BOCCONI DI STORIA: L’odissea della Flotta del Mar Baltico

🇮🇹 Per la versione italiana clicca qui.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Japan and Russia wanted to expand their empires in Korea and Manchuria. The inevitable hostilities between the two powers erupted on the 8th of February 1904. A surprise Japanese attack on the Russian naval base of Port Arthur (in present-day China) forced the Russian Far Eastern fleet to take refuge in Vladivostok.

After the attack on Port Arthur, Tsar Nicholas II decided to send forty-five ships of the Baltic Fleet to sink the Japanese fleet. The trip of almost 29,000 kilometres could sound laughable, were it not for the fact that several thousand men died during the expedition.

An undertaking of such great magnitude also included many logistical problems, the first being the refuelling of the fleet. Unlike Great Britain, Russia had no bases anywhere in the world. Also, international treaties prevented it from using the ports of other friendly foreign powers. It was then decided that the merchant ships of the German Hamburg-America line would supply the ships at sea. A second problem, not only Russian, was that at that time many ships were a bizarre mixture of different experiments in naval architecture, which often made the vessels too heavy and unstable. Some battleships in the Baltic Sea Fleet were overweight by almost 1500 tonnes.

A further problem was the incompetence of the seamen, most of whom were peasants who did not come from the coastal areas of Russia and therefore had no experience of sailing.

On the 16th October of 1904, the fleet set sail from Libau (in present-day Latvia), showing from the very beginning that the expedition had little chance of success. The flagship ran aground shortly after departure, and a cruiser lost its anchor chain. In addition, while the fleet was waiting for the flagship to return to the surface and the cruiser to retrieve the anchor, a destroyer accidentally rammed the battleship “Oslyabya” and had to fall back to Tallinn for repairs.

By the time they reached Denmark, the crew had already begun to show hysteria. Rumours had begun to circulate that Japanese torpedo boats were hiding off the Danish coast. When two fishermen approached the fleet, the Russians opened fire. Due to the terrible state of the Russian naval artillery, the two men escaped unharmed and managed to deliver dispatches from the Tsar to Rozhestvensky, the fleet commander.

As they reached the North Sea, the Russians spotted a fleet of fishing boats. Mistakenly identifying them as Japanese torpedo boats, the Russian ships opened fire, almost causing a war between Russia and the United Kingdom. Fortunately for the British vessels, the damage suffered was minimal. The battleship “Oryol” had fired over 500 charges without hitting anything. Sailing to Dakar (Senegal) for the first refuelling, the fleet cut a telegraph cable in Tangier (Morocco), cutting off the city’s communications with Europe for four days. To boost the morale of the sailors, Admiral Rozhestvensky allowed shore excursions during which the sailors brought exotic animals onto the ship, including a crocodile and a poisonous snake that bit an officer.

In Madagascar, the situation got even worse. Admiral Rozhestvensky was seriously ill and confined to his cabin for a couple of weeks. The crews spent more and more time ashore, and there were daily deaths from malaria, dysentery and typhus. During the funeral of one of her dead, the “Kamchatka” fired blanks. Unfortunately, a real artillery charge was used, which hit the cruiser “Aurora”. The men were often drunk and on drugs, including the officers. One of them had bought 2000 cigarettes in Madagascar, which were found to be full of opium.

After all the bullets used in the “battles” against fishing boats, the fleet needed ammunition. The supply ship “Irtysh” arrived, to everyone’s surprise, carrying 12,000 pairs of fur-lined boots and the same number of coats, ideal for equatorial Africa where the fleet was stationed at the time.

The expedition resumed its voyage across the Indian Ocean. The ship then headed for Vladivostok but was intercepted by the Japanese. The battle of Tsushima took place from the 27th to the 29th of May 1905. The Japanese won a landslide victory by sinking eight battleships, nine cruisers and several other ships, killing 4000 Russian sailors and taking 7300 prisoners. In contrast, Japanese losses amounted to three torpedo boats, 116 dead and 530 wounded.

Japan became the first eastern nation to defeat a European power. In the Treaty of Portsmouth, signed on the 5th of September 1905, Russia had to give up the naval bases of Port Arthur and Liaoyang in China. It also lost the southern part of Sakhalin Island and Manchuria and had to recognise Korea as part of the Japanese sphere of influence.


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