|Turning Point: The Battle of Tsushima
by Chris Alper
The Battle of Tsushima marked the change of the
balance of power in the Pacific in the early 20th century.
Kokoku no kohai kono issen ni ari; kakuin isso funrei doryoku seyo.
"The fate of the Empire rests upon this one battle; let every man do his
utmost." Admiral Togo to the Japanese Fleet, 27 May 1905.
As dawn broke on 27 May 1905, few outside the inner circle of the Japanese
Naval high command had any inkling as to the magnitude of naval and strategic
victory the Imperial Japanese Navy were about to win. The Russo-Japanese War
had broken out as a result of old Russian and new Japanese efforts to wrest a
"sphere of influence" out of the crumbling remains of the Chinese Empire. The
Sino-Japanese War of 1895-96, won in ruthless fashion by a swiftly created and
modernized Japanese Army, left the Japanese with a foothold on the Asian
Mainland, with the strategic Port Arthur in Manchuria, along with Formosa
(Taiwan) and a hefty indemnity.
Russia, using its diplomatic power among western nations, forced China to sign
a lease giving Port Arthur back to Russia. The Boxer Rebellion of 1900 had left
Russian "peace-keeping" troops in China, and Russia seized on a pretext to use
them to occupy and fortify Port Arthur. Tensions remained high from 1901 on,
and although negotiations were in progress, and Japan arranged a treaty with
Britain securing British aid if a power other than Russia became involved, the
Russian Naval Ministry seriously underestimated Japan's will and capability to
make modern war. But the path to victory had been laid down long before, just
after Japan opened its doors to the West for the first time in centuries.
Building a Samurai Navy
In the 16th century, the Tokugawa shogunate, Japan's feudal military
government, cut Japan off from the world. For centuries, the highest-level
military technology in Japan remained the musket. Following contact with the
west, after Admiral Perry's fleet sailed into Tokyo Bay in 1853, the Japanese
were able to recognize their need to modernize, (unlike the Chinese who failed
to change and suffered at the hands of colonialists) so quickly, that by 1867,
they bought a converted Confederate ironclad, the CSS Stonewall, and stared
building a modern navy. 1877 marked the defeat in civil war of the former
samurai. A revived monarchy, called the Meiji, were the victors, and
immediately rebuilt the Japanese economy to simultaneously industrialize and
militarize, with notable success. From 1894 to 1905 military spending amounted
to about 40% of total government expenditure. In 1880, the Japanese navy had a
total warship tonnage of15,000. By 1905, they had deployed 252,000 tons, a
fleet boasting 31 modern cruisers and battleships.
At the core of the new navy was training that went beyond demanding, into the
realm of fatal. The biography of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the architect of the
Pearl Harbor attack, who was wounded at Tsushima and later commanded the
Imperial Japanese Navy in World War II, relates the intensity of individual and
ship's company training. As a young cadet in the Japanese Navy, his entire
class was ordered to swim between two islands off northern Japan. Cold water
torn by swift currents ran between the islands, and deep-water sharks
frequented the area. The cadets swam, and dozens did not reach the other side.
Gunnery and maneuvering were practiced basically as though they were combat
without a declaration of war. Yamamoto relates that guns during wargames were
loaded with live rounds, with gunners ordered to miss at narrow margins, and
that maneuvers were carried out at military flank speed, often resulting in
damage to or even the loss of ships. Officers and men were required to be
utterly capable, incompetence was not permitted at any level, and disgrace and
relief of everyone from apprentice seamen to senior officers was common.
The Aging Bear
The Russian Navy, on the other hand, was in a state of advanced decay. Though
many Russian sailors were aggressive and capable, the Naval Ministry was
hidebound in its thinking, and had little funding to maintain the Pacific Fleet
in particular. Yet the Russian bear, due to its power on land, was still more
feared in the capitals of Western Europe. The Japanese surprised the world and
foreshadowed events in decades to come when on 10 January, 1905, they
simultaneously declared war on Russia and attacked Port Arthur from the sea.
The Japanese enjoyed early naval success, destroying the Russian Pacific Fleet
at the Battle of Shantung on 10 August, 1904. The land campaign began in
earnest then, culminating in a major Japanese victory at the Battle of Mukden,
considered by some historians to be the first 'modern' battle; more than
400,000 Japanese and 350,000 Russian troops participated and there were in
excess of 200,000 casualties.
The need to reestablish land and sea power in the region led to the Russian
Baltic Fleet being renamed the Second Pacific Squadron, placed under the
command of Vice Admiral Zinovi Petrovitch Rozhdestvenski, joined by several
1880s vintage cruisers under Admiral Nebagatov, attached to a fleet of
transports and then sent to Asia avenge the losses to date. In a feat of
seamanship overshadowed by his subsequent defeat, Rozhdestvenski led the fleet
more than 18,000 nautical miles, arriving in the Pacific months later. His goal
was to land his troops at Vladivostok, the only Russian port available.
Japanese Admiral Togo knew this, and deployed ships to watch the three possible
27 May, 1905
The Russian fleet was sighted when two trailing hospital ships were discovered
by a Japanese cruiser fleet in the mist-shrouded waters of the Tsushima Strait
on the evening of 26 May, 1905. On the afternoon of 27 May, 1905, the Russians
joined battle deployed in a line running from south-south-west to
north-north-east; the Japanese fleet from west-north-east. The Russian fleet
totaled 45, including 12 battleships and 8 cruisers, joined by destroyers and
support vessels. The Japanese fleet included 4 battleships. Seeing the way the
fleets lay, Admiral Togo took a risk and ordered his fleet to turn in sequence,
which enabled his ships to take the same course as the Russians, though
hazarding each battleship in turn. This aggressive move startled the Russians,
and was possible only due to the high proficiency of the Japanese crews.
Rozhdestvenski's flagship Knyaz Suvorov opened fire first, followed by Admiral
Togo's flagship, the battleship Mikasa. The two lines of battleships stabilized
their distance at 6,200 meters and exchanged gunfire. The Japanese rate of fire
was terrific, estimated by one observer at more than 2,000 heavy rounds per
hour. Furthermore, the Japanese used a new explosive formula in their shells,
firing at the upper works of the Russian vessels and causing fire to break out
all over any ships that were hit. Their accuracy astounded the Russians. One
Russian officer, Captain Semenoff, remembering an hour-long skirmish with a
Japanese ship in which few shells had hit, took out his notebook to jot down
the places and times of impact. Within seconds, he wrote, "I had not only never
witnessed such a fire before, I had never even imagined it. Shells seemed to be
pouring on us incessantly, one after another."
The Japanese ships could reach 16 knots, but the Russian fleet could reach only
8 knots, in part hampered by their trailing transports. Togo was able to use
this speed, and the hard-earned competence of his crews, to outmaneuver the
Russians, "crossing the T" twice to cause further damage. Efficient Japanese
use of a new weapon, the torpedo, added to the toll. At one point 30 Japanese
destroyers launched a massed torpedo attack, releasing 74 torpedoes into the
churning waters and immediately destroying the Russian battleship Sisoy Veliky
and two cruisers.
Admiral Rozhdestvenski was knocked out of action with a shell fragment in his
skull. A few of the ships and commanders fought bravely, at times in situations
where a damaged Russian vessel, cut off, was surrounded by many Japanese foes.
But in short order, although the battle continued into the night, the Russians
lost the battleships Suvarov, the Oslyabya, the Alexander III, and the
Borodino. Five other battleships under Admiral Nebagatov were forced to
surrender the next day. Three cruisers made it to the United States naval base
at Manila and were interned. In the end, only two Russian destroyers, both
damaged, and a small support vessel arrived in Vladivostok.
The final toll reflected the magnitude of the Japanese victory. The IJN lost
117 dead, 583 injured, and three torpedo boats. The Russians lost 4,380 dead,
5,917 injured, more than 4,000 captured, and their Pacific, Baltic and Reserve
fleets had ceased to exist as significant forces.
"The Russians were not so much outgeneraled as they were outfought, and they
were outfought because they were lukewarm and not wrought to desperation as
they had been in the Crimea and in resistance to Napoleon's invasion; whereas
every Japanese soldier and sailor believed, as was indeed the truth, that his
country's fate was at stake and that his personal conduct might decide the
issue.". [From the New York Sun, transcribed version reprinted in The Army and
Navy Register, 11 August 1906). The sailors of Admiral Togo had, in the final
analysis, taken his words to heart.
U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt hosted the peace conference in Portsmouth,
New Hampshire, and the treaty was signed on 6 September 1905. Russia withdrew
from Manchuria, recognized Korea as a Japanese sphere of influence, agreed to
allow Japan to lease the Liaotung Peninsula and gave Japan control of the South
Manchuria Railway in that area, ceded Sakhalin Island south of the 50th
Parallel, and gave Japan certain fishing rights.
Roosevelt recognized the birth of a new tiger in the East. He wrote in 1906, in
a private letter: "In a dozen years the English, Americans and Germans, who now
dread each other as rivals in the trade of the Pacific, will each have to dread
the Japanese more than they do any other nation…if we try to treat them as we
have treated the Chinese, and if at the same time fail to keep our navy at the
highest point of efficiency and size—then we shall invite disaster."
The reaction of the Japanese public was one of betrayal. The precept of fukoken
kyohei (rich country/with strong army) was the basis of what they felt was the
new power of their country. Their feeling that the treaty had robbed them of
rightful gains, and that the civilian ministers had erred, while the military
had triumphed, was a factor in the growth of the movement that would eventually
overwhelm the Meiji government and create the military dictatorship that led
Japan into World War II.
Japan now had sea superiority to support its moves into Korea, Manchuria and
elsewhere. For the next three decades, the major western powers were dealing
with World War I, the Russian Revolution, and the rebirth of Germany, and
gradually receded from the Asian stage. Yamamoto rose to command the Japanese
fleet, the lessons of Tsushima and Port Arthur guiding his military philosophy.
And the stage for the economic, political and military forces that led to the
next Pacific War was set.
The Battle of
Tsushima First person account by Captain Vladimir Semenoff of the
Imperial Russian Navy.
Research Society Extensive collection of articles on the whole of
Theodore Rex, Edmund Morris, Random House; 2001, 864 p.
Yamamoto Edmund P. Hoyt, The Lyons Press; 2001, 288 p.
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Written by Chris Alper. If you have questions or comments on this
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Copyright © 2004 Chris Alper