Borodino Class Battleships - 1900/1904

Painting of Battleship SUVOROV, frontal 3/4 view, going into battle

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The Russian flagship Kniaz Suvorov heading into battle at Tsushima, where three-fifths of her class met annihilation. The battleship was built at the Baltic Works in Riga, Latvia for the Imperial Russian Navy as part of a spendthrift buildup of the Russian fleet for the expected conflict with Japan. The Borodino class were badly jobbed Russian copies of the battleship Tsesarevich built for Russia at Brest, 1899-1903. Whereas most previous Russian battleships had roughly followed the British pattern on a modest scale, the Borodino class tilted heavily towards 1890s French battleship conventions, with a broad hull featuring deep tumble-home, rising to a tall and narrow superstructure. Compared to contemporary French ships, the Borodinos were considerably larger at more than 14,000 tons. Following the Tsesarevich pattern, they carried all their main and secondary guns in twin turrets of the Canet type, rather than single-gun mountings as in most contemporary French battleships. Like the French ships, though, they were top-heavy and lacking in stability, and had a longitudinal watertight bulkhead which made them prone to capsize. Not all the top-weight was caused by military necessity: luxurious marble slabs were fitted on the officers' quarters in the flagship Suvorov; the resulting loss in stability meant a 2-kt loss in speed. In addition to officer comfort, the ships suffered from shoddy yard work and probably from deliberate sabotage by revolution-minded assembly workers, as witness the continuing breakdowns during their careers: Borodino proved incapable of more than 8 knots because of chronic main bearing failure, while both Suvorov and Orel suffered from faulty steering engines, resulting in numerous collisions and near-misses.

Compared to the original Tsesarevich, the Borodinos abandoned the large boat davits between the funnels, and built out the 3" anti-TB armament into a projecting box battery on each beam (adding considerable weight). The masts had modest-sized round fighting tops rather than the French-style octagonal gunhouses originally seen on Tsesarevich or the oversized 37mm gunhouses that were regulation in the Russian fleet. As a result of battle experience, all these changes except the masts were reversed on the last ship of the quintet, the Slawa, completed at Riga after the war (below right) and a closer match to the Tsesarevich in appearance than any of her sisters.

Class History

The conditions of their construction set the fleet up for a fiasco. The Russian Marine Ministry had purchased rights to construct more vessels on the Tsesarevich plan, but with war against Japan already likely, they initiated crash construction in 1899, before the Tsesarevich was even launched. Since all the detailed drawings were in La Seyne, only sketchy plans were available to the three Russian yards, each of which drew up its own interpretation. These plans were approved without much technical scrutiny. The order of the day was to rush forward as war with Japan was impending. Then as now, defense spending was politically popular, five battleships being a huge order for the Russian shipyards. Stern frames were ordered from the Skoda Works in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Krupp cemented armor plate from Bethlehem Steel in the U.S. The Russian yards' equipment and techniques were far cruder than those available in France; their forgings and particularly their turrets came out dramatically heavier as a result. Practically every day as construction proceeded, the excess topweight increased; to remedy this, the Russian engineers shaved weight elsewhere by thinning the ships' armor and reducing the area covered by the armor belt. While the Tsesarevich was built with a 9.84" (250 mm) armor belt, the maximum protection on the Borodinos was 5" to 7.64" (125-194mm), and many areas armored in the French original, were regulation 4.8 mm steel plate on the Russian copies. When the ships actually went into battle, the consequences of this inattention to hull protection were gruesome.

Painting of Battleship OREL on Historic Voyage to TsushimaOrel on her way to her day of destiny, with the cruiser Avrora behind her. Orel ("Eagle") was the last of the first four Borodinos, rushed to completion in slap-dash Russian fashion; she was towed to Kronstadt Naval Base to have her armor installed; when the temporary hull plating was removed she leaked and gradually sank, delaying by a month the Second Pacific Squadron's departure. Indeed, the entire mission smacked of throwing good money after bad; the Japanese had very efficiently sunk or blockaded the original Russian Far East Squadron, built around 6 powerful battleships and a dozen cruisers.

The Tsar bet all on one desperate gamble, assembling every available warship (even 20-year-old tubs that shouldn't have been in commission) and ordering the entire mismatched armada around the globe to reverse the tides of war. Even as the Baltic Fleet mustered for their eight-month journey in autumn 1904, the war was already all but lost in the Far East, with the Japanese drawing their siege of Port Arthur ever tighter; the fortress surrendered January 2, 1905 while the great armada was "inching its way sootily around Africa," as renowned historian Richard Hough wrote in his definitive account of the expedition, The Fleet That Had to Die (New York: Ballantine, 1958).

The Russian armada sailed in haste, a couple of its ships still incomplete, with workmen still aboard. That was the case with the Orel, rushed off before she had completed trials; she ran aground leaving harbor, delaying the fleet's departure by a day, but made up for it by breaking down six times on the trip to the Far East. The cruiser Svietlana -- more of an armed yacht than a warship -- was also sent off with little prior military training; surprisingly, she fought to the last bullet at Tsushima, after which her crew scuttled her to avoid capture. Her performance shamed many of the mightier Russian warships that surrendered without much fight.

Russian fleet departing Nossi Be, 1905
With the Borodinos in the lead, the Russian fleet sails from Nossi-Bé, Madagascar after a prolonged stay and refit.

But to return to the voyage. With coal crammed into every conceivable corner, the fleet crawled along at 8 kts -- the speed of its slowest ship, the repair vessel Kamchatka -- for all 18,000 nautical miles of the voyage; and in all the voyage there was only a single desultory attempt at target practice: no allowance had been made for target ammunition. Attempts at maneuvers were risible, inspiring paroxysms of rage or occasional hoots of hysterical laughter from the overburdened commander-in-chief, Vice Admiral Zinovy Rozhdestvensky. In what was surely a surreal experience, the nightmare voyage continued day after day, month after month. Fatalism alternated with false hope. Desertion, suicide and alcoholism wracked the fleet. Over the course of the long voyage, half a dozen mutinies were put down with a heavy hand; the flagship's big guns seemingly spent more time trained on her own ships than on targets. At the end of the tortuous journey -- after most of their fleet had been sunk -- the last remaining Borodino, the Orel, surrendered to the Japanese together with the Nikolai I, a single protected cruiser, and two coast-defense ironclads. It was the morning of May 28th and the Orel's three new sister ships littered the volcanic stone bottom of the Tsushima Strait, blasted apart by Japanese fire. The one surviving Borodino was subsequently taken into Japanese service, completely reworked, permitted another chance in battle, and finally sunk as a target in 1924.

Battle of TsushimaBut she was the lucky one. On the previous day, the Suvorov led the main column of the Russian fleet into a tornado of Japanese incendiary shellfire; the Osliabya led the weaker column. Rozhdestvensky opened by throwing the entire fleet into confusion, ordering contradictory maneuvers just as they were about to engage, at 1:50 p.m.; they never recovered the intiative. The leading ships were turned into charnel houses within an hour of joining battle, Osliabya sinking around 3:10. The flagship's fire hoses were slashed by shell splinters and she blazed topside even as she settled ever lower into the water; but still she pushed on at 10 knots, and still a few of her aft guns fired, fending off torpedo attackers. Meanwhile, turned into infernos by Japanese shimose shells, her sister ships Alexander III and Borodino rapidly became wrecks and deathtraps to their crews. The Alexander succumbed to a spectacular magazine explosion at sunset, the first of the Borodino class to go down: Lost with all hands. Soon after, the British naval attaché, W.C. Pakenham, who observed the battle from the Asahi, relates that flame burst from Borodino's after battery and leaped to a height of at least 30 feet, engulfing the ship from side to side and rapidly spreading forward. Her after turret was silenced. It was already twilight and the Japanese were preparing to retire for the night when Fuji's last 12-inch shot produced the sensation of the day. In Pakenham's words:
Entering the upper part of the Borodino near the foremost broadside turret, [the Fuji's salvo] burst, and an immense column of smoke, ruddied on its underside by the glare from the explosion and from the fire abaft, spurted to the height of her funnel tops. From every opening in engine-rooms and stokeholds steam rushed and in two or three minutes, the ship from foremast to stern was wrapped in flercely whirling spirals of smoke and vapour, gaily illumined by frequent tall shafts of flame. it was evident that the conflagration had reached a stage where it could defy control, and that the vessel's fighting days were numbered, though even so it was not realised how near was the end. Though sudden, this was not dramatic. While all watched, the unfortunate ship disappeared, her departure only marked by a roar not greatly louder than that of one of her own bursting shells, and, until dispersed by the wind, by a great increase in volume of the dense cloud that brooded over the place she had occupied. It is doubtful whether any in the Japanese fleet saw her go, as little but the outline of her stern had been visible for some minutes.

It seems certain that the final hit caused a magazine explosion which sank the Borodino. There is some difference in the various reports as to the exact time when she sank, but it was probably at 1930. Only one man was saved from her crew of 855.
Japanese destroyers attacking the Russian fleet at Tsushima - courtesy Cranston GalleriesThe Suvorov still survived, a floating wreck, toiling forward but barely under control. She had beat off several torpedo attacks during the day, but her weary gun crews failed to fend off the TBs that came at her like angry hornets at sunset. She followed her sisters to the bottom: the three newest, largest, and most expensive of the 22 Russian warships sunk that day, though certainly not the best designed. Pakenham described the attack:
"The 11th Division of four 128-ft Schichau type boats attacked at 1920. They ran in at 20 knots to 300-350 yards without being fired at, and launched seven Winch torpedoes of which two or three hit. One torpedo was thought by the attackers to have exploded a magazine as black and yellow fumes poured out. The Suvorov heeled over to port and then capsized. For a short time she floated bottom up and at 1930 or just before, her bows lifted high in the air and she slid rapidly out of sight. Except for the few taken off with Rozhdestvensky, there were no survivors, and 928 were lost with her."
Admiral Z.P. Rozhdestvensky, C-in-C of the 2nd Pacific SquadronEarly in the engagement, Adm. Rozhdestvensky, commanding the entire Götterdämerung from his armored conning station in Suvorov, had been cut down by shrapnel wounds to head and leg; communications from the conning tower were cut and all the rangefinding and steering gear disabled, leaving the ship's mostly intact guns with no fire direction and the fleet without effective command. Semi-conscious, the admiral was evacuated gingerly into the torpedo boat Buiyny and later, when she developed engine failure, into her sister-ship Biedovy, along with his staff and about 20 of Suvorov's crew. The comatose C-in-C was captured on the morning of the 28th, regaining consciousness in a Japanese hospital at Sasebo after an overnight tow from the destroyer Sazanami. Adm. Nebogatov (commanding the Third Squadron of obsolete and coast-defense ironclads) had assumed command on Rozhdestvensky's incapacitation, flying his flag in the antique ironclad Nikolai I; due to their position at the extreme rear of the line, his ships were only superficially damaged. With his group was the last of the Borodinos, the Orel, knocked about but not knocked out, with a green crew cowering in panic as they came under shellfire. The admiral was forced to surrender on the morning of the second day of battle, when the Japanese surrounded his fleeing ships with unassailably superior force. Typically, the Japanese were nonplussed by his prompt surrender; they had expected a fight to the bitter end; only the undamaged cruiser Izumrud showed any gumption, sprinting past the Japanese and running them an all-day chase. Eventually, she ran aground and her commander, Baron Ferzen, blew her up on the spot -- but not before landing her entire crew within walking distance of Vladivostok. Meanwhile, the Japanese destroyer crew that captured the wounded Rozhdestvensky accepted their good fortune and took charge of the remaining Russian prizes. Yard workers were already cutting away wreckage aboard the ex-Russians by the time prisoner Rozhdestvensky hove into port. Orel and her fellow captives were soon flying the Rising Sun ensign.

Profile view of SLAWA in 1907With Nebogatov's surrender, Russian naval power in the Far East was shattered. The cruiser division under Adm. Enquist had cut and run quite early in the action, and several of them made it to neutral ports; but the Tsesarevich, interned at the German colony of Qingdao, was the sole remaining battleship belonging to the Tsar in theatre: interned, disarmed, and with her crew repatriated to Russia. The yachtlike despatch boat Almaz, detached early in the Tsushima action, actually made to to Vladivostok along with two destroyers -- all that was left of the mighty armada which had departed Libau the previous October. On land, Gen. Kuropatkin led the Russian armies to defeat after defeat (notably the Battle of Mukden and the long retreat that ensued, described as a "carnival of slaughter" by London Times correspondent Sidney Tyler). At home in 1905, Russian society was breaking down. There were starvation and strikes in Moscow and Petersburg. The Tsar barely survived this revolution while struggling to salvage what he could from the wreckage of his imperial ambitions in Manchuria. Indeed, the Navy proved a focus of revolutionary spirit. The Black Sea Fleet battleship Potemkin played a leading rôle in the 1905 revolt: her sailors mutinied over poor food and corruption, murdering their captain and several officers, inspiring a number of similar revolts before theirs was quelled with brute force. The Potemkin was retained in the fleet afterwards, but renamed Pantaleimon to distract attention from the memory of the crewmen's revolt. A later generation of revolutionaries had not forgotten, however, and the incident was immortalized by Sergei Eisenstein's silent film, made aboard the actual Potemkin, remodeled to look like her former self. Happily, the fifth Borodino class battleship was still completing at Kronstadt -- the Slawa, above right, given more robust watertight subdivision than the others on the basis of hard experience. So there was at least a remnant of naval power available to the Tsar during the rough times ahead. By 1911 the Romanov regime was building its first dreadful dreadnoughts. To retain his throne after the 1905 uprising, the Tsar had been forced to sign various instruments aimed at democratizing his regime. But Russia had scant experience of democratic practice, and Nicholas's old autocratic habits soon reasserted themselves: a sign of weakness, not of strength.

The two remaining Borodinos, Tsesarevich -- renamed Grazhdanin ("Citizen") after the April Revolution -- and Slawa, saw action together in WWI, fighting German König class dreadnoughts and a swarm of cruisers and destroyers in the Battle of Moon Sound, October 16 - 17, 1917. Coming just before the Bolshevik takeover in Petersburg, when Kerensky's Provisional Government was tottering on the brink, this two-day engagement added another to the long string of Russian defeats. A German attack force swept in from the Baltic to capture the approaches to Riga (then Russian territory; now in independent Latvia), in coordination with a land invasion from East Prussia. The Germans landed troops on Moon Island and other choke points on the Gulf of Riga. The Russian squadron fought a delaying action, but had to fold and flee in the face of superior force. Although the Tsesarevich got away to safety, the Slawa's flooding brought her too low in the water to negotiate the shallow avenue of retreat. Hors de combat, she was scuttled by her crew and abandoned. Coupled with the German land offensive, the capture of Riga heightened the alarm in St. Petersburg and set the stage for the Bolshevik Revolution in November 1917 (October in the antique Orthodox calendar).

Orel was scrapped in place in the early-to-mid Twenties. But even under Red rule, Grazhdanin had a few years left; she was hulked in 1918 and broken up in 1924 in Germany, the progenitor and also the last surviving member of the ill-conceived Borodino class, considered by many naval architects to be the worst battleships of the pre-dreadnought era. After operating two of the Peresviets and the Orel and assessing the seakeeping qualities of these French-inspired battleships, the Japanese concurred in that opinion. They opted to keep the flush-decked, U.S.-built Retvizan, but when chance placed Japan and Russia on the same side during WWI, they welcomed the opportunity to sell the Poltava and the two remaining Peresviets back to the Tsar.

Plans and Specifications

Outline profile of the Borodino class
Triangle shows location of sectional view below, at Frame 74.

Specifications for the Borodinos:
Dimensions: 396' x 75' x 29'3". Designed displacement: 13,516 tons. Actual displacement: 14,091 - 15,275 tons (all completed significantly over weight). Armament: (4) 12"/40 guns (2x2), (12) 6"/45 (6x2), (20) 3"/50, (20) 47mm (1.85"), and (2) 37mm (1.5") guns; 10 machine guns; (2) 63mm field pieces (for landing parties); and (4) 18" torpedo tubes (1 each bow and stern, 2 submerged on the beams). Armor: Mostly Krupp Cemented (KC) type, some Harvey armor, mf'd under license in USA. Belt: 7.64"/5"; main turrets 10"; secondary turrets 6"; conning tower 8"; deck 2.5"/2". Fuel capacity: 780 tons coal (normal); 1,560 tons (max). (2,200-3,000 tons was common during the voyage, submerging the ships' 2' tall belt armor and making them vulnerable to penetration by shellfire at the waterline.) Machinery: 20 coal-fired Belleville water-tube boilers; (2) 15,800-HP 4-cyl triple-expansion steam engines, shafted to twin screw. Designed speed: 18.5 kts. Actual speed: 16.5 - 18.5 kts (12 kts for the Borodino). Endurance: 6,600 nm @ 10 kts. Crew: 830 (normal), 900 (flagship).

Ships in class: Borodino Kniaz Suvorov Imperator Alexander III Orel Slava

Metric Specifications:
Dimensions: 120.7m x 22.9m x 9m. Designed displacement: 13,516 tons. Actual displacement: 14,091 - 15,275 tons (all completed significantly over weight). Armament: (4) 305 mm/40 guns (2x2), (12) 152 mm/45 (6x2), (20) 76 mm/50, (20) 47 mm, and (2) 37 mm guns; 10 machine guns; (2) 63mm field pieces (for landing parties); and (4) 45 cm torpedo tubes (1 each bow and stern, 2 submerged on beams). Armor: Mostly Krupp Cemented (KC) type, some Harvey armor, mf'd under license in USA. Belt: 194-125mm; main turrets 250 mm; secondary turrets 152 mm; conning tower 203mm; deck 63.5/51 mm. Fuel capacity: 780 tons coal (normal); 1560 tons (max). (2,200-3,000 tons was common during the voyage, submerging the ships' 0.6m tall belt armor and making them vulnerable to penetration by shellfire at the waterline.) Machinery: 20 coal-fired Belleville water-tube boilers; (2) 4-cyl triple-expansion steam engines developing 11,782 kW, shafted to twin screw. Designed speed: 34¼ km/hr. Actual speed: 30.5 - 34¼ km/hr (22.2 km/hr for the Borodino). Endurance: 12,223 km @ 18.5 km/hr. Crew: 830 (normal), 900 (flagship).

Section of BORODINO

Section through the aft 6" turrets, looking aft, showing wardroom, shell rooms, magazines, and compass platform (see marker in profile above).

Canet type turrets - sectional diagram, as mounted in BORODINO class

Drawing for the modified Canet primary and secondary turrets carried in the Borodino class. Excess weight caused in Russian manufacturing of these mounts was balanced by reducing the area covered by belt armor -- a fatal flaw when the ships joined battle.

A Borodino Class Photo Gallery

Launch of the battleship BORODINO
Borodino's curves are clearly evident just after her launch from the New Admiralty Yard, Kronstadt, 1901.

Battleship IMP. ALEXANDER III fitting out

Imperator Alexander III nearing completion, 1904. Completing significantly over weight, the clumsily-made Russian turrets contributed to excess topweight. The shipwrights compensated for it by scrimping on armor protection for the hulls.

The BORODINO in a late stage of fiitting out
The big, black Borodino basks in her newly-minted magnificence, 1904.
Two panels of armor have yet to be installed.

3 of the Borodino class battleships at Kronstadt

The newly commissioned class anchored at Kronstadt Naval Base, near St. Petersburg. The ships' peculiar contours and haughty, top-heavy profiles are well seen from this angle. When this shot was taken, the Orel was awash in another corner of the shallow harbor, awaiting her armor plate.

Battleship OREL fitting out at Kronstadt
Orel, pumped out and raised from the mud flats after her armor installation dèbacle at Kronstadt.

SLAWA crewmen under the guns

Crewmen crowd the side deck along the tumble-home beneath the center 5.5" turret on a Borodino class battleship. Caption reads, "Russian tars watching dockyard scenes from the flagship".

KNIAZ SUVOROV manned for inspection
The flagship Kniaz Suvorov manned for inspection - Sept. 26, 1904. Enlarge

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Painting of Battleship SUVOROV, bow 3/4 view
The Suvorov in a daintily detailed, if undramatic representation.

SUVOROV and destroyer at Tsushima, illustration

In a nicely executed illustration for the front cover of Gérard Piouffre's La Guerre Russo-Japonaise sur Mer, the destroyer Buiyny eases away from the battered and listing Suvorov, carrying the prostrate form of the gigantic C-in-C, Adm. Rozhdestvensky. While this is a very agreeable composition, the actual state of the flagship at this time, as described by eyewitnesses in both fleets, is better represented by the sketch below.

Flagship Suvorov reduced to a flaming wreck

Suvorov lived several nightmarish hours as a flaming, floating wreck. Below decks, engineers struggled to keep the screws turning and the pumps pushing while topside, crews fought raging fires using shredded hoses with inadequate pressure. Dismasted, her stacks toppled, her communications lines and fire-control systems all ruined, the once-splendid imperial flagship was reduced to a wallowing deathtrap. She was not entirely toothless, however. One 5-in gun kept up a deliberate fire far aft, and several torpedo boat attacks were beaten off by determined small-calibre gunfire.

Battleship OREL after Tsushima

The battered Orel surrenders to the Japanese at Tsushima. Note broken port 12" gun muzzle, yards and rigging knocked awry, smoldering fire on the forecastle and hull damage. But compared to her three sisters, she got off lightly.

Battleship OREL after Tsushima, foredeck

Foredeck of the Orel after boarding by a Japanese prize crew; note shattered muzzle of port 12" gun, the result of a direct hit. The Son of Nippon hauling on the line foreshadows the ship's future: 16 years as the Japanese coast-defense battleship Iwami, including participation in the 1914 Battle of Qingdao against the Germans. Struck under the terms of the Washington Treaty, she was designated a target and sunk by aircraft on July 10, 1924.

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Battleship OREL after Tsushima, boat deck and funnels

Scene after the battle on Orel's boat deck, reduced to an utter shambles. The ship was substantially rebuilt for her Japanese service, reducing her topweight and eliminating many of the smaller guns.

Battleship OREL in Japanese service
Orel in Japanese service as HIJMS Iwami.

Fifth sister Slawa in her 1917 appearance, with AA guns. Enlarge Rendering opyright © 2007 by S. Balakin.

Battleship SLAWA sunk in Moon Sound, aerial view

Slawa scuttled by her crew at the Battle of Moon Sound, October 1917. Note roof ripped right off the aft 12" turret. The ship could have survived, but flooding from battle damage had her floating too deep to negotiate the shallow passages of escape from the battle area. She was therefore sunk to avoid capture by the Germans.

Battleship SLAWA sunk in Moon Sound, bow view
A water-level view of Slawa's wreck.

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Relevant Weblinks

This stern view shows the very low freeboard aft in the Borodinos. When they left Libau in stately formation, the ships were so overloaded their fantails were nearly awash, giving them the appearance of coast-defense monitors (as indeed many ships in the armada were). The unlucky Orel, proceeding without taking soundings, ran firmly aground at the harbor mouth, rather spoiling the majestic air of the departure.

Armor plan for the Borodino class

Armor schematic for the Borodinos, freely amended wherever shipwrights needed to shave a bit of weight. Note the large expanse of unprotected upper works, devastated and burnt out by Japanese incendiary shells in the battle. For an enlarged view, click here.

English system equivalent widths: 76mm = 3"; 102mm = 4"; 152mm = 6"; 165mm = 6½"; 194mm = 7.6"; 254mm = 10".

Double-headed Romanov Eagle, symbol of the monarchy