Russian Battleships, Part Two
Despite a disastrous beginning in battleship construction as shown in Part One, the Imperial Russian Navy plunged ahead with the help of copious French money and dubious French expertise. The ships laid down in the 1890’s would form the core of the fleet that met the Japanese in 1904 and 1905, and are shown in our Great War at Sea: Russo-Japanese War. Let’s continue our look at them.
The First Class
The three ships of the Petropavlovsk class showed considerable French influence as completed. Their paper existence began as enlarged versions of the disastrous original Sissoi Veliki design, barbette ships with four 12-inch guns. French influence changed that into an almost passable battleship design, but apparently not until they had already been laid down as their lower hull lacked the pronounced tumblehome (an inward curve of the hull) of French battleships; only the upper hull curved inward.
They carried the same French-pattern main guns and turrets as Sissoi Veliki, with their secondary armament also mostly in turrets with others in a casemate below them, similar to the French turret battleship Brennus. Brennus, herself a poorly-designed ship, did not make the best model for the new Russian battleships but they did come out as better fighting ships than Sissoi Veliki. They were considerably slower than planned thanks to a poor hull form. Sevastopol, equipped with Russian-made engines, was even slower than her sisters which each received a British-made power plant. On the plus side, they were known as good seaboats.
The Petropavlovsk class had a notably deficient armor scheme that left either end of the ship poorly protected. The armor itself was quite good. Russian mills could not yet produce the high-quality armored plate the architects wanted for these ships, and so each ship carried armor from a different foreign supplier: Petropavlovsk had American-made nickel steel, Sevastopol had Harvey hardened armor from another American mill and Poltava had German-made Krupp armor.
All three ships joined the Pacific Squadron upon completion. All were present during the Japanese attack on Port Arthur that began the war. Petropavlovsk was lost to mines along with fleet commander Admiral Stepan Makarov during an abortive fleet sortie. Her surviving sisters fought at the Battle of the Yellow Sea, and were afterwards trapped in Port Arthur with the rest of the fleet. Sevastopol was damaged by a torpedo and later scuttled in deep water off Port Arthur, while Poltava was sunk in Port Arthur’s harbor by Japanese siege guns and later raised and commissioned by the Japanese before being sold back to the Russians in 1916.
The next class of battleship showed much stronger French influence, and also followed an international trend toward lighter armament and higher speed, a ship that could fill the role of both battleship and armored cruiser. In the 1890’s and first few years of the new century this seemed like an eminently achievable compromise, but like most compromises, it actually satisfied neither need.
The Peresviet class showed French influence from the start, with the typical severe tumblehome from the waterline on up and French-style turrets. The main armament of four 10-inch guns would supposedly make up for its lighter weight per shell with a heavier volume of fire. In practice, the poorly-made guns had to be fired with a reduced charge and could not meet their promised rate of fire. They did have a strong and far more reliable secondary armament – 11 French-made Canet 6-inch guns.
Armor consisted of a nine-inch belt of hardened armor, American-made Harvey steel for Peresviet and Pobieda and German-made Krupp for Osliaba. But all three ships came in so overweight that most of the belt was useless, submerged beneath their waterline. Despite that overload they made good speed, all of them clocking over 18 knots (reasonably fast for a capital ship of the mid-1890’s; few battleships of the time made more than 16 knots).
All were slated for the Pacific Squadron and set out for Port Arthur upon commissioning; Peresviet and Pobieda arrived in 1901 and 1903. Both fought at the Battle of the Yellow Sea, where Peresviet was badly damaged. When the Japanese brought their siege guns within range in December 1904 both were sunk in harbor, and later raised and refitted by the Japanese. Peresviet was sold back to the Russians in 1916.
Osliaba, the third ship, was on her way to Port Arthur when war broke out; she turned back and went out with the ill-fated Second Pacific Squadron instead. At Tsushima that submerged belt proved fatal; numerous heavy shell hits at the waterline caused extensive flooding and she sank very early in the battle.
Realizing that their own shipyards had produced a series of poorly-built battleships, the Imperial Russian Navy turned to foreign yards for their next pair of ships. While some sources claim that Russian shipyards were at their capacity, forcing the foreign orders, this is simply not true: Osliaba had been ordered from New Admiralty purely to keep that yard busy. Russian shipyards could have easily turned out even more lousy battleships; the Navy’s leaders hoped to spark at least a glimmer of competence by introducing outside competition.
Henry Cramp’s Philadelphia shipyard won the contract for the new battleship Retvizan. Cramp offered a modified version of the American battleship Iowa, which the Russians rejected, insisting on an improved Peresviet. Cramp countered with a design based on the new American battleship Maine, about to be laid down at his shipyard. The Russians finally agreed, but insisted on armament matching their other battleships: Russian-made heavy guns in French-model turrets, and French-made secondary weapons. Having contracted a battleship from an American shipyard, the Russians then specified that she carry German-produced Krupp armor rather than American-made steel.
Retvizan barely made her designed speed, and required some additional work before the Russians accepted her. They assigned her to the Pacific Squadron, and she arrived at Port Arthur in May 1903. Despite her flaws, Retvizan was a much better ship than previous Russian battleships. She was torpedoed during the initial Japanese attack on the base in February 1904, but had been repaired in time to fight at the Battle of the Yellow Sea. Like the other surviving battleships, Retvizan was sunk by Japanese siege guns in Port Arthur’s harbor. The Japanese raised and repaired her, and she saw very active service under the Rising Sun.
While placing the order for Retvizan in the United States, the Russians also laid down a battleship in France. Tsessarevitch’s design drew heavily from that of the French Charlemagne class battleships, with a heavier secondary armament placed in turrets rather than the casemates of her French model. Like Retvizan she had Russian-made main guns and German-made armor, but the Krupp plate was cast to follow the French cellular armored scheme (the belt was attached to armored decks at its top and bottom, and backed by small armored coal bunkers).
Tsessarevitch, the fastest of the Russian battleships, also headed to the Far East immediately upon commissioning. She arrived at Port Arthur two months before the Japanese attack, and was torpedoed then but repaired in time to serve as Russian flagship at the Battle of the Yellow Sea. Japanese shells killed her admiral and damaged the ship’s steering gear. Unable to follow the rest of the fleet back to Port Arthur, she headed for the German colony of Tsingtao where she was interned for the rest of the war. She served in the First World War, fighting in the Battle of Moon Sound, and was scrapped by the Bolsheviks afterwards.
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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.