In my ongoing series about the RJW, I had planned to make only a brief note about Makarov’s death before moving on to the Battle of Yalu River. But the circumstance of his death caught my imagination, so I have dedicated a post to the subject.
Vice-Admiral Stepan Osipovich Makarov arrived in Port Arthur on Tuesday, March 8, 1904, to take over Russia’s beleaguered Pacific Fleet. He went into action right away, leading an attack on the blockading Japanese squadron. Nothing definitive resulted in the military sense, but mighty clouds of lethargy and confusion started lifting away from the garrison.
What was it about Makarov that inspired such confidence? He was, in reality, three men rolled into one: hero of the 1877-78 Russo-Turkish War; oceanographer and author of many scientific papers; inventor of naval devices. He pioneered the use of torpedoes in his fight against the Ottomans. He led research expeditions to Arctic waters. He designed the two icebreaker ferries that helped to get the Trans-Siberian across Lake Baikal. Clearly, this was a man of genius who wasted precious few minutes in his day.
Makarov and Admiral Togo Heihachiro continued their skirmishes throughout the rest of March and into April. Two Russian destroyers were sunk, but the Japanese vessel “Fuji” also sustained serious damage, and Togo’s fleet failed in its ongoing efforts to clog the entrance to the harbor by sinking old transports filled with concrete and stones.
On April 13, Makarov left port with eight ships to assist a Russian destroyer under attack. When they encountered the better part of Togo’s fleet, the vessels were forced to retreat to the protection of the shore batteries. The Japanese had laid mines in that area the day before. Commander Tikowara Hesibo aboard the “Akusuki” watched as one of the retreating ships burst into blazing red flames. Aiming his telescope toward the masthead, he made out the admiral’s flag: the vessel was the flagship “Petropavlovsk.” It happened so fast that Tikowara found himself distracted by the time lag between the sight and the sound of the explosion. “With my telescope I could see the ship settling down, first by the bows and then to one side. It all took place with incredible rapidity. I could see the screws and rudder out of the water. The masts inclined more and more; the hull kept getting smaller and smaller, and at last disappeared.”*
The “Petropavlovsk” had struck two or three mines, sinking within a couple of minutes and carrying to the bottom Admiral Makarov with approximately 635 officers and men. The Japanese were of course glad to have struck such a crushing blow to Russia’s fleet, but they recognized that a great man was lost. Togo decreed a day of mourning and ordered flags to be flown at half mast.
For Captain Vladimir Semenov, whom we met in our last post along with Tikowara, it was utter tragedy. Aboard the destroyer “Diana”—he’d been spared the threatened transfer to a lowly transport ship—he’d watched, earlier that fateful morning, as the faster “Petropavlovsk” steamed past. “A suppressed ‘Ah!’ passed through the ship’s company. The Admiral came over to the port side of the bridge, that is, to the side nearest to the ‘Diana.’ He wore an overcoat with a fur collar. The wind was blowing about his big, fair beard. ‘Your health, my lads!’ came in his mighty voice. Every word was clear and distinct. ‘We wish your Excellency good health!’ sounded back in specially hearty, cheery voices. ‘God grant a happy issue!’ ‘Respectful thanks, your—‘”#
The next word would have been another “Excellency,” but the flagship was moving too fast, so the crew of the “Diana” saved a few syllables and burst forth with hurrahs.
“The Admiral had already left the bridge and gone into the chart-house,” Semenov continued. “He now came out again, went right out to the end of the bridge and took off his cap, waving it at us with a smile…. The men clambered on to each other’s shoulders to see ‘Little Grandfather.'”
Two hours later, Makarov was gone. After the explosion, the squadron’s orderly formation fell apart. Suddenly guns went off: a gunner had lost his head and sent a shell toward a neighboring ship, and others fired in response, having no idea what they were firing at. “Submarines!” someone shouted. Torpedo-wielding subs were the latest invention. In fact, both sides possessed them but they were never deployed in this war.
Men tore life-belts out of each other’s hands and prepared to jump overboard. A quaking bugler was ordered to sound a cease-fire, but he choked as he blew into his bugle, finally managing an audible tone. Even that did not restore calm. At last men were forcibly pulled away from the guns—they’d been shelling each other’s ships.
The fleet never recovered from Makarov’s death. At length, Admiral Nikolai Skrydlof was appointed to replace him. But Skrydlof was unable to reach Port Arthur, due to the Japanese blockade. Instead, the post went to Rear-Admiral Vitgeft, whose bureaucratic habits had irritated Semenov. Even if Vitgeft had possessed initiative, he would have been overruled by Viceroy Alekseev, who ordered the fleet to avoid all risks.
Meanwhile, after the Japanese won the battle of Yalu River and moved to cut off Port Arthur from rail communication up the Liaodong Peninsula, the viceroy fled northward to Mukden by one of the last trains.
* Tikowara Hesibo, Before Port Arthur in a Destroyer. New York: E.P. Hutton, 1907.
# Vladimir Semenov, Rasplata [The Reckoning]. London: John Murray, 1909.