News that a Russian aircraft carrier and accompanying warships are in the English Channel on their way to the eastern Mediterranean should put fear into the hearts of North Sea fishermen. Here, from my book The Industrial Revolutionaries is an account of what happened in 1904 when a Russian fleet, en route to Vladivostok to confront the Japanese Navy, mistook Hull fishing boats for the enemy. The illustration above is from a postcard captioned the "Russian Outrage!".
On the afternoon of Sunday 23 October 1904 two fishing trawlers limped back to Hull on the north east coast of England, their flags flying at half mast. Those who came to greet them were at first puzzled, then horrified. The boats, the Mino and the Moulmein, were riddled with shell-holes. On board they carried the bodies of Henry Smith who had been skipper of another of the Hull Gamecock fleet, the S.T Crane, and his boatswain William Arthur Leggett. There were six wounded. It was a wonder that there were no more casualties, although in time the explanation for that became clear: the Hull trawlermen had been attacked at night by a huge armada of Russian ships whose nervous crews had rained shells on the fishing grounds of the Dogger Bank in the North Sea in a blind panic. Astonishingly, they thought they were being attacked by Japanese torpedo boats.
As the Russian fleet of forty eight destroyers, cruisers, supply ships, torpedo boats and a motely collection of superannuated craft steamed on to the English Channel, not stopping to inspect in daylight the damage they had caused or to offer assistance to the stricken trawlermen, British Naval Officers arrived in Hull by train. What they heard was soon to be published in the Times and other newspapers under the headline of the "Dogger Bank Outrage. " Alongside the fleet of trawlers was a "Mission Ship" the Joseph and Sarah Miles which picked up one of the survivors of the Crane who gave the first and most vivid account of that terrible night.
"We had just hauled and shot away again," he said, "and were in the fish-pound cleaning the fish and passing jokes about the war vessels, which we could see quite plain, and heard their firing, when suddenly something hit us. The third hand said,'Skipper, our fish-boxes are on fire; I'm going below out of this,' and walked forward, the skipper, who was on the bridge, laughing at him for being frightened. We were hit again forward, and someone called out and said, 'The bosun is shot.' I went forward to look, and found the boatswain bleeding and a hole through our bulwarks, and the fore companionway knocked away. I went to tell the skipper. Before I got aft a shot went through the engine-casing, and I began to feel frightened. I could see that the skipper was not on the bridge. I went aft, passed the chief, who was bleeding, gave him my neckcloth to stop the blood, went right aft and saw the skipper lying on the grating. I said, 'Oh, my God, he is shot!' I picked him up and saw that his head was battered to pieces. I dropped him, rushed down the forecastle, and saw the boatswain lying on the floor, with his head battered in.
"Another shot came and hit us, I didn't know where. All hands were shouting out they were shot. I jumped on the bridge to blow the whistle, but that and the steampipe were knocked away. I tried to alter the wheel, but the wheel-gear was smashed. I then found we were sinking. I went to the boat, cut the grips,plugged her up, and put the painter on the winch to heave her aft, but found some of the winch smashed. Then something hit me on the back. I saw the GULL launch her boat. I dragged the skipper forward and got the third hand up on the deck and went for the chief. He was unconscious. By this time the GULL's boat came alongside and we put in the skipper and bosun, and got in ourselves - how, I don't know.
"When the boy came to me and said, 'Where is my father?' that was a pill I could not swallow. For the life of me I could not tell the boy what had happened to his father.
"The searchlights made everything like day. The fireman, while he was in the engine-room, saw the warship that was firing on us - saw her through the hole they made in the ship's side. They made a target of us. They meant doing for us. They needed no lights to see what we were. The searchlights told them plain enough."
While British naval vessels followed the Russian armada as it headed down through the English Channel urgent diplomatic negotiations were begun. Admiral Rozhdestvenski in command of the Russian fleet insisted that torpedo boats had been sighted, and that one had been sunk. However he had realised that his crews, most of whom he despised, were firing on fishermen who were desperately holding up their catch to indicate that they were neither Japanese nor combatants. The London Times thundered: " For twenty minutes, we are told, the Russians poured shrapnel on the helpless fishing boats. They then steamed off without waiting to ascertain what was the character or nationality of the craft on which they had directed, without warning, this deadly fire, and without making the slightest effort to rescue the crews of the boats they had sunk.....It is almost inconceivable that any men calling themselves seaman, however frightened they might be, could spend twenty minutes bombarding a fleet of fishing boats without discovering the nature of their target.....The only surmise we can make with our present knowledge of the facts is that the Russians were themselves the victims of a disgraceful panic. The telegram from our Copenhagen Correspondent shows that they were in a state of extraordinary nervousness as they passed through the Danish waters. All sorts of cock-and-bull stories about the preparations made by Japanese spies for blowing the Baltic fleet sky-high ...."
For a few tense days the possibility of war between Britain and Russia was discussed in London Clubs and amongst the highest authorities. The Russian Baltic Fleet had been directed to the Far East by the Tsar, Nicholas ll to confront and defeat the Japanese who had come to challenge territorial control of Manchuria and Korea. The Japanese wiped them out at the battle of Tsushima.