Tsushima fires became a mysterious phenomenon for the reason that, firstly, nothing similar was observed in other battles of the Russo-Japanese War, and secondly, British and French tests of projectiles equipped with picric acid did not reveal their ability to initiate fires.
Well, let's take a closer look at these issues.
First, let's find out the circumstances of the fires in the Tsushima battle.
As S.I. Lutonin:
"A fire in battle is the most terrible thing, it paralyzes all actions, stops the fire."
Of all the battleships of the 1st Detachment, systematic fire-fighting measures were carried out only on the Orel. The rest of the ships went into battle with flammable decoration and furniture in the living quarters, wood on the rostrum, whole warehouses of various combustible items and materials in the rooms above the armored deck.
"Prince of Suvorov"
"Prince Suvorov" received many more hits in battle than any other Russian ship. About 100 shells with a caliber of 6 "and above, according to V. Yu. Gribovsky.
He came under intense fire from the first minutes of the battle. And the fires were not long in coming.
The bed protection around the conning tower caught fire, the wooden paneling of the signal house, then the boats and wood on the rostrum, cabins and sparklers.
Attempts to fight the fire ended in failure: fragments interrupted the fire hoses, hitting people from the emergency party.
At about 14:30, due to loss of control, "Prince Suvorov" was out of order and received a short respite. It burned like a wooden hut, from the bow bridge to the aft 12 "tower. It was impossible to walk from bow to stern along the upper deck. The time in the wheelhouse became unbearable due to the heat and smoke.
At about 15:00, the battleship approached the Japanese squadron and again came under heavy fire. The foremast and tail tube were shot down. Huge fires did not stop there.
At about 16:00, after the "Prince Suvorov" once again came under Japanese fire from close range, fires broke out with renewed vigor, covering the entire surface of the ship above the armor belt.
The wooden paneling in the premises, paint and putty on board burned, 75-mm shells exploded in the battery. The upper deck was so hot that the metal was deformed. And the deck sank in places.
"Prince Suvorov" lost the front tube and mainmast. Almost the entire side above the armor belt was destroyed. The ship turned into a floating ruin, from which smoke and flames erupted periodically.
And in this form it existed until the moment of its death.
"Emperor Alexander III"
"Emperor Alexander III" was the target for the Japanese for almost the entire battle. And received, according to V. Yu. Gribovsky, about 50 hits with a caliber of 6 ”and above.
The first big fire on the battleship occurred in the area of the aft bridge, when it was still following the flagship.
He received especially many hits at 14: 30-14: 40, when he was in charge of the squadron. And fires raged throughout the ship.
The fire was managed during the pause after the first phase of the battle. But then the Japanese shells turned it into a torch again.
By evening, the "Emperor Alexander III" had completely burnt (to iron) sides and unceasing fires at the conning tower and on the back deck.
"Borodino" led the squadron the longest and received (according to V. Yu. Gribovsky) about 60 hits with a caliber of 6 "and above.
While he was following Suvorov and Alexander III, hits were rare. And the team successfully coped with the fires that occurred from time to time.
After "Borodino" became the first, a hail of Japanese shells fell on it, a huge fire broke out in the area of the forward conning tower. However, during a pause in the battle, they managed to cope with the fire.
New large fires broke out in the last phase of the battle, where the battleship had a particularly hard time.
The fire engulfed the entire stern.
In the last minutes of Borodino's life, eyewitnesses observed long tongues of flame bursting into the sky near the stern bridge. Perhaps it was gunpowder burning.
So a version appeared that the ship died from the explosion of the cellars.
On the Orel, unlike other Borodino residents, extensive measures were taken to prevent fires before the battle: wood reserves were removed from the rostrum, the wooden sheathing of the wheelhouse and living quarters was removed, furniture from the officers' cabins and personal belongings from the battery were removed.
In battle, the battleship, according to N.J.M. Campbell, received 55 hits with a caliber of 6 ”and above.
Despite all measures, up to 30 fires were recorded on the ship.
Most often, fires occurred on the spardeck, the upper deck, as well as on the bridges and rostra. Boats, cutters, bed nets, personal belongings, cabin interiors, deck decking, tarpaulin plasters, coal bags, food supplies, paint and putty on board, ropes, tackle, communication pipes, electrical wiring were burning.
Flames flashed twice in the battery, accompanied by explosions of their own 47-mm and 75-mm shells. Charges ignited in the 6-inch turret.
The last hearths on the Orel were extinguished after the end of the day's battle, in the dark.
According to the recollections of the Eagle's officers, the fires seriously reduced the ship's combat effectiveness.
Heat and smoke interfered with aiming. They made it impossible to be at their posts in the wheelhouse, towers and even in the lower rooms (due to ventilation). Suppressed crew morale.
The fire destroyed communication pipes, electrical wiring, fire hoses, and ammunition elevators.
The emergency parties suffered losses from shells and shrapnel, suffocated from choking smoke.
Water from extinguishing fires accumulated on decks and aggravated the list, increasing the risk of the ship capsizing.
Oslyabya came under intense Japanese fire at the very beginning of the battle.
And received, according to V. Yu. Gribovsky, about 40 hits with a caliber of 6 "and above.
Despite the rapid destruction of the ship, large fires managed to spread on the rostrum and on the forward bridge.
Sisoi the Great escaped the attention of the Japanese gunners at the start of the battle.
However, later he periodically fell under their fire.
In total, according to the report of the commander of the ship, M.V. Ozerov, 15 shells hit him.
Despite the measures taken (the cabins were removed, materials capable of burning were hidden behind the armor), it was not possible to avoid a huge fire in the battery, which broke out at about 15:15.
A Japanese shell flew into the embrasure and exploded on the deck.
The fire quickly spread over the materials stacked there as if in a safe place: paint, wood, food supplies, charcoal baskets, tarps.
The fire main was broken by shrapnel. Therefore, it was not possible to quickly extinguish the fire.
The fire spread up to the Spardeck. And he even nearly penetrated down into the shell cellars.
To extinguish the fire, Sisoy the Great was even forced to be temporarily out of order. And only by 17:00 did they manage to cope with the fire.
In addition, several smaller fires were noted that were more easily extinguished.
The Navarin suffered less damage than the other ships of the 2nd detachment in the daytime battle.
According to V. Yu. Gribovsky's estimate, he received about 12 hits with a caliber of 6 ”and above.
Before the battle, an extra tree was removed on the battleship.
Fires were noted in the stern, in the wardroom and in the bow, in the cabins of the conductors.
We managed to deal with them quickly enough.
"Admiral Nakhimov" (according to the report of midshipman A. Rozhdestvensky) received 18 hits.
Before the battle, the tree was removed: cabins lining, partitions, furniture.
Japanese shells started several fires. The largest one is in the bow on the battery deck.
But in all cases the fire was quickly extinguished.
In battle, the ships of the detachment of Admiral N.I. Nebogatov rarely fell under enemy fire.
Before going on a campaign and immediately before the battle, fire-fighting measures were carried out on them to remove wood from the rostrum and from the interior of the casing, furniture and other combustible materials.
"Emperor Nicholas I"
"Emperor Nicholas I", according to N.J.M. Campbell, received about 10 shells.
The resulting fires were quickly extinguished.
"Admiral Apraksin", according to the testimony of the commander of the ship N. G. Lishin, received 2 hits in battle.
The shrapnel initiated two minor fires.
In the wardroom, paint, a piano and a bookcase caught fire. And in the senior officer's cabin - in a trunk with linen.
"Admiral Ushakov" (according to the testimony of midshipman IA Ditlov) took three Japanese shells in battle on May 14.
One of them caused a fire in the nose, which was quickly extinguished.
Admiral Senyavin successfully avoided direct hits.
In the battle in the Yellow Sea, not a single large fire was noted on the Russian squadron. All fires that occurred were local and quickly extinguished.
In other words, on July 28, 1904, even on the most damaged ships, the situation with fires was about the same as on ships that received a small number of hits on May 14. In the battle in the Yellow Sea, the Russian battleships did not find themselves under such intense and accurate Japanese fire as in Tsushima, but there was no way to quickly fight the fires. "Sisoy the Great" is an exception caused by an unfavorable coincidence.
Thus, a much larger number of hits from Japanese shells and their high intensity are the most important cause of large fires on the ships of the 2nd Pacific Squadron.
For comparison: the ship of the 28st Pacific Squadron Peresvet, the most damaged on July 1, received, according to V. N. Cherkasov, 34 shells (excluding fragmentation damage and night hits from destroyers). The situation was aggravated by the huge amount of combustible materials in the squadron of Z.P. Rozhdestvensky.
Now let's move on to the second question - the incendiary action of picric acid projectiles.
The experience of the wars preceding the Russo-Japanese war testified that the fires did not take on large proportions and were easily extinguished in the bud if the team quickly took up the extinguishing.
At the Battle of Yalu (1894), numerous fires engulfed the ships of both sides.
They were especially strong and long lasting on Chinese ships.
The flagship battleship Dingyuan received about 220 hits. A fire that broke out at one time engulfed the entire bow and central part of the ship, temporarily silencing almost all of the guns. But it was extinguished.
Armored cruiser Laiyuan received over 200 hits. It burned out the entire surface of the ship, including coal in the bunkers, paint and side putty. The body was deformed from the heat.
Both sides used shells filled with black powder.
Explosives based on picric acid were not used before the Russo-Japanese War. And their flammable properties were known only from tests.
In 1899, the French hit the wooden advice note "Parseval" with 10 shells filled with melinite, but not a single fire broke out.
The British in 1900, on trials, hit the battleship Belile, among others, about 30-40 shells equipped with liddite. But there were no fires either. Although the ship had boats, furniture, wood trim, bedding and other combustible materials.
The prevailing views on the threat of fires in naval combat at the beginning of the Russo-Japanese War can be described with the phrase of N.L. Klado:
"The flammable effect of a projectile is highly dependent on its content: if gunpowder easily ignites a fire, then melinite and liddite, if they can do it, then only in exceptional cases."
The experience of naval battles in 1904 generally confirmed this.
Thus, the large fires on the ships of the 2nd Pacific Squadron were a big surprise for contemporaries.
The naval battles of the First World War demonstrated a negligible flammable effect of shells. Serious fires occurred only when gunpowder in the charges caught fire.
Experienced shooting British fleet in 1919 on the battleship "Swiftshur" revealed the absence of incendiary action of shells. Although a large amount of chips and debris was specially left on the ship to simulate Tsushima conditions.
However, Japanese shells have confirmed a strong flammable effect not only in Tsushima, but also in tests.
On October 4, 1915, the battle cruisers Congo and Hiei shot the battleship Iki (formerly Emperor Nicholas I), anchored in Ise Bay, with ammunition filled with shimosa.
Of the 128 shells fired from a distance of 12 km, 24 hit the target. Large fires broke out. The battleship drowned.
So why did British and French picric acid-based explosives have less flammable action than Japanese explosives?
The fact is that both the British and the French did not use pure picric acid, but phlegmatized it.
For example, English liddite consisted of 87% picric acid, 10% dinitrobenzene, and 3% petroleum jelly.
The French in melinite mixed picric acid with collodion. A very wide range of impurities has been used by different countries at different times.
The Japanese, on the other hand, loaded ammunition with pure picric acid., not wanting to reduce the force of its explosion by phlegmatizers.
As a result (due to too much blasting) shimosa in most cases did not fully detonate... This was especially clearly seen in the yellow smoke and yellow traces from the rupture - this is in the case when the shimosa did not burn out.
If the non-detonated remnants of shimosa ignited, then fires appeared. Fragments of Japanese shells had the greatest incendiary effect.
V.P. Kostenko described one such case:
“A fragment of an exploding shell up to seven pounds, weighing up to seven pounds, flew into the left vehicle along the mine, lingering on the indicator platforms.
It still has explosiveWhich continued to burn with a bright yellow flame, spreading suffocating gas».
It still has explosiveWhich continued to burn with a bright yellow flame, spreading suffocating gas».
Now we can summarize.
Tsushima (and any other) fires, in order to take on a large scale, needed three conditions: matches, firewood and inaction (so as not to extinguish).
In the role of "matches" were Japanese shells, which, due to their characteristics, had a flammable effect.
The huge mass of combustible materials that was on board the Russian ships became "wood".
And the hail of shells provided not only a large number of fires, but also, most importantly, made it impossible to effectively fight fire.
Could the Russians oppose something to this?
If it was impossible to influence the device of the Japanese shells, then the combustible materials could well be removed from the warships.
Yes, and the hail of shells could be fought by maneuvering.