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Admiral Rozhestvensky, The Russian Challenge and Defeat at Tsushima with Resultant Court Martial

Updated on August 8, 2015

The Beginning

The turn of the century ( 20th) was chaotic. It was a period when Japan began to assert itself as a great power. The Russian empire which stretched from Europe to Asia was in a precarious position. The rising tide of japanese militarism and power unnerved the Russians , who saw their mantle as the greatest power in the east threatened.

Tsar Nicholas II decided to assert his power and show the Japanese as to who was the master in the Eastern part of Asia. He formulated a plan to take the Japanese fleet in a head long battle and annihilate it. He was confident that the Russian fleet would be more than a match for the Japanese navy, which he considered inferior. Part of this fallacious belief rested on the shoulders of a thought that everything European and Western was superior to the East and that included military power.

There was a catch however in the Russian plans. The bulk of the Russian fleet was located in the Baltic Sea and the Russian navy was faced with the logistic problem of moving an entire fleet across 18000 miles of the Atlantic and Indian Ocean to fight the Japanese navy.

Vice Admiral Zinovy Rozhestvensky was appointed the commander of the fleet and orders were passed to move the Russian armada from the Baltic to the China sea.

Route of the Russian Fleet
Route of the Russian Fleet

Battle of Tsushima ( 1905)

The battle of Tsushima in 1905 is well known to students of naval history. All credit to the Russian fleet that sailed across the Atlantic and Indian Ocean through the strait of Malacca into the China Sea. But this long voyage probably taxed the crew and the Officers and the result was at the point of delivery the Russian navy had lost its edge..

The commander of the fleet Vice Admiral Zinoy Rozhestvensky, a decorated and able officer failed to have that spark of genius that characterises a great captain from an ordinary commander. His decision to negotiate the strait of Tsushima in the wake of Japanese superiority was an unmitigated disaster. In hindsight one wonders how the Admiral could have taken this decision. Perhaps the long voyage had something to do with this and the mind of Admiral Rozhestvensky was dulled by an arduous and long voyage.

The Japanese fleet commanded by Admiral Toga in contrast was fresh and had been waiting for the fleet to arrive. In addition Admiral Rozhestvensky played right into the hands of Toga by trying to cross the strait of Tsushima , where the Japanapane admiral had all the aces.

The Russian fleet crashed head long into a naval ambush and warship after warship was hit and sunk by accurate Japanese gun fire from their ships. The flagship of the Russian fleet the battleship Suvarov was sunk and Admiral Rozhestvensky was hit by a shell fragment and became unconscious. His battleship was sunk, but before that he was transferred to a destroyer. This destroyer was surrounded by Toga's fleet and the crew surrendered and the Admiral was taken POW. The Russian Navy was smashed.

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The Russian fleet was now leaderless and the command fell on Admiral Nikolai Nebogatov. The Japanese after capturing the commander of the Russian fleet gave him complete medical care. They also pressed home their advantage and broadcast surrender terms to the Russians.

The stand in commander Admiral Nikolai Nebogatov was a greatly disturbed man. His fleet had been destroyed and thousands of men had died in the battle. He was presented witha fait accompli and so he took the decision to the Japanese. The defeat had a traumatic effect on the power equation in the East. Japan asserted itself as a great power and the Russians were shamed. After this shameful defeat the Tsar Nicholas II ordered that a court martial be convened in Moscow to try the top Russian commanders for cowardice for surrendering to the Japanese.

This was an inevitable step after the humiliation of Russia in the eyes of the world. It was also the first occasion that an Eastern power had defeated a Western nation so comprehensively.

The Japanese released the Admiral who made his way back to Moscow and had an audition with the Tsar. He was also ordered to be tried by a naval court martial.

Court Martial

The court martial assembled in Moscow. Admiral Admiral Rozhestvensky and the captains of all his ships who had surrendered were put on trial. The court martial lingered on for a long time and finally gave its verdict. The Tsar knew that Admiral Zinoy was not responsible for the surrender as at the time of surrender he was unconscious. The court martial was thus ready to give some latitude to the Russian commander. However Admiral Rozhestvensky took full responsibility for the surrender. He felt it his moral duty to own up to the fact that he was the leader of the ill fated fleet.

This act of the admiral showed that he was a man of great character. But the court martial gave a sentence of death to many captains of the fleet and many others were given stiff prison sentences. The men were all carted off to prison and the sentence was put up for confirmation to the Tsar

The Tsar beleaguered by many other traumatic events in Russia pardoned all the accused including the Commander of the fleet. They were all released. The fact is the decision by the Tsar to send a fleet from the Baltic to the Pacific was by itself flawed and perhaps the Tsar realised it while pardoning the men and Admiral Rozhestvesnsky

Last Word

All the sentences were not executed. But the defeat had a effect on Admiral Rozhestvesnsky who became a recluse. He was weighed down by the defeat at the hands of the Japanese and settled in St Petersburg, where he died in 2010.

The Russians and the West accepted Japan as a rising power in Asia. The Japanese became confident and started a campaign to assert their domination in Asia. The Tsar himself by his foolish acts signed his own death warrant. Fruitless wars and a lack of a cohesive economic policy gave a handle to Lenin and the Bolsheviks who later in 1917 seized power. The Tsar Nicholas II and his family were executed in 1918 in Siberia. The curtain thus came down on a traumatic event for Russia.

News paper report at that time
News paper report at that time


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    • emge profile imageAUTHOR


      3 years ago from Abu Dhabi

      Thank you Lawrence for your comment. Yes Tsar Nicholas II signed his own death warrant

    • lawrence01 profile image

      Lawrence Hebb 

      3 years ago from Hamilton, New Zealand

      The more I read about him the more I realize that Tsar Nicholas wasn't the brightest of leaders, but some of the blame must rest with his advisors who allowed him to make that decision!

    • emge profile imageAUTHOR


      3 years ago from Abu Dhabi

      Thanks esia, you have echoed my thoughts

    • esja profile image


      3 years ago from South Africa

      Thanks for history post, I LUV to read stuff like this.


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