The Cruel Sea:
Russian Light Cruisers

Like many fleets during the Dreadnought Age, the Imperial Russian Navy initially neglected to build cruisers in favor of the more prestigious new-style battleships. That left Russian naval forces in the Baltic with an unbalanced fleet, as the older armored cruisers lacked the speed to adequately scout for and screen the new battle fleet.

The Russians responded with a class of four large light cruisers for the Baltic Fleet, carrying a dozen 152mm guns in four triple turrets, miniature versions of the new Izmail class battle cruisers. Cost overruns in other projects caused the Svetlana class cruisers to be reduced in size and armament, though they would have been powerful light cruisers had they been completed in time to see war service. Four near-sisters were laid down for the Black Sea Fleet to the smaller, cost-effective design.

Other cruiser designs would be studied, but no others were selected, much less laid down, before the collapse of the Russian Empire in 1917. But that’s not the case in our Second Great War alternative-history setting, where Woodrow Wilson negotiated and to the Great War in late 1916. The Russian Empire survived, along with its fleet, and we included the Russian Arctic Fleet in our The Cruel Sea expansion set.

Among the proposals for new Russian cruisers, in 1913 the Black Sea Fleet’s design bureau drafted a 23,000-ton cruiser armed with a dozen 180mm (7.1-inch) guns in four triple turrets and 84 hull-mounted torpedo tubes. The torpedo tubes took up enormous internal volume (hence the ship’s great size) and given their position deep in the hull would not have been very accurate weapons. On the other hand, even 42 inaccurate shots loosed in a single torpedo broadside would stand an excellent chance of hitting and sinking their target, whatever its size and protection.

The torpedo room of HMS Rodney.

Though impressive on paper, the ships would not have been very formidable in combat: experience showed that torpedoes could not be launched from broadside hull mounts at any speed, as they tended to “hang” when the force of passing water struck them as they left the tube. The U.S. Navy experimented with special protective barriers that would be extended before the torpedo was launched to protect it but these proved impractical. Had such a ship been built, it would have been an excellent candidate for conversion to an aircraft carrier thanks to its great length (203 meters) and utter uselessness as a modern surface combatant.

The Rynda class seen in The Cruel Sea is a scaled-down version of the dreadnought-sized Black Sea torpedo cruiser. Like other Russian cruiser designs of the immediate post-war era, she’s oversized given her capabilities, displacing 12,000 tons but not carrying a great deal of armor protection. She doesn’t carry the massive battery of hull-mounted torpedoes, instead taking the guise of a conventional gun-armed cruiser.

In place of the 180mm guns, Rynda carries a dozen 152mm (6-inch) weapons, licensed Russian-made versions of the British Mark XI six-inch gun. In deference to her origin she does carry a large torpedo armament, a dozen deck-mounted tubes but in an inefficient layout with six of them on either side of the ship. Her anti-aircraft armament is weak as well, with only light guns to defend the ship. In the world of Wilson’s Peace this isn’t as deadly an oversight as it would have been in our own reality, as fixed-wing aircraft technology is not well developed.

Rynda could make 30 knots, which had been a very good speed when the first torpedo cruiser drafts were prepared in 1913 but merely adequate at best when she was commissioned a decade later. Her turret layout precluded aircraft arrangements, and Rynda carried no helicopter.

Rynda and her sisters went to the Arctic in 1930 as part of the Russian response to German development of base facilities in Spitzbergen. Modernization took place in the mid-1930’s, but did not significantly improve her capabilities. Design studies recommended removing her two aft turrets and replacing them with a large helicopter deck, taking advantage of her capacious hull to fit a large hangar underneath. Tsar Alexei’s Admiralty balked at the cost estimates, and the ships were retained in their original configuration. All four ships survived the first phase of the Second Great War at sea and in the spring of 1941 they went to the new Imperial shipyard in Sudostroy near Arkhangelsk for reconstruction as helicopter cruisers.

All four ships of the class appear in The Cruel Sea.

By the mid-1930’s the Russian Admiralty sought a more modern light cruiser design, in keeping with the smaller, faster ships under construction for foreign fleets. Italian firms had provided excellent designs for heavy cruisers and destroyer leaders, and Ansaldo once again delivered with the draft of a 7,000-ton light cruiser carrying six 152mm guns, eight torpedo tubes and a helicopter pad with hangar, and capable of 35 knots.

Sviatoi Ilya fires her forward guns.

The Saint class, as they are known to the Russians, aren’t without drawbacks. Like other Italian-designed ships, they have a massive power plant that takes up much of their internal space and precludes any armor other than lightweight splinter protection around the command spaces and on the gunhouses. Their anti-aircraft protection is limited to light guns for close-range defense; the Russians had hoped to fit them with a dual-purpose main armament but the gunhouses move much too slowly to track fast-moving aerial targets.

The main armament consists of six 152mm/57 Model 1938 rifles in three twin mounts, two forward and one aft. This is a modern weapon, with good range and accuracy; in our own reality it would have been the secondary armament of the Sovetsky Soyuz-class battleships and did serve as the primary armament of the Chapayev-class light cruisers.

With their high speed, the Saints are intended to work with destroyers and provide heavier guns than the destroyer leaders sport. The Imperial Navy laid down its maximum allowed four hulls in every fiscal year from 1937 through 1940; when war breaks out in August 1940 eight of the class are ready for action, with four more fitting out and four on the slipways. Another eight would be laid down in the fall of 1940 as part of the war emergency construction program, since treaty limitations no longer applied.

Four of the cruisers appear in The Cruel Sea, and by the end of that story (March 1941, after eight months of combat) all four of them are still around, though one is under repair at Sudostroy.

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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.