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On May 14-15, 1905, in the Tsushima Straits near Japan, an entire Russian fleet was annihilated, its ships sunk, scattered, or captured by the Japanese. In the deciding battle of the Russo-Japanese War, the Japanese lost only three destroyers but the Russians lost twenty-two ships and thousands of sailors. It was the first modern naval battle, employing all the new technology of destruction. The old imperial navy was woefully unprepared. The defeat at Tsushima was the last and greatest of many indignities suffered by the Russian fleet, which had traveled halfway around the world to reach the battle, dogged every mile by bad luck and misadventure. Their legendary admiral, dubbed "Mad Dog," led them on an extraordinary eighteen-thousand-mile journey from the Baltic Sea, around Europe, Africa, and Asia, to the Sea of Japan. They were burdened by the Tsar's incompetent leadership and the old, slow ships that he insisted be included to bulk up the fleet. Moreover, they were under constant fear of attack, and there were no friendly ports to supply coal, food, and fresh water. The level of self-sufficiency attained by this navy was not seen again until the Second World War. The battle of Tsushima is among the top five naval battles in history, equal in scope and drama to those of Lepanto, Trafalgar, Jutland, and Midway, yet despite its importance it has been long neglected in the West. With a novelist's eye and a historian's authority, Constantine Pleshakov tells of the Russian squadron's long, difficult journey and fast, horrible defeat.
In 1905, with the Russian imperialist excursion into China teetering on the brink of collapse, Russia's vast Trans-Siberian Railroad threatened, its Pacific Fleet bottled up in Port Arthur and its eastern army besieged on the peninsula protecting the port of Vladivostock, the czar conceived a bizarre plan, deciding to assemble a new fleet and sail it more than 18,000 miles to defeat the Japanese navy and relieve his forces at Port Arthur. Though the second fleet comes to a disastrous end, the battle does not begin until page 260 (and it is all over by page 285): the story here is in the arduous journey. Passing fearful allies and belligerent neutrals as well as dealing with impossible supply lines, difficult communications and inept leadership both by the government in St. Petersburg and by his subordinates Adm. Zinovy Petrovich "Mad Dog" Rozhestvensky emerges as the tragic hero of this "epic." In the unfolding of these details, Pleshakov provides a clear view of the politics and history of the time, as well as of Rozhestvensky. In clear and convincing English from the admitted nonnative speaker Pleshakov, the book moves inexorably toward its inevitable end with the power of a giant dreadnought at full steam, affording a moving portrait of a capable leader placed in a situation where he could not possibly prevail. Against all odds, and by this point against even the reader's better judgment, the Russian fleet arrives at the Sea of Japan to do battle with the newer, faster, more powerful, better trained and freshly maintenanced Japanese fleet, and is quickly defeated.