Sword of the Sea:
Russian Battleships, Part One

Our Second Great War at Sea alternative history is an ambitious project to craft a world-spanning tale of a different Second World War, the Second Great War, with naval campaigns taking place around the globe - thereby giving rise to many new games and scenarios for the Second World War at Sea series. All of it tied together by its story.

On the Black Sea, the Imperial Russian Navy, assisted by the small Royal Romanian Navy, faces the Ottoman Turkish fleet, with some very minor assistance from the Royal Bulgarian Navy. Their struggle is the story of our Sword of the Sea book.

Like the other Russian fleets, the Black Sea Fleet relies on its battleships to provide its combat power. There are fourteen of them in Sword of the Sea; let’s take a look at them.

The Helicopter Ships

Like the Baltic Fleet, the Black Sea Fleet ended the First Great War with four first-generation dreadnought battleships. One of them, Imperatritsa Mariya, suffered a magazine explosion in October 1916 while in Sevastopol’s harbor, capsized and sank. Another, Imperator Alexander III, was still fitting out at Nikolayev while an enlarged version, Imperator Nikolai I, remained incomplete at a different Nikolayev yard.

Social unrest and economic collapse delayed work on the three damaged or incomplete ships, and stopped construction on the next class as well. Construction resumed in 1920, along with salvage work on Imperatritsa Mariya. By 1924 all three Imperatritsa Mariya class battleships were operational, but their outmoded design made them difficult to modernize as first-line combat units without total reconstruction.

The Baltic Fleet’s similar ships began conversion to helicopter assault ships in 1935, and their three Black Sea cousins began similar work a year later. Based on the lessons of the Baltic ships, the Black Sea vessels underwent a more radical reconstruction. They retained only their forward 12-inch turret, with a long flight deck beginning directly behind the forward superstructure. Without the need to provide a field of fire for the heavy guns, the flight deck could be raised another deck level, allowing a second hangar deck, and a control tower fitted on the ship’s port side.

Their coal-fired boilers and their turbines were all removed, replaced by large marine diesels that provided better fuel economy and most importantly, far less smoke to interfere with flight operations. To balance the weight of the upper hangar the ships received large torpedo bulges, and they could make 22 knots at top speed. The additional hangar and deck space allows the ships to each accommodate three dozen heavy troop-carrying helicopters and a full battalion of 1,000 Marines.

As in the Baltic, the Black Sea Fleet’s amphibious warfare capability has been developed with a single objective in mind, in this case a direct assault on Constantinople and the opposite bank of the Bosporus strait. The Turks are well aware of this plan, and can be expected to deploy minefields, submarines and surface forces to repel the attack.

The Rebuilt Dreadnought

Four dreadnoughts had been authorized for the Black Sea Fleet before the start of the Great War. Two of them were completed before Wilson’s Peace brought an end to the war with the third commissioning shortly afterwards. The fourth, Imperator Nikolai I, lay incomplete at the ONZiV shipyard in Nikolayev; she had been laid down in June 1914 and launched in October 1916.

When work resumed on Imperator Nikolai I in the summer of 1919, it proceeded to a heavily revised design. The Cuniberti layout, with four turrets all on the same deck, left the two amidships turrets - half of the ship’s firepower - with very limited arcs of fire. It had several advantages, spreading the weight of the turrets and their armored barbettes along the entire length of the ship, and it did not require the tall, very heavy barbettes of super-firing turrets.

Imperator Nikolai I was larger than her near-sisters, with thicker armor but the same main armament. That greater size allowed a partial re-design, moving the amidships turrets to what had become a more conventional layout with pairs of super-firing triple turrets fore and aft for the dozen 12-inch (305mm) heavy guns. Her designers took the opportunity to replace the intended power plant of coal-fired boilers with oil-fueled models, and increased her horsepower with more efficient turbines plus an improved hull form to raise her designed speed from 21 to 26 knots.

The result was a modern fast battleship, but one with a lighter main armament than the later dreadnoughts of other fleets. She returned to the yards in 1936 for a major overhaul during which her underwater torpedo tubes were removed and her anti-aircraft armament strengthened with new dual-purpose 130mm (5.1-inch) guns. By the time war breaks out in 1940 she remains a front-line unit, but one eclipsed by the newer fast battleships.

Second Generation Dreadnoughts

The Black Sea Fleet’s four first-generation dreadnoughts were launched in 1913 (one ship), 1914 (two more) and 1916 (the delayed Imperator Nikolai I). As the first three cleared their slipways in Nikolayev, new ships took their place to keep the shipyards fully employed with a fourth unit laid down in Sevastopol Naval Dockyard.

These ships had been designed by the Putilov design bureau, part of the conglomerate including Nikolayev’s ONZiV shipyard, as an alternative to the huge ships armed with 16-inch guns drafted by I.G. Bubnov for the Baltic Fleet. They were somewhat more conventional ships, with twelve 14-inch (356mm) guns in four triple turrets sited in super-firing pairs fore and aft. The ships departed from convention in sporting just one huge funnel, with their armament concentrated close to the middle of the ship, leaving a smaller area requiring heavy armor.

Considering their heavy armament, they were very compact ships with long, narrow hulls like a battle cruiser. They displaced just over 40,000 tons, with heavier armor than previous Russian dreadnoughts and a fast battleship’s speed. Their secondary armament of twenty-four 130mm guns went into casemates placed in pairs, with eight of them in a main deck structure amidships and the remainder on either side of the hull, directly under the main armament turrets. That would have made the guns very difficult to work while the main battery was firing.

Note: Putilov drafted this ship as a proposed follow-on for Imperator Nikolai I, but it doesn’t appear that any selection was made for a second class of dreadnoughts for the Black Sea. The four dreadnoughts already under construction were considered sufficient to overpower the Turkish purchases.

Laid down just before the outbreak of the First Great War and suspended soon afterwards, construction resumed in late 1918 and completed in 1921. By the early 1930’s they were clearly out-moded and went back to the shipyards for conversion to oil fuel. They had little deck space for additional anti-aircraft weapons, but they lost their torpedo tubes and casemate battery. They carried two helicopters on a small pad on the fantail, but had no hangar or maintenance facilities for them.

By 1940, the Fidonisi class, as they were known, had all completed modernization and were still very capable fast battleships that see a great deal of action alongside the Black Sea Fleet’s newer battleships.

And those are the older battleships of the Imperial Russian Black Sea Fleet.

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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.