Torpedo Attack, Port Arthur

Port Arthur, Liaotung Peninsula, 8 February 1904, 2230 hrs.

Nanji no katana mijikakeraba, ippo susunde-
If your sword is too short, take one step forward.

'At about midnight everybody was surprised by the squadron opening fire. It appeared that this was night target practice, and it soon ceased. But after half an hour the firing was resumed and this time it was irregular and ragged. But all the same we thought that it was target practice still continuing. Soon afterwards all the troops were summoned by the alarm signal to the line of fortifications'

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It was not until some hours later that this Russian diarist at the naval base of Port Arthur discovered that what he and other men like him had believed to be target practice was in fact a surprise attack by the Japanese against the Russian Far East Squadron.

The Japanese government granted Togo a big advantage in the form of potential surprise. While the Russians were still deluding themselves that a severance of diplomatic relations did not necessarily mean war, the Japanese Commander in Chief was vested with the invaluable secret that in this case it did. Admiral Togo also knew that the declaration was not to issue on paper but from his magazines, just as it had with the Chinese in 1894.

Togo's initial plan was to swoop down upon Port Arthur and deliver a crushing blow to the Russian squadron lying in the outer roads. Unfortunately he received false information from local spies in and around Port Arthur that the garrisons of the forts guarding the port would be fully alert and prepared for just such an attack, and that several of the Russian battleships had sortied. He therefore devised tactics calculated to withhold his precious capital ships from the reach of those forts and any possible minefields while still guarding the Japanese troop transports now at Chemulpo.

During the evening of 8 February Admiral Togo summoned his destroyer captains to his flagship. The group crowded around the large table in Togo's cabin. Spread out before the Admiral, were a chart of the Yellow Sea and a large scale one of the Port Arthur approaches. Copies of the Port Arthur chart were distributed among the officers of the First Flotilla, whose attention was directed to the marks indicating the reputed anchorage of each Russian warship outside of the entrance. To the officers of the Second Flotilla there were given charts of Talien Bay.

Togo stated that the Flotillas were to attack the Russians that very night at Port Arthur and Talien Bay, Dalny. He acknowledged the slim chance of finding any targets at Dalny. He also reminded them of the absolute necessity of self-concealment and to screen their faint stern lights, prevent telltale funnel sparks and to attain maximum speed only at the moment of attack. Details of the execution of the attack were expressly left to the division commanders.

Rarely have two adversaries presented a bigger contrast at the beginning of a war. While the Japanese were fully prepared, the Russians, confident in their strength, had scarcely moved a ship or a company of troops to a war footing. Doubtless the Tsar's most recent instruction, that if war came it would be for the Japanese, not the Russians to fire the first shot, weighed heavily upon his commanders.

Owing to the false information Togo had received regarding the sortie of Russian battleships from Port Arthur he decided to hold back his battle fleet and to split his destroyers into two attack flotillas. The First Flotilla consisting of the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd divisions, for Port Arthur, and the Second consisting of the 4th and 5th divisions for Dalny. It was an unlucky arrangement by which nearly half the weight of the attack was lost, and ill luck pursued it from the first.

At about 2230 hrs the First Flotilla sighted the lights of the patrolling Russian destroyers. The Japanese succeeded in evading them, but during the maneuver two of the Japanese destroyers collided and the divisions lost contact with each other. The First Division continued on its course and soon sighted the flashes of Liau-ti-shan lighthouse, by which it was able to fix its position. Then seeing the Russian searchlights sweeping the water, the First Division reduced speed and approached quietly. It was now about 0020 hrs, the moon had not yet risen and the sea reflected only the rays of the searchlights.

Still unobserved, the Japanese could make out the indistinct forms of several large ships. It was at that point that the commander of the First Division gave the order to attack. The lead destroyer moved in and at 0028 hrs launched a torpedo against a three-funneled Russian ship and then another against a two-funneled vessel. As the destroyer sped away at full speed the crew heard the sound of explosions. The second destroyer, following in the wake of the first, fired a torpedo at Retvizan and then made off at full speed.

The two other Japanese divisions, several of whose ships had lost contact with each other after the earlier collision, were less successful. They arrived too late to benefit from the surprise factor, and made their attacks individually rather than by division. The Russians were fully awake now, and their searchlights and gunfire made accurate and close range torpedo firing impossible. The Oboro made the last attack, around 0200hrs. This ship had been damaged in the collision and had reached Port Arthur an hour after her consorts; long after the firing had ceased. The Oboro was soon spotted, and her attack produced no results.

Despite ideal conditions for a torpedo attack, the results were relatively poor. Evidently the torpedo was not quite the devastating weapon that had been anticipated. Of the sixteen torpedoes fired that night, all but three either missed or failed to explode. But luck was against the Russians in so far as two of those three torpedoes hit their best battleships. Retvizan and Tsarevich were put out of action for weeks, as was the cruiser Pallada.