A Brief History
On February 8, 1904, the Japanese Navy started the Russo-Japanese War by conducting a sneak attack against the Russian naval fleet at anchor at Port Arthur, Manchuria, a key strategic Pacific port then under the administration of Imperial Russia. Most of us are familiar with the Japanese sneak (or “surprise” or even “preemptive” attack if you want) on Pearl Harbor, Oahu, Hawaii on the American fleet, aircraft and port facilities on December 7, 1941, that started World War II for the United States, but even before that famous sneak attack, the Japanese had already embraced the idea of a sneak attack to neutralize an enemy fleet even before hostilities had been declared.
Although the Japanese surprise attacks have often been called “sneak” attacks and referred to in unflattering terms, the truth of fighting, whether it is between 2 individuals or between nations, is that winning is really, really important. Personal or national survival may rest on whether or not you win, and no points are given for style. If you know or seriously believe the other guy is going to clock you, sucker punch the dude and get the advantage! The United States under the Bush Doctrine has declared a national policy of pre-emptive strikes against any nation or entity that poses a clear and present danger to the welfare of the US. The 1967 Arab-Israeli War, often called the 6 Day War, was a pre-emptive strike by Israel, and we do not often hear the action condemned in the US, although Arab countries are not so hesitant to denounce the Israeli attack. Of course, in 1973, the Arab Nations of Egypt and Syria attacked Israel without warning or a declaration of war, so the practice is not exactly rare. Germany did not give Poland fair notice before the 1939 invasion, nor did the Germans give the USSR an ultimatum prior to a surprise attack on the largest country in the world in 1941, the largest invasion in human history. The North Koreans gave no warning about their surprise invasion of South Korea in 1950, so you can see how often such attacks start wars without any diplomatic chivalry first setting the stage like some sort of ritual duel.
Since Port Arthur (now called Lüshunkou District, or Lushun Port) is on the Liaodong Peninsula in Manchuria, which is part of China, neither Russia nor Japan really had a legitimate claim on the excellent harbor, but merely wanted it for their own military purposes. Russia long sought a warm water port that would be available to Russian ships year round, and Port Arthur fitted that requirement nicely. The other major Russian Pacific port, Vladivostok, ices up in the Winter and is not open year round. The Japanese lusted after Port Arthur, a port they called Ryojun, to enhance their own hegemony over China, and especially their territorial aspirations in Manchuria.
The Russians knew the Japanese had been modernizing their industry and building modern ships, presenting a major threat to Russian sea power in the Far East. Prior to the attack on Port Arthur, the Russians suspected an attack may be coming and had alerted the crews of their shore batteries to be at the ready in case of an attack. Meanwhile, the Japanese under Admiral Togo were indeed planning an attack on Port Arthur and amassed a considerable force to conduct what they hoped would be a crippling blow against the Russian Pacific Fleet.
The Russians were commanded by Admiral Stark (or Starck), a Finnish-Swedish sailor in charge of 6 battleships (of the pre-Dreadnaught variety) and 9 armored cruisers, along with other destroyers and escort and support vessels. Admiral Togo’s Japanese fleet boasted 7 battleships (also of the pre-Dreadnaught type), 5 armored cruisers, 15 destroyers and 20 torpedo boats, as well as more cruisers in reserve. Togo feared the Russian shore batteries presented a grave danger to his large ships, and thus began the battle with the destroyers and torpedo boats making the attack on the Russian fleet in their harbor without risking his big ships. The surprise attack began at 10:20 pm on February 8, 1904, with the approaching Japanese destroyers encountering a Russian destroyer patrol. The Russian sailors had orders not to initiate hostilities, and thus no challenge was made, but the Japanese suffered some confusion that resulted in 2 of their destroyers colliding with each other (Oops!). The Japanese attack force was temporarily scattered, and the first attack on the moored Russian ships did not occur until shortly after midnight.
The Japanese destroyers and torpedo boats made their torpedo attacks, and quickly struck a Russian cruiser, causing the stricken ship to keel over. A battleship was also hit early in the fight, but many of the Japanese torpedoes were stopped by Russian anti-torpedo nets that had been deployed in the harbor against just such an attack. The Russians quickly came to full alert and began firing at the Japanese ships, and the Japanese withdrew after firing only 16 torpedoes, 3 of which had struck Russian ships. All 3 Russian ships hit by torpedoes were put out of action for considerable periods of time, including a cruiser and 2 battleships. Despite pretty much complete surprise, the Japanese sneak attack failed to sink any Russian ships or completely neutralize Russian sea power in the area.
The battle resumed the next day, February 9, 1904, with a surface engagement. A Japanese scouting force of cruisers was not challenged as they neared the port, and the Japanese observed at least 3 Russian ships appeared to have suffered serious damage. The lack of Russian fire on the scouting force led the Japanese to the mistaken conclusion that the Russian fleet had been cripple in port and Admiral Togo ordered a large attack to finish off the remaining Russian ships, not realizing the Russians were preparing for a sea battle. After a brief exchange of gunfire between the Japanese ships and Russian shore batteries, the Japanese were surprised by the Russian fleet making for battle with full steam up. Admiral Togo quickly realized he had put his ships in jeopardy and ordered a retreat. The Russian fleet still had most of its power intact and a new plan would have to be made.
The result of the Battle of Port Arthur was 150 Russian sailors killed and 7 ships damaged, including the 3 that had been torpedoed and a cruiser hit with a shell below the waterline seriously damaged. The Japanese losses were quite light, with only 90 men killed and light damage to a few ships. The Battle of Port Arthur was far from pivotal, although it was historic as the first battle of the Russo-Japanese War. The Japanese ended up winning the war against Russia, with a peace brokered by American President Teddy Roosevelt in September of 1905.
Note: In another one of those “Naval Oops Moments” we keep writing about, a Russian minelayer was laying mines at the entrance to Port Arthur harbor on February 11, 1904, when the ship accidentally hit one of her own mines and was sunk!
Question for students (and subscribers): Does a country have a right to suddenly attack another country without a warning or declaration of war? Have you ever heard of the Battle of Port Arthur or the Russo-Japanese War? Did you know Teddy Roosevelt had mediated the peace treaty? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Corbett, Julian. Maritime Operations in the Russo-Japanese War, 1904-1905: Volume 1. Naval Institute Press, 2015.
Hargreaves, Reginald. Red Sun Rising: The Siege of Port Arthur. J.B. Lippincott Co., 1962.
Tyler, Sydney. The Japan-Russia War: An Illustrated History of the War in the Far East. P. W. ZIEGLER CO., 2017.
The featured image in this article, a print by Torajirō Kasai showing, in the foreground, a Russian battleship exploding under bombardment from Japanese battleships; a line of Japanese battleships, positioned on the right, fire on a line of Russian battleships on the left, in a surprise naval assault on the Russian fleet at the Battle of Port Arthur (Lüshun) in the Russo-Japanese War, is in the public domain in the United States. This applies to U.S. works where the copyright has expired, often because its first publication occurred prior to January 1, 1924. See this page for further explanation.