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Sunday Maritime Book Review: The Tsar’s Last Armada

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The Tsar’s Last Armada, by Constantine Pleshakov, tells the story of the transit of the Russian Baltic Fleet to the Straits of Tsushima, where it was destroyed by Admiral Togo Heihachiro’s battle squadron. The Baltic Fleet was dispatched in response to the successful Japanese blockade of Port Arthur, and to the Japanese victory over the Russian Pacific Fleet at the Battle of Yellow Sea. The Fleet, commanded by Admiral Zinovy Rozhesvensky, would circle Europe, Africa, and most of Asia on its way to Port Arthur, where it would break the Japanese siege and destroy Togo’s fleet. With the Japanese Navy destroyed, the Russians would presumably be able to cut contact between Japanese forces on the mainland and supply bases in the homeland.

It was not to be, but the trip, after all, is half the fun. Russian battleships (which were understood to be competitive with foreign contemporaries) were not built for a journey through the tropics, or really for any long range expedition. Similarly, Russian sailors were not prepared for the sort of journey that the Tsar ordered them to undertake. Among the more mundane problems the fleet faced was a lack of charts, a lack of suitable food, a lack of refrigeration, and a lack of appropriate medicines and medical treatment facilities. The less mundane problems included serial confrontations with the Royal Navy, which did not look kindly on the transit of a major fleet through areas it viewed as its playground. In an imagined confrontation near Denmark, the Russian fleet opened fire on a group of fishing vessels with fatal results. Near Gibraltar, the commanding Royal Navy officer mused about using the Mediterranean squadron to destroy the Baltic Fleet at anchor. The Russians also experienced friction with their French allies, who saw no reason to antagonize Japan and chafed at the presence of the Russians in their colonial waters.

The Russian fleet consisted of four modern battleships, four older battleships, three coast defense battleships, and various assorted support craft. This was a hodgepodge of several different squadrons, resulting from the somewhat confused instructions of Nicholas II. This had the positive effect of concentrating as much power as possible in the fleet, but the negative effects of creating a slow battleline (the line could only move as fast as its slowest ship), and producing a divided and confused command situation. Many of the Russian ships were obsolescent, incapable of doing serious damage to Togo’s battleships (although they certainly could have hurt his armored cruisers).

The bulk of the squadron left in October 1904. Port Arthur fell in January 1905, while the fleet was off the coast of Madagascar. The new Russian objective was Vladivostok; assuming that the Russian fleet would not be in condition to confront Togo right away, it would refit in the Far East Russian naval base and destroy Togo later. To get to Vladivostok, Admiral Rozhesvensky decided to take the Straits of Tsushima, rather than the longer route to the east of Japan. The Russian fleet, in poor mechanical condition and with low morale, sought to avoid battle with Togo’s fleet. Togo, on the other hand, decided that this was the time to destroy the Russians.

This was a riskier choice than Pleshakov (or many other commentators) let on. The Russian fleet, after all, was much larger than the Japanese. It was at a low ebb in terms of combat effectiveness, and the Japanese were at their maximum efficiency, but the presence of so many more guns weighed in the Russians favor. Moreover, Togo was at a significant strategic advantage. Since the fall of Port Arthur, the strategic rationale of the deployment of the Baltic Fleet had been lost. Vladivostok is roughly five hundred miles from the routes used to supply the Japanese armies on mainland Asia, and Admiral Rozhesvensky’s fleet could not have maintained itself on station long enough to significantly disrupt Japanese logistics. Any division of the fleet would leave it easy prey for Togo’s faster, more agile squadron. As such, all Togo needed to do to win was not to lose; the only result that could have transformed the situation would have been a Russian annihilation of the Japanese.

Pleshakov concentrates on the Russian experience, and so doesn’t have a lot of insight into Togo’s choice. Instead, he discusses the course of the battle, which is quick, devastating Japanese rout. Moreover, the story is told without much detail in terms of the tactical decisions undertaken during the battle. The Russian battleships catch fire, explode, and capsize one by one; little damage is inflicted on the Japanese. Admiral Rozhesvensky is knocked out early in the battle by a shell fragment, and is captured by the Japanese after his deputy, Admiral Nebogatov, surrenders his squadron without firing a shot.

Seven Russian battleships, including three of the most modern, were sunk. Four others were captured. Three of the thirty-seven ships in the Russian squadron made it to Vladivostok. Japanese losses amounted to three torpedo boats. Rozhesvensky, Nebogatov, and a couple of thousand other prisoners spent several months as guests of the Emperor, in conditions that were quite hospitable. Upon return to Russia after the peace treaty, Admiral Rozhesvensky, Admiral Nebogatov, and several captains faced courts-martial. Rozhesvensky took all responsibility for the defeat, probably saving some of his captains from the firing squad. Nebogatov, who certainly should have been shot, was sentenced to 16 years, commuted to two.

Pleshakov’s book is useful enough for the lay reader; it has an excellent description of the journey and a non-technical description of the battle. His discussion of the political situation of the war (and the greater strategic significance for the combatants) is quite weak, and anyone looking for an account of the course of the battle, or for details about the combatants, will be disappointed.

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