Friday, 26 September 2014

Book Review: Constantine Pleshakov, The Tsar's Last Armada

Constantine Pleshakov, The Tsar's Last Armada: The Epic Voyage to the Battle of Tsushima, The Perseus Press (2002), hb, 396pp, plates.
For once, a descriptive sub-title doesn't over-egg the pudding - there really is no other word to describe the 18,000 mile voyage of the Russian Fleet than 'epic' ('epic folly' is a phrase that comes to mind).  The Russo-Japanese War is one that catches the imagination of many interested in military history: it is the last major war before the Great War; it marks the eclipse of one great power and the rise of another; and it is the first real test of the rapidly-developed technology of a world-wide naval arms race.  The dust-jacket of this book tells us in all seriousness that the Battle of Tsushima Straits "is among the top five naval battles in history".

The War started badly for the Russians in February 1904, when the Imperial Japanese Navy launched a surprise attack on the Russian Pacific Fleet based in Port Arthur, Russia's main hope for expansion in Manchuria and the Pacific.  After suffering major losses, the Russians became bottled up in Port Arthur, whose fall was inevitable.  St Petersberg could not suffer such a blow to its imperial aspirations, after a sortie from Vladivostok proved ineffective, the decision was made to create a new Pacific fleet from elements of the Baltic fleet and reserves, which would sail around the world, defeat the Japanese fleet, relieve Port Arthur and delay military advances until reinforcements could be send via the Tran-Siberian railway (and then home for tea and medals!).  This ambitious task was given to Admiral Zinovy Petrovich Rozhestvensky, who the world's press would soon revel in referring to as 'Mad Dog'.

Of course, the whole enterprise was doomed.  The ships released from the Baltic Fleets were not the best, there were practical and diplomatic problems in sailing around the world (not least once the Russians had misidentified the Hull fishing fleet as Japanese torpedo boats, leading to the 'Dogger Bank Incident').

Hull fishermen taste Russian paranoia
Lengthy stop-overs in the Indian Ocean (where both coaling depots and repair facilities were hard to find) did little to increase the fighting efficiency of the 'Second Pacific Squadron' and when it did engage the enemy, there was no surprise at the result - only the overwhelming nature of the Japanese victory.  The Russians lost eleven battleships, four cruisers and six destroyers - 4,380 men were killed and 5.917 captured.  In contrast, the Japanese lost three torpedo boats and 117 men.

A survivor - the Aurora in St Petersberg, Sep 2014

So how does Pleshakov do in telling this story?

He appears to have access a number of Russian archival sources and gives a good account of the personalities involved (naturally he focuses on the domineering figure of Rozhestvensky).  He is good at giving a feel for the Court and bureaucratic maneuvers that forced the whole enterprise forward.  What he lacks is a naval touch.  There is little said about the relative strengths of the clashing fleets; no attempt to explain the tactics used and (other than a very brief mention of advances in gunnery) no reason given for the scale of the Japanese success.

Adm 'Mad Dog' Rozhestvensky
He has no difficulty in keeping the readers' attention though, even when discussing the problems the fleet has finding coal supplies in the Indian Ocean.   He excels at catching the paranoia demonstrated by the Russian: the distrust the senior naval officers had of each other, for the Admiralty, for the Court, for any passer-by who could possibly be spying for the Japanese, and - above all - for the English.  There are fascinating hints at the division between the officer class and lower decks, that could have been developed further.  One gets a real feeling of the tedium officers must have felt during the long voyage, and how alien their life was to the ratings.

There are a few moments when one wonders whether Pleshakov has understood naval terms and, more damningly, errors in English - 'censured' for 'censored' and 'semen' for 'seaman' (even if written in Russian, the editors should have picked these up!).  The book itself is well-produced, but the four maps provided are laughably inadequate in a book that exists to describe a naval voyage.

Included for comic effect?
But still worth the read.  Three stars out of five.

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