Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1946 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, Nov. 27, 2019: The Russians Aren’t Good at Borrowing Ships
Here we see the Royal Navy R-class battleship HMS Royal Sovereign (05), resplendent in her peacetime livery, entering the Grand Harbor of Malta, sometime in the 1920s. Born in the Great War, she would give hard service to the Empire across four decades only to end up as one of the most unpleasant early tales of WWII alliances chilling in the new Cold War.
The R-class of superdreadnoughts was designed in the days leading up to World War I during the great battleship race with the Kaiser. Following on the heels of the mighty Queen Elizabeth-class, there were to be eight R-class ships: Revenge, Resolution, Royal Oak, Royal Sovereign, Ramillies, Resistance, Renown, and Repulse. However Resistance was canceled on the builder’s ways and the last two ships, Renown and Repulse, were redesigned as lighter, and faster, battlecruisers.
Carrying eight BL 15-inch Mk I naval guns in four twin turrets, they had a simple layout with two turrets forward and two aft. Perhaps the best big gun the Brits ever sent to war, the 15″/46 could fire a 1,900-pound shell out to 33,550 yards. This was at a time when most of the world’s battleships carried 12-inch guns.
Protected by up to 13 inches of armor, the R-class battlewagons tipped the scales at nearly 33,000 tons but could still make 21 knots.
Constructed at four different yards, our vessel was laid down at HM Dockyard, Portsmouth, on 15 January 1914, less than seven months before the lamps went out across Europe.
The 8th Royal Navy vessel to carry the Royal Sovereign name since 1519, our battleship was known in the fleet as the “Tiddley Quid” as both the terms “quid” and “sovereign” were synonymous with the pound sterling.
The five completed R-class battleships hit the waves between February 1916 and September 1917, with Royal Sovereign commissioning 18 April 1916. As such, she was still on shakedown during Jutland, which was a pity. She and her brawling sisters formed the 1st Battle Squadron but saw little to no real action during the rest of the war as the German High Seas Fleet elected not to try for the 2nd Battle of Jutland.
The “Rs” were part of the Allied line when the Germans sailed into Scapa Flow in November 1918.
In April 1920, Royal Sovereign and her sister ship Resolution steamed to the Eastern Med, where they became involved in the Russian Civil War and the Greco-Turkish War interchangeably. This included bombarding Turkish positions at Mudanya during the Greek summer offensive in July and shepherding the exile diaspora of 140,000 White Russians who lost their Russia privileges from the Crimea in November. During the latter, Royal Sovereign herself carried several members of the petit Russian nobility in style, making good on her name.
Royal Sovereign would spend the rest of the 1920s and 1930s in refit and peacetime exercises as part of an ever-shrinking Treaty-era Royal Navy.
Although not as thoroughly modernized as American dreadnoughts of the age or even the slightly older HMS Queen Elizabeth-class ships, the “Rs” would be given torpedo blisters which and landed some of their 6-inch casemate guns– which were of limited use anyway due to being seriously wet in most sea states– in exchange for some AAA guns.
As global tensions ramped up in the late 1930s, the five “Rs” only narrowly avoided scrapping or being deployed to the Far East to form a fleet thought capable of warning the Japanese against going to war, but that was not to be, and in September 1939, when the balloon went up in Europe, Royal Sovereign was already on patrol off Iceland with four destroyers.
She was to spend the early part of WWII in Atlantic convoy and escort duties, and notably in January 1940 sailed for Portsmouth’s Pitch House Jetty where she embarked £5M of gold bullion which she then took to Canada for safekeeping. On the way back, she escorted convoy HX 18 from Halifax and continued such operations with HX 22, HX 28, and HX 34, just in case the German battleships decided to come out and play.
By April 1940, Royal Sovereign was in the Med as part of Force C and later Force B, shuttling back and forth from Gibraltar to Alexandria via Malta throughout the summer, dodging Axis air attacks and submarines the whole time.
In July, she was present at the Battle of Calabria with the Italian fleet, arrayed against the Regina Marina’s battleships Giulio Cesare and Conte di Cavour although her low speed (sub-18 knots at the time) kept her from engaging, leaving the heavy lifting to HMS Warspite.
Sailing via the Suez for Durban, where her ever-troublesome boilers were repaired (at times she could only make steam on one boiler), Royal Sovereign was back in the North Atlantic escorting slow convoys out of Halifax by the end of the year.
In 1941, she covered SC 16, HX 103, TC 09, HX 113, HX 114, HX 116, HX 120, and HX 124 before putting in to (officially neutral) Norfolk Navy Yard at the end of May for maintenance and additional AAA guns.
Setting back across the pond, she put into Greenock in August where she had her first radar fit: Type 284 fire control for her 15-inch guns, Type 285 for secondary armament, Type 286 aircraft warning, and Type 273 surface warning.
In late November 1941, with the Japanese thought ready for war in the Far East, Royal Sovereign and other ships joined the large WS 12Z convoy to reinforce Singapore. While on the way, Pearl Harbor was struck, and the RN was in a truly global war.
With that, Royal Sovereign stopped short of the Pacific and became part of the 3rd Battle Squadron of the Eastern Fleet in February 1942 along with sisters Ramillies, Revenge, and Resolution (the fifth sister, Royal Oak, had been sunk in Scapa Flow by a U-boat in October 1939). Still, the class was seen as being of limited value against the Japanese and were seen by many as being “coffin ships,” as Churchill once described them.
While operating in the Indian Ocean over the next year, the force largely managed to avoid being sunk by Japanese submarines and air power and remained a fleet in being, which counted for something, anyway.
In October 1942, Royal Sovereign sailed for the U.S. and received additional up-armoring against aerial-dropped bombs as well as no less than 46 x 20mm Oerlikons in 14 single and 16 twin mounts. She would spend almost a full year in the City of Brotherly Love, recycling most of her crew in exchange for new recruits. In effect, when she left Philly in 1943, she was a very rebooted ship.
Then, a funny thing happened.
You see, the Italians dropped out of the war in September 1943 as a result of the Allied invasion of that country. With that, the capital units of the Regina Marina sailed to Malta where they were interned under British guns for the rest of the war. This included the 25,000-ton Conte di Cavour-class dreadnought, Giulio Cesare.
With 11-inches of armor and nine 12-inch guns, Stalin told Churchill and FDR at the Tehran Conference in November 1943 that he expected the pre-owned spaghetti battleship, which had been commissioned in 1914, to be transferred to the Soviet Union as spoils of war.
The thing is, due to the political situation in Italy, which had descended into civil war with German-allied fascists still fighting in the North against the Allies, splitting up the sidelined Italian ships would have played badly in Rome.
To sate Uncle Joe, Churchill offered the recently extensively refitted Royal Sovereign, which was larger, stronger, and newer than the Italian battleship anyway (and ironically faced off with at the Battle of Calabria in 1940). Once the war was over for real and Giulio Cesare cleared to sail for Sevastopol, the Soviets would return the Lend-Leased Royal Sovereign back to her titleholders.
The deal was accepted and at the end of May, Royal Sovereign, along with four submarines, and eight destroyers were handed over to the Red Banner Fleet at Rosyth in a three-day ceremony that reportedly saw much merriment. After all, not only would the ships be used by the Soviets until Hitler was vanquished, they would also likely be used in the Far East against Japan, a war that Stalin had promised to start fighting 90 days after VE-Day.
The Soviet crew spent all of June and July working up in British coastal waters– and thus missing the Overlord landings on D-Day– then, on 17 August 1944, sailed from Scapa to join convoy JW 59 under the Hammer & Sickle ensign, bound for Murmansk.
Joining the Soviet Northern Fleet, she was a target for the Germans who tried repeatedly to sink her via submarines both large and small without success.
She did, in typical Russian fashion, pick up some new mascots.
She was the most impressive battleship the Motherland ever put to sea– larger and more powerful than the Tsar’s Gangut-class (25,000 t, 12 x12″ guns) or Imperatritsa Mariya-class battleships (23,000 t, 12 x12″ guns). While four giant 65,000-ton Sovetsky Soyuz-class super-dreadnoughts were laid down, they never came close to being completed.
When the war ended, she remained in Soviet hands as the status of the Italian fleet was worked out via the Four Power Committee.
Her entry from Jane’s 1947 edition shows her as the preeminent Soviet capital ship and gives a full page to her listing.
In December 1948, the Soviets were cleared to begin the process of taking over Giulio Cesare as war reparations and the ship was moved first to Sicily then Albania where she was fully-added to the Red Navy’s list on 6 February 1949 and would ultimately be named Novorossiysk.
With that transfer underway, Royal Sovereign/Archangelsk was readied for repatriation back to HMs Royal Navy. Entering Rosyth on 4 February 1949, she once again became HMS Royal Sovereign five days later with the hoisting of the White Ensign.
While the 1944 handover was a party, the give-back party was absent in 1949, with the Soviets reportedly declining most invites to social events and parties– a matter that made it to the floor of Parliament.
Sadly, the Soviets were kind of bitter about the whole thing. Keep in mind that this was at the height of the Berlin Airlift and more than three years after Churchill’s famous “Iron Curtain” speech. The NATO treaty, which would be signed in April, was being negotiated in Washington.
Upon inspection, the material condition of the Royal Sovereign was considered…poor.
Specifically, much equipment was broken or missing, her turret rings were corroded to such a point that none of her four turrets could traverse, and the ship was crawling with vermin and pests of all kinds. Some reports even had it that the battleship’s heads had been clogged for months or possibly years, leaving Red sailors to turn semi-used compartments into open lavatories. The situation was not unique, the American cruiser USS Milwaukee (CL 5), which had likewise been loaned to the Soviets as the Murmansk in 1944, was returned in a similar state in March 1949.
The decision on what to do with the Royal Sovereign was easy. As the remaining three sisters of her were all slated for scrapping, her name was added to the list and they were all sent to the breakers by the end of the year.
Components of the drive gear sets and associated pinions from both Royal Sovereign and sister HMS Revenge‘s main guns were recycled into the Jodrell Bank Observatory’s Mark I (Lovell) radio telescope in the late 1940s and are still there today. It is one of the largest steerable radio telescopes in the world.
Royal Sovereign‘s name has not been used since by the RN, but she is remembered in the maritime art of her period.
The Russians still apparently have some parts of Royal Sovereign, including her chipped bell, which is in a maritime museum.
This week, the Russian Navy made news for returning a series of seized Ukrainian vessels–the fast gunboats Nikopol and Berdyansk and the tugboat Tany Kapu— back to their former owners in kind of rough condition.
“The Russians ruined them,” said Admiral Ihor Voronchenko, the head of the Ukrainian Navy, as reported by The Telegraph. “They even took the ceiling lights, plug sockets, and lavatories,” he said. “Some of the equipment is missing, as well as some weapons.”
The more things change…
29,970 long tons (30,450 t) (normal)
31,130 long tons (31,630 t) (deep load)
33, 500 tons (full load, 1944)
Length: 620 ft 7 in (o.a.); 580 ft (pp.) 614.5 ft (w.l.)
Beam: 88 ft 6 in as designed; 102.5 after blisters added in 1928
Draught: 33 ft 7 in (deep load), 28.5 ft. (mean)
Installed power: 40,000 shp (30,000 kW) 18 Babcock & Wilcox boilers
Propulsion: 4 shafts; 4 Parsons steam turbines, direct drive
Speed: 23 knots as designed, 20 by 1939
Range: 7,000 nmi at 10 knots on 900 tons oil fuel
Crew: 1,240 (1921) 1146 (1944)
Waterline belt: 13 in
Deck: 1–4 in
Barbettes: 6–10 in
Gun turrets: 11–13 in
Conning tower: 3–11 in
Bulkheads: 6 inches (24 watertight sections)
4 × twin 15″/46cal (38.1 cm) Mark I
14 × single BL 6-inch Mk XII naval guns described as “wet in head seas but dwarf walls retain water which rapidly drains away”
2 × single QF 3-inch 20 cwt AAA
4 × single Ordnance QF 3-pounder 47mm Vickers guns
4 × 21-inch (533 mm) torpedo tubes
4 × twin 15″/46cal (38.1 cm) Mark I
12 × single BL 6-inch Mk XII naval gun
8 x 4-inch AA
46 x 20mm Oerlikons in 14 single and 16 twin mounts
1 Sopwith 2F1 Camel fighter on it fitted on X turret 1918
1 Fairey Flycatcher carried on B turret 1920s
1 Supermarine Walrus floatplane carried on X turret from the 1930s onward
Aviation facilities were removed in 1942.
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