Voyage of the Damned: The Last (Only) ride of the Russian Second Pacific Squadron… September 5th, 1905. A date that would forever haunt the Russian Imperial Court.
By offer of U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, the Russian Imperial Government under Tsar Nicholas II was forced to make peace with the Empire of Japan after sustaining humiliating defeats against the emerging Asian power. In a conflict that began just over one year ago, the Imperial Russian Army and Navy were soundly defeated by their Japanese counterparts. While Russia’s only “warm water” port of Port Arthur was handed over to the the Empire of Japan, leaving Vladivostok it’s only operational port on its Pacific coast.
The Russo-Japanese war was by far the most humiliating defeat the Russian Empire suffered, with the Battle of Tsushima being the most “celebrated” battle of the entire conflict. This was the battle that destroyed the moral of the Russian Navy and the Imperial Military in general. This defeat, one of many Russia suffered, more or less ended what ever hopes the Imperial court had of securing a victory over the Japanese. As well as showed just how weak the Russian Empire had become in recent years. But the Battle of Tsushima was only the final act in an ill fated voyage that was poorly planned and conceived in an desperate attempt to relieve the Russian fleet trapped in the Pacific.
The Voyage of the Russian “Second Pacific Squadron” would become a massive embarrassment for the Imperial Court of Russia. For during its voyage to the Far East, the squadron would be the source for a number of major international incidents and diplomatic tensions between Russian and the other European powers. Not to mention, a literal voyage from hell for the men who served on board the ships that made up the squadron. As well as becoming a case study on how NOT to conduct a prolonged naval operation for many aspiring Naval Commanders.
Now we all know about just why the Russo-Japanese war broke out, but the story of the Second Pacific Squadron began when it was very clear to see that the Russian Pacific fleet was in trouble. Because of its location, the Russian port of Port Arthur was proving to be more trouble than it was really worth. The warm water harbor was located right on the end of a peninsula and was surrounded by hills and mountains. This meant that it would not be too hard for the Japanese to not only cut off supplies from Port Arthur, but use the surrounding elevations to attack the First Pacific Squadron based there.
It also did not help that the entrance to said harbor was rather shallow, meaning most of the larger ships were trapped until the tide came in. Nor did it help that most of the commanders in the squadron really had no business commanding there vessels in any sort in a fight. By mid April 1904, Japanese forces were now threatening to cut off Port Arthur while a number for Russian vessels, including the Battleships “Retvizan”, “Pobeda” and “Tsesarevich” were either heavily damaged or were currently resting on the sea floor. Worst still, the commander of the Squadron, Vice Admiral Stepan Makarov (By the way, he was by far the most capable naval officer the Russians had at this point) was killed when his Flag ship struck a mine and exploded when he attempted to escape with the fleet.
With the Pacific fleets now trapped and Tsar Nicholas II not wanting to give up and surrender to the Japanese, the answer to relieve the embattled fleets at Port Arthur and Vladivostok was to send more ship to the Pacific. Fortunately, Imperial Russia did just happen to have two other fleets at their disposal in the forms of the Baltic and Black Sea fleets. The plan was to basically assemble a new force and sail them over 18,000 miles to fight the Japanese and rescue the trapped fleets in the Pacific.
Of course this was a plan that was way easier said than done. At this point in their history, The Russian Empire was not exactly the most popular nation in Europe (Especially with the British), nor did they have ANY bases of their own where a fleet of this size could be refueled and resupplied. Plus the rules of war allowed neutral countries to refuse giving Russia any help of any kind. Also, the vast majority of the Russian fleet were made up of vessels that were never designed for open Ocean voyages, let alone in Tropical climates. not to mention that most of the ships that would be sent were rather long in the tooth and were basically outclassed by the British supplied warships the Japanese Imperial navy had acquired in the year prior.
Yet they would be tasked with sailing around the world to rescue the trapped Russian fleets. Now I know what you are thinking, with all these concerns just why did the Russians still go through with this plan? The answer is quite simple….
They were all ignored.
To lead this force, the Tsar chose Rear Admiral Zinovy Rozhestvensky to command the Second Pacific Squadron. A seasoned veteran of the Russo-Ottoman war, Rozhestvensky was possibly the best choice to lead such a force, though was not as political as Admiral Makarov and was notorious for his short temper and would actually attack officers who disappointed him in any way. But compared to other members of the Imperial Russian Navy, he was not corrupt (Which was rare at the time) and was remarkably fair to all those who served under him, if not very demanding. Not surprisingly he was not well liked in the upper echelons of the Imperial Russian Navy, but was still beloved by those he commanded and it was a well known fact that ships under his command were usually well disciplined and were known for being ready for combat in a moments notice.
It also didn’t hurt that Kaiser Wilhelm II (Yeah… that Kaiser) also gave Rozhestvensky high praise during his visit to Russia same years back. So yes, Rozhestvensky was the “best” choice the Tsar could have made. Unfortunately…. Things started to go down hill after that…
Vessels from the Baltic Fleet were being assembled for the long voyage that was to come and on paper it looked promising. 42 vessels including 11 battleships and 9 cruisers would make up the main force while being supported by a number of destroyers, gun boats and support ships. While the Russian government would contract ships from the Hamburg-Amerika Line to deliver and resupply the fleet with coal while at sea. Something which had never been done before on such a large scale up until that point, especially it was rather difficult and sometimes dangerous task when done in port.
The actual vessels that would be taking part in the squadron were also a rather diverse mix in themselves. Many of the vessels, specifically the Battleships, had a Tumblehome design that made the vessels somewhat unstable in rough seas but was not much of an issue since the Baltic was relatively calm compared to the open Ocean. Some of the vessels were also grossly overweight and position of the secondary armament were dangerously close too the water line.
Work quality of work being done on some of the ships was questionable at best, as the battleship Oryol sank in harbor while being refitted for the voyage. Apparently someone removed some sheeting from the hull without realizing that a ship needs it hull intact so it could stay afloat. There were some new vessels taking part in the squadron but they were untested in battle, while others were obsolete. Still others were nothing more than merchant ships and aristocratic yachts that had guns added to them and really had no business being in any kind of combat. Because why not?
Also, Rozhestvensky was informed that the Tsar allocated enough ammunition for the upcoming battle and only enough for the battle. There would not be enough to conduct any kind of exercises to train gun crews. A fact that was made worse seeing that the majority of the crews were nothing more than uneducated conscripts that mostly came from land locked regions from Russia and had never seen the ocean until now.
As one officer put it “One Half of this lot needed to be thaught everything, because they know nothing. and the other half also needed to learn everything, because they had forgotten everything.”
Now you must be wondering why the mighty Baltic fleet was in such a terrible state. well that is because most of the experienced crews were currently fighting for their lives in Port Arthur. Most of the officers that were assigned to Rozhestvensky’s command were not what you would call shining examples of professionalism. as many of them would often sneak off to literally get drunk on shore, a fact that did not sit well with the Rear Admiral.
But by some miracle on the 15th of October, the Second Pacific Squadron went to sea… And disaster would strike immediately when Rozhestvensky’s Flagship ran aground. Meanwhile one of the escorting cruisers lost its anchor and chain. Later in that day one of the Destroyers managed to ram one of the battleships and had to return to port for repairs.
Despite these minor issues, the fleet did eventually made it out of the Baltic and followed the Danish coast. that was when things really got interesting, as panicked sailors began to yell that they were all doomed and that the Japanese Navy was waiting to ambush them once they made it into the North Sea. Well…. They were only half right.
Now to be fair, I guess it was not too crazy to believe that the Japanese were waiting for them. Since it was known that the UK had been building warships for Imperial Japan at the time, but no one thought that it would have been impossible for a entire Japanese Battle Fleet to teleport themselves half way around the world to fight them in the first place. The display of bad seamanship carried on, with the Russians damaging the Danish coal ships that had been contracted to resupply them. After numerous collisions, Rozhestvensky was forced to open fire on one of his own support ship after it refused to follow the admiral signals. In the end, said ship was forced to return home.
More rumors soon began to circulate among the crews about a possible Japanese attack. To remedy this Rozhestvensky gave an order that absolutely no vessel of any sort was allowed to enter the fleet. This would end up biting the Rear Admiral in the butt, as no sooner he had given the order, a fishing vessel began to approach the squadron and the already panicked crews began to open fire on it. As it turned out, the vessel in question was actually carrying a message from the Tsar saying that he been promoted to Vice Admiral and the only thing that saved the Fishing crew was the fact that the aim of the ships’ gunners was horrid. It didn’t help that during this, the Repair Ship Kamchacta had radioed that it was being attacked by Japanese Torpedo boats. when asked how many the vessel replied “About 8 from all directions”
As you can guess, this ship was gonna become everyone’s favorite vessel as the squadron sailed on…..
Eventually, the Second Pacific Squadron made it into the North Sea and things would hopefully improve….. Then the Dogger Bank Incident happened.
On the night of October 21/22, the Squadron came came across a British Trawler fleet sailing out of Kingston upon Hull. Obviously this slow moving, well lit flotilla of fishing vessels with their vicious fishing nets were easily confused for fast moving Torpedo Boats and as expected, the Russian fleet opened fire in a panic. It was absolute chaos, as shells began to rain down on the fishing fleet and Russian vessels began to report they had been hit by torpedoes. some Russian sailors began to draw life vest and prepared to jump into the North sea thinking they were sinking. While on other ships men blindly charged around with what ever weapons they had, screaming that they were being boarded. Causing even more panic.
But at least this time around the Russian battleships were able to score hits on a number of trawlers, sinking one and damaging 4 more. They even managed to score hits on the Russian Cruisers Aurora and Dimitrii Donskoi, killing a sailor and a Priest on board the Aurora. The only one who seemed to realize that they were not “Fighting” the Japanese, was Vice Admiral Rozhestvensky and he was eventually able to get his fleet to stop attacking the British fishing boats. But this fiasco was nothing compared to what came next.
You see, the British Government/Public did not take to kindly to the fact the Russian Navy attacked a British fishing fleet and boy did it cause a row between London and the Russian Crown. not to mention that the British public found it hard to believe that the incident was accidental, with one news outlet saying:
“It is almost inconceivable that any men calling themselves seamen, however frightened they might be, could spend twenty minutes bombarding a fleet of fishing boats without discovering the nature of their target“
It was not long before Cruiser Squadrons belonging to the Royal Navy began to show up and shadow the Russian fleet. While the entire Channel fleet, which was larger than the entire Russian Navy, was mobilized for action. Worst still, the Mediterranean Fleet was mobilized as well and ordered to Gibraltar. Fortunately for the Russians, they never had to face off with the Royal Navy as cooler heads prevailed in the end. Though Lord Beresford of the Royal Navy proposed that he would make it a fair fight by only engaging the Russian Fleet with only 4 of his Battleships. Noting just how terrible the Squadron’s accuracy was as shown during the Dogger Bank Incident. Holding the rest of his fleet in reserve just in case any of his vessels were actually hit.
An Commission of Inquiry would be launched into the Incident an in the end, Rozhestvensky would be cleared as the commission believed that the Russian Admiral did everything he could to stop his vessels from firing on the fishing vessels. While the Russian government willingly paid compensation of £66,000 to the fishermen that were involved. The immediate aftermath was indeed a diplomatic nightmare for the Russian government and Rozhestvensky was ordered to dock at the Spanish port of Vigo. Where he proceeded to leave behind a number of officers that he believed were responsible for the incident.
He also used this port of call to remove a one Captain Klado, who more or less was not well liked by the Admiral. Mainly because Klado had done nothing but complain about the way Rozhestvensky was commanding the fleet and the two officers almost came to blows a few days before the incident. Klado would eventually return to haunt his former commander, as he was ordered to return to St. Petersburg to organize “reinforcements” for the Second Pacific squadron.
While the Russian fleet almost managed to start a war with the British Empire, the Kamchatka managed to almost start a war with half of Europe. As the Supply Vessel open fire of ships belonging to France, Sweden and Germany, claiming that all three vessels were Japanese warships and had fired 300 shells in defense. Like I said before, Kamchatka was quickly becoming everyone’s favorite ship.
Eventually the Second Pacific squadron left European Waters and docked in the port of Tangiers, Morocco. Where one of the ships managed to cut the telegraph cable that ran under the harbor, effectively cutting off all communication with Europe for a few days. After this, Kamchatka was ordered to take the lead of the supply ship column. Primarily because Rozhestvensky had no reason to trust the vessel’s commander at all and wanted to keep a close eye on the troublesome ship.
As the Second Pacific Squadron approached the west coast of Africa, they linked up with some German merchant vessels that had been contracted to resupply the fleet with coal. To minimize the amount of times this needed to be done, the Russian fleet was ordered to take on double loads of coal. but since the coal bunkers were not large enough to take on the amount needed, sacks of coal were loaded into anywhere space could be found. Including Storerooms, on Deck, passageways, anywhere a sack could go, it went. This resulted in the fleet being covered in a fine layer of highly explosive coal dust, effectively turning the ships into sailing fuel-air bombs.
As the ships made their way down the African Coast, the humidity combined with the Coal Dust resulted in thick black tar coating the lungs of every man apart of the Squadron. not surprisingly, a number of men died due to respiratory problems. There was some good news, as the fleet sailed into a storm that not only cleared the air somewhat but also cleaned the ships themselves. When the storm subsided and the ships were asked about their status afterwards, Kamchatka replied….
“Do you see Torpedo Boats?”
Rozhestvensky, now understandably stressed out and fed up about his situation, found a way to relieve some of his tension by coming up with some rather “colorful” nicknames for some of the vessels in his fleets. Names that I rather not repeat here since i am trying to keep this article family friendly. He also got into the habit of throwing his pair of binoculars over the side of his flag ship, anytime he went into a rage. Yet surprisingly, his staff knew this was going to happen and actually brought a crate carrying no fewer than 50 binoculars for the Admiral. and if that was not enough, he would often walk out on to a bridge wing and literally scream at the any vessel/captain that managed to piss him off. Even if Said vessel was miles away.
As the Squadon approached Cape Town, Rozhestvensky soon got word that Captain Klado was sending reinforcements in the form of the “Third Pacific Squadron” to meet up with the Second. Which was the last thing Rozhestvensky wanted to hear. This Third Squadron was made up of vessels that really had no business sailing around the world to fight the Japanese. seeing that many of those ships, if not all, were the exact definition of Obsolete. Not surprisingly, the Admiral would refuse to give any updates to his location or progress to Klado as long as he could.
Not too long after this, the Russian government received a message from the British informing them that there was another Fishing fleet operating out of Durban. Just in case.
As the squadron approached French Madagascar, they soon learned that Port Arthur had surrendered to the Japanese and many of the vessels of the First Pacific Squadron had been sunk while still in port. There was a real fear that some of the Battleships that were lost would be re-floated by the Japanese and be used to fight off the Second Pacific squadron when in eventually arrived. With Morale at an all time low as the fleet dropped anchor in Madagascar, many of the crew decided to collect pets once they went on shore in the French Territory.
Maybe the presence of some exotic animals could help with there flagging morale…. By now you probably know just how well this venture went. As the mostly clueless Russian sailors managed to bring back animal most sane people would want to avoid. This included a Crocodile, venomous snakes (one of which killed an officer after it coiled itself around one of the main guns and bit him) and for some reason, someone thought it would have been a good idea to get Rozhestvensky a talking parrot as a pet. A parrot that soon began to learn the Admiral’s extensive vocabulary of Russian Curse words. As for the flag ship itself, it was soon overrun with chameleons the crew brought on board.
The Cruiser Aurora probably had it the worst, as the vessel was so over run with predatory creatures that the crew was too afraid to sleep. As they knew many of the animals wandered the ship looking for a snack and the healthy supply of rats on board were not enough. It was not long before the Second Pacific Squadron soon became the world’s largest floating zoo. Which all things considered was a huge upgrade since just week before it was the worlds largest floating fuel air bomb.
It was not long before the strain of all that was going on began to finally take its toll on Rozhestvensky: He fell ill. He was not the only one to suffer: His chief of staff suffered a brain hemorrhage and became partly paralyzed as a result. With no one in command of the fleet, the squadron just remained in Madagascar while the crew went on shore to use some of the local… um….. “Recreational Facilities” for stress release. It was not long before the crew began to bring back a lot more than exotic pets, as many soon began to suffer the effects of every tropical illness and every STD known to man at that time.
It was also during this point, the Squadron’s favorite supply ship decided to remind everyone why it was so beloved. As during a funeral for one of its crew, the Kamchatka use live rounds when firing off a salute for the dead man. one of which struck the Cruiser Aurora. How no one decided right there and then to use the supply ship for target practice at this point, is a mystery that remains unsolved to this day.
Then things really got worse: The poor conditions coupled with the tropical heat soon lead to a wave of mental illness to sweep the squadron. That’s right…. Many of the men went quite mad, which lead to numerous mutinies, religious upheavals and since this was a Russian fleet at the turn of the century, revolutions. One sailor was so over the edge, he would regularly travel between ships half naked and asking the crews if they feared death.
Eventually Rozhestvensky’s health improved and once he was back in command of the fleet, he proceeded to round up some of the worse offenders and send them back to Russia. However, this decision also weakened the fleet’s man power. As for the officers who were supposed to keep the men in line during Rozhestvensky’s illness… Well they had discovered that Madagascar had a huge drug trade. Specifically Opium.
With most of its ammunition used up without ever meeting the Japanese fleet, the fleet needed resupply and spirits were lifted when another supply ship arrived. But instead of ammunition, the ship brought instead thousands of heavy fur coats for the crews to use. Rozhestvensky’s attempts to restore order also did not go well either, as during gun training he was reminded just how horrid the ship gun crews were with their aim. If it could go wrong, it did go wrong. With destroyers failing to stay in formation or even follow orders, torpedoes that either malfunctioned or even went rogue causing panic among the destroyer flotilla and of course, the gun crews still having terrible aim.
The only thing that actually went well, was when the Aurora held a race between the many boats it had on board and to everyone’s surprise, the race was a success.
While this was going on the “Third Pacific Squadron”, under the command of Admiral Nikolai Nebogatov, had left the Black Sea with his collection of antiquated coastal battleships and other vessels. They managed to cause a massive traffic jam when they arrived at the Suez Canal and proceeded to stop and scan the area for possible enemy activity. Ironically, the Suez Canal was the only area where the Japanese could realistically attack the Russian Fleet. But the resulting back log of merchant ships caused made for alot of irate merchant crews and captains.
Eventually the Russian fleet made it through the canal and despite the best efforts of Rozhestvensky to avoid his own reinforcements, Nebogatov was eventually able to link up with the Second Pacific Squadron off the Coast of French Indo-China (Vietnam). This was the straw that finally broke Rozhestvensky and be proceeded to tender his resignation from the Russian Navy…. Which the Tsar refused.
With not much say in the matter and unable to leave his fleet, Rozhestvensky continued forward and towards his date with destiny at the Battle of Tsushima. A battle that would turn out very badly for the Russian Empire, but boost the confidence of the emerging Japanese Empire.
In conclusion, the voyage of the Second Pacific Squadron was nothing short of a fiasco. An ill prepared fleet consisting of mostly obsolete vessels and untrained crews, were forced to sail half way around the world all because the Imperial Court did not want to admit defeat to an enemy that held an advantage during the entire conflict. But while the Battle of Tsushima was a humiliating defeat for Imperial Russia, it as a living hell for the crews that were sent in the first place.
Patrick, Having read the Tide at Sunrise for a Naval War College course on Strategy and War, I must say how much I appreciate the work you did in the article. Excellent summation of an important and often overlooked piece of history. It is this war that completely shatters the contemporary thesis spouted by Mackinder in 1904 as he continued to stoke the Victorian British mindset to fear Russia and the ‘Heartland’. Indeed, if it was ever able to capitalize on a Heartland base that was supposed to be able to project power from uncontested interior lines, the Russian Empire failed. So much for Mackinder’s thesis. Yet even to this day, Mackinder’s theory shapes US international relations and Foreign Policy…