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I'm finding several references that during the Russia - Japanese war of 1904/1905 that the Russians had intelligence that suggested the Japanese either had torpedo boats present in the North Sea or had heavily mined the sea. Both of these seem a bit extraordinary, given that they were English waters a mere 30k KM from Japan (England and Japan being friendly would negate the potential of mining the waters I would think). However the Russians had enough intelligence to suspect Japanese torpedo boats and minefields would be present that they readily opened fire upon nearby fishing boats mistaking them for Japanese torpedo boats. I can only find references to 'ample intelligence to suggest that there were Japanese boats in the north sea', yet no reference to what that intelligence actually was and where it came from.

So the question : What intelligence did the Russians have that the Japanese had either torpedo boats or mines in the North Sea, and what was the source of that intelligence?..and why would it be considered so reliable that the Russian navy would open up on a variety of ships in the North Sea thinking they were Japanese?

Longer read if you're interested in what seems to be one of the most absurd moments in history. Russia sent its fleet in the Baltic around the world to Japanese waters. The journey there was filled with...er..ya:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dogger_Bank_incident

Because of the fleet's alleged sightings of balloons and four enemy cruisers the day previously, coupled with "the possibility that the Japanese might surreptitiously have sent ships around the world to attack"[3] them, the Russian admiral, Zinovy Rozhestvensky, called for increased vigilance, issuing an order that "no vessel of any sort must be allowed to get in among the fleet",[3] and to prepare to open fire upon any vessels failing to identify themselves

They fired on their own first:

Before the Dogger Bank incident, the nervous Russian fleet fired on fishermen carrying consular dispatches from Russia to them, near the Danish coast, without causing any damage due to their poor gunnery.

After getting by the non-existent minefield they then identified British trawlers with their nets out as Japanese torpedo boats (you would think the nets and rigging would give that away):

The disaster of 21 October began in the evening, when the captain of the supply ship Kamchatka (Камчатка), which was last in the Russian line, took a passing Swedish ship for a Japanese torpedo boat and radioed that he was being attacked. Later that night, during fog, the officers on duty sighted the British trawlers, interpreted their signals incorrectly and classified them as Japanese torpedo boats, despite being more than 20,000 miles (30,000 km) from Japan.

Of course this caused chaos...so the Russians then identified their own as Japanese and opened fire:

and, in the general chaos, Russian ships shot at each other: the cruisers Aurora and Dmitrii Donskoi were taken for Japanese warships and bombarded by seven battleships sailing in formation, damaging both ships and killing a chaplain and at least one sailor and severely wounding another.

With all this happening, one of the Russian ships then signaled it was being boarded by the Japanese

During the pandemonium, several Russian ships signalled torpedoes had hit them, and on board the battleship Borodino rumours spread that the ship was being boarded by the Japanese, with some crews donning life vests and lying prone on the deck, and others drawing cutlasses.

And the only thing that saved them was the Russians were absolutely horrible shots:

More serious losses to both sides were only avoided by the extremely low quality of Russian gunnery, with the battleship Oryol reportedly firing more than 500 shells without hitting anything.

And it happened again further along the trip near Africa:

The Kamchatka eventually rejoined the fleet and claimed that she had engaged three Japanese warships and fired over 300 shells: the ships she had actually fired at were a Swedish merchantman, a German trawler, and a French schooner.

Kinda sad, but the Japanese nearly defeated a Russian fleet without a ship within 20,000 km of it. I figure there needs to be a good reason why the Russians would be this paranoid to think the Japanese would have this many resources in the northern Atlantic.

Edit: The wiki entry on tsushima calls the reports of Japanese boats in the north sea outright fictitious:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Tsushima#Conflict_in_the_Far_East

The Second Pacific Squadron sailed through the Baltic into the North Sea. The Russians had heard fictitious reports of Japanese torpedo boats operating in the area and were on high alert.

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    I found a contemporary source talking a bit more about the intelligence and heavily edited my answer. – Schwern Feb 8 '18 at 21:45
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    As a side note, this incident resulted in the British banning the Russian fleet from moving past Gibraltar and ultimately forced the Russian fleet around South Africa instead of the shorter route, which caused refueling (coal) headaches/expenses and ultimately a pretty large morale hit. Probably for the better, with their track record the Russian fleet may have bombarded Rome thinking it was a Japanese fortress. – Twelfth Feb 9 '18 at 17:28
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What intelligence did the Russians have that the Japanese had either torpedo boats or mines in the North Sea, and what was the source of that intelligence?

I don't have the book referenced in the article, but the report from the International Commissions Of Inquiry is online. It mentions several "reports" (really rumors) in more detail.

It appears, from the depositions made, that, from the time of the departure of the squadron from the roads of Réval [Tallinn], Admiral Rojdestvensky [Rozhestvensky] had had extreme precautions taken by the vessels placed under his orders, in order that they might be fully prepared to meet a night attack by torpedo boats, either at sea or at anchor.

These precautions seemed to be justified by the numerous reports received from the agents of the Imperial Government on the subject of hostile attempts to be feared, which in all likelihood would take the form of attacks by torpedo boats.

Moreover, during his stay at Skagen, Admiral Rojdestvensky had been warned of the presence of suspect vessels on the coast of Norway. He had learned, also, from the commander of the transport Bacan coming from the north, that he had seen on the previous night four torpedo boats, carrying a single light only, and that at the masthead.

Then the transport Kamchatka falls behind at night with engine trouble and imagines a passing ship is a torpedo boat. She opens fire and radios that she's under attack.

The last vessel which passed the Zero was, from his description of her, the Kamchatka.

This transport, which originally was in a division with the Dmitri Donskoi and the Aurora, was, therefore, left behind and isolated about 10 miles to the rear of the squadron. She had been obliged to slacken speed in consequence of damage to her engines.

This accidental delay was, perhaps, incidentally the cause of the events which followed.

Toward 8 o'clock in the evening this transport did, in fact, meet the Swedish vessel Aldebaran and other unknown vessels and opened fire on them, doubtless in consequence of the anxiety inspired in the circumstances of the moment by her isolation, the damage to her engines, and her small fighting value.

However this may be, the commander of the Kamchatka, at 8. 45 o'clock, sent a message by wireless telegraphy to his commander-in-chief regarding this encounter, stating that he was "attacked on all sides by torpedo boats."

This just fuels Rojdestvensky's and the fleet's paranoia as they sail on into the night thinking they're being trailed by torpedo boats. He orders weapons free.

In order to understand the effect which this news had on Admiral Rojdestvensky's subsequent decisions, it must be remembered that, in his estimate, the attacking torpedo boats, of whose presence, 50 miles to the rear of the division which he commanded, he was thus, rightly or wrongly, informed, might overtake and attack him about 1 o'clock in the morning.

This information led Admiral Rojdestvensky to signal to his ships about 10 o'clock in the evening to redouble their vigilance and look out for an attack by torpedo boats.

On board all the ships, moreover, the standing orders of the Admiral laid down that the officer of the watch was authorized to open fire in case of an evident and imminent attack by torpedo boats.

If the attack was from the front he was to open fire on his own initiative, and, in the contrary case, which would be much less pressing, he was to refer to his commanding officer.

As they're passing the fishing fleet, a green flare appears.

The direction in which this division was sailing led it nearly toward the main body of the fleet of trawlers, round which and to the south of which it would therefore be obliged to sail, when the attention of the [p934] officers of the watch on the bridges of the Souvoroff [Suvorov] was attracted by a green rocket, which put them on their guard. This rocket, sent up by the “admiral" of the fishing fleet, indicated in reality, according to regulation, that the trawlers were to trawl on the starboard tack.

When they spot an unknown vessel apparently heading towards them with no lights, they opened fire.

Almost immediately after this first alarm, and as shown by the evidence, the lookout men, who, from the bridges of the Souvoroff, were scanning the horizon with their night glasses, discovered " on the crest of the waves on the starboard bow, at an approximate distance of 18 to 20 cables, "a vessel which aroused their suspicions because they saw no light, and because she appeared to be bearing down upon them.

When the suspicious-looking vessel was shown up by the searchlight, the lookout men thought they recognized a torpedo boat proceeding at great speed.

It was on account of these appearances that Admiral Rojdestvensky ordered fire to be opened on this unknown vessel.

With the fleet in such a state of panic, everyone started firing and there was no stopping it.

The Admiral then made the signal to the squadron "not to fire on the trawlers."

But at the same time that the searchlight had lit up this fishing vessel, according to the evidence of witnesses, the lookout men on board the Souvoroff perceived to port another vessel, which appeared suspicious from the fact of its presenting the same features as were presented by the object of their fire to starboard.

Fire was immediately opened on this second object, and was, therefore, being kept up on both sides of the ship, the line of ships having resumed their original course by a correcting movement without changing speed.


And why would it be considered so reliable that the Russian navy would open up on a variety of ships in the North Sea thinking they were Japanese?

The Wikipedia article seems to cover it. But I think the psychological threat of torpedoes and torpedo boats to early 20th century navies cannot be understated.

In the 19th century "torpedoes" as in "damn the torpedoes" meant mines. Mines were terrifying enough to navies, a hidden threat that could lurk almost anywhere and blow up a capital ship without warning. The mere possibility of mines has made any number of fleets shy away from an attack or pursuit.

20th century torpedoes are "motor torpedoes", basically self-propelled mines, starting with the Whitehead Torpedo in 1866. Quickly naval planners realized that a flotilla of small, cheap torpedo boats could counter expensive, heavily armored, and otherwise impervious capital ships. Even if the whole flotilla was lost, it was worth it if they sunk one battleship.

This was so feared they created an entirely new class of ship, the Torpedo Boat Destroyer, just to counter it. Larger, faster, more heavily gunned than a torpedo boat, these grew and eventually replaced the "cruiser" as the workhorse of the fleet becoming the modern Destroyer.

Now any nation with a large capital fleet has to contend with not only losing a ship by running over a single hidden mine, but now losing the whole fleet to swarms of small, fast boats firing torpedoes. This upended the slow, stately pace of capital ship warfare they'd trained for, with careful formations, strategic maneuvers, and chewing away at each other in gunnery slugfests.

Even if they missed, dodging torpedoes would break up their careful formations and cause the slow, lumbering capital ships to turn away from the fight. This happened famously to the Yamato during the Battle off Samar as she had to run away from the battle to avoid torpedoes from a US destroyer taking her out of the fight.

Add to this that the Japanese already had a reputation for surprise attacks, having opened the war with a surprise night torpedo attack on Port Arthur taking two battleships out of action.

The idea that the Japanese could send a handful of these cheap, small hard to detect torpedo boats which could suddenly sink a battleship without warning was terrifying (and very, very overblown).


Now I'm going to get into a bit of speculation.

The Russian navy did not have the globetrotting tradition like the US or Royal Navy. Russian Baltic fleet was a coastal fleet used to being in safe, known waters. Now it's being asked to travel halfway around the world, exposed to who knows what, for months! Spotter aircraft were not available, and radios were new and poorly understood. They had to rely on visually spotting threats, their world of information was restricted to just a few dozen miles and a hazy horizon.

There's a lot of ocean. One can imagine a lot of threats locked up in a steel hull for weeks on end.

While traversing the narrow waters between Denmark and Sweden, the Russians imagined this to be a perfect place for a surprise attack. They had numerous false alarms about mines and torpedo boats, and one incident of firing on fishermen who were just relaying messages from Russia. Rather than settle his men, Rozhestvensky stoked their fears with orders saying no vessel of any sort should get among the fleet.

They were already on edge.


That's why the hysteria. Why did they take this seriously? Here's my best guess.

Navies are very conservative, necessary when you're dealing with expensive assets that take years to build and can be destroyed in an instant. Navies plan based on capabilities, not probabilities. If the enemy is capable of an attack, you must plan for it. One of the greatest failures of naval planning was ignoring that the Japanese were capable of striking Pearl Harbor, even though most thought it very unlikely.

The Russians felt that if they could send a capital fleet halfway around the world, the Japanese could do it with some torpedo boats, too.

As for the mine field, mine fields are cheap and easy to lay in secret under the guise of, yes, a fishing boat. The idea that the Japanese might have mined the Russian Baltic fleet's route was not so far fetched. The idea that they'd recklessly endanger international shipping 30,000 km from the war zone... that was a bit far fetched.

Mix in that the British had a defense treaty with Japan, and you could imagine Japanese agents and boats operating out of secret bases in Britain.

Add in healthy doses of paranoia, isolation, inexperience, and a new and poorly understood threat, and suddenly you're shooting for 20 minutes at a fishing fleet.


Naval histographer Drachinifel has done several episodes on the 2nd Pacific Squadron which can fill in some gaps.

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  • Good lord - please tell me many people faced the equivalent of a court martial after this. – sirjonsnow Feb 9 '18 at 13:40
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    @sirjonsnow many people did not live enough for a court martial after this. – SJuan76 Feb 9 '18 at 14:47
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    The captain of the Kamchatka seemed to be at the heart of the issue, causing the original misinformation and then firing on ships itself. I also wonder if there wasn't an agent providing purposeful misinformation to the Russians here: "Moreover, during his stay at Skagen, Admiral Rojdestvensky had been warned of the presence of suspect vessels on the coast of Norway. He had learned, also, from the commander of the transport Bacan coming from the north, that he had seen on the previous night four torpedo boats, carrying a single light only, and that at the masthead.". Good answer – Twelfth Feb 9 '18 at 16:23
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    It's also important to underline that capital ships of that time were not heavily armored below the waterline, which made them very vulnerable to underwater attack. A single torpedo, launched from a small, fast moving boat, could sink a major warship. The Whitehead torpedo was a major game changer in naval warfare. – tj1000 Feb 11 '18 at 14:33
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    @gktscrk Sounds like you're well suited. How about an edit? Because they are quotes, add them as [editor's notations]. – Schwern Jun 25 at 6:41
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I like @Schwern's answer for its thoroughness with which the international report has been perused. Nevertheless, it seems as if some detail that is in my source isn't as clearly brought out there.

My source is Ryotaro Shiba's 'Clouds Above the Hill, Vol. 2'. I've previously commented on Shiba's accuracy here. The author does comment and generalize more than in most narratives, but these are generally based on voluminous research.


The "Japanese scare" had actually began before the Dogger Bank and the North Sea:

From the time they left Liepaja, not only Rozhestvensky but the men under him too were possessed by a delusion. The rumor was that a squadron of Japanese destroyers was lurking in the Denmark Strait to ambush them. The idea was patently ridiculous, as a cursory look at Japanese naval strength would have shown. Was it even possible to send destroyers weighing barely 200 or 300 tons all the way to the North Sea in Europe? That would have necessitated taking along an auxiliary ship for repairs, as well as a couple of protected cruisers. Japan didn’t have that kind of strength.

But even before engaging the enemy, the Baltic Fleet was dominated by fear of Japan. If anyone could pull off such a feat, they felt, it was Japan. Above all, Rozhestvensky himself was convinced of this. He and his aides had no doubt that at the very least Japan must have laid mines in the Baltic Strait along the southern tip of Sweden. ...

On the evening of their second day out, as they neared the suspected danger zone, Rozhestvensky gave orders to prepare for combat and instructed everyone to sleep with their clothes on. All the ships’ guns were readied for firing on an instant’s notice.

... Barely three days out of Liepaja, he issued orders so incomprehensible that they seem designed for the sole purpose of fomenting panic. “Everyone sleep in your clothes. All ships be ready to fire at a moment’s notice.” His actions at that point were not those of a commander but rather of someone out to create chaos.

And regarding the origin of these rumours:

Nobody knows who spread this delusion through the fleet. The probable source of the rumor was the Russian naval command in St. Petersburg. The Russian Empire’s strategic center, which should have been cool rationality, believed it possible. Rozhestvensky himself, having transferred to the fleet from a building in naval headquarters, was a believer.

After they passed into the Skagerrak, this was enhanced by further reports brought in by Russian intelligence:

This expeditionary fleet of a scale unmatched in history saw Denmark’s northern tip, Cape Skagen, on October 20, six days out from Liepaja. The entire fleet anchored off the cape, and coaling got underway. For the crews, this was backbreaking labor.

The skies were clear. At three in the afternoon, a Swedish steamboat drew near and signaled that it had an “important communication.” This was a steamboat employed by Russian intelligence, bearing important information. Rozhestvensky took the message, which turned out to be vague. “A threemasted schooner has set sail from an inlet. Highly suspicious.”

This was instinctively turned by Rozhestvensky into something far beyond what it was. It is, perhaps, noteworthy that Rozhestevensky had gone through similar fantastical leaps before:

During a court council at the start of hostilities, Rozhestvensky stressed the importance of inspecting every foreign commercial ship that entered the ports of European Russia. He refused to entertain any other opinion on the matter. His reasoning was that Japanese ships were sneaking into the ports disguised as foreign commercial ships. When Witte, who was present at the meeting, heard this, he thought, “This man is either an idiot or a coward.” In his memoirs, he wrote, “I could only marvel at him.”


“It must be a Japanese spy ship, gone out to inform a flotilla of torpedo boats lying in ambush somewhere.” Rozhestvensky’s imagination was wilder than that of any writer of fiction. The idea that Japanese torpedo boats would be lurking in the North Sea was unrealistic, but even if it were true, they would hardly use a sailing vessel to convey an urgent message. Rozhestvensky’s imagination wasn’t grounded strongly in reality. He possessed great pride, but it’s possible that excessive pride derives from morbid fear. ...

Rozhestvensky did just the opposite, putting his fear on display to the entire fleet by staging a show. He issued orders that all gun muzzles be turned on every passing ship. The fleet was not out on distant seas, but was approaching the North Sea, which thronged with traffic. ... Commercial fishing boats of each of those countries were sure to pass in the vicinity of that great fleet of imperial Russia. Every time one did, the fleet’s warships were to reposition their guns and train their sights on it. ...

... If anyone had cared to conduct an experiment in instilling an entire fighting force with mass terror, this method of Rozhestvensky’s would have been just the way to go about it.

“Everybody’s nerves were keyed up.” So wrote Engineer Politovsky. ...

But Rozhestvensky took his personal fear as the script for a show he staged using the entire fleet. They were about to enter the North Sea. The crews were sleepless, on the lookout for phantom Japanese torpedo boats. Every gun was loaded, and every gun barrel swung in unison, following each new craft that came along. “Even if we came upon a small lighter, our destroyer went off after it like blazes,” recorded one witness.

Further, the natural world heightened the sense of dread. As an idea, this is what the moon on the North Sea looks like/illuminates (taken in the Central North Sea, 2013 July):

enter image description here

The viewer is lucky to see the horizon; clouds show up, but the night is dark. Now, for these sailors, this wasn't the case as it was a night of fog. I've also added an image of day-time fog at sea (taken about midday, not that it matters, Central Atlantic, 2016 May):

enter image description here

... That night there was a dense fog, as thick as mud. As the fleet pushed on through the murky fog, each ship in turn sounded its foghorn to prevent collisions. ... The sounds heightened everyone’s fear.

The wireless communication system that enabled ships to trade information served to intensify the climate of fear all the more. Out of an abundance of caution, every ship sent out a stream of messages, reporting weird goings-on that were mere hallucinations, churning out unsubstantiated reports as if they were pelting each other with stones.

These crews were driven to the limit of human endurance by natural phenomena that their commander-in-chief allowed to heighten everyone's sensibilities. The dawning of the next day was a relief, but one all too short:

When the sun rose on the morning of October 21, the fog had lifted. At last able to verify the state of their fleet with their own eyes, the men felt relieved. Some whispered their fear of the night to come. Rumor had it that one of the captains had gone insane.

Night fell. Ever since evening, the wind and waves had been high. The fleet steamed ahead, washed broadside by waves. Before nine o’clock, a shocking radio message came in, piercing the men’s hearts. “We are being chased by Japanese torpedo boats.”

The message was from the Kamchatka, the repair ship. Named for the peninsula that the Russian Empire had annexed in 1707, the little boat was loaded with equipment, shipbuilders, and engineers to carry out repairs as needed on the rest of the fleet. The Kamchatka belonged to the First Cruiser Division in the van of the fleet but had been slowed by engine trouble and so lagged behind, bringing up the rear all alone. This must have inflamed the crew’s terror all the more.

From here on, there are relatively few additions to the @Schwern's answer which I've highlighted (italic). The rest is to add the backstory in case not all answers are read.

The Suvorov was steaming through wind and waves when the Kamchatka’s startling report came in, spurring Rozhestvensky to an immediate response. He ordered all battleships cleared for action and instructed the Kamchatka to keep him fully informed. ... the radio operator kept up a strenuous tapping and got the message through. The reply that came in was way off the mark, a fact attributable less to the state of the equipment than to the psychological stress of the Kamchatka’s captain.

“They are coming at us from all directions,” he reported. Asked how many enemy ships there were, he replied, “Eight torpedo boats.”

The reaction to such news again comes down to Rozhestvensky's personal character:

Rozhestvensky never doubted it. A moment’s calm reflection would have shown him how preposterous the claim was. Even if Japan had somehow managed to send a squadron of torpedo boats all the way to the North Sea in Europe, why deploy it against a mere repair ship? Why surround that ship with eight boats and attack it from all sides?

At the end of his exchanges with the Kamchatka, Rozhestvensky advised the repair ship to change course and get out of the path of danger. “When you have evaded the enemy, advise us of your longitude and latitude, as well as your course.”

But the Kamchatka’s response was: “Afraid to reveal.” They feared the worst if enemy torpedo boats overheard them radioing in their position. ...

At eleven o’clock at night, the Suvorov again sent out a wireless message. “What is happening? Do you still see Japanese torpedo boats?” The radio waves flew through wind and rain, but no immediate response came from the Kamchatka. ...

At length, there came a chastened reply. “No sign of them.”

Once again, the story hinges on a point where everything could have ended without trouble, but the commander-in-chief let his "Japanese dreams" take him away (much like the original quoted measure for protecting Russian harbours):

Rozhestvensky was relieved. He should have let the matter rest, but his overactive imagination lit up the dark North Sea bright as day. In the world of his imagination, eight Japanese torpedo boats were coming after the Baltic Fleet, plowing through the waves. He gave the order to prepare for action. His move was based on peculiar reasoning: “Kamchatka reports no sign of the enemy. That just goes to show the enemy has given up on the Kamchatka and is coming after the battleships.” If there is a mental disposition that sees things only through the prism of fear, then Rozhestvensky’s disposition may well belong in that category.

Time ticked away, and the great fleet steamed uneventfully on across the dark North Sea.

But the seamen in the fleet hunched sleepless at their posts. Novikov-Priboy wrote that although it was permissible for some crew members to sleep, few if any did. The captain’s psychology of fear had infected his entire fleet.

The crew were tired and on edge through the same psychology that had affected their captain. Incidentally, Novikov-Priboy wrote a fictionalized account of the battle later, 'Tsushima', having lived through the adventure on the Oryol.

In the dead of night, rain came riding on the wind. “If only there was a moon!” The men cursed the weather. They were exhausted from fighting with their own imaginations in the pitch dark. ...

Regarding the signal flare mentioned in @Schwern's reply as "green" we find the major difference in these accounts:

Shortly after one in the morning, a tricolor signal flare went up in front of the Suvorov. After the war, a survey to determine which British fishing vessel had sent up the signal flare concluded that no signal had ever been released. In any case, the fleet was in an abnormally heightened state of nerves, and so the point was never clarified. What is clear is that the Suvorov, with Rozhestvensky aboard, turned on its searchlight to sweep the darkness. Given everyone’s state of mind at the time, this was equivalent to an order to start fighting. The captain of every warship must have gasped in surprise. Aboard the Suvorov, the bugle call to prepare for action rang out. Rozhestvensky issued battle orders to the entire fleet.

Then commenced this 'battle' against the targets that came up in the searchlights:

Their opponents were trawlers. The searchlight caught a single-funnel fishing boat in a light so bright that “the red- and black-painted hull stood out clearly,” wrote the Suvorov’s ship engineer Politovsky. It was a British fishing boat. The fleet as a whole, however, mistook it for a Japanese torpedo boat and let fly a thunderous cannonade.

“At the time I was on the fore bridge,” wrote Politovsky to his wife, “but my ears were so deafened by the roar of the cannons and my eyes so blinded by the gunfire that I could not stand it and bolted below, hands over my ears, to watch the spectacle from the upper deck.” ...

The confusion was so great that the Russian naturally took there to be more than just Japanese fishing boats about:

The “battle” continued for a dozen minutes, and then one of the ships located another supposed enemy: “Japanese armored cruiser sighted.” And so the Aurora (6,731 tons), a member of the Russian First Cruiser Division, came under concentrated friendly fire. Many of the shells scored bull’s-eyes. By the time the Aurora radioed in the plaintive message “We are hit,” the damage was done. There were four perforations above the waterline, the funnel was shot off, the chaplain had lost a leg, and the chief gunner was wounded.

By then, Rozhestvensky had realized the strangeness of this naval “combat” and issued a ceasefire, but the noncommissioned officers and crew manning the guns, too excited to control themselves, kept right on shooting. It was a long time before the sea regained its serenity.


So, the real answer to the OP's question is that there was no credible intelligence, only garbled messages which let the untamed fantastical imaginations of Rozhestvensky guide him to a world of madness that he was only too suited for. It perhaps exacerbated matters that the admiral was incredibly unfit for command, with the majority of his command-time spent in coastal positions.

Shiba references Witte, the former foreign minister, using the following observation about Rozhestvensky which makes how the above events came about only clearer:

“He may be a terrible coward.”

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Well, there was certainly an incident of Russian sailors mistaking trawlers for Japanese ships and firing on them as said in the first answer, but I don't really think that there is any reason why Russia should be wary of any Japanese ships in the North Sea especially during that period. At that time, Japan was growing (in the period of the Meiji Restoration) after being opened to western influence in 1853 by Commodore Matthew C. Perry. Japan took steps to modernize its military, but its ability to project its power outside of East Asia was severely limited until the Showa Period (the reign of Emperor Hirohito which started in 1926). Therefore, no Japanese ship would ever dare go somewhere far from Japan (the sea ice in the North Sea was also very hazardous, so even the Russians did not consider going to Japan that way).

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    Sources would improve this answer, especially as your post seems to contradict the sources of the OP. – Lars Bosteen Feb 11 '18 at 9:00
  • I won't down vote as you are giving the 'what I would have expected' answer...Japan didn't have the ability to project that far and it's a silly long journey for Russia to undertake. However the reality is the Russian fleet did attempt the journey and they were heavily expecting a Japanese presence in the north sea. – Twelfth Feb 13 '18 at 21:23

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