Finland's Armored Ships
By Mike Bennighof,
Second World War at Sea: Sea of Iron is a game stuffed with unusual stuff, and two of the oddest ships are the two Finnish coastal battleships.
The 1927 Navy Act funded two ships with heavy
guns. When dealing with parliament, the navy
usually referred to them as “armored
gunboats.” Among themselves, Finnish
naval officers called them armored coast defense
ships (Panssarilaiva). And when boasting in
foreign publications, they called them “coastal
Several foreign yards bid for the contract,
along with two Finnish firms — Crichton-Vulcan
of Turku, who had already landed the contract
to build Finland’s first submarine,
and Kone ja Silta. Other entries included
Italy’s Stabilimento Technico Triestino
(which had built Austria-Hungary’s battleships),
Sweden’s Lindholmen of Göteborg,
plus Danish and German yards. None of the
plans presented met Finnish desires for heavy
gun armament on a light displacement —
the naval constructors claimed four guns of
10-inch bore or greater would require a ship
close to twice the size of the Finnish 4,000-ton
limit. Finally Ingenieurskantoor voor Scheepsbouw
(I.v.S), the Dutch front for Germany’s
Krupp and AG Vulcan who had presented the
plans for Finland’s submarines, handed
in a design that the Finns liked.
The IvS design put four 10-inch (254mm)
guns in double turrets on a very small ship
— 93 meters (305 feet) long, displacing
3,900 tons. By comparison, the American Farragut-class
destroyers launched in 1934 were 334 feet
long and the Royal Navy’s A-class destroyers
of 1929, 312 feet long. The Dutch De Zeven
Provencien, a coast defense ship launched
in 1909, was only 333 feet long, but displaced
6,530 tons and carried half the heavy guns
(two 11-inch guns, in single turrets).
The designers didn’t stop with the Bofors-made heavy
guns, either: The ships also would carry eight
105mm secondary guns, four 40mm and two 20mm
anti-aircraft guns. The 105mm guns, dual-purpose
weapons also made by Bofors, at first were
not carried in order to save money and old
Imperial Russian Obukov 102mm pieces were
issued instead. These could not be trained
against aircraft and neither ship carried
its full set of eight at any time. The modern
guns finally arrived in 1934 but did not receive
anti-aircraft directors until 1939.
To make their displacement limit, the IvS
designers compromised just about every other
aspect of the design. The ships had very light
armor — a small belt two inches thick,
one inch of deck armor, and four inches on
the main turrets. Speed was abysmally slow:
15 knots, which they rarely made, from four
875-horsepower diesel engines (Sweden’s
7,100-ton Gustaf V, completed in 1922,
generated 24,000 horsepower and could make
22 knots). The box-shaped hulls and comparatively
high armored command masts assured that the
ships rolled terribly in only a mild sea,
making gunnery accuracy very poor. The ships’
short length also meant that their rangefinders
were relatively close together, making it
difficult to triangulate the fall of shot.
They did each sport an icebreaker bow, which
would end up being their most useful feature.
Crichton-Vulcan built the two ships, laying
down Väinämöinen in
1930 and Ilmarinen in 1931. They commissed
in 1932 and 1934, respectively. The Navy attempted
to build a third ship of the class, to be
named Lemminkainen, in 1936 but lost
a political fight to the Army and had to do
without her. All three ships took their names
from heroes of the Kalavela, Finland’s
Ilmarinen’s main guns ready
for inspection at Bofors.
The two ships formed the Armored Ship Division,
and mobilized their crews in September 1939
for neutrality patrols in Finnish waters.
Thus they were prepared for the Winter War
when the Soviet Union attacked Finland in
November. They cruised the Åland Islands
in the war’s first weeks, attempting
to intercept the Soviet cruiser Kirov
and a pair of destroyers on 1 December. Probably
fortunately for the Finns, their ships’
very slow speed kept them from finding the
enemy. When the Gulf of Finland iced over
in January they went to Turku to serve as
floating anti-aircraft batteries. Some sources
claim they were highly effective in this role,
but they seem to have gained a reputation
for wasting enormous amounts of ammunition.
Some Finnish officers wanted to commit the
two ships to the final battles of the Winter
War in and around Viipuri Bay in a sort of
final ride to death and glory, but the high
command vetoed the idea and the ships finished
the conflict at anchor.
During the Continuation War (the Finnish
label for their participation in the German
attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941),
the Armored Ship Division covered the re-occupation
of the demilitarized Åland Islands and
answered a false alarm at the end of June,
attempting to intercept a Soviet destroyer
force near Bengtskär.
Note the lack of secondary armament.
The two ships bombarded the Soviet naval base
at Hanko in far western Finland five times
(two of them test firings), but their only
sustained shelling consisted of 34 shots from
each ship. These missions were the only times
they fired their main batteries in anger.
In late September, the German battleship
Tirpitz, armored cruiser Admiral
Scheer, two light cruisers and eight destroyers
took their place in the Åland Islands
while the Finnish Armored Ship Division aided
the German invasion of Saaremaa Island off
the Estonian coastline. This mission led to
the worst disaster to befall the Finnish Navy
when Ilmarinen, the Finnish flagship,
struck two Soviet M1926 mines laid by the
escort Sneg in early August. It was
Friday the 13th, and the Finns were simulating
an invasion convoy to deceive the Soviets
(who never noticed them).
The mines had become caught in Ilmarinen’s
starboard paravane. One of them exploded directly
under the bulkhead between her engine and
propellor rooms, causing flooding of six compartments.
Her back broken, Ilmarinen began to
list heavily within 10 seconds and rolled
over within minutes. Design flaws became fatal:
Not only did bulkheads fail repeatedly, but
Ilmarinen’s crew now found that
the scuttles in her armored hull were too
small for a man to crawl through. Two-thirds
of her enlisted men, 271 sailors, died in
the ship or in the water. But of particular
concern to the Finnish command was that over
half of her officers survived, but only 3
of 14 chief petty officers, leading to questions
as to just how hard the Finnish officers tried
to save their men. Only four of Ilmarinen’s
90 gunners lived and 14 of her 80-strong black
One of the pair fires at Hanko.
The Finnish Navy did its best to cover up
the loss, scattering the 132 survivors among
the small gunboats of the flotilla operating
on Lake Onega in far eastern Karelia, well
out of contact with Finnish civilians.
The Finns kept their surviving “battleship”
out of harm’s way for the rest of the
war, only committing her to possible action
in September 1944 when they broke with Nazi
Germany. The armored cruiser Lützow
and four destroyers prepared to escort troop
convoys to the Åland Islands, and Väinämöinen
with six patrol boats, six motor minesweepers
and the submarine flotilla were ordered to
stop them. Fortunately for the Finns, the
Germans cancelled the operation.
Väinämöinen saw no
action for the rest of the war, and was laid
up before hostilities formally ended. In 1947
the Finns offered to include her in their
reparations to the Soviet Union, in exchange
for a reduction of 265 million Finnmarks worth
of goods owed as reparations (the vaue of
cash being flexible, Soviet negotiators had
insisted on payment in kind). She became the
Soviet Vyborg, and between 1947 and
1949 undertook a number of training cruises.
camouflage, late war.
In 1952, an overhaul at Kronstadt found
a number of defects with her rivted construction,
and engineers there recommended a major rebuilding.
This took place at Talinn in Estonia from
1953 to 1957, with her engines and electronic
equipment being completely replaced. She conducted
more training exercises in 1957 and 1958,
then went into the reserve fleet. When Soviet
attempts to sell her back to Finland failed,
she was stricken in 1965 and scrapped the
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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.