The Ship of Princes – Since the days of Imperial Rome, kingdoms and empires have had elite military units designated as Guards. Whether they were the Praetorian Guard of a Roman Emperor or the Old Guard of Napoleon, their duty was to guard the sovereign. Membership in these elite units was fashionable among the nobility of their respective countries. Imperial Russia was no different. Peter the Great had his guards regiments and 200 years later, the last of the Romanovs, Nicholas II had his guards. What of the young noble that wished to serve in the navy? Guards units were traditionally found in the Army. The answer for Imperial Russia was to designate one of their newest battleships as a "Guards" unit. Inducted into the guards establishment the new Borodino Class battleship, Imperator Aleksandr III, named after the father of Nicholas II, was to be the fashionable ship in which to serve for the princelings of the Russian nobility.
The battleship Tsarevitch had been built for the Imperial Russian Navy by Forges et Chantiers Mediterranee de la Seyne in Toulon, France. Due to the very close cooperation between France and Imperial Russia as a counterbalance to Britain, the Tsarevitch incorporated the latest of French battleship design. The ship proved to be extraordinarily maneuverable. The Russian Admiralty was so impressed by the design that it was used as a basis for the largest class of battleships ever constructed for Russia, the Borodino Class. Five members of the class were laid down with Imperator Aleksandr III being the second, after Borodino, both laid down in 1899.
As with Tsarevitch, the class exhibited a very marked tumblehome, with the hull sides curving dramatically inward from the waterline. When the Russo-Japanese War started in January 1904, the completion of the ships was accelerated. Four of the five were complete when they were included in the 2nd Pacific Squadron ordered to relieve Port Arthur. Only the last laid down Slava, was not ready. (Click for review of the Combrig kit of Slava) On October 15, 1904 these four forming the backbone of the 2nd Pacific Squadron, left the Baltic port of Libau to start their 18,000 mile odyssey to the far east. The commander of the Imperator Aleksandr III was Captain Bukhvostoff, who stated at a banquet 36 hours before departure, "You have all wished us a lucky journey and have expressed the conviction that with our brave sailors we will smash the Japanese. We thank you for your good intentions, but they only show that you do not know why we are going to sea. But we know why we are going to sea. We also know that Russia is not a sea power and that the public funds spent on ship construction have been wasted. You wish us victory, but there will be no victory….but we will know how to die, and we shall never surrender." The Fleet that had to Die, page 31
Before they left, the officers and crews of the ships of the 2nd Pacific Squadron had heard rumors that Japanese torpedo boats were operating in the North Sea. How that was logistically possible was not understood or examined. However, on the very early morning dark of October 22, 1904 the Russian Squadron encountered what they believed was an attack by Japanese torpedo boats and cruisers on the Dogger Banks of the North Sea. They opened up with everything they had to protect the fleet. What they had in fact encountered was the Gamecock Fleet of small fishing trawlers from Hull. In a short furious bout of gunnery the trawler Crane took the brunt of the fire, which only ceased when she was clearly sinking, with two dead. One of the last Russian ships to turn off her searchlights from this encounter was Imperator Aleksandr III. The Japanese cruisers that were seen and fired upon were in fact Avrora and Dmitri Donskoi, which had been hit. The chaplain of Avrora was mortally wounded.
The Russian fleet had already passed the channel when news of the Dogger Bank Incident swept over Britain as the first of the crippled trawlers reached port. The English were infuriated and newspapers trumpeted for revenge. "Is this wretched Baltic Fleet to be permitted to continue its operation?", questioned The Standard. In St Petersburg the press reported that the squadron had indeed beaten off a Japanese attack. There it was reported "…the lessons of the first days of the war have not been wasted, and the new and treacherous attack by the Japanese has been met with the vigilant and pitiless eye of our admiral and the straight fire of our guns." Britain and Russia were on the brink of war as 28 battleships of the Royal Navy raised steam.
It was not until the squadron reached the Port of Vigo in Spain, that Admiral Rozhestvensky, the squadron commander, realized the furor that had been generated. Still believing that the squadron had been attacked by the Japanese, the admiral stated that although it was imprudent of the fishing vessels to have involved themselves in the enterprise of Japanese torpedo boats, the whole fleet expressed its sincere regret over the British civilian casualties. This was deemed to be a sufficient apology and war fever in Britain dissipated. Even so, as the 2nd Pacific Squadron cleared Vigo, it was followed by Lord Charles Beresford’s Channel Fleet, who had stationed themselves outside Vigo to await the Russians in case of war. The British followed the Russians for three days, with British cruisers sometimes passing in line within a half a mile. "Its disgusting to treat us like this following us about like criminals!" one midshipman stated. An officer wrote in his diary, "They are cunning and powerful at sea and insolent everywhere. How many impediments has this ruler of the seas put on our voyage." Indeed there were now impediments as the Russian fleet was no longer welcome in British colonial ports or the ports of many neutrals. The 2nd Pacific Squadron would have to do the bulk of its coaling at sea from colliers.
Coaling would be the prime consideration of the 2nd Pacific Squadron for the next five months. Throughout the next grueling months of back breaking coaling at sea Imperator Aleksandr III had consistently won the fastest coaling prize and had flown the prized efficiency pennant from her masthead. However, at Kamranh Bay in French Indochina (Vietnam) the truth became known. Rozhestvensky wished to proceed to Vladivostok at best possible speed before the slower ships of the 3rd Pacific Squadron could join him. He ordered the squadron to report its coal situation. All of the ships had sufficient coal on board to depart, except for Imperator Aleksandr III, which was 400 tons short. During the five months of the voyage coaling reports from Imperator Aleksandr III were based upon estimated quantities of coal taken in against estimated usage. It wasn’t until April 1905 that an actual measurement of the bunkers was made. There was no coal available and Imperator Aleksandr III had insufficient coal for the trip. Rozhestvensky had to wait for the 3rd Pacific Squadron and the colliers.
At Tsushima Imperator Aleksandr III was second in line, immediately behind the flagship Kniaz Souvorov. At 2:20 PM Souvorov had her steering gear damages and swung out of line. Imperator Aleksandr III took the head of line. She then became the chief target of the Japanese gunners. At 2:30 she was enveloped by flames and gave the lead to Orel but her crew gained control of the fire at she retook the lead by 3:00. By 6:00 Imperator Aleksandr III was listing heavily from a gash in the bows that reached to the forward turret and had both funnels shot away. She fell out of line and at 6:30 and capsized to port. A handful of survivors was rescued by the tug Russ. Unfortunately for them and the tug, Russ was hit be a large shell, broke in half and went down with all aboard. (History from Warships of the Imperial Russian Navy: Volume I Battleships by V.M. Tomitch and The Fleet that had to Die by Richard Hough, which was also the source for the quotations)
The Combrig 1:700 scale model of the Imperator Aleksandr III shows her as of 1904. This is the fifth model of the Borodino Class produced by Combrig. Kniaz Souvorov, Orel and Borodino were three of the initial releases by Combrig several years ago. The excellent detail of the Imperator Aleksandr III is far greater than these three earlier releases. The Combrig Slava portrays her as she appeared in World War One. The Imperator Aleksandr III is the best model available on the market of the four doomed Borodino Class battleships that were at the Battle of Tsushima. Detail is packed into the hull, turrets and practically all of the parts in the kit. If you fancy tumblehome or are a student of the Russo-Japanese War, this is one kit that you cannot pass up.