The Dogger Bank Incident (also known as the North Sea Incident or the Russian Outrange) took place in 1904. Russia was at war with Japan and sent a fleet of warships to Asia to battle the Japanese. When these vessels were passing through British waters a number of Russian warships mistook British trawlers for Japanese torpedo boats and fired on them. The incident came close to sparking a war between Britain and Russia.
Russian and Japanese imperial ambitions had led to the Russo-Japanese War breaking out in early 1904, with the two countries battling over control of areas of China and Korea. Following a number of defeats in the South China Sea and the Sea of Japan, Russia decided to reinforce its navy by sending a large number of warships from Russia’s Baltic Fleet – including some of their newest and most powerful battleships under the command of Admiral Zinovy Rozhestvensky – to the Far East. The planned route would take the fleet out of the Baltic Sea and through the North Sea and English Channel. The fleet would then enter the Mediterranean and head through the Suez Canal and then on to Japan through the Indian Ocean, a journey of many thousands of miles.
From the outset the Russian crews were immensely nervous as rumours had emerged that the area was full of mines, while others believed that Japanese fast attack craft were stationed along the Danish coast and Japanese torpedo boats disguised as trawlers were waiting in the Norwegian fjords, ready to attack the Russians as they passed by. Clearly, the Russians believed that Japan had the ability to attack the Baltic Fleet before it had even left European waters, even though this would have required Japan to have accurate intelligence on the movements of the Russian fleet, send boats many thousands of miles to the other side of the world and would have also required the cooperation of European nations.
The Events of the Dogger Bank Incident
In the early years of the twentieth-century fishing boats were steam-powered and lacked the range and fish-holding capacity of modern vessels. This meant that fishing vessels had to work in fleets consisting of trawlers which would catch the fish which would then be transferred onto carrier vessels which would steam back to port, unload the catch and then return to the trawlers. There would also be support ships carrying food, fresh water and other supplies which accompanied the fleet. One of the largest and most famous fleets was the Gamecock fleet which was made up of around forty vessels and operated out of Hull. On the night of the 21st of October 1904, the Gamecock fleet was fishing on the Dogger Bank – an area of the North Sea approximately sixty miles off the east coast of England which is known for its productive fishing.
The Russian Fleet approached the Gamecock fleet in thick fog, and the trawlers used lights and flares to identify themselves as fishing vessels. However, the Russians concluded that they were Japanese Navy vessels, and possibly thought that the flares were some sort of weapon being fired at them. Using powerful searchlights to illuminate the area the Russians began firing cannons at the fishing vessels with the trawler Crane being hit with shells killing two crew members. Crane began to sink but the remaining crew were rescued by other trawlers, although some were seriously injured. Once they realised they were under attack the trawlers attempted to scatter but many had their nets down as they were engaged in fishing when the attack took place and could only travel at the speed of a few knots. The trawlers Mino and Moulmein were hit with multiple shells, injuring many crew members. Many of the British trawlers were saved as the Russian’s believed more enemy vessels were approaching from the other side and turned their fire in this direction. This turned out to be more of their own ships from the Baltic Fleet coming into the area and for a short while Russian warships exchanged fire with each other. At least two Russian sailors were killed by shelling from their own ships, and the battleship Aurora was damaged below the waterline by a direct hit from another Russian vessel.
The chaotic scenes continued for around twenty-five minutes. Reports from the time indicate that some Russian vessels stated that torpedoes were seen in the water, and other reports said that at least one Russian ship believed that they were on the verge of being boarded and was readying crew members for hand-to-hand combat to repel the Japanese. The fighting ended when a Russian vessel eventually displayed a blue light – the sign to cease firing – and the chaos came to an end. The Russian fleet did not assist the British trawlers or help the injured men. Instead, the warships rapidly left the area and continued on their journey, fearful that Japanese torpedo boats still lurked within the civilian British fishing fleet. The damaged and battered trawlers then made their way back to their homeport of Hull, flying their flags at half-mast to indicate that there had been a death at sea.
The British were understandably outraged by the incident. As news of the incident broke crowds gathered in Trafalgar Square to protest against the Russians. For a short while a war between Britain and Russia looked likely as the British Home Fleet was prepared for action and other British warships which were already at sea made their way towards the Baltic Fleet and shadowed the Russian ships as they made their way to the Atlantic. However, the Russians took action to resolve the situation by instructing the Baltic Fleet to dock in Vigo, Spain where the Russian officers thought to be responsible for the incident were ejected from their ships. Russia then also agreed to attend an independent inquiry in Paris which would address the Dogger Bank Incident. This had the effect of appeasing the British and the threat of war between Britain and Russia receded.
The inquiry took place in early 1905. The Russians claimed that they were justified in firing their cannons at sea as they had credible reports that Japanese torpedo boats were in the area and therefore had to take action to defend themselves. They also made the dubious claim that they were not aiming at the British trawlers and indeed stopped firing when they realised that civilian vessels could be caught in the crossfire. The Russians also claimed that they did not recognise the flares and lights of the British trawlers which identified the vessels as civilian fishing boats as these types of signals were not used in Russia. They also stated that they were justified in leaving the area without making any attempt to rescue British fishermen as there were enough undamaged trawlers in the area to rescue the wounded. Furthermore, the Russians believed that they may still come under attack from additional Japanese torpedo boats which they had not spotted. Britain rejected all of the Russian claims and pointed out that the Gamecock fleet was engaged in the legal business of fishing on grounds that they visited regularly meaning it was common knowledge that trawlers would be present in that area. The British put forward the claim that the Russian actions were borne out of confusion and incompetence and shelling civilian vessels could in no way be considered a justifiable act.
In the inquiry it also emerged that a similar incident had already taken place shortly before the Baltic Fleet’s encounter with the British trawlers. A few days earlier the Russian ship Kamchatka became separated from the rest of the Baltic fleet. Once the Kamchatka joined back up the crew announced that they had encountered Japanese destroyers and fired hundreds of shells at the approaching vessels, forcing them to retreat. The enemy ships turned out to be civilian merchant vessels and a trawler, all from European nations, although the inaccurate Russian shelling meant that no loss of life was reported in this incident.
It was agreed that the trawlers were properly lit and were going about their legitimate business of fishing when the Russians made the unjustifiable decision to open fire. It was also found that the firing went on for longer than necessary, although the inquiry also stated that Admiral Rozhestvensky did all he could to stop the shelling once it was established that civilian trawlers were being fired upon. The Russians paid a sum of £66,000 to Britain in compensation over the Dogger Bank Incident, the equivalent of around £8,500,000 in 2022 when adjusted for inflation.
While the Dogger Bank was rightly considered to be an outrageous and inexplicable act there are a number of factors that can go some way to explaining the behaviour of the Russians.
The Russian navy had suffered a number of heavy defeats in the Russo-Japanese War, particularly at the Battle of Port Arthur where three major Russian warships were heavily damaged by Japanese torpedo boats and ended up blockaded within the port. Other heavy defeats such as the Battle of Yalu River had put the Russians on the back foot and desperate for reinforcements both from the sea and via the extremely long and slow Trans-Siberian Railway. It was within this context of heavy defeats and surprise attacks that the Baltic Fleet took its long journey from Europe to Asia.
Fears amongst the crews of the Baltic Fleet were heightened for two main reasons. The torpedo boats were a relatively new advancement in naval technology and it had been proven that even the mightiest cruiser or battleship could be damaged or even completely sunk by the small and agile boats. This led to the Russians being extremely anxious about small approaching vessels throughout their journey and made them particularly nervous once they were in British waters as the Anglo-Japanese Alliance had recently been signed, making Britain and Japan close allies. Rumours had spread through the Baltic Fleet that the highest likelihood of an attack would be as they entered British territorial waters, and many members of the Russian crew were terrified that Britain would use its large trawler fleet to conceal Japanese torpedo boats, or that trawlers may actually be disguised Japanese boats. This atmosphere of fear, nervousness and suspicion was one of the major causes of the Russian attack on the civilian trawler fleet.
The quality of crews may have also played a part. Many crew members were recruited from rural Russia many had little to no experience of seagoing prior to setting off on the journey with the Baltic Fleet. Russian training was extremely poor when compared to other European nations and the combination of lack of experience and poor training meant that the panicky Russian crews could easily make the mistaken decision to attack civilian ships.
The Dogger Bank Incident did display the terrible gunnery standards of Russian warships. Despite firing on unarmed civilian boats the Russian vessels only destroyed one trawler and only three fishermen lost their lives. Although it must be noted that the close range meant that many of the most powerful cannons on the Russian battleships could not be used, the guns which were used should have been more than sufficient to obliterate the Gamecock fleet. Instead, the trawlers escaped the incident relatively lightly. Indeed, the battleship Oryol was said to have fired over five-hundred shells without scoring a single hit on the British trawlers. Furthermore, the design of the Russian warships themselves may have played a part. The Dogger Bank Incident took place in the final few years of the pre-Dreadnaught era, with many Russian ships being made unstable as additional weapons, armour and other military hardware was added to existing vessels as technology advanced. This often made the Russian warships top-heavy and would have added to the lack of accuracy displayed by the Russian warships.
The Fate of the Baltic Fleet in the Russo-Japanese War
The Russian Baltic Fleet continued its journey to Japan although the events of Dogger Bank meant they had to make huge changes to the route they had planned to take. Following the incident, the British barred the Russians from using the Suez Canal and also prevented the Russian ships from re-fuelling at British controlled ports. This meant that the Russians had to abandon their original route of getting to Japan via the Mediterranean and Suez Canal and instead take a much longer route, circumnavigating the entire continent of Africa and resulting in a journey of almost 20,000 miles which took many months.
When the Baltic Fleet eventually reached Japan it was decisively defeated in the Battle of Tsushima. Two-thirds of the Russian fleet was sunk with the loss of thousands of sailors’ lives, while the remaining Russian ships surrendered at sea. The Japanese Navy, in comparison, only lost three torpedo boats and around one hundred sailors. The defeat of a major power by the Japanese Empire sent shockwaves throughout the world and led to the Russian Revolution of 1905, while emboldened by the success, the Japanese Empire continued expanding, culminating in the nation’s involvement in the Second World War.