Here at LSOZI, we take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1946 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, July 15, 2020: 3 Names, 5 Flags, 6 Wars
Here we see Avtroil, a humble member of the Izyaslav-subclass of the Imperial Russian Navy’s Novik-class of fast destroyers, afloat in the Baltic around 1917. He (Russian ships are addressed as male, not female) would go on to have a complicated life.
Built for the Tsar
Ordered as part of the 1913 enhanced shipbuilding program– the Tsar had a whole fleet to rebuild after the twin disasters of Port Arthur and Tshuma after all– the Izyaslavs were part of an envisioned 35-ship destroyer build that never got that big. Nonetheless, at 1,440-tons with five 4-inch guns and nine 450mm Whitehead torpedo tubes in three batteries, these 325-foot greyhounds were plenty tough for their time. Speaking of which, capable of 35-knots on their turbine suite, built with the help of the French Augustin Normand company, they were about the fastest thing on the ocean. Hell, fast forward a century and they would still be considered fast today.
In the end, only three Izyaslavs would be finished to include Avtroil and Pryamislav, before the Russians moved on to more improved Noviks to include the Gogland, Fidonisni, and Ushakovskaya subclasses. They were curious ships outfitted by a multinational conglomerate, as the Russian Imperial Navy’s purchasing agents seemed to have loved variety. They had Vickers-made Swiss-designed Brown-Boveri steam turbines, Norman boilers, and British/Italian armament produced under license at Obukhov.
Laid down in 1913 at Becker & Co JSC, Revel, while Russia was under the Romanov flag, he was completed in August 1917 as the property of the Russian Provisional Government, which was still nominally in the Great War, in effect changing flags between his christening and commissioning.
His new crew sortied with the battleship Slava to fight in the Battle of Moon Sound (Moonsund) in October, one of the Kaiser’s fleet’s last surface action. While Slava didn’t make it out alive, Avtroil did, although he exchanged enough licks with the Germans to carry away three 88mm shell holes in him.
Fighting for the Reds
When the Russian Baltic Fleet raised the red flag in November to side with Lenin’s mob, Avtroil followed suit as he sat in fortified Helsingfors (Helsinki), hiding from the Germans.
To keep one step ahead of said Teutons, he joined the great “Ice Cruise” in February 1918 to Kronstadt, the last bastion of the Russian fleet in the Baltic.
When the Great War ended and the Russian Civil War began, the British moved in to intervene on the side of the newly formed Baltic republics and the anti-Bolshevik White Russians. On 24 November 1918, RADM Sir Edwin Alexander Sinclair was dispatched to the Baltic with the 6th Light Cruiser Squadron (five C-class light cruisers) of which HMS Cardiff was his flagship, the 13th Destroyer Flotilla (nine V and W-class destroyers) and, because the Baltic in WWI was a mine war at a level no one had seen before, the 3rd Minesweeping Flotilla (seven minesweepers) as well as two minelayers and three tankers. Sinclair also brought newly surplus military aid– to include 100 Lewis guns, 50 Madsen LMGs, 5,000 American-made P14 Enfield rifles, and 6.7 million rounds of .303-caliber ammunition– as a gift to bolster the locals against the Reds.
This put the Red Fleet, the most reliable unit in the Soviet military, on the front line of a new war in the Baltic.
Avtroil was assigned to a special task force consisting of the 7,000-ton Bogatyr-class protected cruiser Oleg and his Novik/Ilyin-class destroyer half-brother Spartak (Sparticus, ex-Kapitan Kingsbergen, ex-Kapitan Miklukho-Maklay).
While scouting close to Estonian waters to assess the British disposition near Aegna and Naissaar on the night of 26 December, Spartak bumped into five Royal Navy destroyers. Attempting to escape, the Russian destroyer ran aground at Kuradimuna, and, surrendering, was towed to Tallinn (recently renamed Revel).
The next morning, Avtroil was sent to look for the overdue Spartak. Acting on tips from shore stations who sent sightings of the Russian destroyer to Tallinn, the British destroyers HMS Vendetta and HMS Vortigern are dispatched to intercept. Seeing these on the horizon, Avtroil attempted to beat feet to the East and the safety of Korndstadt but, after a 35-minute chase, ran into a returning patrol of the cruisers HMS Calypso and HMS Caradoc, accompanied by the destroyer HMS Wakeful. The crew of Avtroil struck their red flag near Mohni Island.
They didn’t really have much of a choice in the matter, as the hapless crews of the Russian ships couldn’t coax more than 15 knots out of their speedy destroyers. You have to keep in mind that the most radicalized Red sailors came from the harshly-treated stokers and engineering space guys, many of whom volunteered for Naval Red Guard units who fought on land during the Civil War. This left the Russian Baltic Fleet poorly manned in technical ratings, poorly led (the crews shot their officers and senior NCOs wholesale in 1917, replacing them with 850 assorted Sailors’ Committees), and poorly maintained. No wonder a small British squadron ran rampant over the Gulf of Finland in 1918-19!
Oleg managed to slip through the net only to be sunk six months later by British torpedo boats at anchor.
Welcome to Estonia!
The British towed their second prize in as many days to Revel, the former Russian naval base turned Tallinn, the new Estonian capital. There, the Soviet crews were interned. Those captured Russians who wanted to return home were later exchanged with the Reds for 17 British servicemembers, nine who participated in the raid June 1919 raid on Kronstadt, and eight downed aircrewmen lost in the August/September floatplane raids on the Bolshevik fortress.
Adm. Sinclair arrived in Tallinn on 28 December 1918 for the inspection of the captured destroyers.
The captured vessels were soon turned over to the nascent Estonian Navy. On 2 January 1919, RN Capt. Bertram Sackville Thesiger, the skipper of Calypso, met with the brand-new Commander of the Estonian Navy, Capt. Johan Pitka, onboard the uncrewed Avtroil to discuss the transfer. Avtroil would be renamed EML Lennuk while Spartak would become EML Wambola on 4 January 1919.
Repaired and under a new flag– Avtroil’s third for those keeping track at home– they would sail against the Reds later that summer until Moscow recognized Estonia’s independence the next year.
Eventually, cash-strapped Estonia– which had suffered through the Great War, German occupation, their own short but brutal campaign for independence and following reconstruction– looked at their surplus Russian destroyers and decided to pass them on for more than what they had in them.
From the frozen Baltic to the steaming Amazon
Laid up since 1920, they were sold to Peru in April 1933 for $820,000, leaving the Estonian Navy with only a single surface warfare ship, the Sulev— which was the once-scuttled former German torpedo boat A32. The tiny republic used the money, along with some public subscription, to order two small, but modern, coastal minelaying submarines from Britain.
Spartak/Wambola became BAP Almirante Villar while Avtroil/Lennuk would become BAP Almirante Guise, ironically named after a British-born Peruvian naval hero that had fought at Trafalgar.
The reason for the Peruvian destroyer purchase was that Lima was gearing up for a border conflict with Colombia that never really got much past the skirmish stage. Nonetheless, they did serve in a wary blockade of the Colombian coast and exchanged fire with a group of mercenaries squatting on what was deemed to be part of Peru, by the Peruvians, anyway.
Once in the Pacific, the destroyers were modernized, mounting some Italian-made Breda 20mm AAA guns. Apparently, the Peruvians were also able to get 4-inch shells and torpedoes from the Italians as well. Peru at the time only had a small (~3,000-ton) pair of old protected cruisers, making the repurposed Russian tin cans their most valuable naval assets.
The low-mileage pre-owned tin cans were put to more effective use in the “Guerra del 41,” the Ecuadorian–Peruvian War. Almirante Guise carried out patrols in front of the Jambelí channel, bombarded Punta Jambelí and Puerto Bolívar, and supported the Peruvian advance on El Oro. Meanwhile, his near-brother Almirante Villar was on convoy duty and fought a one-sided surface action against the elderly Ecuadorian gunboat BAE Abdón Calderón (300t, c1884, 2x76mm guns).
Once the conflict with Ecuador died down, another one was just kicking off. Under U.S. pressure, Peru broke off relations with the Axis powers in January 1942 and, while friendly to the Allies and increasingly hostile to the Axis, only declared war against Germany and Japan in February 1945. The Peruvian Navy was the only force “active” in the conflict, engaging in armed neutrality patrols throughout 1942-43. For those keeping score, WWII would be the Russian destroyers sixth-ish conflict following the Great War, the Russian Civil War, Estonian Independence, the Colombian skirmishes, and the Guerra del 41.
Meanwhile, Avtroil’s two brothers back in the Motherland would not have such a sedate Second World War. Izyaslav, naturally renamed Karl Marx, was sunk by a German air raid in August 1941. Pryamislav, renamed Kalinin after Stalin’s favorite yes man, was lost in a German minefield the same month near the island of Mokhni in the Gulf of Finland. Ironically, it was Mokhni where the British had captured Avtroil two decades prior.
The last of his kind, Avtroil, and his half-brother Almirante Villar would endure for another decade.
Decommissioned in 1949, they were slowly scrapped above the waterline through 1954. Their hulks reportedly remain off Peru’s Isla de San Lorenzo naval base/penal colony. Their names were later recycled for a pair of Fletcher-class destroyers, USS Benham (DD-796) and USS Isherwood (DD-520), acquired in the 1960s and used into the 1980s.
Avtroil/Guise is remembered both in Russian maritime art and Peruvian postal stamps.
Displacement: 1,350 long tons, 1,440 full. (Listed as 2,200 late in career)
Length: 325 ft 2 in (listed as 344.5 in 1945)
Beam: 30 ft 10 in (listed as 31.5 in 1945)
Draft: 9 ft 10 in (listed as 11.8 in 1945)
Propulsion: 2 Brown-Boveri steam turbines driving 2 shafts, 5 Norman boilers, 32,700 shp
Speed: 35 knots max (on trials). Listed as 30 knots even late in their career.
Oil: 450 tons, 2,400 nm at 15 knots
Armor: 38mm shields on some of the 4-inch guns
(as of 1918)
5 x 1 102mm L/60 Pattern 1911 Vickers-Obukhov guns
1 x 1 76mm AA mount M1914/15
3 x 3 450mm Whitehead torpedo tubes
2 x Maxim machine guns
80 Model 1912 naval mines.
5 x 1 102mm L/60 Pattern 1911 Vickers-Obukhov guns
2 x 20 mm/70cal Breda AA guns
3 x machine guns
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