The Story of How Japan Smashed Russia's Navy (And Got the Idea for Pearl Harbor)

The Story of How Japan Smashed Russia's Navy (And Got the Idea for Pearl Harbor)

At 11:50 pm, 10 Japanese ships from the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Destroyer Flotillas suddenly appeared out of the blackness and launched a series of torpedoes at the Russian ships.

On the chilly night of February 8, 1904, the Imperial Russian Navy’s Pacific Squadron lay peacefully at anchor just outside Port Arthur’s main harbor. Part fortress, part naval base, Port Arthur was located at the tip of the Liaodong Peninsula in southern China. With the Yellow Sea to the east and the Bohai Sea to the west, it commanded the approaches to Peking (Beijing), China’s ancient capital. Port Arthur also protected Russian interests in the region, particularly its claim to mineral-rich Manchuria.


Japan also coveted Manchuria, just as it had designs on neighboring Korea. The two rival empires were on a collision course, and half-heated attempts to resolve their differences only seemed to accelerate the headlong rush to war. In early 1904, Port Arthur received word that Japan had broken off diplomatic relations, but the news scarcely lifted an eyebrow. Who would dare to attack the great fortress, a bastion of Holy Mother Russia?

Japanese Sneak Attack on Port Arthur

Seven Russian battleships were riding at anchor, including the flagship Petropavlovsk, a 12,000-ton vessel that mounted four 12-inch and 12 6-inch guns. No less than six cruisers also were on hand, along with the transport ship Angara. The cruisers Pallada and Askold probed the ocean darkness with their searchlights, a precaution against surprise attack. Vice Admiral Oskar Victorovitch Stark, the fleet commander, had ordered the searchlights utilized to guard the approaches to the Russian ships. He also commanded that each vessel’s torpedo nets be raised, but some of the ships ignored the order. Most of the crews were ill-trained, and many of the officers were arrogant aristocrats more interested in shore leave than the overall welfare of their men.

At 11:50 pm, 10 Japanese ships from the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Destroyer Flotillas suddenly appeared out of the blackness and launched a series of torpedoes at the Russian ships. Ironically, the Russian searchlights had found the Japanese ships moments before the attack began. The Japanese held their breath as long fingers of light illuminated their destroyers for a few seconds before moving on. No alarm was raised, so a relieved Captain Asai Shojiro ordered his destroyers to launch their torpedoes at once. The Russian sailors on searchlight duty apparently had mistaken the Japanese ships for returning Russian patrol vessels. There had been no formal declaration of war between the two countries, and surprise was complete.

When the night attack was over, three of Russia’s proudest ships were damaged. Pallada, Retvizan, and Tsarevitch were crippled; the latter’s bulkhead was shattered and her forward compartment flooded. Ironically, only three of the 16 Japanese torpedoes fired that night found their mark; the rest either missed or malfunctioned. It didn’t matter. Japan had struck first, a psychological blow that put the Russians badly off-kilter in the opening months of the conflict.

There were sound strategic reasons why the Japanese wanted Port Arthur. First and foremost, they hoped to wipe out what they considered a national dishonor. In 1894-1895, a newly modernized Japan had fought a war against the decaying Chinese empire. It was an easy victory, and the triumphant Japanese forced the Chinese to sign the Treaty of Shimonoseki. The pact gave Japan the Liaodong Peninsula and allowed it to occupy Korea, at the time still a Chinese vassal state. One of the victors’ first acts was to land at Port Arthur, and as soon as Japanese troops were ashore they massacred the Chinese garrison. As many as 2,000 Chinese were put to the sword, a figure that included women and children.

The Gibraltar of the East

Russia viewed the events with a mixture of jealousy and alarm. Czar Nicholas II and his ministers felt that China’s decline offered new opportunities for Russian expansion in the Far East. In the wake of the Boxer Rebellion, the various European powers were scrambling to grab choice bits of the Chinese mainland, and it was natural for Russia to stake its own claim. Manchuria was a bleak land of frigid wastes and barren hills, but underneath the windswept surface lay enormous deposits of coal, iron, and copper.

For the Russians, the real prize was Port Arthur and the Liaodong Peninsula. The hills surrounding Port Arthur shielded its harbor from the worst effects of the freezing blasts of winter wind that barreled in from the Arctic, keeping its port facilities ice free all year round. Vladivostok, the terminus of the Trans-Siberian Railway, was some 1,220 miles to the north, and its harbor was frozen solid for at least three months of the year. Accordingly, Russia joined with Germany and France to force Japan to relinquish control of the Liaodong Peninsula and return it to China. Japan yielded grudgingly to the so-called Tripartite Intervention, but the subsequent loss of face was hard to bear. Tokyo would bide its time, gather strength, and win back what had been “stolen” from Japan.

Once Japan was ejected from the region, Russia lost no time in strong-arming the Chinese into a new series of concessions. Peking agreed to a 25-year lease of Port Arthur and a rail line through Manchuria. A rail spur was also constructed that linked Port Arthur to the Trans-Siberian railhead at Harbin. Russian engineers worked hard to strengthen Port Arthur’s defenses. The goal was to make the town the Gibraltar of the East. Russia’s desire to have a warm water port, a dream that dated back as far as Peter the Great, seemed at last fulfilled.

A Fortress and a Naval Base

By 1904, Port Arthur was one of the most heavily fortified places on earth, a position that most observers thought was impregnable. It was named after Lieutenant William C. Arthur of the British Royal Navy, who sheltered there in 1860 during a raging typhoon. He described the harbor in great detail, and before long people started calling the place Port Arthur in honor of the intrepid Englishman. Port Arthur in some respects was not one city but two: an Old Town and an embryonic New Town. Old Town’s narrow, unpaved streets were lined with dilapidated warehouses, shabby hotels, and poorly built administrative and residential buildings. By contrast, New Town boasted broad tree-lined avenues and modern buildings—a visual declaration that Russia was there to stay.

When all was said and done, Port Arthur was both a fortress and a naval base. In the East Basin of the harbor were docks, machine shops, fuel depots, and ammunition stockpiles. The Japanese would find Port Arthur a tough nut to crack. The first line of defense was a series of fortified hills that rose like a giant’s backbone against the slate gray skies. They ran in a great semicircle some 20 miles through the brownish-gray landscape, bristling with 6-inch guns and Maxim machine guns. Gaps between the forts were filled with connecting trenches and covered ways, and good roads assured an easy passage for men, guns, ammunition, and supplies.

Among the more prominent forts were Little Orphan Hill and Big Orphan Hill to the east and 203 Meter Hill, 174 Meter Hill, and False Hill to the west. Thick tangles of barbed wire were strung on the precipitous slopes, and wherever possible natural features were incorporated into the design. Big Orphan and Little Orphan Hills were steep, and the Russians had purposely dammed the Tai River to provide a natural moat at their bases. The Russians also made good use of old Chinese fortifications that once had sheltered and protected Old Town. Most prominent was the Chinese Wall, a 10-foot-high mud and brick structure that snaked its way through the western outskirts of Port Arthur. It was protected from artillery fire and featured a covered way that could be used for both shelter and communication purposes.

“Port Arthur Will be My Tomb!”

In the weeks before the siege, Maj. Gen. Roman Kondratenko and his 8th Siberian Rifles were assigned the task of strengthening the port’s defenses. Hundreds of Chinese supplemented the work force, digging into the hard earth and carting away basketfuls of soil. There was a shortage of concrete and barbed wire, so the Russians improvised with telegraph line. Kondratenko’s men also planted land mines and laid new telephone lines for better communications and fire control. Approaches to the fortifications were sown with fiendishly ingenious booby traps such as nail boards, wooden planks that bristled with a carpet of 5-inch nails, points facing outward. Since Japanese troops often wore straw sandals, the nail boards would prove particularly effective. The Russians also built trenches in the sides of steep hills and roofed them with timber supports. Once covered with earth and boulders, they seemed part of the hill’s natural slope. Loopholes and vision slits allowed defenders in the trenches to fire down upon advancing attackers and roll down hand grenades.

Lieutenant General Baron Anatole Stoessel was Port Arthur’s commander. He was a brave but incompetent officer who attempted to gloss over his flaws by issuing communiqués filled with bluster and bravado. “Farewell forever” ran one missive to a friend outside the town. “Port Arthur will be my tomb!” Stoessel enforced Draconian rules of discipline, and soldiers were flogged for drunkenness—a frequent Russian Army offense. The ill treatment of the troops caused the garrison’s morale to plummet.