Dogger Bank incident
The Dogger Bank incident (also known as the North Sea Incident, the Russian Outrage or the Incident of Hull) occurred on the night of 21/22 October 1904, when the Russian Baltic Fleet mistook some British trawlers in the Dogger Bank area of the North Sea for an Imperial Japanese Navy force and fired on them. Russian warships also fired on each other in the chaos of the melée. Three British fishermen died and a number were wounded. One sailor and a priest aboard a Russian cruiser caught in the crossfire were also killed. The incident almost led to war between Britain and Russia.
The Russian warships involved in the incident were en route to the Far East, to reinforce the 1st Pacific Squadron stationed at Port Arthur, and later Vladivostok, during the Russo-Japanese War. Because of the fleet's alleged sightings of balloons and four enemy cruisers the day previously, coupled with "the possibility that the Japanese might surreptitiously have sent ships around the world to attack" them, the Russian admiral, Zinovy Rozhestvensky, called for increased vigilance, issuing an order that "no vessel of any sort must be allowed to get in among the fleet", and to prepare to open fire upon any vessels failing to identify themselves. With ample reports about the presence of Japanese torpedo boats, submarines and minefields in the North Sea, and the general nervousness of the Russian sailors, 48 harmless fishing vessels were attacked by the Russians, thousands of miles away from enemy waters.
The incident arose from the fact that it was known that enemy intelligence had been heavily active in the region, and that the recently developed torpedo boats of the major navies did have the potential to sink or damage large warships, and could strike while nearly invisible. Torpedo boats created a psychological stress on sailors at war, and as early as 1898, during the Spanish–American War, American warships had opened fire on ocean swells, trains on land, and rocks along the coastline, after sailors had mistaken them for Spanish torpedo boats.
Accidents and rumours had dogged the United States Navy during the war with Spain in 1898, and they also affected the Russian fleet on their voyage. There was a general fear of attack among the sailors, with widespread rumours that a fleet of Japanese torpedo boats were stationed off the Danish coast, as well as talk of the Japanese having mined the seas and alleged sightings of Japanese submarines. This soon led to an incident near the Danish coast unrelated to the Dogger Bank incident, when fishermen bearing consular dispatches from Russia for the fleet were fired on, but escaped unharmed due to the poor standards of Russian gunnery.
After negotiating a non-existent minefield, the Russian fleet sailed into the North Sea. The disaster of 21 October began in the evening, when the captain of the supply ship Kamchatka (Камчатка), which was last in the Russian line, took a passing Swedish ship for a Japanese torpedo boat and radioed that he was being attacked. Later that night, during fog, the officers on duty sighted the British trawlers, interpreted their signals incorrectly and classified them as Japanese torpedo boats in spite of them being more than 32,000 km from Japan. The Russian warships then trained their searchlights on the trawlers and opened fire. The British trawler Crane was sunk, and its captain and first mate were killed. Four other trawlers were damaged, and six other fishermen were wounded, one of whom died a few months later. As the trawlers had their nets down, they were unable to flee and, in the general chaos, Russian ships shot at each other: the cruisers Aurora and Dmitrii Donskoi were taken for Japanese warships and bombarded by seven battleships sailing in formation, damaging both ships and killing at least one Russian sailor and severely wounding another, and fatally wounding a naval chaplain. During the pandemonium, several Russian ships signalled torpedoes had hit them, and on board the battleship Borodino, rumours spread that the ship was being boarded by the Japanese, with some crews donning life vests and lying prone on the deck and others drawing cutlasses to repel a boarding. More serious losses to both sides were only avoided by the extremely low quality of Russian gunnery, with the battleship Oryol reportedly firing more than 500 shells without hitting anything. The firing lasted for twenty minutes before the British fishermen observed a blue light being signalled on one of the warships; this was the order to cease firing.
The incident led to a serious diplomatic conflict between Russia and Britain, which was particularly dangerous due to the Anglo-Japanese Alliance. In the aftermath some British newspapers called the Russian fleet 'pirates' and Admiral Rozhestvensky was heavily criticised for not leaving the British sailors lifeboats. The editorial of the morning's Times was particularly scathing:
- "It is almost inconceivable that any men calling themselves seamen, however frightened they might be, could spend twenty minutes bombarding a fleet of fishing boats without discovering the nature of their target."
The Royal Navy prepared for war, with 28 battleships of the Home Fleet being ordered to raise steam and prepare for action, while British cruiser squadrons shadowed the Russian fleet as it made its way through the Bay of Biscay and down the coast of Portugal. Under diplomatic pressure, the Russian government agreed to investigate the incident, and Rozhestvensky was ordered to dock in Vigo, Spain, where he left behind those officers considered responsible (as well as at least one officer who had been critical of him). From Vigo, the main Russian fleet then approached Tangiers, Morocco, and lost contact with the Kamchatka for several days. The Kamchatka eventually rejoined the fleet and claimed that she had engaged three Japanese warships and fired over 300 shells: the ships she had actually fired at were a Swedish merchantman, a German trawler, and a French schooner. As the fleet left Tangiers, one ship accidentally severed the city's underwater telegraph cable with her anchor, preventing communications with Europe for four days.
The Russian fleet was barred from using the Suez Canal and British ports as a result of the incident. It thus proceeded around Africa, where it rendezvoused with German supply ships that had been hired to replenish its coal stocks at sea. The fleet then proceeded to the Sea of Japan where it was defeated in the Battle of Tsushima.
On 25 November 1904, the British and the Russian governments signed a joint agreement in which they agreed to submit the issue to an international commission of inquiry whose proceedings were to be based on the Hague Convention. The International Commission met in Paris from 9 January to 25 February 1905. Its report issued at the conclusion of its proceedings criticised Admiral Rozhestvenski for his decision to fire upon the British ships. However, it concluded that "as each [Russian] vessel swept the horizon in every direction with her own searchlights to avoid being taken by surprise, it was difficult to prevent confusion". It concluded that "the opening of fire by Admiral Rozhestvensky was not justifiable". It also concluded as follows: "the commissioners take pleasure in recognising, unanimously, that Admiral Rozhestvensky personally did everything he could, from beginning to end of the incident, to prevent trawlers, recognised as such, from being fired upon by the squadron".
The fishermen eventually received £66,000 from Russia in compensation. In 1906 the Fisherman's Memorial was unveiled in Hull to commemorate the deaths of the three British sailors. The approx. 18 feet high statue shows the dead fisherman George Henry Smith and carries the following inscription:
- Erected by public subscription to the memory of George Henry Smith (skipper) and William Richard Legget (third hand), of the steam-trawler CRANE, who lost their lives through the action of the Russian Baltic Fleet in the North Sea, 22 October 1904, and Walter Whelpton, skipper of the trawler MINO, who died through shock, May 1905.
- The Russian Outrage (Chapter XXII) – Wood Walter, North Sea Fishers And Fighters, K. Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co, London, 1911
- Connaughton, Richard Michael (1988). The War of the Rising Sun and Tumbling Bear (DIGITIZED BY GOOGLE BOOKS ONLINE). New York City: Routledge. pp. 247, 250, 259. ISBN 978-0-415-07143-7. Retrieved 1 December 2008.
- Busch p. 90, 91
- Busch p. 90, 91
- Busch p. 121
- Simpson, Richard V. (2001). Building The Mosquito Fleet, The US Navy's First Torpedo Boats. Charleston: Arcadia Publishing. p. 108. ISBN 0-7385-0508-0.
- Dogger Bank – Voyage of the Damned ('Hullwebs – History of Hull' website. Retrieved 8 September 2007.)
- The dogger bank incident in 1904 – The Russian fleet attacks Hull trawlers – Scarborough Maritime Heritage Centre
- Joint British-Russian declaration
- Karen Kitzman Jackson, The Dogger Bank Incident and the Development of International Arbitration, Texas Tech University, 1974, pp. 65–66.
- Dogger Bank Incident Final Report
- International Dispute Settlement – Merills, J. G., Cambridge University Press, Cambridge University, 1999
- Busch, Noel F. (1969). The Emperor's Sword: Japan vs Russia in the Battle of Tsushima. New York: Funk and Wagnalls.
- Credland, Arthur (2004). North Sea Incident. Hull: Hull Museums and Galleries.
- Lewis, Brian (1983). The Day the Russian Imperial Fleet Fired on the Hull Trawlermen. City of Kingston-upon-Hull Museums and Art Galleries.
- Westwood, John N. (1986). Russia against Japan 1904–05: A New Look at the Russo-Japanese War. Houndmills.
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