arthur had proved ineffectual, that there was a chance of coming to an understanding with England with regard to the Black Sea Fleet being allowed to pass the Dardanelles. In proportion as our disasters and the victories of our enemies became more numerous, this understanding became naturally more and more difficult. England insisted more and more upon the maintenance of her alliance with Japan. So the precious opportunity was lost for ever. 

I cannot blame our diplomacy for this. There was nobody to give it the right direction, which might have been the outcome of a firm resolve on the part of the Government to send to the Far East the most powerful fleet possible. It was not until after Admiral Makarov’s tragic death that the idea of sending a second fleet was seriously mooted. The newly appointed commander submitted a detailed statement of what its strength should be and how it should be organised. Even at that time this statement included all the vessels that eventually formed part of Niebogatov’s squadron, and those meanwhile lay at Cronstadt. The number of torpedo-craft to be sent, as well as transports and repair ships, was considerable, and he proposed that balloons, war-kites, and submarines of small dimensions should also accompany the fleet. In order that all these might be forthcoming, however, that the necessary funds might be in hand, and plenary powers given to the chief to organise the various expeditionary forces on such a large scale and yet lose no time, it was essential that the decision should lie, not with the acting head of the Admiralty, or even with its de facto head, but directly with his Majesty the Emperor.  At the same time the question was raised as to the final appointment of the commander-in-chief, for which there were already two nominated, viz . Admirals Rozhestvensky and Tshukhnin.

On 27 April a special committee was appointed under the presidency of an august personage, so that a rapid and final decision might be hoped for. 

At this juncture something disastrous happened, which I myself witnessed and know well and precisely the causes that led to it. Early on the morning of 24-25 April, while looking over some urgent work for the sitting of the coming day, I was suddenly informed, at 4 a.m., that the Council, as then constituted, was postponed, and would be held later under the auspices of the head of the Admiralty. Before evening there was a fresh change in the presidency, and the acting chief of the Ministry of Marine selected. As might have been foreseen, the Committee, as thus reconstituted, arrived at no far-reaching conclusions. The matter was docketed and pigeon-holed ; there were demurs and a long correspondence, and to put the matter briefly, the affair came to nothing. The sole upshot, and that a most unsatisfactory one, of this sitting, was the counselling of the boldly conceived and carefully thought out plan of a flying squadron of cruisers to operate in Far Eastern waters, for which a special vote had already been set apart, and for which all the initial preparations and dispositions had already been made. Instead, however, nothing was done but to move two auxiliary cruisers from the Black Sea to the Red Sea, and two more from the Baltic to the Atlantic. As we all remember, this futile manoeuvre merely excited the animosity of the neutral Powers against us, and subsequently stood in the way of our other ships being allowed to enter neutral ports, ending with the shameful surrender to England in the matter of the “Malacca” Thus the question of command-in-chief of the Pacific Fleet was left without result worthy the name being arrived at. After that, Admiral Rozhestvensky was definitely appointed commander of the whole expedition, a date was fixed by which the ships told off for service were to be ready for sea, and a real effort was made to have them ready in as brief a time as possible.

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