The Battle of Tsushima (May 27 - 28, 1905)
The first and biggest battle of dreadnought battleships took place in the Sea of Japan in 1905. It was between the Imperial Russian Baltic Fleet and the Imperial Japanese Navy. It was the large-scale encounter of Ironclad fleets and would be a disaster for the declining might of Royal Russia and her Tsarist rule. The Baltic fleet of the Russian Navy sailed all around the world towards the nation of Korea, where the armada aimed to destroy the Japanese fleet led Admiral Heihachiro Togo. This Imperial Russian venture had come about on the orders of Tsar Nicholas II – the monarch that would perish along with his entire family during the Bolshevik revolution thirteen years later.
The reason for sending the Baltic fleet was because the Japanese had gradually destroyed the effectiveness of the Russia’s original Pacific fleet that had been based at Port Arthur. This had come about during the beginning of the Russo-Japanese war (Feb 1904-Sept 1905.) Both of these Imperial powers were looking for territory in this part of Asia, mainly Manchuria and Korea. The Russians wanted a deep water port and Port Arthur in Manchuria was ideal for their purposes. Their home territorial port of Vladivostok was able to operate in the summer months only. Imperial Japan also wanted Manchuria and Korea for their Empire and went to war with Russia. With mines and torpedo attacks, the Japanese had inflicted serious casualties upon the Russian Pacific fleet and also in a fleet action in the Yellow Sea. By August 1904, Imperial Russia’s Pacific fleet could not confront Japan’s well-commanded navy. Soon the great naval fortress at Port Arthur was under siege by Japanese land forces too. The Russians tried desperately to hold the much prized Port.
The Tsar of Russia (Nicholas II) gathered as many of his Baltic ships as possible. Among them were battleships built from a French design, coastal defence ironclads with low hulls, not designed for the open sea. There were also antiquated and outdated vessels too, including sailing rigs and a converted yacht. The Russian fleet looked a fine sight but was mostly inadequate to deal with the monumental task before them. This Baltic fleet became known as the second Russian Pacific fleet and set off on its journey with ill-deserved confidence to confront the highly organised Imperial Japanese fleet. The Russian Admiral of this fleet, Zinovy Rozhestvensky led the armada 18,000 miles into the North Sea and around Western France, Spain and Portugal. The Russian fleet had been refused permission to use the Suez Canal. Therefore, they continued around Western Africa and the Cape into the Pacific. On the second day of January 1905, Port Arthur fell, so the new objective was to reach Vladivostok and from here plan a campaign against the Japanese navy. The original plan to relieve Port Arthur was gone.
The Russian fleet tried to creep through the Tsushima strait between Korea and Southern Japan on route to Vladivostok. This ambition was dashed when the Imperial Japanese fleet came upon them on May 27.
The Imperial Japanese navy was a formidable fighting force with well trained and practised crews. In contrast, the Russian crews were comprised of convict labour and peasant conscripts that had little experience of seamanship. As the two fleets clashed the Russian lack of capability was dreadfully evident.
The Russian fleet gunners were lacking in experience and had only fired in practice once along the way. Before this was the foolish Dogger Bank incident when the Russian’s had opened fire on British fishing trawlers in the North Sea. They mistook the fishing vessels for Japanese torpedo boats.
The Japanese Fleet was waiting in complete readiness for the Russian ships because they had been spotted them a day before. As Admiral Zinovy Rozhestvensky led his Russian Fleet in two columns into the Tsushima Straits, Admiral Heihachiro manoeuvred the Imperial Japanese Fleet to cruise parallel with the Russian Fleet’s portside. The Russians began to fire at long range and scored a hit on Mikasa, but the damage was minor. Togo opened up with full broadside while the Russian Fleet’s firepower was halved. Also, the quality of seamanship was superior for Japan. It rapidly became a slaughter as the Russians were outmanoeuvred in every way. Accurate shells rained down upon the Russian Ships with deadly intensity.
The Russian sailors tried their utmost to return fire and showed great bravery in their efforts, but they were not on the same level as the more highly organised Japanese naval forces. The Russian crews were too raw with inadequate resources to match Japan’s more advanced ships.
An hour into the battle saw the Russian crews struggling in wrecked and burning ships with dead comrades lying amid the fires of the torn and twisted metal. A Hell that was caused by their underperforming ironclads and the effective firepower of Japan's navy. Soon the Russian vessels were surrounded and within the developing route, Japanese ships pounded away at the many stricken Russian ships without mercy.
As dawn came the Japanese Fleet stood down, having sunk many vessels and badly damaging more. The Battle of Tsushima was all but over, though, on the next day, Admiral Togo led his fleet in a mopping up campaign which sunk many more ships and captured others. Imperial Russia’s ambitions in the Pacific were no more than a pathetic dream. Admiral Rozhestvensky was captured in a badly wounded state but was able to pull through, though a more subdued man for the remaining four years of his life. He was made the scapegoat for the disaster of the Russian Fleet. Japan had come of age in the new world of warfare and in the Pacific; she was the powerful new kid on the block. For imperial Russia, it was, perhaps, the beginning of the end.