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Commander Vladimir Semenoff:

Coaling at Sea, 1905

[Tappan Introduction]

COMMANDER SEMENOFF was on the Suvoroff, a vessel of the Russian Baltic fleet that set out from Riga, "fought" the English fishing fleet off the Dogger Bank (which nearly caused Britain to declare war on Russia), rounded the Cape of Good Hope in the circumstances described below, and was annihilated at the Battle of the Tsushima Straits in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05.

ON November 12, at 8 P.M., we arrived at Dakar [French West Africa]. Colliers were awaiting us here; still, we were not able to commence coaling at once, although we were in the territory of our good allies. No sooner had we anchored than the captain of the port came off to see the admiral, but not---alas!---to welcome us and to offer us his assistance, but to propose that we should leave again at once. He informed us that Japan had protested against belligerent warships, on their way to the seat of war, being permitted to coal in neutral ports; that England had energetically supported this protest; and that the French Government had apparently not decided to reject this new principle in international law. At least he had orders to find some way out of this difficulty, to select and indicate to us some spot for coaling outside territorial waters, but in any case not to permit this operation to be commenced, without having previously arrived at an understanding with Paris. Personally, he placed himself entirely at our disposal, and in this he was evidently quite sincere. (This was very much like the reception accorded to the Diana at Saigon: the warmer welcome on the part of the local authorities and cold reserve on the part of the home government.) The governor promised assistance of all kinds, offered to send us not only fresh provisions, but, if necessary, workmen--- only we were to go.

Where to? To the Cape Verde Islands, for instance. There the depth of water made it possible to anchor outside territorial waters, that is, beyond three miles from the coast. We who had just come in from sea knew very well what a swell we should find there. Under these conditions coaling was not to be thought of. The admiral stated categorically that since coaling in the open sea was impossible, and sailing without coaling was equally impossible, the prohibition to coal in Dakar roads was equivalent to a demand for the disarming of any of the vessels belongings to one of the belligerents which might enter a neutral port; that this however, was contrary to all declarations of neutrality. This brought things to a head.

Telegrams flew to St. Petersburg and to Paris.

In the afternoon it was announced that the negotiations were taking a favorable turn for us; we therefore took advantage of the great distance between our anchorage and the French settlement on shore, from where one could not "see clearly " what was going on in the squadron, hauled the colliers alongside, and started coaling. The reception we met with at Vigo, and again here, in the port of an allied power, forced us to consider very seriously what should be done as regarded the voyage of the squadron round the Cape of Good Hope. Our next stop was to be at Libreville, a French colony, forty miles north of the Equator, situated at the mouth of the Gabon River, in which water was plentiful. If we entered it, we were as snug as in any secure port, but, unfortunately, the French local authorities had definite orders, according to information received thence, not to allow us to enter the river at all. At the same time it was pointed out that the depth of water at a distance of over three miles from the shore (that is, outside territorial waters) was generally from ten to twelve fathoms, and that if we were to anchor there (that is, in the open sea), we should not only not be prevented from coaling, but would receive every possible assistance. That was truly French---and amiable; at the same time, it did not commit them to anything. It was just as if one said to a hungry man sitting under an apple tree: "I have no right to pick even one apple for you, but if one should drop off, eat it by all means; I would even peel it for you."

It must, however, be pointed out that November is the month of the most variable weather at Libreville. Calms predominate, but from time to time there are violent storms, with lightning and thunder (tornadoes), which in strength are hardly inferior to the West Indian hurricanes, and which, though they do not last so long as these, are more frequent. Apart from the danger of the tornado itself, a heavy swell continues for a long time afterwards. In short, coaling "at sea," near the Gabon, could in no way be looked upon as a certainty.

The next stop (one thousand and odd miles south of Gabon) was to be in Great Fish Bay---a very large bay, which offers perfect protection against the prevailing winds and the swell. Neither on the shores of the bay, nor for hundreds of miles around, is there a tree, or a bush, or a single fresh-water spring---nothing but sand. Without doubt, one could not imagine a better place for our squadron, hunted out of every port. But in our days no "no man's land" can be found anywhere on the globe, and this desert belongs officially to the Portuguese. If an English squadron were to appear in the bay, bringing a Portuguese official, from the neighboring town of Benguela, and he were to request us to leave, then, in case we declined, the English were undoubtedly entitled to place their forces at his disposal for action against us, as we should be transgressing the neutrality rules which had recently been formulated. How would this end ? --- It does not pay to foretell the future. Come what may, this place, also, could hardly be thought of for coaling purposes.

On the entire west coast of Africa, there was only one spot on which we counted with certainty: Angra Pequeña, seven hundred and odd miles south of Great Fish Bay, the only harbor of the German colony on that coast. When it is considered that our coal was delivered to us by the steamers of the Hamburg-America Line, we were surely entitled to count upon not meeting with any obstacles there (and in this we were not deceived).

After that, Madagascar. Ni plus, ni moins, as all other anchorages which were suitable for our purposes belonged to the English, whilst Delagoa Bay, which had been thought of when the route was being planned, belonged to Portugal, which came to the same thing. The possibility of coaling at sea---in the regions of the southwest trades, southeast trades, and the westerly gales---was of course out of the question. The point to be decided therefore was: Should we turn back, or continue with the prospects of having to fill up the new battleships, with, say, twenty-four hundred tons of coal each, as against the normal stowage of eleven hundred? Now the Technical Committee had found that these ships, which already drew two and one-half feet more than was intended, gave cause for anxiety when their bunkers were filled up to extreme stowage, and had informed the admiral accordingly. In consequence of this communication the admiral had issued on October 14 a general memorandum, in which it was laid down that "to insure a safe metacentric height, the following was to be observed by the ships concerned: (1) To avoid stowing liquids in the free spaces in such a manner that these would be able to move when the ship rolled; thus, for instance, boiler water should be used up in rotation, that is, no water was to be taken out of one compartment, until the preceding one was empty. (2) All objects of any considerable weight were to be securely lashed. (3) Coal was to be used in such a manner, that, as it was taken out of the lower bunkers, a like amount was to be moved down from the upper to the lower bunkers. (4) In heavy weather all ports and other openings in the ship's side were to be closed."

I beg pardon of my "shore-going" readers for citing this order, which can hardly be either interesting or even intelligible to them, but which speaks volumes for those familiar with the sea. Thus the question to be decided, put bluntly, was, "Either turn back, for there is nothing to be had here, or risk capsizing." Turn back---easier said than done. How was such a thing conceivable, since "the whole of Russia was looking upon us with confidence and in firm hope." Here the enormous difference which exists between a general commanding an army, and an admiral commanding a fleet showed itself clearly. In the case of the former there cannot, under any circumstances, be any question of his personal bravery. If he were to declare that he did not consider himself justified in sending the troops confided to his care to certain destruction, one could accuse him of anything one pleased, but never of personal cowardice. With the admiral it is just the opposite. He is on board his flagship, on which the adversary concentrates his fire, in the very center of the danger, he is the first to risk his skin. If he were to say that he did not want to lead his squadron to certain destruction, it would always be possible (whether rightly or wrongly is another question) to hurl at his head the terrible words: "You are afraid!"

Now judge for yourselves; when Russia was in this mood, when it "looked with confidence and in firm hope on the Second Squadron," would it have been possible for the officer commanding this squadron to have spoken of turning back? And so he decided to go ahead, and disregarding the warning of the Technical Committee, to fill up the ships with coal---as it was expressed in the mess not only "up to the neck, but over the ears."

At Dakar the battleships of the Borodino type were ordered to take on board twenty-two hundred tons of coal, which meant that not only the belt deck or flats, but the main deck as well had to be used as stowage places. The admiral signed and issued a general memorandum, drafted by the constructor on the staff, in which the manner of carrying out this unusual operation was laid down very precisely, and all precautionary measures, which were considered necessary, both in taking on board and in using up this "deck cargo" were prescribed.

The constructor on the staff, P. (an excellent messmate, who enjoyed universal sympathy), was extremely busy, went from ship to ship, and finally assembled the other constructors for a consultation on board the Suvoroff. "Well, and what do you think of it?" "If there is no help for it, then we must manage it somehow," he said. "Shall we capsize?" "No, at least probably not, if the maindeck ports keep out the water. Let us hope we shan't get a strong head wind, for then things will be very bad for us. When the maindeck ports no longer hold and the water pours in---then good-bye."

During the night of November 12-13, the governor received instructions from Paris to permit us to coal, but only on condition that the operation was to be completed in twenty-four hours. As a matter of course, this period commenced with the moment of receiving this decision; that was 4 A.M.

November 13 was the first day of our "coal troubles." We afterwards went through many such days, but this first one was especially heavy. In Dakar, as in the tropics generally, all signs of life cease between 10 A.M. and 3 P.M. The government offices are closed; the shops do not sell anything; the troops do not leave their barracks; the European workmen interrupt their work; every one not only seeks protection in the shade against the sun's scorching rays, but endeavors to move as little as possible in the shade, as every movement produces profuse perspiration. These rules were observed by people who, to a certain degree at least, had become acclimatized and accustomed to this life; but for us there were none of these conveniences. For us rapid coaling was one of the first conditions of life; every one took part in this, beginning with the captain; the ship's company worked in two watches, night and day. In a flat calm, and with the thermometer never under 90° F., the Suvoroff was completely smothered in a cloud of coal dust for twenty-nine hours on end. The sun's rays by day, those of the electric light by night, could hardly penetrate this black fog. From the bottom of the colliers' holds the sun had the appearance of a blood-red spot. Blacker than niggers [sic], streaming with perspiration, lumps of cotton-waste between their teeth (it was necessary to breathe through the cotton-waste to avoid getting the coal dust into the lungs), officers and men were at work in this hell. And nowhere could one hear the slightest grumbling, not even a hint that after all there was some limit to human endurance. Extraordinary-looking creatures ---black and streaming with moisture---ran up to the bridge every now and then, "only for one minute, for a breath of fresh air," quickly asked the signalman: "How are we getting on? How much was it for the last hour? Are we ahead of the others?" and disappeared again below at once.

And what went on in the closed-in coal-bunkers, where the coal had to be stowed, as it shot down from above? Where the temperature was 115° F.? Where the strongest and healthiest could not stand it for more than fifteen or twenty minutes! No one inquired. It was necessary, there was no help for it. The work was kept at boiling point. It happened every now and then that one of the workers could no longer keep on his legs. He was then quickly carried out, the fire hose turned on him, and when he had recovered his breath, he returned to complete his task.


From: Eva March Tappan, ed., The World's Story: A History of the World in Story, Song and Art, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1914), Vol. VI: Russia, Austria-Hungary, The Balkan States, and Turkey, pp. 226-234.

Scanned by Jerome S. Arkenberg, Cal. State Fullerton. The text has been modernized by Prof. Arkenberg.

This text is part of the Internet Modern History Sourcebook. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts for introductory level classes in modern European and World history.

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© Paul Halsall, November 1998

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