Category Archives: russia

Flotsam of the Tsar’s 1st Pacific Squadron

Camp Kanzense. Matsuyama. Japan, Spring 1905: A group of Russian sailors from the assorted warships sunk by Japanese artillery in the mud of Port Arthur during the siege there. Cap bands show they are from the Баян (Bayan), Бобр (Bobr), Варяг (Varyag), Гиляк (Gilyak), Забияка (Zabiyaka), Паллада (Pallada), Пересвет (Peresvet), Победа (Pobeda), Полтава (Poltava), Ретвизан (Retvizan), and Отважный (Otvazhnyy).

Unlike Japanese EPOW camps in WWII, the Meiji era camps of the Russo-Japanese War were reportedly very hospitable, and the “guests” were returned in good health after the peace. It was only after the corruption of the Bushido code by the 1930s Japanese military elite that the treatment of captured enemy troops and sailors was seen as a dim and distasteful burden. 

When the fortress seaport was scandalously surrendered by Baron Anatoly Stoessel to the Japanese on 2 January 1905, despite having another 30-to-60 days worth of shells and supplied on hand, some 8,985 Russian sailors were marched off to captivity along with 878 Army officers and 23,491 of the Tsar’s soldiers.

Echoes of the Tsars Grow Quieter

Mr. Andrew Andreevich Romanov died in Inverness, California on Sunday, aged 98. Who is Mr. Romanov? Known inside his family and to Russian monarchists as Prince Andrew Romanoff, he was the de facto head of the House of Holstein-Gottorp-Romanov due to the pedigree of being the grand-nephew of Russia’s last Tsar, the martyred Emperor Nicholas II. Further, he was the great-grandson of Alexander III, great-great-grandson of Alexander II, et. al going back to 1613.

However, he spent his whole life in exile, with his father, Prince Andrei Alexandrovich, the eldest nephew of Nicholas II, fleeing increasingly Bolshevik Russia on the British battleship HMS Marlborough in 1919 for points West (and in order to attend the Paris Peace Conference just in case the White Russian government won the Civil War).

Born in London in 1923, his youth was spent as something of a houseguest, via a grace-and-favor residence, to his relatives the Windsors– his godfather was the future King Edward VIII– and he attended Haileybury. When WWII came, he volunteered for the Royal Navy, serving as a rating. (Keep in mind the RN during the war was home to many other exiled nobles, e.g. Prince Philip of Greece.)

Emigrating to the U.S. in 1949 with $800 in his pocket, the Romanov prince without a throne became naturalized in 1954 and settled ultimately in California where “he worked as an agronomist, a broker, a real estate agent, a carpenter, and many other jobs” along with becoming something of a West Coast folk artist and penning an art book/autobiography, “The Boy Who Would Be Tsar.” 

Vale, sir.

80 Years Ago: Siege Bread

Siege of Leningrad.

This is the ration card and daily norm of “bread” (200 grams) in October 1941, only a month into the 872-day siege.


Recipe for blockade bread:

*defective rye flour -45%
*presscake -10%
*soy flour-5%
*bran-10%
*cellulose-15%
*wallpaper dust -5%
*malt -10%

The Museum of the History of St. Petersburg has kept about 700 unique children’s drawings that were created during the siege (September 8, 1941 – January 27, 1944). These drawings were recently brought to life using VR animation technologies.
 

Warship Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2021: Behold, the Destroyerzooka

Here at LSOZI, we take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1954 period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places. – Christopher Eger

Warship Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2021: Behold, the Destroyerzooka

Here we see the Soviet Orfey (Orpheus)-class destroyer Engels (formerly Desna) with his (Russian warships are always masculine by tradition) unique stern 12-inch (305mm) Kurchevsky pattern “Dynamo-Reactive” recoilless rifle, circa the summer of 1934. A tough little ship going past his goofy one-off experimental gun, he had an interesting life.

Background

With a shredded naval list after the Russo-Japanese War, having lost two out of three fleets, the Tsarist Imperial Navy needed new ships of every stripe in the 1910s as they were facing an increasingly modern Ottoman fleet in the Black Sea as well as the Swedes (always a possible opponent) and the German juggernaut in the Baltic. Part of the naval buildout was a series of 52 destroyers derived from the Novik.

Novik was a great destroyer for 1910. At some 1,600-tons full load, he could make 37.3 knots, which is still fast for a destroyer today, and carried four twin 18-inch torpedo tubes (eight tubes total) as well as four 4-inch guns.

The follow-on Orfey-class upgrade from Novik, planned to number 23 vessels, ended up being trimmed back to just 16 due to the Great War and Russia’s series of revolutions and civil war, but we are getting ahead of ourselves.

Some 1,440-tons when fully loaded, the 321-foot tin cans used a plant that had two Curtis-AEG-Vulkan turbines and four Normand-Vulkan boilers on two shafts to make 32 knots, making them still very fast for the age but slightly slower than the 6-boiler/3-turbine/3-shaft plant seen in Novik. However, they carried more torpedo tubes, a total of nine, in addition to their four 4″/60 Vickers-Obukhovski Pattern 1911 guns.

Ofrey class destroyer plan. These ships, benefiting from the Russo-Japanese war experience, had double the main transverse bulkheads of pre-1904 Russian destroyers with 12 watertight sections (each with their own pumping systems) as well as individually compartmentalized boilers, hence all the funnels. The keel was made of doubled 6mm steel sheets set at angles to each other, creating a double hull of sorts. Lacking true armor, the conning tower/bridge was made of half-inch ordnance steel sheets to provide splinter and small arms protection. Interestingly, the topside radio room (one 2 kW transmitter and two receivers) and two 45-cm searchlights were fed by a separate 10kW Penta kerosene dynamo protected centrally, rather than the rest of the ship’s power which was provided by two 20 kW turbo generators.

Desna, shown here in fitting out at the Kolpino Metalworks in Petrograd (Great War-era St. Petersburg) had nine 18-inch torpedo tubes.

Closer detail on those tubes

And even closer

His initial armament, as with the rest of the class, included four long-barreled 4″/60 Vickers-Obukhovski Pattern 1911 guns, one over the bow, and three crowding her stern. These could fire a 66-pound HE or 52-pound “Diving” shell at 12 rounds per minute, providing the crew was drilled properly, to a range of 17,600 yards. Two 150-shell magazines, fore, and aft, were installed below deck. The guns were directed by a 9-foot Barr & Stroud 30x stereoscopic rangefinder of RN F.Q. 2 pattern.

Laid down in November 1914, three months into the Great War, Desna was named after the famed tributary of the Dnieper that runs through Smolensk to Kyiv.

Commissioned 16 August 1916, he was rushed into operations and famously came to the defense of the heroic but obsolete Borodino-class battleship Slava during the long-running Battle of Moon Sound, in which the Russian battlewagon gave, by all accounts, a full measure against a much larger and more powerful German force.

Slava, after the Battle of Moon Sound

Helping to evacuate Slava’s crew, Desna fired torpedoes into the stricken battlewagon to prevent it from falling into German hands. Desna’s brother, Grom, was sunk during the operation.

Caption: A newly -completed Destroyer of the improved “Novik” Type, either DESNA (1915-1941) or AZARD (1916-1919). Courtesy of Mr. Boris V. Drashpil of Margate, Fla., 1983. Catalog #: NH 94295

Same, NH 94294

Same, NH 94296

Civil War

Becoming part of the Red Baltic Fleet by default during the Russian Revolution and Civil War, Desna took part in the “Ice Campaign” during which the force broke through the frozen Baltic to escape Helsinki ahead of the Germans in April 1918.

Based at the fortress island of Kronstadt, Desna took part in operations against the British in 1918-19. (During this period, brother Gavriil helped sink HM Submarine L-55 and three British torpedo boats, while brothers Konstantin and Vladimir/Svoboda were sunk in turn by British mines. Another classmate, Kapitan Miklucha Maklai/Spartak, was captured by the British and turned over to the Estonians.)

Then, in the continued evolution of counterrevolution, Desna and company fought against the Bolsheviks in the 1921 revolt of the Red Fleet.

Rudolf Franz’s 1936 painting depicts the storming of Kronstadt by the Red Army to put down the revolt. Over a thousand were killed on both sides and an estimated 2,100 rebellious sailors were executed or disappeared into labor camps.

In part to wipe out the stain of his role in the brutally suppressed Kronstadt revolt, Desna was renamed in 1922 to Engels, celebrating the German socialist philosopher of the same name who helped develop Marxism.

An ice-bound Engels

Then came several years of lingering operations and refits, as the Soviets were cash strapped for operational funds throughout the rest of the decade. During this period, classmates Orfey and Letun, in bad technical condition after Great War damage, were broken up after the Civil war.

Dynamo-Reactive!

In 1932, Engels was refitted and rebuilt, emerging two years later with a new engineering plant as well as a new gun over his stern in place of two of his 4-inchers.

A design came from the mind of weapon engineer Leonid Kurchevsky, who was fascinated with recoilless rifles. He had spent time in Stalin’s gulag system then emerged in 1929 to catch the eye of Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky, the “Red Napolean” military theoretician who wanted to see Kurchevsky’s simple designs fitted on everything.

Kurchevsky and some of his recoilless rifles in the early 1930s.

The Kurchevsky gun fitted on Engels was awkward, only able to fire to port and starboard with a low train and elevation.

It fired a 660-pound shell to 14,000 yards but proved inaccurate, unreliable, and prone to malfunction. A larger 15-inch model was to be installed on a cruiser but never made it off the drawing board.

I mean, come on…

While some 2,000~ Kurchevsky guns were delivered, fitted to tanks and vehicles as well as ships, it turns out they sucked.

Via Global Security: 

Soon the “bubble” burst. It turned out that the armor-piercing shells of anti-tank DRP, even when fired at point-blank, were not able to penetrate armor thicker than 30 mm. The accuracy and range of field artillery guns do not meet the requirements at all. At the same time, the guns themselves are unreliable and unsafe during operation, there had been numerous cases of rupture of barrels during firing.

Aircraft and naval automatic cannons of the Kurchevsky caliber from 37 to 152 mm gave constant failures and delays during firing due to incomplete combustion of the nitro-fabric sleeves and the unreliable operation of the pneumatic recharge mechanism, which made this weapon absolutely not combat-ready. Soon all PDDs were removed from the troops and destroyed. By June 22, 1941, there was not a single Kurchevsky gun in service with the Red Army.

While Tukhachevsky was sacked in 1937 for other reasons and scapegoated as a Trotskyist in the Great Purge before WWII, Kurchevsky got the wrap at around the same time directly for his funky weaponry. Thrown back in the gulag the inventor was executed sometime in the late 1930s.

War, again, and again

With the Russians flexing against the Finns in the 1939-40 Winter War, Desna/Engels, his Kurchevsky gun landed, and his old 4-inchers reinstalled, bombarded Finnish positions and installations, a task for which his 9-foot draft no doubt assisted.

When the Germans invaded in 1941, Engels was used in coastal minelaying and convoy duty.

Just two weeks after Barbarossa kicked off, on 6 July, he and two other destroyers (Serditogo and Sil’nyy) clashed with two German minesweepers (M-23 and M-31) in what is known today as the Battle of the Irbensky Strait. Famed in Russian naval lore as it was the largest surface battle they fought in the Baltic in WWII; it is much less known outside of the Motherland. This is probably because all vessels involved sailed away after the engagement, a tactical draw.

Damaged extensively on 7 August 1941 by a 550-pound bomb dropped via Stuka, Engels was soon patched up and two weeks later sailed from Tallinn in occupied Estonia to Kronstadt as part of one of the desperate convoys headed north from the doomed port. That month, some 190 Soviet ships and 40,000 souls attempted to escape. The seaborne evacuation of encircled Tallin to Krondstadt and Leningrad went down in history as the “Soviet Dunkirk.” 

With the route obvious to the Germans and Finns, the Axis planted 2,000 mines in what became known as the Juminda Barrage. 

A German map from 1941 showing the location of the Juminda mine barrage

It was on this voyage that he stumbled across a German minefield off Cape Juminda, hitting one with his bow and shrugged it off, damage control successful. However, while the damaged destroyer was being rigged for towing by the icebreaker Oktyabr, Engels hit a second mine that exploded under her stern and triggered the aft 4-inch magazine. That was it and she rolled over and sank. 

Four days later, classmates Pobiditel/Volodarski and Azard/Artyom were lost in a similar minefield in the same Tallinn-to-Kronstadt run. Some 80 ships eventually hit mines in the Jumidia Barrage, with at least 21 Soviet warships, including five destroyers sent to the bottom in August alone. 

Epilogue

As with Desna/Engels, few Orfey-class destroyers made it out of WWII. Three units that survived by nature of serving with the Northern Fleet out of Murmansk and two more with the Pacific Fleet out of Vladivostok remained in service into the early 1950s but were soon discarded. The last remaining example of the class, Spartak, spent her final days in Peru’s Pacific coast as the Estonians had sold her to that Latin American country in the 1930s.

The class is remembered in some Soviet-era maritime art.

Meanwhile, a fishing net-wrapped wreck off Estonia’s Cape Yuminda, documented in 2016, could be the bones of Engels.

As for Leonid Kurchevsky, he was “rehabilitated posthumously in 1956” after the end of the Stalin regime. The next year, Marshal Tukhachevsky and his codefendants in the Purge trial were declared innocent of all charges and rehabilitated, posthumously.

Specs:


Displacement: 1,260 tons (standard) 1,440 tons (full load)
Length 321 ft 6 in
Beam 30 ft 6 in
Draught 9 ft 10 in
Machinery: 4 boilers (30,500 shp) 2 steam turbines, 2 shafts
Speed 32 knots
Range: 1,680 miles @21 knots
Complement: 150 (8 officers, 6 michman, 136 ratings)
Armament:
(1917)
4 x 4″/60 Vickers-Obukhovski Pattern 1911 guns in single unprotected mounts
1 x 40/39 Vickers AAA pom-pom anti-balloon gun
2 x Maxim machine guns (7.62×54)
9 x 18-inch torpedo tubes (3×3)
80 M1908 style sea anchor mines
10 depth charges

(1934)
1 x 12-inch recoilless rifle (experimental)
2 x 4″/60 Vickers-Obukhovski Pattern 1911 guns in single unprotected mounts
1 x 3″/28 Lender AAA
4 x 1 12.7mm/79 DK Heavy machine gun (drum fed)
9 x 18-inch torpedo tubes (3×3) with more modern 45-36Н torpedoes
2 x depth charge racks
58 mines

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105mm Echos in the Russian Kurils

In the windswept and remote northern portion of Kuril Islands chain in the Sea of Okhotsk, currently-Russian owned Paramushir (AKA Paramushiro or Paramushiru) was part of the Japanese Empire from 1875 through 1945. During WWII, the local garrison, formed around the Imperial Japanese Army’s 91st Infantry “Future” Division (with six infantry and two artillery battalions), crisscrossing the island with a maze of coastal artillery positions and fortified bunkers, ready to pull an Iwo Jima on invading American (or Soviet) landing forces. Following the American liberation of the Aleutians in 1943, regular bomber air raids stitched up the island.

When the Russkies arrived in force on 18 August 1945, although the surrender of Imperial Japan was announced by Hirohito three days prior, both sides still wanted to fight for the frozen Kurils, and for two weeks, Soviet troops carried out the final opposed landing operation of the war.

Soviet-era painting depicts the landing of Soviet forces on Kurils, where two inexperienced Russian Naval Infantry divisions learned the same bloody lessons the U.S. Marines had already paid for on Tarawa

In the end, the Russians suffered some 1,500 casualties taking Paramushir and nearby Shumshu– which saw the last Japanese tank combat in history.

Soviet anti-tank teams on Shumshu island during the Kuril landing operation. August 1945. While the Degtyaryov PTRD-41 (shown) and Simonov PTRS-41 14.5x114mm anti-tank rifles were hopelessly obsolete by 1942 on the Eastern Front, they could still penetrate 30mm of steel armor at 500 meters, which was more than enough for Japanese Type 97 Chi-Ha/Shinimoto and Type 95 Ha-Go tanks arrayed against them in the Kuriles which boasted 25mm and 12mm, respectively, at their toughest parts.

Today, Paramushir is home to a small Russian settlement (the Japanese locals were deported to Siberia in 1947) and the parts that are not current military bases are often visited by historians of all stripes to poke around and look for WWII sites and objects. One such expedition recently photographed a fairly well-preserved Japanese Type 92 10 cm (105x737R) howitzer still buried in its hillside position.

The long-barreled Type 92 was well-known to U.S. troops, having been the bane of American positions at Corregidor and Henderson Field. The Soviets, meanwhile, had experienced the gun in 1939 at Khalkhin Gol where some guns fired so many shells in such a short period that they reportedly glowed red

Pistol Pete was a type 92 10cm field gun used by IJA at Guadalcanal.

Brezhnev’s Big 7

U.S. Army Training Aid, GTA 30-3-23, September 1981, official caption: “A composite view of Soviet combat equipment known as the Big 7.’ Shown are: 1. A ZSU-23/4 armored anti-aircraft weapon, 2. A T-72 tank, 3. An SA-8 Gecko surface-to-air missile system mounted on a three-axle amphibious vehicle, 4. A Mi-24 HIND-D gunship with one nose machine gun and four anti-tank missiles, 5. A BMP amphibious armored infantry combat vehicle with a 73mm smoothbore gun and an anti-tank missile, 6. An M-1974 122mm self-propelled gun, 7. An M-1973 152mm self-propelled gun.”

DOD Graphic DAST8512646 via the National Archives

Commonly seen at the time in Red Square May Day parades and grainy intel photos from along the Iron Curtain and in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan, these were all top of the line at the time the training aid was circulated and are still encountered around the world today, making this 40-year-old poster still kinda relevant. 

Barbarossa at 80

Some eight decades have passed since what is arguably the largest land invasion in modern times kicked off,
Unternehmen Barbarossa, pitting 3.8 million German, Hungarian, Italian, Finnish, Slovak, and Romanian troops against the scandalously unexpecting Soviet legions of Generalissimo Stalin.

German soldiers crossing Soviet border post ,June 22, 1941, Barbarossa

Safronov Viktor Alekseevich (b. 1932.) – June 22, the border

Red Army anti-tank gun crew wiped out. “They fought for Homeland.”  By G. M. Zykov

Although the wave would eventually break on the outskirts of Moscow– even Napolean had at least captured the vacated Kremlin some 120 years prior– the war on the Eastern Front was far from over and would claim millions on both sides.

Today, Barbarossa is seen through the lens of a myriad of conflicting issues even today in Germany.

Meanwhile, the Russians have a view that nothing is forgiven, or forgotten. 

Ice Station Zebra, Russian 2021 Edition

As part of Russian wargames in the Arctic, three Russki submarines just surfaced from under the ice, a pretty decent show of force for the region and a nice ICE-EX for any nation.

From the Russian Ministry of Defense:

Today, the Supreme Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin, listened via video conference call to the report of the Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Navy, Admiral Nikolai Yevmenov, on the ongoing Umka-21 complex Arctic expedition. Admiral Nikolay Evmenov reported that since March 20, 2021, in the area of ​​the Franz Josef Land archipelago, Alexandra Land island and the adjacent water area covered with continuous ice, under the leadership of the Main Command of the Navy, a comprehensive Arctic expedition “Umka-2021” is being conducted with the participation of the Russian Geographical Society … “For the first time, according to a single concept and plan, a complex of combat training, research and practical measures of various directions is being carried out in the circumpolar regions,” the Commander-in-Chief of the Navy emphasized.

During the expedition, according to Admiral Nikolai Evmenov, 43 events are envisaged, of which 35 have been completed to date, including 10 jointly with the Russian Geographical Society. All activities of the expedition are carried out as planned. The Commander-in-Chief of the Navy said that more than 600 military and civilian personnel and about 200 models of weapons, military and special equipment were involved in the expedition. All planned activities take place in harsh climatic conditions: in the area of ​​the expedition, the average temperature is minus 25-30 degrees Celsius, the thickness of the ice cover is up to 1.5 meters, the wind in gusts reaches 32 meters per second.

Admiral Nikolai Evmenov reported to Vladimir Putin that within the framework of the Arctic expedition, for the first time in the history of the Russian Navy, three nuclear submarines surfaced from under the ice in a limited area with a radius of 300 meters; flight to the polar region with refueling in the air of a pair of MiG-31 fighters with the passage of the geographic point of the North Pole; practical torpedo firing by a nuclear submarine from under the ice, followed by equipping a hole at the torpedo’s ascent point and lifting it to the surface; tactical exercise with a subdivision of the arctic motorized rifle brigade in adverse weather conditions.

“Based on the results of the measures taken, the samples of weapons, military and special equipment participating in military-technical experiments have generally confirmed their tactical and technical characteristics in conditions of high latitudes and low temperatures,” said the commander-in-chief of the Russian Navy. Admiral Nikolai Evmenov also added that the Arctic expeditions of the Navy will continue in the future.

As noted by The Drive, the three subs are all top-shelf boomers: 

[T]wo sails belonging to Delta IV class submarines, also known as Project 667BDRM Delfins. It’s possible that the third boat could be either a member of the Borei class, or the lone Borei-A class submarine presently in service, the Knyaz Vladimir. The Borei and Borei-A designs are Russia’s most advanced ballistic missile submarines.

Warship Wednesday, March 24, 2021: Nicky’s Dangerous Dolphin

Here at LSOZI, we take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1954 time period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places. – Christopher Eger

Warship Wednesday, March 24, 2021: Nicky’s Dangerous Dolphin

Here we see the primitive one-of-a-kind submarine, Delfin of the Imperial Russian Navy cruising around the Krondstadt roadstead in August 1903, proudly flying the St. Andrew’s ensign. A sometimes-cranky little boat in perhaps the world’s most unlucky fleet, she would nonetheless leave a huge mark on naval history.

On 19 December 1900, Lt. Gen Nikolai Kuteinikov, head of shipbuilding for the Russian Admiralty, authorized a commission to begin work towards a submersible torpednyy kater, or torpedo cutter. While negotiations with Irish engineer John Philip Holland’s concern in American to purchase one of his submarine boats proved fruitless as Holland wanted a 10-unit package deal for a whopping $1.9 million, the Russians decided to roll their own. After all, how hard could it be?

Assigned this task was a team under promising young naval architect Ivan Bubnov. Bubnov, just 28 at the time, was fresh from the construction of the new battleship Poltava. As it would turn out, he would end up as Tsarist Russia’s Simon Lake.

Laid down on 5 July 1901 at the Baltic Shipbuilding & Mechanical Plant on Vasilevskiy Island– today’s historic 165-year-old OJSC Baltic Shipyard– the subject of our story was at first dubbed Torpednyy Kater No. 113, then later switching her pennant to Minonosets (destroyer) No. 150 before leaving the slipways.

The design was simple. Made in two symmetrical halves of rounded 8mm nickel steel then riveted and forge welded together over an internal framework, the submersible was just 64 feet long– the same size as USS Holland (SS-1).

Using flat iron plating on the vessel’s top decks for added strength, her fixed periscope-equipped conning tower/wheelhouse doubled as a hatch. Just 113 tons, she had ballast tanks on each end and could take on nine tons of seawater (in 15 minutes) to submerge to a maximum depth of about 150 feet. Obukhov was contracted for the blow system, which included a small electric air compressor that took four hours to refill completely empty air tanks.

Longitudinal section of submarine “Dolphin” via Ivan Grigorievich Bubnov’s Russian submarines: The history of creation and use of, 1834-1923.

He (Russian warships are never referred to as being female) used a French-made Soter-Garle electric motor and 64 Fullmen lead-acid batteries to achieve 7.5-knots submerged for short periods, and a German-made 300hp Daimler gasoline engine to reach 8.5 knots on the surface. Control was through a series of six rudders.

In short, he has been described as “like the USS Holland (SS-1) but worse.”

By September 1902, he was launched, and the following Spring was undergoing trials under the command of Capt. (3rd Rank) Mikhail Beklemishev, a 44-year-old torpedo tactics instructor on the submarine commission who had learned his trade on destroyers in the 1890s. During the construction of the Russian submarine under his command, he had traveled to the U.S. and met with Mr. Holland ostensibly on a shopping trip, and both observed and went to sea on Holland’s early Type 7 submarines at Electric Boat in Groton. Ironic considering Delfin’s description.

All the plankowners were volunteers recruited by Beklemishev.

Accommodations for the 13-member crew were cramped– remember the boat was shorter than a mobile home today and most of the spaces were taken up by machinery. Berthing was via hammocks and seabags strung over the wooden deck in the bow covering the batteries. A small stove for heating canned food and a novel electric samovar provided tea made up the galley. Fresh water amounted to about 40 gallons and the head consisted of a sand-lined closet. Officers’ quarters in the middle of the boat for the skipper and XO amounted to two stuffed sofas and a small dining table, all bolted to the deck around their own O-club cistern. Workstations had wooden stools similarly affixed to the deck.

He was armed with a pair of 1898 pattern 15-inch Whitehead torpedoes held outside of the submarine in a trapeze arrangement designed by Polish engineer Dr. Stefan Drzewiecki. Termed a “drop collar,” Drzewiecki’s girder launching system would become standard on Tsarist submarines through 1918 as well as a few French classes.

French submarine Espadon is seen at Cherbourg, France. Note the 17.7-inch torpedo in the Drzewiecki drop collar external launching system on her deck. Also, note her very Delfin-like main hatch with a periscope on top.

They could launch their steel fish with the submarine either submerged or surfaced and were operated via a hellbox inside the sub. The total price of the new submersible was 388,000 gold rubles.

In two rounds of sea trials in the Gulf of Finland during the summer of 1903, Beklemishev and crew were able to spend several days in a row on the ocean and found the craft to perform satisfactorily, both on the surface and submerged.

The occasion of her launch for sea trials. Note the two Whitehead torpedoes in Drzewiecki drop collars at her stern. Also, Beklemishev is the goateed officer on deck.

The same day, with a better view of the Whiteheads. 

On 16 August, Tsar Nicholas II, aboard his yacht Alexander and with the battleship Slava in escort, reviewed the little submersible torpedo boat and received the details of his trials directly from Beklemishev.

The well-known image of the Tsar (second from center, hands on sword) receiving the report from Beklemishev (far left) aboard Minonosets No. 150 on 16 Aug 1903. Bubnov stands behind the emperor and looks like he is waiting for Beklemishev to say something crazy.

Laid up during the annual Baltic Sea freeze-over, Minonosets No. 150 was given several modifications to correct errors observed during her sea trials to include a second periscope as well as redesigned rudders and diving planes.

Lessons learned in her construction and operation were used by Bubnov to create a larger, 100-foot submarine from the Minonosets No. 150 design– the six-boat kerosene/electric Kasatka (killer whale) class– which had four drop collared torpedoes. To compare with foreign types, the Admiralty purchased six 137-ton boats with bottoming wheels from Simon Lake (Osetr-class), three 209-ton subs from Krupp in Germany (Karp, Karas, and Kambala), a gifted midget sub from Krupp (the trailerable 40-foot Forel) and seven 105-ton boats from Mr. Holland (Som-class). Beklemishev was pulled from command and placed in charge of what was effectively the first Russian submarine school. Whereas the Russians only had their sole domestic-made boat in 1903, within a year they had more than two dozen soon on the way from multiple sources.

On May 31, 1904, all Russian destroyer submarines were given names by order of the Tsar, and “Minonosets No. 150” was christened Delfin.

When the ice melted, Delfin was ready for fleet operations but looked slightly different.

Note the second periscope

During regular operations in a rapidly expanding specialty branch, Delfin was used increasingly as a training boat, and on a practice dive while at the shipyard in June 1904, she went to the bottom under the command of LT. Anatoly Cherkasov along with 37 men and, tragically, remained there due to an issue with an improperly closed hatch, filling the sub’s interior with seawater except for a two-foot air bubble at the top of the boat. When finally rescued, Cherkasov and 23 of his crew had perished with the young officer voluntarily giving up his place to allow others to survive on the increasingly fetid air.

The first Russian submariners to be buried as heroes, they would not be the last. Amazingly, the survivors all elected to remain in the branch.

The grievous loss led the Russians to develop some of the world’s first submarine rescue tactics and vessels, including the rescue ship Volkhov, ordered in 1911 (which still, amazingly, endures as the Kommuna in Black Sea Fleet today.)

Raised and repaired, Delfin fired test torpedoes at a target hulk in October and, along with seven other small submarines, were hauled out of the water, fitted to railcars, and shipped via the single track Trans-Siberian Railway some 4,060 miles to the Siberian Flotilla’s base in Vladivostok as a pitched war was on with the Japanese in the Pacific.

Russian submarines on railcars to Vladivostok, 1904. The closest to the photo is Nalim/Burbot, a Kasatka-class boat. Four Kasatkas, notably just larger refinements to the Delfin’s design, were sent to the Pacific along with Delfin and two Holland-produced Som-class boats. 

The trip included a break at Lake Baikal where, as the spur around the world’s deepest freshwater body of water was not complete, they had to be transferred to a ferry to cross to the other side. The sight of submarines on a ferry crossing a lake in Siberia must have been a sight.

By 23 December 1904, Delfin arrived at Vladivostok and, once put in the water through a hole chopped in the iced-in harbor, made a test dive in the Pacific on 12 February. Two days later, along with the Holland-produced Som, he made a cautious combat patrol under the ice to the sea and soon was venturing further out to as far as 120 miles offshore, later operating with Kasatka as well.

Imperial Russian Submarines Delfin and Kasatka prepared to go out to sea for a patrol against the Japanese.

In all, by May, he spent 17 days at sea including eight on patrol. Together, Delfin, Som, and Kasatka reportedly came across two blockading Japanese destroyers 70 miles out and, attempted to get close enough to fire a torpedo volley– the Whiteheads only had a range of 1,500 yards– but were unable to due to the disparity in speed.

Speaking of the first submarine war in the Pacific, the Japanese ordered five of Mr. Holland’s boats in the summer of 1904, and quietly– so as not to flout American neutrality too much– they were constructed, dismantled, shipped from Connecticut to Seattle by rail and then, under the supervision of Arthur Leopold Busch, shipped to Japan for reassembly at the Yokosuka Naval Arsenal. However, the Japanese Holland boats weren’t ready for combat until after the end of the war.

Holland-built No 1 Class Submarine No.2 pictured at Yokosuka Naval Arsenal on May 1,1905

Japanese submarine tender Toyohashi mothering two Holland-class boats, Yokusuka, Sept. 25, 1905

Delfin’s war was cut short when, on 5 May, he suffered a gasoline explosion in port that singed crewmembers and popped 29 rivets. The smokey submariners were able to escape before he sank (for the second time in two years). Raised, he needed three months of repairs ashore before she was able to take to the water again.

Imperial Russian Submarine Delfin raised after sinking On May the 5th 1905,

The next Spring, on 11 March 1906, acting on behalf of the Tsar, the Minister of the Sea, Admiral Alexei Birilev decreed that Russia’s submersible “destroyers” were actually submarines and finally listed on the naval rolls as such.

Delfin would spend the next decade in the Far East, becoming the granddaddy of the Pacific Submarine Division. There she underwent a regular cycle of summertime cruises followed by winter lay-ups sans batteries and to keep the hull out of the ice. Each spring, she would receive additional equipment and improvements, making her much less spartan and much more survivable. Notably, she would suffer at least two other fires in her service they were quickly contained. In 1910, he performed a role of a torpedo testing craft, firing no less than 43 fish that summer while submerged.

Russian Siberian Military Flotilla, Ulysses Bay 1908, submarine Delfin (far left) along with submarines Kasatka, Skat, Nalim, Sheremetev, Osyotr, Kefal, Paltus, Bychok or Plotva, with the destroyer Grozovoy offshore. 

In August 1914, with the Great War upon the world, Delfin would take on war shot torpedoes and, along with the other subs of the Siberian Flotilla, would undertake fruitless combat patrols with a weather eye peeled for German and Austrian vessels.

Deflin’s 1914 Jane’s listing as part of the Russian Siberian Flotilla. Note the “Bubnoff” reference. The Russians entered the Great War with over 40 submarines, one of the world’s largest users

In March 1916, with the Kaiser’s wolves long cleared from the Far East except for the occasional surface raider, it was decided to ship Delfin from frozen Vladivostok to equally frigid Archangel in the White Sea, to be used in the defense of Kola Bay. Packed on railcars as far as Kotlas, he was transferred to barges on the Dvina River in June to take up to Archangel. Damaged in transport, he was not repaired and successfully placed in the water at her new homeport until September.

Badly damaged in a storm in April 1917, the commander of the Northern Fleet sidelined Delfin in favor of a new American-built Amerikanskiy Golland (Holland)-class submarine that was soon to arrive in port. Used briefly for training, Delfin was stricken from the fleet’s list in August 1917.

Later transferred to the local White Sea merchant fleet, he would be repurposed to a shift-lifting pontoon for salvage work, and then, on 16 March 1932, it was ordered by the Council of Labor and Defense Commissars that she be scrapped.

Epilogue

Delfin today is remembered in several pieces of maritime art.

As for his fathers, submarine designer Bubnov would design no less than 32 subs for the Tsar including the successful Akula and Bars classes, with the latter seeing service in both world wars. He would also lend his expertise to the Gangut-class battleships, which would cover themselves in glory and endure into the 1950s.

I.G. Bubnov near to submarine Akula on the dock of the Baltic factory

Made a Major General, Bubnov was ushered out of the design bureau with the fall of the Tsar but never left St. Petersburg, dying in the city’s Typhus epidemic in 1919 during the Civil War at the ripe old age of 47. The Soviets later named two merchant ships after him in the 1970s and 80s.

Beklemishev, Delfin’s first and most successful skipper, remained with the fleet until 1910, retiring as a Major General in charge of diving and submarine training. After teaching at various universities in the capital, he was appointed to the shipbuilding commission during the Great War, a position he was surprisingly able to keep for a while even after the Reds took over, even though he was arrested several times. Comrade Beklemishev retired for good in 1931 and passed away five years later in St. Petersburg, err Leningrad, and his grave was lost during the siege of the city in WWII. Both his son and grandson would go on to be Soviet merchant officers of some renowned, with the latter having a rescue tug named in his honor.

Speaking of honors and rescues, the grave of Delfin’s lost 24 submariners remain at Smolensk Orthodox Cemetery on Vasilevskiy Island in St. Petersburg, not too far away from that of Bubnov, who is celebrated today and has his likeness on several stamps and institutions.

Since 1996, a new holiday, the “Day of the Submariner” has been a national occasion. Implemented by order No. 253 of Admiral of the Fleet Felix Nikolayevich Gromov the “Day of the Submariner” is celebrated annually on 19 March, citing the 1906 order given by Adm. Birilev adding the term to the fleet and changing the submersible “destroyers” into official submarines, of which the Russians have had several hundred since then.

Last week, on the 115th anniversary of Birilev’s order, the Russian Navy, submarine vets, and their families held services across the country, including at the graves of the Delfin’s crew and the monument for the lost submariners of the Kursk, a more recent disaster.

Specs:

Via ‘“Submarines of the Tsarist Navy” (Spassky, I. D., Semyonov, V. P., Polmar, Norman), an excellent English primer to early Russian subs. 

Displacement: 113 tons surfaced; 126 tons submerged
Length: 64 ft
Beam: 11 ft
Draught: 9 ft 6 in
Propulsion: 1 shaft petrol / electric, 300 hp/120 hp
Speed:
10 knots surfaced; 6 knots submerged after 1910.
Complement: 22 officers and men after 1910
Armament:
2 external 15 in torpedoes in Drzewiecki drop collars.

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Echos of the Tsar: 1er REC at 100

The French Army’s 1er Régiment Étranger de Cavalerie (1er REC) was created on 8 March 1921 at Sousse in Tunisia. An important and historic trading post and waypoint, at the time the city was small, numbering just 25,000 inhabitants, most of whom were French colonials, Maltese, and a large contingent of exiled White Russians.

Speaking of which, the new mounted cavalry unit, the first in the French Foreign Legion, contained a large number of skilled horsemen who learned their trade in the Tsar’s Cossack and Horse Guard units and had, until very recently, still plied it under the banners of counter-revolutionary warlords such as Kaledin, Kransov, and Mamontov.

An undated photo of members of the 2nd Gorsko-Mozdoksky Regiment of the Terek Cossacks. Note the M91 Cossack Model carbine, placing the time frame into the early 1900s at least. 

In all, of 1er REC’s inaugural draft of 156 troopers, 128 were Russians. As many were former officers and nobles, the unit soon gained the nickname “Royal Etranger.” The regiment was soon balanced out by former out of work cavalrymen from Austria, Germany, and Hungary, which surely led to some interesting Friday nights once the wine was broken out.

The unit would soon see use in Syria and Morocco as traditional cavalry and by the late 1930s would trade in their horse flesh for armored cars and light tanks. Equipped after the Torch Landings by the U.S., the reinvigorated unit would help liberate metropolitan France in 1944 and take the war to the Germans in 1945, the first time 1er REC operated in Europe. They earned battle honors for actions in Colmar and Stuttgart. 

Post-war was far from the outbreak of peace for the Legion, and 1er REC was heavily involved in Indochina for nine hard-bitten years before coming back to open rebellion in Algeria in 1954.

1er Régiment étranger de cavalerie in Indochina

M8 Greyhound of 1REC, Indochina

Once France quit North Africa, they moved to France in 1967 and today remain the Legion’s only dedicated armored unit, using 105mm cannon-equipped AMX 10 RC 6×6 fighting vehicles and based (when not on campaign) at Camp de Carpiagne in Aubagne.

1er REC AMX 10 RCs making it rain with their 105mm guns, Nov 2018

In the 1980s they served in Chad against the Libyans, took fire along U.S. Marines in Beirut, then raced into Western Iraq in Desert Storm, policed the Former Yugoslavia, and have been heavily involved in both Afghanistan and more recently the unending French nightmare in Mali.

Their motto is “Nec Pluribus Impar” (Like no other)

1REC always used horsehair plumes, on their lances, an Ottoman tradition

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