At the end of January 1904, when the war between Russia and Japan broke out, it was decided to project various torpedo vessels and boats from the Baltic to the Pacific Ocean. Submarines were also on this list, even though they were called «torpedo vessels». Losses suffered by the Russian Fleet on the first days of war gave rise to disposal of Russian submarines in Far-Eastern waters. They motivated the naval administration to consider that completely new type of ships – submarines – which only began to be popular with the leading marine empires and their fleets.
Fantastic proposals to deliver this kind of backup to the fleet along the Northern Sea Way or in holds of high-speed auxiliary cruisers and mythic vessels of neutral countries were not taken seriously. It was possible to deliver vessels to the Far East and Port Arthur only via Trans-Siberian Railway.
It is worth recalling that up to the end of XIX century communication between European areas of Russia and the Far East was done mainly by sea. Russian naval ships heading for the Pacific from the Baltic to complement the fleet in that zone had to make global cruises through the waters of three oceans. Only Suez Canal allowed to somewhat reduce the duration of trips. Construction of «Great Siberian Railway» (as Trans-Siberian Line was called at that time) enabled delivery of cargoes to the Far East by land in a quicker, cheaper and safer way.
Trans-Siberian creation surely solved a great many state problems, but it was the threat of military clash with Japan that made Russian government hurry up and complete the construction of this railway. Its single-track way was to be launched in 1905. Owing to tailor-made steps, including ferry crossing in Lake Baikal, Trans-Siberian Railway was commissioned in the shortest possible amount of time and, what is most important, before the outbreak of Russo-Japanese War.
Russia attempted to strengthen the Far East Fleet with torpedo vessels in spring 1904. As a result, in 1904-1906 railway carriers transported 7 torpedo vessels to Vladivostok. Disassembled, they were delivered to the assembly site by common rolling equipment without any engineering twists. The vessels were eased in as soon as the war ended. Apart from these, it was decided to deploy 20 solid (assembled) torpedo boats to the Pacific Ocean: 10 old boats, built in 1878 and new boats, ordered in USA, the so-called «Nixon torpedo boats». The vessels of 1878 were the first men-of-war delivered to the Far-Eastern battle ground by railway. Though the displacement was 23 tons, the boats had a significant (for transportation) length of 21.8 m. Loading of torpedo boats and submarines was carried out in the New port of Saint-Petersburg.
Of great significance and importance was haulage of submarines on specially designed transporters. Altogether 12 boats of three types were delivered to the Far East in 1904-1905. Furthermore, four small subs were transported on general platforms.
First, engineers thoroughly examined the railway between Saint-Petersburg and Vladivostok, paying significant attention to Trans-Baikal railway tunnels. This was the single-track way, built according to very loose standards which often resulted in disturbed schedules of trains and even accidents.
As a result of scrupulous calculations it was found out that all new submarines and their dimensions are suitable for transportation, but it was necessary to reduce the weight up to 100t to spare the railway bed. Transportation of submarines with the displacement over 100t along such a distance was performed for the first time in the world. Despite the special transporter, the boat could be hauled via railway only after removal of her accumulator plant, superstructure and part of machinery – in fact, engineers had to partially disassemble the vessel. This hindered rapid delivery of submarines to the battle field. Moreover, instancy of construction and minimum tests led to a number of deficiencies discovered only on the spot.
Transporters were ready in October 1904. Workers began preparations of eight boats for transportation to the East. Each serial comprised two transporters with boats, command staff wagon and 2-3 wagons for the troops. The heaviest units, engines, accumulator plants and air containers were carried separately, by common freight serials. Trial transportation with transporters began at the end of October.
On a raw Petersburg morning, November, 2, 1904 the first group № 633 with submarines «Skat» and «Nalim» set off. In two days – on November, 4 – the second serial №634 was sent with the boats «Kasatka» and «Field-Marshal Prince Sheremetyev». The most difficult was ahead – to stick to the set schedule of transportation. It is hard to imagine how chaotic it was along the Trans-Siberian Railway at that time. Continuous flows of troops, ammo and supplies for the Russian army were moving in the eastern direction. From the opposite direction – Manchuria – came sanitary trains with the wounded and evacuated civil population. Under these conditions, when trains were set above rubies, transport commanders had to exercise ingenuity not to get stuck somewhere on the side-tracks – transporters with the subs didn’t have any advantages.
Despite the obstacles, the first troop trains arrived in Vladivostok on December, 12 and 13. Submarine «Forel» sent from Saint-Petersburg in the assembled condition had reached the destination point somewhat earlier – on September, 29. On arrival the boats were unloaded off the transporters destined for the way back to pick up other vessels. Thus, by the end of the summer of 1905 «Som», «Delfin», «Schuka», «Osetr» and «Kefal» were delivered to Vladivostok. After assembly and commission they were used mainly for military patrol at Russky Island and surveillance in bays.
In spite of the engineering imperfection of the first boats, lack of consent on their tactical disposal and administrative confusion, submariners contributed much to the defense of Vladivostok. The submarine troop played a crucial role in Japanese Command refusing tight blockade of the fortress. It reduced its activity in this area by sending random torpedo vessels for surveillance and intelligence. It is possible, that fear of submersible «infernal machines» capable of torpedoing any battleship unnoticed turned out to be stronger than any fire of fortress cannons. Submarines took a solid position as one of the most efficient warfare for protecting the coast and naval bases.
We can only regret that the subs were not delivered to Port Arthur as it had been planned. The boats could have possibly hindered the fortress blockade and the outcome of that military campaign could have been completely different.
Transportation of torpedo boats and submarines during Russo-Japanese war showed practical probability of delivering small battleships along the Trans-Siberian Railway from West to East and backwards which allowed to use this opportunity during World War I and Civil War.