The Battle of the Yellow Sea

The Yellow Sea, south of Encounter Rock, 10 August 1904, 1230 hrs.

Phase I | Phase II

" the most critical minute of the war."
Admiral G. A. Ballard -The Influence of the Sea on the Political History of Japan

Throughout late July and early August, as Japanese troops had closed in on Port Arthur and as shells had started falling in the town, the correspondence between Viceroy Alexieff (commander of Port Arthur) and Admiral Vitgeft (Makaroff's replacement) had become more and more acrimonious. What was to become of the fleet? Alexieff favored a sortie so that the Port Arthur ships could link up with the Vladivostok Squadron, and create a force powerful enough to challenge the Japanese.

Admiral Vitgeft felt that just staying at anchor and contributing some of his armament to the land battle was the safest course to follow, and that's exactly what he proposed backed up by his flag officers and captains. In their view the risks of a sortie were too great to be contemplated.

Alexieff faced with what amounted to almost direct disobedience to his orders, appealed to St. Petersburg and the authority of the Tsar. Nicholas replied to the Viceroy as follows, 'I fully share your opinion concerning the importance of the squadron making a speedy sortie from Port Arthur, and breaking through to Vladivostok.'

Alexieff, reinforced by the Imperial will, would have no more of Vitgeft's attempts to avoid battle and telegraphed on 7th August as follows:

"I again reiterate my inflexible determination that you are to take the squadron out of Port Arthur. I must recall to you and all serious officers the exploit of the Varyag. The failure of the squadron to proceed to sea regardless of the Imperial will, and of my command, and it's extinction in the harbor in the event of the fall of the fortress will, in addition to the heavy legal responsibility, leave an indelible spot on the flag of St. Andrew and on the honor of the fleet. You are to make known this telegram to all admirals and commanding officers and are to report its receipt."

Faced with an order couched in these terms even Vitgeft could not hesitate any longer.

With the Japanese Army tightening it's grip on Port Arthur Admiral Togo expected an attempted breakout by the Russian squadron and positioned his divisions accordingly. He wanted no mere transfer of the situation to Vladivostok, with a fleet-in-being up there and thus another stronghold to besiege. The Siberian port was less protected than Port Arthur and had no coal for the ships, but from the existent military aspect a new campaign in that area would have overtaxed the resources of Field Marshal Oyama. Togo wanted to grab Vitgeft by the nape of the neck and drown him in the Yellow Sea.

The long awaited sortie took place on 10 August 1904, when the tide permitted the exodus to commence at dawn. Togo had to let the enemy squadron emerge well into the clear and then grip it tight. He would have available only whatever daylight, if any, happened to remain after Vitgeft was completely outside of his defensive minefields.

The Battle of the Yellow Sea was the closest and, except for Tsushima, the most decisive naval engagement of the war. Encountering Vitgeft's squadron in the early afternoon, Togo's first moves were designed to put himself between it and Port Arthur, so as to prevent its return and force a major fleet action. However when it had become clear that the Russians had no intention of going back but were making for Vladivostok, Togo was so far behind the Russian fleet that he had to waste hours in detouring around Vitgeft's weaker vessels so as to catch up with the battleships at the head of the Russian line. It was 1743 hrs when he opened fire on the leading Russian ships. From then until dusk Togo's First Division and the six Russian battleships, banged away at each other on almost even terms, with Mikasa and Tsarevich sharing the brunt of the punishment.

What finally decided the issue, just as it was beginning to look as though the Russians would be able to hold their course until darkness enabled them to escape, was a double hit by two Japanese shells that at almost the same instant struck Tsarevich's bridge. The result was not merely the death of Vitgeft, of whom all that was later found was a part of one leg, but the death or incapacitation of every one else on the bridge or in the conning tower beneath it. These included the helmsman, whose loss proved to be of even more immediate significance than that of the admiral commanding.

In addition to killing the helmsman, the effect of the explosion was to wedge the wheel itself into the position of a port turn. An instant later the turn began, so sharply that Tsarevich heeled over 12 degrees; and Retvizan, which had detected nothing about the latest hit on the flagship to distinguish it from earlier ones, followed in her wake. By the time Pobyeda arrived at the turning point, Tsarevich had swung around more than 180 degrees and was heading back into her own line, making it apparent at last that something was seriously wrong. Nonetheless, in the absence of any signal to indicate what had happened there was no way for the other ships to deduce that in fact Tsarevich was not only out of control and without admiral but actually without any one at all in command.

By the time an officer had been found to take charge, and by the time this officer had managed to signal Rear Admiral Prince Ukhtomsky, Vitgeft's second in command aboard Peresvyet, that responsibility for the fleet now rested with him, most of the cruisers stationed to port of the battleships had copied the 180 degree turn of the leading Tsarevich and Retvizan, with the result that the entire squadron was in total disarray. There was little left for Ukhtomsky to do but give up the attempt to reach Vladivostok, and order the squadron to follow him back to Port Arthur. Even this, since Peresvyet was too damaged to hoist intelligible signals, was not clearly understood, and many of the cruisers wandered off on their own, to eventual internment, capture, or destruction.

What Togo had to decide at this critical point was whether to leave it to his torpedo boats and destroyers to try to prevent the Russians from regaining Port Arthur or to risk trying to finish it off himself in a night fleet action at short range. The latter, if successful, would end the threat of the Russian Pacific Squadron once and for all, but it had serious drawbacks. Mikasa had already suffered more than twenty hits in the course of the battle, and his other three battleships were damaged to a comparable degree. To risk losing one or more of these irreplaceable ships without the chance of at least a proportionate gain seemed to Togo unjustifiable, and it also seemed to him doubtful that the present circumstances provided any such chance.

The Russians had been turned back from their objective and the torpedo boats and destroyers might well be able to damage them further during the night. Even if the Russians did regain Port Arthur, the ships would remain subject to Japanese artillery fire; and any that survived would become Japanese prizes when Port Arthur finally fell. Togo choose the prudent course, with the result that five of the six Russian battleships, on which the Japanese torpedo boats proved unable to score any hits, found their way home by dawn the next day. Never too fight again. Tsarevich, unable to keep up with the others, eventually put in at the German port of Tsing-Tau.