Russian Helicopter Battlships
In the Second Great War alternative-history setting, the First World War ended in late 1916, leaving the great empires of Eastern Europe to fight again a generation later. The setting presents whole new history, a whole new war that never happened and the fleets that fought in it. As well as the ships of those fleets, we’ve also had to come up with the doctrines for their use.
In Second Great War at Sea: Swedish Steel, an expansion for Sea of Iron, the Imperial Russian Baltic Fleet is powerful, but it begins the war hemmed into the Gulf of Finland. Finland, Estonia and Latvia have won their independence from the Empire and are now allied with Germany, as is Sweden. With minefields and heavy coastal guns, the Finns and Estonians have erected a tough barrier across the mouth of the Gulf. German and Swedish ships help enforce the line, driving off Russian minesweepers and renewing the mines as they inevitably sink or drift away.
Russian naval planners spent the inter-war years devising a means to free their fleet for operations in the wider Baltic, and thereby interrupt the vital sea lanes between Germany and Sweden and force their enemies to wage a naval war in what they consider a secure inner sea. That would require seizing and holding the Finnish and Estonian coastlines along the Gulf, and the Finnish-controlled Äland Islands between Finland and Sweden. Those islands could also form a chain of stepping stones leading directly to the Swedish capital of Stockholm.
At the same time, the Imperial Army had been working to develop a doctrine for use of tanks and mobile forces to disrupt enemy defenses and penetrate deeply into the enemy rear areas. By the middle of the 1930’s Russian helicopter development had advanced to the point where machine could not only perform anti-submarine, minesweeping and other vital tasks, but had the lift to carry troops as well. The Army raised and trained elite air-assault brigades as integral parts of the mechanized forces, and the Imperial Navy established Marine air-assault brigades as well.
Specialized helicopter carriers would ferry the Marines and their helicopters into the battle zone, but the fleet could not provide as many flight decks as the planners desired for the many projected air-assault operations. The Baltic Fleet’s five oldest battleships had exceeded their useful service life and rather than scrap them, the Russian Admiralty authorized their conversion into helicopter assault ships.
The dreadnought Vsevolod had been purchased from a British shipyard in 1914, as part of Admiral Nicholas von Essen’s program of quickly strengthening the fleet with British-built ships. She had been laid down as a “stock” ship, a copy of the Brazilian dreadnought Rio de Janeiro, with fourteen 12-inch guns in seven turrets.
Note: The Russians attempted to purchase Rio de Janeiro, which eventually went to the Turks and was seized by the British and commissioned as Agincourt. She appears in Jutland: Baltic Sea in Russian colors. For the Second Great War we’ve included her in Brazilian colors already, and rationalized this by positing that Armstrong’s, the private British shipyard that built her, laid down more than one of them as what was known as a “speculation” or “stock” ship. Given the bidding frenzy Rio de Janeiro engendered when she hit the market, Armstrong’s likely regretted not building more of them.
Along with Vsevolod, the four Gangut-class dreadnoughts would also be converted. None of the five had been modernized during the 1920’s, as they were not considered worth the effort. Vsevolod and Petropavlovsk were serving as training ships when they began conversion in 1935, with the other three laid up and awaiting disposal.
Vsevolod went into dry dock at Kronstadt in 1935 for rebuilding. Her three after twin 12-inch turrets were removed, along with the armored barbettes that had supported them and the aft gunnery director and mast. The 22 coal-fired boilers were replaced by a dozen more efficient oil-burning models, and the four Parsons turbines gave way to new models as well. That gave the old ship 60,000 horsepower, about half again what she had achieved when powered by coal, good enough to give the old hull 24 knots.
From her fourth (“Wednesday”) turret aft, a helicopter deck stretched for 72 meters (234 feet), not nearly enough to operate fixed-wing aircraft but sufficient to spot three small or two large helicopters at once. A large hangar stretched under the complete length of the flight deck, with additional accommodations for troops beneath the hangar. As completed, Vsevolod could handle 600 Marines and eighteen big troop-carrying helicopters.
She retained eight 305mm (12-inch) guns for bombardment purposes, and was not intended to carry armor-piercing ammunition when deployed for combat. Her “Wednesday” turret could not be fired across her stern arc, as the blast effects would damage the flight deck and any helicopters on it.
Note: The Vsevolod and Gangut re-designs are based on actual proposals made within the U.S. Navy to rebuild the battleship North Carolina in the 1950’s and the Iowa class in the 1980’s as helicopter assault ships with heavy guns. Neither proposal came close to execution.
Two of the Gangut class entered drydock in St. Petersburg a few months after Vsevolod, for similar reconstruction. Gangut had not been a very good fighting ship when built, a weakness that had worked against the class’ modernization. The Admiralty did not believe it had sacrificed a useful ship by authorizing the conversion work. As soon as they were undocked their sisters began conversion.
Like Vsevolod, Gangut lost everything above the main deck on the after half of the ship. That required the removal of two of her triple 305mm (12-inch) turrets, her aft fire control station and the amidships smokestack. Though Gangut was a smaller ship than Vsevolod, her layout allowed a slightly longer flight deck and hangar to be fitted. Drawing from the lessons of the Vsevolod re-design, the architects gave Gangut a flared structure allowing for a wider hangar and flight deck.
Gangut and her sister similarly received a new power plant, allowing her to maintain her paper speed of 24 knots. She had never been well-protected, and like Vsevolod she received only minimal increases to her armor but substantial improvements to her underwater protection. The huge hangar structure and the massive stocks of aviation fuel held within the former armored barbettes made her, like any aircraft carrier or hybrid vessel, a major liability in surface combat.
Kamov helicopters spotted for launch from Vsevolod.
Like Vsevolod, the big guns are intended for bombardment rather than combat. The helicopter battleships will land their Marines and then support them with heavy gunfire, making for a potentially potent combination. Gangut carries the same Marine contingent as Vsevolod, but has the capacity for a few more helicopters. All five ships are fitted to carry smaller anti-submarine machines as well as the big troop carriers, and can serve as convoy escorts if necessary though they are not well-suited to the task.
Their effectiveness is questionable, as they carry far fewer troops than a purpose-build assault ship like the big Shershen-class helicopter carriers. They are much to large and ungainly to truly employ as convoy escorts. That limits them to one mission: the initial assault on an enemy-occupied coast, after which they are best withdrawn before they become targets for enemy submarines. With their loads of fuel and ammunition, they are tragically vulnerable if engaged by battleships.
All five ships appear in Second Great War at Sea: Swedish Steel, fighting to widen Russia’s window on the West.
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold. Leopold fears helicopters.