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Anniversary of the czar's Baltic Fleet rout

  • 2004-09-29
  • By Gary Peach
RIGA - A unique centennial will flicker by the Baltic calendar in two weeks 's one containing an epic story often alluded to but rarely told in its full drama.
On October 15, 1904, Russia's Baltic Fleet set sail from Liepaja (Libau at the time) to confront the burgeoning might of the Japanese armada.

It was the beginning of an unprecedented 18,000-mile journey around the world that would end in the complete destruction of the fleet, the establishment of Japan as the undisputed power in Asia, a socialist-liberal revolution on the streets of Russia and the complete abandonment of the new Karosta war port in Liepaja.

The tale of the journey from Latvia to the Tsushima Strait reads like a chronicle of endurance and damnation. It took nine months for the Second Pacific Squadron (the Baltic Fleet's new name), which consisted of 39 substandard, unbattleworthy ships, to make the trip, and even then they never reached their destination.

From the outset the fleet seemed doomed, vexed by a mission handed down from a desperate St. Petersburg. The war with Japan, waged for control over key Asian territories 's Manchuria, Korea and Port Arthur 's after the debilitating Boxer Rebellion left China defenseless, was not going well, which seemed to shock the Russians. Japan, after all, was an emerging power; its generals (or so their Russian adversaries thought), were still novices on the battlefield.

To reverse his fortunes, Czar Nicholas II (who, by the way, harbored a personal hatred for the Japanese after surviving an assassination attempt there in the early 1890s) decreed that the ships anchored at Liepaja embark for the Far East.

From the moment he was assigned the task of commandeering the fleet, Rear Admiral Zinovy Rozhdestvenski experienced nothing but gut-wrenching anxiety. The obstacles were tremendous. First, many of the battleships themselves were second-rate, better served to defend shorelines than to engage in an offensive campaign on the other side of the world. Second, the crews were inexperienced, uninspired and as one historian points out, largely illiterate. During the two weeks of practice in the Baltic Sea before setting sail (they should have left in July), ships even collided.

It was hardly surprising, then, when the fleet accidentally fired upon British fishing trawlers in the North Sea (the so-called Dogger Bank incident), believing that they were Japanese torpedo boats, just a week into the journey.

Most importantly, there was the fuel problem. Warships at the time were still powered by coal and thus not designed to sail around the world. To complicate matters, coal was a commodity rigorously rationed at that time, and Britain, allied with Japan, refused to sell Russia even a pound of its quality Cardiff coal. Consequently, when the fleet departed Liepaja it was so weighed-down with the stuff that several ships could not fire their guns.

Coal, in fact, became Rozhdestvenski's obsession 's and curse. With coaling-stations few and far between, he fretted endlessly over how to obtain new supplies. Sailors practically slept among sacks of coal and worked for hours cleaning the steam boilers. Black dust was everywhere. To add insult to injury, the crews could not wash their linen since the wet fabrics would not dry in the African humidity. Unsurprisingly for men acclimated to the tundra, the tropics took a severe toll on them.

Rozdestvenski, a large, willful man, sought refuge from this maritime hell in the arms of a mistress he'd taken aboard the Knyaz Suvorov. At times, however, even her embrace could not coax him out of depression. At a port in Madagascar he locked himself in his cabin for several days, emerging only after his crew's behavior had enraged him.

Though the fleet's mission was to rescue Port Arthur, its destination was Vladivostok, where Rozdestvenski was to hand over command of the fleet. But he never made it. While passing between Japan and the Korean Peninsula, which the fleet wisely tried to accomplish under the cover of mist, its hospital boat 's apparently lit up in accordance with international regulations 's was spotted by a Japanese patrol cruiser. Admiral Togo, knowing the morale and exhaustion of the Russian boat crews, immediately decided to engage the enemy.

The resulting battle in the Tsushima Strait on May 27, 1904, was a rout. Only three Russian ships survived, and Rozhdestvenski was knocked unconscious when the Knyaz Suvorov was torpedoed. He was transferred to another ship that eventually capitulated, after which the rear admiral had the opportunity to meat Admiral Togo as a prisoner of war. (He was later released and put on trial in St. Petersburg.) Military historian John Keegan ranked the battle of Tsushima as one of the 15 most significant naval battles in the history of warfare.

The Russo-Japanese war ended soon thereafter, with Japan becoming the dominant power in the Far East. For the distant Baltics, Russia's utter defeat meant the closing of the Karosta naval port, which had been commissioned only 15 years earlier by Czar Alexander III as a defense against the rising German threat.

At the time the port was a state-of-the-art facility, proudly exhibited at the Paris World Exhibition in 1900. It would be blown up at the start of World War I.