WTJ Editor's Note:
Japan's victory over the Russian
Navy at the 1905 Battle of Tsushima deeply divided the Russian military
establishment and triggered a series of accusations against officers who took
part. In later years, much blame was unfairly placed on Rear Admiral Nebogatov,
the battle's third in command, and it should be remembered that Captain Semenov
belonged to the pro-Rozhestvensky faction. As such, he not unreasonably (for he
made a very good case) sought to clear the name of his commander, although he
did not resort to the harsh extremes committed by other officers. In reality,
much of the blame for defeat lay on the Russian Naval Ministry, whose faulty
planning placed the entire Russian fleet in the gravest peril. Despite his
occasional agenda when discussing fellow officers, Semenoff's first hand
account of the actual combat remains an excellent description of
pre-dreadnought naval warfare.
"Now the fun will begin," thought I to myself, going up to
the after-bridge, which seemed to be the most convenient place for carrying out
my duty of seeing and noting down everything, as from there I could see both
the enemy and our own fleet. Lieutenant Reydkin, commanding the after starboard
6-inch turret, was also there, having dashed up to see what was going on, as
the fight was apparently to commence to port, and his turret would not be in
We stood side by side, exchanging now and again abrupt
remarks, not understanding why the Japanese intended crossing to our port side,
when our weak spotthe transports and cruisers covering themwas
astern, and to starboard of us. Perhaps, having commenced the fight while
steering on the opposite course, and having taken advantage of their superior
speed, they calculated on rounding us from the stern, in order to fall at the
same time on our transports and weak rear! If so, a raking fire would present
" Hullo I Look I What are they up to ? " said Reydkin, and
his voice betrayed both delight and amazement.
I looked and looked, and, not believing my eyes, could not
put down my glasses. The Japanese ships had suddenly commenced to turn "in
succession" to port, reversing their course!
If the reader recollects what has been said previously on
the subject of turns, he will easily understand that this manoeuvre made it
necessary for all the enemy's ships to pass in succession over the point on
which the leading ship had turned; this point was, so to speak, stationary on
the water, making it easy for us to range and aim. Besides even with a
speed of 15 knots, the manoeuvre must take about fifteen minutes to complete,
and all this time the vessels, which had already turned, would mask the fire of
those which were still coming up.
"How rash!" said Reydkin, who could not keep quiet. " Why,
in a minute we'll be able to roll up the leading ships ! "
"Please God, we may !" thought I.
It was plain to me that Togo, seeing something which he
had not expected, had suddenly changed his mind. The manoeuvre was undoubtedly
risky, but, on the other hand, if he found it necessary to steer on the
opposite course, there was no other way of doing it. He might have ordered the
fleet to turn "together," but this would have made the cruiser Iwate the
leading ship in action, which he evidently did not wish. Togo accordingly
decided to turn "in succession," in order that he should lead the fleet in
person, and not leave success at the commencement of the action to depend upon
the presence of mind and enterprise of the junior flag-officer. (The Iwate flew
Rear - Admiral Simamura's flag.)
My heart beat furiously, as it had never done before
during the six months at Port Arthur. If we succeeded! God grant it! Even
though we didn't sink one of them, if we could only put one out of action! The
first success was it possible?
Meanwhile Rozhdestvensky hastened to avail himself of this
At 1.49 p.m., when the manoeuvre had been performed by the
Mikasa and Shikishima (two only out of the twelve), the Suvoroff fired the
first shot at a range of 6,400 yards, and the guns of the whole fleet thundered
forth. I watched closely through my glasses. The shots which went over and
those which fell short were all close, but the most interesting, i.e. the hits,
as in the fight of 10th August, could not be seen. Our shells on bursting
emitted scarcely any smoke, and the fuses were adjusted to burst inside after
penetrating the target. A hit could only be detected when something fell
and nothing fell I In a couple of minutes, when the Fuji and Asahi had turned
also and were following the first ships, the enemy began to reply.
The first shells flew over us. At this range some of the
long ones turned a complete somersault, and could clearly be seen with the
naked eye curving like so many sticks thrown in the air. They flew over us,
making a sort of wail, different to the ordinary roar.
Are those the portmanteaus ? " asked Reydkin, smiling.
" Yes. Those are they."
But what struck me most was that these " portmanteaus,"
curving awkwardly head over heels through the air and falling anyhow on the
water, exploded the moment they touched its surface. This had never happened
After them came others short of us nearer and
nearer. Splinters whistled through the air, jingled against the side and
superstructure. Then, quite close and abreast the foremost funnel, rose a
gigantic pillar of smoke, water and flame. I saw stretchers being carried along
the fore-bridge, and I leaned over the rail.
" Prince Tsereteli I " ' shouted Reydkin from below, in
reply to my silent question, as he went towards his turret.
The next shell struck the side by the centre 6-inch
turret, and there was a tremendous noise behind and below me on the port
quarter. Smoke and tongues of fire leapt out of the officers' gangway; a shell
having fallen into the captain's cabin, and having penetrated the deck, had
burst in the officers' quarters, setting them on fire.
And here I was able to observe, and not for the first
time, the stupor which seems to come over men, who have never been in action
before, when the first shells begin to fall. A stupor which turns easily and
instantaneously, at the most insignificant external shock, into either
uncontrollable panic which cannot be allayed, or into unusually high spirits,
depending on the man's character.
The men at the fire mains and hoses stood as if
mesmerised, gazing at the smoke and flames, not understanding, apparently, what
was happening. I went down to them from the bridge, and with the most
commonplace words, such as "Wake up I Turn the water on!" got them to
pull themselves together and bravely to fight the fire.
I was taking out my watch and pocket-book to make a note
of the first fire, when something suddenly struck me in the waist, and
something large and soft, though heavy, hit me in the back, lifting me up and
hurling me on to the deck. When I again got up, my note-book and watch were in
my hands as before. My watch was going; but the second hand was slightly bent,
and the glass had disappeared. Stupefied by the blow, and not myself, I began
carefully to hunt for it on the deck, and found it unbroken. Picking it up, I
fitted it in to my watchand, only then realising that I had been occupied
with something of no importance, I looked round.
I had probably been unconscious for some time, as the fire
had been extinguished, and, save for two or three dead bodies on which water
was pouring from the torn hoses, no one was to be seen. Whatever had struck me
had come from the direction of the deck house aft, which was hidden from me by
a mantlet of hammocks. I looked in the direction where the flag-officers, with
a party of poop signalmen, should have been. The shell had passed through the
deck house, bursting inside. Of the ten or twelve signalmen, some seemed to be
standing by the starboard 6-inch turret, others seemed to be lying in a huddled
group. Inside was a pile of something, and on the top lay an officers
" Is this all that is left?" I wondered, but I was wrong,
as by some miracle Novosiltseff and Kozakevitch were only wounded and, helped
by Maximoff, had gone to the dressing station, while I was lying on the deck
occupied with mending my watch.
" Hullo! a scene that you are accustomed to ? Like the
10th August ? " said the irrepressible Reydkin, peeping out of his turret.
"Just the same" I replied in a confident tone. But it was
hardly so: indeed, it would have been more correct to say"Not in the
On 10th August, in a fight lasting some hours, the
Cesarevitch was struck by only nineteen large shells, and I, in all
seriousness, had intended in the present engagement to note the times and the
places where we were hit, as well as the damage done. But how could I make
detailed notes when it seemed impossible even to count the number of
projectiles striking us ? I had not only never witnessed such a fire before,
but I had never imagined anything like it. Shells seemed to be pouring upon us
incessantly, one after another.
After six months with the Port Arthur squadron I had grown
indifferent to most things. Shimose and melinite were to a certain extent old
acquaintances, but this was something new. It seemed as if these were mines,
not shells, which were striking the ship's side and falling on the deck. They
burst as soon as they touched anything the moment they encountered the
least impediment in their flight. Handrails, funnel guys, topping lifts of the
boats' derricks, were quite sufficient to cause a thoroughly efficient burst.
The steel plates and superstructure on the upper deck were torn to pieces, and
the splinters caused many casualties. Iron ladders were crumpled up into rings,
and guns were literally hurled from their mountings.
Such havoc would never be caused by the simple impact of a
shell, still less by that of its splinters. It could only be caused by the
force of the explosion. The Japanese had apparently succeeded in realising what
the Americans had endeavoured to attain in inventing their " Vesuvium."
In addition to this, there was the unusual high
temperature and liquid flame of the explosion, which seemed to spread over
everything. I actually watched a steel plate catch fire from a burst. Of
course, the steel did not I burn, but the paint on it did. Such almost non -
combustible materials as hammocks, and rows of boxes, drenched with water,
flared up in a moment. At times it was impossible to see anything with glasses,
owing to every thing being so distorted with the quivering, heated air. No, It
was different to the 10th August.
I hurriedly went to the Admiral in the conning tower. Why
? At the time I did not attempt to think, but now feel sure that I merely
wished to see him, and by seeing him to confirm my impressions. Was it all
imagination? Was it all a nightmare? Had I become jumpy?
Running along the fore-bridge I almost fell, slipping in a
pool of blood (the chief signalmanKandaooroff- had just been killed
there). I went into the conning tower, and found the Admiral and Captain both
bending down, looking out through the chink between the armour and the roof.
"Sir," said the Captain, energetically gesticulating as
was his wont, " we must shorten the distance. They're all being
killedthey are on fire!"
"Wait a bit. Aren't we all being killed also?" replied the
Close to the wheel, and on either side of it, lay two
bodies in officers' tunicsface downwards.
" The officer at the wheel, and Berseneff!" was shouted in
my ear by a sublieutenant Shishkinwhose arm I had touched, pointing
to the bodies. " Berseneff firstin the headquite dead."
The range - finder was worked. Vladimirsky shouted his
orders in a clear voice, and the electricians quickly turned the handles of the
indicator, transmitting the range to the turrets and light gun batteries.
"We're all right," thought I to myself, going out of the
conning tower, but the next moment the thought flashed across me: " They can't
see what is going on on board." Leaving the tower, I looked out intently on all
sides from the fore-bridge. Were not my recent thoughts, which I had not dared
to put into words, realised?
The enemy had finished turning. His twelve ships were in
perfect order at close intervals, steaming parallel to us, but gradually
forging ahead. No disorder was noticeable. It seemed to me that with my Zeiss
glasses (the distance was a little more than 4,000 yards), I could even
distinguish the mantlets of hammocks on the bridges, and groups of men. But
with us ? I looked round. What havoc !Burning bridges, smouldering debris
on the decks,piles of dead bodies. Signalling and judging distance
stations, gun-directing positions, all were destroyed. And astern of us the
Alexander and Borodino were also enveloped in smoke. No , it was
very different to the 10th August.
The enemy, steaming ahead, commenced quickly to incline to
starboard, endeavouring to cross our T. We also bore to starboard, and again we
had him almost on our beam.
It was now 2.5 p.m.
A man came up to report what had taken place in the after
12-inch turret. I went to look. Part of the shield over the port gun had been
torn off and bent upwards, but the turret was still turning and keeping up a
The officer commanding the fire parties had had both his
legs blown off and was carried below. Men fell faster and faster.
Reinforcements were required everywhere to replace casualties, even at the
turrets into which splinters could only penetrate through the narrow gun ports.
The dead were, of course, left to lie where they had fallen, but yet there were
not enough men to look after the wounded.
There are no spare men on board a warship, and a reserve
does not exist. Each man is detailed for some particular duty, and told off to
his post in action. The only source which we could tap was the crews of the 47
millimetre, and machine, guns, who from the commencement of the fight had been
ordered to remain below the armoured deck so as not to be unnecessarily
exposed. Having nothing to do now, as all their guns, which were in exposed
positions on the bridges, had been utterly destroyed, we made use of them, but
they were a mere drop in the ocean. As for the fires, even if we had had the
men, we were without the means with which to fight them. Over and over again
the hoses in use were changed for new ones, but these also were soon torn to
ribbons, and the supply became exhausted. Without hoses how could we pump water
on to the bridges and spar-deck where the flames raged ? On the spar-deck, in
particular, where eleven wooden boats were piled up, the fire was taking a firm
hold. Up till now, this " store of wood " had only caught fire in places, as
the water which had been poured into the boats prior to the commencement of the
action was still in them, though it was fast trickling out of the numerous
cracks momentarily being made by the splinters.
We, of course, did everything possible : tried to plug the
holes, and brought up water in buckets' I am not certain if the scuppers had
been closed on purpose, or had merely become blocked, but practically none of
the water we used for the fire ran overboard, and it lay, instead, on the upper
deck. This was fortunate, as, in the first place, the deck itself did not catch
fire, and, in the second, we threw into it the smouldering debris falling from
abovemerely separating the burning pieces and turning them over.
Seeing Flag Sub-Lieutenant Demchinsky standing by the
ladder of the fore-bridge, with a party of forecastle signalmen near the
starboard forward 6-inch turret, I went up to him. Golovnin, another
sublieutenant, who was in charge of the turret, gave us some cold tea to drink,
which he had stored in bottles. It seems a trifle, but it cheered us up.
Demchinsky told me that the first shell striking the ship
had fallen right into the temporary dressing station, rigged up by the doctor
in what seemed the most sheltered spot on the upper battery (between the centre
6-inch turrets by the ship's ikon). He said that it had caused a number of
casualties; that the doctor somehow escaped, but the ship's chaplain had been
dangerously wounded. I went there to have a look at the place.
The ship's ikon or, more properly speaking, ikons as there
were several of them, all farewell gifts to the ship, were untouched. The glass
of the big ikon case had not even been broken, and in front of it, on hanging
candlesticks, candles were peacefully burning. There wasn't a soul to be seen.
Between the wrecked tables, stools, broken bottles, and different hospital
appliances were some dead bodies, and a mass of something, which, with
difficulty, I guessed to be the remains of what had once been men.
I had not had time properly to take in this scene of
destruction when Demchinsky came down the ladder, supporting Flag Lieutenant
Sverbeyeff, who could scarcely stand.
He was gasping for breath, and asked for water. Ladling
some out of a bucket into a mess kettle, I gave him some, and, as he was unable
to use his arms, we had to help him. He drank greedily, jerking out a few words
" It's a trifle tell the Flag CaptainI'll come
immediatelyI am suffocated with these cursed gasesI'll get my
breath in a minute." He inhaled the air with a great effort through his blue
lips, and something seemed to rattle in his throat and chest, though not, of
course, the poisonous gases. On the right side of his back his coat was torn in
a great rent, and his wound was bleeding badly. Demchinsky told off a couple of
men to take him down to the hospital, and we again went on deck.
I crossed over to the port side, between the forward
12-inch and 6-inch turrets, to have a look at the enemy's fleet. It was all
there, just the sameno fires no heeling overno fallen
bridges, as if it had been at drill instead of fighting, and as if our guns,
which had been thundering incessantly for the last half-hour, had been
firingnot shells, but the devil alone knows what !
Feeling almost in despair, I put down my glasses and went
" The last of the halyards are burned," said Demchinsky to
me. " I think I shall take my men somewhere under cover." Of course, I fully
agreed. What was the use of the signalmen remaining under fire when nothing was
left for them to signal with!
It was now 2.20 p.m.
Making my way aft through the debris, I met Reydkin
hurrying to the forecastle. " We can't fire from the port quarter," he said
excitedly; " everything is on fire there, and the men are suffocated with heat
"Well! come on, let's get some one to put the fire
"I'll do that, but you report to the Admiral. Perhaps he
will give us some orders."
" What orders can he give?"
"He may alter the course. I don't know I "
" What I leave the line ? Is it likely ? "
" Well I anyway, you tell him."
In order to quiet him, I promised to report at once, and
we separated, going our ways. As I anticipated, the Admiral only shrugged his
shoulders on hearing my report and said, " They must put the fire out. No help
can be sent from here."
Instead of two dead bodies, five or six were now lying in
the conning tower. The man at the wheel having been incapacitated, Vladimirsky
had taken his place. His face was covered with blood, but his moustache was
smartly twisted upwards, and he wore the same self- confident look as he had in
the wardroom when discussing "the future of gunnery.."
Leaving the tower, I intended going to Reydkin to tell him
the Admiral's reply and to assist in extinguishing the fire, but instead I
remained on the bridge looking at the Japanese fleet.