Retvizan to Slava
Part 2 of Imperial Russian Pre-Dreadnoughts
in Great War at Sea
By David Hughes
By 1898 the Russian Admiralty appreciated that its latest designs
were inferior to the new British-built battleships acquired
by the Japanese, while Russian shipyards were incapable of building
new ships in a hurry. The solution was to put out designs to
tender, allowing the initial ship to be built abroad and then
using the blueprints to build sister-ships in Russia. The two
foreign vessels were Retvizan (a version of the Swedish
Rattvisa, the name of a ship taken in 1790) built at
Philadelphia and Tsesarevitch ("Heir-Apparent"
– in the Royal Navy she might have been HMS Prince
of Wales) at La Seyne near Toulon.
They made a fascinating contrast, the former very similar in
design to the American Maine (the replacement ship
of 1899, not the one that blew up in Havana), with the customary
four 12-inch and twelve 6-inch guns, solidly built with a 9-inch
Krupp belt. Like Maine she had abominable boilers,
not even reaching her designed speed of 18 knots, while her
only other weakness was that eight of her secondary guns were
emplaced close to the waterline.
The last was not a problem with Tsesarevitch, built
with the characteristic French tumble-home. The justification
for this feature is that by narrowing the width (and therefore
weight) of the upper deck, it was possible to achieve greater
freeboard. This was achieved, with both main and secondary
weapons (the armament was identical to that of Retvizan)
in two-gun turrets on the main deck, a considerable improvement.
Her protection also differed, with a narrower belt extended
along the entire waterline and backed by armored decks. Unlike
Retvizan she had excellent boilers and was at 19
knots faster than any Japanese battleship. She served as the
flagship at the Battle of the Yellow Sea, heading for a neutral
port after her admiral was killed during the battle, yet absorbing
at least a dozen 12-inch hits without taking serious damage.
After the war she served in the Baltic, her final fight coming
in October 1917. Now renamed Grazhdanin (or "Citizen")
by the Bolsheviks, she traded shots with the German dreadnoughts
Kronprinz and König, a singularly unbalanced
event shown in scenario 34 of the game Jutland.
Her contemporary was not as fortunate. Retvizan, repaired
after being torpedoed in the opening surprise attack, also fought
at the Yellow Sea, but was sunk in harbor by Japanese siege guns.
The Japanese then repaired her. In the Japanese navy she was
christened Hizen and by a cruel stroke of fate used
her guns against Russians, when supporting the Japanese intervention
in the Russian Civil War.
The final pre-dreadnoughts considered in this article, the
five ships of the Borodino class, were originally
to be copies of Tsesarevitch, but the Russians made
several, usually unfortunate, changes. Notably as Russian
shipyards produced heavier components, the thickness of the
belt had to be reduced, with disastrous results, by over two
inches from its original thickness of 9.8 inches. Even so
when completed they weighed at least 500 tons more than their
designed 13,500 tons. In their only battle, conditions were
far, far worse. During the final stages of the journey to
Tsushima each ship was estimated to carry an additional 1,700
tons of coal, much of it stored relatively high up. In such
conditions one feature of the French system, the reduced stability
available when the vessel started to incline, became a serious
weakness. Add to this the tendency to list when making fast
turns (the result of another Russian "innovation,"
an increased ratio of length to beam), and it becomes clear
that under battle conditions the ships were disturbingly vulnerable.
Weapon quality continued to improve, although their 12-inch
rate of fire of one shot per minute was still marginally inferior
to that of the Japanese. Four units were lost at Tsushima.
Imperator Alexander III capsized, probably due to
the limited stability, while Borodino blew up when
a shell went through her belt into a magazine. The other two
ships did demonstrate the quality of the original French design.
The flagship, Kniaz Suvarov, was still afloat despite
innumerable hits when torpedoed at night by Japanese destroyers.
Only Orel ("Eagle") did not sink, eventually
surrendering after taking 56 hits by guns of 6-inch or higher
calibre. She was repaired and given the new name of Iwami
and, like the older Retvizan supported the Japanese
at Vladivostok in 1918 before being broken up in 1924.
Only Slava ("Glory") survived the war.
Completed too late to go east she stayed with the Baltic
Fleet, becoming its most active battleship in World War One.
Slava was finally scuttled after taking heavy damage
from the German dreadnought König in October
1917. During the early stages of this battle her guns had
consistently outranged the 12-inch weapons of the German ship
as, like many Russian pre-dreadnoughts, her turrets had been
modified to permit the guns to fire at much higher elevations.
One last group fought at Tsushima, defined in desperation
as battleships by the Russian Admiralty. These were the three
coast-defense vessels of the Admiral Ushakov class.
Relatively modern (they were laid down in 1892 to match the
new Swedish coast-defense battleships) they should not have
been taken on a long ocean voyage, and their displacement
of under 5,000 tons made them unsuitable for fighting modern
battleships. They carried four 10-inch guns (far less powerful
than the guns of the same size in the Peresviet class
battleships), although General Admiral Graf Apraksin,
the last to be built, was only given three - a recognition
that they were badly over-gunned for their displacement. Ushakov
sank at Tsushima, Apraksin became the Japanese Okinoshima,
while the third unit, Admiral Seniavin was also surrendered,
becoming the Mishima. It is fascinating to note that
in the Imperial Russian Navy, the weakest ships were given
the name of famous admirals, while generals and land battles
were assigned the dignity of powerful battleships. The Royal
Navy, naturally, did the reverse, allocating names such as
Wolfe and Abercrombie to mere monitors,
while battleships were named after successful admirals!
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