The Battle of Tsushima (May 27 - 28, 1905)

Battle flags flying, the Russian Baltic Fleet approaches its clash with Togo after steaming halfway round the world on orders from Nicholas II. The armada was dubbed the Second Pacific Squadron by the Tsar after his First Pacific Squadron was drubbed by Japan. This still from a 1969 Japanese feature film simulates the French-style Russian battleships with scale models. To view an excerpt from this film -- Great Naval Battle in the Sea of Japan -- use the link at the bottom of the page.

Background - Read on.    |     Fishing Fleet Fiasco

Battle    |     Mop-Up    |     Significance
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Russian imperial eagle


Earlier in the war, the Japanese had gradually reduced the Russian Pacific Squadron, built around six modern battleships and based at Port Arthur. They did this through mines, torpedo attacks, long-range bombardment, and one crucial fleet action in the Yellow Sea, August 10, 1904. The strategic prize of the war, the great fortress and naval base at Port Arthur, was besieged by the Japanese Army and soon after encircled. The Tsar responded by scraping together every available vessel from the Baltic and Black Sea fleets -- including four brand-new French-style battleships which had barely completed their trials, coast defense ironclads, obsolete battleships, river gunboats, 25-year-old cruisers with antiquated armor and full sailing rig, and the lovely Almaz (Diamond) -- a converted luxury yacht with clipper bow, elegant raked masts and funnels, and spoon-shaped counter stern. Click for roster of the fleet. The Admiralty ordered them all to prepare for an 18,000-mile odyssey to relieve Port Arthur.
Russian fleet getting pounded at Tsushima, May 1905
At left, a scene from the Battle of Tsushima in May 1905, in which the Japanese annihilated the Russian Baltic fleet, reinforced by any available warships culled from the Russian reserve. In this artist's conception, the Russian fleet, in two columns, plows through a hail of high-explosive fire from the waiting Japanese. So overloaded with coal and supplies that their armor belts were largely submerged and thus useless, the Russians were limited to the speed of their slowest ship -- 11 knots -- while the Japanese could move at 18. Admiral Heihachiro Togo's Imperial Japanese fleet opposing them included four modern battleships and eight armored cruisers, totaling about 60 vessels, superbly drilled in maneuvers and gunnery. The Russians, by contrast, were manned by convict labor and peasant conscripts with only a sprinkling of experienced navy men -- the sweepings of the Russian fleet. It is conjectured that many of the Russian ships were sabotaged by Russian revolutionaries, either in the dockyard or during the long voyage out. From the first, the Russian armada was dogged by premonitions of futility and a sense of preordained doom.

In autumn 1904 in St. Petersburg, Vice Adm. Zinovy Petrovich Rozhdestvensky -- former naval aide to the Tsar, a gunnery specialist whose hot-tempered perfectionism casused him to chuck his binoculars overboard in frustration -- was given command of the expedition. His force was a motley 48-ship collection. The fleet included 38-year-old iron cruisers, vessels with unreliable engines; ships so new they had not completed their trials; ships so old that Lt. Semyenov (a staff officer on the flagship Kniaz Suvorov) likened them to "old flatirons and galoshes." Suvorov was a member of the newly-completed Borodino class, Russian-built copies of the French-made Tsesarevich, all of which completed 1,000-2,000 tons over weight, largely because of the crudely made Russian turrets and barbettes. To compensate, shipwrights recklessly shaved armor protection to vitals. Moreover, the Suvorov was so weighted down with luxurious fittings (e.g., marble slabs in the officers' heads) that she was dangerously top-heavy and her speed was reduced by 2 knots. When overloaded with coal as all the fleet was during the journey, much of her scanty 6" thick/24" tall armor belt (152 mm x 61 cm) ran submerged, leaving the ship with minimal waterline protection. When holed at the waterline and burdened with water accumulated from firefighting in action, the top-heavy ship would be prone to capsize.

In the "flat irons" category, the coastal ironclads and older battleships added a quasi-comical look to the fleet's silhouette. Nor were the exaggerated contours and silhouettes the Russian fleet's only elements of farce.

The Dogger Bank Incident

Within days of departing Libau in the Baltic, the fleet nearly caused war with Great Britain in an episode known as the Dogger Bank Incident. The Russian command had become spooked by fraudulent intelligence that Japanese torpedo boats were lurking in every fjord in Norway, every cove in Flanders. On the night of Oct. 21, 1904 Rozhdestvensky's fleet was crossing the well-known fishing ground in the North Sea -- some 40 miles off its course -- when advance units blundered upon the Gamecock fishing fleet with its trawls out. Mistaking well-illuminated British steam trawlers for Japanese torpedo boats, the Russians panicked, first floodlighting the fishing craft and then opening fire on them without warning. The unprovoked assault killed two fishermen and sank one trawler, while inflicting wounds and damage on many others (below right). Rozhdestvensky refused to render aid to his victims or offer any sort of explanation. Instead he steamed haughtily off for Vigo, Spain, leaving the wounded to shift for themselves.
Gamecock Fishing Fleet incident, October 1904Rozhdestvensky and his officers forever after insisted that enemy torpedo boats had been lurking among the trawlers. Immediately after the aggrieved fishermen hove into Hull on the 23rd, a major diplomatic incident mushroomed. The British Home and Channel fleets shadowed Russians well down the coast of Africa as the Foreign Office rumbled wrathfully. In the end, things simmered down and an apology and indemnity were eventually offered by the Tsar. Meanwhile, the fallout from the trawler incident closed British ports and many neutral ones to the Russians, aggravating the difficulty of refueling the fleet en route to the Far East. The Commander-in-Chief had negotiated for regular rendezvous with colliers owned by the Hamburg-Amerika Line -- an arrangement which worked quite smoothly and in fact, made the long trip possible. Refueling the huge fleet was only achieved with blatant and repeated disregard for the laws of neutrality, however.

The Russians' guns fell curiously silent after the fishing fleet fiasco. During the grueling seven-month voyage out, Rozhdestvensky made only one attempt at target practice. Indeed, he showed little true leadership ability, unless ceaselessly badgering and intimidating one's subordinates be reckoned leadership. In truth, he had taken on a Herculean task, did not know how to delegate or build a team, was cursed with corrupt and incompetent subordinates, and was overwhelmed by his responsibilities. He suffered two apparent breakdowns already during the voyage, which for all its flaws stood as a great triumph of logistics and seamanship -- and a great triumph of the will of Rozhdestvensky, to be sure. More prescient than most, he had long recognized the futility of the mission and, a true patriot, presumably was devoured by feelings of guilt and inadequacy; still by retreating into his gruff persona, he did not prepare as he might for the day of reckoning. As the Russian armada neared the end of its journey, the men were worn out and morale was poor. As always obsessed with coal supply, Rozhdestvensky ordered the bunkers filled until the waves lapped over his ships' skimpy armor belts. He had determined to take the shortest route: cutting west of Japan through the Tsushima Strait, then northwards across the Sea of Japan to Vladivostok. Rozhdestvensky gambled that his formation could slip past Togo in the mist. Typically, the Commander-in-Chief did not confide in his staff or commanders what the plan of action was to be.

Battle is Joined

General map of the action at TsushimaThe battlefield was to be the eastern strait between Kyushu and Korea, a natural choke point to intercept ships running through from either direction. There, having correctly deduced the Russian route, Japanese Admiral Togo Heihachiro waited in complete readiness, ready to sortie when his scouts reported the Russians heading into the Strait (Tsushima Kaikyo). The morning weather was misty, with visibility only a mile and a vigorous swell, but the Russians had been tailed since the previous night. One of the Japanese sentinels off the southern fringe of Kyushu found them in the darkness, betrayed by the glow of their hospital ship Orel, blazing with light while the rest of the fleet was blacked out. Heading into the Strait, the Russians were formed in two columns, with most of their strength in the starboard column; cruisers, transports, and auxiliary vessels to port. As the weather cleared after noon, Togo led his fleet across the enemy's "T" and then performed a U-turn in sequence, deploying in a single line on a course parallel to the Russians' port column. This had the effect of allowing Togo to use his full broadsides while the Russians could only reply with their forward turrets, halving their artillery power. After assuming their parallel course, broadside to broadside, the Japanese were firing downwind and with the light behind them, while the Russians fired into the wind and squinted to see into the light and haze. Togo skillfully used his superior speed (the Russians were plodding along at 11 knots, the speed of their slowest ship) to choose an advantageous position to open. The Russians opened a surprisingly accurate fire at long range while Togo's line was still deploying, scoring one hit on Mikasa, but failing to cause decisive damage. Commencing at 1:47 p.m., from a range of 4,000 yards, the Japanese began a sustained and deadly rain of shell that soon wrought havoc on the Russian ships.

The Japanese gunnery was superb, and was aided by a new type of shell -- shimose powder -- which exploded on the slightest contact. It burst white-hot, setting fire to the paintwork and stored longboats of the Russian fleet. Though the Russians returned fire doggedly, their formation -- chaotic from the first -- crumpled under the relentless bombardment of their enemy. The raw crews' rate of fire was slowed by their own propellant: black powder that left a lingering cloud of smoke after every shot, making it difficult to spot their fall of shot or correct their aim. After fighting manfully for 40 minutes or so, the Russian crews seemed to go to pieces: their visibility ruined by gunsmoke, coal smoke, and ship fires; transfixed by the wholesale slaughter and destruction, their ever-worsening predicament, and the distinct likelihood of imminent death, they loaded and fired mechanically, inattentive to their aim. At ranges as close as 2,400 yards the Japanese gun crews pelted away mercilessly. With the vacuum of command from the doomed flagship, and the difficulty of organizing an adequate damage control amid the fires, frequent hits on the ships' vulnerable upper sides and unarmored waterlines, the battle degenerated into a rout. The Russian formation was surrounded. The Japanese ships could isolate them and pick off one crippled unit at a time.

Japanese fleet firing at Tsushima, with Togo's calligraphyAfter an hour of punishment, the leading Russian units -- the flagship Suvorov and the 10-inch battleship Osliabya -- had been pounded into wrecks and started to settle in the water. Osliabya was the first to sink outright around 3:10 p.m., after having her bows badly chewed and burnt. Nearly to the last she kept her bows doggedly turned into the storm of shellfire, leading her column; then suddenly she sheered off, up-ended, and sank, her stern with its spinning screws barely visible in a towering column of smoke. The Suvorov had left formation and was wallowing forward at 10 knots, enveloped in flame and smoke with only a few secondary guns still firing. The new battleship Alexander III took her place at the head of the column and immediately suffered the brunt of the excellent Japanese gunnery. The cruiser Svietlana was damaged and headed off while making a break for Vladivostok; the entire cruiser squadron was preparing to abandon the main fleet. As the lead ships took the worst of it and their smoke masked the fire of the cruisers, still stationed toward the rear of the line, Enkvist broke and ran with the best part of his cruiser division, leaving the old armored frigates Dmitri Donskoi and Vladimir Monomakh to their fate. As Enquist blasted his way free at high speed, the Japanese fleet began to envelop the hapless remaining Russians in a ruthless ring of steel -- a ring blazing destruction from 500 gun barrels. The Borodino class battleship Alexander III, already burning fiercely, was hit below the bridge and perished in a tremendous explosion just as the red sun nicked the horizon. Within seconds, only a towering column of smoke remained to mark the spot where the battleship had been. All hands were lost with the ship. When her sister ship Borodino foundered minutes afterward, victim of the Fuji's excellent gunnery, there was but one surivor. A monument at Kronstadt commemorates the Alexander's lost crew, but none was erected for the Borodino.

Russian warships foundering at Tsushima, May 1905In this Japanese artist's conception, Russian warships founder while lifeboats bear crewmen away between towering shell splashes; click here to enlarge. This clever woodblock print well depicts the panic and disarray on the Russian side. As portrayed in Semyenov's account, Adm. Rozhdestvensky lay unconscious with shrapnel wounds piercing his scalp and leg -- the rest of the personnel in his battle bridge all killed by shellbursts -- while the Suvorov slowly sank beneath him: her fires raging out of control, her fire hoses cut to ribbons by shell splinters and abandoned by panicked crewmen. The comatose Commander in Chief was transferred first to the destroyer Buiyny; later when she developed engine trouble, he was taken into Buiyny's sister the Biedovy, followed by his full staff and 100 or more rescued survivors of the sunken Osliabya. Admiral Nebogatoff in the antique ironclad Nikolai I assumed effective command of the disintegrating fleet. The crew of the wounded cruiser Svietlana fought off two Japanese cruisers until her ammunition ran out, whereon the crew opened her kingston valves and sent her to the bottom rather than surrender. As dusk fell, Togo launched his torpedo boats on the Russian fleet. Despite stabbing Russian searchlights, high winds and seas that hampered their operation, some of the swift destroyers found their marks. The ruinous flagship Suvorov was finished with four torpedoes, capsizing around 7:30, her bottom remaining awash some 20 minutes before she gave up the ghost, rearing her ram bow high above the lashing seas and then sliding swiftly into the deep; there were no survivors. The 1889 battleship Navarin remained afloat after taking a spread of torpedoes, but soon after was sunk with 620 men after hitting two mines laid in her path by Japanese destroyers; there were only three survivors. More whooshes and waterspouts signaled destruction for some three hours; the 1891 battleship Sissoi Veliky was hit but managed to hold on until dawn; the armored cruisers Admiral Nakhimov (1884) and Vladimir Monomakh (1880) were badly damaged and later scuttled by their own crews to prevent capture. Meanwhile, the Japanese battle fleet retired and patiently awaited the dawn.

Illustration of Russian ships foundering at Tsushima
The Borodino's sinking is depicted in a melodramatic style typical of period illustration.

Woodblock print of night action at Tsushima, May 1905

A Japanese artist's conception of the night action at Tsushima, where many a Russian straggler met her doom. The effect of the searchlight beams is creatively rendered by the artist.

The Mop-Up

Dawn revealed the Russians scattered and limping, except for a core of three ships -- the battered Borodino class battleship Orel (below), Nebogatoff's ancient flagship Nikolai I, and the protected cruiser Izumrud -- making a run for it. Straggling along astern were two Russian coast-defense ironclads, which were overtaken first and struck their colours to the Japanese. After coming under ranging fire from the encircling Japanese, Adm. Nebogatoff ordered engines stopped and the Japanese colours raised above the white flag of surender. The Battle of Tsushima was all but over.

Battleship OREL after surrendering to Togo's forces at TsushimaAll but over, yet not quite over. In another corner of the strait, the coast defense ironclad Admiral Ushakov went down, ablaze from stem to stern but with a few guns still firing defiantly. Many individual Russian vessels attempted to flee, only to run aground or opt for scuttling when capture appeared unavoidable. Rozhdestvensky was bagged when the Japanese destroyer Sazanami halted the Russian destroyer Biedovy, bearing the comatose C-in-C towards Vladivostok. The once-haughty admiral was brought into a Japanese military hospital at Sasebo; suffering nerve, head, and leg wounds that would have killed a lesser man, Rozhdestvensky rallied strongly after a slow start. He lived until 1909, though with diminished vigor after his ordeal. Publicly he became the scapegoat for the entire fiasco, and he gamely claimed sole responsibility in the many courts martial at which he testified (although the C-in-C was exonerated, two of his staff faced the firing squad and two others served lengthy prison sentences). Of the mighty armada he had once led from Libau, only the shapely Almaz and two destroyers gained the safety of Vladivostok's Golden Horn. Three protected cruisers (the Aurora, Oleg, and Zhemchug) ran to Manila, where they were interned until the end of hostilities. The Imperial Japanese Navy inherited two serviceable battleships and two coast-defense ironclads mounting 10" guns, plus several cruisers, destroyers, transports and hospital ships. At summer's end, five more damaged Russian battleships and six cruisers were raised from the Port Arthur mud. All were restored and mustered into the Imperial Japanese Navy over the next four years: powerful but outdated warships, mostly drafted into coast-defense work, freeing up Japan's more modern units for the battle fleet. After less than a decade of coping with these vessels' idiosyncrasies, the Japanese were glad to sell them back to the Russians when chance placed them on the same side in WWI. The ex-Russian Japan insisted on keeping was the American-built Retvizan, renamed Hizen. The reason was plain to see: Retvizan was a good sea boat, whereas the French-inspired Russian pre-Dreadnoughts were the poorest imaginable: many naval architects consider the five Borodinos the worst pre-dreadnoughts ever built.

Significance and Consequences

Night attack by Japanese TBs on Russian warships at TsushimaThe pastel drawing at right shows a moment from the night action,with Japanese torpedomen falling to a Russian hit. Sadly for the Russians, their gunnery was hardly ever this accurate. Seldom has there been so crushing and absolute a military victory. Of the 38 warships and ten auxiliaries that had set out from the Baltic in October, only three made it to Vladivostok; four out of the five new Russian capital ships were sunk; in all 22 Russian ships were sunk and seven surrendered. 4,830 Russians were killed and about 6,000 taken prisoner; 1,862 were interned in neutral ports and a further 1,227 made it to Vladivostok or returned to Madagascar. The Japanese lost three torpedo boats; their 'butcher's bill' came to 116 killed and 538 wounded.

The lopsided victory at Tsushima was looked upon as, in part, a victory for British naval technology, although the brilliant tactics of Adm. Togo and the superior discipline and gunnery of his command deserve most of the credit. They stood in sharp contrast to the bungling Russians. For in all respects -- from the hare-brained inspiration of the Tsar to the hapless leadership of his court-favorite commander; from the slapdash shipbuilding to the safety short-cuts in the service; from the diplomatic bungling to the hallucinations that passed for intelligence -- the catastrophic voyage to Tsushima was one great bundle of Russian cock-ups, from top to bottom. This bungling reflected a rotten regime on its last legs: self-absorbed, corrupt, and thoroughly out of touch with reality.

Coming almost exactly 100 years after Nelson's Battle of Trafalgar, Tsushima was, like Trafalgar, a decisive victory accomplished against a nominally superior force.

The projection of naval power by upstart Japan and the fashionable theories about sea-power by American admiral and writer Alfred Thayer Mahan spurred the building of battleship fleets around the world: This was, after all, the high noon of European imperialism and "gunboat diplomacy." And the armored battleship -- majestic, invulnerable behind its armor, haughty with the unanswerable power of its fearful guns -- was the ultimate symbol of national prestige. The standard was set by Great Britain, the uncontested monarch of the imperial powers, whose Royal Navy "ruled the waves." But despite the orgy of battleship building that beggared nations for decades afterwards, true political hegemony eluded the hopeful builders.

Tsushima turned out to be the last decisive, all-surface-fleet action in history. Nowhere did the mystique of the battleship take firmer root than in Japan, where it was assumed as late as 1942 that a few state-of-the-art battleships would be the decisive weapon at sea. Meantime among the pundits and observers of military affairs, everyone expected a repeat of the sweeping victory at Tsushima during the Great War, yet mastery was not decided on the seas in that conflict, giving the lie to the enormous expenditure of treasure and planning to build the dreadnought fleets. In the whole war, the combined fleets fought only briefly and indecisively for a single explosive hour at Jutland, while submarine warfare stole the headlines. Mines and torpedoes proved effective, low-cost "equalizer weapons" against enormous and complex battleships, whose cost in the pre-dreadnought era hovered around £1M, but in the Dreadnought age could exceed £2M each (the five Queen Elizabeth class super-dreadnoughts cost around £4M each in 1915; the pound being worth ~$5 in USD at the time). For an overview of capital ship spending in the years 1890-1917, click here. And by the time of WWII, air power had eclipsed the battleship, in the process taking out a tremendous number of old-style gunships on both sides.

Russian battleship Osliabya, sinking from Japanese shellfire at Tsushima

The Russian battleship Osliabya was the first vessel sunk at Tsushima, here turned into an inferno by Japanese shellfire early in the battle. Japanese ships fire on her in background.

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