Kesshitai (Forlorn Hope)

Port Arthur, Liaotung Peninsula, 24th February 1904, 0245 hrs.

Japanese Imperial Headquarters were extremely pleased with Togo's operations up to this point. The Imperial missive sent to the Admiral leaves no doubt. "We have heard," it ran, "that the Combined Fleet has completely carried out the duty of landing troops in Korea; has swept the coast clear; has attacked the enemy's ships at Port Arthur and destroyed several of them; and thereby asserted our preponderance. We are greatly pleased."

To clear the line of passage and to prevent any immediate prospect of serious naval interference from the Russians was all that the first stage of the war plan demanded and this had been done without any loss to the fleet. In the eyes of the Japanese Imperial Staff control of the Yellow Sea was sufficiently established to warrant the passage of troops across it in force. The advantage of rapid action was great enough to justify any reasonable risk, and without consulting Admiral Togo as to how great that risk was they had resolved to speed up the occupation of Korea by using the sea line of transit. Instead of landing the rest of the troops at Fusan or Gensan, as had been intended originally, the whole of the First Army was to proceed to Chemulpo.

Admiral Togo was surprised when he heard the decision of the Imperial Staff. He regarded his opening operations as unsatisfactory. In his last general order to the Combined Fleet after Chemulpo, he made it clear that he wanted to draw the Russians out from Port Arthur in order to force upon them a decisive naval action. But now he announced that the objects of the Combined Fleet would be to keep the enemy under observation and safeguard the line of the army's passage. The Combined Fleet was now to play a strictly defensive role, and on this basis he proceeded to make his dispositions.

The bulk of the fleet was to be employed in covering operations of a very drastic and even unprecedented kind. The idea of closing Port Arthur by the use of a number of blockships had not originated with the Admiral. He had even deprecated its use in sympathy for the crews, whom he regarded as committed to certain death. In the heroic shape it eventually took it was the conception of Commander Arima, of the armored cruiser Tokiwa, who had submitted it through his captain to the Naval Staff. Five ships, averaging about 2,000 tons, were taken up for the purpose, and Commander Arima was instructed to select officers for them in secret. That same day a Kesshitai or forlorn hope to man the blockships was called for. Fifty-six hands in all were required, but so keen was the competition for the desperate service that no less than 2,000 names were sent in. Of these, 67, besides the ten officers, were eventually chosen and by the 20th all was ready and the movement began.

Despite every effort to keep this operation secret, information did reach Port Arthur. The Russian command did nothing but put the garrison on alert. They did not believe that the Japanese would really attempt to block the harbor. It was another torpedo attack that they were chiefly expecting.

It had been arranged by Admiral Togo that the 5th Destroyer Division should clear the way for the blockships at the last possible moment. By the evening of the 23rd his whole force had assembled at Round Island. The destroyers then went ahead to Liau-ti-shan and as soon as the moon set stole towards the harbor. In spite of the searchlights they arrived undetected, and making out the stranded Retvizan in the harbor entrance they all fired their torpedoes and made away. The range was long, there was no hit and the only effect was to thoroughly awaken the garrison. They had to make good their escape under a hot fire but none of them were damaged. About an hour later the 14th Torpedo-boat Division escorting the blockships followed to see if the way was clear. Finding nothing they drew off to stand by, but they too, were quickly discovered and subjected to a heavy but ineffective fire. There was obviously little chance of the blockships getting in undetected, but half-an-hour later they began to creep along under the darkness of the shore led by Commander Arima in Tenshu Maru of nearly 3,000 tons, the largest of them all. The Tiger Hill searchlights were now thoroughly alive and were sweeping systematically. The moment the blockships entered the light zone they were detected and met with a concentrated fire. Blinded by the beams, Commander Arima kept to close to the shore and ran aground over three miles from the entrance. His second, Hokoku Maru, warned of the mistake, kept a bit to starboard and passed on. Her next astern, Jinsen Maru, did the same and both held steadily on for the entrance in spite of the storm of fire. As soon as they had opened the Gut the searchlight and guns of Retvizan picked them up. A shell from the stranded battleship smashed the steering gear of Hokoku Maru, set her afire and severed the wires to the scuttling charges. She immediately grounded outside the harbor and to the west of the entrance. Jinsen Maru kept to starboard, but just as she was turning to rush the channel she ran aground, and there she was abandoned and blown up. The fourth and fifth ships did no better than the first. Unaware of the mistake of their leader and unable in the glare to make out their landmarks they believed they had reached the entrance. Accordingly they blew themselves up in correct relative position along side her and that was the end of it.

All the men were saved except one killed.