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.
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?”
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.
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
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.
on board the “Variag”, Captain Rudnev sounded “all hands
on deck” to deliverthe following short speech to his men:
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.
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
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:
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
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.”