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The Battle of the Yellow Sea
by Captain Vladimir Semenov


At 11.50 the flagship hoisted flag "K." This meant "Ship not under control." Again something wrong! We all stopped engines, and waited for the defect to be put to rights. Meanwhile the Japanese were quickly effecting their junction. At last, at noon the signal was made to proceed at 15 knots. We did not keep up this speed for long. At 12.20 the Pobieda hoisted flag "K" and hauled out of the line. Again a delay! The enemy had already joined hands and formed line. At 12.22 our leading ships opened fire. We were steaming dead slow.

" This is our battle fleet—the flower of the Russian Navy! " an officer near me on the bridge was exclaiming in a voice choking with rage. I had not the heart to reprove him, and say : "Hold your tongue, and do your duty." Might he not have replied : " Have the men who created this squadron done their duty?"

No, I could not find anything to say which would really have answered him. My own throat felt as if it were being choked by impotent rage.

At 12.30 the Tsesarevitch, which had for some time been gradually turning towards East, suddenly turned 4 points to starboard. The hostile destroyers had been moving about ahead of us, but a long way off. The Admiral had therefore become suspicious, and, as we found later, not without cause. Nothing was too insignificant for the Japanese, provided it offered the smallest chance of success. They had thrown out drift mines (without anchors) in the direction of our line of advance. The flagship's alteration of course saved the squadron from the danger of having to steam through this drifting minefield. All the same, we passed very close to some of them. The Novik (evidently by order of the Admiral) stopped dead, and allowed the whole squadron to pass her, signalling: "Attention—floating mines." Two of these drifted past us on the port side, at no great distance. (To be accurate, we steamed past them.)

After we had passed this minefield, we resumed our previous course.

The enemy's main body, Mikasa, Shikishima, Fuji, Asahi, Kasuga, and Nishin, had been steering almost on a parallel course to ours for twenty minutes, and had fired at long range, 40 to 50 cables [8,000 to 10,000 yards], with long pauses between. At 12.50 the enemy turned about 16 points, approached us up to 30 cables [6,000 yards], and then steamed away.

It was an exciting moment, especially when the Japanese squadron turned short across our rear and concentrated its whole fire on our three cruisers at the end of the line, without our battleships being able to reply to it. Our regulations do not lay down any definite station in action for the second-in-command. The spirit of the instructions indicates that he is always to be where his presence appears desirable. On board the Diana it had been arranged, as most suitable to local conditions, that I should remain on the fore upper bridge. Here I could be seen from any part of the upper deck, and could also be called quickly if necessary. Moreover, I was myself in a position to overlook almost the whole ship. I could not help seeing if any projectile hit us, and could, without waiting to be sent for, run to the place where damage had been done. It will be conceded that the upper bridge was a capital post of observation. I saw everything.

The sea was boiling all round our rear ships. Of course we were also firing like mad. Our guns were roaring incessantly. To this was added the noise of the bursting shell. Clouds of smoke and gigantic columns of water arose all round us. What chaos ! And yet this picture of the raging of elements let loose was beautiful.— I heard the call for stretcher parties, saw that blood was streaming on the deck; but this was unable to break the spell. These things seemed trivialities which could not be helped. How tremendously sharp and quick is the working of one's thoughts at such moments! A short cry, a gesture, suffice to explain all that requires to be told.

The Askold [cruiser flagship] only hoisted flags "B" and "L". Immediately the cruisers went full speed ahead and spread fanshape to port. In this way they got out of their unpleasant situation, and were at the same time enabled to bring their whole broadside to bear.

I should just like to have seen how many elaborate signals would have been necessary to carry out this movement during peace evolutions. How long it would have, taken, and what confusion there would have been in the end all the same.

Either fortune favoured us or the Japanese fired badly On the whole, at least, we got off cheaply. The rear ship (Diana) got no direct hits. Our sides, boats, superstructures, ventilators, funnels, and masts) were riddled by small splinters ; yet we had only two men wounded. True, I had seen the Askold's foremost funnel and the Pallada's starboard cutter each struck by a shell. But these ships suffered no losses in men, and had no serious damage. The first encounter had ended in our favour. When they had crossed our tail the Japanese turned again to southward. They steamed along on our starboard quarter and kept up a slow fire at long range, which only our battleships could reply to.

At 1.30 P.M. we (on board Diana) allowed the men to " stand easy " and drink their afternoon tea, but not to leave their guns.

Groups were formed on the upper deck, chatting with much animation. Laughter and jokes were heard on all sides. But there was nothing specially characteristic in all this.

" How about forty winks until the enemy hits us over the head ? " a young sailor was asking jocularly, and settled down snugly in a tarpaulin, with part of which he kept off the fierce rays of the sun.

" Don't talk nonsense! " came in a rough tone from an older man. "God hears everything."

Yet another small, but characteristic episode. As I was passing along the battery I congratulated the gun- layer of No. 15 gun—Malakow—on his Cross of St George. Malakow, having been wounded, had himself hastily bandaged, and at once returned to his gun, to serve it as before.

It was strange to see how the eyes of this man, who had only quite a short while ago cheerfully looked death in the face, suddenly looked troubled. He stammered, half- confused, half-doubting: "Well, sir, if it is ordered—"

I felt annoyed.

"Who is going to order anything? Take it, you dunderhead ; you have earned it by the statutes. Neither the captain nor I have anything to say to it. Your superiors don't make you a present of it. You can demand it; you can go right up to the Tsar with your demand. The law gives you the right to demand it."

All those around had become silent, and looked on, some with curiosity, some with unbelief, expressed in their faces. Apparently they were now hearing for the first time that the law stood above the will of their superiors. I walked on rapidly, and did not quite realise what I had done. Had I assisted discipline by my words, or harmed it ?

Towards 3 P.M. we altered course to S. 62° E. The cruisers were keeping on the port beam of the battleships at a distance of about 15 to 20 cables [1½ to 2 miles]. They were thus outside the range of "overs." We were steaming at a moderate speed, but had to slow down every now and then, so as not to draw too much ahead.

Soon after three o'clock fire ceased altogether. The enemy's main body, which bore abaft our beam, were now nearly hull down, that is, we only saw their funnels and superstructure above the horizon. What was the meaning of this? Perhaps the Japanese were making good their damages. Anyhow, with our 12 to 13 knots we were advancing very markedly. Our road was clear. If only our battleships had been able to go the speed they possessed on paper!

In compliance with the flagship's signal we sent our men to supper.

Our column now approached those of the battleships. Semaphore messages were exchanged. Friends asked one another how they were. The answers we received from the battleships were reassuring.

One of our younger officers could not hold his tongue. " We seem to be in luck," he said.

He was silenced at once. Seamen are more superstitious than sportsmen. They dread above all such boasts as the above.

Meanwhile, the Japanese had put themselves to rights again, and had carried out what they had intended. What could it have been? Who knows the Japanese? They were once more chasing us.

At 4.15 P.M. the distance was 51 cables [10,200 yards], at 4.40, 47 cables [9,400 yards], and at 4.45, the battle began afresh.

As the cruisers were again within reach of "overs," they were ordered to resume their former station—20 cables [4,000 yards]—from the battleships. We turned 4 points to port, and when we had reached the distance ordered, resumed the fleet course. For an hour and a half we were now mere spectators of an action in which we could not in any way participate.

The Japanese cruisers, and not only the old ones, but even the three "Greyhounds," and two armoured cruisers, also kept on the off-side of their main body. They, as it were, awaited the issue of the duel between the two main forces. The old Japanese ships, led by the Chin Yen, we could make out distinctly to the north, all the rest to the south-west.

For me, this was the hardest moment of the whole day. We had to look on whilst the others were fighting, without being able to lift a finger in aid.

I must here note that the Japanese shell, on bursting, produced thick, greenish - brown or black smoke. In the first place, every one of their hits could thus be seen distinctly; secondly, it gave one in the first moment the impression that it had produced some catastrophe. On the other hand, we could only make out the light, transparent smoke of the Russian bursting shell with binoculars, and even then only with difficulty. Our shell were loaded with Pyroxyline, or smokeless powder.

This fact was especially demoralising to the common sailor, who, of course, knows little of the technical part of gunnery.

"Look! How our ships are catching it! The Japanese are hardly getting anything. It is as if they were charmed. The Holy Virgin has deserted us!" Remarks such as these I heard here and there amongst the men. All binoculars and telescopes were turned on the enemy.

All observers were asked to call out loud enough for all to hear, every time there was a Russian hit. "There is no object in straining one's eyes. War can't be made without losses.

There is no object whatever in looking at it. If any one is hit, it is the will of God," I said, as I walked along the battery.

But the spirits got worse and worse. I don't say that we were threatened with a panic. By no means. We were a long way yet from that. Our men had stood fire, and were determined to fight to the last. I only felt that every one was devoured by the terrible thought: " Will our battleships be able to stand this fire?" They doubted this, and in battle doubt does no good.

Meanwhile, I was carefully watching the course of the action with my binoculars, and trying to judge of the value of our fire by estimating the "shorts " and " overs." I was bound to own that our gun-layers were not shooting worse than the Japanese. It even appeared to me as if in the long run our fire was more steady and was corrected better. I thought of the possibility of the battle being renewed on the morrow. If it continued like this, we should have the advantage inasmuch as we were saving up our ammunition.

In the proportion in which, in the course of the battle, the distance decreased, a certain very important advantage on the enemy's side was bound to tell more and more. The enemy possessed an abundance of secondary and light armaments, whilst a good third of all our 6-inch and 12-pounder guns and the whole of the lighter Q.F. guns had remained behind at the land front of Port Arthur's defences.

Moreover, it was incontestable that luck was on the side of the Japanese.

Of course the enemy concentrated his fire mainly on our flagships.

The funnels of the Tsesarevitch were hit by a large number of shell. (These hits were particularly easy to see.)

At 5.5 P.M. the Peresviet (flag of second-in-command) had her main-topmast cut in half, and at 5.8 P.M. the head of her foretopmast went. These damages were of no importance in themselves, but every one could see them. The shell which hit the head of one of the topmasts was really a bad "over," quite a bad shot in fact—bad, but lucky.

About this time the lashings of the main derrick on board the Poltava, which had been secured up and down between the funnels, were shot through. It came down to port with a loud crash. That also was of no importance. It could not even be called damage, as the derrick had to be got into this position whenever boats had to be hoisted in. But every one who saw this accident from abeam was greatly impressed.

At 5.50 P.M. the Tsesarevitch suddenly turned sharp to port. In doing so, she heeled over so much that cries of terror were heard on board us, which reminded one of the foundering of the Petropavlovsk. It looked as if the ship was going to capsize.

Happily, it had only the appearance. For a few moments every soul on board the Diana, myself included, forgot all about himself and his ship. Every eye was strained to watch what was now going on in our battle squadron.

At first the Retvisan [No. 2] followed in the flagship's wake. But her captain quickly noticed that. the latter was only hauling out of the line on account of some damage. The Retvisan, therefore, not only turned back to the old course, but towards the Japanese. It looked as if she meant to ram the enemy.

The Pobieda [No. 3] continued on the old course. The Tsesarevitch turned a complete circle to port and broke through the line between the Peresviet [No. 4 rear flag], and the Sebastopol [No. 5], exactly as if she also intended ramming the Japanese. Like the Retvisan, the Sebastopol also turned to the south, to avoid the Tsesarevitch, and the Peresviet did the same. The latter had apparently not made out yet what the flagship's intentions were and did not know whether her movements were intentional or were due to the ship not being under control. The Poltava [No. 6] continued on the old course.

For a while it looked as if we were on the point of delivering the decisive blow. In my diary I find noted : "6.5 P.M.—Our battleships are rushing at the enemy in single line abreast." This note is struck out and the diary continues:—"No, it looks as if they intended to resume the old course and the old formation. Present order of ships: Retvisan, Pobieda, Peresviet, Sebastopol, Tsesarevitch, Poltava." This is also struck out) and across the top is written:—"An error. No formation whatever. They are steaming without any order."

The first note refers to the conditions which were the result of the Tsesarevitch sheering out of the line. The second I must have written at the moment when the flagship, steering with her engines, tried to get into the line between the Sebastopol and the Poltava. The latter was the rear ship and had dropped astern a good deal. The third note represents the state of utter confusion, when no one knew any more who was leading the squadron or what course to steer.

The battleships then commenced to turn independently about 16 points.

I wrote:—"6.10 P.M.—Our battleships are steering N.W. 6.20.—We are steaming without any formation, course about W. We have made out the signal in the Tsesarevitch: ' The Admiral hands over command.' "

We saw no other signals.

There was no longer any doubt that Admiral Vityeft and his immediate successor and Chief of the Staff, Rear- Admiral Matussevitch, had dropped out. Was the next senior, Rear-Admiral Prince Uktomsky, still alive? The Peresviet's topmasts, it is true, were shot away, but could not the Admiral's flag have been displayed on their stumps, on the tops, the funnels or any other point clearly visible? If the Peresviet flew no flag, it meant that she no longer had an admiral on board. Consequently Rear-Admiral von Reitzenstein, commanding the cruisers, became Commander-in-Chief. The battleships had either to steam without a leader, or the senior captain would have to take charge until they had formed up with the cruisers.

When the Tsesarevitch turned so suddenly to port, the Askold, the cruiser flagship, had also turned to the north. Admiral Reitzenstein, however, noticed very soon that the flagship was not carrying out a manoeuvre, but simply hauling out of the line. As soon as he saw that our battleships were getting "clubbed" and that the enemy might take advantage of this, he resolutely led the cruisers to join the battleships. We at once understood his intentions. He wanted to join in the action with our forces, which, though weak, were fresh, and support the battleships, so as to give them time to reform.

Our battleships were steering about N.W. They were a mere rabble, one ship overtaking the other. Their fire was so wild, that some of their projectiles fell very- close to us, as we hurried to their assistance.

The enemy's main body were crossing over in rear of our battleships, heading about N.E. His six armoured ships, in single line ahead, were keeping such good station, the intervals between the ships were so small and so regular, that it looked more like peace manoeuvres than war.

But why was the enemy going away? Did the distance deceive us? Had he suffered as much as we? Perhaps it would only have required two or three lucky hits to throw him also into confusion. Why did he not come after us and try to destroy us? We were fleeing. Could he not, or dared he not?

I drove all these questions out of my mind by force. I felt as if a veil was before my eyes and I had only one desire: Let us get at the enemy quickly, so that we can fire ourselves and deaden that dreadful feeling that we are beaten, that we are flying.

I find it very hard to have to think this over once again.—I will now proceed with my narrative in the sequence of events. I have noted the exact time by watch against all that now follows.

At 7 P.M. we closed up on the battleships on their starboard side. They were apparently trying to form line ahead. The Retvisan was the headmost ship. Again the question arose : Who is leading the squadron ? Who is in command?

The Askold had the signal flying: " Single line ahead," but no distinguishing signal superior.

To whom was this signal addressed? Was it only meant for the cruisers, or was our Admiral assuming the chief command, because he saw no admiral's flag flying anywhere, and did he mean the signal to be "general," that is, addressed to all ships?

The Askold was not waiting for the other cruisers to come up astern. She was going at her utmost speed and over-hauling the battleships, just as if she meant to place herself ahead of the Retvisan as leader of the squadron. The latter assumption seemed likely. Presumably the captain of the Pallada thought so too. He did not increase speed so as to follow the Askold, but even reduced speed, with the evident intention of allowing the squadron to draw ahead and then to take up his proper station astern of the last battleship. Our place in the battle formation was astern of the Pallada. We were waiting impatiently for further orders.

When the Askold had got ahead of the Retvisan, she hoisted the signal: "Keep in my wake," but again without a distinguishing signal , and turned to port. In this signal and in this manoeuvre we read the determination to lead the squadron to seaward again, and against the enemy, who appeared no longer anxious to fight.

On the Diana's bridge exclamations of joy were heard. We were delighted at Reitzenstein's bold decision, but our joy was premature. Uncertainty and terror soon took its place. The Retvisan continued her course. The battleships did not follow the Askold, and the latter, with her signal still flying, steamed past us at top speed, like the Flying Dutchman. She steamed away to the southward, on an opposite course to the rest of the squadron.

"So he is not in command of the squadron," the captain called out. " Yet we must follow him."

To overhaul the battleships and like the Askold to cross over ahead of them would have taken too long with our poor speed. The captain therefore unhesitatingly decided to break through the rabble of battleships..

Notwithstanding the sadness of the moment I could not help admiring the coolness and assurance with which our captain carried out this dangerous manoeuvre.

All the same, we had waited a little to see whether the battleships would follow the Askold. This, and our getting clear of the battleships, took a good ten to fifteen minutes. When we had reached open water, we saw our Admiral already far to the southward in action with the enemy's cruisers , and getting out of sight. The captain was outwardly calm, but he stroked his beard nervously.

"How can I follow him with my 17 knots?" he was muttering through his teeth. Suddenly he shrugged his shoulders despairingly and ordered : " Hard a-starboard."

The Diana turned to port and formed in the wake of the Pallada, which had never tried to follow the Askold.

At 1.20 P.M. we were attacked from the northward by the Chin-Yen, Matsushima, Itsukushima, and Hashidate. The Kasuga and Nishin, which had separated from the main body, were approaching from the eastward) and from the south came the "Greyhounds."

Well, for this company at least we were strong enough. They did not succeed in doing us any material damage and were obliged to beat a hasty retreat after a short but hot fight at no more than 20 cables [4,000 yards].

In this engagement the Diana was unlucky.

From my post of observation on the forebridge I saw a mighty column of black smoke rise up suddenly from the starboard side of the flying deck. I at once hurried to the spot. A shell had struck our Temperley transporter, which was lying on one of the funnel casings, and smashed it. The nearest ventilators, the funnel casings, and the funnel itself as well as the deck were riddled with small splinters, besides which the shell had destroyed a rising main of the steam fire service (this was really an advantage at the moment) and disabled seventeen men; five of these were killed outright (amongst them Sub-lieutenant Kondratyeff) and twelve wounded .

I cannot help mentioning with much pride how very well the service was carried out on board our cruiser. I ran down as fast as I could from the upper bridge to the upper deck, but by the time I had arrived everything needful had been done. I only saw the last stretcher disappearing down the officer's hatchway. The numbers of the gun, which had fallen out, had already been replaced from the corresponding gun on the opposite (disengaged) side. The gun had happily not been injured and was firing away energetically. Sub-lieutenant Sh— had taken over command of the midship group after Kondratyeff's death. He had a dirty broom in his hand, which had been used to clear up the deck, and with this dreadful weapon he was chasing back under cover all those who had rushed over from the port side asking to be allowed to replace the killed and wounded, so as to have a chance of fighting themselves. "

All hands not told off, out of it ! " I ordered, and came to his assistance. And those brave lads who had been fighting for the right of being able to get face to face with death, ran back to their places quickly and obediently at the order of "Number one."

There was no need for me to make any further dispositions, and I could only approve what had been done. Then I went to the conning tower to report the effect of the hit to the captain. As I reached the lower bridge, on which the conning tower stood, I heard some one inside making a report to the captain. I heard the words: " Under water, just under the sick-bay," and the captain's sharp voice : " Report to the commander, quick."

" Aye ! aye ! sir, I hear! " I shouted as loud as I could through the slit between the sides and the roof of the tower. Then I bounded off the bridge and ran aft. "The boatswain's party to follow me." "Here, sir," replied the boatswain. " All present and everything ready."

It was only when the Diana went into dock to be repaired that we were able to ascertain the exact nature and extent of the underwater damage sustained in this action. But so that the reader may not be left to trust to his imagination, I will anticipate, and give a short description of it.

A 10-inch shell had hit the ship's side under water on the starboard side, at a very acute angle, in the direction from forward—aft, and from up—down. The hole was just between the edge of the armoured deck, where it curves down, and the ordinary steel deck above, on which stood the dispensary, sick-bay, and ship's office. The shell had torn open the ship's side in a fore-and-aft direction, and had made a hole about 17 feet long and 5½ feet at its greatest width. It was thanks to the fact that the shell was travelling nearly parallel to the ship's side, that its whole force was expended in tearing open the ship's side. The armoured deck only leaked very slightly. But, above all, the light steel deck above the armoured deck had stood. This saved the ship, as it prevented water from penetrating into the inner spaces. Certainly this light deck could not resist the pressure of the water from outside for long. It had already begun to buckle and to open out in the seams. Still we gained a few precious minutes during which we were enabled to strengthen and support it. We thus succeeded in confining the dangerous enemy, who had got in—the water—to a small space.

The first thing I saw below were the sick and wounded. The doctor and the sick-berth staff were carrying and leading them out of the threatened spaces. How great the damage was could be seen at a glance. The wooden planks forming the deck in the sick-bay and the adjoining dispensary were bursting with loud reports and the water was squirting up through the openings. The seams of the steel deck underneath might give way any moment and open up the deck to the sea completely. The carpenter and such of his party as were stationed in the after part of the ship had at once started wedging down the deck. Some of the men who were only slightly wounded had assisted. When the boatswain's party arrived the work went on briskly.

Need I say how these men worked, with what care and with what zeal they handled the heavy hammers with which the struts were wedged up ? Those wedges which were preventing the deck from bursting, were working directly against the sea, the mighty pressure of which had already opened the seams. It was a life and death struggle. The water-tight doors were closed, there was no exit upwards. If the sea should get the upper hand, then we should be the first victims. The starboard after 6-inch gun, just overhead, disturbed our labours a good deal. Every time it was fired the deck vibrated so much that the wedges became displaced. Repeatedly the struts threatened to snap, and we had to give them lateral support. Unconsciously one formulated the criminal wish: " If only this infernal gun were shot away." Suddenly it ceased, and our work proceeded more rapidly.

We succeeded.

" That will hold now!" exclaimed the carpenter in triumph, and tapped the deck with his foot, and the boat- swain also said : " It's all right now."

I stopped their jubilations. "Don't say that, for Heaven's sake ! " I cried. " Don't tempt fate ! You will only spoil everything by boasting."

How long had we been at work? The first impression was a few seconds. When I looked around, saw all we had done, and thought of the different episodes, I fell into the other extreme and thought we had been half an hour or more. I looked at my watch. It had got wet and had stopped.

The sick-bay, its bathroom, the dispensary, and the office presented a sorry spectacle. We stood on the bare steel deck. The wood planking had been split and torn away in the process of securing down the seams underneath. It lay about in untidy heaps. The water reached to our ankles, but what still came in could be kept under with such primitive means as buckets and swabs. It only trickled through the openings between the bent plates and through rivet holes where the rivets had been loosened or had dropped out. Some of these rivet holes were closed up with wooden plugs. Where there was a whole row of these rivet holes, we laid a cushion or a mattress over them, a plank over this, placed a strut between it and the beam above, and wedged down. This part of the work was not so bad. It was no longer a case of fighting the inrush of water, but merely keeping under what still found its way in. I left this part to the engineer in charge of the hull and ordered him to flood some of the port wing- passages, so as to get the ship upright. I myself inspected the neighbouring compartments, asked those stationed there whether everything was in order, and then went on deck to make my report to the captain.

When I reached the upper deck I chanced to pass the starboard after 6-inch gun. Now I saw why it had ceased firing, so opportunely for us. It was being unloaded from the muzzle. The crew were trying to push the projectile out again. In the heat of the action it had been rammed in too hard and had stuck in the grooves of the rifling. '

'What's up?"

"A projectile that hadn't been gauged, your honour," replied No. 1, almost crying with rage.

"It's an ill wind that blows nobody any good," I thought, and went on. Without this accident we should hardly have been able to do that business down below. I found the captain in the conning tower. My report, which was of course full of technical terms and explanations, would not interest the reader, nor be understood by the majority. I therefore omit it.

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