Phil Carradice, The Battle of Tsushima (Pen & Sword, 2020)
In 1904, a Russian Imperial fleet sailed on an 18,000 mile voyage into disaster at the hands of a Japanese fleet under the command of a master admiral. What could go wrong for the Russians did go wrong, but the seeds of their destruction lay in Moscow. Nevertheless, the Japanese made full use of all their considerable advantages to win the ensuing battle. In The Battle of Tsushima, prolific writer Phil Carradice narrates the story of one of the most decisive battles in naval history, and one with world changing consequences.
The battle’s origins were laid in 1891 through an assassination attempt on a Russian prince while on a visit to Japan. Czar Nicholas, as the prince became, swore revenge. With his accession in 1894 and Russian expansion into the Far East, he thought he had it. But it was Japan that declared war on Russia in February 1904. To win they had to defeat the Russian fleet and chose the brilliant Admiral Togo Heihachiro to do it. He almost achieved his objective with a surprise attack on Port Arthur. When the repaired Russian fleet sailed out in August, Admiral Togo crushed them. The Czar despatched his Baltic Fleet with “Mad Dog” Zinovi Rozhestvensky in command. They had to sail 18,000 miles while taking on coal, conducting repairs, which would be many, and with mostly conscript crews.
The voyage was as bad as could be feared. False reports of Japanese torpedo boats in the North Sea were British trawlers and fired upon, which nearly resulted in war. The Russian fleet split in two at Tangiers, one to go through the Suez Canal and the other around Cape of Good Hope. Morale fell and class division appeared in the heat of Africa and toil of being at sea. Mechanical problems slowed the fleet too. The fleet reunited at Madagascar only to hear that Port Arthur had fallen and there would be no joint Russian fleet operations from that direction. Politics also intervened to make the situation worse. Morale plummeted further and fear spread, leading to mutinies. Defeat seemed certain, but the fleet sailed on.
Meanwhile, the Japanese prepared for combat. They had technical superiority and battle-hardened crews. In May, the Russian fleet, bolstered by reinforcements, moved towards Tsushima, hoping to make it to Vladivostok. On 27 May, the Japanese spotted them. Togo ‘crossed the T’ placing him at an advantage to the Russian’s battleships. Soon, Japanese shells poured into the Russians, and what they missed torpedoes hit. The battle was a catastrophe for the Russians; two-thirds of her ships went to the bottom, 4,380 sailors died. Carradice concludes with apportioning blame, the battle’s cultural legacy, and a curious epilogue describing the assassination of Czar Nicholas II.
The Battle of Tsushima is an absorbing read, though the battle itself takes up little room. Carradice writes history with a novelist’s touch, perhaps too much so at times, and highlights the farcical nature of the Russian voyage halfway round the world to inevitable defeat. The plight of that fleet is an extraordinary story that deserves its place on your naval history shelves.