Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1859-1946 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 25, 2018: Tsar Nicky’s lost (crypto) millions?
Colorized by my good friend Diego Mar of Postales Navales
Here we see the semi-armored frigate (often classified as a cruiser) Dmitriy Donskoy (or, Dmitri Donskoi) of the Tsarist Imperial Navy in her classic black and buff scheme. Note the Romanov double eagle crest in yellow– house colors– on her bow.
She was the last warship claimed by the military fiasco that was the Battle of Tsushima in 1905 and notably has popped back in the news last week with her (re)discovery by a Singapore-based South Korean treasure-hunting group, thus:
Via the Shinil Group
But we are getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s get some context.
In the late 1870s, the Russian navy was fairly powerful, the proud owner of several U.S.-built coastal monitors ready to mix it up with anything sent into their waters, and a reasonable fleet of blue water steam vessels. What they really needed, however, were armored blue water ships capable of ranging far and wide. Enter the armored frigate Minin, some 295-feet overall and 6,100-tons, she was capable of 14-knots and carried a quartet of 8-inch guns and as much as 7-inches of locally made iron armor. Not bad for 1878. At the same time came the Russian cruiser General Admiral, considered the world’s first armored cruiser, combining an armor belt with an armored protective deck in a 285-foot/5,038-ton package capable of making 12 knots.
General Admiral, shown in New York in 1893– but we’ll get to that (LOC photo)
By 1880, the Admiralty ordered the follow-on Dmitriy Donskoy, named after St. Dmitry of the Don who beat the Tartars at the Battle of Kulikovo in the 14th century, one of the largest battles of the Middle Ages and the event that signaled the beginning of the end of the Mongol Yoke over Rus.
The guy on the white horse…
She was the fifth Russian naval ship since 1771 to carry the name– and the last until 2000.
Beefier than General Admiral and about even 10 feet longer and 100-tons heavier (she used heavier steel armor ordered abroad from Cammell Laird to include a belt and armored deck) than Minin, the new armored frigate had more economical engines coupled with larger coal bunkers that gave her three times the range of Minin and a speed of 16-knots (making 16.16 on trials). She could travel for a week at full speed and up to 30 days at a more pedestrian 10-knots. Then, in 1883, came her half-sister, the more refined Vladimir Monomakh, a tweaked 306-foot/6,000-ton vessel to the same layout.
All four of these experimental ships had copper sheathed hulls to cut down on drydocking– and allowing more distant deployments– and were heavily ship-rigged on three wooden masts for extending their range under sail. Their props were originally designed to be lifted to prevent drag while under canvas, but that did not work in practice.
Referred to as armored cruisers by the rest of the world, there was a legit concern (mainly by the British) at the time that these ships would create havoc on sea lanes as commerce raiders in the event of war.
Donskoy spent the first two years of her career with the Mediterranean Sea squadron, then in 1887 transferred to the Pacific, where Russia was eagerly looking to expand.
An 1889 modification saw her wooden masts replaced by lighter steel ones, followed by another tour of the Med, and by 1891 she was back in the Pacific and would sail the world extensively for several years.
She participated in the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 as the flagship of the Russian squadron, sailing up the Hudson along with the already-mentioned General Admiral, gunboat Rynda (c1885/3,537t) and the new and mighty armored cruiser Admiral Nakhimov (c1888/8,609t), the latter a Warship Wednesday alum.
Dmitri Donskoi, Russian navy_LOC-D4-21190
Dmitri Donskoi, Russian navy_LOC-D4-21191
Her officers were a hit with the New York social crowd.
Capt. 1st Rank NA Zelenoy, skipper of the Donskoy, in his full uniform, colorized photo from Detriot Post Card company, via LOC
In 1895 she was extensively modified with new engines and boilers, and her armament updated, shipping for the Far East again the next year, carrying a white scheme for a time.
Ironclad IRN Dmitrii Donskoi picture at the opening of the Vladivostok Drydock, October 7th, 1897
She would spend six years in Vladivostok, then the new Russian enclave at Port Arthur (which they basically stole from the Japanese), and her crew formed a naval battalion that participated in the Boxer rebellion.
Russian Sailors Defending A Barricade Before The Peking Legation 1900 in Boxer Rebellion via the London Illustrated News
At the end of 1901, she returned to the Baltic again for another refit and armament swap (honestly, she changed her batteries so much that it is irrelevant to cover each update, check the specs at the bottom for more details).
She was aging, slow for her times, and poorly armed for her size, and a 1900 Jane’s entry characterized her as such.
Early 1904 saw her leaving for the Far East once again with the cruiser Almaz and a group of new destroyers, but they only got as far as the Red Sea before war came with Japan– over Port Arthur– and she was recalled to the Baltic.
With the war going exceptionally bad for the Russians militarily, and the Tsar’s Pacific Squadron largely bottled up behind minefields and Japanese blockade at Port Arthur, the Baltic Fleet suddenly became dubbed the 2nd Pacific Squadron and soon received orders to sail to the Far East and throw down. The epic story is told best by Constantine Pleshakov in his “The Tsar’s Last Armada: The Epic Voyage to the Battle of Tsushima.”
It’s a good read…
In the book, Donskoy appears a dozen or more times, derided by Vice Adm. Rozhestvensky as the “cabbie” of the fleet due to her slow speed. First, she caught a broadside from her own fleet in the Baltic (!) during a confusing nighttime skirmish that injured several men and, as British trawlers were harmed, forced the ill-fated warships to sail all the way around the Cape of Good Hope rather than via the London-controlled Suez Canal.
Then, Donskoy became the great fisherman of the fleet in Madagascar– catching some 1,800 pounds of fish in one go via nets but losing a man to a shark. Then came her officers’ rather racy involvement with the nurses of the hospital ship Orel. Anyway, pick up the book, it’s a great read.
The blue line…
Now, in the third act, we have our valiant frigate’s destruction in the Strait of Korea. Part of a four-ship column of cruisers under the flag of the unpopular but politically connected Rear-Admiral Oskar Enkvist– she joined Oleg, Aurora, and her sister Monomakh and were tasked with guarding the auxiliaries in the rear column of the fleet by Rozhdestvensky.
Escaping the carnage of the main fleet action, he ordered the group to make their way as best they could to Vladivostok. The Admiral later caught up to them in the leaking torpedo boat Buiny but during the night of May 27/28, they became separated again. Meanwhile, the Japanese were busy hunting the stragglers. Monomakh was torpedoed by a Japanese torpedo boat in the night and surrendered the next day. The Zhemchug, Aurora, and Oleg damaged managed to make it to Manila to be interned by the Americans under the guns of the old monitor USS Monadnock (BM-3).
By the morning of the 28th, Donskoy, now just accompanied by two torpedo boats– Bedovy and Grozny— found the wounded Rozhdestvensky on his languishing Buiny and transferred him, along with the Donskoy‘s surgeon, to the Bedovy for the final 400-mile run to safety in Vladivostok. Donskoy remained behind to cover the admiral’s retreat and rescue the crew from Buiny then sink her with gunfire. Overall, the ship had more than 300 survivors aboard, mostly from the lost battleship Oslyabya.
Ultimately, Rozhestvensky was captured after his new torpedo boat suffered an engineering casualty later that morning, but Donskoy pressed on alone, filled with survivors she picked up along the way. By 5 p.m. she was sighted by the pursuing Japanese and, some two hours later, was some 30 nautical miles south of Ulleungdo (Dajelet) Island. Over the next two hours, she dueled with the Japanese cruisers Otowa (3,000t) and Niitaka (3,400 tons), together with the destroyers Asagiri, Shirakumo, and Fubuki. It was a hell of a fight by all accounts and the Japanese caught a few rounds in return fire– a rarety in the typical Russo-Japanese exchange.
Zaikin A.Yu. (born 1954) “The last fight of Dmitry Donskoy,” 1995
This left the old Donskoy battered and her skipper, the valiant Capt.1st Rank Ivan Nikolayevich Lebedev, a veteran with some 38 years of service behind him, on his literal last leg, one of some 190 casualties suffered in the final act of Tsushima.
From a Russian memoir of the hellish scene on Donskoy, of her XO, Capt. 2nd rank Konstantin Platonovich Blokhin, being called to the bridge:
The senior officer was on deck when one of the sailors flew up to him and, choking on words, reported:
“Your Honor … the commander asks you.”
Blokhin immediately climbed to the bridge and, peering into the warped and dilapidated cabin, for a moment was dumbfounded. The whole deck shone with fresh blood. Lieutenant Durnovo, leaning against the wall, sat motionless, bent, as if thinking about something, but he and his cap had a skull and horribly pinked frozen brain. The helmsman Quartermaster Polyakov curled up at the binnacle. Lieutenant Giers was lying with his belly open. Above these corpses, gritting his teeth in pain, Lieutenant commander towered alone, barely holding onto the handles of the wheel. He had a through wound in his thigh with a bone fracture.
In addition, his entire body was wounded with small fragments. He stood on one leg and tried to hold the cruiser on the course, himself unaware that the steering gear was broken and that the ship was steadily rolling to the right. Seeing the senior officer, he raised his eyebrows in surprise and said with blue lips:
“I hand over the command…”
“I’ll arrange for you to be transferred, Ivan Nikolayevich, to the dressing station.”
“Do not. I’ll stay here. Try to get to the shade of the island. Do not hand over the ship. Better to scuttle her.”
And with that, Lebedev died and his battered ship limped closer to Ulleungdo Island and was scuttled by her crew in deep water some two miles offshore on the morning of the 29th, sending her survivors ashore where the Japanese took them, prisoner.
Blokhin survived, later becoming a rear admiral. Her mine officer, Lt. Alexander Oskarovich Stark (whose father, Vice Adm. Oskar Viktorovich Stark had ironically been in command of the 1st Pacific Squadron at Port Arthur), went on to command the cruiser Bayan in the Baltic during WWI and died in exile (along with his dad) in Finland in the 1920s.
As for Rozhestvensky, after ducking a death sentence at a court-martial after the war, he lived out the last years of his life in St Petersburg as a recluse and died in 1909 of a bad heart, aged 60. He had lost 4,380 men and 21 vessels– including an amazing seven battleships– over the course of about 24-hours, while another seven of his warships were captured by the Japanese along with a staggering 5,900 men– to include the survivors of Donskoy, of course. The Japanese lost no major ships and suffered about 700 mixed casualties in what could be called the all-time benchmark for a decisive naval victory.
Fast forward a few years, and the stories of the gold started to come out, with the legend going that the vessels were piled high with a mini-fortune to be used to buy coal and supplies aboard as needed because Russia had precisely zero coaling stations between the Baltic and Vladivostok.
In 1933, an author named Garry Berg published a hard-to-find pamphlet, “600 Billion in Water,” holding that four ships of the Rozhestvensky’s 2nd Pacific Squadron sunk at the Battle of Tsushima had a horde of gold, then worth US $5 million, with the largest portions on two cruisers– $2 million carried on Admiral Nakhimov, and another $2 million on Donskoy. In 1980, Japanese salvors located Nakhimov and pulled up an unspecified amount of gold bullion, platinum ingots, and British gold sovereigns– over the howls of the Soviets. The ship reportedly carried 16 platinum bars, 48 gold bars, and about 5,000 pounds of British gold coins. The funny thing is– the ingots shown off in 1980 were later found to be made out of lead.
In 2001, a South Korean group said they found Donskoy, which is rumored to hold 5,500 boxes of gold bullion and 200 tons of gold coins aboard her– an incredible cache that today is worth some $130 billion if it is to be believed. The ROK-government-run Korea Institute of Ocean Science and Technology followed up with a claim on the wreck a few years later.
However, no one has been able to salve it.
Now, the Singapore-based Shinil Group has once again stirred the Donskoy pot, saying they have located her stern (she is nearly broken in two) at N37°-29′.2″ E130°-56′.3″ to be precise.
“The bottom of Donskoy is about 40 degrees on the slope of the seabed with its stern 380 meters below the water level, and its bow is at 430 meters. One-third of the stern is bombarded, and the hull is severely damaged. It is a half-broken situation. However, the upper deck of the wooden hull is almost untouched. The armor on the side of the hull is also well preserved, while the anchors, guns, and machine guns remain in place. In addition, all three of the masts and the two chimneys are broken, there was also a partial attacked trail of marking on the sides.”
Now, as reported by the Singapore Straits Times, the group is offering a swing at the “Donskoi International” crypto currency exchange providing tokens called Shinil Gold Coins (SGCs), backed apparently by gold futures on the wreck, which makes the whole idea of the 2nd Pacific Squadron’s ridiculous 18,000-mile journey to Valhalla seem like an innovative idea in comparison…
As for the Russians, after spending some 95 years trying to forget Donskoy, they renamed the 20-year-old TK-208, a huge Project 941 Akula (NATO: Typhoon-class) ballistic missile submarine built in 1980, as Dmitriy Donskoy.
She is the largest submarine in the world in regular fleet service, assigned to the Northern Fleet at Severodvinsk, and the last of her class on active duty. Her aging R-39 ballistic missiles were replaced with launchers for the new RSM-56 Bulava SLBM and she has been testing them out over the past several years.
Displacement 5800 t, 6200 fl
Length 306 ft.
Width 52.1 ft.
Draft 23 ft.
Machinery: two 3-cylinder compound machines, 8 boilers, 7000 hp nominal (7360 max), 1 screw
Speed 16 knots
Range: 3,300 nautical miles @10kts, 900 tons coal
Crew 515, incl 23 officers when built. 571 in 1902
Armor: 114 to 152 mm belt, 12.7 mm – deck
2 × 203mm / 30 low angle
14 × 152mm / 28
4 × 87mm / 24
2 × 64mm / 20 Baranovsky on wings
4 × 47mm/ 43 Hotchkiss
4 × 37mm / 23 Hotchkiss
4 wheeled .45/70 Fearington “coffee mill guns”
4 381mm surface torpedo tubes abeam, 1 in bow
6 × 152mm / 45 Canet
10 × 120mm / 45 Canet
2 × 64mm / 20 Baranovsky
8 × 47mm / 43 Hotchkiss
10 × 37mm / 23 Hotchkiss
4 381mm surface torpedo tubes abeam, 1 in bow
6 × 152mm / 45 Canet
4 × 120mm / 45 Canet
6 × 75mm / 50 Obukhov
2 × 64mm / 20 Baranovsky
8 × 47mm / 43 Hotchkiss
10 × 37mm / 23 Hotchkiss
2 × 7.62mm Maxim Machine Guns
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