The Death of Makaroff

Port Arthur, Liaotung Peninsula, 13 April 1904, 0840 hrs.

With no accurate means available to the Japanese to adjust their fall of shot during indirect bombardments of Port Arthur, Togo came to the conclusion that these bombardments were wholly ineffective. It was equally obvious that nothing could induce the Russians to leave the shelter of their batteries and risk an engagement at sea. There remained the mine. Since the Russians were not entirely inactive and did venture to sea when the Japanese were not off the port, there was the chance of laying a minefield secretly in the waters they were accustomed to traverse, and if the main Japanese Fleet were kept out of sight and a weak squadron exposed as a decoy the Russians might be enticed into the mined area.

On the evening of the 12th April, the Japanese mining detachment departed Thornton Haven from which the operation was to begin. The other Japanese squadrons proceeded to carry out the established movements of their nightly blockade of Port Arthur. Admiral Dewa, with his decoy division, first moved to the southward toward Shantung Promontory and then back again toward Port Arthur, while the battleships headed westward for a position south of Round Island, where they were to be joined by the armored cruisers.

In the early hours of the 13th April the Japanese mining party had carried out their work without interruption, and according to the detailed instructions they had received had laid two fields, disposed at either limit of the outer roadstead, where the Russians had always been observed to move in the shelter of their batteries. One field was laid just south of Lutin Rock to catch them if they moved to the eastward, the other just east of White Wolf Hill to serve if they made round Liau-ti-shan. By midnight it was all done and the mining party made off to Admiral Togo's rendezvous south of Round Island.

The following account is by Vladimir Semenoff, taken from his book "RASPLATA" ("The Reckoning"):

"Apart from the short apparition of the "Greyhounds" on April 6 (note: the 'Greyhounds' were Admiral Dewa's Third Division), and even that was not fully authenticated, two weeks had now passed, during which the enemy had given no sign of life. That was certainly suspicious, and therefore all destroyers ready for sea were sent out in a body during the night of April 12-13. The boats were this time to go a long way. They were given the task of searching the Elliot Islands. These islands are about 60 to 70 miles from Port Arthur, and it seemed very probable that the Japanese occasionally used them as a base. Theoretically, the dark period of one night sufficed completely for the purpose. The destroyers were promised, however, that at daybreak the Askold would in any case go out to meet them. The cruiser was to cover the boats if they had been delayed, and were obliged to return by day. The Askold had been chosen so as to obviate any possible mistake. She was the only vessel in the Far East with five funnels, and could therefore be recognized without any signals, even in the dark. The weather now turned wet. It varied between drizzle and light rain. The Admiral went through our battery. The men were at their action stations, and he said a few simple words to them, which means so much in war. Hardly had he completed his tour, when something was sighted. It was difficult to say what it was. Still, we saw in the searchlight beam from Cross Hill what were undoubtedly the outlines of vessels. They bore S. 60 E. Taking into account that our searchlights could not quite reach them, and estimating our distance from Cross Hill, as well as the angle at which its searchlights were trained, we made their distance to be about 2 miles.

The drizzling rain was brightly lit up by the searchlight beams, and rendered the field of view opaque. It seemed as if these shadows sometimes lay motionless, sometimes moved backwards and forwards on the same spot. It was now 10.30 p.m.

"Shall I open fire?" the captain asked. "Oh, who can tell what it is," the Admiral replied rather crossly. "They are probably our own destroyers. They know nothing of night work. Some of them probably got separated from the rest and are now pottering about in front of Port Arthur. They can't find the others, and dare not return into harbor from fear of being taken for Japanese. Bad luck to it!" Makaroff mastered his ill-humor at once, and added in a calm voice: "Note the bearing and distance very carefully. If these turn out not to be our boats, we must certainly search the place very carefully to-morrow. Possibly something unpleasant for us has been dropped there."

The remainder of the night passed peacefully. We saw nothing; in fact, we could really see nothing on account of the rain.

Just as it was getting light next morning, at 4.15, the Admiral and staff returned to the Petropavlovsk. Precisely at that moment several columns of smoke showed up on the eastern horizon. These were our destroyers returning from their expedition, which had been carried out successfully, but without result. They had not found anything in the bays of the Elliot Islands. Unhappily, the boats did not all return. The Admiral's fears had been only too fully justified. Some of the boats had lost touch with the main body, and had not regained it. Suddenly we saw the flashes of guns in the dawn to the southeast-a direction in which we had not looked for anything. (It was 5.25.) The firing could be heard distinctly. Who were fighting there, we were unable to make out, owing to the great distance. It was clear, however, that small vessels, probably destroyers, were fighting together. We (Diana) could have got away quickest, but the Admiral apparently did not want to employ the Diana, which could have been mistaken for the Iwate, as he had promised the boats a cruiser, unlike any Japanese ship. For some reason or other the Askold was not ready. Consequently, the Bayan (four funnels), which also did not resemble any Japanese ship, was ordered out. What with orders and counter-orders a good deal of time was lost. When the Bayan steamed out, we thought we had been quite forgotten. We therefore set off without orders and followed her. Of course we were soon left behind. When we reached the open, the Bayan was already a long way ahead. It turned out that the destroyer Strashny had parted company during the night. On looking for her consorts she came across a Japanese destroyer flotilla, which she joined. The Japanese also did not notice that the Strashny was an enemy, so they cruised about together before Port Arthur till daybreak. As soon as it was light enough a mutual recognition took place, and at once a desperate fight commenced, of one against six, at quite close quarters.

The Bayan hurried as fast as she could to the assistance of her small comrade. All she could do was to scatter the hostile boats, which were steaming round the place where the Strashny had sunk. The Japanese destroyers fled to the southward. The remnants of the Strashny's heroic crew were swimming about in life belts, or clinging to pieces of wreckage. They greeted their cruiser with joy; but already the "Greyhounds" were approaching from the south at top speed, in the place of the destroyers, which had fled.

Skeptics will, of course, say that they were only four protected cruisers opposed to our armored cruiser. Still, it was four to one. The Bayan, or her captain-ship and captain are one-did not hesitate a moment. She covered those in the water with her high sides, lowered boats to pick them up, and faced the attack lying still with her engines stopped. At the moment we were still under Golden Hill and could not make out what was going on. Our hearts stood still at the thought that her engines might be disabled. Could we arrive in time to assist her? Great Heavens, how we cursed the St. Petersburg works where the Diana had been built! Instead of the 20 knots of the contract, we were hardly going 17. The oldest engineer had now to listen to some very bitter truths from the mouth of the youngest sub-lieutenant. The Novik came out and ran past us, as if we were at anchor. The Novik was followed by the Askold.

"Just look at that! It is easy to see that they were built abroad. That is something different from our 'Goddess.'"

The Bayan was already returning. The "Greyhounds" did not follow her. Apparently they had no desire to come within reach of our coast batteries. It was 7.15 A.M. The destroyers back from the Elliot Islands had already got in safely. At 7.15 the Petropavlovsk came out. The Poltava followed. The Bayan reported by semaphore and wireless what she had seen. She was not sure whether in the heat of action she had saved everybody: possibly there might still be some men on the wreckage. The Admiral at once signaled: "Single line ahead on the Bayan. Bayan to lead the squadron back to the scene of the disaster. Every one to keep a good look-out for wreckage."

The line was formed. As we lay there, with engines stopped, to let the other ships pass and then form up astern, the Petropavlovsk passed quite close along our starboard side.

A suppressed "Ah!" passed through the ship's company. The Admiral came over to the port side of the bridge-that is, the side nearest to the Diana. He wore an overcoat with a fur collar. The wind was blowing about his big, fair beard. "Your health, my lads!" came in his mighty voice. Every word was clear and distinct.

"We wish your Excellency good health!" sounded back in specially hearty, cheery voices.

"God grant a happy issue!"

"Respectful thanks your-"; but the regulation reply did not get beyond this. Instead, there burst out a frantic "Hurrah!"

The Admiral had already left the bridge and gone into the chart-house. He now came out again, went right out to the end of the bridge and took off his cap, waving it at us with a smile.

"Hurrah!" sounded again and again from the crew. The men clambered on to each other's shoulders to see "Little Grandfather." "Hurrah!" now shouted the officers, forgetting all restraint, and waved their caps amongst the men.

We saw our Admiral for the last time.

In my diary is written as follows: "8 A.M.-We are in single line ahead, in the following order: Bayan, Petropavlovsk, Poltava, Askold, Diana, Novik."

The "Greyhounds" reappeared out of the morning mist. We steamed towards them. This time they were led by two armored cruisers. The enemy advanced boldly towards us, though he saw we were stronger. A long range action commenced. At 8.10 the Japanese turned away suddenly and steamed off to the southward. The shortest distance had been 50 cables (10,000 yards). We had no losses. For a little while longer we cruised about over the spot where the Strashny had gone down, and looked about for any one to save, but without any result. We were then about 15 miles from Port Arthur. Any one with good eyes could see that the rest of our squadron was coming out. At 8.40 A.M. the Japanese battleships appeared out of the mist. They joined the armored cruisers and "Greyhounds," and altogether headed straight for us. Now the Japanese were again the stronger, nearly twice as strong, in fact.

We followed our Admiral, who was turning towards Port Arthur and retiring. The Japanese followed us, with the evident intention of attacking. The Novik and the destroyers made good use of their speed. They steamed ahead and a little to port. The Diana became rear ship. I confess quite candidly that our position was causing me some anxiety. We were steaming as fast as we could, but the distance steadily decreased. By nine o'clock we were only 38 cables (7,500 yards) from the hostile leader (apparently Mikasa). Our stern 6-inch guns had already adjusted their sights. We were waiting for the flagship to order us to open fire; but no signal came. The Japanese also did not fire, just as if there had been an agreement to that effect. At 9.15 we reached the fire zone of our fortress guns (6 to 7 miles). At 9.30 the enemy gave up the chase, without having fired a gun, and shaped course to the westward. The distance between us began to increase.

"Why did they not fire?" we asked ourselves. The Diana and Askold had been the rear ships at a distance of 38 cables, surely that was tempting enough to send some "portmanteaus" whizzing across.

Towards 9.30 we joined up with the remainder of the squadron. It was complete except for the damaged ships. The Japanese slowly moved behind Liau-ti-shan, as if they intended to commence their usual bombardment. Admiral Makaroff apparently intended to stand backwards and forwards as usual between White Wolf Hill and Cross Hill. The sinking of the Strashny, the hurried exit of single ships which this had caused, the sighting of the hostile fleet, and the forming up of the squadron-all this had somewhat blunted the impressions of last night, which, moreover, appeared quite unimportant. Neither the Admiral nor those about him gave any further thought to the suspicious shadows which we had seen so indistinctly when the searchlights were illuminating the rain so brightly. These shadows, however, had been seen precisely on the "figure of eight" we were making, namely South of Cross Hill and East of White Wolf Hill. Every one had forgotten that we were to search out this place to see whether they had dropped "something unpleasant for us."

"The gunlayers to remain at their guns; the remainder fall out, but not to separate," I ordered.

The gunnery lieutenant came up to me. "Now for the old story," he said; "now they will chuck 'portmanteaus' from a distance. Let us go and have a smoke."

"By all means," I replied. "Nothing of any importance is likely to happen now. For to-day we have got everything behind us. We'll start washing decks. They haven't been touched since the hands were called."

We both came down from the upper bridge. The gunnery lieutenant went to the smoking place, where the slow match was kept burning. I went on the forecastle, where I stood at the starboard bow 6-inch gun, and was just giving the boatswain the usual orders, when an explosion, with a dull, rolling sound shook the whole ship, as if a 12-inch gun had gone off quite close. I looked round vaguely. A second explosion, even more violent! What was happening? Suddenly cries of horror arose: "The Petropavlovsk! The Petropavlovsk!" Dreading the worst, I rushed to the side. I saw a huge cloud of brown smoke. "That is pyroxiline, therefore a torpedo," passed through my mind. In this cloud I saw the ship's foremast. It was slanting, helpless, not as if it was falling, but as if it were suspended in the air. To the left of this cloud I saw the battleships stern. It looked as always, as if the awful happenings in the fore-part were none of its concern. A third explosion! White steam now began to mix with the brown cloud. The boilers had burst! Suddenly the stern of the battleship rose straight in the air. This happened so rapidly that it did not look as if the bow had gone down, but as if the ship had broken in half amidships. For a moment I saw the screws whirling round in the air. Was there a further explosion? I don't know. It appeared to me as if the after-part of the Petropavlovsk (all that was visible of her) suddenly opened out and belched forth fire and flames, like a volcano. It seemed even as if flames came out of the sea, long after it had closed over the wreck.

Never, even at times when the most important orders were being given, had such silence reigned on board our ship, as at this gruesome spectacle. Habit, however, becomes one's second nature. As an old navigator I was in the habit of noticing everything. When I saw the explosion, I mechanically looked at my watch, and then wrote in my note-book: "9.43.-Explosion on board Petropavlovsk"; and then: "9.44.-All over."