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, October 8, 2014: The Lost Loot of Nakhimov
Here we see the one-off armored cruiser Admiral Nakhimov of his Majesty the Tsar of Russia’s Imperial Navy as she looked with a black hull and buff stack during the 1893 Columbia Naval Review in New York City. She was a pretty odd duck who had a hard end and a weirder legacy.
In the early 1880s, European powers became fascinated with the “Armored Cruiser” concept. These large ships were to be (stop me if you heard this already) fast enough to outrun capital ships, but sufficiently armed and armored to fight it out successfully against anything smaller. One such class of these vessels was the Royal Navy’s HMS Imperieuse/Warsprite class of very chunky (315-foot, 8500-ton) cruisers.
Well, taking this design and giving it even larger guns and more armor, the Tsar’s naval architects came up with a ship that was 8600-tons and 338-feet long (take that!) while mounting an impressive battery of eight 203mm (8-inch) naval guns protected by up to 10-inches of armor belt.
That was actually pretty good for the time, especially when you consider this leviathan could make 17-knots on a standard load with a fresh hull and everything lit with good coal (remember this later).
The new warship, named after Fleet Admiral Pavel Stepanovich Nakhimov, the commander of Sevastopol during its epic Crimean War siege and the man who annihilated the Ottoman fleet at Sinope in 1853, was ordered in 1881.
Finally laid down at the Baltic Works, Saint Petersburg, she was commissioned at the end of summer in 1888, just before the Baltic froze over.
Skedaddling out Europe ahead of the coming annual freeze, Admiral Nakhimov set sail for her duty posting with the Russian Pacific Squadron at Vladivostok (and after 1895, Port Arthur). Waving the flag on her epic nine-month voyage, as the strongest Russian ships in that great blue ocean, she was appointed squadron flag.
Over the next fifteen years, she would retain this posting, returning to St. Petersburg every few years for refit in dry-dock and replacement of boiler tubes. This put a lot of mileage on the proud cruiser, but she was able to make stops everywhere from New York to Greece to Toulon on the way each time, waving the crap out of the Tsarist naval jack for all to see.
She took part in some sharp combat a few times, supporting the Boxer Rebellion relief group among others. She then was used as the shuttle boat between Russia and Japan during the diplomatic tension leading to the coming war. In this time period before the Russo-Japanese War, Admiral Nakhimov’s crew included no less a figure than the young naval officer better known as the Grand Duke Cyril, grandson of Tsar Alexander II and cousin of Nicholas II.
Cyril would later shamefully tie a red armband on his uniform and lead his elite Guards Naval Infantry battalion to swear personal allegiance to the Revolutionary government in St. Petersburg during the Russian Revolution. This, of course, did not stop him from pretending to the throne in exile after the Reds later wiped out half of his family while simultaneously hanging out with the Mladorossi group– who were actually something of a pawn of the Soviet secret police. Anyway, back to the cruiser.
When war broke out with Japan, the well-used Admiral Nakhimov was back in the Baltic on her regular refit period. This was fortuitous, as she likely would have been sunk at Port Arthur like the rest of the Russian Pacific Squadron. However, let us not congratulate ourselves just yet, as the Russian glass is always half empty.
Attached to the doomed “2nd Pacific Squadron” of ADM Zinovy Rozhestvensky at the last minute (who didn’t want the aging, slow cruiser), Admiral Nakhimov set sail for her end fate.
Sailing with the fleet on its epic ride to Valhalla, eight months later the ship, aged 16 but with years of hard use on her, her hull a forest of underwater vegetation, her boiler tubes leaking, her guns hopelessly obsolete and her armor considered quaint compared to modern Harvey and Krupp designs, rounded the straits of Tsushima on May 28, 1905.
It was an easy day for Admiral Togo’s fleet and soon Admiral Nakhimov had her turn in the barrel, being hit by no less than 30 massive large-caliber shells in short order. Somehow, she remained in the fight and even landed some hits on the IJN’s armored cruiser Iwate— some of the only Russian successes of that day. However, in the end, she was doomed. According to the Japanese, they sank her with a torpedo that night. According to the Russians, they scuttled her. The fact that the majority of her crew (623 men out of 651) escaped in good order lends credence to the Russian version of events.
Then, years later, something odd happened.
In 1980 Japanese businessman (and fascist Class A war criminal) Ryoichi Sasakawa financed an expedition to dive on the Nakhimov in her watery grave in some 314 ft. of water 5.5 miles off Tsushima Island. The goal of the mission? What was believed to be by some to be as much as $40 billion in 5,500 boxes of gold bullion, ingots, and British sovereigns, as well as precious jewels and crates of platinum ingots that the ship was carrying when she was sunk. Because surely the Tsar was in the habit of loading billions in precious metal on doomed ships, right?
You see a group of Russian naval officers, including the Nakhimov‘s paymaster, told wild stories after 1905 that the ship had picked up on the way to the Pacific some 700 million francs and 800 million marks worth of metals following the sale by the Russian government of overseas bonds to help finance the war. These officers and their statements circulated enough that groups of enterprising Japanese as early as the 1930s began looking for the ship to salvage its treasure. This continued over the decades as a myriad of groups kept looking for the Pacific’s equivalent of the Spanish treasure galleon. The Japanese considered it spoils of war and even mounted an official government salvage attempt in 1944 during the darkest days of WWII, losing three divers but accomplishing nothing.
Well, Sasakawa found the ship, and even brought up some pictures of the ship and its contents, offering to swap the prize to the Soviets for a group of isolated Japanese islands that the Reds picked up as a boobie prize in 1945. Only, in the end, the Russians didn’t bite and the “ingots” pictured on the Nakhimov turned out to be of iron and lead used in ship repair.
Russian in 2007 placed a monument on the ship, which is considered a war grave by the country.
One of Admiral Nakhimov‘s original 8-inch guns, raised during salvage operations in 1980, is on display at the Japanese Museum of Maritime Science in Tokyo.
The namesake admiral and cruiser have proved to be a popular name for later Russian cruisers. A 1920s Svetlana class cruiser carried the moniker as did a 1950s Sverdlov class cruiser and a 1960s Kresta II-class cruiser. The memory of the ship sunk at the Battle of Tsushima, 28 May 1905 is today preserved by the Kirov class battlecruiser of the same name. Currently, in refit (some things never change), she is projected to rejoin the Russian Navy in 2018.
Displacement: 7,781 long tons (7,906 t) standard
8,473 long tons (8,609 t) full load
Length: 103.3 m (338 ft 11 in)
Beam: 18.6 m (61 ft 0 in)
Draught: 7.7 m (25 ft 3 in)
Propulsion: 2 shaft reciprocating vertical triple expansion (VTE) engines
12 cylindrical coal-fired boilers
9,000 shp (6,700 kW)
Speed: 17 knots (20 mph; 31 km/h)
Range: 4,400 nmi (8,100 km)
Boats & landing
craft carried: 2 × torpedo boats
2 × spar torpedo boats
Armament: • 8 × 203 mm (8 in) guns
• 10 × 152 mm (6 in) guns
• 4 × 110 mm (4.3 in) guns
• 15 × 47 mm (1.9 in) 3-pounder guns
• 3 × 381 mm (15 in) torpedo tubes
• 40 × mines
Armor: Compound armor
Belt: 254 mm (10 in)
Deck: 51–76 mm (2–3 in)
Barbettes: 203 mm (8 in)
Turrets: 51–63 mm (2.0–2.5 in)
Conning tower: 152 mm (6 in)
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