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Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast

Nov 21, 2023

Last time we spoke about the failure of diplomacy between the Empires of Russian and Japan as well as the Yellow Peril. The Russians said they would demobilize and pull out of Manchuria, but when the time actually came to do so, they suddenly had a change of heart. Japan felt threated, but extended the hand of diplomacy trying to thwart beginning a war against a great power. Tsar Nicholas II was being egged on by his cousin Kaiser Wilhelm II, who utilized  Yellow Peril rhetory to push Russia into a war with Japan. The Russians did not put up a serious effort when it came to diplomacy, basically insulting Japan. Japan could only swallow so much, until she would take violent actions. The entire world was in for quite a shock, because a Sun was about to rise and a Bear was about to tumble. 


#74 The Russo-Japanese War Part 1: The Surprise attack on Port Arthur


Welcome to the Fall and Rise of China Podcast, I am your dutiful host Craig Watson. But, before we start I want to also remind you this podcast is only made possible through the efforts of Kings and Generals over at Youtube. Perhaps you want to learn more about the history of Asia? Kings and Generals have an assortment of episodes on history of asia and much more  so go give them a look over on Youtube. So please subscribe to Kings and Generals over at Youtube and to continue helping us produce this content please check out If you are still hungry for some more history related content, over on my channel, the Pacific War Channel where I cover the history of China and Japan from the 19th century until the end of the Pacific War.

On January 13th of 1904, Japan proposed to Russia that she would recognize Russia's sphere of influence over Manchuria if Russia would respect her’s over Korea. It was a generous offer to maintain the peace, but Russia counter proposed that Japan respect her sphere of influence over Manchuria, and that Korea was basically open grounds. It was to be frank, an insult. It seemed clear to the Japanese the Russians were not serious about diplomacy, in fact they were biding time to build up their military strength in Asia. In February of 1904, Prime Minister Katsura’s cabinet decided for war. You really have to take a step back and look at what a colossal decision that was. Russia was a great power, Japan was considered an emerging regional power. Japan had defeated the Qing dynasty, yes, but in the minds of the great powers, this was nothing more than two lesser nations battling it out. A lot of the attitudes of the day were as you can imagine, racist. The idea of a non white nation going to war against a white nation let alone a great power, was ridiculous. So how did Japan think she was going to defeat a larger empire like Russia?

For Japan the prospect of victory would rely on a pre-emptive strike against her fleet anchored at Port Arthur, sound a bit familiar? Yes in many ways you can think of this as a Pearl Harbor prequel. The idea similar to Pearl Harbor was to deliver a surprise attack and then issue the formal declaration of war. In the Pacific the Russian Far East fleet consisted of 7 battleships, 6 cruisers and 13 destroyers at Port Arthur. At Vladivostok there were 4 first class cruisers, with a number of torpedo boats. At Chemulpo in Korea were the protected cruisers Varya and gunboat Koreyetz. A crucial component of the conflict would be commanding the sea ways. Both nations recognized this fact all too well. The Russian far east fleet was constrained from year the round training by being icebound in Vladivostok for 3 months of the year. Her fleet was also a ragtag bunch with different armaments, speed, armor and flexibility. Russia was dependent on foreign built ships, though she was fully capable of building her own. Russia had ships built from Britain, Germany, France and the US. The Russian navy was based on conscription at 7 years with 3 years of reserve. 

The IJN combined fleet consisted of 6 battleships, 10 cruisers, 40 destroyers and 40 smaller vessels, led by Vice Admiral Heihachiro Togo. The Russian ships were a hotchpotch of differing types, armaments and speeds, with a varied amount of armor protection. The Japanese ships were nearly all British built, uniform and faster. Alcohol excess amongst Russian crews was a serious problem. Baltic crews spent the 6 months of winter ashore because the gulf of Finland froze and because of bureaucratic demand for uniformity. So did the crews of the Black Sea fleet. Thus, Russian sailors spent less time at sea and less time training. The Japanese navy under British instruction spent more time at sea, and trained intensively. Japanese sailors were literate, while most Russian sailors were not. These variables would come out to play when dealing with steam-driven warships, the most technologically advanced weapons of the day.


Japan held an advantage over the Russians: an intricate spy network run by Baron Akashi Motojiro. He was sent as a roaming military attache all over Europe and, by 1902, moved to Saint Petersburg, setting up a network using locally-based Japanese merchants, workers and others sympathetic to Japan, making sure to pay more than the Russians did. He gathered valuable information on troop movements and naval development, and began to support Russian extremists such as Litvinoff, Orlovsky and Lenin. It is alleged he recruited the famous spy Sidney Reilly, who went to Manchuria and Port Arthur secretly gathering intelligence and, if it is to be believed, alongside his acquaintance Ho Liang Shung, stole the Port Arthur harbor defense plans and sold it to the IJN. Allegedly, Vice-Admiral Togo was given some false information from Reilly and other spies around Port Arthur about the garrison there being on full alert. This led him to not want to risk his capital ships against a well-prepared enemy. He thus elected to send a destroyer force to surprise-attack Port Arthur.

To prepare for the war, the Japanese had troopships prepared in predetermined positions, already loaded with provisions and munitions. Aboard his flagship, Admiral Togo read to his admirals a message from Emperor Meiji before all of them lifted a glass of champagne and gave a few bonzai’s. The Japanese press were forced into utmost secrecy, everything possible was concealed. As the combined fleet departed on the morning of February the 7th, they had an agreement, whether at Port Arthur or if the Russian fleet found them first, the Japanese would fire first. 

The IJN combined fleet made a rendezvous south of Chemulpo around Lindsay island. They were met by the Akashi who had been tasked with surveying the Russian navy’s movements in the region. The Akashi reported the Russian naval forces had not departed Port Arthur, everyone sighed with relief. The Russian naval forces outside Port Arthur were the unprotected cruisers Varyag and an old gunboat called the Koreyetz, both at anchor in Chemulpo. Chemulpo was a designated landing spot for the IJA, three troopships carrying 2500 troops detached from the combined fleet escorted by the armored cruisers Asama, Takachiho, Nanussa, unarmored cruisers Suma and Akashi and two torpedo boats. Commanding the small detachment was Rear Admiral Uriu. The Japanese intelligence indicated, alongside the two Russian warships there was numerous warships from other nations. The HMS Talbot, USS Vicksburg, Italy’s Elba, Frances Pascal and Japans protected cruiser Chiyoda were anchored there. Chiyoda slipped out of the port to meet up with the incoming Uriu who forwarded the information on the international presence. Uriu worried about the political consequences of attacking the Russians in the harbor next to international warships which was against international law. If they could lure the Russians out of the harbor it would be much better politically.


Meanwhile the Russians were in a bit of an awkward state. Many believed hostilities could break out at any moment, but did not have orders to attack first. The commander of the Koreyetz was quite nervous and wanted to receive an update from Port Arthur on the political situation so he departed from the harbor during the early afternoon. Unluckily for the Koreyetz she came across the incoming Japanese. Upon discovering the incoming ships were Japanese, the Koreyetz turned around, but some of her gunners were too trigger happy and fired two ineffectual shots.


The Koreyetz fled back to her anchorage beside the Varyag and Russian steamer Sungari. The 3 captains quickly met watching the Japanese warships also anchor within the harbor. Soon they could see the Japanese troopships unloaded troops and provisions around 6pm on February 8th. The Japanese troops went to work occupying the city and by 3am on the 9th, four IJA battalions of the 12th division had unloaded without incident. Rear admiral Uriu sent a letter to the senior Russian commander, Captain Stefanov advising him that hostilities existed between their two nations and that the Russian ships must leave the neutral port of Chemulpo. He also indicated he spoke to the other nationalities captains warning them to stay clear if a fire fight broke out in the harbor. The Russians had until noon to comply, if they stayed at 4pm, Uriu would attack.


Captain Stefanov ran over to the HMS Talbot to plead with her British captain to get the international ships to restrain the Japanese or help escort them out to sea. Captain Denis Bagly of the Talbot went out to meet Uriu with a letter signed by the other captains protesting the violation of a neutral port. Bagly had no illusions it was a useless gesture and he bid farewell to Stefanov, advising the man he should try to escape or surrender. Stefanov spoke with his fellow captains and they agreed surrender was not an option. At 11am, outgunned and outnumbered the two Russian warships departed the anchorage in front of numerous spectators. Varyags band played ‘god save the Tsar” as the sailors sang the anthem. They sailed directly at the awaiting Japanese fleet. 


Upon seeing the Russians come out, the Asama trained her 8 inch guns on the Varyag and at a range of 4 miles opened fire. The new Shimose shells began to hit Varyag and soon Chiyoda added her guns to the duel. Eye witness, reporter Thomas Cowen had this to say of the scene

Her decks were being torn and riven, and men were dashed down in mangled heaps all round each gun, for the guns had no shields to protect their crews. Like the furious windsqualls in the height of a hurricane came the bursting of terrible explosives all the length of the ship, shattering and burning and sweeping away men and pieces of machinery indiscriminately


The Varyag’s crew literally ran out of men to carry away the wounded on deck. A shell smashed into the bridge to the left of the captain killing his runner. Another shell hit to the captains right killing his bugler and taking some of the side of his face. Most of Varyags guns were silenced, she took a hit below the waterline and was listing to port. Despite all of this, the able men kept to their duty, trying to maneuver the ship by the propellers after her steering gear had been shot off. With no way to fight the enemy the captain ordered them to return to port and the maneuver left Koreyetz exposed to fire for the first time. Koreyetz could not even fire upon the enemy because her range was too limited and soon the Chiyoda began to fire upon her. Koreyetz captain decided to simply follow the crippled and on fire Varyag. Suddenly the gunfire ceased, the Japanese went back to where they anchored before and the two Russian warships did the same. Varyags superstructures were flattened, two of her four funnels were blown off and her masts as well. The Russian survivors were quickly taken aboard the Talbot, Elba and Pascal. The Russian captains had decided to scuttle the three ships. As the explosives went off, the band aboard the Elba played the Russian anthem. The Japanese sailors all bowed in a salute. Later within Chemulpo some of the Russian sailors would be treated by Japanese medical staff and all were permitted to return to Russia on parole, so that they would not take up arms again during the war. 


Admiral Togo took the rest of the fleet to another rendezvous point, this time at Elliot island, some 65 miles east of Port Arthur. Togo’s fleet was divided into three divisions. The 1st division consisted of the 6 battleships, Asahi, Hatsuse, Shikishima, Yashima, Fuji and Togo’s flagship Mikasa. They had an overall speed of 18 knots and a displacement of 12300-15000 tons with broadsides weighing some 4000 lbs. The 2nd division consisted of armored cruisers, the Yagumo, Izumo, Iwate, Azuma and Tokiwa with an average speed of 24 knots. The third division consisted of unarmored cruisers Chitose, Takasago, Yoshino and Kasagi. Additionally 15 destroyers armed with the brand new Whitehead torpedo capable of 30 knots and 20 torpedo boats would take up the role of picquet. 

Over in Port Arthur’s harbor the inner line consisted of 5 Russian battleships, Sevastopol, Petropavlovsk, Peresvyet, Pobieda and Poltava. In the middle line were the battleships Tsarevitch and Retvizan, alongside 3 cruisers. In the southernmost line were 3 other cruisers along with the duty ship Pallada. Patroling outside the harbor were destroyers Rastoropni and Bezstrashni around 20 miles out. The commander of the Russian Far Eastern Fleet was Vice Admiral Oscar Victorovitch Stark. It just so happened on February 8th he had planned a large birthday party for his wife. The guests would include Viceroy and Supreme Commander Admiral Alexeiev, his chief of staff Vice Admiral Witgeft, Starks deputy Rear admiral Uktomski and a plethora of other commanders and their wives. Stark actually suspected the Japanese would attack, most likely utilizing torpedoes in a surprise, but the Viceroy refused to allow him to prepare the fleet for war. None the less Stark ordered his captains to prepare to repel torpedo attacks. He ordered all ships to put out anti-torpedo nets and be prepared for action. However, several ships did not carry out these orders and did not take the situation seriously despite multiple night alarms. Many main battery guns were unloaded, many nets uncast, entire crews lay asleep in hammocks, and the two patrolling destroyers were told not to fire if they saw anything, but instead to report it to the CIC. This was because the Tsar had instructed his far Eastern forces, for political reasons, that if war should occur, Japan must be seen to have started it. Alongside this, the majority of the officer corps would be celebrating on the shore and at a party hosted by Admiral Starck for the birthday of his wife on the deck of his flagship, the Petropavlovsk. The celebrating crowd would in fact mistake explosions as cannon salutes for her birthday party.

At 7pm Togo released his destroyers, the 1st, 2nd and 3rd flotillas had orders to proceed to Port Arthur while the 4th and 5th would try to ambush any Russian ships sailing around Dalny. 10 destroyers were enroute to Port Arthur, each warship held crews of around 50 men, armed with two 12 pounder guns, 4 6 pounders and two torpedoes.  The 1st Flotilla consisted of the destroyers : Shirakumo, Asashio, Kasumi, Akatsuki; 2nd Flotilla: Inazuma, Oboro, Ikazuchi; 3rd Flotilla: Usugumo, Shinonome, Sazanami. They used stearch lights, went towards Liau-ti-chan, allegedly using stolen plans from Sidney Reilly to navigate through the Russian minefield protecting the harbor. At 10:50pm, the 1st flotilla came across the two Russian destroyers on patrol, the Rastoropni and Bezstrashni. This prompted the 1st squadron to douse their lights, trying to avoid detection and slip past. During the process, the Japanese destroyer Oboro collided with the Ikazuchi, disabling her and blocking the path of the Inazuma. This in turn led the flotillas to become separated and were forced to act independently, with the Inazuma becoming lost and the Oboro limping slowly. 20 minutes after midnight, the 1st flotilla arrived, seeing Russian warship searchlights. Approaching closer they saw 3 ranks of ships and then the cruisers Pallada saw the Japanese destroyers, but presumed they were the returning Rastoropni and Bezstrashni. The Rastoropni and Bezstrashni had no radios and were rushing back to try and report the incoming Japanese. At 11:50pm Captain Asai Shojero aboard the Shiragumo gave the attack signal. The four destroyers turned to port and increased their speed to 30 knots before releasing two torpedoes each and turning southwards. 

The Shiragumo fired the first two torpedoes, followed by two from the Asashio. Because the Pallada was more active, she received more attention than the rest. Pallada was hit amidship, caught fire and began to keel over. Retvizan was hit next at her bow creating a hole large enough for a car to pass through. Tsesarevitch’s steering gear was hit. When the explosion of the hit against Pallada was heard many of the Russian ships began firing wildly. The Kasumi fired her two torpedoes, followed by the Akatsuki. Ikazuhi acting alone, came to the scene and fired a single torpedo before fleeing south as well. The 3rd flotilla attracted by the explosions rushed to the scene, finding some lights approaching them, they doused their lights and stopped their engines. It turned out to be the Inazuma who had got lost and requested to join them. They continued finding the Russians ships in a wild disarray. Usugumo was the first to fire, followed by Shinonime and Inazuma before they made their escape south. Meanwhile the Sazanami had been separated from all the others since 11 pm, but had managed to slip past the two russian destroyers around 1:25am and came in to fire a single torpedo before also departing south. The last ship was the damaged Oboro who attempted to repair herself before limping towards the enemy. At 1:45am she fired a torpedo and made her escape.

The Russians had been caught completely by surprise. Their skeleton crews aboard the battleships had no idea what was occurring. Many men tumbled out of their bunks awaiting orders, orders that never came. To further explain, when a ship is in action each individual has his own designated tasks, but when an attack comes unexpectedly and a large number of the crew are absent, orders have to be given on the spur of the moment. The explosions were heard by many in the city of Port Arthur, but countless assumed it to be fireworks for celebration. The Russians wild attempts at firing back upon the enemy were useless. The Norvik was the only ship to give chase to the enemy. The torpedo attack killed two officers, 29 sailors and wounded 8 others. Pallada was grounded under the western battery in the harbor; Retvizan was grounded on a ledge near the entrance passage and Tsesarevitch was grounded close to Retvizan. Out of a total of 16 torpedoes launched, only 3 found targets. A major reason for this was luckily due to the few crews who had deployed anti torpedo nets as suggested by Starck.

By the way if you would like to see a visual representation of the attack, there is a fantastic Japanese series on the Russo Japanese war called “Saka no Ue no Kumo” narrated by the legendary Ken Watanabe. On my personal channel the pacific war channel one of my most popular episodes is on the Russo-Japanese war, and I used a lot of footage from the series. I will admit I embarrasingly messed up the episode by speeding up the narration somewhat because it was simply too long, but its still ok. By the time this podcast comes out I hope its alright to say, I have been writing a 10 part Russo Japanese War series for Kings and Generals and the animation will look awesome. But back to the story.

Starcks staff briefed him on what had occurred and he immediately reported it to the Viceroy in a manner of “i told you so”. Starck most likely hoped the Viceroy would shoulder the blame alongside him, but instead rumors were spread to exaggerate the fact he was having a party for his wife during the event. None the less the two admirals quickly began to plan their next steps as they both assumed the IJN combined fleet was about to come in an attack them. The viceroy sent a message appealing for everyone to stay calm in the city while Starck ordered the fleet to be made ready for sea immeidately. Countless officers and sailors scrambled to get to their ships.

Following the attack, at 8am, Togo dispatched Vice Admiral Dewa Shigeto with the four cruisers of the 3rd flottila to investigate Port Arthur and, if possible, lure them out south of Encounter Rock. At 9am, Dewa observed 9 Russian warships getting ready for sea, with 3 aground. The smaller vessels, such as gunboats, torpedo boats and mine planters were outside the harbor looking to be in disarray. Dewa approached within 7500 yards of the harbor, but no one fired upon him. This prompted Dewa to believe the Russians were completely paralyzed.

Dewa wireless-messaged Togo that the Russians seemed to be paralyzed, the time was ripe to attack. Togo had wanted to lure the Russians away from Port Arthur's shore batteries, but the report prompted him to order an immediate attack. The Russian formation was quite all over the place. Askold was to the east, Bayan in the center, Novik was far to the west having attempted to chase the enemy, many of the other ships were still at anchor. Togo devised his 3 divisions to form a column coming in one after the other, each ship was to fire starboard. The Japanese approached the harbor at 11:55am. Port Arthur was tossed into pure chaos. Warships moved quickly to jettison inflammable material while coolies in sampans paddled through the jetsam. Captains lept about demanding status reports of their ships while all they could see was dakr smudges on the horizon.

At a range of 8500 meters, the Mikasa was the first to fire her guns.  After firing her 12inch forward gun, she turned and opened fire with her starboard broadside, the other ships followed in same fashion. The Russian shore batteries erupted firing back on the Japanese causing a duel between the warships 12 inch guns aimed at the shore batteries while their 8 and 6 inch guns targetted the Russia nwarships. The Mikasa took a full 20 minutes to form her pass and was followed by Asahi, Fuji, Yashima, Shikishima and Hatsuse.  Asahi targeted a Peresviet type, Fuji & Yashima fired upon cruiser Bayan, Shikishima fired on a ship in the center and Hatsuse dueled the enemy nearest to her. With the exception of Novik, the Russian moved like ants around a nest beneath their fort guns, trying not to make themselves stationary targets. The Novik charged out of the harbor to meet the enemy and received a hell of a mauling for it. The Russian flagship Petropavlosvk flying Starcks flag was battered; Poltava took a hit and cruisers Diana and Askold were severely damaged. The damage was not a one way street however, Mikasa, Shikishima, Fuji, Hatsuse and Iwate took hits. The shore batteries were becoming increasingly effective. When the 2nd and 3rd divisions were making their turn, everything had become like a barrom brawl. Within just 5 minutes of the dueling, Mikasa had taken a 10 inch shell to her starboard side which ricocheted and exploded under her mainmast. Her chief engineer, a staff officer, a paymaster, one midshipman and 3 crew members were wounded, and part of her aft bridge was carried away. The Fuji received a shell through her forward casing, smashing a stack and exploding, killing a turret officer and wounding many. Shikishima then received a hit to her forward stack causing it to explode.


By 12:20, Admiral Togo realized that Dewa was incorrect in his assessment - the enemy was not paralyzed - thus he motioned the fleet to withdraw. After just a single run of it, Togo had decided to back out and rendezvous with Uriu at Chemulpo. The departing maneuver exposed Togo’s entire fleet to the full brunt of the Russian shore batteries. The Hatsuse, Fuji, Shikishima and Mikasa would take the lionshare of the damage, around 7 hits distributed amongst them. As the fleet made its turning point, the IJN cruisers took several hits. Within the 2nd Division: Azuma fired upon Novik, Iwate fired upon Askold, Iwaki fired upon Askold and then Bayan. As the cruisers turned to port to follow the 1st division Azuma was hit by three shells, one to her battle flag, the other off the water of her starboard quarter exploding, the third to her after turret. Yakumo was hit twice one to her forward main top and midshipman. Novik received many hits and fired torpedoes at Iwate missing.  Within the 3rd Division: Chitose (flag of admiral Dewa) fired on center, Takasago fired on Bayan, Kasagi fired upon a Sevastopol type, Takumo fired on nearest enemy ship. Takasago and Chitose then fired on Askold which alone came closer to them, a shell his Askolds second stack, another her forward stack. Chitose then attack Novik and Takasgo attacked Bayan. As they turned to withdraw they received no major hits. The IJN cruisers also launched salvos of torpedoes. The Novik trying to engage them closer evaded the torpedoes, but took several shells below her waterline. The Japanese finally got out of range of the dreaded batteries of Port Arthur, lucky to not have any ships sunk.

The casualties were quite balanced for the engagement. The Russians had 150, the Japanese betwene 90 and 130. Neither had any warships sunk, but many were severely damaged. For the Japanese this was not a major issue, their damaged ships returned to Sasebo for immediate repairs, however for the Russians this was a major issue. Port Arthur held limited capabilities, they had only one small dry dock and another incomplete. This meant some of the larger Russian warships could not receive proper repairs, and now they were blockaded. Many 12 inch shells had fallen into the city. The Russo-Chinese bank was hit causing the employees to frantically burn the currency and prepare coins to be transported away. Lumps of coal littered the city grounds like confetti. Many Chinese grabbed their belongings and fled the city aboard steamers. Many buildings were damaged, civilian casualties were light.

When the news of the surprise attack reached Tsar Nicholas II he was stunned. He could not believe the Japanese would initiate a warlike actions without formally declaring war first. His advisers had assured him the Japanese had been bluffing and would not dare attack. The first secretary of the British embassy, Cecil Spring Rice went on the record to state the Tsar was left “almost incredulous”.  Japan issued their declaration of war 3 hours after the surprise attack. Russia went on a war footing on the 10th and a few days later submitted their official declaration of war after stating to the international community Japans actions were dishonorable. In response Japan referenced the Russian attack on Sweden in 1808, which they did without declaring war first as a justification somewhat for their own actions. 

The international community were mixed in their favor, but many did sympathize with the Japanese. Notably President Theodore Roosevelt held sympathetic views for the Japanese and the Japanese would take a strong notice to this. Admiral Togo was dissapointed in his lack of success with the surprise torpedo attack. But for now Japan had won command of the sea, the Russian navy was trapped. From Chemulpo, Togo sailed his damaged ships back to Sasebo for repairs, but would go on the record to state “He felt he failed to take the opportunity as Nelson would have done, to deal a blow to the Russian fleet from which they would not recover”.

I would like to take this time to remind you all that this podcast is only made possible through the efforts of Kings and Generals over at Youtube. Please go subscribe to Kings and Generals over at Youtube and to continue helping us produce this content please check out If you are still hungry after that, give my personal channel a look over at The Pacific War Channel at Youtube, it would mean a lot to me.

Admiral Togo had delivered the very first blow of the Russo-Japanese war. His surprise attack upon Port Arthur was a bold and terrific strategy, but had he done enough to give Japan the upper hand in the battles to come?