The Battle Of Tsushima : The Battleship Battle That Decided A War

The battleship Mikasa, Admiral Tōgō’s flagship at the battle of Tsushima, preserved as a memorial in Yokosuka, Japan

The Battle Of Tsushima : The Battleship Battle That Decided A War The Battle of Tsushima saw the decimation of the Russian Armada at the hands of the Imperial Japanese Navy, marking an important naval battle that ultimately contributed to the outcome of the Russo-Japanese War. 

Although there were a myriad of factors contributing to the Japanese victory, we will touch on three major reasons — the difference in naval combat experience and training, superior Japanese technology, and key allies prior to the actual conflict. 

The Imperial Japanese Navy was led by the battle-hardened Admiral Tōgō, a very respected commander who had already defeated Russian admirals Makarov and Tsesarevich. Furthermore, he had time to train his gunners in accuracy. As compared to the Russian fleet who spent their epic journey from Russia shooting a make-believe Japanese torpedo boat, that would turn out to be either not there or another country’s fishermen. In fact, in the entire battle the Russians would only sink 3 Japanese torpedo boats out of their entire force.

Furthermore, this battle would mark one of the most one-sided events in the history of warfare. The Japanese would suffer 117 dead vs over 5,000 Russian deaths. Moreover, if you measure the battle in tonnage lost. Then you will get a sense of the one-sided nature. The Japanese lost 450 tons of ships vs 126,792 tons of lost Russian ships. The Russian Pacific Squadron arrived at the battle with 66 ships, but only 5 were serious battleships. The rest were comprised of converted yachts and cruise ships, with guns placed randomly throughout the deck and no armor belts or reinforced sides for protection, these ships were never intended for battle.

Admiral Tōgō studied naval strategy in Britain, at a boarding house in the major naval port of Plymouth. And by the end of his seven years stay abroad, graduated second in his class. In fact, he was a huge fan of the Battle of Trafalgar and considered himself a Japanese Horatio Nelson.

Admiral Tōgō Heihachirō in full uniform

Admiral Tōgō’s academic expertise, combined with his combat experience – two battleship conflicts at Port Arthur and the Yellow Sea -, made him a very formidable opponent for Russian Admirals Rozhestvensky and Nebogatov at the Battle of Tsushima.

Tōgō during his studies in Britain, in 1877

Furthermore, the Japanese sailors under Admiral Tōgō’s command had already been trained and made familiar with their vessels and guns through the aforementioned engagements at Port Arthur and the Yellow Sea. In addition, to substantial gunnery practice, which the Russians did not have artillery to do.

Tōgō Heihachirō (personifying the Imperial Japanese Navy) stands at Port Arthur among the wreckage of the Pacific Fleet, wielding his club; off in the distance, the Baltic Fleet approaches.

This is in contrast to the Russian sailors at this battle, most of whom had been hastily assembled to serve upon the newly commissioned Borodino-class battleships. The difference in experience between Japanese and Russian Admirals and sailors undeniably had a profound impact at the Battle of Tsushima. Many of the Russian sailors had never seen the ocean prior to this assignment.

Remember that the Second Pacific Squadron was the relief squadron, not even the proverbial “B Team”. But, in fact a rag-tag assemblance that Admiral Rozhestvensky had immense trouble managing. They had no experience or know-how. The Admiral would become famous for spending the whole voyage from Russia to Japan berating his entire fleet and sending how certain officers when he had the chance. Many of the crew were keeping animals on board, were communists and had no interest in this war and could care less about the Tzar.

Perhaps this was the very reason that Admiral Tōgō was able to masterfully maneuver his fleet to “cross the T” of the Russians and begin the battle in a favorable position. Strategy throughout the course of the engagement also seemed to favor the Japanese, in which relentless attacks constantly kept the Russians on the back foot. 

The Russians sailed into the awaiting Japanese. When Russian fleet reached the China Sea, Rozhestvensky sailed for the Russian controlled Port of Vladivostok through the Tsushima Strait. However, Admiral Tōgō Heihachirō’s fleet was waiting to pounce on the tired and unprepared Russians.

The Japanese fleet had been waiting at the south Korean coast near Pusan.

Routes of the Russian and Japanese fleets in the days leading up to the battle. CC BY-SA 3.0

The Japanese had every advantage in the engagement.

Russian Fleet

Superior Japanese technology also made a difference in the forms of better communications and rangefinders. Although both sides had already adopted the use of radios in the navy, the efficiency in the usage of this particular technology heavily favored the Japanese. Japanese communication regarding the Russian fleet’s location enabled Tōgō to pounce with the benefit of surprise.

At the time of the Battle of Tsushima, the Russian navy employed German wireless telegraphy sets, which proved difficult in usage and maintenance. On the other hand, the Japanese had developed their own radio sets. 

 The Imperial Japanese Navy was able to use their native technology much more easily and efficiently, allowing them to better coordinate their strategy during the engagement. 

The Japanese navy also utilized the dumaresq computer for fire control, which greatly improved their gunners’ ability to estimate shell splashes. This translated to far more accurate gun fire at further ranges. At shorter ranges, the more modern coincidence rangefinders also added to the list of technological advantages held by the Imperial Japanese Navy. 

During the daylight action of the Battle of Tsushima, this technology reigned supreme as the Japanese were able to heavily outgun their Russian opponents, quickly sinking and crippling multiple Russian vessels while sustaining minimal losses themselves.

Time magazine cover, 1926.
Japanese shells were also packed with high explosives.
Russian battleship Oslyabya, the first warship sunk in the battle

These shells were much more devastating on impact than the traditional armour piercing rounds that the Russian navy was still using.

Japanese fleet en route to Tsushima

From a naval point of view, the Japanese also had more powerful allies, mainly in the form of Great Britain. 

At this point in time, Britain had control of the most naval resources around the globe, and as such, was able to have an impact on the battle before it even began. 

Russian ships were barred from entering shipyards and accessing crucial coal refueling points, forcing the Russian Navy to be docked for unnecessary amounts of time while coal logistics were dealt with. 

Not only did this time deteriorate Russian ships to the point of repair, it also weighed heavily on the morale of the crew (who had been out at sea for roughly 7.5 months before the commencement of the Battle of Tsushima).  

The Tsar’s Last Armada: The Epic Journey to the Battle of Tsushima by Constantine V Pleshakov does an excellent job of covering the doomed voyage of the Russian 2nd fleet, see map below( blue line denotes the “faster” ships vs the red line which were the “slower” ships that went via the Suez Canal.

Britain also threw its weight around in the procurement of vessels, securing modern cruisers for the Imperial Japanese Navy while blocking the sale of ships to the Russian Armada. 

These pre-battle politics ensured that by the time the first shot had even been fired, the well maintained, rested, and modern Japanese Navy was facing an exhausted and demoralized Russian opponent. 

Battle damage to the Russian cruiser Aurora CC BY-SA 4.0
Aurora, preserved as a museum ship in Saint Petersburg, Russia CC BY-SA 3.0
Other than the 20 wounded officers evacuated by a destroyer, Admiral Rozhestvensky’s flagship Knyaz Suvorov was sunk with all hands

The culmination of these three factors, in addition to other more minor reasons, contributed to the overwhelming Russian defeat at the Battle of Tsushima. 

Battle damage to the Russian cruiser Nisshin

And when the Russian ships did give up to the victorious Japanese. This battle would come to stand for the only time a major war was decided by a single battleship battle.

The Battle Of Tsushima : The Battleship Battle That Decided A War