The outcome of a battle can have implications beyond the confrontation between the contenders and even beyond the war itself. Sometimes, it resonates on the international stage, triggering events and behaviors that might never have occurred otherwise. A good example of this is the naval combat at Tsushima, formerly known as the Battle of the Sea of Japan (the title of an interesting 1969 movie on the subject), which took place in 1905.

No one will overlook the significance of that date. Not because Norway gained independence from Sweden, but primarily because it was the year of the first Russian Revolution—a series of riots, protests, and strikes that forced the czar to grant a Duma (parliament) and partially limit his power by enacting a constitution and legalizing political parties. A challenging context for a country at that time embroiled in a war against Japan, the outcome of which influenced the resolution of the situation.

In reality, the Russo-Japanese War had started the previous year due to the territorial ambitions of both nations in Manchuria and Korea. For the Russians, having a strategically vital port on their east coast with non-freezing waters in winter, unlike Vladivostok, was crucial. They found it in Port Arthur, which the Japanese had been forced to relinquish under international pressure, despite the Shimonoseki Treaty granting them possession for their victory in the war against China, as it was located on the Liaodong Peninsula.

This obligation was an offense to the Japanese, exacerbated by the fact that, after suppressing the Boxer Rebellion, the Russians did not withdraw their troops from Manchuria and began building a railway with clear signs of colonization. The two years of subsequent negotiations were futile, and Tokyo decided to resort to arms.

On the night of February 8, 1904, a fleet attacked Port Arthur, surprising the Russian navy in port, and besieged the city until capturing it almost a year later. The defenders, lost after the death of their most capable leader, Admiral Stepan Makarov (whose ship hit a mine), were unable to offer effective resistance.

In the meantime, several naval battles took place where the Japanese navy prevailed, demonstrating its formidable strength. However, on land, the Russians experienced successive defeats at the Yalu River, Nanshan, Te-li-ssu, Liaoyang, Sha-ho River, Sandepu, and Mukden (although inflicting significant casualties on the enemy). Part of this trend was due to the Russians’ dependence on the navy, which was unable to fulfill its mission, and the mutinies within its units due to the revolution did not help address the situation.

Port Arthur (in red), located at the tip of China's Liadong Peninsula
Port Arthur (in red), located at the tip of China’s Liadong Peninsula/Image: Uwe Dedering on Wikimedia Commons

In fact, on August 9, 1904, the 1st Pacific Squadron under Admiral Wilgelm Vitgeft, combined with the one anchored in Vladivostok, clashed with Tōgō Heihachirō in the Battle of the Yellow Sea. They suffered no losses, except for Vitgeft himself, who died aboard his battleship, the Tsesarevich, when the bridge was hit. However, they incurred significant material and psychological damage, prompting them to seek refuge in Port Arthur, foreshadowing what would happen in May of the following year. Because that confrontation left the Japanese in control of the sea, the Russian General Staff was forced to form a new squadron with ships from the Baltic and Black Sea fleets.

The problem was the distance. The so-called 2nd Pacific Squadron, under the command of Vice Admiral Zinovi Rozhdestvensky (a staunch advocate of battleships), had to make a long voyage of thirty-three thousand kilometers.

The first group crossed the North Sea and the English Channel (before entering Dogger Bank in a state of absolute paranoia, they mistakenly killed several British fishermen whom they thought were Japanese torpedo boats), and then sailed down the Atlantic (where they accidentally cut the telephone cable connecting Tangier to Europe). They then accidentally bombarded fishing vessels from other countries.

Vice Admiral Zinovi Petrovich Rozhestvenski
Vice Admiral Zinovi Petrovich Rozhestvenski/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

The second group traversed the Mediterranean through the Bosporus and the Strait of Gibraltar in the same direction as the first. Both separately rounded the Cape of Good Hope and arrived in Madagascar, the meeting point for all their units. Among them, additional units led by Admiral Nebogatov were sent, whom a distressed Rozhdestvensky described as an archaeological collection of naval architecture.

Naturally, the journey took so long that Tōgō could afford to return to Japan to resupply, prepare his ships, and train his crews calmly. Thus, the 11 battleships, 8 cruisers, 9 destroyers, and several minor Russian units were not only outnumbered but also materially disadvantaged, with dirty hulls (slowing their speed) and crews as poorly trained as they were demoralized by the revolutionary influence.

In contrast, the Japanese presented 4 battleships, 27 cruisers, 21 destroyers, and 37 torpedo boats, in addition to auxiliary units, with gunners who had been practicing for those eight months.

Given the perspective of time, dark clouds seemed to gather over the 2nd Pacific Squadron. Their aim at the defenseless British fishermen was poor, but the deaths caused almost led London to enter the war on Japan’s side. It was only avoided by French mediation, interested in forming a triple alliance with Russia against Germany, but the Russians were prohibited from using the Suez Canal, so they had to circumnavigate Africa. This incurred a huge coal expense, with corresponding difficulties for refueling, as they could not do so in neutral ports, and they had to hire a German company.

When they finally arrived in the hot zone, Port Arthur had already fallen into Japanese hands, so Rozhdestvensky set course for Vladivostok through the Tsushima Strait, the shortest route (between the Japanese island of Kyushu and the Korean Peninsula), as the other routes required circumventing the Japanese archipelago.

But Tōgō was waiting and watching; he was a veteran who, in addition, had an extra advantage: being the only active admiral in the world with combat experience in battleships (Oskar Viktorovich Stark also had experience but was dismissed after his defeat in Port Arthur; Makarov and Vitgeft had fallen in battle; the American Sampson died in 1902, while his compatriot Scott Schley was retired).

The Japanese fleet sailing to meet the Russian fleet/ Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

In fact, battleships were the exclusive protagonists of a battle for the first time; in previous occasions, such as the Spanish–American War, they had fought with cruisers or armored cruisers. It was also revealed that having large-caliber guns was more important than the mixed batteries used until then. This battle also saw the pioneering use of wireless telegraphy in combat. However, although all the contenders incorporated this technology, the Japanese ships were more modern and, as mentioned earlier, better maintained.

Moreover, some Russian units were obsolete; except for the four cruisers of the Borodino class, the rest left much to be desired. Their radios were of German manufacture—Telefunken, to be precise—and caused usage problems for the crews (the Japanese had developed their system because the Marconi used by the Royal Navy seemed too expensive). Their torpedoes also failed frequently. Additionally, their speed was lower due to a lack of time to clean the hulls. Then there was the range of their rangefinders, which did not exceed 3,700 meters, compared to the Japanese’s 5,500. Naturally, Tōgō would try to keep his distance.

Despite the fog and the nighttime darkness, the squadron was discovered by the auxiliary cruiser Shinano Maru on the night of May 26 because the hospital ship Orel was sailing with its lights on (as required by international law, incidentally). The radio proved its effectiveness in locating the enemy despite zero visibility, and, duly informed, Admiral Tōgō hastened to intercept. He was aboard the battleship Mikasa, with which he led one of the four divisions into which he structured the quarantine of the squadron’s ships (among whose junior officers was Isoroku Yamamoto, the future victor at Pearl Harbor, who, incidentally, would be injured). Tōgō raised the Z flag and delivered a speech reminiscent of Nelson’s at Trafalgar:

The fate of the empire depends on the outcome of this battle; let every man fulfill his supreme duty

It was 2:45 when he crossed in front of the Russian line, firing his cannons; the others could only respond with the forward guns, thus putting themselves at a disadvantage. In a tactical display and taking advantage of their greater speed, the Japanese launched a sequential attack forming a U, ensuring that the enemy was under continuous bombardment.

However, it wasn’t just the sustained firepower punishing the 2nd Pacific Squadron, but also the precision of the Japanese gunners, who demonstrated the splendid result of those months of training, even though the average battle distance was 6,200 meters.

Since the armor of the ships reduced the effectiveness of the impacts, the Japanese added an explosive called shimose to their projectiles, composed of picric acid. They took advantage of the fact that materials in the superstructure of enemy ships (paint, coal, etc.) were flammable, managing to set several ships on fire. The Russian ships of the Suvorov class had a design flaw; an excess of weight caused more than half a meter of armor to be submerged, rendering the lower secondary armament unusable. This also caused instability.

This did not prevent it from responding to enemy fire, of course, although with obvious limitations. Both sides suffered, and the Mikasa, for example, was hit 15 times in a few minutes and then 15 more times, although it managed to survive and is now the only pre-Dreadnought battleship preserved (it is in the Yokosuka naval base). Nothing compared to the cascade of cannon fire that fell on the Russians, who, facilitated by the mentioned maneuverability of the Japanese, decided the confrontation.

In less than two hours, the first Russian battleship, the Oslyabya, sank, the first time that a modern armored ship sank solely from gunfire. Later, a precise hit blew up the Borodino. Later still, shrapnel hit Vice Admiral Rozhdestvensky in the head, and he had to be replaced in command by Rear Admiral Nebogatov.

But by nightfall, two more battleships had already been lost, the Knyaz Suvorov and the Imperator Aleksandr III. Then, Tōgō brought destroyers and torpedo boats into action, enveloping the enemy; the chaos was so great that some ships even collided, but the Russian formation broke, and its units scattered.

One after another, they fell: an old cruiser, Navarin, was stopped by a mine, allowing its pursuers to catch up and sink it at 23:00; only three of its 622 crew members survived. The battleship Sissoi Veliky, hit by a torpedo, sank the next day, and two more old cruisers, the Admiral Nakhimov and the Vladimir Monomakh, had to be abandoned. In the morning, Nebogatov surrendered the six ships left in his division, something that was not easy because there was no Japanese code for the word “surrender”, and the time it took them to understand continued shooting.

The cruiser Izumrud managed to escape, although it eventually ran aground on the Siberian coast, while an armed yacht and two destroyers took refuge in Vladivostok. In that sense, it is worth mentioning, as an anecdote, that three more ships managed to escape to Manila; one of them was the Aurora, famous because in 1917 it would bombard the Winter Palace during the Bolshevik Revolution.

In short, Russia lost two-thirds of the 2nd Pacific Squadron: 11 battleships, 8 cruisers, 6 destroyers, and 8 auxiliaries, with 4,380 dead and 5,917 prisoners; meanwhile, the Japanese fleet only recorded three minor losses, torpedo boats, with 117 dead and 500 wounded.

Rozhestvensky was admitted to a Japanese hospital, and there Tōgō, now a national hero, visited him, saying kindly: Defeat is a common fate of the soldier. There is nothing to be ashamed of in it. The key point is whether we have fulfilled our supreme duty.

When he returned to his country, the Russian admiral faced a court-martial, and the death penalty was sought for him, although the czar pardoned him because he had been wounded and was not responsible for the surrender. Nebogatov spent several years in prison before being pardoned as well.

The Treaty of Portsmouth, signed at the behest of President Theodore Roosevelt, ended the war. Russia had to acknowledge Japan’s preeminence in Korea and cede the Liaodong Peninsula (renouncing Port Arthur), as well as part of the island of Sakhalin; it also lost the Manchurian railway since it was agreed to return Manchuria to China. Strangely, Japan’s demand for compensation was not satisfied, so the costs of the conflict brought its Navy to the brink of collapse.

As can be deduced, the defeat was a catastrophe for the Russians in general and for the discredited czarist regime in particular, laying the foundations for its subsequent fall. For the moment, popular strikes increased, and in October, the famous Potemkin mutiny occurred.

The poor image left by its armed forces was one of the factors that encouraged the German Empire to go to war in 1914, just as Japan became emboldened to develop a militaristic and expansionist regime in the following years. After all, it was the first time an Asian country had prevailed over a European one and risen to the sixth position as a naval power.

Militarily, the Japanese victory made as much of an impression as the American victory over the Spanish seven years earlier, and it was said that the Battle of Tsushima was the largest and most important naval event since Trafalgar. Hence, both Britain and Germany prioritized the construction of battleships, equipping them with great speed and arming them with single-caliber guns (the Dreadnought class). Following the example of 1905, it was considered that they would be crucial in deciding conflicts, but the Battle of Jutland at the beginning of World War II showed that this would not be the case.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on December 26, 2018. Puedes leer la versión en español en Tsushima, la batalla naval «más grande e importante desde Trafalgar»


Constantine Pleshakov, The Tsar’s Last Armada: The Epic Journey to the Battle of Tsushima | Mark Lardas, Tsushima 1905: Death of a Russian Fleet | Geoffrey Regan, Historia de la incompetencia militar | Víctor San Juan Sánchez, Breve historia de las batallas navales de los acorazados | Rotem Kowner, The A to Z of the Russo-Japanese War | Wikipedia

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