The Battle of Ulsan

Off Ulsan, Korea, in the Sea of Japan, 14 August 1904, 0500 hrs.


The news that the Port Arthur Squadron had sailed reached Vladivostok in the afternoon of 11 August. But the Vladivostok cruisers were not ready for action. It had been understood that they would receive ample warning when the Port Arthur Squadron was ready to sortie. No such warning had been given, and there was every reason to believe that Admiral Vitgeft was immovable. The last word received from him was in a telegram received on 5 August, in which he announced that "after prayer and full consideration" his final decision was to perish with the fortress. Consequently, the Vladivostok Squadron was leisurely coaling when the news of the sortie arrived.

Owing to the delay in sailing there was little hope of being able to assist Admiral Vitgeft's squadron at the critical passage of the Tsushima Straits. It was calculated that if Vitgeft was successful, and the Port Arthur Squadron was able to break through, it would already be coming up the Sea of Japan. Admiral Iessen, therefore, formed his ships in line abreast at intervals of four nautical miles and headed southward at 14 knots, in hourly expectation of sighting the Port Arthur Squadron.

That night the Vladivostok Squadron closed up into line ahead and continued on to the southward at a reduced speed throughout the next day. It was a serious disappointment that nothing had been seen of the Port Arthur Squadron and the hope that it might yet be met with in the straits was still clung to. Admiral Iessen informed his captains that at dawn they would be approaching Tsushima, and that it was his intention not to enter the straits but to cruise all day on the parallel of Fusan. Before dark they sighted the Korean coast, and closed with Fusan.

At this time Admiral Kamimura was to the eastward of them heading for a position 30 nautical miles northeast of Ulsan where he was to patrol in the hope of intercepting the Russians. The two squadrons had passed very close to one another in the dark on opposite courses but neither was aware of the other. At dawn, Admiral Iessen succeeded in reaching Fusan unobserved and with the straits wide open. Had it been his intention to pass them he could have run through the Western Channel without anything but torpedo-boats in his way. But this was not his plan, so at 0500 hrs, in accordance with his decision to await the coming of the Port Arthur Squadron in the northern approaches to the straits, he began to turn west towards the Korean coast.

Ever since 0130 hrs, Admiral Kamimura had been heading back from his night patrol area on a course that took him directly to where the Russians were. No sooner had Admiral Iessen put his helm over than he sighted the four Japanese armored cruisers.

Kamimura's long months of hunting were finally over. The weather was ideal and Kamimura had the entire summer day ahead of him. The enemy was as far from Vladivostok as it was possible to be in the Sea of Japan, and Kamimura found himself between the Russians and their distant base.

The lightening day clarified the two columns of warships, whose converging tracks gradually closed the range. At 0520 hrs the range was down to 8,500 yards, and both Admirals checked with opening salvos. Soon the 8-inch batteries were ablaze and, as the range shrank further, the 6-inch rifles joined in.

For some reason, Kamimura, in assigning targets, gave his extra ship to Rurik, the last and weakest in the Russian column, so that she was subjected to twice the bombardment administered to her stronger comrades. Rurik lost most of her officers in a short time, and many of her men were being hammered on the Japanese anvil. It looked as though she would be destroyed within a very few minutes and yet she remained afloat for hours, the diminishing number of survivors continuing to fire the few remaining guns until the very last, in a gallant display of classic heroism that won the admiration of the Japanese.

Rurik dropped behind. The other two Russian cruisers, themselves heavily attacked, swerved away from the enemy and then reversed course to enable Rurik to regain her station as they passed.

On the easterly run Kamimura took some punishment himself but nothing comparable to what he inflicted. It would be assumed that when the Russians sheered away from the Japanese muzzles, Kamimura would have pressed in closer. This did not happen. Kamimura oddly held his course during Iessen's sixteen-point turn and then, when a few minutes later Kamimura came about himself, it was by an exterior swing to port onto a new track that lengthened rather than shortened the range.

Rurik, under further shelling, was unable to proceed in column, and a shell in her steering-engine-room caused her to circle out of control. Obviously she was a lost ship and the gallant efforts of Admiral Iessen to save her by maneuvering in the vicinity should have caused his ruin. Kamimura followed Iessen's weaving in and out, the two squadrons banging away at each other and scoring numerous hits with shells that expended most of their fury outside the armored walls.

Iessen realized at last that Rurik was a wreck and that he would be unable to rescue the survivors, so at 0830 hrs he turned and made for Vladivostok. The remarkable thing is that he got there. The Japanese and Russian cruisers now steaming to the northward were firing vigorously at each other. The hitting continued, particularly by the Japanese, and Iessen's vessels gave forth clouds of smoke, sheets of flame and other indications of serious damage. But they pushed ahead and occasionally landed a staggering blow on one of the enemy.

All was not entirely well in Kamimura's squadron. Iwate at the rear of the line had been roughly treated in the early stage of the action prior to the Russian dash for home and Admiral Misu's flagship started to show the effects. The French built Adzuma began to fall back as the stiff chase strained her engines. The terrific demands on the ships personnel began to cause physical and mental exhaustion. Their salvos came at increased intervals. The Russians, however, were in far worse condition than the Japanese. The decks of Rossiya and Gromoboi were covered with dead and wounded, and the upper portions of the vessels showed the havoc of the shells that had burst there.

The battle had come after months of the most arduous overwork. Perhaps Kamimura was exhausted himself. It is impossible to imagine a persuasive reason for his abandoning the pursuit after only three hours, while still on the high seas, and with long daylight hours ahead and many steaming hours between Iessen and Vladivostok. But Kamimura did just that, turning around at 1115 hrs and heading back to the position of Rurik's grave.