Russian Dreadnought Battleships - 1911-1959

Painting of Black Sea Fleet c. 1915, with dreadnought IMPERATRITSA MARIYA in the lead
The Russian Black Sea Fleet early in World War I; flagship Imperatritsa Mariya leading the pre-dreadnoughts. Enlarge


The nine years between 1905 and the outbreak of the First World War were a time of rebuilding for the Russian navy. Following devastating defeat at the hands of Japan, Russia had only a remnant fleet. True, her Baltic armor was intact, with Potemkin and two near-sisters and an assortment of small and antique battleships. But the Baltic and Pacific fleets had been wiped out. Curiously, this may have been a blessing, since so many of Russia's pre-1905 ships were obsolete and unseaworthy. Although the Tsar signed away many of his powers in the October Declarations of 1905, and pledged to turn to social reform and justice rather than striving for military greatness, he soon reverted to his old habits. The spirit of reform seems to have taken more enduring root in the remnant navy than most other branches of government, however. The ships built between 1905-1916 show a steady progression to greater size, power, and technological finesse, of which the two series of triple-turreted dreadnoughts -- the only modern battleships ever built in Russia -- were the crowning glory.

I. The Gangut Class - 1909/1914

The SEVASTOPOL on trials - lots of smoke & foam  1914

Sevastapol of the Gangut class cleaves the waters on her trials, late 1914.

Intro - Read on.     |     Specifications     |     Class History     |     Photos     |     Links

Gangut, Russia's prototype dreadnought, was laid down in 1909 and commissioned late in 1914. Named after Peter the Great's naval victory over the Swedes in 1714, she closely followed the model of Italy's first dreadnought, the Dante Alighieri. With two huge funnels widely separated, the ship had four triple 12" turrets all at deck level (no superfiring arrangement), the foremast tightly grouped with bridge and fore funnel, the mizzen with the aft conning tower. This made for an inelegant profile with little superstructure to give the ships character. It was also an inefficient gunnery deployment. There was likewise a question of skimpy armor protection. A cross between battleships and battlecruisers, the Gagnuts were designed for combat against the Germans in the Baltic and nicknamed "Baltic Dreadnoughts." Unlike the Dante, which had a raised forecastle under A turret, the Ganguts had a flush deck throughout. Instead of a ram, they had an undershot chisel bow, and rather low freeboard foreward. Design questions aside, these were lucky ships; their greatest test against German mettle was not to come until 27 years after they commissioned in late 1914.

Battleship GANGUT's big guns on the Baltic, 1920s
The Russian Model 1907 12"/52 gun, in a triple turret mounting by Skoda Works, was the raison d'Ítre of the Russian dreadnought.

The ships in this class were named after famous victories, reprising the names of the 1897 Petropavlovsk class ironclads: Petropavlovsk, Poltava, and Sevastopol. The pre-dreadnought Gangut was a small, single-turret battleship built in 1890. All of the 1911 ships survived the Revolution, fought in the Civil War, and were renamed in 1921 -- Gangut became October Revolution; Sevastopol became Paris Commune; Poltava, Frunze; and Petropavlovsk, Marat. In 1924, the Paris Commune took a cameo rôle in the classic Eisenstein film Battleship Potemkin, making an impressive show of naval might for the camera. She became the flagship of the Black Sea fleet in 1930 and remained so through the Great Patriotic War.

Plans and Specifications

Schematic plan of the GANGUT

Specifications for the Gangut class:
Dimensions: 549'6" x 87'3" x 30'2" Displacement: 23,360 tons std., 25,850 deep laden. Armament: (12) 12"/52 Model 1907, (16) 4.7", (6) 3", and (14) 1.5" guns; (10) 12.7 mm machine guns and (9) 7.62 mm machine guns; (4) 18" torpedo tubes. Armor: Krupp Cemented type. 8.9"/4.9" belt; 12"/10" turrets; 12" conning tower; 7.9" barbettes; 6" secondary battery; 3"/1.5" deck. Fuel capacity: 1,000 tons of coal std; 3,000 tons maximum, plus 1,170 tons bunker oil. Propulsion: (25) coal-fired Yarrow boilers; (4) Parsons turbines developing 22,000 HP, shafted to quad screw. Speed: 23 kts. Crew: 1,127.

Ships in class: Gangut ∑ Poltava ∑ Sevastopol ∑ Petropavlovsk.
Corresponding to: Marat ∑ Frunze ∑ Paris Commune ∑ October Revolution

Metric specifications:
Dimensions: 167.5m x 26.6m x 9.2m. Displacement: 23,360 tons std., 25,850 deep laden. Armament: (12) 305 mm/52 Model 1907, (16) 130 mm, (6) 76.2 mm, and (14) 37 mm guns; (10) 12.7 mm machine guns and (9) 7.62 mm machine guns; (4) 45 cm torpedo tubes. Armor: Krupp Cemented type. 226/127 mm belt; 305/254 mm turrets and conning tower; 201 mm barbettes; 152 mm secondary battery; 76/38 mm deck. Fuel capacity: 1,000 tons of coal std; 3,000 tons maximum, plus 1,170 tons bunker oil. Propulsion: (25) coal-fired Yarrow boilers; (4) Parsons turbines developing 16,405 kW, shafted to quad screw. Speed: 42.4 km/hr. Crew: 1,127.

Class History

The POLTAVA on trials, 1914All these ships were involved in the revolt of the Kronstadt sailors during the Revolution, and were among the first to fly the red flag in 1917. But after fighting in the Civil War, the Kronstadt garrison and sailors from the fleet staged a second revolt against the Bolsheviks in 1921, which was crushed ruthlessly by Trotsky's Red Army. This was the last armed revolt against Soviet power until 1991. Among the longest-lived of WWI dreadnoughts, all four Ganguts survived into the Fifties -- the fourth, Poltava, so badly damaged in the Civil War she was never repaired, though she was kept as a "parts ship" for the other three until 1956; the Petropavlovsk sunk by two torpedoes in the August 18, 1919 British raid on Kronstadt but subsequently salvaged to sail for another thirty years. She was sent to the breakers in 1953. The Poltava, renamed Paris Commune, was transferred to the Black Sea fleet in 1930 and served there the remainder of her long career.

The three functioning Ganguts were modernized in the mid-1930s, with clipper bows and torpedo bulges added, and their forward funnels bent back in the now-familiar bizarre silhouette. Meanwhile, Stalin's purges squeezed out most of the independent thinkers in the Soviet Navy. Stalin knew better than any how unprepared for total war the country was, yet he seemed to trust his new Nazi associates after signing the Soviet-Nazi Pact in 1939. The Soviet navy was as poorly steeled against attack as the army in 1941. But when roused as only a brutal Nazi invasion will arouse a people, the peoples of the Soviet Union fought like tigers in the Great Patriotic War. Stalin's response to a need for naval support was to turn the battleships into floating batteries and draft one-third of their crews into the infantry. Marat (below) was sunk by Nazi aircraft while defending Leningrad in November 1941, but was later refloated and served as a floating battery for the duration. All the ships had a part to play in WWII: Paris Commune was a rallying point in the battle against the Germans in the Crimean campaign. Her contribution was notable in the Soviet reconquest of German-held Sevastopol during 1942. The ship put Nazi tanks, trucks, and batteries out of business with cold-blooded efficiency. In 1943 Stalin had her name changed back to Sevastopol in honor of the victory, and he awarded her the Order of the Red Banner on July 8, 1945.

Gangut herself received the Order for services rendered. She fought in the "Winter War" of 1939-40 with the Finns, failing to take the Helsinki forts out of commission despite several tries. Late in 1941 she was badly bombed and spent most of 1942 hors de combat. Emerging from the yard in November 1942, she was out for blood, using her mobile artillery to drive the Germans out of Mother Russia with bombardments from the Baltic. The venerable ship served as a training vessel for a few years in the Fifties, but was decommissioned in 1956 and sent to the boneyard in 1959. Thus her single lifetime encompassed the climax of the Dreadnought era, two world wars, the Great Depression, and the birth of the Space Age.

A Gaggle of Ganguts

The GANGUT of 1914

Low and menacing, primitive yet oddly modern -- the Gangut, Russia's first dreadnought, in original fit, at anchor with her torpedo nets spread. Click here for awesome enlarged view.

SEVASTOPOL in early rig, 1920s (?)

The Paris Commune (Parizhskaya Komunna) at Sevastopol in the early Thirties, showing the near-original look of the ships before their mid-decade rebuild, with clean sweep of deck and thin pole masts. This ship, first christened Sevastopol, got her old name back after her important part in the Battle of Sevastopol in 1942-43. She emerged as the only remaining sister not to be partially disabled by the Germans in the latter part of the War.

The PETROPAVLOVSK sails in 1919: On deck view

Pumped out and patched, the Petropavlovsk sails again. Quarterdeck in foreground shows damage from the British torpedo attack on Kronstadt, summer 1919.

PETROPAVLOVSK at Petersburg c. 1918

The Petropavlovsk and Poltava at Kronstadt during the Revolution. They were familiar figures about town long before their heroic part in the defense of the city 1941-44. In 1919, safely in Bolshevik hands, all four sisters were withdrawn and refitted, emerging with their revolutionary names in time to lend their considerable weight to the outcome of the civil strife which was ongoing for another year and a half.

SEVASTOPOL bombarding German-held shore in 1943

A stunning action photo shot looking forward from a mainmast platform on the Parizhskaya Kommunna during a WWII bombardment, also shows the No. 2 funnel casing. The ship's vintage artillery was put to good use throughout; it is thought that the B and C turret guns were replaced with larger weapons after the German invasion. Comrade Stalin recognized the ship's effectiveness by restoring the original name Sevastopol. After all, the vessel had done so much to liberate Sevastopol and was widely admired, not only in Ukraine but across the USSR. Stalin played on this patriotic tug by heaping military honors on the ship and holding her up as an exemplar of revolutionary élan.

This ship alone did not receive a torpedo blister or improved compartmentation during her mid-Thirties rebuild. Transferred to the Black Sea in 1930, she was noted as being basically unlivable and unfit for service at that time. A USN report of 1943 assessed her as little improved in safety or livability during the Great Patriotic War.

MARAT at Gdynia circa 1938

The Marat at Gdynia in the late '30s shows off her Stalin-era facelift. This angle suggests the immense scale of these ships. Additions or changes from the original fit include built-up forward superstructure growing out of the canted back fore funnel, exaggerated clipper bow, hurricane decks, and -- less visibly -- improved fire control, improved watertight compartmentation, torpedo blisters, and new boilers. The outsize design elements and complementary angles gave Soviet battleships a unique, arresting design. It was definitely different.

MARAT, quarter view, 1930s
The same ship -- from this angle, the change is far more muted.

MARAT, detailed bow view, 1940

The Marat, general view in 1937. Four years later she would be bested by German dive bombers and spend some months on the muddy bottom of Kronstadt lagoon (below).  Enlarge photo

Dreadnought MARAT sunk at Kronstadt, 1942
Although Marat's stern was blown away, she was raised and later served as a floating battery.  Enlarge

PARIZHSKAYA KOMMUNNA in the Black Sea, c. 1939

The Parizhskaya Kommunna in her 1930s silhouette. Stalinist naval architects evidently had a science-fiction sense of style to dress up these decrepit old coal-burners as ultramodern war machines. Perhaps this was New Soviet Man's response to the steam train streamlining that was all the rage in the west during the 1930s.

SEVASTOPOL, aerial view, c. 1947-8
The Sevastopol seen from the air, either 1947 or 1948.  

OCT. REVOLUTION, watercolor by V. Emyshev, 1940

October Revolution can stand for all these aging ships in the mid-Stalin era. Here she recovers a 1940s seaplane in an evocative watercolor by Vladimir Emyshev.  Enlarge

      Pertinent Weblinks

II. The Imperatritsa Mariya Class - 1911/1917

Dreadnought Imperatritsa Mariya victualling, 1915
Imperatritsa Mariya fitting out. The great scale of the ship is evident.

Specifications     |     Class History     |     Photos     |     Links

The Imperatritsa Mariya class (the name ship is shown) was designed to operate against the Turks on the Black Sea. They were of an improved Gangut design; the chief improvements being in armor protection and speed. The bow reverted to a traditional ram form in the Black Sea dreadnoughts. For a handsome model of the ship as built, click here. Although of an improved design, the Imperatritsas left less of an imprint on Russian and world history than the Ganguts. The reason is not hard to find: they lived in perilous times and their lives were short.

Yard building several battleships at onceThree of the four approved battleships were to be built at the Admiralty Yard in Mykolaiev, Ukraine. That Russia could construct several of these modern monsters at once was a tribute to how far Russian shipbuilding had come. The great yard, located on a bend of the Ingul River, later stamped out craft as large as cruisers for the Soviet régime, and was renamed the 61 Communards Shipyard in 1931 to honor strikers who took it over and closed it down during the 1905 Revolution. For an enlarged view of the shipyard scene, click here. All three of the completed ships were equipped with a massive, 50-foot minesweeping spar at the bow. Of steel truss construction, this device was never known to save any capital ship from harmful contact with a mine.

As for the Imperatritsa class battleships, these turbine-powered, quad-screw ships were completing in 1916-17 just as disastrous war and then revolution engulfed the Tsar's domains. Theirs is an unhappy tale, but one filled with drama.

IMPERATRITSA MARIYA at sea, 1915The name ship (right) was demolished by a magazine explosion in 1916, less than a year after commissioning. For a dandy enlargement of the photo at right, click here. Both of the remaining two ships were captured. The Yekaterina was the only dreadnought ever to engage Goeben, on two occasions in 1917. She was scuttled by the Reds at Novorossisk in 1918 to prevent her falling into German hands. Meanwhile, the third ship, the Imp. Alexander III, changed hands repeatedly and was frequently renamed, in a sequence too bewildering to recite here. In their bruising spring offensive in 1918, the Germans captured her and renamed her Volya; after the War she briefly mustered into the Royal Navy, then reverted to the Russian Whites in 1919. Renamed General Alexeiev, the young dreadnought led the most daring exploits of any in the Russian fleet fighting against the Reds in the Black Sea. Her part lay principally in shore bombardments. When all was lost, she helped evacuate White partisans and sympathizers from Sevastopol and South Russia. They were allowed to escape through the Bosporus to the Mediterranean.

Badly damaged, the old dreadnought spent the best part of two decades decaying picturesquely while interned in the backwater port of Bizerta in French Tunisia. For all the world like a faded beauty recalling her blazing youth -- but oh, what memories! She had company too: several other White naval vessels remained with her, awaiting the call to duty that never came. The French began salvage work in 1928, gradually breaking her up over the next decade, but carefully conserving the ship's fine artillery, which later found use on both sides of the Second World War. To read more about the ship's adventures, click here.

Plans and Specifications

Dreadnought Imperatritsa Mariya victualling, 1915
Profile and top view of Imperatritsa Mariya by Russian battleship enthusiast V.I. Tomich.

Specifications for the Imperatritsas:
Dimensions: 550'6" x 89'6" x 27'6" Displacement: 22,000 tons std., 24,000 tons deep laden. Armament: (12) 12"/52 Model 1907, (20) 5.1"/55 guns, (8) 75mm, (4) 47mm. Armor: 11"/5" belt; 10" barbettes; 12" turrets and conning tower; 3" deck. Propulsion: 20 coal-fired water-tube boilers, (4) steam turbines developing 26,000 hp, shafted directly to quad screw. Speed: 23.4 kts. Crew: 1,220.

Ships in class: Imperatritsa Mariya ∑ Imperatritsa Yekaterina ∑ Imperator Alexandr III ∑ Imperator Nikolai I

Metric Specifications:
Dimensions: 167.8m x 37.4m x 8.38m Displacement: 22,000 tons std., 24,000 tons deep laden. Armament: (12) 305 mm/52 M1907, (20) 130 mm/55, (8) 75mm, and (4) 47mm guns. Armor: 280/127 mm belt; 254 mm barbettes; 305 mm turrets and conning tower; 76 mm deck. Propulsion: 20 coal-fired water-tube boilers, (4) steam turbines developing 19,388 kW, shafted directly to quad screw. Speed: 43.34 km/hr. Crew: 1,220.

Class Photos

Dreadnought IMPERATRITSA MARIYA at sea - painting by V. Emyshev
The Imperatritsa Mariya cuts a brave swathe at sea, in a watercolor by V. Emyshev.  Enlarge

Dreadnought IMPERATRITSA MARIYA burning after explosion
Sevastopol, Oct. 20, 1916: The Mariya takes fire. Flames spread from the forward magazine to the shell room.

Dreadnought IMPERATRITSA MARIYA exploding

Sevastopol, Oct. 20, 1916: The Imperatritsa Mariya, first Russian dreadnought on the Black Sea, endures a severe magazine explosion under her midships turrets. After her 12" ammo detonated, the great ship turned turtle and sank. Imperatritsa Mariya was gone after barely a year and a season in service, leaving a smoky pall and a trail of heartbreak. The hull was subsequently refloated and surveyed. The surveyors determined she was too far gone to reconstruct.

Dreadnought IMPERATRITSA YEKATERINA, stern quarter view in drydock
The Yekaterina in drydock.

Dreadnought Alexander III, 1917

Above, the dreadnought Alexander III, a/k/a Volya, a/k/a General Alexeiev, afloat in the Ingul. She is fitting out at her builders, the Admiralty Yard, in Nikolaiev, Ukraine, in 1917 as the old Russia crumbled away. Commissioned only months before the October Revolution and Bolshevik takeover, the great ship did more fighting in the Civil War than any in her class.

Dreadnought Alexander III, 1918

Sailing for the White Russians as the General Alexeiev, the ship appeared like this in 1919: a somewhat slovenly but very effective White unit. Note minesweeping bracket at bow. For an excellent model by Jim Baumann, click here.

Dreadnought Alexander III & Wrangel Fleet escaping from the Black Sea, 1920

After the Whites were defeated in 1920, General Alexeiev became the flagship of a ragtag flotilla of émigrés fleeing from their last stand in Ukraine and the Crimea. The flotilla was known after its commander, as the Wrangel fleet. In this photo the Alexeiev's big guns guard a convoy of transports, crammed with desperate refugees on their way to a new life as expatriates.

Dreadnought Alexander III, c. 1925

The Wrangel fleet was allowed to exit the Bosporus. The ships found sanctuary at Bizerta in French North Africa (present-day Tunisia). There they began a sort of ghostly afterlife in perpetual exile, perpetual limbo. The battleship is already blending into the background rather well in this photo, shot c. 1925. When no other solution seemed likely, the French commenced scrapping the ships on site in 1926. The process consumed twelve unforgiving years. The French carefully conserved the guns. These actually survived to fight on both sides in WWII. A fourth, improved sister, Imp. Nikolai I (below), was never completed. Click here for an enlarged plan of the Nikolai in a new window.

Plan of Dreadnought Nikolai I, 1917

Specifications for the Imp. Nikolai I:
Dimensions: 616'6" x 94'6" x 26'6" (188m x 28.8m x 8.1m) Displacement: 27,300 tons std., 29,200 tons deep laden. Armament: (12) 12"/52 Model 1907 guns, (24) 5.1"/55 guns, and smaller ordnance. Steam turbines, quad screw. Speed: 21 kts. Crew: 1,252.

      Pertinent Weblinks

Hammer & Sickle emblemRomanov double-headed eagleHammer & Sickle emblem