In 1904 the Russian Tsar, Nicholas II, ordered his Baltic navy to travel around the world to take on the Japanese (who had already destroyed Nicholas’ Pacific fleet). It proved an extraordinary ‘voyage of the damned’ as almost forty Russian ships, including five capital ships sailed towards their doom at the hands of the able Japanese Admiral, Togo. But Beachcombing is not interested in their undoing (at least not today). Rather his curiosity is aroused by a curious episode that took place at the very beginning of the voyage when the Russian fleet believed that it was attacked by Japanese torpedo boats at Dogger Bank, between the Baltic and Britain, and managed, in the confusion, to kill four British fishermen.
Now to a casual reader the very idea of Japanese torpedo boats in the North Sea might seem strange; as, in fact, it is and was. The only way that Japanese torpedo boats would have found their way to the North Sea would be if they had had a nearby friendly port. Yet the Dutch and the Danes were not in the habit of opening their quays to hostile oriental powers wanting to take a swipe at the Russian Bear. Britain, it was true, was in alliance with Japan but it would be an act of diplomatic suicide – it would mean that Britain wanted war – to allow armed Japanese vessels from Dover to steam out towards a European neighbour.
But the Russian fleet and diplomatic service were convinced that Japanese torpedo boats were waiting for them in some God-forsaken islet. Sound absurd? Paranoia had been fed by reports of oriental gentlemen in Baltic ports and mysterious boats glimpsed at twilight: the useless rumours and banter modern intelligence services call ‘chatter’ was picking up. And, what is truly incredible is that the Russians acted upon this chatter.
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