Great War at Sea: Russo-Japanese War
Free Enterprise at War
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
War at Sea: Russo-Japanese War contains four battleships, two each
in the colors of Russia and Japan, that appear in no naval
almanacs of the period or histories of the war. They instead
represent warships that both sides hoped to acquire, but neither
managed to obtain. Those weren’t the only hoped-for
Throughout the 1890s and into the early years of the 20th
century, Chile and Argentina argued over the exact nature
of their southern border. An American-sponsored meeting between
Argentine President Julio A. Roca and Chile’s Federico
Errázuriz in 1899 only calmed things for a few months,
and by 1901 both countries were arming rapidly for a naval
Almost Libertad. HMS Triumph’s forward turret.
This dispute would simmer on and off for the next 100 years,
but in May 1902, the two countries agreed to settle their
differences by peaceful means. War, seen as certain just a
few days before, became a much more remote possibility.
Both countries had ordered modern warships from European
yards in anticipation of a naval war around the southern cone.
With this threat now receding, each navy found itself directed
to unload the expensive warships. Argentina cancelled orders
for two modern battleships placed in Italy; Chile withdrew
its offer to buy a pair of older American battleships.
Argentina had already accepted delivery of four armored
cruisers of the Giuseppe Garibaldi class built in Italy. Two
more were just completing at Ansaldo’s yard in Genoa.
Chile had answered the Argentine challenge by ordering a pair
of second-class battleships in British yards, Constitucion from Armstrong and Libertad from Vickers. These also were
The Japanese navy wanted to buy all both of the battleships and the incomplete armored cruisers, starting with the
two British-built ships. Britain and Japan had signed an alliance
in 1902, and with war looming in the Far East between Japan
and Russia the British did their best to help the Japanese
acquire new ships and prevent the Russians from doing so.
HMS Swiftsure, née Constitucion, object
of Japanese and Russian desire.
In November 1903, the Japanese asked the British to make
an inquiry with Chile, and the British reported that Chile
would sell; but the Royal Navy also passed on that a German
arms broker believed to be working for the Russian Navy was
also preparing an offer. The Japanese desperately wanted to
buy both warships, but could not invoke a parliamentary session
in time to authorize the money. To prevent the ships from
going to the Russians, on 4 December the Royal Navy bought
both of them. Re-named Triumph and Swiftsure, both saw action during the First World War.
When the Japanese Diet convened two weeks later, the Imperial
Navy had the money for the battleships and tried to buy them
from the British. The Balfour government refused to make the
sale, not wanting to create diplomatic problems with Russia,
even though the Royal Navy was deeply unenthusiastic over
its two newest battleships.
Denied their battleships but still holding the Diet’s
authorization to spend, the Japanese next turned to the Argentine
cruisers. Armstrong served as intermediary, and a deal was
quickly struck. On the last day of 1903, with the ships almost
complete, Argentina sold both to the Japanese. Armstrong even
provided the mercenary crews to get them to Japan, sparking
a series of Russian protests.
Both nations had turned a profit on the quick sales, and
now looked to garner even more cash. The Pacts of May had
required Argentina to disarm two of her Garibaldi-class
armored cruisers, and now the Argentines looked for brokers
to sell them to either side — the Roca government did
not really care which. All four ships would be sold for the
right price. To avoid selling to a belligerent state, the
American arms dealer Winfield Stern assisted the Argentines
in arranging an intermediary navy. Turkey and Greece signalled
their willingness to funnel Russian money to Argentina, while
Persia was willing to do the same for Japan. British diplomats
pressured all these governments to cease their efforts, and
when the Russians moved on to Morocco and land-locked Bolivia,
the British ministers there let it be known that fronting
for the Russian navy would have repercussions in London.
In Santiago, the Chilean Navy received offers from China
and Greece for its pair of British-built armored cruisers
and the small coast-defense battleship Capitan Prat. The Greek
offer was likely a Russian front, but it is not clear who
the Chinese represented, only that they were not inquiring
on behalf of their own navy. Once again, the British intervened
to scuttle the sale.
The two Chilean battleships appear in Russo-Japanese War in
both Japanese and Russian colors, marking their third and fourth appearances (they show up in several games in British colors, and in the outof-print Cone of Fire as Chilean vessels).
The Argentine cruisers’ Spanish sister, Cristobal
The Russian Navy appears to have had a better shot
at making a deal with Argentina, despite the previous sale
of Argentina’s two new cruisers to Japan. Had the deal
been made, four modern armored cruisers would have been added
to Admiral Z.P. Rozhdestvensky’s Second Pacific Squadron.
This would have likely meant that the ancient ironclads of
Admiral Nikolai Ivanovich’s Nebogatov’s Third
Pacific Squadron, added on the unusual official reasoning
that they might “attract shells intended for more valuable
ships,” would not have made the journey to the Far East.
The Russian shipyard owners who gouged the government to refit
them would lose out, which may have played a role in the deal's demise (fortunately, these days large corporations
no longer take advantage of national emergencies for their
own profit). The Russian Navy did not have enough trained
crews to both operate four new large warships and bring the old
ships out of reserve and into service.
Send these battleships into action! Order Russo-Japanese War now!
Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.