Warship Wednesday Feb 5: Russian Thunder
Here at LSOZI, we are going to take out every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1859-1946 time period and will profile a different ship each week. – Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday, Feb 5: Russian Thunder
Here we see the Tsar’s armored cruiser Gromoboi (Thunderbolt) as she looked when visiting Australia in 1901. Built as a large warship capable of independent operations in far-flung seas, her primary role was to be that of a commerce raider against the British merchant fleet. You see when she was laid down 14 June 1897, it was Edwardian England that was seen as the greatest threat to Holy Russia, and not the Kaiser’s Germany.
An improvement on the earlier Rossia and Rurik class armored cruisers that came just before her, she was 481-feet long and tipped the scales at some 12,500 tons with a full load. This made her roughly the same size (and even larger in some cases) than the Pre-Dreadnought battleships of her age.
Her battery of 20 eight and six-inch guns made sure she could slaughter any merchant ship, gunboat, or cruiser while her 19-knot speed enabled her to outrun the lumbering turn of the century battleships of the 1890s. The only ships fast enough to catch her were small scout cruisers and torpedo boats which her fifty small-caliber rapid fire guns and six inches of Krupp cemented armor belt could shrug off.
Capable of cruising over 8000-miles on a single load of coal, she could cross the Atlantic or sail to the far-flung Pacific with ease.
And she did.
Ordered from the Baltic Works, Saint Petersburg, she was commissioned November 1899, firmly a 19th-century ship in a 20th-century world. To keep her hull from fouling in tropical waters, it was sheathed with wood. Her three shafts were turned by amazingly and over complex series of 32 Belleville water-tube boilers with thousands of tubes that needed constant attention.
Her crew numbered nearly a thousand men to feed and care for these boilers, shovel 2400-tons of coal, and man her incredibly varied suite of weaponry.
She left the Baltic the spring after her commissioning and the gleaming white cruiser made appearances in Germany, Britain, and Australia on her way to the Tsar’s new colony of Port Arthur, recently garnered from ailing Manchu-controlled China by a lease.
Stationed in Vladivostok by 1903 along with the cruisers Rossia, Rurik and Bogatyr and the auxiliary cruiser Lena, their enemy changed from the planned British merchant fleet to that of the Japanese merchant fleet by a twist of fate in 1904 when the Russo-Japanese war started. The enemy soon bottled up most of the Russian Pacific Squadron inside Port Arthur but neglected to do so for the cruiser squadron at Vlad.
Painted a thick grey coat and made ready for war, the four cruisers formed a raider group that haunted the Northern Pacific Ocean, sinking the occasional Japanese ship. Led by the Baltic German commander Vice Admiral Karl Petrovich Jessen, they were a force to be reckoned with and almost drove the Japanese to drink.
Their most important victory was against the Hitachi Maru, a 6,172 gross ton combined passenger-cargo ship built by Mitsubishi Shipbuilding in Nagasaki, for NYK Lines.
While transporting 1238 people, including 727 men of the 1st Reserve Regiment of the Imperial Guard of Japan and 359 men from the IJA 10th Division and 18 Krupp 11-inch (280 mm) siege howitzers desperately wanted for the siege at Port Arthur, the Hitachi Maru was found by the Gromoboi in the southern Korean Strait between the Japanese mainland and Tsushima on June 15, 1904. The Tsar’s cruiser shelled and sank same which led to the resulting “Hitachi Maru Incident,” which ignited both British (the ship had a British captain) and Japanese anger (due to the loss of the politically important Imperial Guard regiment which included several officers from the Japanese petit nobility).
In all the cruiser force made six sorties from Vladivostok and sank 15 Japanese ships and captured two (British) merchant vessels.
The Japanese sent a fleet to Vladivostok to blockade the port and shelled the cruisers at anchorage. When the Russians did manage to emerge again in August, the fleet of six cruisers of Japanese Admiral Kamimura Hikonojō’s fast fleet caught up with the Rossia, Rurik, and Gromoboi off of Ulsan, Korea.
The resulting battle was a tactical Japanese victory fought over the morning of 14 August 1904. Improved Japanese fire-control as well as a 2:1 ratio in hulls and guns won the day.
The Rurik was hit by a shell in her unarmored stern and the steering mechanism was destroyed, immobilizing her rudder in an elevated position, resulting in her being the target of intense bombardment by the Japanese cruisers. The stricken Russian ship was scuttled while Gromoboi and Rossia were able to slip their attackers and make it back to Vladivostok.
All six of the Japanese cruisers received damage as did the two remaining Russian ones. The Gromoboi was riddled with shell fragments from 22 direct hits, severely damaged and had 91 dead and 182 wounded during the battle. Most of these deaths came from gunners manning the unprotected light canet guns on her decks.
Whereas the Japanese ships were able to return to the shipyard for repair, the two Russian ones could only retire to the primitive port facilities at their Siberian port. Unable to be repaired, they sat out the rest of the war and did not sortie again.
After spending the winter of 1904-1905 iced in, she emerged in the spring and hit a mine on 24 May, the war ended without her sailing from port again.
Following the end of the war, she was sent to the Baltic again to reinforce the fleet there. Rode hard and put up wet, she spent six years in the shipyard and emerged in 1911 with a refurbished engineering suite and upgraded fire control. Her armament was modified after experiences in the war, receiving 18-inch torpedo tubes and reducing the number of unprotected guns, and several searchlights were added.
When WWI started in 1914, she was still in the Baltic. Modified as a fast minelayer (18-knots was fast in 1914), she sortied from Krondstadt to German-frequented waters several times, sewing 200 mines per trip. Her armament was changed once more during the war and her displacement went to almost 14,000-tons.
On August 10, 1915, she tangled with the much larger and stronger German battlecruiser SMS Von Der Tann (23,000-tons, 8×11-inch guns, 9.8-inches of armor), in the waters around the Gulf of Finland. Both ships sailed away afterward, with the Gromoboi weaving her way back home safely.
Becoming part of the Red Banner Fleet by default in 1918, she survived both British and White Russian efforts to sink her during the Russian Civil War as well as the Bolshevik siege of Krondstat in 1921 only to be scrapped by a German company in 1922. No monument or memorial exists to her and her three unusual wars.
There is though, a memorial to her most famous opponent, the Hitachi-Maru Memorial Stele. It is located at the Yasukuni Shrine, Chiyoda, Tokyo, Japan.
Displacement: 12,455 long tons (12,655 t)
Length: 481 ft (146.6 m)
Beam: 68.6 ft (20.9 m)
Draught: 26 ft (7.9 m)
Installed power: 14,500 ihp (10,800 kW)
Propulsion: 3 shafts, 3 vertical triple expansion steam engines, 32 Belleville water-tube boilers
Speed: 19 knots (35 km/h; 22 mph)
Range: 8,100 nautical miles (15,000 km; 9,320 mi) at 10 knots (19 km/h; 12 mph)
Complement: 874 officers and crewmen
4 × 1 – 8-inch (203 mm)/45 guns
16 × 1 – 6-inch (152 mm)/45 guns
24 × 1 – 75-millimetre (3.0 in)/50 guns
12 × 1 – 47-millimetre (1.9 in)/43 guns
18 × 1 – 37-millimetre (1.5 in)/23 Hotchkiss Gatling guns
4 × 15-inch (381 mm) torpedo tubes
4 × 1 – 8-inch (203 mm)/45 guns
22 × 1 – 6-inch (152 mm)/45 guns
4 × 1 – 75-millimetre (3.0 in)/50 guns
4 × 1 – 47-millimetre (1.9 in)/43 guns
2 × 18-inch torpedo tubes
6 × 1 – 8-inch (203 mm)/45 guns
22 × 1 – 6-inch (152 mm)/45 guns
2 × 1 – 47mm high angle AAA guns
2 × 18-inch torpedo tubes
Armor: Krupp cemented armor
Belt: 6 in (152 mm)
Deck: 1.5–3 in (38–76 mm)
Conning tower: 12 in (305 mm)
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