Warship Wednesday May 21, Alexander’s Polar Star
Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off 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. These ships have a life, a tale all of their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places.
– Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday May 21, Alexander’s Polar Star
Here we see a beautiful rendering by the noted Russian artist Alexander Beggrow in 1892 of His Russian Imperial Highness’s Ship Polyarnaya zvezda (Polar Star). This painting is currently in the Central Naval Museum, St.-Petersburg, Russia and is one of the few artifacts remaining of the craft.
The yacht/auxiliary cruiser Polar Star was built at the Baltic Shipyard in St. Petersburg under commission for the Tsar of all the Russias, Alexander Alexandrovitch Romanov III, as a gift for his wife, the Danish-born Tsarina Marie. Designed by the Navy’s shipbuilding plans group, she was laid out by Admiral I. Shestakova who used inspirational plans of the fast British second-class cruisers Iris and Mercury – who when she was completed was the fastest ship in the Royal Navy –as a base line for the Tsar’s fast new ship.
She was laid down at the Baltic shipyard May 20, 1888, in the presence of the Imperial couple and top officials of the Ministry of the Navy, she was launched on May 19, 1890. After mooring and sea trials in March 1891, the ship was adopted in the ships of the Baltic fleet and listed as part of the Imperial Guards.
She was thoroughly modern. Built of good German Siemens-Martin steel, she had full-length watertight doors, electric lighting throughout, a
double-bottom hull, and a modern steam plant that consisted of two vertical triple expansion steam engines with designed capacity of 3000 HP each and 10 boilers. She had fully redundant systems including two sets of emergency steering wheels, one above deck and another below. Polar Star was outfitted it precious woods and furniture, as fitting the Imperial family.
Dozens of sketches by Nabokov and Prokofiev decorated the salons of the ship. For going ashore in style, she carried 8 away boats, including two mahogany-constructed steam launches for the royals.
As she was to carry the Tsar, whose father had been assassinated just ten years before, the ship was heavily armed with a quartet of rather well hidden Hotchkiss 5-barreled Gatling-type 47 mm guns which were considered just the thing to smother an incoming anarchists controlled terrorist ship with hot lead, capable of spitting 30 rounds per minute out past 2000-meters. Called “Gockisa guns”, this armament, as well as an entire platoon of heavily armed Imperial Marines, quartered below deck, provided a formidable force.
Besides the Marines, the ships 313-man crew was extensively vetted and cleared by the Tsarist secret police, the dreaded Okhrana, and its members were thought salted among them as seemingly innocent stewards and stokers just to keep everyone honest.
Further, whenever the yacht traveled with the Tsar aboard, she was accompanied by an escort that included at least a couple torpedo boats and a cruiser.
Whenever the ship anchored in isolated Finnish jetties, the local harbors and towns would carry the following message:
“Notice to all mariners concerning seafaring regulations when the Russian Imperial Yacht is in Finnish waters: Fire will be opened on all commercial shipping and all yachts–whether motor, sail or steam-that approach the line of guard ships. All ships wishing to put to sea must seek permission not less than six hours in advance. Between sundown and sunrise, all ships underway may expect to be fired upon.”
All of this security allowed the targeted royals to relax and enjoy themselves.
The yacht served the Imperial family for 26 years. After Tsar Alexander died in 1894, it was passed to his son who soon had his own super yacht, Standart, built in Denmark (to roughly the same plan as Polar Star only bigger– to confuse terrorists as to which yacht was carrying the royals.) Nevertheless the Polar Star stayed in the family and was used not only by Nicholas but by his mother, uncles, and others.
It sailed to England, Germany, and all points in between, serving as a safe refuge for the Imperial family as they visited friends and relatives in Europe.
Two sailors from the Imperial yachts were even chosen to be the new Tsarvitch Alexis’s nannies in 1905.
Speaking of 1905, the Polar Star almost changed history when Nicholas, traveling alone, met Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany on his own yacht at the remote Finnish inlet named Bjorko. There, Willy got Nicholas, his cousin, to sign a non-aggression treaty with Germany. The problem was that the Tsar’s father had already in 1894 signed one with France, Germany’s clear and present danger. Long story short, and after a good bit of bad blood between the Tsar, the Kaiser, Paris and London, this treaty was discarded. If it hadn’t, the First World War could have been very different.
Speaking of war, when it finally came in 1914, the days of slow peaceful cruises were done. Both Standart and Polar Star were placed dockside and largely forgotten.
When the Russian Revolution found Polar Star in March of 1917, she was iced in Helsinki (then-Helsingfors) with units of the Baltic Fleet. Her Marine Guard long since sent to the front and her crew raided to man other warships, she was no longer full of the spit-and-polish Russian jacks that had doted on the Tsar and his family.
In fact, on April 28, 1917, the ship was made the headquarter of the Revolutionary Central Committee of the Baltic fleet (CENTROBALT) in Finland. Her Captain at the time, Lyalin, was very popular in the fleet and was elected the first Red fleet commander. The coming spring, Polar Star made steam and sortied across the Gulf of Finland in the epic Ice Crossing to Kronstadt, just days ahead of being seized by the Germans.
She sat out the Russian Civil War there and, relatively undamaged by British raids in 1919, and the harsh Red Army reprisals during the 1921 Kronstadt Uprising, she was left swinging at her anchor lines with her crew largely taking up residence aboard the old yacht. In 1930, after a review of available hulls, the Soviet Red Banner Fleet decided to refit Polar Star for further use. Considering she was nearly 40 years old, its a testament that she was constructed so well as to still be useful.
Her old steam plant was removed as was one of her funnels and she had installed a new low-speed diesel plant that could propel her at 10-knots. Armed with a number of old 3-inch guns, she was used as a submarine tender and troop transport during both the Finnish Winter War (1939-40) where she blockaded the Finnish Coast and later took troops into Tallin after Estonia was occupied. Then came World War Two, where she spent her time dodging German and Finnish bombs, mines, and torpedoes. In 1942 she was made the headquarters of the 3rd Submarine Division and by 1944 moved forward to Turku, which enabled a more rapid turn around for war patrols of the Soviet U-boats she supported.
By 1954 her new engineering plant was unreliable but her hull was still sound even at age 63 and as such she was made a static accommodation ship, with new sailors and officers assigned to ship’s bunks spent their time smoking cigarettes on the same decks as Kaisers, Kings, and Tsars once tread.
By December 1968, the old Polar Star was sent to the scrappers, her service done, although some reports mention that she may have been used to test anti-ship missiles as late as the early 1970s and was expended as a target hulk. Nevertheless, both the sovereign and later the Party got their ruble’s worth out of the old girl.
Speed: 17 knots (1891), 10 knots (1930)
Powerplant: 2 × vertical triple expansion steam engines, 2 bronze screws, 10 boilers (as commissioned) Two 625hp diesels after 1930.
Crew: 313 ships crew, 36 marines, 50 persons in Imperial suite. Post 1930, unknown
4 x 47mm guns Gockisa (1891),
3 × 76mm,
3 × 45mm
2 × 12,7mm HMG
4 × 76mm
4 × 37mm
If you liked this column, please consider joining the International Naval Research Organization (INRO), Publishers of Warship International
They are possibly one of the best sources of naval study, images, and fellowship you can find http://www.warship.org/
The International Naval Research Organization is a non-profit corporation dedicated to the encouragement of the study of naval vessels and their histories, principally in the era of iron and steel warships (about 1860 to date). Its purpose is to provide information and a means of contact for those interested in warships.
Nearing their 50th Anniversary, Warship International, the written tome of the INRO has published hundreds of articles, most of which are unique in their sweep and subject.
I’m a member, so should you be!