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The Fleet That Had to Die

Richard Hough
Out of Print
Ballantine Books (1958)

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This entry created 10 May 2010. Last revised on 10 January 2019.

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The Fleet That Had to Die

1905: The story of the Battle of Tsu Shima, when the warships of Russia and Japan met in the most decisive sea engagement of all time

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159 pages. 4 maps. No index. Appendix


1 - The Promotion of the Captain
2 - Preparations for Departure
3 - The Admiral Blunders
4 - The Admiral is Unrepentant
5 - "Withdraw Your Fleet at Once"
6 - Ice for the Admiral
7 - Reinforcements from Home
8 - "Battle Flags Are To Be Sent Up"
9 - The Meeting at Donkey's Ears
10 - The Admiral Is Transferred
11 - The Admiral Reaches Harbor
12 - The Admiral Returns Home

First, let me explain that there are a number of editions of this classic book. The one I've read is Ballantine's 1960 paperback; the cover shown above is to a 2004 re-issue (which is apparently already sold out).

Note (p.6):

This book is not primarily concerned with history, though it is a true story set in one of the most wretchedly useless wars ever fought. It is a book about men and ships: men taken from their homes and caught ludicrously unprepared for the rigors of a great journey and a great battle; and ships which should never have gone to sea.

At the beginning of the 20th Century, the weakness of China created a power vacuum which tempted both Russia and Japan. At stake were the resources of Manchuria and Korea, and the harbor of Port Arthur. Japan had taken the port during the earlier Sino-Japanese War, then been forced by diplomacy to give it up to Russia; the Russians needed an all-season port on the Pacific.

In 1904, Japan's Admiral Togo launched a surprise attack on the Russian fleet at Port Arthur, using the new and untried technology of torpedo-equipped small vessels. Two Russian battleships were sunk, and the fleet was damaged not only physically but in spirit at well.

However, on the other side of the continent, Russia had a second fleet of over 100 vessels, with four new battleships fitting out. Could the Baltic fleet come to the rescue of Russia's fortunes in the Far East before Port Arthur (and the besieged fleet) fell to Japanese armies?

Preparation for Departure (p.28):

It was a glorious day, and only once, briefly, in the evening, was the spell broken.... The note of realism was struck by Captain Bukhvostoff of the Alexander III. "You have all wished us a lucky journey," he began, "and have expressed the conviction that with our brave sailors we will smash the Japanese. We thank you for your good intentions, but they only show that you do not know why we are going to sea. But we know why we are going to sea. We also know that Russia is not a sea power and that the public funds spent on ship construction have been wasted. You wish us victory, but there will be no victory..." Bukhvostoff had a reputation for speaking his mind, and, in spite of the wine that had been drunk, there was as much sincere conviction in his final pledge: "But we will know how to die, and we shall never surrender."

The author makes the case that the mission was doomed from the start, and that the Russian fleet knew it. While on paper the Russians had a superiority in heavy guns, the reality was that their quality control was poor, their systems were obsolete, and their crews infected with revolutionaries. Furthermore, political pressure forced the inclusion of obsolete vessels in the fleet.

It was incredible that the Russians would even attempt sending their fleet on an 18,000-mile voyage. Ships of that era were limited in range by the amount of coal they could carry. The great British navy solved the problem with coaling stations throughout their empire - but the Russians were without a base anywhere along their route. The only solution was to refuel at sea, from coal-carrying cargo ships - 500,000 tons of coal!

The Admiral Is Unrepentant (p.56):

With oakum or damp cotton waste stuffed into their mouths, the thermometer at 120 degrees and the humidity in the nineties, the crews set to work. Soon a black cloud rose and enveloped every warship and its attendant collier; and from the shore the harbor appeared to be filled with smoldering hulks. The sun looked like an orange ball from the decks of the men-of-war; while from the depths of the colliers' holds, where the men choked and coughed and sweated under their filthy black loads, it looked like a tiny blood-red spot. When from time to time a man fainted, a bucket of water was thrown over him, and when he came round he picked up his fallen sack or basket and went on with his work. A few cases of heatstroke were treated more seriously, and on the Oslyabya the son of the Russian Ambassador in Paris, Lieutenant Nelidoff, fell down dead from the heat. The coaling continued without a pause, and it took over twenty-nine hours to empty the colliers' holds.

This well-written but slow-reading book presents the story of the Russian expedition as a tragedy, spending most of its space chronicling the heroic but ultimately futile voyage from the Baltic, down the Atlantic, from Africa to Southeast Asia, and then north to the Island of Donkey's Ears - Tsu-Shima.

The great naval battle at last comes in only 24 pages. Two fleets collide, and Admiral Togo's complex plan at first cedes the advantage to the Russian ships; but the Russian gunners lose heart as the Japanese fleet outflanks the unresisting Russian fleet.

The Admiral Reaches Harbor (p.144):

It is the Russians, from admirals to bluejackets, whose conflicting emotions and divided loyalties provide the contrasting responses, the wild extremes in human behavior that makes those hours so memorable and Tsu-Shima, in human terms, the most dramatic naval battle ever fought....

This book has a reputation as a military classic, and remains interesting reading although newer books - based on material unavailable in the 1950s - may be more reliable. However, if you are looking for inspiration to wargame the Battle of Tsu-Shima, you might not want to read this book: you may come away convinced that the battle was a foregone conclusion.

Reviewed by Personal logo Editor in Chief Bill The Editor of TMP Fezian.