Movie Re-Creation of the Siege - Excerpts
Detailed Technical Essay on Tsushima - by NJM Campbell
Movie Recreation of the Battle of Tsushima - Toshiro Mifune as Togo
Legendary Cruiser Varyag - Famous for Plucky Fight Against Long Odds
The Russo-Japanese War Website - Encyclopedic Coverage of the Conflict.
The war's origins lay in the conflicting territorial ambitions of both sides for the strategic port city of Lüshun (Port Arthur), occupied by Russia since 1897 after Japan was displaced by the Tripartite Intervention of 1895. Russia had been energetically turning the town into an impregnable fortress and naval base ever since. The city was the key to Manchuria's mineral wealth; Russia had built a railroad down the Liaodong Peninsula to exploit the massive coal and metal desposits of the region, running between Port Arthur and their railhead on the Trans-Siberian Railway at Mukden, the ancient Manchurian capital.
Their hatred inflamed by the gratuitous taunts and contempt of the Russian administration (Prince Alexander Alexeiev, Viceroy at Port Arthur; M. Pavlov, Russian Ambassador to Beijing), the Japanese gave up on diplomacy and advanced their plans for open war. In a striking precursor to Pearl Harbor, they launched a sneak attack on the Russian fleet at Port Arthur. The Russian ships were blazing with light on the night of Februrary 8, 1904, when blacked-out Japanese torpedo boats crept into the enemy's roadstead and delivered a devastating attack, neutralizing two of Russia's best battleships (Tsesarevich and Retvizan) and incapacitating most of the rest of her fleet. In a follow-up raid the next day, Togo's battleships steamed up and down just beyond the Tiger's Tail, shelling the hapless Russian fleet at the waterline. The results showed the Russians to have been utterly unprepared for this crippling one-two blow.
It was an awkward situation for the Russians. They had only one drydock at Port Arthur capable of handling their largest vessels, so repairs had to be tackled serially, meaning their powerful fleet remained out of action for months. Meantime the harbor would be filled with grounded warships, canted at grotesque angles on the mudflats inside the Tiger's Tail, awaiting their turn in drydock: reminders of the Port's vulnerability to this superbly well-prepared enemy. In addition to the two battleships cited above, the Poltava was shelled at the waterline; the cruisers Pallada and Diana were seriously damaged by torpedoes; the cruiser Novik was damaged by shellfire; the 5-funnel Askold also suffered minor damage from Japanese shells. The Japanese suffered no losses in these initial raids.
Also caught out as hostilities commenced were the Russian protected cruiser Varyag (built by Cramps in Philadelphia) and gunboat Koriets, in the Korean port of Chemulpo (Inchon). When a squadron of Japanese cruisers and destroyers arrived in the bay to ensure unopposed landings for Japanese troops on Feb. 8, the four-funneled Varyag sortied to meet her doom, her band playing the Russian nationl anthem as she stood down the harbor past warships of many nations. After an hour's bloody affray, the cruiser limped back into the harbor to die; damaged, ountnumbered, and cornered, she was fired and scuttled by her own crew after the wounded had been taken off. The Koriets was blown up by her crew; the survivors escaped capture and many were taken aboard the French cruiser Pascal in port. They enjoyed international fame for their heroic (and well-publicized) fight. The heavily damaged Varyag was salvaged after the War and taken into the Mikado's fleet, but was one of a number of ex-Russian vessels returned to the Tsar's Navy in 1916. Click here for a full account of the action.
When Stepan O. Makaroff arrived in Port Arthur later in February, he took over as naval Commander-in-Chief there, immediately bringing energetic leadership and technical competence to the problems confronting the Pacific Squadron. Makaroff arrived on a train loaded with spare parts and shipbuilding tools and immediately set about repairing the damaged warships in situ by means of cofferdams built around damaged portions of their hulls. This greatly speeded their return to action. Makaroff, too, set an example of being ready to go at a moment's notice. He was willing to leap onto a destroyer's deck and join the chase at once, as opposed to waiting hours for grander ships to raise steam. That impetuosity of character later was to cost him dearly, but at the beginning it helped to stir up the lethargic Russian navy in the Far East.
Russia's second squadron in the Far East consisted of four large armored cruisers based at Vladivostok, on the other side of the Korean Peninsula. These vessels were ordered to sea to retaliate by raiding Japanese commerce in the Sea of Japan. In the one incident of note, the four cruisers encountered a wallowing 1,000-ton freighter, the Nakanoura Maru, built in 1865 and a smaller vessel, Zensuko Maru, only 9 years old and of 319 tons. The smaller of the two made good her escape while all 4 cruisers ganged up on the old cargo ship, sending her to the bottom (above) after taking her crew prisoner. This seems a peculiar strategy, and one contrary to the rules of cruiser warfare, which would have stopped at taking the vessel as a prize of war and paroling her crew. On a separate sortie, Gromoboi sank the Japanese troopship Hitachi Maru with great loss of life. These were the only exploits of the Vladivostok squadron, however. When Adm. Kamimura showed up with a battleship, six cruisers and a TB flotilla to bombard Vladivostok in revenge, the homeported fleet cowered inside the Golden Horn and would not be lured out. Though damage to the town was minimal, the bombardment noticeably dampened the residents' morale. The Vladivostok Squadron was later defeated in battle with Kamimura's cruisers off the southern coast of Korea in the action known as the Battle off Ulsan, Aug. 14, 1904.
With that, the Japanese had asserted strategic command of the sea and placed the Russians in a defensive mode from which they never truly recovered. The two Russian fleets never managed to link up. The Japanese Navy continued to harass the blockaded Russians, depleting their fleet with mines and torpedo attacks, bombarding the town and port of Port Arthur from long range, and inviting fleet action by sending weak squadrons to cruise close offshore, within sight of the harbor, while their battleship division lurked just over the horizon, ready to swoop down on unwary Russians. One of the signal Japanese successes was to lure out the Russians' charismatic and inspiring commander, Admiral Stefan Makaroff, and lead him over a freshly laid minefield. Makaroff's flagship, the battleship Petropavlovsk, detonated two mines and dissolved in a puff of grey-brown smoke (right), sinking in mere minutes with all hands. This catastrophe left the Russian navy bereft of its most capable and daring commander, as became apparent when the remaining Port Arthur fleet, attempting a breakout for Vladivostok, clashed with the Japanese in the Battle of the Yellow Sea, August 10, 1904. While Tsesarevich and Askold escaped with a severe mauling, Adm. Witgeft was killed in the battle and the remaining Russian ships retreated to Port Arthur, where they remained bottled up for the rest of the war, their battle damage unrepaired: a highly visible premonition of doom.
The remaining Russian warships in the East being in no condition to sortie, the Tsar determined to break the siege of Port Arthur. He scraped together his entire remaining strength in warships -- indeed, a motley collection, since most of his best ships had been deployed to Port Arthur -- and sent them off around the globe from the Baltic. The story of this gargantuan undertaking is well told in Richard Hough's The Fleet That Had to Die, in Constantine Plekhanov's The Tsar's Last Armada, and in more abbreviated form on our Battle of Tsushima page. The Russians were refitting while halfway to the East, when they received news that Port Arthur had fallen in one of the greatest sieges of modern times; this time the fortress would remain in Japanese hands. Sunk by plunging shellfire from Japanese siege guns, the Russian warships caught at Port Arthur would all be salvaged, reconditioned, and see service under the Rising Sun -- all but one. And following Port Arthur's capitulation came an even greater defeat on land, as Gen. Alexei Kuropotkin (the Russian C.-in-C.) was dislodged from his heavily fortified position at Mukden, in what was the greatest pre-WWI land battle, involving more than 600,000 troops. Though the Russian armies outnumbered the Japanese almost 2:1, it ended in a Russian rout, with the Japanese driving their defeated enemy northwards along the high road and parallel railroad line, running them out of Manchuria. They did not return until 1945.
The war climaxed in a colossal naval defeat for the Russians when their Baltic Fleet, renamed the Second Pacific Squadron, reached the theater of war in late May 1905 after a long and trying passage of more than 19,000 nautical miles. At the Battle of Tsushima, one of the greatest naval victories of all time was won. This thrilling event is fully documented in our suite of pages relating to it. This naval win capped a sweep of all war objectives by Japan and set the stage for the peace negotiations, thoroughly documented in linked Web resources above. Once again, what was won on the battlefield was partially withdrawn at the peace table. In a little-remembered episode of Japanese-American friction, resentment over the perceived anti-Japanese bias of President Theodore Roosevelt, who brokered the peace deal, led to anti-U.S. riots across Japan when the terms of the treaty were published. Japanese resentment over the incident burned long: it was cited among the provocations justifying the attack on Pearl Harbor.
A faithful view of the Russian fleet sortieing from Port Arthur en route to the Battle of the Yellow Sea, August 10, 1904. Prominent here are the American-built battleship Retvizan (left) and the five-funnel cruiser Askold (right).
Browse the pages above for a more detailed photo history of the campaigns of this, the greatest naval conflict of the Pre-Dreadnought Era, and the greatest land war prior to World War I. Examine the roots of the conflict -- and its racial dimension -- in our Sino-Japanese War page. Follow our hot links to the abundant material available on the World Wide Web. Or just browse through the pictorially rich histories of individual ships involved. It's all just a mouse-click away at the Big, Bad Battleships Russo-Japanese War site.