"Weather today fine but high waves" - Tōgō Heihachirō and the Battle of Tsushima

28 May 1905, halfway between the Korean mainland and Japan during the Russo-Japanese War, the two-day Battle of Tsushima ended with the Japanese fleet rounding up most of the surviving Russian cruisers and torpedo boats and Admiral Tōgō Heihachirō accepting the surrender of what remained of the Russian Second Pacific Squadron.

“I am firmly convinced that I am the reincarnation of Horatio Nelson.“ (Tōgō Heihachirō)

The Battle of Tsushima, reimagined in a contemporary traditional ukiyo-e print triptych by Toshihide Migita (1862 -1925)

The Great Game played by Russia and Great Britain for supremacy in Central Asia had reached a stalemate during the 1880s. Imperial Russia was still lagging behind, though, in some fundamental 19th century world power disciplines, like industrialisation, for instance, and in desperate need for politically dependent foreign markets to sell the only just produced industrial goods to benighted natives and exploit the places for raw materials. The basic economic game of colonialism. Just warming up, with manufacturing facilities bought on tick and, at least as important, the railway that would connect Siberia and the Far East with the Russian heartland financed with foreign capital as well, the need for Imperialistic success became desperate by the end of the century. And with the idea of wrestling the control of India from the British becoming increasingly unrealistic, crumbling China and her feudal vassals like Manchuria and Korea got into the imperial focus of the Tsars. The strategic advantage of being able to deploy troops comparatively easy in Manchuria via the brand new Trans-Siberian Railway, helped Russia to secure the lion’s share from the reparations wrestled from the Chinese after the Boxer Rebellion was put down in 1901. Unfortunately for the Tsar, there was another Imperialist newcomer to the Far Eastern theatre, coveting the same territories as the Russians did: Japan. Thrown in at the deep end of Industrialisation since the 1850s, the Japanese had, just two generations later, managed to come out on par with the West, in terms of technology, a state-of-the art army and navy and an appetite for imperialistic expansion. Not that the western powers fully acknowledged Japan’s new role as the dominant power in the Far East, even if the imperial Japanese army had, to everyone’s surprise, basically wiped the floor with the semi-modernised Chinese troops deployed in the First Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95 and wrestled Korea from the Manchus in a lighting campaign. It was only due to Russian diplomatic efforts that Japan wasn’t allowed to annex larger parts of the Chinese mainland as well and Russia played the part of being China’s protective power over the next ten years. The price for that was another old strategic Russian dream, that of an all-year ice-free major port, this time on the shores of the Pacific Ocean. Vladivostok, founded in 1860, did only partly meet this requirement. The next best thing was Port Arthur, located on the Liaodong Peninsula 500 miles southwest of Vladivostok, already expanded into a veritable fortress and naval base by the Chinese with the help of German engineers from Krupp’s, captured by Japan during the war, returned and then leased to Russia in 1897. Immediately, the Russians began to expand the fortifications, connect the place to the railway lines and base their Pacific Fleet there, securing their base of power in the Manchurian hinterland and exercising pressure on neighbouring, nominally independent Korea. Japan protested, the Tsar ignored it, sabre-rattling, and on 8 February 1904, the Japanese retaliated with a surprise attack on Port Arthur. The Russo-Japanese War had begun.

Getsuzô's contemporary ukiyo-e print take on Tōgō's torpedo boats harassing the Russian "First Pacific Squadron" off Port Arthur (1904)

Like many of the first and second generation of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s officer corps, the 56-years old Commander-in-Chief of the Tenno’s Combined Fleet deployed on the coast of the mainland, Admiral Tōgō Heihachirō had received a thorough training from the Royal Navy. In fact, “Johnny Chinaman”, as his classmates on the training ship HMS “Worcester” nicknamed him much to his dismay, graduated as second-best student of his year and had made a name for himself already in Japan’s various conflicts of the 1880s and ‘90s. Now, with a couple of brilliant manoeuvres, Tōgō wiped out the Russian Far East Squadron, while the Japanese Army put Port Arthur under siege and advanced deep into Manchuria. To get at the undisturbed Japanese supply lines and do anything to stop the Japanese advance, Tsar Nicholas II found himself forced to move his Baltic Fleet into the Pacific. On the other side of the world, a journey of 18,000 miles. The so-called “Second Pacific Squadron” under Admiral Zinovy Rozhestvensky left Kronstadt in October 1904 with 11 battleships, 6 cruisers, 9 destroyers and a convoy of transports. His four new “Borodino”-class units made the core of Rozhestvensky’s fleet as up-to-date models, the rest of his battleships were already hopelessly outdated in the 19th and 20th century’s arms race of constructing bigger, better armoured, faster and more heavily armed vessels and commission them every five years or so, at the latest. Thus, the rag-tag “Second Pacific Squadron” had to adapt its cruising speed to that of the oldest warhorse and slowest transport in the fleet and steamed along at an average of 10 knots. Not that bad. For speeds achieved during the Age of Sail. And when the Russians mistook British fishing vessels in the North Sea for Japanese torpedo boats and sunk a few of them for good measure, they caused a major diplomatic incident, had the passage through the Suez Canal slammed into their faces and were forced to sail around Africa with no supply bases until Port Arthur. Unfortunately, the place surrendered to the Japanese on 2 January while Rozhestvensky was somewhere off Madagascar and it was now Vladivostok or bust. The latter alternative was not far-fetched at all, when the Russians, with morale at an all-time low and ships in a rather desolate state after half a year at sea with no maintenance to speak of, steamed into the Yellow Sea towards the Tsushima Strait.

Tōjō Shōtarō (1865-1929): “Admiral Tōgō Heihachirō on the bridge of the Battleship Mikasa”, with the "Z" signal flying on the upper left

When sighting Tōgō’s squadron of state-of-the-art battleships and cruisers in the Eastern channel of the strait between Korea and southern Japan, Rozhestvensky gave a signal of more or less “every man for himself”, ordering the ships of his squadron to break through at their individual maximum speed. Flying the “Z”-signal on his flagship “Mikasa” with the prearranged meaning of “The fate of the Empire rests on the outcome of this battle. Let each man do his utmost", quite like Nelson, Tōgō made his move. As the only man alive at that point with experience in handling a squadron of ironclads in a fight, he had his faster ships forming a battle line on a perpendicular course, bringing their entire main artillery to bear while the Russians could only return fire with their forward facing guns. Admittedly, the “Mikasa” in the lead had to take the brunt of Russian fire and was heavily damaged, but Tōgō’s manoeuvre, though, known as “Crossing the T”, became an ideal for naval warfare for the next 50 years, from the Battle of Jutland in 1916 to Surigato Strait in 1944 in the vicinity, where it was used for the last time. Rozhestvensky’s capital ships were shot to pieces. He himself, seriously wounded, was forced to transfer to a torpedo boat when his flagship sank. As dawn rose over the Tsushima Strait on the next day of the battle, Tōgō’s destroyers and torpedo boats began to round up what was left of the “Second Pacific Squadron”. Rozhestvensky’s second-in-command Admiral Nebogatov had the decency to surrender to spare the lives of his crews, knowing full well that he would in all probability get shot when he returned back home. It was the last time in naval history that a battle fleet surrendered on the high seas like in the days of Nelson, a hundred years before. With his navy at the bottom of the Strait of Korea and another crushing defeat on land at Mukden, the war was over for Tsar Nicolas II. He had to acknowledge Japanese supremacy in Korea, Manchuria and lost half of Sakhalin, another nail in the coffin of his regime. Japan, developing from a feudal state to a modern industrial naval and colonial power within half a century was irrevocably positioned as a force to be reckoned with. Nebogatov was not shot in the aftermath. Sentenced to ten years prison, he got off two years later, after the famous “Potemkin” mutiny and the Russian Revolution of 1905, triggered not in the least by the crushing defeat at Tsushima and the lost Russo-Japanese War. Tōgō Heihachirō was dubbed the “Nelson of the East” after the Battle of Tsushima, certainly the most significant and momentous event in naval history since Trafalgar.

Tōgō's "Mikasa" in 1905, listing to port after the damage received in the Battle of Tsushima* 

* Togo's flagship at Tsushima, the "Mikasa" is moored as a museum ship in Yokosuka since 1925, one of the few Russian survivors, the protected cruiser "Aurora", fired the her forward guns to signal the storm on the Winter Palace in St Petersburg, the last episode of the October Revolution twelve years later. She is a museum ship today as well.

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