in Great War at Sea
By David Hughes
Unlike the pre-dreadnought battleships of
the Royal and French Navies, most Imperial
Russian pre-dreadnoughts in Great
War at Sea actually saw battle. At
the start, I must admit my own bias in believing
that the Imperial Russian Navy was better
than usually described. Contemporary reports
on the Russo-Japanese War relied on British
and German observers, both with vested interests
in favour of the Japanese (the British advised
their navy, the Germans their army). The battleships
of the Pacific Squadron performed well, while
the disaster at Tsushima was greatly affected
by the situation. After all, how well would
the Great White Fleet or even the Royal Navy
have done fighting the Japanese, if reduced
to seven obsolete or newly commissioned capital
ships that had steamed from Philadelphia or
Scotland to Japan without any maintenance?
The ships are covered in three sections.
The first covers the earlier battleships built
for the Baltic Fleet and the Pacific Squadron.
The next will cover the remaining ships built
by Russia, America and France that were involved
in the Russo-Japanese War. Almost all of these
were found in the game Russo-Japanese War. The next article will deal with
the separate Black Sea Fleet, as well as the
ships built after 1905.
The oldest Russian ship granted the honour
of a Great War at Sea counter is Imperator
Alexander II, laid down at St. Petersburg
in 1885. She had a single forward turret mounting
two 12-inch guns. In this period guns’
rate of fire mattered as well as their size
and number, and the Russians were initially
notoriously poor in this regard. This ship
was only able to fire its main gun once every
five minutes. (In passing, Russian sailors
always called a ship a “he,” which
practise I am blandly ignoring.)
The following year a virtual sister-ship,
Imperator Nikolai I, was laid down,
also with a secondary armament of four 9-inch
and eight 6-inch guns. While Alexander
was in such poor condition that she had
to stay in the Baltic, Nikolai was
hastily refitted as a flagship and sent to
the Far East in 1905. She proved a tough if
obsolete ship, only slightly damaged despite
five hits at Tsushima. The Japanese correctly
classified her as a coast-defence battleship,
named her Iki and used her as a gunnery
training ship until sinking her as a target
A third variant, Gangut, was laid
down in 1888. You will not find her counter
in the series as she had a habit of hitting
rocks, first in 1896 which she survived, and
then another in 1897 which caused her to sink.
Imperator Alexander II stayed on the
navy list for three decades, being renamed
Saria Svobodi ("Dawn of Freedom")
by the Bolsheviks before being struck in 1925.
One can note with disbelief that she had been
broken up three years earlier!
Navarin had an unusual appearance,
detectable only when peering very carefully
at her counter. In silhouette she had two
funnels, but in reality there were four, as
each was paired side by side. She was laid
down in 1891, launched in 1896 (at this period
Russian yards were very slow builders) and
was the first Baltic pre-dreadnought to adopt
the universal feature of two-gun turrets fore
and aft. These contained a new design of 12-inch
gun, capable of all-round loading with an
increased rate of fire of one round in just
over two minutes. However, her designer admired
the flawed Victoria-class British battleships,
giving her a similarly low freeboard. The
result was the same: The Royal Navy ship was
sunk when rammed, and the Russian sank when
torpedoed and mined at Tsushima, in both cases
with heavy loss of life.
The next ship was Sissoi Veliki ("Saint
Sissoi the Great" - the 1788 Battle of Hogland took place on his saint's day). She can best be described as
a Navarin with a sensible freeboard
and newer-model main guns, although they still
fired at the same rate. A turret blew up soon
after completion in 1897 forcing the ship
to be repaired at Toulon. It seems that the
French were amazed at the lousy quality of
her construction, including gaps in the armour.
Like her predecessor she was torpedoed at
Tsushima, but unlike Navarin she was
able to stay afloat long enough for all of
her surviving crew to be rescued.
We now have a novelty for Russia, a group
of identical ships. The Poltava class,
all three of which entered service in 1899-1900,
were designed as sea-going warships for the
Pacific Squadron. Inevitably there were differences.
Petropavlosk had Krupp armour rather
than the nickel-steel of her sisters, while
Sevastopol was the slowest at 15.5
knots, at least one knot less than the others.
Armament was almost identical to that of a
British battleship of the period, with four
12-inch and twelve 6-inch guns. However, eight
of the 6-inch guns were in turrets, in theory
a considerable improvement over Royal Navy
design practise. In reality it was a failure,
as sloppy design meant that their rate of
fire was half that of the single barbette
Their fate varied. Petropavlosk sank
after hitting several mines, taking with her
the brilliant Admiral Stepan Opisovich Makarov,
while Sevastopol was doing well at
the battle of the Yellow Sea until the fleet
admiral was killed on her bridge. She was
then scuttled at Port Arthur. Poltava was
also scuttled, then raised and renamed Tango
by the Japanese, resold to Russia in 1916
(as Chesma, as her original name had
been allocated to a new ship), taken by the
Bolsheviks and finally broken up at Archangel
The Peresviet class was innovative
and controversial, initially thought of as
rather slow but very powerful armoured cruisers.
At 12,000 tons they were the largest and at
18 knots the fastest Russian capital ships.
Instead of the standard 12-inch they were
given a newly-designed 10-inch main battery,
in theory capable of both a greater rate of
fire and high velocity — in theory,
because weak construction meant that they
could only fire with a reduced charge.
An effective secondary armament was installed.
The six 6-inch guns on each side were sited
well above the waterline in the armoured casemate.
One other 6-inch gun was put in the very front
of the bow, confirming belief that these ships
were really intended to serve as cruisers.
The belt was 9 inches, either Krupp or Harvey,
depending on which was available.
More important, the ships' overweight condition
meant that the armor was too deeply submerged. Peresviet
(named after a warrior-monk fighting the
Tatars in 1380) was a reliable division flagship
until scuttled at Port Arthur. Raised and
renamed Sagami by the Japanese she
was resold back to the Russians (who now did
classify her as an armoured cruiser), finally
sinking in January 1916 after hitting mines
off Port Said.
Her sister Pobeda (meaning "Victory"),
was also scuttled and then repaired. Known
in the Japanese Navy as the Suwo, she
was eventually broken up in 1923.
Osliabia (another monk who fought
the Tatars) was doomed when three Japanese
heavy shells hit her forward, below the waterline
yet above her belt; not only was she normally
overweight, but also carrying extra coal and
water. She was the first ship to sink at Tsushima.
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