A fictional story based on Distant Guns: the Russian-Japanese War at Sea
On February 9, 1904, the Japanese armed forces staged a landing at the strategic Korean port of Chemulpo, near modern-day Inchon. Berthed there were several neutral ships, including the British cruiser Talbot, the U.S. cruiser Vicksburg, the French cruiser Pascal, and the Italian cruiser Elba. Also present in the harbor were a Russian protected cruiser, Varyag, and a Russian gunboat, Koreyets.
The Varyag was nearly new, a large, “protected” cruiser commissioned in 1901. Built for the Imperial Navy by the firm of William S. Cramp and Sons in the United States, she had a complement of over 500 and boasted a speed of 23 knots. She was armed with 12 6-inch guns, but had very light armor, having only a protective deck. Intended for commerce raiding and power projection, the Varyag was never intended to fight a pitched battle with heavily armed warships. For her part by 1904, Koreyets was of virtually no combat value at all.
Built in the 1880s, her largest gun was heavier than Varyag’s, being anchored by an eight-inch Creusot rifle placed aft, and two six-inch rifles in sponsons either side of the foredeck. Her broadside was buttressed with four 107mm and four 47mm guns, one mounted as a bow chaser. But she only had three heavy guns and was slow, and lacked armor as well.
During the night of February 8, 1904, the Japanese assault transports anchored in the harbor and unloaded their men on the docks. The two Russian ships appeared to take no notice, going about their business as usual, to the surprise of all in the harbor. The Japanese commander, Admiral Uryu, sent an ultimatum to all ships in the harbor: If the Russians did not depart Chemulpo harbor, the Japanese would attack and the neutral ships would be endangered. The captains of the warships in harbor met aboard the HMS Talbot; all saveVicksburg’s, as the Americans wished no part of the proceedings. The Russians, Captain Vaselovod Rudnev of Varyag and G.P. Belaev of Koreyets, agreed to sortie the next day and fight the Japanese outside the harbor.
The next day, the two Russians bravely stood out to sea. Ranged against them, a greatly superior force led by the Japanese armored cruiser Asama, supported by protected cruisers Chiyoda, Takachiko, Naniwa, Niitaka, and Akashi, and further supported by a squadron of torpedo boats. The Asama, built in 1899 by Armstrong-Whitworth in Great Britain, boasted four turret-mounted eight-inch Armstrong rifles, and was alone more than a match for Varyag and Koreyets. Held to 12 knots speed by her consort, the Varyag was unable to use her speed in the battle that followed and both Russian ships were severely damaged, limping back into the harbor and scuttling themselves later in the evening. The Varyag was raised in 1906 following the war and served in the Japanese fleet, being repatriated to Russia after World War I and lost in British waters during the Revolution.
I have studied the layout of Chemulpo harbor, and have often wondered, if there existed a chance to save the Russian cruiser. She would have been a valuable asset, and if Rudnev had been possessed of a little more daring and willingness to sacrifice the old gunboat to save his more valuable ship and his significantly larger crew the Varyag could have lived to fight again.
This fictional piece of necessity makes several assumptions about Captains Rudnev and Belaev, and Admiral Uryu as well. It begins just before high noon on February 9, 1904, on the Varyag’s bridge.
“All ahead two thirds. Steer 195.” Rudnev’s impassive, dark eyes narrowed; the Russian captain leaned on the bridge railing, staring into the early afternoon haze. A cable’s length behind, the gunboat Koreyets followed. Looking aft, the freshening wind behind him, Rudnev made a sour face and spat over the side, measuring his consort. Belaev was a fool, he was certain of that. And a hundred seventy-five men who could perhaps have been saved would surely die because of it. The young, impetuous fool had insisted on tagging along with them. Brave, but stupid, for Rudnev had detached him the night before, as they had stepped into their respective boats, at HMS Talbot’squarterdeck. Rudnev had saluted the Union Jack and shaken the hand of the very apologetic British captain, and told Belaev to scuttle his ship and send his men aboard Varyag; the cruiser’s speed would give them a chance to break free. But the younger man had expostulated that he and his men were not afraid of the Orientals. They would fight and give the cruiser a chance to escape. The fool!
For his part, Grigoriy Petrovich Belaev, Captain of the Third Rank, paced his open bridge, impatiently supervising his men as Koreyetssquared away for battle. Their southerly course, at Koreyets near-maximum speed, was a calculated gamble on the old fox, Rudnev’s part. He had reasoned that the Japanese would try to cut them off from Port Arthur, which was to the northwest. The easiest way for the Orientals to do that would be to barricade the harbor’s northern exit. Rudnev’s plan was more audacious. He wished to sprint to the south, round the peninsula, and escape toward Vladivostok through the Tsushima Straits instead! With a Japanese anchorage that way, none would think to block them, or so the plan went. He’d wanted Belaev to scuttle the old gunboat and run with him, but Belaev would have none of that. It was his first command, and he would not abandon her to the Japanese without a fight. Over vodka in the British captain’s wardroom, Belaev remonstrated, reasoning that if Rudnev’s plan failed, his old ship’s eight-inch rifle would give the Varyag time to escape. The older man had called him a brave fool, but in the end had assented.
And here they were. Belaev squinted through his spyglass, looking south.
“Christ. Look there, my captain. Signal flags up.” The executive officer, Commander Nikolai Sudrin, tensely pointing. Belaev pointed his glass toward the cruiser, shouting for the signalman.
“Enemy in sight. Reverse course and proceed at your discretion.” Belaev’s mouth set. “We run from the Japanese like cowards, Kolya.”
“The wisest move, Grigoriy Petrovich,” the other man returned dryly. “Our happy ship and Rudnev’s tub against a whole squadron? Suicide.”
Belaev grunted, watching as smoke belched from the cruiser’s funnels and her bow began to swing in a turn to the right. He could hear bugle calls wafting over the water that separated the two ships, the Varyag’s crew going to their action stations. “Have the bugler sound stand to, Kolya. And reverse our course. Make turns for thirteen knots.” He laid his glass toward the south, just able now to see funnel-smoke from several cruisers. Koreyets began to heel, even as the bugle-call for battle stations sounded, the old gunboat’s crew dashing about, deck crew securing boats and lines, loading the guns. Behind him, the single funnel threw black smoke and sparks high in the sky. Her turning radius was shorter than the big cruiser, and she would for a time lead the formation until the Varyag’s momentum gained and sent the other ship flying over the water like a greyhound. Belaev’s attention suddenly was drawn by a sound like a train thundering by overhead, followed by splashes in the water near the cruiser.
“That big bastard’s got the range already, Grigoriy Petrovich,” Nikolai snapped. “They must be ten thousand yards away and they already have us bracketed.”
“Tell the stern chaser to reply at will,” Belaev replied. “We can give him some of his own back!” Their stern chaser was a 203mm Creusot“Long Tom,” well able to pitch eight-inch shells back at its enemy. And the return fire would buoy the spirits of his men. Nearby, he observed the ship’s bearded Orthodox chaplain, leaning far out over the brightly-polished brass rail, exhorting the gun crews to have faith and to their duty for God. The Father was even more combative than Belaev was, and hopefully, the men would gain heart from his example.
And so the chase began. Belaev squinted through the funnel-smoke and the smoke from his stern-chaser, looking for Varyag’s signal halliards, for there would come Rudnev’s intentions. Staring at the now-rapidly gaining cruiser, he could see that the Varyag would pass him close abeam, close enough to hail by speaking-trumpet. In his spyglass, he could see the thickly-bearded Rudnev stepping out onto the starboard-side wing of his bridge, with the huge brass trumpet in his hand.
“Belaev! Follow me as closely as you can! When we reach the north entrance, break northwest for Port Arthur and report to Admiral Vitgeft! I will head south; once they see we are not together, the Japanese will chase me and you will have a chance! You must survive until then!”
Belaev took off his cap and waved it in response as the cruiser, a bone in her teeth and white wake frothing, steamed by at near 23 knots.
“The Japanese will catch us long before we get to the north entrance, Grigoriy Petrovich,” Nikolai said flatly. “They will fall on us.”
“And then we will buy time for the cruiser to escape, Kolya,” Belaev responded, his tone reasonable. “Our one hundred and seventy-five lives in exchange for their five hundred and forty. And as many of the Oriental bastards as we can take with us to God. Maximum speed, now.”
Nikolai passed on the orders to the helm, who cast a wild-eyed look back at them, sweat streaming from his young face. Belaev’s mouth twisted. Perhaps Rudnev had been right after all. The Japanese would hammer them to the sea-bottom and perhaps still get the cruiser; her coal would not hold out forever at that speed.
The haze took the advancing grey ships behind them from sight as the Varyag disappeared around the bend of the channel, standing out to open water. Belaev strained to see, but could not. Beside him, Nikolai muttered, “by God! Have we lost them?”
“Do not be so sure. The land obscures their vision. But we have a few minutes. Send the men to lunch by divisions, one in three,” Belaev said, anxiously scanning the harbor behind them.
On Koreyets, Rudnev was concerned on two fronts. First, the enemy was nowhere to be seen. Second, they were rapidly outdistancingKoreyets. For his hastily-conceived plan to work, the Japanese needed at least to be able to see him before he turned south, so they would fix on him and leave the slower gunboat alone, but too late to catch him; he only had a two knot speed advantage over the Japanese cruisers. He swallowed, staring at the chart. They would proceed on this heading, north-northwest, until they passed two small islands, and then turn south for the Tsushima Strait. If the Japanese were aware of their plan, had anticipated it, they could cut the circle there, a channel west of the harbor. If they had not passed it already. If he made his turn too soon not only would the gunboat’s fate be sealed, but the Varyag’s as well.
“Make turns for 18 knots. Steady as she goes.”
On Koreyets, the change in funnel-smoke from the cruiser did not pass unnoticed. “He’s slowing down.”
Belaev opened his spyglass, resting an elbow on the bridge railing against the gunboat’s motion through the water. “Yes, he has. Probably worried about his fuel consumption. Vladivostok is a long way and he’s got to run the Straits. How long until sunset?”
“Four hours. We could lose them in the night too, Grigoriy Petrovich.”
“Not with our lack of speed,” Belaev replied. “See.” He pointed behind them.
Out of the haze, funnel smoke darkened the sky. The leader could just be seen now, ten thousand yards behind them. Two funnels, haze-grey paint, the Asama looked sinister and hungry. Her consorts followed in an orderly line behind her.
“They will be in range soon,” Nikolai observed.
“Let us make the Japanese admiral think that we follow Rudnev, and we both run for Port Arthur. Alter course three points to starboard.”
Punctuating his words were orange flashes from the Japanese ship. Moments later, shell-splashes, far behind them. From the second ship in line, more flashes, culminating in splashes nearer them.
“Range is now 8000 yards and falling, my Captain.”
“Wait for my signal.”
It was on in earnest now, the two lead Japanese ships firing one after the other, shell-splashes falling both ahead and behind Koreyets as she ran to the northwest. Belaev nodded. “You may fire when ready, Nikolai. Have the large-caliber guns fire together, directed from the top. The 47s may fire at will.”
There was nothing more to do now, but let events take their course. The whizzing of passing Japanese shells now was so frequent that it seemed there was no interval between them. Koreyets’ own popguns fired in response, the aftermost 47mm guns barking like small dogs, punctuated at odd intervals by the Creusot’s coughing “boom.”
“Range now 5000 yards!”
Three high-pitched shrieking sounds terminated in an earsplitting thunderclap, the ship shaking under their feet. Hit astern, Koreyetspitched, men screaming as shell-splinters sliced through tender flesh and sinew. Bright yellow ooze coated the deck amidships, residue from the Lyddite explosives common in British-made ammunition favored by the Japanese. Pointing at the fire that also had sprung up, Belaev shouted “Get the damage-control party on that!”
A blast of heat and whizzing metal punctuated another hit, the sounds of injured men from the foredeck abruptly silenced as the ready ammunition for the forward 47mm gun erupted in an orange plume of fire, destroying the position and spraying fragments over the 6-inch gun crews immediately behind them. Belaev hoarsely shouted for fire hoses, casting a desperate glance behind him at the oncoming Japanese. He saw the flash of a hit on the second cruiser in line, an orange fireball erupting from its deck, the 6-inch gun crew at his feet waving their hats and cheering. Cupping his hands, Belaev shouted, “Well done, men! Hit him again!”
Well ahead of them, the Varyag was beginning her turn to the south. On the starboard bridge wing, Rudnev looked out with brass-bound binoculars, the muscles of his jaw bulging. The brave little gunboat was getting pasted. He knew the orders he must give now, and he hated them. But to follow his heart, turn and fight, would mean all five hundred of his crew would die and his ship would be lost, and Belaev’s sacrifice for nothing. “All ahead full. Make turns for twenty knots,” he grated, his eyes locked on the battle behind them. As the quartermaster on the engine telegraphs rang his orders down to the engine room, he flicked a glance at his executive officer. “Send up a blue rocket.”
“The Japanese will see it, my Captain,” the officer warned.
Koreyets was in the sights of the entire Japanese squadron now, and that ironically was working to her benefit. Angled slightly away from her tormentors, the old gunboat was hidden from view by the constant geysers of water thrown up by near-impacting enemy shells. Burning madly, the ship also made a huge amount of smoke, further throwing off the Japanese aim.
But her speed was down to seven knots, less than half that of her pursuers. Belaev sent Nikolai down to find out what was going on below, and not a moment too soon, for the next flight of shells impacted on the foredeck, collapsing the bridge beneath the surprised Belaev’s feet! Shaking his head, he levered himself upright with the help of the six-inch gun crews from their sponsons just forward of the ruined bridge, and cupping his hands, shouted for a runner. “My compliments to the Engineer, and rig for steering from aft at once! Then find Commander Sudrin and have him report to me! On the double, boy!” Coughing, he leaned against the foremast for support, raking a hand through his matted hair. It came back bloody, and he idly wondered what had happened to his cap.
“Captain!” Nikolai and an orderly pounded to a halt. “Are you all right?” Belaev tried to wave off the orderly, then submitted to his ministrations, as Nikolai looked round in wonderment.
“It is a miracle you live!”
“Nyet. It is luck. The Father and the whole bridge team are dead, curse the bloody Orientals. We’ve lost steering, I’ve sent word to establish the after steering position.” Belaev hawked and spat, tasting blood, ashes, and half-burned Lyddite.
“We are taking water forward as well. But the pumps are staying ahead of it.” Nikolai paused; the incessant shelling had stopped. “Bloody hell!”
He rushed to the railing, dragging Belaev with him. Peering over the railing, he pointed. “Look! The Japanese are turning away!”
Belaev shielded his eyes, looking up. “A blue rocket? Rudnev’s turned them south, toward him. Just like he said he would do. They chase him south, but he is in open sea now; they will never catch him.” He wearily sank down onto a half-shattered crate. “How many of our men have we lost?”
Nikolai’s face fell, even as the gun crews began to cheer, seeing for themselves the Japanese making south, bearing away from them.“Sixty casualties. Twenty-nine dead, including the Father and the bridge team. Thirty-one injured. The surgeon is tending to the worst, on the orlop deck.”
“Secure from action stations, then and get these damned fires out. Relay to the after steering position to hold this course. When we get well clear of the Japanese, steer 289 degrees for Port Arthur. If we can hold seven knots, we’ll be there in two days’ time.” He staggered back over to the railing, watching the Japanese haring off south, rapidly falling away as they strained to catch the fleeing Varyag.
“Godspeed, Rudnev, you old bastard.”
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