Free to view

Warships of the Soviet Fleets, 1939-1945 – Volume III: Naval Auxiliaries

01 Dec 23

320 pages

Prof Andrew Lambert

The first two volumes of this outstanding series were noticed in the Summer 2023 issue of this journal (Vol. 111, No. 3). In Soviet practice naval auxiliaries included specially built naval types, requisitioned commercial tonnage, and converted warships, serving as survey and salvage vessels, depot and training ships, hospital ships and transports, oil and water tankers, tugs, cable ships and harbour craft. As every merchant ship in the Soviet Union was owned by the state the transfer of ownership to the Navy was simple, and claims for compensation non-existent.

Many auxiliaries were converted from foreign-built commercial vessels and obsolete warships, alongside tonnage seized from Spain, the Baltic States and Romania, desperate measures that reflected the Soviet Union’s limited shipbuilding capacity. In the 1930s the Soviets acquired a significant second-hand merchant fleet on the international market, a process that can be followed in this text. These ships were mobilised, with additional wartime tonnage provided by the USA, which sustained the flow of Lend-Lease supplies though Vladivostok. Many of the gift ships were old, and small, having been built during the First World War. Most Soviet built transports were small and slow with basic engine plants. Transferring 40 American Liberty ships provided a significant upgrade. As most Soviet transports operating in the Pacific docked or refitted at American ports they were photographed. The inelegant results highlight the purely functional nature of Russia’s engagement with the ocean. Passenger vessels, used extensively to evacuate Soviet troops, suffered catastrophic losses. Only two of eight purpose-built liners available in 1941 survived the war.

The Arctic was a key area for the USSR, which continued the Tsarist push to open an Arctic Sea route, building large ice-strengthened survey ships for the Arctic and Baltic. They served as escorts or minelayers in wartime, along with sea-going salvage vessels. The Soviets also operated six 8-12,000-ton icebreakers, the first two designed and built by Armstrong in Newcastle in 1899 and 1917 to pioneer the Siberian Sea route. These ships carried heroic names from early Russian history, Yermak, the pioneer of expansion in Siberia and Sviatogor, the same lexicon employed for Russian capital ships. The heroic status of icebreaking in Russia should be obvious: Sviatogor survives as a museum ship at Cronstadt, carrying the Soviet name of Krasin, close to the cruiser Aurora. In the 1930s the Soviets built four more icebreakers to the same design. They were named for prominent Bolshevik politicians, including Stalin and Molotov. In the absence of new battleships these became the fleet’s prestige ships. It is believed the design was studied when the Americans refitted Soviet units, inspiring the United States wartime Wind-class icebreakers: three of these 6,500-ton units were loaned to the Soviets for the duration of the war, serving at Murmansk to support Arctic Convoys. The Soviets operated ice capable transports and transited units across the Arctic route.

The volume concludes with a list of ships captured or awarded to the Soviet Union at the end of the war, drawn from Russian sources. These include the aircraft carrier Graf Zeppelin, which was scuttled along with other ex-German heavy units in 1947. German destroyers and U-boats lasted into the 1950s: four advanced Type XXI boats were commissioned in 1946, after the inter-allied share-out of captured tonnage. Most U-boats ended their careers as battery charging platforms. More Type XXIs were captured on the ways at Danzig, but none entered service. A solitary Type XXIII was commissioned for six years, along with two ex-Italian boats in the Black Sea. Smaller auxiliary units had far longer Soviet careers. The Soviets largely adhered to the terms of the 1945 inter-allied distribution agreement – western anxieties on this front were unnecessary. Most of the ex-Axis tonnage was too badly damaged to repair.

The list of Soviet artillery, torpedoes, mines, and sensors indicates that a solitary 16-inch gun was being tested in 1940, while existing Tsarist era 12-inch weapons had their range extended by 5000 metres by increasing elevation from 25 to 40 degrees, reflecting the Soviet focus on defensive positional warfare, firing over minefields. While the Soviets made most of their own weapons, they relied on western radar and sonar.

The Soviet naval effort suffered very heavy losses, spread across all warship and auxiliary types. Most occurred in the Baltic and Black Seas, with many warship and auxiliary losses sustained during the catastrophic retreats of 1941, primarily by mines and aircraft, while the diversion of resources, including entire factories, to the land war, compromised the development of the war fleet. The slack was taken up by allies, almost entirely the RN. Lend-Lease ships, sensors and auxiliaries were useful, but the sea was never going to be decisive theatre of a Russo-German war. Merchant ships carrying army hardware and other vital supplies made the largest sea-based contribution to Soviet victory. Now that the limited scale and inferior engineering of Stalin’s fleet has been catalogued, it is high time to employ similar expertise assessing the fleets that followed.