THE RUSSIAN NAVY WWI

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Novík was a destroyer of the Russian Imperial Navy, commissioned in 1913 where she served with the Baltic Fleet during World War I. She joined the Bolsheviks in November 1917 and was later renamed Yakov Sverdlov.

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Hostilities came too soon for the Imperial Russian Navy, which had a target of 1917 to achieve a fully operational state. The nine years that followed the end of the disastrous war with Japan had been a long haul for the Baltic Fleet. Dispatched as reinforcements to the Far East, its most modern ships had been sunk or captured at Tsushima. While it did not experience violence on the scale of the mutiny in the battleship Potemkin and other Black Sea units in 1905, the rump of the Baltic Fleet was wracked by the popular upheavals of the day. Rebuilding was slow. Many of the units interned in Far Eastern ports during the war made their way back to the Baltic by 1906, but Russia’s financial situation and the disruption following the aborted revolution of 1905 practically paralyzed the shipyards for years. The battleship Slava, completed too late in 1905 to deploy, was the only modern capital ship in the Baltic until the return of Tsesarevich the following year and the completion of Imperator Pavel and Andrei Pervozvanny at the end of 1910. These ships had been modified in the light of war experience, but their pre-dreadnought design meant that they were no match for the first line of the High Sea Fleet. The cruiser force was in similar shape. Although completed in France and Russia between 1908 and 1911, Admiral Makarov and her two sisters were obsolete by the time of their commissioning. The only really useful heavy unit was the powerful armored cruiser Rurik, commissioned in Britain in 1908, but she was outclassed by the German battle cruisers, which possessed not only much more powerful broadsides, but also several knots’ speed advantage.

There was a building program under way, but its shape and size had taken years to settle. Even when funds became available as the economy expanded rapidly after 1906, the naval effort was divided between the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea, since Russia had to consider both theaters. Indeed, the Turkish threat became progressively more serious after 1910 as the Turks embarked on their own effort to acquire dreadnoughts. The first four battleships, which were to be the core of the future Baltic Fleet, were not laid down until 1909. Two, Sevastopol and Poltava, were complete but not yet fully operational. The second pair was not far behind, but all would require several months’ work before they were ready for combat. Four battle cruisers were at a less advanced stage of construction and the first could not be available until at least 1915. She would never be completed.

Russia’s limited ability to produce modern warships had been recognized by the order of two light cruisers from German yards, but these were now lost to the Imperial Russian Navy and would soon enter German service. None of the four light cruisers under construction in the Russian Baltic shipyards would be finished before the end of the war. The submarine force consisted of only eight obsolescent and unreliable boats in the frontline brigade and three even more elderly craft as training units. The Bars class were building, but their completion would be delayed because much of their machinery had been ordered from Germany. In fact, the only product of the new fleet plan already in service was the fast destroyer Novik, forerunner of what was intended to be a large class of the fastest and most heavily armed destroyers in the world.

The deficiencies reflected the difficulties of reforming the navy. Despite the starkness with which the service’s inadequacies had been demonstrated during the Russo-Japanese War, its reorganization was protracted and too dependent on individual personalities. While many, particularly in the junior ranks, were determined not to repeat the mistakes of 1904–5, there remained highly conservative vested interests, both within the navy and in the civil bureaucracy and a system dominated by committees whose accountability was, at best, ambiguous. Soon after the end of the Russo-Japanese conflict, the younger officers set up “study groups” to agitate for reform, paralleling a similar Young Turks movement in the army. They gained an important ally in the tsar himself. Nicholas II had received some naval training, including a period at sea, and his understanding of naval matters was more sophisticated than many of his advisers. The antique office of General-Admiral, usually occupied by a member of the royal family, was replaced by a minister of the navy shortly after the battle of Tsushima. With the tsar’s approval, a Naval General Staff was formed in 1906 to conduct long-range planning. The Naval General Staff’s numbers rapidly expanded from fifteen to forty. Its activities eventually subsumed much of the efforts of the study groups, probably because it involved the same officers.

At the same time, political developments following the establishment of the Russian parliament, the Duma, in 1906 put a spotlight on naval and military reform. From 1907 liberal elements within the Duma became increasingly vocal, but it was not until 1911 as a result of their pressure that the energetic Vice Admiral Ivan Grigorovich took over the navy portfolio and momentum developed for real reform elsewhere in the naval administration. In that year the Naval General Staff was placed under the minister, which meant that the navy’s planning and administrative elements were under one authority. Similarly, although he was a key figure within the Baltic Fleet as a junior flag officer from 1906 onward, it took the accession of Vice Admiral Nikolai von Essen to the post of commander in the Baltic in 1908 to bring about really substantial improvements within the fleet itself. One of the relatively few senior officers to distinguish himself in the war with Japan, von Essen’s dynamism put new life into his people and ships.

There were other factors. Apart from the tsar’s continuing strong personal support, the Duma found the navy’s officials much more cooperative than those of the War Ministry and was thus more inclined to provide them money. Grigorovich himself proved particularly adept at working with the Duma’s financial committees. By 1911 the navy was receiving more funding for new ships than was the army for its reequipment. The funding was not only official: in this more hopeful environment, popular support also grew. A National Committee was formed that raised enough subscriptions to pay for a substantial number of extra destroyers and submarines.

The Russian navy and its design elements were not unsophisticated. It is arguable that the technical and innovative capacities of its expert personnel were considerably greater than the ability of Russian industry to support their intent. This forced the Russians to purchase much of their equipment overseas, which allowed them to acquire emergent technology, such as the new fire control systems being developed in Britain, and combine it with their own devices, but left them hostage to situations in which a supplier such as Germany became an enemy. The effect in 1914 on the shipbuilding program would be devastating. It was also awkward for torpedoes, since substantial Russian purchases were made from the Whitehead factory at Fiume (modern Rijeka) in Austria-Hungary, and much of the Russian local effort to that point had been the licensed assembly of components. Nevertheless, Russian torpedo and gunnery standards were not behind those of their adversaries and some of their thinking, such as automatic torpedo salvo firing and triple torpedo tubes, the provision of higher gun elevation to extend the range, triple turrets, and the quality of weapon design were in the forefront of development. The Russians were also acutely aware of their industrial vulnerability and had made substantial efforts to establish local armament works, including a cooperative venture with the British firm of Vickers, as well as improving their shipyards. This work had consumed almost as much money as the shipbuilding programs themselves.

The Baltic Fleet had its own difficulties. There were formidable challenges for training in the eastern part of the sea. The key challenge was environmental. As the Baltic iced up from December—and sometimes earlier—navigation became impossible and remained so until at least April. This meant that the ships had to remain at their bases, with limited opportunities for practical training, a situation exacerbated by the cold and hours of darkness. Admiral von Essen did his best to train all year round, operating in ice-free waters to the west for as long into winter as he could, but it was no easy matter. The problem was partly solved, particularly for basic training, by the dispatch of squadrons to cruise in southern European waters over the winter months, but this alternative was not available to the torpedo craft and submarines, which were lucky to experience a seven-month window of operations annually. Even the long daylight hours of summer caused problems, since they limited the ability of the torpedo forces and the offensive minelayers to practice in tactically realistic settings. Climate had another effect, since the more temperate Black Sea was a better location for experiments. This meant, among other things, that the bulk of the early aviation effort was not available to the Baltic Fleet, although an aviation element was formally established in the Baltic in 1912.

Many of the ratings had limited education and this, combined with the lack of modern equipment in the fleet, created difficulties in developing collective expertise. There were too many conscripts and the annual turnover of ratings represented another challenge for the maintenance of unit efficiency. Efforts to encourage junior sailors to reengage and to recruit boy seamen as future long-service petty officers helped, but were not enough. There also remained great gulfs between officers and sailors, and there is evidence that the gap widened in the decade after the 1905 disturbances, perhaps because of mutual uncertainty and suspicion. The events of 1905 had highlighted the potential of the navy as a seedbed of dissidence to the revolutionary forces in Russia and there was constant concern as to the possibility of internal subversion. Although many of the younger officers possessed a much more professional outlook than their predecessors and their training curriculum had greatly improved since 1905, the system of discipline remained harsh and the disparity between the living conditions of the wardroom and the lower deck was extreme—the sailors appearing to exist on “bowls of soup and black bread.” Just as in the other navies, relationships in the small ship and submarine forces were much closer than in the battleships and cruisers, but a British submarine officer in 1914 was horrified to see “the [Russian] officer of the watch spit in a rating’s face when he was brought up as a defaulter.”

The key Russian advantage was in mine warfare. Russian mines caused the majority of Japanese losses in 1904–5. Von Essen had been appointed to command the Baltic mine and torpedo craft force in 1906 and continued to oversee its improvement after he assumed leadership of the whole Baltic Fleet. Systematic development of new and increasingly effective mine types continued until the outbreak of war, together with regular purchases of additional war stocks—5,000 in 1912 and 4,200 in 1914, of which 1,800 were intended for the Baltic. By the outbreak of war, there were some 7,000 mines available in theater. Von Essen was not satisfied with a purely defensive role and agitated for years for minelaying raids into the southern part of the sea to be an integral component of the fleet’s operational concept. This had yet to be formally incorporated into the war plans, but high hopes were held for the offensive capabilities of the new large destroyers, such as Novik, that combined the capacity to lay mines with a formidable gun and torpedo armament, as well as the new submarines.

There was another strength. The Russians had already developed relatively sophisticated techniques in signals intelligence, with ships’ radio personnel being trained in interception and simple analysis. Basic direction finding and interception had been practiced during the prewar maneuvers. Realizing its vulnerability, the Russians, like the British but unlike the Germans, were relatively circumspect in their own employment of wireless. Organizational capacity for higher-level work came in the form of the Observation and Communications Service established by Captain A. I. Nepenin, who was to be one of the key figures in the Baltic conflict. This was intended as a control and observation system to link the coastal defenses at the entrance to the Gulf of Finland with the seagoing units, particularly the minesweepers, but it also included a signals intelligence element to support the higher command. This would prove extremely useful when the major German code books passed into Russian hands after the grounding and capture of the light cruiser Magdeburg.

Much would depend for the Russians on the success of their land campaigns. The defensive mindset of the Russian high command in the theater could be overcome only if there was reasonable confidence as to the security of Saint Petersburg. This had yet to be achieved and the absence of that security would restrict fleet operations for months to come.

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