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Warships of the Soviet Fleets 1939-1945

05 May 23



(Seaforth – £45.00)

ISBN 9781526751935

352 pages



(Seaforth – £45)

ISBN 9781399022774

304 pages

These volumes provide both a complete record of the inter-war and wartime Soviet Fleet, and a critical re-assessment of Soviet naval effectiveness, highlighting the negative impact of political control, inadequate infrastructure, poor quality construction, the suppression of initiative and relatively unskilled personnel. The ‘Great Seagoing and Ocean-going Fleet’ Stalin projected in the mid 1930s remained incomplete because the headline items, battleships and battle cruisers, could not be completed by the Soviet industrial base. In wartime the Soviet fleets relied on courage and numbers, and proved more effective when co-operating in coastal operations, under army control.

By 1921 much of the pre-1914 Russian shipbuilding industry had been lost to breakaway states, damaged and abandoned, while skilled workers, including many foreign experts, fled. Any remaining industrial capacity was re-purposed to meet domestic needs, notably the railways. The March 1921 Cronstadt Mutiny, savagely suppressed by a nervous regime, left an enduring legacy of mistrust and anxiety, on both sides of the state-navy divide, while the Mahanian concept of sea power was dismissed as a ‘bourgeois theory’, detached from economic reality. Suspect officers, those with bourgeois or foreign connections, were removed or purged: half of those that remained lacked basic skills. Plans for expansion were visionary, and futile. There were no resources, and the army had absolute priority. In 1926 the Navy ceased to be a separate service, merely the ‘Naval Forces of the Workers and Peasants Red Army’, a concept that endures in the term PLAN.

Policy and strategy focussed on small ships and coastal warfare. The British attack on Cronstadt in 1919 encouraged the construction of coastal motor boats, but the initiative needed to employ them was wholly alien to the Soviet service. The British campaign had emphasised the vulnerability of the short 170 mile Soviet Baltic coastline, but the naval programme was trimmed back to basic defensive assets, adding small submarines to MTBs. The Baltic Fleet would fight the Royal Navy from defensive positions, but take the initiative against Sweden or the former Russian provinces Finland, Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. The 1929 naval budget was cut to fund Army increases while programmes were constantly altered. In the 1920s a few obsolescent cruisers and destroyers were completed, and the three dreadnought battleships were modernised to support the defence of Leningrad from the sea, extending the range of their heavy guns.

The lack of skilled workers, high grade steel and heavy engineering facilities prevented any serious attempt to modernise the fleet. Even diesel engines were acquired abroad. Industrial development was crippled by the Party using ‘show trials’ to cover up its’ own procurement failures. Terrorised managers avoided punishment by delivering flawed products to meet unrealistic production schedules. Access to British and German submarine designs in the1920s provided important technical information for the First Five Year Plan. Stalin’s second Five Year Plan (1932-37) depended on imported machinery and equipment, purchased by exporting food, creating a famine that killed at least 10 million people. Although 9% of the defence budget was spent on the navy, the results in terms of ships and capabilities remained unimpressive.

The signing of the Anglo-German Naval Agreement in 1935 highlighted the danger that a revived and hostile Germany would dominate the Baltic. The new threat, and the need to disguise the failure of the previous two Five Year Plans sparked the shift to a Third, to build the ‘Great Seagoing and Ocean Fleet’, complete with battleships, battlecruisers, cruisers and 128 new destroyers, creating Soviet fleets in the Baltic, the Black Sea and the Pacific that were more powerful than their opponents. While the naval budget was projected to rise from 13.6 million rubles in 1931 to 779.2 million in 1939, neither the navy nor the industrial base could absorb the additional funding. Schizophrenia prevailed: 1937 began with an almost complete purge of the naval leadership, yet by December the dramatic rise in naval spending and strategic consequence in a re-arming world saw the Navy recover its’ independence from the Army. By 1938 there was an Admiral on the Politburo. However, the focus of naval effort was indicated by a 170-strong submarine fleet, dominated by small coast defence assets. Inefficiency, waste and inflation saw costs rise rapidly, as more complex systems were adopted.

Stalin’s battleships could not be built with the exiting industrial base: they were outsize status symbols. In the late 1930s Stalin expected a long war in the west, a repeat of 1914-18, seriously over-estimating the combat power of the French Army. Ever the opportunist, he used the Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 1939 to secure control of the Gulf of Finland, trading food and oil for German promises of weapons, and equipment, including an incomplete heavy cruiser. Soviet supplies compromised Anglo-French economic warfare, and highlighted the enduring weakness of the Soviet industrial base.

After the fall of France, Soviet defence priorities shifted from battleships to tanks, entire shipyards were turned over to tank production. Of the ships ordered after 1936 only a handful of submarines would enter service before 1945. There was no ‘Great Seagoing and Ocean Fleet’ because Stalinist Russia’s command economy could not create the necessary shipyards, skilled workers, complex machinery and sailors by diktat.

In September 1941 the battleships were removed from the list of ships being built, and suspended, the other ocean-going assets were delayed or destroyed as the Soviet Armies retreated. By 1944-45 the active Soviet fleet consisted of submarines, Romanian war prizes, loaned British and American assets, and a handful of repaired Soviet units.

Volume II examines the mobilisation of the merchant and fishing fleets, a simple process when everything belonged to the State. In 1941 this process included 250 seized Estonian and Latvian ships, which will be covered, along with naval auxiliaries, in volume III.

These texts reflect a lifetime’s work sorting fact from fiction, tracing the real history of ships, and their name changes, through Soviet propaganda and post-Soviet nationalism. The authors grew up in Soviet era Poland, where learning Russian was compulsory, and worked in shipbuilding, museum and related sectors, assembling the most comprehensive assessment of this secretive organisation. They will be essential for future studies of Soviet naval power down to 1945, focussing on shipbuilding, strategy and policy. They reflect the author’s familiarity with the many failings of Soviet and Russian systems.