JULY 2018

JULY 2018
One Hundred Years Later, Same Message. 1916 - 2017


Saturday, May 23, 2009


I feel sorry for Peter Rozhestvenski. In normal circumstances he would have gone down in history as one of the loudest, foulest mouthed sailors in the Imperial Russian Navy, a designation of no small distinction when matched with his nickname of “Mad Dog” and his rank as Admiral of the Baltic Seas Fleet, under the eye of Tsar Nicolas II in Petersburg. But Peter was unfortunate when in February of 1904 the Japanese decided to contest Russia for control of Korea by laying siege to their naval base at Port Arthur in Manchuria. The Tsar chose Peter, aka, Admiral Zinovy Petrovich Rozhestvensky, to play the hero and sail the Baltic fleet half way around the world to raise the siege.He certainly looked like a hero. As historian Contantin Pleshakov described him in “The Tsar’s Last Armada”, at over six feet, Peter was “Tall, powerfully built, his balding head…hinting at determination and obstinacy… (he was) the embodiment of a savage Russian admiral” “Mad Dog” earned his nickname for his violent temper when faced with stupidity or incompetence. As Peter led his ragtag fleet out of Kronshtadt naval base on October 15, 1904, “…Medals and stars glittered on his chest…He stood straight as a ramrod, looking so resolutely at (Tsar) Nicholas, that it seemed as if nothing could stop him.” Peter explained he mission to his men this way, “We’re now doing what needs to be done, defending the honor of the flag.” He said nothing about victory, and perhaps that was understandable. One battleship, the 13,000 ton Oryol, ran aground just trying to get out the harbor.With this amateur fleet Peter was facing a voyage through the Baltic, down the Atlantic Coast of Europe and Africa, thence across the Indian Ocean, through the Sunda Straight, north across the South China Sea past Taiwan, and into the Yellow Sea to Port Arthur, a distance of some 18,000 miles. To make this voyage Peter was leading 56 coal fired ships recently renamed the Second Pacific Squadron: a fleet normally trapped in port by ice five months out of every year, a fleet with a handful of modern dreadnaughts, but mostly made up of antiquated slugs and "royal toy" yachts, and auxiliary ships crewed by 15,000 inexperienced seamen and officered by incompetent, insubordinate blue bloods and royal favorites, supplied by embezzling bureaucrats who scrimped on food and ammunition.On October 20, the fleet put in at Cape Skagen, Norway, to re-coal. Over the entire voyage coal was so precious the Peter had none to spare to practice maneuvering. The nervous untested Russian crews saw Japanese dirigibles in every flock of seagulls and Japanese torpedo boats in every cloud bank. On the night of the 22nd as the fleet crossed the Dogger Bank fishing grounds the drunken captain of a supply ship thought he saw Japanese torpedo boats, and fired flares. In the flickering shadows the fleet found they were surrounded by small dark ships. Every Russian warship opened fire at point blank range.Peter the “Mad Dog” threw a gunner away from his weapon, demanding, “Have I ordered this? Can you not see a fisherman?!” It took Peter twelve minutes to get the firing stopped. By then one English trawler had been sunk, several were damaged and three English fishermen were dead. The Russian cruiser Aurora was hit by five friendly shells. One Russian sailor and an Orthodox priest were killed, another sailor was badly wounded. Without waiting to apologize or explain or help their victims the Russians sailed on. Peter later complained to his wife, “One has to order five times to do the most trivial thing and then to check five times more to see if they have forgotten the order or not…this is a miserable fleet.”Peter put his miserable fleet in at Vigo, Spain, where he had to negotiate with the aroused English, who were demanding an investigation, and with the Spanish, who were now unwilling to allow his warships to take on coal. The London Times complained, “"It is almost inconceivable that any men calling themselves seamen, however frightened they might be, could spend twenty minutes bombarding a fleet of fishing boats without discovering the nature of their target." In truth, the English didn’t know the worst of it. One Russian warship had fired 500 rounds at unarmed, barely moving fishing boats and had hit nothing.Down the coast of Africa the fleet sailed on, from Tangiers to Senegal, re-coaling in the open ocean and at each stop. As they approached the equator, the temperature below decks approached 140 degrees. Sailors collapsed with heat stroke. As the fleet moved on to Gabon, discipline began to collapse. The crews were sick, exhausted and frustrated. On November 25th fights between civilian workers and seaman broke out during a coaling. Three officers were sent back to Russia for court martial after they smuggled nurses aboard their ship. Of course, Peter’s mistress was aboard one of the two hospital ships that accompanied the fleet, but then rank has its privileges.Wrote another historian, “Each day, black torpedo boats carried out to sea those stricken dead by malaria, typhoid, or their own hand….Those remaining in the harbor suffered (from)…rotten food, cloying heat, and torrential rain. Many had tropical eczema, scratching themselves until they bled….Moss and barnacles grew thick on the ships’ hulls, and sharks circled around the fleet, eager to consume any bad meat thrown overboard….Men got stupefying drunk, gambled,…(Peter) who was reputed to have punched out a sailor’s teeth for a minor transgression, let them off easy. “How can I intimidate men ready to follow me to the death by condemning them to be hanged?”Rounding the Cape of Good Hope in late December, the Russians were not welcomed in British owned South Africa, and so continued on to the island of Madagascar. In the port of Hellville a hospital ship which had paused at Cape Town to pick up medical supplies, delivered word that Port Arthur had fallen to the Japanese and the Pacific fleet had been captured.
This meant there was no fleet to be reinforced and no port to be rescued. While awaiting confirmation, Peter ordered live fire exercises. They were a disaster, with no hits at either moving or stationary targets. What was left of crew morale, collapsed. On January 6, the fleet celebrated Orthodox Christmas. On the 7th Peter was informed he was to wait in Hellville for reinforcements, four more even older and slower battleships dredged from coastguard duty. Peter went into his cabin of his flagship and bolted the door. The crew did not see him for weeks. What brought him out of his funk was a mutiny. On January 23 seamen on the Cruiser Admiral Nakhimoff mutinied, after being forced to eat a reeking yellow substance called Solina, best described as an early failed attempt at inventing Spam. It was amazing they had not mutinied before. Men who had never been more than 10 miles off their farms had been cooped up aboard steel heat traps for six months in the tropics. The humidity was so high their underwear was never dry. The ships were infested with cockroaches that were “eating clothes, boots, and books" and biting the sleeping sailors. And when mail did arrive from Russia the packages from home were filled with warm clothing. Finally Peter decided he could wait no more and without waiting to inform the Tsar the Second Pacific Squadron, now the only Pacific squadron, set sail for IndonesiaBy now Peter had given his junior officers nicknames like “Brainless Nihlist” and “Slutty Old Geezer”. It took the fleet 28 days to cross the Indian Ocean. the fleet was able to make only 6 knots because of barnacles on the hulls, and had to slow even more 112 times for repairs to various ships. In fits of homesickness men began to throw themselves overboard. They arrived off Sumatra in April 3, 1905, but did not stop. On April 12 they reached the coast of Vietnam, where they were now ordered (by the Tsar personally) to await the squadron of older battleships, and then sail for Vladivostok.
"With no morale and no hope of making it back to Russia alive, the sailors of the fleet were beyond caring.” On May 7th, the last squadron of old battleships finally arrived. The fleet was now complete, with 60 ships, but only four or five which could truly defend themselves. Ten days later they took in their last supply of coal.It was clear they were going to sail through the Tsugaru Strait between Korea and Honshu, Japan, past the island of Tsushima. In 1281 a Chinese invasion fleet had crossed this 45 mile wide strait, only to be destroyed by a kamikazi or “divine wind”; a typhoon. All things considered it was the worst possible course to take, but Peter did not have the coal to sail around the west coast of Japan, so it was the only choice he could make. Every sailor knew the Japanese were going to be waiting for them at Tsushima Island, and Peter and his crews fully expected a pointless death.At about 2:45 P.M. on May 27, 1905 the modern efficient Japanese fleet crossed the Russian “T”, allowing their ships to fire broadsides while the Russians were limited to firing their forward guns only. Almost immediately Peter’s flagship was struck and he took a shell fragment in the head.
As he lay unconscious through the day and night long battle 21 Russian ships were sunk, and 4, 380 men were drowned. The next day, May 28th, as the Japanese closed to finish the battle, the remaining Russian ships gave up, surrendering four battleships and one destroyer, along with two admirals and almost 7,000 men. The Japanese lost three torpedo boats and 117 killed. The Japanese came out of the battle convinced that huge battleships guaranteed victory, ignoring the utter incompetence of their adversary. They were now set on a course for conquest, which would eventually lead to war with America.
The Russians came out of the war convinced the Tsar was a heartless fool. After a peace treaty was signed (brokered by Teddy Roosevelt), Peter returned home via the Trans-Siberian Railway. He was court- martial but acquitted, because he had been unconscious when his fleet surrendered. The officer who replaced him received a sentence of life in prison at hard labor. “Mad Dog” Petrovich Rozhestvensky died in his own bed in St. Petersburg, Russia on January 14, 1909. He was just sixty years old.But don’t feel too sorry for him. Peter would have hated the Soviet Revolution.

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