The Battle of lissa (1866)

Lissa, the Trafalgar of ironclads

While on the other side of the Atlantic, a young nation still constructing was reeling from its worst, first, and last civil war, innovating and experimenting in naval matters along the way, new nations of turbulent Europe were struggling for independence. A particular ship of that era, the ironclad, was green and untested. The battle of Lissa became the “Trafalgar” of ironclads and had many important developments and consequences on naval warfare and warship designs until after ww1. However, some also argue this was the “most hilarious” industrial era naval battle ever, at a time armor was superior to gunnery.

Battle of Lissa by Josef Carl Berthold Püttner

Battle of Lissa by Josef Carl Berthold Püttner

Context: Italy’s third independence war

When speaking of young countries, Italy was one of these Nations very old and yet of particularly significant historical heritage, yet disunited after the fall of the Roman Empire. In the 1860s, nearly 1400 years after this downfall, unification was on sight once again. In this last risky game, what constituted Italy then was allied with Prussia and pitted against the old enemy, Austria. The objective to complete the unification was to gain the old Venetia, dominating the Adriatic constituted of Venice and at least part of its surrounds from Austria.

French broadside Ironclad Gloire (1859). Like the dreadnought in 1906, this ship rendered obsolete all traditional fleets, already still reeling from the conversion to steam. However at that time, armor was superior to muzzle velocity. The world took notice and in the 1860s, UK, the Italian Kingdoms, Prussia, Austria, Spain and Turkey invested in this new kind of warship. The Royal Navy soon retook the lead with the HMS Warrior, first all-steel broadside ironclad. (Author’s illustration)

While the war raged from June to August 1966, and saw a victory for the Italians, securing the status of Victor Emmanuel III and Garibaldi in history books as founding fathers, Independence was also secured by the northern diversion procured by the Prussians and previous decisive victories of Napoleon III (Solferino and Magenta).

Ironclad Ancona in 1870, built with the lessons of the battle

In this part however, the fleet played an important role, but on the losing side: The recently unified Italian Navy, commanded by Admiral Carlo di Persano was to set sail from Ancona with the objective of seizing Trieste. Although outnumbering the Austrians by a fair margin, the result was a victory for the latter, sinking two Italian Ironclads while only having a steamer damaged. The battle was fierce and reintroduced the ram in naval warfare. It was both a test for ironclads and for turret ships. On the Austrian side, it made Teghetthof a national hero and a revered figure patronizing the later Austro-Hungarian Navy.

Carlo Alberto
Italian wooden frigate Carlo Alberto (1853). This former Sardinian 3231t vessel was armed by eight 160 mm ML rifles, ten 108pdr and thirty-two 72pdr guns firing shells plus, 7 smaller gun. She fought at Lissa.

SMS Drache
Austrian ironclad Drache (1861). Together with the Salamander, these early Austrian wooden broadside ironclads were barely larger than glorified corvettes, but a 110 mm armored belt made all the difference. Shells just bounced harmlessly on her.

Forces in presence: The Italian Navy

Despite numbers in her favor, the Regia Marina was hampered by its very constituents, former independent navies which grew even stronger rivalry, despite being technically under the same banner since 17 March 1861. These were the fleets of the former kingdoms of Sardinia and Naples. Both had different practices, naval academies and traditions, not speaking of different ships.

Plus this new Navy appeared and spent a great deal of energy to unite amidst an era of rapid advances in naval technology and tactics. Despite all of this, the ships engaged in 1966 were steam-driven, armored for most, one even being a brand new concept, the turret ironclad ram (Affondatore). This was due to the efforts Admiral Carlo di Persano made into purchasing ships abroad to supply the lack of suitable yards and expertise. Therefore the largely obsolete navy of the years before was completely eclipsed by a new one, certainly up-to-date but still exhibiting some peculiarities. In addition, foreign ships meant longer training, supply and maintenance issues.

The Italian fleet gathering at Ancona in 1866 before the battle.

On paper however, it was formidable. The day of the battle, Italy could muster 12 ironclads, mostly built in France, on the Gloire model (1859) or her derivatives. They were wooden-hulled with iron sides over the waterline, and one protected gun deck, full rigging, steam and screw, but lacked a spur. Half of the fleet was made of wooden steam warships, in which protection was limited to traditional multiple layers of different woods. Speed on average was 10 knots, Austrian ships were a little built faster.

Broadside ironclad Formidabile. First of this type in service with the Italian Navy, this 2800 tons wooden-built small corvette was protected by a complete belt, 109 mm thick and armed with just 20 guns.

However, on the gunnery side, they were all equipped with classic broadsides of old-style RML (Rifle Muzzle-Loading) guns firing lead balls or 1850s Paixhans-style explosive projectiles. Naval technology was evolving very fast. In less than 10 years, Breech-loading rifled cannons firing explosive shells, central batteries with 90° traverse or turrets, double and later triple expansion steam engines, all-steel hulls revolutionized naval technology. Most of these transitions were happening at the time and after the battle.

Not all Italian warships were present at the battle such as the Galantuomo, a wooden, steam unarmored 84 guns two-decker ship of the line (Authors illustration for cyber-ironclad). She was the admiral ship of Ferdinand II, and named Monarca at first.

The Italian steam Frigate Italia. She was originally the 54-guns Neapolitan navy Farnese. Not in action at the battle.

In addition to 13 ironclads, 10 wooden steam frigates and corvettes, the Regia Marina also was supported by 10 smaller steamers such as the Giglio, an ex-Tuscan sloop of 1846 (246t, 2 SB), the three Cristoforo Colombo class gunboats (4-30pdr SB), the 1863 two sidewheel dispatch vessels of the Esploratore class (981t, 2-30pdr SB, 17 knots) and the unarmed support merchantman Indipendenza, Piemonte, Flavio Gioia and Stella d’Italia.


Formidabile class (1861):

Ironclad Formidabile
Both the Formidabile and Terribile were ordered by the Kingdom of Sardinia in 1860. Both ships did saw heavy action against the Austrians during the War of Independence of 1866 and Lissa campaign but without participating in the battle itself.

  • Displacement 2807t – 3100 tons FL
  • Armament 4 × 203 mm (8 in), 16 × 164 mm (7 in) guns
  • Armor: Belt 109 mm
  • Single shaft, single-expansion steam engine, 10 knots (19 km/h; 12 mph)
Principe di Carignano class
Principe de Carignano Naples 1863
Principe de Carignano Naples 1863

The first Ironclad built in Italian yards. These units were ordered at the same time the Formidabile class, but the first two had been laid down as unarmored steam frigates and conversions took place during construction. The class comprised in total three ships, such as the Messina and Conte Verde.

The Principe di Carignano only was been completed in time to see action in the Third Italian War of Independence, taking part in the Battle of Lissa, as the lead ship in the Italian line of battle, but not heavily engaged, contrary to ships in the center, more heavily attacked by Tegetthoff.

  • Displacement 3900t – 4300 tons FL
  • Armament 10 × 203 mm (8 in), 12 × 164 mm (7 in) guns
  • Armor: Belt 121 mm (4.7 in)
  • Single shaft, single-expansion steam engine, 10.4 knots (19 km/h; 12 mph)
Re d’Italia class

To compensate for the busy Italian shipyards, the new Kingdom of Italy completed orders abroad, and after France, the Re d’Italia class was ordered from the United States, which themselves have no previous experience for this type of ship but the Old Ironsides, copied the French Gloire. They were larger and carried 36 heavy guns, but proved unsuccessful in service. Their sterns were unprotected and lightly built, causing the Re d’Italia to be rammed and sink at the Battle of Lissa but also to use unseasoned timbers for their wooden hulls,  rotting fast. The class comprised also the Re di Portogallo, both were launched in 1863.

  • Displacement 5700 tons FL
  • Armament 6 × 203 mm (8 in), 30 × 164 mm (7 in) guns
  • Armor: Belt 114 mm (4.5 in)
  • Single shaft, single-expansion steam engine, 12 knots (22 km/h; 14 mph)
Regina Maria Pia class
Castelfidardo in Naples 1864
Castelfidardo in Naples 1864

Other orders were placed for four more ironclads in 1862, from three different shipyards, varying slightly in their dimensions, but answering to the same specifications. They had the same twenty-six heavy guns in broadside while three were placed in forward and rearward firing barbettes. They proved more effective in service than the Re D’Italia class and stayed in service until the 1880s. They were launched in 1863 and completed in 1864.

The class comprised the Regina Maria Pia, San Martino, Castelfidardo and Ancona; They formed the core of the Italian ironclad fleet, the center of the battle line at Lissa and therefore the most heavily engaged. San Martino while trying to salvage Re D’Italia’s survivors and collided the Regina Maria Pia, and the latter collided with the Varese. They survived as served for twenty more years.

  • Displacement 4,527 t (4,456 long tons; 4,990 short tons)
  • Armament 8 × 203 mm, 22 × 164 mm guns.
  • Armor: Belt 121 mm (4.7 in)
  • Single shaft, single-expansion steam engine, 12.96 knots (24.00 km/h; 14.91 mph)

Certainly the most remarkable Italian ironclad of this battle, this ship was one of the earliest sea-going turret ship. She was ordered from UK in 1862, the last foreign-built ironclad of the Italian Navy. When the battle of Lissa began she was also the only one with a built-in ram. It has been designed however by Simone Antonio Saint-Bon, originally as a ramming ship, semi-submerged ship like some Confederate ones, but a British designer altered the design when in construction for the ship to be fitted with a pair of 300-pound Armstrong guns, each in their own Coles turret.

She has a low freeboard and reduced superstructure, which can help reduce armor and make her more difficult to hit. She was just being fitted out in June 1866, when war was to break out and was sent to Italy fast with a reduced crew and no training, part of her equipment missing. At Lissa, Affondatore received admiral Persano, which hoisted his flag on her rather than the Re d’Italia, but without informing the rest of the fleet, causing much confusion. He therefore failed to rally the ships not engaged and after Re d’Italia was rammed and sunk, he led Affondatore in the heart of the melee, trying to ram the Kaiser. Affondatore foundered after the battle due to gun damage and the storm but was refloated, modernized three times and was still active in 1907.

Roma & Principe Amadeo class (In construction)

Ironclad Roma
In 1863, another two ironclads were ordered at a time central battery ships started to be tried and replace broadsides. The formula had the advantage of concentrated protection in one space (which could be made thicker) and heavy guns with more traverse. Roma was the first to be built, while her sister ship Venezia was extensively reworked while under construction as a central battery ship. While Roma had five 254 mm and ten 203 mm guns, Venezia had eighteen 254 mm guns, and when she entered service, the Caio Duilio-class turret ships were already laid down.

Both were built before, but completed after the Third Italian War of Independence, and both missed the battle of Lissa. They were commissioned indeed in 1869 and 1873 but served until the 1890s. Also of this prewar generation, the Principe Amadeo class were laid down in August 1865, also as central battery/broadside mixed ironclads, way too late to take part in the battle of Lissa as they entered service in 1874-75.

Wooden Frigates

Italian Wooden screw frigate Duca di Genova in 1866
Italian Wooden screw frigate Duca di Genova in 1866
  • Gaeta (ex-Neapolitan) 1861, 3917t, 8–160 mm ML rifles, 12-108pdr shell, 34-72pdr shell)
  • Maria Adelaide (ex-Sardinian) 1859, 3429t, 10–160 mm ML rifles, 22-108pdr shell, 19 small guns) (Squadron Flag)
  • Duca di Genova (ex-Sardinian) 1860, 3459t, 8–160 mm ML rifles, 10-108pdr shell, 32-72pdr shell)
  • Garibaldi (ex-Neapolitan Borbone) 1860, 3390t, 8–160 mm ML rifles, 12-108pdr shell, 34-72pdr shell)
  • Principe Umberto (ex-Sardinian) 1861, 3446t, 8–160 mm ML rifles, 10-108pdr shell, 32-72pdr shell, 4 small guns)
  • Carlo Alberto (ex-Sardinian) 1853, 3231t, 8–160 mm ML rifles, 10-108pdr shell, 32-72pdr shell guns, 7 small guns)
  • Vittorio Emanuele (ex-Sardinian) 1856, 3201t, 8–160 mm ML rifles, 10-108 and 32-72pdr shell guns, 7 small guns)
  • San Giovanni (ex-Sardinian corvette) 1861, 1752t, 8–160 mm ML rifles, 14-72 pounder shell, 12 small guns)
  • Governolo (ex-Sardinian sidewheel paddle corvette) 1849, 2243t, 10-108pdr shell, 2 small guns)
  • Guiscardo (ex-Neapolitan sidewheel paddle corvette) 1843, 1343t, 2–160 mm ML rifles, 4-72pdr shell)
Prince Umberto painted by De Simone
Prince Umberto painted by De Simone

Forces in presence: The Austrian Navy

Note this was the Austrian, not Austro-Hungarian Navy. Indeed, the Empire was unified after 1867 as a consequence of the battle and Italian Independance (but not only that). The flag was the classic three bands red and white with Royal armories.


Drache class (1861):

Laid down in February 1861, launched in 9 September 1861 and completed in November 1862, the Drache class (Drache and Salamander) were the first Austrian ironclads, built locally at Trieste in response to the Italian Formidabile class, following the launch of Gloire in France in 1859. The ship was propelled by a single shaft and horizontal steam engine, single funnel and 2000 hp. The armament comprised ten 48-pounder smoothbore guns and eighteen 24-pounder rifled, muzzle-loading (RML) guns. During the battle, Drache engaged Palestro with concentrated broadsides, using hot shot to set the Italian ship ablaze. She fled, and Drache then turned against the Re d’Italia. She was hit during this time, a shot killing the captain and another the mainmast. This was not serious though and the ship emerged from the battle largely unscathed.

  • Displacement 3110t – 3160 tons FL
  • Armament 10 × 48 pdr, 18 × 24 pdr guns
  • Armor: Belt 115 mm
  • Single shaft, single-expansion steam engine, 10.5 knots (19.4 km/h; 12 mph)
Kaiser Max class (1862):

The next class ordered by the head of state alongside the Drache were three larger and improved broadside ironclads named SMS Kaiser Max, Prinz Eugen, and Juan de Austria. They had a larger gun battery and more powerful engines, being quite fast. They were launched in 1862 and completed in 1863. SMS Don Juan d’Austria already saw the Second Schleswig War (1864) but did not see combat. At the Battle of Lissa however all three saw action. They were heavily engaged, but not seriously damaged nor inflicted heavy damage to their adversaries, their balls bouncing harmlessely on the armor plating. After the war they were comprehensively modernized.

  • Displacement 3588t – 3955 tons FL
  • Armament 16 × 48 pdr, 15 × 24 pdr, 1x 12 pdr, 2x 6 pdr guns
  • Armor: Belt 110 mm
  • Single shaft, single-expansion steam engine, 11.4 knots (21 km/h; 13 mph)
Erzherzog Ferdinand Max class (1865):


The Erzherzog Ferdinand Max and Habsburg were the first serie of ironclads built for the Austrian Navy but also their last broadside armored frigates. They were to be armed with breech-loading Krupp guns but the outbreak of the 1866 War prevented it, swapped to a conventional 48-pdr muzzle-loading guns battery.

Barely outfitted, both ships were thrown into the Battle of Lissa. Erzherzog Ferdinand Max was the flagship of Rear Admiral Wilhelm von Tegetthoff, famously ramming and sinking the Re d’Italia, the decisive action in that particular battle and probably the most famous ramming in history. SMS Habsburg was not significantly engaged however. She pounded Italian ships but without much success. Both would be modernized as intended with modern BLs and served well into the 1890s.

  • Displacement 3588t – 3955 tons FL
  • Armament 16 × 48 pdr, 4x 8 pdr, 2x 3 pdr guns
  • Armor: Belt 87-123 mm
  • Single shaft, single-expansion steam engine, 12.5 knots (23.2 km/h; 14.4 mph)

Wooden Frigates

  • Kaiser squadron flag, 2-decker ship of the line (1858) 5811t, 2-24pdr ML rifles, 16-40pdr SB, 74-30pdr SB, wooden and unarmoured, 11.5kts
  • Novara screw frigate (1850) 2615t, 4-60pdr shell, 28-30pdr SB, 2-24pdr BL rifles, 1-12pdr landing gun, 1-6pdr landing gun, 12kts
  • Schwarzenberg screw frigate (1853) 2614t, 6-60pdr Paixhans shell guns, 26-30pdr Type 2 ML, 14-30pdr Type 4 ML, 4-24pdr BL rifles, 11kts
  • Radetzky class screw frigates (1854-56) 2234t/2165t, 6-60pdr Paixhans shell guns, 40-24pdr SB, 4-24pdr BL rifles, 9kts: Radetzky, Donau, Adria
  • Erzherzog Friedrich screw corvette (1857) 1697t, 4-60pdr Paixhans shell guns, 16-30pdr SB, 2-24pdr BL rifles, 9kts

Prelude of the battle

The name of the battle is related to the most strategic piece in the maritime defence of Austria, in the central Adriatic: The unassuming island of Vis (Croatian name nowadays) near the Dalmatian island of Lissa. This was an outpost controlling passage between the north and south the sea and approaches of the coast as the most advanced of all the Islands of the area. This 89.72 km2 (34.64 sq mi) peace of land was 587 m (1,926 ft) high on its maximal elevation and the coast was later riddled with pens and a naval base.

This was an early uninkable “aircraft carrier” (a role which the island would play during the Great war and ww2 as well). A bit like Sicilia for the Mediterranean it was seen also as the “hinge” of the Adriatic. Controlling it was therefore a decisive step in this war. Not surprsingly thare has been already a naval battle here, the first Battle of Lissa (1811) when Captain William Hoste, defeated a larger French squadron there. In 1866, the fort and naval base was under order of Oberst David Urs de Margina, a Romanian officer from Transylvania.

The Battle of Lissa by Kircher

The mobilization of the fleet had taken on the italian side place and on 3 May 1866, General Diego Angioletti, Minister of the Navy, had informed Rear Admiral Giovanni Vacca, commander of the Taranto-based squadron that the government had decided to set up a battle fleet made of three fleets made of armored ships (placed under Admiral Carlo Pellion of Persano), and a subsidiary squadron composed of wooden warships (Under Admiral Giovan Battista Albini) plus a third siege fleet made of armored ships (under Vacca). The Re d’Italia, Principe di Carignano, San Martino, Regina Maria Pia, Palestro, Gaeta and two scout frigates were in Taranto. Formidabile and Terribile, Ettore Fieramosca and Confienza were in Ancona and the other ships in various Italian bases while the remainder of ironclads were just been delivered by shipyards.

In Taranto there was only a small amount of coal, a much larger in Ancona so it was decided to gather all ships there.

Persano arrived in Ancona on May 16, 1866, quickly realizing the unpreparedness of the fleet: Until May 23 and on May 30, he repeatedly informed the Navy Minister of the impossibility of preparing the fleet in a short time. He even thought of resignation, but ultimately decided to prepare the fleet at least for some common exercizes. Vacca collaborated in this attempt, but Albini, hostile to Persano, cooperated very little. On 8 June 1866 Admiral Persano received the order to take on the Austrian fleet, and sailing to Ancona to prepare operations, but not to attack Trieste or Venice. Orders were of unclear origin, neither General Alfonso Lamarmora, Army Chief of Staff or Angioletti, the navy minister.

On 20 June, the Ricasoli government replaced the minister by Agostino Depretis, which first order was to urge Persano to sail from Taranto to Ancona and enter the Adriatic. Persano had trouble to have all ships-boiler hot fast enough. He ordered the Formidabile and Terribile to join the fleet via the southern Adriatic. The naval formation left Taranto on the morning of 21 June 1866, and joined by Formidabile and Terribile in off Manfredonia. The combined fleet arrived in Ancona on the afternoon of 25 June at about five knots so as not to strain the machines.

Ancona however, had no dry dock, and the enclosure defined by the jetty was rather small.

The bulk of the fleet was moored at some distance. Ships proceeding to coaling operations during which accidental fires broke out on the Re d’Italia and Re di Portogallo. It was also established that many wooden ships would give part of their guns to be installed on the ironclads so as to equip them with as many modern 160mm cannon guns as possible. Castelfidardo, Regina Maria Pia, Re d’Italia and di Portogallo, Principe di Carignano, San Martino and Varese therefore received a complement of 20, 16, 12, 12, 8, 8 and 4 additional cannons. Four guns (Castelfidardo and Varese) came from Naples, the rest were taken from other ships. The Duca di Genova for example was almost stripped bare. On June 26, 1866, Persano sent the faster steamers Esploratore to patrol the waters in front of Ancona in case the Austrian sent their own scouts or attempted an attack.

Orders of battle

The Italian fleet headed by admiral Persano directed three divisions, himself having the main battle force with 9 ironclads, Albini, the “support” division used to support the landings operations and Admiral Vacca the reserve division composed of wooden ships (seen above).

Facing them, the Austrians split their own force into three divisions. The first was made of the ironclads, the second was made of unarmoured wooden vessels, like ship of the line SMS Kaiser and 5 large frigates. The third one comprised screw gunboats and armed merchantmen while a single armed merchant cruiser, SMS Stadion, was acting as scout well ahead of the fleet.

These three Austrian divisions were formed in successive “V” formations, with the first under Tegetthoff making the forward, outer arrow, and gunboats, paddle steamers closing the march, and Kommodor Petz’s 2nd division’s wooden warships in the central arrow.

Tegetthoff plan was to close quickly into a melée, using both range fire and ramming attack in order to destroy at least a few Italian ships early one and breaking the Italian morale and will to fight.

On their own side, the Italians were not really prepared for battle, as Persano knew perfectly. The day of the battle, they were confident enough of their numerical superiority to focus on covering the landings on Vis (Lissa). They did had scouts; some picket boats which therefore spotted an approaching fleet but signals were at first ignored, wasting precious time. Persano then had eventually the landings operations suspended and tried to hastily reorganize the fleet into a line abreast. However soon after, when the ships were already moving into place, he had serious doubts and canceled the order, creating some confusion and ordered a line ahead formation, a classic from the age of sailing ships of the line.

Re d'Italia

The 1st division (Principe di Carignano, Castelfidardo and Ancona, Admiral Vacca) moved into place, followed by Captain Faà di Bruno’s 2nd division (center, Re d’Italia, Palestro, San Martino) – which was to take the brunt of the Austrian assault- and the 3rd division (Re di Portogallo, Regina Maria Pia, Varese, Captain Augusto Riboty) followed. The latter saw little action. The Italians’s 11 ironclads was quite a formidable force reinforced by the wooden frigates and corvettes dispersed into the battleline. Affondatore, the “joker” in this game, was on held on the far side of the 2nd squadron, out of the battleline in reserve. By that time Persano’s flagship was the Re d’Italia.

Therefore, soon after the ships moved into this final formation, Persano suddenly decided to transfer his flag from Re D’Italia to the Affondatore. However, this caused another confusion and delays as the two later division had to slow down or stop to allow Re d’Italia to lower her boats, while the signal to slow down was ignored by the 1st Division which continued straight away opening a gap in the Italian battle line.

To add to this mess, Persano never signaled the fact he swapped flagships, and throughout the action, the Italians captains observed carefully the Re d’Italia for orders rather than Affondatore.

The battle: Crossing the T

The morale in the Austrian fleet there excellent although some fear was crawling about the Italian superiority. In gunnery alone, 641 guns versus 532 and far more iron. When the battle started, the Vacca third division (support) was on the north of Lissa, far away from the battle. The Albini group of wooden ships totalled 398 guns, but did not fire a single shot during the battle.

When Persano was transferring his colors and reorganizing his ships, Tegetthoff caught him, spotted the gap opening between the 1st and 2nd Divisions and headed right into it, in ramming formation. On the other hand he allowed his T to be crossed and therefore Vacca’s 1st Italian Division commenced firing while the Austrians could only fire back with their rare chase guns. No general order was given as Persano was in boats just in between flag transfers. The 2nd and 3rd Divisions waited for orders, not firing at first, while the Austrians continued to be pounded, suffering some serious damage. SMS Drache alone on the starboard wing took 17 hits, her mainmast was cut and propulsion stopped temporarily. Captain Heinrich von Moll was decapitated by a shell and Karl Weyprecht took command and had the ship back in action.

At 10:43 am the Austrians were inside the close Italian perimeter, SMS Habsburg, Salamander and Kaiser Max (left wing) splitting to engage the Italian 1st Division, and the Don Juan d’Austria, Drache and Prinz Eugen of the right wing, took the 2nd Division head one. Persano at that stage just reached Affondatore, clear of the engagement. Basically his fleet was headless at that point.

Kommodor von Petz took (2nd Division) went on, exchanging broadside fire on the way, and turned on the Italian rear, falling on 3rd Division. His wooden ships were facing modern ironclads, but nevertheless, he comprehensively engaged them, holding his formation despite taking punishing fire. Screw frigate SMS Novara for example was hit 47 times, captain Erik af Klint killed. SMS Erzherzog Friedrich took a shell below the waterline but resulted fighting, SMS Schwarzenburg eventually was broken and set adrift.

Decisive moment: Ramming attacks

Persano eventually decided to take action with hhis flagship and to steam ahead and ram the wooden ship of the line Kaiser, further away than ships of the fighting his 2nd Division. Kaiser therefore spotted him in advance and had no trouble to dodge the Affondatore. The captain of Re di Portogallo however spotted the admiral move and decided to concentrate fire on SMS Kaiser in turn. Von Petz conducted a counter ram and hit the Italian ironclad hard. Kaiser’s stem and bowsprit were badly hit, the bow’s figurehead embedded in Re di Portogallo. The latter then fired at very close range and disabled both the mainmast and funnel, clearing the bridges also with shrapnel fire. Smoke bellowing from the decapitated exhaust eventually clouded the scene and while Re di Portogallo was manoeuvering for a ramming attack both ships lost sight of each other.

Meanwhile Tegetthoff’s flagship Erzherzog Ferdinand Max (Captain Maximilian Daublebsky von Sterneck) directed his fire first on the Re d’Italia, and then Palestro, causing serious damage. Palestro was dismasted and set alight, almost written off for the rest of the battle. Therefore his captain Alfredo Cappellini pulled out of the line. He ordered his crew to evacuate but the latter refused to abandon their captain and she ships eventually blew up and sank at 2.30pm (19 survivors).

Erzherzog Ferdinand Max was then turning around Re d’Italia, pounding her and turned decisively to ram Faa di Bruno’s ship. She was unexpectedly helped in this by the reverse manoeuver, a failed attempt to avoid the ramming manoeuver. Herzherzog’s ram left a 18 ft (5.5 m) gaping hole below the Italian ironclad waterline. Water rushed in, she struck colours and sank in just two minutes with great losses of life. Faa di Bruno possibly shot himself after the colours were struck according to surviving crew members. His name was honored by the Regia Marina, as posthumous recipient of the Medaglie d’oro, and during ww1 a monitor being named after him.

After this feat, Erzherzog Ferdinand Max made two other ramming attacks, while Ancona, the only ship left of the 1syt division, closed on her to ram her in turn, and her gunners prepared a full broadside at point blank range, but apparently, gunpowder has not been loaded in the confusion of the fight.

Meanwhile, Kommodor von Petz’s ship of the line Kaiser, having cleared off range with Maria Pia was now in the immediate vicinity of Affondatore. Unexpectedly, whereas his wooden ship was a very tempting ramming target, Persano ordered his flagship to turn away. From his position, he estimated the fight was lost and over.

Tegetthoff by anton romajko

Admiral Tegetthoff during the heat of the battle by Anton Romajko

Victory at hand

Tegetthoff was saluted by his mariners, mostly Croats and Venetians shouting “Viva San Marco!” and at 15:00, the victorious Austrian admiral penetrated into the harbour of Lissa. A badly damaged but victorious Kaiser was already there to greet him. Astonishingly, Italian ships were there too, but both Albini and Vacca ignored Persano’s orders to attack the Austrians. Later this behaviour was confirmed at Persano’s trial. Persano at this point had lost some crew, the remainder being exhausted, was low on coal and ammunition and decided to head for Ancona.

However while the Italians line withdrew, long range fire was still exchanged until it became useless.

Aftermath of the battle

Blame and Fame

Back in Italy, Persano was keen to call the encounter a victory, which was followed by celebrations, at least until news from other officers and sailors came to the surface. There was outrage over the loss of two ironclads, and the scandal went right to the parliament. Persano was judged by the Italian Senate and after commission hearings, condemned for incompetence, degraded, forced to retire and his pension was curtailed.

He was in effect, stripped of his rank and thrown to the national mediatic vindict. Admiral Albini was on his side was also blamed but since he was under orders, only relieved of command. Admiral Vacca only had to retire officially for age limits, and so the Admiralty can get rid of the actor of such embarrassment. Recent history has made a better judgment of Persano, which seemed to have been sufficiently competent for the task and was certainly more experienced than Tegetthoff, although the latter won the trust of his subordinates in the Schleswig War.
Outside his poor decision of swapping flagships at the worst possible time, Persano’s command was plagued by the disloyalty of his Piemontese and Neapolitan subordinates (which also passed all the blame on him at the hearing and trial), with a direct result on coordination in battle, whereas his ships sufferred from poor gunnery skills from the crews and less rifled cannons than the Austrians -therefore loosing in accuracy. The Austrians achieved local superiority by their manoeuver, despite taking risks, like crossing the T of the Italians.

A total contrast of fate as Tegetthoff returned home a hero. Invited by the head of state, awarded numerous prizes he was was promoted Vizeadmiral, and had his name secured for posterity, defining a sense of pride and belonging for the Austro-Hungarian navy which was formed soon after. In 1912, a brand new dreadnought battleship class was named after him.

Strategic consequences

Despite the decisive character of the engagement, it had no immediate effect on the outcome of the war. Indeed, on land, the crushing Prussian victory over the Austrian Army at Königgrätz soon eclipsed the shame of this defeat. Austria, in addition, already bullied by Napoleon III threw the sponge, agreed to cede Venetia to Italy despite Italian unability to get it by military action. Tegetthoff’s efforts were rewarded however as the Italians were dissuaded to land troops on Lissa and therefore were deprived of a strong rear base to assault other Dalmatian islands, once part of the Republic of Venice and which will remain under Austrian control.

Consequences on naval warfare

Ramming as shown in this battle, took a whole new importance in naval warfare. Indeed as guns were mostly inefficient against armour, ships resorted to brute force to dig holes under the waterline and sink their opponents.

This triggered an unexpected return in the admiralties of the ram and ramming tactics. The idea was indeed forgotten since the antiquity, but its return was logical on one account: Like ancient galleys which used rowers to stay independant from the wind and moderate their speed as will, in this new industrial, human power was replaced by steam power. Ships, and especially major naval warships since 1850 had been transitioning from sail alone to a mixed solution (which will carry on at various degree until 1890); Sail and steam.

Sail as a safety, and steam which allowed to double the speed of a ship independently from its position towards the wind. This allowed in effect complex, free manoeuvers and enabled ramming tactics once more. In addition, this idea was particulary seductive in naval circles as it coincided with a Romantic return to antiquity in art, fashion, and new found historical interest for the ancient past (like archaeology which boomed at that time).

Therefore naval designers were pressed over the next fify years to integrate ram bows in all their future warships, especially the largest ones like battleships and cruisers. Inded the idea of a superior size and mass effect was about the same that motivated ancient hellenistic rulers when asking for their giant galley. Some designers were even compelled to create specially designed ships which became a class on their own: The torpedo-ram.

In the 1870s major countries like UK and France and others developed the idea of semi-submersibles ships: Surrounding water as a buffer, a cylindrical-section armored hull on which projectiles would bounce over, and steam power alone aplenty with large rudders to ram at will. The fad was short but created interesting ships like the French Taureau (“bull”) class and British Polyphemus.

However this also carried an unforeseen consequence during exercizes. This truly aggravated a number of incidents, collisions that could have created les harm, should a ram was not implied. But with it, a damaged ship would certainly sink. The most famous example ever perhaps, was the loss of HMS Victoria (1887), the pride of the Royal Navy at that time.

A radical, steam-only heavy guns turret ship, she was rammed in accident by HMS Camperdown near Tripoli, Lebanon, during manoeuvres and quickly sank. By sinking so fast she carried with her 358 crew members including the commander of the British Mediterranean Fleet, Vice-Admiral Sir George Tryon. In addition ramming never featured as a viable battle tactic again, at least in the scale of lissa.

There has been however many example of hostile had oc ramming when the situation arose. We can cite as an example, HMS Dreadnought that rammed and sank the German submarine SM U-29, (captain K/Lt Otto Weddigen the same that commanded U-9), avenging the loss of three British armoured cruisers, on 18 March 1915. Ramming submarines, half-blind, became a favourite tactic for escorts and there has been countless examples of that.

The specialized P-Boats submarine chasers had been designed with a reinforced bow for just such task. Events such as these ocurred again in WW2 in some occasions, although no destroyer escort of frigate has ever been designed for suhch extreme tactic, left to the appreciation of the captain each time. Damage indeed could be for the ship, especially the light ones (like Flower class corvettes), hazardous up to fatal, with long repairs at hand. Some authors also argues that this late XIXth century fixation on ramming may also have inhibited the development of gunnery, just like partisans of cavalry insisted to the virtues of the massed charge in 1914.

At Lissa however the role of the ram has been far too overrated for modern authors: In fact, only one ramming manoeuver succeeded, and only because of the unfortunate move of Captain Faa di Bruno, which stopped his ship dead and easily exposed his flank. All the other ramming attemps failed and the battle was largely decided by gunnery skills and performance.

Nowadays, modern commentators and authors agree that this battle in particular was stuck into a freak technological transition phase. This was a period of weapons development when armour was considerably stronger than the guns available to defeat it. Guns which were still for the most, muzzle-loaded and not rifled, firing in addition still crude projectiles at low velocities. One could add that on the Italian side, poor gunnery training was to blame on better results on the Austrian part which in addition had been deprived for some of their ships like the famous Ferdinand Max without their full armament, a result of the Prussian embargo.

One can only be amazed by the SMS Kaiser, a traditional -steam-powered- ship-of-the-line, which only armor was made of several layers of wood, like man-o-war two hundred years ago, and yet managed to duel with four ironclads at close range, partially repaired overnight, and still reported ready for duty the morning after the battle. This feat had been unprecedented and would remain so in the annals of history. That event alone, and what followed, made the battle of lissa a true landmark in naval warfare, and a mandatory chapter studied in all naval academies.

The Regia marina at Ancona after the battle

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John Gardiner Conway’s all the world”s fighting ships 1860-1905

July 20th, 1866 | The Battle of Lissa

Battle of Tsushima 1905

Battle of Tsushima 1905

Russki flot vs Nihhon Kaigun

The great seism in naval matters

Painting the battle of Tushima strait 1905
The battle of Tsushima is certainly one of the most significant battles of the XXth Century. In terms of size and scope, it was only comparable to Jutland, in May 1916, and the British compared it to Trafalgar. Its consequences, direct and indirect, were as dramatic and far-reaching into the XXth Century. For the first time, a non-European power defeated one in a standard naval engagement. This gave a new level of confidence to the Imperialists on the path of hegemon in Asia, right to the Pacific campaign during WW2. On the other side, this total, unmitigated disaster, was blamed by the Russian population on their elites, triggering a mutiny (Potemkine), mass public demonstrations, and a situation of growing unrest which will boil over in 1917 with the Revolution. The cold war arguably found Tsushima in one of its roots causes.

The roots of tensions with Russia

Kisaburō Ohara – Europe and Asia – Russian Octopus Map 1904, Japanese perception about Russia (Cornell University)

On the far East, only one major power stood to the growing local influence of Japan, after the defeat of the Chinese at Yalu. This was Imperial Russia, a giant present in three strategic areas, with three fleets: The Baltic, the Black sea, and the Pacific, from Vladivostok and Port Arthur. A name that will resonate around the world in the following events. A point of tension already in 1895-96 in Korea, was that King Gojong and his court fled to the Russian legation in Seoul after the murder by the Japanese of Queen Min of Korea, the leader of the anti-Japanese and pro-Chinese faction. Shortly after a popular uprising overthrew the pro-Japanese government. In Korea, after the peace treaty signed with Russia, France and UK on one part and Japan on the other, attempts to try to attach Korea in the Japanese sphere of influence were compromised. Eventually, in 1897, Russia has occupied the Liaodong Peninsula and built the Port Arthur fortress, which became the main naval base for the Russian Pacific Fleet.

Reddition of the Chinese Generals at Pyongyang, October 1894 - Migita Toshihide
Reddition of the Chinese Generals at Pyongyang, October 1894 – Migita Toshihide

The Russian occupation of Port Arthur was at first an anti-British move to balance the occupation of Wei-hai-Wei. Japan, perceived it as anti-Japanese. Soon after, Germany entered the fray, annexing Jiaozhou Bay, and created the Tsingtao fortress dominating the naval base dedicated to the German East Asia Squadron. Until 1903, Russia not only invested and built the Chinese Eastern Railway in Manchuria, on Russian gauge and with Russian troops stationed in Manchuria, but the headquarters were located in the new city of Harbin, the “Moscow of the Orient”. This attitude and the development of the railway did much to fuel anger which erupted in the Boxer Rebellion. The Russians also made inroads into Korea, contained many concessions near the Yalu and Tumen rivers, and started the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway which could have been used to carry masses of reinforcing troops. The clock was ticking for the Japanese interests in that area. Indeed after the end of the Boxer rebellion, the Russians massed 100,000 troops in Manchuria, which in 1903 occupied the territory without any plan for withdrawing.

Peace attempts and alliances game

Minister Itō Hirobumi did not believe Japan had the necessary strength to take on the Russians militarily and therefore started negotiations, agreeing to officially recognise Russia control over Manchuria in exchange for Japanese control of northern Korea. He was back by old Meiji nobility members including the influent Count Inoue Kaoru while another faction was favourable to war. This hard-line position has its supporters like Katsura Tarō, Komura Jutarō, and Field Marshal Yamagata Aritomo. They were comforted by the 1902 Anglo-Japanese Alliance which was created to balance Russian influence over the area.

Since it was likely neither France or Germany would support Russia at war on two Fronts, and in the West, to UK, the hard-liners gained more support over time. On the other hand, Germany seemed favorable to Russia’s positions, praising the Tsar as the “savior of the white race” facing the “yellow peril” even before the Sino-Japanese war. Wilhelm indeed aggressively encouraged Russia’s ambitions in Asia while France, which was Russia’s closest ally showed great caution in that matter. Indochina was now indeed part of the French colonial Empire and towards this new competition, rather joined the British position. Officially, however, France declared their alliance with Russia was bound to Europe, and France would remain neutral if Japan attacked Russia. On the other hand, Russian authorities believed that they had the full support of the Reich in case of war.

The path to war

Extract from the 2008 TV serie clouds over the hill - japan best seller
Extract from the 2008 TV serie clouds over the hill – japan’s best seller

By 8 April 1903, Russian troops still occupied Mandchuria and ambassador Kurino Shin’ichirō expressed the wish of the government in July to negotiate their stay or departure under return conditions. This was answered by Roman Rosen in Japan on 3 October. During negotiations, Russia scaled back its demands and claims regarding Korea. But the largest contributor to the degradation of relations and ultimately war was the fact the Korean and Manchurian issues had become linked. On Mandchuria, Japan expressed the will to open the country to free trade (seeking approval by Britain and the USA) as opposed to a Russian takeover. During this, Emperor Gojong of Korea cautiously chosen neutrality. On 4 February 1904 no answer was given to the last Japanese proposal, authorities there thinking Russia was not serious about seeking a peaceful solution. The Tarō cabinet already voted on 21 December 1903 to go to war against Russia and on 08 February, a declaration of war was issued while four hours before, the Russians experienced their own “pearl harbor”.

Clouds over the Hill

Attack on Port Arthur

Port Arthur TB attack

Exactly like in December 1941, the Japanese decided to strike first before negotiations were officially over, by an all-out attack on the Pacific fleet base at Port Arthur. This came as a shock for the Tsar, which only declared war in turn eight days after. In this struggle, the Qing Empire was favorable to the Japanese and offered support and goods. Locally, Mandchurian irregulars and levies joined both sides. For Japan, Port Arthur on the Liaodong Peninsula in the south of Manchuria was the key objective to take before any invasion of Mandchuria. The port-city was well-fortified and a naval assault was risky.

attack night 1904

However, during the night of 8 February 1904, Admiral Tōgō Heihachirō ordered only his light ships to take the initiative. His torpedo boat destroyers penetrated the loosely guarded harbor at full speed, torpedoes several ships and almost sank the battleships Tsesarevich and Retvizan, and the cruiser Pallada. At dawn, the rest of the Japanese came at gunnery range to engage remaining ships, but was repelled by Russian fortified coastal artillery. Fire was imprecise and the result largely indecisive.

Composite map showing he location of port Arthur

Geographic situation of Port Arthur
Geographic situation of Port Arthur and respective spheres of influences

The naval siege

This situation dragged on until April, 16, and the death of Stepan Osipovich Makarov, the admiral. before that, Makarov received the command of the fleet in March and had the will to break the blockade. He sent the battleships Petropavlovsk and Pobeda out at sea, only to be caught in Japanese minefields and while the first sank with all hands including Makarov, the second was towed back to the port and left for repairs. From then, the fleet was even less enthusiastic about the idea to sail in open sea and engage the Japanese.

However this Japanese naval siege successfully locked in the Russians, which allowed and landing near Incheon in Korea to take place unopposed. In the end of April, Kuroki Tamemoto’s army was ready to cross the Yalu River, in Russian-occupied Manchuria. Meanwhile admiral Togo gave orders to block completely the port entrance by sending on 13–14 February concrete-filled steamers, which failed, as another attempt during the night of 3–4 May. The Russian in turn laid mines which claimed on 15 May 1904, the IJN battleships, Yashima and Hatsuse. The second survived but was towed in Korea for extensive repairs.

Breakout attempt: The battle of the Yellow sea

Battle Yellow sea 1904

On 23 June 1904 the Russian fleet now under the command of Admiral Wilgelm Vitgeft which prepared a new breakout. The goal was to break through and join Vladivostok he would wait for reinforcement and stay in a better defended and better supplied position. He sailed with his flagship, the Tsessarevitch, in all six battleships, four cruisers, and 14 torpedo boat destroyers at dawn, 10 August 1904. Admiral Tōgō deployed four battleships, 10 cruisers, and 18 torpedo boat destroyers.

Battle of the Yellow sea IJN, squadron
Batle of the yellow sea, Varyag damaged

At 12:15 mutual visual contact was followed by artillery duels 8 miles away, a long distance at that time. Togo successfully crossed Vitgeft’s T, pounded the Russian line for 30 minutes and managed to hit the Tssessarevitch’s bridge, killing the admiral instantly. Confusion among her fleet soon arose and the flagship was only saved by the intervention of Retvizan, which drew the Japanese fire on him. He took command of the crippled fleet and decided to turn back home to port Arthur. he was then given the insurance of the reinforcement from the redeployed baltic fleet.

Delaying battles

Two other events showed the Russian trying to delay Japanese the advance: First was the battle of Yalu River on 1 May 1904, when Japanese troops stormed a Russian position after crossing the river, inflicting a decisive defeat and gaining a foothold, whereas the Russians were unable to sent reinforcements. At that time indeed, the trans-siberian railway was still stuck in Irkutsk. This feat which had no comparison gave immense confidence to the Japanese, perhaps explaining their losses later like the Battle of Nanshan on 25 May 1904, trying to force their way through well-entrenched Russian troops defending Port Arthur perimeter.

The siege turned to land

The siege, December 1904 Russian ships sunk

By then the Japanese Army had managed to approach Port Arthur on land, less well defended, and after a grinding trench and mortar battle since the end of April, managed to be close enough in December to bring heavy artillery (11-inch or 280 mm Armstrong howitzers) to bear on key positions on nearby hills. From then on the Russian position became untenable: The Pacific fleet was decimated, four Russian battleships and two cruisers were sunk in succession. The last battleship, badly damaged, was scuttled to prevent capture a few weeks later. This feat was unique in the annals of warfare and never repeated. Attempts to relieve the city failed: The Russian northern army was defeated at the Battle of Liaoyang in late August. After the Japanese detonated several underground mines to further damage the fortifications and closing the grip on the base, Major General Anatoly Stessel, the garrison commander, decided to surrender on 2 January 1905, without any approval of his staff and the Tsar.

Second phase: The intervention of the Baltic fleet

A seven month odyssey

Russian fleet trip
Having three fleets, the Russian could send reinforcements of one of these, despite the huge distances to travel. The easiest solution was to send the Black sea fleet, but poisonous relations with the Ottoman Empire prevented its passage through the Bosphorus. There was less risk of a war with its immediate neighbours in the Baltic, so the Tsar and his staff decided to redeploy the Baltic fleet to the Pacific. That was not a small trip, since Russia had not that many allies but a reluctant France along the way. In addition, the fleet under the command of Admiral Zinovy Rozhestvensky had problems with engines and supplies and only departed 15 October 1904. The Baltic fleet was to pass via the Cape of Good Hope in the course of a seven-month odyssey. The Suez canal was at first avoided as tensions were high with UK, allied with Japan.

Batleship Borodino
Battleship Borodino

Indeed, right at the beginning of the trip near the Dogger Bank, believing they faced British TBs, Russians TBs fired on British fishing boats on 21 October 1904. Needless to say this triggered official vigorous protestations and the Royal Navy was mobilized. War was avoided (and perhaps the world war would have erupted in 1905 instead of 1914, again, for the sake of alliances and global spheres of influence). The Russian Baltic fleet’s seven-month journey across the globe was a feat that drew a lot of media attention, making headlines as she progressed. The fleet split up when arrived near Gibraltar as the situation permitted it, cruisers and TBs making it through the Mediterranean and the Suez Canal while Battleships, which had more coal reserve and did not need frequent resupplies along the coat of Africa, went by the cape.

The land war (Jan-Feb 1905)

Yalu river battle
Meanwhile, Russian land forces attempted to drive out the invading Japanese in Mandchuria. The Second Army under General Oskar Gripenberg, arrived in 25-29 January at Sandepu and attacked Japanese positions by surprise, almost succeeding to get through. However the battle was inconclusive and ultimately he was held back by Kuropatkin which sent reinforcements. Both sides tried to beat each other, but the Japanese, in particular, were eager to get to a conclusion soon as for them the completion of the trans-siberian railway could be their undoing.

The second large battle erupted nearly a month after on 20 February 1905. This was the battle of Mukden, a Russian-built city, well fortified and a garrison. Kuropatkin had arrived, joined force with Gripenberg and was attacked by the Japanese on his right and left flanks around Mukden, along a 50-mile (80 km) front. About one million men in total participated in this major battle which lasted for three weeks in icy cold conditions. Eventually, the Russian front crumbled and eventually gave way, Kuropatkin ordering a fighting retreat to avoid being completely surrounded, having lost 90,000 men already. The Japanese failed to beat completely the Russians scattered in small groups and their Mandchurian auxiliaries while all eyes turned back to the sea for the decisive hour.

The battle of Tsushima

Prelude: The end of the Odyssey

The fleet made a several weeks stop at the small port of Nossi-Bé (Madagascar) then belonging to neutral France. The port lacked infrastructures but the Russian Baltic fleet was able to coal, resupply, and proceeded to Cam Ranh Bay, again an allied port, possession of French Indochina. The fleet arrived in Singapore Strait between 7 and 10 April 1905 and reached the Sea of Japan in May 1905. The squadron required 500,000 tons of coal to complete the journey and was not allowed to coal at neutral ports. So to achieve this feat the Russian admiralty had to improvise a fleet of colliers along the way, to supply the ships at sea. The fleet was eventually renamed “Second Pacific Squadron” upon arrival after 18,000 nautical miles (33,000 km). But they only had news that Port Arthur has fallen already in Madagascar. So Admiral Rozhestvensky plan was now to reach Vladivostok, resupply, have the crews rested and prepare for battle. However the shortest and most direct route passed through Tsushima Strait between Korea and Japan, surrounded by Japanese bases and home Islands.

Admiral Tōgō was not long to understand the only logical choice of his future opponent, and that he was heading to Vladivostok by the shortest route. He had plenty of time to have the ships drydocks, maintained repaired and resupplied and the crews rested when he was devising plans with his staff. He was to intercept the Russian fleet using apparently a medieval tactic he knew from his past of Samurai in the Boshin war.

Battle of the japan sea (1969) – starting clip

The Japanese Combined Fleet was down to four battleships, completed by a largely intact force of cruisers, destroyers, and torpedo boats. With eight battleships, including the recent Borodino class, and smaller ships for a total of 38 fighting vessels and auxiliaries, had an advantage on paper. In the end of May, the Second Pacific Squadron was travelling at night to avoid being spotted, which was betrayed by the two trailing hospital ships which had their lights open in compliance to international law, and were spotted by the Shinano Maru, equipped for wireless communication. Togo’s headquarters ordered a sortie and later received more informations from his scouting forces.

The fleet was able to be placed in order to “cross the T” of the Russian fleet, bearing al their broadsides on the column. On 27–28 May 1905, the battle began. This was to be the largest naval battle so far with modern, steel warships, made world headlines, and would attract postwar a lot of attention from naval experts. The Royal Navy was not long to take the lessons of this event and this was a determining factor in choosing to develop the monocaliber battleship concept.

Respective Forces

The Russian side: Needless to say such enormous trip, never done before by a modern military fleet, was astonishing by itself. But fighting just at arrival was just the same as an infantry corps wiped to exhaustion in forced marched in order to enter the battle immediately on arrival without rest. That was the same for the Russian fleet. The ships lacked maintenance, having no serious halt on their way during all these monthes (half a year voyage !) to be in shape, the crews were tired, as the clock was ticking in order to save Port Arthur, at least until they reached Madagascar. The rest of the trip was gloomy, with a plummeted morale.

Discipline was still there on the surface, but discontent was brewing among the crew already. Only the four new Borodino-class battleships were still in relative good shape. The other battleships led by Admiral Nebogatov’s 3rd Division were barely able to follow the line and were not able to put a good show. All the ships were heavily fouled, their speed of 14 knots barely maintained for short period while the Japanese were well above 15 knots, giving them some advantage in agility. Above that, the deficiencies in training and lack of budget were exposed, as well as Russian naval tests on torpedoes that showed grave malfunctions.

The Japanese side:
The victor was not obvious on paper at first. The IJN combined fleet was on paper inferior, half the number of battleships. However the ships were recent and in almost pristine condition despite an intensive service. Admiral Tōgō was himself already an aged, veteran captain with battle experience aplenty, at sea recently. His fleet comprised 5 battleships, 27 cruisers, 21 destroyers, 37 torpedo boats and gunboats plus auxiliary vessels for a total of 89, but the latter did not took part in the battle proper, being too slow and vulnerable for the task. The Russian fleet was more battle-oriented, with more battleships, 8 “regular ones”, 3 coastal battleships, but also less cruisers, only 6, and far less destroyers, only 9. Anyway they played little roles on both sides, which gunned themselves to oblivion, although torpedoes were aggressively used.

The battle

Afternoon action

Way before even spotting the Russian directly admiral Togo placed his fleet in order to block the column, or “cross the T” of his opponent. This classic tactic that was repeated at Jutland and other occasions allowed the whole Japanese line to open fire concentrated on the first ship, generally the admiral’s flagship. Not only it could cut the head of the staff and disorganise the fleet but also allowed to engage targets as they went maximizing firepower while the opponent only had its front guns to answer. The next move was for the targeted fleet was in general to turn and form an opposing broadside column. Needless to say these manoeuvers were extensively drilled and required precision. When the stage was set, as Togo remarked, the weather was fine, with a clear sky allowing long range sighting but high waves. All along, wireless reports came from scouts that shadowed the Russian formation.

At 13:40, both fleets sighted each other and 15 minutes after Tōgō hoisted of the Z flag on Mikasa, famously ordering to the fleet “The Empire’s fate depends on the result of this battle, let every man do his utmost duty.” Fire commenced on the Japanese side at 14:45. The Russians were sailing to north northeast while the Japanese were steaming from northeast to west and turned in sequence, take the same course as the Russians in classic parallel lines. Tōgō’s U-turn was masterful but Russian gunnery was good. Mikasa was hit 15 times in five minutes and later 15 more times, all by large caliber. Admiral Rozhestvensky choosed the formal pitched battle option, based on his superior numbers of heavy guns. At 14:08, the range fell to 7,000 metres, and then 6,400 meters but eventually Superior Japanese gunnery skills and sights took their toll on the Russian battle line. Formed by, and equipped as, the Royal Navy, gunnery accuracy was the order of the day.

Vladimir Semenoff, on his flagship Knyaz (“count”) Suvorov, vividly remembered the carnage of Japanese guns “Shells seemed to be pouring upon us incessantly one after another. (…) In addition to this, there was the unusually high temperature and liquid flame of the explosion, which seemed to spread over everything”. Indeed this pounding, rather than a fair duel, raged on for another 90 minutes, until the first loss, Russian battleship Oslyabya (Rozhestvensky’s 2nd Battleship division flagship). Fuji managed to hit the ammunition magazines of Borodino, causing her to explode. She quickly sank with all hands but her billowing smoke engulfed the scene and reduced fire accuracy a bit. When the evening came, Rear Admiral Nebogatov took command, but soon the Knyaz Suvorov, Imperator Aleksandr III and Borodino added to the losses while the Japanese ships suffered less. Only a few light ships were lost.

Phase 3 of the battle
Phase 3 of the battle

Night action

Since the Russian fleet still hold some major ships it was by then unthinkable to surrender. The plan was still to reach Vladivostok. That was precisely the Japanese wanted to avoid. Togo despatched at 20:00, twenty-one destroyers and 37 torpedo boats to hunt down and finish off the Russians. The vanguard was struck by destroyers while the flanks were attacked by the torpedo boats (east and south). Torpedo attacked went on for three hours without a break. Obscurity and some confusion caused several collisions but this succeeded in scattering the Russians, all trying to break northwards. They disappeared shortly, only to be betrayed by their searchlights. Navarin struck a mine, stopped and was torpedoed like a sitting duck. Sissoi Veliky was torpedoed and was scuttled the morning. Armoured cruisers Admiral Nakhimov was torpedoed but survived, while Vladimir Monomakh collided with a Japanese destroyer and were scuttled also the next morning. The Japanese only lost three torpedo boats during this fateful night. Japan will prove its mastery of night fighting in future engagements in WW2, like at Savo.

The end of the chase

At 09:30, 28 May, the crippled remnants of Nebogatov’s Russian fleet was spotted, sluggishly escaping, allowing Tōgō’s battleships to catch up and surround it south of Takeshima island. Like at the Yellow sea, fire opened at12,000 meters. By then it was clear to the Russian admiral that he was out-ranged by a safe margin and that his six remaining ships were condemned. Rather than having these destroyed without being able to replicate he ordered them to surrender, hoisting the XGE signal of surrender. However unfortunately for the Russians, this signal was absent from the Japanese code books and continued pounding the fleet.

Amazingly, Nebogatov had white table cloths sent up the mastheads. However, Tōgō did not trusted this new signal an still resumed fire. When it was clear nothing will prevent total destruction, Russian cruiser Izumrud broke formation and attempted to flee. A desperate Nebogatov then hoisted the Imperial Japanese Navy flag and stopped, trying to be understood. This was spotted by Togo, which ordered to cease fire. Both fleet stopped, and Nebogatov embarked in a yowl to negotiate his surrender. As stated to his crews, he knew that for disobeying orders he could have been shot, but wanted to avoid useless slaughter, pleading his men to one day “retrieve the honour and glory of the Russian Navy”.

Upon their return in Russia both admirals faced trial, Rozhestvensky (which survived his wounds but was unconscious during the battle) claimed full responsibility. Their reputations were ruined although the second was pardoned by the Tsar and the first saw prison. The remainder of the Russian squadron, only three ships, reached Vladivostok. Many of these ships had been captured by the Japanese, in addition to those scuttled or damaged in Port Arthur. Not only Togo secured an impressive tonnage of new battleships and cruisers, but he won against two fleets, having lost only two battleships and three destroyers during the whole campaign.

Epilogue: The battle and its consequences

Illustration of the Great Naval Battle at the Harbor Entrance to Port Arthur
Illustration of the Great Naval Battle at the Harbor Entrance to Port Arthur in the Russo-Japanese War (Nichiro Ryojunkô daikaisen no zu)

The Russians lost their entire second pacific fleet, that is to say their entire Baltic fleet, the spearhead of their maritime might. Eight battleships, numerous smaller vessels, and more than 5,000 men, while the Japanese lost three torpedo boats and 116 men. Three Russian vessels made it to Vladivostok. Immediately after, a combined naval amphibious assault allowed Japan to occupy Sakhalin Island, to force the Russians to sue for peace. The war was lost, with 2/3 of her fleet for the Russian Empire. This nailed down any possibility of future expansion and gravely impacted the country’s morale at all levels.

Towards the Europeans, this further demolished any credibility the Russians built, including towards traditional allies like France, or potential ally like the German Empire, and comforted great Britain on its choice of Japan as an Asiatic ally. At home, the resentment of the crews towards their elites would boil down to open mutiny in the remaining black sea fleet (Potemkine), mirrored by popular bread revolts, brutally suppressed. It contained the germs from which the revolution would blossom, with the court’s reputation as a primer, and the Great war as a catalyzer.

In Japan, the result of Tsushima was diametrally opposed. It gave a supreme confidence to the head of staff, the Emperor and the shut the moderates about Japan’s aspirations to a natural leadership in Asia, even against other European powers, like Great Britain, the Netherlands or France. The militarism of the post-WW1 years further fuelled by the anger caused by limitations by the 1922 Washington treaty, would see the hard-liners ruling the country, pursuing an aggressive agenda over China, after annexing Korea and Mandchuria. Tsushima’s date entered the calendar and was made a national holiday, and still is, while Battleship Mikasa has been preserved and can be visited today. This event was commemorated in many books over the years, like the bestseller “clouds over the hill”, made into a TV serie in 2008, or a 1969 high budget film starring Toshiro Mifune as Togo and an international crew and casting.

On naval standpoint alone, the battle showed that long-range gunnery, as demonstrated already in the Yellow sea in 1904, was the order of the day, secondary artillery playing no significant role, nor light ships like destroyers and TBs. This confirmed many British heads of staff, including admiral Fisher (not mentioning the rest of the world) that only the monocaliber type battleship was the way forward. With twice the budget required for such ships, it triggered a European arms race which had few precedents in history, that is the “dreadnought fever”. Tsushima did not exactly spawn the Dreadnought out of the blue. The idea was Fisher’s already since 1900 and in 1904 he was finalizing a design, also inspired by Cuniberti’s new armoured cruiser types revealed in Jane’s.

But the first modern battleship’s final design was approved, on 22 February 1905 containing indeed several observations from the recent war, including one related to ASW protection on the Russian battleship Tsesarevich. In fact both the Battle of the Yellow Sea and the Battle of Tsushima were carefully analyzed by Fisher’s Committee, Captain William Pakenham’s remark about 12-inch gunfire demonstrating hitting power and accuracy was a justification for a dispensable secondary artillery as “it went unnoticed”. The Yellow sea battle on its part confirmed that long-range (13,000 metres or 14,000 yd) fire was possible and even desirable with the right sights and calculators.

Among other factors it was observed that, gunnery training paid off -on the Japanese side- and the choice of using HE shells also versus the Russian AP shells, which in addition used small guncotton bursting charges and unreliable fuses. Also for the Russian ships bad accuracy, fire smoke was to blame, as easily burning paintwork and the large quantities of coal stored on the decks for the trip were to blame. Japanese accuracy was compounded by the use of recent (1903) Barr and Stroud FA3 coincidence rangefinder while the Russian trusted a variety of older models (their ships were built in several foreign shipyards, like 1880s to 1890s Liuzhol rangefinders which conceded 2000 yards to the Japanese.

About Admiral Togo

Togo Togo was a Samurai fighting during the Tokugawa conflicts (1863–1869). He was aged 15 and part of a gun crew defending the port of Kagoshima, shelled by the Royal Navy. The Satsuma faction soon created a navy and he enlisted to served during the during the Boshin War on the Kasuga. He studied English at Yokohama after the war and perfected himself with Daisuke Shibata and Charles Wagman form The Illustrated London News. In February 1871, Tōgō was one of the selected officer cadets to travel to Britain, perfecting their naval studies.

Battleship Mikasa as preserved
Additional photos of the Mikasa

He gained later a commission in the training vessel HMS Worcester, completed his gunnery training onboard HMS Victory, and he returned home on 22 May 1878 as a Lieutenant onboard IJN Hiei, freshly built in UK. He will first had combat experience during the Imo Incident in Korea, commanding a landing party. Promoted captain in 1884 he used to interact often with the British, American, and German fleets, thanks to his mastery of English. He will further learn in combat onboard Amagi as a closely observed during the Franco-Chinese War (1884–1885) and the French fleet operations by Admiral Courbet and observed Joseph Joffre troops in Formose. He was captain of the cruiser Naniwa in 1894, when the First Sino-Japanese War broke out. He sank a British transport ship, Kowshing, operating with the Beiyang fleet, and took part in the Battle of the Yalu River under orders of Admiral Tsuboi Kōzō, helping sinking the cruisers Jingyuan and Zhiyuan. He was promoted in 1895 rear admiral.

Togo's triumphal return

He became for a time the commandant of the Naval War College in Tokyo, commander of the Sasebo Naval College and later was recalled as admiral on May 20, 1900, patrolling along the coast during the Boxer rebellion. Afterwards he will supervise naval construction at the naval base at Maizuru. Navy Minister Yamamoto Gonnohyōe, when appointing Togo, was asked so by the Emperor, answering “the man has luck”. Luck he has, but certainly skills as well, masterfully using his meager forces to defeat two Russian squadrons, loosing only three torpedo boats. He became a war hero at his return to Japan, kept his journals in English, believing he was the reincarnation of Horatio Nelson. Being fluent in English he was invited to the USA and in UK, honored guest of the coronation celebration. He was made Marshal-Admiral of the IJN and was ho,nored by the Emperor koshaku (marquis) in 1934 just before passing out. He was accorded a state funeral, with naval attachés of many nations in the attendance and a naval parade was held in his honour in Tokyo Bay.

Video: A documentary and 3D recreation by kings & general channel

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Movie Battle of the Japan sea 1969
Depiction in WoW

Bakumatsu & Meiji Era Ships

Japan (1855-1877)
35+ ships

Definition: The arrival of Perry’s ships in 1853 quickstarted a serie of events called the “Bakumatesu” era, literraly “the end” of Japanese isolation on the International scene. This also comprised the Boshin war. The “Meiji era” is the little-known early era for the fledging Imperial Japanese Navy. Yards were being constructed, academies funded, Western advisors came, Western influence and officers exchanges began. The Boshin war was interesting on the naval point of view in the context of a bloody civil war, almost in the scope of the American civil war, but on the issue over which, the Daimyo or the Emperor, the old and new Japan, would rule the Islands. The first Japanese ironclad was in fact, a former confederate ship…

Shoei Maru
Shoei Maru

明治時代 Meiji-jidai is generally believed to last between 1868 and 1912. Since the WW1 fleet and ships from the 1894 and 1905 battles periods will be covered, i’m focusing here on the first industrial era japanese warships, those of the Boshin war and subsequent industrialization of Japan.

The arrival of Commodore Perry (1853)

Before this earth-moving event, Japan was living the two centuries-long medieval era of Edo (1603–1868). The last period, called 幕末 bakumatsu, immediately preceded the Meiji era. Called “the end” it started with the arrival of the American admiral Perry in 1853, which forced Japan to open to foreign trade, under the threat of modern guns. Before that, foreigner sailors that were stranded to Japan were emprisoned or executed without trial. That became more common with increasing whaling activities and the China trade. Foreigners at least expected assistance or beter, a base for supply.

Perrys black ships
Perry’s “black ships”

Japan position hardened after the arrival in 1808 of the British frigate HMS Phaeton, their demands judge “too agressive”. From then, lenience towards “Western barbarians” was brushed aside and in 1825 and edict was passed to use cannon to repel any foreign ship on coastal areas. This caused further troubles when the USS Morrison was found in Kagoshima Bay, and hammered without mercy by artillery. The ship, under Charles W. King in 1837, survived and went back to the USA but the incident was not forgotten. Two years later, Tokyo bay was surrounded by forts and artillery. It should be an error to consider the japanese were not open to modern artillery. Indeed, Nagasaki-based Takashima Shūhan (domain) managed to obtain weapons through the Dutch at Dejima, such as field guns, mortars and firearms. “students” were invited to study Western guns, especially after the British victory in the 1840 Opium War. There was a debate over modernizing the Japanese army with foreign armament to better repel these or to reinforce the army with traditional ways. However after 1840, traditionalists prevailed and Students of Western sciences were accused of treason.

Perry Ships

In July 1853 Commodore Matthew C. Perry’s squadron arrived in Edo bay with four mixed frigates. If it was not the “discovery of devils’s ships” as often caricatured in the West (Western industrial ways were known), the force was strong enough to intimidate officials. To back his claims of establishing a treaty, Perry bombarded several building with this brand new Paixhans incendiary shells, creating havoc. After this event, it was decided to built fortifications at Odaiba in Tokyo Bay, and more importantly a reverbatory furnace was established by Egawa Hidetatsu in Nirayama to cast modern cannons, which plans were obtained from the Dutch. Same, soon plans were aso obtained to built a modern warship. This was the beginning of the new Japanese fleet, still until then comprising a wide array of “Fune”, traditional boats propelled by rowers and lattice sails, some armed with traditional bronze muzzle-loading cannons or even wooden cannons, which formed the bulk of coastal defences.
To this isolationist foreign policy known as “Sakoku”, succeeded a period of troubles, as the traditional Tokugawa shogunate order was shaken to its very base. Part of the Japanese people (especially low ranks, besides the Samurai order and nobility) were particularly driven to promising social progresses that went together with the novelties bring by the West, soon inundating the markets.

The first Japanese ships

Kanrin Maru
Kanrin Maru, 1858. She was the first Japanese modern, mixed ship (screw-propelled, composite hull).

As there was no centralized power in japan, the first modern ships were attached to local regions making allegiance to the Daimyo (first) and the Emperor. The Daimyo back then controlled about 240 clans which each had their own coinage, customs, administrative laws, army, and navy. For costly, modern ships to be built, they had to be attached to a more centralized power. By law, the Daimyo, which retained all power while the Emperor only had an honorific role, imposed a status quo, which traduced by the strict limitation to ships less than 50 tons. Tis prevented a possible takeover by one of the clans and prevented off-shore operations and travels. What caused the civil war was the hiatus between a rather sympathetic Shogunate to Western influence and an Imperial clan backed by traditionalist and nationalist forces. The civil war lasted one a half year (27 January 1868 – 27 June 1869), seeing both clans mustering many industrial-era ships. Here are these forces:

Japanese ships of the Boshin war (1868-69)

Ironclad ram Kotetsu (1863)
The story of this ship is linked to civil wars: Secession war first, as she was ordered by the Confederacy to the French government, and the Japanese Boshin War a few years later. Originally John Slidell, the confederate commissioner in France approached the French government about the possibility of obtaining sea-going armoured warships in order to dent the Union blockade, in 1863. However French laws prevented, like in UK, any military aid to any belligerent, so through Confederate agent James D. Bulloch compromise was found and the Arman brothers yard in Bordeaux was secretly approached to built a ship fit for the confederacy.

CSS Stonewall in construction at Arman bros. Bordeaux.

Lucien Arman was indeed a personal confidant of Napoleon III. Secret was present in their names (Cheops and Sphinx) while the guns were ordered in UK. However just prior to delivery a Union shipyard clerk denounced the deal at the U.S. Minister’s office in Paris and the government had to block the delivery. Arman obtained however the right to reold the pair to Denmark and Prussia, then opposites in the Schleswig war. The latter Kheops was renamed Prinz Adalbert, and Sphynx became Stærkodder. As the ship was to be delivered to Denmark, disputes erupted over the prices and other issues and negociations failed.

Schematics of the ship and view as completed in Bordeaux, waiting for her Danish crew.

Arman was found with an unsold ironclad. Eventually the ship joined Denmark in 1865 and there, the vessel took on a Confederate crew at Copenhagen and was renamed CSS Stonewall at sea while en route to America. A chase started, as American ships were soon warned about the new “dreaded” ship, for which the Union had no equivalent. Several ships, including the USS Kearsarge and USS Sacramento tried to catch her. She resupplied in Britanny, and joined Spain for repairs after a severe leak was found. Repairs were performed from January to March and on March 24, she was back at sea. Union ships never deared to approach her. She steamed for Lisbon to take on the shortest route for the American coast, reached Nassau on May 6, and then Havana, Cuba, however the capitulation was signed at Appomatox before she arrived. She was turned over to the Union, paid for, then stored to be resold to Japan.

Kotetsu – Fall of the Samurai extension

Her second career started. Renamed Kōtetsu she was supposed to be delivered to the Tokugawa shogunate in 1868, paid before sailing US$30,000, the remainder to be paid on delivery. When the Boshin War started because of neutralilty delivery of Kōtetsu to the shogunate was suspended. US Resident-Minister Robert B. Van Valkenburg in Japan ordered her to hoist the American flag on arrival but she was finally delivered to the new Meiji government in February 1869. She sailed for Hokkaidō, taking part in the last-ditch defence of the Tokugawa forces (Ezo Republic) with the help of ex-French military advisors. She took part decisively in the Naval Battle of Miyako Bay in March. She repulsed a surprise night boarding by Kaiten’s Samurai, repelled by a Gatling gun. She would also lead the line at the battle of Hakodate. She also covered the invasion of Hokkaidō and various naval engagements. After the war she was renamed Azuma in December 1872, participated in the suppression of the Saga rebellion, Taiwan Expedition of 1874. She ran aground at Kagoshima during a typhoon the same year and was repaired at Yokosuka Naval Arsenal. During the Satsuma Rebellion, she guarded the Seto Inland Sea. She was reformed in 1888. Considered “unsinkable” she could sustain direct hits and prevail against any wooden warship and so was Japan’s first ocean-going ironclad warship.

Gunboat Chiyodogata (1863)

This gunboat was was brig-rigged, third class, made in wood. She was the first warship to be built in Japan. She was taken over, from the Shogun, by the Imperial Navy in May 1868, and was captured by the Shogunate forces during the civil war on 4 October 1868. She was recaptured at Hakodate by the Imperial Navy after grounding. Ghiyodogata was removed from the effective fleet June 1869 and sold to a whaling company in January 1888. She was finally broken up in 1911. She was a 140 tons ship, 97 feets long (31.3 wl x 4.8 x 2m), with one shaft reciprocating HDA engine delivering an output of 60 ihp, allowing 5 knots. She was armed with a single 5.5 inch and two small guns, served by a crew of 35 sailors and officers.

Frigate Fujiyama (1863)
This wooden hull full rigged ships was built in New York. She was acquired by the Shogun in 1866, two years after launch, and commissioned as “Fuji Yama” into the Navy, earmed locally with one 6.5 in and two 6 in guns. She served actively until 1880 and was converted into a training ship, sold in 1896. She displaced 1000 tons, was 207 feets long at the waterline (63 x 1.03 x 3.27m), had a shaft mated do a reciprocating engine rated for 350 ihp, giving her 13 knots. Her original armament was lighter, one 6.3 in puzzle loading (160 mm) and two 5.9 in (150 mm) and ten small guns. Crew was 134.

Frigate Kasuga (1863)
This full rigged, wooden-hull ship was purchased from China (1863 Chiangtzu) in 1867 by the Satsuma clan. She served as personal yacht for the Shogun, she served with the Imperial Navy in 1869 as a dispatch vessel. She displaced 1289 tons, was 248 feets 6 in long at the waterline (75.7 x 8.8 x 3.96m) was propelled was one shaft, HR engine rated for 1217 ihp and 9 knots. She was armed with a single 7.7 in (177 mm) gun and four 4.5 in (114 mm) plus two 30 pdr (90 mm) served by a crew of 138.

Frigate Kaiyō Maru (1865)
This particular ship was a composite hull, full rigged mixed ships built in the Netherlands, at C.Gips and Sons, Dordrecht, Netherlands, it was laid down in August 1863, launched on 3 November 1865, and Commissioned on 10 September 1866. Construction of what was then the largest wooden ship ever built in the Netherlands, was overseen by a Japanese military mission under Uchida Masao and Akamatsu Noriyoshi. In January 1868 Kaiyō Maru fought at the battle of Awa off Awaji Island. Along with Banryū Maru and Hazuru Maru she duelled against Satsuma Navy’s Kasuga Maru, Hōō Maru, and Heiun Maru. In late January 1868, she fled to Hokkaido, under Admiral Enomoto Takeaki carrying French military advisors including Jules Brunet. As part of the Hokkaido navy’s flagship of the Ezo Republic she was wrecked off Esashi during a storm in November 1868. She was rediscovered by a submarine in 1968, exactly one century after, her remains were gradually located and exhumated from the sea floot from 1974 to 1985. With all these elements, the ship was replicated in 1990 and is now located at Esashi, near the location of the original wreck.

Gunboat Kankō Maru (1852)

Another actor of the Boshin war, this was Japanese first steam-powered warship, presented to the Tokugawa shogunate as a gift from King William III of the Netherlands. This was a gesture for head of the Netherlands Trading Society to established diplomatic relations opening of Japanese ports to Dutch commerce. This was a gunboat, wooden-hulled, Jackass-barque-rigged, with paddle wheels, displacing 781 t (769 long tons), and 66 m (216 ft 6 in) o/a in lenght for 9.1 m (29 ft 10 in) at the beam and a draught of 4.2 m (13 ft 9 in), propelled by a Coal-fired steam engine rated for 150 hp (110 kW) and armed with one 60 pdr muzzle-loading gun, two 30 pdr long barrel muzzle-loading gun, and one 30 pdr muzzle-loading gun. She became a training ship to the newly formed Nagasaki Naval Training Center, and later transferred to the new Tsukiji Naval Training Center in Edo in April 1857, and was later held by the Meiji government on 28 April 1868, on the Imperial side. She was part of the new IJN after the war, until 1876, whe she was retired and scrapped. Since the Dutch shipyard still possessed the original plans, Verolme Shipyards in the Netherlands replicated her in 1987, and is now a tourist ship, touring Japan from the Huis Ten Bosch theme park in Sasebo, Nagasaki.

Shogun II fall of the Samurai
CA’s Shogun II fall of the Samurai expansion is probably the only video game rendition of Japanese ships of the era.

Corvette Kanrin Maru (1855)
Kanrin Maru
This particular ship, ordered in 1853 at the F.Smit, Kinderdijk yards in the Netherlands, was acquired in 1857 and became the first sail and screw-driven steam corvette of the Japanese Navy. It was presented to the shōgun’s government, the Bakufu, delivered on September 21, 1857 (named “Japan”), by Lt. Willem Huyssen van Kattendijke of the Dutch navy and used at the Naval School of Nagasaki to familiarize Japanese students with Western warship technology. Screw-driven steam warships were relatively new in the West as it was first introduced by HMS Rattler (1843), and previously the civilian ship SS Archimedes. The ship was copy of the Dutch navy’s schooner-rig Bali built in 1856. First mission saw the Kanrin Maru sailing to the United States to show the Japanese has mustered western navigation techniques and ship tech, at San Francisco. This was an historical event, being the second official Japanese embassy to cross the Pacific Ocean after the San Juan bautista in 1614. The object of the embassy was to sign and ratify a new treaty of Friendship, Commerce, and Navigation. However at the fall of 1867 the Bakufu government was found at war with the Imperial Forces. The ship eventually took refuge with a fleet of eight surviving warships in the north of Japan under orders of Enomoto Takeaki (Republic of Edo), but was eventually lost in a typhoon, and finished off by Imperial artillery and captured. Now part of the new IJN, she was lost a second time in a typhoon, this time fatally in 1871, at Esashi.

Corvette Kaiten (1851)

This particualt ship had a double life: First she was SMS Danzig, first steam-powered warship of the Prussian Navy, involved in the Battle of Tres Forcas in 1856, a punitive expedition against Riffian pirates. She was later decommissioned from the Prussian Navy because if dry rot hull damage in 1862, and reformed as paddle steamers were now obsolete. Sold to the English firm Dorset and Blythe for 56,000 taler, she found a new customer: The Japanese Tokugawa shogunate, renamed Kaiten (回天) from 1864. She was rearmed with 13 cannons, and participated in the Boshin War by forces loyal to the shōgun and became a key actor in the Naval Battle of Miyako Bay. She tried to to board and overtake the Kōtetsu, but forced to flee and becale later the flagship of the Ezo navy, in the Battle of Hakodate Bay. She survived some time but was beached at Aomori Bay near Hakodate on 6 May 1869 and burned by her crew on 20 Juneto prevent capture.

Corvette Chōyō Maru (1856)
Chōyō Maru sinking
The sinking of the Chōyō Maru in May 1869 by Ezo paddle schooner Banryū.

The Tokugawa shogunate isolatiin policy was only broken by limited foreign trade with the Dutch and the Chinese and exclusively at Nagasaki under strict state control. No foreigners were allowed to set foot in Japan while no travel ws allowed for Japanese. However by 1844, King William II of the Netherlands urged the Shogun to end the policy before the contry was forced to do so. Which happened after the visit of Commodore Perry in 1853. To the intense debate that erupted within the Japanese government on how to handle this event the consensus that emerged was to bolster Japan’s coastal defenses. Many feudal domains took immediate steps to construct or purchase warships and out the few reverse-engineered, old designs that were available, obsolete by the time of their completion the Tokugawa shogunate issued an order to the Dutch for two new warships. The first was the Kanrin-Maru (see above) and the second vessel was Yedo, later renamed Chōyō Maru.
This was a three-masted wooden-hulled corvette rigged as a schooner and fitted with an auxiliary one-cylinder coal-fired 100 ihp (75 kW) reciprocating steam engine and two screws. She was 49 metres (160 ft 9 in) long overall and displaced 600 tons and was armed by twelve muzzle-loading cannon. Based on HNS Bali she was built at the C. Gips & Sons shipyard at Dordrecht. She arrived at Nagasaki in May 1858, renamed, assigned as a training ship and the Naval Training Center under supervision of H. van Kattendijke, but it was closed in 1859. The ship was then transferred to the new Tsukiji Naval Training Center in Edo. In 1862, she participated in a colonization expedition to the Ogasawara Islands and next year, the First Chōshū expedition, but was captured on the process. In 1864 she quelled the pro-sonnō jōi forces (Mito Rebellion) and later with the Imperial Japanese Navy she took part in the Boshin War, and sent north to Ezo (Hokkaido), fought at Hakodate, engaged Kaiten Maru and other ships and fired over 40 shots. In May she was engaged by the paddle schooner Banryū and one luck hit caused a massive explosion and she sank wirh nearly all hands.

Corvette Tsukuba (1953)
This wooden screw corvette was the British ex-Malacca acquired in 1870 and rearmed in 1892 with modern 6 in QF breech-loading rifled guns. The was built at Moulmain, in Burma, 1947 tons for 192 feets long (58.6 x 10.6 x 5.48 m), had a single reciprocating engine and 526 ihp for 10 knots, armed originally with six 4.5 in, two 30 pdr and two 24 pdr guns. She was scrapped in 1906.

Paddle Frigate Banryū (1956)

A british-built ship, at R & H Green of Blackwall, this iron paddle schooner named “Emperor” and presented to the Tokugawa Shogunate by the 8th Earl of Elgin as a present from Queen Victoria, completed as a royal yacht, with luxuriously furnished interiors, with sculptures and mirrors. She articipated in the Naval Battle of Awa, 28 January 1868, and served with Tokugawa loyalists and carried the Shogun Tokugawa Yoshinobu from Edo to exile. She served under the Republic of Ezo during the Boshin War in Japan after being seized by Enomoto Takeaki. This iron screw yacht was 41.8 metres long by 5.45 metres, and 3.23 metres of draught for a displacement of 370 tons and was armed by four 12-pounder bronze cannons. She als served at the Naval Battle of Miyako Bay in March 1869. During Battle of Hakodate Bay she sank the Imperial steam corvette Chōyō Maru but at theend of the battle, severely damaged and her ammunitions exhausted, she was beached near Benten Daiba and set on fire. After repairs and rebuilding in Shanghai she was renamed the SS Emperor, returned to Japan in 1873 as Raiden Maru and was eventually purchased by the Imperial Japanese Navy in 1877 as Raiden, used as a training vessel until 1888 but served later as awhaling ship out of Kochi, and other onwers until 1897.

Steamer Mikaho (1862)
Mikaho (美嘉保) was as small steamer warship used by the Bakufu (Shogunate) Navy around 1860. Enomoto Takeaki, vice-commander of the Navy, refused to cede his fleet to the new Imperial government and sailed for Shinagawa in August 1868, with Kaiyō, Kaiten, Banryū, Chiyodagata and four steam transports, among which the Kanrin, Mikaho, Shinsoku, Chōgei, many members of the Navy, members of the “Yugekitai” officials of the former Bakufu government and members of the French Military Mission but later encountered a typhoon off Choshi. The Mikaho was lost and Kanrin badly damaged.

Gunboat Un’yō (1868)
This iron-plated, wooden-hulled mixed gunboat served with the Imperial Japanese Navy. Rigged as a two-masted brig with a auxiliary coal-fired steam engine, she was ordered by the Chōshū Domain in 1868 and built by A. Hall & Co., Aberdeen, Scotland. In February 1870 sehe arrived and was commissioned as the Un’yō Maru. On July 25, 1871 however she was transferred to the Meiji government Imperial Japanese Navy, as Un’yo. She sailed to Kyūshū in 1874 and helped quell the Saga Rebellion. Next year she carried diplomats to Busan in Korea and returned later in 1875 under Inoue Yoshika to provoke a military response, the Ganghwa Island incident opning the Peninsula to Japanese trade. Next year she assisted the suppression of the Hagi Rebellion of disaffected former samurai. She later ran aground off the coast of the Kii Peninsula, and was scrapped.

Paddle steamer Chōgei Maru (1956)
Little information is available over this paddle steamer built in England, composite hull, brick-rigged, used for transportation, carrying troops faithful to the shōgun during the Boshin War. After the end of the Boshin War, she was used to transport wounded rebels to Tokyo.

Composite Gunboat Shinsoku (1956)
A composite hulled ship, rigged as a schooner, built in the USA and called SS meteor, she was used as a steam transport during the Boshin War on the Shogunate side. Enomoto Takeaki was vice-commander of the Shogunate Navy. During the Battle of Hakodate, she was fought on the Shogunate side and later tried to assist the Kaiyō Maru off the coast of Esashi, but she also capsized and sank in the process.

Armoured corvette Ryūjō (1869)
This broadside armoured corvette was built as a private venture, speculative offer by Aberdeen (Scotland) during the Boshin war. First idea was probably to deliver the ship to the Confederacy, but this of course never happened. Placed into the open market, the ship was bought by Prince Hizen in 1869, loaned to the Emperor. This composite hull 1500 tons ship was completed in march 1869 and apparently served during the war, and was returned to the Prince, and then integrated into the new IJN in 1870. She underwent a refit and at that time, Japan purchased many Krupp guns. She received therefore a single 6 in and five 6.3 in breech-loading guns. She served until 1898 and was mothballed and finally scrapped in 1904.
The Ryujo was 1429 tons, 213 feets (65 pp x 10.5 x 5.3 m), with one a shaft reciprocating 800 ihp giving her 9 knots and carried 350 tons of coal. She was served by a crew of 274 sailors and officers.

Corvette Nisshin (1869)
This barque-rigged wooden hull ship was ordered at Cornelisz Gips & Sons, Dordrecht (Netherlands) during the war but not completed until after the Shogunate forces were defeated and was acquired by the Hizen clan. She joined the Imperial Navy in May 1870, and her original guns were replaced by Krupp breech-loading rifled models, six 4.7 in guns. She was removed from the active fleet in 30 May 1892 and scrapped a year after. She was 1490 tons, 203 feets long between parallels (61.8 x 8.76 x 4.2 m), with one shaft mated to a reciprocating engine rated for 710 ihp, 11 knots, and originally armed with Armstrong guns, a single 7.7 in and six 30 pdr served by a crew of 145.

Blueprint of the Nisshin (Conways)

Gunboat Moshun (1865)
The third class, composite, schooner-rigged gunboat Moshun was originally completed in 1867 as the steamer Eugenie. She was sold to the Hizen clan in February 1868 and taken over by the Imperial Navy in July 1869 for service in the civil war. She was presented to the navy by the clan in 1870, and hulked in 1887.
305 tons, 143 feets long (43.5/45.7 oa x 6.7 x 2.36 m), one shaft reciprocating HDA engine, rated for 120 hp, 10 knots, armed with one 7.7 in gun and two small guns, served by a crew of 88 officers and sailors.

Teibo class gunboats (1866)
Dai Ichi Teibo
These two third class, wooden gunboats were originally built for mercantile purposes. Dai Ichi Teibo had been completed in 1867 as the SS Hinda and the other also completed in 1867, was the SS Assunta. They were purchased by the Choshu clan in 1868 and renamed Teibo Maru No 1 and Teibo Maru No 2 respectively. Teibo Maru No 1 was lent to the Imperial Navy early in 1868 and armed for use in the civil war. In July she was returned to her owners but both vessels were given to the Imperial Navy as gifts in 1870, and renamed Dai Ichi Teibo and Dai Ni Teibo. Dai Ichi Teibo was used as a survey vessel from 1873 until she was wrecked in the Kurile Islands in 1875. Dai Ni Teibo was removed from the operational fleet in 1885 and wrecked at Anori Point, Shimane Ken, on 2 April 1885.
These London-built barque-rigged third class gunboats were 236 tons ships, 125 feets long overall (38 oa x 6.4 x 2.28 m), one shaft reciprocating DA engine, 60 ihp for 10 knots, amred with one 5.9 and one 5.5 in (Dai ichi Teibo) or two 6.5 in BLR and two small guns (Dai Ni Teibo).

The Japanese Imperial Navy of the 1870s)

Before the 1894 war, which was mostly a test of the “Jeune Ecole” influence advocating using armoured cruisers and torpedo boats and showing that nothing was more worthy of classic hardcore battleships, the Japanese Navy had a composite fleet of older, 1870s rigged ships, including the central battery ironclad Fuso and armoured corvettes. These are not very well known ships, and that’s why they are seen there.

Fuso, central battery ironclad (1877)
Fuso 1877
Fuso blueprint
Blueprint (Conways)

The Fuso was laid down in September 1875 part of an ambitious program that prepared a war between Japan and Korea. The deign was ordered to Sir Edward Reed as a smaller Iron Duke. She was barque-rigged equipped with machinery from penn and Sons of Greenwhich. These were two pairs of CHSCT engines for a radius of 400 nm, at 10 knots. However the guns were from Krupp in germany and the layout was inspired by the French Redoutable class. Launched in march 1877 at Samuda Bros., poplar, the Fuso was completed in 1878. In 1894, just before the war with China, she was taken in hand for a complete overhaul. The mainmasts were removed, military masts fitted instead, te old 6 in/50 QF guns were replaced by a 6.7 in and two 6 in/50, one on the front deck and one on the rear deck. This was completed by eleven 3 pdr QF guns, and two above water 18 in (457 mm) TTs. Present at the battle of Yalu, Fuso was damaged but was repaired. She collided three years after with the Matsushima and ran aground on Shikoku Island. After extensive repairs and a new refit at Kure in 1898-99 where she received 6 in guns to replace her old 9.4 in ones, she had some extra 3-Pdr added; She was reclassified as a coast defence ship and managed to survived until 1908, discarded and broken up in 1910.

Evolution of the Fuso 1878-1894.

Kongo class armoured corvettes (1877)

Design of these ships was prepared by Sir Edward Reed, based on the Russian cruiser General Admiral. They also ahd some influence from the British Gem class cruisers. These were composite-hull, for the Kongo and iron hull for the Hiei, built respectively at Earle’s Sb Co, Hull and Milford Haven Sb co. Pembroke. Launched in April 1877 and June 1877, they were completed in January and March 1878. These 2200 tons ships were capable of a 3100 nautica Miles radius at 10 knots. A first 1895 refit saw their top masts removed and replaced by military masts. In addition an extra 1 pdr gun was added and in 1903 two 3 in, two 2-1/2 Pdr and six MGs. Hiei fought at the battle of Yalu, severely damaged by the Chinese battleships. The Kongo was involved in the Hawaiian revolution of 1898. Both ships were removed afterwards from service, used as survey vessels. Hiei was discarded in 1911 and Kongo in 1909.

Corvette Asama (1869)
The composute hull Asama was purchased from France in 1874 and relegated to training in 1887, removed from the list in 1887 but served as a torpedo school ship at Yokosuka. She was 1442 tons, 228 feets long (69.72 x 8.76 x 4.26m) and has a single reciprocating shaft HC, for 300 ihp and 11 knots. She was armed with eiht 6.7 in and four 4.5 in guns.

Screw sloop Seiki (1875)
Seiki was a barque-rigged, wooden hulled sip, first to be built at Yokosuka NyD, managed by French engineers, and construction was supervized by engineer Verny and his staff. The ship had a single shaft reciprocating HCRA engine ablt to give 443 ihp for 9.5 knots. She was 897 tonnes, 203 feets long (60.96 x 9.14 x 3.96 m), armed with a single 5.9 in (150 mm), a 4.7 in (120 mm), a 6-pdr (55 mm) Krupp guns and three 4-barrelled Nordenfelt machine guns. Crew was 167. She was the first Japanese warhip to visit the British Isles, but was later grounded in the Fuji river off Suruya Wan, a constructive total loss in December 1888.

Screw sloop Amagi (1877)

This wooden-hulled ships was slightly larger and more heavily armed version of the Seiki, both built at the same Yard, mounting identical machinery, but power was almost doubled n Amagi, from 430 to 720 ihp to give an extra 2 knots. She was armaed with Krupp guns, with a 6.7 in (170 mm), four 4.7 in (120 mm), thre 12-dpr, and three Nordenfelt MGs, reclassed as a gunboat in 1898 and sold for scrap just before before the Russo-Japanese war.

Paddle corvette Jingei (1876)
This wooden-hull paddle corvette took nine years to complete at Yokosuka NyD, and it may have been the result of result of problems arising with the installation of her machinery. She served as an Imperial yacht before being relegated to the role of training ship in 1894.

Kaimon class corvettes (1882)
These barque-rigged corvettes were the most effective of the smaller types of warship in service in the Japanese Navy towards the end of the 19th Century. They were built under French supervision an completed with Krupp armament at Yokosuka NyD, both later were refitted, a new bow replacing the original graceful knee stem, and military masts replacing the fore and main masts. The ships carried out a number of operations during the Russo-Japanese war, the Kaimon being lost off Talien Wan Bay in July 1904 when strucking a mine. Tenryu survived the war and was finally removed from service in 1906.


gunboat Hosho (1868)
The composite-built gunboat Hosho (launched 1868, completed 1869) was fully-rigged, built at A Hall & Co, Aberdeen, purchased in 1872. She was 316 tons, 144 feets long (43.9 m pp, 6.7 m wide, 2.05 m draught). She carried a single shaft reciprocating HDA engine rated for 240hp, giving 11 knots with 110 tons of coal. She was armed with a single 7.7 inch and a 5.5 inch gun.

Gunboat Banjo (1878)

This small, wooden-hulled gunboat was built at Yokosuka NyD, laid down in February 1877, launched in July 1878 and completed in August 1880. She was active during the 1894 and 1906 wars, but discarded before 1913. She had a prominent poop. A small 656 tons ship, she was 154 feets long (46.9 x 7.88 x 3.9 m) and had a single recopcrocating HC engine, rated for 590 hp, which provided her 10.1/2 knots, and carried 107 tons of coal. She was armed with one 5.9 in gun, one 7.7 in, two 12-pdr, and three 4-barreled Nodenfelt machine guns.

Gunboat Raiden (1856)
This Blackwall-built gunboat was launched in 1856. She was a paddle yacht (armed) of the Shogun. Formerly HMS Emperor, presented to the Shogun and accepted as a good will present by Queen Victoria back in 1856. This barquentine-rigged ship was renamed Banryu first, but was eventually acquired by the Imperial forces in 1868. In april she deserted for the Shogunate forces and after the war, was sold to an American commercial company. She was re-purchased by the Emperor in 1873 and commissionned as the Raiden in 1877. She was sold and broken up in 1888. She displaced 400 tons, was 135 feets long (41.15 x 6.7 x 2.6 m), had one shaft reciprocating HDA engine rated for 600 hp, giving her a top speed of 9 knots. Her only armament comprised four old muzzle loading guns. It is not known if she was rearmed afterwards.

Maya class gunboats (1885)
These four schooner-rigged vessels were ordered under the 1882 Programme, the first two having iron hulls (Onohama Kobe, Ishikawajima Tokyo), the third a combination of iron and steel (Yokosuka NyD), and the fourth an all steel hull (Onohama, Kobe). The Akagi was distinguished from the other ships by having a raised foc’s’le. The ships were later re-armed, the Chokai and Maya having two 5.9in guns, which on the Maya were again altered to four 4.7in in 1906. The other two vessels were both given four 4.7in QF. Maya and Chokai were scrapped in 1913-1914, Akagi sold in 1912 but Atago was sunk on 6.11.1904.

Oshima (1891):
The Oshima (started 1889, launched 1891) was notable for being the first ship to be equipped with Japanese built VTE machinery. The steel-hulled vessel showed strong French influence in her design, with pronounced ram, and the guns being sited on the foc’s’le and poop and on sponsons amidships. She was a 630 ton ship, 175 feets long (53.5 x 8 x 2.75m), with two shafts reciprocating VTE engines, rated for 1200 ihp enough for 16 knots. She was armed with four 4.7 in guns and fove 3-pdr QF guns, served by a crew of 130.

Read More:
List of Meiji era ships
List of IJN ships
Conway’s all the world fighting ships 1860 -1905

The Crimean War (1853-55)

This conflict, as questionable were its goals, saw for the first time cargo ships and armored batteries demonstrates their usefulness, as well as the Paixhans carronades, well adapted the parabolic fire of fortification bombardment.

The Russian demonstrated themselves at Sinope, at the very opening of the War, as deadly and efficient these new explosive shells could be, wiping out the almost entire Turkish fleet with unsignificant casualties on their side.

The Crimean War is rooted in the willingness of the Russian empire to put an end to the domination of the Ottoman Empire, “The sick man of Europe”, while guaranteeing itself access to the Black Sea.

Battle of Sinope 1853
Prelude: The battle of Sinope (1853), where the Russian fleet anhiliated the Turkish Ottoman fleet using the brand new Paixhans explosive shells.

The Russians seen themselves-the tradition was passed through the Cossack struggle since the XVIth century- as the champions of opressed peoples against the Ottoman empire. The British, which had long-term commercial treaties with the “sublime door”, see the Russian ambitions over the black-sea and Constantinople, as a threat to their free trade in this area.

Napoleon III, as did the Tsar, are challenging themselves to see who would offer protection to the holy places of Jerusalem.

The French were also reserved the favor of this protection to themselves. Annoyed, the Tsar turned to the British, offering an alliance to put an end to Turkish rule over the holy places. The latter refused, fearing that the Russians could have an access in the Mediterranean.

The Tsar then decided to make the law for itself and attacked the Turkish fleet in the Black Sea (Sinope) and invaded Rumania (Ottoman territory) and the Caucasus, were also black oil and coal were abundant, needed to the emerging Russian industry.

Against all odds, Napoleon III, willing to equal the glory of his great-uncle, saw an opportunity and asked for an alliance with London, for the first time since the Crusades. War is declared on March 27, 1854.


A combined fleet headed by Lord Raglan, commander-in-chief of the allied forces, rallied in the Mediterranean and landed troops in the Crimean peninsula at Eupatoria. After losing many men by illness, the real landing took place at the North of Sebastopol.

Diorama of the siege of Sevastopol and painting of Roubault
Diorama of the siege of Sevastopol and painting of Roubault.

A decisive victory is achieved on the Alma, and the allies marched on the fortress of Sebastopol, beginning a long siege of two years, burying in trenches. The situation remains hopelessly frozen, despite the coastal bombings and reinforcement of the Piedmontese and Sardinians, the interior remains inaccessible. The Russians desperately counter-attacked but were repelled each time with heavy losses in both sides.

The famous charge of the British Light Brigade, originated in a misunderstanding, although unfructiful, became legendary under the pen of Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Soon after, the battle of Balklava, south of Sebastopol, really took the brunt of allied forces. The real attack came on September 8, 1855, when Marshal MacMahon at the head of his Zouaves stormed Fort Malakoff. From this breakthrough, the Allies eventually bring down the place.

The bombardment of Bomarsund in the Baltic
The bombardment of Bomarsund in the Baltic

But the Russians have previously withdrew, crossing the strait on a pontoon bridge and blew up the remaining magazines. The Allied engineers ensured that the fortifications were erased for good, preventing any return of the Russians there. On March 30, 1856, the Tsar asked for and obtained peace, signed in Paris.

The prestige and influence of Napoleon III has been strengthened and thus, convincing him to carry two other campaigns, one successful, the Italian war against Austria, and one which achieved nothing, the Mexican adventure. But his confidence over his army and his own capabilities proved eventually fatal against the Prussians in 1870…

French floating batteries in action at Kinburn. Below, Lave, one of the devastation-class batteries engaged.

For the Russians, as the Emperor himself stated, this was only a minor defeat (“sebastopol is not moskow”). The Russians will remained in the Caucasus and eventually seized once again the Crimean peninsula. But the conflict showed how was important to equal modern, industrialzed countries like Great Britain and France, leading to a stream of reforms by his successor, Nikolai II. However, the “sick man of Europe” never recovered.

With the loss of its most formidable fleet, what was left began to crumble, and the Ottoman empire losed all its territories in the Balkans, and others after, until the first world war, where it was reduced to the territory of nowadays Turkey.

Map Crimean war
Map of the Crimean war, operations and moves in the Black sea.

On the maritime side of this war, we will saw a panorama of no less than four naval powers, as they were in 1852. Both Great Britain and France were unrivalled becaused of their wealthiness and industrial might, although France was still much more rural than industrial per capita, with export/imports and steel production far beyond the United kingdom, its engineers made it possible to built the very first steamship of the line, the Napoleon.

This ship was launched in 1850 and was part of the french squadron. It demonstrated, as well as the armoured prams (Devastation class) combined with heavy mortars and Paixhans shells, how efficient this combination could be against fortifications.


Soon after the Crimean war, the British admiralty ordered several ships of the line to be converted also. In 1870, steamships were the bulk of both fleet, by far. The Russian fleet however, was less impressive and much more classical. Its only innovation -which proved decisive however- was the adoption of Paixhans shells. On the paper, the Turkish fleet was even greater, but many of its ships lacked of everything, including trained gunmen and crewmen.

Its ships were sitting ducks at Sinope. They were mercilessly hammered and took so much punishment in so few time, that they were soon silenced and burned to the bottom.

Significant events:
> Battle of Sinope: Which saw the doom of the Turkish fleet.
> Naval bombardments: How the Russian forts were overwhelmed.

The battle of Sinope, 1853

The Royal Navy in 1853

This chapter is after the world biggest navy in the world. From its outstanding military success against the Napoleonic and Spanish fleets under Nelson command, the Royal Navy grew constantly as well as the Empire. It was in 1820, and remains until 1850, a massive, unrivalled force of 130 ships, with at least twenty three deckers. However, despite the success of its civilian steamships and its pioneering role in steam history (Archimedes, the first screw steamship, SS Great Britain, the first iron hulled liner, etc..), the navy was -by nature- conservative.

The arch-enemy, the French, under Napoleon III, seems to have never seriously considered a war with Britain. However, the Crimean war gave the British the sight of new technological advances, which could change naval tactics and were to be considered. The first step was the French Napoleon, showing in 1854 that the steam was not only fit for gunboats-class ships. But as early as 1852, the screw ship of the line, 92 guns HMS Agamemnon, was launched, entering service in 1854. Many other followed or were converted.

In 1862, they were no less than 56, built as such or converted while on the stocks, outnumbering the french by two to one. (The objective then was to built a navy able to cope with both French and Russian fleets). This force was added to a fleet of 10 active sailing ships of the line, 9 guardships/blockships, and 27 more still in the effective list (among them, three 120 guns), giving a grand total of no less than 91 two and three-deckers ships.

HMS Duke of Wellington illustration
Author’s illustration of the Duke of Wellington
HMS Duke of Wellington: The biggest British screw ship of the line ever, and shortly before arrival of the Ironclad era, the biggest warship afloat ever. The DoW was a former sailing ship, converted while on the stock in 1852. She was even bigger than the French Valmy.

And this fleet counted no less than two screw 130 guns, five 120 guns, two 110 and six 101 guns flaghips. They were second rate as well as third rate (90 to 60 guns). Fourth and fifth rate were now an obsolete classification.

The Carronade, a scottish (than British) discovery, was still largely used on brigs and corvettes in 1852, and Paixhans shells were massively produced. The french armoured batteries that reduced the Russian forts in rumbles were noticed as a curiosity.

But in 1859, the French Gloire stirred the press in Britain, although the admiralty was less impressed. Plans for a much more powerful iron hulled ironclad were already drawn, and by 1860, the HMS Warrior was built. (See the franco-prussian war for the Royal Navy in 1870).

To summarize the Royal Navy during the 1853-55 campaign in Crimea, a handful of ships were given the task to cover the landings, and neutralizing the Russian forts. Many blockships, originally made to deal with the ever-lasting threat of a French invasion, were given some rigging and used succesfully as bombardment ships in Crimea.

British empire naval forces, order of battle :
– Screw three deckers : HMS Wellington (131 guns, 1852), Conqueror (131 guns, 1855) Marlborough (131 guns, 1855), Royal Albert (121 guns, 1854), St Jean D’Acre (101 guns, 1853), Waterloo (120 guns, 1833-converted 1854).
– Screw two deckers : 18 two-deckers from 1852 to 1855, ranging from 72 to 91 guns. Some were sailing ships converted in 1854-55.
– Screw frigates : Unknown.
– Screw Corvettes : Unknown.
– Screw guard ships and blockships : nine old 74 guns, dating back from 1809 to 1822 and converted from 1837 to 1855. None fought in Crimea.
– Paddle frigates : Unknown.
– Paddle corvettes : Unknown.
– Screw sloops : Unknown.
– Paddle sloops : Unknown.
– Screw gunboats : Unknown.
– Sailing ships of the Line : 10 ships from the first to the third rate (120-74 guns), dating back 1821 to 1844, and 27 other waiting to be cast from the effective list.
– Sailing Frigates : Unknown.
– Sailing corvettes : Unknown.
– Brigs : Unknown.

The French Navy in 1853

This chapter is after the second world biggest navy in the world. Despite the complete loss of the old, royalist french fleet during the revolution and the napoleonic era, the new kings reestablished its rank while building a constant array of sailing corvettes, frigates and ships of the line.

When Napoleon III came to power, it was obvious that a strong navy was the only way to built and sustain a colonial empire, as to be a threat over English seatrade net. The industrial weight of France was built mostly since the arrival of a new bourgeoisie under king Louis-Philippe. By its size, it was far below the level attained by the United Kingdom, but still capable of making good steal plates and complex artillery pieces.

The military research during Napoleon III, both for the army and navy,was well-favored and well-deserved by skilled engineers from the elite technical schools founded by Napoleon Bonaparte fifty years before. So in 1850, everything was ready for some breakthrough in naval warfare in france.

Dupuy de Lôme and Paixhans : These two frenchmen, one a succesful engineer, the other a resourceful officer, gave France the edge in military technology, the first while conceiving the very first steamship of the line (the Napoleon), and the second, the naval high explosive shell. As Paixhans guns were quickly adopted by many navies, the Napoleon was the very first of its kind.

Until then, naval conservatism and defiance toward steam prevented any such attempt. In 1840, the only military steamships were light dispatch vessels, and gunboats, only fielding a handful of medium and light guns. The only reliable propeller available then was the sidewheel system. A single hit in one of these, and the ship was doomed. So not only these ships were always fully rigged, but they never fully included in the naval fleets or admitted in exercises.

But the adoption of the screw (by the british Archimedes in 1837) began to change the way steam power could be used onboard ships. The very first screw steamships were civilian liners and dispatch (mail) ships. This was usually a lifting screw, and by windy weather, the ship ususally proceed by sail only. The first major screw steamship ever to be built was Brunel SS.

Great Britain, which was also the first all-iron liner. It was to impress so much the French that Dupuy de Lôme decided to plan a major warship with a screw. This led to the Napoleon. Despite some strong septicism from the admiralty, the enthusiastic Napoleon III ordered one to be built in 1848. And then, the very first was ready for the end of 1850, quickly followed by several sister-ships, and commtied succesfully in trials and naval exercises.

napoleon steamship
The Napoleon was the first steam two-decker (plus one incomplete) ever to use steam propulsion and a lifting screw, as well as beeing fully rigged. It was based on the usual first class warship of the time, the 90-guns.

In fact the Napoleon was followed by Algésiras, Arcole, Imperial and Redoutable launched in 1855-56, all beeing 5040 tons in displacement. In 1853, two 80-guns of 4330 tons were launched (Duquesne and Tourville), and the three Wagram class in 1854 (4560 tons), 90 guns. The Charlemagne (80 guns, 4060 tons) was launched in 1851, Jean Bart (76 guns, 4010 tons) and Austerlitz (86 guns, 4430 tons) in 1852. Many other steam ships-of-the-line were built during the crimean war (see 1870 records), as well as nine other sailing two-deckers of 90-guns converted as steamships from 1857 to 1860.

Some three-deckers were also converted, in fact, all four of the Friedland class (5170 tons, 114 guns) in 1854-58, and the Montebello (4920 tons, 114 guns), converted in 1852 was the only one which served during the Crimean war. The very first purpose-built steam three-deckers was the impressive Bretagne, a 6770 tons, 130 guns.

Unfortunately she was launched only in 1855 and therefore was not in service before the war ended. Depite of this, she demonstrated that even such gigantic ships could be propelled by steam power. Of course, cumbersome boilers and an enormous amount of coal in such ships led to gave them a deeper hull below waterline, thus reducing their habilities to be anchored in many shallow water ports.

The Crimean war allowed this new breed of warship to be put on the test. The Napoleon, as well as its sister-ships performed well against the Russian forts. In fact, one episode was so famous that it changed completely the way the British admiralty seen these French experiments…

Heavily pounded and its rudder disabled, one of the french sailing three deckers was pushed by the current near the forts and the reefs, when she was took in charge and towed by Napoleon out of any danger(the weather was sunny and very calm, perfect for gunnery practice, but all windless sailing ships were unable to evolve). This episode proved that the steam power, not only still allowed the ship to bombard succesfully the forts, but also to save an almost doomed traditional three-deckers.

The Paixhans guns were also put to the test. During the Sinope naval engagement, the Russian fleet famously burned most of the Ottoman fleet, which was almost unable to respond. Later in Crimea, some relatively light, french floating batteries were able to bombard the forts, blewing up their magasines and burning the unprotected crews from above (they fired on parabolic angles).

The batteries, of the Devastation class, were specially built for this task, and were also heavily protected, in fact, they were armoured floating batteries, and remained all safe from the Russian replies.

French naval forces, order of battle :
– Screw three deckers : Montebello (114 guns, converted in 1852) in service as 1854.
– Screw two deckers : Napoleon (1850), Charlemagne (1851), Jean Bart (1852), Austerlitz (1852), two Fleurus class (1853), two Duquesne class (1853), three Navarin class (1854).
– Screw frigates : Isly (1849, 2690 guns, 40 guns), Bellone (1853, 2350 tons, 36 guns) and Pomone (1845, 1900 tons, 36 guns).
– Screw Corvettes : The two D’Assas class (1854, 2100 tons, 16 guns), the three Primauguet class (1852, 1900 tons, 10 guns), Roland (1850, 1970 tons, 8 guns), and three iron hull ships : Reine Hortense (1846), Caton (1847), and Chaptal (1845).
– Screw Devastation class armoured floating batteries : Five purpose-built ships launched in 1855 and ready in time for the end of the war.
– Paddle frigates : 19 ships, all from 1841 to 1848. Ranging from 20 to 8 guns, and 2460 to 2820 tons.
– Paddle corvettes : 14 ships, from 1838 to 1851, ranging from 900 to 1600 tons, and from 4 to 10 guns, two were Iron hulled.
– Screw sloops : 5 ships : Biche, Corse, Lucifer, Marceau class, and Sentinelle. From 400 to 900 tons, 120-150 nhp, 2-6 guns. 13 other built after the war.
– Paddle sloops : 37 ships from 1830 to 1855, 400 to 900 tons, and 2-6 guns.
– Screw gunboats : 26 mixed sail-steam 2 to 4 guns ships, and 31 iron hulled one-gun, steam only batteries.
– Sailing ships of the Line : Valmy (114 guns), Hercules and Jemmapes (90 guns), Iéna, Inflexible and Sufren (82 guns), Jupiter (80) and Duperré (70).
– Sailing Frigates : 27 ships ranging from 38 to 56 guns.
– Sailing corvettes : 11 ships of 22 guns and one of 38 guns.
– Brigs : 21 ships equipped with 8 to 14 carronades and one with two heavy paixhans Mortars.

The Russian Navy in 1853

As Russian main industry was agriculture, they were few facilities skilled enough to deliver reliable steam engines as 1850. So far, the bulk of the fleet was made of many sailing three and two deckers, equipped with 130 to 74 guns. The former navy was built carefully during Peter the Great and Catherine of Russia rules.

St Petersburg was a major warship harbour of strategic importance for all baltic sea, as well as Sebastopol in Crimea. The majority of the screw vessels were built from 1856 to 1860, after the Crimean war, and the major ships were all based in Baltic, while frigates and corvettes were based equally in the mediterranean and in the Far east. The very first Russian ironclad was built in 1865. It was based on a frigate and converted in 1862 at Kronstadt.

As in the Russian perspective, the French and British were Christian nations, and as such the fact they could wage war against Russia to defend the Ottoman Turks was unbelievable. So the Russian navy, in relative understrenght compared to the Ottoman navy, but counting half of Paixhans guns, attacked the squadron at Sinope, the black sea stronghold, as the first move against the Ottoman empire.

This was purchased notably to ensure safe passage of troops and materials in the black sea. Obvious Russian ambitions in the mediterranean, were both the French and the British has commercial and strategic interests, as well as the well-known weakness of the Ottoman empire, came as a threat sufficient enough to intervene. During the whole Crimean war, no Russian ship was ever commited against the allied armada. They relied on forts.

The Akeksander Nevski flagship of the Russian navy, an impressive first-rate, three deckers sailing ship of the line, which fought at Sinope.
The Russian navy, as for 1853, was no match for the combioned allied forces. They retreated and the bulk of the navy was stationed in the Baltic sea, were naval operations, once again, were directed toward an impressive line of naval fotifications.

Russian empire naval forces, order of battle :
– Screw three deckers : .
– Screw two deckers : .
– Screw frigates : Unknown.
– Screw Corvettes : Unknown.
– Paddle frigates : Unknown.
– Paddle corvettes : Unknown.
– Screw sloops : Unknown.
– Paddle sloops : Unknown.
– Screw gunboats : Unknown.
– Sailing ships of the Line :.
– Sailing Frigates : Unknown.
– Sailing corvettes : Unknown.
– Brigs : Unknown.

The Ottoman Navy in 1853

Mahmudiye in Istambul
Ottoman flagship Mahmudiye in Istambul

FOCUS: Mahmudiye, the largest ship in the world for many years.
Built on plans prepared by naval architect Mehmet Kalfa and naval engineer Mehmet Efendi at the Imperial Arsenal, Constantinople, she was Launched in 1829. She was 76.15 m (249.8 ft) long (hull only), for a 21.22 m (69.6 ft) beam, displacement unknown. Sailing ship only she was never converted to steam. One of the rare first-rate three deckers, she was in reality a four decker, with its utmost deck partially provided cannons and partially covered.
She carried a massive crew of 1,280 sailors on board, and her cannons ranged from 3-pounders (upper open deck) to 500-pounders stone firing bombards at the lowest deck.
She participated in the first Egyptian–Ottoman War in 1831, but in poor condition, because of her dry-rotted hull. She served as flagship and was assisted by a British Royal Navy to blockade the main Egyptian naval base at İskenderun, concluded by a long-range shalling on 18 August 1831. In 1839, an internal power struggle pushed the pro-Russian Husrev Pasha on the throne (Sultan Abdulmejid I) while the commander of the Ottoman fleet decided to take the bulk of the Ottoman fleet in Egypt. The ship was bargained for in July 1840 by the British an the Egyptians refused, this being followed by the bombardment of coastal cities, until the ship was returned to Constantinople. She also participated in the Siege of Sevastopol (1854–55) under command of Admiral Kayserili Ahmet Pasha and honored with the title Gazi for her successful mission. Although conversion to steam was considered, the hull was inspected before in Britain by the late 1850s, before it was discvered her poor condition prevented any attempt of reconstruction. The machinery reserved for her ended on the frigate Mubir-i Sürur instead.
The mighty Mahmudiye took no part in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–1878, being relegated as troop transport. But on 27 December, she was attacked by four Russian torpedo boats (as well as the ironclad Asar-i Tevfik), but missed. She was decommissioned in 1874 already and scrapped after the war.

Ottoman empire naval forces, order of battle :
After the battle of Navarino (1827), were the Russian Navy decisively defeated the Ottoman fleet, the Empire did no lost time rebuilding its fleet. In 1839, so fifteen years before the events of Crimea, some impressive ships had been purchased or built, including the massive Selimiye (1809), a 128 cannon, and in 1829 an even bigger vessel with the same number of guns, on four decks, the Mahmudiye. The former was probably not around in 1850 but the latter, certainly. At Sinope in November 1853, the Ottomn deployed a fleet of 7 frigates, 3 corvettes and 2 steamers. They were engaged by a larger Russian force of 6 ships of the line, 2 frigates and 3 steamers, using Paixhans bombs. The 44-gun Ottoman flagship was Auni Allah, confronted the Nakhimov’s lead ship 84-gun ship Imperatritsa Maria. One of the two steamers was the 12-gun paddle frigate Taif, sole to escape the disaster. Were lost that day all sailing frigates, Avni Illah (44 cannon), Fazl Illah (44), Nizamieh (62), Nessin Zafer (60), Navek Bahri (58), Damiat (56), Kaid Zafer (54)
– Four deckers : Mahmudiye (1829), 128 guns
– (Screw) three deckers : 96 cannons Fethiye class (1827-1836), 5 ships. Necm-i Zafer (1815, 74 cannons)
– (Screw) two deckers : Two 64 cannons, Hifz-i Rahmân (1826), Nusretiye class (1835-36, 3 ships)
– Screw frigates : Mecidiye (1846-48) Saik-i Şadi and Feyzâ-i Bahrî (30 guns), Mubir-i Sürur (1847) 22 guns.
– Corvettes (Sinope): Feyd Mabud (24), Kel Safid (22)
– Paddle frigates (Sinope): 12-gun paddle frigate Taif
– Sailing ships of the Line : Unknown
– Sailing Frigates : Hıfz-ı Rahmân 60, Feyz-i Mi’rac 48, Keyvan-ı Bahrî 48, Fevz-i Nusret 64, Bandino Seret (48), Mejra Zafer class (10 ships, 42 guns), Nouhan Bahari 50, M’sian Zafer 50, Chabal Bahari 50, Naoum Bahari 50, Muîn-i Rahmet 40, Avnillah 50, Yâver-i Tevfik 32, Suriye 56, Tâir-i Bahrî 62, Mirat-ı Zafer 44, Şihâb-ı Bahrî 64, Pîr-i Şevket 58, Nâvek-i Bahrî 42, Nusretiye 60,
Reşid, Avnillah 50 or 36, Nizâmiye 64 or 60, Nesîm-i Zafer 48 or 32, Fazlullah 48 or 38, Nâvek-i Bahrî 42 or 52, Dimyâd 42 or 54, Kâ’id-i Zafer 22 or 50, Nacm-i Zafer 52, Zır-i Cihat, Serafeddin.
– Sailing corvettes : Unknown.
– Brigs : Unknown.

Src/Read More

İsmail Hami Danişmend, İzahlı Osmanlı Tarihi Kronolojisi, 4. Cilt, Türkiye Yayınevi, p. 148.
Candan Badem, The Ottoman Crimean War (1853-1856), Brill, 2010, p. 117.
Winfield, Rif (2008). British Warships in the Age of Sail 1793–1817: Design, Construction, Careers and Fates. Seaforth Publishin

Battle of Santiago de Cuba (july, 3, 1898)

Engraving of the Battle of Santiago
Spanish Armada vs US Navy

Cuba’s decisive naval battle

The Battle of Santiago de Cuba, was seen by some as a naval “execution squad”, as US ships (with large firepower superiority) just awaited the Spanish squadron to leave and force its way out of Santiago’s bay. Some duelling occurred nevertheless, but the fate of the Spanish fleet in the Caribbean was decided this 3th of July, and all but precipitated the end of the war (and of the Spanish Empire).

Forces in Metropolitan Spain

By the time the war erupted over Cuba (and the sparkle which was the explosion of the Maine), Spain had its only ironclads and battleships, the Pelayo, and older Vitoria and Numancia in drydocks at La Seyne at Toulon, while the Mendez Nunez was in reserve, as well as the coastal battery Duque de Tetuan (1874) and the training ship Puigcerda, a monitor from 1874. The Emperador Carlos V and the Princesa de Asturias has been freshly accepted into service but were stationed at Cadiz and Cartagena, carrying out patrols during the war. Most of the torpedo boats were also stationed in Spain.

Author’s map of the battle of Santiago

Cervera’s squadron

In Cuban waters, the colonial squadron at the time of declaration of war was composed of a few minor units, while a strong squadron was just being assembled at the Cape Verde Islands, headed by Admiral Ocquendo. He commanded the armoured cruisers Vizcaya, Infanta Maria Teresa, Cristobal Colon, the destroyers Furor, Terror and Pluto, under the command of the best Spanish admiral, the respected Pascual Cervera y Topete. This officer and Gentleman, 59, was a former minister of the navy with 47 years under his belt, notably in Cuba that he knew well, as well as in the Far East. Cultured, polite, competent, courageous, he was appreciated by the court but much more by his men.

Spanish armoured cruiser Infanta Maria Teresa

At the time of declaration of war, Cervera proposed to Madrid that the fleet waited in the Canary Islands, as the U.S. Navy would not fail to track the coastal metropolitan areas, combining his forces with the squadron of Cartagena, sent as reinforcement. He planned to take in a pincer the “Yankees” and inflict them a crushing defeat. All his commanders had approved the plan. But to his dismay he learned that his orders were instead to defend Cuba as quickly as possible. He then departed in the same sad resolution than Admiral Sir Charles Cradock, sent to sacrifice against Spee’s superior ships off the Falklands.

He knew well that on paper his forces were outclassed by number and tonnage by the American ships, compounded by the fact they suffered from a poor supply of shells, had breech blocks issues left unaddressed, lack of maintenance (no fooling) such as Vizcaya could barely sustain 12 knots, not to mention the Cristobal Colon, which was so fresh she still then missed her main guns.

Cristobal Colon
Profile of the Cristóbal Colón prior to the battle. Notice the forward turret is there, but the gun is absent. A dummy one was fitted at the rear. It would have been one 254 mm (10 in)/45 cal. gun. Secondary armament comprised still two 8 in (203 mm)/45 cal. guns
and fourteen single 152 mm (6 in) guns. She has been sold shortly after completion to the Spanish Navy at Genoa on 16 May 1897.


Nonetheless the fleet leaved St. Vincent on April 29, 1898. A long detour which -it was believed- the squadron would run out quickly from coal, therefore the Americans thought it would rather join the fortified port of Puerto Rico first. Meanwhile on May 1, far away in Cavite (Manila Bay) in the Philippines, an American fleet sank at anchor, by surprise, the Spanish Pacific fleet. Back in the Carribean, Sampson knew he must also necessarily score points, even if only for the sport. But Cervera’s squadron was a far more serious prey than the collection of old colonial gunboats in the Far East. On May, 4, Admiral Sampson tried to intercept Cervera on its way to Cuba. On May 11, Sampason arrived at San Juan, and began to shell the harbor, thinking Cervera was there already. Faced with the evidence of his absence, he decided to sail back to Key West. He was to coal in Martinique and headed for Curacao.

Battleship USS Iowa

Then he returned to Key West where he was joined by Schley’s squadron on May 18. Key West was not far from Havana, so it seems unlikely that Cervera would try to risk lifting the blockade. It was believed the squadron would settle in the south of Cuba, to be anchored under the protection of the fortified ports in this area, at Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba. The combined American squadron, now under the command of Schley sailed to Cienfuegos. American confidence in the outcome of the battle ahead is such that the US Navy squadron is surrounded by a picturesque array of luxury yachts attending a “picnic” in case. However some of these Yachts has been equipped after requisition, such as USS Gloucester, sharing his part in the heart of the battle.

USS Brooklyn (ACR3), perhaps the most recognizable and famous American armoured cruiser of that era.

Arrival and deployment

The 22, at Cienfuegos, the eye in the telescope, Admiral Schley observed the apple mast emerging from the hills hiding the harbor, judging how many ships are present, but failed to identify them formally. Are they those of Cervera? The next day a messenger joined the squadron with a message confirming Sampson’s order to stay put. A few hours later, he received another one ordering to sail quickly to Santiago, as rumors indicated the Spanish Admiral was anchored.

But Schley then still felt that the presence of cervera at Cienfuegos was still possible. On 25, Sampson’s cruiser arrived with the first copy of the message, reiterating the order to steam to the port of Santiago, that he hid reluctantly. At dusk, he learned by the commander that Cubans resistants signalled by three shafts of light from the window of a house near to the harbour the Spanish fleet was there. Schley received later formal confirmation from other sources. He could then no longer remain in doubt.

Another view of the USS Brooklyn, the battle’s hero

Coaling and preparing for battle

Schley could not intervene however right away: He was to wait for Weather conditions were rapidly deteriorating, and his coaling fleet still struggling to separate, like the Merrimack still tied due to serious problems of boilers. At 20 nautical miles from Santiago, he sent three ships to try to see the Spanish fleet. They come back empty. Schley decided nevertheless, fearful of falling short of coal decided to return to Key West to refuel, to the dismay and wrath of the Secretary of the Navy for whom that move confined to insubordination. He sent an urgent telegram on May, 27 classified “top priority” by which he intimated Schley to stay.

Idealized painting of the battle, showing Schley’s brooklyn leading the line. In reality this clean “battle line” duel never happened.

Fortunately, the admiral gave up on the idea to leave the area, even before receiving the telegram, as the sea calmed down, and the coaler Merrimack eventually be able to deliver his payload and exit. He the took all his squadron on May 29, and parked his battleline in front of the mouth of the harbor. He could see from there the glow of sunset falling on the Cristobal Colon and planned action for the next day at dawn.

First shots on the Cristobal Colon

As planned the next day, American ships opened fired and the duel was rapidly unequal but yet, shells missed. The Colon escaped and joined the rest of the squadron, to be placed directly under the protection of Santiago’s forts. The day after, Sampson joined Schley’s squadron.

Santiago’s siege

U.S. forces began a fully-fledged siege of the harbour. Cervera had its only exit cut off, but still had the possible double cover of darkness and bad weather. But still, the sea remains of oil. For their part the two admirals do not intended to force the Bay: Large batteries commanding the mouth of the harbor and approaches were a real threat, not to mention long-range batteries in the fortified port itself, and mines laid across the mouth. On the other hand, they could wait for General Schaft that landed nearby, aimed at taking the city and harbour with his troops and capturing forts and batteries, forcing Cervera to leave the harbor.

Meanwhile Sampson, who hoisted his mark on the Armoured Cruiser New York, just developed an ingenious plan thanks to the inspiration of RP Hobson, a naval lieutenant and brilliant engineer: They were to send the old Merrimack through the mouth, lights off, machines shut, helped by the currents and momentum. Then the steamer would to be scuttled after maneuvering across the entrance and firmly anchored with her carefully placed charges set to detonate and scuttle her. Thus, she was to cut off any possibility of retirement for Cervera’s squadron.

Illustration of the battle.

The operation was conducted on the night of June 2-3, but proved a failure: The steamer, still hampered by boiler pressure problems was poorly operated, and eventually scuttled but into a position and place still allowing Cervera to escape. For his part, the latter had in a few days carried ashore most of his sailors with all weapons available to strengthen lines of defense to the rear against Schaft, which was approaching dangerously. Before news of the American commando arrived, “Captain General” Blanco, governor, and commander in chief of Cuba, ordered Cervera to leave the harbor in force, yet still unmanned and under-supplied.

Cervera’s options

Cervera studied his (bleak) possibilities: Exiting by night was to take the risk of managing his way across in the narrow mouth of course and always possible collision with the Merrimack. After careful consideration, he decided to sail on Sunday, July 3rd, at nine in the morning hours, when traditional religious services in the United States Navy took place (Yamamoto had this detail in mind years later when planning his attack on Hawaii). From Saturday two o’clock in the afternoon, boilers had to be set in motion while the sailors stationed at the front lines in the back of the town would return urgently to prepare the ships to depart.

Cristobal Colon
Cristobal Colon. A recent armoured cruiser built in Italy (Garibaldi class), she was so new that the main battery has not yet even been installed.

Cervera’s squadron strength

The Spanish squadron consisted of the cruisers Almirante Oquendo, Vizcaya, Infanta Maria Teresa, and Cristóbal Colón plus Villaamil’s destroyers Pluton and Furor. The 7,000 tons cruisers were not heavily armored, nor armed at least compared to the US battleships. With At best they displayed two 11 inch guns and ten 5.5 inch guns (Infanta Teresa Class) each. In addition the condition of the ships was rather poor, The breech mechanisms were dangerously faulty, boilers were in need of repair, some even needed intensive fouling treatment in drydock. The best protected was the Italian-built armored cruiser Cristobal Colon, but she still lacked her main battery, dummy guns being placed. Crews were also poorly-trained, mostly in gunnery drills, concentrating on rapid fire at regular intervals.

The Battle

Cervera leaves the bay

On July 3, at 9:00, as expected, the Spanish squadron set off. Watchmen in the flagship of Commodore Schley (USS Brooklyn), saw multiple smoke plumes rising from behind the hills and gave the alarm. Schley sent the small and fast yacht Vixen to inquire about the Spanish preparation state in case of a sortie. But despite his precautions, Schley had to acknowledge also the disappearance at dawn of the cruisers New Orleans and Newark, left coaling in Guantanamo, escorted by the battleship Massachusetts. This by the way unlocked a new massive opportunity in the West.

USS New York, Sampson’s flagship. A powerful armoured cruiser by 1890s standard.

Sampson, on USS New York, sailed from his position to “close the gap.” The latter and the Brooklyn were now the only two units that can effectively intercept Cervera’s squadron, at both ends of the pincer. At 9:35 on a glassy sea and bright sunshine, Cervera on board Infanta Maria Teresa followed the pilot guiding his way to the mouth. His ships followed at intervals of 7 minutes. Brooklyn’s watchman saw the plume of smoke moving behind the hill, closing to the entrance and gave the alarm, quickly confirmed by Schley himself. Battle flags were drawn to the apple of the masts, but Sampson on USS New York had then disappeared from view and was not informed.

The duel starts

The duel began between Maria Teresa and the battleship Iowa, across the mouth. It was almost an execution: The Spanish admiral ship, going at full speed, could only present part of her front battery and a few pieces in barbettes, while the squadron formed in a semicircle presented almost all its broadside. The whole horizon barred with black silhouettes which could explode with multiple lights -followed by detonations at any moment. Fortunately for Cervera, there was not a breath of wind, and thick white smoke partially hid her ship and he fired. He fired a second time, but missed despite the closing distance. At seven miles east of Santiago, Sampson had an interview with the General when one of his watchers signaled the white fumes of the Spanish guns. He spotted the Teresa and realized that the time had come. He ordered his his huge cruiser to turn for “crossing the T” of Cervera’s line of battle. At this distance it was still impossible however to predict if Cervera would escape east or west.

Cervera’s chivalrous diversion

Cervera also quickly studied his options and decided to practicing one of these chivalrous gestures which was the pride of the Spanish crown: Heading due west towards the Brooklyn, he would try to ram her, allowing the rest of the squadron to respond effectively to the Americans and escape to the east, apparently empty of USS New York, as none were able to follow them. As expected, the subterfuge worked and the battleship Texas, very close to the Brooklyn, believed that Cervera was to sail due west, and began his maneuver, dragging the rest of the squadron. The Brooklyn was the only one that effectively turned her prow east (by mistake, not prescience!).

Through the fog generated by the greasy smoke lingering and spreading to the surface due to lack of wind, one of the watchmen of USS Texas suddenly spotted with amazement the emerging white bow of a cruiser, adorned with the stripped coat of arms and Eagle. He shouted “Brooklyn straight ahead!” and thanks to the presence of mind of the mate who manned the bar on “full astern”, and the readiness of the helmsman, the Texas avoided a fatal collision…

Wreck of the Vizcaya

Leaving the bay, Cervera saw the Brooklyn coming eastward with him over the side. Declining a ramming, he then confirmed his early heading west to deceive the US Fleet. Penetrating deeper into the American fire square, he drew all the shots, while Colon and Vizcaya started to escape by shaving the coast. Banking heavily, Maria Teresa was hit by a large caliber that destroyed the bridge, killing all present officers including the captain. Cervera then took personal command of the ship which began to burn, fire spreading dangerously into the corridors at the rear, next to the ammunition bunkers, which could not be drowned. Cervera decided to save his men while allowing some hope to continue the fight from the shore: He turned his ship towards the beach hoping to ran aground. The American ships still could not follow their boilers being only half of their maximum heat or even cold. These same measures ordered the night before to prevent the ships falling short of coal weighed heavily on the action.

Cruiser Almirante Oquendo is next

Situation of the cruiser Almirante Oquendo then changed dramatically. The cruiser, just passing the harbour’s mouth and was left alone until then. But because fire subsided on the Maria Teresa, now helpless and burning like a torch, they pointed their sights on the unfortunate cruiser. The Ocquendo fired back, but all her guns were silenced one after the other. After less than half an hour, officers were all killed as more than half of her, and she ran aground in turn, less than a mile from Teresa. But at that precise moment of impact at 10:30, her hull was so battered that she that broke in two in a tremendous explosion.

Spanish Cruiser Almirante Oquendo- Wikipedia

Spanish destroyer’s turn

Finally, the hull was achieved by fire from destroyers Furor, Terror, followed by Pluto. The first two escaped, zig-Zagging between high geysers of large calibers, but the Pluto received an impact of large caliber (330 mm) on its rear deck, destroying its engine room and distorting her rudder. Veering sharply to the coast, she almost immediately struck a reef, destroying its bow. Fortunately her crew jumped out and swam to shore in minutes. The irony of all this was these were the world’s first practical destroyers, due to Captain’s Villaamil vision, but they never went into action as planned.

Furor chased by USS Iowa. The Furor class, creation of Aug. Villaamil was arguably the first purpose-built destroyer worldwide.

Meanwhile for the Furor, situation was not better: First impact on the bridge killed officers and the bar went stuck at its highest incidence just when ordered a tight turn. Like the Bismarck years later, the unfortunate destroyer began to turn around, turning into a sitting duck. Unable to replicate with its inadequate guns, she was quickly evacuated, just before another shell 330 mm landed in the engine room, sending pieces of boilers brought to white into the blue. Water rushed immediately and the Furor sank in an instant. In thirty minutes, two cruisers and two destroyers has been destroyed. Schley could savor his victory by advance.

Vizcaya’s deperate duel

The kill board however was not yet fully completed: The USS Brooklyn, followed by Texas and Oregon were chasing the slow Vizcaya, closing along the coast. Battleship Iowa and the yacht Gloucester fished survivors, leaving Indiana behind, still heating up. A tremendous artillery duel began at close range (900 meters) between the Vizcaya, protecting Colon’s escape, and USS Brooklyn, sandwiching her as in Nelson’s finest hours. At such distance, all guns erupted, even machine guns crackled with rage. For a bit Schley and his crew felt their own finest time has come.

Regular exercises of American gunners began to bear fruit. While reloading slower because the officers asked them to take time before fine-tuning the sights, their hits multiplied to the point that a sailor was baffled not to see any white plumes misses. For their part the Spanish gunners were a little faster, and had the advantage of a thicker hull armor. But 1898 was the only fiscal year where gunnery practices were curtailed, leading to some imprecision in return fire. At one point, the Brooklyn suffered a 280 mm shell that penetrated the hull just below the bridge but did not explode, injuring two sailors superficially. A moment later another shell decapitated a gunnery lookout standing in the sight top.

But the next moment, a hit at the stern of the Vizcaya blew the torpedo tube and the ship began to burn furiously, pouring blinding smoke on the unfortunate gunners. The fate of the vessel was sealed. Slowly but surely all her guns were put out of action, so much so that after a while, there were thoughts of preparing the ship for ramming, or beaching the ship, like the other two. The commander was seriously wounded, the second took over, and after a quick “vote” with the officers and men presents to see if something more could be done for the crown and honor of Spain, it was decided to ground the cruiser onto the beach.

Vizcaya’s men ordeal

Seeing the ship heading towards the coast, the Brooklyn and Texas ceased fire. Texas’s crew was rejoicing, starting a song of victory when Captain Philips ordered them to be quiet, saying “Do not sing, boys, those poor devils are dying”… Indeed, from there they could see small red and white spots in a macabre and sobering picture of scorched and twisted corpses littering the bridges, sometimes emerging from open wounds of the hull. The Vizcaya was transformed into a floating hell, with a continuous rumbling in the background. The fire became so intense masts began to writhe under the heat. Planks of the bridge that did not burn gave way, opening the buckling mess of steel raised to red by pressure. The entire ship’s belly was just a huge boiler vomiting tortured men and parts from all its reddish orifices.

The Vizcaya explodes, hull split in two

But for the survivors ordeal was not over: Jumping to the water knowing what would be the pain of a salty water in contact with their burned flesh and open wounds, they had to remain afterwards immersed intermittently to escape gunfire from Cuban resistant firing from ashore or attending the show passively, capturing those washed ashore. They eventually decided to go after the representatives of the hated regime, swimming painfully to shore, yet inflicting them another horrible death with machetes and guns. The scene was such that Commander Evans, from USS Iowa, who had launched all his boats to pick up survivors, sent one with an officer voicing ahead to discourage Cubans to continue their killing, under the threat of a volley of his large guns.

Gun on Vizcaya’s wreck

Spanish sailors seeing the massacre playing ashore began to turn back for the rescuing Americans despite their exhaustion, but had to contend with sharks, attracted and maddened by the smell of blood, barring their way back and striking at random. This horror went to the very doorsteps of the American boats: The first master of Iowa, Jeffrey Davis, recalled giving a hand to an officer, heavily burned and calling for help. As he leaned to grab his forearm, he saw a gray spinning close to the board, and next fell back into the boat, with the trunk of the unfortunate: A shark just took the rest.

Cristobal Colon’s fate

The Cristobal Colon, meanwhile, seemed to left his pursuers. She was now chased by the Brooklyn, whose machines were still not yet fully heated, the Oregon, whose crew redoubled efforts. Finally, Texas, to the rear, continued on her course. The hunt lasted for two hours, to the point the Cuban coast was about 110 Kilometers away. The Colon was making then twenty knots and distances stretched, but soon a fateful decision was made to spare coals stock and reduce consumption.

Schley was jubilant: The Spanish cruiser seemed to put more miles between his own ships and her, but he knew that soon the coast’s shape would oblige the Iberian cruiser to change course, this time closing the gap with her pursuers. On the bridge of Colon, the commander studied his options. He knew full well that in one hour his exhausted drivers, toiling in the hell of the engine room (over 50° at full steam) would have ran off Asturias coal and commence feeding the local low quality coal instead. As expected, at nine in the evening, while the coast was starting to get closer, the smoke plume still visible on the horizon from USS Oregon changed imperceptibly. Slowly but surely, they began to distinguish a shiny black bow with hints of red in the setting sun, until large main guns were ready to bear, and later close enough that the 203 mm from the Spanish ship came also within range. The final duel between the two vessels began.

wreck of Admiral Ocquendo
Wreck of he Almirante Ocquendo

End duel

On the sixth salvo, the Spanish ship was now cornered to the coast which now barring the way. The Captain decided not to be caught: Despite honors commanded, he noticed a group of reefs in order to ran aground her ship, then scuttle her. It was done and sailors and officers quietly gained their boats and aimed to the shore, waiting to surrender to the Americans. When Admiral Sampson arrived at full speed on the USS New York, it was all over. He could only watch the wreck of the Colon marking out the side, ripped, twisted, whence torrents of thick curls. He could also see the bridge crowded with men from the USS Indiana and Iowa, a ballet of boats pulling bodies tossed like puppets on black water.

USS Oregon leaving California to join the Caribbean in 1898, nicknamed “the bulldog of the fleet” she was the fastest and most recent battleship of the US Navy.

In the whole Cervera’s squadron, only the small, but aptly named Terror had survived. The Battle of Santiago de Cuba was over. The Spanish Empire not only had lost the same day his best admiral, taken prisoner along with 1600 men and 70 officers but had to deplore 323 dead or missing and 151 injured, the loss of the best fleet, and its possessions in the Caribbean, this, a few months after the fall of the Philippines. Only a handful of the crews successfully joined the lines defending the city. The Americans had lost one officer and deplored nine minor injuries and one seriously. Santiago will fall on July 17, resisting over two weeks against much superior forces.

Wreck of the Almirante Ocquendo in 1899.
Wreck of the Almirante Ocquendo in 1899.


The battle’s lessons were numerous, although the whole affair was very much one-sided, between a cornered admiral with inadequate ships trying to escape a veritable “execution squad” of battleships and armoured cruisers blockading Santiago’s bay. It showed some difference in gunnery practices, but probably the most intriguing fact was the postwar Sampson-Schley Controversy. The whole point among naval officers was to determine which commanding officer deserved credit for the victory. When Sampson’s New York approached Schley’s Brooklyn, the latter singalled by flag “The enemy has surrendered” and “We have gained a great victory”, on which Sampson answered later with a “terse and seemed needlessly brusque” message according to naval Historian Joseph G. Dawson and tension grew between the men, but really exploded when the press decided to choose its champion, Sampson’s Fourth of July Victory, after his cable to Secretary Long. This was heavily resented by many in the fleet, moreover Schley.

On July, 5, Kentucky Congressman Albert S. Berry argued publicly that “Schley is the real hero of the incident” and that his actions deserved much of the credit for the American victory. The controversy gained momentum in the press, sides were chosen, with more credits to Schley be given on the popular opinion though a young cinema, Thomas Edison making an acclaimed film of the battle. Of course this divided the Academy and Officer corps as well, Alfred Thayer Mahan backing Sampson. When Secretary Long proposed the two officers being promoted Vice-admiral, Sampson was promoted first despite his lower rank in the promotions list which was seemed by many as “a great injustice” and the case was eventually ported to a court of inquiry which opened on September 12, 1901 at the Washington Navy Yard, with 14 charges of negligence over Schley, finding he did not “project the right image of a naval officer”. Schley did appealed to Theodore Roosevelt which called for an end to all public disputes but the affair somewhat tarnished what was otherwise a true, legitimate naval victory.

The Reina Mercedes, abandoned in Santiago Bay because of engine troubles. This unprotected cruiser was captured by the U.S. Navy and used as a receiving ship until 1957 as the USS Reina Mercedes. Two other colonial cruisers (Isla de Cuba, Isla de Luzon) were also reclassified as gunboats in US service?


The effects of this victory resonated less in the Spanish Congress as well as the popular press, than on elites who saw the last ships down with a final dream of matching Charles V Empire. In August, deprived of any support from the metropolis, Cuba surrendered and Spain sued for Peace in August. The war was over. Meanwhile a legend was forged on land, on San Juan hill: a stocky, highly energetic officer shouting orders to “Battler Joe” Wheeler (a celebrity of the former Confederate Army), with mustaches and little round glasses, climbed under fire at the head of his dismounted Rough Riders and entered the legend. Former Assistant Secretary of State for the Navy, avid reader of Mahan, Theodore Roosevelt was also an adept of the Monroe doctrine. He was elected 12 years later, President of the United States. A great lover of hunting and nature, he was also the driving force behind a navy that will raise in a matter of 15 years, to a level close to the Royal Navy, making it known worldwide through the acclaim “great white fleet” cruise. See US Navy in ww1.


Fernando Villamil Fernando Villaamil: A competent Spanish naval officer, designer of the first destroyer warship in history (Furor) and for the Battle of Santiago de Cuba as the highest ranking Spanish officer killed that day, of an heroic death.

Winfield Scott Schley:

A rear admiral in the United States Navy and the hero of the Battle of Santiago de Cuba, Schley was debated over Sampson about who really won the battle. He was put in command of the Flying Squadron, with U.S.S. Brooklyn (CA-3) as his flagship. His ships engaged that day probably the best cruisers of the Spanish Navy, the Teresa, the Vizcaya, and the Colon. His duel with the Vizcaya could have turned more vicious if that was not for the help of the USS Oregon. His maneuvers were later magnified by the press and perhaps gave him more credits that he actually deserved.

Almirante Cervera

Almirante Pascual Cervera y Topete:

A highly decorated veteran of the Spanish Navy, which also distinguished himself during the Carlist Wars. Later as head of Spain’s Ministry of Navy, he attempted a number of far-reaching reforms but eventually resigned. At Cuba he led a brilliant circumnavigation of U.S. naval forces but did not had the necessary ships to face the US Navy there, his position being betrayed by the governor. Leaving Santiago to try leave the blockade ended in failure, but Cervera was upon his returned cleaned of any competence failings after the trial for the loss of his command, mostly because of the effort of his crew and was honored by the Republican Navy years after, naming a cruiser after him.

Admiral William T. Sampson

. Due to his senior position of command, Sampson was generally given full credits for his victory at Santiago. A New Yorker, pure product of the United States Naval Academy, he served in the Union Navy in 1864 with the monitor Patapsco of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron. In the 1880s he was a Superintendent of the Naval Academy, and he became Chief of the Bureau of Ordnance in the 1890s. He was also appointed as commander of the battleship Iowa in 1897 and led the enquiry for the destruction of the Maine. A rear admiral in 1898 his flagship was the armoured cruiser USS New York. He undertook the Cuban blockade and bombarded San Juan before being sent to intercept Cervera’s squadron.


About the battle

This article is part of a Triptych: The war of 1898.

Links & Sources
Conway’s All The World’s Fighting Ships 1860–1905

Battle of Manila May, 1, 1898

battle of Manila bay
Spanish Armada vs US Navy

Map of Manila’s battle actions (public domain)

Swapping an Empire for Another

The origins

The war of 1898 which emerged from the question of the independence of Cuba from Spanish so-perceived tyrannic colonial rule, was resolved rapidly through two naval battles. Strangely the first one did not occurred in the Caribbeans, but far away in Asia, in the maze of tropical islands called the Philippines. Thus remote possession of the Spanish Empire was all that left from its former Empire there since 1565, but still, a vital trade and materials provider (notably rubber), which was defended by a squadron while the capital Manila was well protected by a chain of forts all along the bay, easy to close and defend. The American attack came as a surprise (the local forces were not prepared, neither to the ferocity of the assault, nor to fight in any way).

USS Olympia
USS Olympia, Commodore Dewey’s flagship at the battle. It has been preserved and can be visited in the Independence Seaport Museum, Penn’s Landing, Philadelphia. Illustration by the author.

The battle and its consequences

It was called soon a “splendid example of a splendid naval action” with tremendous consequences. For Spain, the fall of its Asian operating base (soon Guam followed) and the beginning of the end, confirmed at Cuba in July, which precipitated the end of the war. It proved that despite falling to near oblivion after the civil war, the American Navy was no longer a Joke for European powers. It changed the lives of all Filipino, that much like their Cuban counterparts, lived under a harsh colonial regime and developed resistance movements. First perceived like liberators, the new power however settled in a quasi-colonialist fashion, going as far as ordering fierce repressions leaving the impression to the locals of having swapped an imperialist power for another.

Dewey on the lookout post of the USS Olympia, a painting now at Vermont State.

The Battle of Manila was mainly a surprise attack by a U.S. Navy squadron on the Spanish Pacific Squadron anchored at Manila Bay. Complete destruction of the fleet prevented any reinforcements to Cuba and offered the United States a brand new platform in Asia for future expansions and its fleet support in this area. The victory was all the more dazzling for the Navy, its realization was daring, hazardous and risky, ended with no casualties but minor injuries, a feat rarely achieved for the scale of such battle. The strong impression it left, conducted the Japanese to apply the very same tactic at Port Arthur against the Russians some seven years later. This surprise attack and preventive strike would inaugurate a kind of action soon famous in warfare in general, in a sense prefiguring the blitzkrieg. Like Napoleon once stated, the “best defence is attack”. This success was largely celebrated and do well for the war nickname “the splendid little war” soon relayed by all the press, in the US and abroad.

Cruiser USS Raleigh (C8) circa 1900
Cruiser USS Raleigh (C8) circa 1900

Commodore Dewey’s Pacific Squadron

It all started with the plans reviewed by the Admiralty in the event of confrontation with Spain, a few years ago. That’s when Commodore George Dewey, then based in Hong Kong, was appointed to head the U.S. Pacific fleet at the insistence of the personal assistant to the secretary at the Naval affairs of the White House, Theodore Roosevelt. His squadron was quite thin in Asia in terms of impact force, especially compared to the Spanish fleet, reinforced by many land-based coastal batteries. His squadron included the cruiser USS Olympia, USS Boston, gunboat USS Petrel and the very old steam paddle USS Monocacy. That was only a mere fraction of the US Navy at that time, which bulk was facing Cuba.

Gunboat USS Petrel, circa 1900
Gunboat USS Petrel, circa 1900

Intelligence of the Armada

In addition, knowledge of the Spanish forces in the sector was meager, based on assumption that the bulk of the fleet was anchored in Manila, which was confirmed later by the American consul there, Oscar. F. Williams. Lieutenant Upham (USS Olympia) was also there in civilian disguise, roaming in the capital of the Philippines to try to glean detailed information on ships in harbour and movements. Finally Dewey himself has his own personal sources, form an American businessman who went there regularly and also passed more valuable information.

Cruiser Castilla
Spanish cruiser Castilla with full rigging in the 1880s.

State of Dewey’s squadron

But the supply of ammunition (as well as coal quality) was a real problem for the US squadron. Dewey’s ships had, few days before the battle, not yet received a quarter of their shell stock. Supply ships were hard to find and charter, many companies and crews refused to take the risk. The cruiser USS Baltimore, dry-docked, has her hull cleaned and repainted in dark gray within 48 hours, a more suitable livery than the classic peacetime classic “black hull, white and canvas superstructures” for naval operations. However, reinforcements arrived on the eve of the battle, with some equipment for the fleet and ammunition to complete inventories (40% Empty), accompanied by the cruiser USS Raleigh and a Customs patrol boat, the USS MacCulloch. Still later after the departure of the squadron, the gunboat USS Concord joined the group. Other depot ships were also collected for the purposes of last-minute supplies. At the outbreak of war, the squadron has coaled after many difficulties, but was now ready to depart, and morale was very high.

USS Baltimore (C3) starboard bow view in 1891. Notice the reduced military masts.

State of the Armada in Manila

Meanwhile the local Spanish pacific fleet was managed by Admiral Don Patricio y Montojo Pasaron, whose fleet included the cruisers Don Antonio de Ulloa, Don Juan de Austria, Reina Cristina, Castilla, Isla de Cuba, Isla de Luzon, and the gunboat Marques del Duero. Stationed at Manila Bay, they were deployed in front of Subic Bay, which defenses has been considerably reinforced after the outbreak of war. At the last minute, spare battery from the old gunboats Don Antonio and General Lezo were placed on coastal fortifications, as well as the guns of the cruiser Velasco. Castilla was also in such bad condition that its 150 mm (6 in) guns were landed, but left shortly before the attack on the beach instead of being swiftly mounted in position. The entrance of Subic Bay was mined, as well as that of the harbor of Manila. But if Subic bay of a tactical standpoint remains an excellent choice, no fortification was there, and there was a risk that the planned batteries carried by land could not be installed on schedule. Shallow water of the area also allowed in the worst case ships to be sunk on purpose to serve as fixed batteries. It also rendered a fleet moves difficult, lowering speed and easing the work of coastal artillery batteries.

Revenue cutter USRC McCulloch circa 1900
Revenue cutter USRC McCulloch circa 1900.

The battle

First moves

Since Montojo’s forces gradually showed signs of a defensive stance, most of the action and initiative would came from the Americans: On April 28, Montojo learned the departure of Commodore Dewey’s squadron. In emergency, he tried to install some extra guns, but officers in charge warned him that the defenses would not be ready on time. In addition he received a message from one of the highlights of Subic bay that Dewey already had sent some vanguard units in recognition. Therefore Montojo preferred to retreat under the protection of the guns of Manila and emboss his ships in front of the fortified Sangley Point, and the battery of Ulloa on Cavite. Vessels were sunk by opening valves, still able to continue firing, solidly planted on the sand. The cruiser Castilla, partly disarmed, has her sides protected by two old collier hulls filled with sand shells. Other preparations were in progress when the American fleet stood at the entrance of the bay. The latter could hear from the bridge the distant roar of the city of Manilla.

Engraving by J.D. Gleason (USN archives)n

Dewey prepares at Luzon

On april 30, the fleet arrived in Luzon. Dewey sent USS Boston and USS Concord in recognition of Subic, and USS Baltimore, which followed them in front of the fleet, received an erroneous report alleging artillery duels, quickly rectified. It was agreed that the Spanish fleet was no longer in Subic. Dewey turned to his Chief of Staff and said, “Now we have them!”. The ship’s bridges were prepared in case of fire by throwing overboard all that was made of wood, except on the ship bearing the Admiral’s flag, the USS Olympia. Tons of sand were also thrown on bridges to allow grip because of probable seawater from plumes and blood, and certain sensitive parts were protected with thick cloth soaked in vinegar, as was done traditionally to ensure no fire can take root or spread.

Dewey’s approach to the Bay

The fleet headed for the entrance of the bay, protected by islands and islets, forming two more or less wide entries: Boca Chica and Boca Grande. This was dangerous because of its many reefs and narrows, although the maneuvers was feasible. Boca Grande entrance was marked by the forts of the island of Caballo and El Frail, and Boca Chica was even narrower and more heavily defended, notably by the island of Corregidor, surrounded by fortresses able to deliver (at least in theory) a punishing crossfire. Dewey did finally move his squadron in Boca Grande, at 23 pm, lights off except the pilot stern that allowed the battle line to follow. His line passed between Caballo and El Fraile north to south, included leading USS Olympia, followed by the steamer USS Nanshan, Zafiro, McCulloch, and Petrel, then the USS Raleigh, Concord and Boston.

Forts are the first to fire

The poor coal used by USS McCulloch made that little flame that arose from her high chimney an easy pick for the watchman of fort El Fraile, which promptly ordered to open fire. The first salvo fell between Raleigh and Petrel. The whole line answered, and quickly silenced the battery. However, the telegraphist was able to sent an alert at 2 am to Admiral Montojo, already on his feat after hearing the rumbling in the distance, frowned behind the hills of Cavite.

Painting of the battle by J.G. Tyler (USN archives)
Painting of the battle by J.G. Tyler (USN archives)

Spanish Actions Station

He sounded the rally and crew hurried to put away, or throw overboard everything that was a source of bursts, removing the boats, placing here and there many sandbags. Dewey line of battle went up quietly in the middle of the bay, and at 4:00, the armada signaled the general steadiness for combat. The men were at post, cruisers ready from the tip from Cavite to the batteries of Sangley Canaco. The Spanish fleet was forming a line of stepped defence in front of the city of Cavite, the Velasco drawing the battle line to the east of the fort at Sangley. The Zafiro, the Nanshan and McCulloch, the first two unarmed, were eventually sent back into the bay as observers, while the line drawn by the Olympia arrived at Manila, finding only cicilian steamers, tacked through the course to the southeast toward Cavite.

Dewey’s First pass

Dewey’s squadron was walking very slowly, at 3 knots, as he hoped that his vessels still could remain unspotted. However, Don Juan of Austria watchman saw at 4:45 am, still dark, the fire arose from U.S. ships chimneys and gave the alarm. The American line was then at 5 o’clock in the morning, dawn, under fire of the heavy batteries of the forts of Manila. Two cruisers responded with strict orders to use ammunition against these forts with economy, sparing them for the enemy ships. Montojo, seeing the artillery duel in front of Manila, decided to allow his ships to sail in an emergency and lay a few mines blocking Dewey, a risky maneuver performed by his admiral ship, cruiser Reina Cristina. Dewey spotted then at at 5:15 pm the light of the guns of Fort Canacao (one 120 mm/5-in gun) and Sangley Point (two 150 mm or 6-in guns), soon followed by those of Spanish cruisers.

Engraving of the battle, USN archive photo funds
Engraving of the battle, USN archive photo funds

Only 35 minutes later he ordered a counter fire when everyone was ready. The two 203 mm guns (6 in) of the USS Olympia front turret thundered, followed by those of other vessels of his squadron. By presenting the Spanish his ship’s prow first, Dewey did not run a great risk. But soon the Olympia began to turn course East to present its broadside, quickly followed by whole line, opening fire at point-blank range (400 meters).

First, the Reina Cristina was badly hit, after few impacts sparking a fire and knockout her main artillery. Dewey initiated to bring a turning movement, the famous “spiral” in reduced mode (6-8 knots, approx. 10-12 km/h), precisely in order to concentrate his fire back to the north, then back again from the east, each time bearing all its broadside. The line was far enough, however, to avoid the shallows of Canacao’s bay.

Drawing of the battle by W.G. Wood
Drawing of the battle by W.G. Wood – USN photos archives

Dewey’s incredible withdrawal

At 7:30 am, Dewey suddenly learned that his main battery had only fifteen rounds left. The situation still could turn out badly very quickly. He decided, though men were still ready to fight, to withdraw to replenish his ships, and allowed his men to take a breakfast, while always under Spanish range. This reckless feat was later noted in the press as further evidence of the extraordinary American confidence over the final issue (or arrogance). But in truth the inventory had been misinterpreted, because only fifteen rounds has been fired by gunners in all that time, taking even more time for aiming than the exercise!… This was repeated later at Santiago.

USS Olympia leading the battle line in Manila Bay
USS Olympia leading the battle line in Manila Bay

But the results seemed to pay off at this distance, with more than 2% hits (at the time was a good result). The retreat order given by Dewey in any case was not well received by the crews, especially the gunners and their officers which suddenly had to provide a detailed report of losses in men and ammunition remaining while those from the boiler rooms had to run along the ships to check for damage. Confusion even shortly reigned aboard the Olympia, which amid the smoke of the fire falsely spotted a torpedo attack from two Spanish steamers, quickly knocked out by small quick-firing pieces. It turned out later that these were two small civilian boats, wrong place, wrong time.

Cruiser Alfonso XII class. 1885, 3000T, wooden hulled with iron plating. The Reina Cristina was present at Manila. She had (in theory) six Hontoria 152 mm.

Dewey’s second pass

After this surrealist pause, unique in naval warfare, Deweys resumed his attack. Meanwhile indeed, the Spanish did not remain idle. Not only they replicated feverishly, but they also attempted an attack in the old style, Don Juan de Austria and Reina Cristina placing themselves in position to launch a ramming attack. When spotting the manoeuver, a barrage of fire kept them at bay. The Cristina, already deprived of its firing direction, was therefore struck by other shells, one of which entered her hospital room and the other penetrated its rear ammunition store. The latter started to burst but did not explode, promptly drowned by pumps. Nonetheless the fire quickly spread elsewhere and soon ran out of control. Later on, with only a handful of gunners remaining, half her crew ashore, and most officers killed or wounded, Montojo decided to scuttle his flagship. Taking a skiff, he quickly joined the cruiser Isla de Cuba to raise his mark and give orders. The Don Antonio de Ulloa was soon disabled and scuttled as well in shallow water, so that the crew remained on board and resumed firing. Despite the short distance, the poorly trained Spanish gunners scored almost no hit. The Castilla followed suite and was also evacuated and scuttled. Montojo ordered the remaining ships to sail towards Bacoor Bay to pursue the fight, and be scuttled in shallow water. They eventually surrendered before it took place.

Spanish cruiser/gunboat Isla de Luzon.

The battle ends

The American fleet had taken several hits buy almost without damage and no casualties. The only serious hit was taken by the USS Baltimore, that struck the freeboard, ricocheted off the bridge, crossed a deckhouse, bounced inside the shield of a 6 inch from the opposite side, ricocheted a second time on the bridge and buried itself without exploding… There was eventually 8 minor injuries as a result of sparks and splinters. More fear than harm.

Wreck of the Castilla

At 11h 16 pm, the cease-fire became evident as the Spanish squadron appeared to have been completely knockout. However there was a final artillery duel between USS Baltimore and the still undamaged Canacao and Sangley forts, which were silenced in turn. Yet Dewey was warned that the crew of Don Antonio de Ulloa, although half submerged, was still firing with the last usable gun. In fact this was not true, but a rain of shells quickly fell on the already wrecked ship, slaughtering survivors. Yet the last remaining sailors did not capped their flag. American gunners themselves were impressed by the bravado of these Spanish crews. Gunboat USS Petrel was ordered to enter the harbor, checking unit still able to fight and then be back to make a report. Off the town of Cavite, she wiped out and silenced another battery with her 6 inches guns.

Sunken wreck of the Reina Cristina


At noon, the case was made. All Spanish ships were reported permanently disabled. Montojo noted in his report 127 dead and 214 injured. The heavy batteries of Manila however, were still able to sink any American ships, but incredibly stood quiet for fear of reprisals. The only two American deaths were due to the chief engineer of the McCulloch, Randall, having a heart attack during Boca Grande maneuvers, and Captain Charles Gridley, already ill, which directed Olympia’s fire from blockhouse, transformed into real oven under the scorching sun of the region. He too badly suffered from the heat, but died a month later at Kobe, back home.
Later, the Americans would seize the cruisers Isla de Cuba and Isla de Luzon, repair them, and resumed their service in the US Navy as gunboats under their original names. In 1912, the Isla de Cuba was also sold in Venezuela, which kept it in service until the late 40. As for the Olympia, the Isla de Cuba was preserved and is currently the visiting centerpiece of Independence Seaport Museum, at Philadelphia.

Sunset victory

At sunset, the USS Olympia came quietly to the mooring at the waterfront of Manila, all flags were raised like for a parade, sailors and officers aligned in perfectly clean uniforms, and the full orchestra dressed in regalia lined up on the rear deck, beginning a series repertoire of songs in honor of the defeated man of the day, Montojo, and the gallantry of the entire Spanish fleet.
The astonished Manilese came to hear these tunes on the docks, while echoing from Cavite continuous explosions of the last stocks of ammunitions in still smoldering wrecks.

The flag is raised over the fortifications

Manila’s control

While the Spanish fleet was clearly out of action, Dewey still did not controlled the city, which unlike Cuba, became the prey of insurgents. The entire American squadron cannot not even muster a company capable of reaching the governor palace. Dewey then took the decision after news of his victory cabled, to set up a naval blockade of Manila Harbour until reddition of the officials. He was promised troops quickly. In town, several persistent rumors spoke of an alliance between Germany and Spain, in Habsburg memory. Some even predicted an imminent declaration of war by Germany, another rumor pretended an army of 10,000 Germans from Tsing Tao just landed at Subic… However, the Filipino independence movement was quickly sent into action, and revolutionaries under the leadership of Vicente Catalan, provoked the mutiny of the steamer Compania de Filipinas, July 5, 1898. Spanish officers were executed, and the ship rallied Manila, with other steamer crews. Promoted “Admiral of the Mosquito Fleet” and flying a provisional flag of the Philippine Republic, Catalan ordered to paint false barbettes on the hull and installed on the main deck dummy guns made with copper pipes painted black. Thus disguised as “cruiser”, the Compania of Filipinas, a former Tobacco carrier, rallied Subic Bay in order to obtain the surrender of the garrison of the fort, under the threat of his “guns”.

Filipino guerrillas, 1899

Philippines Control

But the Spanish garrison refused and Catalan decided to send a company to finish them. Preparations went on, when the sailors of the improvised cruiser discovered with amazement the “real” German cruiser Irene nearby. The latter raised on her mast a recognition signal and summons the company to stop. The Filipino steamer was seen indeed by the Germans as a “pirate”, the Philippine Republic being not recognized. Meanwhile a diplomatic waltz took place in Europe, each nation sending vessels to “show the flag” in these waters. The Filipino mock cruiser was no match and hoisted the white flag. Informed of the situation, Dewey sent the Concord and Raleigh to intervene and require in turn the Spanish surrender. The Irene, seeing the American ships arrived, went quietly mooring on the other side of Isla Grande, and after a warning shot from Commander Coghlan of USS Raleigh, the garrison stir in turn the white flag.

Reassured by the hope of surrendering to regular troops, the Spanish garrison left the fort in good order and joined the Raleigh. Coghlan, however, had been ordered to assign prisoners to Catalan, while the latter was ordered to hand them over to the Governor of Manila. The Philippine “independence” was granted by the Treaty of Paris signed Dec. 10, 1898, but in reality the first elected president, Emilio Aguinaldo, was seen as a puppet of the White House by the majority of former revolutionaries who took over arms. U.S. military presence, was soon dragged into a new bloody and bitter insurgency war.

New threats and challenges

Later, U.S. troops also had to face the revolt of the indigenous Moros. US presence solidified in the interwar as former Spanish bases were developed and strengthened, fortified over the years 20-30, to the point of building a “concrete battleship”. In 1941, General MacArthur directed the U.S. forces in the Philippines, and considered the approaches to Manila (by jungle or sea), impregnable. It was December 1941, but that’s another story…


Admiral Patricio Montojo

Born in Ferrol, in Galicia (naval base, shipyard and major industrial hub), Montojo was graduated from the Naval School in Cadiz and spend years in the Philippines fighting the Moros. He was commander also of the Cuba squadron and later Río de la Plata. Montojo was wounded during the Manila Bay battle, as was one of his two sons, and was court-martialled after the war in Madrid, and imprisoned. He was released later, thanks to the intervention of his subordinates and …Dewey himself.

Georges Dewey

Cdr Georges Dewey

A graduated from the naval Academy, born in Montpelier, Vermont, he was also a decorated veteran of the civil war, for his service on the USS Mississippi, ramming the CSS Manassas. He also took part in the Battle of Port Hudson, and promoted by Farragut, commanded the USS Agawam, USS Colorado and fought at Ft Fisher. As a commodore he was assigned to the Pacific Squadron in 1893 and acted masterfully at the head of his squadron from the USS Olympia at the battle, for which he became a hero after the war, being offered multiple decorations and a priceless sword by the president.

spanish-american war
This article is part of three dedicated to the Spanish-American War

Battle of Yalu (1894)

Battle of the yellow sea
Japanese vs Chinese Navy, 17 September 1894

The first major naval battle of the industrial era

Less well known than Tsushima, the battle of Yalu River is nevertheless one of the few naval battles that occurred at the end of the Century, with relatively modern ships. Other contemporary examples had been the battle of Cuba, and of Manila Bay in 1898, opposing a young American navy and the old Spanish Empire.

Yalu was not a prelude to Tsushima as adversaries were not judged -from the Japanese point of view- of the same caliber (The Russian navy vs. the Chinese one). But both were a mirror of the young, ambitious and aggressive Japanese Navy which was seen as an instrument of imperial challenge after the end of the Meiji era and the rise of nationalists. China, on the other end, was still mined by corrupted officials and had a too conciliant international policy that allowed foreign concessions and fed imperialist appetites from nearly all industrial nations, Japan included. The old empire indeed was seen largely as a large untapped industrial market, and Western commercial interventions were backed up by force if needed. Throughout the XIXth century several wars (with Britain, France, the USA) saw all-out easy victories, as the Chinese fleet mostly counted armed junks and few modern vessels.

Context: The first Sino-Japanese war

The first Sino-Japanese war was motivated over influence of Korea.
The second one was of course set in the XXth century and lasted from the early 1930s to 1945. What happened was a shift in dominance from a weakened Qing Empire, unable to modernize its military to Japan’s after a successful Meiji Restoration. As a result of the war, China was humiliated, loosing Korea as a tributary state, and Japan only left with more resolve and confidence in its rising star.

The war erupted after a casus belli, First Punic war style: On June 4, the Korean king, Gojong, seek help from the Qing government in suppressing the Donghak Rebellion, and the latter complied, sending general Yuan Shikai as its plenipotentiary before the main contingent of 28,000 men. But this was seen by the Japanese as a violation by the Convention of Tientsin, as they claimed to have not been informed. In response, the latter sent a 8,000-troop expeditionary force (Oshima Composite Brigade) in Korea. Any reform of the Korean government was refused, and later when the Koreans asked the Japanese troops to leave, the latter bluntly refusing. As events unfolded, in early June, the brigade occupied the Royal Palace in Seoul and replaced officials by a pro-Japanese government, which was understandably seen as an outrage by the Qing Empire.

Opposing Forces


On land, the Qing army has no national army. As a whole, there were separate forces based on ethnicity, and sub-divided into independent regional commands. There was however a local Beiyang Army, born from the Huai Army (experienced by dealing with the Taiping rebels), well-equipped with modernized equipment and well trained. This force would bear the bulk of the Japanese assault. However this forced was also largely unsupported as pleas for help from other regional armies failed. Despite of this, pronostics by International experts saw it crushing the Japanese.

Battleship Ting Yuen. The Japanese has nothing equivalent in 1894.

The local Beiyang fleet was also the best of the whole Empire, pat of the four modernised Chinese navies in the late Qing dynasty: Northern (Beiyang), Southern (Nanking), Foochow and Canton. From 1880, China started to order ships abroad, modernize its training, with the aid of a few British Officers. The modernized Foochow fleet however was entirely sunk by the French Navy over Indochina in 1884, and it’s later rebuilding was largely supported by British and Germans, while Japan was at that time purchasing ships from France. It should be noted also that the fleet lacked ammunitions and more modern ships, as funds were embezzled by corrupt officials (even during the war), the Empress Dowager Cixi even spending military funds on renovating the Summer Palace.

Armoured cruiser Jing Yuan
Armoured cruiser Jing Yuan (King yan class).

In 1894, The Beiyang fleet was considered first-rate in Asia, largely supported by Li Hongzhang, Viceroy of Zhili. She counted two ironclads called “armoured turret ships” (Ting Yen class), 8000 tons German-built battleships, but also the armoured cruisers King Yuen, Lai Yuen, protected cruisers Chih Yuen, Ching Yuen, Torpedo Cruisers Tsi Yuen, Kuang Ping class, Chaoyong, Yangwei, and the coastal warship Pingyuan.


On land, the Japanese infantry, first trained and formed by French officers, has been from 1885 onwards re-modelled after the Prussian model. This army was well equipped with German guns, had Western, high level standard doctrines, military system and organization. Mobility was improved by enhancing logistics, transportation, and structures. In 1894, 120,000 men and four divisions were mobilized.

A bit like the American Navy in 1898, the Japanese Navy was seen largely as a young underdog in 1894. Officers has been formed by the British Navy, and an academy was set up for technical training and background by France. Therefore the Jeune Ecole came to influence largely Japan’s first fleet, largely based on cruisers supported by torpedo boats, that were in theory to render battleships obsolete.

Matsushima, built by engineer Emile Bertin, flagship of the Japanese navy at Yalu.

The first expansion bill was passed, ordering 46 vessels, including 2 cruisers in 1881. Orders were delivered mainly to French and British yards, while the Yokosuka yard was refit by French engineer Emile Bertin in 1886, allowing to built large all-iron hull ships. The first HTE engines were introduced in 1892 and the first VTE in 1890 (Cruiser Oshima). A new naval plan was passed in 1893, this time largely leaning towards British yards, but none of the ships would enter service before the war broke out.

As of july 1894, the Japanese mustered virtually all their available warships into one combined force. This counted 9 Protected Cruisers, Matsushima (flagship), Itsukushima, Hashidate, Naniwa, Takachiho, Yaeyama, Akitsushima, Yoshino, Izumi, the cruiser Chiyoda, the Armored Corvettes Hiei, Kongō, and the old Ironclad Warship Fusō.

25 July 1894, Battle of Pungdo

Also called the sinking of the Kow-shing, it was a small scale engagement, between the cruiser Naniwa (detached from the Japanese flying squadron off Asan bay), and the Chinese cruiser Tsi-yuan and gunboat Kwang-yi, both at sea to reinforce the escort (gunboat Tsao-kiang) of the transport Kow-shing. Guns blazed for an hour, after which the damaged Chinese cruiser fled, the Kwang-yi ran aground to avoid sinking, and the Kow-shing sank, with nearly all hands. Some were rescued by the gunboats Itlis (German) and Lion (French). The Kwang-yi was a 2,134-ton British merchant vessel from the Indochina Steam Navigation Company of London, carrying 1,100 troops plus supplies and equipment and one Prussian officer. This led to a diplomatic crisis with Great Britain. However Naniwa’s captain Tōgō Heihachirō became a celebrity in Japan for this feat.

Japanese cruiser naniwa
Japanese cruiser Naniwa

Meanwhile the Battle of Seonghwan and Battle of Pyongyang (1894) would make the headlines. After a first engagement at Asan in August, the Japanese had free hands to converge from four direction on Pyongyang. The city fell on 15 September. According to posterior accounts, the Chinese lost 2,000 killed and around 4,000 wounded. However, the bulk of the action would take place two years after at sea.

17 September 1894, prelude to battle

At that time, the Beiyang fleet was located off the mouth of the Yalu River. The latter was crossing the northern border between Korea and China, ending in the yellow sea. The name in Manchu, signified “the boundary between two countries”. It should be noted that there was a second battle of the Yalu, this time with the Russian Empire ground forces in 1904 and the site was also crucially nearby major battles of 1950. Japanese objective was simple, as command of the yellow sea would allow Japan to transport troops to the mainland. However the Chinese fleet was a tough nut to crack, with two battleships (the Japanese had none).

Chinese armoured cruiser Chao Yong
Chinese cruiser Chao Yong, as built, on the Thames (1880). She was armed with two 254 mm (10.0 in) cannons, four 120 mm (4.7 in) cannons and 12 smaller guns. She was very similar to the previous Chilean Arturo Prat.

At some point Li Hongzhang recommended the Beiyang fleet to be kept safely in Lüshunkou (Port Arthur), a naval stronghold, safe from a naval engagement far at sea that would be at the advantage of the fast and agile Japanese. However the Guangxu Emperor insisted that convoys passed safely, and this required neutralizing the Japanese fleet in any case; In fact the battle occurred while the Beiyang fleet was back from the mouth of the Yalu River, escorting a convoy, and then intercepted by the Japanese.

Japanese armoured cruiser Matsushima, Japanese flagship. She was badly burnt and nearly lost, showing this was never an easy fight.

Respective Strengths

On paper, the Chinese advantage with big guns and armour was completed by the presence of Western naval advisors: Prussian Army Major Constantin von Hanneken, appointed to Admiral Ding Ruchang and W. F. Tyler, (Royal Navy Reserve) his assistant. Philo McGiffin (former U.S. Navy ensign, Weihaiwei naval academy instructor) appointed to Jingyuan as co-commander. It seems however that the gunners did not had sufficient practice, a result of a serious lack of ammunition. The fleet was arranged in a line facing southward, with the two battleships in the center. There was another group of four ships, that had to catch up and would not be ready before 14:30.

The Japanese Combined Fleet comprised, in addition of the flying squadron described above (Yoshino, Takachiho, Akitsushima, and Naniwa, under command of Tsuboi Kōzō), consisted in a main fleet: Cruisers Matsushima (flagship), Chiyoda, Itsukushima, Hashidate, ironclads Fusō and Hiei, under command of Admiral Itō Sukeyuki.

Japanese Ironclad Fuso
Japanese Ironclad Fuso (1877), after rebuilt at Yokosuka (July 1894). Slower, she was heavily engaged, hit many times by 6-inch (152 mm) shells, but none penetrated.

Three protagonists of the battle: Baron Tsuboi Kozo (Jap. combined fleet), Admiral Ding Ruchang (Beiyang Fleet) and co-commander Philo Mc Giffin (here at the hospital after the battle). He became a national celebrity in the US after the war.

Start of the battle

When the two battle lines approached each other, the Chinese fleet formation had somewhat been broken into a rough wedge, due to bad signal interpretation, and diverging speeds. Admiral Sukeyuki Ito ordered the flying squadron to engage the Chinese right flank. The Chinese however opened fire at a range of 5,000 metres (5,500 yd), and missed because of extreme dispersion, while the Japanese waited patiently for twenty minutes, closing range for maximal effect. Their maneuver consisted in heading diagonally across the Beiyang Fleet at twice the speed, making them difficult to hit. They then headed straight for the center, then, puzzling the Chinese, moved around the right flank and started to pummel the weakest ships.

The Beiyang Fleet at Weihaiwei.

The Chinese right flank is dislocated

After holding their fire until the last possible moment, the Japanese unleashed it on the Chaoyong and Yangwei, which were battered and soon rendered inapt for any further engagement. The squadron then turned northward to face Chinese reinforcements coming from the Yalu river, but doing this, it circled round the Chinese. Meanwhile, the Japanese main squadron starting the same manoeuver as the flying one, ended the other way, completing the encirclement of the Chinese fleet. Therefore, the Beiyang Fleet ended sandwiched between the two Japanese squadrons, a classic of the Royal Navy, giving a much-needed local superiority against the center battleships.

Western Illustration of the Chinese battleships

The Chinese center is fully engaged

Dingyuan and Zhenyuan hulls, according to their excellent protection, suffered little damage, but following the French Jeune Ecole practice, the Japanese targeted the weaker superstructures. Soon, both ships were ablaze and suffered many casualties. Mostly the crews were cut to pieces by the numerous quick-firing secondary and tertiary guns of the Japanese, which were now close enough to have every single one speaking.

Matsushima attacking Chinese warships (Shunsai Toshimasa)

The Chinese left flees and partly escapes

Meanwhile cruiser Zhiyuan broke the line and attempted to ram the Japanese cruiser, and latter tried to rally fleeing ships from the left wing. She was soon caught, battered and sunk by the flying squadron. The trap was not properly closed, as in chasing (and destroying) the cruiser Jingyuan, leaving other ships fleeing northwards unmolested. Eventually Admiral Itō completed the annihilation of what’s remained in the circle, targeting superstructures, but doing so, also taking serious damage: The Yoshino, Akagi, Hiei, Saikyō Maru were hit and/or put out of action. The Matsushima probably suffered most, as two 12-inch shells penetrated the deck, blasted ready rounds, putting the ship ablaze and forcing the admiral to carry his mark to Hashidate.

“Battle of the Yellow sea” by Korechika

End of the battle

The engagement ceased at sunset, when most ships from the Beiyang fleet had been sunk, seriously damaged and fled, but the two battleships remained, although short of ammunitions. As a result, they were able to retire and fight another day. However ultimately the Japanese would sink the Ting Yuen (on February, 6, 1895), torpedoed by TB.26 at the battle of Wei Hai Wei, while the Chen Yuan was engaged heavily by Japanese army guns three days after, sunk in shallow waters and would be later refloated, repaired, and reused by the Japanese (renamed Chin Yen). She would be used as a flagship in 1904, but was retired eventually in 1910 and used afterwards for training in home waters.

Both Chao Yung class protected cruisers were sunk, the Chi Yuan, badly damaged, would be captured later in February 1895, the Chih Yuan (namesake for the class) was also sunk and the Ching Yuan also captured in 1895, as well as the armoured cruiser Ping Yuen, while both King Yuan armoured cruisers would be sunk, one in this battle, the other at Wei-Hai-Wei.

Yalu battle map 1894
Global map of the battle, mid-day, afternoon and evening.

Post battle analysis

Admiral Ding’s decision not to change formation had been pointed out, but this was due to the unwillingness of Dingyuan’s captain to not change formation himself, pass the order to other ships, while the flying bridge of the flagship was later destroyed, Ding apparently injured and the mainmast later destroyed, leaving no way to signal orders. Meanwhile the Chinese fleet wisely reorganized itself in three-ships self-supporting formations. From some time, when distances fell below 3000 m, Chinese 12-inch (305 mm) and 8.2-inch (208 mm) guns apparently failed to score any hit. One of the “legends” of the battle was that Chinese heavily varnished and polished wooden decks burnt more easily.

Jiyuan and Guangjia turned and fled as soon as the Japanese opened fire, therefore weakening the Chinese position, however the full encirclement never happened as the flying squadron was soon diverted to oppose the rallying Chinese ships, previously escorting a convoy (cruisers Kuang Ping and Pingyuan, Fu Lung and Choi Ti TBs). Slower Hiei, Saikyō Maru and Akagi had been severaly hit by the Chinese left, therefore diverting more ships in support. One of the Chinese heroes of the battle had been Zhiyuan’s captain: Whereas his ships was crippled and burning, rather than fleeing he decided to ram and opportunity target, the nearby cruiser Naniwa. However, the slow cruiser never made it. The Japanese immediately concentrated their fire and sank it.

It has been said that the rapid-fire guns (and fast ships) has been a factor, as opposed to a relative lack of training and lack of ammunition from the Beiyang Fleet. Indeed, if the two battleships had been able to fire more, and with more precision, there was no doubt the Japanese would had been at a serious disadvantage as none of their ships was protected enough. The Matsushima (flagship) was seriously crippled, the Hiei would be in repairs for the duration of the war, the Akagi was burnt from stern to stem, and the converted liner Saikyō Maru, after taking four 12-in hits was definitely out of the way. It was a bold gamble and afterwards a major propaganda victory.

Saikyō Maru, Japanese wooden block painting.

The tactical result was indeed overall, and despite later analysis, favorable to the Japanese, which strictly lost no ship, and strategically “cleaned” the Yellow sea of Chinese escorts. On a strategic level, without Chinese reinforcement, the whole campaign’s ultimate fate made no doubt. Lessons for the Japanese has been to take battleships more into consideration (in fact the Chinese Chen Yuan became the first Japanese battleship), therefore departing a bit from French tactics, but keeping agility and maneuvering at heart. There is no doubt that some of the veterans were still present in 1905 with the confidence to undertake a whole new challenge: The destruction of two entire Russian fleets, then the world’s third largest naval power…

Aftermath of the battle

At first, the Chinese government denied this defeat, as a sizeable part of the fleet was able to retire at Weihaiwei. But Viceroy Li Hongzhang and Admiral Ding Ruchang served as scapegoats. International press praised the “rapid assimilation of Western tactics and training” by the Japanese that had taken a “much bigger adversary”. Some analysts however pointed out this battle as a near-draw.

The battle of Yalu did not ended the hostilities: This victory secured the Japanese position, to launch a crossing of the Yalu, and invade Manchuria. This was followed by the Fall of Lüshunkou (Port Arthur) and the sack of the city and massacre of the whole population. In Jan-Feb. 1895, the Fall of Weihaiwei followed. This was a sea-land battle, with the navy actively participating, the Japanese operations against fortified positions behind the cover of the cruisers Yoshino, Akitsushima, and Naniwa of the “flying squadron”. This secured most coastal access to the route of Beijing. In March, the Japanese occupied the Pescadores Islands (west coast of Taiwan). The Treaty of Shimonoseki was eventually signed on 17 April 1895 and the war was officially over.

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