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Tsushima: Japan’s Trafalgar: The Voyage of the Condemned Fleet to the Straits of Korea

21 Apr 23


(Matador – £45)

ISBN 978 1838593 841

928 pages

The catastrophic voyage of a large Russian Fleet from the Baltic to the Straits of Tsushima in 1905, where it was annihilated by the Imperial Japanese Navy, remains a classic case study of strategic folly, operational incoherence and tactical incompetence, one that reflects the inability of a navy, but lately expanded from a coast defence force, to meet the demands of asserting oceanic sea-control on the other side of the world.

Following several years of rising tension between the two powers over control of Manchuria, Japan seized the initiative, declaring war with a torpedo attack on the Russia Fleet based at Port Arthur in February 1904, which secured local sea control to enable the landing of two armies, one to secure Manchuria, the other to capture Port Arthur. Unable to relieve the fortress by land, or move the Pacific Fleet to Vladivostok, on the other side of the Korean Peninsula, the Russian government elected to send a Second Pacific Squadron from the Baltic. The concept was sound, reinforcing the Port Arthur fleet, defeating the Japanese and isolating the Japanese Army in Manchuria would win the war. However, the second fleet was delayed by incomplete battleships, limited manpower and administrative incoherence. Vice Admiral Rozhestvenskii accepted the command reluctantly, well aware of the materiel and human weaknesses of his force. Unable to make his ships obey, he was reduced to firing live rounds at them, and throwing endless pairs of binoculars overboard. Long confined to coastal roles, the Russian fleet lacked the self-confidence, initiative and skilled manpower to compete with their battle-hardened opponents. Most Russian sailors were conscripts, their officers displayed little interest in their training, or their welfare. There was no ‘divisional system’ in the Tsar’s fleet. Any residual enthusiasm was used up on the long voyage round Africa, an experience dominated by endless coaling, engineering break-downs and appalling rations. Only blind obedience and equally blind optimism sustained the project, along with Welsh steam coal. Thorne’s analysis of fleet logistics, using the Shipping Gazette, adds an important dimension to the narrative. Like the cruise of the American ‘Great White Fleet’ in 1906-07, the voyage depended on British coal and colliers – something both navies considered a critical weakness.

The Russian fleet fired on British trawlers on the Dogger Bank, believing them to be Japanese torpedo boats… almost causing a war. Then Russian armed merchant cruisers seized British merchant ships with possible Japanese cargoes, legal challenges quickly exposed the futility of surface cruiser warfare. Suitably embarrassed Russia renamed the ships and repurposed them as fleet auxiliaries.

By the time the ‘Second Pacific Squadron’ was ready to leave Madagascar, Port Arthur had fallen, and additional old warships had been sent as ‘reinforcements’. Following a final fuel stop on the coast of Vietnam, Rozhestvenskii elected to take his whole force, including slow coast defence ships and transports, through the Tsushima Straits. His advice to send only the faster units had been ignored: Russia’s leaders had no conception of naval operations. Facing a refreshed, refitted Japanese Fleet, Russian tactics were simple, form in two columns and advance, there was no space for initiative. No-one expected to survive, let alone win. With Rozhestvenskii’s flagship crippled and other battleships sunk the faster Russian cruisers fled, leaving the rest to surrender the next morning. These captures, along with ships salvaged at Port Arthur, effectively doubled the Japanese battlefleet.

In the inevitable Court Martials, blame was liberally bestowed on Admirals and Captains, but not the strategic illiterates who had ordered the voyage. The wartime performance of the Russian Navy had been consistently poor, reflecting both long decades of defensive duty, a stultifying atmosphere that prized obedience over intelligence, mechanical breakdowns, and a cultural aversion to the open ocean. It is no small irony that the ‘hero’ ship of Russia, the cruiser Aurora featured on Thorne’s cover, ran away from Tsushima, earning a place in history by firing a single blank round to signal the start of the October Revolution in 1917, a revolution that can be traced back to civil unrest in 1905 when hopes that a short successful war would bolster the regime’s domestic standing backfired. Some lessons are eternal.

Phil Thorne’s monumental self-published book reflects a long-term engagement with the subject, and access to Russian expertise in the era before Putin’s invasions. It provides a level of detail beyond anything in print, notably on the failed attempt to send reinforcements before the war began, the politics of coaling, Russian cruiser operations and the final battle. Liberally illustrated with contemporary photographs, many from Russian sources, this book captures the ultimate voyage to disaster.