Ships of the Tsar
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
August 2016

The last Tsar of All the Russias laid down his crown in the spring of 1917. Over the years that followed, his empire would be torn apart by revolution and civil war before finally being put back together five years later as the Soviet Union.

Was this result inevitable? Given the imperial government's hopeless incompetence, the odds of Russia winning an outright victory were probably slim even with the Allied Powers' massive material advantage. But the 1916 Brusilov Offensive showed that, given better leadership and planning, the Russian Army could perform well even after two years of steady defeats. Meanwhile the Navy held the upper hand in the Black Sea and undertook a number of daring operations in the Baltic.

The Tsar's Navy is an older module that pre-dates our Second Great War story line, so while it's similar it is not part of that story arc. It's a separate look at the Imperial Russian Navy in 1940, 23 years after the empire's collapse during the First World War.

In 1914, the Russian Empire was enjoying meteoric rates of economic growth; by 1920, an Austrian general staff study warned, Russian economic output would equal that of Germany and Austria-Hungary combined. Economic projections are dicey things, as the world has been reminded in recent years. But it's probably not unreasonable to think that the Russian Empire could have maintained a major presence at sea through the period of the Second World War.

In The Tsar's Navy, the Russian Empire is assumed to have had a favorable outcome to the First World War and obtained control of the Turkish Straits. The Black Sea Fleet is powerful and backed by a strong air component. But we know what Second World War at Sea players want to know: what about the toys? Here's a look at the ships included.


Three of the Black Sea fleet's first-generation dreadnoughts are present; none of them actually survived to serve the Soviet Union. One of the original four (Imperatritsa Mariya) exploded and sank at her moorings in 1916. Another (Imperatritsa Ekaterina Velikaya) went over to the Bolsheviks in 1918 and was torpedoed by a Bolshevik-aligned destroyer to prevent her falling into German hands. The Germans did get hold of Imperator Alexander III, and turned her over to the White Russians who sailed her to Tunisia in 1924; after rusting peacefully there for over a decade she was scrapped there in 1936.


The fourth unit, Imperator Nikolai I, would never be completed as the Russians debated altering her armor scheme and her armament. British interventionists wrecked her incomplete hull in 1919 and the Red Navy cut her up for scrap after the Civil War. In game terms she's identical to the other two surviving units of her class as the plans to update her design during construction don't appear feasible.

Assuming all three remaining units survived the Great War, they would have been modernized like other early dreadnoughts. There probably was not a lot to be done about their speed, but they've been given about the strongest anti-aircraft armament their decks could have supported. Like their near-sisters of the Gangut class, they could have been very effective in shore bombardment missions and this is where Russian players will use them in The Tsar's Navy scenarios.

The Imperial Navy never planned to build any of its Borodino-class battle cruisers for the Black Sea Fleet. Instead, the southern force would skip that stage and its next heavy ships were to be true fast battleships carrying 16-inch guns. Just how many were to be built is unclear, as they did not pass the planning stage, though four ships of the same design were intended for the Baltic.

In The Tsar's Navy we included two of them. Designer Vittorio Cuniberti's layout — all turrets on the same deck level — had advantages in the ship's armor scheme, but used up huge amounts of deck space as the turrets could not super-fire over one another. The anti-aircraft rating for these ships is generous and there's probably not enough room for it to have been increased much beyond this.

Just as the Imperial Navy turned to Italian designers for inspiration in the early days of the dreadnought era, so did their Soviet successors in the 1930s. There's no reason to doubt that such a connection would have been possible between Imperial Russia and Fascist Italy — Mussolini's state was prepared to accept foreign currency from whoever was willing to offer it.

The two fast modern battleships of the Dvienadtsat Apostolov class are examples of the Ansaldo UP41 battleship design provided to the Red Navy in July 1936. The Ansaldo ship was an enlarged version of Littorio, then under construction for the Italian Navy, at 42,000 tons vs. 40,000 for the Italian ship and with 16-inch guns instead of Littorio's 15-inch. The Ansaldo design replaced Littorio's dozen six-inch guns with the even larger 7.1-inch gun favored by the Soviets, but this feature runs contrary to most naval design trends of the period. The Imperial Russian ship is limited to just one turret with three six-inch guns and a much heavier anti-aircraft battery in place of the secondary turrets.


The Bogatyr-class heavy cruisers are based on an actual Imperial design for a fast armored cruiser armed with 8-inch guns and maintaining a similar profile to the Cuniberti-style dreadnoughts. Russian designers during the Imperial period liked this layout very much, as it allowed maximum firepower on a given displacement since the heavily-armored barbettes under the gun turrets did not have to extend high above the main deck as in super-firing arrangements. Keeping the same profile as the battleships was also considered important.


Since the battleships include an Italian design, so do the heavy cruisers. The Kulevtcha class are based on an Ansaldo design offered to the Soviet Union; the Red Navy went with a highly modified reduced version for their first heavy cruisers. These ships carry fewer guns than the "older" Bogatyr class but have a generous torpedo armament and superior speed and anti-aircraft protection.

The light cruisers of the "Four Admirals" class were impressive, modern ships when laid down just before the outbreak of the First World War. Two of them served the Red Navy in the Great Patriotic War, along with one near-sister originally built for the Baltic Fleet. They are probably better warships than the old light cruisers of similar vintage deployed in other fleets (like the British C- and D-class ships still soldiering on) but are no match for a modern Treaty cruiser.

The London Treaty limited construction of "treaty cruisers" armed with 8-inch guns; most new cruises were "light cruisers" armed with six-inch guns, though some of these rivaled heavy cruisers in size. The Russian Almaz class represents the approach taken by Britain, to maximize the number of useful cruisers on the total tonnage allowed, rather than maximize the size and fighting power of each ship as the Americans and Japanese preferred. Almaz is a scaled-down Kulevtcha, a balanced ship with a heavy torpedo armament to help support destroyers in surface actions.

Coast Defense Ships

The Imperial Russian Navy built a series specialized "gun vessels" to protect its ports and naval bases, most famously the circular "Popoffkas" of the 1870s. Article 8 of the London Naval Treaty specifically allowed signatories to build any number of vessels that would have perfectly fit with this Russian practice: carried no more than four six-inch guns, had a speed of 20 knots or less, and a displacement of no more than 2,000 tons. They also could not be "designed or fitted to launch torpedoes," but this stricture could be easily circumvented by not fitting torpedo tubes during peacetime.

The Empire fell 13 years before the London Treaty's signing, and so it created no ship designs to fit those limits. But in this particular case, the 2,000 ton ship — seen as a convoy escort by most observers at the time — matches with earlier trends in Russian ship design and it's not that much of a stretch to assume that ships like Grozyashchi would have been built for the Black Sea Fleet.

They carry four six-inch guns in two dual turrets, and eight three-inch anti-aircraft guns plus some smaller-caliber anti-aircraft weapons. They are armored to give them an advantage when fighting enemy destroyers, but are quite slow.


The old Imperial Navy built the world's most impressive destroyer in 1912, the big and fast Novik. At least as revolutionary in terms of the destroyer concept as Dreadnought was for battleships, Novik changed thinking in all navies. The Imperial Navy ordered dozens of copies for both the Baltic and Black Sea fleets.


A number of them survived the Great War, the Russian Civil War and years of neglect to be refitted for service in the Red Navy. They would have been just as useful to their original owners, and The Tsar's Navy includes 20 of these old but still capable units.

Much as in the United States, the presence of a large inventory of capable destroyers would have dampened the Imperial Navy's ability to secure funding for new destroyer construction for many years. The Strogi-class boats included here are very similar to the Soviet Type 7 built in the late 1930s, themselves in turn based on an Italian design for an "export" version of the Freccia class, with guns mounted singly instead of in pairs as in the Italian boats. The Imperial destroyers shown here are enlarged somewhat to accommodate a larger torpedo battery.

Imperial practice during the First World War did not embrace the "destroyer leader" concept, and division and flotilla commanders sailed in standard destroyers. But the Imperial Navy had led the way in building big destroyers, and when France began building large "cruiser-type" destroyers, and Italy counters with small "destroyer-type" cruisers, Russia would surely not have been left out. The Tashkent class provided here is very similar to the Soviet Tashkent, the big and very fast "Blue Beauty" of the Red Navy's Black Sea Fleet.

Light Craft

Another loophole in the London Treaty placed no limits on warships displacing 600 tons or less, and Italy took advantage by building large numbers of "torpedo boats" to fulfill the same role as destroyers. France also built a number of similar units.


Imperial Russia built huge numbers of tiny "minnow" torpedo boats in the later decades of the 19th century, and the small combatant allowed by the Treaty would no doubt have appealed to this tradition. So while the Red Navy did not leap into this gap, we posited that their Imperial doppelgangers would have seen things differently. The T-type destroyer escorts are small destroyers, similar to the Italian Spica class, built in huge numbers for secondary duties.

Mine warfare took a central importance in the Great War, and the Imperial Russian Navy drew on its hard experience in the Russo-Japanese War to create a large branch devoted to both offensive and defensive mine warfare. The Tsar's fleet includes a large number of Iskra-class minesweepers, standard slow vessels also suitable for escort duty like those built by many nations. There are also five fairly large, purpose-built minelayers.

The Imperial Navy also pioneered another major innovation, the specialized amphibious landing ship. Thirty landing ships of the Elpidifor class were ordered in 1917; these ships could carry heavy cargo and land troops over beaches by way of gangplanks over the bow. They also served as minesweepers, gunboats and transports. The "Desant"-type landing ships represent larger developments, also able to land troops swiftly.

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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.