The Unlucky Fleet That Changed the World


It’s not generally considered a pleasurable experience to be part of the armed services, even during the best of times. Still, there are particular military units you wouldn’t want to be part of even by the cruel standards of historical hardship. You’d almost certainly not want to be a member of any army making a last stand against the Mongols or part of any army stuck in an unfamiliar climate.

Yet there’s another way for being a person in uniform to be horrible: The command can be highly embarrassing. Not just temporarily embarrassing because of the odd bad order being issued. We’re talking humiliation that drags out for months and months before the eyes of the world.

In February 1904, the Russian Far East Fleet was subjected to a surprise attack by the Japanese Fleet under Admiral Togo and driven into Port Arthur on Russia’s Eastern coast, trapping a number of warships, beginning an undeclared war. The Russian military’s response was to take its fleet in the Baltic Sea under the command of Admiral Zinovy  Rozhestvensky, relabel it the Second Pacific Squadron, and sail it practically around the world to break the Pacific Fleet free. It would involve thirty-eight ships including twenty-six combat vessels, eight of them prized battleships, sailing roughly 18,000 miles to fight against a faster, modern fleet that outnumbered them more than two to one. The stage was set for an epic journey leading to a titanic struggle where hopefully the fleet would triumph against long odds.

It didn’t quite work out that way.

After a series of long delays due to inexperienced sailors and aged ships, Rozhestvensky’s fleet began their journey on October 15, 1904. Just before then they were given some very bad intel: Somehow Japanese torpedo boats were in European seas, a seemingly unlikely notion since such a ship would be nearly impossible to resupply over such a long journey. Nevertheless, at one point, when a Russian ship approached with a message that Rozhestvensky was being promoted, the Second Pacific Squadron fired at them.

When the fleet chanced upon a few British fishing ships and a Swedish ship that looked little like Japanese torpedo boats on October 21, 1904, in what became known as the Dogger Bank Incident, they were still so on edge that they fired on them too. They sank one fishing vessel and killed three British fishermen. In the hubbub some of the vessels started shooting at their own ships, killing two Russian sailors on the cruiser Aurora. That only spread more panic, with word spreading that the flagship was being boarded. A single vessel reportedly fired hundreds of shots. It wouldn’t be until well into the morning until order was restored.

Killing three British citizens brought Britain and Russia to the brink of war, which was close to the last thing Russia needed while it was already in the process of losing a war. Certainly the British public and popular press supported it. Fortunately for Russia the extent of the the conflict was the British Navy escorting the Russians the rest of the way through British waters. When that was over the Second Pacific Squadron blundered through French waters, nearly alienating their only continental ally.  

As they approached Africa, the battleship Kamchatka became separated from the rest of the fleet. When it rejoined, the commanding officers reported firing hundreds of rounds at what it thought, again, were torpedo boats. They were actually French, German, and Swedish fishing boats. It was as if the fleet were determined to start WWI ten years early through sheer trigger-happiness. It surely would have made things more awkward when the fleet rendezvoused with several German supply ships laden with coal, but the Germans managed to unintentionally avenge whatever insult they might have felt when the excessive coal supplies sickened a number of crew members.  

Sailing into tropical waters, the heat became more than many of the sailors could bear and many took to sleeping and eventually serving naked below deck. The commanding officers decided to give shoreleave and collect animal mascots to raise morale. One of these was a crocodile that bit the commander of one of the battleships. Shoreleave had also brought malaria and other diseases onto the fleet, making it quite possibly the least relaxing break service personnel ever received.

Even Admiral Rozhestvensky was laid ill by malaria and his chief of staff was paralyzed with it, making them a commanderless fleet while they were near Madagascar. As malaria continued to take its toll, a funeral was held for one of its victims and a volley was fired in salute. One of the shells hit a Russian ship — the same Aurora that had been hit during the Dogger Bank Incident. The absurdities of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 had nothing on this.   

Since the Russian fleet had been firing at seemingly everything that moved, particularly itself, a resupply of shells was desperately needed if they were going to go up against a much larger and more modern fleet. After leaving Madagascar they met with supply ships that were supposed to provide them… only to find that through some failure of communications, tens of thousands of winter coats had been provided to the men who were often too hot to even wear their regular naval uniforms. It was as if some bizarre inversion took place of how, in the winter of 1941, the Wehrmacht in Russia would desperately need proper winter coats. That this was not greeted by the many sailors with immediate mutiny just went to show how loyal the sailors of the Pacific Squadron really were.

Around this time as well, the refrigerator unit on the supply ship carrying the fleet’s fresh meat broke down. Rotten meat was being dropped overboard in great amounts. As if nature itself wanted to get another kick in at the Pacific Squadron, this meant that for a long period the ships full of men already certain they would never win the coming battle were being trailed by sharks.  

On January 2, 1905 the Russians in Port Arthur surrendered, thus making the entire rescue operation impossible. Especially vexing was that they had surrendered while still well-supplied for a siege solely because of breakdowns in communication. By March of 1905 the Russian land military would be defeated at Mekden. It left the war essentially unwinnable but didn’t stop the Pacific Squadron from chugging its way to destiny.  

Finally on May 27, 1905, the fleet arrived in Tsushima Strait, where they knew the Japanese were waiting for them. The Russians hoped to slip through fog, but in the final great fatal irony, the fleet that had mistaken neutral ships for enemies twice and fired at Russian ships again and again held its fire now that it was confronting the enemy it had apparently seen everywhere else. One of the fleet’s hospital ships saw the Japanese cruiser Shinamo Maru, and began signaling to it, effectively giving away their location. Knowing where the Pacific Squadron was, Admiral Togo was able to sail his squadron into the heart of their ships, allowing the Japanese vessels to fire broadside into the Russians who could only bring a small fraction of their guns to bear. It was pretty much a worst case scenario for the former Baltic Fleet.

When it was all over, Admiral Rozhestvensky was in Japanese captivity along with six thousand other prisoners, mostly from seven ships that had successfully surrendered. Even surrendering was treacherous for those seven vessels, since when they initially hoisted the surrender flags the Japanese code books hadn’t been updated to include the surrender signal. White flags hadn’t worked either because in a battle with the Chinese fleet in 1894 the Japanese ships had  been tricked by white flags. It was only after swapping their flags out for hastily improvised Japanese flags that the surrender was accepted. By that point four thousand Russian sailors had been killed in action.

In all, only three Russian ships got away from the battle intact while six limped away effectively crippled, and twenty-one sank. Even the ships that escaped while damaged were not in the clear: Since they couldn’t make it to Russian ports, they had to land elsewhere, and were confiscated by local governments. On the Japanese side, there were only 110 deaths and three small ships sunk, one of the most one-sided battles in world history.

Having been defeated so thoroughly on land and sea, the Russian government sued for peace in a summit presided over by Theodore Roosevelt himself. It was an immense surprise to the European powers as it was the first time in centuries a Western nation had been defeated by an Eastern. The Japanese government was so encouraged by their victory that it fanned the flames for a Japanese Pacific Empire in their popular consciousness, and would eventually lead to a repeat of the surprise attack at Port Arthur in Pearl Harbor, though with significantly different consequences.

Meanwhile the defeat and its economic hardship brought on by the cost of the war was one of the driving factors of the unsuccessful 1905 Russian Revolution. Admiral Rozhestvensky would take full blame for the defeat while on trial, which could have cost him his life. Ultimately he and his command were pardoned by the Tsar. Presumably if the Tsar had wanted to give them the worst punishment, he would have given them new commands.  

As for the particularly long-suffering Aurora, it was one of the few Russian ships to survive the battle, and later it found a much greater claim to fame. On October 24, 1917, it would signal one of the more momentous events of the Russian Socialist Revolution when a blank round gave the go ahead to attack the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. Given what it had gone through, it was understandable that the ship would be particularly aggrieved with the government.  

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