It’s pronounced “Sue-She-Ma”.
Name: The Battle of Tsushima, also known as the Battle of Tsushima Strait, or the Sea of Japan Naval Battle.
The War: Russo-Japanese War
When: 27-28th May 1905
Where: The Straits of Tsushima, between Japan and Korea.
Forces/Commanders: 89 ships (4 battleships, 27 cruisers, 21 destroyers and 37 torpedo boats) of the Imperial Japanese Navy under Admiral Togo Heihachiro against 28 ships (8 battleships, 3 coastal battleships, 8 cruisers, and 9 destroyers) of the Imperial Russian Navy under Admiral Zinovy Rozhestvensky.
“You are young, and it is you who will one day retrieve the honor and glory of the Russian Navy. The lives of the two thousand four hundred men in these ships are more important than mine.”
-Russian Rear Admiral Nikolai Nebogatov, to his men, as he prepared to surrender.
“Certainly the Japanese navy had performed well, but its opponents had been weak, and it was not invincible … Tōgō’s victory [helped] set Japan on a path that would eventually lead her to the Second World War.”
-Historian Geoffrey Regan
The “long nineteenth century” was the time of the Great Powers. Britain, Germany, France, Austria-Hungary, the US, Italy, they were all jockeying for power and prestige, a great game that would culminate in the wholesale slaughter of the First World War.
Russia was another of those Great Powers, but one that was beginning to fade. In the early 20th century, under Nicholas II, the Empire had struggled with numerous internal and external difficulties, problems that would eventually result in the overthrow of the old regime in 1917. In 1904, the Empire was still looking to expand its borders and influence in all directions, and one of its targeted areas was its eastern shores and the Pacific Ocean.
Japan had undergone major changes in the century leading up to the Russo-Japanese War. In 1868, the Meiji restoration had begun a transformation in the formally isolated island nation, as it opened up to the rest of the world, began a belated industrial revolution and embraced western ideas and technology. Japan was desperate to be the Great Power of the Pacific and be seen as an equal of the European nations.
Naturally, the two nations became rivals in the area over a number of issues. These included the status of Korea, which both wanted to control, the Russian leasing of Port Arthur and the surrounding area from China (the Russians needed a warm-weather port to replace Vladivostok, but Port Arthur was uncomfortably close to Japan), and Russian occupation of parts of Manchuria in the wake of the Chinese Boxer Rebellion.
The continuing series of clashes resulted in lengthy diplomatic wrangling, but the talks that took place in 1903 and early 1904 were doomed to failure. Russia had no intention of leaving their position in Manchuria or Port Arthur and Japan was unwilling to relinquish its superiority over Korea. After a succession of possible treaties were rejected, it came to war.
Japan launched an assault on the Russian Eastern Fleet in Port Arthur on February 8th, 1904, following this attack up with a land invasion of Korea and Russian-occupied Manchuria. Soon, Port Arthur was undergoing a siege from land and sea. The siege lasted five months, the Japanese forces taking huge casualties in numerous frontal assaults, one of the earliest examples of machine guns in action on a large scale. Eventually, with the defensive perimeter about to be breached and the Fleet in the harbour all but sunk, the Russian commander surrendered on January 2nd, 1905.
The Russians responded by sending their Baltic Fleet on an epic round-world trip to the area of fighting, the ships sailing through the Atlantic, round the Cape of Good Hope and past the Indian Ocean to get to the combat zone. In the process, they almost provoked war with Britain after mistaking merchant sailors forJapanese ships in Dogger Bank. They reached the warzone in May 1905.
Japan had achieved further success, but at extreme costs in lives. Russian land forces in Manchuria had suffered continual defeat and had largely been neutralised as a fighting force. That left Russian hopes for success resting entirely on their navy. Following its 18’000 mile trip from the Baltic, this fleet aimed to dock and resupply in Vladivostok, north of Korea, before engaging the Japanese. In order to do this, its commander, Admiral Zinovy Rozhestvensky, decided to sail the Fleet through the Strait of Tsushima, between Japan and Korea. It risked a confrontation with the enemy forces, but was the shortest route to the friendly port.
His opponent was Admiral Togo Heihachiro, the Commander of all Japanese Naval Forces. The available Japanese fleet consisted mostly of smaller cruisers, torpedo boats and destroyers, with four battleships as the main bulwark. The Russians were deploying nearly all of their remaining naval strength, including eight state of the art battleships, the pride of the naval age. Crucially, the Japanese ships and sailors had all had experience in at least one major naval battle, against Russians, but the advancing Baltic Fleet had not.
Rozhestvensky was not seeking a confrontation, and concerned about the possibility of battle, set a course outside of traditional shipping lanes. It was nearly by sheer luck that the Japanese discovered the Russian fleet. In the early hours of a fog laden 27th May, a Japanese light cruiser caught sight of a Russian hospital shop, the Oryol, which due to the laws of war was sailing with full lights burning. The Oryol mistook the cruiser for a friendly vessel, offering no challenge. The cruiser subsequently discovered the rest of the Russian fleet nearby. Togo was immediately alerted, and the Japanese Fleet took to the open sea shortly after.
Naval tactics of the time were still based heavily on lines. Both fleets were sailing in lines, the Japanese one 40 ships strong. An assortment of small scouting vessels and the effective use of wireless meant that Togo, onboard the flagship Mikasa, was fully informed of the position of the enemy. As such, the Japanese line was able to manoeuvre ahead of the Russian one.
At the time, the man goal of naval combat was to execute a manoeuvre known as “crossing the T”. In this, one line aimed to pass in front of the enemy line, thus bringing the entirety of its ships guns to bear on the enemy, while limiting the enemies reply to the guns of its foremost ship.
The combined fleet arrived in front of the Russian Fleet, bearing in an opposite direction. Reaching a point where he was nearly past the leading Russians ships, Togo changed the direction of his line by turning in sequence, that is, having each ship change direction in the same patch of sea. Such a manoeuvre was fraught with risk from potential Russian attack, but the Russian Commander was committed to avoiding battle and did not seek the advantage. The result was that the Japanese fleet was able to turn without much molestation, and begin sailing back across to the enemy. As a result of this brilliantly executed turn, sometime between 1412 and 1445 (accounts are hazy) on the 27th May, Togo crossed the Russian T, to devastating effect.
The Russians, seeing what was happening, opened fire, getting the first direct hits of the battle on the Mikasa, but the damage was negligible. Soon after, it was the Combined Fleet’s turn to fire with their guns, with the better artillery and more experienced gunners of the Japanese Navy tearing the Russians to shreds. In an hour of combat, the Russian fleet was utterly devastated by the accurate, unceasing fire from the enemy line. Several battleships broke from their main line. Aside from the better guns and gunners, the Russians were exhausted by the long trip from the Baltic and were facing seamen who, due to the fighting up to that point, were arguably the most experienced in the world at this type of warfare.
Four of the battleships of the Russian Navy were destroyed by the end of the day, one of them, the Borodino, with no survivors. Other ships were scuttled as they neared their end. Separated and, in many cases, ablaze in the falling darkness, they were easy targets for the Japanese. Rozhestvensky, onboard the doomed flagship Knyaz Suvorov, was injured by shrapnel, leaving the fleet, what was left of it, under the command of Rear Admiral Nikolai Nebogtov, onboard the Nikolai I.
Nebogtov had little to command. The Russian fleet had broken into smaller groups who were now desperately trying to breakout northwards with most of the ships damaged. After three hours of stand-off, the Japanese sent in an attack from two groups, torpedo boats and destroyers, from opposite directions. In three hours of sustained attack, several more battleships and cruisers had been destroyed, some by their own crews in order to avoid capture. These night attacks, kept up by only a part of the Japanese Fleet, left the remaining Russians exhausted, while Togo had the opportunity to rest his main force.
In the morning, Togo moved in for the kill. Soon, he had surrounded the remnants of the fleet under Nebogtov’s command, a mere six vessels, near the island of Takeshima. Contemporary feelings of honour could have compelled Nebogtov to fight to the death, but he refused to let the remaining men under his command throw away their lives. He hoisted up the XGE flag, surrendering at 1053, 28th May. A few Russian vessels never got the word about the surrender (or refused to obey it) and most of these were destroyed over the course of that day. Of the entire Russian fleet, only three ships made it to Vladivostok intact. Over 5’000 men were dead, the vast majority of them Russian. Only three Japanese ships, all torpedo boats, had been sunk.
Why It’s Decisive – Effect On That War
It ended it, more or less. Russian naval power had been utterly wiped out, 2/3rds of its ships, along with a large proportion of its personnel being captured. Its prestige and reputation had been badly damaged which, combined with internal dissatisfaction and unrest, aided in the growth of the 1905 Revolution. In order to focus his attention on these matters, Tsar Nickolas II sued for peace with Japan rather than continue to fight a hopeless war. In the subsequent peace treaty, which US President Theodore Roosevelt helped to negotiate, Russia agreed to evacuate troops from Manchuria, gave up the lease on Port Arthur and half of Sakhalin Island and recognised Japan’s influence over Korea, which was annexed to the Empire in 1910.
It would take nearly ten years for Russia to re-establish the strength of its navy, just in time for the start of the First World War.
The peace terms were somewhat unpopular in Japan, which had expected indemnities and more territory. A sense of bitterness and resentment towards the western powers was created.
Togo, a national hero, was later Chief of the Naval General Staff, then put in charge of the education of future Emperor Hirohito. He died in 1934 and was given a state funeral, which drew guest ships from navies all over the world.
Rozhestvensky, wounded during the battle, recovered as a prisoner in a Japanese hospital where he was visited by Togo, who commiserated with the defeated Admiral. Upon his release, he was put on trial in Russia. Though he was not the man who actually surrendered, the worst charge, he insisted on taking full responsibility. He avoided a firing squad, spent a few years in prison before being released early on the Tsar’s order. He spent the rest of his life as a recluse in Leningrad, dying in 1909.
Nebogtov, the man who had surrendered, was given a death sentence along with three other Captains, but this was commuted to ten years imprisonment, of which he served three. He lived the rest of his life anonymously in Moscow, dying in 1922.
Tsushima is the great battleship clash. These massive behemoths were the rulers of the waves, but with the exception of the stalemate of Jutland, Tsushima was one of the only occasions when they really came to the fore against each other.
But Tsushima illustrated weaknesses within the class as well. While they were the leaders of fleets, they were vulnerable to torpedo boats and cruisers, especially if isolated. And, of course, battleships were only as good as the men crewing them and their guns.
Tsushima also illustrates the importance of fatigue and morale considerations in war. The Russians were exhausted and demoralised from the journey and the loss of Port Arthur and possibly underestimated the Combined Fleet. Togo’s force was rested, buoyed by success and experienced against Russian ships.
Tsushima was one of the first battles where wireless communications provided a crucial role. Japanese wireless helped Togo to twice hunt down the Russian fleet after sunrise, co-ordinate complex manoeuvres within his own fleet and to have control over the battlespace. The Russians, on the other hand, were almost completely reliant on signal flags and other, older forms of naval communication.
Togo successful crossed the Russian T, a manoeuvre that would soon be resigned to history. With the exception of the Battle of Leyte Gulf, Tsushima was one of the last times the manoeuvre was successful.
Tsushima was a watershed for both nations. For Russia, it was a major loss of face and contributed to widescale internal unrest, unrest that would eventually spike in the Communist takeover in 1917. The destruction of their fleet contributed to an image of weakness, leading Russian adversaries in Europe, especially Germany and the Ottomans, to be more aggressive in their dealings.
Japan could finally be recognised as a Great Power after Tsushima. The battle’s result contributed to its growing territorial ambitions as Korea, then Manchuria were invaded. With a growing sense of superiority, Japan aimed to become the leader of East Asia. Viewing itself as an elite naval power, it acted as an equal to all other Pacific powers, the British Empire and the United States. Tsushima paved the way for Pearl Harbour, the innate sense within the Japanese Empire that it could win.
Things could have been different. Perhaps the Baltic Fleet could have made it to Vladivostok without being detected, thus prolonging the war. Or Rozhestvensky could have simply been more aggressive, hit the Japanese on their turn, or simply had better fortune with his guns.
A reverse of Tsushima, where the Japanese lost all of their battleships and most of their fleet, would have devastated the Japanese war effort. With supremacy in the environment, Russia would have had clear motivation to send more troops into the area and there is every possibility that they would have had success against now isolated Japanese forces, who had already suffered severe losses.
With victory in the war, Russia would have gained control over Korea, greater influence over China, and would have to be recognised as the eminent power of the Pacific. It’s internal unrest would also have lacked staying power with such a military victory, and its subsequent fortunes in World War One would have been different.
Japan on the other hand, would have been dealt a severe blow, its ambitions dented, and more importantly, its pride. It would have been unable to expand as aggressively as it did during the following decades, and almost certainly would not have been powerful enough to challenge the United States in 1941.
On another level, Tsushima contributed to the sentiment that only large scale clashes between battleships would decide future naval conflict. Such thinking drove the dreadnought race between the European powers, obsessed with having larger fleets of iron monsters. This led to the inconclusive clash at Jutland in 1916, one of the only battles where such fleets fulfilled their purpose. Tsushima’s effect was thus, also a strategic one, influencing naval doctrine for years to come, the “big fleet” theory being dominant for a long time.
In National Consciousness
Nearby Tsushima Island contains two memorials, a Japanese one erected a few years after the battle, and another built by both sides as a symbolic representation of future friendship between the two nations.
The Japanese flagship Mikasa, which actually sank within a year of the battle due to a dock accident, was refloated and currently resides in Yokusuko as a museum ship. American money helped pay for the project, with a replica of Togo’s garden, a “Garden of Peace” being built at the National Museum of the Pacific War, Texas, in reciprocation.
Togo himself has several shrines in Japan dedicated to his memory.
Tsushima has been the subject of numerous documentaries and films, most notably a 1969 Japanese movie named Nihonkai Daikaise.
Tsushima is a major moment in the history of Japan, Russia and naval strategy.
For more of NFBs Decisive Battles, check out the index here.