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The Russo-Japanese War

Port Arthur: Prologue
The Decisive Battles
Defeat at Port Arthur

Port Arthur: Prologue

Under cover of darkness the Japanese assaulted Russia's Pacific squadron lying at anchor off Port Arthur. The Russian ships were in a state of "peacetime readiness" and were not prepared for the unprovoked attack. Before the Russian gunners could open retaliatory fire, the best battleships of the squadron, Tsessarevitch and Retvisan, and also the first-rated cruiser Pallada, were hit by torpedoes. On the morning of 27 January 1904, under the command of Vice-Admiral Togo Heihachiro, the main body of the Japanese Combined Squadrons appeared off Port Arthur.

Having hoisted the mast head flags, the Russian ships-four battleships and five cruisers-followed Vice-Admiral Oskar Stark's flagship Petropavlovsk and began firing upon fifteen Japanese battleships and cruisers. Surprised by such a resolute retaliation, Admiral Togo retreated. On the eve of the Battle of Port Arthur, at the Korean port of Chemulpo, the Japanese had already blockaded the first-rated cruiser Varyag [Viking] and the gunboat Koreyets. In response to the ultimatum of the enemy's six cruisers and eight destroyers, the commander of the Varyag, Captain Vsevolod Rudnev, led both ships out of port to engage in an unequal battle. The poorly armored Varyag sustained serious losses under enemy fire. Seeing no possibility of continued resistance, Rudnev ordered his sailors to scuttle the damaged cruiser in the harbor and blow up the Koreyets. The crews of both ships were taken aboard British, French and Italian cruisers stationed nearby.

The seamen of the Varyag and Koreyets returned to Russia, where they were given a hero's welcome and honored with extraordinary tribute and ceremony. No one suspected that the fate of the Varyag and Koreyets was only a prologue to further events in a war that would see exceptional heroism but few victories. Misfortune pursued the Russian fleet from the start of the war. Off Port Arthur the Russian mining cruiser Yenisei and cruiser Boyarin struck their own mines. Conscious of his responsibility for the disaster, Captain Vladimir Stepanov refused to board a lifeboat and perished with his ship. On the night of 2 February the hurriedly patched battleship Retvisan and the destroyers on duty, together with the coastal batteries, resisted the Japanese attempt to blockade the exit out of Port Arthur Harbour. The Russians sank all five mine-laying steamers beyond the fairway, but the next day in Golubinaya [Dove] Bay, Russia lost the destroyer Vnushitelny [Impressive]. The situation changed in Port Arthur on 24 February with the arrival of Vice-Admiral Stepan Makarov, appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Fleet. Makarov's appearance heightened the sailors' spirit.

Another Japanese attempt to block the seaway was successfully repulsed, and the Russian force strengthened its coastal defenses. In response to the enemy bombardment of Port Arthur from the sea, Makarov prepared the fleet to fight at anchor and also made plans for withdrawing from the harbor. Togo Heihachiro patiently avoided a battle close to the fortress. Under the flag of Makarov the Pacific Fleet put to sea on five occasions within a period of a month.

Admiral Makarov highly valued reconnaissance. During the first reconnaissance mission of 26 February, the destroyers Reshitelny [Decisive] and Steregushchy were cut off by a detachment of four enemy destroyers. The Reshitelny succeeded in breaking away, but the Steregushchy was surrounded by Japanese ships. With their commander Lieutenant Alexander Sergeyev at the head, the crew fought to the last. Riddled with holes from the Japanese shells, the Steregushchy sank with all its crew. Only four sailors escaped.

Eight destroyers were simultaneously dispatched for the night operation on 30 March. That same night Admiral Togo sent his ships to Port Arthur to lay mines in the outer shoreline. On the morning of 31 March, the destroyer Strashny [Terrible] was attacked by four Japanese destroyers. Although her captain, Commander Konstantin Yurasovsky, was killed, the sailors of the destroyer continued fighting until the ship sank.

Makarov sent the cruiser Bayan to the rescue of the Strashny, and then he himself put to sea aboard the Petropavlovsk. Not long after casting anchor, however, the Petropavlovsk struck a mine that detonated her ammunition, and she sank rapidly with 650 officers and men. After this, the battleship Pobeda [Victory] also struck a mine and sustained damage. The weakened fleet took shelter in the harbor, where it was placed under the command of Admiral Yevgeny Alekseyev.

Admiral Togo established a close sea blockade of Port Arthur and landed the Japanese army on the Kwantung Peninsula. The Japanese opened an offensive against the fortress from land, and Alekseyev left for Manchuria, entrusting the fleet to Rear Admiral Vilgelm Vitgeft. On the advice of Commander Fyodor Ivanov, commander of the mining cruiser Amur, Vitgeft decided to employ blockade mines against the attacking Japanese fleet. On 1 May 1904, the Amur, escorted by destroyers, planted 50 mines, blocking the way to Togo's ships. The next day the Japanese battleships Hatsuse and Yashima struck the mines and sank. Almost simultaneously the Japanese lost their fast cruiser Ioshino and several smaller craft.

As a result, Russia's opponent lost a third of its battle fleet. Aware that his damaged battleships would be docked only briefly for repairs, Admiral Vitgeft still believed in the possibility of a Russian victory at sea.

The Decisive Battles

Meanwhile, the Vladivostok cruiser squadron faired considerably better against the Japanese. In April 1904, under the flag of Rear Admiral Essen and escorted by destroyers, the cruisers made a raid on Wonsan, destroying two Japanese coastal vessels and the troop carrier Kinshu-Maru with its assault troops still on board. In early June, Vice-Admiral Pyotr Bezobrazov sailed the first-rated cruisers Rossiya, Gromoboy and Ryurik into the Korean Strait. There the Gromoboy sank the transports Izumo-Maru and Hitachi-Maru, while the Ryurik used two Whitehead torpedoes to damage the Sado-Maru. The entire Japanese infantry battalion and eighteen siege howitzers sank along with the Hitachi-Maru. The annihilation of the transports startled the Japanese Command, which now had to organize new communication routes. Eight cruisers of the Combined Squadrons, under Vice-Admiral Hikonodjo Kamimura, were dispatched to defend the Korean Strait and the Sea of Japan.

On the order of Admiral Alekseyev, Rear Admiral Vitgeft left Port Arthur on 10 June 1904 with six battleships, five cruisers, and eight torpedo gunboats and destroyers. Admiral Togo immediately advanced all his available forces-four battleships, ten cruisers, four coastal vessels and 30 destroyers. The Japanese were astonished to see the previously damaged Tsessarevitch, Retvisan and Pobeda in the formation of the Port Arthur squadron. Since those ships ensured Russian superiority in heavy guns, Togo resolved not to attack.

Believing the Russian forces to be at a disadvantage in view of the superiority of the Japanese destroyers, the Russian fleet commander himself returned to Port Arthur without engagement; however, the consequences of his indecision soon followed. The Japanese attacked Port Arthur by land and, having installed naval guns in the mountains, opened fire on the Russian ships near the coastline.

On 28 July, to save his squadron from the Japanese mountain-top bombardment, Vitgeft sailed to the open sea and headed for Vladivostok. Still lacking support from Kamimura, Admiral Togo hurried to Port Arthur to impede the breakthrough. Events quickly came to a head.

Fearing more losses and consequently avoiding a decisive battle, Togo chose Vitgeft's ship as his main target. Vitgeft himself intended to break away and, as he reported at the time, "to avoid fighting if possible." The battle started in the Yellow Sea, the opposing ships at a distance of 65 cable lengths. Leading his ship out of the blockade with three turns, the Russian admiral set a course for the Korean Strait without incurring serious damage. By the evening of 28 July, however, Togo, whose main fleet consisted of seven armored ships, had succeeded in catching up with Vitgeft's battleships and commenced firing upon them. The squadrons were proceeding on parallel but converging courses, and the Japanese concentrated on the lead ships Tsessarevitch and Peresvet and the rear ship Poltava.

An hour into the battle, on the bridge of the Tsessarevitch, Admiral Vitgeft and two officers of his staff were killed by a 305 mm high-explosive shell, and the Chief of Staff, Rear Admiral Nikolay Matusevich, was seriously wounded. When another shell hit its conning tower, the Tsessarevitch lost its steering and became unoperational. The battle order of the Russian squadron was now broken, and the enemy increased fire. In contrast to Vitgeft, Admiral Togo made successful maneuvers and used his artillery to good advantage. His squadron's gunfire also proved more effective. The Japanese battleships scored 130 accurate shots, the Russians-only 32. The flagship Mikaza was seriously damaged and lost 82 men, but the rest of the Japanese ships fired incessantly.

This untenable situation was overcome by the maneuvering of Captain Edvard Shchensnovich, who, commanding the battleship Retvisan, attempted to place himself at the head of the squadron and dash into the center of Admiral Togo's line. The Japanese shifted their fire toward him so that the Retvisan could turn back, but during that time the majority of the squadron, with its junior flagman, Rear Admiral Pavel Ukhtomsky, had managed to depart for Port Arthur. Having withstood the enemy's fire, Ukhtomsky led the surviving ships into the besieged port. With the fast cruisers Askold and Novik Rear Admiral Nikolay Reytsenshteyn succeeded in breaking through the encirclement of Japanese ships. The Askold arrived at the Chinese port of Shanghai, where it, was disarmed until the end of the war.

The damaged Tsessarevitch and three destroyers were disarmed at the German port of Tsindao and the cruiser Diana, at the port of French Saigon. The fate of the destroyer Burny was similarly sealed: she ran into submerged reefs at the Shantung Peninsula and sank.

Aboard the Novik, Commander Maximilian Schultz decided to head for Vladivostok, but, unfortunately, chose the wrong course round the Japanese Islands. The Novik was sighted by a merchant steamship and was then intercepted by the Japanese at the Korsakov port in Sakhalin. There, on 7 August 1904, after engaging in an uneven battle with the Japanese cruiser Tsushima, the Novik was badly damaged and was scuttled by her crew. Following these numerous defeats, Russia's Pacific Fleet could no longer count on victory in a general battle at sea.

Defeat at Port Arthur

Among the fatal consequences of defeat in the Yellow Sea was the further loss of the Vladivostok cruiser squadron in the Korean Strait battle on 1 August 1904. Under the flag of Rear Admiral Yessen, the Rossiya, Gromoboy and Ryurik, were sent to meet the squadron, which had already returned to Port Arthur. Near Tsushima Island they were forced into an ill-matched battle with six Japanese cruisers under Vice-Admiral Kamimura. The Rossiya and Gromoboy suffered 485 casualties and endured heavy damage. Admiral Yessen himself abandoned the Ryurik because it was so badly damaged, especially its helm, that the ship could not be kept on course during the five-hour battle. The Rossiya and Gromoboy managed to break away from the enemy and headed for Vladivostok. The Ryurik's commander, Captain Yevgeny Trusov, and her senior officer, Commander Nikolay Khlodovsky, were, however, among the fatalities. Subsequently, Lieutenant Konstantin Ivanov took command of the ship and, refusing to retreat, continued to fire at the enemy for as long as possible. When all resources of resistance were exhausted, Ivanov ordered the sea cocks to be opened, and the Ryurik sank under the ensign of St. Andrew.

Because the Rossiya and Gromoboy had been taken out of service for repairs, the naval squadron at Vladivostok, was by 1 August, significantly weakened. Shortly before the battle, the Russian cruisers had made sorties into the Pacific, where they had either sunk or captured ten enemy transport vessels. Among the Japanese battleships, however, only the cruiser Ivate was seriously damaged. When Russia's auxiliary cruisers Petersburg and Smolensk were recalled from the Indian Ocean to the Baltic, it was already apparent that the Japanese had secured their sea lines.

During the autumn of 1904, in the Baltic Sea, the second squadron, formed soon after the death of Makarov, prepared itself under Rear Admiral Rozhestvensky, to help the Pacific Fleet. The departure was delayed because construction of its new vessels, Borodino-class battleships, was not yet completed. Only on 2 October 1904, did the main forces of the second Pacific squadron leave Libau.

The ships that had remained in the Far East were combined into the first Pacific squadron. Following the lead of Sevastopol, its sailors used all their forces to defend the fortress of Port Arthur. Officers and deck hands carried guns and shells ashore from the ships and joined the assault battalions. The battleships stationed near the coast bombarded enemy positions and battle lines with turret guns. Fighting with the regular troops, the sailors withstood four assaults. The battles for Vysokaya [High] Mountain, from where the inner roadstead of Port Arthur was clearly visible, were especially brutal.

The duties of the Russian ships at Port Arthur consisted of laying mines at night and reconnaissance by day. Russian mines sank the Japanese cruiser Takasago, one destroyer and two coastal vessels. The new Commander of the Russian fleet, Rear Admiral Robert Viren, regarded sea battles with the Japanese as hopeless. On 19 September the latter's 280-mm guns upon opened fire on Port Arthur's inner roadstead. Having seized Vysokaya Mountain, the Japanese were able to fire on the Russian ships with greater accuracy. On 22 November a heavy-caliber shell detonated an ammunition magazine and destroyed the battleship Poltava. During the next four days the Retvisan, Peresvet, Pobeda and cruisers Pallada and Bayan sank under the fire of large-caliber Japanese guns. Due to the persistence of her commander, Captain Nikolay Essen, who had finally received permission from Admiral Viren to lead his ship into the outer roadstead, the Sevastopol was the only battleship to survive.

For six nights, together with the gunboat Otvazhny and seven destroyers, the Sevastopol fended off enemy mine attacks. Many Japanese destroyers were damaged and two-N-53 and N-42-sank to the bottom. This time the Sevastopol was also damaged. She, nevertheless, fired back on the Japanese positions until the last day of the defense when she was scuttled by her commander.

On 20 December 1904, Port Arthur capitulated. Only six destroyers and three small torpedo boats had broken through to neutral ports. News of the sinking of Russia's ships and the fall of the fortress reached the squadron of Admiral Rozhestvensky at Madagascar. There it was joined by both the cruiser detachment of Captain Leonid Dobrotvorsky and auxiliary cruisers. The squadron had received its new assignment-to achieve supremacy on the sea on its own. On 2 February, four battleships and a cruiser, under Rear Admiral Nikolay Nebogatov, were sent from Libau to strengthen Rozhestvensky's forces. On 26 April 1905, the Russian ships converged on the coast of Indo-China.

The entire fleet assembled under the flag of Vice-Admiral Rozhestvensky: eleven battleships, five large and three small cruisers, nine destroyers and numerous transports. To muster so large a force 2,000 miles off the coast of Japan was a feat in itself.

The squadron planned to break through to Vladivostok and there deal with its strong adversary. The Japanese fleet numbered five battleships, ten large and ten small cruisers, 21 destroyers, 43 torpedo-boats and other vessels. Admiral Rozhestvensky chose the shortest route for the break-through the Korean Strait. On 14 May 1905, Russia's second Pacific squadron was sited approaching the Strait by the scout ships of the Combined Squadrons under Admiral Togo.


The fleets converged on the afternoon of 14 May 1905. The first ship to open fire was Admiral Rozhestvensky's flag battleship Knyaz Suvorov. Three minutes later, under the flag of Admiral Togo, the battleship Mikasa fired back Because the accompanying transports could not travel faster, Admiral Rozhestvensky had reduced his forces' cruising speed to nine knots. Admiral Togo took full advantage. Proceeding at 15 knots, he overtook the Russians and concentrated his fire on the flagships.

During the first forty minutes, the Japanese showered the battleships Knyaz Suvorov and Oslyabya with high-explosive shells, whereupon the Oslyabya sank with its commander, Captain Vladimir Ber, and the majority of its crew. Admiral Rozhestvensky was wounded, and his disabled flagship now became the Japanese target. Control of the squadron was disorganized. The commanders of the battleships Emperor Alexander III and Borodino, Captains Nikolay Bukhvostov and Pyotr Serebrenikov, tried in vain to screen the damaged flagship and bring the squadron back on course toward Vladivostok. The Alexander, Borodino and then the other battleships came under the lateral fire of the Japanese. However, by 1600 hours Admiral Togo had lost sight of the Russian ships in the mist and smoke. The Borodino led the battleships to the battle line, where the cruisers were fighting to protect their transports. Under fire from the main Russian forces, the cruiser Kassagi was badly damaged and rendered unoperational.

Having drawn away from the burning Knyaz Suvorov, the Borodino turned northward. Its senior officer, Commander Dmitry Makarov, replaced the wounded Serebrenikov and took charge of the battleship. While travelling northwards, the squadron was overtaken by the battleships of Admiral Togo. The Emperor Alexander III and Borodino were lost just before dusk in the ensuing battle, and, almost simultaneously, the Knyaz Suvorov began sinking after being hit by Japanese torpedoes. Commander Nikolay Kolomeitsov pulled his destroyer Buyny alongside the crippled battleship to save Admiral Rozhestvensky and part of his staff. The surviving officers of the Knyaz Suvorov-Lieutenants Nikolay Bogdanov, Pyotr Vyrubov and Ensign Verner Kursel-refused to abandon ship and thus shared their vessel's fate.

Late in the evening, aboard the Emperor Nicholas I, Rear Admiral Nebogatov took command of the squadron. Admiral Togo ceased firing and ordered his destroyers to rush in and attack the Russian ships at close range. Thirty Japanese destroyers launched 74 Whitehead torpedoes. The battleship Sysoy Veliky along with the cruisers Admiral Nakhimov and Vladimir Monomakh, exploded. Three other ships tried to head for Tsushima but were so badly damaged that they were scuttled by their crews on the morning of 15 May. The Navarin was blown up by floating mines and sank as well.

By nightfall the squadron was badly scattered, with many of the damaged ships left behind to reach Vladivostok on their own. Rear Admiral Enkwist with the cruisers Oleg, Aurora and Zhemchug eventually reached Manila. Under Commander Vasily Ferzen, the fast cruiser Izumrud broke out of the encirclement of Japanese ships. Sailing along the coast, however, the ship was wrecked on reefs and scuttled by its crew. Only three very badly damaged ships-the cruiser-yacht Almaz [Diamond], and the destroyers Bravy and Grozny - reached Vladivostok without assistance. Admiral Rozhestvensky and his staff were transferred from the destroyer Buyny, which was experiencing engine trouble, to the Bedovy, which was then captured by the Japanese on 15 May.

Under the command of Captain Iosif Matusevich, the crew of the destroyer Bezuprechny, engaged for over two hours in a battle with a Japanese cruiser and destroyer; the Russian ship was then lost with all aboard. For more than an hour and a half, under Captain Sergey Shein, the damaged cruiser Svetlana fought several Japanese cruisers. Having fired all their shells, the sailors of the Svetlana opened the ship's kingston valves. When the Japanese ordered the Admiral Ushakov, the single remaining Russian battleship of the squadron, to surrender, Captain Vladimir Miklukha commanded his crew to answer the Japanese with the sound of Russian guns. Within an hour, the Admiral Ushakov sank under St. Andrew's ensign.

In the battle with two Japanese destroyers, the destroyer Gromky, under Commander Georgy Kern, sank with her colours flying. The last ship to break off the fight was a veteran of the Navy-the cruiser Dmitry Donskoy. On the evening of 15 May, her crew withstood a fierce battle against six Japanese cruisers. On the morning of 16 May the badly damaged ship was scuttled, following the orders of the senior officer, Commander Konstantin Blokhin, who had replaced the mortally wounded Captain Ivan Lebedev.

Following the Tsushima calamity, Russia tallied its heavy losses: 5,045 Russian sailors were killed and 6,106 taken prisoner. Victory cost the Japanese three destroyers as well as 699 officers and sailors. After the battle of 14-15 May, the government of Nicholas II agreed to peace negotiations. According to the Portsmouth Treaty of 23 August 1905, Japan was given the Kwantung Peninsula along with Port Arthur and the southern part of Sakhalin Island up to the 50th parallel.

The above materials are by kind permission of publishing house "Alexander PRINT"