MAD DOG ROZHESTVENSKY
The Russian admiral Zinovy Petrovich Rozhestvensky (1848–1909) bears the stigma of the defeat at Tsushima, one of the greatest ever defeats in naval warfare, which resulted in the destruction of the entire Russian Second Pacific Squadron, and also of the Dogger Bank Incident, when Britain came close to abandoning its neutrality and going to war against Russia side by side with Japan. The nickname Mad Dog did his reputation no favours either, and as a result of all of this people forget how much courage, skill, and strength of spirit it took for the Russian admiral to take a mixed squadron of ships and untrained sailors and steam around three continent from Kronstadt to the Gulf of Korea into a battle that was already lost and strategically futile.
V. P. Kostyenko, a ship's engineer on the Oryol, described Rozhestvensky as an extremely hardworking man with a steely, penetrating gaze and hard, curt manner of speech. He was tall, sturdy and slim, and gave the impression of being a man who knows what he was getting into, what he wants to get, and won't change course even in the slightest.
The close cropped greying beard with curly moustache concealed tight lips, but the penetrating eyes confirmed the strength of will, the tendency towards sarcasm and impulsive anger. When he saw how badly the captains manoeuvred and the gunners fired, he threw one telescope after another into the sea from the bridge of the Knyaz Suvorov, until Captain Klapje de Kolongs, his chief of staff, started to run out of them on the voyage to Tsushima! He had the reputation of an incorruptible man, which was extremely rare in the navy, he struck fear into many, and he did not hesitate to raise his fists against sailors, although this was not unusual on Russian Ships.
Commander of the Second Pacific Squadron
He was born according to the Russian calendar on 30 (11 according to the Gregorian calendar) October 1848, his father was a military doctor and so Zinovy Petrovich could join the naval cadets in Kronstadt at the age of sixteen. He remembered the rebirth of the Russian navy, which had been destroyed in the Crimean War, he passed through the Nikolayev artillery school, and in 1877 he had a baptism of fire when war broke out between Russia and Turkey. The eleventh of July found him in the post of artillery inspector on the armoured steamer Vesta in a three-hour battle with the Turkish ironclad Fetkhi-Buland (Feth-i-Bülend means "Great Causer of Conquest"), where he even hit the captain's bridge, and the more powerful ship retreated. The great maritime painter Aivazovsky depicted the episode in one painting, but Rozhestvensky played down this glory. He helped build up the Bulgarian navy, he worked as the naval attaché in London, he commanded the armoured cruiser Vladimir Monomach, in which he steamed to Nagasaki in Japan, he trained gunners in Kronstadt and in 1898 was promoted to rear admiral. After an excellent display of gunnery in the presence of Czar Nicholas II and Emperor Wilhelm II, in 1903 he became chief of the Naval General Staff (Glavni morski shtab). When the Russo-Japanese War broke out (1904), and Admiral Tojo blockaded the First Pacific Squadron in Port Arthur, Rozhestvensky was appointed commander of the hastily assembled mixed second Pacific Squadron, which was meant to steam halfway round the world and break the blockade. The squadron was headed by a great organiser, sailor and gunner who however, in contrast with his opponents, had only a single experience of combat, and that had been decades before, and his only knowledge of modern naval combat came from expert literature, whereas Tōgō Heihachirō, who had fought in the Sino-Japanese War, had defeated Admirals Makarov and Vitgeft in the Yellow Sea.
No one envied Rozhestvensky's command, and he faced a superhuman task. His ships, four Borodino class battleships, had just been completed, and three hadn't even had time for sea trials. The crews were new and inexperienced, and the draftees were often afraid of the machines, which they couldn't understand. The captains didn't know how to manoeuvre in formation, and Russian training completely neglected the tactics and cooperation of naval battle.
When the Second Pacific Squadron raised anchor in Kronstadt on 29 August/11 September, it was already known that Admiral Makarov had died in a vain attempt to sail out of Port-Arthur, and his successor Vitgeft had died on the bridge of the Tsesarevich without being able to break the blockade. Zinovy Petrovich tried to explain to the Czar that it was too late to free the First Pacific Squadron, but he received an order that was impossible to carry out.
"Reach Port Arthur and take control of the Sea of Japan jointly with the First Squadron.
At a farewell banquet, Buchvostov, commander of the battleship Imperator Aleksandr III , probably said what Rozhestvensky thought of this:
"I fear that we will lose half of the squadron on the voyage to the Far East. But what of it. Maybe it won't be so bad, and with God's help we will get where we have been sent. And then Tōgō will smash us to pieces. They have better ships and are real sailors. I can promise you only one thing. We will die, but we will never give in."
On 2/15 October 1904 the squadron headed by Rozhestvensky's flagship, the battleship Knyaz Suvorov, left Libava and shortly after, Russian waters. It set off on a voyage that has no equal in the annals of naval warfare.
An odyssey around the world.
It was an epic voyage with many difficulties because Britain sided with Japan, and France remained neutral, and most of the ports on the shores of Africa and Asia belonged to these superpowers. They took on coal and supplies mainly at sea from German steamers, repairs were made during the voyage, tactical formations and manoeuvres and sometimes gunnery was practised, and there were also fears of Japanese diversionary tactics and torpedo attacks, all of which lead to a night-time incident near the English coast at the start of the voyage when they fired upon some fishing boats. The Hull Incident at Dogger Bank, as it was called, turned public opinion against the Russians, and a war very nearly started with Great Britain, the greatest naval power.
When they got to North Africa the ships split into two groups, with the larger ones steaming around the continent and the small ones going through the Suez Canal. The two groups met up again in January 1905 at the north-western tip of Madagascar, but Port Arthur had already capitulated on 2 January 1905, and the Pacific Squadron in it had ceased to exist. To continue with the voyage made no sense, but Petrograd insisted on its orders, and it even sent out a third Pacific Squadron, assembled from hopeless, outdated battleships. Rozhestvensky, who just after setting sail had been promoted to vice admiral, refused to wait for this group of "self-sinking ships" (as he described the reinforcements), and he set off over the Indian Ocean towards the Pacific. On the voyage he practised gunnery as far as the supplies of ammunition allowed, and he practised tactical manoeuvres, but he saw that the results were poor. And yet the Third Pacific Squadron caught up with him on 26 April/9 May at Camranh Bay, and they all steamed off to meet their fate.
Prepare for battle
Order number 229 issued on the same day made no secret of the fact that the Japanese had the advantage in terms of speed of ships, combat experience and gunnery practice, but it did state that his intention was to steam unobserved and quickly through the Korean Strait in the direction of Vladivostok. On the date 13/26 May at 16:30 Rozhestvensky sent the signal:
"Prepare for battle."
He had a faint hope that the rain and fog would hide the ships from the Japanese patrols, but Tōgō was watching over the relatively narrow Korean Straits from the Korean and Japanese shores, his cruisers found the Russians, and at 6:30 in the morning of 14/27 May he set sail. Rozhestvensky changed the formation to a single battle line (in the order Knyaz Suvorov, Imperator Aleksandr III , Borodino, Oryol), but around 12:30 he ordered the four leading battleships to turn in sequence (one after the other) to the starboard and then port so that they formed a new covering battle line on the starboard, from where the fire was expected. The turn was concluded unsuccessfully. Some didn't understand whether they were meant to turn "all at once" or "in sequence" (in the first case a line of four ships steaming side by side would have been formed), and confusion reigned. When the four battleships finally formed up in a battle line and picked up speed in order to take the lead once more from Oslyabya leading the second division, Tōgō's main force appeared from the opposite direction. They crossed Rozhestvensky's course by turning starboard, whereby they crossed the enemy's "T" (a manoeuvre much desired by admirals which means they can train their full fire on the enemy whilst minimising his ability to retaliate), they moved off along the perpendicular to his course and started to make a turn to port. They completed it before Rozhestvensky had managed to join his two leading columns into one, and so they were steaming approximately in parallel, and they opened fire with impressive accuracy. The Russian ships returned fire, but not fully because Borodino and Oryol were still covered by Oslyabya. It took the first heavy hits, and twenty minutes after the start of the battle, at 14:25/14:45 (the first time is Russian, it differed by half an hour from the Japanese one) it turned, at 14:40/15:00 it listed to port and shortly thereafter sank.
Battle lost in a matter of minutes
Ten to fifteen minutes earlier had seen the culmination of the hellish situation on the flagship Knyaz Suvorov, where the rudder jammed at 14:26/14:46. The ship circled slowly and helplessly, and the Japanese explosive shells turned it into a flaming wreck. Rozhestvensky, who had suffered a head injury, lost the ability to command the fleet at the start of the battle, and eventually he and his staff were taken off by the destroyer Buiny. The line was now lead by Imperator Aleksandr III under the command of Captain Buchvostov, who unexpectedly changed course to the north, towards the enemy. He wanted to steam behind the main group, which forced Tōgō to be careful, but this ship too was reduced to a wreck, it fell behind, and Borodino took the lead. The battle had actually been lost within the first half hour, and now the Japanese were destroying one ship after another, starting with the heaviest ones.
At around 18:30/18:50 the battleship Imperator Aleksandr III met its fate, and Midshipman Engelhardt from the Admiral Nakhimov described its end thus:
"Aleksandr III listed more and more. Then, so quickly that no one could help, it turned over on its side, capsized all of a sudden, and soon thereafter disappeared below the waves. The crew leapt from its listing port side. The deck soon reached the water, and the screws were visible (the port one was still turning). Then it quickly listed. The last of those trying to save themselves scrambled onto the side when it was almost horizontal. They rushed to the keel (20 to 30 people), and then the battleship capsized. Hundreds of heads bobbed in the water in a ring around it…“
On the surface from it no one remained!
Borodino exploded at 19:23, and a single sailor survived.
Japanese destroyers caught up with the helpless Knyaz Suvorov, and at 19:30 (Japanese time) she went to the bottom.
"It hardly looked like a warship any more. It was burning inside, and flames were coming from the holes in its side and the gun ports. A thick cloud of black smoke hung above the deck, and the overall appearance was indescribably moving. It turned to starboard and port, as if trying to escape, and the two or three aft guns, all that remain, still put up a heroic defence...,"
was the report of the Japanese Admiral Kataoka.
The Russian admiralty chronicles added that up to its last moment the ship's two 75mm guns kept firing. The damaged Oryol was probably saved by the nightfall on the ocean.
The remaining ships steamed north through the night, but they became a hunted quarry. On the following day, Admiral Nebogatov, who had taken over from Rozhestvensky, surrendered, and at 15:25 the destroyer Byedovy, where the wounded admiral had been taken from the Buiny, did the same. He was probably unconscious and didn't know that the white flag had been run up!
The battle ended with an awful result. Out of eight battleships, six had been sunk and two captured. Five of the nine cruisers had gone to the bottom. Three (including the famous Aurora) escaped to Manilla, where they were interned, and one managed to reach Vladivostok. The Japanese captured two coastal defence battleships and destroyed the third. Five out of the nine destroyers were sunk.
Tsushima represented the end of all hope for Russia and a definitive loss of the entire war with Japan. Rozhestvensky, whom Tōgō visited in a Japanese hospital, returned from captivity at the end of 1905, and the court martial which was convened found him wholly innocent, but he judged himself far more harshly. He died unexpectedly on New Year 1909 (14 January according to the Russian Orthodox calendar).