RPN
FROM THE HISTORY OF RUSSIA’S PACIFIC FLEET

RUSSIA’S   BITTER   GLORY.    “VARIAG’S”   EXPLOIT

Cruiser <<Variag>>
     The cold December waves splitby“Variag’s” stem obediently washed its sides. In the engineroom, thegiant pistons rhythmically moved up and down to the height of athree-storybuilding. The machinists’ watch shift worked skillfullywhile the restwere fast asleep.
       The cruiser commander, Vsevolod Fiodorovich Rudnev, a brilliant Russian navy officer, stood onthe bridge, peering intently  into the moist winter haze. And eventhrough it he discerned the boundary between the dark December sea andthe equally dark alien sky. Thirty years at sea had taught Rudnev the art.
       Straight on course,the contours of Iodolmi Island began to appear in the dark; this was thesea gate to the inlet of the Korean port Chemulpo. Dawn was breaking onone of thelast days of 1903, the last peaceful year for Russia and hersailors. Theair smelled of impending war.
       What did it havein store for Mother Russia? Was it really so necessary for the newest speedycruiser to stay in a secondary foreign port at such a time? In fact, thetasks set before the cruiser were also secondary: to maintain communicationsbetween Port Arthur, where the squadron was based, and the Russian ministerin Seoul, and to collect information on Japanese military preparations.
       Should those bethe tasks to be resolved by a cruiser commissioned only two years ago?A 7,000 ton cruiser with speed of almost 25 knots, a cruiser armed withtwelve 152 and 75 mm guns, ten smaller cannons and six torpedo tubes? Shouldthose be the tasks for the naval command to set before “Variag’s” well-trainedcrew of 550 sailors, conductors, noncoms and twenty officers, all superbnavalspecialists?
       Probably no. TheRussian naval command should have acted differently, and then the cruiser’s fate would have probably been different, too. Yet, though this may soundcommonplace, history does not accept the subjunctive mood. Reality is astubborn thing
       In reality, on January 5, 1904 the torpedo boat “Koreets” arrived from Port Arthur in Chemulpounder the command of Captain G. P. Beliaev and cast anchor not far fromthe “Variag”. The “Koreets” brought no instructions from Port Arthur. TheRussian steamship “Sungari” was also lying in Chemulpo together with British,French, Italian, American and Japanesevessels.
 Now and then various rumors reached the “Koreets” and “Variag”. Rudnev asked Pavlov, the Russian minister in Seoul, whetherhe could confirm that Russia and Japan had severed diplomatic relations in the second decade of January. Pavlov replied: “Rumors of severance ofrelations are being spread by local private persons. No authentic confirmation of those rumors has been received.”
       The only thing todowas to remain ignorant and helplessly wait. Being an efficient officer,Rudnev collected information to the effect that the Japanese had builtwarehouses for storing one million poods (16.32 kg) of rice and barley;have alreadyunloaded 100 cases of cartridges; sent from Chemulpo to Seoul3,616 tons ofrice and 1,816 tons of coal; and that no one was coming back.
       Waiting was becoming intolerable. Japan’s open preparation for war and Korea’s occupation couldbe seen in
Chemulpo with naked eye, as it were. The Japanese hadseized the port telegraph, and Japanese spies continually followed theactivities of Russian sailors. On the night of January 26, 1904, the Japanesecruiser “Chiyoda” secretly left the roadstead for the high seas. It sailed with extinguished lights under the cover of night fog.
       Under the circumstances, the “Variag” and “Koreets” should have urgently left Chemulpo for PortArthur to join the Russian squadron. But the Russian viceroy ordered bothvessels “by no means to leave Chemulpo without orders that would be transmittedone way or another”. Yet, there was still no communication with Port Arthur.Then Rudnev summoned Beliaev, the “Koreets”commander, and ordered himto urgently prepare to sail to Port Arthur. Inthirty minutes, the “Koreets”set sail.
       The weather wasquiet, slightly foggy and frosty. Slowly turning about, the torpedo boatpassed the “Variag” and then, having passed the foreign cruisers, movedahead to the roadstead.
      “Japanese ships ahead”, the signaler reported to the commander, and instantly continued: “Parallel on port, four Japanese destroyers”.
 “In the northwest, six cruisers led by armored cruiser “Asama”, responded one of the officers on the bridge.
       — ј на юге пока шесть миноносцев, которые идут на сближение с нами.
        Having approached the Japanese squadron, the “Koreets” was about to leave it aside. But theJapanese destroyers sailed left, and the cruisers right, so as toleavethe torpedo boat between two columns of Japanese warships. The Russiansailors could see well how the Japanese were readying their guns into combatposition and their torpedo tubes. The armored cruiser “Asama”(9000 tonsdeadweight) left the column and blocked the “Koreets’”path and simultaneouslyaimed its guns at the Russian torpedo boat. At thesame time, the Japanesehoisted their signal flags.
       “Return to port”, was what the signaler read.
      Beliaev ordered to stopengine, and instantly addressed the excited officers standing alongside:“What shall we do, gentlemen?”
        All agreedthat to fight would be sheer madness, since in three minutes the “Koreets” would be sunk. Indeed, what could it counterpose to the Japanese squadron? It was commissioned way back in 1888. Its deadweight was 1,334 tons andspeed only 13 knots. The “Koreets” was armed with two 203 mm guns and one152 mm gun. The “Koreets” also carried several relativelysmall-caliberguns. Its crew consisted of eleven officers and 168 sailors.
        RememberingRudnev’s instructions not to engage the Japanese, Beliaev ordered the shipto sailback to Chemulpo, and several minutes later the torpedo boat sailedback fullahead.
        In the wakeofthe Russian boat, four Japanese destroyers entered Chemulpo’s roadstead and surrounded the Russian warships. Some time later, counter to normsofinternational law, the Japanese landed in a neutral country (which Koreaindeedwas) a 3,000-strong detachment. On the morning of January 27, 1904,the Japanesevessels left the roadstead. But before that, Commander ofthe Japanese squadronRear-Admiral Uriu sent an ultimatum on board the“Variag” demandingunder the threat of immediate fire that the Russiancruiser and torpedo boatinstantly leave Chemulpo. The Japanese ultimatumread as follows:
 “To Commander of cruiser “Variag” ofthe Imperial Russian Navy.
 Sir! Owing to start of hostilities between Japan and Russia, I hereby have the honor to very respectfully request you toleave with all vessels under your command the port of Chemulpo till middayJanuary 27, 1904. Otherwise I shall attack you in said port. I have thehonor of being your humblest servant, S. URIU, Rear-Admiral, Imperial JapaneseNavy and Commander of Japanese squadron in Chemulpo roadstead.”
        The same morning, the commanders of the British cruiser “Talbot”, the French cruiser “ Pascal”,the Italian cruiser “Elba” and the American torpedo boat “Vicksburg” gatheredon board the British warship. At their invitation, “Variag’s” commanderarrived there, too. At this international naval council the commandersof the warships signed a protest against the actions of Uriu and the Japanesesquadron. Once theofficial part of the meeting was over, all the foreignersvied with each otherin seeking to express their support for the “Variag”and to learnwhat Rudnev would undertake.
      The Russian officer said he would attempt to break through and engage the Japanese squadron, nomatter how large it may be. “But I shall never surrender, nor fight ina neutral roadstead”, was his reply.
 “You are a real man of courage, monsieur!”, exclaimedVictor Senet, the effusive commander of the French cruiser. Theother foreigncommanders applauded in unison.
        Having returned on board the “Variag”, Captain Rudnev sounded “all hands on deck” to deliverthe following short speech to his men:
        “We shall certainly try to break through and engage the squadron, no matter how strong it may be”, Rudnev stressed. Surrender is out of the question. We shall surrender neither the cruiser, nor ourselves, and shall fight to the last possibility and to the last drop of our blood. Each execute his dutiesexactly, calmly and with no haste particularly the gunners, rememberingthat everyshell must inflict damage on the enemy. In case of fire, extinguishit quietlyto let me know that the enemy if stronger, but not braver thanus, and bravery, as you know, takes cities. And now let us pray to Godand boldly engage in unequal battle for our Faith, Tsar and Homeland underSt.Andrew’s ensign. Hurrah!
        At 11.20 A.M. the “Variag” weighed anchor and sailed towards the exit fromthe roadstead.The “Koreets” followed at one cable’s distance. The decks of the foreignwarships were filled with their crews. Both officers and men stood in lineand greeted the Russian sailors going to face certain death with enthusiasticcries of “hurray”. An eyewitness on board the Italian cruiser later wrotethe following in “Mattino”, aNaples newspaper:
        “The “Variag” moved first and resembled a giant resolved to commit suicide. Its commander stood motionless and calm on the bridge. A thunderous “hurray” resoundedfrom the chests of all the sailors. All the foreign warships were playingthe Russian national anthem, and the men on board joined in, and the Russiancrews followed suit with the same majestic melody…”
        At the exitfrom the roadstead, the “Variag” and “Koreets” revealed the Japanese squadron,which was sailing across to include one armored cruiser, five cruisersand eight destroyers. Rear-Admiral Uriu, whose flag was waving over cruiser“Naniwa”, raised a signal offering the Russians surrender. Rudnev neverreplied. He and his men engaged the Japanese defending the honor of theRussian flag. And though the Japanese had seven-fold superiority in warshipsand five-fold superiority in the number of guns on the “Variag” and “Koreets”,the Russians never even contemplated surrender.
  At 11.45, when the distance was the Russian warships was 40-50 cables long, cruiser “Asama” fired a salvo from its main-calibergun. The other Japanese warships followed suit. On the “Variag” and “Koreets”,the gunners stood ready at their loaded pieces.
        Now the “Variag’s” starboard is surrounded by gunpowder smoke. The cruiser had fired its first salvo to start the unequal battle.
 The fire from both sides continually increased.The sea around the Russian cruiser swirled from explosions of shells. Soonseveral shells in succession had hit it. Their fragments, cutting the airwith howls and whistles, hit its sides, deck and superstructures. One shellhit the top bridge, demolished the range-finding post and caused a firein the pilothouse. Another Japanese shell exploded near the third gun tokill almost all itsgunners. But those who survived continued firing despiteheavy wounds.
 Remembering Rudnev’s orders, all “Variag” gunnersacted bravely and skillfully. Accurate fire from Russian guns on board the “Variag” (supported by the “Koreets”) set the cruiser “Chiyoda” onfire. Flaming from fore to aft, it beganto hastily leave and hide behindother vessels. The precise fire of “Variag’s” gunners demolished the aftbridge of the “Asama”, put her afttower out of order, and set her on fire.
      “Transfer the fire tothe “Naniwa”, ordered Rudnev. And after several minutes, this Japaneseflagman cruiser, engulfed in flames, began to retreat in the wake of the“Chiyoda”. At the same time, a Japanese torpedo boat about to attack wassunk by several precise salvos.
        There wasa moment during the battle, when the Japanese squadron maneuvered to forman arc that encompassed the “Variag”. It found itself in the center ofthe arc. Taking advantage of this, Rear-Admiral Uriu ordered to focus allthefire on the Russian cruiser. The “Variag” was literally showeredwithshells. The sea at its sides boiled from continuous splashes, and thecruiserwas clouded up in smoke from numerous hits and fires.
        On the “Variag” over half the guns were put out of operation along with the steering system, and water gushed inside the vessel through holes below the waterline. The cruiser listed to port, and this prevented firing by still functioningguns.
        Yet, in this situation too all the sailors acted selflessly, bravely and skillfully.Wounded in the back, helmsman Snegirev, bleeding to death, continued tostand at the steering wheel till the end of the battle. Captain Rudnev’sorderly, T. P. Chibisov, wounded both arms never went to the sickbay, sayinghe would never abandon his commander till he is alive. Wounded severaltimes, machinist S. D. Krylov continued to bring shells from the powderroom till he lost consciousness.
        At one moment of the battle, it was rumored that the cruiser commander was killed. Then Rudnev, who heard of this from the signaler, without his cap and his uniform splashed with blood, dashed to the bridge and shouted into a megaphone:
      “I’m alive,mates! Aimbetter!”
       The commander’s call inspired the crew. The surviving gunners continued to fire at theenemy, though the entire deck was twisted and flooded with blood. Realizingthatthe cruiser had largely lost its combat efficiency, Rudnev decidedto removeit from the firing zone and return to Chemulpo. The “Koreets”followed suit.
       Despite their huge numerical superiority, the Japanese railed to sink the Russian vessels,let alone capture them. Captain Rudnev had all grounds to report to hissuperiors that “the warships of the detachment entrusted to me had withdignity maintained the honor of the Russian flag, had exhausted all meansto break through, had deprived the Japanese of the possibility to gainvictory, had inflicted many losses on the enemy, and had saved the remainingcrew.”
       Inspection of thetwo warships at the roadstead showed that all possibilities to continuethe battle were exhausted. Rudnev takes a decision unanimously approvedby the officers’ council to explode the vessels so that the Japanese wouldnot capture them. Torpedo boat “Koreets” was exploded on January 27, 1904at 4.30 P. M.  Then with tears in their eyes the heroes of “Variag” left their warship. The last to leave was its commander, who gently carried the ship’s fragment-ripped flat. At 6.10 P. M. the crew sunk theirundefeatedcruiser. The sailors boarded French and Italian cruisers to belater shippedto Russia, greeted enthusiastically by compatriots all the wayen routeto the capital.
       The seamen of cruiser “Variag” and torpedo boat “Koreets” had inscribed the most vivid page inthe battle annals of Russia’s Navy to become, as it were,  Russia’sbitter glory and unparalleled courage. The Russian people have composedbeautiful songs about their exploit.
       A monument commemorating the “Variag” sailors who died in the battle has been erectedat the NavalCemetery in Vladivostok. The inscription on it reads: “Ages will pass,but new generations of Russian seamen will proudly carry in their mindsthe bright memory of those who at a time of deadly danger to their native land never bent their heads before the foe.”

On photographs: V. F. Rudnev, Commander of cruiser“Variag”; cruiser “Variag” engaging the Japanese; monument  to heroes of cruiser “Variag” at the Naval Cemetery inVladivostok.

A.V. BORODIN, Leading Editor, Institute of History,Archeology and Ethnography of the Peoples of the Far East, Far East Branch,Russian Academy of Sciences, Colonel (Retired), Pacific Fleet veteran.

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