The last time we checked in with the Baltic Fleet (now called the Second Pacific Squadron), they were leaving the North Sea with their heads hanging in shame. The original plan seems to have been to sail into the Mediterranean and use the Suez Canal to nip down to Japan, but sinking two British fishing boats and terrorizing several others had officially put the squadron on Britain’s naughty list.
I say “seems to have been” because there’s conflicting evidence. On one hand, the canal was neutral, so I find it hard to believe that Admiral Rozhestvensky intended to avoid it so as not to open the fleet up to attack in the confined space. On the other, at least a couple ships did mosey on down through the Suez, so I can’t say with any certainty from the sources I have what the deal was.
Either way, the British were pissed and the Second Pacific Squadron prepared to circumnavigate Africa. And I use the term “prepared” very loosely.
The evidence for everything that happened to the fleet after Dogger-Bank but before engaging with Japanese forces at Tsushima is scarce. That being said, the squadron’s Engineer-in-Chief, Eugene S. Politovsky, wrote detailed letters to his wife throughout the voyage that provide valuable insight into this dark period. Eugene was cynical about the mission from the start, but his letters are considered to provide an honest and impartial commentary. For that reason, I’ve drawn pretty heavily on Eugene’s account to tell this part of the story.
Anyway, let’s head down to Spain.
One of the complicated things about the mission was the matter of when and where the ships could dock and for what purpose. For example, docking in the neutral port of Vigo to get rid of all the officers considered responsible for the Dogger-Bank incident was fine, but nobody else was allowed to communicate with the shore and they could only stay for 24 hours. More problematic, the squadron was initially not allowed to refuel. Mucho problemo.
The ships required a huge amount of coal, and there weren’t any Russian-controlled ports for them to resupply at along the way. Like Spain, France imposed conditions on those wishing to dock in their ports. And asking the British would have been like asking to use somebody’s driveway after smashing into their car. Germany offered a solution, sending colliers (coal-carrying ships) for a fee.
But sometimes (in Vigo, Spain, for example), these colliers would not be permitted to set up shop and start fueling. Cue intense Russian frustration. Eventually, the ships were permitted to coal it up, but this was a situation that the fleet would face again and again on their journey.
The fleet re-coaled again off the coast of Tangier, Morocco. Remember the Kamchatka, the ship that reported it was being attacked “from all sides” during the Dogger-Bank Incident? Well the damn thing got separated again on the way to Tangier, and when it caught up the crew reported firing on three Japanese ships. Except the ships it actually fired on were German, French and Swedish. Because Kamchatka.
I picture the physical movements of the Baltic Fleet to correspond very much with the mental image of a bull in a china shop. No event is more evocative of this image than when one of the ships got its anchor caught on the telegraph cable running between Tangiers and Europe. I personally shouldn’t fault them because I’ve been known to run into a wall or two in my life, though I can’t say my clumsiness has ever resulted in a days-long severing in communication between Morocco and Europe.
Along the coast of Africa, things began to heat up. And not in the fun, sexy way. In the literal, sweaty way. According to Eugene, it was so hot and humid that drawers weren’t closing properly and the low-quality metal on board began to rust. He could feel the heat from the floor of his cabin through the soles of his boots. A few sailors actually died of heatstroke, which is unsurprising given how unacclimatized both the sailors and the ships were to that kind of heat.
The ships stopped off the coast of Dakar to meet up with German colliers. Under orders, they loaded up with so much coal that they had to store some on the decks. Because of this, coal dust got everywhere. You think glitter gets everywhere? Coal dust is worse, especially because people actually died on board from breathing in too much of the stuff. Between the ever-present coal dust, the oppressive heat, and the rats (oh yes, there were rats), being onboard one of these ships was more hellish than trying to make dinner conversation with that one relative who always wants to know about your love life, so the chaos that was born from these circumstances makes sense.
And it was chaos.
One ship somehow accidentally picked up a local in Gabon, who ended up becoming a good friend to the crew and still answered to the name they gave him (Andrew Andrevitch) after his eventual return to shore. The crew started bringing exotic animals on board as pets. At this juncture in the journey, it was a few exotics birds here and there. That’s nothing compared to what would happen when they got around to Madagascar. It was around this point that some of the men on board started to go mad. Eugene had to run from boat to boat all damn day because the rusty buckets of fun kept freaking breaking. And, not to be outdone, the Kamchatka relayed the wrong message during a storm off the coast of Angola. Instead of sending, “We are all right now,” they sent, “Do you see torpedo boats?”
The fleet spent Saint Nicholas Day (December 6, according to the Julian calendar, which Russia still used at this time) close to Cape Town. Their celebration was the calm before the literal storm the ships would face as they rounded the Cape of Good Hope. And when they rounded the horn of Africa and started actually chugging toward Port Arthur, instead of away from it, it was expected that the situation would grow more hopeful.
It didn’t. Things got weirder.
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