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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?

Does Grant's use of attrition tactic support his reputation as a general?

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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  • Found this in researching a new question... en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dogger_Bank_incident The russians opened up on fishing boats (they suspected they were japanese torpedo boats) with this result "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" Possible that training issues heavily impacted the Russians performance.
    – Twelfth
    Feb 8 '18 at 20:20
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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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  • Great job. Accepted. "MORE damage but still have lost the battle."
    – Tom Au
    Dec 9 '11 at 14:47
  • 1
    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. Dec 10 '11 at 22:55
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    I'd add the exhaustion of the Russians to the mix. They had sailed across the world, lost their port, and had to run the gauntlet to perhaps make Vladivostok. Not cheerful news.
    – Oldcat
    Jul 31 '14 at 23:23
  • Moreover Russian fleet had withstood bad weather, lack of friendship ports, and their crew had to suffer thousands of miles at sea before the battles. Japanese crew was probably in far better condition thanks to their close home naval bases.
    – xrorox
    Feb 2 '18 at 8:38
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With a numerical superiority and a technical inferiority, would the Russians have done better to opt for a battle of attrition instead... perhaps using a line abreast formation?

They tried. At 12:15 in response to sighting real live Japanese torpedo boats, Rozhestvensky ordered his First Division battleships into line abreast. Imperator Aleksandr III turned the wrong way throwing the formation into chaos. Rozhestvensky canceled the order and returns to line ahead.

This has consequences for the entire battle. When firing begins, the Russian fleet is still trying to sort itself out from his botched maneuver. The lead battleships mask the trailing fleet. Oslyabya, leading the second squadron, has to come to an almost full stop to avoid colliding with the trailing ship of the first squadron, Oryol, and takes an almighty battering.


The 2nd Pacific Squadron could have done more to prepare and to avoid the battle entirely. The squadron was hastily assembled out of whatever ships were available at the time to break the siege of Port Arthur, but the port had fallen well before Tsushima. Their new objective was to reach Vladivostok and link up with the remaining ships there. After rest and repairs, the combined fleet could recommence operations against the Japanese. Now that the pressure of relieving Port Arthur was gone, haste was no longer necessary.

Supply more ammunition for practice

The 2nd Pacific Squadron was hastily assembled out of whatever ships were available at the time to break the siege of Port Arthur. Rozhestvensky was an experienced and effective leader, but his crews and subordinate commanders were not. They could have used the travel time to practice, but the squadron was supplied with limited ammunition which opportunities for training. Given this was the last throw of the dice for the Russians, this was a strange time to be stingy.

Leave the obsolete ships at home

Rozhestvensky was saddled with the slow and obsolete Third Division consisting of three coastal-defense ships and the even slower Imperator Nikolai I. These ships had little impact on the battle and only served to slow the fleet down. Their slow speed meant the Japanese could fight at their desired range. Without these ships, Rozhestvensky would have had more options. With these ships, once spotted he would be hard pressed to disengage from the Japanese.

Take a different route

With a need for haste gone, the 2nd Pacific Squadron could take its time reaching Vladivostok and avoiding battle in their dilapidated and divided state. They could have avoided the restricted waters of the Korea Strait and taken a longer route around the eastern side of the Japan. Rozhestvensky telegraphed his intentions when he dismissed his colliers; without them his ships had no choice but to go through the Korea Strait.

Use the Oryol as a ruse

The rules of war required the hospital ship Oryol to remain well lit at night. She was spotted the night before the battle by the Japanese auxiliary cruiser Shinano Maru who investigated and spotted more Russian ships nearby. Thus alerted, the Japanese began shadowing the Russian fleet.

Knowing the Oryol would have to remain lit at night, Rozhestvensky could have sent her off on her with some fast auxiliaries off on their own as a ruse.

React to the scouts

Long after it was clear they had been spotted, Rozhestvensky continued to maintain radio silence. Japanese scouts were allowed to shadow the Russians and radio reports back to their fleet with impunity. Visibility was poor, and had Rozhestvensky been aggressive against these scouts he may have been able to slip away.

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