This is part of a series about the Russo-Japanese War.
On February 6, 1904, a Japanese squadron sailed from its base at Sasebo on the southwest coast, near Nagasaki. They were to make a surprise attack on the Russian fleet at Port Arthur. The orders from Admiral Togo Heihachiro said only to follow the flagship, but the ships’ officers knew very well what was afoot.
Commander Tikowara Hesibo, aboard the “Akusuki,” wrote in his diary: “That which Europeans call ‘fear of death’ is not known here, but I know something about it from having read of it in their books, and my uncle Kato has told me about it. It seems to me to be simply folly, caused by their stupid religion.”*
At about the same time, Captain Vladimir Semenov was making his way eastward on the Trans-Siberian Railway. He had an appointment as second-in-command on the cruiser “Boyarin.” Like most members of the Tsar’s army and navy, he would not reach the port in time for the battle that started the Russo-Japanese War. He left St. Petersburg January 29, and by the time his train reached Lake Baikal, all regular civilian passengers had detrained, leaving military personnel and a motley crew of commercial travelers who hoped to profit one way or another in the event of war.
The Circum-Baikal section of the Trans-Siberian was not yet complete. Two icebreaker ferries had been built, but they could not cut through the thick ice of midwinter 1903-1904, so the train crossed the giant frozen lake on a sledge pulled along rails by teams of draft animals. For better comfort, Semenov hired a fast troika and offered his driver a drink at the tavern located midway across the ice if he kept up a good pace. They passed a detachment of soldiers making the 28-mile journey across the lake on foot. The temperature was minus five degrees Fahrenheit.
As the long journey continued, Semenov engaged in a lively discussion with a colonel on the train as to the likelihood of war. The colonel said, “They will never dare! Never!” Semenov replied, “Well, I maintain that they have been preparing for this war for ten years. Now they are ready and we are not.”** The colonel replied that he would stake a hamper of champagne that there would be no war, and the two shook hands on it.
That very night, February 9, they had interesting news when they stopped at a station in Manchuria: all Eastern District troops were to be mobilized. In two more station stops, they had learned the essential facts. Japan had made a naval attack, and civilian residents of Port Arthur were fleeing the area. Two outbound trains were crammed with refugees who’d grabbed up any belongings of value. “Numerous Chinese were doing a roaring trade at the carriages with old fur jackets, cheap teakettles, and suspicious-looking provisions,” Semenov wrote. “In payment they took alike money, rings, bracelets, and brooches.”
By the time Semenov arrived at Port Arthur, he had the main outlines of events. In the pre-dawn hours of February 9, the Japanese had torpedoed the Russian fleet, doing extensive damage to three major battleships: the “Tsarevich,” “Retvizan,” and “Pallada.” Other smaller vessels had been damaged, engagements had continued between the two sides, and—most humiliating of all—two days after the initial attack, the minelayer “Yenesei” had struck one of its own mines, sinking with a loss of 120 men as well as taking to the bottom the only map showing the devices’ locations. The “Boyarin” also struck one of the imperial navy’s own mines and was abandoned, sinking when it struck a second mine. The “Boyarin”—that was Semenov’s own vessel.
The Japanese had experienced their share of mishaps. Two of their destroyers had collided with each other as they approached the harbor, and the rest of the squadron had fallen out of formation. Torpedo nets extended on retractable beams from the sides of the Russian vessels did much to protect them. Nevertheless, Commander Tikowara on the “Akusuki” won great success with two of the enemy vessels. First he had his torpedo man fire at the “Pallada.” The yellow cigar, as the Japanese called it, hit abaft of the bridge, causing a tremendous explosion—it had landed in the boiler room.
But that was not enough for Tikowara. Above all, he wanted to damage the “Tsarevich,” one of Russia’s best battleships. Approaching it, he saw that its stern was unprotected; immediately he ordered the torpedo man to get off a shot. “My torpedo had accomplished its mission; a violent commotion of the sea, a loud explosion and high column of water, convinced me that the attack had been successful.” Projectiles rained down on his deck, but missed the bridge: “Evidently the Russians are so stupid that they do not understand the theory of raising and lowering their sights.” The most serious damage was done to the bows at the waterline, which caused the “Akusuki” to tilt upward in the water. Tikowara solved this problem by filling the after compartment with water, which caused the whole boat to ride lower but in a stabilized position.
The Japanese had failed to achieve the overwhelming victory they’d hoped for in a night attack against an unprepared enemy. Only three out of 16 torpedoes hit their mark. But those three “cigars” had put key battleships out of commission for weeks. The Japanese could repair damages to their own vessels at Sasebo relatively quickly, while the Port Arthur docks had limited repair capacity.
On the morning of February 9, Vice Admiral Dewa Shigeto took four cruisers toward the port to assess the condition of the Russian fleet. From a distance of four or five miles, he observed that some of the vessels were listing or aground. Seeing no obvious signs of activity, he reported to Admiral Togo that the Russians had failed to recover. Therefore, he assured Togo, it was the ideal moment to attack.
Togo ordered his First Division into the harbor, where his ships began hammering the shore batteries with their larger guns and using their 8″ and 6″ guns against the Russian vessels. But Vice-Admiral Dewa had been mistaken. The Russians had pulled themselves together, gotten up a head of steam on the ships—and they promptly responded by pounding the Japanese vessels from shore and from sea. Within 20 minutes, four Japanese and seven Russian ships received heavy damage. Under persistent fire from the shore batteries, Togo’s division was in danger of entrapment. They turned about and fled.
The Russians had succeeded in driving away the Japanese fleet, but at a cost of 150 casualties compared to 90 for the Japanese. Both sides made serious errors. But Admiral Togo was a far more resourceful and skilled commander than Russia’s hapless Admiral Oskar Viktorovich Stark.
Disarray in Russian naval command
When Captain Semenov at last arrived in Port Arthur February 13, he urgently needed to find out about his ship. That terrible news he’d heard—that it had struck one of their own mines—was it really true? Could the ship be salvaged? He hurried to the naval offices of the Viceroy of the Far East, Yevgeni Alekseev, the man from the shady Bezobrazov Clique whose appointment had caused ripples in Japanese diplomatic circles. There Semenov found Rear-Admiral Vitgeft, with whom he was certainly well acquainted—the man had been his captain for three years. Vityeft received him warmly and said, “There are still hopes of saving the ‘Boyarin’.” But then he grew awkward, abruptly shifting papers on his desk as if too busy to answer questions. Semenov looked in on other officers of the viceroy’s staff and met with the same pantomime. They clapped him on the back, offered him a place to stay, but then became suddenly occupied with official duties, unable to discuss recent events.
Finally Semenov tracked down Admiral Stark aboard the flagship “Petropavlovsk.” The admiral looked at him with a deadened, preoccupied gaze. “Yes, yes,” he told Semenov, “there is still hope. Yesterday we sent the captain and seventy men to look for the ‘Boyarin’. Perhaps—well, tomorrow you might follow with the rest.”
Admiral Stark had excellent reasons to look so unhappy. On the night of the Japanese torpedo attack, he’d been presiding over a birthday party attended by many of the top officers. The birthday being celebrated was his wife’s, and as the roar of battle started up shortly after midnight, the confused, drunken guests had thought the cannonade was part of the celebration.
The town now buzzed with gossip about the incompetence of Stark, who knew all too well that any obvious attempts to justify his inaction would only hurt him. Instead, he allowed a few people to understand that he possessed an official paper that exonerated him, a document from the viceroy that had somehow denied him permission to mobilize a defense.
Semenov soon learned that the “Boyarin” could not be recovered. Yet a lucky break put him in command of the destroyer “Reskitelny”—its captain had fallen ill. A half hour after learning of the appointment, he was racing on board to take the unfamiliar vessel on patrol.
Semenov’s command of the “Reskitelny” was not to last. After two journeys out, Admiral Stark reprimanded him for “embarking on adventures” and “risking his destroyer.” When Semenov aboard the destroyer heard reports of a Japanese torpedo-boat in his vicinity, he’d gone looking for it, and ordered his men to prepare for action. As it turned out, someone on another ship had mistaken the square sail of a Chinese junk for a steamship funnel. Semenov wrote, “If we are to guard our vessels from a meeting with the enemy we had better hide them in some inaccessible harbor. But then, in the devil’s name, what is the fleet there for?”
Soon he learned that Viceroy Alekseev had ordered that he be transferred from command of the “Reskitelny” to second-in-command of the “Angara”—a transport, not a fighting ship.
This was a cruel blow. In the era of the viceroy, all was politics, Semenov thought—petty rivalries, meaningless transfers, rewards given for fearful inaction. How different it had been in earlier days of the Pacific Fleet, when officers felt a fiercely possessive loyalty to “their” ship. He wrote, “The fiery youths were formerly ever ready to demand satisfaction, sword in hand, for insult to ‘their’ ship.”
Semenov returned to the office of Rear-Admiral Vitgeft and its desk covered with papers. He protested his transfer to the “Angara,” to no avail. The naval bureaucracy had made its decision.
But as Semenov left the office, an old acquaintance stopped him and whispered in his ear: “Makarov is appointed to command of the Pacific Fleet…. Now you won’t remain long in the ‘Angara’… but say nothing of this. It is still a secret.”
This was good news indeed: Admiral Stepan Makarov was a brave and well-respected man. Semenov had a close professional connection with him, having put in a stint as his aide-de-camp. As Semenov recalled of those days, “It was no easy matter serving under Makarov. Often there was no time for eating or sleeping; but for all that it was a splendid life. What was especially characteristic in Makarov was his horror of all routine, and his hatred of the old office custom of devolving everything on others… and therefore of never coming to an independent decision….”
For a short while, under Makarov’s leadership, conditions would improve dramatically in Russia’s Pacific Fleet.
* Tikowara Hesibo, Before Port Arthur in a Destroyer. New York: E.P. Hutton, 1907. This book has an unfortunate publishing history. Apparently, in the western world, the diary of Tikowara was first obtained by a Spanish editor or writer and published in Spanish. It was then translated into English by an individual identified as “Captain R. Grant, D.S.O. Rifle Brigade.” When published in English, there was no mention of the Japanese author, only of Captain Grant, who may well deserve appreciation for translating a work (as well as being decorated) but can by no means be considered the author.
** Vladimir Semenov, Rasplata [The Reckoning]. London: John Murray, 1909.
I have tried to maintain consistency in my treatment of Japanese names (family name first) and in my transliterations of Russian. I’m sure I haven’t been 100 percent successful.
Thanks for posting this ..
So Pearl Harbor was not the first surprise Japanese attack ..
( also interesting to compare the Russian “lumbermen” to be dispatched to Korea
to the masked men in Ukraine )
I had heard of Port Arthur, but did not know it was somewhere between Peking and
Yes, I think there is a continuing thread between the “Bezobrazov Clique” maneuver to get Russians into Korea in the early 1900s, into recent-day events in Crimea and Ukraine. It is complicated, though, because of citizens of Russian loyalties in those areas. It looks to me unfortunately like one of those all-too-frequent conflicts where ethnic identity clashes with national identity. I wish I could see a solution. Putin’s actions do nothing to solve the problem. He is an old-fashioned expansionist imperialist (too many “ists,” I know.)
As the matriarch says to john Grady Cole in Cormac McCarthy’s “All the Pretty Horses”:
It is supposed to be true that those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it. I don’t believe knowing can save us. What is constant in history is greed and foolishness and a love of blood, and this is a thing that even God—who knows all that can be known—seems powerless to change.
Excellent point. I agree that humanity keeps doing a lot of the same stupid things over and over because humanity doesn’t fundamentally change. What seems hard to understand, though, is when experts supposed to observe and learn about technical points (as opposed to moral or ethical points) fail to make appropriate changes in the next military conflict—or perhaps it is the command structure that doesn’t listen to the advice.