The Cruel Sea:
Russian Heavy Cruisers, Part Two

As a writer/designer of games, I’ve always admired one of the key aspects of the role-playing side of our little industry. The most successful games, in both commercial and creative terms, have a richly-developed story: peoples, animals, social mores, economics. In the best RPG’s, it’s all in there.

That’s the sort of deep background I want to create for our Second Great War alternative-history story arc, and that starts with the fleets that wage this massive naval war, seen in Second Great War at Sea: The Cruel Sea. They’re not drawn wholly out of fantasy, but have a firm grounding in their real-world analogs in terms of ship design, naval strategy and fleet organization.

Imperial Russia collapsed in 1917, but in our story the empire continues to fight in a new war under the aggressive leadership of Tsar Alexei. The Imperial Russian Navy’s ships follow the design principles of the Tsar’s naval constructors and those of the Soviet regime (often the same men). That includes a fruitful relationship with Italian design firms, in particular the Ansaldo combine.

As we saw in our last installment, the initial Russian heavy cruiser classes proved disappointing, and the Imperial Navy turned to its Italian partners for assistance in preparing a modern, effective heavy cruisers. In our own actual history, an Italian shipyard built the Soviet destroyer leader Tashkent and designed the Kirov-class cruisers; the Soviets also purchased designs for battleships and cruisers but did not build them, opting for larger Soviet-drafted proposals instead.

Inspiration: The Italian heavy cruiser Zara.

In our story, the Russians face naval challenges from both Germany and Japan and wished to increase the speeds achieved with their first attempts at a heavy cruiser, with better protection and a more rational layout for the ship’s main armament. The ship would also have to meet the naval limitations treaty limit of 10,000 tons’ displacement. The Italians responded with a modified version of the Pola-class heavy cruiser with seven rather than eight 203mm (8-inch) guns in an unusual layout with two twin turrets forward and one triple turret aft.

Note: This ship is based on an actual Ansaldo design proposal.

Pleased with the drafts, the Russians ordered sixteen units, all laid down in Russian yards in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s. Four cruisers were initially assigned to each of the Navy’s four fleets; like other types, most of the Arctic and Pacific Fleet ships were built in Baltic shipyards.

The Posadnik class came in well below the design displacement of 10,000 tons, thanks to lighter protection than that of Pola and the weight saved by replacing two twin turrets with one triple mount. Like all Italian-designed cruisers, she had an enormous power plant, driving her at 34 knots. And meeting another design requirement, Posadnik had enough room on her fantail for a helicopter pad with a small hangar below it; initially they operated Cierva autogyros, converting to helicopters during their refits in the late 1930’s.

The main armament consisted of Model 1927 203mm/53 (8-inch) guns, initially provided by Ansaldo with replacement barrels manufactured under license by the Obukhov Works. This was an excellent weapon, possibly the best 8-inch gun of the (actual) World War Two era, with range exceeding most battleship guns, fine accuracy, a relatively large bursting charge and good penetration. It had a high rate of fire, as it could be loaded at any angle.

It’s not clear that Ansaldo offered the Model 1927 to the Soviets with their designs; the Soviet Union only built one cruiser with 203mm guns: the formerly German cruiser Petropavlovsk, sold before completion, would have retained her German-made main guns. In our history the guns come with the design; Mussolini’s Italy sold weaponry to anyone willing to pay (and on easy credit terms) and in our history Fascist Italy and Imperial Russia are allies.

The Ansaldo 203mm/53 Model 1927, in twin mount.

The Russians made some improvements, giving each gun its own cradle so they could be mounted far enough apart to keep their shells from interfering with one another in flight (causing dispersion at longer ranges), a problem the Italian cruisers suffered. They also corrected the gun’s most glaring flaw, the lack of flashless ammunition allowing the weapons to be used at night. In our own reality, the Royal Italian Navy failed to introduce this feature until 1941, too late to save the four heavy cruisers sunk at the Battle of Cape Matapan.

Pleased with their new cruiser, the Russian admirals wanted a bigger one with more of the excellent Ansaldo guns. The Posadnik class was badly outclassed by the big German and Japanese heavy cruisers, the most likely opponents for the Russian cruiser force in any future war. The naval treaty now allowed a maximum displacement of 12,000 tons, and the new design would slightly exceed that. Once again, the Italian firm presented the initial drafts with the Russians make some changes before construction.

The Voyevoda class resembled an enlarged Zara, with a twin turret super-firing over a triple turret both forward and aft, giving her 10 Model 1927 guns a much superior arrangement to the Russian-designed Derpt class. That arrangement required a wider hull to accommodate the triple turret, which in turn led to a longer hull to maintain its “fineness,” or length-to-beam ratio. While the larger hull allowed a large power plant that easily maintained the previous ship’s top speed of 34 knots, that also meant a reduction in armor protection to save weight.

Note: This ship is also based on an actual Ansaldo design proposal.

Secondary armament of both classes consisted of six Russian-made 130mm dual-purpose guns in single mounts. Like her smaller predecessor Voyevoda had a helicopter pad and hangar on her fantail. Unlike Italian cruisers, the Russian ships carried torpedo tubes, with a deck-mounted pair on either side.

The first two ships were laid down in 1935 in Ansaldo’s yard at Livorno, with two sisters following a few months later at St. Petersburg. By 1940 the Imperial Russian Navy had eight of the cruisers in service, with four more fitting out and another quartet still on the slipways. Two of the class appear in The Cruel Sea, and two more in Swedish Steel.

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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.