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Dogger Bank
Voyage of the Damned

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Introduction

As the result of both powers seeking to expand their empires into Manchuria and Korea, Japan opened hostilities with a surprise attack on the Russian naval base at Port Arthur (now in modern China) on 8th February 1904 in which two battleships and a cruiser were sunk. In August an attempted breakout by the Russians resulted in a second defeat at the Battle of the Yellow Sea. The surviving Russian ships were now either contained in Port Arthur, Vladivostock or friendly ports to which they had fled.

In reply to the resounding defeat of the Russian Far Eastern Fleet, the Tsar Nicholas II authorised an unbelievable proposal from his government. Forty-five ships from the Russian Baltic Fleet would sail 18,000 miles around the world from its bases in northern Europe, defeat the Japanese navy and relieve Port Arthur thus bringing about a swift end to the war as Japan relied on her navy to support her land forces.

The epic journey that followed would be highly comic were it not for the fact that 4,000 Russian naval personnel died as a result. From the outset, the expedition was doomed to failure yet no one sought to question the folly of the plan.

Russian Naval Power?

In 1904, Russia was a backward country. In terms of geographical area it was the largest nation in the world, and the Tsar ruled over an empire which spanned eastern Europe and Asia incorporating many different races. On paper, Russia was a major military power - in reality her armies were poorly equipped and trained and as a naval power she was third rate despite expanding the size of her navy to rival that of other European powers. Russian power was certainly over estimated by other countries.

Because of its geography, Russian naval activity was split between three operational areas - the Far East, the Baltic and the Black Sea. Russian naval operations in the Black Sea were restricted under several international treaties which hindered the development of Russian naval ambitions. This theatre was the only area in which Russia could hope to secure ports in warm water with access to the seas throughout the year but the numbers and size of ships which Russia could station in the area was limited, together with their operational activities. Consequently any ships needed to reinforce the Far Eastern fleet had to be transferred from the Baltic on the other side of the world.

The Baltic fleet's task of completing an 18,000 mile voyage, presented a considerable logistical problem as the fleet would need to re-supply and refuel en route. Unlike the Royal Navy, the Russians had no bases around the globe and international treaties prevented them from using the ports of other friendly foreign powers such as France. Hence a plan to re-supply the fleet was devised - freighters chartered from the German Hamburg-Amerika line would refuel the ships at sea.

Potentially, the Baltic fleet was a large and powerful force. In 1904, the leading naval powers were Britain, France and Germany. The United States had entered into a period of significant naval expansion following years in which its fleet had been a predominantly coastal protection force. Italy had a small but technically advanced fleet and Italian naval architects and designers were held in high regard. The emerging naval power of the time was Japan whose highly disciplined navy and officer corps had been trained by the British. In contrast the Russian navy faced several problems.

Prior to the launch of "HMS Dreadnought", which lead to standardised design for battleships , many ships of the day were a bizarre mixture of different experiments in naval architecture, which were mostly untried in combat conditions. This often resulted in ships being top heavy as the latest innovations were added to the superstructure causing vessels to become unstable. The French navy was the most significant victim of this period of experimentation and had lost several ships which had keeled over and sank due to design faults.

The Baltic fleet suffered similar problems with some of its battleships being as much as 1,500 tons overweight. In practice this meant that the secondary armament was often underwash and could not be fired. The belt armour was also below the waterline and therefore offered no protection against enemy shells. An example of the hazards posed by these design flaws can be seen in one of the fleet's battleships "Oroyol" which sank while anchored in Kronstadt harbour and had to be re-floated.

Russian Manpower

As if the problems with logistics and ship design were not enough, Admiral Rozhestvensky - the unfortunate soul in charge of the expedition - had a third source of problems - the quality of his crews.

The majority of Russian naval ratings were uneducated peasants and did not come from the coastal areas of Russia, consequently they lacked any experience of the sea. The Baltic Fleet spent long periods of the year inactive as Russia's northern harbours were iced up for months at a time. This resulted in limited time being available for training crews in the intricacies of modern naval warfare.

The state of affairs was so bad that one officer on the battleship "Kniaz Suvoroff" said of his gunnery crews that "One half have to be taught everything because they know nothing; the other half because they have forgotten everything; but if they do remember anything then it is obsolete". To compound the problem it would later emerge that some of the ratings were members of various revolutionary groups who tried to stir up unrest among the crews.

In addition, Rozhestvensky was also dissatisfied with his senior officers. He referred to his obese second-in-command Rear-Admiral Folkersham as "a manure sack" and described the cruiser commander Rear-Admiral Enkvist as "a vast empty space".

The Voyage Begins

These difficulties notwithstanding, on 16th October 1904, the fleet (now renamed the Second Pacific Squadron) set sail from Libau, in modern Latvia, on its epic voyage. The tone for the expedition was set as the flagship ran aground and one of the escorting cruisers lost its anchor chain. While the fleet waited for the flagship to re-float and the cruiser to retrieve its misplaced anchor, a destroyer accidentally rammed the battleship "Oslyaba" and had to return to Reval (Tallinn in modern Estonia) for repairs.

Approaching Denmark

Having overcome these initial problems, the fleet sailed through the narrow waters between Sweden and Denmark. A note of hysteria set in as reports reached the fleet that Japanese torpedo boats were stationed off the Danish coast. The question of how a Japanese torpedo boat squadron (which had a limited range) had managed to travel 18,000 miles in so short a time was never asked.

These rumours were further fuelled with talk of the Japanese having mined the seas and Japanese submarines being seen. This invoked a further outbreak of mass hysteria amongst the fleet. To quell this, Rozhestvensky then issued an order that "no vessel of any sort must be allowed to get in amongst the fleet".

When two fishermen delivering consular dispatches from the Tsar approached the fleet, the Russians opened fire. Ironically, the two men, who were thankfully unharmed due to the appalling standards of Russian gunnery, had a personal message for Rozhestvensky from Tsar Nicholas informing him that he had now been promoted to Vice-Admiral.

For good measure the fleet repair ship "Kamchatka" signaled that she was under attack by torpedo boats. When asked how many she replied "about eight from all directions". This was a false alarm. The antics of the captain and crew of the "Kamchatka" would be the cause of several incidents of an increasingly farcical nature later in the expedition.

The 'Battle' of Dogger Bank

Having survived attacks from phantom Japanese torpedo boats and submarines and having negotiated a non-existent minefield, the squadron sailed into the North Sea where the Russians spotted the Hull trawler fleet fishing on the Dogger Bank. The Russians identified the innocent trawlers as being yet more Japanese torpedo boats and opened fire - an incident which almost caused war between Russia and Britain.

In the ensuing pandemonium several Russian ships signaled that torpedoes had hit them. On the battleship "Borodino", some of the crew donned life belts and lay prone on the deck while others charged around wielding cutlasses shouting that the ship was being boarded by the Japanese and thus panicked the fleet even more.

The Russian battleships continued firing, damaging four British trawlers and sinking one. For good measure they also managed to hit two of their own cruisers the "Avrora" and the "Donskoy" which had been subject to a bombardment from seven Russian battleships sailing in line-ahead formation !

The following morning revealed a night of madness caused by mass hysteria amongst the Russians. Fortunately for the British trawlers (and the two Russian cruisers) Russian gunnery was so bad that damage had been kept to a minimum. For example, the battleship "Oroyol" had fired over 500 shells without hitting a thing.

The Russian government was quick to apologise but British public opinion and the media demanded war against Russia. Twenty-eight British battleships from the Home Fleet were ordered to raise steam and prepare for action while British cruiser squadrons shadowed the Russian fleet as it crossed the Bay of Biscay and sailed down the Portuguese coast.

Nearing Vigo, Rozhestvensky was ordered to dock and leave behind the officers who had been responsible for attacking the British trawlers. Rozhestvensky used the diplomatic furore as an excuse to rid himself of a Captain Klado one of his most bitter critics.

Klado was ordered to return to St. Petersburg to organise reinforcements for the fleet. Klado would use this as an opportunity for revenge on Rozhestvensky by rounding up old, obsolete vessels which the Admiral had condemned as "old tubs" and jokingly referred to as the "sink-by-themselves" squadron.

The Fleet Reaches Africa

The main fleet then approached Tangier having lost contact with the "Kamchatka" for some days. The "Kamchatka" eventually rejoined the fleet reporting that she had fired 300 shells in an engagement with three Japanese ships - the enemy vessels were actually a Swedish merchantman, a German trawler and a French schooner. For good measure as the fleet left Tangier one ship managed to cut the city's underwater telegraph cable with her anchor which prevented communication with Europe for four days.

The next phase in the operation was to rendezvous with ten of the German supply ships off Dakar in Western Africa. Having made contact, the fleet then proceeded to take on double loads of coal. These extra loads had to be stored on the decks, which caused coal dust to spread throughout the ships. The coal dust, combined with the humid equatorial atmosphere, resulted in the death of some of the seamen who suffered severe respiratory problems from breathing in the filthy black air, which congested their lungs.

Having been quiet for some days, the "Kamchatka" sent a new wave of panic throughout the fleet when she sent the wrong signal during a storm off the coast of Angola. Instead of issuing the code "We are all right now" the message "Do you see torpedo boats" was signaled.

As the fleet neared Cape Town, Rozhestvensky received a signal that Klado was sending the reinforcements to join him. The Admiral knowing the quality of the ships decided to avoid a rendezvous with them. Morale amongst the fleet reached an all time low as many of the sailors became convinced that they were sailing to certain destruction.

To lift their spirits, the crews collected exotic pets on shore visits - including a crocodile and a poisonous snake that caused a panic on one battleship when it wrapped itself around the guns and then bit the commanding officer. The fleet turned into a floating zoo as a bizarre menagerie of birds and animals was left free to roam the decks. Events took a more severe downturn when the cooling plant on the "Esperance", the fleet's refrigerated supply ship, broke down. A lot of rotting meat had to be jettisoned which resulted in the fleet being followed by sharks.

To Madagascar and the Indian Ocean

At Madagascar, events took a turn for the worse. For two weeks, Admiral Rozhestvensky was severely ill and remained confined in his cabin. His Chief of Staff suffered a brain haemorrhage and was partially paralysed. No one was really in command of the fleet and the crews spent increasing amounts of time ashore at various saloons, brothels and gambling houses. Disease broke out with daily deaths from malaria, dysentery and typhoid. During the funeral for one of her dead, the "Kamchatka" fired a salute. Unfortunately a live shell was used which hit the cruiser "Aurora" which was by now becoming used to being a mobile target for Russian gunnery.

Mental illness from the long period at sea began to take a toll on the crews as religious fervour broke out. The worst cases together with a group of mutineers and revolutionaries from the "Admiral Nakhimov" were sent back to Russia on the supply ship "Malay". Many officers were frequently drunk or drugged. One officer had bought 2,000 cigarettes in Madagascar, which were found to be filled with opium.

The fleet also needed to be re-supplied with ammunition having fired most of its shells in the "battle" with the British trawlers. Spirits lifted when the supply ship "Irtysh" arrived. The "Irtysh" was expected to be carrying ammunition for the fleet. When the cargo was unloaded it was found to comprise 12,000 pairs of fur-lined boots and a matching number of winter coats - ideally suited to equatorial Africa where the fleet was now stationed!

To try and restore some semblance of order and battle readiness, Rozhestvensky ordered gunnery practice. None of the destroyers scored any hits on a stationary target. Of the battleships, the flagship scored a single hit which was on the ship towing the target. A destroyer squadron ordered to sail in line abreast formation scattered during exercises, as the officers had not been issued with new code books. Seven torpedoes were fired - one of which jammed, three swung off target, two chugged slowly and missed the target altogether and one went round in a circle causing ships to scatter in panic. For good measure the "Kamchatka" sent a signal saying she was sinking - on investigation this turned out to be nothing more than a cracked steam pipe in the engine room.

In the meantime, the reinforcements now named the Third Pacific Squadron, set sail from Reval (Tallinn) under the command of the elderly Admiral Nebogatoff. The Admiralty ordered him to rendezvous with the main fleet "You are to join up with Rozhestvensky, whose route is unknown to us". Rozhestvensky had no intention of joining up with what he had described as an "archaeological collection of naval architecture" and it must have appeared to him that he was being pursued around the globe by a fleet of ghost ships. To add to his problems, Rozhestvensky read in a newspaper that the Admiralty in St. Petersburg had ordered him to destroy the Japanese fleet, sail to Vladivostock and there hand over command to Admiral Biriloff who was traveling to the port by the Trans-Siberian Railway.

Appointment With Destiny

The fleet then crossed the Indian Ocean where it was met by a transport ship "Gortchakoff". Spirits lifted in the hope that the ship had some long overdue mail from home. In fact the only mail the ship was carrying was the letters the crews had sent home from Madagascar one month before.

On 11th May 1905, the Third Pacific Squadron , having made good progress for a collection of old tubs, joined the main fleet off the coast of Indo-China. The new arrivals bought news from home of unrest, mutiny and revolution.

The fleet now headed for Vladivostock, but was engaged by the Japanese at the battle of Tsushima during 27th-29th May 1905. The outcome was a one-sided victory for the Japanese who sunk eight Russian battleships, nine cruisers and several other ships resulting in the deaths of 4,000 Russian sailors, 3 admirals and 7,300 captured. In contrast Japanese losses amounted to 3 torpedo boats, 116 killed and 530 wounded Those Russian ships which survived managed to escape to Vladivostock and Port Arthur where they remained blockaded until the end of the war or the nearest neutral port.

Conclusion

The decision to send the Baltic fleet around the world to its destruction must rank as one of the gravest in the long line of naval follies. Diplomatically, the victory at the battle of Tsushima was a major boost to Japan, which became the first eastern nation to defeat a European power.

Russia was beaten militarily and Japan was financially exhausted by the war so both powers agreed to negotiation with talks mediated by Theodore Roosevelt the President of the United States. The resulting Treaty of Portsmouth signed on 5th September 1905 saw Russia surrender its leases to the important naval bases of Liaoyang and Port Arthur. Russia evacuated the southern half of Sakhalin and Manchuria and recognised Korea as a Japanese sphere of influence. Two months after the treaty was signed, the 1905 revolution rocked Russia, which enabled Japan to make Korea a protectorate before formally annexing it in 1910.

As for Admiral Rozhestvensky, he didn't follow a naval tradition and go down with his ship but survived the war only to commit suicide.

Hullwebs would like to express their appreciation to Kevin Lee
for allowing the puplication of his extensive research on these pages.


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