Admiral Bezobrasov Strikes

Tsushima Strait, Eastern Channel, 15 June 1904, 0715 hrs.

Contrary to Japanese fears, Russian General Headquarters never had any intention of abandoning Port Arthur as their main naval base in favor of Vladivostok. Their plan was that instead of the First Pacific Squadron heading north; the Vladivostok Squadron was to come south to make diversions in favor of the operations that Admiral Vitgeft was to carry out in the Yellow Sea. Thus on 12 June 1904 Admiral Bezobrasov left Vladivostok with three of his cruisers, with orders to raid Japanese lines of communication off Southern Korea. His instructions were to proceed through the Eastern Tsushima Channel and cruise for two days on the transport route and then to double back through the Western Channel. If this was to prove impracticable he was to set course for Port Arthur and try to join the main squadron.

On 15 June two important transports had sailed from Shimonoseki, each over 6,000 tons and each carrying over 1,000 men. The Hitachi Maru with a battalion of the First Reserve Regiment of the Guards was bound for Ta-ku-shan, where the base of the First Guards Brigade had been established. The Sado Maru was bound for Dalny with a railway battalion and electrical engineers. Both vessels also carried a large amount of stores. A third transport, the Izumi Maru of 3,200 tons, was also crossing the Straits homeward bound with sick and wounded from the fighting front.

No special provision had been made for their protection, other than Admiral Kamimura's and Admiral Uriu's squadrons based at Tsushima. The combined squadrons were at Osaki, and were keeping steam for 10 knots, but Admiral Uriu had to send two of his ships, Takachiho and Niitaka into Takeshiki for repairs. This left his flagship Naniwa, which was at Osaki with Kamimura, and Tsushima, which was out patrolling in the direction of Okinoshima. At this critical moment, therefore, there was nothing on guard but Tsushima.

At daybreak Tsushima had reached the southeast coast of Okinoshima and having turned back towards the south of Tsushima Island was about mid-channel at 0715 hrs. Through the heavy mist she sighted a steamer coming from the opposite direction and altered course to examine it. Scarcely had Tsushima completed the turn when smoke was sighted to the northeast, towards Okinoshima. In a few minutes a large four-funneled cruiser came into view, then another, then a third with two funnels, and then her captain knew that it was the Vladivostok Squadron. He immediately attempted to wireless Admiral Kamimura the news, but getting no response he made away as fast as he could towards the wireless station at Tsutsu at the south end of Tsushima.

While heading south Tsushima kept sending the warning signal for an enemy fleet, but getting no answer she began repeating, "Three three-masted ships of the Vladivostok Squadron are heading south near Okinoshima." The Russians did not follow but held their course. Still Tsushima could get no reply, there seemed to be interference, and she was forced to continue south till she lost sight of the enemy in the mist. At 0815 hrs Tsushima took in a signal sent by Takachiho at Takeshiki to the two flagships at Osaki, which told that her warning had been received. Twenty minutes later, being satisfied that she was within range, Tsushima signaled that the enemy was near Okinoshima and that she was heading back in that direction to try to keep contact with them.

The Idzumo had in fact received the warning through Tsutsu at 0740 hrs, but as part of it was unintelligible it was some time before Admiral Kamimura could make out that it really meant "The enemy's main force is in sight," and apparently nothing was done. Presently, however, Iwate took in a clear message from Tsushima, "Three three-masted ships of the Vladivostok Squadron are heading south near Okinoshima," and there was no longer any doubt. Admiral Kamimura at once ordered steam in all boilers for 15 knots, ordered all vessels at Takeshiki to head out, and warned Shimonoseki to stop all sailings. At 0835 hrs Kamimura received Tsushima's last message and as the torpedo-boats from Takeshiki had just arrived he sent them away to the south end of Tsushima Island with orders to direct all east bound ships into Takeshiki and to await his arrival. By this time Tsushima had regained contact, and at 0900 hrs sent a message that the Russians were firing on a merchant ship south of Okinoshima. Admiral Uriu in Naniwa was immediately sent ahead and Niitaka, having completed her repairs, followed a little later, but it was not till 0945 hrs that Kamimura's armored cruisers were clear to sea.

Meanwhile the Russians had a free hand. At 0900 hrs they had sighted the homeward bound Izumi Maru. Gromoboi chased and opened fire and it was not till the transport had lost over 30 men, killed and wounded, that she stopped and surrendered. About 100 sick and wounded were taken off her, and then she was sunk with those who refused to surrender.

The firing was heard by Tsushima and reported, and also by the other two transports, but by this time it had begun to rain and so bad was the visibility that they could see nothing. About 1000 hrs, however, they suddenly found themselves in sight of the enemy. Both refused the order to stop and tried to escape. Rurik quickly overhauled Sado Maru and as she had non-combatants aboard it was decided to haul down the flag. Forty minutes grace was given to abandon ship. Before the work was done however Rurik received a recall from Admiral Bezobrasov. Rurik fired a torpedo into her prize and seeing that she did not sink gave her another on the other side, before sailing away. But Sado Maru still kept afloat and was ultimately towed into port.

For Hitachi Maru with the Guards on board there could be no thought of surrender. As Gromoboi approached her she turned and headed back for port under a hail of fire. The Naval Officer in charge was quickly killed, but the British master, John Campbell, continued on with no less determination till he too was wounded. A shell in her engine-room then killed the British chief-engineer. By this time Hitachi Maru's decks were a shambles and she was on fire, and seeing escape was impossible Colonel Suchi who was in command of the troops solemnly destroyed the colors and then "with a smile on his face" committed suicide. The surviving men by his last orders stripped and took to the sea and of her whole company; both crew and troops, barely 150 were rescued.

Still there was no sign of Admiral Kamimura. The weather had grown so bad that he had had to feel for Kozaki before he dared turn out of the Western Channel and it was not till past noon that he had doubled the cape. Somewhere ahead of him was Admiral Uriu with Naniwa and Niitaka, and he could only find one division of his torpedo-boats. But now he received a signal from Tsushima, who still had contact with the enemy, reporting them heading north, 15 miles south of Okinoshima. Kamimura proceeded at full speed. But the rain was now so heavy that he could barely see 3,000 yards. The two divisions of the squadron had lost touch with each other and neither could find a trace of the enemy beyond the wreckage they had left in their path. Tsushima too had lost them, but hearing the firing on Hitachi Maru she was able at 1330 hrs to pick them up again, about five miles south of Okinoshima, heading north-westerly and then she lost them for the last time.

The Japanese wireless transmissions had alerted Admiral Bezobrasov to the presence of Admiral Kamimura's squadron. Thus having dealt the Japanese a heavy blow, he decided to escape into the mist and rain without attempting the Western Channel.