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The Pitiful Russian Fleet: Debacle on the High Seas

By Edited Nov 13, 2013 2 0

Russo-Japanese War

There are few tales more ridiculous than that of the Russian Grand Fleet’s disastrous 1905 expedition from the Baltic Sea to its destruction by the Japanese at Tsushima Bay, during the course of the Russo-Japanese War. To begin with, it is indisputable that the Russian fleet under Admiral Rozhdestvenski was poorly prepared, having the dual misfortune of being manned by hopeless crews and being provided with second-rate equipment. What is more shocking is the crews’ complete lack of geographical knowledge, an ignorance demonstrated not in Japanese waters but rather in those of the Dogger Bank, in the North Sea.

Despite the fact that the Russian fleet was cruising through the North Sea, on the other side of the world from Japan and dominated by the United Kingdom’s Royal Navy, the world’s most powerful naval force, the fleet commanders were nervous about the possibility of Japanese motor boat attacks. On the morning of 22 April, just after midnight, alarm bells sounded: the fleet was under attack. Searchlights scanned the dark seas for signs of enemy vessels and the quiet night was shattered as the battleships' big guns started firing.

Russo-Japanese War map

The panic was reciprocated on the Hull (a coastal city in England) based fishing fleet trawling the Dogger Bank, which suddenly found itself under vicious attack. The trawler Crane was particularly badly hit, with two of its crew killed and more wounded. Illuminated by the Russian searchlights, crewmen stood on the decks of their vessels frantically waving fish to show that they posed no threat.

At this point the fishing fleet was saved from total annihilation by another incredible error. The Russian cruiser squadron, which was supposed to be sailing 50 miles away, had seen the firing and decided to respond, shelling its own battleships. An immense firefight broke out between the two elements of the fleet, with two carriers engaging seven friendly battleships.

The Russian ships were themselves only saved by their crews’ stunning incompetence at gunnery. Despite firing 500 shells the battleship Oryol didn’t record a single hit. Some of the crew of the Borodino put on lifejackets and threw themselves into the sea despite the fact that their ship had not been hit once. When the mistake was finally realised the fleet steamed off, abandoning the fishing fleet. Even afterwards some of the Russian commanders still believed, insanely, that they had sunk a Japanese strike force.

Royal Navy

Unsurprisingly the news caused mass outrage in the United Kingdom. The British government responded by assigning a large Royal Navy task force to shadow the bumbling Russian fleet through the Bay of Biscay and out of British territorial waters.

After a series of further misadventures the Russian fleet did finally arrive off the Japanese coast and was eviscerated at the aforementioned Battle of Tsushima Bay, losing all of its battleships as well as the vast majority of its cruisers and destroyers. With this humiliating defeat came the end of the Russo-Japanese War; a victorious Japan became the first non-European nation to win a war against a European nation in the modern era.   



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