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Admiral Stepan Makarov marched toward the bridge of the quite new Imperator Pavel battleship. Ten minutes ago he had received an emergency message from St Petersburg by telegraph. The East-West telegraph line had been laid only a year before. It ended in Vladivostok where a courier had been dispatched to Port Arthur. In 1901, with the Five Year Plan two years in progress, the Tsar had stated the desire to build a better navy. He had stated that his ‘ideal’ future battleship would be of an all-big-gun design with a tonnage of 17.000 tonnes, twelve 280 mm (11 inch) guns for a main battery, 12 inch (30.5 cm) belt armour and turbine engines which would enable the ship to achieve speeds of 25 knots. Shipyards in Nikolayev and St Petersburg had begun work on a vessel in line with the new naval policy of the Tsar and didn’t question him. By 1901, everyone knew that the Tsar was not to be questioned. The Okhrana was now under his complete control and he had purged the army, navy, the aristocracy and the new industrial bourgeoisie of dissenters.
The result was the Imperator Nikolayev-class of which the Imperator Pavel was the fourth and latest. Ships in this class were the Imperator Nikolay, Imperator Alexander, Tsaritsa Ekatarina and the Imperator Pavel which now served as the flagship of Russia’s squadron in the Far East. Their construction had been a strain on Russia’s economy which was still undergoing an expansion which demanded a lot from Russia’s labour force and resources; Russia for the first time experienced a labour shortage. The Tsar however was ruthless and the result would be worth it. Makarov read the message:
“Attack by Japanese forces imminent, prepare for combat immediately.”
He dropped the note and started to bark orders.
“Man battle stations. Ready the fleet for combat. We sail at midnight.”
He oversaw the activity as men scurried across the deck to ready the ship for combat. As of now the Imperators were the only ships of their kind, all-big-gun battleships, and the Japanese would be in for a surprise as one of them easily outgunned several of what would become known as pre-Imperators. The flotilla under Makarov’s command consisted of one Imperator Nikolayev-class battleship, six pre-Imperator battleships, seven cruisers, five gunboats, five torpedo boats and twelve destroyers.
Midnight arrived and the Pacific Fleet set sail. The Russian Pacific Fleet had already gone on high alert a week ago and had laid mine fields. Negotiations with Japan regarding the status of Manchuria and Korea had gone on since 1903. The Russians had deliberately stalled and Stalin/Nicholas had no intention on giving Korea to Japan. Japanese statesman Itō Hirobumi had negotiated as he believed Japan to be too weak to evict Russia militarily. He had tried to gain Korea as a protectorate of some sorts while leaving Manchuria to Russia. In the end the Russians had only stalled and their Foreign Minister was asked to take his leave. A sense of urgency befell the Japanese government and they would declare war on Russia, exactly as Stalin/Nicholas had predicted.
Sure enough, a group of torpedo boats arrived only to be sunk as Makarov duly noted. Admiral Tōgō would get a real surprise when he arrived at Port Arthur.
Bridge of the battleship Mikasa, flagship of the Japanese strike force
February 8th, 1904 - 05:00 AM
Admiral Tōgō Heihachirō knew this was a risky venture. He had not heard yet from the torpedo boats he had dispatched a few hours earlier. Perhaps they had gotten off course in the dense fog. Suddenly he heard a faint sound and an 11 inch shell only barely missed his ship.
“Gun fire!”, he shouted, “Return fire!”
He quickly pulled himself together and accepted the task of commanding the fleet. He peered into the fog and saw the outline of the Imperator Pavel and twelve red glows as the four triple turrets fired another broadside. The Japanese, however, had six battleships and outnumbered Makarov’s flagship, but Makarov did not intend to fight them on his own. Several 12 inch shells hit his belt armour and, although none penetrated, ordered the ship to fall back. His superstructure was more vulnerable and several 8 inch shells had hit his left flank, disabling two casemates. Battleship Hatsuse had taken the brunt of Makarov’s broadside and indicated it wouldn’t participate in the chase.
“Shall we pursue?”, his executive officer asked.
“Yes.”, Tōgō responded. He was blinded by the prospect of sinking Makarov’s flagship and perhaps killing or capturing Makarov if he was onboard. He was making the biggest mistake in his life and became a symbol for Japan, which had bitten off more than it could chew with this opponent. The Russian ship was faster and narrowly avoided the mines that had been laid previously. Suddenly the Shikishima exploded. She had hit a mine.
“We’ve run into an ambush!”, Tōgō shouted, now the gruesome truth dawned on him. “Turn us around, we are leaving!”, he ordered and the message was relayed to the other ships who turned around quickly.
What Tōgō would see next would be the most horrible sight possible. The Imperator Pavel returned with three battleships while three other battleships and seven cruisers attacked from behind. Togo now realized the horrible trap he had run into. His fleet outnumbered the grand total of the Russian fleet, but the Russians had more battleships, the element of surprise and the Imperator Pavel. The battlefield was a chaos with Japanese ships in the midst of a crossfire. In the meantime Tōgō was going nuts.
“How do they know we would be here? This is impossible, there must be a traitor!”, he ranted to no one in particular. Little did he know that Stalin had been quite a reader in his previous life. He knew the history of things to come and had pre-empted the Japanese.
The Imperator Pavel hit Mikasa’s ammunition storage and the ship exploded. It would be the last thing Tōgō would ever know.
Sunrise would reveal the carnage that had taken place in the early morning. Out of Japan’s six battleships, four had been sunk. Only the Hatsuse and Asahi had been spared from the onslaught and the latter was crippled and would remain out of action for quite some time. Of Japan’s nine cruisers, four had been destroyed and several destroyers were gone as well. As for Admiral Tōgō Heihachirō, he was presumed dead and later his body would wash up in Port Arthur.
Lieutenant Ivan Radchenko was waiting for the go order. He had been transferred here several weeks ago in preparation of Operation February Tempest. In the past few years, Russia had seen rapid modernization, even if it came at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives. Tsar Stalin/Nicholas had slowly but surely eliminated the boyars and their influence from court in St Petersburg and had replaced them with experts, creating some sort of technocratic monarchy. Loyal boyars were of course allowed to remain. Stalin/Nicholas needed people with administrative experience. Russia’s foreign policy had not changed until now and due to Stalin/Nicholas’ historical knowledge, he knew what would happen and had started preparations for operations in Manchuria in Korea as early as December 1903. He held no illusions regarding Korea and Manchuria and regarded conflict with Japan inevitable. By now he considered Russia strong enough to enter a conflict with all the modernizations of late. Railroads and roads connected the major cities and Russia possessed modern communications such as the telegraph cables, enabling the Tsar to direct the war from St Petersburg. Also, the Trans-Siberian Railway had been finished with an extensive budget increase and the use of forced labour. Many thousands slaved to finish it on time and even make it double track. The Amur-Baikal line would be finished soon as well.
Ivan had seen these changes first hand. He was of a new crop of officers, barely twenty-five, not of nobility (in fact, he was the son of an illiterate peasant) and skilled in modern tactics and strategies. Previously boyars were officers, especially in the higher echelons, even if they were incompetent nitwits, as long as they sucked up to the Tsar, it didn’t matter. Ivan was proud of his achievements. He had joined the army at the age of nineteen and his skill had enabled him to rise quickly. He was the son of a mere Russian peasant although reforms had enabled him to learn to read, write and do simple arithmetic and then learn a craft, in his case marksmanship in the army. Now he was waiting for zero hour and was holding his Fedorov Avtomat and glanced at his watch. As expected he heard the rumble of artillery.
“To your barges!”, he yelled and saw how his men pushed their landing barge to the bank of river. “Come on, you slugs, the Yellows are waiting for you over there and every extra minute gives those bugs more time to dig in!”
“Yes sir!”, the men replied as one. Ivan jumped onto the barge, keeping his eyes on the southern bank which was being pounded by Russian artillery.
“Stroke, stroke, stroke!”, Ivan shouted, “Row quicker!”
He was getting more than a bit nervous about Japanese counter fire aimed at the fragile wooden sloops. Over a thousand crossed the river, each carrying around two dozen men. Their orders were to establish a bridgehead on the southern bank which should be done quickly, as the Japanese did not have a major presence in Korea yet and the Korean army was weak and small. Several sloops were blown to bits, but most reached the other bank.
“Get out! Move, move, move!”, Ivan barked, “Take their positions! Storm them!”
His men didn’t need much encouragement as they could taste victory.
Soldier Ōmura Hattori was in his trench and fired his machine gun at the storming Russians. Japanese resistance was fanatic and many Russians fell prey to his rounds, but his unit was being overwhelmed. The Russians were using large numbers very localized. He ducked as a bullet nearly grazed his face. He saw how his comrades fell as the Russians fought back with their semi-automatic rifles which fired a hail of bullets at any Japanese soldier dumb enough to stick his head up. He forgot his surroundings as he fired up to the point of overheating his weapon.
He stood knee deep in muddy water and blood. It was a massacre for both sides, but Russia had the numbers. Russian 75 mm shells rained down and covered Russian forces in a creeping barrage, while 305 mm howitzers took care of especially tough pockets of resistance. Ōmura was one of the few to have survived the initial onslaught. He forgot everything around him as he fought to preserve the honour of his country. Eventually the first Russian entered the trenches. Ōmura picked up his rifle and charged at the 7 foot tall Russian and stabbed him with his bayonet, screaming “Banzai!”. The giant fell but unfortunately in this war Goliath would defeat David, so it wasn’t the metaphor that Japan desired. Where one fell, two took his place and soon Ōmura found himself surrounded by Russians and his comrades either dead or in retreat. Suddenly he received a blow to the head with a rifle and everything went black.
‘Well, at least I took some of them with me before they got me.’, he thought before passing out. In the initial onslaught the Japanese fared well, considering the circumstances. They were outnumbered by far. Most units retreated in fairly good order although some failed to receive the order such as Ōmura’s which was engulfed in Russians and outnumbered 5:1. This time, Japan would not defeat the Russian juggernaut.
→ Forward to Chapter 6.