The Cruel Sea:
Russian Heavy Cruisers, Part One

Like many fleets of the Dreadnought Age, the Imperial Russian Navy neglected to build cruisers in the years before the Great War, putting its energies (and funding) into dreadnought battleships and battle cruisers. The Svetlana class began as very large cruisers, with their size reduced to divert funding to the dreadnought projects, and still were not completed before the end of the Great War.

On our Second Great War alternative history the Russian Empire survived the war to fight again in 1940, with a fleet that continued to develop after some social and economic unrest in the early 1920’s (as opposed to the outright civil war that flared in our own reality). The Tsar’s Arctic Fleet appears in Second Great War at Sea: The Cruel Sea, and today we’ll look at some of its heavy cruisers.

While the Russian Empire did not need to patrol overseas colonies, it did have to equip four separate fleets that had no means to reinforce one another. The Russians laid down as many cruisers as the Vienna naval limitations treaty allowed (this history’s somewhat different analog to the Washington agreement of our own history), and like the Germans and Austrians they cheated on the size and armament restrictions.

Tsarist naval constructors were greatly enamored of what came to be known as the Cuniberti layout: four heavy gun turrets, all sited amidships on the main deck level, spread more-or-less evenly along the length of the ship. Italian naval architect Vittorio Cuniberti designed the dreadnought Dante Alighieri to that scheme, and the Ansaldo combine submitted designs using that layout when the Russians opened a competition for their new class of dreadnoughts. The Italian firm did not win, but their layout became the (uncompensated) basis for the Gangut class dreadnoughts.

Having adopted the unusual profile for their first dreadnoughts, the Russians intended to use it for other major warships to help confuse their enemies. The original design for the Svetlana -class cruisers followed the Cuniberti arrangement, with twelve 152mm (6-inch) guns in four triple turrets, while the Izmail-class battle cruisers carried a dozen 355mm (14-inch) guns in four triple turrets in the same arrangement.

Proposed enlarged versions of the Svetlana design featured 203mm (8-inch) and 254mm (10-inch) guns in twin turrets, and that latter proposal is the basis of the heavy cruiser we’ve labelled the Bogatyr class in The Cruel Sea.

The Russians claimed the same treaty exemption that the British and Germans used to keep their own fast armored cruisers built just after the Great War’s end, though only the first unit of the class had been laid down when the treaty took effect. Bogatyr is smaller than the foreign fast armored cruisers, displacing 14,000 tons (though declared to be just 10,000 tons).

She’s built around her main armament of eight 254mm (10-inch) 50-caliber Pattern 1908 guns, the same weapon that armed the British-built armored cruiser Rurik. Rurik’s guns were supplied by Vickers, but the British builders provided no extra barrels. The Russian Obukhov Works manufactured four replacement barrels and had two more on order when the Tsarist regime collapsed in 1917.

Bow turret of the armored cruiser Rurik.

In our alternative history, Obukhov continues to produce the gun and it’s the one mounted in the new class of cruiser. It was out-ranged by the German 210mm SK L/45 that armed the German fast armored cruisers, but fired a shell more than twice as heavy. Secondary armament, replaced during modernization in the late 1930’s, consisted of eight 130mm/55 (5.1-inch) guns in four twin dual-purpose mounts; the Soviet Navy designed such a mounting but had not deployed it when the Great Patriotic War broke out in 1941. The Cuniberti layout leaves little space for secondary guns on the main deck, since so much of its area falls under the big gun’s arcs of fire. In keeping with both Russian and Soviet practice, the big cruisers also included a nominal torpedo armament with four tubes.

The new Bogatyr was armored similarly to Rurik, thick enough to fend off the shells of enemy cruisers but not those of enemy battleships. Bogatyr was not intended to face heavier ships, but to hold superiority over enemy cruisers. In practice, the heavy guns would tempt Russian admirals to place the big cruisers in their battle line, with disastrous results. She was a fast ship, making 30 knots, enough to escape from enemy battleships but not enough to run down enemy cruisers. The Cuniberti layout also prevented fitting aircraft facilities, and Bogatyr carried none.

Claiming construction to have begun before ratification of the Vienna treaty, the Russians laid down eight cruisers of the Bogatry class, spread over all four fleets. Two of them appear in The Cruel Sea and two more in Swedish Steel.

The first true heavy cruisers built for the Imperial Russian Navy, the Derpt class, drew heavily on the Bogatyr design for their hull and machinery, but carried a lighter armament in a somewhat more modern arrangement. That gave them a displacement of 12,000 tons, still over the limit, and a main armament of ten 203mm (8-inch) guns in five twin turrets: two mounted forward and two aft, both in super-firing pairs, and the fifth in an outdated amidships position.

The lighter displacement, combined with slightly less armor and improved turbines, gave the big cruisers a top speed of 33 knots. They had a heavy torpedo armament with eight tubes in two banks of four each, but like other early Russian cruisers they carried no aircraft. Like the Bogatyr class, they were modernized in the late 1930’s and received a new secondary armament of eight 130mm guns in dual-purpose mounts.

Though Derpt was not a satisfactory design, she carried a heavier armament than the new British and German heavy cruisers and this gave the Russians a certain feeling of international prestige. They appeared the equal of the new Japanese Type A cruisers, and this also encouraged the Russians to lay down a total of twelve cruisers of the class. Two of them are included in The Cruel Sea and two more in Swedish Steel.

By the time the last of the Derpt class had been launched, the design’s weaknesses had become apparent to the Russian admirals. The lack of aircraft-handling facilities limited the missions to which they could be assigned, and the poor arrangement of their armament rankled as well – the lone amidships turret could not group its fire with either the forward or aft turrets, limiting its effectiveness. The naval architects suggested removing the less-effective turret and adding a helicopter hangar in its place when the ships entered dockyards for major overhauls, but Tsar Alexei intervened to forbid a reduction in their paper firepower.

For the next Russian heavy cruiser, the Admiralty bypassed its own designers and hired an Italian firm to prepare drafts of a modern cruiser. We’ll look at that ship, and its successor, in our next installment.

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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.