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Battle of Tsushima

Turning Point: The Battle of Tsushima
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 approach routes.

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.
Related Links:

The Battle of Tsushima First person account by Captain Vladimir Semenoff of the Imperial Russian Navy.

Russo-Japanese War Research Society Extensive collection of articles on the whole of the conflict.

Other Sources:

Theodore Rex, Edmund Morris, Random House; 2001, 864 p.
ISBN: 0394555090

Yamamoto Edmund P. Hoyt, The Lyons Press; 2001, 288 p.
ISBN: 158574428X

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Written by Chris Alper. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Chris Alper at:

Copyright © 2004 Chris Alper
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