By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
The Soviet Union, believing itself the vanguard
of manís social, political and economic
revolution, strove for modernity in all things.
During the 1930s, the military buildup of
the First and Second Five-Year Plans emphasized
the most modern weapons. By 1941 the Red Army
boasted more tanks than every other army on
the planet put together. The Red Air Force
numbered thousands of planes.
The Red Navy inherited a gaggle of incomplete
Tsarist warships, which it struggled to complete
in the 1930s when they were already obsolescent.
These included several cruisers of the Svetlana
class and destroyers of the Novik class,
all of which had been world leaders when laid
down during the first years of World War One.
Among those ships not completed were the four
battle cruisers of the Borodino class,
big and fast ships intended to carry a dozen
Russian industry could not deliver turbines
for them fast enough to suit the Tsarist Navy,
and the engines for two of them had instead
been ordered in Germany and Britain. That
problem, along with a lack of materials and
skilled workers, caused construction to be
abandoned on three of the ships, with only
Izmail going forward until the Bolshevik
Revolution brought her to a halt as well.
The new Soviet government sold the three
less advanced ships to a German breaker in
1922, considering them not worth attempting
to complete. Izmail was retained, but
the Red Navy could not obtain funds to complete
her as a battle cruiser. In 1926, the Navy
submitted plans to complete her as an aircraft
carrier similar to the American and British
battle cruiser conversions Glorious and
Saratoga and avoid the technical problems
of re-starting the production lines for her
14-inch rifles. But once again financial strictures
prevented approval ó the biggest obstacle
remained her engines, which had never been
delivered. In 1931 the shipís remains
were finally cut up for scrap in Leningrad.
Sea power that might have been: the
battle cruiser Izmail.
Denied their aircraft carrier, the Red admirals
turned to a big ship that did possess engines
Ė the decommissioned battleship Frunze.
Known as Poltava in Tsarist service,
she had suffered a severe fire in her forward
boiler room in November 1919 and had never
been repaired. She was considerably shorter
than Izmail and would have made a far
less satisfactory carrier. After two years
of talks, work began on her engine rooms while
the naval staff continued to discuss whether
she should enter service as a battleship or
an aircraft carrier. Necessary repairs turned
out to be far more extensive than originally
thought, and she was cannibalized for spare
parts to help renovate her three sisters and
turned into a floating barracks in Leningrad.
She was sunk there in 1941 and finally scrapped
in the mid-1950s.
The Soviet Unionís First Five Year
Plan, which ran from 1928 to 1932, emphasized
heavy industry and collectivized agriculture.
This yielded the means to expand the armed
forces, and in the Second Five Year Plan (1932-1937)
the Navy received the resources to build new
ships beyond the old cruisers and destroyers
completed under the First plan. With Italian
assistance, the Red Navy built a class of
impressive heavy cruisers, a large number
of fast but structurally weak destroyers and
Izmail under construction, 1915.
General Secretary J.V. Stalin called for a
major fleet build-up under the Third Five
Year Plan (1938-1942). This was to include
battleships, battle cruisers, light cruisers,
improved destroyers and longer-range submarines.
The Great Helmsman also gave the nod to a
pair of aircraft carriers, though he remained
a firm proponent of the battleship as the
ultimate measure of naval power.
The Project 71 ships approved for this plan
were fairly small, 13,000-ton ships with a
630-foot flight deck, based on the same hull
as the Chapayev-class light cruisers.
They would have been almost identical in size
to the British Colossus-class light
carriers. The design specifications called
for an air group of 15 fighters and 30 torpedo
bombers, to be launched by a pair of pneumatic
catapults. She would have two elevators, downward-turned
funnels in the Japanese manner, and a heavy
Italian shipyards had given immense technical
assistance in the battleship, cruiser and
destroyer programs, but the fascist state
had no carrier expertise to offer. The Soviet
engineers received a tour of the German carrier
Zeppelin, but seem to have realized
that the Germans knew only slightly more about
aircraft carriers than they did, and that
that knowledge came second-hand from the Japanese.
Project 71 proceeded very slowly, and the
authorized ships ó one for the Baltic
fleet, and one for the Pacific ó had
not been laid down when the Axis powers made
their treacherous attack in June 1941.
By 1943, wartime experience caused the TsKB
design bureau to re-cast the carrier into
a much larger ship, labeled Project 72. She
would be 812 feet long, comparable to the
American Essex class, and displace
29,000 tons. Like Project 71, she drew heavily
on the German Graf Zeppelin design,
and like the German ship was projected to
carry a very small air group for her size,
60 aircraft. Vice Admiral L.G. Goncharov,
the lead designer, acknowledged the lack of
Soviet experience and suggested that the Americans
be asked to provide an Essex-class
carrier to the Red Navy or, barring that transfer,
allow Soviet officers to serve aboard American
carriers. The Soviets do not appear to have
made either request.
A Soviet aircraft carrier under construction
at Nikolayev, 1983.
Two years later, Goncharovís team
produced a new design based on the incomplete
hull of the battle cruiser Kronstadt,
known as Project 69AV (the battle cruiser
had been Project 69). This big ship would
displace 32,000 tons and carry 76 aircraft.
In all 33 different carrier designs came out
of the design bureau for the 1946 post-war
building program, with Project 69AV the favorite
of Admiral N.G. Kuznetsov.
Stalin at first approved two of the ships,
one to be built at Leningrad from the incomplete
Kronstadt and one at Nikolayev using
materials salvaged from her sister Sevastopol,
wrecked by the Germans. The General Secretary
would later order the Black Sea ship re-cast
as a conventional battle cruiser, while Kronstadt
was scrapped in the 1950s. Completion
of the German Graf Zeppelin, towed
away in 1945, apparently was never seriously
considered and in 1947 she would be sunk as
Graf Zeppelinís hulk in
In Third Reich
we gave the Soviet Navy no aircraft carriers,
but they clearly had the technical ability
and the will to build them, with only a little
outside help. We corrected this somewhat with
a pre-war variant in the Playerís
Guide that swaps an additional SURF
unit and a CV for one 3-5 armor. But realistically,
the Red Navy does not need a deus ex machina
event to bring it a carrier, only a Willing
Disciple of Lenin in turn willing to allocate
BRPs to carriers rather than tanks or aircraft.
Both the 9 SURF and the CV from the Playerís
Guide counter set should be added to the
Soviet Force Pool at the start of 1940.