The Cruel Sea:
Russian Battleships, Part Two

During the 1930’s, the Soviet Union turned to Italian shipyards for assistance in learning the most modern techniques of heavy warship design. Revolution, Civil War and a generally paranoid outlook had isolated Soviet naval architects from current practice.

In our Second Great War alternative history arc, there is no Soviet Union, but Imperial Russia has undergone a fair amount of social and economic disruption. Russian ship design has fallen behind that of the West, and Imperial Russia’s first new class of battleships is based on a leftover Great War-era design.

Seeking to vault into the first rank of naval powers, the Russians (like their Soviet counterparts in the world we know) turn to Italy for new warship designs. The new Italian battleship Littorio, considered the cutting edge of battleship design, became the basis for a new class of Russian fast battleships.

Russian shipyards laid down the first ships in 1930, even before the Royal Italian Navy began construction of its own units, and would eventually lay down six ships to this design. The Russians made some alterations to the Littorio design, accepting slightly less speed in exchange for greater range, but outwardly the Italian and Russian ships looked very similar.

Nominally displacing 35,000 tons, the ships weighed in at about 41,000; the Russians kept the Italian open secret and also claimed a displacement of 35,000 tons. The new Russian battleships carried nine 15-inch (380mm) guns, a dozen six-inch (152mm) secondary guns and an array of lighter anti-aircraft weapons, and could make just under 30 knots. They operate six helicopters off their fantail, with a small hangar deck below it.

Note: The Soviet Union purchased the plans for Littorio and planned their own version, much as described above although we’ve moved the initial date of the design’s completion forward by a couple of years. The Soviets may not have realized, and certainly did not care, that the ships would have displaced much more than advertised. Initial Italian plans for the class actually called for them to operate six autogyros off the fantail. Before construction began this was altered to a conventional arrangement of a catapult for seaplanes which would remain stowed on the deck.

The Royal Italian Navy accepted the 15-inch main caliber for the Littorio class, even though international naval limitations treaties allowed one of 16-inch. The Ansaldo combine’s OTO firm, which made Italy’s heavy guns, apparently could not produce a 16-inch gun but did provide an exceptionally fine 15-inch weapon. The Model 1934 had greater striking power than weapons of the same caliber, very good accuracy and greater range than any other battleship gun; on the negative side, it had a barrel life less than half that of most other heavy guns, requiring more frequent re-linings and replacements. The Italians happily accepted the weapon, but Russia’s Tsar Alexei bridled at the thought of building new battleships with smaller main guns than those of other nations’ battleships.

Russia’s Obukhov Works had built the 16-inch Pattern 1914 guns for the huge Kostenko battleship design laid down in the 1920’s, and worked with designers from the OTO firm to enlarge their 15-inch gun to meet the Tsar’s demands. The resulting B-37 model 16-inch (406mm) matched the range and accuracy of the Model 1934, but shared its problems of short service life and need for very finely-made ammunition to meet its performance parameters.

To mount the new gun, the Russians ordered six more ships to a modified Littorio design, carrying eight rather than nine main guns. The hull was slightly enlarged to accommodate the larger turrets, and the super-firing “B” turret reduced to two guns rather than three to limit the weight increase of the heavier armament. The re-design added little to the ship’s fighting power at considerably more cost, but placated the Tsar, and therefore had to be considered a success.

Notes: Josef Stalin had similar complaints about the Littorio design, and the Bolshevik Plant (as the Obukhov works were re-named under the Soviet regime) designed the B-37 gun to meet his demands. The improved Littorio went through numerous re-designs and improvements until the final version, the huge battleship Sovietsky Soyuz, bore only a superficial resemblance to her Italian cousin. The Dvenadsat Apostolov class in our Second Great War alternative history is based on one of the earlier proposals.

Still displeased that other nations had more powerful battleships, with nine or ten 16-inch guns rather than the mere eight of the new Russian ships, the Tsar demanded larger and more powerful ships. A new class carrying nine big guns would be laid down in the late 1930’s, but does not appear in The Cruel Sea.

The Cruel Sea has just one example of each fast battleship, the near-sister of Littorio and the modified version with eight 16-inch guns.

Coast Defense Ships

Ansaldo also provided the Imperial Russian Navy with its widely-exported design for a large coast-defense ship armed with six 11-inch (280mm) guns, originally drafted for Sweden. They would have weighed in at close to 20,000 tons, with good protection and enough range to operate as actual high seas warships. While no match for a true battleship, such a vessel would have been a very useful convoy escort capable of driving off enemy cruisers.

Expanding on the escort mission, the Russian version of these ships has lost her after-most main gun turret and had a large helicopter deck and hangar fitted instead. They retain the speed and protection of the base design, and with four 11-inch guns can still drive off enemy cruisers.

Notes: The six-gun version of this ship appears in Sea of Iron, Tropic of Capricorn and The Habsburg Fleet. I’m not sure if I like the drawing of the helicopter version as much as I like the original; the flight deck seems a little wide.

Like other customers, the Russians have built these ships in some numbers as they are not classed as battleships and are relatively inexpensive in comparison. The Cruel Sea includes four examples, usually found close to Russia’s Arctic bases rather than on the deep raiding missions undertaken by other warships of the Tsar’s Northern Fleet.

And those are the rest of the Tsarist battleships of The Cruel Sea. Next time we’ll look at cruisers.

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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.