The Battle of Tsushima, 1905

WWII operations
None noted.
RAN Ships
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June 1980 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)

Editor’s Note: On the night of 8th February 1904, Vice Admiral Togo led the Japanese Combined Fleet against Russian naval units anchored at Port Arthur at the western end of Korea Bay. Caught by surprise the Russian warships were struck down by deadly torpedo attacks. Two battleships and a cruiser suffered heavy damage and had to be beached. The Russo-Japanese war had begun, although it was a week before official declarations were made. This article on the Battle of Tsushima which was fought in the following year is by the Society’s only Japanese member and has been edited.

ON THE 30TH AUGUST 1904 Tsar Nicholas II decided to send his Baltic Fleet to the Far East in order to join the Russian Pacific Fleet to annihilate the presumptuous Japanese Navy. Four months earlier the Tsar had been shocked by the report of the tragic loss of the flagship Petropavlosk and the Commander-in-Chief Admiral Makaroff, the most experienced admiral in the Tsarist Navy. Admiral Makaroff had arrived at Port Arthur after the first attack to bolster up the badly demoralized Russian Squadron, but shortly afterwards his flagship was mined and sunk with heavy loss of life. As early as the 2nd May the Tsar had appointed his favourite, Vice Admiral Rojestvensky, to the command of the second Pacific Fleet to be despatched to the Far East. The Fleet however did not sail from Kronstadt until the 9th October 1904 due to long delays in preparation.

Later in the wake of the fall of Port Arthur in January 1905 and the complete destruction of the First Pacific Fleet by the Japanese, the Tsar decided to form a Third Pacific Fleet, which sailed from Kronstadt on the 15th February 1905. This Fleet joined the Second Fleet on the 9th May. The combined fleets made up the massive ‘Baltic Fleet’, which was to be engaged with the Japanese Navy at Tsushima.

That immense voyage of the Baltic Fleet of 18,000 miles deserves to be told as a modern Odyssey and lasted more than seven months. Vice Admiral Rojestvensky, the expedition’s commander, showed his capacity to lead his great fleet to the Far East through every possible difficulty. His counterpart, Japan’s Vice Admiral Togo, on the other hand, was devoting himself to various preparations, knowing that he was destined to be engaged in a decisive battle with the Baltic Fleet.

Admiral Togo’s Preparations

  1. First of all Admiral Togo had to destroy the Russian fleet based at Port Arthur. The strength of the Russian First Pacific Fleet was on a par with Togo’s fleet. Therefore, unless Togo destroyed it completely, he would not have any chance of even achieving a draw with the Baltic Fleet. The battle with the fleet of Port Arthur began in February 1904 and finally ended on the 7th December when the Japanese army attacked Port Arthur from the land, took possession of ‘203 Heights’ and sank all the ships in the port by artillery attack. The final victory at Port Arthur only came after various sea battles, one of which was known as the Battle of the Yellow Sea. The destruction of the ships at Port Arthur and the successful naval battles gave Togo the vital foundation required to fight the Baltic Fleet, but was only obtained with painful sacrifice and involved the loss of the battleships Yashima and Hatsuse, both mined on the 15th May 1904. The two battleships lost represented a third of Togo’s modern battleships.
  2. Russia had also a squadron in Vladivostok consisting of three armoured cruisers, one light cruiser, one converted cruiser and 17 torpedo boats. This squadron’s operations were very effective and with a total of seven sorties in six months, they sank ten Japanese transports in Japan’s sea lane to Korea and along Japan’s Pacific coast, which were more than distasteful threats to Japan. After repeated but unsuccessful attempts, opportunity came to Vice Admiral Uemura, when he sighted the enemy on the 14th August 1904 at 0425. By 1042 Uemura ran out of all ammunition and stopped fighting. Still one of Russia’s three armoured cruisers was sunk by then and the remaining two, although they managed to return to Vladivostok, were incapable of further action and the squadron became powerless.
  3. From early December 1904 up to February 1905, all of Admiral Togo’s ships, little by little, returned to their home bases, either Kure or Sasebo, for dry-docking and refit and giving leave to their crews. Hence when Togo returned from a vital conference at Tokyo he had achieved complete agreement as to how to fight the Baltic Fleet and his fleet was well prepared for action. The date was the 21st February so that there was more than three months available for exercises and training.
  4. During the intervening period, Admiral Togo in his training program covered all aspects including gunnery, torpedo, manoeuvering, night attacks, etc. Togo emphasized the prime importance of gunnery and also that of night attacks by destroyers and torpedo boats. The training was so intense that many seamen later remembered the three months of exercises as the hardest period of the war. Mikasa, Togo’s flagship, was said to have fired 30,000 shells in ten days, which equalled her annual consumption in peacetime.
  5. Togo carefully planned the detailed strategy and tactics of the coming battle. His whole plan of battle was entirely based on his firm conviction that the Baltic Fleet would pass through the Tsushima Strait. Togo’s strategy was very largely based on the assumption that the Russian fleet would pass through the Straits of Tsushima and he decided that to achieve annihilation he would require seven separate engagements to achieve his complete victory over the Russians. These operations were as follows:
    • Daylight action off Sasebo at southern entrance to Tsushima Strait.
    • Night action near Tsushima.
    • Daylight action in Korean Strait.
    • Night action in Korean Strait.
    • Daylight action near Dagelet Islands.
    • Night action near Dagelet Islands.
    • Daylight action off Vladivostok.

Understandably Admiral Togo stressed the vital importance of the first encounter. Sight the enemy as early as possible, then keep contact with the enemy and position his fleet favourably against the enemy and forestall any manoeuvers of the enemy to use his greater strength. His planned operation was successfully realized in the actual battle.

  1. The last but not the least important preparation was to establish an effective network for finding the enemy – primarily to observe which route the Baltic Fleet was taking to their destination, Vladivostok; secondly to sight the enemy at an early stage so as to induce them to come to battle in the ideal area required by Togo for his first battle.

Regarding the course of the Russian fleet, there is evidence that there were a lot of arguments between Admiral Rojestvensky and his staff on the subject. The strategic object of the fleet was apparently simple and clear – to get to Vladivostok. Geographically the simple and correct answer was to go through the Tsushima Strait.

But there were many proposals to the Admiral, i.e. through La Perouse Strait at the northern end of Hokkaido or through the Tsugaru Strait at the southern end of Hokkaido so as to divide the fleet into two divisions. Alternatively one group could go through La Perouse and the other through Tsushima Strait and perhaps capture a small island in the Pacific south of Honshu to lure Togo to the Pacific, so that the Russians might have a better chance of escaping to Vladivostok in the vast ocean.

It appears that the Admiral himself had made up his mind earlier, but the whole fleet was not told of his decision until after their departure from Kam Ranh Bay, Indo-China, on the 14th May – the order said ‘To Tsushima’.

Rear Admiral Nebogatoff, who found himself Second-in-Command at the Battle of Tsushima, was not in the confidence of his Commander-in-Chief and obviously disliked him. After the battle he wrote: ‘One of the chief faults which brought about the destruction of the squadron is without doubt the choosing of the Strait of Tsushima to get through to Vladivostok. At the disposition of the Admiral there were three ways, through three straits: Tsushima, Tsugaru and La Perouse. The length of the way from these straits to Vladivostok is nearly the same, namely about 450 miles, but in a geographic position the signification of these ways is quite different. At a very near distance from Tsushima Strait is the chief military port, Sasebo. In this manner, forcing our way through the Tsushima Strait, the Japanese fleet leaned on its chief base. The Russian squadrons would have found themselves in another position, if they had chosen the way through La Perouse Straits, at a distance of 500 miles from the chief base of the Japanese. Here on this coast there are no fleets, either military or commercial, and no port. In this manner of the Russians forcing their way through La Perouse Straits, both the fleets would have been in a more or less equal condition.’

On the Japanese side, perturbations were far more serious. Removing all the ornaments of the myths attached to Admiral Togo, it seems that only he himself was always confident in his own belief that Rojestvensky would come to Tsushima. But his staff were very perturbed and especially after the 20th May, six days after the Russians had left Kam Ranh Bay. In six days the Russians had time enough to reach Tsushima. But no sign had been seen of the Russians.

Togo did his utmost to collect information regarding the movement of the Baltic Fleet. In addition to intelligence operations, he despatched two converted cruisers, Hongkong Maru and Nippon Maru as far as the Indian Ocean in late 1904, a light cruiser Nitaka to the Philippines in early 1905 and a division consisting of two light cruisers Chitose and Kasabi plus three converted cruisers, which patrolled the areas around Hong Kong, Indonesia and Singapore from February to April 1905. All these expeditions failed to bring back any useful information to Togo.

More than three hundred watch towers were built in all possible locations in the Kuril Islands, Japan’s main islands, Okinawa, Formosa and Korea. Four to seven men were employed in each tower and watch was kept for twenty-four hours a day, but no valid information was obtained from the watchers.

From the 14th May, more than 70 patrol ships, many of them merchant ships converted for the job, were positioned south of Korea Strait. Although one of these 70 patrol ships, the Shinana Maru, was to sight the enemy on the 27th May in the early morning, in the meantime there was no information whatsoever regarding the movements of the Baltic Fleet and the Japanese Admiralty’s perplexity was increasing rapidly. The Admiralty in Tokyo received a telegram supposedly from Togo, in fact without him knowing about it, saying that the fleet would move unless the enemy were sighted within a specific time. Tokyo understood the telegram to mean that Togo would move to the north to prepare for the enemy to come through the northern strait and replied that it was advisable to stay at Masampo, Togo’s base for the coming battle expected to take place near Tsushima. This is one of the evidences that Togo’s staff had been badly shaken by nerves. Only Togo, mystically, was calm and confident.

Many years later he is said to have explained the reasons for his firm belief:

  1. The fog prone northern straits were not suitable for the passage of a big fleet.
  2. The Baltic Fleet would have become very slow due to their long voyage through the tropics, and would not be able to avoid the Japanese fleet with their much higher speeds if they took the Pacific route east of the Japanese islands.
  3. It was not possible for the Russians to carry enough coal to go through the Pacific and northern straits and also be prepared to fight a long battle with the Japanese Fleet.

It is possible that Togo was wrong about the Russian’s coal problem, at least regarding the bigger ships, as it later became aware that they were badly overloaded with coal and their armour belts were in consequence well submerged. The Russian ship carried plenty of coal.

Finally the Baltic Fleet was sighted by the Shinano Maru at 0245 on the 27th May. The patrol ship kept contact and at 0445 despatched the first report of an enemy sighting by wireless, then at 0450 reported the fleet direction to the ENE and suggested they were heading for Tsushima Strait. At 0605 Shinano Maru confirmed the fleet’s course was Tsushima.

The light cruiser Izumi which was positioned closest to the Shinano Maru, was to follow up contact. She sighted the Russian fleet at 0645 and thereafter reported the details of the fleet, the names of the warships, their positions and even the colour of the funnels – yellow – to Togo, who grasped all the necessary details of the Baltic Fleet almost ten hours before the battle, while Rojestvensky was left blind until he actually sighted Togo’s fleet.

After Izumi, there were four cruisers (3rd division of Togo’s No. 1 Striking Force), four destroyers (No. 4 destroyer squadron of Urmura’s No. 2 Striking Force) and also Vice Admiral Katoka’s No. 3 Striking Force) to follow up. All of them were persistent in performing their duty of keeping contact with the Russians, but because they did not appear to be aggressive, they acted as a courteous guide to the Russians into the battle area where Togo was waiting.

Admiral Togo upon receipt of the report of the enemy sighting at 0505 sailed out from Masampo towards the islet of Okinoshima, east of Tsushima, the expected battle area. He himself sighted the Baltic Fleet at 1339. At about this time, Togo decided it was the right time to emulate his hero, Lord Nelson, and he ordered an appropriate signal to be hoisted: ‘The fate of the Empire depends on the issue of this battle: Let every man do his utmost’.

The Battle

The situation at 1400 was that the van of the Russian fleet was approaching Tsushima. The distance between the Mikasa and the Suvaroff, Rojestvensky’s flagship, was about 12,000 metres. Then at 1402 Togo changed course to SSW as if he intended to pass the Russians. At 1405, however, he suddenly made a sharp turn to port to ENE and his No. 1 and No. 2 striking forces followed the flagship. The distance between Mikasa and Suvaroff at this moment was about 7,000 metres. This manoeuvre was later called ‘Crossing the T’ or a ‘Togo Turn’. The turn appeared to be very adventurous. It was, however, well calculated to achieve its purpose – to allow Togo to have his full broadside firing and to position his fleet at the head of the Baltic Fleet. A detailed study was made of this turn by a captain of the Japanese Navy. Mikasa took two minutes to complete the turn whilst Suvaroff took forty seconds to recognise Togo’s intentions and an additional three minutes to start firing. Mikasa started broadside firing at 1410 and noted the first hit at 1412. Suvaroff’s shells started to hit Mikasa from 1413.

From 1410, the two battleships Mikasa and Asahi and two cruisers Azuma and Iwate concentrated their fire on the Russian flagship Suvaroff and the other two battleships and seven cruisers concentrated on the Russian battleship Osliaba.

Suvaroff was hit in the first broadsides and her steering gear jammed. The crippled battleship was on fire and was forced to leave the line out of control, removing the Commander-in-Chief, who was badly wounded from the battle. At 1507 Osliaba capsized and sank.

Suvaroff’s turn to leave the line of battle was not deliberate as Togo had supposed, but due as referred to above, to rudder trouble. The situation for Togo could have been serious. The day was however saved by Admiral Uemura, who noticed that no signal flags had been hoisted on Suvaroff’s half destroyed main mast when she made the turn. The observant Uemura, commanding the No. 2 Striking Force, decided to act on his own authority. There were originally six armoured cruisers in the striking force, but Asama had been compelled to leave the line for a time due to repair her steering gear. While Togo was away Uemura’s armoured cruisers did an excellent job.

The first action continued until 1910 when Togo ordered firing to be stopped because it was too dark. In the battle, the Russians lost four battleships and three smaller ships. The first engagement was completely one sided except for one occasion at about 1450 when the Goddess of Destiny smiled on the Russians. It started with the sudden turn of Suvaroff to port. At that moment, the Japanese and Russians were fighting in two columns with the Japanese slightly ahead of the Russians. The implications of Suvaroff’s turn to port (to the north) were that as far as Togo was concerned that the Russians could cut through to Vladivostok. Togo ordered a 90 degrees turn to port and his ships made the turn simultaneously.

At about 1800 Admiral Nebagatoff was passed a message by a torpedo boat: ‘Admiral Rojestvensky has ordered you to go to Vladivostok’. The destruction of the Russian battleships had been due to the excellent Japanese gunnery and also the extreme vulnerability of the Russian battleships, which had poor stability. At about 1630 Togo ordered his destroyers to carry out torpedo attacks. While Admiral Kamimura joined the light cruiser action to the south, Togo positioned himself so as to engage the Russian battleships before it became dark.

With his usual luck, Togo found the enemy clearly silhouetted against the sky. The Japanese immediately engaged and in a few minutes the battleship Alexander III in the van was a blazing wreck and quickly capsized. Borodino next in line was badly hit and her magazines exploded, she sank at 1920. Admiral Nebogatoff now took command of the surviving ships. ‘The battleships Apraksin, Seniavin, Oushakoff, Orel, cruiser Izumrud, and some other ships followed me’ wrote Nebogatoff. ‘All this was about seven o’clock in the evening. The sun began to set and with it ended the day battle. At this time the battleship Borodino, the stern of which was burning quickly, bent on the right side, and in a minute and a half, turned over.’

When daylight came the battle was over. The Baltic Fleet, which was not in good order, hid in the darkness and tried to escape to Vladivostok. Togo on the other hand ordered his main force to gather off Dagelet Island by the dawn of the 28th and his destroyers and torpedo boats, about fifty of them, to make night attacks on the Russians.

The Russian 3rd Pacific Fleet under the command of Rear Admiral Nebogatoff was well trained and so did not put on searchlights, but the 2nd Pacific Fleet made the mistake of switching on their searchlights and so the Japanese attackers were able to locate their targets for torpedo attack. The battleships Navarin and Sisol Veliky were torpedoed and sunk, as well as two armoured cruisers and some destroyers. The full details of the night attack are not known, but it was apparent that the Russians went all to pieces and became a prey to Japanese attackers with the exception of five ships of the 3rd Pacific Fleet. Admiral Nebogatoff explained the reason for this in his subsequent report published in Jane’s Fighting Ships: ‘The night battle consisted of ceaseless attacks by torpedo boats, the number of which reached to fifty. The ships of my division successfully avoided these attacks. I explain it in this manner, that the captains of my ships were trained by me long before the battle, how to defend themselves from night torpedo attacks, by being used to manoeuvring in the dark without lights. A torpedo boat fired a torpedo at my battleship, but thanks to our being in complete darkness, and turning the helm in time, according to my personal order, the torpedo passed under the stern without touching the ship.’

By 0500 on the 28th May, Togo took up position off Dagelet Island (Matsusima) about 200 miles to the north of Tsushima and on the route to Vladivostok. With him he had only his two striking forces as the 4th combat division (six cruisers), 5th combat division (four armour clad ships) and the 6th combat division (four cruisers) were still about sixty miles from the rendezvous point. However at 0520 the 5th combat division sighted the enemy and reported it to Togo. Togo opened fire at 0930 and at 1043 the Russians, who were in a hopeless position, hoisted surrender signals. Rear Admiral Nebogatoff signed the instrument of surrender on board Mikasa at 1337 and the battle was over.

The result of the Battle of Tsushima was decisive. Out of a total of 38 Russian ships involved in the battle, only one transport and two destroyers reached their final destination of Vladivostok. One converted cruiser managed to steam the very long way back to Kronstadt. The remaining 34 ships were either sunk or captured by the Japanese or interned in neutral ports. Admiral Togo lost only three torpedo boats, while Russia’s 2nd and 3rd Pacific fleets were literally annihilated. It was the greatest naval victory in modern history.

It is generally believed that Admiral Togo had everything his own way in the naval battles of 1904-05, but this is far from correct as regards the opening stages of the war. The Japanese Navy had only six modern battleships and one ancient ex-Chinese battleship at the outbreak of war. In a matter of hours two battleships were lost by hitting mines in May 1904. So in one day Togo lost a third of his modern battleships.

The loss of two battleships was very serious. Fortunately for the Japanese, the Russians, who witnessed the mining, failed to exploit this success, perhaps the one day of the war that the Russians had the advantage and should have pressed home a determined attack. Instead the Russians watched one battleship sink and the other towed away. It was not until a year later that the Russians found out that the second battleship failed to reach port. The serious shortage of Japanese battleships threw a very heavy load on their armoured cruisers, which were excellent ships. This proved to be the first and also the last time that armoured cruisers fought with distinction in the battle line, as in a few years time the armoured cruiser had been made obsolete by the new battle cruiser.


  1. Tactics: The difference between the manoeuvring capability of the Russian and Japanese fleets was decisive, but the difference in the two fleets’ average speed gave the Japanese a tremendous advantage and made it impossible for the Russian fleet to escape to Vladivostok. The average speed of the Russian fleet was only 15 knots compared with 18 knots for the Japanese. Togo’s tactics, including ‘Crossing the T’, always aimed at forestalling the Baltic Fleet and he was quite successful except for certain exceptions. Rojestvensky appeared to have no idea of what tactics to adopt and there is no record of his fleet having executed any exercises with a view to battle tactics on their long voyage. It is also very doubtful if the Russian fleet carried out any gunnery exercises of any value. In addition all the Russian ships were heavily overloaded with coal, which contributed to reduce their speed considerably on top of their foul bottoms due to months in the tropics.

An example of the poor Russian manoeuvring occurred on the 27th May when four Japanese destroyers following Kataoka’s No. 3 Striking Force in keeping contact with the Russians. The destroyers crossed the front of the Russians in order to observe them more closely. But in error Rojestvensky thought the destroyers were laying mines. The Admiral ordered course to be altered to avert the mined area, but the Alexander III failed to understand the signal to alter course and this led to some confusion.

As a result the Russian Fleet remained in three columns for some time while the flagship Suvaroff and her column were trying to overtake the other two to form a single column.

  1. Gunnery: The difference between the gunnery of the two fleets must be considered in terms of the total number of guns and also the accuracy of the gunnery. A comparison of the number and calibre of the guns of the opposing fleets is given below:
Calibre of guns Russians Japanese
30cm/25cm(12in/10in) 33 17
23 cm/20 cm (9in/8in) 25 34
15cm(6in) 160 202
12cm(4.7in) 27 105
Total 225 358

It will be noted from the above table that the Russians had double the firepower of the Japanese in heavy artillery due to the fact that they had more battleships. On the other hand the Japanese had nearly twice as many 4.7 in to 6 in guns.

A detailed study of the accuracy of the shell hits on both sides is not available, but it was said that the accuracy of Togo’s fleet was increased three times at the battle of Tsushima compared with the Battle of Yalu. This improvement was apparently due to extensive gunnery exercises carried out near Masampo. The devastating effect of the Japanese guns was derived from shells using Shimose cordite.

  1. Morale: It was very natural that there would be a vast difference between the morale of the Russians and the Japanese. The Japanese were defending their own homeland and were operating close to their bases. The Russians on the other hand had suffered all the rigours of their tremendous voyage from the other side of the world, which had lasted seven months. The responsibility for the poor morale of the Russians lies strongly on the authorities who planned the long voyage round the Cape. It was quite absurd to believe that such a fleet would be any match for the Japanese, who could concentrate on exercises and improvements to their warships, while the Russians had to give all their attention to just getting its two fleets to Vladivostok.
  2. Command: Although Admiral Rojestvensky must be commended for leading his armada to Tsushima after an extraordinary long voyage of 18,000 miles in seven months, the armada should have arrived much earlier. When the time for battle came, Rojestvensky failed to distinguish himself and his flagship was sunk. If the Admiral had played his cards better, and it must be remembered that he had a strong fleet, he might well have taken his whole fleet safely to Vladivostok via the Straits of La Perouse. The blame for the almost complete annihilation of the Russian Fleet must largely fall on the lack of leadership and incompetence of Rojestvensky.

Admiral Togo, on the contrary, showed his great leadership in his preparations for the battle and in the battle itself. His tenacity and implacable attitude in waiting for the Russian fleet at Masampo and his execution of ‘Crossing the T’ in amazing accuracy perhaps resulted from his long career — he was without any doubt the most experienced officer in the Japanese Navy, while poor Rojestvensky was far from being the most experienced and capable officer in the Tsar’s Navy, he was simply the Tsar’s favourite.

  1. Luck: All the conditions for battle were favourable to the Japanese – mist on the sea at the start of the first engagement, high seas, but calm seas at night. All these factors were pure good luck for the Japanese. Vice Admiral Sato, who fought at Tsushima as chief of staff to Admiral Uemera, was later asked why the Japanese won. He replied that it was 60 per cent good luck. He was then asked what the remaining 40 percent accounted for. He replied that that was luck as well. 60 percent was real good luck and 40 percent was good luck deserved by the officers and men of the Japanese Navy. If Togo’s gamble on the Russians passing through the Tsushima Strait is discounted, then it would appear that there was very little luck involved indeed. But it must always be remembered that the Russians suffered from many handicaps – lack of leadership, poor training and slow overloaded ships. The Russians were not prepared for a major fleet action – the Japanese were.

Seventy-five years have passed since the Battle of Tsushima and there are only a few traces of the battle remaining in Japan and very few if any detailed accounts have been published in English.

At Yokosuka Naval Base Togo’s old flagship Mikasa is preserved as a memorial ship. She represents Japan’s version of HMS Victory.

Ships at the Battle of Tsushima

Class Japanese Russian
Battleships – 1st class Mikasa (flag)
Suvaroff (flag) GT Sunk
Alexander III
Borodino G Sunk
Orel Surrendered
Battleships – 2nd class Fuji Osliaba G Sunk
Battleships – 3rd class Chin Yen Sisoi Veliky T Sunk
Navarin T Sunk
Nikolai I (flag) Surrendered
Armoured cruisers – 1st class Nisshin
Asama D
Coast defence ships, etc. Apraksin Surrendered
Seniavin Surrendered
Oushakoff G Sunk
Protected or belted cruisers Chitose
Kasagi(flag) D
Oleg Escaped to Manila
Aurora Escaped to Manila
V. Monomakh G or T Sunk
D. Donskoi G or T Sunk
Nakhimoff T Sunk
Svietlana G Sunk
Izumrud Wrecked in escaping
Jemtchug Escaped to Manila
Almaz Reached Vladivostok
Torpedo craft About 70 About 12

D = Damaged G = Sunk by gun fire T = Torpedoed

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