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, January 28, 2015, the Tsar’s Panther
Here we see the His Imperial Russian Highness’s Ship Pantera (Panther), a Bars-class submersible that ended up being the most successful Soviet ship of the World War I-era and to this day holds the all-Russian record for warship ‘kills.’
The Russians were quick to develop submarines, with their own early Nikonov ‘Barrel Sub’ predating the American Colonial ‘Turtle‘ by nearly a century.
When Mr. Holland’s working submersibles came out, the Tsar’s navy ordered several and by 1903 Naval architect Ivan Grigoryevich Bubnov, then 32, had designed the first all-Russian combat capable submarine, the 64-foot Delfin (Dolphin) which was rushed to the Pacific just in time for an uneventful role in the Russo-Japanese War.
Well the Delfin, being a gasoline-powered boat, suffered from explosive fumes and sank at least twice in her career. This sub also took up to a dozen minutes to submerge, which was less than ideal.
Well between 1904-1914, Bubnov was given free rein to develop submarines, which he did; producing 11 steel sharks for the Tsar spread across four different classes, each an improvement on the last. The Russians also bought 23 German, Italian and American-built subs outright, which the design bureau crawled through and took notes from.
By early 1914, the seminal Tsarist naval design for submarines was developed, that of the 233-foot long Bars (Snow Leopard) class.
These 24-ships carried an impressive dozen 18-inch torpedoes including four launched from internal torpedo tubes and 8 carried in external Drzewiecki drop collars. The use of drop collars, which carried a torpedo in a cradle outside of the hull and was launched from that position, was unique to Tsarist and some French subs. It was the brainchild of Stefan Drzewiecki who, before Bubnov came along, had designed a group of human-powered (think CSS Hunley) submarines.
For action on the surface, a small 3-inch deck gun was mounted, as were a few smaller mounts. Unlike many subs of the day, the Bars-class was relatively fast, able to break 18-knots on the surface. Better yet, they could submerge within about 90 seconds if the 33-man crew was trained enough (more on this later.)
In all some two dozen were built, 18 by the Baltic Shipyard, St. Petersburg or Noblessner Yard, Reval (Estonia) for use by the Baltic Fleet, and another half dozen by the Nikolayev Navy Yard for use on the Black Sea.
The thing is, Russia’s submarine crews, being new to the game, were very inexperienced.
After all, when these 24 new subs came out, they more than doubled the Russian underwater fleet, which had only existed for a scant decade. In fact, many of the older boats were laid up to help provide crews while sailors were often cross-decked to help fill out rosters just before a patrol. There just was not the wealth of operational experience for these new craft. They did, however, have one of the world’s first submarine tender/rescue ships, the catamaran Volkov (which is still in service a 100-years later).
When WWI broke out, these ships sortied against the German fleet (in the Baltic) and the Turks (in the Black) but didn’t chalk up many victories. The Russians only pulled off 14 combat patrols in 1914, which resulted in no kills.
When several British E-class subs snuck into the Baltic and set up operations, and the Russian officers started emulating the Brits, even going out on (successful) RN patrols sinking German steamers off Sweden, things grew more aggressive. This led to no less than 50 (unsuccessful) torpedo attacks on German cruisers SMS Lubeck, Pillau, and Konigsberg without a hit. However, the Bars-class was modified to carry eight M-08 sea mines on deck and as such helped expand the mine belt in the Baltic.
1916 was a better year for the Bars-class, with the Volk (Wolf) sinking at least four small steamers on the Sweden-to-Germany ore run while the Vepr (Boar) took a fifth. It was in this “Golden Age of Tsarist Submarine ops” that Pantera was commissioned. She conducted only three short combat patrols that year before being iced in at Revel.
The year 1917, which led to a revolution in Holy Russia, found the Bars-class subs flying red flags from their towers, but still kinda operational. In June of that year, Pantera became the only Russian submarine to be attacked by an airship, when a German naval Zeppelin saw her on the surface and dropped a couple smallish bombs that slightly damaged her.
These boats had to be careful, as they had not a single watertight bulkhead, which meant that any hole in the casing was fatal.
While these subs were getting better, the class paid a heavy butcher’s bill in turn.
While on combat patrols, the Bars herself was lost 25 May 1917, as was sistership Lvitsa (Lioness) just three weeks later; the first to German surface ships, the second by mines. Edinorog (Unicorn) was lost to a mine while trying to avoid oncoming German Army troops in the general collapse on the Eastern Front in Feb. 1918.
Speaking of advances, all six Black-sea Bars boats were captured by the Germans at the time at their slips in Odessa. Turned over to the British at the end of WWII and then given to the White Russian forces, four were scuttled when the White evacuated Odessa to the oncoming Red Army in 1919 and shipped out two last survivors, Utka (Duck) and Burvestnik (Petrel) to French-controlled North Africa where they remained a fleet in being until 1924 when their benefactors ordered them scrapped.
Back in the Baltic, when 1918 came, Pantera, like the rest of the survivors of her class in the Baltic, was sitting frozen in the ice at Kronstadt. There, they remained largely inoperable while their crews were plundered for volunteers to fight in the ongoing Russian Civil War on the side of the Reds. Of the dozen or so now-Soviet subs at Kronstadt when the spring thaw of 1919 came, just two, Pantera and the steamer-killer Volk, were capable of putting to sea.
And they did just that when the Royal Navy came steaming into the Gulf of Finland as part of the Allied Intervention in the civil war.
Sortieing in late July, the red banner submarine of the people’s navy came across His Majesty’s Submarine, E-40, and traditionally, was unsuccessful. However, on 31 August 1919, Pantera stalked two British warships, including the brand-new 1300-ton Admiralty V-class destroyer HMS Vittoria (F-96) off the island of Seiskari in the Gulf of Finland.
Hunting the British ship, she spent 28 hours underwater before getting close enough to Vittoria to spit two torpedoes from her bow tubes. One hit her mark and Vittoria blew up then went down in 75 feet of water– extremely shallow for submarine operations.
This was the first warship sunk by a Russian submarine and no less than 18 members of the crew, over half, were decorated. This included 24-year old commander Alexander Bakhtin, who cut his teeth on the Volk sinking steamers during the Great War, and 25-year old engineer Aksel Ivanovich Berg, who served with the British E-class subs. Bakhtin, who fell out of favor in the 1920s, died an early death after five years in the gulag while Berg died as a retired Admiral in 1979, a noted scientist who made advances in radio communications, microelectronics, and cybernetics.
The boat herself, renamed Kommisar (hull #5), was awarded the Order of the Red Banner, and kept as a training vessel in the Baltic Fleet. She was rebuilt in 1924, losing her drop collars and picking up a more modern above deck structure as did seven of her sisters.
She remained as a training ship in the Baltic Fleet into the late 1930s, treasured for her role in the Civil War, while her remaining sisters were scrapped. As such, she was the first Soviet submarine equipped with a then-experimental passive sonar array.
Largely hulked during WWII where she served as a battery charging barge for newer subs, she remained afloat until at least 1955 when she was scrapped after nearly 40-years of service to Tsar Nicholas, Lenin, and Stalin– all of which she outlived!
Her and her class, however, were recognized by the Soviets as being the basis for their enormous submarine fleet.
In 2007, Bakhtin, now famous decades after his death in obscurity, had a plaque installed in St. Petersburg that celebrates both him and the Pantera. The latter’s name was reissued to a modern submarine, an Akula-class SSN, hull number K-317. That very dangerous vessel is still part of the Russian Northern Fleet.
And the Vittoria? She was given as a gift to Finland, whose territorial waters she rests in, by the British government in the 1920s, but the Finns passed on salvaging her. In 2013, a Russian diving club found her broken hull and left a marker.
Displacement: 650 tons surfaced, 780 tons submerged
Length: 68 m (223 ft. 1 in)
Beam: 4.5 m (14 ft. 9 in)
Draft: 3.9 m (12 ft. 10 in)
2,640 hp diesel
900 hp electric
Speed: 18 knots (33 km/h) surfaced
9 knots (17 km/h) submerged
Range: 400 nmi (740 km)
Armament: 1 × 75mm (3.0 in) gun
1 × 37 mm (1.5 in) AA gun
4 × 457 mm (18.0 in) torpedo tubes
8 × torpedoes in drop collars (later removed)
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