Shadows and Splendours of the Russian Navy

Robin Bruce Lockhart traces the development of Russia's fleets, from the Napoleonic era to the Soviet period.

There must be many British people who, like myself, remember as schoolboys the great war-scare that followed the night of October 21st/22nd, 1904, when the Russian Baltic Squadron, then on its way to the Far East, mistook some British trawlers in the North Sea for Japanese destroyers and opened fire on them.

At that moment the Russo-Japanese War was going badly for the Russians, and the despatch of the Baltic Squadron to the theatre of war was the Tsarist Government’s last card in a losing struggle. The Squadron was antiquated and was commanded by a highly nervous admiral who, before setting out, had been perturbed by rumours that the Japanese intended to attack the Russians in Scandinavian waters.

Nevertheless, the outrage was so extraordinary as to be almost incredible. The Hull fishing fleet, consisting of some fifty vessels, was at work 220 miles east of Spurn Head. The Russian torpedo boats approached and signalled. Then, the larger warships turned on their search-lights and, without more ado, opened fire. One steam-trawler, the Crane, was hit and left in a sinking condition. The captain and one of the crew were killed instantly.

Other trawlers were struck, but fortunately, as the Berliner Lokal-Anzeiger pointed out, “the gunnery of the Russians was as bad as their morale; otherwise, there would have been far greater damage to the fishing-fleet from a cannonade which lasted half-an-hour.”

Since 1902, Japan had been the ally of Great Britain, and British sympathies were strongly pro-Japanese. Moreover, the outrage had coincided with the anniversary of Trafalgar, and the national reaction to this Russian folly took the form of an emotional and violent indignation.

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