WHAT A MODERN NAVAL BATTLE IS REALLY LIKE.
The world is forever increasing its armaments and yet it appears that there has not been a real test—that is to say a real engagement in war—of the most modern fleets with the exception of the battle of Tsu-Shima, in the Russo-Japanese War. We accept this statement on the part of London Magazine, as a preface to an intensely interesting article which it publishes, and which we reproduce in condensed form, from the pen of Captain Vladimir Semenoff, of the Russian fleet.
The article consists of the Captain’s Diary for “May 27, 1905.” This was the date of the battle. Since then the Captain is dead, from wounds received in the fight.
What with manœuvres, etc., he begins, tne 26th of May passed almost imperceptibly. I do not know the feeling on board other ships, but on the “Suvoroff" we were cheerful and eager for the fray. . . . Discussions were held as to whether we would encounter the whole of the Japanese Fleet in the Straits, whether we would
be able tp slip through in the fog and gain our base, Vladivostock, unnoticed by the enemy, and as to the chances of damage which we might suffer from submarines, floating mines and torpedo attacks.
At sunset the fleet closed up, and in expectation of torpedo-boat attacks half the officers were on duty at the guns, the rest sleeping by their posts. The night came on dark, the mist seemed to grow denser. On the dark deck there prevailed a strained silence; near the guns the motionless figures of their crews seemed like the dead, but all were wide awake, gazing keenly into the darkness. . . .
Was not that the dark shadow of a torpedo-boat? We listened attentively. Surely the throb of her engines . . .
must betray an invisible foe.
I went up to the bridge, where the Admiral was getting a little sleep in a chair. The Commander, wearing soft slippers, was pacing rapidly but quietly up and down the bridge. He seemed confident that we would get through to Vladivostock unobserved.
“Up to the present,” he said, “we haven’t been discovered ; it will be day-break in a couple of hours, and even if their torpedo-boats are near us they won’t be able to collect—how can they find us in weather like this? You can’t even see the rear of the fleet. It’s 200,000 to 1 against anyone running into us accidentally. If it’s the same to-morrow we’ll give them the slip, and they’ll have to wait for our second coming out of Vladivostock— that’ll be a different tale.”
However, the Japanese got the 200,000th chance and more, for at about 5 a.m. on May 27th, a Japanese cruiser almost ran into our hospital ships, > and by the changed character of their wireless messages it became apparent that our presence was known. At 6.46 another ship appeared, and at 8 o’clock four more came out of the fog, steaming almost parallel to the Russian Fleet. At about 10 a.m. four more light cruisers were sighted, and it became evident to àll of us that the decisive moment could not now be long postponed.
At a signal from the flagship, battle order was taken up.
At midday the officers were having a last hurried meal in the wardroom, and the senior officer proposed a toast:
“On this the great anniversary of the
sacred coronation of their Highnesses, may God help us to serve with honor our beloved country. To the health of the Emperor—the Empress—to Russia 1”
The wardroom resounded with cheers, and their last echo had scarcely died away ere the alarm was sounded on deck. Everyone rushed to their stations.
At 1.20 p.m, the Russian Fleet resumed its formation—the First Division again leading the other two—and now far ahead in the distance could be dimly seen, approaching through the mist, the Japanese main force. The twelve ships came slowly in sight.
“To your stations, gentlemen!” cried the Flag-Captain quickly, as he followed the Admiral.
I went to the after-bridge, as being the best place to note what happened during the action, and conversed with one of the officers in charge of a turrent.
“Hullo! Look—what are they up to?” said R.
The Japanese ships had suddenly commenced to turn in succession—reversing their course. As this manoeuvre would take about fifteen minutes before the fleet could all have turned to the new course, and as the ships in rear would be unable to fire during the manoeuvre without hitting their own leading ships, the Russians had great hopes of being able to do material damage to these leading ships first.
At 1.49, when the manoeuvre had only been performed by the “Mikasa” (Togo’s flagship, leading the line) and one other ship—the “Suvoroff” fired the first shot and the guns of the whole fleet thundered forth. The first shots which went over and those falling short were all close, but the hits could not be seen. Our shells on bursting scarcely emitted any smoke—the fuses were adjusted to burst after penetrating the target. A hit could only be detected when something fell—and nothing fell! In a couple of minutes two more ships had turned, and the enemy began to reply. The first shells flew over us, and some of the long ones turned a complete somersault; they flew over us making a sort of wail, different from the ordinary roar.
“Are those the ‘portmanteaux’?” asked R.
“Yes, those are they.”
“Portmanteaux” was the nickname given to the huge shells filled with a secret explosive used by the Japanese; they were a loot in diameter and nearly four feet long.
What struck me most was that these“portmanteaux” exploded the moment they touched the water’s surface. Then «une others—nearer and nearer; then, close to the foremost funnel, rose a
Stic pillar of smoke, water and flame.
stretchers being carried along the fartbridge.
“Prince Tserstelil” shouted R. in reply to my silent question.
Soon smoke and fire leapt out of the officers’ gangway. A shell had fallen into the Captain’s cabin, and, having penetrated the deck, had burst in the officers’ quarters, setting them on fire. . . . I was able to observe the stupor which seems to come over men who have never been in action before when the first shells begin to fall ... a stupor turning either into uncontrollable panic or unusually high spirits, depending on men’s characters.
The men at the fire-hoses stood as if mesmerised. ... I went down to them from the bridge and using such commonplace words as: “Wake up—turn on the water,” got them to pull themselves to-
? ether and bravely to fight the fire. . .
looked now in the direction where the flag-officers and signalmen should have been. A shell had passed through the deck-house, bursting inside. Of the ten or twelve men, some were standing by the turret, others lying in a huddled group. Inside was a pile of something and on the top an officer’s telescope.
“Is . . . that all that is left?” I wondered.
I had intended in this action to note the times and places where shells burst, but how could I make detailed notes when it seemed impossible even to count the number of projectiles striking us? I had never witnessed such a fire before and had never imagined anything like it. Shells were pouring upon us incessantly. It seemed as if these were mines, not shells . . .
They burst as soon as they touched anything—handrails, funnel, guys were sufficient to cause a thoroughly efficient burst ; steel plates and superstructures were torn to pieces, the splinters causing many casualties : iron ladders were crumbled up into rings, and guns were literally hurled from
their mountings. In addition there was the unusually high temperature and the liquid flame of the explosion spread over everything. . . • .Almost non-com-
bustible materials such as hammocks, etc., drenched with water, flared up in an instant. ... I went to the conningtower and found the Admiral and Captain looking through the chink between the armour and the roof.
“Sir,” said the latter, energetically gesticulating, as was his wont, “we must shorten the distance, they’re all being killed— they are on fire.”
“Wait a bit, aren’t we all being killed also?” replied the Admiral.
Close to the wheel . . . lay two bodies in officers’ tunics, face downwards.
On going out of the conning-tower I saw that the enemy had finished turning. His twelve ships were in perfect order, steaming parallel to us but gradually forging ahead, and apparently uninjured. .
But with usi I looked round. What havoc ! Burning bridges, smouldering debris, piles of dead bodies. Signallingstations, gun-directing positions, all destroyed, and astern the “Alexander” and “Borodino” also enveloped in smoke.
It was now 2.5 p.m.
The enemy commenced to turn so as to “cross the T” of the advancing Russian battleship line. The latter also turned towards the same direction, thus bringing them on the beam again.
A man came to report what had taken place in the after 12-inch turret. I went to look. Part of the. shield had been tom off and was bent upwards, but the turret was still working and keeping up a hot fire. The officer in command of the fire-parties had both legs blown off. Men fell faster and faster ; the dead were left to lie where they had fallen—there were not enough men to look after the wounded ! There are no spare men on board a warship, and a reserve does not exist.
It was now 2.20 p.m.
Firing was impossible from the after guns on one side. The men were suffocated with heat and smoke. In the conning-tower there were now five or six 'bodies instead of two. The enemy Were still endeavoring to cut across the Russian line, and the latter were closing on them as
their guns could now only fire at close range owing to wrecked range-finding appliances, etc.
All this time the destruction continued, appalling and almost, unchecked as it was in the Russian flagship. A man reported that the after-turret had been blown up, and almost simultaneously something large and heavy fell with a crash. The boats were smashed to bits, and we were enveloped in an impenetrable smoke. It was the foremost funnel which had fallen.
It was now 2.30 p.m.
I tried to get to the after-turret but com. munication on deck was impossible, and I passed through the Admiral’s quarters, now burning furiously. I met the FlagLieutenant, who told me the fearful news that the rudder was disabled, thus making the ship practically useless as a unit in the fleet. In a little over half an hour from the first shot the flagship was forced to leave the line.
“That is all that is wanting,” I thought to myself, rushing up on deck.
Our fleet was steaming past, bearing on an opposite course. The disabled rudder had caused the ship to turn a complete circle. I looked for the torpedo-boats which were to take the Admiral and his Staff to an uninjured ship in the event of the “Suvoroff” having to leave the line, but none were to be seen. All means of signalling had long since been destroyed.
Meanwhile shells poured upon us—a veritable whirlwind of fire and iron.
A Japanese eye-witness wrote:
“On leaving the line, the flagship, though burning badly, still steamed after the fleet. She was so battered that none could have taken her for a ship.”
On the mess-deck, the wounded were standing, sitting, or lying. Here it was that they first began to feel. The dreadful noise of deep sighs and half-stifled groans was audible in the close air. Ahead somewhere, in white coats stained with red splotches, busy figures moved about, and towards them all these piles of flesh, clothes and bones turned, and in their agony dragged themselves. It seemed as if a cry—voiceless, but intelligible—a cry which reached to one’s very soul—a request for help—for relief from suffering, though at the price of a speedy death— rose up on all sides.
The ship was now being handled from a lower fighting position as the conningtower was untenable, and everyone in it, including the Admiral—-who bore himself most cheerfully—was wounded. Although the damage to the rudder was repaired for the time, steering was most erratic from this place. It meant turning round in circles rather than going ahead.
The Admiral looked for a position on deck from which to watch the fight ; he was here again badly wounded, and carried into a turret, where he remained — unable to be moved. Meanwhile, as the flagship was seen to be not under control, the “Alexander” led what was left of the Russian Fleet, and endeavored to steer so as to prevent the Japanese Fleet crossing the “T” of her line, which they eventually succeeded in doing, owing to superior speed, thus forcing the “Alexander” and ships astern, to the south.
It was now 2.50 p.m.
We all waited . . . Watching the
Japanese fire . . . concentrated on
the “Alexander.” At times, she seemed enveloped in flames and brown smoke, while round her the sea literally boiled, throwing up great pillars of water. Nearer and nearer she came, till the distance was scarcely 2,000 yards (from the Japanese). Then, one after another, we saw a whole series of shells strike her fore-'bridge and port 6-inch turret, and, turning sharply to starboard, she steamed away, having almost reversed her course, while after her went the “Borodino” and others.
About this time also the “Oslyabya” was sunk under the concentrated fire of six ships. There was not much order left among the Russian Fleet. The turn was hastily made. The line-ahead formation was not maintained, and the ships were turned back towards their stricken flagship. The awful reality that we had suffered defeat now forced itself upon me. I made a note in my pocket-book.
A heavy list to port and a bad fire in the upper battery . . . Why is it that
we hide things from ourselves? Why did I not dare write even in my own notebook the cheerless word “Defeat?”
The Japanese in following the retiring enemy poured in a heavy fire as they passed the helpless “Suvoroff”—still fighting
desperately with the one 12-inch turret left, and they now disabled even that. A shell penetrated the armoured deck and water poured into the hole and into the mess-deck, which was most dangerous.
An effort was made to stop it, and the Commander, though badly wounded, ralied a few men round him to try and extinguish a fire. A chance shot struck the hatchway, and when the smoke had cleared away, neither ladder, nor Commander, nor men were in existence! . . .
It was now 4.20 p.m.
Torpedo-boats came up astern to give the “Suvoroff” the coup de grace, but there was one 12-pounder available for use, and this, fought by wounded men, showed the enemy that this battered vessel could still show their teeth, and the boats steamed away to await a more favorable opportunity.
The ship was now such a scene of havoc and devastation that things appeared so fearful as not to be in the least terrible. To everyone it was perfectly clear that all was over.
It was now 5 p.m.
The Japanese Fleet had split up, one part steaming south and attacking the
transports in rear, the other engaging what was left of the Russian main force, which, after having described a huge circle, was steering to the north, and again passed the “Suvoroff” in disorder. The “Alexander,” badly battered and with a heavy list, so low in the water that the seas almost came into the lower battery portholes, was still fighting with a few serviceable guns. . .
Soon after this, a torpedo-boat was seen approaching, which turned out to be the Russian “Buiny,” which had come to take the Admiral and his staff as prearranged.
Admiral Rodhjestvensky was partly unconscious from his many wounds, and at first refused to leave; he had not allowed them to take him to a dressing-station, but remained sitting on a box in the turret. At times, he would look up to ask how the battle was progressing, and then would sit again silently.
However, he gave orders to “collect the Staff.” . . . Only two could be found
—all below was in darkness (the electric light had gone out) and full of suffocating smoke. We called them by name but received no answer. The silence of the dead reigned in that smoky darkness, and it is probable that all below, where the ventila-
tors took smoke instead of air, had been suffocated. The engines had ceased to work; of the 900 composing the complement of the “Suvoroff” at this time there only remained alive those few in the lower battery and on the windward embrasure.
The Captain of the “Buiny,” with great skill, actually brought his boat alongside, though this was fraught with great danger to herself owing to the heavy seas and the projections on the wrecked battleship’s side. They had immense difficulty in getting the Admiral on board. I went to him and said:
“Come out, sir, F. is here.”
He gazed at us, shaking his head.
“I don’t want to. No !”
This, was no time for ceremony, and the Admiral was being bodily carried out when he groaned and completely lost consciousness. It was the best thing that could have happened.
With great difficulty he was carried to the side and lowered down, almost thrown on board the torpedo-boat at a moment when she rose on a wave, and swung towards us. The “Buiny” managed safely to clear the ship’s side, and I accompanied the Admiral on board. How I. with my
wounded legs, boarded her, I don’t remember. I looked back at the “Suvoroff.”
Who could have recognized the once formidable battleship in this crippled mass, enveloped in smoke, her mainmast cut in half, foremast and both funnels completely carried away, her high bridges and galleries, shapeless piles of distorted iron heaped upon the deck? She had a heavy list and we could see the hull under the water-line reddening the surface of the water. We rapidly steamed away, followed by a brisk fire from such of the enemy's ships as had observed us.
It was now 5.30 p.m.
The Admiral’s wounds were now examined by a doctor on board. His life was in danger from a fractured skull, a portion of which had entered his brain. It would be impossible to transfer him to another ship. He was unable to stand. However, they felt bound to ask him if he felt able to continue the command and what ship he would board. He turned to me with an effort and said: “No—where am I? You can see—command ‘Nebogatoff.’ ” Then with a sudden burst of energy added: “Keep on—Vladivostock—course, N. 23 degrees E.” and again relapsed into a stupor. . . .
We now learnt that the “Alexander” had been sunk at 5.30, and some details of the sinking of the “Oslvabya” from one of her officers who had been picked up by the “Buiny.”
It was now dusk, and the fight was still proceeding. The flashes of their guns twinkled incessantly.
It was now 7 p.m.
The enemy’s torpedo-boats appeared, but retreated again under the fire of some of the Russian cruisers.
“The ‘Borodino’ —look!” was shouted on all sides.
I raised myself on my arm, but where the “Borodino” had been nothing was visible save a patch of foam.
At 7.40 p.m.
I was still able to see our battleships, devoid of formation, defending themselves from the approaching torpedo-boats—this was my last note.
Captain Semenoff had been repeatedly wounded during the action and he had now to be attended to. The Admiral was transferred later to another torpedo-boat and was subsequently captured by the Japanese, who, of course, did everything possible for his comfort and safety.
The sinking of the indomitable “Suvoroff ’ is thus described in a Japanese report:
Torpedo-boats were sent to attack her, and “although much burned and still on fire, having been fired at by all the fleet—in the full sense of the word—although she had only one serviceable gun, she still opened fire, showing her determination to defend herself so long as she remained above water. About 7 p.m., after being twice attacked, she went to the bottom.”
So ends this account of the greatest sea fight since Trafalgar.
The defeat of the huge and unwieldy Russian fleet (for their Admiral would have had a much better chance if his oldest and slowest ships had never left Europe) showed that numbers alone is not what tells most in a modern action, and that infinite pluck and bravery can never make up for the lack of the essentials of thorough and constant .gunnery practice and fleet training carried out beforehand in peace time. To the greater experience and proficiency which had been attained by the Japanese in these essentials during the years preceding the war, and to their perfect staff organization, was their victory due. Their greater speed, vastly superior ammunition, and the good use made of wireless telegraphy (its first use in warfare) for scouting, only contributed in a lesspr degree tp ib