The Cruel Sea:
Russia’s Airships

In our Second Great War alternative history, airship development has outstripped that of fixed-wing aircraft. Airplanes in this reality are about a decade behind those of our own history and biplanes are common.

Those tasks fall to the airship, which has not experienced the setbacks of the German late-war bombing campaign over England (and those images of flaming zeppelins falling out of the night skies), the post-war end of German zeppelin manufacturing, or the Hindenburg disaster. Germany leads the world in use of airships for both military purposes and civilian travel, and has its own supplies of helium in its East African colony.

In 1930 the Russian government banned the German DELAG airship line from servicing Russian cities, extending that to its much smaller competitors including Austrian and Turkish firms a year later. France and Italy quickly followed. The German near-monopoly prospered anyway with profitable routes across Central Europe and extending to the United States, Japan and Brazil. The Russian-led boycott did prevent easy access to German airship technology, and Russian airships (like those of their Italian allies) lag noticeably behind those of the Germans in size and performance.

Airship W-6.

Russia has no civilian airlines, either the airship or fixed-wing variety. Internal travel is tightly controlled, and rapid travel between Russian cities is the sole privilege of ranking government ministers, members of the Imperial family, and the oligarchs who control Russian business and industry. The Imperial Navy maintains a handful of luxuriously-appointed airships for this purpose, and the Imperial Air Service has fast transport aircraft fitted to carry passengers.

The Imperial Navy relies on Italian assistance for airship designs, as it does for many of its warships and submarines. All four Russian fleets include airship detachments, chiefly intended for long-range reconnaissance missions. The airship development program is a purely military undertaking, headed by the Italian aeronautical pioneer Umberto Nobile, who came to Russia to head the airship development program after falling out with Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. Nobile felt himself wrongly blamed for the crash of the airship Italia during an Arctic exploratory flight and falsely accused of cowardice in its aftermath.

In Russia, Tsar Alexei made sure the prickly Italian was suitably honored, given all of the staff and resources he needed to design, build and test his airships. The first Nobile-designed ship flew in 1931, and many more craft followed as they became larger and more capable.

Note: Nobile actually went to the Soviet Union in May 1932, and was promptly assigned an abandoned airfield and a staff of 110, but no drawing tables or paper. He persevered and had a new airship under construction by the next summer. In our alternative history he’s been given more, and more useful, support.

Nobile’s W-6 design first flew in 1932, and gave the Imperial Navy a useful scouting airship. It was a relatively small ship with a volume of 685,000 cubic feet. It had outstanding range and endurance, and good useful lift. Nobile intended the ship to continue the Arctic explorations he had begun under the Italian tricolor, and those same qualities met the Imperial Russian Navy’s needs, too.

W-6 was, like other Nobile designs, a semi-rigid airship rather than a true rigid (with a solid frame) like the German zeppelins. It had a rigid keel along its bottom edge, which supported the gondola and engines below, and a loose gasbag above that depended on the lifting gas within to give it its shape (a rigid airship maintains its shape whether it’s full or gas or not).

Note: The actual W-6 (sometimes transliterated as V-6) flew in 1934, and crashed in 1938 on its way to assist stranded Soviet Arctic explorers.

The Germans made no secret of their big zeppelins’ abilities to carry their own groups of fixed-wing aircraft, or to drop heavy loads of bombs. They exaggerated these capabilities, which helped boost the mystique of the zeppelin and promote awareness of commercial airship travel. The Russians wanted airships to match German zeppelins and turned to Nobile to provide it.

Nobile hesitated to draw up a semi-rigid matching the size of the German ships, probably correctly believing that a spectacular failure would doom the Russian airship program. He instead drafted a new W-9 roughly five times the size of W-6. She flew in the summer of 1938, and spent the next year conducting test and training flights.

Rather than an internal hangar like the German or American flying carriers, W-9 had five stations along her keel where airplanes could attach themselves through a “trapeze” installation. When not in use they dangled in the open air, and could be refueled there but not re-armed - fighter planes could be carried, but not aircraft with their own ordnance (bombs or torpedoes). Their pilots could climb up into the airship’s keel by ladder. The keel also housed internal bomb racks and crew quarters, and the machine guns mounted for defense - leaving a gaping “blind spot” above the ship.

While the new airship did not match the big German ships, it performed well in tests and the Imperial Navy approved serial production of the type as the Gorynych class. Three of them appear in Second Great War at Sea: The Cruel Sea. While they’re no zeppelins, they do carry aircraft - only fighters - to defend themselves and to extend their scouting range.

Note: After the crash of W-6 the Soviet airship program wound down as Nobile had returned to Italy in late 1936 and emigrated to the United States in 1939. In our history he remains in Russia, continuing to build ever-larger and more capable airships. He never actually designed a W-9 (there was a W-7, which pre-dated W-6); this craft is a conjecture based on the design of W-6.

Airship W-10.

Nobile’s next design, the experimental W-10, built on the success of W-9 and the naval airships built on her model. It was a larger ship with more powerful engines, and first took flight in 1939. The keel needed re-design and strengthening, but proved a stable design and was accepted for production as the Zilant class. Zilant and her sisters had better range and could carry a larger bomb load, but did not have an internal hangar and retained the trapeze arrangements. She could carry six planes rather than the five of Gorynych. Two of them appear in Second Great War at Sea: Tre Kronor; they are more capable than Gorynych but still limited to one step of aircraft.

Note: Nobile did not design such a ship either; like Gorynych she’s a extrapolation of his other designs.

And those are the Russian airships found so far in The Second Great War at Sea.

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.