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Romanian Danube Flotilla
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
February 2006

The broad Danube River became a means of projecting military power as far back as Roman times, when a flotilla of warships supported campaigns against the Dacians. Later, Turkish and Austrian warships fought for control of the Danube, usually above the deadly rapids of the Iron Gates. Below them, Turkish river gunboats controlled the waterway.

In 1899 the ship canal bypassing the Iron Gates was completed, and three years later the Sulina “cut off” canal entered service. The Danube now became an economic artery stretching from southern Germany to the Black sea – and an important outlet for the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Austria had constructed a small fleet of armored river monitors, and in 1907, Romania followed.


The Iron Gates in the 1870s.

Romania founded a Danube Flotilla after gaining formal independence in 1878. Sixteen small patrol boats and one larger patrol ship were built in the 1880s. In 1899, the kingdom developed an ambitious armaments program, including six coastal battleships and four destroyers, plus eight large armored monitors for the Danube Flotilla. Unlike the battleships, the monitor program actually took shape and four 680-ton armored gunboats were ordered from Stabilimento Technico Triest, which also built some of Austria’s river craft. Two were assembled at Galati, an inland port at the confluence of the Danube and the Prut, in 1907 and two more in 1908. Ion Bratianu, Alexandru Lahovary, Lascar Catargiu and Mihail Kogalniceanu were named for Romanian’s first four prime ministers.

For river craft, these were large and powerful warships, mounting three 120mm guns in turrets, plus two more 120mm howitzers, and four 47mm guns. Armor protection was very good for a river craft: three inches on the belt, turrets and deck, two inches on the conning tower, better than most tanks until the last years of World War II. They had a crew of 110, a speed of 12 knots (all they needed for river duty) and drew only 1.6 meters of water.


Bypassing the Iron Gates. Construction of the ship canal, early 1890s.

During the First World War, they held the lower Danube against the Austrian Danube Flotilla; after the Romanian armistice in 1918 they were not seized by the Central Powers. In 1937 all four were rebuilt, landing the 120mm howitzers and the 47mm guns, receiving modern 37mm anti-aircraft guns and 13.2mm machine guns in their place to improve anti-aircraft defense.

Three former Austro-Hungarian monitors were obtained in 1920, all of which had seen much harder service in the much more active Austrian flotilla (which even ventured into the Black Sea and along Ukraine’s rivers in 1918). Ardeal was the former Austrian Temes, mined and sunk in 1914 but raised in 1916. In her initial Romanian configuration she had three 120mm guns, but was also rebuilt in 1937-38 at Galati, landing her aft turret and receiving a fairly heavy anti-aircraft armament — six 37mm and four 20mm guns, further augmented during the war. Built at Linz in Austria, she was smaller than the original Romanian monitors (450 tons) and slightly slower, but drew less water.


Romanian monitor Kogalniceanu, 1941.

Basarabia was the former Austrian Inn, built at Ganz-Danubius in Budapest in 1915. She had not been rebuilt when the war began, and still had her Austrian armament of four 120mm guns in twin turrets. In 1942-43 she went into the Galati shipyard for a total rebuilding, receiving new turrets and a suite of 37mm and 20mm anti-aircraft guns. She was a 550-ton monitor, drawing less water than the original Romanian craft but making the same speed. The very similar Bucovina was the former Austrian Sava, built at Linz in 1915. Like Basarabia she was rebult in 1942-43, though not as radically.

In addition to the seven monitors, the Romanians operated about a dozen patrol boats, most of them fitted as either torpedo boats or river minesweepers. In 1941, Romania boasted the world’s most powerful riverine naval force. Officially part of the Navy, personnel rarely transferred between the Danube Division and the Maritime Division, each operating more or less as a distinctive branch of service.

The Danube Division did not live up to its potential during the war; the monitors skirmished with the Soviet Danube Flotilla in the war’s opening days but did not directly challenge their enemies, as the rapid advance on land assured that the Soviets would have to withdraw soon regardless of Romanian actions on the river. Once they did so, unlike the Austrians in 1918 the Romanians ignored German requests to send their monitors eastward to ply Ukraine’s rivers. They remained at home to defend Romanian territory, and two were lost to Soviet air attack in August 1944. The remainder were seized by the Soviets and operated in Hungary as part of the revived Soviet Danube Flotilla. Returned after the war, the five survivors plus the two salvaged from the river bottom served as training ships into the late 1950s, and all had been scrapped by 1961.

While the Romanian monitors theoretically would have fought their Soviet opposite numbers, their real purpose was to provide mobile, armored fire support along the river banks. Forward fire controllers would be put ashore to direct the gunnery by radio, making the monitors the most efficient artillery asset possessed by Romania in 1941 (army batteries, even the handful with modern French-built guns, still relied on vulnerable telephone lines). The flotilla also included a company of Marines, to be landed in platoon-sized battle groups to protect the fire control teams.

The Romanian monitors are valuable fire support assets to the Axis player in Red Steel, but we definitely undervalued them — the seven monitors are grouped into two river-bound artillery support units. Their strength is about right for a single monitor (which should be roughly equivalent to the destroyers found in Invasion of Italy). Therefore, we’ve included a free download of new monitor counters here.

All regular game rules apply: simply substitute the seven new units for the two in the current game. You’ll be glad you did.