14–15 May 1905

One of the most decisive naval victories in all history was inflicted by the Imperial Japanese Navy, then barely thirty years old, on the Navy of the Russian Empire, with two centuries of tradition behind it. A large squadron of Russian warships arrived in Japanese waters in May 1905 and was sunk, captured or scattered in a matter of hours, the first time since the start of European imperial expansion that a European navy had been defeated by a non-European power. The Japanese triumph has a number of explanations, but the real key was invention. Japanese shells had much greater destructive power, Japanese range-finders were the most modern available, and the Japanese navy had successfully adopted modern wireless telegraphy.

A Japanese print depicts the height of the action at the Battle of Tsushima in May 1905. Japanese naval vessels had small but important technical advantages, including higher speeds, heavier guns and better range-finding.

The battle came about as a result of a war between the Russian and Japanese empires, which began with a Japanese attack in late January 1904 on the Russian Pacific fleet stationed at Port Arthur, a new Russian base on the Chinese coast that threatened Japan’s recent expansion into the Korean peninsula. The war went badly for the Russians, whose army and navy had to be deployed at the furthest distance from European Russia against a power whose military potential had been completely underestimated. The Russian fleet remained bottled up in Port Arthur, unable to break the Japanese naval blockade. On 15 October 1904, the Russian tsar finally dispatched a squadron of around 50 ships, including almost all Russia’s battleships, old and new, to undertake a 29,000-kilometre (18,000-mile) voyage from the Baltic Sea to the Sea of Japan, where it intended to inflict a comprehensive defeat on the upstart state.

The journey was one of the most remarkable ever undertaken by a naval force. Sailing around the Cape of Good Hope (Britain refused the Russians access to the Suez Canal), the squadron picked up coal and supplies where it could. The journey took seven long months, during which the crews became bored and demoralized, cooped up with poor food and few amenities. In May 1905, the squadron arrived at Cam Ranh Bay on the coast of French Indo-China (now Vietnam), but by this time Port Arthur had fallen to a Japanese attack. The commander of the Russian fleet, Rear Admiral Zinovy Rozhestvensky, a tough, scrupulous disciplinarian, ordered his squadron to break through to Vladivostock, a new port on the Russian Pacific coast, and if possible to avoid an early showdown with the Japanese Navy. Of the possible routes to Vladivostock, the shortest and safest was through the narrow strait of Tsushima that separated Korea from the Japanese archipelago. The ships steamed north, many now in need of repairs, with their keels fouled by the long voyage.

Rozhestvensky commanded a fleet that on paper should have presented the Japanese with a real challenge. The first column consisted of five new battleships, including the commander’s flagship, Suvorov, and three older battleships; a second column commanded by Rear Admiral Nikolai Nebogatov consisted of four older battleships and three large armoured cruisers. They were supported by another four cruisers, nine destroyers and a number of auxiliary vessels. Against this array, the Japanese naval commander, Admiral Togo Heihachiro, who had done his early training in England, could muster forty ships, including four modern battleships (among them his flagship Mikasa), two armoured cruisers and numerous torpedo boats and destroyers for night attacks. However, the numbers disguised important technical differences between the two fleets. The Russian vessels were slower by several knots, a gap made wider by the fouling of the keels; they carried guns of mixed calibres, while the Japanese favoured heavy guns; wireless communication was poor in the Russian fleet, but was modern and effective for the Japanese; the Japanese had also developed a new explosive, shimosa, which spread fire quickly, and a new thin-cased shell, furoshiki, which burst on impact rather than having to pierce armour plate. Above all, they had the 1903 Barr & Stroud rangefinder, which gave accurate firing at 6,000 metres (20,000 feet), against the 4,000 metres (13,000 feet) of the Russian model. Small though these technical differences might seem, they were to prove vital in the coming battle.

On the night of 26–27 May, fortunately shrouded in deep mist, the Russian fleet entered the Korean Strait. To Rozhestvensky’s relief, there was no sign of the Japanese. But a scouting cruiser, Shinano Maru, spotted a Russian hospital ship with its lights blazing (as was permitted under international law) and immediately telegraphed to Togo that the Russians were coming. Unable to see where the Japanese were, the Russian fleet continued on its way, aware that unseen dangers were all around. On the morning of 27 May, the crew put on clean underwear, a ritual preparation for possible death; while the officers were lunching and drinking champagne, four Japanese battleships and eight cruisers suddenly appeared out of the mist.Rozhestvensky hesitated. He first thought to order his ships line abreast, but found that the manoeuvre would be too complicated in such a short time, and instead the Russian vessels remained in two columns, unable to bring their great firepower to bear on the Japanese fleet as it was invited to cross the ‘T’ of the approaching enemy. Togo exposed his force briefly to fire from the leading Russian ships, but once in position across the front of the Russian columns, his modern ships delivered accurate and deadly fire at the leading craft. The Russian warships in the rear could do nothing for fear that their fire might hit Russian vessels in front of them. They could only watch as superior Japanese gunnery and the new shells destroyed the cream of the Russian fleet.

The shells rained down on Suvorov with shattering effect. Soon the captain was mortally wounded; surrounded by six dead officers, Rozhestvensky watched as his flagship burned around him. Finally splinters hit him in the heel and head and he wandered around his ship until he was found, weak and losing blood, and transferred to a Russian torpedo boat. By this time the other three modern battleships were suffering the same massive fusillade: one after the other, Alexander III, Oslyabya and Borodino were blasted into wrecks and sank. The Japanese fleet was hardly damaged at all as the Russians continued to shell wildly amidst the fires and explosions on deck. The gap between the two sides in terms of technology and training was cruelly exposed. At the sight of the destruction of all Russia’s modern battleships, the remaining Russian warships, now under Nebogatov’s command after Rozhestvensky, semi-conscious and delirious, had abandoned his role, tried to break through to Vladivostock. Night fell and the Japanese torpedo boats and destroyers hovered round the Russian warships like jackals circling a dying prey. The battleship Navarin was sunk with just one survivor; the battleship Sisoi Veleki and the cruisers Admiral Nakhimov and Vladimir Monomakh were scuttled by their crew after crippling damage. The following morning, 28 May, Nebogatov found his five surviving ships surrounded by twenty-seven Japanese vessels. He surrendered to Togo, though one Russian captain, unable to swallow the humiliation, took the Izumrud through a gap in the Japanese circle and escaped, only to be wrecked on the coast on the way to Vladivostock.

The battle destroyed Russia’s navy and established Japan as a major Pacific power. The Japanese lost just 117 killed and 500 wounded, and three small torpedo boats. The Russian squadron lost 4,380 killed and 5,917 captured (including the two commanding admirals); all the battleships were sunk or captured, along with six out of the nine destroyers and four out of eight cruisers. Three cruisers escaped to Manila, where the Americans interned them; only one reached Vladivostock, together with two of the destroyers. One of the cruisers at Manila, Aurora, was to play a part twelve years later in the Russian Revolution when its crew joined Lenin’s Bolsheviks in storming the Winter Palace in St Petersburg. One of the junior officers in the Japanese fleet was Isoruku Yamamoto (who lost two fingers of his left hand from a Russian shell). He later went on to command the Japanese Imperial Fleet in its devastating attack on the American fleet at Pearl Harbor, where training and technology again combined to bring the Japanese a stunning victory.