Great War at Sea: Russo-Japanese War
Free Enterprise at War
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
January 2018

Great 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 acquisitions.

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 showdown.

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 well advanced.

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 Colon.

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.

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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.