The Decisive Battles


Meanwhile, the Vladivostok cruiser squadron faired considerably better against the Japanese. In April 1904, under the flag of Rear Admiral Essen and escorted by destroyers, the cruisers made a raid on Wonsan, destroying two Japanese coastal vessels and the troop carrier Kinshu-Maru with its assault troops still on board. In early June, Vice-Admiral Pyotr Bezobrazov sailed the first-rated cruisers Rossiya, Gromoboy and Ryurik into the Korean Strait. There the Gromoboy sank the transports Izumo-Maru and Hitachi-Maru, while the Ryurik used two Whitehead torpedoes to damage the Sado-Maru. The entire Japanese infantry battalion and eighteen siege howitzers sank along with the Hitachi-Maru. The annihilation of the transports startled the Japanese Command, which now had to organize new communication routes. Eight cruisers of the Combined Squadrons, under Vice-Admiral Hikonodjo Kamimura, were dispatched to defend the Korean Strait and the Sea of Japan.

On the order of Admiral Alekseyev, Rear Admiral Vitgeft left Port Arthur on 10 June 1904 with six battleships, five cruisers, and eight torpedo gunboats and destroyers. Admiral Togo immediately advanced all his available forces-four battleships, ten cruisers, four coastal vessels and 30 destroyers. The Japanese were astonished to see the previously damaged Tsessarevitch, Retvisan and Pobeda in the formation of the Port Arthur squadron. Since those ships ensured Russian superiority in heavy guns, Togo resolved not to attack.

Believing the Russian forces to be at a disadvantage in view of the superiority of the Japanese destroyers, the Russian fleet commander himself returned to Port Arthur without engagement; however, the consequences of his indecision soon followed. The Japanese attacked Port Arthur by land and, having installed naval guns in the mountains, opened fire on the Russian ships near the coastline.

On 28 July, to save his squadron from the Japanese mountain-top bombardment, Vitgeft sailed to the open sea and headed for Vladivostok. Still lacking support from Kamimura, Admiral Togo hurried to Port Arthur to impede the breakthrough. Events quickly came to a head.

Fearing more losses and consequently avoiding a decisive battle, Togo chose Vitgeft's ship as his main target. Vitgeft himself intended to break away and, as he reported at the time, "to avoid fighting if possible." The battle started in the Yellow Sea, the opposing ships at a distance of 65 cable lengths. Leading his ship out of the blockade with three turns, the Russian admiral set a course for the Korean Strait without incurring serious damage. By the evening of 28 July, however, Togo, whose main fleet consisted of seven armoured ships, had succeeded in catching up with Vitgeft's battleships and commenced firing upon them. The squadrons were proceeding on parallel but converging courses, and the Japanese concentrated on the lead ships Tsessarevitch and Peresvet and the rear ship Poltava.

An hour into the battle, on the bridge of the Tsessarevitch, Admiral Vitgeft and two officers of his staff were killed by a 305 mm high-explosive shell, and the Chief of Staff, Rear Admiral Nikolay Matusevich, was seriously wounded. When another shell hit its conning tower, the Tsessarevitch lost its steering and became unoperational. The battle order of the Russian squadron was now broken, and the enemy increased fire. In contrast to Vitgeft, Admiral Togo made successful maneuvres and used his artillery to good advantage. His squadron's gunfire also proved more effective. The Japanese battleships scored 130 accurate shots, the Russians-only 32. The flagship Mikaza was seriously damaged and lost 82 men, but the rest of the Japanese ships fired incessantly.

This untenable situation was overcome by the maneuvering of Captain Edvard Shchensnovich, who, commanding the battleship Retvisan, attempted to place himself at the head of the squadron and dash into the centre of Admiral Togo's line. The Japanese shifted their fire toward him so that the Retvisan could turn back, but during that time the majority of the squadron, with its junior flagman, Rear Admiral Pavel Ukhtomsky, had managed to depart for Port Arthur. Having withstood the enemy's fire, Ukhtomsky led the surviving ships into the besieged port. With the fast cruisers Askold and Novik Rear Admiral Nikolay Reytsenshteyn succeeded in breaking through the encirclement of Japanese ships. The Askold arrived at the Chinese port of Shanghai, where it, was disarmed until the end of the war.

The damaged Tsessarevitch and three destroyers were disarmed at the German port of Tsindao and the cruiser Diana, at the port of French Saigon. The fate of the destroyer Burny was similarly sealed: she ran into submerged reefs at the Shantung Peninsula and sank.

Aboard the Novik, Commander Maximilian Schultz decided to head for Vladivostok, but, unfortunately, chose the wrong course round the Japanese Islands. The Novik was sighted by a merchant steamship and was then intercepted by the Japanese at the Korsakov port in Sakhalin. There, on 7 August 1904, after engaging in an uneven battle with the Japanese cruiser Tsushima, the Novik was badly damaged and was scuttled by her crew. Following these numerous defeats, Russia's Pacific Fleet could no longer count on victory in a general battle at sea.