Throughout the late 19th and 20th centuries, the Russian and Japanese empires had been engaged in a political struggle over who would dominate northeast Asia. In a decisive naval battle at the Tsushima Strait in 1905, Japan would be the dominant power in Manchuria and Korea until its defeat in World War II and set back Russia’s far eastern ambitions for decades.
Japan had been rapidly modernizing since the Meiji Restoration of 1868 ushered in a generation of reforms, and was more and more exerting its influence as a Pacific power. Russia had been expanding its footprint across central and eastern Asia, and warm water ports in China were vital to this vision. Both desired Korea and Manchuria as colonial buffer zones between the two empires, but defining those zones grew so intractable that war became inevitable.
A key point of the dispute was the strategic Russian-controlled Port Arthur in Manchuria, the only major Russian naval base on the Pacific outside of Vladivostok farther north, and unlike Vladivostok was warm water and could be used year round. When war broke out in 1904, a large Japanese army attacking out of Korea besieged and after suffering terrible casualties seized the port. Most of the Russian Pacific fleet was bottled up at Port Arthur after their defeat in the Battle of the Yellow Sea and was destroyed as well, and Russian forces were forced to retreat northward.
While the battle for Port Arthur was still raging, Tsar Nicholas II had ordered a large force from his Baltic fleet to the Pacific to help break the siege. Designated the Second Pacific Squadron under Admiral Rozhestvensky and composed of 11 battleships and numerous cruisers and destroyers, on paper, it was a formidable force. In reality, many of its ships were older vessels and badly maintained by ill-trained crews. The incredibly long voyage of over 18,000 nautical miles would only add to these problems.
Setting sail on Oct. 15, 1904, the voyage was off to an inauspicious start in the North Sea when rumours of Japanese torpedo boats in the area led to panicky crews firing on British shipping, sparking a diplomatic incident. Denied the use of the Suez Canal by the British, the fleet was forced to sail around the Horn of Africa, and it was not until April 14, 1905, that the fleet reached Cam Rahn Bay in Indochina. Port Arthur, the original target of the expedition had fallen on Jan. 2, and the fleet set sail instead to Vladivostok to refit for a counterattack.
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