An imperial scandal and the rising sun of a new era of sea power
This book is sure to fascinate anyone interested in the naval warfare of comparatively modern times, for its narrative encompasses events bizarre, tragic and incompetent. The Russian Rodjdestvensky squadron set out from northern Russia sailing south with a mission to engage Japanese shipping on the high seas, but instead the enemy it first encountered was British fishing vessels engaged in their normal and peaceful business off the Dogger Bank in the North Sea. How the Russians could mistake these fishermen for Japanese warships in that location is almost beyond imagining, nevertheless the Russian warships opened fire upon the trawlers with disastrous consequences both in loss of life and politically. Indeed, the outbreak of war between Russia and Britain was only narrowly averted. After its incredibly long voyage to south-eastern seas, the Russian fleet eventually closed with its true enemy off the island of Tsushima between Korea and Japan and was promptly destroyed in one of the most decisive and significant sea engagements in naval history. This book was compiled from the letters to his wife of Politovsky, Engineer-in-Chief of the Russian fleet, who was an eyewitness to all these events and who was killed in the final battle. Included in this special Leonaur edition are two smaller accounts of the Dogger Bank (or ‘North Sea’ as it is also termed) Incident.
Leonaur editions are newly typeset and are not facsimiles; each title is available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket.
I often pass through bad moments. One grieves, rages, censures, criticises, and condemns everything. Our army is acting independently, and the fleet does not combine with the movements of the army. The self-same fleet is split into little pieces, which do not act in conformity with the movements of the others. Three (or now, perhaps, two) ships are doing something, or more probably are lying at Vladivostok. Our fleet is moving east, and the third remains behind somewhere (where we do not know); and they are collecting some remnants at Cronstadt and Libau. All these parts do not know what the others are doing. Can there be success under these conditions? I think that there are many disorders in the army. There is no method or organisation anywhere. Among our enemies all is worked out, foreseen, and guessed beforehand. They conduct war on a scientific programme. Is success likely to be on our side? No.
Of course, anything might happen. We might win, but it would only be by chance. With us it is the old system called “Perhaps,” and the old game of trusting to luck. Everything is done anyhow. Not without reason some one remarked that the “apes were fighting the anyhows.” To do him justice, it would be difficult to say a worse or a truer thing.
The Oleg is steaming astern, and other cruisers are ahead and abeam of the fleet. All the battleships, torpedo-boats, and transports occupy the centre.
March 9th (8 a.m.).—Six times today the towropes of torpedo-boats have carried away. This is rather often. The Dimitry Donskoi reports that at night she saw lights of three ships, which were communicating with searchlight flashes, and were going the same course as ourselves.
Another sailor has died in the Oslyabya. He will be buried at sea. He died the day before yesterday, but the coaling prevented his body being committed to the deep yesterday. There are frequent deaths in the Oslyabya, and most of them occur when the fleet is under way.
The admiral always had weak nerves, and now especially so. He sleeps very little, is worried, and gets beside himself at every trifle. Probably he will not hold out to the end.
11 p.m.—We are going desperately slowly. So far, we have made a thousand miles. If we go by one course there will be 2,800 miles left, and by another 2,500. This means we have to toss on the sea for fifteen or twenty days, if nothing happens.
At every step there are breakages and damages. This evening the Sissoi damaged first her rudder and then her machinery. The tow-ropes of the torpedo-boats break like threads. The Buistry has again distinguished herself. She has broken a gun-platform. Soon there will be nothing to break in her.
In the wardroom they reckon that we have 4,400 miles to do in thirty-four days. Our provisions are finished, and we shall have to take to salt provisions (horrid filth). They make jokes, selecting which of the officers shall be eaten first.
Tomorrow it is proposed to coal. It will be difficult to do so if the swell is as great as it was today. Again, we shall lose a whole day. Coaling in our present condition is a very important thing, though troublesome. The whole deck is encumbered with coal, and even part of the guns.
March 10th.—At nine the torpedo-boat Gromky reported that her rudder was damaged. The divers had to work under water, and there were many sharks. While they were at work men with loaded rifles stood ready to defend them. They were clearly visible, as the water is very transparent.
9 p.m.—From a chance word I gathered that in fifteen days we shall be at some port. I doubt it.
By my reckoning we shall toss at sea much longer. Slowly, very slowly, we go on. Stoppages are constant. I am so accustomed to them that I take very little interest in knowing the reason, and am too lazy to go on deck and find out.
March 11th.—The Svietlana reports that she sees a steamer ahead on the same course as ourselves. It is strange that we are going slowly along an unfrequented route and yet we can catch up a steamer. Even freight-steamers do not go as slowly as our ships.
March 12th.—The Oleg and Donskoi report that they see some lights far away. They are watching them. Perhaps they are English cruisers. The steamer which the Svietlana saw was apparently a myth. A boiler in the Kamchatka is damaged, but she does not remain behind. She began to drop, but when she knew about the suspicious light she prepared to come on. We are approaching nearer and nearer to the East.
We shall soon recross the equator. Vladivostok seems like the promised land. Yes; Vladivostok, Vladivostok!
But what if my supposition about Sagalien and Vladivostok are justified? Where will our fleet go then, and what will it do? The next time we stop to coal I shall have to pass the whole day on board the Gromky.
They have stopped breaking the tow-ropes in the torpedo-boats. At all events, they have not broken one for some time.
The Sissoi is keeping back the fleet. There is always something wrong with her. This morning the Nachimoff joined her. The Oleg reports that the lights she saw yesterday were not constant. They looked like sparks flying out of funnels. Perhaps our fleet is following in the wake of some other ships. By day they hide themselves beyond the horizon, so we do not see them; and by night they approach us, having all lights out. The sparks betray their presence. At night, when there is no moon, it is absolutely dark and very difficult to see.
Our fleet is steaming with lights visible from afar; therefore, it is easy for ships knowing our course to find the fleet in the ocean and to approach it without danger. We may expect any moment to be attacked at night. I cannot without horror imagine one thing—that is, that they will compel us to lie an endless number of days in some Saigon.
Then what will happen? I calm myself with the thought that they will not allow this, observing neutrality.
Neutrality is a fine word. It is good and convenient only for the strong. Strength is now on Japan’s side, and neutrality serves her interests and is useful to her.
They say that the admiral declared that if he met a Japanese ship in neutral waters, he would destroy her, remembering the capture of the Reshitelny (Decisive) by the Japanese. There is neutrality for you! I did not myself hear Rojdestvensky say this—but knowing his character, think him quite capable of it. However, this will not happen. The. Japanese are wily. They will not separate their ships, as Russia has done. God forbid that Japan beats our fleet! The might of Russia will perish with it for ten years. The fleet will not be reconstructed for long. But if we beat the Japanese at sea and get command of it, then Japan is ruined. She will be unable to carry on war, and will not be able to feed and provide the army.
In Japan itself there will be nothing to eat. It can scarcely happen so. Even if the mastery of the sea remains with us, England and America will defend Japan, and Russia will retire, fearing war with these two countries. The war is bound to end to Russia’s disadvantage. How much money she has wasted! How many men have perished!—and for what?