Mikasa, the Tsushima Straits victor
Don’t be misled by the “10 minutes walk, 8 if you run a bit” posted signs in Japan.
The Mikasa website says the old museum battleship might be only a 10 minute walk from the National Line Yokosuka-Chuo railway station, but it’s a good 45-minute slog around the dockyard and beachfront from a different station, the Japan Rail Yokosuka terminal, that looks just a little bit further away on a map. Mikasa admission fees are ¥500 for adults and the ship is open 0900 to 1730 (summer) or 1630 (winter). However, unless you have purchased one of those magical Japan Rail Passes before leaving Australia, which permits free travel throughout the Japan Rail network, the rail fare alone from Tokyo could set you back anywhere between ¥900 and ¥2000 for the 73-minute journey.
HIJMS Mikasa was VADM Heihachiro Togo’s flagship during the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese War. She played a decisive role in the virtual annihilation of the Russian Second Pacific Squadron on 27 May 1905 during the Battle of the Tsushima Straits (called the Battle of Japan Sea by many Japanese). Few naval battles had such a profound effect. By crushing the Russian Fleet, an essential prerequisite to victory in the Russo-Japanese War, this “Japanese Trafalgar” demonstrated with an iron fist that Asian nations need no longer kowtow to the whims of the major European powers. This action also probably contributed to dangerous unrest in Russia. Mutinies at Sevastopol, Vladivostok, Kronstadt and in the battleship Potemkin followed not long after the Tsushima news filtered back to Russia. A revolutionary uprising forced the Tsar to renounce his absolutist powers in the October Manifesto of 1905.
Built at Barrow by Vickers in 1900, this enhanced Majestic class ship arrived in Japan in 1902. Displacing 15,140 tons, she was 435 feet (133 metres) long and had a beam of 76 feet (23.2 metres). Her Bellville boilers supplied steam to vertical triple expansion engines that delivered 15,000 hp to two propellers that gave her 18 knots. Her four 12-inch (30.5 cm) guns in two twin turrets threw 850 lb (386 kg shells). Secondary armament included 14 6-inch (15 cm) and 20 three-inch (8 cm) guns, all in single mounts, plus four 18-inch (45.7 cm) torpedo tubes. Her 860 crew were protected by nine-inch (23 cm) and three-inch (7 cm) Krups cemented armour (upgraded from the Harvey nickel steel of her British sister ships). She was one of six similar battleships and eight armoured cruisers ordered by the Japanese navy around 1893-4.
Through a series of raids, artillery shelling of Port Arthur, open sea battles, blockades and mining, the Japanese eliminated all seven battleships and a number of other warships of the Russian Far East Fleet within 12 months of their declaration of war with Russia in February 1904. This created considerable alarm in St Petersburg and as early as April 1904 planning commenced to bolster the Far East Fleet to discipline the upstart Japanese.
Russian VADM Zinovi Rozhdestvenski was appointed to command the best and most modern of the Russian Baltic Fleet ships, which was renamed the Second Pacific Squadron. These included four new Borodino class battleships: Borodino, Imperator Alexander III, Orel and Kniaz Suvorov. Rozhdestvenski was frequently importuned to include older, slower and less seaworthy vessels in his fleet, but he repeatedly declined because he considered that they were low freeboard “self-sinkers” and they would slow down his more capable ships. He reluctantly sailed from Kronstadt on 10 October 1904 in Kniaz Suvorov. He knew the task of delivering his ships safely to Port Arthur was formidable. Apart from the daunting hazards of navigation and weather on passage, he knew that his major ships were inferior in important respects to those of the battle-hardened Japanese fleet that would most likely oppose his passage.
The Russians also lacked training and discipline. For instance, in the very early hours of 22 October they came across a Hull fishing fleet in the North Sea. Wrongly assuming they were Japanese ships bent on torpedo attack, the Second Pacific Squadron responded aggressively, frequently shooting at each other. Despite firing hundreds of rounds, they sank only one trawler and lightly damaged one of their own cruisers.
Discipline was a constant worry. Rozhdestvenski had to put down at least one mutiny with some force before sailing from Madagascar on 16 March 1905. This was associated with the lack of support in the form of naval bases and dockyards during the long voyage around the Cape of Good Hope. He had virtually no practice ammunition and uncertain coal supplies limited his ability to exercise his ships. His warships’ decks were frequently stacked high with spare bags of coal. Rozhdestvenski also had to bring his slow auxiliaries with him, which made his job even more difficult. It was the possibly drunken captain of one of these who raised the false alarm of the “Japanese torpedo boat attack” off the Dogger Banks. The German Hamburg-Amerika Line did contract to deploy 60 colliers along the route to refuel the Russians, but this often required tedious and difficult coaling at sea.
Then there would be little relief when he arrived at Vladivostok. He knew that he faced a protracted war with a modern enemy fleet skilled at blockading and holding the initiative, yet all he had in support were the supplies he brought with him. The reciprocating steam engines of his warships required lots of spares and dockyard-level maintenance, especially after sustained full power operations. He knew the one-track Trans-Siberian railway was already overtaxed supplying the Russian Army in Manchuria.
To add to the Russian commander’s worries, his St Petersburg superiors despatched a second squadron of the very same slow old “self-sinkers” that he declined the year before. Under RADM Nicholi Nebogatov they took the shorter Suez Canal route and caught up with Rozhdestvenski at Cam Ranh Bay, Indochina.
|Battleships and coastal defence ships||Battleships and coastal defence ships|
|Mikasa (Flag)||Knyaz Suvorov (Flag)|
|Fuji||Emperor Alexander III|
|Heavy cruisers||Sysoy Veliky|
|Kasuga||Emperor Nikolas I (RADM Nebogatov)|
|Yakumo||General Admiral Graf Apraxin|
|7 Light Cruisers|
|6 Light Cruisers|
(Some authors list these and other ships in different categories, a task aggravated by transliteration problems.)
Shadowed from 0245
The Japanese auxiliary merchant cruiser Shinano Maru spotted and shadowed the Russians from 0245 on 27 May, south of Tsushima Island. Other scouts closed in, reported by radio and were so effective that in his official report, Togo says, “… though a heavy fog covered the sea, making it impossible to observe anything at a distance of over five miles, all the conditions of the enemy were as clear to us, who were 30 or 40 miles distant, as though they had been under our very eyes. Long before we came in sight of him we knew that his fighting force comprised the Second and Third Baltic Squadrons, that he had seven special service ships with him, that he was marshalled in two columns line ahead, that his strongest vessels were at the head of the right column, that his special service craft followed in the rear, that his speed was about 12 knots, and that he was still advancing to the north-east.”
Togo’s four battleships, two armoured cruisers and six cruisers sortied leisurely from their Pusan, Korea, base at 0615 and closed Rozhdestvenski’s four new and four older battleships, four coast defence ships, six cruisers and 26 other vessels in the narrow Tsushima Straits. “At 1.45 p.m. we sighted the enemy for the first time at a distance of several miles south on our port bow. As had been expected, his right column was headed by four battleships of the Borodino type, his left by the Oslyabya, the Sisoi Veliky, the Navarin, and the Nakhimov … at 1.55 p.m. I ran up this signal for all the ships in sight: ‘The fate of the Empire depends upon this event. Let every man do his utmost,'” Togo records.
The Japanese might have been inferior in both major warship numbers and big guns in the coming fight, but they more than made up for this with superior RN-based seamanship, gunnery and morale.
With a six-knot plus speed advantage Togo ran rings around the Russians, quickly knocking out their flagship Kniaz Suvorov and another battleship in a gunnery duel.
This phase saw the (in)famous “Togo turn”. The fleets were sailing on near opposite courses and Togo reversed his line by turning nearly 180 degrees in succession. All his ships passed one by one through a single geographical position and once its range had been found, Russian guns should have had little difficulty sinking Japanese ships as they passed through it. Beatty spectacularly failed with the same tactic at Jutland. Togo was luckier, or perhaps Russian gunnery was that much inferior.
Togo also reported that he left his 65-odd Japanese destroyers and smaller vessels sheltering inshore initially, because of the rough seas and murky weather, “…I caused the torpedo section which accompanied my own squadron to take refuge in Miura Bay before the day’s fighting commenced. Towards evening the wind lost some of its force, but the sea remained very high, and the state of affairs was very unfavorable for night operations by our torpedo craft. Nevertheless, our destroyer sections and torpedo sections, fearing to lose this unique occasion for combined action, all stood out before sunset, regardless of the state of the weather, and, each vying with the other to take the lead, approached the enemy … From nightfall the enemy made a desperate resistance by the aid of searchlights and the flashing of guns, but the onset overcame him, he lost his formation, and fell into confusion, his vessels scattering in all directions to avoid our onslaught.” About 30 Japanese destroyers fired 74 torpedoes in mass attacks. “The torpedo sections pursuing, a pell-mell contest ensued, in the course of which the battleship Sisoi Veliki and the armored cruisers Admiral Nakhimov and Vladimir Monomakh, three ships at least, were struck by torpedoes, put out of action, and rendered unmanageable,” reported Togo.
After two days of chases and skirmishes, frequently in poor visibility and rough seas, total Russian losses after two days included six battleships and four others sunk. The Japanese captured four ships, including two battleships and the destroyer Biedovy with an unconscious VADM Rozhdestvenski aboard. Others were forced into internment or ran aground trying to escape. The Russians lost about 4545 dead, another 6106 were taken prisoner and 1862 interned. The Japanese lost no major combatant ship. Mikasa was hit 32 times, but reported only eight dead. All told, Japanese losses were 117 men killed, 583 wounded and three torpedo boats sunk. The dead included Prince Hiroyashu Fushimi, a Divisional Officer in Mikasa’s after turret.
The Russian pre-Dreadnought armoured cruiser Aurora was there. She received 18 hits from eight-inch to three-inch shells, reporting 16 killed, including her captain, and 83 wounded. She escaped with two other cruisers to Manila, where they were interned. Aurora returned to Libau in 1906 and she was refitting in St Petersburg, 11 years later, when her crew fired the blank shot towards the Winter Palace that initiated the 25 October 1917 Bolshevik uprising. Aurora is also a museum ship, but she is still floating in the Neva River, whereas Mikasa is set in concrete.
On 11 September 1905, Mikasa experienced a devastating magazine fire and explosion in Sasebo Harbour that led to the loss of 339 of her crew and blew a massive hole in her port quarter. Refloated and repaired by 1908, she continued serving until decommissioned in 1921.
The 1921 Washington Conference spared Mikasa from destruction, permitting her preservation as a memorial ship. After WW II, supported strongly by the Soviet Union, the occupation forces stripped Mikasa‘s armament and she fell into decay. As the Cold War developed, and at the strong personal behest of ADML Chester Nimitz USN, the Japanese Defence Agency assumed responsibility for Mikasa in 1959 and she was restored to her present pristine state by May 1961.
The Japanese credit their fleet’s performance at the Battle of Tsushima Straits as one of the most important in Asia’s history. It was that naval battle, they claim, that established Japan as a modern world power. Mikasa is an important and highly respected reminder of that historic battle.
The Battle of Tsushima Straits: a Russian version
(Downloaded from http://www.neva.ru/EXPO96/book/chap10-4.html). This version offers another perspective to one of the world’s greatest naval battles. Note that Russian Julian calendar dates are used in this section. Julian 14 May was equivalent to the Gregorian 27 May used by Japan and most Western nations)
The fleets converged on the afternoon of 14 May 1905 (see Gregorian calendar note above). The first ship to open fire was VADM Rozhdestvenski’s flag battleship Knyaz Suvorov. Three minutes later, under the flag of VADM Togo, the battleship Mikasa fired back. Rozhdestvenski had reduced his force’s cruising speed to nine knots because he was saddled with slow-moving transports. Togo took full advantage; at 15 knots he overtook the Russians and concentrated his fire on the flagships. During the first forty minutes, the Japanese showered the battleships Knyaz Suvorov and Oslyabya with high-explosive shells, whereupon the Oslyabya sank with its commander, CAPT Vladimir Ber, and the majority of its crew.
VADM Rozhdestvenski was wounded, and his disabled flagship now became the Japanese target. Control of his squadron was disorganized. The commanders of the battleships Emperor Alexander III and Borodino, CAPTs Nikolay Bukhvostov and Pyotr Serebrenikov, tried in vain to screen the damaged flagship and bring the squadron back on course toward Vladivostok. The Alexander, Borodino and then the other battleships came under the lateral fire of the Japanese. However, by 1600 hours VADM Togo had lost sight of the Russian ships in the mist and smoke. The Borodino led the battleships to the battle line, where the cruisers were fighting to protect their transports. Under fire from the main Russian forces, the cruiser Kassagi was badly damaged and rendered unoperational.
Having drawn away from the burning Knyaz Suvorov, the Borodino turned northward. Its senior officer, CMDR Dmitry Makarov, replaced the wounded Serebrenikov and took charge of the battleship. While travelling northwards, the squadron was overtaken by the battleships of VADM Togo. The Emperor Alexander III and Borodino were lost just before dusk in the ensuing battle, and almost simultaneously, the Knyaz Suvorov began sinking after being hit by Japanese torpedoes. CMDR Nikolay Kolomeitsov pulled his destroyer Buyny alongside the crippled battleship to save VADM Rozhdestvenski and part of his staff. The surviving officers of the Knyaz Suvorov, LEUTs Nikolay Bogdanov, Pyotr Vyrubov and Ensign Verner Kursel, refused to abandon ship and thus shared their vessel’s fate.
Late in the evening, aboard the Emperor Nicholas I, RADM Nebogatov took command of the squadron. VADM Togo ceased firing and ordered his destroyers to rush in and attack the Russian ships at close range. Thirty Japanese destroyers launched 74 Whitehead torpedoes. The battleship Sysoy Veliky along with the cruisers Admiral Nakhimov and Vladimir Monomakh, exploded. Three other ships tried to head for Tsushima but were so badly damaged that they were scuttled by their crews on the morning of 15 May. The Navarin was blown up by floating mines and sank as well.
By nightfall the squadron was badly scattered, with many of the damaged ships left behind to reach Vladivostok on their own. RADM Enkwist with the cruisers Oleg, Aurora and Zhemchug eventually reached Manila. Under CMDR Vasily Ferzen, the fast cruiser Izumrud broke out of the encirclement of Japanese ships. Sailing along the coast, however, the ship was wrecked on reefs and scuttled by its crew. Only three very badly damaged ships, the cruiser-yacht Almaz and the destroyers Bravy and Grozny, reached Vladivostok without assistance. VADM Rozhdestvenski and his staff were transferred from the destroyer Buyny, which was experiencing engine trouble, to the Biedovy, which was then captured by the Japanese on 15 May.
Under the command of CAPT Iosif Matusevich, the crew of the destroyer Bezuprechny, engaged for over two hours in a battle with a Japanese cruiser and destroyer; the Russian ship was then lost with all aboard. For more than an hour and a half, under CAPT Sergey Shein, the damaged cruiser Svetlana fought several Japanese cruisers. Having fired all their shells, the sailors of the Svetlana opened the ship’s Kingston valves.
When the Japanese ordered the Admiral Ushakov, the single remaining Russian battleship of the squadron, to surrender, CAPT Vladimir Miklukha commanded his crew to answer the Japanese with the sound of Russian guns. Within an hour, the Admiral Ushakov sank under St Andrew’s ensign. In the battle with two Japanese destroyers, the destroyer Gromky, under CMDR Georgy Kern, sank with her colours flying. The last ship to break off the fight was a veteran of the Navy, the cruiser Dmitry Donskoi. On the evening of 15 May, her crew withstood a fierce battle against six Japanese cruisers. On the morning of 16 May the badly damaged ship was scuttled, following the orders of the senior officer, CMDR Konstantin Blokhin, who had replaced the mortally wounded CAPT Ivan Lebedev.
Following the Tsushima calamity, the Russian casualty tally was different from the Japanese, but they acknowledged 5,045 Russian sailors killed and 6,106 taken prisoner. They claim victory cost the Japanese three destroyers as well as 699 officers and sailors. After the battle of 14-15 May, the government of Nicholas II agreed to peace negotiations. According to the Portsmouth Treaty of 23 August 1905, Japan was given the Kwantung Peninsula along with Port Arthur and the southern part of Sakhalin Island up to the 50th parallel.
With some justification, many Japanese hail this remarkable victory as important to the world as Trafalgar, 100 years earlier. They correctly claim that this was the first time an Asian nation had confronted and thoroughly defeated a major European naval power, albeit with mainly British-built ships and Royal Navy training.
The Russian VADM Zinovi Petrovich Rozhdestvenski faced criticism because he failed to guard against the Japanese battle fleet and he failed to communicate any real plan of action should his fleet meet up with those ships. There was also his decision to choose the more direct Tsushima Straits route instead of a longer but perhaps less risky passage via either La Perouse or Tsugaru.
He is accused of having some unfounded fatalistic hope that he might sneak through Tsushima Straits in poor visibility in a two-column formation that only made sense if he expected opposition from small destroyers and torpedo boats. Why? One very good reason was that he had been told by his scouts some days before that they had sighted the main Japanese battle fleet off Formosa and that it was well behind him. Instead it was sheltering comfortably in a port within a few miles of his Tsushima Straits track.
Additionally, in his defence, it should be noted that his 18,000-mile voyage from the Baltic was the longest ever for a steam-driven fleet of that size. For this, he had to devise new procedures for both refuelling at sea and self-maintenance. He also knew that his primary destination, Port Arthur, had surrendered to the Japanese while he was at sea and he had to divert to the more northern port of Vladivostok. Having reached Vladivostok, it was not at all clear what he could do there. He had very limited supplies, little or no chance of re-supply and he knew that an efficient Japanese fleet blockaded the harbour.
One disgraceful incident during his epic voyage occurred in the North Sea when his ships wrongly identified a British fishing fleet as a Japanese torpedo boat formation. In the ensuing night action many Russian ships fired on each other. Fortunately, very few shells actually hit home and even fewer exploded. They sank only one British trawler. Unfortunately, this poor gunnery performance was not corrected during the long voyage.
Linked with political unrest at home in Russia, some of his crews were defiant. He had to put down at least one mutiny in Madagascar.
Rozhdestvenski, never optimistic about success, is reported to have become more sullen and withdrawn during the long voyage. He is also reported to have displayed fits of uncontrollable rage. His job was not aided by a demonstrated lack of support from his StPetersburg superiors and their second-guessing him. They despatched a second fleet of what Rozhdestvenski called “self sinkers”. These were low-freeboard slow coastal defence ships that would slow his battle group and perform poorly in the rough waters of the open Pacific Ocean. He had refused their participation initially but the Russian high command were determined to teach these Japanese a lesson for destroying their Pacific Fleet in 1904. They thought these old ships would help Rozhdestvenski. What they arrogantly failed to consider was that these old coastal defence ships were just cannon fodder for the more modern Japanese battleships and armed cruisers.
Finally, it should be noted that Rozhdestvenski himself was an early Tsushima casualty. He was knocked unconscious by an early shell and suffered a serious head wound that incapacitated him for the rest of the battle. The captain of the destroyer to which he was ultimately evacuated said that he surrendered primarily to seek medical aid for the unconscious admiral.
During the initial battle, the two opposing lines of battleships stabilised at about 6,200 yards and exchanged fire. The Russians had not improved their gunnery since the Dogger Bank debacle. On the other hand, the battle-hardened Japanese kept in constant practice, with sub-calibre shoots. They hit their targets more often and their “shimose” (melenite) filling reliably exploded on contact. The Russians employed armour-piercing rounds that rarely hit and even more rarely caused significant damage.
Togo sank four Russian battleships during the first day, at the cost of some comparatively minor damage to his fleet. Later that evening, massed attacks by torpedo boats and destroyers settled the fate of two more Russian battleships and two armoured cruisers. The next day, four Russian battleships surrendered and they scuttled another.
Most of the rest of the Russian fleet was picked off one by one. A handful of small ships, including three cruisers, escaped into internment. Only two destroyers and the fast armed yacht Almaz (classified as a second class cruiser) reached Vladivostock.
It is clear that Rozhdestvenski was poorly served by his superiors in that he was set a virtually impossible task with the wrong weapons. However, he failed to exercise his fleet in the essential arts of naval warfare during the long transit voyage and he failed to communicate his plans for action with a Japanese battle fleet. For this he must accept some blame.
Busch, Noel F. The Emperor’s Sword: Japan vs. Russia in the Battle of Tsushima. New York: Funk & Wagnall’s, 1969.
Hough, Richard A. The fleet that had to die. New York. Ballentine Paperbacks. 1957 republished 2001.
Pleshakov, Constantine. The Tsar’s last Armada: The epic voyage to the Battle of Tsushima. Basic Books: New York 2002.