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From Retvizan to Slava
Part 2 of Imperial Russian Pre-Dreadnoughts
in Great War at Sea

By David Hughes
July 2015


The Tsar's American battleship, Retvizan.

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.



Tsesarevitch at Port Arthur, before the Battle of the Yellow Sea.

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.

The Tsar's Glory: the battleship Slava missed Tsushima only to be sunk in 1917.

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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