Russo-Japanese War: Battle of Tsushima

Battleship Mikasa
Admiral Togo's flagship, the battleship Mikasa. Public Domain

The Battle of Tsushima was fought May 27-28, 1905, during the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) and proved a decisive victory for the Japanese. Following the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War in 1904, Russian fortunes in the Far East began to decline. At sea, Admiral Wilgelm Vitgeft's First Pacific Squadron had been blockaded at Port Arthur since the opening action of the conflict while ashore the Japanese had laid siege to Port Arthur.

In August, Vitgeft received orders to break out from Port Arthur and join with a cruiser squadron from Vladivostok. Encountering Admiral Togo Heihachiro's fleet, a chase ensued as the Japanese sought to block the Russians from escaping. In the resulting engagement, Vitgeft was killed and the Russians were forced to return to Port Arthur. Four days later, on August 14, Rear Admiral Karl Jessen's Vladivostok Cruiser Squadron met a cruiser force led by Vice Admiral Kamimura Hikonojo off Ulsan. In the fighting, Jessen lost one ship and was forced to retire.

The Russian Response

Responding to these reverses and encouraged by his cousin Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, Tsar Nicholas II ordered the creation of a Second Pacific Squadron. This would be composed of five divisions from the Russian Baltic Fleet, including 11 battleships. Upon arriving in the Far East, it was hoped that the ships would allow the Russians to regain naval superiority and disrupt Japanese supply lines.

Additionally, this force was to aid in breaking the siege of Port Arthur before working to slow the Japanese advance in Manchuria until reinforcements could arrive overland via the Trans-Siberian Railroad.

The Baltic Fleet Sails

The Second Pacific Squadron sailed from the Baltic on October 15, 1904, with Admiral Zinovy Rozhestvensky in command.

A veteran of the Russo-Turkish War (1877-1878), Rozhestvensky had also served as Chief of the Naval Staff. Steaming south through the North Sea with 11 battleships, 8 cruisers, and 9 destroyers, the Russians were alarmed by rumors of Japanese torpedo boats operating in the area. These led to the Russians accidentally fired on a number of British trawlers fishing near Dogger Bank on October 21/22.

This saw the trawler Crane sunk with two killed and four other trawlers damaged. Additionally, seven Russian battleships fired on the cruisers Aurora and Dmitrii Donskoi in the confusion. Further fatalities were only avoided due to the Russians' poor marksmanship. The resultant diplomatic incident nearly led Britain to declare war on Russia and the battleships of the Home Fleet were directed to prepare for action. To watch the Russians, the Royal Navy directed cruiser squadrons to shadow the Russian fleet until a resolution was achieved.

Route of the Baltic Fleet

Prevented from using the Suez Canal by the British as a result of the incident, Rozhestvensky was forced to take the fleet around the Cape of Good Hope. Due to a lack of friendly coaling bases, his ships frequently carried surplus coal stacked on their decks and also met contracted German colliers to refuel.

Steaming over 18,000 miles, the Russian fleet reached Cam Ranh Bay in Indochina on April 14, 1905. Here Rozhestvensky rendezvoused with the Third Pacific Squadron and received new orders.

As Port Arthur had fallen on January 2, the combined fleet was to make for Vladivostok. Departing Indochina, Rozhestvensky steamed north with the older ships of the Third Pacific Squadron in tow. As his fleet neared Japan, he elected to proceed directly through the Tsushima Strait to reach the Sea of Japan as the other options, La Pérouse (Soya) and Tsugaru, would have required passing to the east of Japan.

Admirals & Fleets

Japanese

  • Admiral Togo Heihachiro
  • Principal Ships: 4 battleships, 27 cruisers

Russians

  • Admiral Zinovy Rozhestvensky
  • Admiral Nikolai Nebogatov
  • 11 battleships, 8 cruisers

The Japanese Plan

Alerted to the Russian's approach, Togo,  the commander of the Japanese Combined Fleet, began preparing his fleet for battle.

Based at Pusan, Korea, Togo's fleet consisted primarily of 4 battleships and 27 cruisers, as well as a large number of destroyers and torpedo boats. Correctly believing that Rozhestvensky would pass through the Tsushima Strait to reach Vladivostok, Togo ordered patrols to watch the area. Flying his flag from the battleship Mikasa, Togo oversaw a largely modern fleet which had been thoroughly drilled and trained.

In addition, the Japanese had begun using high explosive shells which tended to inflict more damage than the armor-piercing rounds preferred by the Russians. While Rozhestvensky possessed four of Russia's newest Borodino-class battleships, the remainder of his fleet tended to be older and in ill-repair. This was worsened by the low morale and inexperience of his crews. Moving north, Rozhestvensky attempted to slip through the strait on the night of May 26/27, 1905. Detecting the Russians, the picket cruiser Shinano Maru radioed Togo their position around 4:55 AM.

The Russians Routed

Leading the Japanese fleet to sea, Togo approached from the north with his ships in a line ahead formation. Spotting the Russians at 1:40 PM, the Japanese moved to engage. Aboard his flagship, Knyaz Suvorov, Rozhestvensky pressed on with the fleet sailing in two columns. Crossing in front of the Russian fleet, Togo ordered the fleet to follow him through a large u-turn. This allowed the Japanese to engage Rozhestvensky's port column and block the route to Vladivostok. As both sides opened fire, the superior training of the Japanese soon showed as the Russian battleships were pummeled.

Striking from around 6,200 meters, the Japanese hit Knyaz Suvorov, badly damaging the ship and injuring Rozhestvensky. With the ship sinking, Rozhestvensky was transferred to the destroyer Buiny. With the battle raging, command devolved to Rear Admiral Nikolai Nebogatov. As the firing continued, the new battleships Borodino and Imperator Alexander III were also put out of action and sunk. As the sun began to set, the heart of the Russian fleet had been destroyed with little damage inflicted upon the Japanese in return.

After dark, Togo launched a massive attack involving 37 torpedo boats and 21 destroyers. Slashing into the Russian fleet, they relentlessly attacked for over three hours sinking the battleship Navarin and crippling the battleship Sisoy Veliki. Two armored cruisers were also badly damaged, forcing their crews to scuttle them after dawn. The Japanese lost three torpedo boats in the attack. When the sun rose the next morning, Togo moved in to engage the remnants of Nebogatov's fleet. With only six ships left, Nebogatov hoisted the signal to surrender at 10:34 AM. Believing this a ruse, Togo opened fire until the signal was confirmed at 10:53. Throughout the rest of the day, individual Russian ships were hunted and sunk by the Japanese.

Aftermath

The Battle of Tsushima was the only decisive fleet action fought by steel battleships. In the fighting, the Russian fleet was effectively destroyed with 21 ships sunk and six captured. Of the Russian crews, 4,380 were killed and 5,917 captured.

Only three ships escaped to reach Vladivostok, while another six were interned in neutral ports. Japanese losses were a remarkably light 3 torpedo boats as well as 117 killed and 583 wounded. The defeat at Tsushima badly damaged Russia's international prestige while signaling Japan's ascent as a naval power. In the wake of Tsushima, Russia was forced to sue for peace.