The Terrible, Horrible Voyage of the Russian Imperial Baltic Fleet

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Podcast Transcript

In February 1904, the Russian Empire found itself at war with the Empire of Japan over what was territory in the current nation of China. 

The problem for Russia was that a big chunk of its navy was located in the Baltic Sea, and the war was in Asia. 

The Baltic fleet was sent on an incredibly long and interesting voyage to get the ships into battle.

Learn more about the disastrous voyage of the Imperial Russian Baltic Fleet and how it helped change the course of Russian history on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

In 1904 Russia found itself at war with Japan. The proximate cause of the war was a Japanese attack on the primary Russian port in the Pacific at the time, Port Arthur. 

Today, Port Arthur is the Chinese city of Lüshunkou. 

The causes of the Russo-Japanese War were numerous and not the focus of this episode, but suffice it to say that Japan was in ascendence and Russia was in decline, and this was the point where their interests clashed. 

When the war started, no one in Europe really thought much of it. An Asian nation had never beaten a European one since the days of the Mongol Empire. Everyone assumed, including the Russians, that the war would be a cakewalk. 

Unfortunately, the war took place in Asia, and most of Russia’s military was in Europe. Most importantly for this episode, the largest part of their navy was located in the Baltic Sea out of Saint Petersburg. 

A bit about Russian geography. Despite being an enormous country, Russia has very little in the way of sea access. 

Getting a warm water port had been on the Russian wishlist for centuries.  They had Saint Petersburg on the Baltic Sea, some ports on the Black Sea, which required passing through the Bosphorus, an enormous coast on the Arctic Ocean which is mostly useless for shipping, and a few ports in the North Pacific, which was far away from their population centers. 

So after several months of the war not going so well for Russia, the Tsar decided to move their Baltic fleet over to the Pacific to help relieve the siege of Port Arthur. 

This was actually pretty reasonable. You had ships over here, and they were needed over there. 

The problem was going from the Baltic to the North Pacific was about as far as you could sail. 

So, on October 15, 1904, the fleet under the command of Admiral Zinovy Rozhestvensky set sail out of Saint Petersburg for Asia. A journey of 29,000 kilometers, assuming they went through the Suez Canal. 

Here I should note that while Russia had a navy, it wasn’t the best navy. Russia was traditionally a land power.  A fact that will soon become obvious.

On the very first day of the voyage, the Russian flagship and a cargo ship ran aground. Not a very auspicious start. While the ships were getting pulled out, a destroyer ran into a battleship. 

Admiral Rozhestvensky was extremely vigilant. He assumed that the Japanese had sent ships to the Baltic to attack the Russians. There had been rumors of the Japanese mining the waters and of Japanese torpedo boats and submarines. 

All the sailors were on high alert, which made everyone extremely anxious. 

As they sailed around Denmark, a ship approached the fleet sailing right at them. The ships opened fire….totally missing the ship, which was the Russian cruiser Aurora.

It was delivering a message to the Admiral saying that he had just been promoted. 

On October 25, the fleet reached an area in the North Sea, off the coast of England, known as the Dogger Bank. In the middle of the night, in heavy fog, Russian spotters on duty saw what they assumed were Japanese torpedo boats. 

The Russians opened fire, and other ships in the fleet, hearing gunfire, returned fire. 

When everything calmed down, there were no Japanese warships. They were British fishing boats. The Russians sank one boat, damaged five others, and killed two people. 

They also happened to kill a sailor and an Orthodox Priest from their own fleet from friendly fire. 

The Dogger Bank Incident almost led to war between the United Kingdom and Russia. 

The fleet continued south and briefly stopped off the coast of Tangiers in Morocco. The fleet had to split up because the battleships and large cruisers couldn’t pass through the Suez canal. 

While they briefly paused before the fleet split up, they dropped anchor and accidentally cut the telegraph line connecting Africa and Europe. 

The ships which had to sail around Africa didn’t have any ports they could stop at for refueling. Russia didn’t have anywhere they could refuel along the way, so they had to sail with an enormous amount of coal. 

They didn’t have anywhere to put the coal, so there were just large piles of coal on the decks of the ships, which resulted in many crew members developing respiratory diseases en route to Asia. 

As the fleet rounded Africa, they decided to make a stop in Madagascar to give the crew a bit of rest and relaxation on January 2, 1905.

The crew went ashore and purchased a bunch of exotic animals, including venomous snakes and crocodiles. The animals got loose on several ships, causing a host of problems. 

Then their refrigerated supply ship broke down, and they had to toss all of the now spoiled meat overboard. 

They tried to do some target practice off the coast of Madagascar by having one of the ships tow a target. 

Not a single hit was registered on the target….but the ship which was towing it was damaged. 

One of the crew died and was given a funeral at sea. One of the ships fired a salute from its guns…..and damaged another ship in the fleet. 

Conditions for the Russian sailors going around Africa were bad as they had never experinced that long at sea and never that warm of a climate. One ship almost mutinied. 

Finally, the two fleets met up and headed to China. They made a brief, and somewhat illegal stop in Cam Ran Bay, Vietnam, which was under French control. There they found out that Port Arthur had already fallen, rendering their entire mission moot. 

However, by that point, they couldn’t really turn back. The issue was fuel. In addition to just piling tons of coal on the decks of the ships, they were also refueled by several German ships en route. 

Now that they were as far as Vietnam, the only real option was to keep going and try to reach the Russian port of Vladivostok. However, to do so without running out of coal meant taking the most direct route through the Sea of Japan. 

Finally, after almost six months on the high seas, where the Baltic Fleet was never really designed to operate, the ships approached the Tsushima Strait, the water separating Japan and Korea. 

There were 38 ships of the Baltic Fleet, now called the Second and Third Pacific Squadrons, which had made it this far. 

As the fleet entered the Tsushima Strait on the evening of May 27, there was a thick fog in the area. The fleet was running dark except for the hospital ship Orel which had its lights on, as per the rules of war at the time.

The Orel saw a ship approaching them in the distance and assumed that they finally encountered another Russian ship. They sent them a radio message giving them details about the number of ships and their locations. 

The ship they sent all of this information to wasn’t another Russian ship. It was the Japanese cruiser Shinano Maru

After months of false warnings and sightings of Japanese ships, the first time they actually encountered a Japanese ship, not only did they not identify it, but they gave them their entire battle plan. 

The Shinano Maru then radioed Admiral Togo who sent a combined Japanese fleet of over 120 ships to intercept the Russian fleet.

Given the performance of the Russian navy up to this point and the overwhelming numbers of the Japanese fleet, you can probably guess the outcome. 

The Russians were annihilated.

The Japanese lost three torpedo boats and 117 sailors. The total raw tonnage of the lost Japanese ships was 255 tons.

The Russians had 21 ships that were sunk, which included 11 battleships, with an additional 14 ships captured. 5,045 Russian sailors were killed, 803 were injured, and 6,016 were captured. The total tonnage of the Russian ships lost was over 143,000 tons.

Only three ships managed to slink into Vladivostok. 

The lopsidedness of the battle wasn’t just a matter of the superior Japanese numbers. They had better weapons, better technology, and, quite frankly, better-trained sailors. 

A single hit from a Japanese gun was usually enough to sink a Russian ship, whereas a hit from a Russian gun usually only damaged a Japanese ship. 

The ramifications of the Battle of Tsushima were wide-reaching. 

It effectually ended the Russo-Japanese War. Russia gave up it its claims in the region and recognized Japanese control over Korea and the parts of Manchuria it controlled. 

As the first European power to lose to an Asian power, it greatly weakened Russia’s influence in Europe as well as the standing of the Tsar. It so weakened his government that losing the war was in no small part responsible for his eventual downfall. 

The Battle of Tsushima became a central part of the 20th-century Japanese imperial mythos, leading to the eventual domination of the region, culminating in World War II thirty years later. 

Admiral Rozhestvensky was wounded and captured. While he was in the hospital, he was visited by his counterpart, the Japanese Admiral Togo. He told him, “Defeat is a common fate of a soldier. There is nothing to be ashamed of in it. The great point is whether we have performed our duty”

Rozhestvensky was later put on trial and took full responsibility. He was sentenced to death, but it was later commuted by the Tsar to a short prison sentence. He died a few years later of a heart attack in Saint Petersburg.

The Battle of Tsushima was actually one of the most important battles of the 20th century. What made it significant wasn’t manuvering or tactics. It was a lopsided route.

What made it so important was the power shift it represented. The eventual fall of Tsarist Russia, the rise of Imperial Japan, and the end of the absolute hegemony of European powers over Asia. 


The executive producer is Darcy Adams.

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

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