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Click here to view panorama (1mb) Russian Fleet Panorama
By James Burbeck
One afternoon several years ago, I was reading an eyewitness account of the Russo-Japanese War and came upon a tantalizing passage. It mentioned that in 1905 the Russian Baltic Fleet that sailed around the world to fight the Japanese Navy at the Battle of Tsushima passed Singapore on a fair afternoon, and that many people came out in pleasure craft to watch the fleet pass. I immediately wondered if anyone had photographed this.

Over the next few weeks I combed through every book collection I knew of and eventually found myself searching through a stack of older history books when I discovered that one of them had a panoramic photo tightly fan-folded into a back cover sleeve. As I carefully unfolded it an image of a broad line of Russian warships appeared, obviously the Russian battleships of Admiral Zinovii Petrovich Rozhdestvenski's Baltic Fleet. The photo looked to have been taken after the fleet left Russian waters on the long journey around the world. In the center of the panorama was Oslyabya, ill-fated leader of Rozhdesvenski's second battleship division. Oslyabya was a sort of early battlecruiser and she was the first ship sunk at the Battle of Tsushima. Lined up behind her in the panorama were the recognizable Borodino class battleships; Suvarov, Borodino, Alexander III and Orel. Toward the rear of the clearly visible ships was the old battleship Navarin, her four crowded amidships funnels clearly identifying her. Off the horizon to the right a long line of supporting ships disappeared into obscurity. This spectacular yard-long panorama was exactly what I had been searching for and surprisingly it took only three weeks to find. I was fortunately able to scan a copy of this rare photo.

Some things to note in the panorama include the extensive awnings visible along the decks of the battleships, which were common tropical service features. Of the ships in the photo, several did not join the main fleet until long into their voyage and it is interesting that the fleet is being led by the hospital ship Orel and numerous auxiliary cruisers which had been purchased from Hamburg-America cruise lines. Note that some ships are producing more smoke than others. Eyewitnesses reported the Russians as "burning soft coal." Soft coal was most likely bituminous which does produce more smoke and flame. Higher grade anthracite coal produces little or no smoke. Based on the photo, the fleet may have been using a mix of coal types based on what they could acquire during the course of the voyage.

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