For part one of this unusual escapade, click here.
It’s October 21, 1904. In New York, the mayor is going over his speech for the brand new subway system that will open the following week. Bolivia and Chile recently signed the Treaty of Peace and Friendship, bringing closure to a conflict that occurred twenty years prior. It’s the birthday of the future historian and unfortunately named George Peabody Gooch.
And in the North Sea, Russia’s Second Pacific Squadron is engaged in a desperate sea battle against a fleet of…British fishermen.
The events of this night would become known as the Dogger-Bank Incident, which is a polite way of saying “That Time the Russians Lost Their Damn Minds At Sea”. (Not to be confused with all the other times the Russians lost their damn minds.) All jokes aside, Dogger-Bank was the product of a rather complicated chain of events. To oversimplify it would be like saying Britney Spears just had a temporary lapse in sanity in 2007, when we all know there was a whole lot else going on under the surface. So let’s take a couple steps back and see what would motivate a Russian squadron, bound for war in the Pacific, to fire on a fleet of British trawlers whose biggest crime was the unfortunate luck of originating from Hull.
Where better to start than with Tsar Nicholas II—the original Kevin Federline. Though not directly responsible for the disaster, Nick hadn’t exactly set the squadron up for success. As I mentioned before, the ships were an engineering facepalm and the sailors were woefully under qualified. And though the mission itself was arguably doomed from the start, Nick seemed to think sending Admiral Rozhestvensky and his band of not-so-merry men was a groovy plan. At best, they’d save Russia from losing the warm water port it had lusted after for over a century. At worst, it would end in utter disaster, but with the possibility of a sweet comeback album. Wait—no comeback album. Just disaster.
Upon entering the North Sea, the squadron was on high alert. Admiral Rozhestvensky had been recently warned by Imperial intelligence that he might come across enemy vessels out there, despite it being a highly unusual and unlikely hangout spot for Japanese torpedo boats. To make matters worse, the fleet’s repair ship, the Kamchatka, was having a rough go of it. Engine damage meant the vessel lagged around ten miles behind the rest of the squadron. So when the Kamchatka’s crew spotted boats nearby, they pulled out their brown pants.
Admiral Rozhestvensky received a message from the Kamchatka’s captain at around 8:45 p.m. that said they were being attacked from all sides by around eight torpedo boats. In reality, the Kamchatka had just started firing blindly at some now very confused Swedes. When Admiral Rozhestvensky learned this, he was also told that if the attackers came for the rest of the squadron, they would reach him around 1 a.m. Despite the Kamchatka’s report clearly being a false alarm, this whipped up hysteria amongst the sailors. And it certainly didn’t give Rozhestvensky the warm fuzzies. He put everyone on extra high alert and they kept on truckin’.
At around 1 a.m., Admiral Rozhestvensky encountered a fleet of trawlers off the coast of Dogger Bank. The fishing vessels were all lit properly and followed proper fishing boat protocol, but a dense fog had settled over the water and apparently the admiral wasn’t taking any chances. One of the boats looked particularly shady, so Rozhestvensky ordered his men to fire on it just to be safe. As you do. Then things got confusing. Searchlights were going this way and that, men kept thinking they saw torpedo boats, and the anxiety level for everyone involved was off the charts.
In the ensuing twenty-five minutes, a lot happened. Several ships in the squadron signalled that they’d been hit. One trawler sank, and several others were damaged. Two of the Russian cruisers were also targeted by mistake and both of them took hits. The crew of at least one ship thought they were going to be boarded by the Japanese and thus went to grab their swords. And by the time Admiral Rozhestvensky called to cease fire, two fishermen were dead and six were injured. This is actually a pretty low number considering the whole purpose of the squadron was to defeat the Japanese Navy, which was presumably going to be a little scrappier than a few sleepy fishermen. One of the ships even fired five hundred rounds without hitting anything. So not only did the Russians fire at civilians, but they totally sucked at it.
Afterward, the squadron made a speedy exit. The Russian government was quick to apologize for the bumbling error, but the British public wanted blood. People massed in Trafalgar Square, demanding a declaration of war. The Royal Navy even started to mobilize, following the Russians all the way out to the Atlantic and presumably shaking their fists with indignant fury.
But the war never came. Russia dismissed the officers thought to be responsible, and after an inquiry ended up paying a “mea culpa” fee. But that wasn’t all. The British controlled the Suez Canal at the time, which allowed ships to essentially “cut through” Africa instead of going around it. Guess who they took off the guest list.
The journey of the Baltic Fleet was far from over. They had a long cruise around Africa ahead of them, which would be made even longer by the continued ineptitude of those on board. A bizarre transformation began to take place among the crew. Barely sailors to begin with, they were now a roaming spectacle—one clearly ignored by their tsar. And things just got weirder. Way weirder.
Find out just how weird next time.
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