Ambassador Choate to the Secretary of State.

No. 1539.]

Sir: I have the honor to inclose herewith as of interest two copies of a parliamentary publication (Russia No. 3, 1905) containing the dispatch from the British agent, forwarding the report of the commissioners in the International Commission of Inquiry into the North Sea Incident.

I have, etc.,

Joseph H. Choate.


Report of the commissioners, drawn up in accordance with article 6 of the declaration of St. Petersburg of the 12th (25th) November, 1904.a

1. The commissioners, after a minute and prolonged examination of the whole of the facts brought to their knowledge in regard to the incident submited to them for inquiry by the declaration of St. Petersburg of the 12th (25th) November, 1904, have proceeded to make in this report an analysis of these facts in their logical sequence.

By making known the prevailing opinion of the commission on each important or decisive point of this summary they consider that they have made sufficiently clear the causes and the consequences of the incident in question, as well as the deductions which are to be drawn from them with regard to the question of responsibility.

2. The second Russian squadron of the Pacific fleet, under the command in chief of Vice-Admiral Aid-de-Camp General Rojdestvensky, anchored on 7th (20th) October, 1904, off Cape Skagen, with the purpose of coaling before continuing its voyage to the Far East.

It appears from the depositions made that from the time of the departure of the squadron from the roads of Réval Admiral Rojdestvensky had had extreme precautions taken by the vessels placed under his orders in order that they might be fully prepared to meet a night attack by torpedo boats, either at sea or at anchor.

These precautions seemed to be justified by the numerous reports received from the agents of the Imperial Government on the subject of hostile attempts to be feared, which in all likelihood would take the form of attacks by torpedo boats.

Moreover, during his stay at Skagen Admiral Rojdestvensky had been warned of the presence of suspect vessels on the coast of Norway. He had learned also from the commander of the transport Bakan coming from the north that he had seen on the previous night four torpedo boats carrying a single light only and that at the masthead.

This news made the admiral decide to start twenty-four hours earlier.

3. Consequently, each of the six distinct divisions of the fleet got under way separately in its turn and reached the North Sea independently in the order indicated by Admiral Rojdestvensky’s report; that flag-officer commanding in person the last division formed by the four new battle ships Prince Souvoroff, Emperor Alexander III, Borodino, Orel, and the transport Anadyr.

This division left Skagen on the 7th (20th) October at 10 o’clock in the evening.

A speed of 12 knots was ordered for the two first divisions and of 10 knots for the following divisions.

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4. Between 1.30 and 4.15 on the afternoon of the next day, the 8th (21st) October, all the divisions of the squadron passed in turn the English steamer Zero, the captain of which examined the different units attentively enough to enable them to be recognized from his description of them.

The results of his observations are, moreover, in general agreement with the statements in Admiral Rojdestvensky’s report.

5. The last vessel which passed the Zero was, from his description of her, the Kamchatka.

This transport, which originally was in a division with the Dmitri Donskoi, and the Aurora was therefore left behind and isolated about 10 miles to the rear of the squadron. She had been obliged to slacken speed in consequence of damage to her engines.

This accidental delay was, perhaps, incidentally the cause of the events which followed.

6. Toward 8 o’clock in the evening this transport did, in fact, meet the Swedish vessel Aldebaran and other unknown vessels and opened fire on them, doubtless in consequence of the anxiety inspired in the circumstances of the moment by her isolation, the damage to her engines, and her small fighting value.

However this may be, the commander of the Kamchatka at 8.45 o’clock sent a message by wireless telegraphy to his commander in chief, regarding this encounter, stating that he was “attacked on all sides by torpedo boats.”

7. In order to understand the effect which this news had on Admiral Rojdestvensky’s subsequent decisions, it must be remembered that in his estimate the attacking torpedo boats, of whose presence 50 miles to the rear of the division which he commanded, he was thus rightly or wrongly informed, might overtake and attack him about 1 o’clock in the morning.

This information led Admiral Rojdestvensky to signal to his ships about 10 o’clock in the evening to redouble thier vigilance and look out for an attack by torpedo boats.

8. On board the Souvoroff the admiral had thought it indispensable that one of the two superior officers of his staff should be on watch on the captain’s bridge during the night in order to observe in his place the progress of the squadron and to warn him at once if any incident occurred.

On board all the ships, moreover, the standing orders of the admiral laid down that the officer of the watch was authorized to open fire in case of an evident and imminent attack by torpedo boats.

If the attack was from the front, he was to open fire on his own initiative, and in the contrary case, which would be much less pressing, he was to refer to his commanding officer.

With regard to these orders the majority of the commissioners consider that they were in no way excessive in time of war, and particularly in the circumstances, which Admiral Rojdestvensky had every reason to consider very alarming, seeing that it was impossible for him to verify the accuracy of the warnings that he had received from the agents of his government.

9. Toward 1 o’clock in the morning of the 9th (22d) October, 1904, the night was rather dark, a slight, low fog partly clouding the air. The moon only showed intermittently between the clouds. A moderate wind blew from the southeast, raising a long swell which gave the ships a roll of 5 degrees on each side.

The course followed by the squadron toward the southwest would have taken the two last divisions, as the event proved, close past the usual fishing ground of the fleet of Hull trawlers, which was composed of some thirty of these small steamboats and was spread over an area of several miles.

It appears from the concordant testimony of the British witnesses that all these boats carried their proper lights and were trawling in accordance with their usual rules under the direction of their “admiral” and in obedience to the signals given by the conventional rockets.

10. Judging by the communications received by wireless telegraphy, the divisions which preceded that of Admiral Rojdestvensky across these waters had signaled nothing unusual.

It became known afterwards in particular that Admiral Fölkersam, having been led to pass around the fishing fleet on the north, threw his electric searchlight on the nearest trawlers at close quarters, and having seen them to be harmless vessels quietly continued his voyage.

11. A short time afterwards the last division of the squadron, led by the Souvoroff, flying Admiral Rojdestvensky’s flag, arrived in its turn close to the spot where the trawlers were fishing.

The direction in which this division was sailing led it nearly toward the main body of the fleet of trawlers, round which and to the south of which it would therefore be obliged to sail, when the attention of the officers of the watch on the bridges of the Souvoroff was attracted by a green rocket, which put them on their guard. This rocket sent up by the “admiral” of the fishing fleet, indicated in reality according to regulation, that the trawlers were to trawl on the starboard tack.

Almost immediately after this first alarm, and as shown by the evidence, the lookout men, who from the bridges of the Souvoroff were scanning the horizon with their night glasses, [Page 475] discovered “on the crest of the waves on the starboard bow at an approximate distance of 18 to 20 cables” a vessel which aroused their suspicions, because they saw no light and because she appeared to be bearing down upon them.

When the suspicious looking vessel was shown up by the searchlight, the lookout men thought they recognized a torpedo boat preceding at great speed.

It was on accont of these appearances that Admiral Rojdestvensky ordered fire to be opened on this unknown vessel.

The majority of the commissioners express the opinion on this subject that the responsibility for this action and the results of the fire to which the fishing fleet was exposed are to be attributed to Admiral Rojdestvensky.

12. Almost immediately after fire was opened to starboard the Souvoroff caught sight of a little boat on her bow barring the way and was obliged to turn sharply to the left to avoid running it down. This boat, however, on being lit up by the searchlight was seen to be a trawler.

To prevent the fire of the ships being directed against this harmless vessel, the searchlight was immediately thrown up at an angle of 45°.

The admiral then made the signal to the squadron “not to fire on the trawlers.”

But at the same time that the searchlight had lit up this fishing vessel, according to the evidence of witnesses, the lookout men on board the Souvoroff perceived to port another vessel, which appeared suspicious from the fact of its presenting the same features as were presented by the object of their fire to starboard.

Fire was immediately opened on this second object and was therefore being kept up on both sides of the ship, the line of ships having resumed their original course by a correcting movement without changing speed.

13. According to the standing orders of the fleet, the admiral indicated the objects against which the fire should be directed by throwing his searchlight upon them; but as each vessel swept the horizon in every direction with her own searchlights to avoid being taken by surprise it was difficult to prevent confusion.

The fire, which lasted from ten to twelve minutes, caused great loss to the trawlers. Two men were killed and six others wounded; the Crane sank; the Snipe, the Mino, the Moulmein, the Gull, and the Majestic were more or less damaged.

On the other hand, the cruiser Aurora was hit by several shots.

The majority of the commissioners observed that they have not sufficiently precise details to determine what was the object fired on by the vessels; but the commissioners recognize unanimously that the vessels of the fishing fleet did not commit any hostile act, and the majority of the commissioners being of opinion that there were no torpedo boats either among the trawlers nor anywhere near the opening of fire by Admiral Rojdestvensky was not justifiable.

The Russian commissioner, not considering himself justified in sharing this opinion, expresses the conviction that it was precisely the suspicious-looking vessels approaching the squadron with hostile intent which provoked the fire.

14. With reference to the real objectives of this nocturnal firing, the fact that the Aurora was hit by several 47-millimeter and 75-millimeter shells would lead to the supposition that this cruiser and perhaps even some other Russian vessels, left behind on the route followed by the Souvoroff unknown to that vessel, might have provoked and been the object of the first few shots.

This mistake might have been caused by the fact that this vessel, seen from astern, was apparently showing no light and by a nocturnal optical illusion which deceived the lookout on the flagship.

On this head the commissioners find that they are without important information which would enable them to determine the reasons why the fire on the port side was continued.

According to their conjecture, certain distant trawlers might have been mistaken for the original objectives, and thus fired upon directly. Others, on the contrary, might have been struck by a fire directed against more distant objectives.

These considerations, moreover, are not in contradiction with the impressions formed by certain of the trawlers, who finding that they were struck by projectiles and remained under the rays of the searchlights, might believe that they were the object of a direct fire.

15. The time during which the firing lasted on the starboard side, even taking the point of view of the Russian version, seems to the majority of the commissioners to have been longer than was necessary.

But that majority consider that, as has already been said, they have not before them sufficient data as to why the fire on the port side was continued.

In any case the commissioners take pleasure in recognizing unanimously that Admiral Rojdestvensky personally did everything he could from beginning to end of the incident to prevent trawlers, recognized as such, from being fired upon by the squadron.

16. Finally, the Dmitri Donskoi, having signaled her number, the admiral decided to give the general signal for “cease firing.” The line of his ships then continued on their way and disappeared to the southwest without having stopped.

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On this point the commissioners recognize unanimously that after the circumstances which preceded the incident and those which produced it there was at the cessation of fire sufficient uncertainty with regard to the danger to which the division of vessels was exposed to induce the admiral to proceed on his way.

Nevertheless the majority of the commissioners regret that Admiral Rojdestvensky, in passing the Strait of Dover, did not take care to inform the authorities of the neighboring maritime powers that, as he had been led to open fire near a group of trawlers, these boats, of unknown nationality, stood in need of assistance.

17. In concluding this report, the commissioners declare that their findings, which are therein formulated, are not in their opinion of a nature to cast any discredit upon the military qualities or the humanity of Admiral Rojdestvensky or of the personnel of his squadron.