By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
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.
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.
The Iron Gates in the 1870s.
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.
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
Bypassing the Iron Gates. Construction
of the ship canal, early 1890s.
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.
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.
Romanian monitor Kogalniceanu, 1941.
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
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.