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Japanese Torpedo Boats in the Baltic March 8, 2012

Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback

In 1904 the Russian Tsar, Nicholas II, ordered his Baltic navy to travel around the world to take on the Japanese (who had already destroyed Nicholas’ Pacific fleet). It proved an extraordinary ‘voyage of the damned’ as almost forty Russian ships, including five capital ships sailed towards their doom at the hands of the able Japanese Admiral, Togo. But Beachcombing is not interested in their undoing (at least not today). Rather his curiosity is aroused by a curious episode that took place at the very beginning of the voyage when the Russian fleet believed that it was attacked by Japanese torpedo boats at Dogger Bank, between the Baltic and Britain, and managed, in the confusion, to kill four British fishermen.

Now to a casual reader the very idea of Japanese torpedo boats in the North Sea might seem strange; as, in fact, it is and was. The only way that Japanese torpedo boats would have found their way to the North Sea would be if they had had a nearby friendly port. Yet the Dutch and the Danes were not in the habit of opening their quays to hostile oriental powers wanting to take a swipe at the Russian Bear. Britain, it was true, was in alliance with Japan but it would be an act of diplomatic suicide – it would mean that Britain wanted war – to allow armed Japanese vessels from Dover to steam out towards a European neighbour.

But the Russian fleet and diplomatic service were convinced that Japanese torpedo boats were waiting for them in some God-forsaken islet. Sound absurd? Paranoia had been fed by reports of oriental gentlemen in Baltic ports and mysterious boats glimpsed at twilight: the useless rumours and banter modern intelligence services call ‘chatter’ was picking up. And, what is truly incredible is that the Russians acted upon this chatter.

At almost 9.00 pm 8 October a Russian ship, the Kamchatka radioed to the fleet leader that it was under attack. Now the Kamchatka created confusion everywhere it went: the admiral of the fleet, the capable Rozhestvensky called it ‘Lecherous Slut’. So perhaps a little hysteria in the dark was to be expected. What was extraordinary was the exactitude of its messages. ‘Attacked from all directions’, ‘Torpedo boats at a cable length’,  ‘steering in different directions to avoid torpedo attack’. Given that there were no torpedo boats in the area: it is difficult to understand what was going on in the minds of its crew.

Rozhestvensky had nothing but contempt for the Kamchatka, but he could hardly ignore such reports and everyone was put on the highest alert and after midnight he personally saw a series of small boats, unlit, bobbing towards his flag ship, the Suvorov. Rozhestvensky ordered the sea to be lit up with searchlights and to his shock a torpedo boat passed through a searchlight beam.

‘Fire!’

For several confused minutes the guns opened up, with interludes as there also seemed to be fishing boats in the area (!) and  Russian boats accidentally, in their enthusiasm, fired on each other. Rozhestvensky, relieved, brought his boats through and then headed as rapidly as possible for the Spanish coast, where he made port several days later.

In Vigo (Galicia) Rozhestvensky’s relief turned though to horror. On arriving he learnt that he had accidentally opened fire on the Hull Fishing Fleet, one of Britain’s largest, and killed three men (one other would die later). In so doing the Russian admiral had come close to setting off the First World War: though with Russia on the side of the Germans and the French embarrassed neutrals.

The statue commemorating one of the victims at the head of this post is a strange memory of this forgotten episode.

But what  circumstances set off the Russian torpedo-boat mania? The ‘attacks’ came in the dark and when Rozhestvensky saw his boat there were also fishing craft in the area. This was surely a case of seeing what you want to see: or better, in this case, seeing what you fear? Rozhestvensky himself, who would, in other circumstances, have been a good witness – he was well-disciplined and honest – stuck to his claim that a torpedo boat had been there. Indeed, he sent a telegram off to this effect.

The North Sea Incident was occasioned by the action of two torpedo boats which steamed at full speed under cover of the night, and showing no lights, toward the ship that was leading our detachment. It was only after our search lights had been turned on that it was remarked that a few small steam craft bearing resemblance to trawlers were present. The detachment made every effort to spare these craft and ceased firing as soon as the torpedo boats had disappeared from sight (105 Pleshakov).

As noted above, Rozhestvensky was scrupulously honest: there is no question of evasion in these words. He clearly believed what he wrote. There was also another strange bit of ‘proof’ , if that is, indeed, what it is. One of the British complaints against the Russian fleet was, having sunk and damaged vessels, a Russian torpedo boat hung around yet did not assist survivors. But the Russian fleet had no torpedo boats… So how to explain this confusion? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

Beachcombing has no Russian (blame his comprehensive school) but perhaps there are still Russian conspiracy heads out there claiming it was the Japanese?!

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9 March 2011: First Ricardo writes in with this superlative site on the war of 1904-1905. Then Mike Dash with some background information. ‘Back in the 1980s I had cause to investigate some of these rumours for a study of the ways that the “moral influence” of the torpedo and the submarine affected naval strategy prior to the Great War. As a result I have a file which reveals the following: One can certainly say that the Russians were not simply misled by sightings of Hull fishing trawlers – they reported being tracked or attacked by both Japanese torpedo boats and Japanese submarines (which in 1905 were even less seaworthy than TBs) off the coast of Denmark, and again in the Mediterranean and off the coast of Sumatra. There were also reports of minelayers and even lights in the sky that were interpreted as Japanese balloons seen scouting at night – early UFO reports, if you will, which tie in well with a number of contemporary “airship scares” across the world. Prior to the disastrous Dogger Bank incident, in consequence, the Russians had already opened fire on French, German, Swedish and Norwegian merchantmen in the Baltic – the only difference in these cases was that they missed. The Russians put several men ashore at Vigo to give their side of the Dogger Bank story to the outraged British (it did not help that the incident had occurred on the 99th anniversary of Trafalgar). These men proceeded to Paris where an international court of enquiry was convened. Their leader, Captain Klado, stuck firmly to their story and argued that if no torpedo boats had in fact been present, lookouts on five different ships must have been simultaneously struck by identical hallucinations. To be fair to the Russians, there was one way in which Japanese torpedo boats might have operated in the North Sea without access to friendly ports: a class of warship known as the torpedo boat carrier, which carried very small TBs on deck. The British had one such ship called HMS Vulcan, which carried six small TBs and could winch them out and launch them as required. The French had a similar ship called the Foudre. The Japanese didn’t, but perhaps it didn’t seem impossible that they could have adapted a ship to carry out this task – by 1905 they had already proved themselves surpassingly competent at everything else. To be even more fair, the underwater threat from torpedoes was very much an unknown at this point. The Japanese were equally jumpy, and fired wildly at suspected Russian submarines off Port Arthur in May 1904. And I should close by pointing out that poor old Rozhestvensky’s men were not simply making these demons up from nothing. The scare was actually set in motion by a useless Tsarist agent by the name of Captain Hartling, who was sent to Copenhagen with 300,000 roubles and 540,000 French francs to spend on acquiring intelligence. Some of this money was disbursed on paying locals to report sightings of anything suspicious, and one is tempted to suspect Hartling and his hapless Danish coast-watchers felt a certain pressure to justify the disbursement of this remarkable budget. At any rate, the captain began to wire back alarmist reports of sightings and of Japanese plans to attack with submarines, torpedo boats and mines to Russia daily. These were forwarded to St Petersburg without being checked. What happened in the North Sea seems to have been men giving shape to imagined demons – but the imagination was Hartling’s, not their own.’ Then Tacitus from Detritus of Empire has this comment. ‘A partial analog to the Japanese torpedo boats in the north sea might be found about ten years later. In the panic stricken days of August 1914 rumors were rampant regards the tens of thousands of Russian soldiers who were landing in Scotland and boarding trains for London.  Supposedly they were going to shore up the collapsing Allied front in Belgium.  Lots of folks believed this, and even the Germans were a little concerned.  As to how the hopelessly inefficient Russian military managed to marshall these redoubtable legions through Murmansk or Archangel in such a short time, well, nobody cared. But perhaps the North Sea contains some interdimensional transit portal?’ Thanks Tacitus, Mike and Ricardo!!!

30/April/2012: Celeste Culpepper writes in: ‘Am I the only person (I can’t be. I’m not that old) to be reminded of the 1964 Tonkin Gulf incident? Those Russian reports sound suspiciously like those of the US Navy at the time and, yes, the USN vessels did fire on each other, too. In other words, given a sufficiently belligerent context all vessels seem armed enemies just as at night all cats are black. I can’t be too judgemental about the Russian officers involved.’ Thanks CC!