Port Arthur: Prologue

Under cover of darkness the Japanese assaulted Russia's Pacific squadron lying at anchor off Port Arthur. The Russian ships were in a state of "peacetime readiness" and were not prepared for the unprovoked attack. Before the Russian gunners could open retaliatory fire, the best battleships of the squadron, Tsessarevitch and Retvisan, and also the first-rated cruiser Pallada, were hit by torpedoes. On the morning of 27 January 1904, under the command of Vice-Admiral Togo Heihachiro, the main body of the Japanese Combined Squadrons appeared off Port Arthur.

Having hoisted the mast head flags, the Russian ships-four battleships and five cruisers-followed Vice-Admiral Oskar Stark's flagship Petropavlovsk and began firing upon fifteen Japanese battleships and cruisers. Surprised by such a resolute retaliation, Admiral Togo retreated. On the eve of the Battle of Port Arthur, at the Korean port of Chemulpo, the Japanese had already blockaded the first-rated cruiser Varyag [Viking] and the gunboat Koreyets. In response to the ultimatum of the enemy's six cruisers and eight destroyers, the commander of the Varyag, Captain Vsevolod Rudnev, led both ships out of port to engage in an unequal battle. The poorly armoured Varyag sustained serious losses under enemy fire. Seeing no possibility of continued resistance, Rudnev ordered his sailors to scuttle the damaged cruiser in the harbour and blow up the Koreyets. The crews of both ships were taken aboard British, French and Italian cruisers stationed nearby.

The seamen of the Varyag and Koreyets returned to Russia, where they were given a hero's welcome and honoured with extraordinary tribute and ceremony. No one suspected that the fate of the Varyag and Koreyets was only a prologue to further events in a war that would see exceptional heroism but few victories. Misfortune pursued the Russian fleet from the start of the war. Off Port Arthur the Russian mining cruiser Yenisei and cruiser Boyarin struck their own mines. Conscious of his responsibility for the disaster, Captain Vladimir Stepanov refused to board a lifeboat and perished with his ship. On the night of 2 February the hurriedly patched battleship Retvisan and the destroyers on duty, together with the coastal batteries, resisted the Japanese attempt to blockade the exit out of Port Arthur Harbour. The Russians sank all five mine-laying steamers beyond the fairway, but the next day in Golubinaya [Dove] Bay, Russia lost the destroyer Vnushitelny [Impressive]. The situation changed in Port Arthur on 24 February with the arrival of Vice-Admiral Stepan Makarov, appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Fleet. Makarov's appearance heightened the sailors' spirit.

Another Japanese attempt to block the seaway was successfully repulsed, and the Russian force strengthened its coastal defences. In response to the enemy bombardment of Port Arthur from the sea, Makarov prepared the fleet to fight at anchor and also made plans for withdrawing from the harbour. Togo Heihachiro patiently avoided a battle close to the fortress. Under the flag of Makarov the Pacific Fleet put to sea on five occasions within a period of a month.

Admiral Makarov highly valued reconnaissance. During the first reconnaissance mission of 26 February, the destroyers Reshitelny [Decisive] and Steregushchy were cut off by a detachment of four enemy destroyers. The Reshitelny succeeded in breaking away, but the Steregushchy was surrounded by Japanese ships. With their commander Lieutenant Alexander Sergeyev at the head, the crew fought to the last. Riddled with holes from the Japanese shells, the Steregushchy sank with all its crew. Only four sailors escaped.

Eight destroyers were simultaneously dispatched for the night operation on 30 March. That same night Admiral Togo sent his ships to Port Arthur to lay mines in the outer shoreline. On the morning of 31 March, the destroyer Strashny [Terrible] was attacked by four Japanese destroyers. Although her captain, Commander Konstantin Yurasovsky, was killed, the sailors of the destroyer continued fighting until the ship sank.

Makarov sent the cruiser Bayan to the rescue of the Strashny, and then he himself put to sea aboard the Petropavlovsk. Not long after casting anchor, however, the Petropavlovsk struck a mine that de-tonated her ammunition, and she sank rapidly with 650 officers and men. After this, the battleship Pobeda [Victory] also struck a mine and sustained damage. The weakened fleet took shelter in the harbour, where it was placed under the command of Admiral Yevgeny Alekseyev.

Admiral Togo established a close sea blockade of Port Arthur and landed the Japanese army on the Kwantung Peninsula. The Japanese opened an offensive against the fortress from land, and Alekseyev left for Manchuria, entrusting the fleet to Rear Admiral Vilgelm Vitgeft. On the advice of Commander Fyodor Ivanov, commander of the mining cruiser Amur, Vitgeft decided to employ blockade mines against the attacking Japanese fleet. On 1 May 1904, the Amur, escorted by destroyers, planted 50 mines, blocking the way to Togo's ships. The next day the Japanese battleships Hatsuse and Yashima struck the mines and sank. Almost simultaneously the Japanese lost their fast cruiser Ioshino and several smaller craft.

As a result, Russia's opponent lost a third of its battle fleet. Aware that his damaged battleships would be docked only briefly for repairs, Admiral Vitgeft still believed in the possibility of a Russian victory at sea.