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 of their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places. –– Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday, June 8, 2016: Indonesia’s biggest stick with a James Bond twist
Here we see the Soviet Navy’s Sverdlov-class light cruiser Ordzhonikidze with her crew manning the rails in June 1954 on a peaceful port visit to Helsinki, a capital that was being bombed by Soviet aircraft just nine years prior. Obsolete before she was completed, she sowed enduring mystery in her brief career with the Motherland and went on to become Sukarno’s wooden sword.
At the end of World War II, Stalin was only beginning his arms race with the West, which included several of the world’s largest navies. The Red Banner Fleet had armadas of submarines and small craft but was lacking in capital ships. The Sovs had no carriers and, even though battleships and gun-armed cruisers were fast approaching block obsolescence as a whole in the Atomic age, Stalin was desperately short of these as well with only a few lingering Gangut-class battlewagons and Maxim Gorky/Chapayev class cruisers on the list as “prestige ships.”
This led to an order for a staggering 30 brand new 16,000-ton Sverdlov (Project 68bis) class cruisers.
Capable of a 9,000-mile range, equipped with a half-dozen air, surface and navigation radars, and capable of breaking 32 knots, they had long legs, big eyes, and high speed, all things you want in a cruiser to both screen a naval task force and perform as a surface action group on their own accord. The thing is their armament was hopelessly dated.
These all-gun love boats had a dozen powerful 152 mm (6 in)/57 cal B-38 guns in four triple Mk5-bis turrets which were outstanding guns for the time (though they had been designed in 1938). They could sling a 121-pound AP pill out to 34,080 yards (30,215 m) every nine seconds or so, which means the 12-gun battery could pepper a 78-round broadside in the time it takes to watch an extended commercial. A dozen 100 mm/56 (3.9″) B-34 Pattern 1940 guns in twin mounts, 32x37mm AAA guns, and (likely for the last time in a major warship design) surface-launched anti-ship torpedoes rounded out the Sverdlovs.
They compared well against the U.S. Navy’s Cleveland-class light cruisers (14,500-tons, 4 × triple 6″/47cal guns), which the Americans had commissioned 27 of by the end of 1945 (see where the figure of Stalin wanting 30 Sverdlovs came from?), but the catch was that Washington laid up virtually all of their low-mileage Cleveland’s by 1950 and those that remained in service did so as hybrid guided-missile cruisers with a limited big-gun armament.
The first Sverdlov was laid down on 15 October 1949 and before Stalin passed into that great Georgian gangster paradise in the ground in 1953, construction on another 20 was started. Then came Nikita Khrushchev who canceled most of the class outright. In all, out of Uncle Joe’s planned 30 cruisers, just 14 were finished and commissioned into service. Nikita himself was said to comment that the ships were good only for state visits and as a missile target.
This leads us to the hero of our tale.
Georgian-born Grigol Ordzhonikidze (Орджоникидзе) was a buddy of Uncle Joe and led a Red Army into that breakaway republic of their mutual birth in 1921 to bring them back into the fold of Moscow’s bosom. This didn’t stop the fantastically mustachioed revolutionary from passing in 1937 during the Great Purge, officially of a heart attack at just age 50.
Never officially out of standing, Stalin originally named a Chapayev-class cruiser after his buddy which was never completed during World War II and replaced on the list by a nicer Sverdlov-class vessel laid down at Plant #194 (Admiralty Shipyard, Leningrad) as serial #600 on 19 October 1949.
Ordzhonikidze was completed and joined the Baltic Fleet on 31 August 1952, just months before Stalin’s own demise.
A beautiful new ship in the Baltic, she was tapped to perform several state visits with Soviet political figures– to include Khrushchev aboard– stopping in Helsinki for four days in 1954 as well as a later visit to Copenhagen.
Her next international stop was the UKs Portsmouth Harbor– the first time Soviet leaders visited Britain– where she arrived 18 April 1956 with two destroyers as escorts.
It seems, however, that a wetsuit-clad group of Soviet Naval Spetsnaz, who mounted an undersea patrol around the vessel, also accompanied the cruiser. It was during the visit that British MI6 frogman and WWII diving legend Lionel “Buster” Crabb disappeared on 19 April while allegedly investigating the props on Ordzhonikidze.
In the meantime, the Soviets reported to the British they had seen a diver swimming at the surface at 7.30 a.m. that morning between their ships, which sparked something of an international incident that queered the week that the Soviet Premier spent kissing babies in England.
Then, some 14 months later what was left of a body in a green Royal Navy type frogman suit, sans head and hands, was found floating in Chichester Harbor.
In 2007, a former Soviet Naval Spetsnaz combat diver by the name of Eduard Koltsov gave an interview to the BBC in which he stated that he had slit Crabb’s throat in undersea combat and proudly displayed both the knife he claims he used and the Order of the Red Star he was awarded for his actions. Several documents, heavily redacted, were released by the UK’s National Archives that kinda sorta but not really verified what happened.
Now back to the story of the Ordzhonikidze herself.
Transferring to the Black Sea Fleet, she arrived in Sevastopol in February 1961, though her time in the ancient sea would be brief.
On the other side of the globe, Indonesian strongman Sukarno was getting stronger, having dissolved Parliament in 1960 as well as several Islamic-based political parties while leaning on support from the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI) — which brought the new nation firmly into Moscow’s arms as he sought out a policy of Confrontation (Konfrontasi) against the Dutch over West Papua New Guinea (Irian).
In February 1960, Khrushchev paid a visit to Sukarno, and soon after the floodgates of Communist fellowship opened.
This turned into a massive outlay of military gear transferred from the CCCP to Jakarta as Indonesia for a time became second only to Red China in Soviet arms deliveries ranging from 150,000 SKS-45 rifles to modern jet fighters. This included making the TNI-AL (Indonesian Navy) the most powerful submarine force in the Asia-Pacific region with a full squadron of Whiskey-class submarines, two torpedo retrievers, and one submarine tender, all purchased for a song. By comparison, no other Southeast Asian nation possessed a submarine force of any size, with the closest runner-up being the Royal Australian Navy having only six British-made Oberon’s.
Therefore, it made sense that the only major surface ship exported by the Cold War-era Soviet military was to be sent to Indonesia. Sure hundreds of patrol craft, missile boats, destroyers, and frigates were given away, but cruisers, battleships, and carriers before 1989? Nyet!
On 5 April 1962, with a handful of Indonesian military personnel aboard, Ordzhonikidze departed from Sevastopol after spending 14 months undergoing modifications for operations in the tropics (more ventilators and generators) and leisurely sailed to the Far East, arriving 5 August in Surabaya.
Btw, if the shifting hull numbers on our cruiser have you confused, don’t be as they are more of a temporary tactical marking than anything else. The Soviet Navy’s pennant numbers were related to the fleet in which the ship was serving, so if you changed fleets you changed numbers. Further, there is evidence to support that Moscow changed the whole shebang at least once or twice just to add to the ship-watching confusion in the West, making the fact that our cruiser sports the hull numbers 057, 435, 310, and 21 inside of eight years petty common.
Once in the Far East, her crew proceeded to work side-by-side with 1,200 handpicked Indonesian sailors for six months, training men who had never conned a ship larger than a frigate to control a 14,000-ton cruiser that had everything written in Cyrillic. It was also likely that some of the local crew were simply Soviet officers and michmen wearing Indonesian uniforms. The Dutch naval intelligence service, MARID (Marine Inlichtingendienst), received information in the summer of 1962 that Soviet crews were largely manning Indonesian-flagged submarines and Tuepolev bombers.
In the meantime, the Indonesians embarked on Operation Trikora, pitting their 16 newly acquired Soviet-built destroyers and frigates and dozen submarines against the Royal Netherlands Navy’s four destroyers and three subs in the area, pushing them out while infiltrating small landing teams and paratroopers through the area. Although the Dutch have a proud naval tradition of combat at sea that stretches back to the 16th century and would no doubt have given a good account of themselves if the balloon went up, quantity is a quality of its own.
By 5 August 1962, the Netherlands finally recognized Indonesia’s claim to Western New Guinea in the New York Agreement — without the big Russian cruiser having to fire a shot or even sail through the disputed waters. In October, a UN peacekeeping force arrived to effect the transfer.
To make it official, on 24 January 1963, Ordzhonikidze was decommissioned by the Soviets and five days later handed over to the Indonesian Navy who promptly commissioned her as the Kapal Republik Indonesia (Republic of Indonesia Ship) Irian (C201), becoming the fleet’s instant flagship.
On May 1, Indonesia officially annexed Western New Guinea as Irian Jaya, the nation’s 26th province, while the ship of the same name sat at anchor offshore as cement to the deal, bringing His Excellency President Dr. Ir. H. Sukarno to the islands for the occasion.
However, KRI Irian‘s continued service was limited at best, especially with the crisis abated.
Soon after her transfer, she suffered a collision with a submarine and then an escorting destroyer within weeks. In November 1963, six of her boilers were destroyed after being used improperly while underway, effectively crippling her as a warship less than a year after her transfer.
Irian slowly made for Vladivostok as soon as that port was clear of ice in the Spring of 1964 and spent the summer there being overhauled by the Soviets, who were reportedly shocked at how bad she had deteriorated in her short time with the Indonesians.
On a lighter note, they were surprised to see the officer’s wardroom had been converted to a chapel, something that had been banned on Soviet ships since 1922.
Escorted back to Surabaya by a Red Navy destroyer and fleet tug, Irian resumed operations in August 1964, which primarily consisted of leaving port every few months for a couple of days then heading back to the dock.
The next year, with Sukarno not needing outside muscle against the Dutch anymore, death squads liquidated Indonesian communists with the help of lists gathered by the CIA, and Soviet support for their weapons rightly vanished. In all, an estimated 1 million communists disappeared.
By 1967, Irian was in poor shape again and a new leader, Gen. Suharto, an Army man with a dim view on naval affairs and an even dimmer one on human rights turned the deteriorating former Soviet cruiser into a floating prison ship for his opponents.
This went on for a few years, and with the possibility of the Irian sinking at her moorings, she was beached on a sandbar in 1970. Sometime after this Soviet “tourists” came aboard and removed/destroyed sensitive equipment. Two years later she was sold for scrap to a Taiwan concern, where no doubt any secrets the ship had that the U.S. didn’t know about already were revealed.
In all, she lived just over 10 years and to this day was the largest warship the Indonesian navy operated, sticking with small (under 3,000-ton) frigates and corvettes since then.
I can find no remnants of the big cruiser on public display.
Of Irian’s 13 completed sisters, most remained in Soviet service until the end of the Cold War although their usefulness in a naval battle in the age of anti-ship missiles and combat jets was questionable, even though several were equipped as missile slinging hybrids. Stricken when the Wall came down, they were quickly (or in the case of sistership Murmansk, not so quickly) scrapped.
Just one remains– Mikhail Kutuzov, preserved as a museum ship in Novorossiysk, part of the last Russian presence on the Black Sea, where she sits as an important reminder to the Ukrainians of Tsar Putin’s reach.
As for the frogman Crabb, he is remembered by a monument at Milton Cemetery, Milton Road, Portsmouth, though it is still not clear how he disappeared.
Finally, in Papua/Irian, a local insurgency against the Indonesian authorities that began in 1963 continues to this day.
Displacement: 13,600 tons standard, 16,640 tons full load
Length: 210 m (689 ft. 0 in) overall, 205 m (672 ft. 7 in) waterline
Beam: 22 m (72 ft. 2 in)
Draught: 6.9 m (22 ft. 8 in)
Installed power: 6 boilers, 118,100 shp (88,100 kW)
Propulsion: 2 shaft geared steam turbines
Speed: 32.5 knots (60.2 km/h; 37.4 mph)
Range: 9,000 nautical miles (17,000 km; 10,000 mi) at 18 knots (33 km/h; 21 mph)
12 × 152 mm (6 in)/57 cal B-38 guns in four triple Mk5-bis turrets
12 × 100 mm (3.9 in)/56 cal Model 1934 guns in 6 twin SM-5-1 mounts
32 × 37 mm (1.5 in) anti-aircraft guns
10 × 533 mm (21 in) torpedo tubes
Belt: 100 mm (3.9 in)
Conning tower: 150 mm (5.9 in)
Deck: 50 mm (2.0 in)
Turrets: 175 mm (6.9 in)
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