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In 1905, during the Russo-Japanese War, a Russian fleet sailing all the way from the Baltic was annihilated by the Japanese fleet in the Tsushima Straits. The Russian fleet was larger, with thirteen battleships (five of them "second line') to four for the Japanese, but the Japanese ships were more modern and faster, and their crews better trained, to give them a technological superiority.

The Russians nevertheless tried to outmaneuver the smaller Japanese fleet with two "line ahead" formations, only to find themselves in the unfortunate position of having the Japanese fleet "cross their T," (a highly advantageous position for the Japanese). The alternative would have been to charge en masse in a line abreast formation, which would at least have the advantage of keeping the Russian fleet together instead of having the pieces "picked off" one by one, by the superior Japanese fleet. (Most survivors of the first day's battle surrendered the second day.)

About Naval Formations?

With a numerical superiority and a technical inferiority, would the Russians have done better to opt for a battle of attrition instead (in the manner of America's Ulysses S. Grant vs. Robert E. Lee), perhaps using a line abreast formation?

Are Attrition Tactics Justified When There are No Other Clear Means to Win a War.?

Supposing that they could have made it a battle of "trading shots," could they possibly have sunk the four Japanese battleships for four of their own, or even all thirteen, instead of zero versus thirteen?

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up vote 12 down vote accepted

It wasn't as simple as "13 against 4" as the question states.

  1. Russians only had 8 real battleships. 3 were coastal defense Ushakov class battleships.

  2. The entire order of battle was significantly less lopsided than the ratio above indicates. Even leaving aside ship quality, the quantity was (from Wiki)

    | Japan                 | Russia                |
    =================================================
    | total: 89 ships       | total: 28 ships       |
    | 4 battleships         | 8 battleships         |
    |                       | 3 coastal battleships |
    | 9 armored cruisers    | 4 armored cruisers    |
    | 17 protected cruisers | 4 protected cruisers  |
    | 21 destroyers         | 9 destroyers          |
    | 37 torpedo boats      |                       |
    | plus gunboats         |                       |
    

    Please note that protected cruisers didn't have armored belt around the ship, only an armored deck.

    Now, if we go to guns, the quantitative difference gets even smaller:

    | Russia                           | Japan                            |
    =======================================================================
    | 26 x 12-in.                      | 16 x 12-in.                      |   
    | 15 x 10-in.                      | 1 x 10-in.                       |    
    | 2 x 9-in.                        |                                  |
    | 6 x 8-in.                        | 30 x 8-in.                       |   
    | 43 x 6-in.                       | 80 x 6-in.                       |   
    | 92 guns/Total weight 32,090 lb.  | 127 guns/Total weight 28,400 lb. | 
    

    As you can see, Japanese actually had MORE guns, and only slightly less total firepower by combined weight.

  3. Qualitatively, the most important difference was the ordinance. Japanese had high explosive shells, fused to explode on contact. They set fire to pretty much everything on Russian ships (including coal which due to the long voyage circumstances was being stored on deck); and severely damaged superstructures. Russians used armor piercing shells that actually caused LESS damage, especially to the crews. In addition, Russian fuses were unreliable (I saw estimates of as many as 1/3 not exploding).

  4. Next up hardware wise was rangefinder.

    Japanese fire was also more accurate because they were using the latest issued (1903) Barr & Stroud FA3 coincidence rangefinder, which had a range of 6,000 yards (5,500 m), while the Russian battleships were equipped with Liuzhol rangefinders from the 1880s, which only had a range of about 4,000 yards (3,700 m).

    Basically, unless russians got into knife fighting range, they were out-shot, severely so. So, the answer to your question of could they have done MORE damage by charging straight ahead is "quite possible". However, the other factors listed here means that they probably would still have lost the battle.

  5. Extremely important was experience. Not only Japanese were incredibly more trained (including gunnery practice), they also had several other battleship battles worth of experience by that time, which the Russians did not have.

    So, the answer to the original question's "Why not charge line abreast", while not explicitly known, can very plausibly be "because the commanding officer(s) didn't have enough experience and talent to make that decision". Their only Admiral with practical experience of BB battles was killed in battle in Yellow Sea before Tsushima

    A very important example of the officer experience was that Japanese concentrated their fire, extremely effectively using their shot weight parity and rate of fire advantage.

  6. Intelligence. Togo's forces knew 100% precisely what the Russian ships' positions were, from long before the battle, thanks to their scouting cruisers. Russians didn't know they were about to be attacked till almost the start of battle.

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+1 Awesome summary :) –  RedBlueThing Dec 9 '11 at 12:28
    
Great job. Accepted. "MORE damage but still have lost the battle." –  Tom Au Dec 9 '11 at 14:47
    
The Russian ships were also carrying coal as cargo, which at least in some ships submerged their armor. The Russians learned from this, and their long-range naval gunnery was an unpleasant surprise to the Germans in WWII in the Black Sea. –  David Thornley Dec 10 '11 at 22:55
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