Warship Wednesday May 27, 2015 The coldest boat in the Russian Navy
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 27, 2015, The coldest boat in the Russian Navy
Here we see the unique vessel of the Tsar’s Imperial Russian Navy, the icebreaker Yermak (also spelled Ермак, Ermak, and Yermack due to transliteration) doing what she did best—breaking sea ice. She was the first true modern sea-going icebreaker in any navy and lasted an impressive 80~ years and through five world wars in which she got bloodier than could be expected for a ship of her type.
In the late 1890s, polar exploration was all the rage and Holy Russia, pushing ever further to control the Western Pacific, sought to join Europe and Asia via the Northeast Passage across the top of the country. The thing is the ships that had tried this arduous journey had all failed. One renowned Russian polar explorer and naval officer, Stepan Makarov, fresh off his expeditions to the mouth of the north-flowing Siberian rivers Ob and Yenisei, proposed a radical new steel-hulled steamship with powerful engines and screws on both the stern and bow, ready to chop up polar ice as she went.
The ship, some 319 feet long and 70 abeam, was very tubby in design. Six boilers fed either three shafts aft or one forward, allowing her to back and ram if needed– now standard procedure for icebreakers but novel at the time. Speaking of the bow, she had a strengthened hull of 29 mm plate steel sandwiched with oak and cork to allow her to break sea ice at over 7 feet thick.
Her twin 55-foot high stacks and round sloping bow with a small stem and flare angles made her readily distinguishable and came to typify early icebreaker design. Even today, her hull form is imitated in even the most advanced polar icebreaker design.
The resulting design was authorized by Count Witte in 1897 at the cost of 3 million gold rubles and ordered abroad to ensure fast and reliable delivery. Laid down in December at Sir W.G. Armstrong, Whitworth & Co Ltd, Newcastle upon Tyne, she was completed 29 January 1899– and delivered at half the price.
She carried the name of cossack ataman (head man) Vasiliy `Yermak` Timofeyevich Alenin, the Don Cossack who conquered Siberia under the reign of Ivan the Terrible in the 1580s, her purpose was clear.
Arriving at the headquarters of the Russian Baltic Fleet in March after a ten-day voyage from the UK, Yermak made her smashing debut ( I love a pun) by breaking her way into the ice-bound harbor Kronstadt and then up the Neva River to St. Petersburg– where thousands thronged to see her across the frozen river.
By that November, she came in handy. The massive 12,500-ton armored cruiser Gromoboi had been forced by early ice from her moorings to the shore, and future ice movement threatened to sink the ship. Three days later, Yermak pulled her free.
Then, just weeks later, she had to help pull the 4,200-ton Admiral Ushakov-class coastal defense ship General-Admiral Graf Apraksin from the rocks and tow her back to Kronstadt.
She was one of the first ships to use a wireless for rescue at sea when she rescued 27 lost Finnish fishermen from the rocks near Hango and transmitted the fact to a land station there with the help of Professor Alexander Stepanovich Popov (the Russian Marconi) who had set up a station near Apraksin and relayed messages back and forth.
In 1901 Yermak helped Makarov complete his Third (and last) Siberian exploration expedition, reaching as far as Nova Zemyla. It was the last time the admiral was aboard the ship that was his magnum opus.
Makarov, sadly the best Russian naval mind of his era, was blown sky high on his flagship, the battleship Petropavlovsk, on a sortie out of Port Arthur in 1904.
During the Russo-Japanese War, Yermak helped rush reinforcements to the front, freeing first the cruisers of Capt. Yegoryev’s unit in February 1904 from Libau and then the 12 ships of Rear Admiral Nebogatov’s division the next January.
She was ordered to follow the fleet as a coal supply ship and, once in the Pacific, assist in helping to Vladivostok free of ice. Five days after leaving Russian waters, however, Yermak suffered a shaft failure, which Adm. Rozhdestvensky, enraged at the time, did not believe, and took as an act of mutiny until he personally came aboard and verified it himself.
In the end, she was allowed to limp back to Kronstadt after cross-decking a number of her officers and crew to other vessels that were short. This act saved Yermak from what would certainly have been death at the hands of the Japanese at Tsushima (though not the men she transferred).
In the summer of 1905, with the completion of the Trans-Siberian Railway all-important to a Russian victory in the Far East and her shaft repaired, she escorted supplies and rails for the project to along the Russian Arctic coast to the mouth of the Yenisey River, about halfway the distance.
With the war over, she went back to merchant and research service, breaking the ice around the Baltic. In 1908, she rescued her third warship when she pulled the cruiser Oleg from the ice off Finland.
By the time of the next war in 1914, Yermak was armed with some small deck guns to help ward off German submarines but again stuck to breaking out Russian warships when needed. This included freeing the cruiser Rurik for a sortie in March 1915 and the battleships Slava and Tsarevitch. Stationed in Revel for most of the war and with little for an icebreaker to do in summer months, she served as a depot ship for submarines.
When the rest of the Baltic Fleet raised the red flag in March 1917, she was one of the last ships to do so and even then her crew re-elected her longtime skipper, Estonian-born Capt. Rudolf Karlovich Felman, who had commanded the ship since 1903– one of the few fleet vessels to do so.
However, Felman, in the end, was kicked out in November with the coming of the Bolsheviks and promptly left Russia only to find easy work in Estonian service. He was the longest-serving of her more than 21 captains spanning seven decades.
With the Germans fast approaching and the war at its end (for the Russians anyway), Yermak sailed from Revel to Helsinki and broke out the fleet to include 7 battleships, 9 cruisers and 200~ misc vessels so that they could assemble in Kronstadt and not fall into the Kaiser’s hands. This event was later referred to as the Great Ice Cruise of the Baltic Fleet and is seen as saving the Soviet Navy. (It should be noted that the Whites sailed away in 1920 and 22 with the majority of serviceable vessels of the Black Sea and Pacific fleets respectively, leaving only those in the Baltic under the Red Flag)
At the end of March, Yermak tried to return to Helsinki with a contingent of Red Navy sailors to seize the town but after trading some naval artillery with the local Finnish ship Tarmo (2400-tons, 1 47mm gun), she turned back around when a German plane dropped a few small bombs danger close to the hapless Russian icebreaker.
Nonetheless, her service in the Revolution and later Civil War, where her crew were sent to fight on land, earned her the Revolutionary Red Banner of the Central Executive Committee for outstanding service in her third war.
By 1921, she was disarmed and back in service around the Baltic since she was one of the few operational vessels left. She was even loaned to the Germans in 1929 (at a price of 1 million DM, which was music to the ears of the cash-strapped Kremlin) to open the Kiel Canal early.
In 1935, she made an Arctic expedition equipped with a seaplane and helped pick up floating North Pole Station 1 under the famous explorer Ivan Papanin, cementing her place in polar history.
Yermak’s fourth conflict, the Russo-Finnish Winter War; saw her again armed, this time much more heavily. In December of that year, the Finns came close to sinking the old girl when the German-built submarine Vetehinen (Merman) stalked her without success over an 8-day period off Libau. By early 1940, Yermak helped escort Soviet Naval troops to occupy disputed islands in the Gulf of Finland—and again was scrapping with her old Civil War enemy, the Finnish Tarmo, without effect.
In 1941, her fifth war was upon her and she was soon going toe to toe with German and Finnish bombers and attack planes. According to Soviet historians, Yermak‘s gunners splashed 36 aircraft during the war while, again, she served as a depot and berthing ship for submarines as needed. In 1942, with the Axis powers closing in on Leningrad, most of her armament was shipped to the front, with all but 15 of her crew going with it to fight on shore as they had in the Civil War.
By 1944, disarmed, and her crew of dirt sailors advancing on Berlin, Yermak was transferred back to merchant service with the ship earning the Order of Lenin for her WWII service.
By 1950, after an inspection found her half-century-old hull still sound, she was sent to Antwerp for refit and then assigned to the White Sea based at Murmansk. Her floatplane long since gone, she was given a helicopter and pad in 1954 and spent the next decade assisting in breaking submarines in and out of Polyarni as well as escorting seal fishing expeditions out into the Arctic.
With new atomic icebreakers coming into Soviet service, the days of the old steam Yermak were numbered. On 23 May 1963, she was withdrawn from service and, when a bid to preserve her as a museum failed, she was ordered stripped. Her good British steel was stolen from her and everything of value slowly disappeared over a ten-year period.
What was left was burned 17 December 1975 in the bleak ship cemetery at nearby Gadzhiyevo. It is believed that part of her keel is still visible at the radioactive summer low tide in that rusty ship graveyard today.
A monument stands to her in Murmansk that includes one of her anchors, while a number of stamps have been issued by the Soviets and Russians to honor her memory. She has also been commemorated in Soviet maritime art.
A 20,000-ton icebreaker (made ironically in Finland) was commissioned in 1974 with her old name and continues service today.
In a twist of Baltic fate, Yermak’s longtime nemesis, the Finnish icebreaker Tarmo, retired in 1970, has been preserved in the Maritime Museum of Finland in Kotka since 1992. Her hull, also built by Armstrong, is still sound.
Displacement 7875 tons as designed, 10,000 by 1941
Length 319 feet
Width 70.8 feet
Draft 24 feet
Engines steam engines, 10,000 hp as designed
Three shafts, VTE steam engines, 6 boilers. Bow shaft as designed (removed in 1935)
Speed: 15 knots when new. 10 by 1939
Cruising range 5000 miles on 2200 tons of coal (bunkerage for 3,000 if needed). Coal consumption was 100 tons per day while underway.
Crew 89 as designed with berths for 102, 166 in naval service, 250 in 1939
Armament: 1914-1921: 2-4 small mounts of unknown caliber
2x 102 mm/45 (4″) B-2 Pattern 1930 mounts
4x 76.2 mm/30 (3″) Pattern 1914/15 mounts
4×45 mm/46 (1.77″) 21-K anti-tank guns in navalized AAA mounts
4x quad Maxim machineguns on GAZ-4M-AA mounts
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