Finland’s Armored Ships
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
February 2019

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 battleships.”

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.

Launching Väinämöinen.
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.

Ilmarinen’s main guns ready for inspection at Bofors.
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 national myth.

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.

Väinämöinen pre-war. Note the lack of secondary armament.
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.

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 gang.

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 under camouflage, late war.
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.

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 next year.

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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.