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Imperial Russian Pre-Dreadnoughts
in Great War at Sea

By David Hughes
July 2015

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 in 1915.

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 shows off her four funnels and low freeboard.

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 mounts.

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 in 1924.

Not even the clam-diggers care. Peresviet at Port Arthur, 1905.

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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