The Cruel Sea:
Russian Battlecruisers

Our Second Great War alternative history setting (the focus of The Cruel Sea) gives me, the author/designer/publisher, license to invent not only the history but the fleets and ships of this war that never happened. That allows the chance to craft a story that allows the game play I want to see (lots of surface battles, featuring lots of big ships with big guns) and the ships needed to carry that out (lots of battleships and battle cruisers).

And they needed to be cool, interesting ship designs – yet at the same time, I didn’t want Jules Verne-style weirdness. The ships need to be true to reality, and to a believable fiction, so for the most part I’ve gone with ships that were designed and never built, or at least proposed for construction.

The Russian Empire collapsed in late 1917, but in our alternative history the First World War ends a year before that event, allowing the Tsar to hold on to his throne and peacefully end his people’s suffering. For the warships of the Imperial Russian Navy of 1940, I relied on two sources of inspiration: the principles laid down by Imperial Russian naval architects (a number of whom went on to serve the Soviet Union) and those of Soviet warship designers. Plus, I included a few ships actually designed for the Red Navy, but not completed (in some cases, not laid down, or rejected in favor other designs).

The Russian Dmitri Donskoi-class battle cruisers are based on the Soviet Projekt 69 designed in the late 1930’s as part of the Third Five-Year Plan that included a blue-water Red Navy. Two units were laid down in November 1939 but never completed; another 14 were authorized but never begun. The ship had attractive lines and looked very modern, and this proved the project’s undoing. Soviet General Secretary Josef Stalin, the Helmsman of the Soviet Peoples, called it the most beautiful of ships and took a personal interest in its design and construction.

That interest translated into constant meddling in the design parameters and especially the ship’s armament. Initially the designers drafted a “Treaty Cruiser killer,” a fast ship displacing 23,000 tons and armed with 254mm (10-inch) guns. This ship was intended to overwhelm heavy cruisers built to the limits of the Washington naval limitations agreements (10,000 tons’ displacement and 203mm (8-inch) guns).

Great Stalin compared the ship not to the heavy cruisers of other nations, but to the German battle cruisers of the Scharnhorst class. And there it came up wanting, displacing much less, carrying far less armor and sporting smaller guns. Meanwhile, Marshal of the Soviet Union and Assistant Defense Minister Mikhail Tukhachevsky, an opponent of the blue-water navy, was fired and then shot while Navy chief V.M. Orlov likewise met a firing squad. The new Navy commander, M.V. Viktorov, hastened to order the design enlarged as Stalin wished.

Kronshtadt under construction, late 1941.

Second World War at Sea: Sea of Iron includes the version of Projekt 69 laid down in Leningrad as Kronshtadt (the name chosen by Stalin). This ship had nine 305mm (12-inch) guns, a top speed of 33 knots and displaced 35,000 tons. Construction halted in the autumn of 1940 so that the ship could be re-worked to carry German-supplied 380mm (15-inch) guns, which never actually arrived.

The Soviet Union never signed any of the naval limitations agreements of the 1920’s and 1930’s, nor would it have honored them had it done so. That’s not the case in our Second Great War alternative history, where Imperial Russia is part of the international system though eager to overturn it. Tsar Alexei’s government gives at least a nod to the limits agreed at Vienna in the early 1920’s.

The Donskoi class is a more rational version of Projekt 69, which shared the Soviet penchant for giantism with other warship designs of the time (along with airplanes, farm tractors and apartment buildings). For her capabilities, Kronshtadt is a massive warship, far larger than those of other nations with similar speed, protection and armament. She would have been 252 meters long (the American Iowa-class fast battleships were 262 meters long) with a breadth of 31.6 meters.

Dmitri Donskoi is actually slightly smaller than Kronshtadt, but carries a heavier main armament of nine 356mm (14-inch) guns, the maximum allowed for a battle cruiser under the Vienna agreement. Kronshtadt’s huge hull could easily have accommodated larger turrets, and the Soviet architects might have might have designed her that way deliberately in case new instructions from Great Stalin demanded that they fit still-bigger guns to his favorite ship.

Inside a turret for the British-made 14-inch Mark VII naval rifle.

Imperial Russia’s Obukhov Works built a 14-inch gun for the Izmail-class battle cruisers laid down just before the First World War, but Dmitri Donskoi carries a new weapon, a licensed version of the British Mark VII 14-inch gun that armed the King George V class battleships (and many re-conditioned older ships of our alternative history). The gun had excellent range and accuracy, as good as or better than larger guns, though of course with less striking power.

Kronstadt would have had a catapult and hangar fitted amidships for a pair of seaplanes. Like other Imperial Russian capital ships, Dmitri Donskoi has a comparative large helicopter pad (the long and broad hull providing plenty of space) with a full hangar beneath including a repair workshop.

Our Imperial Russian battle cruiser shares the Soviet ship’s high speed, likewise provided by Swiss-designed Brown-Boveri turbines built under license in Russia and projected to turn out an amazing 231,000 horsepower (the Iowa-class battleships made 33 knots on 212,000 horsepower). She needed that much power thanks to her fat hull form, but at least the power plant could fit. It featured two separate sets of boiler and engine rooms, one for the inner shaft and one for the two outer shafts – an arrangement dictated by Great Stalin, who apparently had inherent knowledge of naval architecture to match his well-attested insights into surgery and botany.

Dmitri Donskoi (like Kronstadt) shows her cruiser origins in her relatively light protection, designed to defeat enemy heavy cruisers but not to stand in the battle line against heavy guns. They’re intended to serve as heavy commerce raiders, or to hunt enemy commerce raiders like the German Zenker-class light battle cruisers. The Imperial Russian Navy of our alternate history includes six of this class, three assigned to the Arctic Fleet (all appearing in The Cruel Sea) and three under construction for the Pacific Fleet when war breaks out in August 1940.

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, 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.